Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

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.

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We Just Passed the Climate's "Grim Milestone"

| Fri May 10, 2013 6:01 PM EDT
The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where NOAA watched the carbon record break.

Over the last couple weeks, scientists and environmentalists have been keeping a particularly close eye on the Hawaii-based monitoring station that tracks how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, as the count tiptoed closer to a record-smashing 400 parts per million. Yesterday, we finally got there: The daily mean concentration was higher than at any time in human history, NOAA reported today. 

Don't worry: The earth is not about to go up in a ball of flame. The 400 ppm mark is only a milestone, 50 ppm over what legendary NASA scientist James Hansen has since 1988 called the safe zone for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and yet only halfway to what the IPCC predicts we'll reach by the end of the century.

"Somehow in the last 50 ppm we melted the Arctic," said environmentalist and founder of activist group 350.org Bill McKibben, who called today's news a "grim but predictable milestone" and has long used the symbolic number as a rallying call for climate action. "We'll see what happens in the next 50."

We could find out soon enough: With the East Coast still recovering from Superstorm Sandy and the West gearing up for what promises to be a nasty fire season, University of California ecologist Max Moritz says milestones like these are "an excuse for us to take a good hard look at where we are," especially as the carbon concentration shows no signs of reversing course.

Scientists first saw the carbon scale tip past 400 ppm last summer, but only briefly; the record reported today by NOAA is the first time a daily average has surpassed that point. For the last several years concentrations have hovered in the 390s, and we're still not to the point where the carbon concentration will stay above the 400 ppm threshold permanently. But that's just around the corner, said J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society.

"It's clear that sometime next year we'll see 400 consistently," he said. "Avoiding the future warming will require a large and rapid reduction in greenhouse gases."

Most scientists, environmentalists, and climate-conscious policymakers agree this will require, at a minimum, slashing the use of fossil fuels, and in the meantime, taking steps to adapt for a world with higher temperatures, higher seas, and more extreme weather. For example, according to Hansen, the world will need to completely stop burning coal by 2030 if returning to 350 ppm is to remain possible. What's the holdup? Texas Tech climatologist Katherine Hayhoe blames "the inertia of our economic system, and the inertia of our political system." But she, like most of her peers, believe it can—and must—be done: "We have to change how we get our energy and how we use our energy."

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Finally, Some Not-Terrible Climate News: Greenland Not Melting Any Faster

| Wed May 8, 2013 5:51 PM EDT
A member of Nick's team collects a GPS unit that had been measuring glacier movement over a year.

Back in 2006, scientists in Greenland made an alarming observation: Glaciers were crumbling into the ocean twice as fast. And not in little cocktail-sized cubes, either: Glaciologist Jason Box accurately predicted the spot where a hunk four times the size of Manhattan would later shear off into the sea.

At the same time, the inland top of the ice sheet was thawing at record levels; last summer, for the first time in 150 years, its entire surface was melting. By summer's end, this water alone raised sea levels all over the world by a millimeter.

As Box told our Climate Desk Live audience in January, rising air and water temperatures—driven by greenhouse gas emissions—are to blame. And with more warming on the way, he made a grim prediction: melting from Greenland and the world's other land-based glaciers could ultimately raise global sea levels by 69 feet, Box warns.

But don't start building your flood-proof Ark quite yet: Advanced imaging released in August suggested the ice sheet is capable of quickly reversing its melting habit. And a study out today in Nature finds that the sped-up ice loss on the water's edge, while still a problem, is unlikely to get much worse, even with a big rise in global temperatures. Taken together, these two studies suggest that Greenland's ice melt problem isn't as bad as experts like Box had predicted.

For the Nature study, Faezeh Nick, a researcher at Norway's University Centre in Svalbard, led a team that took the closest-ever look at so-called "outlet glaciers," the 200 or so outermost arms of the ice sheet that flow straight into the sea. Their findings suggest that the increase in melting rate is about to slow down, suggesting that in a medium warming scenario these glaciers will likely contribute just 19-30 millimeters to global sea levels by 2100. That's much less than if the current acceleration of melting were to persist, but still a noteworthy share of the quarter- to half-meter rise projected by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

glacier boat
Scientists on the sailboat Gambo measure water temperature and salinity in front of a Greenland glacier. Faezeh M. Nick

Fracking Boom in North Dakota Is Here to Stay

| Wed May 1, 2013 1:39 PM EDT
Excess gas flares off at a well site outside Williston.

