Lisa Palmer Appointed Public Policy Scholar

In July, Lisa Palmer was appointed public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is conducting independent research and reporting on food, agriculture, the environment, and population. Her Wilson Center project, “Feeding a Hot and Hungry Planet,” will examine agriculture, population and climate change, with special emphasis on solutions-oriented perspectives across disciplines.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is the national, living memorial honoring President Woodrow Wilson. The Wilson Center provides a strictly nonpartisan space for the worlds of policymaking and scholarship to interact. By conducting relevant and timely research and promoting dialogue from all perspectives, it works to address the critical current and emerging challenges confronting the United States and the world. Created by an Act of Congress in 1968, The Wilson Center is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and supported by both public and private funds.

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South American Growth Center

The eyes of the world are on Brazil now as world cup soccer kicks off in Sao Paulo. In my latest article for the science research journal Nature, I report on some of the pockets of excellence in South American science. My news feature focusses on research at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), near Cali, Colombia.

I visited Cali, in the Valle del Cauca region of western Colombia, earlier this year, and I was impressed by the sophistication of science as well as how science was being used to help solve problems around climate change, economics, food production, and environmental degradation.

Established in 1967, CIAT was one of the first members of the CGIAR consortium of inColombiaternational agriculture research centers. In addition to research on forage and grasses for  Latin American cattle production, CIAT’s research has improved the breeding of varieties of beans, rice and cassava — staplecrops that are important to the food security of the rural poor. Its influence stretches around the world.

“Genetic improvement of these crops has proved to be a powerful weapon for combating hunger and poverty,” says Ruben Echeverría, director-general of CIAT. For example, beans developed by CIAT from Latin American varieties are now feeding up to 30 million people in Africa, according to the center.

You can read the complete Nature news feature here.

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Lisa Palmer appointed fellow at National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)

XTVcgS3G-ucm7Cqi6XyDUXVY4LPC4kYmZ6e3pDIovuo,MCPYUUxPdUEwhoXO6oo6xPOCpiJhMnDemim80VI_VnQI’m happy to announce that the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) appointed me science communications fellow. During my fellowship, I will research and produce stories at the nexus of climate change, environment, sustainability, and social science. I will work on long form journalism articles on complex environmental problems, as well as shorter pieces for a variety of media outlets.


It is enormous fun to start my fellowship at SESYNC. As a writer-in-residence, I’m learning the value of synthesis work and enjoy meeting with teams working together on research.

While at SESYNC, I will write articles that address land use, agriculture, and climate change, as well as food policy, ecology, and marine protected areas. Slate Magazine published one of my stories on agriculture and population “Famine is a feminist issue“, and my news feature on afro-forestry in Colombia appears in the May issue of the research journal Nature Climate Change.

On June 17, I will lead a seminar on strategic communications. Here are a few more details. My talk is open to the public.


The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is a national research center funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland.

Located in Annapolis, Maryland, SESYNC is dedicated to solving society’s most challenging and complex environmental problems. We foster collaboration amongst scholars from a diverse array of the natural and social sciences (such as ecology, public health, and political science), as well as stakeholders that include resource managers, policy makers, and community members.BmZrOavCYAETruL.jpg-large

Learn more at

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Wanted: a ‘clean trillion’ dollar investment to limit climate change

The UN is calling on investors and business to pump up their financing of low-carbon technologies

By Lisa Palmer

Major investors and big business met with government leaders at the United Nations recently  to address the urgency of clean energy investments. Their mission? To close a huge investment gap. More specifically, the 500 investors and policymakers examined how to make a four-fold jump in current investment levels – an additional trillion dollars is needed annually to finance the low-carbon technologies that will help avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Investing in the Clean Trillion: Closing the clean energy investment gap. Ceres

In a report by Ceres, the non-profit focused on sustainable business practices, $1tn is needed above current levels to invest in renewable energy such as wind and solar, energy efficiency and energy smart technologies such as power storage, fuel cells, and carbon capture.

So why does the UN care what large institutional investors do with their money?

The Guardian has my complete story.


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Facing Tough Market at Home, U.S. Coal Giant Pushes Overseas

With prospects in the U.S. increasingly uncertain, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, is expanding its operations abroad. But that strategy could carry significant risks, as coal-consuming powerhouses like China are working to reduce their dependence on the fossil fuel.

