Tag Archive | "environment"

The Science Behind Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events

Photo Credit: Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth

Photo Credit: Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth

The environment in which all storms form has changed owing to human activities.”

– Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist

What is the science behind climate change? What explains Category 5 hurricanes? Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), offered his perspective on these questions in his recent talk at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.[1]

Dr. Trenberth obtained his Sc. D. in meteorology in 1972 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[2] He was a lead author of the 1995, 2001 and 2007 Scientific Assessment of Climate Change reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, which went to the IPCC.[3]

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) established the IPCC in 1988.[4] The IPCC’s principal function is to provide policymakers with scientific bases for climate change, as well options for adaptation and mitigation.[5] Hundreds of experts contribute to the information needed to understand climate change in the IPCC reports.[6] The IPCC’s reports underlie negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).[7] The Conference of the Parties (COP) meets annually to review the UNFCCC’s implementation and to adopt instruments ensuring its effective implementation.[8]

Dr. Trenberth acknowledges that the data on changes in the climate are of 700-802 mixed quality and length.[9] However, taken together, the data tells a compelling story about the extent of the human role in climate change.[10] Today, research on climate change demonstrates that 97 percent of “actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”[11]

 Observable Changes in Climate

What have observed in terms of climate change since the Industrial Revolution? There is an increase in carbon dioxide and in the planet’s temperature.[12] Glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising.[13] Artic sea ice areas are decreasing, with 2012 as the lowest on record, which is denoted in the lowest point in the graph by NCAR below.[14]

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) takes satellite images of artic sea ice.[15] According to their animated time series, the 2017 photograph below reveals less artic sea ice than the1979 photograph.[16] Further, according to the most recent IPCC report in 2014, “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent 70-246 anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”[17]
































 Scientists use observations and theoretical models to understand changes in the climate. Key observable measures include the Global Surface Temperature and Ocean Heat Content. In the following sections, these measures are defined and analyzed.

Global Surface Temperature

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a temperature anomaly signifies a departure from a specific reference value.[18] Reference values allow for a more accurate representation of temperature patterns within regions.[19] A positive anomaly indicates an observed temperature warmer than that reference value.[20] A negative anomaly reflects an observed temperature cooler than that reference value.[21] The global temperature anomaly provides a measure based on average global temperatures compared to a specified reference value.[22] The global surface temperature is based on land surface and sea surface temperatures.[23]

If you look at the graph below, this measure reveals an overall upward trend (see black line across the graph) with 2016 as the warmest year on record.[24] In 2016, there was a 1.2 degrees Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels.[25] The international community set a goal through the Paris Agreement (2015) to keep the global mean surface temperature increase below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.[26] Government policies and actions must be directed at maintaining the global surface temperature to reach the Paris goal.[27]













Ocean Heat Content

The Earth’s energy imbalance drives the ongoing global warming and can best be assessed from changes in Ocean Heat Content.[28] Ocean Heat Content measures the heat stored in the ocean. It is measured from the surface of the ocean to 700m, which reflects the 1967 to 2002 measures, and from the surface to 2000m, which reflects 2003 to present.[29] If the ocean absorbs more heat than it releases, the Ocean Heat Content increases. According the graph below, the ocean heat content has been increasing since the 1990s, with 2017 as the warmest year on record.[30]

Further, natural variability is the element of uncertainty in climate changes within a certain range because the components of the climate are never in perfect equilibrium.[31] Climate scientists are therefore interested in deviations from that natural variability to explain other causes of climate change. Natural variability, according to Dr. Trenberth, is a lot less for Ocean Heat Content than for global mean surface temperature.[32]












Climate Models

 In addition to the measures above, climate scientists can run models to assess differences in global surface temperature in the absence of an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.[33] For Dr. Trenberth, these models demonstrate that around the 1960s and 1970s, global warming emerged from the noise of natural variability.[34]

Extreme Weather Events

What explains hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma, and Maria? Hurricanes are natural, but they are intensified because of changes in the climate.[35] According to Dr. Trenberth, hurricanes feed off the sea temperatures.[36] When the ocean warms, water from the surface of the ocean then evaporates to cool the ocean, adding warm moist air, or vapor, into the atmosphere.[37] Rising air condenses the water vapor, which produces strong updrafts, drawing in more air.[38] The updraft creates clouds that lead to thunderstorms.[39] Then air spirals into the thunderstorm at the bottom and then out at the top.[40] The storm strengthens and strong surface winds increase evaporation, rainfall, and energy into the storm.[41]

For Dr. Trenberth, the increase in Ocean Heat Content results in evaporative cooling, which releases additional moisture into the atmosphere.[42] That moisture results in heavy rain that releases latent heat.[43] That heat is redistributed by winds and can radiate.[44] The moisture from an evaporating ocean gives fuel to hurricanes, creating an extreme weather event.[45] For example, if we look at Hurricane Harvey, the total rainfall, which was 140.7 mm, or 4.65´1020 J of latent energy in rainfall, matches the amount of Ocean Heat Content lost after the hurricane.[46] Therefore, Dr. Trenberth determined that if the Ocean Heat Content had been less, then rainfall would have been less.[47]

Dr. Trenberth’s Conclusions & Recommendations

Dr. Trenberth emphasizes that human activities are the dominant cause of the observed warming of the Earth.[48] Accordingly, he suggests that there is likely a human fingerprint on the extreme nature of recent hurricanes.[49] Hurricane Harvey caused approximately 30 billion USD in damages (insured and uninsured losses)[50], Hurricane Irma caused approximately 50 billion USD in damages (insured and uninsured losses)[51], and Hurricane Maria exceeded 63 billion USD damages (estimate for insured losses only).[52]

Dr. Trenberth recommends that to avoid the costs of hurricanes, we should: stop building in flood plains, adhere to strict building codes, manage drainage systems, plan evacuation routes, and plan emergency shelters.[53] He also stresses that while we do need mitigation and adaptation strategies to respond to climate change, we also need information.[54]

Read more on Dr. Trenberth’s work here: http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/#research.

Meera Nayak is a Staff Editor with the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy, and a 2L at the Sturm College of Law.


[1] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[2] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/#research

[3] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/#research

[4] http://www.ipcc.ch/

[5] http://www.ipcc.ch/

[6] http://www.ipcc.ch/

[7] http://www.ipcc.ch/

[8] http://unfccc.int/bodies/body/6383.php

[9] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[10] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[11] https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/#*

[12] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[13] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[14] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[15] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice/

[16] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice/

[17] https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf

[18] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/faq/anomalies.php

[19] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/faq/anomalies.php

[20] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/faq/anomalies.php

[21] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/faq/anomalies.php

[22] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/faq/anomalies.php

[23] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/faq/anomalies.php

[24] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[25] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/global/time-series/globe/land_ocean/ytd/12/1880-2017

[26] http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php; https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/provisional-wmo-statement-status-of-global-climate-2016

[27] http://climateactiontracker.org/

[28] http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/3/e1601545.full

[29] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdr/oceanic/ocean-heat-content

[30] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[31] https://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg1/042.htm

[32] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[33] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[34] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[35] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[36] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[37] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[38] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[39] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[40] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[41] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[42] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[43] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[44] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[45] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[46] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[47] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[48] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[49] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[50] http://www.bbc.com/news/business-41075704

[51] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hurricane-irma-corelogic/corelogic-estimates-hurricane-irma-property-damage-at-42-5-65-billion-idUSKCN1BU28T

[52] https://www.wsj.com/articles/hurricane-maria-caused-as-much-as-85-billion-in-insured-losses-air-worldwide-says-1506371305

[53] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

[54] http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/staff/trenbert/Presentations/Trenberth_Steamboat_Jan18.min.pdf

