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.
Rebels prepare a mortar cannon to shell regime forces in Aleppo, Syria.
At last week's Conservative Political Action Conference, GOP chairman Reince Priebus had some strong words about how President Barack Obama prioritizes threats to national security.
"Democrats tell us they understand the world, but then they call climate change, not radical Islamic terrorism, the greatest threat to national security," he said. "Look, I think we all care about our planet, but melting icebergs aren't beheading Christians in the Middle East."
The comment came after the president, in a lengthy interview with Vox, said that the media often overplays the danger of terrorism relative to climate change. It's not the first time Obama has made a point along those lines. In his State of the Union address in January, he said that "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations" than climate change. A few weeks later, in his 2015 national security strategy, the president referred to global warming as an "urgent and growing threat" to national security.
But while Priebus's jab earned him a hearty round of applause at CPAC, new research indicates that his iceberg comment doesn't hold water.
For the last couple years, Middle East experts have pointed to the ongoing civil war in Syria as a prime example of how climate change can contribute to violent conflict. The country's worst drought on record arrived just as widespread outrage with President Bashar al-Assad's dictatorial regime was reaching critical mass; as crops failed, an estimated 1.5 million people were driven off rural farms and into cities. While grievances with the Assad regime are many, from economic stagnation to violent crackdowns on protesters, the impacts of the drought were likely the final straw.
"Melting icebergs aren’t beheading Christians in the Middle East," Reince Priebus told CPAC.
The narrative in Syria fit perfectly with what many top military leaders, including at the Pentagon, were beginning to project: In parts of the world where tensions are already high, the impacts of natural disasters and competition for resources are increasingly likely to ignite violence. A 2013 study by analysts at Princeton found that in some parts of the world, global warming could lead to a 50 percent increase in conflict by mid-century.
But in Syria, there was some uncertainty about whether that drought in particular was a product of man-made climate change. In other words, is the climate-driven conflict there merely representative of what might happen more often in the future, or is it an actual consequence of burning fossil fuels?
An answer to that question was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Colin Kelley, a geographer at the University of California-Santa Barbara, found that a multiyear drought as severe as the one that hit Syria from 2007 to 2010 was made two to three times more likely because of climate change, compared to natural variability alone.
The study is the first to examine a century's worth of precipitation and temperature data for the Fertile Crescent (the lush region surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that was hit hardest by the drought) for clues about a possible human fingerprint on the recent drought. Sure enough, the data shows that "three of the four most severe multiyear droughts have occurred in the last 25 years, the period during which external anthropogenic forcing has seen its largest increase." Here's the relevant data from the study:
Kelley et al., PNAS 2015
The lines in both charts proceed chronologically, starting at 1900, with a tick mark every 20 years. In the top chart, a regional warming trend is clearly visible, with the red box highlighting the recent period where temperatures were consistently above the long-term average. The bottom chart shows the Palmer Drought Severity Index, a standard metric for measuring drought in agricultural areas that combines temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture data (lower numbers are more severe). The brown boxes show droughts (where the PDSI is below the long-term trend) of at least three years.
The study also includes data from a model that compared two sets of projected temperatures in the Fertile Crescent, one with greenhouse gas influence and one without. The observed record matches closely with the greenhouse gas model, suggesting that climate change played a critical role in shaping conditions in the region.
"The bottom line is, what we're trying to show is that these trends are due to the climate change signal," Kelley said of the charts above. "There's no natural signal for that."
In other words, Kelley said, there's a clear line of causation from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to the deaths of 200,000 Syrians in the civil war.
With that said, Kelley added that there are a number of other factors at play here. The impact of the most recent drought was made worse by the fact that it came on the heels of two other severe droughts, so groundwater supplies were already low and farmers already struggling. Moreover, Assad's predecessor and father, Hafez al-Assad, instituted a system of agricultural policies that encouraged farming in water-scarce areas, setting farmers there up to be highly vulnerable to future drought. And it's impossible to know how the drought would have affected the political climate in the absence of Assad's other unpopular practices; it's possible that a more stable government would have been able to better weather the drought.
Still, the study carries important implications for the future of the region, said Francesco Femia, codirector of the Center for Climate and Security. The climate trends highlighted in this study indicate that replacing Assad won't be enough to secure stability in the region.
