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.
A storm lights up central California this summer. El Nino could bring more rain, but probably not enough to end the state's unprecedented drought.
California could be in for a wetter-than-normal winter, thanks to the mysterious meteorological phenomenon known as El Niño. Weather scientists have been watching El Niño get stronger throughout this year and think it could match or surpass the strongest on record, back in 1997. What does this mean for long-suffering California and its interminable drought? Let us explain.
What the heck is El Niño again?
Normally, equatorial winds in the Pacific Ocean blow toward the west and push warm surface water in that direction. El Niño—"the child," named in reference to Jesus by Spanish-speaking fishermen from South America who noticed, starting centuries ago, unusual weather around Christmas-time—happens every few years when those winds die down or diminish, leaving more warm water pooled along the equator off the coast of South America.
That's been happening this year; the longer the wind pattern remains unusual, the more the eastern Pacific warms up. Here's a map of ocean temperature anomalies (that is, variations from the long-term average) from late June. Notice the band of red and white (white is the hottest) in the center of the Pacific and the cooler-than-usual water off Southeast Asia? That's El Niño:
That trend is probably going to continue throughout this year, said Daniel Swain, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University.
"It hasn't peaked yet, and it's already quite strong," he said.
"It hasn't peaked yet, and it's already quite strong."
What happens then? These changes in water temperature cause changes in air temperature, and as a result the whole planet's weather system gets a bit screwy. In some places, the end product is massive downpours—Peru is already anticipating devastating floods—while elsewhere, like India and Australia, El Niño means severe drought.
There are immediate economic impacts, as crops thrive in some places and fail in others. The 1997 El Niño caused a mild winter in the US that saved an estimated 850 lives and produced $19 billion in economic benefits, according to one study. But the same event caused floods that killed hundreds in South America. So whether El Niño is good or bad totally depends on where you live and is a bit of a crapshoot based on how the winds shift over the course of the summer.
Is climate change to blame for this year's El Niño?
There's no evidence of that so far, and in any case scientists are always wary about connecting any one specific event to the long-term trend of global warming. As to whether climate change will worsen El Niño in general, the verdict is still out, said NASA climatologist Bill Patzert.
"Nobody knows," he said. "Some people say more El Niños, some people say less." The main reason for that uncertainty, he said, is that climate models are generally not great at reproducing naturally-occuring, short-lived weather events like El Niño (as opposed to long-term, global patterns like a rise in temperatures, which models are quite reliable for). One recent study projected that while global warming was unlikely to change the overall frequency of El Niños, it could make the strongest ones more common.
On a related note, some climate change deniers like to attribute 20th-century increases in global temperature to El Niño, rather than man-made greenhouse gas emissions. This is bogus.
Will it save California from drought?
Here's the short answer: Probably not.
"You creep into a drought slowly, and you creep out of it. There's no quick fix," Patzert said.
"This is the battle of the 'blob' and the El Niño."
The signs are looking good for California to have a wetter-than-normal winter, as El Niño shifts atmospheric jet streams from the tropics northward, pushing stormy weather from Mexico and Central America onto the US West Coast. But there are a few major caveats:
1. That won't happen until California's normal rainy season, in mid-winter. So even if this El Niño stays strong, it won't bring relief to drought-stricken communities for months to come.
2. There's no guarantee that this El Niño will stay strong. "We're in the waiting and finger-crossing mode," Patzert said. "At this point I'm definitely hedging my bets against the Godzilla El Niño." The equatorial winds could start to shift back to normal at any time, taking with them California's prospects for a wet winter.
3. Whatever changes El Niño brings to California's weather will have to contend with the weird atmospheric stuff that's already at work keeping the drought in place. "This is the battle of the 'blob' and the El Niño," Patzert said. Here's what he means: This year a giant pool of warm water (dubbed "the blob") is parked off the western US coast, which has supported a powerful high-pressure "ridge" in the atmosphere that keeps Pacific storms from moving onshore. The blob is major difference between this El Niño and the last major one:
4. Finally, while a wet winter could bring some short-term relief, even the rainiest scenario won't be enough to totally reverse California's unprecedented, long-term drought just like that. According to NOAA, it would two feet or more of rainfall over the next six months to alleviate California's drought conditions:
But, Patzert said, it will take an even more extended period of high rainfall to fully replenish the state's depleted aquifers and provide relief that's more permanent. At the same time, if winter temperatures remain as high as they were last year, any extra precipitation could fall as rain instead of snow, leaving the state without mountain snowpack to feed streams in the spring. And the kind of torrential rain associated with El Niño can also become deadly in a state where baked soil and higher-than normal wildfire activity are a recipe for disastrous mudslides.
"El Niño has been billed here as the great wet hope," Patzert said. "But that belies the facts. El Niño usually just gives you a lot of flooding and mudslides, not drought relief."
Hillary Clinton took a strong stance on clean energy Monday, telling a crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, that her efforts to tackle climate change would parallel President John F. Kennedy's call to action during the space race in the 1960s.
