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.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the president's position hasn't changed since November, when pipeline supporters in Congress last attempted to push through its approval—an effort that fell just one vote shy of the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. Obama was adamant then that approval for the pipeline come not from Congress, but from the State Department, which normally has jurisdiction over international infrastructure projects like this one. A final decision from State has been delayed pending the outcome of a Nebraska State Supreme Court case, expected sometime early this year, that could alter the pipeline's route.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McDonnell and other Republicans have vowed to make passage of a new Keystone XL bill a top priority for the new year, and they seem prepared to move forward with a vote later this week. The bill is likely to pass. But the challenge for Republicans is to garner enough support from Democratic senators to achieve the 67 votes required to override a presidential veto. Yesterday, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told reporters he had just 63 votes.
Even if Congress fails to override Obama's veto, it still won't be the end of what has become the flagship issue for US climate activists; the possibility remains that the State Department could still approve the project. But the Obama administration may be leaning against approval. In December, the president said the pipeline is "not even going to be a nominal benefit to US consumers."
Over the weekend, Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert (R) announced his intention to challenge John Boehner (R-Ohio) for his position as Speaker of the House. Gohmert is a tea party hero, and in the (highly unlikely) event that he wins the support of his peers on Tuesday, he would join the swelling ranks of vocal climate change deniers in prominent congressional leadership roles.
Boehner is certainly no climate hawk himself; recently he's taken up the increasingly popular "I'm not a scientist" deflection when asked about the issue. But Gohmert's views are even more fringe. Take, for example, the 2009 interview above wherein Gohmert cites Washington, D.C.'s, cold weather as proof that global warming is fake. He then thanks Al Gore for driving Suburbans so their carbon dioxide emissions can warm things up and help grow "more plants." Gohmert has also criticized President Obama for prioritizing climate action at the expense of veterans, Ebola patients, and terrorism victims.
2014 had its fair share of landmark scientific accomplishments: dramatic cuts to the cost of sequencing a genome; sweeping investigations of climate change impacts in the US; advances in private-sector space travel, and plenty more. But there was also no shortage of high-profile figures eager to publicly and shamelessly denounce well-established science—sometimes with serious consequences for public policy. So without further ado, the most egregious science denial of 2014:
In September, Trump went on a Twitter screed linking vaccines to autism. A month earlier, he fanned the flames of unscientific Ebola panic when he objected to efforts to bring American health care workers infected with the virus back the the US for treatment. "The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back," he tweeted. "People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!" Health care experts, meanwhile, insisted that the risk was minimal; the two patients Trump was talking about were ultimately brought back to the US and successfully treated without infecting anyone else. Let's just stick to real estate and beauty pageants, Donald, shall we?
Unnecessary Ebola quarantines:
Reporters and state police keep watch outside of nurse Kaci Hickox's house in Maine. Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Lamar Smith's war on the National Science Foundation:
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) Jay Mallin/ZUMA
Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas took his opposition to basic science straight to the source: The grant-writing archives of the National Science Foundation. In an unprecedented violation of the historic firewall between the lawmakers who set the NSF's budget and the top scientists who decide where to direct it, Smith's researchers pulled the files on at least 47 grants that they believed were not in the "public interest." Some of the biggest-ticket projects they took issue with related to climate change research; the committee apparently intended to single out these projects as examples of the NSF frittering money away on research that won't come back to benefit taxpayers. The investigation is ongoing, and the precedent it sets—that scientific research projects are only worthwhile if they directly benefit the American economy—is unsettling.
Battles over Texas textbooks:
Citizens gathered outside a 2010 Texas State Board of Education meeting to protest changes to the state's social studies standards. Larry Kolvoord/Austin American-Statesman/AP
The Texas Board of Education has long been a hotbed for science denial, as conservative activists and a handful of textbook reviewers have sought to influence textbook-writing standards in an effort to muddle the basic science around issues such as evolution and climate change. What happens within the pages of Texas textbooks matters because the publishing market there is among the nation's largest; what gets printed in Texas is likely to wind up in classrooms nationwide. Early this year advocates for better textbook oversight won a victory when the board announced it would give teachers' input priority in determining curricula. But by September, the battle was back on, with a raft of revisions that contained obvious biases against mainstream climate science—one McGraw-Hill textbook inaccurately claimed that scientists "do not agree on what is causing the change," and a Pearson text similarly alluded to scientific disagreement. Bowing to public pressure, in November Pearson altered its text to more accurately reflect the scientific consensus on climate change, but the McGraw-Hill text still portrays climate science as an open debate. Meanwhile, a parallel battle played out in Oklahoma over new standards to improve climate science education.