"If or when the conflict in Syria comes to an end, will its farmers and herders be able to regain their livelihoods?" Femia said. "Given the continued instability and a forecast of increased drying in the region, this issue should be better integrated into the international security agenda."
Back in November, a group of Republican lawmakers fired off a stern letter to the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that oversees electric grids. President Barack Obama's new climate plan, the letter warned, could lead to blackouts across the country.
The Clean Power Plan is the centerpiece of Obama's climate policy. It calls for the nation to reduce its carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030 and requires each state to reduce the "intensity" of its power sector—that is, how much greenhouse gas is produced per unit of energy. States can choose from a wide array of options to meet their individual goals, including closing or renovating coal plants, boosting energy efficiency, and building new renewable energy systems like solar or wind farms.
The GOP letter cited a report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (a nonprofit that helps power companies coordinate between the United States and Canada) that said the gap left by shuttered coal plants "may represent a significant reliability challenge." Yesterday, EPA chief Gina McCarthy defended the plan at a congressional hearing, telling Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) the rules are designed "in a way that ensures we won't threaten reliability and affordability of the energy system," as E&E reported. But NERC's concerns have been gaining traction with power companies and with Republican lawmakers, often coupled with a warning that less reliable power systems will also be more expensive for customers.
Obama's climate plan "will have a significant impact on the reliability and affordability of electricity," argues one power provider.
This month, Virginia legislators passed a bill to freeze rates (the amount customers pay per unit of electricity) at Dominion Virginia Power, a coal-dependent power company that is the state's biggest electric utility. The bill, which Dominion has actively supported, came after the company warned that the Clean Power Plan could send monthly electric bills skyrocketing, citing a letter from the state's Corporation Commission to the EPA that said, "Virginians will likely pay significantly more for their electricity." Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed it into law on Tuesday.
The same message was repeated yesterday, when representatives from dozens of utility companies met in Denver with officials from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to voice their concerns about the Clean Power Plan. Tri-State Generation, which provides power to customers in Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, filed a comment with FERC arguing that the impacts of the plan will be "staggering and will have a significant impact on the reliability and affordability of electricity."
John Moore, an energy lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who attended a similar recent meeting in Washington, DC, said complaints like this are increasingly common. "It's a snowball effect, where one report comes out and then others build on it," he said.
So is Obama's attempt to slow global warming going to leave you with no lights, melting ice cream in the freezer, and a fat electric bill? Probably not, according to several recent analyses that challenge NERC's findings. They all suggest that the flexibility built into the Clean Power Plan provides ample opportunity to keep the lights on, and electric bills in check, while still meeting the EPA's targets. It all depends on how each state's lawmakers approach the plan, said Jürgen Weiss, a senior researcher at the economic consulting firm The Brattle Group.
Weiss is the author of a recent report—commissioned by an energy trade association founded by the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer—that concluded the climate plan is "unlikely to materially affect reliability." The reason, Weiss explained, is that the NERC analysis focused too narrowly on a hypothetical scenario in which closing coal plants is a state's only recourse. In fact, renewable energy investments and increased reliance on natural gas could allow a state to meet its carbon target while leaving a few key coal plants intact to accommodate rare periods of peak demand (summer afternoons when everyone is running an air-conditioner, for example).
The rules are designed to ensure "we won't threaten reliability and affordability of the energy system," says EPA chief Gina McCarthy.
The most promising solution, Weiss said, is for states to join existing interstate carbon trading markets, like the Northeast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or set up their own. That way, states that can afford the switch away from coal can sell carbon credits to states that can't, bringing down the overall carbon footprint without forcing destructive change on any one state. Some lawmakers are already considering this path. A bipartisan group of Illinois legislators introduced a bill last week that would set up a cap-and-trade system for power companies in the state and allow other states to join in, in order to meet their EPA carbon targets.
Another study this month led by Susan Tierney, a former policy chief in the Obama administration Energy Department, echoed Weiss' findings.
Meanwhile, back in Virginia, an analysis by the Southern Environmental Law Center found that although electricity rates are projected to rise 2 percent by 2030, improvements in energy efficiency thanks to the new EPA rules would actually lead to an 8 percent drop in consumers' electric bills. The specter of risk to ratepayers is overblown, SELC Virginia director Cale Jaffe said. Plans to shut a few coal plants that were already in the works before the climate rules were announced would get Virginia nearly 80 percent of the way to its emissions goal, according to the SELC.
