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.
Coal use in the US is on the decline, and renewables and natural gas are both expanding to take its place. Courtesy BNEF
It's no secret that environmentalists are going through a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to natural gas. Celebrities including Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, and Yoko Ono have aligned themselves with green groups like the Sierra Club to come out steadfastly against gas because of fracking, the drilling technique that harvests most of it, citing concerns about water and air contamination. Meanwhile others, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Environmental Defense Fund, have boosted fracking as a "bridge" to wean the US off of coal, and usher in more renewables, a process that is already underway.
But a report released this morning makes it clear that the renewables industry sees itself in the latter camp, forming an unexpected alliance with the natural gas industry, since both groups are intent on giving coal the boot. The informal partnership should be a PR boon to the embattled gas industry, which has spent the last several years trying to allay concerns from the public and policymakers by shouting over the anti-fracking fracas.
Last month Fox News reported on the "grizzly deaths" of 500 songbirds in West Virginia. Behind the fell deed: a wind farm, caught red-turbined. "To date, the Obama administration... has not prosecuted a single case against the wind industry," the Fox reporter laments. Opponents of renewable energy love to trot out the risk wind turbines pose to birds, and some engineering work has gone into making them more avian-friendly. But a new study released today in Nature shows that if you really want to protect birds, forget about wind: You need to lock up Kitty.
Chart by Tim McDonnell
The study, conducted by scientists from US Fish & Wildlife and the Smithsonian, found that "free-ranging cats... are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals." No word yet on whether the Obama administration plans to prosecute these renegade felines.
Tony Lazzara has forked out $20,000 of his own money for storm repairs.
When Hurricane Sandy struck Staten Island, it dumped three feet of seawater into Tony Lazzara's basement, just up the road from where two lives became some of the earliest fatalities of the storm. When Climate Desk first met Lazzara, he was dragging sopping furniture out onto the street. Three months later he's still drying out, juggling contractors and insurance agents, and trying to stanch the steady hemorrhaging of his checking account.
"I had a refrigerator, washer, an oven, beautiful cabinets, bedroom sets, couches, you name it," Lazzara says. His insurance didn't help nearly enough, he says: So far, he's had to fork out $20,000 from his own pocket. At least Lazarra still has his home; the same can't be said for the 3,500 families displaced by the storm in New York and New Jersey. Still, his challenges are by now all too familiar to countless Tri-State families for whom the last three months have been an uphill battle to get back on their feet and squeeze aid out of insurance companies and government programs.
"Three months is a lifetime for some people," Lazzara says. "Can you imagine being displaced for three months?"
Firefighters rest after the devastating Breezy Point inferno. James West/Climate Desk
Lazzara and folks like him caught a much-needed break yesterday when Congress, after much hemming and hawing, finally passed a $50 billion aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy—despite opposition from 31 GOP Senators who had previously supported emergency relief in their homes states. While much of the money will go to local governments (to repair infrastructure, reimburse emergency spending, and rebuilding the damaged coastline), some is destined for the pockets of people like Lazzara, whose homes were damaged or destroyed, and to business owners who suffered storm-related losses (the storm's total pricetag is estimated at $50 billion). But Lazzara says he's a long way from popping a bottle of champagne: Bad communication, neglect, and perceived mismanagement by government agencies like FEMA in the storm's wake left him and his neighbors suspicious and cynical about ever actually receiving a check.
"That money's going to sit in limbo forever," he says, "There's going to be a big fight about it again."
Coral reefs already have a lot on their plate: ocean acidification and warming, damage by extreme storms, water pollution from industrial runoff, even crazy invasive starfish. Now, it seems, the big momma of all reefs, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, is also under siege by fossil fuel development being pushed by the recently elected conservative Queensland state government. The risk is great enough that UNESCO has threatened to strip the reef of its World Heritage Site status this year, if not more is done to protect it.
"It would be an international shame for Australia and send a shocking message that even the wealthiest nations can't manage their reefs," Felicity Wishart, director of Fight for the Reef, said. The campaign is a newly-formed coaltion between the World Wildlife Fund and the Australian Marine Conservation Society to pressure the state and federal governments to curb industrial development near the reef.
Comparative size of Great Barrier Reef World Heritage site. Courtesy Australian Government
Wishart said a suite of more than 60 proposed industrial facilities, mostly to facilitate coal exports, are being considered for the Queensland coast, off of which the reef is located. If built, she said, they would nearly double the amount of ship traffic over the reef, posing the risk of physical collisions and oil spills, and necessitate dredging the ocean floor nearby, adding to sediment contamination that can block the sunlight the corals need to thrive.
Last year UNESCO decided the threats were enough to warrant dispatching a team to investigate; it drafted a series of recommendations for the state and federal governments, which are due to issue a response by Feb. 1. If the World Heritage folks aren't sufficiently impressed, they could demote the reef to "World Heritage in Danger" status, along with another large reef in Belize where chunks were sold off for development, a historic Buddhist landmark in Afghanistan that was sacked by the Taliban, and a host of other brutalized spots. World Heritage listing doesn't confer any specific legal protection per se (in the way that, say, officially designating habitat for an endangered species in the US would); rather, UNESCO provides guidance for local governments to better manage the sites. Still, the demotion could deal an embarrassing blow to the $5 billion tourism industry the reef supports—designation is largely seen as a major tourist draw, and getting booted from the list could send the signal that the reef just ain't what it used to be.
Environmentalists waging an ongoing fight against the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt a major setback this week when Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed off on the pipe's route through his state. Now all that stands between TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, and broken ground is a signature from the State Department, the final decision about which is expected this spring.
Between now and then, the sprawling unofficial coalition of green individuals and groups that have bonded in the last two years over opposition to the pipeline is gearing up for a final push. It's certain to be an uphill battle: Yesterday a letter signed by 53 senators put renewed pressure on Obama to say yes, and other than the rare rhetorical nod to climate action there are few clues that he'll nix the project*. So the rhetoric of the next couple months could make or break the pipeline.
Opposition to the Keystone XL has tended to coalesce around two different arguments, the tools in the anti-Keystone toolbelt: The first is that the pipe could deal a deadly blow to the global climate by raising the floodgates for oil from Canada's tar sands, believed by scientists to be one of Earth's dirtiest fuel sources; the second is that the pipe could pose a slew of localized threats on its path from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, from potential leaks contaminating groundwater to careless work crews plowing through fragile dinosaur fossil beds. Governor Heineman's decision seems to close the book on the state-level fight and steal some thunder from the localized argument, but leading Nebraska activist Jane Kleeb says local landowners aren't ready to cede their home turf quite yet.
"Oh yeah, it's far from over. We have landowners asking us to train them in civil disobedience," Kleeb said. "These folks are not joking around. They homesteaded this land. They don't trust this company. And they don't want [the pipeline]. So they're going to do everything they can to keep it from crossing their lines."