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Sally Jewell’s frustrating first year in Washington

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has faced an uphill battle in Washington as she tries to implement her ambitious agenda. In February, she went snowshoeing on Mount Rainier to see firsthand the effects of climate change.
Kate Sheppard
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has faced an uphill battle in Washington as she tries to implement her ambitious agenda. In February, she went snowshoeing on Mount Rainier to see firsthand the effects of climate change.

On a brisk Monday afternoon in February, with the sun finally peeking out from behind the clouds after a passing snow squall, a group of researchers and park rangers strapped on snowshoes and hiked about half a mile to an overlook facing the Nisqually Glacier in Mount Rainier National Park. Scientists have been monitoring the surface elevation of the Nisqually since the 1930s, tracking the peaks and dips in the ice as the glacier moves down the valley. It is the longest record of this type of measurement for any glacier in the western hemisphere -- and, in recent years, a key piece of evidence of the devastating effects of climate change in this iconic park.

Dressed in a pale blue snow jacket and purple beanie, Sally Jewell listened intently as the scientists described the years of research dedicated to the park's glaciers. The secretary of the Interior eyed a graph charting changes in the Nisqually's elevation and noted the drop-off between 2002 and 2011. Yes, the scientists confirmed, that's one sign of how climate change is impacting the glaciers. As the climate has warmed, the Nisqually has also retreated. It once plunged down the valley, running just behind the Paradise Visitor Center. But now, even in the dead of winter, its tail end is barely visible, peeking out ever so slightly in the distance. The glacier's retreat has been dramatic: More than a mile since the early records. Scientists have documented more than 700 feet of retreat since 2003 alone.

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Can celebrities and prime-time TV make Americans care about climate change?

Years of Living DangerouslyCheadle, Hayhoe, and Andrew Farley. April 13 is the television premiere of the much-anticipated Showtime series on climate change, Years of Living Dangerously. The show features a cast of notable celebrities, who set out with scientists, firefighters and policymakers to explore the front lines of climate change. The show's first episode, already available online, features actor Don Cheadle traveling to Plainview, Texas, where he discusses climate change and drought with Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and her husband, an evangelical preacher. It also follows Harrison Ford as he travels to Indonesia to look at deforestation and …

Read more: Climate & Energy

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New report warns of “cascading system failure” caused by climate change

hurricane-sandy
Shutterstock

From roads and bridges to power plants and gas pipelines, American infrastructure is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according to a pair of government reports released Thursday.

The reports are technical documents supporting the National Climate Assessment, a major review compiled by 13 government agencies that the U.S. Global Change Research Program is expected to release in April. Scientists at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory put together the reports, which warn that climate-fueled storms, flooding and droughts could cause "cascading system failures" unless there are changes made to minimize those effects. Island Press has published the full-length version of the reports, which focus on energy and infrastructure more broadly.

Thomas Wilbanks, a research fellow at Oak Ridge and the lead author and editor of the reports, said this is the first attempt to look at the climate implications across all sectors and regions. Rather than isolating specific types of infrastructure, Wilbanks said, the report looks at how "one impact can have impacts on the others."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Marcellus energy development could pave over an area bigger than Delaware

marcellus-shale-fracking
Steve Williams/Penn State College

Development of natural gas and wind resources in the Marcellus shale region could cover up nearly 1.3 million acres of land, an area bigger than the state of Delaware, with cement, asphalt, and other impervious surfaces, according to a paper published this month in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The study, conducted by two scientists from the conservation organization The Nature Conservancy, predicts that 106,004 new gas wells will be drilled in the Marcellus region, based on current trends in natural gas development. The region includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Virginia.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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In the American West, a battle unfolds over bugs, climate change, and the fate of an iconic species

A stand of dead whitebark pine atop Packsaddle Peak in Montana, killed by an infestation of mountain pine beetles.
Kate Sheppard
A stand of dead whitebark pine atop Packsaddle Peak in Montana, killed by an infestation of mountain pine beetles.

On a cold, overcast day last fall, Jesse Logan and Wally Macfarlane hiked up Packsaddle Peak near Emigrant, Mont., not far from Yellowstone National Park. They had to climb high into the forest, at least 8,500 feet above sea level, to find the trees: tall, majestic whitebark pines, which grow slowly and can live more than a thousand years. A light snow started falling halfway up the mountain, the flakes getting heavier and wetter as they climbed. "You gotta want it to get up in here," said Macfarlane, 46, a researcher from the Department of Watershed Resources at Utah State University.

The last time Macfarlane and Logan, 69, a former entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service, hiked this peak, in 2009, they found the trees' normally bright green needles turning shades of yellow and red. Now, just four years later, all the needles had fallen to the ground, and there were few signs of life in the forest. Even covered in fresh snow, which can lend anything a beautiful luster, the dead trees gave the landscape a bleak, post-apocalyptic aspect.

All across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem -- a 28,000-square-mile area covering parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho -- a devastating beetle infestation has been killing whitebark pines. The consequences may stretch far beyond the fate of a single species of tree, however. The whitebark pine has been called the linchpin of the high-altitude ecosystem. The trees produce cones that contain pine seeds that feed red squirrels, a bird known as the Clark's nutcracker and, most significantly, grizzly bears -- a symbol of the American West and the current focus of a high-profile conservation battle.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Flood, rebuild, repeat: Are we ready for a Superstorm Sandy every other year?

sealevel_630
Yuko Shimizu

Two months after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City, Battery Park is again humming with tourists and hustlers, guys selling foam Statue of Liberty crowns, and commuters shuffling off the Staten Island Ferry. On a winter day when the bright sun takes the edge off a frigid harbor breeze, it's hard to imagine all this under water. But if you look closely, there are hints that not everything is back to normal.

Take the boarded-up entrance to the new South Ferry subway station at the end of the No. 1 line. The metal structure covering the stairwell is dotted with rust and streaked with salt, tracing the high-water mark at 13.88 feet above the low-tide line -- a level that surpassed all historical floods by nearly four feet. The saltwater submerged the station, turning it into a "large fish tank," as former Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chair Joseph Lhota put it, corroding the signals and ruining the interior. While the city reopened the old station in early April, the newer one is expected to remain closed to the public for as long as three years.

Before the storm, South Ferry was easily one of the more extravagant stations in the city, refurbished to the tune of $545 million in 2009 and praised by former MTA CEO Elliot Sander as "artistically beautiful and highly functional." Just three years later, the city is poised to spend more than that amount fixing it. Some have argued that South Ferry shouldn't be reopened at all.

The destruction in Battery Park could be seen as simple misfortune: After all, city planners couldn't have known that within a few years the beautiful new station would be submerged in the most destructive storm to ever hit New York City.

Except for one thing: They sort of did know. Back in February 2009, a month before the station was unveiled, a major report from the New York City Panel on Climate Change -- which Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened to inform the city's climate adaptation planning -- warned that global warming and sea-level rise were increasing the likelihood that New York City would be paralyzed by major flooding. "Of course it flooded," said George Deodatis, a civil engineer at Columbia University. "They spent a lot of money, but they didn't put in any floodgates or any protection."

And it wasn't just one warning. Eight years before the Panel on Climate Change's report, an assessment of global warming's impacts in New York City had also cautioned of potential flooding. "Basically pretty much everything that we projected happened," says Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, co-chair of the Panel on Climate Change, and the co-­author of that 2001 report.

Scientists often refer to the "100-year flood," the highest water level expected over the course of a century. But with sea levels rising along the East Coast -- a natural phenomenon accelerated by climate change — scientists project that in our lifetimes what was once considered a 100-year flood will happen every three to 20 years. And truly catastrophic storms will do damage unimaginable today. "With the exact same Sandy 100 years from now," Deodatis says, "if you have, say, five feet of sea-level rise, it's going to be much more devastating."

Roughly 123 million of us — 39 percent of the U.S. population — dwell in coastal counties. And that spells trouble: 50 percent of the nation's shorelines, 11,200 miles in all, are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And the problem isn't so much that the surf laps a few inches higher: It's what happens to all that extra water during a storm.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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U.S. won’t fund a massive coal plant in Vietnam

coal plant
Shutterstock

On Thursday, the board of the U.S. Export-Import Bank voted against backing a new coal-fired power plant in Vietnam. The 1,200-megawatt Thai Binh Two plant was the first test of one of the policy changes President Barack Obama laid out in his big climate speech last month.

Reuters reports that Ex-Im said the decision came after "careful environmental review." In his speech, Obama called for an end to public funding for new coal plants "unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there's no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity."

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Burning fossil fuels imperils our ability to burn fossil fuels

steam coming out of a power plant
HVargas

Pretty much every power plant requires water to work. Coal, natural gas, nuclear, and even some types of renewable energy need water to create steam and to cool down. These plants account for more than 40 percent of the fresh water drawn from lakes and rivers in the U.S. each year. But climate change limits access to that water and poses a major threat to our ability to keep power plants running, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists [PDF].

If plants don't have enough water, they can't operate. The report notes that the summer drought in Texas in 2011 forced one power plant to cut its hours of operation, while others had to pump in water from new sources, which led to fights over rights to water. Last summer, a power plant in Tennessee had to shut down because it was too hot, while others had to scale back production because of heat and drought.

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Confirmed: Fracking triggers quakes and seismic chaos

Click to embiggen.
Shutterstock
Click to embiggen.

Major earthquakes thousands of miles away can trigger reflex quakes in areas where fluids have been injected into the ground from fracking and other industrial operations, according to a study published in the journal Science on Thursday.

Previous studies, covered in a recent Mother Jones feature from Michael Behar, have shown that injecting fluids into the ground can increase the seismicity of a region. This latest study shows that earthquakes can tip off smaller quakes in far-away areas where fluid has been pumped underground.

The scientists looked at three big quakes: the Tohuku-oki earthquake in Japan in 2011 (magnitude 9), the Maule in Chile in 2010 (an 8.8 magnitude), and the Sumatra in Indonesia in 2012 (an 8.6). They found that, as much as 20 months later, those major quakes triggered smaller ones in places in the Midwestern U.S. where fluids have been pumped underground for energy extraction.

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Here comes the son: Barry Goldwater Jr. fights for solar power in Arizona

Barry Goldwater Jr.
Gage Skidmore

The name Barry Goldwater is practically synonymous with conservatism in America. That's even more true in the late politician's home state of Arizona, which he represented for five terms in the U.S. Senate. Now his son, Barry Goldwater Jr., is putting the family name behind an effort to protect solar energy's growing share of the electricity market -- a struggle that has pitted him against entrenched utility interests and a right-wing dark-money group.

Goldwater, 74, is the chair of Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed (or TUSK, for short), a group launched in March to fight the state's largest electric utility, Arizona Public Service, on solar power. APS has been campaigning to get the state utility commission to change regulations dealing with net metering, a policy that allows homes and businesses with their own solar power systems to send excess energy they generate back to the grid and make money off of it. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have a net-metering policy in place.

Arizona has had net metering since 2009, which has helped make it the second-ranked state in the country in installed solar capacity. But APS has called for an overhaul of the state's net-metering policy and plans to unveil its proposal to the regulators on the Arizona Corporation Commission this Friday.

APS argues that under the current arrangement, the 18,000 Arizonans with rooftop solar aren't paying enough to cover the cost of maintaining the grid. Even if a house has a solar system, it still uses the utility's infrastructure. It pulls energy from the grid when the sun is not shining and feeds energy back into the grid when the solar unit is generating more power than the house needs. The utility wants to lower the rate that it pays for solar power produced by these rooftop solar generators, or otherwise recoup the costs. "Our only point is that anybody who uses the grid should pay their fair share of the grid," said APS spokesperson Jim McDonald.

Opponents, however, say reducing the incentives for rooftop solar will make it a less appealing investment. They argue that APS is going after net metering because it is worried that solar might start to cut into its profit margins, as fewer homeowners are buying from the grid and more are selling to it. McDonald said net metering has "zero impact" on the utility's profit margins right now -- but it could down the line. "Eventually would it become a business issue? It probably would," he said.

Enter Goldwater. TUSK's sole concern is protecting net metering, and it has brought together solar industry and other business groups to push back against APS. If APS is successful, said Goldwater, "they may very well kill rooftop solar in Arizona, and that would be a tragedy."

A politician in his own right, Goldwater represented California in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1983. (He still lives in California, though he is active in Arizona-based conservative organizations like the Goldwater Institute, named after his father.) His support for solar, he said, comes from conservative, free-market principles rooted in "creating choices for the American consumer."

"Choice means competition. Competition drives prices down and the quality up," Goldwater told Mother Jones. "The utilities are monopolies. They're not used to competition. That's what rooftop solar represents to them."