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.
Scott Walker is killing it with Republicans. The Wisconsin governor is one of his party's rising stars—thanks to his ongoing and largely successful war against his state's labor unions, a fight that culminated Monday with the signing of a controversial "right-to-work" bill.
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
Now (for the moment, anyway), he's a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. At the Conservative Political Action Conference a couple weeks ago, he polled a close second to three-time winner Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), beating the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by a significant margin.
It probably won't surprise you to learn that none of the prospective GOP presidential candidates are exactly champions of the environment. Probably the least bad is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who at least acknowledges that climate change is real and caused by human activity. Walker just might be the worst. He hasn't said much about the science of global warming. (In the video above, you can watch him tell a little kid that his solution to the problem will center on keeping campsites clean, or something.) But his track record of actively undermining pro-environment programs and policies while supporting the fossil fuel industry is arguably lengthier and more substantive than that of his likely rivals.
"He really has gone after every single piece of environmental protection: Land, air, water—he's left no stone unturned," said Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. "It's hard to imagine anyone has done worse."
Here's a rundown of Walker's inglorious history of anti-environmentalism.
Attacking Obama's climate agenda: Walker is a key figure in the GOP's battle against President Barack Obama's flagship climate policy—the proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules that are designed to reduce the carbon footprint of the nation's electricity sector 30 percent by 2030. The rules will likely require states to retrofit or shutter some of their coal-fired power plants. That could be a big deal in Wisconsin, which gets 62 percent of its power from coal.
Walker "has gone after every single piece of environmental protection," says Kerry Schumann of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. "It's hard to imagine anyone has done worse."
In a letter to the EPA in December, Walker said the plan would be "a blow to Wisconsin residents and business owners." He cited an analysis from his state's Public Service Commission that predicted household electric bills would skyrocket. They won't, necessarily, since the state has a lot of options—including boosting renewables and energy efficiency—that it could use to meet its EPA carbon target without jeopardizing the power grid. But rather than preparing for the new rules, Walker seems bent on stonewalling them. In January he announced that his new attorney general was already preparing a lawsuit against the EPA, a move that was lauded by the Wisconsin director of the Koch Brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity. Walker has also signed a pledge, devised by Americans for Prosperity, that he will oppose any legislation relating to climate change—presumably a cap-and-trade plan or a carbon tax—that would result in a "net increase in government revenue."
Indeed, Walker has close ties to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who made a fortune in fossil fuels and who for years poured money into groups that cast doubt on the science of climate change. They own paper factories and a network of gasoline supply terminals in Wisconsin, and they have an interest in the state's trove of "frac sand" (more on that below). Koch Industries gave $43,000 to Walker's 2010 election campaign, and just after he took office, the Kochs doubled their lobbying force in Madison. In 2011 and 2012, David Koch and Americans for Prosperity spent $11 million backing Walker's agenda and his successful effort to avoid being recalled.
Turning off clean energy: As much as he apparently supports fossil fuel development, Walker has taken steps to put the brakes on clean energy. Last month, he released a budget proposal that would drain $8.1 million from a leading renewable energy research center in the state. That same budget, however, would pump $250,000 into a study on the potential health impacts of wind turbines. (Wind energy opponents have long suggested that inaudible sound waves from turbines can cause insomnia, anxiety, and other disorders, although independent research has repeatedlyfound these claims are more connected to NIMBYism than legitimate medical concerns.) Walker's budget would also cut $4 million in state subsidies for municipal recycling programs. That, at least, is an improvement over his first budget as governor, which proposed to eliminate recycling subsidies altogether.
Those numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to other types of energy sources. Even though solar still accounts for a small share of US electricity generation (less than 1 percent), last year it added nearly as many new megawatts to the grid as natural gas, which is quickly catching up on coal as the country's primary energy source. (Coal, you can see, added almost nothing new in 2014.)
The report points to three chief reasons for the boom. First, costs are falling, not just for the panels themselves but for ancillary expenses like installation and financing, such that overall prices fell by 10 percent compared to 2013. Second, falling costs have allowed both large utility companies and small third-party solar installers to pursue new ways to bring solar to customers, including leasing panels and improved on-site energy storage. Third, federal incentives and regulations have been relatively stable in the last few years, while state incentives are generally improving, particularly in states like California and Nevada that have been leading the charge.
One more chart worth pointing out: Rooftop solar tends to get the most press because that's where homeowners and solar companies get into tussles with big incumbent power companies and the state regulators that often side with them. And it's true that a new home gets solar more often than a giant solar farm gets constructed. But on a sheer megawatt basis, utility-scale solar is still far and away the leading source, with a few notable projects coming online in 2014, like the Topaz Solar project in the California desert, the largest solar installation in the world.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has a different idea. It involves wolves. Specifically, releasing grey wolves into the districts of 79 of his peers in Congress who had recently called for greater protections for the endangered species.
"How many of you have got wolves in your district?" he asked. "None. None. Not one."
"They haven’t got a damn wolf in their whole district," Young continued. "I’d like to introduce them in your district. If I introduced them in your district, you wouldn’t have a homeless problem anymore."
If you're unfamiliar with Don Young, he is renowned for his outlandish antics, mostly about animals, like that time he brandished an 18-inch walrus penis bone on the House floor or the time he called climate change the "biggest scam since Teapot Dome" (a major bribery scandal in the 1920s involving the Harding administration).
A Young spokesperson told the Post that the comment was "purposely hyperbolic."
