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.

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Obama Is Ordering the Federal Government to Slash Its Greenhouse Emissions

| Thu Mar. 19, 2015 11:19 AM EDT

President Barack Obama will once again use his executive authority to mandate action on climate change, the White House announced this morning. Later today, Obama plans to sign an executive order directing the federal government to reduce its carbon footprint by 40 percent below 2008 levels within a decade. The White House announcement also includes carbon-reduction commitments from a number of large government contractors, including GE and IBM.

From the Associated Press:

All told, the government pollution cuts along with industry contributions will have the effect of keeping 26 million metric tons of greenhouse gases out of the air by 2025, or the equivalent of what about 5.5 million cars would pump out through their tailpipes in an average year, the White House said. Yet it was unclear exactly how either the government or private companies planned to meet those targets.

In other words, it will take until 2025 to for the cuts to reach 26 million metric tons per year. And even that is a pretty small fraction of the nation's total carbon footprint, which was nearly 7 billion metric tons in 2013. But the announcement garnered praise from environmental groups as a sign of Obama's leadership on climate. In a statement, Natural Resources Defense Council president Rhea Suh called the announcement "a powerful reminder of how much progress we can make simply through energy efficiency and greater reliance on clean, renewable sources of energy."

The executive order will be the latest step the president has taken to confront climate change that won't require him to push legislation through a recalcitrant, GOP-controlled Congress. In the last couple years his administration has imposed tight limits on vehicle emissions and has put forward a flagship set of new rules under the Clean Air Act to slash carbon pollution from power plants. Obama also negotiated a bilateral deal with China that featured a suite of new climate promises from both countries. And sometime this spring, the president will announce what kind of commitments his administration will bring to the table for a high-stakes round of UN-led negotiations that are meant to produce a new international climate accord.

According to the White House, today's executive order directs federal agencies to:

  • Procure a quarter of their total energy from clean sources by 2025;
  • Cut energy use in federal buildings 2.5 percent per year over the next decade;
  • Purchase more plug-in hybrid vehicles for federal fleets and reduce per-mile greenhouse gas emissions overall by 30 percent by 2025;
  • Reduce water use in federal buildings 2 percent per year through 2025.

Scientists: Ted Cruz's Climate Theories Are a "Load of Claptrap"

| Wed Mar. 18, 2015 5:00 PM EDT

Last night, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a probable candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, shared his thoughts about climate change with late-night host Seth Meyers (video above). Here's what he said:

CRUZ: I just came back from New Hampshire where there's snow and ice everywhere. And my view actually is simple. Debates on this should follow science and should follow data. And many of the alarmists on global warming, they've got a problem because the science doesn't back them up. And in particular, satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years there's been zero warming, none whatsoever. It's why, you remember how it used to be called global warming, and then magically the theory changed to climate change?

MEYERS: Sure.

CRUZ: The reason is it wasn't warming. But the computer models still say it is, except the satellites show it's not.

We totally agree with his point that debates about climate "should follow science and should follow data." Right on! But according to Kevin Trenberth, a leading climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, everything else in Cruz's quote is "a load of claptrap…absolute bunk."

Trenberth wasn't alone in his criticism. Several prominent climate scientists contacted by Climate Desk dismissed Cruz's analysis. "It is disturbing that some of our most prominent elected officials have decided to engage in distortions of and cynical attacks against the science," said Michael Mann of Penn State.

"Lawmakers have a responsibility to understand the science, and not to embrace ignorance with open arms, as Senator Cruz is doing here," added Ben Santer, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

So what's wrong with what Cruz said? For starters, the satellite record does, in fact, show warming. Here's a view of temperature anomalies (that is, the deviation from the long-term average) reported by Remote Sensing Systems, a NASA-backed private satellite lab. It shows warming of about 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1980, the beginning of the satellite record:

Remote Sensing Systems

Even still, there are a couple important caveats with satellite temperature data that Cruz would do well to make note of. One, Santer said, is that it has a "huge" degree of uncertainty (compared to land-based thermometers), so it should be approached with caution. That's because satellites don't make direct measurements of temperature but instead pick up microwaves from oxygen molecules in the atmosphere that vary with temperature. Fluctuations in a satellite's orbit and altitude and calibrations to its microwave-sensing equipment can all drastically affect its temperature readings. 

More importantly, satellites measure temperatures in the atmosphere, high above the surface. The chart above shows the lower troposphere, about six miles above the surface. This data is an important piece of the climate and weather system, but it's only one piece. There are plenty of other signs that are far less equivocal, and perhaps even more relevant to those of us who live on the Earth's surface: Land and ocean surface temperatures are increasing, sea ice is declining, glaciers are shrinking, oceans are rising, the list goes on. In other words, the satellites-vs-computers dichotomy described by Cruz ignores most of the full picture.

For example, here's the most recent land and ocean-surface temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing how temperatures this winter deviated from the long-term average (dating all the way back to 1880). Much of the globe is warmer than average, some parts are the hottest on record, and the overall global temperature was the warmest on record:

NOAA

There's also a big underlying flaw with Cruz's cherry-picked timespan of 17 years, which almost any climate scientist would agree is far too short to observe any meaningful trend. 1998, the year Cruz starts with, was itself exceptionally warm thanks to the biggest El Nino event of the 20th century. If that's your starting place, the warming trend does indeed look weak. But look over a longer time period, and it's obvious that very warm years are more common now than before.

NOAA

And in any case, even the modest "slow-down" in warming that has occurred since 2000 isn't inconsistent with what scientists have always expected man-made climate change will look like. Even the earliest climate models predicted the possibility of occasional leveling-off periods in upward-bound global temperature, like a landing on a staircase.

In fact, one reason why many scientists "magically" (as Cruz put it) have begun to prefer the term "climate change" to "global warming" is because they think the latter can misleadingly imply that every year will be incrementally warmer than the last. In reality, climate change is all about odds: Man-made greenhouse gas emissions substantially increase the chances of an exceptionally warm year, but they don't eliminate the possibility for average or even cold years to happen.

Even accounting for the apparent stability of the last few years, Santer said, "everything tells us that what's going on isn't natural."

As for Cruz's reference to snowy weather in New Hampshire...give us a break.

Wind Energy Will Be Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels Within a Decade

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 1:56 PM EDT

Wind energy is growing fast. While it still accounts for less than 5 percent of the United States' total electricity mix, wind is by far the biggest source of renewable energy other than hydroelectric dams, and it accounted for 23 percent of new power production capacity built last year. Some experts think wind could provide a fifth of the world's energy by 2030. But wind in the US is always in a perilous position, thanks to its heavy reliance on a federal tax credit that is routinely attacked in Congress; the subsidy was allowed to expire at the end of last year, and its ultimate fate remains unclear.

Fortunately, wind won't be subject to the whims of legislators for much longer, according to a new analysis from the Energy Department. The new report found that within a decade, wind will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels like natural gas, even without a federal tax incentive.

From Bloomberg Business:

Cost reductions and technology improvements will reduce the price of wind power to below that of fossil-fuel generation, even after a $23-per-megawatt-hour subsidy provided now to wind farm owners ends, according to a report released Thursday.

"Wind offers a power resource that's already the most competitive option in many parts of the nation," Lynn Orr, under secretary for science and energy at the Energy Department, said on a conference call with reporters. "With continued commitment, wind can be the cheapest, cleanest power option in all 50 states by 2050."

That would be a huge win for slowing climate change. The report finds that it could also lead to billions of dollars of benefits to the American public, from lower monthly electric bills to fewer air-pollution-related deaths.

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