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How extreme weather supersizes global food price tags

Photo by Oxfam.

Democrats blame record drought. Republicans blame Obama. But one thing both parties agree on is that food prices are going up. In his acceptance speech at last week's GOP convention, Mitt Romney openly mocked tackling climate change as the opposite of helping working families, yet pointed to food prices in his long list of ongoing concerns: "Food prices are higher. Utility bills are higher, and gasoline prices, they've doubled," he claimed.

But Heather Coleman, Oxfam's senior climate policy adviser, sees this (ever-so-thin) overlap of (ever-so-tenuous) agreement as an opportunity. "Those of us who are truly aware of the impacts of climate change find it appalling that climate change could be used as a laugh line," Coleman said in a Skype interview. "[But] there's a lot more that needs to be done and I think we can all come together on this issue of agriculture."

A new Oxfam report released today hopes to close this understanding gap between climate change and global food prices, arguing previous research grossly underestimates future food prices by ignoring the impact of severe weather shocks to the global food system.

The report, "Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices," argues current research paints only some of the picture by relying on steady increase in temperatures and precipitation. To get a more accurate picture, researchers threw down wild cards -- the crazy weather events like droughts, hurricanes, and floods we've come to increasingly expect -- to "stress-test" the system. They've come up with some disturbing numbers.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Record drought sends cattle hoofin’ East [VIDEO]

Lifelong Wyoming rancher Neil Forgey is hoping the grass is greener in Winner, S.D. This year's drought has forced a terrible choice on ranchers in affected states: sell, or haul. Neil's usually verdant land in Douglas, Wyo. -- home for decades -- is "drier than it's ever been," he said. Every county in that state is a declared disaster area, eligible for federal money. Neil's property was also threatened by the Arapaho Fire, which destroyed nearly 99,000 acres, the worst in Wyoming this year. "It was selling them, or South Dakota," he said.

Neil found greener pastures seven hours and 330 miles east, in Winner, on an expansive prairie owned by a family friend. There, at risky expense, 120 head of cattle will graze until September in the hope next year will bring rain.

Not so lucky are ranchers just an hour south, in Bassett, Neb., where the local auction house can barely keep up with a brimming cattle yard.

As ranchers flee fire and drought, and scientists warn of more severe droughts driven by climate change, Neil's story is repeating all over the West.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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How Curiosity turns Mars into a climate-change lab

Mars' surface, as seen through Curiosity's eyes.

Scientists have made great strides in predicting what will happen to Earth's climate, but there is a fundamental problem: We only have one climate to test our hypotheses in. We can't irreversibly hack Earth's climate (by pumping it full of toxic gases, for example) to test whether our assumptions are right or wrong -- that, obviously, would be disastrous for Earth's inhabitants. That means climate models are loaded with historical and empirical data to make them function.

If only we could take the model to another planet to really test the underpinning physics!

Bingo. Curiosity, the car-sized mobile chemistry lab that dropped spectacularly onto the surface of Mars yesterday, will give scientists a rare chance to test their assumptions about how climate change works on Earth. It will hunt the surface of Mars for sediment to pick up and drop into its sophisticated onboard machinery, then send back critical insights into how the climate of Mars -- once warmer, with rain, rivers, and deltas -- has changed over billions of years, lashed by solar winds.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Seven climate-change diseases to ruin your day

West Nile virus is already in the U.S., and more once-subtropical diseases could be on their way.

From the known and treatable (Lyme Disease) to the unpronounceable and potentially deadly (Cryptococcus gattii), climate change is giving nasty diseases a leg up, clearing their way onwards to the U.S.

Increased rainfall, warmer temperatures, dying reefs, and hotter oceans are handing diseases that afflict humans -- algal, fungal, mosquito-borne, tick-borne -- a chance to spread, meaning diseases previously unheard in the U.S. of are now emerging.

George Luber, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says the deadly fungal infection C. gattii, once considered limited to places like Papua New Guinea and Australia, "popped out of nowhere" when it first moved to Vancouver Island around the early 2000s. Scientists were alarmed by its readiness to set up shop in a new climate, well outside its comfort zone. If subtropical C. gattii could settle down in just any backyard, what was next?

"You've got to be prepared, otherwise it will catch you off guard," said Luber, a member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Climate change will drive extreme events leading to the potential for multiple system failures … to upend all of the protections we have in place."

So with that grim warning in mind, Climate Desk has prepared this handy guide to help you identify the nasty critters that could be knocking on your door soon. (A somewhat obvious disclaimer: This is not to be taken as medical advice. If you have symptoms, see a doctor.)

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Which foods will cost more because of the drought?

Consumers can expect the worst U.S. drought in 50 years to cast a shadow across food prices throughout 2013, according to fresh government data released Wednesday. The estimates are the first to capture the effects of this summer's drought in America's heartland, and show food prices increasing at a rate well above normal expectations.

"We're expecting another year of tough food prices, bad news for consumers," said United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food economist Richard Volpe.

"The difference between normal and higher than normal in this case is 100 percent attributable to the drought," Volpe said. The food price index data is released by USDA each month; it is a set of numbers that indicates how much an average shopper is likely to pay at the supermarket.

Normal food inflation has been between 2.5 and 3.5 percent in recent years, Volpe said, and is calculated to include a variety of pushes and pulls on the economy, including fuel prices and the state of the American dollar. That so-called normal inflation rate will largely play out for the rest of this year, all things being equal, he said. The drought will surface in food prices next year.

Click to embiggen. (Image by James West/Climate Desk.)

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New York’s roofscape gets climate makeover [VIDEOS]

Most visitors to New York City crane their necks for a view of the city's famous skyline, but locals know better: To get the best views, you have to go up. Here's your chance to take a rare -- and vivid -- journey atop a few of the city's billion square feet of rooftops.

As the Big Apple faces ever-hotter summers, officials are looking for ways to cool off in some of the only unused space left in a crowded city: rooftops.

Fertile vegetated green roofs absorb the sun's rays, while reflective roofs bounce them back to space. Both are sprouting up in response to a 2008 city rule that requires new roofs to be climate-friendly. Meanwhile, the city is working with the Obama administration to overhaul its hulking construction bureaucracy, making it easier for solar panel installers to turn rooftops into the city's fastest-growing energy provider.

Climate Desk strapped on hardhats, jumped into elevators, and scaled ladders to see firsthand how the roofscape of New York is adapting to face a changing climate. Check out three different climate-friendly uses for roofs in the videos below.

Read more: Cities, Climate Change

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Brooklynites: Don’t frack our beer! [VIDEO]

Does worrying about fracking make you thirst for a drink? Before you raise that pint of ale to your lips, consider the source.

The brewmeister of Brooklyn Brewery says toxic fracking chemicals like methanol, benzene, and ethylene glycol (found in antifreeze) could contaminate his beer by leaking into New York's water supply. Unlike neighboring Pennsylvania, New York state has promised to ban high-volume fracking from the city's watershed. But environmentalists say the draft fracking regulations are weak and leave the largest unfiltered water supply in the U.S. -- not to mention the beer that is made from it -- vulnerable.

Read more: Natural Gas

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Can real-time pricing green the grid? [VIDEO]

Unless you've been living off the grid, you've probably heard about President Obama's "all of the above" plan for America's energy future, which embraces everything from oil drilling and natural gas fracking to wind, solar, and even pond scum. In the last couple years, the Obama administration has pumped billions into cutting-edge clean energy technology. But these all share a common problem: plugging into an electric grid that is mostly unchanged since the 1930s. Energy experts say meeting our carbon-footprint reduction goals will remain a pipe dream until we can revamp electricity distribution. The solution? The "smart grid," a nickname for a sweeping series of updates on everything from power stations to the meter in your home, which promises to save power and money by being sensitive to your energy use.

In the second installment of Climate Desk's Future Energy series, see how America is modernizing the largest machine on the planet.

Read more: Smart Grid

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Chump change: Stopping global warming is much cheaper than you think

Photo by Samantha Celera.

You’ve heard it before: Politicians say they’d love to take action against climate change, but they’re reeling from sticker shock. Today, a new report from the U.K.’s leading climate change watchdog refutes this oft-cited argument that climate action will herald economic Armageddon.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report, with the hairy-sounding title “Statutory Advice on Inclusion of International Aviation and Shipping,” says that in 2050, the U.K.’s emissions reductions across the whole economy will cost 1 to 2 percent of the total GDP. This updates, in greater detail, the range predicted half a decade ago by the watershed Stern Review.

Just how much is that? For a rough comparison, one percent of the U.K.’s 2011 GDP is a little more than what the country currently spends on public housing and community amenities, and is nowhere near the big-ticket public spending items like healthcare.

The U.K. has enshrined in law an emissions reduction of 80 percent on 1990 levels by 2050.

“It’s a very compelling economic case to act,” says David Kennedy, CEO of the CCC, an independent statutory body charged with advising parliament on all things climate. “You don’t need radical behavior and lifestyle change to achieve our climate objectives. It’s a very, very small impact on growth. And what you get for that is a whole range of economic benefits.”