Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
In his final State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama promised to "change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet." A few days later, he followed through on the coal aspect of that pledge, with a plan to overhaul how coal mining leases are awarded on federal land. Now, he seems ready to roll out his plan for oil.
The president's budget proposal for his last year in office, set to be released next week, will contain a provision to place a new tax on oil, White House aides told reporters. According to Politico:
The president will propose more than $300 billion worth of investments over the next decade in mass transit, high-speed rail, self-driving cars, and other transportation approaches designed to reduce carbon emissions and congestion. To pay for it all, Obama will call for a $10 "fee" on every barrel of oil, a surcharge that would be paid by oil companies but would presumably be passed along to consumers…The fee could add as much as 25 cents a gallon to the cost of gasoline.
The proposal stands virtually no chance of being adopted by Congress. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the renowned climate change denier who also chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement, "I'm unsure why the president bothers to continue to send a budget to Congress. His proposals are not serious, and this is another one which is dead on arrival."
Still, the idea may be helped a little by the sustained drop in oil prices, driven by a glut of supply from the Middle East and record production in the United States. Gas is already selling for less than $2 per gallon in all but 11 states, the lowest price point since 2009. Raising that cost would also be a boon for electric vehicle sales, which have stagnated because of low gas prices as sales of gas guzzlers have climbed.
Obama's prospective Democratic successors, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, haven't weighed in on this proposal yet, although they have both been broadly supportive of his climate change agenda. But the proposal could prove to be awkward for Clinton, who has promised not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on the coast outside San Luis Obispo, California
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant sits by the scenic hills overlooking the California coast, a few hours' drive north of Los Angeles. It's the state's only remaining nuclear plant (after the San Onofre plant was closed in 2013), and it's responsible for about one-tenth of the state's electricity, serving more than 3 million homes and businesses.
"Let's decide what we're going to do right now with the largest single source of clean energy in California."
Last week, in an effort to ensure that Diablo Canyon isn't shut down in the near future, this new coalition sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown (D); the CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that owns the plant; and five state regulatory officials. The letter warned that "closing Diablo Canyon would make it far harder to meet the state's climate goals." The 61 signatories include Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, climate scientists James Hansen of Columbia University and Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.
Their concerns center around an upcoming-ish deadline for PG&E to renew the plant's operating license. The current license is good through 2024 for one of the plant's two units and 2025 for the other. If PG&E wants to keep the plant running after that, it will need to seek approval from Brown's administration and possibly from local officials in San Luis Obispo County. In its letter, the group called for a renewed operating license that could keep the plant running into the 2040s.
But the utility is on the fence. "We have not made a decision to move forward with license renewal," a spokesperson said, adding that the company is in the middle of a study on seismic activity in the area. (The plant is near a few major fault lines.) In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tony Earley, the utility's CEO, was more blunt: "We've got a lot on our plates, and we just don't need to take on another big public issue right now." And while 2024 may seem like a long way off, the license renewal process can take a long time, and utility executives have been quietly mulling it since at least 2009.
As the global campaign against climate change has gathered steam in recent years, old controversies surrounding nuclear energy have been re-ignited. For all their supposed faults—radioactive waste, links to the Cold War arms race, the specter of a catastrophic meltdown—nuclear plants have the benefit of producing huge amounts of electricity with zero greenhouse gas emissions. That may not have mattered much to Jackson Browne and his fellow activists in the '80s, but it matters now. A recent analysis by the International Energy Agency found that in order for the world to meet the global warming limit enshrined in the Paris climate agreement in December, nuclear's share of global energy production will need to grow from around 11 percent in 2013 to 16 percent by 2030. (The share from coal, meanwhile, needs to shrink from 41 percent to 19 percent, and wind needs to grow from 3 percent to 11 percent.)
In Paris, Hansen—probably the world's most influential climate scientist since he first warned Congress about global warming back in 1988—gave a talk in which he said nuclear "has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change." It was a point Hansen and some of his allies have made repeatedly over the past year in talks and op-eds. That message has opened a rift in an otherwise cohesive bloc of climate hawks: Those who think a carbon-free energy future is impossible without nuclear are now squaring off against those who think the challenge can be met using only renewables like wind and solar.
"What's powerful about Diablo is the sheer size of it. If you flip it [off], carbon emissions go up so much."
Among the former group is Michael Shellenberger, who until recently was president of the Oakland-based environmental think tank Breakthrough Institute and now runs a new group, Environmental Progress. Shellenberger organized the Diablo Canyon campaign after he realized that the larger debate about nuclear could be crystallized around this one existing plant.
