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Durban climate conference agrees deal to do a deal – now comes the hard part December 12, 2011

At the Durban climate talks, negotiators agreed to start work on a new climate deal that would have full legal force. Link to this video

The Durban climate conference may have agreed a deal – or at least a deal to agree a deal – but the scale of the work that still needs to be done became plain today.

Although talks are supposed to start immediately, America’s special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, infuriated the EU by warning that much preparatory work had to be done before the negotiators could sit down to haggle.

“[In drawing up] the Kyoto protocol, there was a period of a year to year and a half of scoping out so I expect that will go on … for a year or two,” Stern said. “Then you still have two to two and a half years to negotiate, and finish in 2015.” EU officials are acutely aware that the time to forge a deal is short, and the issues to be resolved vastly complex.

The Durban conference ended on Sunday with a last-ditch deal whereby developed and developing countries will for the first time work on an agreement that should be legally binding on all parties, to be written by 2015 and to come into force after 2020.

But while the UN and most of the countries present hailed the deal as a breakthrough, getting an agreement that all countries sign up to will be intensely complicated. “Many political agreements put off the difficult actions for the next regime and that appears to be the reality for the Durban platform,” said David Symons, director of environmental consultancy WSP. “No one should underestimate the difficulty of arriving at a legal agreement between the developed and developing countries, let alone one that for the first time includes China, India, Europe and America.

“The Durban platform provides an anodyne set of words, with much of the detail yet to be agreed and the teeth not really coming for eight years. The real challenge will be in agreeing the fine print.”

Jonathan Grant of consultancy PwC said the scale of the task was daunting, as G20 countries would need to cut their carbon intensity (the amount of CO2 released as a proportion of energy produced) by 5% a year to 2050. France’s vast nuclear power programme of the 1980s delivered a 4% per year cut for 10 years, he said, while the closure of dirty East German factories after reunification delivered 3% a year, and the UK’s “dash for gas” to replace coal-fired power stations in the 1990s only produced cuts of 3% a year for a decade.

The timetable is significant, particularly in relation to the US electoral cycle. Striking a deal at Durban was crucial, because by next year’s conference there could be another president, and none of the Republican candidates would have signed up to the Durban platform.

An incoming Republican would have to make a public renunciation of the climate talks in order to get out of the 2015 deadline. If Barack Obama wins another term, however, in 2015 he will be facing the final year of his presidency. That may spur him to try to ensure a global climate agreement is part of his legacy.

Any new agreement will come down to targets – how far each country will have to cut its emissions. The motivation to increase ambitions could come from several sources, said Michael Jacobs of the London School of Economics, including people power. “By 2015 the world’s young people in particular can be expected to demand greater action as the evidence of future damage becomes clear. I think this will be bigger than Copenhagen.” He also cites the ambition of China’s next five-year plan, due in 2015, and demands from investors for stronger, clearer policies as important.

Grant suggests Britons will have a simpler motivation: “It will be people’s wallets. If energy bills continue to rise as they have, people will eventually start to manage their demand much more efficiently than now. People are left a bit cold by the climate negotiations but energy bills impact them directly.”

The magic number is two – a temperature rise of 2C above pre-industrial levels is estimated to be the limit beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible. In order to have even a 50:50 chance of staying within that limit, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculates that emissions must peak by 2020 at the latest and fall rapidly thereafter. Carbon output must be roughly halved by mid-century, compared with 1990.

In 2014 the IPCC will produce its fifth assessment report. The overwhelming majority of climate research shows the situation is growing more serious, with increasing evidence that human activity is harming the climate and a clearer picture of what the consequences will be. This may mean the IPCC strengthens its advice on cutting greenhouse gases, which would mean governments could have to raise their targets even further.

If life were simple, it might be possible to work out a formula for dividing up the cuts needed among the countries, according to emissions per head of population, perhaps also taking into account emissions per unit of economic output.

That sort of thinking will not work in these talks, which have been running for 20 years. One key issue is historic emissions – industrialised countries started burning fossil fuels earlier and so bear responsibility for most of the CO2 already in the atmosphere. Balancing that, some countries have worked harder to reduce emissions than others – the EU, for instance, has, while China has invested heavily in renewables in recent years, and Japan has one of the most energy-efficient economies on the planet – so they will all want credit for these actions. Then there are the differing capabilities of each country – for instance, those with large forests provide a valuable service in absorbing carbon and want this to be taken into account, while others’ geographical or economic circumstances afford less opportunity to use low-carbon power. Japan is a case in point: having pledged to phase out nuclear power, it will be hard-pressed to find enough renewable alternatives.

