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Cloud shortage will push temperatures higher as climate warms

not many clouds
Shutterstock

Climate scientists have looked to the heavens for help with their latest decades-long weather forecast. Their conclusion? "Oh, my god."

Science has long struggled to forecast how global temperatures will be affected by a doubling of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere compared with pre-industrial times, which looks likely to occur this century. Recent consensus suggests that temperatures will rise by between 1.5 and 5 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 5.4 F). With a rise in CO2 levels to 400 parts per million, up from 280 in the 19th century, the world has warmed by nearly 1 C so far.

By modeling how clouds will be affected by the rising temperatures, a team of Australian and French scientists reported Wednesday in Nature that they expect the temperature rise to be "more than 3 degrees" -- at the upper end of the projected range.

"4C would likely be catastrophic rather than simply dangerous," the report's lead author, Australian climate scientist Steven Sherwood, told the Guardian. "For example, it would make life difficult, if not impossible, in much of the tropics, and would guarantee the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and some of the Antarctic ice sheet."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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In the hot house: Prison staff held liable for extreme heat in Louisiana cell block

prison cell
Shutterstock

When we talk about the people who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, we rarely, if ever, mention those in prison. For example, last year, we found out that prisoners in New York’s Rikers Island jail were not included in evacuation plans when Superstorm Sandy hit. They were held in their cells throughout its duration, though thankfully unharmed.

It’s going to become more difficult to disregard captive populations, however, in a future that’s virtually certain to include more extremely hot days -- especially if more courts hand down rulings like the one, just before Christmas, that found the staff of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola liable for neglecting three death row inmates who complained about the unbearable summer heat. Federal judge Brian A. Jackson ruled that the inmates were subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment" when prison guards refused to cool their cell blocks down from temperatures indexed as high as 195 degrees.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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For the birds (and the bats): 8 ways wind power companies are trying to prevent deadly collisions

birds and turbines
Pembina Institute

Hundreds of thousands of birds and bats are killed by wind turbines in the U.S. each year, including some protected species such as the golden eagle and the Indiana bat. That's only a small fraction of the hundreds of millions killed by buildings, pesticides, fossil-fuel power plants, and other human causes, but it's still worrying -- especially as wind power is experiencing record growth.

Both the wind industry and the federal government have been under intense public scrutiny over the issue in recent weeks. In late November, the Obama administration fined Duke Energy Renewables $1 million for illegally killing birds, the first time a wind company has been prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Then, just two weeks later, the administration announced a controversial new rule that will allow energy companies to get 30-year permits for non-intentional eagle deaths at wind farms. The feds emphasize that the new rule requires additional conservation measures, but it still angered many conservationists.

The pressure is now on for wind energy companies to reduce bird and bat mortality. Lindsay North, outreach manager for the American Wind Energy Association, which lobbies for the industry, says wind developers are committed to “doing our best to try to have the lowest impact on birds.”

The industry is collaborating with wildlife researchers on promising technologies and approaches that are already being field-tested, and on some experimental and even far-fetched ideas that could help reduce mortality in the long term.

“I am very optimistic we can make significant progress,” said biologist Taber Allison, director of research at the American Wind Wildlife Institute, a nonprofit partnership of wind companies, scientists, and environmental organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.

Here are eight things the industry is trying or considering in an effort to reduce bird and bat mortality.

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Why Michigan’s Republican governor supports clean energy — or does he?

Rick Snyder
Michigan Municipal League

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is not what you would call a progressive, on the environment or any other issue. A venture capitalist elected in 2010 as a Republican, Snyder opposes abortion rights and has cut business taxes and government spending. Upon taking office, he directed state agencies to loosen rules for approving new coal-burning plants and reversed their previous rejection of two proposed coal plants.

In 2012, Michigan environmentalists pushed a constitutional amendment onto the ballot that would have strengthened the state's renewable energy portfolio standard, requiring 25 percent clean energy by 2025. Snyder opposed it, and it failed.

But this past month, something remarkable happened. Snyder gave a speech announcing a commitment to weaning Michigan off coal power and replacing it with renewables, and reducing demand through energy efficiency. Snyder called on the legislature to pass a bill by 2015 setting a higher renewable portfolio standard, although he did not specify a target. He also emphasized his desire to transition away from coal, saying, “There is an opportunity to really reduce the amount of coal we use in terms of energy generated in Michigan. I’m very excited to see that percentage go down very significantly over this next 10-year horizon because coal is not a preferred fuel for a variety of reasons.”

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Bill Nye wants to wage war on anti-science politics and save the planet from asteroids

Bill-Nye_globe
BillNye.com

William Sanford Nye (his friends call him “Bill”) made his first mark on history while sitting in a college classroom in 1976.

It was just another day at Cornell University for Nye as an energetic, Ultimate Frisbee-playing undergraduate student. He was chatting with fellow students when in walked their professor -- the legendary astronomer and author Carl Sagan — with an unexpected request. Sagan asked the class which Chuck Berry song should be included on the Voyager Golden Record, the collection of songs and images placed aboard the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. (If extraterrestrial life forms ever encounter the Voyager spacecraft, the Record is intended to reflect the culture and diversity of Planet Earth.) Sagan was chairing the committee responsible for selecting the music for NASA, and he told his class that he thought Berry's 1956 hit "Roll Over Beethoven" was the song the aliens should hear. This was when Nye and his classmates led a much-needed revolt.

"We all said, 'No, professor!'" Nye recalls. "'It has to be 'Johnny B. Goode! That's the definitive Chuck Berry song!' ... Berry was the guy who took blues and turned it into rock n' roll, after all. So we thought we needed to send a message on that spacecraft."

Sagan took his students' advice, and to this day, "Johnny B. Goode" is aboard the Voyager spacecraft, alongside the work of Bach and gospel blues artist Blind Willie Johnson.

Sagan left an indelible mark on Nye, but his his love for science and engineering was inspired much earlier.

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At least there’s one positive thing happening because of climate change

Farming in the Indus Valley, Ladakh.
Nilanjan Sasmal

The dangers of climate change are particularly acute in the Himalayan foothills. Glaciers in the region act like water tanks that slowly release flow into rivers used by more than a billion people downstream; as glaciers recede, that flow is in jeopardy. Receding glaciers are also leaving giant pools of water in their wake and those pools are prone to burst and flood downhill villages. 

But it's not all for the worse up there.

The high-altitude Indian region of Ladakh, a chunk of the state of Kashmir that is home to many refugees from neighboring Tibet, is experiencing an agricultural boom as warmer weather sweeps up the mountainsides. From Al Jazeera:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Mangroves are marching northward

mangroves
b-cline
Watch out, they're coming for you!

A botanical sea change is underway along the Floridian coastline, where new research suggests that global warming is helping mangroves stretch their strange tentacle-like roots northward.

Mangrove forests -- coastal trees and shrubs that live semi-submerged lifestyles -- are among the world's most productive and valuable ecosystems, home to many fish and other wildlife in tropical climates. But experts worry that their northerly march will come at the expense of other habitats.

Mangroves cannot survive if nighttime temperatures get too cold. The decline in frosty nights of less than 25 degrees appears to be helping them displace cold-tolerating marshy grasslands.

Scientists analyzed nearly 30 years of satellite data and concluded that the density of mangroves has doubled in some parts of Florida's northeast corner.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Portland made it through 2013 with zero bike fatalities

Cargo bike
Jeff Youngstrom

Biking in a city, with big hunks of car and truck zooming by, can be frightening. But it shouldn't be. And it doesn't need to be. As Bike Portland reports, in the whole of 2013, in one of the most biking-est cities in the country, nobody died in a bike accident.

Bike Portland:

There were several serious collisions, covered here on the site, including one major hit-and-run that remains unsolved. But the number-one reason Portland is the country's best big city for biking is that this is, compared to any other large U.S. city and lots of the smaller ones, an extremely safe place to ride a bicycle.

This isn't a new feat for Portland: the city also avoided any bike-related fatalities in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2010.

This is one of those virtuous cycles.

Read more: Cities, Living

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The Canadian government doesn’t want you to get the mistaken impression that it takes climate change seriously

2010 protest
Paul McKinnon / Shutterstock

"The government of Canada takes climate change seriously, and recognizes the scientific findings that conclude that human activities are mostly responsible for this change."

Canada's environment minister came close to uttering that fairly ho-hum sentence in September -- part of the government's brief public response to the latest alarming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But, in the end, the sentence was never said.

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This plastic is made out of carbon sucked from the air

screenshot-newlight copy
Screenshot via Newlight

Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel make a product that seems almost magic: They pull carbon out to the air and they make it into plastic. They call it AirCarbon, but they might as well call it AbraCadabra.

Actually, it's not magic -- it's just economical. Scientists have known for a while that this process is possible; it's just not cheap. But Herrema and Kimmel developed a catalyst that’s 10 times more efficient than other possibilities, USA Today reports. Which means their process makes financial as well as scientific sense.

Does it also make climate sense? An independent analysis found that the process of making Air Carbon does capture more carbon than it emits. But, USA Today says, it's not all that much carbon:

[Physicist William] Dowd, who is not a Newlight investor, says AirCarbon closely resembles polypropylene and could be a cheaper alternative. He doubts it will do much to reduce global warming, citing the enormity of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants alone.

Read more: Living