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.
In December, Republicans in Congress struck a deal with Democrats to extend a package of tax breaks for wind and solar energy projects. Prior to the deal, things looked bleak. The tax credit for wind had already expired the year before, and the one for solar was set to expire by 2016. So the extension, which came after Democrats agreed to support lifting the long-standing ban on US oil exports, was a big and unexpected win for clean energy—one that will help buoy the industry for the next six years.
It could also prove to be one of the most significant actions taken by this Congress to reduce America's carbon footprint, according to a new analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Thanks to all the new wind and solar that will likely get built because of the legislation, electricity-sector greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by as much as 1.4 billion metric tons by 2030 compared with what they would have been without the extension, the study found. That's roughly the savings you'd get if you removed every passenger car from US roads for two years.
In other words, the tax breaks—2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by a wind turbine and about 30 percent off the total cost of solar systems—add up to "one of the biggest investments in clean energy in our nation's history," Dan Utech, deputy assistant to President Barack Obama on climate, told reporters today.
How much wind and solar actually gets built (and thus the actual carbon savings) will also depend on what happens to the cost of natural gas, which has been low for the last few years thanks to the fracking boom but could rise again. Low gas prices make renewables less competitive, especially without the tax credit. But having the tax credit in place will enable solar and wind to compete in the market even if gas prices do stay low. The extension will also make wind and solar less vulnerable to state-level attacks on clean energy, as well as attacks on Obama's broader climate agenda.
Will the Republican candidates come out in support of clean energy?
Tim McDonnellFeb. 19, 2016 3:59 PM
Nevadans protest changes to state regulations that would dramatically increase the cost of rooftop solar.
Last month, solar power suffered a major blow in Nevada. Under pressure from the state's largest electric utility, NV Energy, state regulators agreed to drastically roll back a key financial incentive for rooftop solar installations. The move, which applied both to new solar users and to homes already equipped with panels, could leave existing customers on the hook for thousands of dollars in higher electricity costs. It also obliterated the economic case for prospective solar buyers. And it prompted a mass exodus of solar contractors in the state with the most solar jobs per capita. SolarCity, the country's largest solar installer, fired 550 workers; two of its main competitors, Vivant and Sunrun, plan to shut down their Nevada operations.
Now, the fight over solar could become an important issue in the presidential election.
The fight over solar could become an important issue in the presidential election.
The controversial public utility commission decision relates to net metering, the policy that allows homeowners to sell the excess electricity from their solar panels back to the utility at set prices. Most states have adopted some form of net metering. It enables solar customers to defray their upfront costs and has been widely credited as a major driver of America's solar boom. But the policy is generally loathed by utilities, who not only lose a customer but have to pay that lost customer for their power. In response, utilities and their allies in conservative think tanks such as the American Legislative Exchange Council have waged a nationwide battle against net metering, particularly in sunny states like Arizona and Florida. The Nevada decision is one of the utilities' biggest victories yet: It allows them to raise the flat monthly fee on solar customers threefold by 2020, from $12.75 to $38.51. It also reduces the net metering credit by 18 percent. This is especially harmful to customers who made big investments in solar under the expectation that it would generate big savings into the foreseeable future.
Since the decision, solar has been one of the top headlines in Nevada. The change has been decried by local solar contractors, their customers, and environmentalists. Two homeowners have filed a class-action lawsuit against NV Energy (owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway), and a coalition of solar companies known as the No Solar Tax PAC is pushing a ballot measure that would reverse the regulators' decision.
The Nevada caucuses are just around the corner, Saturday for Democrats and this coming Tuesday for Republicans. Solar enjoys widespread support from Nevada voters in both parties: A poll last month from Colorado College found that 75 percent of voters in the state support tax incentives for solar, while a solar-industry-commissioned poll last year found that 69 percent of Nevada Republicans and 80 percent of Nevada Democrats wouldn't vote for a candidate who doesn't support pro-solar policies.
"The fallout [from the solar decision] has been so severe on both sides of the aisle," said Barbara Boyle, a Sierra Club staffer in Nevada. "I think there's going to be a lot of activity in the caucuses related to the issue."
On Tuesday, the Alliance for Solar Choice, a lobbying group backed by SolarCity and Sunrun, emailed a memo to thousands of solar supporters in Nevada urging them to "make sure [the presidential candidates] can't avoid this issue." Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have already charged into the fight. Last week, Clinton issued a statement expressing her support for federal legislation that would limit states' ability to raise fees for existing solar users, as was done in Nevada:
Eli Smith, who operates a small solar installer in Reno called Black Rock Solar, attended the meeting with Sanders. He said that although no presidential candidate can offer much of an immediate remedy to the state's solar woes, he plans to support Sanders in the caucus because he has "the kind of commitment I personally look for" on clean energy issues.
Smith added that he was surprised that thus far, the Republican candidates "aren't even acknowledging the issue," given solar's bipartisan appeal in Nevada.
Indeed, none of the GOP contenders have weighed in on the controversy yet, and they didn't respond to requests for comment for this story. A few have come close: In New Hampshire, John Kasich said it's "not acceptable" to slow the development of solar, and Marco Rubio said the United States should be "number one" in solar (although his proposed energy plan focuses on promoting fossil fuel extraction and ignores renewables). In South Carolina on Tuesday, Donald Trump suggested that because his campaign is self-funded, he wouldn't be held captive to the interests of utilities, as some environmentalists have suggested Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is:
Avoiding this issue would be a big missed opportunity for Republicans in Nevada, said Debbie Dooley, whose Green Tea Party group organizes conservative support for solar because it represents "energy choice" and freedom from monopolistic utilities. Dooley is in Nevada this week working to promote the No Solar Tax PAC's ballot measure. She said she expects Republicans to take up the issue once they make it past the South Carolina primary on Saturday.
"If I were a presidential candidate, I would certainly come out and start talking about energy freedom and energy choice," she said. "I think the person that does grab hold of it will gain votes."
Amid the hullabaloo surrounding Apple's decision to oppose a court order to help the FBI glean data from iPhones belonging to the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorists, you may have missed another big announcement from the company. Yesterday, the company issued a package of bonds worth $1.5 billion for projects related to clean energy, the largest "green bond" ever issued by a corporation.
The Cupertino, California-based tech giant said proceeds from the green bond sales will be used to finance renewable energy, energy storage and energy efficiency projects, green buildings and resource conservation efforts.
"This will allow investors to show they will put their money where their hearts and concerns are," Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, told Reuters.
The basic idea is that Apple will be able to raise quick cash from investors, spend it on climate-savvy projects (like the field of solar panels that power Apple's North Carolina data center), and then pay back the money with interest. Bonds are generally considered a low-risk, straightforward investment; "green bonds" are rapidly gaining popularity with banks and institutional investors like university endowments and pension funds as a relatively safe and effective way to contribute to the fight against climate change. Green bonds were a hot topic at the Paris climate talks, especially as a way for the governments of developing countries to pay for climate adaptation. From 2014 to 2015, the global market for green bonds grew from $37 billion to $42.4 billion, and it's projected to top $50 billion in 2016.
That's still a drop in the bucket for the $100 trillion bond market, but hey, not chump change—and Apple's contribution is a significant boost. Peter Ellsworth, director of the investment program at the environmental nonprofit Ceres, said there's a big appetite for green bonds that isn't being satisfied.
"There have been surprisingly few companies participating," in offering green bonds, he said. "There's considerably more demand than there is supply, which is why this bond is particularly welcome."
In other words, a big sale of green bonds from a massive company like Apple could pave the way for other companies to follow suit, with the certainty that they'll have customers for their bonds.
But at the same time, Apple's promises as to how it will spend the money highlight a basic problem with green bonds. There's no common or legal standard for what can count as "green." It's up to Apple—or Bank of America, or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or the African Development Bank, or whoever—to decide, and that means there's potential for greenwashing, said Namrita Kapur, managing director of corporate partnerships at the Environmental Defense Fund.
