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.
Just days after President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, environmentalists were handed another victory Monday morning when New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released the results of an investigation that found one of the world's largest coal companies had misled the public and its shareholders about the risks climate change could pose to its bottom line.
After several years of investigations, Schneiderman reached an agreement with Peabody Energy that won't require the company to admit it broke the law and does not entail a fine or other penalty. Instead, Peabody must file revised shareholder disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission with new language acknowledging that "concerns about the environmental impacts of coal combustion…could significantly affect demand for our products or our securities."
Climate change could pose a serious risk to investors in publicly-traded fossil fuel companies, as governments around the world move to restrict carbon emissions. Many climate change advocacy groups say those companies have an obligation to their shareholders to be transparent about how demand for their product could diminish in the near future.
Although Peabody escaped financial penalties this time around, it could still face litigation from aggrieved shareholders.
According to Schneiderman's findings, Peabody had known since at least 2013 that policies enacted in the United States and abroad to fight climate change could significantly diminish demand for coal—one of the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, one internal projection from that year found that climate regulations could slash sales at two of the company's US coal mines by one-third or more, according to the findings. But at the same time, the company filed disclosures with the SEC that claimed it was "not possible for [Peabody] to reasonably predict the impact that any such laws or regulations may have on [Peabody's] results of operations, financial condition or cash flows."
That mixed messaging, Schneiderman found, violates New York laws prohibiting false or misleading claims in the company's financial statements.
"As a publicly traded company whose core business generates massive amounts of carbon emissions, Peabody Energy has a responsibility to be honest with its investors and the public about the risks posed by climate change, now and in the future," Schneiderman said in a statement.
In its own response, Peabody said the agreement represented "no admission or denial of wrongdoing" and that "the company has always sought to make appropriate disclosures."
The agreement comes just days after Schneiderman issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, kicking off an investigation into whether the oil giant has misled investors and the public about the basic science of climate change for decades. Exxon has denied any wrongdoing. While the two investigations have some similarities, Exxon could face tougher penalties than Peabody, said Andrew Logan, director of oil and gas programs at Ceres, an investor advocacy group. The allegations against Exxon stretch back much further in time and could potentially be more serious, so the attorney general could pursue more aggressive action against the company, Logan said.
Even with the Peabody investigation over, the coal company is hardly in a happy place. Its share price has tanked 87 percent this year, squeezed by the shrinking global market for coal. Many of Peabody's coal-industry peers are also gravely wounded. In fact, coal demand may soon hit its fastest decline in history, according to data released today by Greenpeace. And while Peabody escaped financial penalties this time around, it could still face litigation from aggrieved shareholders, Logan said.
"They're going back in time to change what they said [in their disclosure statements]," he said. "It's a very unusual thing in the securities world, and tends to bring real liability."
Meanwhile, the agreement could put pressure on the SEC to step up its enforcement of climate-related statements (or the lack thereof) made not only by other energy companies, but also by corporations in other climate-sensitive sectors, such as property insurance and agriculture.
"On the one hand, this action has been directed at two companies. But the reasons they were targeted could be applied to whole other industries," Logan said. "This is a huge victory for investors."
In its place would be a new orca experience debuting in 2017, described as "informative" and designed to take place in a more natural setting that would carry a "conservation message inspiring people to act."...The plan to gradually phase out the Shamu show comes amid efforts at both the state and federal level to clamp down on SeaWorld by ending the captive breeding of orcas, which would effectively bring to an end the parks' theatrical shows.
It's unclear whether the new "experience" will feature live orcas, and whether the decision will apply to any of the company's other locations in San Antonio and Orlando. A SeaWorld spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
SeaWorld has faced broad public criticism—and a tanking share price—since the 2013 documentary Blackfish accused the company of keeping killer whales in inhumane conditions. The company has maintained that the whales serve a valuable scientific purpose, although many scientists disagree. The announcement also comes just days after a Congressional representative from California introduced legislation to ban the breeding of captive orcas and their capture from the wild.
In a speech, the president criticized both supporters and detractors of the pipeline from placing too much emphasis on a project that, according to the State Department's analysis, would neither create many jobs nor ruin the climate if approved. Still, reactions to his decision from Republicans in Congress and the 2016 presidential primary were swift and terrible.
In the year’s biggest victory for environmentalists, President Barack Obama announced Friday that he will reject an application from Canadian company TransCanada to construct the Keystone XL pipeline.
The pipeline, which would allow crude oil from Canada’s oil sands to reach ports and refineries in the US, has been a major controversy for Obama ever since he took office. The White House spent years deliberating on the issue. During that time, environmental groups accused Obama of not backing up his rhetoric on climate change with real action, and Republicans in Congress accused him of blocking a job-creating infrastructure project.
In his announcement today, the president said the State Department’s analysis had shown the pipeline would not significantly benefit the US economy.
"The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the national interests of the United States. I agree with that decision," Obama said.
The timing of the announcement is significant, as it comes just weeks before the beginning of major international climate negotiations in Paris. Obama’s decision will "reverberate" with other countries and sends a strong message that the United States is serious about taking action to stop climate change, said Jennifer Morgan, director of the global climate program at the World Resources Institute.
Obama said that pipeline had been given an "overinflated role in the political discourse" by both its supporters and detractors. Still, he framed his decision as a key element of his climate legacy.
