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.
Few figures in the climate change debate are as polarizing as former Vice President Al Gore. His fans and his enemies are equally rabid, and his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth is still probably the most-referenced document on climate change in history. In the last few years, Gore's global warming work has mostly been channeled into a nonprofit he oversees called the Climate Reality Project, which organizes rallies and educational events.
This week, that group held its annual "24 Hours of Reality" marathon of live-streamed videos and appearances by Gore and other celebrities to raise funds for climate action. The event took place in New York City, which is gearing up for a series of meetings and protests in advance of the biggest climate summit of the last five years, to take place Tuesday at the United Nations. Gore took a break from the broadcast to chat with Climate Desk's Inquiring Minds podcast, offering his views on everything from President Obama's climate polices and the role of the tea party in US politics to his hopes for a strong international climate treaty.
Gore said that Obama hasn't yet gone far enough in his efforts against climate change, but that he nonetheless admires "what the president has done."
"In his first term I expressed some considerable concern about what I thought he was failing to do," Gore said, adding that after the demise of cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate, "there was not the kind of energy and activity that I felt was appropriate." But Gore credited Obama for shifting course dramatically in his second term, and for going around the "logjam" in Congress by instructing the EPA to issue "historic regulations" on carbon emissions from power plants.
Gore did criticize some of Obama's policies, including the president's "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, which Gore described as the "prevailing code for 'let's keep burning fossil fuels.'"
"But it's not fair to just take those things out of context without looking at the totality of his policies," he added. "And the totality of what he's doing now in his second term is really historic."
Gore expressed skepticism about the fracking boom. He said he opposed the use of natural gas as a bridge fuel—something the Obama administration has supported—"until and unless they demonstrate the ability to stop the methane leaks at every stage of the process, particularly during fracking." (Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that some scientists argue can negate the climate benefits of burning natural gas instead of coal.) And he added that the increasing cost-effectiveness of solar and wind power was already posing a "threat to the viability of natural gas as a source of energy in the marketplace."
You can hear Gore's comments in full on this week's episode of our Inquiring Minds podcast, below, and see the highlights of his comments in our exclusive video above.
But the week's main event is on Tuesday at the United Nations, where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will preside over a confab of heads of state (including President Obama), diplomats, CEOs, and policy wonks who will all be talking about how to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels.
The UN conference is meant as a preparation for the major international climate negotiations scheduled for next winter in Paris, a summit that is theoretically intended to produce an aggressive carbon-cutting treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. In other words, in classic UN fashion, it's a meeting about a meeting, or as Mashable's Andrew Freedman more eloquently put it, "the cocktail party ahead of a formal dinner." So it's probably safe to assume that next week we'll be served appetizers and amuse-bouches rather than a substantive meal, climate action-wise.
Still, New York is a city on the front lines of climate change: Just yesterday the last subway line damaged two years ago by Hurricane Sandy finally came back online. So the excitement is building. Here are a few things to look for:
Ruinda Njaba uses his solar panels (visible on the roof behind him) to power up villagers' cellphones. He charges them for 12 cents apiece. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk
Lusela Murandika just wants to be able to watch the evening news.
The 76-year-old farmer lives in Kanyala village in northern Tanzania, 60 miles from the nearest town that's connected to the electric grid. For years, he's powered a tiny TV set in the dim sitting room of his concrete house here with a diesel generator, spending roughly $10 each month on fuel—money that could otherwise buy more than 20 pounds of rice in a country where the per capita GDP is $695.
Earlier this year, on the advice of friends, he invested $400 in a small, 80-watt solar system. After charging all day under the East African sun, it can run his TV for two hours. The system was a pain in the neck to install, he says, and the battery is unreliable, but it's still an improvement over the generator. And here, as in most of rural Africa, there aren't many options.
"It's a joke to think we'll all be connected to the grid," he says with a rueful grin.