"There's not really any accountability standard around it," she said.
A similar problem came up last year with the United Nations' climate finance fund, when Japan was found to have spent nearly $2 billion in loans earmarked for climate-friendly development on coal-fired power plants. The episode revealed a disturbing lack of transparency in the fund, undermining the incentive for rich countries to contribute to it. For green bonds, the absence of environmental standards risks undermining the main selling point for investors: utting their money toward something that will have a legitimate climate benefit.
"You don't want to have the effect of the green bond diluted," Kapur said. "You want it to make a difference on climate change."
At the moment, she said, it's up to investors to self-regulate and demand more accountability from green bond issuers. In Paris, a group of major investors representing $11.2 trillion in assets signed an open letter demanding transparent standards for green bonds. One solution, Kapur said, would be third-party verification from a private auditor or even government regulators. But green bonds are still in their infancy, so it's hard to say what problems might arise with them in the future. Apple has a chance to bolster the market's credibility, if it uses the revenue from its green bonds wisely and transparently.
One thing is clear, Kapur said: From the perspective of Apple's bottom line, demand for green bonds is so high that they're "really a no brainer."
The first-ever survey of climate education isn't pretty.
Tim McDonnellFeb. 11, 2016 3:00 PM
Kids are a vital part of the climate change conversation; they're the ones, after all, who have to live in the world the rest of us are screwing up. But if they go to a public school, they could be getting a very confusing education on the subject,
On Thursday, researchers published the first peer-reviewed national survey of science teachers on whether and how they teach about climate change, in the journal Science. The survey, which covered a representative sample of 1,500 middle and high school science teachers from all 50 states, found that classrooms often suffer from a problem also common in the media: the false "balance" of giving equal weight to mainstream climate science and climate change denial.
Science teachers, the study found, have a better grasp of the most basic climate science than the general public: 67 percent agreed that "global warming is caused mostly by human activities," compared with about 50 percent of all US adults. And most do include some mention of climate change in their lesson plans: 70 percent of middle school teachers and 87 percent of high school teachers spend at least an hour on global warming each year.
But the quality of those lesson plans is inconsistent. One-third of the teachers said they emphasize that global warming "is likely due to natural causes," and 12 percent specifically downplay the role of human causes. One-third also "report sending explicitly contradictory messages," simultaneously presenting opposing explanations for humans' role in recent temperature increases. The chart below, from the study, shows that while most teachers' lessons align with mainstream climate science, many offer their students conflicting or incorrect messages:
Plutzer et al, Science 2016
Perhaps most distressingly, most teachers are unaware of how many scientists agree that climate change is mostly caused by humans. Only 30 percent of middle school teachers and 45 percent of high school teachers agreed that the consensus was in the range of 81 to 100 percent. (It's about 97 percent.)
"What's surprising is that many teachers personally think humans are the culprit [for climate change], but they are unaware that scientists share their views," said Eric Plutzer, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University who was the study's lead author.
There are a few possible reasons for this, Plutzer explained. One is that climate science is usually not a part of teacher training curricula at colleges and universities. But teachers are also caught between competing sources of pressure. Because many standardized tests don't feature questions about climate change, there's little incentive to spend time on the subject. And teachers' access to quality materials can be limited: Science advocates in Texas, for example, lost a battle in 2014 to keep climate change denial out of textbooks (although the study didn't find a meaningful difference between liberal- and conservative-majority states). Teachers also bring their own preconceived prejudices that can align with the general political polarization about climate.
"Those teachers who are more on the small government, free markets, less regulation side of the [political] scale were the least likely to be aware of or accept the scientific consensus," Plutzer said. "And they were the most likely to introduce mixed messages."
It's too early to say whether teachers' climate lessons are improving or not; this is the first study of its kind. Minda Berbeco, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education and a co-author of the study, said the survey's aim wasn't to single out teachers.
"I think in some ways [the survey] is disappointing," she said. "But this is really a professional development opportunity. It's clear [teachers] aren't getting the access they need. Let's start trying to correct that."