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Critical Analysis: Domestic Proposals for Prohibiting Fracking in a Global Perspective

Residents in Fort Collins and Broomfield, two cities in Colorado, will vote in November on whether to place 5-year moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” within city limits. Groups in both cities want to prevent fracking operations in order to allow more time for scientists to gather information on the effects fracking has on public health and the environment. The efforts of the groups in these cities reflect a greater trend in small towns across America to limit fracking operations in their municipalities. The potential environmental concerns are the largest motivation behind this trend, but it is also imperative to consider what the effects of banning fracking will mean in a global context.


Fracking has been a divisive issue within the U.S.

Fracking is the procedure by which a combination of liquids and chemicals are pumped into a well until extreme pressures fracture the rock around the well. The fractures then act as conduits for oil and gas to collect and to be pumped back up the well to the surface. This method, combined with horizontal drilling, has permitted U.S. companies to extract oil and natural gas from what one reporter has called “otherwise unproductive” oil and natural gas wells.

The increased use of fracking in America has created a recent energy boom. According to a recent study, U.S. natural gas reserves have increased by 58% since 2007. A report in the Wall Street Journal stated that the “U.S. has inventories of crude oil and refined products, including the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to cover 269 days of net imports, based on a rolling 12-month average.” The fracking processes that resulted in such surplus reserves have been linked to adding “more than $1,200 last year to the discretionary income of the average U.S. family.”

Although increased fracking has created many benefits, fracking has also been under intense criticism. Fracking has the potential to pose dangers to both human and environmental safety, earning the title of “one of the most destructive energy processes practiced today,” according to the Global Exchange. Further, the water used in fracking has the potential to intermingle with drinking water, which is especially alarming because the chemical compounds used in fracking have been cited as including chemicals known to cause cancer. Fracking also poses environmental concerns regarding the amount of water used, the potential for the release of pollutants, and as causing human-induced seismic activity. Anti-fracking groups also point to incidental environmental concerns from fracking, including the environmental damage necessary to reach the drill site and the storage of wastes generated from the fracking process, as reasons for prohibiting fracking.

Fracking and American Foreign Policy

From a domestic US foreign policy perspective, the view on the use of fracking is largely optimistic. The most readily apparent benefit from the fracking energy boom is that America will be less dependent on oil imports from the Middle East. Less reliance on oil from the Middle East has the potential to mitigate the effects that turmoil in the Middle East will have on oil supplies and rises in prices. Loren Stephy, writing for Forbes, states that increased output of American oil and natural gas from fracking “will provide a shield from the sorts of supply disruptions that could result from an attack on Syria.” Further, according to Keith Smith, writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, American allies in Europe are “clearly benefiting significantly from the U.S. gas glut.” The U.S. has been able to export natural gas to its European allies as a result from increases in domestic fracking usage. Natural gas exports to Europe translate into less reliance on imports into Europe from Russia, which has long used its natural gas exports to influence and pressure European nations.

While increased domestic fracking is seen as a benefit in terms of U.S. foreign policy, the optimistic view of less reliance on Middle Eastern oil and increased security of U.S. European allies relies on the assumption that the current levels of oil and gas output of fracking will continue unabated. As Business Insider writer Rob Wile notes, there is no consensus on how long the current fracking boom will continue to last. Although Wile’s study ultimately concludes that the energy boom will continue for some time, the fact there are differing opinions on the duration of the energy boom highlights the uncertainty inherent to projections of future domestic oil and gas output. As a result, the optimistic view of the potential gains wrought from increased domestic fracking in terms of foreign policy must be tempered by the potential for the current energy boom to bust.

International Reaction to Increased Fracking in the U.S.

America’s energy boom has also drawn positive reactions from nations around the world. Just as the U.S. views exporting natural gas into Europe as a benefit from its foreign policy perspective, that view is shared by European nations who are eager to be less reliant on Russian natural gas. Many countries view the U.S. energy boom as mitigating the dangers associated with nuclear energy. In light of the disaster at Fukushima, many nations are reconsidering their nuclear energy programs, with France seeking to reduce nuclear power to 50% by 2025 and Germany striving to eliminate their nuclear energy reactors by 2022. Countries seeking to reduce their nuclear energy programs are viewing the U.S. energy boom as the means to achieve nuclear-free energy programs.

While some nations are viewing the U.S. energy boom with enthusiasm, other nations are less receptive. With America becoming more self-sufficient in terms of its energy needs, OPEC nations are faced with the potential of losing the influence their oil-rich nations are able to wield in international politics. Saudi Arabia is particularly threatened by the American energy boom not only because oil exports to the U.S. have been reduced, but also by the prospect of the export of U.S. fracking technology to nations like India and China who are eager to lower their own dependence on oil from the Middle East. Further, the fracking process itself is under attack, having been banned outright in nations like France and Bulgaria, which may serve as a source of tension between the U.S. and other nations in discussions on the environment.


Myopically focusing on local concerns fails to account for the larger geopolitical context of the use of fracking. When voters in Broomfield and Fort Collins, and in numerous other small towns across America, enter the ballot booth in November to decide whether to impose a moratorium on fracking, their decisions have an international dimension. Voters are not only deciding whether or not to permit fracking, they are also determining possible reassessments of American foreign policy and alterations in the relationships America has maintained with the rest of the world. The fracking decisions, properly considered in their global context, may very well have ripple effects far beyond the city limits of Fort Collins and Broomfield, and the potential consequences of these decisions must be considered before voters determine whether to prohibit fracking.

Greg Henning is a 3L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Hands Off My Patagonia: Chile Leverages its Most Precious Biogem as it Struggles to Satisfy a Growing Need for National Energy

The New Song of Chile – No to HidroAysén (Difamadores)

The future of Chile’s Patagonia continues to be a source of steep controversy as a large-scale dam project looms. HidroAysén is the name of the $3.2 billion hydroelectric dam project that appears to be slowly moving forward in the Aysén region of the South American country. If HidroAysén is executed according to current plans, it will be a complex of five dams on two rivers that would flood more than 12,500 acres of pristine Patagonia territory. The Chilean government’s approval of the project last year was promptly challenged by the project’s opponents in the Chilean courts. Recently, the nation’s Supreme Court rejected seven appeals filed objecting to HidroAysén. Since this ruling, the project has continued to advance.

Aside from the environmental impact, HidroAysén is particularly controversial in Chile because the country is having trouble securing enough energy supplies to keep up with its own economic growth. In order to fuel such growth, it is estimated that Chile will need to double its electricity capacity generation over the next 10 to 15 years. HidroAysén would contribute 2,750MW – or 20 percent of the country’s electricity demand – of energy to Chile’s energy system.

The HidroAysén project has been met with a great deal of opposition. Last summer, after the Chilean government announced its initial approval of the project, several massive protests filled the streets of Santiago and the country’s other major cities. The protests resulted in 28 police officer injuries and more than $100,000 in damage to public property. The project has also taken a toll on President Sebastián Piñera’s administration; his approval rating fell to 36 percent in May of 2011, after his administration announced the approval of HidroAysén.

Opponents say that Chile should instead focus its efforts on modernizing current energy sources and on implementing improvements that would make the current system more efficient. Environmental organizations, like Greenpeace Chile, further argue that HidroAysén’s benefits are too small to merit destruction to parts of Patagonia. Opponents are also skeptical of the government’s claims that one of HidroAysén’s primary purposes is to provide poorer Chileans with cheaper energy. Instead they contend HidroAysén is simply a means to provide cheap electricity to the mining industry, which is at the core of Chile’s economic prosperity.

