Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

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.

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Alaska's Stranded Walruses Face a New Threat: Oil Drillers

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 11:07 AM EDT
walrus map
Yellow lines show the movement of radio-tracked walruses in 2013; the green highlighted section is where offshore drilling leases are available. USGS

Remember that jaw-dropping photo from last week that showed 35,000 walruses crammed onto a narrow strip of land because they couldn't find enough space on the disappearing Arctic sea ice? Turns out melting ice isn't the only thing the walruses have to worry about.

Last month, the energy blog Fuel Fix reported on details of Shell's newest plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. The company has a history of failure in the Arctic since it first got a federal green-light to explore there in 2012. Now they'll be heading back out next summer for another try, with up to six new wells in the Chukchi Sea.

The ocean expanse north of Alaska where Shell wants to drill is the most popular hangout for Alaskan walruses, as the map above, from a US Geological Survey study of walruses last year, shows. The yellow lines show the movements of a group of walruses over a two-week period in July 2013; red X's mark where researchers deployed radio tags on the walruses. The green outline indicates the cluster of Arctic oil drilling lease locations administered by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, including those Shell is eyeing. The wells would be upstream of Hanna Shoals, a biologically rich shallow shelf that tends to hold sea ice longer than other areas.

The Shoals are vital walrus habitat, especially as climate change diminishes sea ice throughout the Arctic, said Margaret Williams, Arctic programs director for the World Wildlife Fund. Risks to the walruses (and other marine life, for that matter) include disturbance by ship traffic and the fallout from oil spills. Spill cleanup is particularly challenging in icy waters, and the nearest Coast Guard station is across the state in Kodiak. 

"It's an amazing place that is full of life, with a very rich food chain," Willaims said. If oil and gas drilling goes forward, "you have a huge potential mess."

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Walmart Is the Biggest Corporate Solar User. Why Are Its Owners Funding Groups That Oppose Solar?

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 4:57 PM EDT
Solar panels adorn the roof of a Walmart store in Arizona.

Walmart loves solar power—as long as it's on their roof, and not yours.

That's the takeaway from a report released today by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which found that between 2010 and 2013 the Walton Family Foundation has donated just under $4.5 million to groups like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, which have worked to impede state-level policies that promote clean energy.

The list of groups that have received funding from the Walton Foundation reads like a who's who of "the groups who are leading the charge against rooftop solar," said Stacy Mitchell, who authored the report. Rob Walton, who sits on the Foundation board, is also the chair of Walmart's board; his family are majority shareholders of Walmart and some of the richest people in America.

The funny thing is that Walmart, the world's biggest company, is also the world's biggest commercial solar user. Indeed, solar power is a key aspect of its much-touted green makeover. According to data released last year from the Solar Energy Industries Association, Walmart has 89 megawatts of installed solar capacity on its retail rooftops. That's twice the capacity of second-ranked Costco and more than the total capacity of 37 individual states. Of course, those figures are less impressive when looked at in a light that better reflects the company's mind-boggling size: Less than 3 percent of the company's total power comes from renewables—including solar, wind, and biogas—according to EPA data.

Here's the list of groups receiving funding from the Walton Foundation that have taken positions against state-level clean energy policies, according to the report:

walton chart
Courtesy Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The dollar figures in the chart above come from the Walton Family Foundation's last four annual reports. All the groups listed, Mitchell said, have opposed state-level clean energy policies like renewable portfolio standards or net-metering, both of which are key tools in helping more households go solar.

Clearly the groups listed here are involved in a host of conservative and free-market issues beyond energy, so there's no direct evidence that the Waltons' foundation donated to these groups because of their opposition to policies promoting renewables. Indeed, a foundation spokesperson said that the report is misleading because it ignores the foundation's donations to environmental groups and instead "chooses to focus on a handful of grants none of which were designated for renewable energy-related issues."

But backing groups like this has a direct impact on the growth of clean energy, Mitchell said.

The upshot, she said, is "not that their vision of the future doesn't include some solar power. It's just solar power they own and control."

Walmart declined to comment on the report.

If These 35,000 Walruses Can't Convince You Climate Change Is Real, I Don't Know What to Tell You

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 10:36 AM EDT
AP Photo/NOAA, Corey Accardo

This an image from a NOAA research flight over a remote stretch of Alaska's north shore on Saturday. It shows approximately 35,000 walruses crowded on a beach, which according to the AP is a record number for this survey program.

Bear in mind that each of the little brown dots in this image can weigh over 4,000 pounds, placing them high in the running to be the world's biggest climate refugees.

Why are so many walruses "hauled out" on this narrow strip of land? Part of the reason is that there's not enough sea ice for them to rest on, according to NOAA.

On September 17, Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent for 2014, which according to federal data is the sixth-lowest coverage since the satellite record began in 1979.

"The massive concentration of walruses onshore—when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters—is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic," Margaret Williams, the managing director of WWF's Arctic program, said in a statement.

If you've ever seen these blubbery beasts duke it out, then you know there's some serious marine mammal mayhem in store. Thanks, climate change!

Carbon Emissions Are Higher Than Ever, and Rising

| Mon Sep. 22, 2014 1:34 PM EDT

Yesterday was a good day for the climate movement, as over 300,000 people—according to the event's organizers—descended on Manhattan for the biggest climate change march in history. The record-breaking turnout was a powerful sign that climate change is gaining traction in mainstream consciousness.

But even as the marchers were marching, new science was released that underscores how just how little time the world has left to break its addiction to fossil fuels. Global carbon emissions are the highest they've ever been, and are on the rise, according to a new climate study published in Nature Geoscience over the weekend.

The study totaled global carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production—which together account for over 90 percent of total emissions—and found that they rose 2.3 percent in 2013 to their highest level ever recorded, approximately 36.1 metric gigatons.

We'll use up our remaining carbon "budget" in the next 30 years.

Emissions have been on the rise for decades, setting a new record almost every year. The rate of emissions growth has increased since the 1990s—when it was 1 percent per year—to the last decade, when the average annual growth rate has been around 3 percent. The rate of growth in 2013 was actually slower than in 2012, the study found, reflecting energy efficiency improvements in the US and Europe that have reduced the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP. But that obscures increasing rates of growth in emissions from China and India. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions are still on pace to trigger what scientists say could be a catastrophic amount of warming, said Pierre Friedlingstein of the University of Exeter, the study's lead author.

"China will be twice as much in 10 years," Friedlingstein said. "We need to change the trend. There's a need to reduce emissions in every country."

Which brings us to the really unsettling part of this report—its attempt to pin down exactly how long we have to make that happen. Climate scientists often talk about a carbon "budget," which is the total cumulative emissions that will lead to a specified level of global warming. To have a better-than-even chance to stay within a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit increase over 1990s temperatures, the international standard for a reasonably safe level of warming, our global carbon budget is 3,200 gigatons. Since the Industrial Revolution, we've used up about two-thirds of that. On our current path, the study finds, we'll use up the rest in just the next 30 years.

In other words, if the emissions trend isn't reversed before 2045, we would have to drop immediately to zero carbon emissions on the first day of 2046. Since an instantaneous gearshift like that is obviously impossible, there's a need to bring emissions under control in the short term. That way we can stretch the "budget" for many more years and not face a choice between catastrophic climate change or a plunge into the Dark Ages.

We'll get an updated sense of how serious world leaders are about that goal at tomorrow's United Nations climate summit, which is meant as a curtain-raiser for major international climate negotiations next year in Paris.

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