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.
For President Obama, fracking is a key weapon against global warming. Abundant natural gas, he said in his State of the Union address this year, is a "bridge fuel" to ubiquitous renewable energy—the key to securing economic growth "with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change."
Not everyone agrees. In fact, the debate over whether natural gas is the antidote to our deadly addiction to coal, or a faux climate change solution that will stall the clean energy revolution, is one of the most hotly contested environmental questions of the day. It has produced a host of recent studies examining complex questions about global energy markets and the specific chemistry of various greenhouse gases. The latest volley in that debate is out today in a new paper in Nature.
Rolling together a suite of models that project energy use, economic activity, and climate systems through to 2050, the study finds that natural gas is essentially useless as a climate solution unless it is buttressed by new policies that discourage carbon pollution and promote investment in renewable energy.
In other words, fracking alone won't save us.
"In the absence of policies that help natural gas play a positive role, you won't make things much better," said Jae Edmonds, Chief Scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute and one of the study's lead authors. "It's kind of a wash."
The study compares two constructed scenarios: "conventional" gas, in which the fracking boom never happens and the world produces shale gas only on the level it can with older technologies; and "abundant" gas, where gas supplies shoot up and the cost drops as fracking technology developed in the US spreads across the globe. Our actual reality is somewhere in between those two extremes, Edmonds admits; the idea is to set up a "bounding exercise" to see what a fully realized global shale revolution would really look like, compared to a baseline where it doesn't happen at all.
The submarine USS Annapolis breaks through three feet of ice in the Arctic Ocean during an exercise in 2009. A report today from the Pentagon calls for an increased US military presence in the Arctic.
In one of its strongest statements yet on the need to prepare for climate change, the Defense Department today released a report that says global warming "poses immediate risks to US national security" and will exacerbate national security-related threats ranging "from infectious disease to terrorism."
The report, embedded below, builds on climate readiness planning at the Pentagon that stretches back to the George W. Bush administration. But today's report is the first to frame climate change as a serious near-term challenge for strategic military operations; previous reports have tended to focus on long-term threats to bases and other infrastructure.
The report "is quite an evolution of the DoD's thinking on understanding and addressing climate threats," said Francesco Femia, co-director of the Center for Climate and Security. "The Department is not looking out into the future, it's looking at what's happening now."
Yellow lines show the movement of radio-tracked walruses in 2013; the green highlighted section is where offshore drilling leases are available. USGS
Remember that jaw-dropping photo from last week that showed 35,000 walruses crammed onto a narrow strip of land because they couldn't find enough space on the disappearing Arctic sea ice? Turns out melting ice isn't the only thing the walruses have to worry about.
Last month, the energy blog Fuel Fix reported on details of Shell's newest plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. The company has a history of failure in the Arctic since it first got a federal green-light to explore there in 2012. Now they'll be heading back out next summer for another try, with up to six new wells in the Chukchi Sea.
The ocean expanse north of Alaska where Shell wants to drill is the most popular hangout for Alaskan walruses, as the map above, from a US Geological Survey study of walruses last year, shows. The yellow lines show the movements of a group of walruses over a two-week period in July 2013; red X's mark where researchers deployed radio tags on the walruses. The green outline indicates the cluster of Arctic oil drilling lease locations administered by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, including those Shell is eyeing. The wells would be upstream of Hanna Shoals, a biologically rich shallow shelf that tends to hold sea ice longer than other areas.
The Shoals are vital walrus habitat, especially as climate change diminishes sea ice throughout the Arctic, said Margaret Williams, Arctic programs director for the World Wildlife Fund. Risks to the walruses (and other marine life, for that matter) include disturbance by ship traffic and the fallout from oil spills. Spill cleanup is particularly challenging in icy waters, and the nearest Coast Guard station is across the state in Kodiak.
"It's an amazing place that is full of life, with a very rich food chain," Willaims said. If oil and gas drilling goes forward, "you have a huge potential mess."
Solar panels adorn the roof of a Walmart store in Arizona.
Walmart loves solar power—as long as it's on their roof, and not yours.
That's the takeaway from a report released today by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which found that between 2010 and 2013 the Walton Family Foundation has donated just under $4.5 million to groups like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which have worked to impede state-level policies that promote clean energy.
The funny thing is that Walmart, the world's biggest company, is also the world's biggest commercial solar user. Indeed, solar power is a key aspect of its much-touted green makeover. According to data released last year from the Solar Energy Industries Association, Walmart has 89 megawatts of installed solar capacity on its retail rooftops. That's twice the capacity of second-ranked Costco and more than the total capacity of 37 individual states. Of course, those figures are less impressive when looked at in a light that better reflects the company's mind-boggling size: Less than 3 percent of the company's total power comes from renewables—including solar, wind, and biogas—according to EPA data.
Here's the list of groups receiving funding from the Walton Foundation that have taken positions against state-level clean energy policies, according to the report:
Courtesy Institute for Local Self-Reliance
The dollar figures in the chart above come from the Walton Family Foundation's last four annual reports. All the groups listed, Mitchell said, have opposed state-level clean energy policies like renewable portfolio standards or net-metering, both of which are key tools in helping more households go solar.
Clearly the groups listed here are involved in a host of conservative and free-market issues beyond energy, so there's no direct evidence that the Waltons' foundation donated to these groups because of their opposition to policies promoting renewables. Indeed, a foundation spokesperson said that the report is misleading because it ignores the foundation's donations to environmental groups and instead "chooses to focus on a handful of grants none of which were designated for renewable energy-related issues."
But backing groups like this has a direct impact on the growth of clean energy, Mitchell said.
The upshot, she said, is "not that their vision of the future doesn't include some solar power. It's just solar power they own and control."
This an image from a NOAA research flight over a remote stretch of Alaska's north shore on Saturday. It shows approximately 35,000 walruses crowded on a beach, which according to the AP is a record number for this survey program.
Bear in mind that each of the little brown dots in this image can weigh over 4,000 pounds, placing them high in the running to be the world's biggest climate refugees.
Why are so many walruses "hauled out" on this narrow strip of land? Part of the reason is that there's not enough sea ice for them to rest on, according to NOAA.
On September 17, Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent for 2014, which according to federal data is the sixth-lowest coverage since the satellite record began in 1979.
"The massive concentration of walruses onshore—when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters—is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic," Margaret Williams, the managing director of WWF's Arctic program, said in a statement.
If you've ever seen these blubbery beasts duke it out, then you know there's some serious marine mammal mayhem in store. Thanks, climate change!