Bill Nye schools creationist Ken Ham; John Holdren schools Congress:
Veteran science educator Bill Nye's live-streamed takedown of outspoken creationist Ken Ham was perhaps the year's most amazing barrage of scientific badassery. Nye piled on the evidence for why the Earth can't possibly be just a few thousand years old (as Ham believes) and why the fossil record does, in fact, prove the theory of evolution. That spectacle was followed by another killer takedown, as White House science adviser John Holdren explained elementary school-level concepts related to climate change to members of the House Science Committee:
Science denial on Capitol Hill is set to get even crazier next year. When Democrats (and environmentalists) got a sound whooping in the midterm elections, a new caucus of climate change-denying senators swept in. Almost every new Republican senator has taken a position against mainstream climate science, ranging from hardline denial to cautious skepticism. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the incoming majority leader, has vowed to make forcing through an approval of the Keystone XL pipeline his top agenda item in the new year; he also wants to block the Obama administration's efforts to reign in carbon pollution from coal plants. And the incoming chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is none other than James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who actually believes that global warming is a hoax orchestrated by Barbra Streisand. You can't make this stuff up.
A Hobby Lobby location in Stow, Ohio. DangApricot/Wikimedia Commons
The year's biggest court battle over reproductive rights, in which the craft store Hobby Lobby objected to the Obamacare requirement that it provide contraceptive coverage for its employees, was premised on terrible science. The company's owners, who have a religious objection to abortion, claimed that intrauterine devices and the "morning-after" pills Ella and Plan B cause abortions. But scientists say that these methods of contraception work by preventing pregnancy; they don't result in abortion. If it's not surprising that Hobby Lobby's owners would come out against the science, it is a surprise that conservative justices on the Supreme Court would back them up, despite ample testimony from leading gynecologists. As Molly Redden reports, battles over science denial in reproductive rights are only going to heat up in 2015.
Some polar bear populations have dropped in recent years, but others appear to have stabilized.
If you're looking for the ground zero of climate change, head to the Arctic. Nowhere else on Earth is changing as quickly or as dramatically; air temperatures there are rising twice as fast as at lower latitudes. In the summer of 2012, Arctic sea ice reached the lowest level ever recorded, shrinking to less than half the area it occupied a few decades ago. Ice has rebounded somewhat in the two years since, but it is still on a downward trajectory of about 13 percent per decade and could disappear altogether in summer months by 2030.
The distressing Arctic prognosis is made abundantly clear in a new report card issued today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The report card comes out every winter and provides an update of where things currently stand in the Arctic. Here are a few key findings:
Sea ice is disappearing: The 2014 summer sea ice minimum—a snapshot taken when sea ice is at its lowest—was 23 percent below the 1981-2010 average, a loss of ice 2.6 times greater than the total area of California. In the map below, the minimum (which happened in September) is on the right; the pink outline shows the average. The winter maximum, on the left, was also below average, by about 5 percent:
Arctic sea ice extent in the winter maximum (left) and summer minimum (right) were both below average (pink line) in 2014. NOAA
Here's that same data, expressed a different way. You can see that both the minimum and maximum have fallen over the last several decades:
Melting sea ice doesn't raise sea levels much, because the ice is already floating in the ocean. But because the white ice reflects sunlight back into space whereas dark ocean water absorbs it, losing the ice makes global warming happen even faster. Sea ice is also a key wildlife habitat. Perhaps most importantly, sea ice is a very sensitive guage of overall warming; when ice levels drop like this, it's an indication of change happening throughout the climate system.
The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting gas from deep underground could contaminate the state’s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks.
"I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York," said Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health.
That conclusion was delivered publicly during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany…The state has had a de facto ban on the procedure for more than five years, predating Mr. Cuomo's first term. The decision also came as oil and gas prices continued to fall in many places around the country, in part because of surging American oil production, as fracking boosted output.
New York is the second state to ban fracking, after Vermont did so in 2012. That move was largely symbolic, since Vermont has no natural gas to speak of. New York, by contrast, would have been a prize for the fracking industry, thanks to its massive share of the Marcellus shale formation.
"This is the first state ban with real significance," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney in New York for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My head is still spinning, because this is beyond anything we expected."
The fracking battle in New York isn't quite over yet, Sinding said. Now the attention of activists will turn toward proposed infrastructure projects in the state—like a gas storage facility by Lake Seneca and an export facility on Long Island—that would handle natural gas from fracking projects in neighboring states like Pennsylvania.