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.
Oil from Canada's tar sands is extremely dirty and expensive to extract. That's why we shouldn't use most of it, a new study finds.
When scientists and policymakers talk about limiting climate change, what they're mainly talking about keeping more fossil fuels in the ground. The fact is, there's no way to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels if we burn up our remaining reserves of oil, gas, and coal.
Climate negotiators have agreed that warming should be limited to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial level. That means that humans can release about 1.1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and we've gone through about half of that already. The remaining emissions are known as our "carbon budget"; if we "spend" emissions beyond our budget, we're much more likely to push the planet to dangerous levels of warming. If we burned through all of our current reserves of fossil fuels, we would overspend the budget by about threefold.
In other words, there are a lot of fossil fuels that are "unburnable" if we're going to stay within the prescribed warming limit. But how much, exactly? And where exactly are those unburnable fuels? That's the question asked in a study released today in the journal Nature by a team of energy analysts at University College London. The answer matters because mapping the geographical spread of unburnable fuels is a key step in understanding the roles specific regions need to play in the fight against climate change.
The model developed by Christophe McGlade and his team takes into account known estimates of fossil fuel reserves in a number of different countries and regions, as well as the global warming potential of those reserves and the market forces that determine which reserves are the most cost-effective to exploit. The results, shown below, are what the model finds to be the most cost-effective distribution that stays within the 3.6-degree limit.
The researchers ran the model twice: Once assuming widespread use of carbon capture and storage (an emerging technology for catching carbon emissions as they escape from power plants that is gaining steam but has yet to be proven on the global stage), and once assuming no CCS at all. The two scenarios ultimately aren't that much different—using CCS won't allow us to burn vastly more coal, oil, and gas. The results shown below are from the "with-CCS" scenario.
A couple interesting things pop out. As you might expect, the vast majority of the world's coal would need to stay buried. The United States is able to use most of its oil and gas in this scenario, because those resources are relatively cost-efficient to extract and bring to market compared to, for example, gas in China and India. In other words, according to this study, the US fracking boom can go forward full steam as long as the gas it produces aggressively replaces our coal consumption. But Canada can't touch most of its oil, because the oil there—the kind that would be carried in the Keystone XL Pipeline—is exceptionally carbon-heavy tar sands crude.
What isn't shown in the graphic above is that the model prohibits developing any of the vast oil and gas reserves in the Arctic. Melting sea ice has made those reserves increasingly attractive to energy companies like Shell.
Of course, the model has to make assumptions about future oil and gas prices that are basically impossible to be certain about. Unexpected changes to the price of oil, for example, could upset the cost equation for drilling in the US and re-shuffle the entire regional breakdown. But even as an estimate, the study really illuminates the vital need for policies all over the world that dramatically cut our dependence on coal.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the president's position hasn't changed since November, when pipeline supporters in Congress last attempted to push through its approval—an effort that fell just one vote shy of the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. Obama was adamant then that approval for the pipeline come not from Congress, but from the State Department, which normally has jurisdiction over international infrastructure projects like this one. A final decision from State has been delayed pending the outcome of a Nebraska State Supreme Court case, expected sometime early this year, that could alter the pipeline's route.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McDonnell and other Republicans have vowed to make passage of a new Keystone XL bill a top priority for the new year, and they seem prepared to move forward with a vote later this week. The bill is likely to pass. But the challenge for Republicans is to garner enough support from Democratic senators to achieve the 67 votes required to override a presidential veto. Yesterday, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told reporters he had just 63 votes.
Even if Congress fails to override Obama's veto, it still won't be the end of what has become the flagship issue for US climate activists; the possibility remains that the State Department could still approve the project. But the Obama administration may be leaning against approval. In December, the president said the pipeline is "not even going to be a nominal benefit to US consumers."
Over the weekend, Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert (R) announced his intention to challenge John Boehner (R-Ohio) for his position as Speaker of the House. Gohmert is a tea party hero, and in the (highly unlikely) event that he wins the support of his peers on Tuesday, he would join the swelling ranks of vocal climate change deniers in prominent congressional leadership roles.
Boehner is certainly no climate hawk himself; recently he's taken up the increasingly popular "I'm not a scientist" deflection when asked about the issue. But Gohmert's views are even more fringe. Take, for example, the 2009 interview above wherein Gohmert cites Washington, D.C.'s, cold weather as proof that global warming is fake. He then thanks Al Gore for driving Suburbans so their carbon dioxide emissions can warm things up and help grow "more plants." Gohmert has also criticized President Obama for prioritizing climate action at the expense of veterans, Ebola patients, and terrorism victims.
2014 had its fair share of landmark scientific accomplishments: dramatic cuts to the cost of sequencing a genome; sweeping investigations of climate change impacts in the US; advances in private-sector space travel, and plenty more. But there was also no shortage of high-profile figures eager to publicly and shamelessly denounce well-established science—sometimes with serious consequences for public policy. So without further ado, the most egregious science denial of 2014:
In September, Trump went on a Twitter screed linking vaccines to autism. A month earlier, he fanned the flames of unscientific Ebola panic when he objected to efforts to bring American health care workers infected with the virus back the the US for treatment. "The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back," he tweeted. "People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!" Health care experts, meanwhile, insisted that the risk was minimal; the two patients Trump was talking about were ultimately brought back to the US and successfully treated without infecting anyone else. Let's just stick to real estate and beauty pageants, Donald, shall we?
