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.
Today President Barack Obama released the final version of his signature climate plan, which sets new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. Each state has a unique target, custom-built for its particular mix of energy sources. Each state also has total freedom to determine how exactly to reach the target. But the rules are clearly designed to expedite the closure of coal-fired power plants, the nation's number-one source of CO2 emissions.
It took less than a day for the first legal challenges to the plan to emerge from coal interests. The news rules also attracted some pointed criticism from leading Republican presidential contenders, including Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Here's what Walker had to say on Twitter:
Obama's plan should be called the Costly Power Plan because it will cost hard-working Americans jobs and raise their energy rates. -SW
Neither of those predictions is likely to come true. Cries about job loss and high costs always accompany new environmental regulation. In the case of the Clean Power Plan, as the rules announced today are known, the fear revolves around the image of coal plants around the country going dark. Folks get laid off from the plant, there's less electricity on the grid, so the price of electricity goes up, so factories can't afford to pay their workers, so they lay them off…you get the idea.
But as I've reported in the past, that view of the plan is misguided for two reasons. The first is that Obama's new rules, while an important and historic milestone in the annals of climate action, really aren't much of a departure from the direction that the energy market is already going. As our friend Eric Holthaus at Slate points out, many states are already well on their way to achieving the new carbon targets simply because, for lots of reasons, making tons of inefficient energy from dirty old coal plants just isn't economically feasible anymore. So you'd be hard-pressed to pin any particular lost job in the coal industry on Obama alone.
The second reason Walker and his ilk are off-base is that they focus too heavily on the coal-killing aspect of the plan, without also considering two equally vital aspects: (a) The building of tons of new energy supplies from renewables, and (b) big improvements in energy efficiency, which will allow us to use less power overall.
It's true that by the time the plan takes effect, electricity prices will have risen steadily, as they always have for as long as we've had electricity. Because electric utilities typically have monopolies over their service area and prize reliability over affordability, power costs don't naturally fall over time in the way that the costs of other technologies do. But even though electric rates will probably go up, monthly electric bills are likely to go down, thanks to efficiency improvements. The exact calculus will be different in every state, but to take one example, the Southern Environmental Law Center projected that in Virginia, the Clean Power Plan will lead to an 8 percent reduction in electric bills. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, savings like that add up to $37.4 billion for all US homes and businesses by 2020. The NRDC also projects that the plan will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the energy efficiency sector, as homeowners, businesses, factories, etc. invest in upgrades that enable them use less power.
In any case, the solar industry alone already employs more than twice the number of people who work in coal mining. Making the energy system more climate-friendly is as much about juicing the clean energy industry as it is dismantling the coal industry.
President Barack Obama has been more vocal than any previous president about the need to combat climate change, and on Monday his administration released a package of rules that will likely be the most important—and most controversial—piece of his climate legacy.
"Climate change is not a problem for another generation," Obama said in a video released early Sunday morning. The Clean Power Plan, as the rules finalized Monday are known, is "the biggest, most important step we've ever taken to combat climate change."
Coal-fired power plants are the country's biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions and the chief culprit driving global warming. They're responsible for even more CO2 pollution than all the nation's passenger vehicles. The new plan aims to slash those emissions by requiring every state to reduce the carbon "intensity" (that is, emissions per unit of energy produced) of its energy sector. By 2030, the plan is expected to slash the carbon footprint of the nation's power sector by 32 percent below 2005 levels—a more rigorous target than the 30 percent reduction outlined in a draft version of the rules released last summer.
"The very fact that they're regulating carbon pollution from power plants is a historic step, a huge step."
In the final draft, the administration has relaxed deadlines for meeting the new carbon targets—states will now have until 2018 to propose a carbon-cutting strategy and until 2022 to implement it—a serious concern for environmentalists who have stressed the necessity of immediate action to limit climate change. And although the targets might sound ambitious, they might not actually be too different from what many states would achieve without them, thanks to a boom in clean energy that is already underway. Moreover, many of the changes required by the rules will play out under Obama's successor, leaving open the possibility that they could be undermined by a climate change-denying president.
Still, the significance of this official crackdown on the gas behind global warming is hard to overstate, said David Doniger, director of the clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The very fact that they're regulating carbon pollution from power plants is a historic step, a huge step," he said. "This is part of using the existing law to turn the US from doing nothing, to playing a leadership role to curb climate change."
A storm lights up central California this summer. El Nino could bring more rain, but probably not enough to end the state's unprecedented drought.
California could be in for a wetter-than-normal winter, thanks to the mysterious meteorological phenomenon known as El Niño. Weather scientists have been watching El Niño get stronger throughout this year and think it could match or surpass the strongest on record, back in 1997. What does this mean for long-suffering California and its interminable drought? Let us explain.
What the heck is El Niño again?
Normally, equatorial winds in the Pacific Ocean blow toward the west and push warm surface water in that direction. El Niño—"the child," named in reference to Jesus by Spanish-speaking fishermen from South America who noticed, starting centuries ago, unusual weather around Christmas-time—happens every few years when those winds die down or diminish, leaving more warm water pooled along the equator off the coast of South America.
That's been happening this year; the longer the wind pattern remains unusual, the more the eastern Pacific warms up. Here's a map of ocean temperature anomalies (that is, variations from the long-term average) from late June. Notice the band of red and white (white is the hottest) in the center of the Pacific and the cooler-than-usual water off Southeast Asia? That's El Niño:
That trend is probably going to continue throughout this year, said Daniel Swain, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University.
"It hasn't peaked yet, and it's already quite strong," he said.
"It hasn't peaked yet, and it's already quite strong."
What happens then? These changes in water temperature cause changes in air temperature, and as a result the whole planet's weather system gets a bit screwy. In some places, the end product is massive downpours—Peru is already anticipating devastating floods—while elsewhere, like India and Australia, El Niño means severe drought.
There are immediate economic impacts, as crops thrive in some places and fail in others. The 1997 El Niño caused a mild winter in the US that saved an estimated 850 lives and produced $19 billion in economic benefits, according to one study. But the same event caused floods that killed hundreds in South America. So whether El Niño is good or bad totally depends on where you live and is a bit of a crapshoot based on how the winds shift over the course of the summer.
Is climate change to blame for this year's El Niño?
There's no evidence of that so far, and in any case scientists are always wary about connecting any one specific event to the long-term trend of global warming. As to whether climate change will worsen El Niño in general, the verdict is still out, said NASA climatologist Bill Patzert.
"Nobody knows," he said. "Some people say more El Niños, some people say less." The main reason for that uncertainty, he said, is that climate models are generally not great at reproducing naturally-occuring, short-lived weather events like El Niño (as opposed to long-term, global patterns like a rise in temperatures, which models are quite reliable for). One recent study projected that while global warming was unlikely to change the overall frequency of El Niños, it could make the strongest ones more common.
On a related note, some climate change deniers like to attribute 20th-century increases in global temperature to El Niño, rather than man-made greenhouse gas emissions. This is bogus.
Will it save California from drought?
Here's the short answer: Probably not.
"You creep into a drought slowly, and you creep out of it. There's no quick fix," Patzert said.
"This is the battle of the 'blob' and the El Niño."
The signs are looking good for California to have a wetter-than-normal winter, as El Niño shifts atmospheric jet streams from the tropics northward, pushing stormy weather from Mexico and Central America onto the US West Coast. But there are a few major caveats:
1. That won't happen until California's normal rainy season, in mid-winter. So even if this El Niño stays strong, it won't bring relief to drought-stricken communities for months to come.
2. There's no guarantee that this El Niño will stay strong. "We're in the waiting and finger-crossing mode," Patzert said. "At this point I'm definitely hedging my bets against the Godzilla El Niño." The equatorial winds could start to shift back to normal at any time, taking with them California's prospects for a wet winter.
3. Whatever changes El Niño brings to California's weather will have to contend with the weird atmospheric stuff that's already at work keeping the drought in place. "This is the battle of the 'blob' and the El Niño," Patzert said. Here's what he means: This year a giant pool of warm water (dubbed "the blob") is parked off the western US coast, which has supported a powerful high-pressure "ridge" in the atmosphere that keeps Pacific storms from moving onshore. The blob is major difference between this El Niño and the last major one:
4. Finally, while a wet winter could bring some short-term relief, even the rainiest scenario won't be enough to totally reverse California's unprecedented, long-term drought just like that. According to NOAA, it would two feet or more of rainfall over the next six months to alleviate California's drought conditions:
But, Patzert said, it will take an even more extended period of high rainfall to fully replenish the state's depleted aquifers and provide relief that's more permanent. At the same time, if winter temperatures remain as high as they were last year, any extra precipitation could fall as rain instead of snow, leaving the state without mountain snowpack to feed streams in the spring. And the kind of torrential rain associated with El Niño can also become deadly in a state where baked soil and higher-than normal wildfire activity are a recipe for disastrous mudslides.
"El Niño has been billed here as the great wet hope," Patzert said. "But that belies the facts. El Niño usually just gives you a lot of flooding and mudslides, not drought relief."
Hillary Clinton took a strong stance on clean energy Monday, telling a crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, that her efforts to tackle climate change would parallel President John F. Kennedy's call to action during the space race in the 1960s.
"I want to get the country back to setting big ambitious goals," Clinton said. "I want us to get back into the future business, and one of the best ways we can do that is to be absolutely ready to address the challenge of climate change and make it work to our advantage economically."
Her remarks tracked closely with an ambitious plan her campaign released Sunday night, which set a target of producing enough renewable energy to power all the nation's homes and businesses by 2027.
"America's ability to lead the world on this issue hinges on our ability to act ourselves," she said. "I refuse to turn my back on what is one of the greatest threats and greatest opportunities America faces."
"I think it's bogus," said Bill McKibben. "The more she tries to duck the question, the more the whole thing smells."
Still, the Democractic front-runner refused—as she has several times before—to say whether or not she supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That project, which would carry crude oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries and ports in the United States, is seen by many environmentalists as a blemish on President Barack Obama's climate record. It has been stalled for years in a lengthy State Department review that began when Clinton was still Secretary of State. The Obama administration has resisted several recent attempts by Congress to force Keystone's approval, but it has yet to make a final decision on the project—although one is expected sometime this year.
"I will refrain from commenting [on Keystone XL], because I had a leading role in getting that process started, and we have to let it run its course," Clinton said, in response to a question from an audience member.
Her non-position on Keystone earned derision from environmentalist Bill McKibben, whose organization 350.org has been at the forefront of opposition to the pipeline.
"I think it's bogus," he said in an email. "Look, the notion that she can't talk about it because the State Dept. is still working on it makes no sense. By that test, she shouldn't be talking about Benghazi or Iran or anything else either. The more she tries to duck the question, the more the whole thing smells."
Clinton also punted on an audience request to reveal further details of how exactly she would finance the renewable energy targets she announced yesterday, which aim even higher than those already put in place by Obama. She reiterated that one key step would be to ensure the extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar energy that have expired or are set to expire over the next few years. And she said that she would continue Obama's practice of pursuing aggressive climate policies from within the White House, saying that "we still have a lot we can do" without waiting for a recalcitrant Congress to act.
Clinton acknowledged that the clean energy boom would come at a cost for the US coal industry, which is already in steep decline. She said she would "guarantee that coal miners and their families get the benefits they've earned," but didn't elaborate on what she meant or how specifically she would achieve that.
Environmental groups offered a generally positive reaction to Clinton's policy announcement Sunday. In a statement, League of Conservation Voters vice president Tiernan Sittenfield commended her for "calling out climate change deniers and effectively illustrating the urgent need to act on a defining issue of our time." She also earned praise from billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has set a high bar on climate action for any candidate who wants to tap his millions.
"I refuse to let those who are deniers to rip away all the progress we've made and leave our country exposed to climate change," Clinton said.
An Iraqi soldier tracks an ISIS sniper near Tikrit in April.
On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley made an astute observation about ISIS in an interview with Bloomberg.
"One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria, the rise of ISIS, was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis [that] created the…conditions of extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL and this extreme violence," said the former Maryland governor.
Republicans were quick to seize on the comment as an indication of O'Malley's weak grasp of foreign policy. Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, said the suggestion of a link between ISIS's rise to power and climate change was "absurd" and a sign that "no one in the Democratic Party has the foreign policy vision to keep America safe."
Here's the thing, though: O'Malley is totally right. As we've reportedheremanytimes, Syria's civil war is the best-understood and least ambiguous example of a case where an impact of climate change—in this case, an unprecedented drought that devastated rural farmers—directly contributed to violent conflict and political upheaval. There is no shortage of high-quality, peer-reviewed research explicating this link. As O'Malley said, the drought made it more difficult for rural families to survive off of farming. So they moved to cities in huge numbers, where they were confronted with urban poverty and an intransigent, autocratic government. Those elements clearly existed regardless of the drought. But the drought was the final straw, the factor that brought all the others to a boiling point.
Does this mean that America's greenhouse gas emissions are solely responsible for ISIS's rise to power? Obviously not. But it does mean that, without accounting for climate change, you have an incomplete picture of the current military situation in the Middle East. And without that understanding, it will be very difficult for a prospective commander-in-chief to predict where terrorist threats might emerge in the future.
The link between climate and security isn't particularly controversial in the defense community. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama called climate change an "urgent and growing threat" to national security. A recent review by the Defense Department concluded that climate change is a "threat multiplier" that exacerbates other precursors to war, while the Center for Naval Analysis found that climate change-induced drought is already leading to conflict across Africa and the Middle East.
In other words, O'Malley's comment is completely on-point. If Priebus and his party are serious about defeating ISIS and preventing future terrorist uprisings, they can't continue to dismiss the role of climate change.