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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The Drought Is Drying Up All Our Ethanol

| Wed Apr. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Bill Pracht has bad memories of last summer. "The drought was so bad here that the corn was just decimated," he recalls of the farm country around Garnett, Kan., where he oversees East Kansas Agri-Energy, an ethanol plant. "Many fields were zero."

In August, corn prices hit their highest level ever, driven mainly by the severe drought that crippled America's corn belt. By October, Pracht could see that he was spending more on corn than he could make with ethanol, and with no relief in sight, he began to have doubts about keeping the plant open.

"We knew we'd be wasting money," he says.

So, he pulled the plug, shuttering the plant and laying off twenty employees until conditions improve enough to make churning out what was until recently one of the nation's fastest-growing fuel sources profitable again. And as the EPA nears a final decision on new regulations that would require oil companies to use more ethanol in their gasoline mixes, Pracht's story illustrates a risk of increasing reliance on corn-based fuels in a warming world.

Pracht isn't alone: Over the last year, nearly 10 percent of the nation's ethanol plants have shut down. Annual corn yields came in almost a third lower than projected, according to the USDA, driving record-high corn prices that are likely to continue to rise into 2013, up to 19 percent higher than 2011-2012 averages. Overall, 2012 was the first year since 1996 (another drought year) in which total ethanol production decreased (by 4.5 percent), reversing a trend of exponential growth that's lasted almost a decade, according to the federal Energy Information Administration:

drought ethanol
Tim McDonnell

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Watch: Alan Lomax's Treasures Land on Ebay

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

If you're a fan of American roots and blues music, you owe Alan Lomax a big thank you. Lomax spent a lifetime, beginning in the 1940s, traversing the American south—not to mention England, the Caribbean, and many other places—armed with a tape recorder. His quarry: Folk music that had never been recorded before. In the course of his research, he discovered some of our most important folk musicians: Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Son House, to name a few. In time, these pickers and singers would go on to inspire everyone from the Beatles to Kurt Cobain to Jack White.

For decades, Lomax worked out of a suite of offices tucked into an ugly blue warehouse behind New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal. When he died in 2002 at the age of 87, his office became the Alan Lomax Archive, home to his vast collection of recordings, records, correspondence, and equipment. Most of his field recordings now live at the Library of Congress, but the archive still holds his personal caches. Now, the building is being sold and the archive is being forced to move across town to a smaller space. Director Don Fleming is faced with the difficult and delicate task of deciding what to keep—and what to put up for sale.

Additional production by James West

Click here for more music coverage from Mother Jones.

How Much Is a Beachfront Home in the Sandy-Ravaged Rockaways Worth?

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 1:05 PM EDT

257 Beach 140th Street, a modest four-bedroom house blocks from the beach in Rockaways, Queens, is fairly unremarkable, but it put up a hell of a fight during Hurricane Sandy. While other houses just down the street were being ripped off their foundations, 257, which had been up for sale since before the storm, suffered only a little flooding in the basement. It's otherwise unscathed, but even that damage was enough to knock a solid 10 percent off its list price (down to $799,000 from $890,000), enough to make first-time homebuyers Matthew and Jenny Daly take a closer look.

"There are more opportunities because of everything that's happened in the last six months," Matthew says.

In New York City alone, Sandy racked up $3.1 billion worth of damage to homes. Many of those properties in hard-hit areas like the Rockaways and the south shore of Staten Island are still empty, awaiting repairs, government buyouts, resident squatters, or like in the case of 257, a new owner ready to tackle a fixer-upper. Damaged homes are now on the market for as much as 60 percent off their pre-storm value, and local realtors say there's a ready contingent of bargain-hunters waiting to pounce—sometimes, to the detriment of sellers.

Climate Change Could Mean Seven Times As Many Katrinas

| Mon Mar. 18, 2013 3:43 PM EDT

Batten down the hatches, East Coasters: A new study argues that for every one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees F) of global warming, the US Atlantic seaboard could see up to seven times as many Katrina-sized hurricanes.

That's the conclusion of Aslak Grinsted, a climatologist at Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute, who led an effort to match East Coast storm surge records from the last 90 years with global temperatures. His results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the strongest hurricanes are likely to become more commonplace with only half the level of warming currently projected by scientists.

Red represents hurricane projections with one degree (C) global warming; blue represents no warming. The gap between these lines suggests that a warmer climate will produce more frequent hurricanes; the gap is widest at the top, meaning the biggest increase will be with the biggest storms. Courtesy PNAS

"There is a sensitivity to warming, and it is surprisingly large," Grinsted said.

The study compiled storm surge measurements from tide gauges at six locations on the East and Gulf Coasts, filtering out the effects of seasonal cycles, daily tides, and overall sea level rise to isolate the impact of storms. Next, these records were stacked against both global temperatures and a series of other climatic factors, like natural water temperature cycles and regional rainfall. The result? Global temperatures turned out to be one of the best predictors for hurricane activity. Using computer models, Grinsted found that a one-degree (C) rise in global temperatures could multiply extreme hurricane frequency by two to seven times.

When it comes to extreme weather, hurricanes are among the most costly events—and also among the least understood. Most of our understanding of the link between hurricanes and climate change traces to a research paper released in 2010 that argued that hurricanes worldwide could become up to eleven percent more intense by 2100; Grinsted's research adds the wrinkle that the biggest storms, in addition to becoming bigger, are likely to happen more often. That is, in the US: Grinsted said exact projections would likely differ for other coastlines across the world.

Could Waxman's New Bill Offer New Hope for a Carbon Tax?

| Tue Mar. 12, 2013 7:23 PM EDT
Clockwise from top left: Whitehouse, Blumenauer, Waxman, Schatz

It's been a few years now since Representatives Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) led an ambitious but doomed charge to get a carbon-pricing bill through Congress.

But in the wake of President Obama's climate-centric State of the Union and Inaugural addresses, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are grinding out bills that would make polluters pay for their greenhouse gas emissions. Last month, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced plans to introduce a bill this spring to place a $20-per-ton tax on CO2, a move they argue could raise $1.2 trillion over the next decade. And today, Rep. Waxman, along with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), hopped on the bandwagon with their own draft carbon-pricing scheme. Waxman's legislation hasn't been formally introduced into Congress, but is open for public feedback until April 12.

The two bills both aim to confront climate change by harnessing the power of the free market, a spokesperson for Rep. Waxman said, but offer different mechanisms for doing so. The Waxman bill would target power plants, for example, while the Boxer bill would focus on "upstream" emitters like coal mines and oil refineries. But both bills are likely to undergo tweaks before being officially introduced.

The as-yet-unnamed Waxman bill would require the EPA and Treasury Department to collaborate on assessing how much big polluters are emitting, and levying an appropriate fee.

The exact price per ton of carbon pollution is still an open question (the lawmakers are seeking public input on this and other issues), but the draft bill purports to be based on the principle that "all revenue generated by the carbon pollution fee should be returned the American people." Options for this could include using the money to lower the federal deficit, or helping the public shoulder higher energy costs.

Franz Matzner, a government affairs analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said despite the bad track record for past bills like this, now isn't the time to be cynical.

"Waxman and the others have done exactly the right thing in putting this bill out," he said, "and reminding Congress that there's important work to be done on their end for climate change."

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