Unnecessary Ebola quarantines:
Reporters and state police keep watch outside of nurse Kaci Hickox's house in Maine. Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Lamar Smith's war on the National Science Foundation:
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) Jay Mallin/ZUMA
Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas took his opposition to basic science straight to the source: The grant-writing archives of the National Science Foundation. In an unprecedented violation of the historic firewall between the lawmakers who set the NSF's budget and the top scientists who decide where to direct it, Smith's researchers pulled the files on at least 47 grants that they believed were not in the "public interest." Some of the biggest-ticket projects they took issue with related to climate change research; the committee apparently intended to single out these projects as examples of the NSF frittering money away on research that won't come back to benefit taxpayers. The investigation is ongoing, and the precedent it sets—that scientific research projects are only worthwhile if they directly benefit the American economy—is unsettling.
Battles over Texas textbooks:
Citizens gathered outside a 2010 Texas State Board of Education meeting to protest changes to the state's social studies standards. Larry Kolvoord/Austin American-Statesman/AP
The Texas Board of Education has long been a hotbed for science denial, as conservative activists and a handful of textbook reviewers have sought to influence textbook-writing standards in an effort to muddle the basic science around issues such as evolution and climate change. What happens within the pages of Texas textbooks matters because the publishing market there is among the nation's largest; what gets printed in Texas is likely to wind up in classrooms nationwide. Early this year advocates for better textbook oversight won a victory when the board announced it would give teachers' input priority in determining curricula. But by September, the battle was back on, with a raft of revisions that contained obvious biases against mainstream climate science—one McGraw-Hill textbook inaccurately claimed that scientists "do not agree on what is causing the change," and a Pearson text similarly alluded to scientific disagreement. Bowing to public pressure, in November Pearson altered its text to more accurately reflect the scientific consensus on climate change, but the McGraw-Hill text still portrays climate science as an open debate. Meanwhile, a parallel battle played out in Oklahoma over new standards to improve climate science education.
Bill Nye schools creationist Ken Ham; John Holdren schools Congress:
Veteran science educator Bill Nye's live-streamed takedown of outspoken creationist Ken Ham was perhaps the year's most amazing barrage of scientific badassery. Nye piled on the evidence for why the Earth can't possibly be just a few thousand years old (as Ham believes) and why the fossil record does, in fact, prove the theory of evolution. That spectacle was followed by another killer takedown, as White House science adviser John Holdren explained elementary school-level concepts related to climate change to members of the House Science Committee:
Science denial on Capitol Hill is set to get even crazier next year. When Democrats (and environmentalists) got a sound whooping in the midterm elections, a new caucus of climate change-denying senators swept in. Almost every new Republican senator has taken a position against mainstream climate science, ranging from hardline denial to cautious skepticism. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the incoming majority leader, has vowed to make forcing through an approval of the Keystone XL pipeline his top agenda item in the new year; he also wants to block the Obama administration's efforts to reign in carbon pollution from coal plants. And the incoming chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is none other than James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who actually believes that global warming is a hoax orchestrated by Barbra Streisand. You can't make this stuff up.
A Hobby Lobby location in Stow, Ohio. DangApricot/Wikimedia Commons
The year's biggest court battle over reproductive rights, in which the craft store Hobby Lobby objected to the Obamacare requirement that it provide contraceptive coverage for its employees, was premised on terrible science. The company's owners, who have a religious objection to abortion, claimed that intrauterine devices and the "morning-after" pills Ella and Plan B cause abortions. But scientists say that these methods of contraception work by preventing pregnancy; they don't result in abortion. If it's not surprising that Hobby Lobby's owners would come out against the science, it is a surprise that conservative justices on the Supreme Court would back them up, despite ample testimony from leading gynecologists. As Molly Redden reports, battles over science denial in reproductive rights are only going to heat up in 2015.
Some polar bear populations have dropped in recent years, but others appear to have stabilized.
If you're looking for the ground zero of climate change, head to the Arctic. Nowhere else on Earth is changing as quickly or as dramatically; air temperatures there are rising twice as fast as at lower latitudes. In the summer of 2012, Arctic sea ice reached the lowest level ever recorded, shrinking to less than half the area it occupied a few decades ago. Ice has rebounded somewhat in the two years since, but it is still on a downward trajectory of about 13 percent per decade and could disappear altogether in summer months by 2030.
The distressing Arctic prognosis is made abundantly clear in a new report card issued today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The report card comes out every winter and provides an update of where things currently stand in the Arctic. Here are a few key findings:
Sea ice is disappearing: The 2014 summer sea ice minimum—a snapshot taken when sea ice is at its lowest—was 23 percent below the 1981-2010 average, a loss of ice 2.6 times greater than the total area of California. In the map below, the minimum (which happened in September) is on the right; the pink outline shows the average. The winter maximum, on the left, was also below average, by about 5 percent:
Arctic sea ice extent in the winter maximum (left) and summer minimum (right) were both below average (pink line) in 2014. NOAA
Here's that same data, expressed a different way. You can see that both the minimum and maximum have fallen over the last several decades:
Melting sea ice doesn't raise sea levels much, because the ice is already floating in the ocean. But because the white ice reflects sunlight back into space whereas dark ocean water absorbs it, losing the ice makes global warming happen even faster. Sea ice is also a key wildlife habitat. Perhaps most importantly, sea ice is a very sensitive guage of overall warming; when ice levels drop like this, it's an indication of change happening throughout the climate system.