The same is true across the country: The abrupt shift away from coal described by NERC is misleading, Weiss said, because coal has been on the decline since long before the EPA's carbon rule was proposed. The same old, inefficient coal plants that could face closure under the Clean Power Plan are already being threatened by competition from cheap natural gas and existing EPA rules targeting mercury pollution. A recent survey of the nation's electric utility companies found that 77 percent already plan to reduce their dependence on coal in the coming years, while a similar proportion plan to increase their dependence on natural gas and renewables. In other words, the new EPA rules don't signal an about-face from existing trends.
According to an SELC study, the new rules could lead to an 8 percent drop in consumers' electric bills.
With all that being said, it's up to state officials, not utility companies, to decide how to meet the EPA rules. How costly, risky, or difficult that process will be depends on what options lawmakers allow utilities to pursue. Already, under pressure from coal companies and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, some states are choosing to tie utilities' hands. Kentucky last year enacted a law that effectively bars state planners from complying with the new EPA regulations, stonewalling in the hope that the rules will get killed in court. And earlier this year, Arizona and Pennsylvania passed laws that require those states' emissions plans to be approved by their legislatures, opening the door to coal industry lobbying. Virginia is currently considering a similar bill. (A Dominion spokesperson said the company has not taken a position on it.)
Ironically, NRDC analyst Aliya Haq said, rather than undermining the EPA, increased pressure by coal companies and ALEC on state power regulators could instead forge strange-bedfellow alliances between environmental organizations (wanting climate action) and utility companies (wanting choices)—two groups that are normally at loggerheads when it comes to climate policy.
Still, this kind of Clean Power Plan fear-mongering in statehouses isn't a huge surprise, NRDC's Moore said. The Clean Air Act, the legal platform for the EPA rules, has been attacked for decades as a threat to consumers, and yet experience has shown it's possible to reduce pollution without undermining the economy.
"Coal interests and others have played the reliability card before to weaken or delay limits on pollution," Moore said. "So I say we press ahead to recognize the flexibility in the proposal."
Update—Weds, March 4, 2:50pm ET: The Senate vote to override President Obama's veto has failed, falling four votes shy.
We knew this was coming: About a month after the Senate narrowly passed a bill to force President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the president vetoed the bill Tuesday afternoon, hours after the White House said he would do so "without drama or fanfare or delay."
The contentious legislation arrived at the White House on Tuesday morning from Capitol Hill, where Republicans pushed the bill quickly through both chambers in their first burst of activity since taking full control of Congress....
The move sends the politically charged issue back to Congress, where Republicans have yet to show they can muster the two-thirds majority in both chambers needed to override Obama's veto. Sen. John Hoeven, the bill's chief GOP sponsor, said Republicans are about four votes short in the Senate and need about 11 more in the House.
The veto, which the White House has long promised on this or any other Keystone-approval bill, is the first one in the last five years. It essentially blocks what Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have called a top priority of this congressional session.
Obama's beef with the bill isn't necessarily with the pipeline itself. Instead, the president wants the approval process to go through the State Department, which normally has jurisdiction over international infrastructure projects.
In his memo to the Senate, the president said: "Because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety, and environment—it has earned my veto."
The administration still hasn't indicated whether it will approve the pipeline, even though there aren't any more bureaucratic hurdles to clear. Early this month, the window for government agencies to weigh in closed. The most significant comment came from the Environmental Protection Agency, which said that if oil prices go much lower than they are, moving oil from Canada by truck or train could become too expensive. So a green-light for the pipeline would lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions than if it were not approved.
The final question now is whether the president agrees.
An oil train smolders after it derailed and exploded in West Virginia last week.
Last week, a train carrying oil from North Dakota derailed in West Virginia, spilled oil into a river, and sent a horrifying fireball shooting into the sky. The incident came only a few days after another oil train spill in Ontario. In fact, in the last few years the number of oil train accidents has skyrocketed, thanks to booming production in the northern US and Canada that has overwhelmed the existing pipeline network.
Oil train accidents like those could become a regular fixture in headlines across the US, according to a Department of Transportation analysis uncovered by the Associated Press over the weekend:
The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.…
If just one of those more severe accidents occurred in a high-population area, it could kill more than 200 people and cause roughly $6 billion in damage.
The report blamed the projections on the drastic uptick in oil-by-rail traffic, as well as on severely lagging safety standards for rail cars (check out our in-depth multimedia story on the latter here).