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James West's Posts


China still leads the world in emissions, with no end in sight

Power plant stacks tower over a town in China's coal country.
James West/Climate Desk
Power plant stacks tower over a town in China's coal country.

People write about China's growth so much it's daunting to wring out something new. But -- wow -- when you see it for the first time in a few years, it still delivers one hell of a punch.

I lived in China for a year before the Beijing's 2008 Olympics (a kind of development event horizon in China’s history, towards which the whole country hurtled), and I've been back regularly enough to marvel at changes firsthand.

But I have never before been as dumbfounded as during a train ride this week from Beijing through a swathe of China’s northeast coal belt. My colleague Jaeah Lee and I were whisked away from the capital on rails that carry sleek new bullet trains (in just two years, China will have completed 11,200 miles of high-speed railway lines, leaving the U.S. limping). We zoom at 186 miles per hour through unabated upheaval.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Explained in 90 seconds: Your fridge is accelerating climate change — but it doesn’t have to

The outward statecraft of the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, was dominated by disagreements over Syria. But behind the scenes, leaders were busy agreeing on something they rarely find common ground on: climate change. Thirty-five nations and the European Union decided to curb hydrofluorocarbons, a set of powerful heat-trapping gases used in refrigeration, air conditioning, heat pumps, and insulation. This follows a deal earlier this year between China and the United States, in which President Obama and President Xi agreed to limit these greenhouse gases.

​So, what are HFCs and why are they important to climate change?


Video: Fly along with NASA’s cloud hunters

One of the biggest question marks hanging over climate studies right now is about the role of clouds and the aerosols, tiny airborne particles, that shape them. The problem is clouds move fast, making them hard to model, and depending on their concentration at different altitudes, clouds can cool or heat the planet. Scientists agree that before they can build the best models to predict climate change, they first have to understand clouds.

This summer, NASA has been working to crack this problem, at 30,000 feet, aboard a custom-equipped flying laboratory. Climate Desk was invited on board for an eight-hour mission to suck the secrets out of clouds.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Explained in 90 seconds: How climate change fuels wildfires

From the Rim fire currently engulfing California to the Black Forest fire that burned more than 500 homes in Colorado, wildfires are becoming more destructive. In this video, Matthew Hurteau -- assistant professor of forest resources at Penn State University -- explains how warming temperatures, prolonged drought, and a century's worth of fire suppression policy are "priming the system to make it more flammable."

After you watch the video, be sure to check out Climate Desk's detailed explainer on the link between climate change and destructive fires.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Meet the singing, anti-fracking nuns

Down the road from the Maker's Mark bourbon distillery in the central Kentucky town of Loretto, a feisty cadre of nuns has been tending crops and praying since the early 1800s. An order founded on social justice, the Sisters of Loretto are quickly becoming the face of a new grassroots campaign against what they see as a threat to holy land: the Bluegrass Pipeline. The 1,100-mile pipeline will carry natural gas liquids from the Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia fracking fields, and will pass through Kentucky -- eventually connecting with an existing pipeline that runs all the way to the Gulf Coast.

The pipeline is in its early stages of development, but the nuns have already refused to allow company representatives to survey their 800-acre campus, and they are taking their message to local community meetings … sometimes in the form of song.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Claws and effect: Climate change turns lobsters into cannibals

Noah Oppenheim's plan was simple: Rig a young lobster underneath a waterproof, infrared camera; drop the contraption overboard off the coast of Maine; and see who comes along for a bite to eat. The takers, he expected, would be fish: Cod, herring, and other "groundfish" found in these waters that are known to love a good lobster dinner. Similar experiments conducted in the 1990s showed that apart from being snatched up in one of the thousands of traps that sprinkle the sea floor here -- tools of this region's signature trade -- fish predation was the principle cause of lobster death. Instead, Oppenheim, a marine biology graduate student at the University of Maine, captured footage that looks like it comes straight from the reel of a 1950s B-grade horror movie: rampant lobster cannibalism.

Tim McDonnell

Warming waters can cause lobsters to grow larger and produce more offspring, and the last decade has been the warmest on record in the Gulf of Maine. That, combined with overfishing of lobster predators and an excess of bait left in lobster traps (see info box below), has driven the Maine lobster harvest to thoroughly smash records that stretch back to 1880. One of the side effects of this boom, Oppenheim says, is cannibalism: There are countless lobsters down there with nothing much to eat them and not much for them to eat, besides each other.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Five gorgeous landmarks threatened by rising seas


So, you spent last weekend celebrating American independence with patriotic fervor and you’re now enthused about the preservation of American history and culture and all things awesome and bygone. Right?

Keep that historical buzz going for a moment to contemplate five sites the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- the country’s preservers-in-chief -- thinks are most vulnerable to flooding caused by sea-level rise.

