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.
Shell's Arctic drilling rig docked in Seattle last month. The company now supports carbon pricing but hasn't changed plans to drill for oil.
Oil companies are pretty much the last ally you'd think of when it comes to advancing big-picture solutions to climate change. These are the companies, after all, whose product is responsible for causing a significant amount of climate change in the first place—and pretty much every proposed fix for global warming necessarily involves burning less oil.
So it came as a bit of a surprise Monday when six of the leading European oil companies, including BP and Shell, unveiled a letter addressed to the United Nations climate chief calling for a price on carbon emissions (read the full letter below).
"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of ongoing UN-led international climate negotiations, the letter said. This week representatives from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to prepare for a summit in Paris this winter where they hope to produce a powerful global accord on fighting climate change. The letter called on the world's governments to create new national carbon markets where they don't currently exist (like most of the United States, for example), and to eventually link those markets internationally.
"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of global climate talks, a letter from several European oil companies said.
As Bloomberg Business pointed out, the letter is "unprecedented," in that it's the first time a group of major oil companies have banded together to advocate for a serious climate change policy. It was welcomed by the UN's top climate official, Christiana Figueres, who said that the "oil and gas industry must be a major part of the solution to climate change."
Most environmental economists and policy wonks agree that making companies pay for their carbon pollution—whether through a tax or a cap-and-trade system—is a fundamental step for any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The basic idea is that making carbon pollution expensive will drive big polluters to clean up. Policies like this are already gathering steam across the globe, from Canada to China. (California and a few Northeast states have regional carbon markets, but a national carbon price is still a non-starter in the US Congress.) Recently, Australia demonstrated just how effective carbon pricing can be, in a counterintuitive way: Carbon emissions dropped immediately after the country implemented a carbon tax, then jumped right back up when the tax was repealed.
If Monday's letter is any clue, oil companies are reading the writing on the wall, and they know that one way or another, it's time to start planning for a future when carbon pollution is more expensive and tightly regulated. Well, some oil companies: Conspicuously absent from the letter are any US oil companies, like Chevron or ExxonMobil; all the signatories are European. In fact, just last week Exxon chief Rex Tillerson implicitly blasted his European peers for cozying up to the UN on climate issues, saying his company wouldn't "fake it" on climate change and that investing in renewable energy is tantamount to "losing money on purpose."
The head of French oil giant Total addressed the cross-Atlantic schism in comments to Reuters, saying that the European companies were set on throwing their weight behind carbon pricing "without necessarily waiting for an American to come on board."
Although carbon pricing "obviously adds a cost to our production and our products," the letter says, the companies would prefer consistency and predictability over the patchwork of policies that exists now. In other words, it's easier to justify and plan investments in lower-carbon projects, such as replacing coal with natural gas, when carbon prices are stable and "even-handed," the letter said. At the same time, these companies have come under increasing pressure from shareholders to address how they'll stay profitable in the future, as restrictions on carbon emissions are tightened.
To that end, a few of the signatories already have their own internal "shadow" carbon price, where investment options are calculated with a hypothetical carbon price added in, as a way of anticipating future policies.
Still, progressive-sounding statements notwithstanding, oil companies are oil companies, and the letter gives no indication that any of them have plans to replace fossil fuels as their primary product. Shell, for one, is just weeks away from a new foray into offshore drilling in the Arctic. And according to Bloomberg, the European companies are no better than their American counterparts in terms of their actual carbon footprint. So it remains to be seen how committed the companies will be to supporting sweeping changes to the global energy system, or if letters like this are just a clever way to stay relevant as the international climate talks forge ahead. Either way, the paradox of a corporation calling for a carbon price while still pursuing fossil fuel extraction is just more evidence that the free market won't fix climate change voluntarily—governments have to create new policies, like an international carbon price, that energy companies can't evade.
It was dark in Gaza City when the teenage boy came home from work, in February 2013. His squat apartment building was missing a wall, destroyed some time before in the war between Israel and the Palestinians. But where else could he go?
In the dark, he tripped on rubble and fell out of the building, three stories down. His family rushed him to the nearby al-Shifa hospital as he struggled to breathe; his fractured ribs had caused internal bleeding, and his lungs were beginning to collapse. In the trauma unit, he was handed over to Dr. Ben Thomson, a visiting physician from Ontario, Canada. The necessary procedure—to insert a chest tube—was routine and straightforward. But the hospital, like the boy's home, was without electricity; the operation would have to be carried out in darkness.
"We were not really able to see him," Thomson recalls. "We were unable to assess where he was bleeding from, unable to see the ultrasound screen, everything you would normally do with simplicity, we were unable to do that. And this boy ended up dying."
In retrospect, Thomson says, solar power probably would have saved the boy's life. Gaza's hospitals struggle with regular electricity shortages, and Thomson and some of his colleagues are now leading a push to use rooftop solar panels to help address the problem.
