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.
Melting glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland may push up global sea levels more than 3 feet by the end of this century, according to a scientific poll of experts that brings a degree of clarity to a murky and controversial slice of climate science.
Such a rise in the seas would displace millions of people from low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, swamp atolls in the Pacific Ocean, cause dikes in Holland to fail, and cost coastal mega-cities from New York to Tokyo billions of dollars for construction of sea walls and other infrastructure to combat the tides.
"The consequences are horrible," Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the study, [said].
While efforts to stem the rising sea, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, are always worth pursuing, in light of the mounting evidence for large-scale changes it seems prudent for more coastal cities to take a lead from places like New York and start preparing for a closer coastline.
"I live a pretty unconventional life," Ken Ilgunas tells me, speaking over Skype from a community library in Marion, Kansas. It's a typical understatement for Ilgunas, who has the kind of ultra-low-key demeanor one acquires after many nights in the backcountry by oneself. In September, after a year of minimalist living in his van, Ilgunas, 29, was on the hunt for a new adventure. He'd been following the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline, heard stories of the landscapes it could jeopardize, and decided the best thing to do would be to go see the thing first-hand. So in September, he found a State Department map, strapped on a pair of good hiking boots, hitchhiked to Canada, and started walking the 1,700-mile route the pipe, if built, will take from the tar sands to ports in the Gulf of Mexico. He expects to finish his journey mid-February; along the way he's encountered frigid cold, charging moose, cows (lots of cows), and plenty of folks who want to keep the pipe out of their backyards.
In the midst of this week's fiscal cliff hullabaloo, with tax hikes for many Americans, tax breaks for Big Oil, and a superstorm of righteous outrage over withheld storm aid, you'd be forgiven for not noticing the climate win that slipped in at the eleventh hour: a long-awaited extension of the wind energy Production Tax Credit, a federal incentive that has for many years been the bread and butter of the wind industry, providing $1 billion each year to keep wind competitive against heavily-subsidized fossil fuels.
Despite being a record-setting year for wind installations, 2012 was a nail-biter for many in the industry, who feared Congress would axe the credit and send the industry from boom to bust, as has happened several times in the past when the credit has not been extended. The industry's trade group was a clearinghouse for grim prognostications: Some 35,000 jobs lost and up to a ninety-percent drop in wind projects, should the credit not be passed. Even with the extension, the industry's financial backers were so spooked by last year's uncertainty that investments are almost sure to fall in 2013.
"We've effectively killed 2013 by waiting this long to extend [the PTC]," Jacob Susman, CEO of wind installer OwnEnergy, told me a few months ago.
And while the extension was an excuse for wind folks from Colorado to Iowa to Boston to pop an extra bottle of champagne, the industry ain't out of the woods yet: The recent extension is only for one year, which means the battle to wring money from Congress will need to be fought all over again in just a few months. Indeed, the complaint one hears most often from industry leaders is that the constant political kowtowing necessary to secure this essential tax credit makes it nearly impossible for the industry to secure long-term growth. That's very different from fossil fuels, whose benefits, as my colleague Andy Kroll points out, are "baked into the tax code."
But this extension comes with at least one big improvement: In the past, to secure the credit, wind projects had to be delivering power to the grid before the credit's expiration date at year's end. That led to a huge push to get projects up and running in the final months of 2012, but also threw up a barrier to any projects that got started too late. This version sets a lower bar: The credit is now available to any projects that break ground in 2013, giving everyone from turbine manufactorers to installers to investors much more breathing room on a realistic timescale, which David Roberts at Grist says is equivalent to extending the old version for two or three years.
The challenge for Big Wind this year will be to work with Congress to find ways to keep the industry competitive in the long term, while unleashing it from year-to-year political turmoil.
"The extension is a very important piece of legislation," industry researcher Matt Kaplan told the Financial Times. "The big question, though, is what comes next."
Along the way, we've depended on you to share stories and insights about this warming world, what we see as the most important issue of our time. A big thank you to all our readers, and we can't wait to give you a front-row seat to whatever 2013 has in store. To be continued…
Can college students reshape energy politics in the US by reforming their colleges' endowments? That's the hope of idealistic students at 189 different campuses across the country who have launched campaigns to encourage their school administrators and trustees to dump all their investments in fossil fuels. The campaign, the students say, gives them a direct check on the power of the oil, coal and gas industries, which they hope will have broader effects nationwide.
