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.
Firefighters battled a pair of brush fires in Granada Hills, Calif., on Monday.
On Monday, 200 firefighters evacuated an upscale residential neighborhood in Los Angeles as they responded to a wildfire that had just broken out in the nearby hills. Ninety minutes later, the fire was out, with no damage done. But if that battle was a relatively easy win, it belied a much more difficult war ahead for a state devastated by drought.
California is in the midst of one of its worst droughts on record, so bad that earlier this month Gov. Jerry Brown took the unprecedented step of ordering mandatory water restrictions. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is currently the lowest on record for this time of year. And the outlook for the rest of the year is bleak: The latest federal projections suggest the drought could get even worse this summer across the entire state (as well as many of its neighbors):
That's a very bad sign for California's wildfire season. After several years of super-dry conditions, the state is literally a tinderbox. "The outlook in California is pretty dire," said Wally Covington, a leading fire ecologist at Northern Arizona University. "It's pretty much a recipe for disaster."
To date this year, the overall national tally of wildfires has actually been below average: 14,213 fires across 309,369 acres, compared to the 10-year average of 20,166 fires across 691,776 acres, according to federal data. After a peak in 2006, early year wildfire activity in the last few years has been somewhat stable:
But in California, the trend looks very different. The tally of fires so far this year is 967—that's 38 percent higher than the average for this date since 2005. The number of acres burned is up to 4,083, nearly double the count at this time last year and 81 percent above the average since 2005:
And here again, the outlook for the rest of the summer is grim. Just look at the overlap between the map above and the map below, which shows that most of California is at above-average risk for fires this summer:
This is all costing California taxpayers a lot of money. According to Climate Central, California typically spends more money fighting wildfires than the other 10 Western states combined, totaling roughly $4 billion over the last decade. That's partly due to the state's size and vulnerability to big wildfires, and also to the close proximity of high-value urban development to easily ignited forests and grasslands. (Wildfires in the Alaskan wilderness, by comparison, can grow much bigger but cost much less, because without homes or towns nearby, they're often allowed to simply burn out.)
California burned through its $209 million firefighting budget in just a few months of this fiscal year; back in September, Brown had to pull an additional $70 million from a state emergency fund. A spokesperson for the state's department of finance said the wildfire budget has since been increased to $423 million. (Running way over budget on wildfires isn't unique to California; the federal government routinely underestimates how much wildfires will cost and ends up having to fight fires with funds that are meant to be spent preventing them.)
Scientists have long predicted that an increase in both the frequency and severity of wildfires is a likely outcome of global warming. The Obama administration's National Climate Assessment last year cited wildfires as one of the key threats posed to the United States by climate change. Longer periods of drought mean wildfire "fuels" like grass and trees will be drier and easier to burn; at the same time, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means these same fuels will accumulate more quickly. And there's a feedback loop at play: Deforestation caused by wildfires contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that the increasing threat of wildfires will make climate change worse.
When it comes to wildfires, Covington said, "with increased climate change, there's a train wreck coming our way."
For a more detailed explanation of the link between climate change and wildfires, watch the original Climate Desk video below:
Chipotle announced this week that it will stop serving food made with genetically modified organisms. The company wants you to think the decision is "another step toward the visions we have of changing the way people think about and eat fast food," apparently because GMOs are regarded with at best suspicion and at worst total revulsion by lots of Americans.
There's data to support that notion: A Pew poll released earlier this year found that less than 40 percent of Americans think GMOs are safe to eat.
Here's the thing, though: GMOs are totally safe to eat. Eighty-eight percent of the scientists in that same poll agreed. As longtime environmentalist Mark Lynas pointed out in the New York Times recently, the level of scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is comparable to the scientific consensus on climate change, which is to say that the disagreement camp is a rapidly diminishing minority. Lynas also made the equally valid point that so-called "improved" seeds have a pretty remarkable track record in improving crop yields in developing countries, which translates to a direct win for local economies and food security. (Although there is evidence that widespread GMO use can lead to an increased reliance on pesticides.)
But there's an even more important reason why Chipotle's announcement is little more than self-congratulatory PR, even if you think that GMOs are the devil. As former MoJo-er Sarah Zhang pointed out at Gizmodo:
For the past couple of years, Chipotle has been getting its suppliers to get rid of GM corn and soybean. Today’s "GMO-free" announcement comes as Chipotle has switched over to non-GMO corn and soybean oil, but it still serves chicken and pork from animals raised on GMO feed. (Its beef comes from pasture-fed cows.) A good chunk of the GM corn and soybeans grown in America actually goes to feed livestock, so a truly principled stance against GMOs should cut out meat from GM-fed animals, too.
The same caveat applies to soda, which is also made mostly from corn.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2013.