"I'm tired of arguing about the future," he said. "Let's decide what we're going to do right now with the largest single source of clean energy in California."
According to Shellenberger's research, Diablo Canyon currently produces twice as much power as all the state's solar panels (California is the nation's No. 1 solar state). Closing it, he said, would not only shave off one-fifth of the state's zero-carbon energy, but potentially increase the state's emissions by an amount equivalent to putting 2 million cars on the road per year. That's because the power gap left by the plant's closure would likely be filled by new natural gas plants—which is what happened when San Onofre was shuttered.
"What's powerful about Diablo is the sheer size of it," he said. "If you flip it [off], carbon emissions go up so much."
That's an important quandary for Gov. Brown, who has tried to position his state as a national leader on climate policy and clean energy. During his first term as governor in the mid-'70s, Brown opposed the plant. But in 2012 he said he had become more open to nuclear power because "it's good for greenhouse gases." Brown's office declined to comment on Shellenberger's letter.
Gov. Jerry Brown addresses an anti-nuclear rally near the Diablo Canyon power plant in 1979. At the time, he was opposed to nuclear power, but his views may have softened. Brich/AP
The problem, Shellenberger said, is that despite the plethora of solar panels on rooftops and electric vehicles on the roads, "people don't understand how little that stuff is compared to a single nuclear plant." Moreover, he added, a nuclear plant has the benefit of being consistent regardless of whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.
"How are you going to deal with the power coming from fossil fuels?"
Other analysts have reached different conclusions less favorable to nuclear. A 2015 state-commissioned study by the private research firm Energy and Environmental Economics found that the state could meet its 2030 climate goals without nuclear by rapidly growing renewables and by investing in upgrades to energy efficiency and the electric grid.
Mark Jacobson—an engineering professor at Stanford University who has authored several prominent studies on how the United States could run on 100 percent renewable energy—added that he was confident California could meet its clean energy targets without nuclear. "Repairing Diablo Canyon will not only be costly, diverting funds from the development of more clean, renewable energy, but it will also result in down time, resulting in emissions from the background grid, which currently still emits pollution and carbon," he said in an email. ("Background grid" refers to the normal electric grid, which would have to pick up the slack in Diablo Canyon's absence.) According to Jacobs, "a more efficient solution would be to use those funds to grow clean, renewable energy further."
For now, the fate of Diablo Canyon is unclear. But Steven Weissman, an environmental lawyer at the University of California-Berkeley who has watched Diablo Canyon from the beginning, said ultimately the state's biggest problem isn't its small share of power from nuclear—it's the majority share coming from natural gas and coal.
"How are you going to deal with the power coming from fossil fuels?" he said. "If you don't solve that, you won't solve your [climate] goals."
Update, 2/2/2016: Chris Bauch, an editor for PLOS ONE, said in an email that the author of the study we reported on below "should have used a different model for some of the analyses" and that the author "is working on submitting errata." Bauch added, however, that he is "pretty sure the correction will not change the conclusions” and that he does not "foresee a retraction.” We'll update when we know more.
In a new peer-reviewed paper in the journal PLOS ONE, an Oxford physicist devised a mathematical formula for the lifespan of conspiracy theories—that is, how long it would likely take for them to be publicly unveiled if they were in fact true. It's not long: In the case of climate change, it's about 27 years if you assume the cover-up is perpetrated by only published climate scientists—and just four years if you assume it includes the broader scientific community.
The author, David Robert Grimes, found similar maximum life spans for a few other prominent conspiracy theories:
Grimes, PLOS 2016
Let's pick, somewhat arbitrarily, preeminent climatologist James Hansen's 1988 testimony to Congress about global warming as the beginning of the great fraud. According to Grimes' formula, climate change would have been publicly outed as a hoax by 1992 if it were carried out by a broad coalition of scientific organizations. And it would have been exposed by 2015 if it were carried out only by published climate scientists. Unless I missed something, that didn't happen. (Sorry, the "Climategate" emails definitely don't count.)
Here's how long it would take for four big conspiracies to fall apart: (a) moon landing hoax, (b) climate change hoax, (c) vaccination conspiracy, and (d) suppression of a cure for cancer. Grimes, PLOS 2016.
Grimes' model is based on the statistical probability that one person within the conspiracy (one climate scientist, for example) would intentionally or accidentally let slip the truth. The odds of that happening go up as the number of people involved in the conspiracy increase—hence the shorter life span for the climate fraud if it involved broad scientific organizations (whose membership Grimes totals at more than 400,000). To help in that analysis, Grimes studied a few actual conspiracies, including the National Security Agency's widespread spying on US citizens that was exposed by Edward Snowden.
