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.
If you know one thing about fracking, it might be that the wells have been linked to explosive tap water. Of course, a tendency toward combustion isn't the biggest problem with gas-infused water; it's what could happen to you when you drink it.
Although the natural gas industry is notoriously tight-lipped about the ingredients of the chemical cocktails that get pumped down into wells, by now it's widely known that the list often includes some pretty scary, dangerous stuff, including hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (a.k.a. antifreeze). It's also no secret that well sites release hazardous gases like methane and benzene (a carcinogen) into the atmosphere.
So just how dangerous are fracking and other natural gas extraction processes for your health (not counting, for the sake of argument, explosions and earthquakes)? Is it true, as an activist-art campaign by Yoko Ono recently posited, that "fracking kills"?
The answer to that second question is probably not, especially in the short term and if you don't work on or live across the street from a frack site (which, of course, some people in fact do). But that doesn't mean it's okay to start fracking away next to kindergartens and nursing homes: Gas extraction produces a range of potentially health-endangering pollutants at nearly every stage of the process, according to a new paper by the California nonprofit Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, released today in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institutes of Health.
"We can conclude that this process has not been shown to be safe," the study's author said.
The study compiled existing, peer-reviewed literature on the health risks of shale gas drilling and found that leaks, poor wastewater management, and air emissions have released harmful chemicals into the air and water around fracking sites nationwide.
"It's clear that the closer you are, the more elevated your risk," said lead author Seth Shonkoff, a visiting public health scholar at the University of California-Berkeley. "We can conclude that this process has not been shown to be safe."
Shonkoff cautioned that existing research has focused on cataloging risks, rather than linking specific instances of disease to particular drilling operations—primarily because the fracking boom is so new that long-term studies of, say, cancer rates, simply haven't been done. But as the United States and the world double down on natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal (as this week's UN climate change solutions report suggests), Shonkoff argues policymakers need to be aware of what a slew of fracked wells could mean for the health of those who live near them.
Even given the risks involved in producing natural gas, it's still a much healthier fuel source than coal; particulate pollution from coal plants killed an estimated 13,000 Americans in 2010, while a recent World Health Organization study named air pollution (to which coal burning is a chief contributor) the single deadliest environmental hazard on earth.
Any film that opens with Harrison Ford buckling into a fighter jet for the sake of science can't be all bad. Especially when that's followed by Don Cheadle tromping through Texas cow country, followed by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman strapping on a flak jacket and pushing into the heart of Syria's civil war. It's almost enough to make you forget you're watching a show about climate change.
But in fact, the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously is about just that, traversing the warming globe alongside an A-List cast that, as the season progresses, will include Matt Damon, Jessica Alba, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The show premieres Sunday (but the first episode, above, is already online), and counts Hollywood kingmakers Jerry Weintraub and James Cameron as executive producers, and Climate Progress founding editor Joe Romm and Climate Central scientist Heidi Cullen as science advisors.
If you already follow climate change, many of the stories here won't be new—deforestation in Indonesia, drought in Texas, conflict in Syria. But Years is a rare, big-budget effort to put the issue squarely in front of an audience more accustomed to Dexter and Homeland, and it does so with spectacular cinematography and compelling, interwoven plot lines that help to propel you through the basics of climate science to arrive at... aw, don't listen to me, just watch the thing.
A worker checks solar panels at a factory in China, the world's biggest renewable energy investor.
The United Nations climate folks think global investment in renewable energy needs to hit $1 trillion a year by 2030 to keep global warming to an acceptable level. So it might seem disconcerting that in 2013, investment dropped for the second year in a row, down 14 percent from 2012 to $214 billion, according to new data released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) at its annual confab in New York this week.
As investment fell, so too did the total amount of renewable energy being installed worldwide. That's down nearly 7 percent from 2012 to 2013.
But don't worry—at least not too much. Even though fewer renewable power systems (excluding large hydroelectric projects, which BNEF doesn't count in this analysis) were installed last year, we were using more of it: Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of all the power generated worldwide in 2013, up from 7.8 percent in 2012. BNEF estimated that renewables saved 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to keeping 252.6 millioncars off the road.
In 2013, renewables saved 252.6 million cars worth of carbon emissions.
