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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Climate change means more blizzards but less snow, which confuses people apparently

Watching the news last night, Diane Sawyer leaned into the camera with a what'll-they-think-of-next expression on her face to introduce a story straight out of Ripley's: Climate change may mean less snowfall but more blizzards. [record scratch sound effect] Say whaaaaat? ran the story with the headline, "Less snow, more blizzards makes sense to scientists." Outlets that ran the Associated Press' story used, "Climate contradiction: Less snow, more blizzards." Now I'm not the smartest person in the world, I'll grant you that, but I find it hard to believe that adult human beings who understand English and have experienced weather are having trouble with this concept.

A blizzard in Manhattan, if that makes sense
A blizzard in Manhattan, if that makes sense.

The AP explains the idea:

A warmer atmosphere can hold, and dump, more moisture, snow experts say. And two soon-to-be-published studies demonstrate how there can be more giant blizzards yet less snow overall each year. Projections are that that's likely to continue with manmade global warming. …

Ten climate scientists say the idea of less snow and more blizzards makes sense: A warmer world is likely to decrease the overall amount of snow falling each year and shrink the snow season. But when it is cold enough for a snowstorm to hit, the slightly warmer air is often carrying more moisture, producing potentially historic blizzards.

"Strong snowstorms thrive on the ragged edge of temperature -- warm enough for the air to hold lots of moisture, meaning lots of precipitation, but just cold enough for it to fall as snow," said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. "Increasingly, it seems that we're on that ragged edge."


Anti-climate House Science committee now worried about the critical threat of asteroids

At some point, as has happened in the past, a huge asteroid will be headed for Earth, threatening the planet with indescribable damage. That point could come within days or it could take centuries. And Hollywood theorizing aside, it's not clear what we might do about it.

Rep. Smith owns at this game
Rep. Smith owns at this game.

Last week's meteor over Russia and the larger asteroid later that day spurred the normally laconic House Science committee to action. Newly elected committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) suggested that the event was "a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science." From a committee statement:

[Smith said:] "Developing technology and research that enable us to track objects like Asteroid 2012 DA14 is critical to our future. We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid headed toward Earth." …

The Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing in the coming weeks to examine ways to better identify and address asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth.

It probably goes without saying that this is the same "science" committee that has excelled at downplaying and ignoring the science of another, less science-fictiony threat: climate change.


Tens of thousands march on White House in rally for climate action

Organizers called it the largest climate rally in U.S. history, and it was. Depending on who you ask, there were 30,000, 40,000, even 50,000 people in Washington, D.C., Sunday to lobby for political action on climate change. Depending on who you ask, the tone was joyous or righteous. And depending on who you ask, those 30,000, 40,000, even 50,000 people were giving President Obama an angry demand, a stern but friendly prodding, or the "support he needs" to take action.

13-02-17350climate, the Sierra Club, the Hip Hop Caucus, and a comprehensive list of basically anyone in the U.S. who cares about climate change joined with politicians, investors, indigenous peoples, and an assortment of celebrities (can't have a climate rally without some celebs!) to rally and lead a march on the White House Sunday afternoon, calling for an end to politics and policies that are cooking our planet to death. For all the serious stuff, it was also a party -- chants for justice were mixed in with mini dance parties to pop music. But for all the Gangnam Style, there was an overwhelming sense that, while this rally was a glorious show, it was also indicative of just how bad things have gotten.

"We have a very entrenched system that's going to really require us to work together for a vision of people, peace, and the planet," the Green Party's Jill Stein said in an interview. "We are here for the long haul."

From fracking and coal to factory farming, activists called for an end to all the little things that are adding up to climate meltdown. But mainly today we were here because of the Keystone XL pipeline -- the long-embattled project to pump vast quantities of tar-sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, halted a year ago by President Obama and up for a final decision this spring.


