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A bigger, badder climate ‘hockey stick’

hockey stick
Shutterstock

Back in 1999, Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann released the climate change movement’s most potent symbol: The “hockey stick,” a line graph of global temperature over the last 1,500 years that shows an unmistakable, massive uptick in the 20th century when humans began to dump large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It’s among the most compelling bits of proof out there that human beings are behind global warming, and as such has become a target on Mann’s back for climate denialists looking to draw a bead on scientists.

Average global temperature over the last ~2,000 years. Note the massive uptick on the far right side.
Science / AAAS
Average global temperature over the last ~2,000 years. Note the massive uptick on the far right side.

Today, it’s getting a makeover: A study published in Science reconstructs global temperatures further back than ever before -- a full 11,300 years. The new analysis finds that the only problem with Mann’s hockey stick was that its handle was about 9,000 years too short. The rate of warming over the last 100 years hasn't been seen for as far back as the advent of agriculture.

Marcott’s team used ocean records to reconstruct global climate further back in time than ever before.
Science / AAAS
Marcott’s team used ocean records to reconstruct global climate further back in time than ever before.

To be clear, the study finds that temperatures in about a fifth of this historical period were higher than they are today. But the key, said lead author Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University, is that temperatures are shooting through the roof faster than we've ever seen.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Can this contraption make fracking greener?

picarro-CD-master
Picarro

Although natural gas production emits less CO2 than other fossil fuels, it still spits plenty of junk into the atmosphere. But backers of a new gadget released Monday say they've hit on a way to help frackers clean up their act.

Boosters of natural gas often flaunt the stuff as a “clean” fossil fuel, because when it burns -- in a power plant, say -- it releases far less carbon dioxide than coal or oil. But with the growth of fracking nationwide, some academics and environmentalists have flagged a silent problem that threatens to undermine the purported climate gains of natural gas: “fugitive” methane emissions.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, even more so than CO2 over the short-term. And natural gas production creates a lot of it: The EPA predicts that methane from the natural gas industry will be one of the top sources of non-CO2 emissions in coming decades. A 2011 federal study [PDF] found that taken all around, the total greenhouse footprint for shale gas could be up to twice that of coal over a 20-year period. The catch is that it doesn't have to be so bad. Much of that methane is leaking out (hence “fugitive”) unnecessarily from gas wells, pipelines, and storage facilities -- so much so that the Environmental Defense Fund calls methane leakage from natural gas operations “the single largest U.S. source of short-term climate-forcing gases."

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How climate change worsened violence in Syria

Syrian rebels rally in Aleppo last November.
Pau Rigol / ZUMA
Syrian rebels rally in Aleppo last November.

In October 2010, just months before a Tunisian street vendor self-immolated and sparked what would become the Arab Spring, a prolonged drought was turning Syria’s verdant farmland into dust. By last month, more than 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, had been killed in the brutal and ongoing conflict between President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime and a coalition of opposition forces; just today, the U.N. announced that over 1 million refugees fled the country in the last two years. International security experts are now looking at the connection between recent droughts in the Middle East and the protests, revolutions, and deaths that followed, and building a body of evidence to suggest that climate change played a key role in Syria’s violence and the Arab Spring generally.

The possibility that climate change could affect security is nothing new: The U.S. Department of Defense has proven to be surprisingly progressive on planning for global warming. But Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia, co-founders of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security, argue that if you want to see the connection between climate and conflict in action today, look no further than Syria. The pair contributed to a series of essays [PDF] released last week by the Center for American Progress, all arguing that the Arab Spring is a textbook example of the link between climate change and social instability. Climate Desk called them up to discuss how lack of rainfall leads into violent uprising, and how the international community can prepare for the future of extreme weather.

Q. How does climate change play into civil unrest? Where does it rank compared to other violence-causing factors?

A. Caitlin Werrell: We use the term “threat multiplier” or “accelerant of instability,” in the sense that climate change can exacerbate other threats to national or international security. The way it does that is often through water: You have an increased prevalence of drought or floods or changing rainfall patterns, and what this does is it changes your ability to grow food, it has impacts on food security, it influences your ability to produce energy, it influences your infrastructure.

Francesco Femia: We wouldn't actually rank climate change amongst other factors; we would say that climate change is one of those almost special factors that exacerbates other drivers of unrest and/or conflict. It just makes other drivers of unrest worse.

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Top four reasons the U.S. still doesn’t have a single offshore wind turbine

An offshore wind facility in the U.K.
pjh
An offshore wind facility in the U.K.

Despite massive growth of the offshore wind industry in Europe, a blossoming array of land-based wind turbines stateside, and plenty of wind to spare, the U.S. has yet to sink even one turbine in the ocean. Not exactly the kind of leadership on renewables President Obama called for in his recent State of the Union address.

Light is just beginning to flicker at the end of the tunnel: On Tuesday, outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a gathering of offshore industry leaders he was optimistic the long-embattled Cape Wind project would break ground before year’s end. And in early January, industry advocates managed to convince Congress to extend a critical tax incentive for another year.

But America’s small yet dedicated entrepreneurial corps of offshore developers are still chasing “wet steel,” as they call it, while their European and Asian colleagues forge ahead on making offshore wind a basic component of their energy plans. So what’s the holdup? Here’s a look at the top reasons that offshore wind remains elusive in the U.S.:

1. Begging bucks from Uncle Sam: The industry breathed a sigh of relief this year when Congress re-upped the Production Tax Credit, which recoups wind developers 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of power they produce, and the Incentive Tax Credit, which pays back 30 percent of a wind project’s construction costs. It might sound like chump change, but the PTC alone amounts to $1 billion a year, and industry advocates insist that wind would hit the doldrums without these subsidies. Still, they hardly put wind on a level playing field with the lavishly subsidized (and lushly lobbied) fossil fuel industry.

That’s especially a problem for offshore wind, says Thierry Aelens, an executive with German developer RWE. Higher construction and transmission costs make electricity from offshore over twice the price of onshore in the U.S., he says, a tough pill for state regulators and utility operators to swallow, especially given the low cost of natural gas made possible by fracking. Today renewables startups rely heavily on private investment to get off the ground, but the industry needs better financial backing from the feds to help it compete with fossil fuels, Aelens says. “Germany is a fully subsidized system. Which technology gets supported is fully in the hands of the government.”

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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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After Nebraska setback, greens regroup on Keystone XL

keystone-walking-protest-6701
Duffernutter

Environmentalists waging an ongoing fight against the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt a major setback this week when Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman signed off on the pipe’s route through his state. Now all that stands between TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, and broken ground is a signature from the State Department, the final decision about which is expected this spring.

Between now and then, the sprawling unofficial coalition of green individuals and groups that have bonded in the last two years over opposition to the pipeline is gearing up for a final push. It’s certain to be an uphill battle: Yesterday, a letter signed by 53 senators put renewed pressure on Obama to say yes, and other than the rare rhetorical nod to climate action there are few clues that he'll nix the project. So the rhetoric of the next couple months could make or break the pipeline.

Opposition to the Keystone XL has tended to coalesce around two different arguments, the tools in the anti-Keystone toolbelt: The first is that the pipe could deal a deadly blow to the global climate by raising the floodgates for oil from Canada’s tar sands, believed by scientists to be one of Earth’s dirtiest fuel sources; the second is that the pipe could pose a slew of localized threats on its path from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, from potential leaks contaminating groundwater to careless work crews plowing through fragile dinosaur fossil beds. Gov. Heineman’s decision seems to close the book on the state-level fight and steal some thunder from the localized argument, but leading Nebraska activist Jane Kleeb says local landowners aren’t ready to cede their home turf quite yet.

“Oh yeah, it’s far from over. We have landowners asking us to train them in civil disobedience,” Kleeb said. “These folks are not joking around. They homesteaded this land. They don’t trust this company. And they don’t want [the pipeline]. So they’re going to do everything they can to keep it from crossing their lines.”

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Big Coal to meet its fate in tiny Northwest town

The Columbia River meets the sea near the site of the proposed terminal.
Brett VandenHeuvel
The Columbia River meets the sea near the site of the proposed terminal.

Last week, Beijing saw its infamous smog thicken to unprecedented levels, driven largely by emissions from coal-fired power plants across China. In recent years, coal from U.S. mines has stoked more and more of these plants, in effect off-shoring the health impacts of burning coal. This year, much of the U.S. coal industry's focus will be on pushing an unfolding campaign that seeks to dramatically ramp up the amount of coal we ship overseas.

Morrow County, Ore., is a quintessentially green pocket of the Pacific Northwest. It's capped by the Columbia River, which winds past the hipsters in Portland en route to the sea, often carrying schools of the salmon that have long been an economic staple for locals. But Morrow County could soon become a backdrop for the transformation of the U.S. coal industry, if a planned loading zone for massive shipments of coal -- harvested in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, and packed into Asia-bound cargo ships -- gets final approval.

Right now, local, state, and federal lawmakers are hammering out the details in what is unfolding as one of the biggest climate fights of 2013.

coal-exports-to-asia-chart-climate-desk
Tim McDonnell
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In Detroit, automakers gear up to meet new fuel-efficiency standards

Alan Baum has to shout into the phone for me to hear him over the cacophony of the Detroit Auto Show, which opened Monday. Around him, thousands of journalists swarm from one new car to the next, lights flash, DJs spin, and the cream of the world’s automotive crop glistens. “A lot of show and not a lot of substance,” Baum, an industry analyst, jokes.

