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.
For a sobering, detailed look at the current state of affairs, take a look at the US Geological Survey's just-released data visualization tool. The most shocking thing, to me, is the year-by-year playback of reservoir levels, many of which have now dipped to less than a quarter of their capacity (screenshot below):
Climate scientists have warned for years that rising greenhouse gas concentrations will lead to more frequent and severe droughts in many parts of the world. Although it's generally very difficult to attribute any one weather event to the broader global warming trend, over the last couple of years a body of research has emerged to assess the link between man-made climate change and the current California drought. There are signs that rising temperatures (so far, 2014 is the hottest year on record both for California and globally) and long-term declines in soil moisture, both linked to greenhouse gas emissions, may have made the impact of the drought worse.
But according to new research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California's drought was primarily produced by a lack of precipitation driven by natural atmospheric cycles that are unrelated to man-made climate change. In other words, climate change may have worsened the impacts of the drought, but it isn't the underlying cause.
"The preponderance of evidence is that the events of the last three winters [when California gets the majority of its precipitation] were the product of natural variability," said lead author Richard Seager, a Columbia University oceanographer.
"The preponderance of evidence is that the events of the last three winters were the product of natural variability."
Over the last three years, Seager said, unpredictable atmospheric circulation patterns, combined with La Niña, formed high-pressure systems in winter over the West Coast, blocking storms from the Pacific that would have brought rain to California. The result has been the second-lowest three-year winter precipitation total since record-keeping began in 1895. But that pattern doesn't match what models predict as an outcome of climate change, said Seager. In fact, the study's models indicate that as global warming proceeds, winter precipitation in California is actually predicted to increase, thanks to an increased likelihood of low-pressure systems that allow winter storms to pass from the ocean to the mainland.
Unusually high sea-surface temperatures in parts of the Pacific over the last two years also played a minor role in producing the observed high-pressure systems, the report found. But those anomalies were scattered, which is inconsistent with the uniform, general ocean surface warming expected as an impact of climate change.
As a result, the confluence of atmospheric and ocean conditions that have recently blocked rain in California look like an exception to, rather than representative of, the expected climate change trend, Seager said.
All this doesn't mean you should dismiss the risk of future droughts: Seager stressed that additional research is needed to determine whether increased temperatures on land—leading to increased evaporation and demand on water supplies—could offset future gains in California's winter rainfall.
President Obama is fond of touting America's vast trove of natural gas—and the energy (read: economic growth) it can provide—as a reason to support fracking. "Our 100-year supply of natural gas is a big factor in drawing jobs back to our shores," he told a gathering at Northwestern University in October.
You can hear that same optimism about US natural gas production from Democrats, Republicans, and of course, the industry itself. The conviction that America can fuel its economy by churning out massive amounts of natural gas for decades has become a core assumption of national energy policy. But what if it's wrong?
Those rosy predictions are based on official forecasts produced by the Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that compiles data on America's energy supply and demand. This spring, EIA chief Adam Sieminski told a Senate hearing that he was confident natural gas production would grow 56 percent between 2012 and 2040. But the results of a series of studies at the University of Texas, reported today in an article in the journal Nature, cast serious doubt about the accuracy of EIA's forecasts.
The UT team conducted its own analysis of natural gas production at all four of the US's major shale gas formations (the Marcellus, Haynesville, Fayetteville, and Barnett), which together account for two-thirds of America's natural gas output. Then, they extrapolated production into the future based on predicted market forces (the future price of gas relative to other fuels) and known geology. Their analysis suggests that gas production will peak in 2020, 20 years earlier than the EIA predicts. What's more, the UT researchers project that by 2030, gas production levels will be only half of EIA's prediction.
The difference in opinion stems from a difference in the scale of the analyses. The UT team's grid for each shale play studied was at least 20 times finer than EIA's, according to Nature:
Resolution matters because each play has sweet spots that yield a lot of gas, and large areas where wells are less productive. Companies try to target the sweet spots first, so wells drilled in the future may be less productive than current ones. The EIA's model so far has assumed that future wells will be at least as productive as past wells in the same county. But this approach, [UT-Austin petroleum engineer Ted] Patzek argues, "leads to results that are way too optimistic".
