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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This GOP Congressman’s Crusade Against Scientists Just Got Even More Insane

| Fri Feb. 26, 2016 5:54 PM EST

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.

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The Bright Future Ahead for Electric Vehicles, in 4 Charts

| Thu Feb. 25, 2016 6:00 AM EST

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. 

BNEF

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:

BNEF

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:

BNEF

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:

BNEF

A recent report from Amnesty International found that cobalt mining is often linked to child labor, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world's leading producers of cobalt. Lithium mining has been linked to water pollution and depletion, particularly in South America.

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.

This post has been updated.

We Have Some Bad News for You About Pretty Much Everywhere

| Tue Feb. 23, 2016 12:56 PM EST
Flooding in Miami

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. 

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