Anyway, climate change is not a hoax. And we did land on the moon. And there isn't a hidden cure for cancer. And you should go get your vaccinations, dammit.
A worker in Brazil disinfects the famous Sambadrome as part of the fight against the mosquito Aedes aegypti, which spreads the Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses.
The outbreak of Zika virus in Latin America is "spreading explosively," the director of the World Health Organization warned at an emergency meeting in Geneva on Thursday. Last week, the epidemic took a surreal turn when health officials in El Salvador advised women there not to get pregnant for the next two years. Similar, though less extreme, warnings have been issued by Brazil, Colombia, and several other countries. The virus has infected more than 1 million people during the current epidemic, and health officials say it may be linked to a spike in microcephaly, a rare condition in which infants are born with unusually small heads.
Behind the outbreak is a complex combination of environmental and economic factors. Here's what you need to know:
What is Zika? Zika was first identified in monkeys in Uganda's Zika Forest in 1947. In the years since, the disease has slowly migrated eastward around the globe, following oceanic trade routes with the help of infected sailors and mosquitoes trapped in the holds of ships. The first serious outbreak occurred in 2007 in Micronesia, where up to 60 people were infected, followed by cases in French Polynesia and on other Pacific islands. The current outbreak, which started late last year in Brazil, is the most serious yet and the first one in the Americas.
Zika is carried by Aedes aegypti, the same species of mosquito that carries dengue fever, yellow fever, and chikungunya. Compared with those other viruses, the symptoms of Zika are very mild, most often resembling a bad cold or the flu. Deaths from the virus are rare. People can contract the virus if they are bitten by a mosquito that has previously drawn blood from another infected person; apart from mother-to-fetus transfer, there's no evidence yet of person-to-person transfer. There is no vaccine or treatment.
Why is Zika a concern for pregnant women? In pregnant women, the virus could be the cause of a rapid uptick in cases of microcephaly, which causes incomplete brain development. In Brazil, cases of microcephaly rose 30-fold between 2014 and 2015, from 147 to nearly 4,000 cases, just as the Zika outbreak was taking place. That apparent correlation led to the precautionary pregnancy advisories, but scientists have yet to definitively confirm their suspicion that Zika is directly to blame for microcephaly.
"It's really quite baffling that we're seeing this microcephaly where we haven't seen it before."
Microcephaly isn't unheard-of; in the United States, it occurs in roughly 2 to 12 babies per 10,000 births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Heidi Brown, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, said the troubling thing in Latin America is the rapid rate of increase in cases.
"It's really quite baffling that we're seeing this microcephaly where we haven't seen it before," Brown said. "If [a pregnant woman] gets Zika, is she likely to have a birth with microcephaly? That seems to be yes, but there could be other factors. Trying to get to that—that it's causal—is a really daunting task. We're still very early on this."
That message was echoed by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, in a blog post Tuesday. Collins noted that US health officials, like their counterparts in Brazil, have confirmed the presence of Zika in tissue samples from some infants born with microcephaly. But he wrote that "it is now critically important to confirm, through careful epidemiological and animal studies, whether or not a causal link exists between Zika virus infections in pregnant women and microcephaly in their newborn babies."
What's the cause of the outbreak? According to Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, the outbreak was triggered by "a perfect storm" of biological, economic, and climatic events. Aedes aegypti,the mosquito that can carry Zika, has been growing in population in Latin America since first being introduced to Brazil via trans-Pacific shipping routes in the late 1980s. Brazil is also now in the middle of a severe economic downturn, while the government is in disarray as President Dilma Rousseff faces calls for impeachment for her involvement in a corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the state oil company. That has left the country with a weakened public health system that is struggling to effectively eradicate dangerous mosquitoes. This week, Brazil's health minister admitted he was "badly losing the battle" against mosquito-borne illnesses.
But the most important factor, Garrett said, is a mosquito population boom triggered by above-average rainfall, a product of this year's exceptionally strong El Niño in the Pacific. Over the last month, flooding in Brazil, Paraguay, and elsewhere has been the worst in half a century, forcing 150,000 people to evacuate their homes. Those conditions are perfect for mosquito breeding.
"One of the hallmarks of these mosquitoes is they like very clean water," Garrett said. "So rainfall is perfect for them. If it creates puddles, or accumulates in tires or any sort of containers, that will be a breeding site."
Combine that with steamy summer temperatures and lots of bare skin, and it's easy for a mosquito-borne disease to spread quickly. Along with the Zika outbreak, Garret said, dengue is also surging.
