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Energy and Global Warming News for September 3: U.N. chief pushes for rapid progress on climate talks; Climate change’s role in wildfires

Heidi Cullen had a terrific piece last night on the Newshour, “Scientists See More Risk of Wildfires with Forest Changes” (click here for transcript and video). Reuters even wrote a story on it:

The Dramatic Rise in Western Forest Fires: Is Climate Change to Blame?

Blaming a specific forest fire on the impact of climate change could be asking for trouble; but so too is ignoring obvious trends. That was clear last night from The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS when Climate Central, an emerging authority on global warming, explored the dramatic increase in forest fires in Washington State over the past few decades.

Correspondent Dr. Heidi Cullen, Climate Central’s Senior Research Scientist, interviewed forest ecologists who see evidence that ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest’s once vibrant forests are under duress because of global warming. Some observers believe that fire management practices by the U.S. Forest Service may help account for the increase in fires. Climate Central, in keeping with its mission to provide objective information on climate change, went deeper.

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Dr. Cullen reported that in Washington State, “Average spring temperatures have risen nearly three degrees since 1950. Natural variability makes some years cooler or hotter. But records show an overall warming trend.”

Click here for CP’s take on the climate-wildfire link.

UN chief: rapid progress needed in climate talks

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon told a meeting of some 150 governments on Thursday that time is running out for a new climate deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The Copenhagen talks in December are looming and little real negotiating time is left “to resolve some of the most complex issues,” the U.N. secretary general told the World Climate Conference. “We need rapid progress.”

Only limited progress in the climate talks has been made for the meeting to hammer out a new accord to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on reducing the gases blamed for global warming.

Meanwhile, climate change is advancing.

“Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss,” said Ban, warning that climate change could spell widespread economic disaster.

Feds: Plan needed to spur clean-energy jobs

A comprehensive federal plan to limit carbon emissions is the key to creating clean-energy jobs, federal officials said Wednesday. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Ed Montgomery, head of the Obama administration’s effort to help struggling auto communities, used the Regional Clean Energy Economy Forum here to urge Congress to develop and approve a plan that will encourage companies to invest in the clean-energy sector, and generate demand for their products.

That could create millions of jobs and boost the nation’s economy, but only if there is a market for the products they create, Locke said. “If we don’t provide these incentives for American companies to do it,” he said, “other countries will do it.”

The forum at the Dow Event Center was hosted by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who is pushing to make renewable energy a cornerstone of diversifying Michigan’s auto-centric economy. Last month, Michigan and Detroit’s Big Three automakers won more than $1.3 billion in federal grants to support the next generation of batteries and electric vehicles.

“We intend … to lead the nation, and hopefully the globe, in the clean-energy sector,” Granholm said.

Michigan’s effort got a boost earlier Wednesday when the state House passed, 90–17, $100 million in tax credits for the redevelopment of Ford Motor Co.’s abandoned Wixom plant into a clean-energy manufacturing hub. Xtreme Power of Austin, Texas, and Clairvoyant Energy of Santa Barbara, Calif., are hoping to win federal loans and state tax breaks to refurbish the 318-acre property.

New Ambassador in China Says Energy, Climate Obama’s Priorities

President Obama has offered plenty of lip service about the need to engage China on climate change, as has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Apparently those are the marching orders for the new U.S. ambassador in Beijing.

In his “first sit-down interview with Western media” since arriving in China in August, Jon Hunstman, Jr. told our own Ian Johnson that President Obama gave him a very clear””and green””remit: “Before setting out for China, Mr. Huntsman said, Mr. Obama told him to focus on a few big-picture issues: global economy, energy and climate change.”

So the energy and climate puzzle has zoomed to the top of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, ahead of niggling matters such as North Korea. To be sure, Ambassador Huntsman did talk up human rights as well.

But the ambassador’s priorities clearly reflect the tenor of President Obama’s July speech in front of Chinese leaders, when he warned that the U.S. and China must cooperate to avoid the “ravages” of climate change.

Of course, the multi-billion dollar question is just what shape that cooperation takes, beyond a few token clean-energy demonstration projects and the like. China wants to grow first and curb emissions later; the West wants China to curb emissions now and join in the clean-tech revolution (as long as it doesn’t take the lead).

Top Brazilian Organizations Unite in Alliance to Fight Climate Change

Fourteen major Brazilian organizations representing the agribusiness, planted forests and bioenergy sectors announced today the creation of the Brazilian Climate Alliance, with the goal of contributing with solid proposals for the negotiations related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.The main focus is the agenda that the Brazilian government has been defending in global negotiations, culminating with the 15th U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 15), next December in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Alliance’s Position Paper highlights the global nature of the challenges linked to climate change as a key factor for organizations to unite behind a single effort. The document also points to the need for coordinated and urgent steps that prioritize available technologies that are economically viable and ensure short-term impact. “In the Alliance’s view, the position paper is a work in progress that will evolve as negotiations and other initiatives along the same lines progress,” explains the President of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association (ABAG), Carlo Lovatelli.

The strong contribution made by the sectors that form the Alliance to climate change mitigation is emphasized, especially because they are sources of renewable energy, such as ethanol, biodiesel, planted forests, wood charcoal and other forms of biomass capable of substituting fossil and highly polluting fuels. Together, the products from the sectors represented in the Alliance account for over 20% of the entire Brazilian energy matrix. Moreover, the potential to capture, maintain and increase carbon stocks among the sectors represented in the Alliance is significant.

China Tries to Calm Unease Over Rare Earths Curbs

A Chinese official tried to calm unease about curbs on exports of rare earths used in clean energy products and superconductors, saying Thursday that sales will continue but must be limited to reduce damage to China’s environment.

China produces nearly all the rare earths used in batteries for hybrid cars, mobile phones, superconductors, lightweight magnets and other high-tech products. Reports of a plan to reduce exports sparked concern about the impact on industry abroad.

Beijing will encourage sales of finished rare earths products but will limit exports of semi-finished goods, said Wang Caifeng, deputy director-general of the materials department of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Exports of raw ores already is banned, and said that will continue, Wang said at an industry conference.

Wang refused to confirm Chinese news reports that this year’s exports will be cut to about 8 percent below 2008 levels and future exports will be capped at similar levels. She said a plan will be be issued later this year. ‘’China, as a responsible big country, will not go back and will not take the road of closing the door,’’ Wang said.