"We were feeling, like the rest of the climate movement, pretty frustrated with the political situation in the US," said Alli Welton, a sophomore at Harvard and the co-coordinator of the school's divestment campaign. "We felt that fossil fuel corporations just had too much control over Congress, and it was really hard to see how we could overcome that barrier."
"Divestment was really exciting," continued Welton, a native of Washington state studying the history of science. "It was striking directly at the fossil fuel companies themselves, instead of going at their proxies in Congress. "
Listen below to hear Climate Desk weigh the effectiveness of college divestment from fossil fuels:
The Divest Harvard campaign started in September with a petition drive and educational events featuring alumni and faculty from the school that had previously worked on divestment campaigns on tobacco and apartheid—"connecting historical dots," as Welton put it. Harvard students have led successful divestment campaigns against South African apartheid in 1986, against tobacco companies in 1990, and against companies related to the genocide in Darfur in 2005.
The students were able to get a measure on the school's ballot for student government elections this November asking the full student body, "Do you support Harvard divesting its endowment from the fossil fuel industry in order to avert further environmental and human rights crises due to climate change?" The majority—72 percent—voted "yes."
The school has not disclosed how much of Harvard’s $30 billion endowment includes holdings in fossil fuels, though Harvard Management Company'sSEC filings show that the school has holdings in several energy companies, including Brazilian oil giant Petróleo Brasileiro and WPX Energy.
But in order to actually divest, the students need the consent of the Harvard Corporation—the school's governing body, the equivalent of a board of trustees at other universities. After months of trying to get attention to their effort, Welton and other student organizers finally secured a meeting with the Corporation's Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, to be held early next year.
But the signs they've seen from the administration aren't promising so far. "Members of the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility will meet with students to discuss endowment investment policies " said Kevin Galvin, senior director of communications at Harvard, in a statement to Mother Jones. But, when it comes to fossil fuels, he said, "the university has a strong presumption against divestment."
The school did, however, announce last week that it is setting up a "social choice fund" in 2013 that will allow alumni to donate to an alternative to the endowment that will "take special account of social responsibility considerations."
Other Ivies like Brown and Yale are jumping into the divestment effort. At Brown, students are trying to get the school's endowment to drop investments in the 15 "filthiest" coal companies. "We see Brown divesting as something that can something that can promote other campuses to divest," said Emily Kirkland, a senior majoring in economics and environmental studies. "By divesting we can shift public opinion and make it clear to politicians, business leaders, and the general public that coal's legacy of environmental destruction is unacceptable."
Kirkland and many of the students working on divestment cite a July 2012 Rolling Stone piece from author and activist Bill McKibben, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math." The piece called on college students specifically to take action: "If their college's endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock," McKibben wrote, "then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won't have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree."
McKibben's group, 350.org, has been working with students on their divestment campaigns. The campaign has gotten some press of late, including a New York Times piece several weeks ago. That press coverage has helped prompt to an explosion of new campus divestment campaigns.
They've already had a few wins. Earlier this month, Swarthmore College's Board of Managers agreed to investigate ethical investing and consider the possibility of divestment. That process is supposed to continue throughout the rest of the school year.
At the vanguard of the effort was tiny Unity College, a 600-student liberal arts school in Maine specializing in environmental education. The school's Board of Trustees had already agreed informally to stop investing its $13.5 million endowment in fossil fuel companies five years ago. That informal agreement had helped bring the school's investment portfolio from about a 30 percent potential exposure to fossil fuel companies to about 10 percent. The board agreed to formalize that policy it at its November 4 meeting, with a push from President Stephen Mulkey. The school now aims to get down to a point where less than 1 percent of its investments are in funds that could include fossil fuel companies.
Mulkey, a tropical forest ecologist by training, said in an interview with Mother Jones that while it is "uncharacteristically activist for a college to have a policy of this nature," the trustees agreed with the ethical argument. "It's hard to claim you're committed to the renewal of civilization at the same time you're investing in its destruction," he said.
Mulkey acknowledges that getting their portfolios off fossil fuels is not going to be simple, especially for colleges with large endowments. But he believes schools have a responsibility to take the lead.
"If you're a college or university in this country, you don't want to be in the wrong side of this issue," said Mulkey. "If anything, we're all too late in taking a stand on this."