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Claire Thompson's Posts


Seattle picks its next mayor — but will the Emerald City get greener?

chris tarnawski

Seattle is already known as one of the nation’s greenest cities (in more ways than one). Local political controversies brew left of center, and environmental inclinations are practically a prerequisite for running for office. If no candidate poses a fundamental threat to the city’s signature sustainability, how much is really at stake in today’s mayoral race?

Incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn was a relative unknown when he ran four years ago -- the lawyer, Sierra Club leader, and avid bike commuter had never held political office, but he pushed a pro-transit, grassroots agenda to defeat then-incumbent Greg Nickels, who had an impressive enviro record of his own. Nickels was notorious for being difficult to work with, and McGinn’s reputation has followed the same course -- his thorny leadership style has become his most well-known weakness.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

But McGinn didn’t disappoint when it came to upholding Seattle’s reputation as an international leader on urban climate and sustainability issues. He’s made his opposition to coal-export terminals loud and clear and brought together a coalition -- the Leadership Alliance Against Coal -- of other regional business and political leaders who feel the same way. He called for the city to divest its pension funds from fossil fuels. And, true to his original bike-boosting image, McGinn has continued to expand Seattle’s cycle infrastructure. The mayor committed funds to the city’s bike master plan and has overseen the installation of protected bike lanes on major routes. He also called for a Seattle-only ballot measure to raise funds for the expansion of light rail to keep transit dollars from getting held up at the county and state level by suburban politicians reluctant to fund anything that might benefit Seattle’s unwashed carless masses.

What will happen to McGinn’s impressive green agenda if his challenger, State Sen. Ed Murray, triumphs, as the polls suggest is likely?

Read more: Cities, Politics


Watch this video of Louisiana’s 24-acre sinkhole swallowing a grove of trees

You won't believe your eyes.
You won't believe your eyes.

For the current issue of Mother Jones, I wrote about the Bayou Corne sinkhole, a swampy, reeking, 24-acre hole in the earth that opened up near the site of an abandoned salt cavern in rural Assumption Parish, La. After the sinkhole first appeared (at about 1/24th of its current size) last August, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) ordered the 350 residents of Bayou Corne to evacuate. On Aug. 2, Louisiana sued Texas Brine, the company that mined the salt cavern that experts have identified as the trigger for the sinkhole. Every few weeks the sinkhole burps -- this is really the term the geologists use -- and somewhere between 20 and 100 barrels of sweet crude bubble up to the surface. Really, it's best explained in the piece.

I saw a lot of strange things in Louisiana, but on Wednesday, Assumption Parish emergency response office, which continuously monitors the sinkhole for burps and seismic activity, released perhaps the strangest video I've seen yet. It's an entire grove of trees simply being swallowed up by the sinkhole -- something that was known to happen but no one had managed to capture clearly on camera.


Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


7 adorable animals imperiled by the Keystone XL pipeline

In its deliberations over the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department is taking flak not just from picket-sign-wielding environmentalists, but also from within the ranks of the Obama administration. This spring the EPA slammed an environmental review as "insufficient" and called for major revisions. And Monday, ThinkProgress uncovered a letter [PDF] from the Interior Department, dated from April, that outlines the many and varied ways in which the pipeline could wreak havoc on plants and animals (not to mention dinosaurs) along its proposed route.

The letter calls particular attention to a line in the State Department's most recent environmental impact assessment [PDF] that claims "the majority of the potential effects to wildlife resources are indirect, short term or negligible, limited in geographic extent, and associated with the construction phase of the proposed Project only."

"This statement is inaccurate and should be revised," states the letter, which is signed by Interior's Director of Environmental Policy and Compliance, Willie Taylor. "Given that the project includes not only constructing a pipeline but also related infrastructure ... impacts to wildlife are not just related to project construction. Impacts to wildlife from this infrastructure will occur throughout the life of the project."

Which wildlife? The letter raises concerns that potential oil spills, drained water supplies, and bustling construction workers could cause a general disturbance, but identifies the critters below, some of which are endangered, for special attention:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Coal shoulder: BLM sells controversial coal mining lease, but no one’s buying

Wyoming has enough coal trains for now.
Kimon Berlin
Wyoming has enough coal trains for now.

Today the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming held a sale for the lease of 148 million tons of coal on public land in the Powder River Basin -- and received not  a single bid, a first for the BLM in the state.

The sale was the first of two that the BLM had planned in the area over the next month, which combined would pave the way for the extraction of 316 million tons of Powder River Basin coal. Cloud Peak Energy had asked the BLM back in 2006 to open the site of today’s lease to mining, presumably to expand on its adjacent Cloud Peak mine. But today, the energy company decided it wouldn’t bid, and no one else stepped up (federal coal leases frequently see only one bidder). Here’s Cloud Peak CEO Colin Marshall in the company’s press release:

We carefully evaluated the estimated economics of this LBA [lease by application] in light of current market conditions and the uncertainty caused by the current political and regulatory environment towards coal and coal-powered generation and ultimately decided it was prudent not to bid at this time. … [W]e believe a significant portion of the BLM’s estimated mineable tons would not be recoverable by us if we were to be the winning bidder in the BLM’s competitive process. In combination with prevailing 8400 Btu market prices and projected costs of mining the remaining coal, we were unable to construct an economic bid for this tract at this time.

In other words, coal in this country is getting more difficult and costly to mine, domestic demand is falling, and Obama has directed EPA to crack down on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Even the coal industry’s hail-mary plan to stay profitable by pushing exports to Asia faces setbacks. We agree with Cloud Peak that starting up a whole new coal-mining operation is probably not prudent at this point.