Just how difficult it will be to resolve these issues was apparent in Durban. India’s environment minister made an impassioned speech in the final hours in which she insisted that equity – taking into account developing countries’ economic capabilities, large populations still to be lifted out of poverty, and low responsibility for historic emissions – must be the foundation of the negotiations. She said: “Equity is the centrepiece, it cannot be shifted. This is not about India. Does fighting climate change mean we have to give up on equity?”

China’s minister Xie Zhenhua backed her up strongly.

The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2020 China’s emissions per head will be equal to or higher than the EU’s. That will make it difficult for China to base its argument for easier targets on its large population. The vast quantities of carbon being poured into the atmosphere also mean historic emissions are less relevant – by the 2030s total emissions from developing countries in the past century could be greater than the total emissions from developed countries, apart from the US. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA, said: “These are big changes for China – these figures make a very significant difference.”

To further complicate matters, Stern told the conference that “there are other ways of getting to two degrees”.

He did not elaborate, but there are scientifically backed means of slowing global warming by tackling other forms of pollution, such as black carbon and HFCs, both of which have warming effects. If these actions are brought into the talks it would imply that the overall emissions cuts required are less.

Money will also be a factor. Developing countries have been promised $100bn a year by 2020, from rich countries and the private sector, in order to help them move to a green economy and cope with the effects of climate change. But it is unclear where these massive sums would come from.

In the aftermath of the talks some officials were jubilant that the UN process had been vindicated. For years, the question of whether countries needed to sign a legally binding international treaty or could simply make national commitments that could later be changed – so-called “pledge and review” – has been one of the most contentious issues.

At Durban, those arguing for a legally binding outcome won. “This is the end of pledge and review,” said one senior diplomat from a developed nation.

The problem is the UN process continues to be fragile. The debates in the next few years will be stormy, and there is no guarantee that there will be an outcome that will produce the emissions reductions needed.

But at least in Durban countries showed they can, sometimes, amid high emotions and frayed tempers, still work together.

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Samasource Provides Jobs for Poor Via the Internet December 11, 2011

The World Bank says 1.3 billion of the world’s seven billion people live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.25 a day.  Aid organizations have long relied on charitable contributions to help the world’s poor.  But the head of one aid group argues that giving to charity is the wrong approach.

“I really don’t like charity.  I think charity does a disservice to the people that it tries to help,” said Leila Janah, founder and chief executive officer of Samasource, a non-governmental organization that uses the Internet and the abundance of digital work to employ hundreds of people living in poverty around the world.

“People want to earn their own money and make their own decisions about how they spend it and I think the biggest tragedy in the development world, the development community is that we’ve often dictated to poor people what they should or should not do and I think it’s belittling.”    

A graduate of Harvard University, Janah has spent much of the past 10 years working in the development sector and visiting poor countries. But it was during her first trip to Ghana, at age 17, that she discovered an untapped resource, human brainpower.  Many of the poor children she met were smart and spoke English they had potential and skills.   

“It really flipped my understanding of economic development and poverty on its head and I realized that we don’t live in a global meritocracy,” added Janah.

The idea for Samasource was born later when Janah visited an outsourcing center in India while working for a management firm.  If people from impoverished places could use the Internet to work, Janah thought, why couldn’t countless others living in rural areas do the same.   

That’s where Samasource comes in.

Working from its headquarters in San Francisco, Samasource secures digital work contracts from big technical organizations, and then breaks down large-scale projects into what they call “microwork,” accessible to Samasource workers anywhere there is access to computers and an Internet connection.    
Tasks can include content generation for websites and data enrichment such as captioning images and verifying information.    

So far Samasource collaborates with 16 work centers throughout Africa, South Asia and Haiti. Since the business began in 2008, Janah says Samasource has paid more than $1 million to more than 1,500 people, many of them women.  

Much of the violence inflicted against women, Janah says, stems from their inability to earn an independent income. But when women are given computer-oriented work, Janah says all sorts of benefits follow,  

“They start getting respected for their brains rather than their bodies,” noted Janah.  

Some criticize outsourcing of this sort as a threat to U.S. economic growth.  Janah says Samasource is looking for ways to use its technology to help the increasing number of Americans falling below the poverty line.  But she says anti-poverty efforts need a more globalized point of view.   

“I think it’s important to remember that a person is a person, whether it’s a poor person in Bangladesh or a poor person in rural Mississippi, each deserves our consideration,” noted Janah.    

For the future, Janah envisions growing Samasource into a world-class social business, fostering a family of similar enterprises that employ thousands if not millions of otherwise-poor men and women, giving them a dignified way to lift themselves out of poverty.