"A lot of patients die unnecessarily" because of electricity shortages, Dr. Thompson said.
Gaza, the strip of land that, along with the West Bank, constitutes the Palestinian territories, has been hit hard in the decades-long conflict between Palestinians and Israel. Years of shelling, air strikes, and heavy restrictions on the flow of goods and people across its borders have left Gaza with devastated infrastructure and a shell of an economy. Unemployment among its 1.8 million residents, according to a recent World Bank report, is roughly 43 percent—the highest in the world. A major factor in the region's economic collapse, that report concluded, is a supply of electricity that meets less than half the demand.
Electricity shortages are one of the region's most persistent and pernicious problems. Gaza's only power station was damaged by Israeli shelling last summer and is chronically short of fuel. Even in the best times, it provides only a small portion of the power needed. Electric utilities in Israel and Egypt provide some additional energy. For many homes and small businesses, there are few other options: Gas and firewood are scarce, while fuel for diesel generators is limited and extremely expensive thanks to a strict blockade on imports enforced by Israel since 2007. As a result, blackouts have for years been a routine part of daily life. A "good day" means getting eight hours of power, said Husam Zomlot, an economist in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"The consequences are absolutely severe," he said. "Any economy will depend primarily on the energy sector. It's the starting point for any transaction."
Hospitals are acutely affected by the outages. As Thomson found repeatedly during his work in Gaza, simply turning on the lights is often the difference between life and death.
"A lot of patients die unnecessarily" because of electricity shortages, he said.
Especially for the highest-risk patients, a steady flow of electricity is vital. Ventilators and dialysis machines are only useful for patients if they remain turned on at all times. Dr. Tarek Loubani, a colleague of Thomson who often works in Gaza, said he instructs family members of patients on ventilators on how to blow air into the chest tube themselves, in case the power for the ventilator pump cuts out. Surgeons often head into the operating room unsure if they'll have power for three hours or three minutes.
"You're worried all the time, you're rushing all the time," Loubani said.
When blackouts hit and hospitals have to rely on diesel generators, the cost can be crippling. Dr. Medhat Abbas, the executive director of al-Shifa, where Thomson's teenage patient died, recently told Loubani and filmmaker Amy Miller that fuel for generators can run him up to $400,000 per month. As a result, he can only afford to run them for a few hours each day.
Money saved on fuel can go to vital equipment and medication.
So last month, Thomson and Loubani kicked off a campaign to fix the problem. Their solution: Equip Gaza's hospitals with solar panels. Their campaign, EmpowerGAZA, is being supported on the ground by the United Nations Development Programme and has raised just over half of the $200,000 they expect to need to install solar arrays on one major hospital. (More hospitals could follow if more money comes through.) The panels won't produce enough energy for all of the hospital's needs, but they can fill gaps for the most vital sections of the hospital.
Their inspiration was al-Shifa itself, which installed a solar system last fall with the support of a Japanese development agency. In the months since, Loubani said, that hospital's intensive care unit—which handles life-or-death emergencies—hasn't experienced a single moment of blackout. Power from the panels makes doctors' jobs easier and safer, while fuel savings free up cash that can be spent instead on equipment and medicine. And with Gaza's 320 days per year of sunshine, solar is far more reliable than liquid fuel.
Hospitals could be just the beginning, Zomlot said. Solar power on homes, businesses, and schools could also be an efficient and effective way to make immediate improvements to the standard of living in Gaza.
"People have really been creative in trying to bypass the blockade and trying to find a solution," he said. "Luckily Palestine is one of the richest countries worldwide in terms of solar."
Volunteers fill buckets with oil near Refugio State Beach. Michael A. Mariant/AP
On Tuesday, an oil pipeline burst near Refugio State Beach west of Santa Barbara, California, sending an estimated 105,000 gallons of oil onto the beach. Up to a fifth of that oil is believed to have reached the ocean, Reuters reports.
Now, volunteers and private contractors are racing to clean up the oil. About 6,000 gallons have been collected so far, according to the AP. But damage has already been done. At least two pelicans have been found dead, and five more pelicans and one sea lion were sent for rehabilitation. Biologists have also found many dead fish and lobsters. Local officials have closed the beach at least through Memorial Day, and possibly for "many weeks" after that, one scientist at the scene said.
A young female sea lion affected by the Santa Barbara oil spill receives treatment from the SeaWorld California animal rescue team. Rex Features/AP
The company that owned the pipeline, Plains All American, has one of the country's worst environmental safety records. An analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that the company's rate of incidents per mile of pipeline is more than three times the national average. A spokesperson said the company deeply "regrets this release," but it remains unclear what penalties it could face for this latest accident.
