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.
President Obama walks between sections of pipeline destined for the southern stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline.
UPDATE (11/18/14, 6:17 pm ET): A controversial bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline failed in the US Senate Tuesday evening. It received 59 "aye" votes, just shy of the 60 needed to send the bill to President Obama's desk. The fight isn't over yet; Republicans have said they plan to prioritize approving the pipeline once they take control of the Senate next year.
Below the headlines last week about President Obama's major climate agreement with China, another environmental story was gaining steam: a vote in Congress to force approval of Keystone XL, a controversial pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada down to refineries on the Gulf Coast. On Friday, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the pipeline, as it has done numerous times in the past. The Senate is expected to vote on an identical bill today. Previous Keystone legislation has always stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Democrats. But the vote Tuesday will likely have more Democratic support than ever before, making it the closest the pipeline has yet come to approval.
Here's what you need to know:
What's happening with Keystone this week?
As of Sunday, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the bill is still one vote shy of the 60 it would need to break a Senate filibuster, pass Congress, and land on the president's desk. If enacted, the legislation would green-light a construction permit for the pipeline, removing that authority from the State Department, which currently has the final say because the project crosses an international border. President Obama has said that his administration would only approve the project if it didn't increase total US carbon emissions; a State Department report in January suggested that the pipeline was unlikely to affect America's carbon footprint because the oil it would carry would get exported and burned one way or the other. But the final decision was postponed indefinitely in April and is awaiting the outcome of a court case in Nebraska that could alter the pipeline's route. Congressional Republicans have accused Obama of willfully kicking the decision down the road for as long as possible; on Thursday Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week's vote was long overdue after years of the administration "dragging its feet."
Why is the vote happening now?
When Republicans take control of the Senate next year, with a host of new climate skeptics in tow, they could pass a new round of Keystone legislation—perhaps even with enough support to override a presidential veto. So why rush? The answer revolves around the Senate race in Louisiana, where incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu is locked in a runoff campaign with Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, who currently serves in the House. The special election is scheduled for December 6, and Landrieu appears to be trailing Cassidy. Landrieu represents a state with close ties to the oil industry, and she has long been one of the pipeline's most vocal advocates. Last week she introduced the Keystone bill in what manyonCapitol Hill have described as a last-ditch political maneuver to score points with her constituents before the runoff. Cassidy introduced the House version of the bill shortly thereafter.
This morning, anti-pipeline activists set up shop in front of Landrieu's residence in Washington:
If the bill passes, will President Obama sign it into law?
Probably not. At a press conference in Burma last week, Obama said that his "position hasn't changed" and that the approval process should go through the proper State Department channels. It's hard to imagine that after all of Obama's statements on Keystone's carbon footprint, the approval process, and his series ofclimate promises last week, he would capitulate on the pipeline merely for the benefit of one Senate Democrat who appears unlikely to win anyway. It seems more likely that he would save Keystone approval as a bargaining chip to keep the GOP-run Congress from attacking his other hard-wonclimate initiatives. We'll have to wait and see how this all plays out over the next few days.
This morning, the New York Times reported that President Obama is poised to announce a pledge of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations-administered account to help poor countries deal with climate change. That's the biggest single pledge of any country so far (see chart above); it doubles the total size of the fund and is a major step toward the UN's target of raising $15 billion before next month's climate talks in Lima, Peru. Other notable carbon emitters, such as the UK, are expected to announce contributions by the end of next week.
But viewed in a different context, the US contribution looks much less impressive. The idea behind the fund is to reconcile one of the cruel ironies of climate change: Many of the nations that will be hit hardest by global warming—countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, for example—have done very little to cause the problem. Bangladesh was recently ranked as the country that is most vulnerable to climate change, but its per-capita carbon dioxide emissions are 44 times smaller than the US's per-capita emissions, according to the World Bank. So the fund is meant to bridge the gap between the rich countries whose carbon pollution causing climate change and the poor countries that are suffering from it.
As the chart below shows, the US's contribution to the Green Climate Fund looks a lot smaller when it's adjusted to take into account America's extremely high emissions:
Cumulatively since 1980—the earliest year for which consistent data from the Energy Information Administration is available—the US has emitted more carbon than any other country, including China. (In 2008, China overtook the US as the leading annual carbon polluter). So it's probably fair to say that the US is more to blame for global warming than any other single country. And yet Obama's pledge to the Green Climate Fund only translates to about $17,100 per million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted from 1980 to 2012—placing it ninth among the 13 countries that have announced pledges. That's a bit like crashing a friend's car and only offering to pay to fix the steering wheel. By contrast, Sweden's pledge equates to $292,000 per million tons of CO2 emissions—17 times greater than the US pledge.
It's great and necessary that Obama is willing to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. But I think it's fair to say the US is getting away pretty cheap.
What a week! First President Barack Obama announces a massive climate agreement with China designed to lower both countries' carbon emissions while doubling down on clean energy development. Now this morning, the New York Times is reporting that the president will soon announce a $3 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund, a UN-administered account that will help developing countries clean their energy sectors and adapt to the impacts of global warming.
A $3 billion pledge from the United States would double the size of the fund; the biggest donations up to this point were $1 billion each from France and Germany. More countries are expected to make commitments at a UN meeting in Berlin next week. The fund's stated goal is to reach $15 billion before a key meeting next month in Lima, Peru.
Obama's pledge "is a strong and important signal to developing countries that the US is serious ahead of climate negotiations in 2015," said Alex Doukas, a sustainable finance analyst at the World Resources Institute.
From the Times:
It is not clear whether Mr. Obama's $3 billion pledge will come from existing sources of funding, or whether he will have to ask Congress to appropriate the money. Since 2010, the Obama administration has spent about $2.5 billion to help poor countries adapt to climate change and develop new clean sources of energy, but Republicans are certain to target additional requests for money linked to climate change and foreign aid.
So there are still some details to work out. But like the US-China climate deal, the most immediate impact of this pledge announcement will be to encourage other countries to up the ante on their own commitments.
By now we're familiar with some of the scarier potential impacts of climate change: Floods, fires, stronger hurricanes, violent conflicts. Well, here's a new one to add to your nightmares. Lightning strikes in the continental United States will increase roughly 12 percent for every degree Celsius of global warming, a study published today in Science finds. If warming continues unchecked, that could translate into a 50 percent increase in lightning by the end of the century—three strikes then for every two strikes now. (On average, there are currently about 25 million strikes per year.)
Does this mean an increase your odds of getting struck by lightning? Technically yes, I guess, but I wouldn't worry about that. Instead, the increase matters because lightning strikes are the principle cause of wildfires, which are already predicted to become more severe due to global warming. In one 24-hour period in August, lightning in Northern California started 34 wildfires. The study doesn't make any specific predictions about wildfire activity, but knowing about future lightning conditions is an important part of that equation.
Lightning is notoriously hard to account for in climate models, because the models can only represent large-scale atmospheric forces like wind speed, moisture, and temperature; they can't show relatively small electric pulses, said Anthony Del Genio, an atmospheric scientist for NASA who was not involved with the study. So to get a sense of how lighting patterns will change in future climates, scientists have to rely on "proxies"—third-party forces they can model that have a known relationship to lightning. Early lightning studies in the 1990s, for example, made inferences based on how the heights of clouds—thought to be one contributor to lightning patterns—are expected to change with global warming, Del Genio said.
But lightning is a complex phenomenon that still isn't fully understood by atmospheric scientists, so proxies have mostly proven to be imperfect for one reason or another. As a result, the Science study explains, previous estimates for how lightning will change with global warming range from an increase of 5 percent to and increase of more than 100 percent for each degree of temperature rise. Not very informative.
This study presents a new proxy for lightning—a proxy that author David Romps of the University of California-Berkeley thinks is much stronger than any of the previous ones. It's actually a combination of two proxies: precipitation and "CAPE," a standard measure of the kinetic energy clouds hold as they rise in the atmosphere. Lightning is the product of electrical charges caused by ice particles of different densities colliding in clouds, so Romps chose factors that would be necessary for lightning to occur: Enough precipitation to form ice, and enough upward energy to keep the ice suspended.
Taken together, those proxies accurately predicted 77 percent of actual lightning strikes observed in the US in 2011 by a national web of electromagnetic sensors. That result, Romps said, is a sign that these proxies are "doing a remarkably good job" of representing lightning patterns.
The video below shows the data Romps used to compare his hypothesis to observed lightning strikes, here represented as red dots. The original was over five minutes long—with one second for every day of the year—so we sped it up a bit.
The next step was to use data from 11 existing climate models to find out how precipitation and CAPE are predicted to change with global warming. Although Romps said the correlation between warming and CAPE is still being studied, all 11 models predicted it would increase by the end of the century. In other words, global warming will probably produce clouds that have stronger upward momentum. Combine that with predicted precipitation and, according to Romps, you get a sense of how much more lightning we can expect to see.
In this study, Romps' dataset paints its predictions with a broad brush; the data isn't detailed enough to know how lightning will change in specific parts of the country, or how the frequency will change in different seasons. But Del Genio says that the study advances our understanding of which weather forces contribute most to lightning. What's more, he says, Romps' work give us a strong indication of what lies ahead.
The deal could also be a big win for the clean energy sector. It calls for more funding for research and development projects focused on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and clean vehicles. It also includes a major new pilot project in China to study carbon capture and sequestration, the controversial technology that—at least in theory—could help China curb its emissions while continuing to burn coal for electricity.
Perhaps most significantly, the plan says that for China to meet its clean energy production target, it will have to roll out an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of low-carbon energy sources by 2030. That's roughly equivalent to the size of the US's current electric grid, but made up entirely of non-fossil energy. So the renewable energy market in China, already the world's biggest, is poised to grow by a lot over the next decade or so. That's not necessarily a new development, but now we know that the growth expectation is nailed down to some specific numbers—and that it will happen with the support of the US government and American companies.
"This is what energy innovation looks like…innovation that takes advantage of demand in growing markets."
In other words, China's climate goals represent a big economic opportunity for both countries.
"I think the technology stuff is the most important part of this agreement," said Alex Trembath, an energy analyst with the Breakthrough Institute. "This is what energy innovation looks like: Not only partnerships in deploying new technologies, but innovation that takes advantage of demand in growing markets" like China.
Up to this point, trade relations on clean energy have been a little icy between China and the US, especially on solar power. Over the last couple years, the explosion of the solar power market has led to some bitter trade wars between Chinese and American solar panel manufacturers, with US regulators complaining that Chinese companies were dumping super-cheap panels on the American market. The Commerce Department already raised tariffs on Chinese solar technology this summer, and it's poised to do so again in December.
But Nick Culver, a solar market analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, says yesterday's announcement effectively signals a pivot in the Obama administration's attitude that will ultimately benefit the US solar industry.
"Folks in the solar world are worried about a discrete number of things that can really throw the brakes in the US, and one of those things is a trade war with escalating tariffs," Culver said. "This seems like it really relieves that fear," because the plan makes it US policy to promote, not inhibit, China's clean energy sector.
Culver cautioned that it could be several years before China's new commitments translate to a noticeable uptick in manufacturing, so don't expect solar stock prices to necessarily skyrocket right away. The bilateral plan is light on details, so it's hard to say exactly when and how China envisions ramping up its solar deployment. But now the tone is set for a relationship between the countries that is less combative and more collaborative.
That attitude applies beyond solar power. China is the world's biggest coal consumer; it gets more than 70 percent of its power from coal. Thanks to China's skyrocketing growth, its coal addiction is expected to rise until 2030, when the International Energy Agency predicts China will, at its peak, consume more than half the world's coal. To reconcile China's need for more cheap energy with its climate goals, the plan calls for a major pilot project to study carbon capture and sequestration, a technology intended to capture carbon dioxide from coal plants and either bury it underground or repackage it for use as an industrial chemical.
The project will be a fresh opportunity to prove that CCS can be made economically viable—the closest equivalent project in the US, a coal plant in Mississippi, is a $5 billion boondoggle.
"Having CCS called out specifically is a good sign that the technology is necessary" for China to meet its climate goals, said Elizabeth Burton, director of the Global CCS Institute, a Melbourne-based think tank.
Nuclear power could also be a winner. China already has 26 nuclear reactors in the works, with an additional 60 planned, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. These will likely become a key component of China's push for low-carbon energy.
Trembath said the agreement is a model for international collaboration on climate action that reduces our collective carbon footprint without the geopolitical hassle of a legally binding global treaty.
"If you really want to gather momentum for clean energy," Trembath said, "you have to take advantage of China."