One important issue has been almost totally ignored in the debates so far.
Tim McDonnellFeb. 11, 2016 7:00 AM
The presidential debates so far have tended more toward theater of the absurd than substantive policy issues, especially on the crowded Republican stage. But whatever you make of the candidates' discussion of other issues, it's clear that climate change has barely surfaced. An analysis by Media Matters of the first eight primary debates found that as of mid-January, a grand total of nine (!) questions about climate had been asked. That's about one-tenth the number of questions posed on "non-substantive" issues, which the group defines as "the political horserace, campaign gaffes, and other topics that are not related to any policy issue":
During last weekend's Republican debate, ABC's moderators didn't ask any questions about global warming. But they still found time to ask the candidates for their Super Bowl predictions. The lack of climate questions has been disappointing for many environmentalists and scientists, who were hoping for a clearer view of how the different candidates would (or wouldn't) confront global warming.
We asked climate scientists and activists (including Mark Ruffalo!) to share their ideas for debate questions.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both accept the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change but have different ideas for dealing with it. Clinton wants to strengthen tax breaks for solar energy, for example, while Sanders has pushed for a tax on carbon emissions. On the Republican side, the conversation has ranged from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump's outright science denial and Jeb Bush's skepticism to Marco Rubio's insistence that there's nothing the government could do about climate change even if it were real.
The moderators need to dig much deeper. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a major national security threat; cities and states are investing in clean energy and protection from extreme weather; and President Barack Obama will soon officially sign the global climate deal reached in Paris.
"It's amazing when you think of the infrastructure and other changes we're gonna see, that people are not asking hard questions about 'what is your plan to address emissions, and prepare for the changes?'" says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center.
Still, climate change is complicated! Asking good questions about it can be hard. So to help out the moderators, we asked a bunch of the biggest names in climate science and environmental activism (including Mark Ruffalo and Neil deGrasse Tyson!) to share their ideas for the questions candidates should face. You can read them below. (We've lightly edited some of the questions for length and clarity. We've also added a few links to them, so you can learn more about what they are referring to.) And when you're done, you can let us know in the comments or on Twitter what you'd ask the candidates about climate change.
Bob Inglis, former congressman (R-S.C.), activist, RepublicEn
For the Republicans: Can free enterprise solve climate change? It's a much better question than "Do you believe?" or "Is is a fact?"
Katherine Hayhoe, climate scientist, Texas Tech University
For everyone: DON'T ask "do you BELIEVE in climate change" as if it were some type of religion (and as if their belief affects its reality in any way!) DO ask "what are your solutions given that China is out-competing the US in the new clean energy economy?"
Kevin Trenberth, climate scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research
For everyone: Even if we make tremendous efforts to stop or slow the rates of climate change, it appears inevitable that we will continue to experience new record-breaking and potentially devastating climate extremes, such as heat waves, wildfires, and heavy rains and snows: How should a "green fund" be set up and managed to help build resiliency and adapt to climate change?
For everyone: Given that gasoline is so inexpensive now, why not implement an immediate gas tax? Or should it be phased in?
For everyone: What is your approach to removing subsidies and incentives for fossil fuels and implementing a carbon tax to change the framework that the private sector operates in?
Michael Mann, climate scientist, Penn State University
For Republicans: Do you accept the scientific consensus that climate change is real, human-caused, and poses a threat to society?
For Republicans: Do you support market-driven approaches to dealing with climate change, similar to the mechanisms that were employed by both the George H.W. Bush and Reagan administrations in combating other global environmental threats such as acid rain and ozone depletion?
Mark Ruffalo, actor and activist
For everyone: With a dozen peer-reviewed studies showing the transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy (sourced by the wind, water, and sun) is technologically possible, what would you do to help our cities, towns, states, and country make this transition as quickly as possible so every American has access to affordable clean energy over the next 30 years?
For Republicans: Given the estimated cost of global warming worldwide as $17-25 trillion per year by 2050 due to coastal flooding and erosion, water supply loss, agriculture loss, enhanced severe storminess, enhanced human heat stress and heat stroke, enhanced air pollution due to higher temperatures, and enhanced disease, is there a reason you would not try to solve this problem if a low-cost, job-producing solution were available?
Ben Santer, climate scientist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
For Cruz: You've stated that climate scientists are involved in a vast liberal conspiracy to alter world systems of government and control the lives of ordinary Americans. Do you really believe that?
For Cruz: You've argued that satellite estimates of atmospheric temperature show no significant warming over the last 18 years, and that satellites data tells us everything we need to know about the reality and causes of climate change. Did you know that your sources of information—like professor John Christy at the University of Alabama—have a history of making serious scientific errors in constructing satellite temperature estimates?
For Bush: You've claimed that climate scientists are "arrogant" for making statements about the causes of climate change—despite the fact that scientists have been studying human and natural causes of climate change for well over 30 years. Doesn't the real arrogance lie in ignoring the basic science, and ignoring scientific findings (such as those from the US National Academy of Sciences) that human activities are affecting global climate?
For Rubio: Your home state of Florida is already being profoundly affected by sea level rise, and will continue to experience significant sea level rise in the 21st century. The best scientific understanding indicates that the warming caused by burning of fossil fuels is contributing significantly to sea level rise. Don't you have a responsibility to the citizens of your home state to treat this problem seriously, and to do everything in your power to understand what the science is telling us?
For Trump:You've tweeted that severe winter weather undercuts the scientific evidence for human-caused global warming. You've [also] tweeted that global warming is part of a Chinese plot to undermine US economic competitiveness. Do you really believe that?
For Carson: You claimed publicly that there's little scientific evidence for human-caused global warming. In response to this claim, [California] Governor Jerry Brown sent you a thumb drive containing the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Did you read that report? If so, have you modified your views on the reality of human-caused climate change?
Michele Betsill, political scientist, Colorado State University
Personally I would stay away from asking about whether they believe in the science or not. Too easy on both sides and allows them to sidestep the harder questions about what to do about it.
For everyone: What is your view of the recent Paris agreement and what role do you think the US should play in the global response to climate change? If they respond that they think it is a bad policy for America/the economy and that they would try to pull the US out, ask how they would justify this position to the rest of the world, especially those countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
For everyone: Most of America's major cities have accepted that climate change is a legitimate concern and have developed and implemented policies, taking on a leadership role in the absence of action in Washington, DC. How would you explain this and what, if anything, should the federal government do to support these efforts?
Michael Shellenberger, activist, Environmental Progress
For everyone: Climate scientists including James Hansen and a growing number of prominent environmentalists now say we need nuclear energy, not just solar and wind, to deal with global warming. Would you support including nuclear in a federal clean energy standard and otherwise equal the playing field for solar, wind, and nuclear?
Bill McKibben, activist, 350.org
For the Republicans: As early as 2001, George W. Bush said the planet was warming dangerously, "in large part due to human activity," and called on the US to put forth a "100% effort" to reduce greenhouse gases. Given that we've had 14 of the 15 hottest years ever recorded since he said that, why do you remain so dubious about climate science and climate action?
For Clinton: You set up a special program in the State Department to promote fracking around the world. Given what we now know about the effects of methane on climate change—that many scientists think natural gas turns out to be worse than coal—do you stand by those earlier efforts, or do you think the time has come to try and restrict fracking?
For Sanders: You've been outspoken in your opposition to fossil fuels, but how do we dramatically accelerate the spread of renewables in time? What specific changes must be made to the tax code and to the federal research agenda to spur the spread of renewables?
Jason Box, climate scientist, Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland
For Republicans: [Democrats] are making a lot of the issue of climate change. Yet, many in your party reject the mainstream science that humans are responsible for some four-fifths of the observed climate change. Would you seek to unify the GOP to address climate change in a way that may appeal better to US conservatives than how [Democrats] frame the issue?