By 2050, flooding could cost the world’s coastal cities over $60 billion a year

Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City, one of the 20 cities expected to see the most damages from flooding.
Oliver Rich
Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City, one of the 20 cities expected to see the most damages from flooding.

In 2005, flooding caused $6 billion worth of damage globally. By 2050, we could be hit with 10 times that much in losses -- and that’s only if the world’s biggest coastal cities make significant investments to mitigate risk. If we do nothing, costs could soar to $1 trillion.

These sobering statistics come from a new study in Nature Climate Change which identifies the 20 coastal metropolises that stand to lose the most when (not if) major flooding occurs in the future. Sea-level rise, subsidence (the land sinking), and increasingly strong storms -- all related to climate change -- increase the risk of flooding. But much of the growing price tag of future flood losses is thanks to the growing numbers of people crowding along the world’s coasts.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Fracking frenzy slows as oil and gas assets plummet in price

Not pumping as much as predicted.
Yes, we know this isn't a fracking pump, but it's way prettier.

You know that domestic oil-and-gas boom that’s been sweeping the country for the past few years, turning places like Williston, N.D., into Sin City? Well, the party’s winding down -- or maybe it was never that ragin’ in the first place. Oil and gas shale assets, possibly overvalued to begin with, are plunging in price thanks to an oversaturated market and wells whose production hasn’t always lived up to expectations.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

The deal-making slump, which may last for years, threatens to slow oil and gas production growth as companies that built up debt during the rush for shale acreage can’t depend on asset sales to fund drilling programs. The decline has pushed acquisitions of North American energy assets in the first-half of the year to the lowest since 2004. …

North American oil and gas deals, including shale assets, plunged 52 percent to $26 billion in the first six months from $54 billion in the year-ago period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. During the drilling frenzy of 2009 through 2012, energy companies spent more than $461 billion buying North American oil and gas properties, the data show.


When will solar get cheap enough for everyone to use?

Solar is not like other energy sources. Photovoltaic cells are a transformative technology, Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic's senior technology editor, argues in the short video above. The faster the price of solar energy falls, the more viable it becomes as a source of clean power -- and the sooner we'll see it on roofs across America. Animated by Lindsey Testolin, this clip is part of a six-part video series in The User's Guide to Energy special report. For a more in-depth look at this topic, check out Kyle Thetford's "Charting the Fall of Solar Prices."

This story first appeared on The Atlantic as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


China’s voyage to cross the less frozen Arctic Ocean

Smooth sailing?

For a ship on a mission of worldwide importance, the Yong Sheng is a distinctly unimpressive sight. The grey and green hull of the 19,000-tonne cargo vessel, operated by China's state-owned Cosco Group, is streaked with rust, while its cargo of steel and heavy equipment would best be described as prosaic.

Yet the Yong Sheng's journey, which began on Aug. 8 from Dalian, a port in northeastern China, to Rotterdam, is being watched with fascination by politicians and scientists. They are intrigued, not by its cargo, but by its route -- for the Yong Sheng is headed in the opposite direction from the Netherlands and sailing towards the Bering Strait that separates Russia and Alaska. Once through the strait, it will enter the Arctic Ocean, where it will attempt one of the most audacious voyages of modern seafaring: sailing through one of the Arctic's fabled passages, the Northern Sea Route.

The passage, which hugs the coast of northern Russia, and its mirror route, the Northwest Passage, which threads its way through the islands and creeks of northern Canada, have claimed the lives of thousands of sailors who tried for centuries to cross the Arctic in an attempt to link the ports of the Far East and Europe by sailing via the north pole. Thick pack ice, violent storms and plummeting temperatures thwarted these endeavors.

But global warming has transformed the Arctic in recent years, and its summer ice cover has dropped by more than 40 percent over the last few decades, raising the prospect that it may soon be possible to sail along the Arctic's sea routes with ease -- a notion that is proving irresistible to shipping lines, not to mention mining companies as well as oil and gas exploration firms. All believe the region is ripe for exploitation.

Several fairly large ships have already sailed the Northern Sea Route. However, the voyage of the Yong Sheng, backed by the Chinese government, has special significance. This is the first attempt by the world's biggest exporter to exploit the Arctic's disappearing ice to reach its biggest market -- the European Union.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Movements without leaders: What to make of change on an overheating planet

McKibben speaks to the crowd at the Walk for Our Grandchildren from Camp David to D.C.
McKibben speaks to the crowd at the Walk for Our Grandchildren from Camp David to D.C.

The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality -- it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam.  I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.

As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King. There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: The civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.

Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment -- even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrants' rights -- don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.

It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: The fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival.


Your iPhone uses more electricity than your fridge

So much power at the tips of our fingers.
So much power at our fingertips.

The global digital economy, also known as the ICT system (information-communications-technologies), sucks up as much electricity today as it took to illuminate the entire planet in 1985. The average iPhone requires more power per year than the average refrigerator. It’s like you’re walking around all day with a fridge’s worth of electricity in your pocket (but no hummus!).

This info comes from a report [PDF] by Mark Mills, CEO of the Digital Power Group, sponsored by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. So part of the report’s point is that coal keeps the iPhones on. But instead of inspiring gratitude for coal and all the blessings it bestows on us, knowing the source of all that juice just makes the digital economy’s ginormous energy footprint of even greater concern.

As Bryan Walsh points out in Time, the ICT system’s power hunger only stands to keep growing as our devices become ever more powerful and ubiquitous.