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.
Congressman Lamar Smith's crusade against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keeps getting weirder.
Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, suspects that NOAA scientists may have "changed" climate research data to make it appear as though a possible slowdown in global warming over the last decade-and-a-half didn't really happen. In other words, the congressman seems to believe that government scientists somehow manipulated the facts in order to support President Barack Obama's climate agenda.
It turns out that the scientific debate over the extent to which climate change took a so-called "hiatus" is far from settled and extends far beyond NOAA's research. Chris Mooney at the Washington Post has a detailed rundown of the latest research on this surprisingly difficult question here. Of course, the basic existence of man-made global warming is not in dispute by scientists, Smith's opinion notwithstanding.
But in any case, Smith is determined to get to the bottom of what he sees as an insidious plot by NOAA to falsify research. His original subpoena for internal communications, issued last October, has been followed by a series of letters to Obama administration officials in NOAA and other agencies demanding information and expressing frustration that NOAA has not been sufficiently forthcoming. In December, for example, he wrote to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker complaining that NOAA showed a "pattern of failing to act in good faith." (NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.)
Now, a new letter gives some insight as to his specific grievances: Smith claims that NOAA's internal search for documents responsive to the subpoena has been "unnecessarily narrow," limited only to documents containing the terms "hiatus," "haitus," "global temperature," and "climate study." A NOAA spokesperson confirmed that those were the only search terms the agency used to find the relevant documents. On Monday, Smith asked NOAA to expand that field to include the words below ("Karl" presumably refers to Thomas Karl, the NOAA scientist behind the research Smith is interested in):
In Smith's defense, NOAA's four terms (three, really, since one is just a misspelling of another) are incredibly narrow and, if there really was any scientific malfeasance, would quite possibly miss it. At the same time, the new list further illuminates what Smith is really after: Some evidence of a nefarious political conspiracy involving Obama, the United Nations, the Paris climate agreement, and temperature buoys.
Sure, NOAA should be transparent about its activities. But the whole thing seems more and more like a wild goose chase by Smith—I'm not holding my breath for any bombshell revelations.
Porter Ranch, Calif., site of a massive methane leak that was finally plugged this month.
It's no secret that the United States has a methane problem. Methane accounts for about one half of one percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions—it's released mostly from natural gas production, landfills, and agriculture (cow farts and burps). But as a greenhouse gas, it's incredibly potent in the short term, capable of trapping up to 90 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-30 time period. And although the Obama administration has proposed some potential solutions, methane emissions are currently unregulated by the federal government.
A couple new analyses came out this week painting a picture of just how severe methane emissions really are.
The first deals with the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility near Los Angeles, which was finally plugged on Feb. 12 after spewing gas from a major leak for four months. In addition to creating a public health crisis (the noxious fumes prompted thousands of locals to evacuate), the leak made a significant contribution to climate change.
The Aliso Canyon leak was spewing 60 metric tons of methane every hour.
In a new study published Thursday in the journal Science, scientists reported that the leak single-handedly doubled Los Angeles' methane footprint. The study, one of the first peer-reviewed measurements of the leak and based on a series of scientific flights over the site, found 60 metric tons of methane leaking every hour.
Aliso Canyon is an extreme case, but methane leaks are frighteningly common, and they take a significant toll for the environment. This week the Environmental Protection Agency released an updated draft of its Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the official accounting of America's carbon footprint. In 2014, total greenhouse gas emissions in the US were 6.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (a metric used to make apples-to-apples comparisons between different gases). That's about 1 percent higher than in 2013, but about 8 percent lower than the 2007 peak.
The most notable thing about the draft, however, is a dramatic upward revision of methane emissions statistics. The new figures for methane emissions from the oil and gas sector are about 27 percent higher than previous estimates. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, that difference represents a 20-year climate impact equal to 200 coal-fired power plants. It also represents about $1.4 billion worth of lost natural gas.
"There's been a lot of science done over the last few years. Before that, we didn't know a lot about the extent of methane emissions," said Matt Watson, an analyst at EDF. "Now they recognize that they've been systematically undercounting these emissions by a pretty significant extent."
The new draft also upwardly revises estimates for landfill emissions, moving them to the number-one slot. Livestock emissions estimates are essentially the same. The oil and gas revision is by far the biggest, and likely the most significant from a policy standpoint.
New figures for methane emissions from the oil and gas sector are about 27 percent higher than previous estimates.
Methane emissions occur at many different points of the natural gas production process. Most are intentional: Excess gas is flared from well sites to relieve pressure, and some pieces of drilling equipment are designed to periodically vent gas. But an estimated one-third of methane emissions from the natural gas system are accidental, coming from leaks in pipelines, storage facilities, and other infrastructure.
The reason for the accounting difference, Watson explained, is that the EPA had systematically undercounted the number of natural gas facilities and their equipment. The agency also used an unrealistically low estimate for how much leakage is really occurring; because methane emission reporting is voluntary for natural gas operators, who themselves may not even know the extent of the leaks, some amount of informed guesswork has to go into these calculations. The result, Watson said, is that "in some cases [EPA] was almost completely ignoring huge parts of the oil and gas sector."
In a speech to energy industry executives on Wednesday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the change underscores the need for better federal regulation of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.
"We've known for a while there has been a big discrepancy," McCarthy said, according to the Houston Chronicle. "We have been working with the industry to try and get some voluntary efforts. Those efforts have not been as successful as they have with other industries."
In January 2015, the EPA proposed regulations aimed at reducing methane leakage by 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025, mostly by upping standards for new infrastructure. But the plan hasn't been finalized, and in any case it would not apply to existing sources.
Given that Obama is likely to spend the next year just defending his gains on carbon dioxide emissions, it seems unlikely that major reform is forthcoming on methane. It could be a top climate priority if a Democrat wins the presidential election: Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have proposed similar plans to address leaks and other sources of methane in the natural gas sector. The Republican candidates, needless to say, have not put forward any plans to address methane.
Ethiopians in the rural Ziway Dugda district await distribution of emergency food aid in January.
Tens of millions of people are facing a hunger crisis as a widespread drought is decimating crops and livestock in Ethiopia and southern Africa. The drought—which has received far less US media coverage California's dry spell—could prove to be one of the most devastating consequences of the ongoing El Niño event that is wreaking havoc on global weather.
Last month, the United Nations found that drought in southern Africa has exposed 14 million people to hunger. In South Africa, 2015 was the driest year on record since 1904. And across huge swaths of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, and elsewhere, conditions are the driest they've been in the last 35 years, according to the UN:
Famine Early Warming System
The majority of staple grains in these countries are produced by small-scale farmers who don't have access to irrigation, making them especially vulnerable to low rainfall. And because most crops there are grown for subsistence, rather than for sale, a bad harvest has graver consequences than simply lost income. From the Associated Press:
Families are going up to two weeks without a solid meal in Madan'ombe, a village in Masvingo province in southern Zimbabwe…Loveness Ndlovu and her six children prepare smoked fish on a fireplace in a round hut devoid of any other food. The children, who last tasted meat a month ago, know better than to salivate over the six catfish caught in a lake by their father, Zimaniwa.
"They can only touch the fish, they cannot eat," Ndlovu said. "It's two weeks now since I last had a proper meal. If it gets worse, I will have to beg from other villagers so I can at least feed my kids."
The parents plan to barter the fish for other foodstuffs such as maize. Ordinarily, the entire family would be busy in the fields, weeding a knee-high maize crop. Now they can only watch as skinny donkeys graze on failed crops. Vast fields lie dry and fallow.
The last resort is foreign food aid; last month, Zimbabwe declared a state of emergency in the hope of mobilizing a greater response from the UN's World Food Program and other donor organizations.
The most severe drought impacts could be further north in Ethiopia, the site of massive famines in 1973 and 1984 that left hundreds of thousands of people dead. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a US-government-led coalition that tracks hunger crises, 10.2 million Ethiopians are now in need of emergency food aid. Only about a quarter of the aid that's now required has come in so far, and current aid supplies are expected to run out by April.
Here's a look at rain conditions in Ethiopia during the summer and fall of 2015, a period which is normally expected to provide rain for winter crops. As you can see, huge parts of the country received less than three-quarters of their typical rainfall:
A spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders said the situation in Ethiopia has not yet developed into a full-blown famine but added that "if the next rains also fail and food distributions are not properly organized, far more people could become malnourished."
Fortunately, whatever happens with the rains, the country's political situation is much more stable than in previous decades, when neglect and human rights abuses by the government were as much to blame for the famines' death tolls as were the climatic conditions. From the Washington Post:
These days, early warning systems alert the government when famine threatens, and in 2015, these kicked into action after the spring and summer rains failed, leaving herders trapped in desert pastures and farmers with extensive crop failures across the north and east of the country.
"I remember 1984, people would migrate or just die," said Mohammed Abdullah, a haggard farmer in his 40s in a village in the highlands of East Hararghe, about 300 miles east of the capital. Normally, villagers would be harvesting corn and sorghum now, but the terraced hillsides were largely empty. "This time, the government response is on time and coming before people leave."
He shuddered, though, when asked what would happen if the handouts stopped, as may happen if an additional $700 million in funding is not secured. "If there was no support and the rains don't come, people will start dying."
Is El Niño to blame for Ethiopia's drought?
Most likely, yes. During El Niño years, warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific slow down natural circulation in the atmosphere, producing a ripple effect on rainfall across the globe. South America tends to get above-average rainfall during El Niños—hence the link to a population boom in Zika-carrying mosquitoes—while Southeast Asia gets below-average rain. Coastal East Africa—Kenya and Somalia—is expected to get above-average rain. But next door in Ethiopia, the elevation is much higher, and that extra moisture doesn't make it in.
"So Somalia becomes wetter, but in Ethiopia it actually becomes drier," explained Jessica Tierney, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Arizona.
That effect is particularly pronounced in the summer, which was exceptionally dry in 2015 (see the map above).
"This was forecast ahead of time and the world should not be surprised."
"The major reason for the drought in that region is the shortfall of precipitation during the summer monsoon season, which is the primary precipitation season in that region," said Park Williams, a climatologist at Columbia University. "This is consistent with the general effect of El Niño."
In other words, we should have seen this drought coming, said Richard Seager, another researcher at Columbia: "This was forecast ahead of time and the world should not be surprised."
Some relief could be on the way soon. Williams said that the upcoming spring rainy season, which is particularly important for agriculture, is generally less sensitive to El Niño, so "hopefully the seasonal forecast models are correct and Ethiopia starts getting some good rain beginning in March or so."
But as in much of Africa, good weather data is scarce, so any predictions will be much shakier than for, say, California. In any case, lasting drought relief will have to wait for the major monsoons this summer—will they be missing for another year, or will they return?
"The area hurting most from this drought will need to wait until June or so to see whether their luck can turn around," Williams said. Unfortunately, he added, "the El Niño event will very likely not be entirely over [by then]."
What about climate change?
As with other individual weather events, scientists are loath to blame global warming per se—especially since El Niños are a fairly common, cyclical occurrence.
"There is no good reason to assume the current drought is climate change-related," Seager said.
As for what the future holds, that's a thornier problem. There's some evidence that climate change could lead to exceptionally strong El Niños becoming more common, but the science is far from settled on that question.
"There is no good reason to assume the current drought is climate change-related."
There's even less agreement about what strengthening El Niños, and climate change in general, could mean for East Africa. That's because the region's main seasonal rainy periods—one from September to November, another from March to May, and a short but heavy monsoon in the summer—have proved a headache for atmospheric scientists to nail down in models.
Models produced by the UN'S Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change "suggest that all of East Africa should get wetter" in a warming world, Tierney said. But, she added, "what we're actually seeing on the ground is the area getting drier."
At the same time, this year's El Niño effect has been compounded by a long-term decline in precipitation that is not well understood. Rains in Ethiopia have declined by up to 20 percent since the 1970s. But it's not clear if and how that could be driven by global warming.
The upshot is that the current drought is a product of El Niño making a bad situation worse. The question now is whether the Ethiopian government, and its partners at the World Food Program and other aid organizations, will be able to prevent a replay of the humanitarian disasters we've seen too many times before.