"America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change," he said. "Today we continue to lead by example."
Climate scientists are pretty good at figuring out the causes of long-term trends. We know that dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will make global temperatures rise over time. But pinning down the cause of any single weather event—a specific heat wave, hurricane, or drought—is much more challenging, since extreme things could still happen without global warming. That's why scientists are so reluctant to say that any particular event happened "because of" climate change.
Nevertheless, there is a rapidly growing field of research that is attempting to improve this kind of one-off attribution. On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a dossier of 29 such studies, combing through some of 2014's worst weather events across the globe to search for the fingerprints of man-made climate change.
The scientists, who represent a range of prominent research institutions, looked at California's wildfire season; heat waves in Australia; drought in East Africa; flooding in Indonesia; hurricanes in Hawaii; and more. Their findings were as diverse as the events they examined, and they still tend to be framed as "Event X was made more likely because of climate change," rather than the simpler but less accurate "Event X was causedby climate change." Some events, such as Hawaii's hurricanes, appear to have a strong relationship to man-made global warming. Others, such as extreme rainfall in the United Kingdom last winter, showed no link at all.
Generally speaking, temperature-related events were more closely aligned with climate change than precipitation-related events. Here are a few more examples:
Wildfire in California
A wildland firefighter works in California in 2014. Kari Greer/ZUMA
Over the last few years, as California has sunk deeper into an unprecedented drought, the wildfire season has essentially never ended. 2014 was bad; 2015 is worse; and the only good news is that this year's strong El Niño could mean a wet winter and thus a less-bad fire season in 2016. The link between climate change and fire is pretty straightforward: Snowpack melts earlier, summers are hotter and drier, and boom, more fires. And sure enough, that appears to be what is happening in California.
In this study, scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory used a combination of field observations and satellite data to quantify fires in California going back a few decades. They were interested not just in the size or number of actual fires, but a metric called "fire risk" that combines data on temperature, precipitation, and other factors. Then they combined the fire risk data with a computer model that assumes greenhouse gas emissions stay relatively high into the future. Unsurprisingly, the risk of fire shoots up over time.
In the charts below, from the study, the blue line shows year-to-year fire variability with the effects of climate change removed from the model. The red line uses the same fire data, but with the climate data put back in. In other words, the gap between the blue line and the red line is the effect of man-made global warming (KBDI is the fire risk index).
Yoon, et al.
You'll notice that 2014 lands on a spot where the blue and red lines overlap. According to lead author Jin-Ho Yoon, "that means that according to this model, 2014['s fire season] could have happened without human activities at all. It's possible to have such an event."
"But if we step back from this single event," he said, "that's relatively easier to say that the fire risk is increasing and easily attributable to climate change."
There's nothing climate change deniers like Donald Trump and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) love more than a nice snowfall or cold winter to use as proof positive that global warming is a hoax engineered by China and Barbra Streisand. They got their chance a couple winters ago, when temperatures in the Great Lakes region between November 2013 to April 2014 were the lowest they'd been in decades.
But of course, one cold winter doesn't prove or disprove anything. Again, scientists are looking for trends. And when climatologists from the University of Colorado looked back at the temperature record over the last 134 years, they found that the frigid Midwestern winter was incredibly rare, thanks to man-made climate change.
"While a winter comparable to 2013/14 would have been roughly a once-a-decade event in 1881...it has become roughly a once-in-a-thousand years event in 2014," the study found. That change in probability is due to long-term increases in temperature. That's probably good news for Midwesterners, as that extreme wintry weather caused billions of dollars in economic losses.
Droughts in Africa and the Middle East
Aleppo, Syria, has been devastated by a civil war that was exacerbated by drought. Ameer Alhalbi/ZUMA
Drought in the Middle East is a matter of vital concern to US national security, since the failure of crops can enflame pre-existing political tensions and contribute to violent conflict. This has already happened in Syria. Some research also exists linking Syria's unprecedented drought to climate change, and that conclusion is generally supported by a couple studies in the NOAA report.
One study, focusing on Syria, combined observed rainfall data and climate modeling to show that the country's lack of precipitation during the 2013-2014 rainy season was made about 45 percent more likely by climate change. Another study, looking more broadly at the Mediterranean and Middle East, found that at least one of the major drivers of drought in the region—sea surface temperatures in the western Pacific—was definitely amplified by global warming. Two other drivers, central Pacific sea surface temperatures and atmospheric conditions in the North Atlantic, did not appear to be influenced by climate change.
A third study focused on the Horn of Africa, which includes parts of countries such as Kenya and Somalia that also face high food insecurity and political instability. The rainy season that should have arrived in late 2013 was virtually nonexistent, leading to drought in early 2014 and widespread crops failures. That study failed to find a connection between climate change and the lack of rainfall, but it did blame global warming for higher temperatures and increased solar radiation that made the effects of the drought worse.
Studies like this will get better over time, Yoon said, as scientists get more practice and better data-gathering tools. Ultimately, the goal is to provide a real-time answer to the question of "Did this happen because of climate change?" Searching for the causes of particular events also helps scientists understand, and therefore predict, what types of events are likely to occur more or less often in the future. Then, hopefully, we take steps to prepare for them.