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.
Polar bears approach the submarine USS Honolulu near the North Pole.
On Wednesday, when President Barack Obama spoke at the US Coast Guard Academy's commencement ceremony, he called climate change "an immediate risk to our national security." In recent months, the Obama administration has repeatedly highlighted the international threats posed by global warming and has emphasized the need for the country's national security agencies to study and confront the issue.
So some national security experts were surprised to learn that an important component of that effort has been ended. A CIA spokesperson confirmed to Climate Desk that the agency is shuttering its main climate research program. Under the program, known as Medea, the CIA had allowed civilian scientists to access classified data—such as ocean temperature and tidal readings gathered by Navy submarines and topography data collected by spy satellites—in an effort to glean insights about how global warming could create security threats around the world. In theory, the program benefited both sides: Scientists could study environmental data that was much higher-resolution than they would normally have access to, and the CIA received research insights about climate-related threats.
But now, the program has come to a close.
"Under the Medea program to examine the implications of climate change, CIA participated in various projects," a CIA spokesperson explained in a statement. "These projects have been completed and CIA will employ these research results and engage external experts as it continues to evaluate the national security implications of climate change."
"There's a growing gap between what we can currently get our hands on, and what we need to respond better," said security expert Marc Levy.
The program was originally launched in 1992 during the George H.W. Bush administration and was later shut down during President George W. Bush's term. It was re-launched under the Obama administration in 2010, with the aim of providing security clearances to roughly 60 climate scientists. Those scientists were given access to classified information that could be useful for researching global warming and tracking environmental changes that could have national security implications. Data gathered by the military and intelligence agencies is often of much higher quality than what civilian scientists normally work with.
In some cases, that data could then be declassified and published, although Francesco Femia, co-director of the Center for Climate and Security, said it is usually impossible to know whether any particular study includes data from Medea. "You wouldn't see [Medea] referenced anywhere" in a peer-reviewed paper, he said. But he pointed to the CIA's annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, which includes multiple references to climate change, as a probable Medea product, where the CIA likely partnered with civilian scientists to analyze classified data.
With the closure of the program, it remains unclear how much of this sort of data will remain off-limits to climate scientists. The CIA did not respond to questions about what is currently being done with the data that would have been available under the program.
Marc Levy, a Columbia University political scientist, said he was surprised to learn that Medea had been shut down. "The climate problems are getting worse in a way that our data systems are not equipped to handle," said Levy, who was not a participant in the CIA program but has worked closely with the US intelligence community on climate issues since the 1990s. "There's a growing gap between what we can currently get our hands on, and what we need to respond better. So that's inconsistent with the idea that Medea has run out of useful things to do."
The program had some notable successes. During the Clinton administration, Levy said, it gave researchers access to classified data on sea ice measurements taken by submarines, an invaluable resource for scientists studying climate change at the poles. And last fall, NASA released a trove of high-resolution satellite elevation maps that can be used to project the impacts of flooding. But Levy said the Defense Department possesses even higher-quality satellite maps that have not been released.
Still, it's possible Medea had outlived its useful life, said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a 23-year veteran of the CIA who had first-hand knowledge of the program before leaving the agency in 2009. He said he was not surprised to see Medea close down.
"In my judgment, the CIA is not the best lead agency for the issue; the agency's 'in-box' is already overflowing with today's threats and challenges," he said via email. "CIA has little strategic planning reserves, relatively speaking, and its overseas presence is heavily action-oriented."
Sen. John Barrasso said the CIA "should be focused on monitoring terrorists in caves, not polar bears on icebergs."
Over the past several years, climate change has gained prominence among defense experts, many of whom see it as a "threat multiplier" that can exacerbate crises such as infectious disease and terrorism. Medea had been part of a larger network of climate-related initiatives across the national security community. Medea's closure notwithstanding, that network appears to be growing. Last fall, Obama issued an executive order calling on federal agencies to collaborate on developing and sharing climate data and making it accessible to the public.
But the CIA's work on climate change has drawn heavy fire from a group of congressional Republicans led by Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.). Barrasso said last year that he believes that "the climate is constantly changing" and that "the role human activity plays is not known." He recently authored an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he listed the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere as "greater challenges" than climate change. (The Syrian civil war, however, was likely worsened by climate change.)
Around the time Medea was re-instated by the Obama administration, the CIA formed a new office to oversee climate efforts called the Center for Climate Change. At the time, Barrasso said the spy agency "should be focused on monitoring terrorists in caves, not polar bears on icebergs." That office was closed in 2012 (the agency wouldn't say why), leaving Medea as the CIA's main climate research program.
So does the conclusion of Medea signal that the CIA is throwing in the towel on climate altogether? Unlikely, according to Femia. At this point, he said, US security agencies, including the CIA, are still sorting out what resources they can best offer in the effort to adapt to climate change. Regardless of whether the CIA is facilitating civilian research, he said, "continuing to integrate climate change information into its assessments of both unstable and stable regions of the world will be critical."