Why do these numbers matter? The federal government, states, and the private sector all base their energy investments—research and development, infrastructure construction, etc.—on forecasts of where our energy will come from in the future. If natural gas really is super-abundant, there may be less urgency to invest in renewables like solar and wind to replace coal plants as they age or are regulated out of existence. But if there's less recoverable natural gas than we think, we'll need to change our strategy to avoid coming up short on power 20 years down the line. At the same time, there are international repercussions: Many countries are taking cues from the United States on how to develop their own natural gas resources, so what happens here will shape those plans as well. And a series of massive natural gas export facilities are already being proposed across the US to ship our gas overseas; what will happen to global markets if those run dry prematurely?
Because they rely on informed guesses about future market conditions, these forecasts can never be bulletproof, and the UT study doesn't close the book on how much natural gas the US really has in store. But it's an important reminder that we should treat politicians' promises about fossil fuel wealth with skepticism.
Delegates to the UN climate summit in Lima, Peru, listen to opening remarks this morning.
The latest round of United Nations climate negotiations kicked off today in Lima, Peru. For the next two weeks, delegates from 195 countries will hash out the framework for what they hope will become a major international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when negotiators reconvene in Paris next year. The Lima meeting will also be a chance to hear how far some major carbon-polluters—Brazil, India, Mexico, and more—are willing to go to slow global warming.
The goal of the Lima talks is to set a standard for how countries will formally submit their proposed emissions pledges in preparation for next year's big summit. You can think of it like a climate action Mad Lib, where the story outline is now being drafted in Lima, and each country will fill in its blanks (but with emissions goals instead of nouns and verbs) before Paris. One of the big debates prior to Paris will be whether developed and developing countries will be required to meet the same criteria for setting those goals, and whether the goals will be legally binding.
This month's talks will also be the first key test of President Obama's climate pact with China, which was announced last month. The deal was important for a few key reasons. It set new carbon reductions goals: The US will reduce carbon emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, while China promised to peak its emissions by 2030. It includes a plan to jump-start clean energy trade between the two countries. But perhaps most importantly, it could be a powerful incentive for other countries to create their own ambitious targets.
"The mood music will change," said Michael Jacobs, a former environmental advisor to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Jacobs, who is in Lima this week with a climate economics think tank run by former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, added, "I think we will see…that if the US and China are both committed, then other countries will not want to look like they aren't coming to the table."
That's a big deal, because widespread political participation is a prerequisite for the kind of global accord UN officials are hoping for in Paris. And it's a big shift from past climate summits, like the 2009 one in Copenhagen, which have fallen apart thanks to a lack of cooperation from the US and China. Those two countries, the world's top carbon emitters, have traditionally dragged their feet when it comes to global warming. Neither one of them ratified the last international climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.
But climate hawks are optimistic that the US-China accord has already advanced the future Paris negotiations into uncharted waters. As the Harvard economist Robert Stavins pointed out, the Kyoto Protocol covered only about 14 percent of global carbon emissions. But the Paris agreement will be structured differently. Instead of a single unified treaty that every country is expected to sign on to (an approach seen as a political dead end), the Paris agreement will be built around a patchwork of "nationally-determined contributions." The US-China pact essentially serves as both countries' commitment, and combined with the European Union commitment announced in October, already more than 50 percent of global carbon emissions are covered.
Negotiators in Lima are also designing a system for the international community to review countries' proposed contributions to ensure that their proposed carbon cuts are sufficiently aggressive and that their calculations make sense. This would be the first time a peer review process is used in international climate talks, said Jennifer Morgan, a senior analyst at the World Resources Institute. Pushing for a strong review framework is a top priority of the US delegation, she said, speaking this morning from Lima.
Countries have until the spring to announce their emissions reduction pledges, so it's not yet clear if there will be more announcements from Lima. Many eyes are on India, the world's third-biggest carbon polluter, whose emissions are projected by WRI to climb 70 percent above 2000 levels by 2025. Without cooperation from India, a global accord would be much weaker; Narendra Modi, the country's new prime minister, has so far been lukewarm on climate action.
