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.
Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and GOP presidential candidate, is really excited about NASA's flight past Pluto today.
"This is a historic milestone in space exploration," he gushed to Politico. To the National Journal, he crowed that it was "NASA doing what it does best, pushing the boundaries of our imagination by traveling to the unknown."
But while Cruz is clearly eager to cheerlead for NASA on the day of this kickass achievement, he's been singing a very different tune over the past few months, as the New Horizons spacecraft has been pushing to the edge of the solar system. Here's a jaw-dropping look at what New Horizons found, in case you haven't seen yet:
Cruz has good reason to be watching the fly-by closely: He's in charge of the Senate's subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, which oversees NASA. His chairmanship has centered on a campaign to correct what he sees as an imbalance in NASA's activity: too much focus on Earth science, and not enough traveling to other planets. The Pluto mission is a perfect example of what he wants to see more of.
But NASA is also one of the main purveyors of the satellite observations of Earth that are a basic necessity for many fields of Earth science. That's the part Cruz doesn't like: He wants to slash the agency's budget for Earth sciences—in particular, for climate change, a subject on which Cruz's theories are, in the words of one scientist, "a load of claptrap."
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
It's not just Cruz. In the House, Republicans are forging ahead with a bill that would gut $90 million from NASA's Earth science budget.
There are a couple major problems with that approach, and they make Cruz's lauding of the Pluto mission distinctly ironic and hypocritical. First, NASA is uniquely equipped among federal agencies to send satellites into space, so it would be hard to transfer its Earth research to some other outfit. (These are the very satellites, by the way, that produce the data Cruz likes to erroneously cite as evidence against global warming.)
But perhaps even more importantly, it's pretty hard for scientists to make sense of what they see on other planets if they don't understand the one we're on.
Cruz's attitude belies a deep misunderstanding of how NASA uses basic science—the very types of research that enabled the New Horizons spacecraft to reach Pluto in the first place—says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"It doesn't make sense to pick out one achievement as if it isn't built on all this other basic research—everything from material science, to Earth science, to developing new instruments," he said. "It's not as if you have a standalone program for space that doesn't depend on a huge number of other fields."
Consider, for example, data about a new planet's atmosphere, gathered by a passing spacecraft. What can scientists compare that to, if they don't understand the Earth's atmosphere, Rosenberg said. "The same goes for water, the motion of continents, and everything else we'd want to know about some far-off planet."
The reverse is also true, said David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist and visiting scholar at the Library of Congress: There's a lot we can learn from other planets about our own. He pointed to the hole in the ozone layer as a classic example: Scientists were first alerted to the possibility that the use of certain chemicals on Earth could erode the ozone by studying the atmosphere of Venus.
"The effort to explore the solar system and the effort to learn what we need to learn to do a better job as stewards of the Earth are really one and the same," he said. "We can't understand other worlds without using experience and techniques we gain from studying Earth, and a lot of discoveries about Earth have come about from exploring other planets."
This coal-fired power plant in Indiana is owned by Duke Energy, which has the biggest carbon footprint of any power company in the country.
Coal-fired power plants are the single biggest driver of global climate change in the United States. That's why President Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency is moving quickly to put the finishing touches on a new set of regulations, called the Clean Power Plan, that aim to reduce the nation's overall carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030 by cracking down on emissions from the energy sector.
Unsurprisingly, many power companies—particularly those that rely on coal as their main source of fuel—are crying foul. Recently, one major coal company and a dozen coal-reliant states tried to block the new rules in federal court. (The court decided last month not to hear the challenge, since the rules haven't yet been finalized.) And this week, executives from two of the country's biggest power companies met with White House officials in an attempt to persuade them that the crackdown would be "too much too soon."
The power companies protesting President Obama's climate plan also produce the most carbon pollution.
As it turns out, those same two companies—Duke Energy and American Electric Power—emit more carbon pollution than any other power producers in the country. That's according to a new report released from a coalition of environmental groups and power companies, which draws on public data from the EPA and the Energy Information Administration to reveal the carbon footprints of the 100 biggest power producers in the nation. Many of the names in the database, like AEP or California's Pacific Gas & Electric, might be familiar from your monthly bill, depending on where you live. The list does leave out some big utilities, like New York's Con Ed, that primarily distribute power they purchase wholesale from someone else. That said, the database offers a pretty comprehensive snapshot of the companies most responsible for producing climate-changing emissions in the US.
The chart below shows the top 10 climate offenders from the database, according to two different metrics, and where each company ranks nationwide in terms of total power production. The first chart shows total carbon dioxide emissions in 2013. Unsurprisingly, that list is comprised mostly of the country's biggest power companies, such as Duke, Southern, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. These companies produce a huge amount of power, and much of it comes from coal. Duke, for example, gets about 45 percent of its power from coal; for AEP, it's about 60 percent.
