Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Updated 1/28/14, 10:30 pm ET: Reminding lawmakers that the debate over climate science is "settled," President Obama used his State of the Union address tonight to reiterate his administration's commitment to adopting stringent new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and tougher fuel efficiency rules for heavy trucks.
But Obama also doubled down on his controversial "all-of-the-above" energy strategy. He touted the role that natural gas extraction has played in reducing US carbon emissions while also saying he would work with the fracking industry to adopt stronger environmental protections.
But even with an obstinate and unproductive Congress, these aren't the only policy options available to the president; last week, the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University released a report co-authored by former Colorado governor Bill Ritter that details 200 climate actions Obama could take without Congress.
Earlier today, we outlined a few ideas:
1.Continue the crackdown on coal pollution: This month the Environmental Protection Agency released a new draft of rules that would strictly curtail emissions of carbon dioxide from new coal-fired power plants; a second set of rules that would apply to existing plants is expected later this year. Slashing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, which account for roughly a third of country's total GHG emissions, is a major pillar of the president's climate platform, even though a lengthy review process and probable legal challenges from the coal industry mean the rules aren't likely to take effect before the end of his term. But in the absence of a national price on carbon or other legislation, regulations like this are the most significant way the president can promote a transition away from our dirtiest power sources.
2.Fix fracking: Today, regulations for natural gas drilling companies are mainly applied by states, but the president has an opportunity to influence the industry's practices when it shows up to drill on federal land. The Colorado State report calls on the Bureau of Land Management to apply stringent rules for fracking on public land, like full disclosure of what's in the fracking chemical cocktail, zero tolerance for methane leaks from wells and pipes (a major, unregulated source of highly potent greenhouse gases), and more efficienct water-use practices. The president also needs to set a more concrete timeline for how long fracking, often described as a "bridge" fuel between coal and renewables, will continue to be a major source of domestic energy, said Bill Becker, the report's co-author and executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.
"We recognize that natural gas is a logical transition fuel," Becker added. "But we think that should be happening a lot faster than it's happening now."
Somehow, Becker said, the president needs to reconcile his "all of the above" energy plan with his stated goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; working with the fracking industry to cut methane leaks is a great place to start.
A black bear hunkers down near a pile of garbage in Sacramento last fall.
Last week, a rogue black bear made a cameo appearance for skiers at the Heavenly Mountain Resort near Lake Tahoe. The month before, a 260-pound male bear had to be put down by wildlife officials after breaking into several cars and a home in the same area. The spate of run-ins comes as California's brutal drought lingers on, with snowpack in the Sierra Nevada at a fifth of its normal level, leadingseveralnewsoutlets to suggest that balmy conditions have led bears here to awaken prematurely from their annual winter slumber.
That's a nice hypothesis, but according to the California Department Fish and Wildlife, there's nothing to it. Five to 15 percent of the Tahoe area's 300 black bears stay awake every winter, said CDFW biologist Jason Holley, and "we don't have any evidence to support that there's any more this winter." In fact, Holley said, the last few months of 2013 saw fewer bear complaints than average.
The front page of a recent San Francisco Chronicle. There's no evidence that more bears are awake this year than in an average year, officials said. Clara Jeffery/Mother Jones
So why all the hullabaloo? Holley's guess is that the drought cut down supplies of the bears' natural food sources—mainly grass, berries, and insects, although they'll eat just about anything—forcing those that are normally awake anyway to wander further afield, i.e., onto your ski slope or into your backyard. Not that the bears mind much.
"They are very adaptive and very mobile, so they will usually be able to take care of their daily needs in a drought situation," Holley said. "But then they're coming down to the lake to drink a lot, coming down for food. If the drought persists, it greatly increases the odds of a negative interaction with people."
What motivates some bears to stay awake while others hibernate is still somewhat of a mystery to scientists, according to Roger Baldwin, a wildlife specialist at the University of California-Davis who has conducted extensive research on bear behavior. When small mammals (a squirrel, say) hibernate, their heart rate and body temperature drop radically, toeing death's doorstep without actually stepping over, and stay that way for several months. Black bears, on the other hand, are much less extreme: They crank down their metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature just enough to get seriously lazy, but are still with it enough to be "perfectly capable of taking a swipe at you if you crawl into the den with them," Baldwin said, so rousting them is neither uncommon nor difficult.
In December 2012, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., dismissed a suit by the company behind a proposed new coal plant in Texas that sought to block new carbon dioxide pollution limits on power plants proposed by the EPA. The court's reasoning was that any appeal would have to wait until after the rules were finalized, not simply proposed. So last week, after the EPA published an updated version of the proposal, Clean Air Task Force legal director Ann Weeks said she doubted a new round of lawsuits would be in the offing.