Japan used to have a pretty good reputation on climate change. Thanks to its robust industrial economy, it has the fourth-largest carbon footprint in the G20 nations. But it gets a sizable chunk of its power from zero-carbon sources like hydro dams and, at least until the 2011 disaster at Fukushima, nuclear plants. And in 2009, the country agreed, along with the other G8 nations, to reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Back in 1992, Japan played host to the negotiations that led to the Kyoto Protocol, the first time a group of countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Even though the United States never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, it was a groundbreaking agreement. But today, in the context of a decade and a half of additional scientific research, policy advances, and public pressure, it's woefully insufficient to ward off the worst effects of climate change. That's why the international community is planning to craft a new agreement to replace it in Paris later this year. And this time around, Japan isn't looking so hot.
"Japan appears to be backsliding at the moment," Taylor Dimsdale of E3G said.
Today, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in Washington to address Congress about his plan to expand his country's military operations in Asia. He'll also meet privately with President Barack Obama. According to the White House, climate change is on the agenda. It seems likely that the two leaders will discuss what Japan plans to bring to the table in Paris: Last week deputy national security adviser Caroline Atkinson told reporters that one of the main goals of the meeting is "to help build momentum towards a successful and ambitious climate agreement." The United States met a United Nations deadline at the end of March to announce its carbon contribution—that is, how much it will be willing to cut its carbon footprint—in preparation for the Paris talks. But a month after the deadline, Japan has yet to make an official announcement (some disappointing clues have leaked out; more on that in a minute).
In fact, recently Japan has found itself at the center of several unflattering climate stories. Last year, the country pledged $1.5 billion to a UN-controlled fund that aims to help poor nations adapt to climate change. But a couple of months later, the Associated Press revealed that a separate pot of money Japan designated as "climate finance" actually contained $1 billion in investments in coal-fired power plants overseas. In March, the AP uncovered another half billion dollars of coal investments that Japan had labeled as climate finance. The Japanese government maintained that the funds were in fact climate-friendly, because even though coal is indisputably the greatest source of carbon emissions, these funds went toward cutting-edge coal technology that is cleaner than what might have been built otherwise.
In the ongoing wars over solar energy, one power company is consistently painted as the archetypal, mustache-twirling nemesis of clean electricity: Arizona Public Service. So you might be surprised to learn that this same company is about to become a big new producer of rooftop solar power.
APS is an unlikely solar patron: In the summer of 2013, the Phoenix-area utility launched a campaign to weaken Arizona's net metering rule, which requires utilities to buy the extra solar power their customers generate and provides a major incentive for homeowners to install rooftop panels. A few months later, APS admitted giving cash to two nonprofits that ran an anti-solar ad blitz in the state. Early this year, the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that a letter criticizing the solar industry's business practices, sent by members of Congress to federal regulators, was originally authored by an employee of APS. And a couple weeks ago, APS asked state regulators to let the company quadruple the fees it tacks on to the monthly bills of solar-equipped homeowners.
It makes sense that the company would be worried about solar's epic takeoff. In many ways, the solar boom poses an unprecedented threat to big electric utilities, which have done business for a century with essentially zero competition. In the first quarter of this year, applications for solar permits in APS's service area were 112 percent higher than the same period last year, and every one of those is one less customer for APS's regular power supply, 40 percent of which comes from coal. Now the company thinks it has found a solution to the problem: It wants to start owning its own rooftop solar.
"It's all about control," Bloomberg analyst Nick Culver said.
In December, the Arizona Corporation Commission gave a green light to APS to plunk down $28.5 million on 10 megawatts of solar panels, enough to cover about 2,000 of its customers' roofs. (Tucson Electric Power, another utility in the state, was also approved for a smaller but similar plan.) The idea is that APS will target specific rooftops it wants to make use of—in areas where the grid needs more support, for example, or west-facing roofs, which produce the most power in the late afternoon, when demand is the highest. APS would offer homeowners a $30 credit on their monthly bill, according to Jeff Guldner, an APS vice president for public policy.
The credit essentially serves as rent for the roof, where an APS-contracted local installer will set up a solar array. APS owns the panels, can use the power however it wants, and gets to improve its clean energy portfolio without losing customers to third-party solar companies. Meanwhile, the homeowner gets a lower bill.
Obama speaking this afternoon at Everglades National Park
President Barack Obama just marked Earth Day with a speech on climate change, given from a podium in Florida's Everglades National Park. The choice of venue was appropriate from an environmental perspective—the Everglades is already acutely feeling the impacts of sea level rise—but it was also telling from a political standpoint. Although our swampiest national park has a long history of bipartisan support, it's located in a state that has recently produced some of the most absurdist climate denial in recent memory—and Obama didn't forget to mention it.
"Climate change can no longer be denied," Obama said today. "It can't be edited out. It can't be omitted from the conversation…Simply refusing to say the words 'climate change' doesn't mean climate change isn't happening."
Obama also took a jab at Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) for bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor. "If you have a coming storm, you don't stick your head in the sand," he said. "You prepare for the storm."
You can watch the full speech below (starts at 48:00):