The second chart shows the companies that are the most carbon-intense—that is, the companies that emit the most carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated. Many of these are small, regional producers that rely almost exclusively on coal. While these companies generate relatively little power overall, what they do generate is exceptionally dirty, climate-wise. Big Rivers Electric, for example, provides power for a patch of western Kentucky with four coal-fired plants, the newest of which came online in 1986. Big Rivers declined to comment for this story. But a spokesperson for Great River Energy pointed out that the dataset may not fully represent a company's portfolio, because it accounts only for power plants that the companies own and not for contracts with third-party wind and solar farms.
Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk
Take another look at the top chart. You might have noticed that while many of the country's largest power producers appear on the list of major carbon polluters, a few big names are absent. That's important, and it illustrates the huge climate benefit of using low-carbon fuels. In some cases, these companies have avoided significant carbon emissions because their energy generation portfolio is made up mostly of nuclear (which practically zero-carbon) and/or natural gas-fired plants (which release relatively little CO2). For example, the nation's number-two power producer is Exelon, which gets 59 percent of its power from nuclear. The number-four producer, NextEra, gets 52 percent of its power from natural gas, 27 percent from nuclear, and 16 percent from wind. In other words, the carbon footprint ranking is essentially a proxy for which power companies are most reliant on coal.
There's some good news in the data, as well. In the last few years, nationwide coal use has dropped precipitously. That's mostly a product of market forces, rather than environmental regulation: Natural gas, made cheaper by the fracking boom, has displaced coal in power plants across the country. At the same time, renewable energy sources have boomed.
The report illustrates the huge climate benefit of power companies switching from coal to cleaner fuels.
"What you see in this report is a significant shift to cleaner fuels," said Derek Furstenwerth, a contributor to the report and the director of environmental services at Calpine, one of the country's biggest power companies. Like NextEra, Calpine gets the bulk of its power from natural gas. Calpine has also emerged as a major proponent of Obama's climate plan.
The shift away from coal has had a significant impact on emissions: Since 2008, carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector have dropped 12 percent. Other types of air emissions reported in the database are also way down, driven by regulations from the EPA that took effect prior to the Obama years. Emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide (both of which cause acid rain and other nasty environmental impacts) are down 74 percent and 80 percent, respectively, since 1990. The trends in those emissions offer a bit of a crystal ball into what will happen when the federal limits on carbon dioxide emissions kick in, said Dan Bakal, a contributor to the report and director of the electric power program at Ceres, a group that tracks environmental issues in the private sector.
"At the time, industry really thought [reducing NOx and SO2 emissions] was not going to be achievable and that it would be much more costly," he said. "But they stepped up to the challenge and found ways to reduce emissions very cost-effectively. The same thing will happen with CO2."
Just because carbon emissions are already on the decline, doesn't mean Obama's rules are unnecessary. The change isn't happening fast enough to avert dangerous climate change, Bakal said. But the current trend does show that cleaning up the power sector is possible.
Complying with the Clean Power Plan "will be a bit of a stretch for the industry, which is appropriate for a regulation intended to put us on an improving path," Furstenwerth said. "But we believe that it's definitely achievable."
The chart above has been revised for greater clarity.
Listen to the sound in that video. If I had to guess what it meant, soliciting sex would probably be pretty far down my list. It strikes me more as the sound a Chicago Bears fan might make after swilling a pitcher of Bud Light.
But new research has revealed for the first time that this mysterious bellowing is most likely the male koalas' mating call.
Weekends are always better when they start with koalas.
Despite their popularity, relatively little is known about koalas' social interactions, since they tend to be solitary and thus difficult to study. To overcome that challenge, researchers at Australia's University of Queensland fitted 21 koalas on St. Bees Island with GPS tracking collars during the summertime mating season.
Over two months, the GPS devices recorded how often koalas came into contact with one another. The scientists found that while male-female interactions increased during mating season, male-male encounters remained rare, suggesting that the male koalas had a way of avoiding each other while attracting females.
Bees are having a really hard time right now. For about a decade, they've been dying off at an unprecedented rate—up to 30 percent per year, with a total loss of domesticated honeybee hives in the United States worth an estimated $2 billion.
At first, no one knew why. But as my colleague Tom Philpott has reported extensively, in the last few years scientists have accumulated a compelling pile of evidence pointing to a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. These chemicals are widely used in commercial agriculture but can have lethal effects on bees. Other pesticides are also adding to the toll. So are invasive parasites and a general decline in the quality of bees' diets.
Clearly, that combination of factors poses a pretty serious problem for anyone who likes to eat, since bees—both the domesticated kind and their wild bumblebee cousins, both of which are in decline—are the main pollinators of many major fruit and nut crops. The problem is so severe that this spring President Barack Obama unveiled the first-ever national strategy for improving the health of bees and other key pollinators.