When we talk about global warming at the poles, the Arctic tends to get more press than the Antarctic, because it's happening faster there than anywhere else on Earth. But Antarctica is still a juggernaut. As ice sheets there collapse—a process some scientists now see as irreversible—global sea level could rise 10 feet. The complete meltdown could take hundreds of years, but if you live anywhere near the coast, it's not hard to imagine why my colleague Chris Mooney called that discovery a "holy shit moment for global warming."
Tonight, our friends at VICE will kick off their third season of documentaries on HBO, and they're headed to Antarctica to get a close-up look at the potentially catastrophic changes underway there. We'll also hear from Vice President Joe Biden, who says denying climate change is "like denying gravity." Check out the trailer above; the show airs tonight at 11pm ET.
New York wants to get serious about solar power. The state has a goal to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and it's already among the nation's solar leaders. New York ranks ninth overall for total installed solar, and in 2013 alone it added enough to power more than 10,000 homes.
While that's great news for solar companies and environmentalists, it's a bit of a problem for electric utilities. Until recently, the business model of electric companies hadn't changed much since it was created a century ago. (The country's first electric grid was strung up by Thomas Edison in Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 1880s, and some parts of it continued to operate into the 2000s.) Utilities have depended on a steady growth in demand to stay ahead of the massive investments required to build power plants and the electric grid. But now, that tradition is crumbling—thanks to the crazy growth of rooftop solar and other alternative energy sources and some big advances in energy efficiency that have caused the overall demand for electricity to stop growing. Meanwhile, utilities in New York are also required to buy the excess power from solar buildings that produce more than they need—a policy called "net metering".
"This is as exciting as the Public Service Commission gets," NRDC attorney Raya Salter said.
But here's the thing: Even the most ardent climate hawks agree that we can't afford for utilities to go out of business altogether. Someone needs to maintain and manage the grid. Hardly any solar homes are actually "off the grid," since they still depend on power lines to soak up their excess electricity during sunny afternoons and deliver power at night. In fact, net metering is a key factor in making solar economically viable to homeowners.
The question of how to aggressively slash carbon emissions without completely undermining the power sector (and simultaneously raising the risk of blackouts and skyrocketing electric bills) is one of the big existential questions that climate-savvy lawmakers are now trying to figure out. And last week in New York, they took a huge step forward.
Under a new order from the state's Public Service Commission, utility companies will soon be barred from owning "distributed" power systems—that means rooftop solar, small wind turbines, and basically anything else that isn't a big power plant. (There are some rare exceptions built into the order, notably for giant low-income apartment buildings in New York City that small solar companies aren't well-equipped to serve.)
"By restricting utilities from owning local power generation and other energy resources, customers will benefit from a more competitive market, with utilities working and partnering with other companies and service providers," the commission said in a statement.
The move is part of a larger package of energy reforms in the state, aimed at setting up the kind of futuristic power system that experts think will be needed to combat global warming. The first step came in 2007, when the state adopted "decoupling," a market design in which a utility's revenue is based not on how much power it sells, but on how many customers it serves. (Remember that in most states utilities have their income stream heavily regulated by the state in exchange for having a monopoly.) That change removed the incentive for utilities to actively block rooftop solar and energy-saving technology, because lost sales no longer translate to lost income. But because utilities could still make money by recouping the cost of big infrastructure projects through increases to their customers' bills, they had an incentive to build expensive stuff like power plants and big transmission hubs even if demand could be better met with efficiency and renewables.
Now, under New York's most recent reform, a utility's revenue will instead be based on how efficiently and effectively it distributes power, so-called "performance-based rates." This, finally, provides the incentive utilities need to make decisions that jibe with the state's climate goals, because it will be to their advantage to make use of distributed energy systems.
"We want to pay [utilities] for doing things we want, rather than paying for their return on investment for the things they build," said John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
But there's a catch, one that had clean energy advocates in the state worried. If utilities were allowed to buy their own solar systems, they would be able to leverage their government-granted monopoly to muscle-out smaller companies. This could limit consumer options, drive up prices, and stifle innovation. That, in turn, could put a freeze on consumers' interest in solar and ultimately slow down the rate at which it is adopted. But if small companies are allowed in, then the energy market starts to look more like markets for normal goods, where customer choice drives technological advances and pushes down prices.
"New York's approach to limit utility ownership balances the desire for more solar with the desire to have competitive markets that we expect to continue to bring down the costs of solar," said Anne Reynolds, director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York.
The upshot is that solar in New York will be allowed to thrive without being squeezed out by incumbent giants like Con Edison and National Grid.
"This is as exciting as the Public Service Commission gets," said Raya Salter, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York who worked with state regulators on the plan. "These are bold, aggressive changes."
The policy puts New York on track for a new way of doing business that many energy wonks now see as inevitable. In the past, the role of electric utilities was to generate power at a few central hubs and bring it to your house; in the near future, their role will be to facilitate the flow of power between countless independent systems.
"We need to plan for a primarily renewable system," said John Farrell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for breaking up the old utility model as a key solution to climate change. "We want to pay [utilities] for doing things we want, rather than paying for their return on investment for the things they build."
So far, the response from utilities has been receptive; a spokesperson for Con Ed said the company looks forward to developing details for how the order will move forward.
The change in New York could become a model for other states, Reynolds said. Regulators in Hawaii are already considering a similar policy.
"Everyone is watching to see what's happening here," she said. "It's really a model of what a utility could be in the future."