By Lisa Palmer


Gregory H. Boyce, the CEO and Chairman of Peabody Energy — the world’s largest private coal company — is facing his share of troubles. President Obama is planning to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants. The natural gas boom in the U.S. has cut into coal’s traditional dominance of the electric power sector. Public opposition has helped kill scores of proposed coal-fired power plants in the U.S., and the coal industry’s plans to build terminals in the Pacific Northwest to export coal to Asia are in jeopardy. In the U.S. and around the world, growing concerns about climate change are clouding the future of coal.

But to hear Boyce and Peabody tell it, the company is entering a golden age as it positions itself globally to mine and sell an ever-cleaner source of energy that will continue to dominate the world electricity market for decades to come.

Yale Environment 360 Future of Coal


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In April, Boyce told a development summit in Beijing, “As China’s unprecedented urbanization continues, coal provides the holistic path that the nation needs to provide abundant affordable energy that drives social and economic progress while meeting the nation’s environmental goals.”

In a June visit to Australia — where Peabody’s coal mines generate 43 percent of the company’s $8 billion in global revenue — Boyce said that Europe’s and California’s low-carbon policies have had “catastrophic effects,” and he decried Australia’s carbon tax and called for its repeal. Speaking on CNBC in 2011, Boyce touted the booming demand for coal in China and India, saying, “We’re talking about a super-cycle for coal in the globe today, and we think that’s going to be for two, three, four decades.”

That interview came the year after Boyce unveiled the “Peabody Plan to Eliminate Energy Poverty and Inequality,” which sounded the main public relations message being voiced today by the World Coal Association: The key challenge facing the planet is not global warming, but the fact that 3 billion people in the developing world do not have access to electricity. And the only fuel that can reliably and affordably bring electricity to the masses, says Boyce, is coal.

“The greatest crisis we confront in the 21st century is not a future environmental crisis predicted by computer models, but a human crisis today that is fully within our power to solve,” Boyce told the World Energy

Peabody says the main challenge today is not global warming but lack of access to electricity.

Congress in Montreal in 2010. “For too long we have been focused on the wrong end of the game. For everyone who has voiced a 2050 greenhouse gas goal, we need 10 people and policy bodies working toward the goal of broad energy access.”

Boyce’s vision includes the introduction of higher efficiency coal-fired power plants that emit less CO2, as well as the eventual adoption of carbon capture and storage technologies.

Unapologetic and on the attack, Boyce — a 58-year-old mining engineer with a pay package that totaled $9.5 million in 2012 — heads a company whose roots run 130 years deep in the United States. For much of that time, St. Louis-based Peabody has prospered, especially in recent decades as coal power reliably provided nearly half of U.S. electricity production.

But with the U.S. market becoming more inhospitable, Boyce and his company are increasingly looking overseas to drive growth. In addition to its operations in Australia, which have placed the company in a good position to supply coal to China, Peabody says it is expanding joint ventures with Chinese coal companies and is also enlarging operations in Indonesia, the world’s top coal exporting country.

Click to enlarge
Peabody Energy Cabello Mine

©Greenpeace/ Tim Aubry
An excavator digs for coal at Peabody Energy’s Caballo Mine in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

Peabody is also exploiting other export markets for its U.S. coal, most of which is acquired at bargain prices from federally owned land in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. Peabody ships that coal to South America and Europe through ports on the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern seaboard. European coal-fired electricity generation rose 18 percent in 2012, and the U.S. had record coal shipments to Europe, thanks in part to Germany’s move away from nuclear power. But with Germany and other European nations gearing up their renewable energy sector, the switch to coal in Europe is expected to be temporary.

In Asia, the “super-cycle” of coal that Boyce has predicted in China and India isn’t looking quite as super as it did a few years ago. China’s economic expansion has slowed from double digits to around 8 percent, and rapidly growing concerns about air pollution in China are forcing the central and local governments there to reduce electricity generation from coal. Beijing has announced that by 2015 it will slash its coal consumption by nearly half, compared with 2010 levels. Kelly Mitchell, a coal campaigner for Greenpeace, noted that China’s most recent five-year plan is calling for a major increase in renewables and a decline in coal-fired electricity.

“While it’s safe to assume that over the next couple of years, absolutely, China is going to be a huge consumer of coal,” said Mitchell, “I think when you look at the longer term trend that may not be the case.”

The major problem that Peabody and other U.S. coal companies face is the largely unforeseen flood of new, cleaner-burning natural gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing of deep shale formations. Historically, coal

Coal in the U.S. will almost certainly continue to lose ground to natural gas and the growth of renewable energy.

power has provided 50 percent of U.S. electrical generation, but last year that figure dropped to 37 percent, with natural gas providing 30 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). So far this year, coal has rebounded to provide 40 percent of electricity generation because of rising natural gas prices, and the EIA forecasts that coal could hold on at that level through 2014.