Bees "are in serious and immediate risk from human-caused climate change."
Now, it appears that lurking in the background behind the ag-industry-related problems is an even more insidious threat: climate change. According to new research published in the journal Science, dozens of bumblebee species began losing habitat as early as the 1970s—well before neonicotinoids were as widespread as they are today. Since then, largely as a result of global warming, bees have lost nearly 200 miles off the southern end of their historic wild range in both the US and in Europe, a trend that is continuing at a rate of about five miles every year.
As temperatures increase (the US is about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer today, on average, than in 1900), many plant and animal species in the Northern Hemisphere are shifting their range north. But by analyzing a vast archive of bee distribution records reaching back more than a century, ecologists at the University of Ottawa showed that bees are not joining that trend. Instead of shifting north like many other species, the bees' range is only compressing in from the south, leaving less and less available habitat. That finding is illustrated in the chart below (and explained in more detail in the video at the bottom of this post, produced by Science).
Kerr et al, Science 2015
In a call with reporters, lead scientist Jeremy Kerr stressed that although pesticide use is a critical cause of bee mortality at local levels, it doesn't explain the continent-wide habitat shrinkage that stands out in the bee data. But temperature trends do.
"They are in serious and immediate risk from human-caused climate change," Kerr said. "The impacts are large and they are underway."
The question of why bees aren't pushing northward is a bit trickier, and it isn't resolved in this paper. But Kerr said he suspects the answer could be the relatively long time it takes for bees to reach a critical mass of population that can be sustained in new places.
President Barack Obama speaks after touring a solar facility in Nevada in 2012.
Rooftop solar power systems cost a lot less these days than they did five or 10 years ago, and with many solar companies now offering leases and loans, it's safe to say that going solar is more affordable than even before. That trend goes a long way to explaining why solar, while still making up less than 1 percent of the total US energy mix, is the fastest-growing power source in the country.
But access to solar power is still overwhelmingly skewed toward affluent households. Of the roughly 645,000 homes and business with rooftop solar panels in the US, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000, according to a report earlier this year from the George Washington University Solar Institute. The typical solar home is 34 percent larger than the typical non-solar home, according to energy software provider Opower.
President Barack Obama wants to change that. On Monday the White House announced a package of initiatives to make solar more accessible for low-income households. The plans include a new solar target for federally subsidized housing and an effort to increase the availability of federally insured loans for solar systems.
Of the country's 645,000 solar homes and businesses, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000.
Low-income households face a number of barriers to going solar. They're less likely to own their own roof, less able to access loans or other financing options for solar, and more likely to have subsidized utility bills that don't transfer the financial benefits of solar to the homeowner. And yet, in many ways low-income households stand to benefit the most from producing their own energy: The proportion of their income spent on energy is about four times greater than the national median, according to federal statistics. And because lower-income households tend to use less electricity overall than higher-income households, a typical solar setup covers more of their demand. The GW study found that a 4 kilowatt solar system, about the average size for a house, would cover more than half of a typical low-income household's energy needs and that if all low-income households went solar, they would collectively save up to $23.3 billion each year.
"[This is] aimed at taking directly on those challenges and making it easier and straightforward to deploy low-cost solar energy in every community in the country," senior White House climate advisor Brian Deesetold reporters in a call yesterday.
The initiative starts by tripling the target for solar on federally subsidized housing to 300 megawatts by 2020, as well as directing the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide technical guidance for state and local housing authorities on how to go solar. The White House also announced more than $520 million in commitments from private companies, investors, NGOs, and state and local governments to pay for energy efficiency and solar projects for low-income households. The initiative places particular emphasis on so-called "community" solar, in which groups of households pool resources to build and maintain a shared solar system in their neighborhood.
Some states and power companies are already angling to support solar for low-income housing. Arizona Public Service, a Phoenix-area utility, recently launched a $28.5 million program to install its own solar panels on rooftops in its service area, specifically targeting low-income households. And New York's electricity regulators recently bolstered incentives for power companies that invest in energy efficiency and renewables. Con Ed, the power company serving most of New York City, plans to spend $250 million on such upgrades in Brooklyn and Queens, as an alternative to a $1 billion upgrade to the old natural gas-fired electric grid.
The president's plan builds on a commitment he announced earlier this year to train 75,000 workers for the solar industry (which is already adding jobs 10 times faster than the overall economy). It also dovetails neatly with Obama's larger climate objectives, especially his hotly-contested plan to reduce the nation's energy-related carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, as well as the economy-wide climate targets that form the US bargaining chip for this year's UN climate negotiations in Paris.
For all those promises to work, "the question is how states and utilities can reduce their emissions, and the buildings that they serve are a critical part of that system," said Natural Resources Defense Council financial policy analyst Philip Henderson. "Making those buildings more efficient and using less energy from dirty power plants is a direct and essential way to meet those goals."