"I want to get the country back to setting big ambitious goals," Clinton said. "I want us to get back into the future business, and one of the best ways we can do that is to be absolutely ready to address the challenge of climate change and make it work to our advantage economically."
Her remarks tracked closely with an ambitious plan her campaign released Sunday night, which set a target of producing enough renewable energy to power all the nation's homes and businesses by 2027.
"America's ability to lead the world on this issue hinges on our ability to act ourselves," she said. "I refuse to turn my back on what is one of the greatest threats and greatest opportunities America faces."
"I think it's bogus," said Bill McKibben. "The more she tries to duck the question, the more the whole thing smells."
Still, the Democractic front-runner refused—as she has several times before—to say whether or not she supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That project, which would carry crude oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries and ports in the United States, is seen by many environmentalists as a blemish on President Barack Obama's climate record. It has been stalled for years in a lengthy State Department review that began when Clinton was still Secretary of State. The Obama administration has resisted several recent attempts by Congress to force Keystone's approval, but it has yet to make a final decision on the project—although one is expected sometime this year.
"I will refrain from commenting [on Keystone XL], because I had a leading role in getting that process started, and we have to let it run its course," Clinton said, in response to a question from an audience member.
Her non-position on Keystone earned derision from environmentalist Bill McKibben, whose organization 350.org has been at the forefront of opposition to the pipeline.
"I think it's bogus," he said in an email. "Look, the notion that she can't talk about it because the State Dept. is still working on it makes no sense. By that test, she shouldn't be talking about Benghazi or Iran or anything else either. The more she tries to duck the question, the more the whole thing smells."
Clinton also punted on an audience request to reveal further details of how exactly she would finance the renewable energy targets she announced yesterday, which aim even higher than those already put in place by Obama. She reiterated that one key step would be to ensure the extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar energy that have expired or are set to expire over the next few years. And she said that she would continue Obama's practice of pursuing aggressive climate policies from within the White House, saying that "we still have a lot we can do" without waiting for a recalcitrant Congress to act.
Clinton acknowledged that the clean energy boom would come at a cost for the US coal industry, which is already in steep decline. She said she would "guarantee that coal miners and their families get the benefits they've earned," but didn't elaborate on what she meant or how specifically she would achieve that.
Environmental groups offered a generally positive reaction to Clinton's policy announcement Sunday. In a statement, League of Conservation Voters vice president Tiernan Sittenfield commended her for "calling out climate change deniers and effectively illustrating the urgent need to act on a defining issue of our time." She also earned praise from billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has set a high bar on climate action for any candidate who wants to tap his millions.
"I refuse to let those who are deniers to rip away all the progress we've made and leave our country exposed to climate change," Clinton said.
An Iraqi soldier tracks an ISIS sniper near Tikrit in April.
On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley made an astute observation about ISIS in an interview with Bloomberg.
"One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria, the rise of ISIS, was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis [that] created the…conditions of extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL and this extreme violence," said the former Maryland governor.
Republicans were quick to seize on the comment as an indication of O'Malley's weak grasp of foreign policy. Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, said the suggestion of a link between ISIS's rise to power and climate change was "absurd" and a sign that "no one in the Democratic Party has the foreign policy vision to keep America safe."
Here's the thing, though: O'Malley is totally right. As we've reportedheremanytimes, Syria's civil war is the best-understood and least ambiguous example of a case where an impact of climate change—in this case, an unprecedented drought that devastated rural farmers—directly contributed to violent conflict and political upheaval. There is no shortage of high-quality, peer-reviewed research explicating this link. As O'Malley said, the drought made it more difficult for rural families to survive off of farming. So they moved to cities in huge numbers, where they were confronted with urban poverty and an intransigent, autocratic government. Those elements clearly existed regardless of the drought. But the drought was the final straw, the factor that brought all the others to a boiling point.
Does this mean that America's greenhouse gas emissions are solely responsible for ISIS's rise to power? Obviously not. But it does mean that, without accounting for climate change, you have an incomplete picture of the current military situation in the Middle East. And without that understanding, it will be very difficult for a prospective commander-in-chief to predict where terrorist threats might emerge in the future.
The link between climate and security isn't particularly controversial in the defense community. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama called climate change an "urgent and growing threat" to national security. A recent review by the Defense Department concluded that climate change is a "threat multiplier" that exacerbates other precursors to war, while the Center for Naval Analysis found that climate change-induced drought is already leading to conflict across Africa and the Middle East.
In other words, O'Malley's comment is completely on-point. If Priebus and his party are serious about defeating ISIS and preventing future terrorist uprisings, they can't continue to dismiss the role of climate change.
"I happen to believe there is a problem with climate change," he told the Hillin 2012. "I don't want to overreact to it, I can't measure it all, but I respect the creation that the Lord has given us and I want to make sure we protect it." He made a similar statement in the video above, taken at a conference last month, but he added that the environment shouldn't be "worshipped," because that would be "pantheism."
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
Despite his comparatively reasonable views on climate science, Kasich has been pretty noncommittal about actually addressing global warming. And over the last few months, he has stepped up his opposition to President Barack Obama's climate agenda. He's rolled back Ohio's clean energy goals and has joined a legal challenge against the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Gov. Kasich seems less extreme than some other presidential candidates because he couches his views on climate change with uncertainty, rather than disagreement," said Dan Weiss, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters. Still, Weiss said, Kasich's record tells a different story.
It's no surprise that climate change would be on Kasich's radar. His state is a leading producer and user of coal, which is the country's top source of carbon dioxide pollution. Kasich has said he is "not going to apologize" for burning coal. He's also been a proponent of so-called "clean coal" technology, which aims to capture carbon emissions and store or repurpose them. (So far there's only one commercial-scale CCS project in the country, at an astronomically expensive coal plant in Mississippi.) In the video above, Kasich claimed that his state "reduced emissions by 30 percent over the last 10 years." According to federal data, total carbon emissions in Ohio fell only about half that amount between 2002 and 2012. (Rob Nichols, Gov. Kasich's spokesperson, did not return multiple requests for comment about this statement and the governor's overall climate record.)
Either way, Ohio's energy sector is among the nation's dirtiest. It ranks fifth nationwide for total carbon emissions and has one of the nation's highest rates of carbon emissions per unit of energy produced, a measurement that experts refer to as "carbon intensity." That's because of the state's heavy reliance on coal, which provides 63 percent of its electricity (as opposed to just 2 percent from renewables). And Ohio is home to American Electric Power, one of the country's biggest power companies and the number-two producer of electricity-related carbon emissions.
Ohio's energy is among the nation's dirtiest.
The upshot of those statistics is that if the United States is going to "protect" the Earth, as Kasich claims to want to do, Ohio clearly has an important role to play. And yet, Kasich's administration has been a leading opponent of Obama's Clean Power Plan, a slate of regulations for power-related emissions that aims to reduce the nation's carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030 and that forms the backbone of the president's climate agenda. The rules, which set a different targets for each state, treat Ohio relatively lightly—according to a Bloomberg analysis, Ohio would be required to reduce its carbon intensity, but its overall carbon emissions could remain more or less unchanged. Last year, the Ohio EPA called the proposed rules "flawed" and said the federal EPA had "radically underestimated" their cost. Meanwhile, Ohio Attorney General Michael DeWine joined with a dozen other states in asking a federal court to block the EPA from implementing the plan. The court ultimately declined to hear that challenge, as the rules haven't yet been finalized.
Ohio may have a difficult time meeting the EPA target anyway, thanks to a law Kasich signed last year that effectively shelves the state's own clean energy targets. The measure, which was backed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, puts a two-year freeze on requirements for power companies in the state to procure more of their electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar, and to reduce energy demand overall. Clean energy targets like that would have helped the state meet the EPA mandate in a cost-effective manner; without them, the state may have to rely more heavily on curbing its coal use, according to one clean energy industry group in the state.
So while Kasich might seem like a moderate on climate, undermining climate-friendly policies is hardly better than opposing the science outright. The quest for a climate-savvy GOP candidate continues.
Earlier today, Donald Trump tweeted out a campaign poster featuring what appeared to be men in Nazi uniforms, superimposed over the American flag. The tweet was swiftly deleted, but not before the internet went to work tracking down the original image, sourced to the stock photography website iStock.
Mother Jones can now reveal that the image in question was taken at a World War II reenactment near Kent, England, some time within the last five years, according to its photographer, George Cairns. We reached Cairns by Skype at his home in St Albans, a town just north of London, where he was hanging out playing video games when his Twitter feed started to blow up in response to the Trump story.
George Cairns, photographer. Supplied.
Cairns is a British freelance stock photographer and photography instructor who says he frequents war reenactments as good locations to pick up realistic-looking stock images—not just of Nazis, but also of American GIs and other soldiers. Cairns said he didn't know much about Donald Trump beyond the controversy over a golf course the billionaire and GOP presidential contender bought in Scotland last year.
So what does Cairns make of Trump using his image to endorse his candidacy?
"Well luckily, it's not endorsed him in a sense... So that's a good thing," he said. "I'm not a Trump supporter. I can sleep OK tonight."
In an almost impossibly bizarre coincidence, this isn't the first time the Cairns family has been caught up in a photo kerfuffle involving Nazis and American politicians. George's brother John is also a stock photographer, and took the image of Nazi reenactors that was accidentally used in a flier for the campaign of North Carolina state legislator Tim Spear in 2010.
"I have photos of American soldiers as well," Cairns said. "But for some reason, politicians seem to be downloading Nazis."
This isn't the first time the Cairns family has been caught up in a photo kerfuffle involving Nazis and American politicians.
The photo isn't a massive moneymaker for the photographer. "I've sold that image twice this year," Cairns said. Yesterday, Cairns made $8.64 on a sale. Today, $1.71. "I can buy a coffee!" he joked.
In the world of stock photography, you have basically no control over who uses your photos, Cairns said. The best you can do is pick keywords for the images you upload that let people know exactly what they're buying. In this case, Cairns said, Trump's people should have been able to tell what they were looking at.
"I tried to keyword it carefully so people would be aware that it's WWII fascists."