Meanwhile, the Chilean government argues that, in order to meet the country’s growing energy demands, it needs to implement agressive energy alternatives than what is already in place. The government further explains that the project is part of Chile’s goal to reduce its 96 percent dependence on imported oil and give the country more energy independence. The Chilean government defends the need for HidroAysén and projects like it because, while alternative energy, like solar or wind, is more sustainable, such sources are not as reliable or stable as more traditional energy sources. Despite the level of opposition to the project from the public, President Piñera has expressed a great deal of support and praise for the project. Piñera has explained to the press that while he is concerned with protecting the environment, he is more concerned with the health and quality of life of his fellow Chileans.

Chile has been criticized because, compared to Brazil or Argentina, it is doing very little to incentivize renewable energy development and that in five to ten years, solar options that achieve the same goals will be cheaper than it will be to operate and maintain HydroAysén. Opponents say Piñera is showing signs of the kind of corporate-government economic free-market concentration that has defined past Chilean governments and they remain suspicious of the project’s true motives since an Italian-Spanish-Chilean consortium owns HidroAysén, and the majority stakeholder, Endesa Chile, owns most of the water rights to both rivers the dam would affect.

HidroAysén does not expect to have final approval until about 2013. The first dam could be operating by 2019, the last by 2025. After several months of debate, the controversy continues to be an issue of national concern. It is unclear whether the potential HidroAysén project in a place with some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world, when officially approved, will reflect a compromise between the Piñera administration and the Chilean people.

But for now, the biogem that is Patagonia remains safe.

Gaby Corica is a rising third year law student, a member of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, and a Senior Editor on The View From Above.

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Critical Analysis: Fukushima Reactor and Japanese Nuclear Policy

In the wake of wide-scale protests in Tokyo on June 29 over the restart of two Kansai Electric Power Co. nuclear reactors, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission released an 88-page report that describes Fukushima as a “profoundly man-made disaster.” The report disputes the government’s argument of the failure of the Fukushima cooling systems as due to an unavoidable natural disaster; instead, it argues that the events of March were born out of Japanese culture and willful negligence by Japanese executives, regulators, and government officials.

The Image of Fukushima in the Japanese Mind (Guardian)

After being hit by an undersea megathrust earthquake and the subsequent tsunami in March 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan lost connection with the electrical grid and its backup generators, which crippled the cooling system and subsequently melted down the plant. However, according to the recent report released by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, the failure of the Fukushima reactors, which triggered a series of reactor safety investigations across the globe and widespread backlash against the nuclear energy industry in Japan and overseas, “cannot be regarded as a natural disaster.” The report departs from other government-sanctioned reports that concluded the reactors withstood the earthquake, only to be disabled when the ensuing tsunami slammed into the plant. Instead, the report argues that the plant’s cooling systems were likely damaged during the earthquake due to a lack of safeguard brought about by the “collusion” between Tokyo Electric and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to avoid implementing new safety regulations.

The report accuses the government, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), and nuclear regulators of failing “to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements — such as assessing the probability of damage, preparing for containing collateral damage from such a disaster, and developing evacuation plans.” According to the report, even though the government Nuclear Safety Commission revised earthquake resistance standards in 2006 and mandated that nuclear operators in Japan inspect their reactors, Tepco did not carry out any of the mandated inspections, and regulators neglected to ensure that Tepco was following through with the inspections. However, while the report assigns widespread blame from government regulators to the private sectors, the report avoids calling for the reprimand of specific executives or officials, claiming that criminal prosecution is out of its scope and “a matter for others to pursue.”

Instead, the report attributes the country’s failure to adhere to its own nuclear safeguards to what it deems a prevalent culture in Japan: one of willful negligence in the name of suppressing dissent and maintaining social harmony. The opening message of the report from the commission’s chairman describes the failure of the Fukushima reactors as “a disaster ‘made in Japan’.” The report goes on to attribute the fundamental cause as ingrained in the “conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the programme'; and our ‘insularity’.” In turn, neither Tepco nor the government agencies involved emerged with any credit for “effectively betray[ing] the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents” as “the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.”

With newspaper polls in June showing as much as 71 percent of the Japanese population opposing the restart of Japan’s nuclear energy program, this attribution of the failure of the Fukushima reactors to a cultural phenomenon may be seen by some as (and may very well be) an attempt by the Japanese government to win back the Japanese public through calming their fears of the dangers of nuclear reactors.  Regardless, whether or not the report is a policy ploy, the failure to safely use nuclear energy and adhere to proper safeguards for any reason remains a concern for the international law community at large. Indeed, Japan is a member to the Nuclear Safety Standards (NUSS) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, because IAEA was not involved with the nuclear activities of the Fukushima reactor, the safeguards were binding only on a voluntary and selective basis.  Even nuclear problems cast as “made in Japan” are not mindful of state borders: problems”“made in Japan” are exported to other countries as demonstrated by recent cases of radioactive material from Japan washing onto U.S. shores. As such, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, ensuring that state actors utilize nuclear energy in a safe way may require a global examination into best practices and possibly into whether non-binding standards need to become binding commitments.

Cassandra Kirsch is a rising third year law student at the Univeristy of Denver and a Senior Editor on The View From Above  

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Beijing Cityscape

Chinese Perspectives Part 4: Sustainable Development

Beijing Cityscape

Beijing Cityscape

One of the most frequently levied criticisms made against China is that its development, while economically impressive, is environmentally disastrous.  Judge Xue addressed this criticism directly by providing the demographic and economic context underlying China’s development, briefly outlining China’s history as it relates to sustainable development, and arguing that the Chinese government is indeed actively promoting sustainable development.  According to Judge Xue, the international community should recognize China’s progress with regards to sustainability and appreciate the fact that due to its size and current pace of economic development, such progress is necessarily slow in the making.

Judge Xue stressed that one must think about Chinese sustainable development in relation to its extraordinary demographic and economic circumstances.  China has a population of 1.34 billion people and an economy that has been growing at a rate of ten to twenty percent for the last decade.  It has twenty percent of the world’s population and only seven percent of the world’s arable land.  As such, it makes little sense for the international community to hold a country like China to the same standards to which it holds countries that have been developed for decades and have already acquired the capacity to provide for the needs of its citizens.  Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect China to turn on a dime and improve its environmental record overnight.  China’s history shows that it takes sustainable development seriously, but that under no circumstances will it sacrifice the economic wellbeing of its citizenry to satisfy the west’s environmental goals.

China’s history of environmental regulation, according to Judge Xue, suggests that it is serious about sustainable development and the protection of the environment.  In 1984, China set up the Environmental Protection Administration – the first organ of the PRC meant to deal with issues of sustainability.  However, during the 1980’s, sustainable development was equated with economic development and the focus of the Administration was to keep land healthy for farming.  The broader effects of environmental degradation were seen as a mere growing pain.  Thus, China pursued labor-intensive industries to attract foreign investment.  Those who wanted cheap labor and lax environmental regulations came to China.

This led to a set of policies that caused terrible pollution, acid rain, water contamination, accidents that damaged fisheries, and various other consequences that were destructive to the lives and livelihoods of millions of Chinese people.  Starting in the mid-1990’s, China revised its environmental laws to provide for more concrete rules and supervisory mechanisms.

Today, The People’s Republic of China now has a fairly comprehensive legislative regime that touches on water pollution, air pollution, solid waste, and radiation.  Judge Xue made it a point to state that China made the change from irreverence toward to respect for the environment not for the international community, but for the Chinese people who had suffered as a result of pollution.

Today, China is a state party to about 50 environmental treaties and abides by them in good faith.  To help it live up to its environmental treaty obligations, the Chinese government came up with the concept of “Green GDP,” which takes economic and environmental factors into consideration and helps the government make decisions with an eye towards their environmental impact.  The use of Green GDP has already led to a significant improvement to China’s desertification problem.  Additionally, China recently published its “Agenda for the 21st Century,” which contains twenty chapters and 78 concrete program areas and places sustainability at the heart of its development strategy.  In 2005, a chemical factory exploded leading to trans-boundary water pollution on China’s border with Russia.  Both states took cooperative measures to save downstream areas from water pollution.  In 2006, China sought to reduce its emissions by twenty percent by the year 2010, and it met that target.  These concrete steps show that China takes sustainable development seriously and is committed to improving its record in the future.

All this has led to an increase in public participation in environmental assessment.  If a building plan is going to cause harm to individuals as a result of its environmental impact, the Planning Department has a duty to hold public hearings, which will lead to a change of plans if the environmental costs are unnecessary or outweigh the economic benefits.

China sees sustainability both as an end in itself and as a means of achieving broader societal goals.  It will continue to seek a balance between economic and ecological development, keeping in mind current environmental standards.  Judge Xue made it clear that China will do so not because sustainable development is a goal that the international community has for China, but because sustainable development is the only way for the Chinese government to provide for its citizens in the long term.  Judge Xue would have international community recognize the progress China has made in the past and have patience with the development it is to make in the future.

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26 Reasons for Environmental Optimism in Haiti

For many Haiti evokes images of absolute poverty, environmental devastation and desperate emigrants. When I think of Haiti, I see 26 young leaders dedicated to serving others and the environment.

I was invited by the State Department’s Fulbright Program for the Western Hemisphere to co-lead a course in Environmental Leadership and train 26 Haitian students from three of the country’s universities in the skills and qualities necessary to lead. In a process coordinated by the U.S. Embassy, the students were selected by their deans based on their subject area of study and their Grade Point Averages. Through a combination of field visits, experiential exercises, readings, discussion groups and case studies, the students furthered their understanding of the need for each individual to take thoughtful initiative in addressing the environmental challenges in Haiti.

During the course there were several ‘Ah Ha!’ moments for the students. The most profound were when the students realized:

  1. By making changes in their own behavior they can affect positive change in those around them.
  2. Leaders do not need to have all the answers, but rather need to know how to bring together the relevant parties to find answers.
  3. Leaders are not only those in positions of authority, and the students began to see themselves as leaders.



In respect to the first point, the students took to heart the notion of change beginning with the individual. It was noted that here were students at the top of their classes in their respective universities studying environmental management and yet each time they would get a cup of water, they would use a plastic cup and then immediately discard it. This became an unexpected entrée into the subject of integrity in leadership. It is much easier to blame others for the trash choking the waterways or littering the nearby islands and imagine all sorts of solutions to “educate” others. In not so subtle ways throughout the week, these inconsistencies between articulated values and behavior were pointed out. By the end of the week, the students had taken to writing their names on their cups and toting them from session to session.

Second, through the analysis of several case studies in the country, there was recognition that complex environmental problems cannot be solved through traditional leadership. Rather, they require collaborative solutions that draw upon the collective intelligence of those affecting and affected by the situation. A noticeable shift occurred where students in the early part of the course focused on persuading others of the correctness of their individual point of view, while towards the end they were truly making an effort to understand the perspective of their fellow students.

Finally, the students showed increasing leadership from small actions to huge commitments. One student, acknowledging that her neighbor was reluctant to speak up, encouraged her to share her ideas. Later in the week, a small group organized a ‘spectacle,’ where the students sang ‘I believe I can fly’ and went on to explain their belief in their capacity to change Haiti. On the last day, the students announced the formation of a ‘Group of Reflection’ that continues to meet to reflect and take action on environmental problems in their communities. These students recognized that through effective collaborative leadership, even at their own hands, Haiti can address and overcome environmental challenge.

These students—26 reasons for environmental optimism in Haiti—are at the center of significant positive change in Haiti.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law

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