In the long-run, however, analysts say that coal in the U.S. will almost certainly continue to lose ground to natural gas and the steady growth of wind and solar energy. A key element of President Obama’s recently announced climate plan is regulating CO2 emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants.

Given the many problems it faces, Peabody’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange are down 45 percent this year. Its stock has fallen roughly 80 percent from its peak in 2008. Repeated attempts to elicit a comment from Peabody were unsuccessful.

Peabody’s challenges typify those faced by other leading U.S. coal companies, including Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, and Cloud Peak Energy. These firms argue that the Powder River basin lode can power economies in Asia with low-sulfur coal, which burns more cleanly than coal mined in China.

But to ship that western coal to China at a reasonable price, U.S. companies need coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, and opposition to these projects is steadily growing. The coal industry and its

U.S. companies need coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, and opposition to these project is growing.

allies proposed six terminals in Oregon and Washington. Three of those have been scrapped, and in March Governor John A. Kitzhaber of Oregon and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington wrote a letter to the White House raising concerns about the proposed export terminals. Chief among them is that the terminals would mean a six-fold increase in coal exports from the Powder River Basin, which would commit the U.S. and China to burning planet-warming and heavily polluting coal for decades to come.

“We cannot seriously take the position in international and national policymaking that we are a leader in controlling greenhouse gas emissions without also examining how we will use and price the world’s largest proven coal reserves,” the governors wrote Nancy Sutley, the chair of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.

Complicating matters for Peabody is that even if export terminals are approved in the Pacific Northwest, it could take up to a decade to clear environmental hurdles and build the facilities. And with China and India hoping to reduce coal use and import less coal, that could dampen long-term demand for U.S. coal. “The international economics of coal, and the supply-demand balance, is by no means a sure thing going out 10, 20, 30 years,” says Ben Collins, a campaigner with the Rainforest Action Network’s Energy and Finance Program.

“Peabody is basically touting all of their reserves in the United States as a moneymaking opportunity,” David Hawkins, director of Climate Programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview. “But to turn it into a moneymaking opportunity they have to get the coal out of the United States and across the ocean, half-way around the world, to markets where there are better positioned competitors.”

The fight over the proposed Northwest terminals has drawn attention to the generous deals that Peabody and other coal companies have been given

‘The international economics of coal is by no means a sure thing going out 10, 20, 30 years,’ says one activist.

in the Powder River Basin. According to the U.S. Interior Department’s Inspector General, the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the basin’s coal, has been granting coal leases, often without competitive bidding, for as low as $1.11 per ton — many times lower than market pricesAn independent study estimated that such practices have deprived U.S. taxpayers of nearly $30 billion in the past 30 years.

Peabody and its allies in the coal, railway, and related industries have created the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a public relations and lobbying campaign that argues that building the ports will create thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in badly needed revenues for state and local governments. But if the Northwest route to China and Asia is denied to Peabody, the company will have a hard time finding a home for the vast reserves of Powder River coal: Analysts say that the economics of shipping coal from Wyoming to the Midwest, down the Mississippi River, loading it onto freighters, sending it through the Panama Canal, and then crossing the Pacific to Asia don’t make sense.

Jason Hayes, associate director of the American Coal Council, noted that competition from natural gas and federal regulation of CO2 from coal-burning power plants could force the continuing closure of these plants. “Those closures continue to pressure producers and utilities and cost jobs,” Hayes said in an interview.

Will Global Coal Boom Go Bust As Climate Concerns Increase?

In 2005, Peabody divested itself of harder-to-mine and more costly Appalachian coal when it spun off Patriot Coal as a separate company. Then it bought coal-mining operations in Australia. In 2012 Peabody sold 33 million tons of Australian coal to Asia, a 30 percent increase over 2011. Still, Peabody’s coal reserves remain overwhelmingly in the U.S., with the company sitting on nearly 9 billion tons globally — 3.3 billion tons of which is in the Powder River Basin — compared to reserves of 1.2 billion tons in Australia.

Despite acknowledging a “challenging” market, Peabody CEO Boyce is still gung-ho. He maintains that his Peabody Plan offers a blueprint for coal to continue to provide half of all future power generation worldwide and to bring electricity to billions of people in the developing world. The Peabody Plan calls for the deployment of “supercritical” coal plant technology, which combusts the coal at higher temperatures and pressures and, according to the industry, emits 40 percent less CO2. The plan also calls for the coal industry and utilities to construct 100 major projects worldwide to capture and store carbon from coal-fired power plants.