"Otherwise," added Femia, "we will have a blind spot that prevents us from adequately protecting the United States."
A solar panel charges in front of a house in West Bengal, India.
China is by far the world's biggest investor in clean energy technologies like solar and wind. Last year, its clean energy spending hit a record $83 billion, a 39 percent jump from the year before, and more than twice what is spent in the United States.
Although America and most other G20 nations are moving toward a clean energy overhaul, its the developing world where you'll find the most explosive growth: When you add in emerging markets like Brazil, India, and South Africa, clean energy investment in developing countries totaled $131 billion in 2014, only six percent less than the combined total for developed countries. It's the closest that gap has ever been, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF):
That gap will soon close, and then start growing in the other direction, according to a new report from the Pew Trust. Based on financial data from BNEF, the report's authors project that more than $7 trillion will be invested in new energy systems by 2030, two-thirds of it in developing countries. (Pew's analysis doesn't put China in that category.) Roughly $5 trillion of it will be clean energy investment.
It's no mystery why developing countries are positioning themselves to win this race. For one, they need the electricity. As it stands, more than 1.3 billion people, mostly in Asia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa, live without access to reliable modern service:
If you want to bring electricity to places without a power grid, renewables have lots of advantages. For one, it's far cheaper and faster to build a solar or wind farm than a coal or gas-fired generation plant. And renewables can be built locally, on a small scale, eliminating the need for long-distance transmission lines. Consider what happened with cellphones: Mobile technology became cheap and ubiquitous before many African nations had landline networks, so people just "leapfrogged" straight to wireless.
The same phenomenon is afoot in the energy market, says Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, who was not involved with the Pew report. "I don't have any doubt that over the next two generations we'll see colossal investments in the energy sector in many African countries" and in India.
Compare the maps above and below. You'll note a strong connection between so-called energy poverty (above) and future power demand (below), in Africa especially. This is hardly surprising, but only in the past few years has renewable energy has become affordable and accessible enough to get the transformation rolling.
Energy poverty isn't the only factor driving clean energy's growth. In Bulgaria or Ukraine, both of which Pew identified as key places for energy investment in the developing world, the growth is driven by a desire to wrest control from foreign fossil fuel suppliers, i.e. Russia's Gazprom. That's according to Phyllis Cuttino, a clean energy analyst who authored the Pew report. "These countries want to have sources they don't have to import, and they want to stimulate economic growth," she said.
It seems certain that the next few decades will see much more money invested in clean energy than in fossil fuels.
The report also identified Kenya, Peru, Taiwan, Morocco, Vietnam, Pakistan, and the Philippines as top attractors of clean energy investment. For now, anyway: The lineup may change from year to year in response to domestic policies (mandates, subsidies, etc.). And Moss said that the report underestimates the role African countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia will play. Still, many developing countries are in for internal political battles over clean energy, of the sort that we've seen, and are still fighting, in the United States.
African utility companies also often struggle with bad credit histories, Moss said, which can make it difficult to secure loans from the World Bank or other international institutions. "The key to unlocking investment in the power sector is getting a long-term, credit-worthy deal," he said.
Regardless of which countries come out ahead, we're almost certain to see far more money invested in clean energy than in fossil fuels over the next few decades. In the charts below, solar in particular is projected to grow massively by 2030, while new fossil fuel installations will shrink to less than half of the total.
So where does this leave United States? There's a huge opportunity for clean energy entrepreneurs to expand into developing countries, Cuttino said. Indeed, according to Commerce Department stats, six of our top 10 destinations for clean energy exports are developing countries. President Barack Obama has made electrification in Africa a signature foreign policy initiative of his second term. That move in itself sends an important signal about the difference between clean energy here and in the developing world. Here the benefits are primarily environmental. There, clean energy is seen as a key step to alleviating poverty.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination, thinks climate change is real and caused—at least in part—by human activity, according to MSNBC.
Christie said he believes there's "no use in denying global warming exists" but that he's skeptical about most of the mainstream approaches to dealing with it. That includes cap-and-trade programs and unilateral steps to reduce America's carbon footprint, such as President Barack Obama's proposed restrictions on power plant emissions.
Christie's comments essentially matched those he made in back in 2011, the last time he spoke publicly about the issue. In some respects, his position is refreshingly distinct from those of his probable rivals in 2016. Many of the GOP contenders—for example, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—sit somewhere on the spectrum of climate change denial. But at the same time, Christie's track record in New Jersey suggests that as president, he'd be unlikely to actually do much to confront global warming, even if he thinks it's happening. As Climate Progress put it:
As governor, Christie withdrew New Jersey from the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing emissions, in 2011. Last year, Christie called RGGI "a completely useless plan" and said that he "would not think of rejoining it." Christie even vetoed an attempt by the New Jersey state legislature to rejoin RGGI…New Jersey also doesn't have a statewide climate change plan—the state is the only one on the eastern seaboard to not have one in place or be in the process of developing one, according to the Georgetown Climate Center.