"Just goes to show I should never try to predict whether or not suits will be filed," Weeks said in an email.
The suit revolves around carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which scrubs pollutants from power plant emissions. Because of the tight limits on carbon pollution called for in the proposed rule, using CCS would become the only way to build any new coal-fired power plants, a restriction coal advocates have said will effectively kill the industry. The EPA, meanwhile, contends that CCS is viable and affordable.
The Nebraska suit cites a 2005 law that made funding available to study CCS at three new high-tech power plants—currently under construction in Mississippi, Texas, and California—that together have received $2.5 billion in federal grants and tax credits. The suit asks the district court to declare that the proposed rule is "in excess of statutory...authority" and require the EPA to withdraw it; under the law, the suit contends, the EPA is prohibited from using technology developed with this funding as the sole basis for a Clean Air Act regulation like the one proposed last week.
A statement from Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, a Republican, makes it clear that protecting the interests of the state's coal industry is as much a priority as adherence to the 2005 statute. "The impossible standards imposed by the EPA will ensure no new power plants are built in Nebraska," the statement says.
One of the hard truths about climate change solutions—whether they're solar panels, protective seawalls, or carbon-sucking golf balls—is that somebody has to pay for them. This week the UN's climate chief, Christiana Figueres, told Climate Desk that global investment in clean energy technologies needs to reach $1 trillion per year by 2030 (a little less than the GDP of South Korea), roughly tripling where we're at now, to keep global warming within the limit agreed on by international climate negotiators.
So when more than 500 investors who hold the strings on the world's biggest purses—the heads of investment banks, insurance companies, pension funds, international development banks—descended on the UN headquaters in New York yesterday for a high-powered summit hosted by the sustainable business* nonprofit Ceres, you'd hope they would be ponying up for climate solutions.
There's just one problem: Investment is on the decline for the second year in a row, according to new statistics released yesterday by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In 2013, investors worldwide put $254 billion into clean energy technology, 20 percent below 2011's record high.
"The figures this year are not great," BNEF CEO Michael Liebreich told the group, which together represent roughly $20 trillion in assets. "But we are by no means in as bad a place as we could be."
"There are serious consequences to getting this wrong." -Anne Simpson
That might sound like damning with faint praise, but in fact analysts here insisted the numbers mask a more optimistic story of growing concern about climate change on Wall Street. One important factor behind the investment decline, Liebreich said, is the falling cost of renewable energy installations, meaning investors get more bang for fewer bucks. Just in the last 18 months, the cost of a typical solar panel system dropped 45 percent; from 2012 through 2013, the total number of installed systems worldwide grew 20 percent.
In other words, the volume of renewables on the grid is growing even though less is being spent on them. And overall, a range of green money analysts at the conference insisted that Google's $3.2 billion purchase this week of energy efficiency startup Nest is just the latest sign that mainstream investors are beginning to see moneymaking opportunities in climate protection.
Climate scientists are fond of global models that try to answer how much the whole planet is going to warm up in a given time period. That's all well and good, but it doesn't do much for a mayor or city planner trying to prepare for the future in her own city. But a new map from the US Geological Survey (screenshot below) combines a group of the top climate models and matches them with high-resolution NASA climate data to project exactly how much hotter your county will be by the end of the century.
The map shows how temperature and precipitation will change based on your selection of a timescale (in a few years, a few decades, or by century's end) and a future emissions scenario (higher or lower emissions). You can see averages for the whole country, individual states (minus Alaska and Hawaii... sorry y'all), and individual counties. My home of Pima County, Arizona, for example, will see a rise of 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit in maximum temperature but no change in precipitation in the longest-term, high emissions projection. The map shows some of the biggest changes are in store for the upper Midwest. Northern Minnesota's Kittson County, for example, is in for a 10.6 degree F rise under this same scenario. (Because the map was made by scientists, all the temperatures are in Celsius; if you want to convert to Fahrenheit, remember that change in temperature uses a different equation than simply converting between units. There's a good calculator here).
Temperatures like that won't just make you sweatier: Climate policymakers at the UN have long agreed on 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) as the maximum threshold for avoiding the worst global impacts of climate change, including droughts and extreme storms. Steve Hosteler, the USGS scientist who designed the map, says that local officials could use the statistics to plan for future electricity use (hotter days means more A/C) and water drainage infrastructure (if more rain is the forecast).
While working to compile climate data on the US, he said, "it became pretty apparent that there was a need to take this data out of the modeling realm and make it useful for other people."