Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

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.

Get my RSS |

China's Climate Plan Isn't Crazy and Might Actually Work

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 3:30 PM EDT

Today Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama are planning to jointly announce long-awaited details of China's plan to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution. The plan, which will commence in 2017, will make China the world's biggest market for carbon cap-and-trade, a system that sets a cap on the amount of CO2 that major polluters like power plants and factories can emit, then allows those entities to sell off excess credits (if they pollute less than the limit) or buy extra ones (if they pollute more than the limit).

The idea of a system like this is that it uses the market—rather than simply a government mandate—to force cuts in the emissions that cause climate change. Want to pollute? Fine, but it's going to cost you. If you clean up, you can make cash selling credits to your dirtier neighbors. A similar type of policy, a carbon tax, imposes a different kind of financial incentive in the form of a fee paid to the government for every unit of CO2 emissions. Ultimately, the rationale behind both systems is the same: Because corporate polluters now have to pay a financial price price for their emissions, air pollution and fossil fuel consumption both go down, clean energy goes up, and the climate is saved.

Many environmental economists agree that some kind of carbon price—either cap-and-trade or a tax—is the most efficient and effective way to quickly curb fossil fuel consumption, and thus give us a chance at staving off global warming. Democrats in Congress attempted to enact a national cap-and-trade program in the US in 2009; it passed the House but was killed by the Senate Republicans. Since then, a national carbon pricing system has been a non-starter in Washington. But there are plenty of other examples of successful systems elsewhere that should make us optimistic about China's new plan.

The Northeast United States: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a cap-and-trade market that includes nine states in the Northeast, set up in 2008. The program is widely considered a success and is expected to reduce the region's power-sector emissions by 45 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2020. This year, the price of credits has been riding high, a sign that the market is working to create a powerful incentive to reduce emissions. The most recent auction of credits, in September, generated in $152.7 million for the states—revenue that is re-invested in clean energy programs and electric bill assistance for low-income households.

California: When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed through legislation in 2006 to set aggressive climate targets for the state, the key mechanism was a cap-and-trade program, which finally opened in 2013. So far, it seems to be working. Emissions are down, while GDP is up. In fact, the California program was a primary model for the Chinese system.

British Columbia: This Canadian province's carbon tax, first enacted in 2008, is one of the most successful carbon pricing plans anywhere. Gasoline consumption is way down, and the government has raised billions that it has returned to citizens in the form of tax cuts for low-income households and small businesses. The program "made climate action real to people," one Canadian environmentalist told my former colleague Chris Mooney.

Australia: For a country that is notoriously reliant on coal, Australia had been on the progressive side of climate politics after it passed a national carbon tax in 2012. The tax was scrapped just two years later, after then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott blamed it for a sluggish economic recovery and high energy prices. But the repeal actually yielded an unexpected insight into the success of the program: In the first quarter without the tax, emissions jumped for the first time since prior to the global financial crisis. In other words, the tax had worked effectively to drive down emissions.

Europe: Of course, carbon pricing systems aren't without their flaws, and the European Trading Scheme has provided a good example of the risks. The system has often been plagued by a too-high cap, meaning the market becomes flooded with credits, the price drops, and polluters have little incentive to change. This month, regulators passed a package of reforms meant to restrict the number of credits and bolster the market. But even with the low price, the ETS has been effective enough to keep the EU on track to meet its stated climate goals.   

Even with these good examples to draw from, there are still challenges ahead for China. How will the government allocate credits among different polluters? Will the polluters actually trade with one another? How effectively will the government be able to monitor emissions, to ensure that the credits actually match real pollution?

But at the very least, Republicans in the US just lost one their favorite excuses for climate inaction: That China, the world's biggest emitter, is doing nothing.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Feds Have a Secret Plan to Stop the Next Car Pollution Scandal

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 11:46 AM EDT
A VW plant in Germany.

Days after Volkswagen admitted that half a million cars it sold in the United States contained software enabling them to evade clean air laws, top Environmental Protection Agency officials say they are planning to toughen emissions testing for all automakers. The EPA now plans to examine vehicles for so-called defeat devices.

In a letter released this morning, the EPA said federal regulations allow the agency to "test or require testing on any vehicle at a designated location, using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat device." The EPA said it planned to begin conducting these additional procedures when vehicles undergo emissions and fuel economy testing, and it warned that the new procedures "may add time to the confirmatory test process and…additional mileage may be accumulated."