There are two forces at work behind the dropping investment figures, one a good news story and the other not so much. The good news is that 80 percent of the investment decline came thanks to the falling cost of renewable energy technology, primarily solar panels, according to BNEF Advisory Board Chairman Michael Liebreich. The cost of a rooftop solar system in California, for example, which is a good barometer of national trends, has fallen by a third just since 2010. The remaining 20 percent was due to a drop in actual construction activity, thanks to the uncertain fate of government subsidies and general economic sluggishness, especially in Europe.
Still, Liebreich told the clean-energy CEOs and investors gathered here this morning that Bloomberg's proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015. Even last year, renewables accounted for more than 40 percent of all the new power installations (including coal plants, nuke plants, etc.) built in 2013. In other words, any time a new power system gets built, it's increasingly likely to be renewable and not something dirtier.
"This is about a future that's structured differently than the past," Liebreich said.
The global trends weren't spread evenly across countries. Even though China's overall investment dropped, it still managed to surpass, for the first time ever, the sum spent by all of Europe, where a stagnant economy led countries like Spain and Bulgaria to cut spending on clean-energy subsidies. China is the world's top renewables investor, spending $56 billion on it in 2013 (the United States is at $35.8 billion).
In the US, the dip in investment hid a couple other important milestones: Last month California, the nation's biggest solar market, broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days. And in January, the United States got an all-time record 4.8 percent of its power from wind turbines, according to BNEF.
Exxon's new climate report says the company plans to extract all its proved fossil fuel reserves.
ExxonMobil has 25.2 billion barrels worth of oil and gas in its current reserves, it's going to extract and sell all of it, and isn't expecting any meddling climate regulations to get in the way.
That's the main takeaway of a report the company released this week to its investors, examining the risk that greenhouse gas emissions rules in the US and worldwide might pose to its fossil fuel assets. Exxon made headlines a couple weeks back when it promised to issue the report after facing pressure from shareholders led by Arjuna Capital, a sustainable wealth management firm.
If stricter limits on carbon pollution or high carbon taxes force energy companies to keep their holdings buried underground, the thinking among environmental economists goes, it could topple the companies' value and leave investors holding the bag. The result, economists warn, would be a collapse of the so-called "carbon bubble."
Some big energy companies (including Exxon) have already nodded to this problem, by building a theoretical carbon price into their projected balance sheets. But this report is the first time a large oil and gas company has published a detailed assessment of its own climate risk exposure, according to the New York Times.
The report doesn't present a very optimistic view of the prospects for aggressive climate action by world leaders.
"We are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become 'stranded'," the report says. "Stranded assets" is a term climate economists use to refer to fossil fuel reserves that could be stuck in the ground if countries around the world implement sufficiently stringent carbon regulations to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—a threshold agreed to at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen. The amount of carbon humans can release without exceeding this limit—roughly 485 billion metric tons of carbon beyond what we've already emitted—is often called the "carbon budget."
Exxon's report suggests that its planners don't believe serious carbon limits will be on the books anytime soon, leaving the company free to burn through its reserves of oil and gas. That's a disconcerting vision to come just on the heels of Sunday's new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which predicted a nightmarish future if greenhouse gas emissions aren't slowed soon.
"The reserves are going to be able to turn into money, because they're assuming there isn't going to be a policy change," said Natural Resources Defense Council Director of Climate Programs David Hawkins. "They're definitely saying that no matter how bad it gets, the world's addiction to fossil fuels will be so overwhelming that the governments of the world will just suck it up and let people suffer."
Should politicians and pundits who deny climate change be held criminally liable for the misinformation they spread? Gawker's Adam Weinstein—our friend and former colleague—thinks so, and has called for the arrest of outspoken deniers. "Those denialists should face jail," Weinstein writes. "They should face fines. They should face lawsuits from the classes of people whose lives and livelihoods are most threatened by denialist tactics."
Predictably, the denier crowd isn't buying the argument. A post on the Heartland Institute's website links Weinstein to "liberal fascism": "Liberals who are that soaked in the ideology of catastrophic man-caused global warming are fascists. Full stop." Even those normally on Weinstein's climate-change-believing side are pouring scorn in the comments section: "I also want a unicorn. One that shoots rainbow-colored lasers out of its ass. Since, y'know, we're talking about wish-fulfillment that will never, ever happen."
So who's right? Much as we like the spirit of Weinstein's argument, ultimately, we disagree with its premise. Here's why: