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.
Wind turbines grace the North Dakota prairie.James West/Climate Desk
Jacob Susman is frustrated again. Sitting in the bright green conference room of his company's trendy industrial office, overshadowed by the Brooklyn Bridge, he's a clean-cut poster child for the "green economy": Since 2007, Susman's OwnEnergy, which installs wind turbines, has grown to be one of the nation's most prominent wind installers. But he's plagued by a recurring nightmare: "Every few years the industry has to drop everything for six or nine months and focus exclusively on having the credit passed."
He's talking about the Production Tax Credit, the federal subsidy for renewable energy that gives a 2.2-cent per kilowatt hour break to wind energy producers. Those pennies add up to about $1 billion per year, no chump change for the burgeoning industry. Proponents of wind energy say since its inception in 1992, the PTC has been a crucial driving force behind the industry's rapid growth; critics of the PTC (including the fossil-fuel funded American Energy Alliance) say the industry has had ample time to take off its training wheels (never mind that fossil fuel subsidies historically run about 13 times higher than renewables).
The subsidy has become a touchstone issue in the presidential campaign for windy swing states like Iowa and Colorado: Mitt Romney has referred to the PTC as a "stimulus boondoggle" and vowed to kill it, while President Obama has promised to give the credit his support. Every one to three years, as the PTC reaches its expiration date, it must be taken up, re-debated, re-tweaked, and re-approved by Congress, exposing it to shifting political whims particularly in a general election year where the future party spread is far from certain.
The PTC is set to expire at the end of this year, and uncertainty about whether Congress will extend it has led to layoffs and much anxiety in the industry. And while 2012 was a big year for wind, with 10 gigawatts installed nationwide by August and another gigawatt predicted by year's end (only 0.9 percent of total new power in the US, but nearly double the wind installed in 2011), projections for 2013 are grim: Estimates range from half to a tenth of that.
"Next year is already going to be a crash year for the wind industry," said Michel Di Capua, an analyst with Bloomberg Energy Finance.
But what happens next year is only the next iteration of a boom-bust cycle that has been the bane of the US wind industry for over a decade. The PTC has been allowed to expire three times in the past, and the industry has consistently tanked; even the possibility of expiration sends shivers up the spines of everyone from blue-collar factory workers to Manhattan investors. Breaking free of that cycle, Susman and other industry leaders interviewed by Climate Desk agree, is the industry's only hope for sustained long-term growth, and it starts with weaning the industry off the PTC once and for all.
The iPhone has become one of the developed world's most ubiquitous consumer products; the new iPhone 5 sold more than 5 million units in its first week. But the vast majority of iPhone users have no clue what goes into the guts of their coveted toy. That's no accident, since the phone's internal design and chemical content are closely guarded trade secrets and Apple deliberately makes it difficult for consumers to open up the device.
Enter Kyle Wiens, whose company, iFixit, aims to help users penetrate their gadgets' dark secrets, from how much toxic mercury they contain to how to change the damn battery. Last week, Climate Desk found shelter from a torrential rainstorm near one of New York City's Apple stores and watched Wiens go to work (see video above). Today, iFixit released the results of its chemical analysis of the iPhone 5 and a suite of other popular cellphones, conducted by the environmental nonprofit Ecology Center.
The good news: The iPhone 5 is far less toxic than the early models. The bad news: There's no such thing as a "green" phone.
First the good news: The iPhone 5 is leagues ahead of its more toxic predecessors—especially the original, 2G model. (The worst overall performers—most toxic first—were the iPhone 2G, Palm m125, Motorola MOTO W233 Renew, Nokia M95, BlackBerry Storm 9530, and Palm Treo 750.) The latest iPhone performed better on the toxins front than most rival models, including Samsung's Galaxy S III, and was only narrowly beaten out by the least-toxic phone examined, the Motorola Citrus.
Now the bad news: The iPhone 5 still tests high for mercury and chlorine, both of which can present serious healthhazards if they leach into local water supplies from a dump somewhere—typically in a poor area of China, Ghana, or India. It also contained trace amounts of bromine, which has been linked to thyroid cancer and lung disease. "There's no such thing as a 'green' phone," Wiens points out. "There's no such thing as a phone that has no toxic chemicals."
iFixit.comStill, the new iPhone looks great compared with its original progenitor, which contained an astonishing 1,020 times more bromine and 97 times more mercury than the current model, according to iFixit. But the point of all of this is less about any one phone's chemical components, and more about the need to curb our addiction to throwing away phones that could be fixed rather than dumped. "It's critically important to consume as few phones as possible, to conserve the resources we have," Wiens says.
Frank Turner rocks out Saturday night at New York City's Webster Hall. Tim McDonnell/Mother Jones
Greg Walker was sweating bullets. As the longtime tour bus driver for Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, he'd survived his fair share of long nights and rock and roll hijinks. But he'd never been onstage. Tonight that would change: Turner had asked his trusted chaffeur to jump in on harmonica for the final number. "And that's the problem," Walker told me on Saturday night, as he nervously lit another cigarette outside New York City's Webster Hall. "I don't play harmonica."
He needn't have worried. Walker's debut was a smashing success; he huffed and puffed with great aplomb. Not that it mattered much. For Turner, the technical execution of the harmonica solo was far less important than the chance to lodge a stick of dynamite into the wall that separates artistes from their blue-collar crews and rockstar from audience member. You see, Turner doesn't care much for walls. Since the launch of his solo career in 2006, the 30-year-old British punk-rocker-turned-folk-rocker has built many of his songs around themes of radical inclusivity: He writes songs about the value of friendship, about uniting the unruly rabble, about pacifying class warfare, and about the importance of not simply being a spectator in life. If he's going to play music in front of hundreds of New Yorkers, why shouldn't the bus driver?
Bus driver Greg Walker on the harmonica. Tim McDonnell/Mother JonesThe full depth of Turner's songbook was on display Saturday, in the first of two NYC shows capping off a US tour in advance of his newest release, Last Minutes & Lost Evenings, a "hand-picked" CD+DVD compilation of his last six years' choicest tunes. If Turner is new to you, Last Minutes... (out this week)is a bangup place to start, consisting of the backbone of the Turner canon to date. The songs deal plainly with the triumphs and tribulations of urban life as a young adult: loneliness and the euphoria of reversing it, helping friends who go off the rails, confronting fears of aging and wasted time, and, of course, learning how to fight off a raging hangover and find the right bus on Sunday morning after you've crashed in some completely foreign part of town.
Tim McDonnell/Mother Jones
One of the best tracks on the record (and live) is "Long Live the Queen," a true story about a friend who is losing a battle with terminal illness and who convinces Turner to bust her out of the hospital for one final drunken hurrah in the streets of London. Behind me in the audience, a pale, emaciated woman with close-shaved pate sobbed and sang along. Indeed, the audience knew at least as many of the song lyrics as Turner did—and in some cases more.
Markey: "Romney is an extremist on extreme weather."
In these first days of autumn, temperatures are finally starting to break after the country's third-hottest summer on record. But meanwhile, most of the country is still locked in terrible drought, rebuilding after wildfires, or drying out after Hurricane Issac. And after endlesscalls from scientists and signs that the public are shifting on climate change in response to extreme weather, climate-minded Democrats are seeing an opportunity to lampoon House Republicans as climate skeptics in the runup to November's general election.
Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the legislators behind Congress' first (and failed) big stab at carbon pricing legislation, yesterday released a study that lays out the case for why global warming is a predictor of more severe and frequent weather disasters. A press release for the study slammed Republicans as responding to extreme weather by taking steps to "deny science and block action," indicating that House Democrats have embraced climate change as wedge issue.
"We wanted to show that [Mitt] Romney is an extremist when it comes to extreme weather," Markey told reporters.
"We wanted to show that [Mitt] Romney is an extremist when it comes to extreme weather," Markey told reporters after addressing a Union of Concerned Scientists symposium in Washington on the need to improve public access to government research.
There's little that's groundbreaking in the study, which is built largely around pre-existing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But after this summer's freakish weather, and with one presidential candidate for whom climate change is a punchline, Markey said he is seeking to gain an acknowledgement in Congress that the weather we now see as extreme is likely to become normal. He's tried to make this case once before, in the short-lived Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was killed by House Republicans in 2010.
Despite the overtly political nature of the study's debut, Markey said his goal is to reprioritize science over politics in the Congressional debate about climate change.
UCS staff scientist Brenda Ekwurzel takes a red pen to misleading statements in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial. Tim McDonnell/Mother Jones
Brace yourself for some shocking news: a new study on Friday found that the two major publications of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation greatly mislead their audiences about climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists combed six months of Fox News broadcasting and a year's worth of Wall Street Journal editorial pages for mentions of the science of "climate change" and "global warming," then compared each claim to "mainstream scientific understanding" of the topic at hand. Here's what they found: