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.
An oil train smolders after it derailed and exploded in West Virginia last week.
Last week, a train carrying oil from North Dakota derailed in West Virginia, spilled oil into a river, and sent a horrifying fireball shooting into the sky. The incident came only a few days after another oil train spill in Ontario. In fact, in the last few years the number of oil train accidents has skyrocketed, thanks to booming production in the northern US and Canada that has overwhelmed the existing pipeline network.
Oil train accidents like those could become a regular fixture in headlines across the US, according to a Department of Transportation analysis uncovered by the Associated Press over the weekend:
The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.…
If just one of those more severe accidents occurred in a high-population area, it could kill more than 200 people and cause roughly $6 billion in damage.
The report blamed the projections on the drastic uptick in oil-by-rail traffic, as well as on severely lagging safety standards for rail cars (check out our in-depth multimedia story on the latter here).
When carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and cars rise into the atmosphere, they don't always stay there. While the majority of these emissions hang around to create the greenhouse effect that causes global warming, up to 35 percent of man-made carbon falls into the ocean. When that happens, the pH level of the ocean drops, causing a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Some scientists call this the "evil twin" of climate change.
Over the last century, the oceans have become about 30 percent more acidic, a faster rate of change than at anytime in the last 300 million years. That's really bad news for any sea creatures that live in hard shells (shellfish) or have bony exoskeletons (i.e., crabs and lobsters), and for coral. Fish larvae and plankton can also be affected. And since many of these organisms are food for bigger fish and mammals, ocean acidification puts the whole marine ecosystem at risk.
Of course, humans depend on these critters as well, especially in coastal communities whose economies are deeply tied to the fishing industry. In the last few years, the threat to oyster harvests in the Pacific Northwest has been well documented. But every bit of the US coastline bears some level of risk, according to a new report in Nature. The study offers the first comprehensive projection of which parts of the US coast will be worst off, and when ocean acidification could reach dangerous levels there.
Julia Ekstrom, a climate adaptation researcher at the University of California-Davis, combed through existing scientific literature for three key types of data: How ocean acidification is projected to change in different regions over the next century; how dependent individual local economies are on the shellfish harvest (the study focused only on bivalves like oysters—other critters could be the subject of future research); and social factors that could help communities adapt, like pollution controls (runoff from rivers can also affect local pH) or the availability of other jobs. That data, combined, led to the map below.
Purple indicates the time at which ocean acidification is expected to become serious enough to significantly affect shellfish (darker is sooner); red indicates how vulnerable a region would be to a drop-off in shellfish productivity. So Washington, for example, could see the impacts soon but is relatively well-prepared to handle them. Impacts to the Gulf Coast are expected much further in the future but could be more economically severe.
Ekstrom et al, courtesy Nature
The good news is that many of what could be the hardest-hit communities still have time to prepare. Then again, the outlook could be worse in some places (Maine, for example) if you conducted similar research on lobsters and other vital fisheries. Ekstrom said localized predictions like this are key to enabling communities to prepare and can also help scientists decide where to focus efforts to monitor and track acidification as it progresses.
Obama's climate plan calls for power plants in Virginia like this to be closed or renovated.
This week, representatives from the state-level agencies that manage electric grids met in Washington, DC, for a collective freak-out about President Barack Obama's flagship climate policy. The Clean Power Plan, as it's called, aims to slash the nation's carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030. It would require every state to reduce the carbon "intensity" of its power sector—that is, how much greenhouse gas is emitted for every unit of electricity produced.
There's a unique reduction target for every state, and a likewise diverse array of things for state regulators to hate: They argue the plan is a gross overreach of federal authority; that it will bankrupt utility companies, drive up monthly bills for ratepayers, and lead to power shortages; that states won't be adequately credited for clean-energy steps they've already taken; and that the deadlines for compliance are just downright impossible to meet. And coal companies are justifiably worried that the plan could kill their business.
"They had the keys in their hand," NRDC's Haq said, "but instead they're handing them over to the EPA."
More than a dozen states (mostly coal-dependent states in the South, which could be hit hardest by the rules) are already raising hell in what's shaping up to be the environmental version of state-level challenges to Obamacare. As our friend David Roberts at Grist highlighted this week, a number of states have joined a lawsuit challenging the EPA's legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. And across the country in those states and others, bills are cropping up that could make it hard or impossible for individual states to meet their mandated carbon targets. The idea is effectively to stonewall the EPA and hope the regulations get killed in court.
The most recent battle is playing out this week in Virginia, where a state representative with ties to the coal industry wants to make it more difficult for the state's Department of Environmental Quality to comply with the president's climate goals.