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Hillary Clinton’s world tour brings brickbats, but more bouquets December 9, 2011

Hillary Clinton knows it’s been a good tour when the US secretary of state’s critics deride her as a “radical scold” trying to turn the world into gay-friendly San Francisco. Or claims that she is wrong to meet Burma‘s “military thugs” as the US presses for continued political reform in that long closed country.

Then there are the Russians and Israelis, upset with her for stating the obvious.

Clinton’s recently completed foreign tour took her on a controversial visit to Burma, where the country’s leading dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, praised her for “careful and calibrated” engagement with a country moving from brutal military rule toward tentative civilian control.

A few days later, Clinton gave a historic speech that committed Washington to putting the protection of gay rights at the centre of US foreign policy, drawing astonished praise and virulent criticism.

John Norris, director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Centre for American Progress, said the tour has added to Clinton’s standing in the US, where she has consistently high approval ratings, and abroad, where she has done much to reverse hostility.

“I have a hard time thinking of a secretary of state in recent memory who inherited a portfolio that was more of a mess. She had wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a very troubled relationship with Pakistan, and a full-blown economic crisis on her watch,” he said.

“Her ability to reconstruct the United States as a player on the multilateral stage is some of the most important and least acknowledged work. If you look at the broad architecture of US foreign policy, she really has done a pretty remarkable job of helping us emerge from what was something of a smouldering train wreck when she took office.”

Clinton’s groundbreaking visit to Burma was widely questioned, including by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican member of Congress, who said it “sends the wrong signal to the Burmese military thugs”.

“Secretary Clinton’s visit represents a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose DNA remains fundamentally brutal,” she said.

But Norris describes the visit as “an interesting culmination of idealism and realpolitik”.

“Certainly the idea of opening up the relationship with Burma is not uncontroversial in some quarters, but I think people also recognise that there has been some significant change on the ground and it makes sense for the United States to respond positively to encourage further change as well as not wanting Burma to see itself as a Chinese client state,” he said.

Clinton moved on to Geneva, where she said that protection of human rights for gay people will now be “a priority of our foreign policy”. She also took on myths prevailing in parts of the world, particularly some parts of Africa and the Middle East, that discrimination and even persecution of gay people is justified because homosexuality is a white, western phenomenon and against local culture.

“Being gay is not a western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only western governments do,” she said.

Clinton swiftly came under attack from the American right. Rick Perry, the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate, said that the speech was part of “this administration’s war on traditional American values”.

The rightwing American Spectator called Clinton a “radical scold” and accused her of trying to turn the world in to San Francisco.

But Norris argues that Clinton’s speech is in line with the US’s claim to defend individual and minority rights across the globe.

“The best comparison there – although it’s one that folks on the left and right here would find unusual – is the US’s long history of protecting religious rights around the globe,” he said.

Clinton has also drawn criticism in recent days from Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, for criticising the conduct of Russia’s election, and from Israel, for comments about the threats to democracy there by political moves to stifle the work of human rights organisations.

Clinton’s diplomacy is not always so assured. She contibuted to the White House’s inertia at the beginning of the Arab spring when the State Department initially backed the view that Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt could be saved to the recognition that he had to go. But Clinton was instrumental in pushing for Washington to back military force in support of Libya’s rebels.

Contrast that with Obama’s more hesitant approach on healthcare, Afghanistan and Congress. That has given rise once again to speculation that Clinton may yet make a move on the White House.

Two Democratic party pollsters, Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen, last month said in the Wall Street Journal, in an article called The Hillary Moment, that Obama is politically doomed and Clinton should step in to the breach.

They said Clinton is “the only leader capable of uniting the country around a bipartisan economic and foreign policy”.

“[Obama] should abandon his candidacy for re-election in favour of a clear alternative, one capable not only of saving the Democratic party, but more important, of governing effectively and in a way that preserves the most important of the President’s accomplishments. He should step aside for the one candidate who would become, by acclamation, the nominee of the Democratic Party: secretary of state Hillary Clinton,” they wrote.

That remains unlikely, but not impossible.

Others favour Clinton to replace Joe Biden as vice-president because she remains popular with many liberal voters who are disenchanted with Obama, including a not insignificant number who are questioning their support for America’s first black president over the woman who would have been its first female president in the 2008 Democratic party race.

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Alabama AG makes revision suggestions for immigration law December 8, 2011

(CNN) — Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange has sent to state legislative leaders a series of suggested changes to the state’s controversial anti-illegal immigration law.