Just to look around at the “performance” cars on display here, from hulking pickups to lightning-fast sports cars, you might not be able to tell that this is the first major car show in Detroit since the introduction last fall of President Obama’s new fuel-efficiency standards, which will require all cars and light-duty trucks to operate at 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly doubling current requirements, a move the administration predicts will save Americans nearly $2 trillion at the pump. The cars below are a few being featured this week in Detroit that are already taking steps in that direction.

The 2014 Corvette Stingray.
General Motors
2014 Corvette Stingray.

Let’s be honest: No one is buying one of these for the great gas mileage. It’s more like the car you fantasize about from the age of 14 and take a soul-sucking job on Wall Street just to afford. But the simple fact that the Stingray, one of the gas-guzzling belles of the Detroit ball, takes even one step in a green direction is a sign of how deep the efficiency paradigm has penetrated the auto industry, says Don Anair, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ironically, high-tech fuel-management equipment in the engine actually adds weight to a car that has traditionally tried to shave pounds wherever possible for the sake of speed.

While it’s true that the Detroit show has its of share super-green cars (like the futuristic Tesla Model X and a marked-down version of the classic Nissan Leaf), Baum says the real progress is on prioritizing fuel efficiency on updates to familiar models that used to be all about style or power. Fuel-efficiency standards and record-high gas prices be damned; in Detroit the floor is still packed with muscle-bound models, but a recent analysis by Baum’s firm found that from 2009 to 2013, the number of popular vehicles with improved fuel efficiency more than doubled, from 28 to 61, of which only a third are tiny subcompacts.

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Coral fights back against warming seas

 Different colonies of Acropora hyacinthus, one species examined by the Stanford team, showed different levels of heat tolerance depending on which pool they were in.
Dan Barshis
Different colonies of Acropora hyacinthus, one species examined by the Stanford team, showed different levels of heat tolerance depending on which pool they were in.

In the world of coral reefs, most of the news is pretty gloomy. Rising ocean temperatures have led to massive die-offs from Indonesia to Florida; emissions-driven acidity could dissolve corals’ structure-building ability in 20 years; rising sea levels threaten to block sunlight even from healthy reefs; and in November, NOAA called on Congress to afford endangered species status to over 60 species. A blunt, unsparing editorial in The New York Times this summer slathered on the melodrama: Coral reefs are being pushed “into oblivion … there is no hope.”

Coral are not exactly the most dynamic animals in the ocean: They take decades to grow and are then rooted at the mercy of their environment, so they don’t inspire much confidence when it comes to adapting to climate change. But a study out Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from a group of Stanford geneticists suggests that coral might have more of a fighting spirit than we gave them credit for.

In 2000, ecologist Dan Barshis was with a research group in American Samoa, wading through tide pools, when he noticed that coral in some pools seemed healthy, despite being bathed in water much warmer than corals can normally survive, and despite the fact that individuals of the very same species were on their deathbeds in pools just down the beach. Corals get stressed when water temperatures rise, especially when it happens quickly; under enough stress, they’ll boot out the symbiotic algae that photosynthesize sunlight for the coral’s food and give the coral its signature color palette, leaving the coral pale -- hence the term “bleaching” -- and starving.

But the coral Barshis saw looked inexplicably happy, and over the next several years he found that the reason why is all about training. Barshis compared the genes of the heat-resistant corals and their more fragile brethren under a range of water temperatures. He found that, in both groups, heat changed the way hundreds of genes were expressed. But in the heat-resistant group, 60 of these genes were flipped on all the time, and helping to crank out heat-resilient proteins and antioxidants. Using records of the pools’ temperatures, Barshis found that the strongest corals came from pools that were consistently but briefly exposed to high temperatures during low tides over time. He thinks the repeated exposure helped condition the corals to build up their tolerance, like an athlete building endurance through weight training, only on the level of DNA.

“It kinda comes down to what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he says.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Drought, floods, and one giant storm: The year in climate insanity [VIDEO]

2012, the hottest year on record in the U.S., has been a wild year for Climate Desk. We’ve scoped out coal-guzzling data centers; traipsed across New York City’s solar-paneled rooftops; stepped through the ashes of Colorado’s record-breaking wildfire season; mingled with drought-striken cattle; been awed by the North Dakota fracking boom; cruised down the shrinking Mississippi River; strained to hear through the climate silence; seen communities pick through debris left by Superstorm Sandy, and more.

Along the way, we’ve depended on you to share stories and insights about this warming world, what we see as the most important issue of our time. A big thank you to all our readers, and we can’t wait to give you a front-row seat to whatever 2013 has in store. To be continued …

Read more: Climate & Energy