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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Carbon Cap-and-Trade Explained in 1 Simple Diagram

| Fri Aug. 31, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

James WestJames WestEvery year at the Pacific Coast Producers processing plant in Woodland, California, half a million tons of tomatoes are sliced, diced, canned, boiled, and shipped to grocery stores nationwide. The operation is driven by steam, lots of it, which comes from a suite of massive natural-gas-powered boilers. Together, these boilers emit over 25,000 metric tons (about 27,557 US tons) of greenhouse gases annually, which means PCP will be forced to join California's cap-and-trade carbon market, set to kick off in November.

The plan, which officials hope will put the country's most populous state on track to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, isn't the first carbon trading scheme in the United States: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a collective of several Northeastern states (including Massachusetts, which rejoined a few years after being forced out by then-Gov. Mitt Romney), has been auctioning carbon credits, called allowances, since 2008. But unlike RGGI, which applies only to power plants, California's plan extends to all sectors of the economy, which means businesses from paper mills, oil refineries, and universities to pharmaceutical manufacturers, steel mills, and food processors like PCP will have a stake in California's campaign against climate change.

Yesterday, some 150 of those businesses got their first taste, as the curtain lifted on a dress rehearsal of the auction where companies will bid for the allowances (each worth one metric ton of carbon) that determine how much they're allowed to emit, a dry run staged to let companies get comfortable with the system and work out any kinks before it launches for real in a few months. Over the next year, about 150 allowances will be bid on, together worth anywhere from $550 million to $1 billion depending on market forces. Some will be given away for free, to help businesses adjust to the added expense.

"It's like some brave new adventure," said Mona Schulman, a PCP vice president, as she waited for the fall of the digital gavel (the auction is held online) to start bidding. "Everybody's in favor of clean air and the environment being healthy, but there's a lot of uncertainty down the road."

Barring an unforeseen advancement in steam boiler technology, Schulman said, the plant will have limited options for reducing emissions; as the cap gets lower every year, they'll be left with the tough choice of having to cut production, or shell out to other companies for their unused allowances.

Photos: Despite Record Melt, Signs of Hope for Greenland Ice

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

To view photo descriptions, click full screen, then "Show info."

One of the primary forces behind climate-change-driven sea level rise is the Greenland Ice Sheet. Covering 80 percent of Greenland, it's the world's second-largest chunk of ice (after the Antarctic Ice Sheet) and dumps 240 billion tons of fresh water into the oceans every year, accounting for a full fifth of annual sea level rise. And in recent years it's been melting faster than ever, enough to make it a primary target of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has tapped teams of scientists to see what the full effect of the increased melting could be. Some reports say the rise worldwide from a disappearing Greenland Ice Sheet could be as much as a meter, enough to wreak havoc on places like New York City and low-lying Palau.

But a study out yesterday in Science paints a more optimistic picture: Even with global warming, the ice sheet may be able to slow its melting rate much faster than previously thought. A team of Danish researchers used archived aerial photos (shown in the slideshow above) of the ice sheet, dating back to the early '80s, to compare other episodes of rapid melting in the last few decades. What they show, lead author Kurt Kjær of the University of Copenhagen said in a statement, is that the ice sheet is dynamic, able to shift quickly from melting to holding firm; the record melt we've seen recently could be over in as soon as eight years. For that reason, he said, it's wrong to use the current melting rate to make predictions about sea level rise in the coming century, as some studies have done.

"It's too early to proclaim the 'ice sheet's future doom' and subsequent contribution to serious water problems for the world," he said. "It turns out that the ice sheet is able to more quickly stabilize itself in comparison to what many other models and computer calculations predict."

Photos courtesy of Niels J. Korsgaard and Anders A. Bjørk, Natural History Museum of Denmark

Highlight Reel: Senate Climate Change Smackdown

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

In summer 2009, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) butted heads in what was to be the last Senate hearing on climate change for three years. Then, the debate was over pending climate change legislation, with both sides firing off the usual arguments: obstructionism by the right and overspending by the left. The two powerhouse legislators locked horns again yesterday on climate change for the first time since then, but this time the argument amongst members of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee was back to climate kindergarten: Is it actually happening?

Fortunately, there were actually a few climate scientists on hand, including IPCC lead author Christopher Field and Harvard oceanographer James McCarthy, along with John Christy, an Alabama climatologist tapped by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to lead the denial side. Later, the panel heard from a trio of business and civic planning officials, who testified on the public health risks posed by climate change and on ways private enterprise can adapt (or not).

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