In a memo dated December 1, Strange responds to a request made by the Alabama Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh and the Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard:

“My goals are to (1) make the law easier to defend in court; (2) assist law enforcement in implementation; and (3) remove burdens on law abiding citizens. All while not weakening the law,” Strange wrote.

He suggests the repeal of some sections of the law being challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice and a coalition of civic groups. Specifically, items he suggests repealing include: making it illegal for an immigrant to fail to carry registration documents and allowing private lawsuits against officials who fail to carry out the law, among others.

Marsh and Hubbard met with Strange a couple of weeks ago and asked for recommendations for possible revisions of the law, said Todd Stacy, Hubbard’s communications director.

Alabama’s immigration law under fire

Alabama’s immigration battle not over yet

“Make no mistake, the Legislature is not going to repeal this law and have Alabama become a sanctuary state for illegal immigrants. Speaker Hubbard is focused on making our illegal immigration law work better, clearing up misconceptions and correcting any portions that might be vague or require additional definitions. … Speaker Hubbard wants a positive work environment for Alabama citizens and legal immigrants. We can have that while also shutting off the magnet drawing illegal immigrants to our state,” Stacy said.

Alabama Senate Majority Whip Gerald Dial said last month he was already working on some changes to the law to correct what he called “unintended consequences.”

The law, known as HB 56, raised concerns that it might damage the state’s image after representatives of Mercedes Benz and Honda in separate instances, were detained for not having their immigration documents when they were stopped for a traffic violation.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said Monday that he is reaching out to international companies to reassure them and that he is worried the law could hurt industrial recruiting, CNN affiliate WBRC in Birmingham reported.

HB 56 went into effect on September 28 after U.S. Federal District Court Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn ruled that most of the law is constitutional enjoining only a few parts. It is considered by many to be the toughest law against illegal immigration in the country. It allows police to ask for legal status of people under certain circumstances and voids contracts if a party is not in the country legally. A part requiring public schools to inquire legal status of new students was enjoined by the 11th District Court of Appeals.

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Supermassive black holes are largest ever discovered December 6, 2011

Astronomers have located the two biggest black holes ever found, each one billions of times more massive than our sun. Observations of these supermassive cosmic objects will give scientists clues on how black holes and galaxies form and evolve, especially in the earliest parts of the universe.

The galaxy NGC 3842, around 320m light years from Earth in the constellation of Leo, has a black hole at its centre with a mass of around 9.7bn suns. An even bigger black hole with a mass of around 21bn suns exists at the heart of galaxy NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in the Coma cluster, around 336m light years from Earth.

These two newly-discovered supermassive black holes were found by analysing data from the Hubble Space Telescope and two of the biggest ground-based telescopes in the world, the Gemini North and Keck 2 facilities in Hawaii. The work, led by Douglas O Richstone of the department of astronomy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is published this week in Nature.

Until now, the biggest recorded black hole was the one at the centre of the giant elliptical galaxy Messier 87, measuring 6.3bn suns.

Black holes are a one-way ticket to mystery, a place where known physics seems to break down and the space we all familiar with becomes supremely strange. They begin as massive stars (at least six times the mass of our sun) and, after billions of years of shining they collapse in on themselves into a singularity, a point smaller than the full-stop at the end of this sentence.

Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts that, if matter is compressed into a small enough space, the resulting gravity gets so strong that nothing nearby can escape the pull. The boundary of the region where the gravity of a collapsed star beats every other force around is called the event horizon. Pass this point, and there is no coming back, not even for particles of light.

Observational work from the past few decades has shown that supermassive black holes are likely to be at the centre of all big galaxies, determining how these structures are formed and how they will evolve over time.

Michele Cappellari, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford who was not involved with the discovery, wrote in an accompanying article in Nature that the discovery of the supermassive black holes would help provide clues to the formation of such big objects.

There are two ideas for how such massive black holes could form. One theory suggests that a smaller black hole simply absorbs lots of gas from a surrounding spiral galaxy until it gets to its size. Another theory suggests that supermassive black holes can form by the merger of two lenticular galaxies (which are intermediate in shape between elliptical and spiral) that have black holes at their centres. The result is a spherical galaxy with a coalesced supermassive black hole in the centre.

Scientists have worked out that the mass of supermassive black holes studied so far is closely related to the amount of random motion (known as the velocity dispersion) of the stars in the central parts of the galaxies that surround them.

“Interestingly, the two newly measured supermassive black holes are more massive than would be predicted from their velocity dispersion,” Cappellari wrote. “This suggests that, unlike their smaller counterparts, these black holes did not grow most of their mass by gas accretion but instead grew by the ‘dry’ merging of gas-poor galaxies.”

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