Mountain Highs and Lows

2008-03-29-aefI just got back from the Aspen Environmental Forum and there’s a lot to share.  The only thing more depressing than mulling National Geographic’s presentation about the oil sands of northern Alberta (50 square miles of tailings ponds) was watching “Extreme Ice.”  The haunting film by James Balog depicts how quickly the world’s glaciers are disappearing, with the Columbia Glacier in Alaska receding an astounding half mile a year.  His footage of ice shelf melt on Greenland is beyond extraordinary.

A heated plenary with barbs galore involving James Rogers from Duke Energy, Elizabeth Cheney from Shell, Randy Udall the resource efficiency advocate, and Chris Flavin from WorldWatch both entertained and frustrated. The dubious highlight? Udall asking Rogers how he could sleep at night and, without missing a beat, Rogers answering, “Lunesta .” Clearly Rogers asked if Lunesta was right for him! On the optimistic side, Daniel Nocera from MIT seems genuinely excited by his breakthrough on low cost hydrolysis, the critical stumbling point to the mass proliferation of affordable fuel cells.

Don’t get me going on the curious choices for the Aspen Institute Energy and the Environment Awards — — with Wal-Mart winning the corporate sustainability award and Alberta, home of the oil sand project, winning the government leadership award.  At least Van Jones, a recent appointee to the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, won the individual award for his leadership in the Green Jobs for All movement.

I attended the conference as an Aspen Institute Catto Fellow for Energy and the Environment, and our group of 20 from six countries is doing a project on the need for a new paradigm for global environmental governance.

We held two panels during the conference. The first addressed the shortcomings of worldwide regulation to protect our resources. (Name a global treaty or agreement other than the Montreal Protocol on chloro-fluorocarbon reduction that actually has worked.) The other sought recommendations on how to enhance the effectiveness of global governance.

Speakers from China, Europe and the United States expressed a wide range of viewpoints. As you may imagine, the Europeans urged following an EU approach, while an American perspective remains undeveloped as the new administration takes root. China seeks per-capita equity on environmental issues, especially when it comes to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

I also enjoyed sitting down with the new chief administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dr. Jane Lubchenco.  Obama’s appointment of the world renowned marine biologist marks one of the President’s boldest and strongest talent moves, right up there with the appointment of Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor.

The Catto fellows had an hour to ourselves to talk with Lubchenco.  She is brilliant, experienced and has a great deal of humility. She also shows a willingness to engage in difficult discussions.  She says lessons can be learned from the Antarctic Treaty System that has preferred the vast, frozen wilderness.

She also brought up how the IPCC has been effective because the world’s top climate scientists put out reports periodically with great fanfare. In contrast, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 marked a one-time look at the world’s biodiversity issues and it largely got lost with other competing stories.

She called for a significant hike in global environmental assessment, including biodiversity.  Also, she recommended that environmental communication must take an ecosystems services approach that makes people realize the value of lost habitats, such as kelp beds for consumer products and wetlands for pollution removal and flood protection.

Although she didn’t have the answers for improving global and international environmental governance, she definitely expressed a strong understanding of the issue and an urgency for finding solutions.  Our nation has never had anyone more capable to steer us through the challenges facing NOAA on climate change and ocean resource protection.

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