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.
When it comes to America's energy future, it seems like all we ever hear about these days is natural gas. To hear the deafening outcry over fracking, to see the flares of North Dakota's drilling boom twinkling in space, you'd think we'd gone ahead and set every other type of power production to low simmer on the backburner. Turns out, it just ain't so. The latest update from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent government agency that regulates interstate electricity trading, reveals that in 2012 wind was the fastest-growing energy source, adding a full seven percent more megawatts than natural gas. Dig it:
Ontario's coal-fired Lambton Generating Station is scheduled to close this year.
Ontario, Canada's most populous province, will become the first jurisdiction in North America to boot coal completely out of its energy mix, the province's Minister of Energy, Chris Bentley, announced last week. By the end of 2013, Ontario will shutter 17 of its 19 coal-fired power plants, leaving less than one percent of the province's energy mix provided by coal, and close the last two next year, a decision Bentley says was fueled by concern about global climate change and local health.
The phase-out has been coming down the pipeline since 2003, and it's already paying off: Canada's Pembina Institute found that greenhouse emissions from Ontario's energy sector fell by 30 million tons in the last decade.
The move is made somewhat easier by the fact that Ontario was never a major coal addict to begin with: In 2011, less than three percent of its total power generation came from coal; that same year in the US, the share was 42 percent. And part of what has tended to make coal so intractible in the US—thousands of jobs on the line—is a non-issue for Ontario, which never had its own coal mining industry, importing most of its supply from the US, Bentley said. The province, although a net electricity exporter, also imports a little of its power from adjacent US states and Canadian provinces; a spokesperson for Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator said they had no way to know whether any of the imported power came from coal-fired plants.
Ramping down coal over the last several years has given Bentley time to shore up other energy resources to fill the supply gap, including a booming wind industry—which more than tripled in the last five years—and, like in the US, a growing dependency on natural gas.
Down here south of the border, although our appetite for coal is waning, industry lobbyists and GOP pols from states like West Virginia are raising hell, and we're still pretty far from zero. And even though the US has its own unique challenges in confronting coal compared to Ontario, Bentley says he learned one thing from his experience cutting it out that can apply to his US counterparts: "There are far more people who are supportive than the critics would like you to believe."
Alan Baum has to shout into the phone for me to hear him over the cacophony of the Detroit Auto Show, which opened Monday. Around him, thousands of journalists swarm from one new car to the next, lights flash, DJs spin, and the cream of the world's automotive crop glistens. "A lot of show and not a lot of substance," Baum, an industry analyst, jokes.
Just to look around at the "performance" cars on display here, from hulking pickups to lightning-fast sports cars, you might not be able to tell that this is the first major car show in Detroit since the introduction last fall of President Obama's new fuel efficiency standards, which will require all cars and light-duty trucks to operate at 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly doubling current requirements. The administration predicts that this move will save Americans nearly $2 trillion at the pump. The cars below— featured this week in Detroit—are already taking steps in that direction.
2014 Corvette Stingray:
Courtesy General Motors
Let's be honest: no one is buying one of these for the great gas mileage. It's more like the car you fantasize about at fourteen and later take a soul-sucking job on Wall Street just to afford. But the simple fact that the Stingray, one of the gas-guzzling belles of the Detroit ball, takes even one step in a green direction is a sign of how deep the efficiency paradigm has penetrated the auto industry, says industry analyst Don Anair. Ironically, high-tech fuel-management equipment in the engine actually adds weight to a car that has traditionally tried to shave pounds wherever possible for the sake of speed and aerodynamics.
While it's true that the Detroit show has its of share super-green cars (like the futuristic Tesla Model X and a marked-down version of the classic Nissan Leaf), Baum says the real progress is on prioritizing fuel efficiency on updates to familiar models that used to be all about style or power. Fuel efficiency standards and record-high gas prices be damned, in Detroit the floor is still packed with muscle-bound models, but a recent analysis by Baum's firm found that from 2009 to 2013 the number of popular vehicles with improved fuel efficiency more than doubled, from 28 to 61, of which only a third are tiny subcompacts.
Volkswagen has taken an all-of-the-above approach to greening its fleet, Baum says, rolling out everything from plug-in electrics to hybrids to diesel (which is more efficient than normal gasoline). The CrossBlue might look like it was designed expressly to ferry hoardes of middle-schoolers to soccer practice, but it's more a concept car than one you'll soon find at the local dealership. It combines hybrid technology with diesel power, and reflects a growing US market for diesel engines: Jeep also introduced a new diesel Grand Cherokee.
"Automakers are supportive of fuel efficiency requirements because that's what consumers want anyway," Baum says, adding that as major manufacturers like Ford invest more heavily in highly efficient vehicles, they acquire a perverse fear of falling gas prices, which would diminish the economic incentive for consumers to spend more on an efficient car.