It could be years before the full impact is truly understood, since damage to the ecosystem can sometimes take a while to manifest. Five years after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, biologists are still tallying the damage.
Here are some of the latest images coming in from the scene:
Refugio State Beach Santa Barbara News-Press/ZUMA
A small crab covered in oil Troy Harvey/ZUMA
Two whales surfaced near an oil slick off Refugio State Beach. Michael A. Mariant/AP
A dead lobster covered in oil on the shoreline Troy Harvey/ZUMA
Clean-up workers remove a dead octopus from the beach. Mike Eliason/ZUMA
Crews from Patriot Environmental Services collect oil-covered seaweed and sand. Michael A. Mariant/AP
A helicopter coordinates ships below pulling booms to collect oil from the spill. Michael A. Mariant/AP
Clean-up workers monitor the site of the underground oil pipeline break. Michael A. Mariant/AP
Polar bears approach the submarine USS Honolulu near the North Pole.
On Wednesday, when President Barack Obama spoke at the US Coast Guard Academy's commencement ceremony, he called climate change "an immediate risk to our national security." In recent months, the Obama administration has repeatedly highlighted the international threats posed by global warming and has emphasized the need for the country's national security agencies to study and confront the issue.
So some national security experts were surprised to learn that an important component of that effort has been ended. A CIA spokesperson confirmed to Climate Desk that the agency is shuttering its main climate research program. Under the program, known as Medea, the CIA had allowed civilian scientists to access classified data—such as ocean temperature and tidal readings gathered by Navy submarines and topography data collected by spy satellites—in an effort to glean insights about how global warming could create security threats around the world. In theory, the program benefited both sides: Scientists could study environmental data that was much higher-resolution than they would normally have access to, and the CIA received research insights about climate-related threats.
But now, the program has come to a close.
"Under the Medea program to examine the implications of climate change, CIA participated in various projects," a CIA spokesperson explained in a statement. "These projects have been completed and CIA will employ these research results and engage external experts as it continues to evaluate the national security implications of climate change."
"There's a growing gap between what we can currently get our hands on, and what we need to respond better," said security expert Marc Levy.
The program was originally launched in 1992 during the George H.W. Bush administration and was later shut down during President George W. Bush's term. It was re-launched under the Obama administration in 2010, with the aim of providing security clearances to roughly 60 climate scientists. Those scientists were given access to classified information that could be useful for researching global warming and tracking environmental changes that could have national security implications. Data gathered by the military and intelligence agencies is often of much higher quality than what civilian scientists normally work with.
In some cases, that data could then be declassified and published, although Francesco Femia, co-director of the Center for Climate and Security, said it is usually impossible to know whether any particular study includes data from Medea. "You wouldn't see [Medea] referenced anywhere" in a peer-reviewed paper, he said. But he pointed to the CIA's annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, which includes multiple references to climate change, as a probable Medea product, where the CIA likely partnered with civilian scientists to analyze classified data.
With the closure of the program, it remains unclear how much of this sort of data will remain off-limits to climate scientists. The CIA did not respond to questions about what is currently being done with the data that would have been available under the program.
Marc Levy, a Columbia University political scientist, said he was surprised to learn that Medea had been shut down. "The climate problems are getting worse in a way that our data systems are not equipped to handle," said Levy, who was not a participant in the CIA program but has worked closely with the US intelligence community on climate issues since the 1990s. "There's a growing gap between what we can currently get our hands on, and what we need to respond better. So that's inconsistent with the idea that Medea has run out of useful things to do."
The program had some notable successes. During the Clinton administration, Levy said, it gave researchers access to classified data on sea ice measurements taken by submarines, an invaluable resource for scientists studying climate change at the poles. And last fall, NASA released a trove of high-resolution satellite elevation maps that can be used to project the impacts of flooding. But Levy said the Defense Department possesses even higher-quality satellite maps that have not been released.
Still, it's possible Medea had outlived its useful life, said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a 23-year veteran of the CIA who had first-hand knowledge of the program before leaving the agency in 2009. He said he was not surprised to see Medea close down.
"In my judgment, the CIA is not the best lead agency for the issue; the agency's 'in-box' is already overflowing with today's threats and challenges," he said via email. "CIA has little strategic planning reserves, relatively speaking, and its overseas presence is heavily action-oriented."
Sen. John Barrasso said the CIA "should be focused on monitoring terrorists in caves, not polar bears on icebergs."
Over the past several years, climate change has gained prominence among defense experts, many of whom see it as a "threat multiplier" that can exacerbate crises such as infectious disease and terrorism. Medea had been part of a larger network of climate-related initiatives across the national security community. Medea's closure notwithstanding, that network appears to be growing. Last fall, Obama issued an executive order calling on federal agencies to collaborate on developing and sharing climate data and making it accessible to the public.
But the CIA's work on climate change has drawn heavy fire from a group of congressional Republicans led by Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.). Barrasso said last year that he believes that "the climate is constantly changing" and that "the role human activity plays is not known." He recently authored an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he listed the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere as "greater challenges" than climate change. (The Syrian civil war, however, was likely worsened by climate change.)
Around the time Medea was re-instated by the Obama administration, the CIA formed a new office to oversee climate efforts called the Center for Climate Change. At the time, Barrasso said the spy agency "should be focused on monitoring terrorists in caves, not polar bears on icebergs." That office was closed in 2012 (the agency wouldn't say why), leaving Medea as the CIA's main climate research program.
So does the conclusion of Medea signal that the CIA is throwing in the towel on climate altogether? Unlikely, according to Femia. At this point, he said, US security agencies, including the CIA, are still sorting out what resources they can best offer in the effort to adapt to climate change. Regardless of whether the CIA is facilitating civilian research, he said, "continuing to integrate climate change information into its assessments of both unstable and stable regions of the world will be critical."
"Otherwise," added Femia, "we will have a blind spot that prevents us from adequately protecting the United States."
A solar panel charges in front of a house in West Bengal, India.
China is by far the world's biggest investor in clean energy technologies like solar and wind. Last year, its clean energy spending hit a record $83 billion, a 39 percent jump from the year before, and more than twice what is spent in the United States.
Although America and most other G20 nations are moving toward a clean energy overhaul, its the developing world where you'll find the most explosive growth: When you add in emerging markets like Brazil, India, and South Africa, clean energy investment in developing countries totaled $131 billion in 2014, only six percent less than the combined total for developed countries. It's the closest that gap has ever been, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF):
That gap will soon close, and then start growing in the other direction, according to a new report from the Pew Trust. Based on financial data from BNEF, the report's authors project that more than $7 trillion will be invested in new energy systems by 2030, two-thirds of it in developing countries. (Pew's analysis doesn't put China in that category.) Roughly $5 trillion of it will be clean energy investment.
It's no mystery why developing countries are positioning themselves to win this race. For one, they need the electricity. As it stands, more than 1.3 billion people, mostly in Asia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa, live without access to reliable modern service:
If you want to bring electricity to places without a power grid, renewables have lots of advantages. For one, it's far cheaper and faster to build a solar or wind farm than a coal or gas-fired generation plant. And renewables can be built locally, on a small scale, eliminating the need for long-distance transmission lines. Consider what happened with cellphones: Mobile technology became cheap and ubiquitous before many African nations had landline networks, so people just "leapfrogged" straight to wireless.
The same phenomenon is afoot in the energy market, says Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, who was not involved with the Pew report. "I don't have any doubt that over the next two generations we'll see colossal investments in the energy sector in many African countries" and in India.
Compare the maps above and below. You'll note a strong connection between so-called energy poverty (above) and future power demand (below), in Africa especially. This is hardly surprising, but only in the past few years has renewable energy has become affordable and accessible enough to get the transformation rolling.
Energy poverty isn't the only factor driving clean energy's growth. In Bulgaria or Ukraine, both of which Pew identified as key places for energy investment in the developing world, the growth is driven by a desire to wrest control from foreign fossil fuel suppliers, i.e. Russia's Gazprom. That's according to Phyllis Cuttino, a clean energy analyst who authored the Pew report. "These countries want to have sources they don't have to import, and they want to stimulate economic growth," she said.
It seems certain that the next few decades will see much more money invested in clean energy than in fossil fuels.
The report also identified Kenya, Peru, Taiwan, Morocco, Vietnam, Pakistan, and the Philippines as top attractors of clean energy investment. For now, anyway: The lineup may change from year to year in response to domestic policies (mandates, subsidies, etc.). And Moss said that the report underestimates the role African countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia will play. Still, many developing countries are in for internal political battles over clean energy, of the sort that we've seen, and are still fighting, in the United States.
African utility companies also often struggle with bad credit histories, Moss said, which can make it difficult to secure loans from the World Bank or other international institutions. "The key to unlocking investment in the power sector is getting a long-term, credit-worthy deal," he said.
Regardless of which countries come out ahead, we're almost certain to see far more money invested in clean energy than in fossil fuels over the next few decades. In the charts below, solar in particular is projected to grow massively by 2030, while new fossil fuel installations will shrink to less than half of the total.
So where does this leave United States? There's a huge opportunity for clean energy entrepreneurs to expand into developing countries, Cuttino said. Indeed, according to Commerce Department stats, six of our top 10 destinations for clean energy exports are developing countries. President Barack Obama has made electrification in Africa a signature foreign policy initiative of his second term. That move in itself sends an important signal about the difference between clean energy here and in the developing world. Here the benefits are primarily environmental. There, clean energy is seen as a key step to alleviating poverty.