The GOP’s three-step plan for being loved

Congressional Republicans, like middle-school English teachers, are mad that people don't think they're cool. In quiet moments in institutional restrooms, they look into mirrors for a bit longer than normal, hands under the faucet, leaning in. "What is it?" they wonder, eyes scanning their faces. That's when someone else walks in. "Hey." "Oh, hey," the Republicans reply, eyes dropping, hands washing each other vigorously.

Like many of those unsteady educators, the GOP has decided to do something about its popularity problem. Middle-school teachers buy sports cars and new jeans. Republicans try to develop new messaging. Politico outlines the GOP's three new rules. Let us assess them.

Rule one: Stop talking like the world is going to end. Budgetary politics is important to the GOP, but voters are going to stop voting for a party that talks about gloom and doom around the clock.

“I think that we need to make being fiscally conservative cool,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairwoman of the Administration Committee and a close ally of Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Yes. Stop talking like the world is going to end! You know how the Republicans are always like, "Oh, man, this climate change thing could really be apocalyptic and we're not doing anything about it," etc., etc. Stop doing that, Republicans!

And Rep. Miller has a great idea. A great idea. Make fiscal conservatism cool! Why didn't you guys think of that before? I mean, I know that in 2005, someone presented Cheney with "Operation: Shades" which would have put that plan into motion and he didn't jump on it, but why didn't you do it once he and the other guy got out of office? Honestly, if you started now, you could have fiscal conservatism lookin' cool by April. It's like Hawaiian shirt day at Initech. Mix it up, and you'll get the kids' respect.

The new-look GOP
The new-look GOP.


With pipelines at a premium, fossil-fuel companies get creative


This is interesting: Pipeline company Enbridge wants to turn a natural-gas pipeline in the Midwest into a crude-oil pipeline. From The Globe and Mail:

The latest proposal would redeploy a variety of existing pipelines, including part of Energy Transfer’s Trunkline natural gas system, as well as Enbridge’s new Southern Access Extension, which is under development. …

The proposal is one of several initiatives being considered to move more crude from the U.S. Midwest and Canadian Prairies to refineries along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Canadian crude is currently being sold at a bigger discount than usual because of a lack of pipeline capacity and growing supplies from North Dakota and other states that are expanding output using advanced drilling methods.

That "lack of pipeline capacity" from the north will also be discussed this Sunday in Washington.


Meet Bob Perciasepe, acting EPA administrator

I'm sorry, who? I mean, nice to meet you, Bob! Welcome aboard, I guess.

As fans of the "United States Government" may know, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson recently resigned her position. The president has not yet identified a pick to succeed her -- though there is some speculation that he might select Gina McCarthy, the agency's assistant administrator for air. And even once selected, that pick would have to be confirmed by the Senate. And so: Bob Perciasepe. (His last name is pronounced per-spih-CAY-shus, probably.)

EPA headquarters, which Bob now runs for a while. (There are no pictures of him online.)
EPA headquarters, which Bob now runs for a while. (There are no pictures of Bob online.)

Because I am a journalist, I Googled Mr. P. He has a Wikipedia page! He grew up in Westchester County, near New York City, went to school at Syracuse and Cornell, and served as Baltimore's city planner. Eventually, he became deputy secretary of Maryland's Department of the Environment, and then the state's secretary of the environment. In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed him to the EPA's office dealing with water. In 2009, Obama made him deputy administrator of the EPA.


Another sign of the apocalypse: Coal is making a comeback in the U.S.

If there were a war on coal -- which, sadly, there isn't -- it appears that the tide of battle has turned. Coal is making a comeback.

In an extensive article entitled "Coal Claws Back," the Rhodium Group, a think tank that assesses global trends, outlined the fuel's resurgence in the U.S. In short:

While the decline in coal-fired power generation, driven in large part by cheap natural gas, has helped reduce emissions to levels most policymakers and climate diplomats thought impossible absent economy-wide legislation, it looks as though it has just about run its course. Natural gas prices bottomed out in April of last year at $1.82 per MMBTU at Henry Hub, and have since climbed to above $3. While still low relative to the high gas prices that had become the norm before the shale boom took hold, this rebound has been enough to stop the bleeding for coal-fired power. Coal’s share of electricity generation increased from 33% in April to 42% in November, the most recent month for which public data is available, and industry consultancy GenScape estimates that coal’s share stabilized at these levels through January.