Still, history shows that car manufacturers need a regulatory boost to keep pushing on the fuel efficiency front, says Don Anair, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. After Congress passed the first federal fuel economy standards in 1975, efficiency innovation stagnated until 2007, when new legislation upped the ante. In 2010, the Obama administration set higher standards for the immediate future, and finally last fall set the historic long-term goals that automakers are now striving to reach; already, over the last few years emissions from cars have dropped. "The effect of the standards is to raise the overall effort," Anair says.
2014 Mercedes E-Class:
If you’re buying one of these, saving a few bucks at the gas station probably isn’t a major concern for you. Still, some of the same green technology that gained fame in the by-contrast proletarian Prius has made its way into luxury vehicles like this one as well: a hybrid engine that turns off while idling, a feature I always found a bit spooky but which Anair says is increasingly common.
From left: David King, Ethan Iverson, and Reid Anderson of The Bad Plus.
Reid Anderson is at the bar of the Village Vanguard, sipping a Stella Artois and thinking about 2002. That's the year that an agent from Columbia Records sat in this same New York City club one night listening to a relatively unknown trio called The Bad Plus, who, despite their decidedly conventional jazz instrumentation, played with a swagger—and volume—more in line with Neil Young than Vince Guaraldi. It felt like a turning point, recalls Anderson, the trio's bassist, and he was right: By early 2003, The Bad Plus had released their first major-label record, These Are The Vistas, and launched into a decade-long (and counting) exploration of the outer edge of what three guys on acoustic instruments are capable of producing.
"We strive to make music that doesn't follow conventional forms," says Anderson, who looks like a distant American cousin of Christoph Waltz, as he adjusts his dark velvet blazer. "On paper, there's not much there. But we believe in group music, band music."
"We strive to make music that doesn't follow conventional forms."
Anderson, along with colleagues Ethan Iverson on piano and David King on drums, had just finished articulating this philosophy to a packed house at the Vanguard, at the end of their seventh week-long New Year's stint here. As always at the Vanguard, which has remained the crown prince of the world's jazz clubs since its opening in 1935, it's anyone's guess who is here for the band versus who is here for the venue. But if there were any tourists in this dark basement hoping to nod off over martinis to a recitation of inoffensive standards, they came on the wrong night.
The Bad Plus' music, which Rolling Stone describes as "as badass as highbrow gets," is characterized by angular, shifting rhythms that always seem one step ahead of your ability to lock into them, and a proliferation of interwoven melodic lines that somehow outnumber the number of musicians onstage. It's often impossible to tell whether the music you're hearing has been meticulously composed and rehearsed or is being improvised on the spot. In this sonic incubator, swathed in green paint and red velvet, under the watchful photographed eyes of John Coltrane, Monk, and the Vanguard's other historic tenants, the band spins from straight grooves to the brink of incoherence, the center barely able to hold. But it does, and the audience is rapt.
Say what you want about the Obama administration's relative ignoring of climate issues: Many of his top scientists are paying rapt attention, and they think we're about to get our butts kicked—although dumping the news at 4 p.m. on a Friday gives some indication of where it sits in federal priorities.
The National Climate Assessment is produced by the US Global Change Research Program, which is tasked with collating climate research from a wide variety of federal agencies and, every few years, distilling it into one major report. The latest, a first draft, is the third such report (the last was in 2009), product of a 1990 law that requires the White House to produce semi-regular updates on climate science to Congress. Today's report echoes the themes of earlier editions, and paints a picture that is all the more grim for being an unsurprising confirmation of the dangers we've come to know all too well. Here's the top six things for you to worry about this weekend, according to the report:
Climate change is definitely caused by human activities. Always nice to hear government officials acknowledge this essential fact. And the report concedes that our only hope of curbing warming is to kick our addiction to greenhouse-gas spewing fossil fuels.
Extreme weather is increasing, and that's our fault, too. In particular, searing temperatures, heavy rain, and prolonged drought.
Weather isn't the only threat we have to worry about. The list sounds like the side-effect warnings at the end of a prescription drug commercial: decreased air quality, insect-borne diseases, and "threats to mental health" are all on the docket for the coming decades.
Our infrastructure is getting hammered, and we're not spending enough to save it. Floods are destroying farmland; extreme heat is damaging roads, rail lines, and airports; and military installations are at risk.
Food and water security will be up in the air. Especially in water-scarce regions like the Southwest, decreasing snowpack and shrinking groundwater supplies will spark competition for water between "agricultural, municipal, and environmental" uses. At the same time, heavy floods could put water quality at risk with sediment and chemical contaminates. And by mid-century, efforts to artificially protect agriculture (like expanded irrigation) could be over-ridden by temperature and precipitation extremes.
Climate change is hitting plants and animals just as hard as us. Beaches, forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems could shrink or disappear, especially a problem when they play a role in mitigating the impact from extreme weather. And warming, acidifying seas could slam sea life.
The report is sure to get thoroughly dissected by reporters in the coming week; keep an eye out for more details to come.