Even though the Trust fields regular requests for planning assistance from coastal cities across country, the group says no comprehensive models yet exist to address sea-level rise and its threat to historic landmarks. That’s bad, says Anthony Veerkamp, a program director with the Trust, because without first taking stock of what we might lose, “inevitably there will be adaptation strategies that do lesser or greater harm to historic resources.”

Here are five sites the Trust is most worried about:

1. San Francisco’s Embarcadero


California’s Bay Area can expect sea levels to rise by up to 55 inches by the end of the century, putting an estimated 270,000 people and $62 billion [PDF] worth of San Francisco urban bling at risk of increased flooding. That presents a major challenge to the three-mile stretch of San Francisco’s downtown Embarcadero district, which features more than 20 historic piers, a bulkhead wharf in 21 sections, a seawall built in the late 1800s, and the iconic Ferry Building, fully commissioned in 1903. California’s seasonal king tides already overflow San Francisco’s sea walls and occasionally spill into the Embaracadero, providing a preview for what might happen more regularly if sea levels continue to rise.

2. New York City’s Battery

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Live chat: Obama’s new climate plan

Climate Desk hosted a Google Hangout with Grist's own David Roberts and Kate Sheppard from Mother Jones to debrief Obama's climate speech. The chat has ended, but you can still watch it below:

Roberts also appeared on Seattle's NPR affiliate KUOW. Listen here.

Check out Climate Desk's live blogging of the day's events:


Occupy Sandy: Once welcomed, now questioned

An incomplete section of the destroyed Rockaway Beach boardwalk in late May.
An incomplete section of the destroyed Rockaway Beach boardwalk in late May.

Nearly eight months after Hurricane Sandy destroyed almost three miles of historic boardwalk along the Rockaway peninsula at the southern end of New York City, the shore hums with sounds of $140 million worth of beach recovery: circular saws, jack hammers, and tractors. While construction continues around the clock, officials have reopened beaches in hopes that a vibrant tourist season will kick-start the local economy; on this hot June day, a handful of surfers catching breaks on the city's only legal surfing beaches is one tangible sign that the work to remediate 1.5 million cubic yards of displaced sand [PDF] has been successful.

Now, beyond immediate relief work and the big-ticket city spending -- the A train is finally rumbling along elevated tracks to Far Rockaway -- community organizers can rattle off a shopping list of daily small-dollar needs that don't usually get their own entries in big-name relief agency spreadsheets: community garden maintenance, recovering lost furniture, or hiring a killer grant writer to ensure the money keeps flowing.

As relief turns to long-term recovery, community activists have their eyes on a group they know has some money left unspent: Occupy Sandy.

After Superstorm Sandy hit New York last October, Occupy Wall Street -- the global protest movement against economic inequality that started in downtown Manhattan -- set up a new group, Occupy Sandy, and mobilized thousands of supporters to raise more than $1.37 million, according to finances made public on its website.

But here's the thing: Roughly $1 out of every $5 raised -- nearly $300,000 -- remains unallocated. According to interviews with Occupy Sandy organizers, it's been more than three months since the group began the process of giving this remaining money over to community groups in the hardest-hit areas. Only a fraction of the $150,000 that has already been allocated to the Rockaways has so far been disbursed.

Meanwhile, as Americans face an ever-increasing number of natural disasters and extreme weather events, more recent victims like those in tornado-devastated Moore, Okla., are looking to Occupy Sandy as a model to replicate, warranting a closer look at how the group balances its books.


How climate change makes wildfires worse

An aircraft releases fire-retardant over Black Forest, Colo.
An aircraft releases fire-retardant over Black Forest, Colo.

Last year, Colorado suffered from a record-breaking wildfire season: More than 4,000 fires resulted in six deaths, the destruction of 648 buildings, and a half a billion dollars in property damage. Still reeling, Coloradans are once again fleeing in their thousands from a string of drought-fueled fires.

So what role is climate change playing in the worsening wildfires? Here's what we've learned:

Is climate change making wildfires worse?

Hot and Bothered - small x  200
Susie Cagle

Big wildfires like Colorado's thrive in dry air, low humidity, and high winds; climate change is going to make those conditions more frequent over the next century. We know because it's already happening: A University of Arizona report from 2006 found that large forest fires have occurred more often in the Western United States since the mid-1980s as spring temperatures increased, snow melted earlier, and summers got hotter, leaving more and drier fuels for fires to devour.

Thomas Tidwell, the head of the United States Forest Service, told a Senate committee on energy and natural resources recently that the fire season now lasts two months longer and destroys twice as much land as it did four decades ago. Fires now, he said, burn the same amount of land faster.

How many more fires are we talking about?

Read more: Climate & Energy