What about climate change? For environmentalist Bill McKibben, government warnings against getting pregnant were a shocking preview of the climate change dystopia just around the corner.
"Think about that. Women should avoid the most essential and beautiful of human tasks. It is unthinkable," he wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian on Monday. "Obviously we need to face up to the fact that pushing the limits of the planet's ecology has become dangerous in novel ways."
McKibben blames the Zika outbreak on "mosquitoes whose range inexorably expands as the climate warms." But while it's certainly true that global warming could lead to increases in the spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes, in the case of Zika, the mosquitoes in question have been well established in the affected region for nearly two decades.
Moreover, Brown said, increasing global temperatures mean longer breeding seasons for mosquitoes, giving them more time to infect humans. Mosquitoes also mature more quickly in higher temperatures, meaning they can reproduce sooner. And they metabolize faster, meaning they can pass a virus onto a new host more quickly after acquiring it.
"It's a question of probability: What's the probability that I'll be bitten," Brown said. "The more [mosquitoes] that are out there, those probabilities start shifting."
With all that in mind, Brown said, it's hard to draw any sweeping conclusions about the cause of this year's outbreak or make predictions about the future with only one year of data.
"[Zika] will definitely make its way to the United States," Laurie Garrett said.
"It's not just climate or vector control or human travel, but all of these things together," she said. "Maybe we just got unlucky."
The upshot is that it's too soon to point a finger at climate change for this year's outbreak. And the ways in which climate change affects future cases of mosquito-borne diseases will be much more complex than simply where mosquitoes live.
Should Americans be worried? So far, there are no cases in which US mosquitoes have transmitted Zika to people in the country. But there have been at least six recent cases—in Arkansas, New York, Virginia, Hawaii, and California—where residents who recently returned from traveling have tested positive. The CDC has posted travel advisories for more than a dozen countries with cases of Zika.
But the National Institutes of Health blog post warned that when temperatures warm up in the spring, the virus could spread to mosquitoes across the Southeast and Midwest, putting some 200 million Americans at risk.
"It will definitely make its way to the United States," Garrett said.
Paradoxically, "the El Niño that is bolstering mosquitoes under the equator is probably protecting the [US] South now," she said. "But come spring, we could see very serious mosquito problems."
The problem is Cruz's stance on the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that requires fuels made from corn, sugarcane, and other biological sources to be mixed into the nation's gasoline supply. The most prominent of these fuels is ethanol made from corn. Cruz wants to abolish the RFS (along with all government mandates and subsidies for energy, including for fossil fuels and renewables). Last week in New Hampshire he described the RFS as yet another way in which the government is "picking winners and losers."
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
That position sets him apart from the other Iowa front-runners, Republican and Democrat alike. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both expressed support for the RFS. Trump recently said he wants to increase the mandate.
Cruz's opposition to ethanol mandates puts him in a place you'd never expect to find him: on the right side of a debate about climate change.
Cruz's position could be a major liability in Iowa, where the RFS has become one of the most important corn-related federal programs and is a major fixture in the state's politics. Iowa produces by far the most corn-based ethanol and thus arguably benefits more than any other state from the RFS. Last week, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) called for Cruz's defeat in the caucuses, specifically citing Cruz's "anti-renewable fuel stand." (Branstad's son works for the ethanol trade group America's Renewable Future, the organization in the Twitter photo above.) Last week, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R), a longtime proponent of the RFS, said he agreed with Branstad's criticism of Cruz. Of course, Iowa Republicans aren't all single-issue voters, and it remains to be seen how much ethanol will matter to caucus-goers.
Still, Cruz's opposition to ethanol mandates puts him in a place you would never expect to find him: on the right side of a debate about climate change. Throughout the campaign, the Texas senator has been second only to Trump in his outspoken denial of mainstream global warming science. He has repeatedly used his Senate position to espouse blatantly misleading data that purportedly shows global warming stopped two decades ago. In August, he accused climate scientists of "cooking the books" and later told Glenn Beck that at this point climate change activists resemble a "religion."
But on ethanol, Cruz is on the right track.
To understand why, let's back up a bit. At the global climate talks in Paris in December, the United States committed to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. That goal mainly hinges on slashing pollution from coal-fired power plants. But the president's plan also calls for filling the tanks of the nation's cars and trucks with ever more fuel made from plants. The same day the Paris talks got underway, the Obama administration increased the requirements of the RFS. The new rules guarantee a growing market for corn-based ethanol, as well as for cutting-edge biofuels made of everything from grass to algae.