"We are stepping up our testing," Janet McCabe, the EPA's acting assistant administrator, told reporters. "We take seriously our responsibility to oversee the enforcement of clean air regulations. The VW violations have made it clear that we need to adapt our oversight."

"The VW violations have made it clear that we need to adapt our oversight."

Last Friday, the EPA issued a citation to Volkswagen for equipping nearly 500,000 diesel-powered cars sold since 2009 with software that can detect when the car is undergoing federal testing for smog-forming emissions. During the test, the cars meet the standard; under normal driving conditions, emissions are up to 40 times higher. Similar devices were installed on some 11 million VW cars worldwide, producing illegal air pollution that may contribute to thousands of deaths. The resulting scandal devastated VW's share value and forced the ouster of its CEO.

The EPA is currently investigating the full extent of the illegal software program and could ultimately deliver up to $18 billion in fines. Today's announcement doesn't affect that investigation. Officials said no recall has been announced and that if one is eventually called for, VW drivers will hear about it directly from the company.

EPA chief Gina McCarthy said the agency is concerned that other automakers could have similar devices that have gone undetected. Even if they don't, VW is responsible for a new raft of regulatory headaches for all companies that want to sell cars in the United States.

Chris Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation, wouldn't say exactly how his agency would sniff out defeat devices. But it would add additional time and rigor to the testing process, he said.

"We're not going to tell them what the test is," he said. "They don't need to know."

Did Pope Francis Soften His Climate Message for Congress?

| Thu Sep. 24, 2015 10:42 AM EDT

In the run-up to Pope Francis' address to Congress today, there was a lot of speculation about how his climate change message would play in a chamber where action on climate often goes to die. Most of the pontiff's positions on global warming are not popular with Republican members of Congress—especially the fact that it exists, and that humans are causing it.

We got a bit of a preview during the pope's speech yesterday at the White House, where he laid out his typically forceful message on the need to fight global warming. He even favorably mentioned President Barack Obama's new restrictions on power plant emissions:

Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. (Applause.) Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation. (Applause.) When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. (Applause.)

But a draft of the pope's speech to Congress this morning lays out a considerably softer message on climate. He cites his landmark encyclical on climate, Laudato Si, but he doesn't use the phrase "climate change" at all:

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. "Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good" (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to "enter into dialogue with all people about our common home" (ibid., 3). "We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all" (ibid., 14).

In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to "redirect our steps" (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a "culture of care" (ibid., 231) and "an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature" (ibid., 139). "We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology" (ibid., 112); "to devise intelligent ways of... developing and limiting our power" (ibid., 78); and to put technology "at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral" (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America's outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

The message today is much softer, much less direct. Perhaps Pope Francis didn't want to tread too heavily on the message in a room that wouldn't be receptive to it.

Watch This Boston Bro Totally Lose His Shit Over a Weird Fish

| Wed Sep. 23, 2015 12:11 PM EDT

This is what happens when a guy from Malden, Mass., sees a weird-looking fish in Boston Harbor, and decides to record his reaction, bro.

"I don't know, man. I went nuts. We didn't know what the hell it was," Michael Bergin told the Boston Globe. "It was scaring me to death, it was like a dinosaur. It was so ... ugly."

H/t to Business Insider's Facebook page (features some NSFW salty Boston language):


Today was a great way to end summer thank u

Posted by Michael Bergin on Thursday, September 17, 2015

By the way, it's an ocean sunfish, which, to be fair, looks pretty damn weird:

Wikimedia Commons

It's a strong contender for the new Double Rainbow:

Happy Wednesday.

Fri Mar. 6, 2015 1:47 PM EST
Mon Feb. 9, 2015 3:36 PM EST
Thu Jan. 29, 2015 5:10 PM EST
Tue Jan. 27, 2015 5:44 PM EST
Wed Dec. 17, 2014 2:01 PM EST
Thu Nov. 20, 2014 1:29 PM EST
Wed Nov. 19, 2014 1:59 PM EST
Wed Nov. 5, 2014 3:43 PM EST
Thu Oct. 30, 2014 2:11 PM EDT
Fri Oct. 17, 2014 11:47 AM EDT
Mon Oct. 13, 2014 1:45 PM EDT
Fri May. 9, 2014 7:07 PM EDT