Last month, Elon Musk predicted that the electric vehicle industry will "definitely suffer" from low oil prices—a barrel of crude is about $33 today, down from more than $100 a year ago. Why invest in an electric car when gas is so cheap? And sure enough, sales of gas-guzzling SUVs jumped 10 percent in 2015, while electric vehicle sales dipped 4 percent.
But don't expect that trend to last, even if oil prices stay relatively low. A new market forecast from Bloomberg New Energy Finance paints a rosy picture for the future of electric vehicles, rising from about 1 percent of global annual vehicle sales today to 35 percent by 2040—about 41 million cars. That's good news for Musk and other scions of clean energy. Whether it's good news for the planet remains to be seen (more on that below).
Here are a few of the report's main predictions. First, the increase in sales is projected to really pick up after 2025. Green represents electric vehicles (BEV is fully electric battery vehicles like the Nissan Leaf; PHEV is plug-in hybrids like the Toyota Prius); gray is all other types of light-duty cars.
The report identifies a few factors driving electric vehicle adoption: increasing use of tax breaks and other supportive government policies; rapidly declining costs of batteries (the most expensive component compared with normal internal combustion engine cars); and the declining lifetime cost of ownership of EVs compared with normal cars. The last one is where the cost of fuel comes in; BNEF uses a low-end oil price estimate from the Energy Information Administration that puts oil between $50 and $75 per barrel. Prices much lower than that would slow down, though not totally halt, the growth of EVs, BNEF found.
As technology improves and more cars are sold, the cost of batteries will come down dramatically, BNEF found, as will the overall cost of electric vehicles (including their lifetime fuel consumption). Ultimately, EVs could become less expensive than internal-combustion vehicles between 2020 and 2030, according to BNEF.
China is likely to be the biggest EV customer:
So is this good news for the climate? That depends on where the power for all these new EVs comes from. BNEF finds that EVs will save about 13 million barrels of oil by 2040, equal to about 14 percent of the total oil market in 2016. But previous research has found that in places that rely mostly on coal-fired power plants for electricity, electric vehicles can have a bigger carbon footprint than regular cars. BNEF predicts EVs will create a surge in demand for electricity:
Fortunately, clean energy is providing a lot more of the global growth in electricity production than fossil fuels. BNEF has previously projected that about 70 percent of the new electricity generation added by 2030 will be in the form of wind, solar, and other clean sources, not including nuclear. In other words, these EVs are more likely to run on clean energy than on fossil fuels.
But that's not the end of the story. There's also a heavy environmental and humanitarian impact from producing the minerals needed to build all those batteries. Demand for cobalt, lithium, and other key minerals is projected to surge:
Musk can rest assured that he'll have a market for Tesla's electric cars for years to come. But in order for that to be a win for the planet, the rest of the clean-energy industry—and international standards for mining—will need to pick up the pace as well.
Humans are causing sea levels to rise at the fastest rate in nearly 3,000 years, according to a series of scientific reports released Monday. What's more, the new research concludes that this acceleration is already resulting in increased flooding in US coastal communities.
The increase in sea level rise is really quite dramatic, as this chart from Climate Central illustrates:
The impact of that change is already being felt by Americans. From the New York Times:
[Scientists] also confirmed previous forecasts that if emissions were to continue at a high rate over the next few decades, the ocean could rise as much as three or four feet by 2100…The rise in the sea level contributes only in a limited degree to the huge, disastrous storm surges accompanying hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy. Proportionally, it has a bigger effect on the nuisance floods that can accompany what are known as king tides…The change in frequency of those tides is striking. For instance, in the decade from 1955 to 1964 at Annapolis, Md., an instrument called a tide gauge measured 32 days of flooding; in the decade from 2005 to 2014, that jumped to 394 days.
Here's another great Climate Central tool that lets you see the impact in a selection of the most vulnerable coastal cities:
Scary as this all is, it's further proof that the leading GOP candidates for president are living in a fantasy world. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, despite representing perhaps the most vulnerable state, doesn't want to do anything about climate change. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz deny the problem even exists. But it's a fact that the US economy has a direct stake, today, in slowing climate change and preparing for its impacts. Every study like this that comes out makes it more ridiculous, and dangerous, to pretend that isn't the case.