First, a little background: The nation's first anti-EPA bill came early last year in Kentucky, before the Clean Power Plan was even released. The proposed EPA rule would require Kentucky to cut its power-sector carbon emissions roughly 35 percent by 2030. That's bad news for the coal industry, which supplies more than nine-tenths of the state's power. So using a model bill developed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (which has deep ties to the coal industry), Kentucky legislators passed a law that essentially prevents the state from complying with the Clean Power Plan. The new law bars the state from adopting any implementation plan that includes renewable energy or energy efficiency, or that encourages power plants to switch from coal to natural gas. With those restrictions, the EPA goal does indeed seem unreasonable; the state's top climate official recently told Inside Climate News that he has no idea how to meet the EPA's demands and stay within state law.
So just how much plastic is there? A new study in Science yesterday put out some pretty horrifying numbers: In 2010, the study finds, between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (that's about 10.5 billion to 28 billion pounds) of plastic entered the oceans—the median of those estimates is 1.3 times the weight of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
If we want to crack down on all that plastic, knowing where it all comes from could be as important as knowing how much there is. That's the main idea behind this study. A team of scientists led by University of Georgia environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck set out to calculate how much plastic every one of the world's 192 coastal countries dumps into the ocean. To do it, they combined data on each country's per-capita waste generation, the size of the population living within 50 kilometers of the ocean, the percentage of waste that is plastic, and the percentage of plastic waste that is "mismanaged" (defined as "either littered or inadequately disposed").
The last step is to estimate how much of the mismanaged coastal plastic waste actually washes into the sea. (This is the step that explains the wide uncertainty range in the grand totals above.) Jambeck drew on existing literature on waste streams from places like South Africa and the Bay Area to reach an estimate of 15-40 percent; she then applied that range across the board.
The chart below shows the worst offenders, in terms of total plastic pollution in the ocean in 2010, using data from the study. The top-ranks belong to middle-income countries with rapidly growing coastal populations that lack the resources to keep pace with waste management infrastructure. By contrast, even though the United States has relatively good waste management, its per-capita waste production is so high that it makes the top 20.
That's right: China alone dumped nearly 5 billion pounds of plastic waste into the ocean in 2010. But what's even worse is just how much the study projects these numbers will grow in the future, based on predictions of population growth in each country by 2025. The chart below shows the top-ranked countries in terms of total mismanaged plastic waste (in other words, not all of this plastic is necessarily winding up in the ocean). China is still very much in the lead, and India shows a disturbing explosion of plastic pollution:
You might have heard of "geoengineering." It's the highly controversial theory that humans could slow, stop, or even reverse global warming by "hacking" the planet with epic technological feats that would alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere.
The idea has been around for a few decades, but there have been only a few actual experiments with it, most recently in 2012 when a rogue American millionaire dumped 220,000 pounds of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean. His goal was to create a massive, carbon-sucking plankton bloom. The effort succeeded, but was condemned by many scientists, the Canadian government, and the United Nations for violating international laws and for forging ahead with little regard for potential ecological fallout.
Every now and then, geoengineering of one kind or another gets floated by the media as a possible silver bullet if we continue to fail to make meaningful reductions to greenhouse gas emissions. But as the plankton debacle vividly illustrated, there are any number of very good reasons why the proposition never seems to get any traction. Ideas for how to do it are either too expensive, too entangled with thorny legal and geopolitical complications, too ineffective, or all of the above.
"We definitely don't think that we're ready to say this is something worth doing," one of the study's lead authors said.
These issues and more were laid bare today in the most comprehensive assessment of geoengineering to date, a two-volume study involving dozens of scientists that was pulled together by the National Academy of Sciences (a nongovernmental organization that produces peer-reviewed research). The reports offered a fairly damning critique of geoengineering and found that while there could be value in continuing to research the technology, it will never be a panacea for climate change, and we're definitely not ready to start using it yet.
"We definitely don't think that we're ready to say this is something worth doing," said atmospheric chemist Lynn Russell of the University of California, San Diego, a lead author on one of the report's volumes.
There are two basic categories of geoengineering, each with its own unique obstacles. The first involves pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and burying it underground, effectively reversing the man-made greenhouse gas pollution that causes global warming. (The plankton incident fits this category; the idea was that the plankton bloom would consume a bunch of CO2 and then take it to the ocean depths when the plankton died.) The second kind involves "seeding" the atmosphere with particles that would increase its reflectivity—what climate scientists call "albedo"—and send more sunlight back into space.