Christie's logic—that even if climate change is real, there's nothing we can do to stop it—is out of step with mainstream science. And it ignores the growing international political momentum around climate action, which Obama has sought to lead. Moreover, if Christie thinks that kind of rhetoric is going to help him score points with Republican voters in the wake of the federal indictments handed down last week in the Bridgegate scandal, he has a long way to go: The latest polling puts Christie behind all of his serious opponents for the nomination.
Protesters in Seattle have taken to kayaks as Shell's Arctic drilling fleet approaches the city.
Royal Dutch Shell cleared a major hurdle this afternoon when the Obama administration announced conditional approval for the company's application to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's North Slope. The decision came after a few months of public comment on Shell's exploration plan, which was roundly condemned by environmental groups and several North Slope communities.
Shell's plan involves drilling for oil in a patch of ocean called the Burger Prospect. The drilling is slated to take place this summer when sea ice is at its lowest. In anticipation of this decision, two massive oil drilling ships owned by Shell are en route to a temporary dock in Seattle; from there, they are scheduled to press on to the Arctic.
If the ships make it to the planned site, it will be the first attempt Shell has made to drill in the Arctic (an area believed to hold massive subterranean reserves of oil and gas) since its disastrous effort in 2012. Back then, Shell faced a yearlong series of mishaps as it tried to navigate the icy waters, culminating in a wreck of the Kulluk, one of its main drilling ships. For many environmentalists, that botched project was a sign that Shell is ill-equipped to handle Arctic waters.
Moreover, today's decision underscored what many describe as an inconsistency in President Barack Obama's climate change policy: Despite his aggressive rhetoric on the dangers of global warming, and a suite of policies to curb the nation's carbon footprint, Obama has also pushed to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. Earlier this year, he announced a plan to limit drilling permits in some parts of the Arctic while simultaneously opening a vast new swath of the Atlantic ocean to drilling.
Allowing Shell to forge ahead with its Arctic ambitions flies in the face of the president's own climate agenda, said Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"It's a total mystery why the Obama administration and [Interior] Secretary [Sally] Jewell are continuing down this path that is enormously risky, contradicts climate science, and is completely unnecessary to meet our energy goals," Matzner said. "It's a dangerous folly to think that this can be done."
Before Shell can start drilling, it still needs to secure a few final federal and state permits, including one that requires Shell to demonstrate how it plans to protect ocean life during drilling and in the case of a spill. Those decisions are expected within the next month or so.
A spokesperson for Shell told the New York Times: "Before operations can begin this summer, it's imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner. In the meantime, we will continue to test and prepare our contractors, assets and contingency plans against the high bar stakeholders and regulators expect of an Arctic operator."
Early last month, veteran polar explorers and scientists Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo set out on skis from Resolute Bay, a remote outpost in the patchwork of islands between Canada and Greenland. Their destination was Bathurst Island, a treacherous 70-mile trek to the northwest across the frozen sea, where they planned to document thinning Arctic sea ice just a few months after NASA reported that the winter ice cover was the lowest on record.
It wasn't hard to find what they were looking for, according to a dispatch Cornelissen uploaded to Soundcloud on April 28.
"We're nearing into the coast of Bathurst," he said. "We think we see thin ice in front of us…Within 15 minutes of skiing it became really warm. In the end it was me skiing in my underwear…I don't think it looked very nice, and it didn't feel sexy either, but it was the only way to deal with the heat."
His next message, a day later, was an emergency distress signal picked up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. According to the Guardian, a pilot flying over the spot reported seeing open water, scattered equipment, and a lone sled dog sitting on the broken ice. By last Friday, rescuers had called off the search. The pair are presumed to have drowned, victims of the same thin ice they had come to study. Cornelissen was 46; de Roo had just turned 30.
Yesterday, Cold Facts, the nonprofit with whom the pair was working at the time, dispatched a snowmobile expedition to attempt to recover their belongings. You can follow their progress on Twitter here. The dog, Kimnik, was found a few days ago and is doing fine, the group said.
In a blog post on the website of the European Space Agency, Cornelissen was remembered by former colleagues as "an inspirational character, an explorer and a romantic. He had fallen in love with the spellbinding beauty of the poles and had made it a personal mission to highlight the magnitude of the human fingerprint on this last wilderness."
It's not clear whether the ice conditions the pair encountered were directly attributable to climate change, according to E&E News:
That the region had thin ice is evident. Perhaps the ice had been thinned by ocean currents that deliver warm water from below, or by the wind, which could generate open water areas. It is difficult to know. Climate change may have played a role, or it may not have…the impacts of the warming on ice thickness regionally can be unpredictable, [ESA scientist Mark] Drinkwater said.
Still, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. We rely on the work of scientists like these to know exactly what is happening there and how it will affect those of us who choose to stay safe in warmer, drier places. Their deaths are a testament to the dedication and fearlessness required to stand on the front lines of climate change.