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 it is literally freezing in every state in America. But no where has been hit harder than Buffalo, New York, which yesterday got buried under 70 inches of snow. Yeah, seven-zero, as in nearly six feet. At least six people there have died, and one hundred are still trapped.
The video below, from Buffalo-based producer Joseph DeBenedictis, shows yesterday's apocalyptic storm sweeping across the city. The insane snowfall was brought on by something called the "lake effect," which could grow more severe with global warming—our friend Eric Holthaus at Slatehas the details on that.
You probably know Monsanto as the world's leading producer of genetically engineered seeds—a global agribusiness giant whose critics accuse it of everything from boosting our reliance on pesticides to driving Indian farmers to suicide.
But that's actually just the latest in a long series of evolving corporate identities. When the company was founded in 1901 by a St. Louis pharmacist, its initial product was artificial sweetener. Over the next few decades Monsanto expanded into industrial chemicals, releasing its first agricultural herbicide, 2,4-D, in 1945. In the '50s it produced laundry detergent, the infamous insecticide DDT, and chemical components for nuclear bombs. In the '60s it churned out Agent Orange for the Vietnam War. In the '70s it became one of the largest producers of LED lights.
It was around this time that Robb Fraley, now Monsanto's chief technology officer, joined the company as a mid-level biotechnology scientist. Back then, he recalls, the company had its hand in oil wells, plastics, carpets—you name it. It wasn't until the early '80s that Monsanto began to shift its focus to biotechnology, conducting the first US field trials of bioengineered plants in 1987. By the end of the '90s, it was a full-fledged biotech company. And over the last 10 years, after a series of seed company acquisitions, it has become the company we all know and love—or hate—today.
Now, there's a new evolution on the horizon: "I could easily see us in the next five or 10 years being an information technology company," says Fraley.
President Obama walks between sections of pipeline destined for the southern stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline.
UPDATE (11/18/14, 6:17 pm ET): A controversial bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline failed in the US Senate Tuesday evening. It received 59 "aye" votes, just shy of the 60 needed to send the bill to President Obama's desk. The fight isn't over yet; Republicans have said they plan to prioritize approving the pipeline once they take control of the Senate next year.
Below the headlines last week about President Obama's major climate agreement with China, another environmental story was gaining steam: a vote in Congress to force approval of Keystone XL, a controversial pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada down to refineries on the Gulf Coast. On Friday, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the pipeline, as it has done numerous times in the past. The Senate is expected to vote on an identical bill today. Previous Keystone legislation has always stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Democrats. But the vote Tuesday will likely have more Democratic support than ever before, making it the closest the pipeline has yet come to approval.
Here's what you need to know:
What's happening with Keystone this week?
As of Sunday, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the bill is still one vote shy of the 60 it would need to break a Senate filibuster, pass Congress, and land on the president's desk. If enacted, the legislation would green-light a construction permit for the pipeline, removing that authority from the State Department, which currently has the final say because the project crosses an international border. President Obama has said that his administration would only approve the project if it didn't increase total US carbon emissions; a State Department report in January suggested that the pipeline was unlikely to affect America's carbon footprint because the oil it would carry would get exported and burned one way or the other. But the final decision was postponed indefinitely in April and is awaiting the outcome of a court case in Nebraska that could alter the pipeline's route. Congressional Republicans have accused Obama of willfully kicking the decision down the road for as long as possible; on Thursday Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week's vote was long overdue after years of the administration "dragging its feet."
Why is the vote happening now?
When Republicans take control of the Senate next year, with a host of new climate skeptics in tow, they could pass a new round of Keystone legislation—perhaps even with enough support to override a presidential veto. So why rush? The answer revolves around the Senate race in Louisiana, where incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu is locked in a runoff campaign with Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, who currently serves in the House. The special election is scheduled for December 6, and Landrieu appears to be trailing Cassidy. Landrieu represents a state with close ties to the oil industry, and she has long been one of the pipeline's most vocal advocates. Last week she introduced the Keystone bill in what manyonCapitol Hill have described as a last-ditch political maneuver to score points with her constituents before the runoff. Cassidy introduced the House version of the bill shortly thereafter.
This morning, anti-pipeline activists set up shop in front of Landrieu's residence in Washington:
If the bill passes, will President Obama sign it into law?
Probably not. At a press conference in Burma last week, Obama said that his "position hasn't changed" and that the approval process should go through the proper State Department channels. It's hard to imagine that after all of Obama's statements on Keystone's carbon footprint, the approval process, and his series ofclimate promises last week, he would capitulate on the pipeline merely for the benefit of one Senate Democrat who appears unlikely to win anyway. It seems more likely that he would save Keystone approval as a bargaining chip to keep the GOP-run Congress from attacking his other hard-wonclimate initiatives. We'll have to wait and see how this all plays out over the next few days.
This morning, the New York Times reported that President Obama is poised to announce a pledge of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations-administered account to help poor countries deal with climate change. That's the biggest single pledge of any country so far (see chart above); it doubles the total size of the fund and is a major step toward the UN's target of raising $15 billion before next month's climate talks in Lima, Peru. Other notable carbon emitters, such as the UK, are expected to announce contributions by the end of next week.
But viewed in a different context, the US contribution looks much less impressive. The idea behind the fund is to reconcile one of the cruel ironies of climate change: Many of the nations that will be hit hardest by global warming—countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, for example—have done very little to cause the problem. Bangladesh was recently ranked as the country that is most vulnerable to climate change, but its per-capita carbon dioxide emissions are 44 times smaller than the US's per-capita emissions, according to the World Bank. So the fund is meant to bridge the gap between the rich countries whose carbon pollution causing climate change and the poor countries that are suffering from it.
As the chart below shows, the US's contribution to the Green Climate Fund looks a lot smaller when it's adjusted to take into account America's extremely high emissions:
Cumulatively since 1980—the earliest year for which consistent data from the Energy Information Administration is available—the US has emitted more carbon than any other country, including China. (In 2008, China overtook the US as the leading annual carbon polluter). So it's probably fair to say that the US is more to blame for global warming than any other single country. And yet Obama's pledge to the Green Climate Fund only translates to about $17,100 per million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted from 1980 to 2012—placing it ninth among the 13 countries that have announced pledges. That's a bit like crashing a friend's car and only offering to pay to fix the steering wheel. By contrast, Sweden's pledge equates to $292,000 per million tons of CO2 emissions—17 times greater than the US pledge.
It's great and necessary that Obama is willing to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. But I think it's fair to say the US is getting away pretty cheap.
What a week! First President Barack Obama announces a massive climate agreement with China designed to lower both countries' carbon emissions while doubling down on clean energy development. Now this morning, the New York Times is reporting that the president will soon announce a $3 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund, a UN-administered account that will help developing countries clean their energy sectors and adapt to the impacts of global warming.
A $3 billion pledge from the United States would double the size of the fund; the biggest donations up to this point were $1 billion each from France and Germany. More countries are expected to make commitments at a UN meeting in Berlin next week. The fund's stated goal is to reach $15 billion before a key meeting next month in Lima, Peru.
Obama's pledge "is a strong and important signal to developing countries that the US is serious ahead of climate negotiations in 2015," said Alex Doukas, a sustainable finance analyst at the World Resources Institute.
From the Times:
It is not clear whether Mr. Obama's $3 billion pledge will come from existing sources of funding, or whether he will have to ask Congress to appropriate the money. Since 2010, the Obama administration has spent about $2.5 billion to help poor countries adapt to climate change and develop new clean sources of energy, but Republicans are certain to target additional requests for money linked to climate change and foreign aid.
So there are still some details to work out. But like the US-China climate deal, the most immediate impact of this pledge announcement will be to encourage other countries to up the ante on their own commitments.