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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How Climate Change Worsened Violence in Syria

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 3:56 PM EST
Syrian rebels rally in Aleppo last November.

In October 2010, just months before a Tunisian street vendor self-immolated and sparked what would become the Arab Spring, a prolonged drought was turning Syria's verdant farmland into dust. By last month, more than 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, had been killed in the brutal and ongoing conflict between President Bashar al-Assad's dictatorial regime and a coalition of opposition forces; just today, the UN announced that over one million refugees fled the country in the last two years. International security experts are now looking at the connection between recent droughts in the Middle East and the protests, revolutions, and deaths that followed, and building a body of evidence to suggest that climate change played a key role in Syria's violence and the Arab Spring generally.

The possibility that climate change could affect security is nothing new: The US Department of Defense has proven to be surprisingly progressive on planning for global warming. But Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia, co-founders of the Washington-based Center for Climate and Security, argue that if you want to see the connection between climate and conflict in action today, look no further than Syria. The pair contributed to a series of essays released last week by the Center for American Progress, all arguing that the Arab Spring is a textbook example of the link between climate change and social instability. Climate Desk called them up to discuss how lack of rainfall leads into violent uprising, and how the international community can prepare for the future of extreme weather.

Climate Desk: How does climate change play into civil unrest? Where does it rank compared to other violence-causing factors?

Caitlin Werrell: We use the term "threat multiplier" or "accelerant of instability," in the sense that climate change can exacerbate other threats to national or international security. The way it does that is often through water: You have an increased prevalence of drought or floods or changing rainfall patterns, and what this does is it changes your ability to grow food, it has impacts on food security, it influences your ability to produce energy, it influences your infrastructure.

Francesco Femia: We wouldn't actually rank climate change amongst other factors; we would say that climate change is one of those almost special factors that exacerbates other drivers of unrest and/or conflict. It just makes other drivers of unrest worse.

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Can This Contraption Make Fracking Greener?

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 4:04 PM EST
This computer can sniff out and pinpoint methane emissions from fracking.

Although natural gas production emits less CO2 than other fossil fuels, it still spits plenty of junk into the atmosphere. But backers of a new gadget released yesterday say they've hit on a way to help frackers clean up their act.

Boosters of natural gas often flaunt the stuff as a "clean" fossil fuel, because when it burns—in a power plant, say—it releases far less carbon dioxide than coal or oil. But with the growth of fracking nationwide, some academics and environmentalists have flagged a silent problem that threatens to undermine the purported climate gains of natural gas: "fugitive" methane emissions.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, even more so than CO2 over the short-term. And natural gas production creates a lot of it: The EPA predicts that methane from the natural gas industry will be one of the top sources of non-CO2 emissions in coming decades. A 2011 federal study found that taken all around, the total greenhouse footprint for shale gas could be up to twice that of coal over a 20-year period. The catch is that it doesn't have to be so bad. Much of that methane is leaking out (hence "fugitive") unnecessarily from gas wells, pipelines, and storage facilities—so much so that the Environmental Defense Fund calls methane leakage from natural gas operations "the single largest US source of short-term climate-forcing gases".

But nailing down exactly how much methane leakage there is has proved a bit challenging: Some independent academic studies say up to nine percent of all the natural gas extracted leaks out, while the official EPA figure is less than three percent. Academics, government agencies, and environmental NGOs are at work to shore up this figure, but the effort can be costly and require teams of specialized physicists and chemists. 

Enter Picarro, a California-based scientific instrument company that yesterday released a new gadget the company says will streamline locating leaks and finding out how much methane is streaming out of them. The "Surveyor" attaches to any car, and consists of a computer, an air sampling hose, and a GPS device. Together, says Picarro CEO Michael Woelk, they can sniff out methane and pinpoint the exact spot—like a crack in a pipe—it's coming from, then feed the data to any web-enabled mobile device in a format understandable without an atmospheric physics PhD. 

"All we have to do is drive downwind of the source," Woelk said.

TIMELINE: Shell's Year of Arctic Screwups

| Fri Mar. 1, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Last August, Shell got a long-awaited go-ahead from US regulators to begin exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic. It's a potential gold mine for the company—up to a fifth of the world's untapped oil resources are in the Arctic. But instead of rolling in cash, Shell ended up getting rolled by one disaster after another, culminating in the crash in January of drilling rig and a subsequent investigation by the feds. And that was only the next act in a comedy of errors that's been unfolding for over a year, and that finally ended—for now, anyway—this week, when the company announced it would "pause" its Arctic operations. Here's a look back at Shell's tumultuous run in the Arctic, featuring coverage by our Climate Desk partners:

Top 4 Reasons the US Still Doesn't Have a Single Offshore Wind Turbine

| Thu Feb. 28, 2013 7:07 AM EST

"Jack-up" ships like this are needed to drive massive offshore wind turbines into the seafloor. There's not a single one in the US.

Despite massive growth of the offshore wind industry in Europe, a blossoming array of land-based wind turbines stateside, and plenty of wind to spare, the United States has yet to sink even one turbine in the ocean. Not exactly the kind of leadership on renewables President Obama called for in his recent State of the Union address.

Light is just beginning to flicker at the end of the tunnel: On Tuesday, outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a gathering of offshore industry leaders he was optimistic the long-embattled Cape Wind project would break ground before year's end. And in early January industry advocates managed to convince Congress to extend a critical tax incentive for another year.

But America's small-yet-dedicated entrepreneurial corps of offshore developers are still chasing "wet steel," as they call it, while their European and Asian colleagues forge ahead on making offshore wind a basic component of their energy plans. So what's the holdup? Here's a look at the top reasons that offshore wind remains elusive in the United States:

Salazar: On Energy, Expect Four More Years of the Same

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 7:12 PM EST
Ken Salazar confers with the heads of Cape Wind, which he predicts will this year become the US's first offshore wind farm to break ground.

If you aren't happy with President Obama's plan for powering the US, don't hold your breath for any changes in his second term.

Speaking today to a conference of leaders of the offshore wind industry in Boston, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar hinted at the nation's energy future. "It's going to be very much a continuation agenda," Salazar said of Sally Jewell, Obama's pick to succeed him.

Salazar noted with pride how in Obama's first term, the equivalent of 30 fossil-fuel-fired power plants worth of renewable energy projects have been approved for public lands, a trend he's confident will continue into the future. But stashed away in his remarks was also a renewed commitment to growing fracking nationwide and oil drilling in the Alaskan arctic, two key aspects of Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy policy that have drawn fire from environmentalists, and which Salazar equated with renewables as "very important" components of America's energy plan going forward.

Salazar: Obama's second term is "going to be very much a continuation agenda."

Salazar, making a rare public appearance without his signature Stetson hat, closed his speech with an excerpt from Obama's recent State of the Union address, wherein the president called on America to be a leader on renewables. But later, speaking to reporters, Salazar expressed ambivalence about the Keystone XL pipeline, saying only that he supported the president's review process and he trusted incoming State Secretary John Kerry, with whom the ultimate call on Keystone XL rests, to make the right decision. He also sidestepped a question about the risks of fracking, saying that "shale gas has a lot of promise for energy security in the US. We will be implementing an agenda that takes advantage of it all."

During his time in Obama's cabinet, Salazar embraced climate change as an issue, overseeing the granting of the US' first two offshore wind permits and helping to draft a regulatory structure for building solar farms, wind turbines, and other renewable energy projects on the 250 million acres of public land managed by his Bureau of Land Management. But Salazar also signed off last year on permits for Shell to drill for oil off Alaska, and has indicated that more Arctic drilling is likely, despite Shell's comedy of errors there this winter.

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