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.
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.
Solar panels on the roof of a house in Apache Junction, Arizona.
Back in December, a group of Republican members of Congress from Arizona and Texas sent a worried letter to the Federal Trade Commission. Solar panel companies, the letter claimed, might be using deceptive marketing practices to lease their rooftop systems to homeowners without fully disclosing the financial risks. The concerns were similar to those raised a month earlier by Democratic lawmakers—also from Arizona and Texas—in a letter sent to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Both letters raised the specter of serious problems in the business model of the country's fastest-growing energy source. But as the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting revealed last month, the Republicans' letter was originally drafted by an employee of Arizona Public Service, the state's biggest electric utility and a long-time opponent of third-party solar companies. The draft was passed by APS to the office of Rep. Paul Gosar (R), which made a few changes, got the Congressman's signature, and sent it off, according to AZCIR's report. (The letter is here; the highlights were added by AZCIR to show where changes had been made from the original APS draft.)
It's not the first time APS has engaged in this type of secretive advocacy to undermine solar, an exploding industry that poses an existential threat to the old-school utility's bottom line. In 2013, the company outed itself as the backer of two secretive nonprofits that ran an aggressive anti-solar ad campaign in the state. Back then, the company's target was net metering, the policy that requires utility companies to buy excess electricity produced by its customers' rooftop panels. Now APS's focus appears to have shifted to the marketing practices of companies that lease solar panels to homeowners.
Solar leasing "may pose a considerable risk" to American consumers, say lawmakers in a letter to the FTC.
"This is the next evolution in the utility playbook," said Susan Glick, a spokesperson for The Alliance for Solar Choice, an advocacy group that represents some of the country's biggest solar companies. APS wants "to demonize rooftop solar and ensure they have a monopoly," she said.
The cost of rooftop solar systems has plummeted in recent years. But some solar companies have realized that many homeowners are still unable to pay north of $10,000 to buy and install panels. Instead, the trendy option is solar leasing: A company installs panels on your roof for free and then charges you a monthly fee for the power they produce, which in theory is less than what you paid your electric utility. A recent industry survey found that about half of all residential solar systems are leased rather than owned.
But Missouri state Representative Dan Shaul, a Republican from the suburbs of St. Louis, disagrees. That's why he wants to ban bag bans, with a bill going before committee in the state's legislature this week.
Shaul, a sixteen-year member of the Missouri Grocers Association, is trying to stop bag bans outright. He says he doesn't want to burden shoppers with an additional fee at the grocery store.
"If they choose to tax the bag, it's going to hurt the people who need that the most: the consumer," especially the poor, Shaul says. "My goal when I go to the grocery store with a $100 bill is to get $100 worth of groceries."
But a ten-cents-per-bag fee for forgetting your reusable bag? "That adds up pretty quick."
Here's the thing, though: Ban bags are actually really good for local economies, because they reduce costs for retailers and cleanup costs for governments. California, which became the first US state to ban bags last fall, previously spent $25 million per year picking them up and landfilling them.
So instead of bag ban bans, a better bill would be a ban on bag ban bans.
The US Navy base in Norfolk, Va., is a key piece of military infrastructure threatened by climate change.
President Barack Obama listed climate change alongside international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and infectious disease in a new national security strategy plan released today. The plan called climate change "an urgent and growing threat to our national security" and also called for the United States to diversify its energy sources to insulate the country from disruptions to foreign fossil fuel markets.
This isn't the first time the Obama administration has singled out climate as a major national security risk: A Pentagon report in October said global warming has become a short-term priority for strategic military planning. But the issue gets much more airtime in today's strategy than it did in the administration's first, issued back in 2010, where it merited just a few passing references. Overall, the document is in line with the more aggressive climate message that has emerged this year from the White House. You can read it below: