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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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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MAP: Is the Next Fukushima in Your Backyard?

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 4:52 PM EDT
Clockwise from top left: Byron Nuclear Station; Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant; Perry Nuclear Plant; Brunswick Steam Electric Plant. Each experienced a "near miss" in 2012.

Two years ago today, floodwaters from a massive, deadly earthquake/tsunami combo in Japan knocked out cooling equipment at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, resulting in what experts were quick to deign the second-worst nuclear disaster in history (after Chernobyl), after radioactive contamination touched everything from tuna to baby formula to butterflies. The $125 billion incident precipitated an identity crisis among the world's big users of nuclear power, particularly Germany, which was so spooked that it vowed to shut down every one of its nuke plants by 2022.

But here in the United States, there's no sign of any impending nuclear phaseout, despite the steady parade of meltdown scares reported in a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS dug into public data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the nuclear industry's top federal regulator, and found that, in 2012, 12 different nuclear power plants experienced "near miss" events, defined as an incident that multiplies the likelihood of a core meltdown by at least a factor of 10. The reasons range from broken coolant pumps to fires to "failures to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering secure areas"; in some cases aging equipment was at fault, and two plants were repeat offenders. One California plant already ranks high in vulnerability to earthquakes. In most cases, the study charges, weak oversight from the NRC was to blame.

In the map below, click on a plant to see what caused it to have a brush with meltdown in 2012:

The Scariest Climate Change Graph Just Got Scarier

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 3:05 PM EST
Average global temperature over the last ~2,000 years. Note the massive uptick on the far right side. Courtesy Science/AAAS

Back in 1999, Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann released the climate change movement's most potent symbol: The "hockey stick," a line graph of global temperature over the last 1,500 years that shows an unmistakable, massive uptick in the 20th century, when humans began to dump large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It's among the most compelling bits of proof out there that human beings are behind global warming, and as such has become a target on Mann's back for climate denialists looking to draw a bead on scientists.

Today, it's getting a makeover: A study published in Science reconstructs global temperatures further back than ever before—a full 11,300 years. The new analysis finds that the only problem with Mann's hockey stick was that its handle was about 9,000 years too short. The rate of warming over the last 100 years hasn't been seen for as far back as the advent of agriculture.

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Marcott's team used ocean records to reconstruct global climate further back in time than ever before. Courtesy Science/AAAS

To be clear, the study finds that temperatures in about a fifth of this historical period were higher than they are today. But the key, said lead author Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University, is that temperatures are shooting through the roof faster than we've ever seen.

"What we found is that temperatures increased in the last hundred years as much as they had cooled in the last six or seven thousand," he said. "In other words, the rate of change is much greater than anything we've seen in the whole Holocene," referring to the current geologic time period, which began around 11,500 years ago.

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.

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.

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