At 7:00 am local time this morning, Lonnie's Roadhouse Cafe in Willison, North Dakota, was already bustling, packed to the gills with truckers and roughnecks tanking up on coffee and omelettes for another day in that town's ongoing fracking boom.

"It's continuous, it doesn't stop," says manager Lonnie Iverson. "Busy, busy, busy."

It's become a typical scene here in the last several years, as new drilling technology has unleashed massive deposits of oil from the Bakken Shale, in the process slashing unemployment to the lowest anywhere in the nation, minting a new class of oil wealth, and generally upending what was once a backwater prairie town—turmoil Climate Desk witnessed first-hand last year (see video below). And it looks like that growth is here for the long haul: A new analysis out yesterday from the US Geological Survey doubled previous estimates of how much oil is in reserve under North Dakota, up to 7.4 billion barrels, which would make it the largest oil field in the country.

"It's good," Lonnie says. "It'll keep our people working." And eating, presumably.

The new numbers come as no surprise to the fossil fuel titans behind the boom: Back in 2011, fracking kingpin Harold Hamm said he thought the Bakken will ultimately churn out 24 billion barrels. While the new federal analysis doesn't go quite that far, it does confirm that places like Lonnie's are likely to be jam-packed for the forseeable future. The exact expiration date of the boom remains unclear: Local officials are hesitant to pin it down, and estimates made before yesterday's analysis range from 20 to 100 years, depending on technological advances, future oil prices, and the level of private investment. But the USGS report could help clear that up: Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) requested the update in 2011 precisely to boost confidence in the corporations slinging up hotels, restaurants, and other services for the surging worker population.

The last time USGS took a crack at guessing what the Bakken might hold was in 2008; the upward revision since then comes mainly as a product of the learning process that happens when developers start to drill. As more wells go in and more oil comes out, geologists can refine their sense of what lies in store, said Jim Ladlee, associate director of Penn State University's Marcellus Center, which tracks the fracking revolution nationwide. 

"The technology is always evolving," he said, "there's constant change and constant evolution going on."

At the same time, the new estimate takes into account for the first time the Three Forks Formation, a nearby oil deposit that was previously—incorrectly—thought to be unproductive. It also nearly triples previous assumptions about natural gas reserves. 

Why Do Conservatives Like to Waste Energy?

| Mon Apr. 29, 2013 3:34 PM EDT

Back in 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) declared war on energy-efficient light bulbs, calling "sustainability" the gateway into a dystopic, Big Brother-patrolled liberal hellscape. When the lights went off during Beyoncé's halftime set at the last Superbowl, conservative commentators from the Drudge Report to Michelle Malkin pointed blame (erroneously) at new power-saving measures at New Orleans' Superdome. And one recent study found that giving Republican households feedback on their power use actually encourages them to use more energy.

Why do conservatives, who should have a natural inclination toward conservation, have a beef with energy efficiency? It could be tied to the political polarization of the climate change debate.

A study out today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined attitudes about energy efficiency in liberals and conservatives, and found that promoting energy-efficient products and services on the basis of their environmental benefits actually turned conservatives off from picking them. The researchers first quizzed participants on how much they value various benefits of energy efficiency, including reducing carbon emissions, reducing foreign oil dependence, and reducing how much consumers pay for energy; cutting emissions appealed to conservatives the least.

The study then presented participants with a real-world choice: With a fixed amount of money in their wallet, respondents had to "buy" either an old-school light bulb or an efficient compact florescent bulb (CFL), the same kind Bachmann railed against. Both bulbs were labeled with basic hard data on their energy use, but without a translation of that into climate pros and cons. When the bulbs cost the same, and even when the CFL cost more, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to buy the efficient bulb. But slap a message on the CFL's packaging that says "Protect the Environment," and "we saw a significant drop-off in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option," said study author Dena Gromet, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

The chart below, from the report, shows how much liberals and conservatives value each argument for efficiency: While liberals (gray) valued all three equally, conservatives (white), were significantly less moved by and most at odds with liberals over the carbon-saving argument.

Courtesy Gromet

Meet Alvin, the Climate-Change-Fighting Puppet

| Sat Apr. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Meet Alvin Sputnik, one of the few surviving humans in a world that's well beyond any scientific predictions for sea level rise. Equipped with a special diving suit, Alvin, a creation of Australian puppeteer Tim Watts, explores the depths, encounters whales, searches for missing loved one, and learns to find happiness in a post-climate-change world. Now in its fourth year of touring the world, Watts recently stopped at New York University to introduce Alvin to an audience of kids, students, and adults; upcoming shows include Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pinchincha, Ecuador.

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