Robert Stavins, environmental economist, Harvard University
For Republicans: What's your opinion of the Paris Agreement on climate change? Follow-up: Will you pull the US out of the agreement? Second follow-up: Would you be willing to jeopardize our relationships with China, Europe, and virtually every other country in the world on other matters ranging from trade to security, for the sake of this?
For Democrats: If President Obama's Clean Power Plan is invalidated by the courts, which many neutral observers think it may be, what will you put in its place?
Marc Levy, political scientist, Columbia University
For Republicans: You have all expressed opposition to policies aimed at preventing climate change, and you have also all positioned yourselves as being able to do a better job than the Democrats at protecting US national security. Yet US military and intelligence leaders have said they worry a great deal about climate change as a multiplier that undermines US security, and these alarms have been consistent across Republican and Democratic administrations. How can you say you are serious about national security when you won't even listen when our military says climate change is a major problem?
For Democrats: You are both in favor of more vigorous policies to prevent climate change, and both are in agreement with the White House characterization of climate as a top priority that requires aggressive action. Economists are in almost complete agreement that the most effective policy measure would be a tax on carbon. Yet ever since George H.W. Bush first considered such a tax, every president has been either afraid to propose it or has failed to achieve it. How willing are you to go the mat to get a serious carbon tax instated, and what would you do differently than your predecessors in order to succeed?
For everyone: In 2014 a bipartisan study of climate change, spearheaded by Tom Steyer, Hank Paulson, and Mike Bloomberg, concluded that climate change threatens to kill large numbers of Americans and imperil America's economy through damage to its food, energy, and water systems. [Do you] accept the proposition that these risks require action; [if so,] what specific measures, if any, do you support?
Jeffrey Sachs, economist, Columbia University
For everyone: Do you support the globally agreed target of keeping warming well below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F)? Do you have a long-term vision for how to de-carbonize the energy system? Would you honor the Paris climate agreement (signed also by all other 192 countries in the UN)?
Naomi Oreskes, science historian, Harvard University
For Republicans: How would you deal with members of your own party who are still in denial on this issue?
For everyone: China is moving ahead rapidly in the domain of renewable energy. What steps would you take to ensure that the US maintains technological leadership in this, and other, areas?
Francesco Femia, defense policy expert, Center for Climate & Security
For everyone: The US military and intelligence communities have considered climate change a security threat, or "threat multiplier," for decades, across both Republican and Democratic Administrations. Indeed, the Department of Defense has identified climate change as posing "immediate risks to national security," which suggests that this is not just a long-term problem. Given this assessment by our military and intelligence communities, which is not at all driven by politics, what are YOU prepared to do on climate change that is commensurate to the threat?
Michael Burger, environmental lawyer, Columbia University
For Democrats: There is a gap between the emissions reduction pledge the Obama administration has made as part of the Paris climate agreement and the emissions reductions the US is projected to achieve through existing rules and programs. There is also no easy way for the US to increase its mitigation ambition in the future, as everyone recognizes will be necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Understanding that congressional action is unlikely, what is your plan for filling the emissions gap, and how would you establish an effective mechanism for further reducing emissions in the future?
For Democrats: The extraction and export of coal, oil, and gas from public lands represents an unfortunate escape hatch for the US, allowing segments of the US economy to continue to profit from fossil fuels even while the US ignores the emissions associated with the eventual, overseas combustion of those fuels. The Obama administration is taking a look at the coal leasing program, which may be a first step in correcting this gross inconsistency in the nation's climate policy. Do you believe the US should refrain from extracting any further fossil fuels from public lands?
For Republicans: Do you still, in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus and the constant stream of evidence, question whether greenhouse gas emissions from human activities contribute to climate change? Do you also question other basic science—like evolution—or is it really just this?
Finally, a slightly different take from NDT:
Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History
I don't yet have questions for the candidates. All my questions are for the electorate. Top of the list: Knowing that innovations in science and technology stoke the engines of the 21st-century economy, how much weight will you give to a candidate's policies on science and technology?