Peabody and Boyce have not shied away from co-opting the language of the green movement, as the CEO did when he outlined the Peabody Plan in Montreal three years ago. “Coal is the only sustainable fuel with the scale to meet the primary energy needs of the world’s rising populations and economies,” said Boyce.


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What can Madagascar teach us about rice and water?

Great stories sometimes start out with the simplest inspiration. A phrase, a conversation overheard, an observation in nature, or a bag of rice purchased from a grocery store can motivate me to report on it. The inspiration works or it doesn’t.

Recently, I was about to open a package of rice when I noticed the labeling and the clever turn of phrase: “More crop per drop”.

This was in Vermont, where I was attending the Vermont Law School as a summer media fellow at the Environmental Law Center. I was taking a class that examined issues at the intersection of land use, resource managment, food policy, population and climate change. The course, “Feeding a Hot, Hungry Planet”, touched on how agriculture contributes to climate change by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. I was a bit astounded when I learned about the huge greenhouse gas emissions — methane — that are associated with rice production.

A few days after I returned to Maryland, I met with ag researcher Lewis Ziska who explained that the “more crop per drop” claim may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The huge yields of rice grown with that methodology are still unproven, he said. Still, water management is critical to the future of rice under climate change conditions and reduces methane.

Inspiration in those grains of pink Madagascar rice from my pantry resulted in this story published this week in The Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog.


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Will Power

I recently talked with of the Black Eyed Peas at Brainstorm Green in Laguna Niguel, California. The hip-hop band founder and innovator launched a brand initiative with Coca-Cola called EKOCYCLE, which inspires brands to not only design but innovate by using recycled materials in their products.

The potential for consumer goods to use more recycled material is huge. But a disconnect still exists between quality design and quality goods made with recycled materials that are attractive and that people want.

That’s the focus of my article which has just been published on the excellent Ensia website, a publication of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

Here is how my story begins: was sweating. You couldn’t see it. But he was sweating on the inside.

“It’s intimidating, you know, to be in front of like all the top Coke execs,” the founder of the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas said recently at Fortune’s Brainstorm GREEN in Laguna Niguel, Calif. was describing the presentation he gave to the Coca-Cola Company that challenged the company and its executives to better convey sustainability. He had been searching for a way to turn the word “Coke” into a verb to create an initiative toward that end. (“And if you don’t believe that verbs are important for companies to become, you should Google it,” the rapper said.) He eventually found the solution by reworking the letters to form “Ekoc,” then adding sustainability concepts to the new word. So: Eko-cycle, Eko-consumption, Eko-credibility, Eko-consciousness.

The concept stuck.

Almost 42 billion aluminum cans end up in landfills, and $1 billion in aluminum resources goes to waste. Recycling them saves 95% of the energy it takes to make aluminum in the first place.

I hope more companies will begin to use recycled materials as a standard procedure. Coke will contribute $1 million for community recycling efforts through the project, but much more effort and involvement is needed to spur recycling on a broader scale.

Will EKOCYCLE help make a difference?

You can read the article, “Will Power,” here.

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Covering sustainable solutions

This week I’m in California at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green Conference. If you are attending, please contact me via the press room (#1002) or e mail me  [my first name] (a t)

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Artificial wetlands to capture and process the fertilizer runoff that is polluting the Mississippi

In my recent story for The New York Times I write about ways Iowa farmers are seeking to prevent nutrients from getting into streams and rivers. My article focuses on using artificial wetlands to capture and process the fertilizer that flows unabated into the Mississippi. Flood plains in Midwest States used to filter runoff but they are now fields of crops that have little natural filtration. In my article, I write:

Environmentalists have filed lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency to press for tighter standards for nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. Worried that the agency might step in with new mandates, farm groups are weighing a temporary solution: floating islands that could process the nutrients before they reach the river.

You can read my complete story in The New York Times.

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Climate change and how to fix it

My latest story for The New York Times features Oxford University professor Dieter Helm. We met on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss Europe’s flawed energy policies and what he considers America’s lucky break with natural gas. The best part of the interview? He’s refreshingly honest and doesn’t mind admitting he’s angry. Helm is the author of “The Carbon Crunch: How we’re getting climate change wrong – and how to fix it.” He told me, “Parts of my book are angry. It was a great way to construct an argument!”

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