The picture is more clear in graph form.


Obama confirms: No big moves on climate in the works

President Barack Obama
The White House

Based on conversations with senior White House officials this week, we reported that the president's State of the Union threat to act unilaterally on climate change didn't appear to have any force behind it. The largest weapon Obama has to that effect is the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants -- something that officials suggested isn't in the works.

Yesterday, Politico asked the president directly what he's planning to do about climate change:

Obama said in his State of the Union address that he is prepared to take action if Congress doesn't act, but he didn't detail what that action might look like. He hinted during the chat Thursday that it could resemble what his administration did to require higher fuel efficiency standards in automobiles.

"The same steps that we took with respect to energy efficiency on cars, we can take on buildings, we can take on appliances, we can make sure that new power plants that are being built are more efficient than the old ones, and we can continue to put research and our support behind clean energy that is going to continue to help us transition away from dirtier fuels," he said.

As we noted on Wednesday, the administration's action to increase fuel-efficiency standards for cars was a good one that will have a significant effect on greenhouse-gas and particulate pollution. But it is also a very different political fight than the one over emissions from existing power plants, and far less important.


Ohio fracking company owner faces federal charges for dumping wastewater

Things just got a little worse for the owner of the Ohio fracking company whose employees were caught dumping fracking wastewater into the sewer system last month. Yesterday afternoon, the U.S. attorney for Ohio's northern district announced federal charges against him.

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the criminal charges against Ben Lupo, 62, of Poland, Ohio, at an afternoon news conference on the banks of the Mahoning River.

If convicted, Lupo faces up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

ohio fracking protest

Lupo, who co-owns D&L Energy, was directly implicated in the dumping.

The charges state that Lupo ordered Hardrock employees on at least six occasions to pump polluted waste into a storm drain, which led to the tributary and emptied into the Mahoning River about a mile away. The waste consisted primarily of salt-water brine, but also contained crude oil and benzene, Dettelbach said.

Two employees told investigators that Lupo actually ordered them to dump the polluted waste at least 20 times since November, and directed them to lie to investigators about the number of times they dumped the waste, according to documents related to the charges.

Lupo specified that the dumping should only occur at night and after all of the other employees had left the facility, according to an agent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who conducted the interviews.

As the article notes, Ohio is sensitive about the quality of its waterways.


Tesla offers incomplete, misdirected response to New York Times critique

Here's the latest installment in the great war between Tesla Motors and The New York Times, launched after a Times reporter chronicled a troubled test drive of Tesla's all-electric sedan. For background, see here; for additional commentary, just turn on your computer. There have been dozens of posts on the subject, from the Times' public editor, GigaOm, Gawker, MIT Technology Review, Jalopnik. But the place to start is where our previous piece left off: with a post on the Tesla blog responding to the Times' claims, written by chair Elon Musk.

You may have heard recently about an article written by John Broder from The New York Times that makes numerous claims about the performance of the Model S. We are upset by this article because it does not factually represent Tesla technology, which is designed and tested to operate well in both hot and cold climates. …

When Tesla first approached The New York Times about doing this story, it was supposed to be focused on future advancements in our Supercharger technology. There was no need to write a story about existing Superchargers on the East Coast, as that had already been done by Consumer Reports with no problems! We assumed that the reporter would be fair and impartial, as has been our experience with The New York Times, an organization that prides itself on journalistic integrity. As a result, we did not think to read his past articles and were unaware of his outright disdain for electric cars. We were played for a fool and as a result, let down the cause of electric vehicles. For that, I am deeply sorry.

It is not clear for whom Musk feels sorry, but it is quite clear whose feelings have been hurt: his own. It's clear in the emotion behind his post, emotion that he bolsters with nine bullet-pointed counterarguments, five graphs of data from the car, two Google maps, and one annotated graphic from the Times article.

The Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S, in a sunnier climate.