Yesterday President Obama threatened to veto a $440 billion package of tax breaks negotiated by a bipartisan group of legislators led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The bill, a White House spokesperson said, disproportionately benefits businesses over families. The bill excludes a child tax credit for the working poor that had been a top goal for Obama, but makes permanent a group of tax incentives for big businesses that had been provisional.
But if Obama does kill the deal, he'll also create a casualty that seems odd for a president who in recent weeks has made climate change a central issue: The tax credit for wind energy, which Reid's bill would resuscitate for a few years before phasing out in 2017.
The Production Tax Credit (PTC) provides wind energy developers a tax break of 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour of energy their turbines produce for the first ten years of operation, which industry supporters say is a important lifeline to help wind compete against heavily-subsidized fossil fuel power sources. For over a decade, wind power has been locked in a boom-and-bust cycle as the PTC expires and then is re-upped by Congress: Every time the credit stalls or looks like it might disappear, contracts dry up, manufacturers shut down production, and jobs get cut. The same could happen again soon: The PTC expired again last year, and so the fate of Reid's tax bill will be the fate of a cornerstone of America's clean energy economy.
But wind's halcyon days won't last unless the PTC is extended soon, said Daniel Shurey, a market analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
"The momentum will peak next year, and then we'll start to feel the effects," Shurey said. "Without the PTC extension, the main US manufacturers are going to start running out of orders by 2016."
The Reid bill throws a bone to conservative lawmakers and advocacy groups who have called the PTC a handout for an industry that should be able to support itself by now: gradually phasing out the credit by 2017. The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, has supported such a plan, saying it would give manufacturers, developers, and other wind investors a degree of certainty about future market conditions that they don't currently have. Shurey agrees: The actual amount of the credit is far less important, he said, than a clear, consistent signal to frame contracts and investments around.
Whatever tax deal Congress ultimately passes will probably include the PTC, says Jim Marston, vice president of US energy policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. Some of the credit's biggest proponents are powerful Republicans from windy states, such as Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who said on the Senate floor last week that gutting the PTC "would cost jobs, harm our economy, the environment and our national security." But a veto could mean a long delay—and more of the uncertainty that the wind industry fears.
A growing body of recent research suggests a person's political ideology, economic philosophy, and religious beliefs tend to overwhelm observed facts about global warming. The new study, which was released Monday, put that hypothesis to the test by analyzing Gallup polls taken just after the unusually warm winter of 2012. It found that both Democrats' and Republicans' perceptions of the warmer weather in their state tracked fairly well with actual satellite temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But "for people who said their local winter was warming, the observed temperature anomalies had no effect on the tendency to attribute that to global warming," explains Aaron McCright, a sociologist at Michigan State University who authored the study.
In other words, the actual temperature had no bearing on whether people believed in climate change. Instead, McCright says, "one of the strongest predictors" is party affiliation: Republicans were far less likely to attribute the warming they felt to man-made climate change than were Democrats. Other variables—gender, age, and level of education—were far less reliable as predictors of a person's global warming beliefs.
The findings suggest that the political polarization of climate change has become so great that the path of least resistance for most people is to hew to their party line, McCright says. Interesting, Democrats in the polling data were guilty of a different kind of bias: Overall, they perceived local temperatures to be warmer than their Republicans neighbors did—a reminder, McCright says, that confirmation bias exists on the left, too.
An unrelated national survey taken after 2012's record-breaking hot summer found that a growing majority of Americans are making the connection between temperature extremes and climate change. But that survey didn't account for political affiliation. McCright's research suggests that convincing Republicans will be a different challenge than convincing the public at large, and that references to extreme weather aren't the best rhetorical strategy to deal with that challenge.
The political chasm on climate change is gaping—a Pew poll last year found 44 percent of Republicans believed there was "solid evidence the earth is warming" versus 87 percent of Democrats. That imbalance sets the stage for partisan gridlock on climate action in Congress; Senate Republicans have said they plan to make attacking President Obama's climate policies a priority when they take control next year. So the stakes are high for winning more conservatives to accept the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change, and this study finds that changes in the weather might not be enough to change many minds.
"If we wait around for that to happen, we'll be waiting for a while," McCright says.