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We just passed the climate’s ‘grim milestone’

The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where NOAA watched the carbon record break.
NOAA
The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where NOAA watched the carbon record break.

Over the last couple weeks, scientists and environmentalists have been keeping a particularly close eye on the Hawaii-based monitoring station that tracks how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, as the count tiptoed closer to a record-smashing 400 parts per million. Thursday, we finally got there: The daily mean concentration was higher than at any time in human history, NOAA reported.

Don't worry: The earth is not about to go up in a ball of flame. The 400 ppm mark is only a milestone, 50 ppm over what legendary NASA scientist James Hansen has since 1988 called the safe zone for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and yet only halfway to what the IPCC predicts we'll reach by the end of the century.

"Somehow in the last 50 ppm we melted the Arctic," said environmentalist and founder of activist group 350.org Bill McKibben, who called today's news a "grim but predictable milestone" and has long used the symbolic number as a rallying call for climate action. "We'll see what happens in the next 50."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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How Thatcher made the conservative case for climate action

Thatcher at the U.N. in 1990.
United Nations
Thatcher at the U.N. in 1990.

The year: 1990. The venue: Palais des Nations, Geneva. The star: Margaret Thatcher, conservative icon in the final month of her prime ministership. The topic: global warming.

Thatcher went to the Second World Climate Conference to heap praise on the then-infant Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and to sound, again, the alarm over global warming. Not only that, her speech laid out a simple conservative argument for taking environmental action: "It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now," she said, "than to wait and find we have to pay much more later." Global warming was, she argued, "real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations."

The Iron Lady's speech makes for fascinating reading in the context of 2013's climate acrimony, drenched as it is in party politics. In the speech, she questioned the very meaning of human progress: Booming industrial advances since the Age of Enlightenment could no longer be sustained in the context of environmental damage. We must, she argued, redress the imbalance with nature wrought by development.

"Remember our duty to nature before it is too late," she warned. "That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe."

On climate change, Margaret Thatcher, who died on Monday at age 87, was characteristically steadfast, eloquent, and divisive. "The right always forget this part of her legacy," Lord Deben, a member of the House of Lords and chair of the U.K.'s independent Committee on Climate Change, told Climate Desk on Monday. Lord Deben served in the Thatcher government and said she was crucial in raising the profile of climate negotiations around the world, even when it was deeply unpopular amongst her colleagues. "She was determined to take this high-profile position," he said. "She believed it was her duty as a scientist." (Thatcher studied science while at Oxford University.) Barring a few members, "the rest of the cabinet were not convinced," he said.

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Withering drought still plaguing half of America

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

The $50 billion drought that bedeviled the country last summer -- the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930′s -- still has its fingers around half the country. And if predictions are to be believed, it’s only going to get worse for many in the coming months.

Weekly drought figures released Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a joint project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the USDA, and several other government and academic partners, show the situation has worsened slightly from last week, with nearly 52 percent of the continental U.S. now suffering from a moderate drought or worse. Below-average winter snow pack and rainfall are keeping much of the country in a holding pattern. No measurable precipitation fell on most of central and northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, central and northern Iowa, southwestern Minnesota, and the Louisiana Bayou last week. Rain that fell in the West did nothing to alleviate the drought there; in fact, parts of western Oregon and southwestern Washington have reported their driest start to a calendar year on record. The forecast for the next two weeks? Dry and dry again.

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How much is a beachfront home in the Sandy-ravaged Rockaways?

257 Beach 140th Street, a modest four-bedroom house blocks from the beach in the Rockaways, Queens, is fairly unremarkable, but it put up a hell of a fight during Hurricane Sandy. While other houses just down the street were being ripped off their foundations, 257, which had been up for sale since before the storm, suffered only a little flooding in the basement. It’s otherwise unscathed, but even that damage was enough to knock a solid 10 percent off its list price (down to $799,000 from $890,000), enough to make first-time homebuyers Matthew and Jenny Daly take a closer look.

“There are more opportunities because of everything that’s happened in the last six months,” Matthew says.

In New York City alone, Sandy racked up $3.1 billion worth of damage to homes. Many of those properties in hard-hit areas like the Rockaways and the south shore of Staten Island are still empty, awaiting repairs, government buyouts, resident squatters, or, like in the case of 257, a new owner ready to tackle a fixer-upper. Damaged homes are now on the market for as much as 60 percent off their pre-storm value, and local realtors say there’s a ready contingent of bargain-hunters waiting to pounce -- sometimes, to the detriment of sellers.

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Can we 3D print our way out of climate change?

Tech optimists' crush of the decade is surely 3D printing. It has been heralded as disruptivedemocratizing, and revolutionary for its non-discriminatory ability to make almost anything: dressesguns, even houses. The process -- also known as "additive manufacturing" -- is still expensive and slow, confined to boutique objets d'art or lab-driven medical prototyping. But scaled up, and put in the hands of ordinary consumers via plummeting prices, 3D printing has the potential to slash energy and material costs. Climate Desk asks: Can 3D printing be deployed in the ongoing battle against climate change?

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

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This cheat sheet will make you win every climate argument

"I don't see what all those environmentalists are worried about," sneers your great uncle Joe. "Carbon dioxide is harmless, and great for plants!"

OK. Take a deep breath. If you're not careful, comments like this can result in dinner-table screaming matches. Luckily, we have a secret weapon: A flowchart that will help you calmly slay even the most outlandish and annoying of climate-denying arguments:

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On the ground at the BP Gulf oil spill trial

This week marked the start of the civil trial against BP over its role in the 2010 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 men and caused the worst spill in U.S. history. District judge Carl Barbier warned of a lengthy trial, one that could last up to three months if a deal isn't reached earlier, and if the first three days of the trial are anything to go by, BP is in for a battery of tough questions about its safety record and procedures. As much as $17.5 billion in damages is hinged on the legal question of whether the company was “grossly negligent” in causing the deaths and the subsequent spill. Climate Desk caught up with Dominic Rushe at partner publication, the Guardian, who has been covering the trial as it unfolds.

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

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After Sandy, scientists hunt for sewage in New York City’s harbors

For most people affected by superstorm Sandy, the damage was plain to see: devastated homes, impossible traffic, even lost lives. But for Bruce Brownawell, the storm’s biggest consequences are buried under several meters of seawater. Brownawell is a marine scientist at SUNY-Stony Brook who has spent the last several years becoming intimately acquainted with the chemical makeup of mud on the floor of various bays, harbors, and inlets in the New York City area.

When Sandy hit, several local scientists saw opportunity: For Bruce, it was a chance to return to these areas and investigate how strong storm tides shifted mud around -- particularly in areas close to several low-lying sewage treatment plants that were knocked out during the storm and dumped raw sewage into the water for days. To do that, he and colleague Jessica Dutton of Adelphi University strapped on mud-proof waders and headed out to Hempstead Bay off the south shore of Long Island. Climate Desk crammed onto the boat for the inside dirt.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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European mammals make like Gerard Depardieu, flee to Russia

MammalMaster_670

By 2080, Russia might witness a vast mammalian invasion, as sub-arctic European animals flee global warming and adapt to a thawing tundra. New textbooks may need to accommodate never-before-seen communities of species as climate change pits predator against predator beyond the Russian steppe. That’s what a group of Swedish researchers predict in a new climate change study published in the journal, PloS One.

“North Western Russia will be some kind of hotspot of species richness,” said Christer Nilsson, an ecology professor, via Skype from Umeå University in Sweden. “Species will be on the move and there will be new combinations of species.”

Red and fallow deer, wild boar, the Eurasian badger, rabbits, mice, and beavers will all be on the move as new tracts of habitable land open up.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Top Australian climate scientist: Heat wave ‘encroaching on entirely new territory’

Smoke near Cooma, Australia, Jan. 8.
New South Wales Rural Fire Service
Smoke near Cooma, Australia, Jan. 8.

Australia's top government-appointed climate commissioner says this week's heat wave is occurring amid record-breaking weather around the world. "This has been a landmark event for me," professor Tim Flannery told Climate Desk from his home in Melbourne. "When you start breaking records, and you do it consistently, and you see it over and over again, that is a good indication there's a shift underway -- this is not just within the normal variation of things."

Flannery is perhaps best known in the U.S. for his 2005 book The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change; down under, he was named Australian of the Year in 2007, and appointed chief climate commissioner in 2011 by the current Labor government, which tasked him with communicating climate science to the Australian public (a government-funded job that may well sound unimaginable to American readers).

Tim Flannery.
University of Western Sydney Comm Arts Students
Tim Flannery.

Flannery says the harsh weather is a sign of things to come: "What we've seen is the bell curve shift to the hot end. The number of very hot days is increasing quite dramatically. But we're also encroaching on entirely new territory."

That new territory involves record-breaking temperatures. The number of consecutive days where the national average maximum temperature topped 102.2 degrees F (39 degrees C) was broken in the last week, almost doubling the previous record set in 1973. There are now new first- and third-place winners for highest temperatures on Australia's books, too. The number of record high temperatures has outstripped the number of record low temperatures at a 3-to-1 ratio over the last decade, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Read more: Climate & Energy