John Tesvich slices open oysters on the deck of his boat, the "Croatian Pride". Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk
John Tesvich is a fourth-generation oyster farmer in Empire, a tiny Gulf Coast enclave south of New Orleans. He's spent his life working in the rich oyster beds here, the most productive in the nation, and has weathered his share of storms: During Hurricane Katrina, his house ended up under 17 feet of water. But last week, as he navigated his 40-foot oyster boat out into open water, he admitted that the turmoil this region has faced in the last decade was beginning to wear him down.
"A lot has changed over the years," he said. "It seems like one crisis after another sometimes."
One crisis was particularly damaging to Tesvich's industry: The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The fourth anniversary of the busted undersea well's sealing (after it gushed crude into the Gulf for nearly five months) is coming up next week, and Tesvich, who also chairs the oyster industry's main statewide lobbying group, says his crop is still struggling to rebound.
Tesvich got some good news last week, when a federal judge in New Orleans found that BP's "willful misconduct" and "gross negligence" had been the principle causes of the spill, a ruling that could eventually force BP to pay billions for ecological restoration in the Gulf. But for oystermen here, whose day-to-day income depends on these reefs, those dollars still seem very far away.
An oiled bird on Louisiana's East Grand Terre Island after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
News of this morning's federal court decision against BP broke as I was aboard a 40-foot oyster boat in the Louisiana delta, just off the coast of Empire, a suburb of New Orleans.
The reaction: stunned silence. Then a bit of optimism.
"This is huge," said John Tesvich, chair of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, his industry's main lobby group in the state. "They are going to have to pay a lot more." Standing on his boat, the "Croatian Pride," en route to survey oyster farms, he added: "We want to see justice. We hope that this money goes to helping cure some of the environmental issues in this state."
On Thursday, a federal judge in New Orleans found that the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster—in which the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 people and spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf—was caused by BP's "willful misconduct" and "gross negligence."
Tesvich says he's seen a drastic decline in his company's oyster production since then—company profits down 15 to 20 percent and oyster yields slashed by 30 percent. He says he's suspicious that this new decision will force the kind of action from local politicians needed to clean up the Gulf once-and-for-all. The politicians in Louisiana, he says, "haven't been the best environmental stewards."
BP's own reaction to the news has been fast and pointed. "BP strongly disagrees with the decision," the company said in a statement on Thursday, published to its website. "BP believes that an impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court."
The company said it would immediately appeal the decision.
"It's clear that the apocalypse forecast did not come to pass," said a BP official.
With the fourth anniversary of the busted well's final sealing coming up in a couple weeks, BP has been pushing back aggressively against the company's critics. On Wednesday night—just hours before the court's ruling—Geoff Morrell, the company's vice president of US communications, spoke in New Orleans at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, and blamed the media and activists for BP's rough ride.
The company's efforts to clean up the spill have been obscured, he said, by the ill-intentioned efforts of "opportunistic" environmentalists, shoddy science, and the sloppy work of environmental journalists (much to the chagrin of his audience, hundreds of environmental journalists).
"It's clear that the apocalypse forecast did not come to pass," he said. "The environmental impacts of the spill were not as far-reaching or long-lasting as many predicted."
Back in 2010, BP's then-CEO Tony Hayward lamented—a month after the explosion—that he wanted his "life back." He didn't find much sympathy at the time. Within a couple months, he resigned out of the spotlight (with a $930,000 petroleum parachute). But his flub didn't retire so easily, and it became emblematic of BP's astonishing capacity for tone-deafness, something Morrell seemed intent on continuing Wednesday.
Morrell said that while "impolitic" remarks had been made by BP officials in the past, the spill's aftermath has been "tough on all of us."
I can only imagine.
I can faithfully report that no rotten tomatoes were hurled during Morrell's talk, and grumbles and cynical chuckles were kept to a polite murmur. But the response on Twitter was more free-flowing:
@BP_plc spox Geoff Morrell not trying to win any friends here at #SEJ2014 Very combattive