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.
An Iraqi soldier tracks an ISIS sniper near Tikrit in April.
On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley made an astute observation about ISIS in an interview with Bloomberg.
"One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria, the rise of ISIS, was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis [that] created the…conditions of extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL and this extreme violence," said the former Maryland governor.
Republicans were quick to seize on the comment as an indication of O'Malley's weak grasp of foreign policy. Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, said the suggestion of a link between ISIS's rise to power and climate change was "absurd" and a sign that "no one in the Democratic Party has the foreign policy vision to keep America safe."
Here's the thing, though: O'Malley is totally right. As we've reportedheremanytimes, Syria's civil war is the best-understood and least ambiguous example of a case where an impact of climate change—in this case, an unprecedented drought that devastated rural farmers—directly contributed to violent conflict and political upheaval. There is no shortage of high-quality, peer-reviewed research explicating this link. As O'Malley said, the drought made it more difficult for rural families to survive off of farming. So they moved to cities in huge numbers, where they were confronted with urban poverty and an intransigent, autocratic government. Those elements clearly existed regardless of the drought. But the drought was the final straw, the factor that brought all the others to a boiling point.
Does this mean that America's greenhouse gas emissions are solely responsible for ISIS's rise to power? Obviously not. But it does mean that, without accounting for climate change, you have an incomplete picture of the current military situation in the Middle East. And without that understanding, it will be very difficult for a prospective commander-in-chief to predict where terrorist threats might emerge in the future.
The link between climate and security isn't particularly controversial in the defense community. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama called climate change an "urgent and growing threat" to national security. A recent review by the Defense Department concluded that climate change is a "threat multiplier" that exacerbates other precursors to war, while the Center for Naval Analysis found that climate change-induced drought is already leading to conflict across Africa and the Middle East.
In other words, O'Malley's comment is completely on-point. If Priebus and his party are serious about defeating ISIS and preventing future terrorist uprisings, they can't continue to dismiss the role of climate change.
"I happen to believe there is a problem with climate change," he told the Hillin 2012. "I don't want to overreact to it, I can't measure it all, but I respect the creation that the Lord has given us and I want to make sure we protect it." He made a similar statement in the video above, taken at a conference last month, but he added that the environment shouldn't be "worshipped," because that would be "pantheism."
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
Despite his comparatively reasonable views on climate science, Kasich has been pretty noncommittal about actually addressing global warming. And over the last few months, he has stepped up his opposition to President Barack Obama's climate agenda. He's rolled back Ohio's clean energy goals and has joined a legal challenge against the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Gov. Kasich seems less extreme than some other presidential candidates because he couches his views on climate change with uncertainty, rather than disagreement," said Dan Weiss, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters. Still, Weiss said, Kasich's record tells a different story.
It's no surprise that climate change would be on Kasich's radar. His state is a leading producer and user of coal, which is the country's top source of carbon dioxide pollution. Kasich has said he is "not going to apologize" for burning coal. He's also been a proponent of so-called "clean coal" technology, which aims to capture carbon emissions and store or repurpose them. (So far there's only one commercial-scale CCS project in the country, at an astronomically expensive coal plant in Mississippi.) In the video above, Kasich claimed that his state "reduced emissions by 30 percent over the last 10 years." According to federal data, total carbon emissions in Ohio fell only about half that amount between 2002 and 2012. (Rob Nichols, Gov. Kasich's spokesperson, did not return multiple requests for comment about this statement and the governor's overall climate record.)
Either way, Ohio's energy sector is among the nation's dirtiest. It ranks fifth nationwide for total carbon emissions and has one of the nation's highest rates of carbon emissions per unit of energy produced, a measurement that experts refer to as "carbon intensity." That's because of the state's heavy reliance on coal, which provides 63 percent of its electricity (as opposed to just 2 percent from renewables). And Ohio is home to American Electric Power, one of the country's biggest power companies and the number-two producer of electricity-related carbon emissions.
Ohio's energy is among the nation's dirtiest.
The upshot of those statistics is that if the United States is going to "protect" the Earth, as Kasich claims to want to do, Ohio clearly has an important role to play. And yet, Kasich's administration has been a leading opponent of Obama's Clean Power Plan, a slate of regulations for power-related emissions that aims to reduce the nation's carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030 and that forms the backbone of the president's climate agenda. The rules, which set a different targets for each state, treat Ohio relatively lightly—according to a Bloomberg analysis, Ohio would be required to reduce its carbon intensity, but its overall carbon emissions could remain more or less unchanged. Last year, the Ohio EPA called the proposed rules "flawed" and said the federal EPA had "radically underestimated" their cost. Meanwhile, Ohio Attorney General Michael DeWine joined with a dozen other states in asking a federal court to block the EPA from implementing the plan. The court ultimately declined to hear that challenge, as the rules haven't yet been finalized.
Ohio may have a difficult time meeting the EPA target anyway, thanks to a law Kasich signed last year that effectively shelves the state's own clean energy targets. The measure, which was backed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, puts a two-year freeze on requirements for power companies in the state to procure more of their electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar, and to reduce energy demand overall. Clean energy targets like that would have helped the state meet the EPA mandate in a cost-effective manner; without them, the state may have to rely more heavily on curbing its coal use, according to one clean energy industry group in the state.
So while Kasich might seem like a moderate on climate, undermining climate-friendly policies is hardly better than opposing the science outright. The quest for a climate-savvy GOP candidate continues.
Earlier today, Donald Trump tweeted out a campaign poster featuring what appeared to be men in Nazi uniforms, superimposed over the American flag. The tweet was swiftly deleted, but not before the internet went to work tracking down the original image, sourced to the stock photography website iStock.
Mother Jones can now reveal that the image in question was taken at a World War II reenactment near Kent, England, some time within the last five years, according to its photographer, George Cairns. We reached Cairns by Skype at his home in St Albans, a town just north of London, where he was hanging out playing video games when his Twitter feed started to blow up in response to the Trump story.
George Cairns, photographer. Supplied.
Cairns is a British freelance stock photographer and photography instructor who says he frequents war reenactments as good locations to pick up realistic-looking stock images—not just of Nazis, but also of American GIs and other soldiers. Cairns said he didn't know much about Donald Trump beyond the controversy over a golf course the billionaire and GOP presidential contender bought in Scotland last year.
So what does Cairns make of Trump using his image to endorse his candidacy?
"Well luckily, it's not endorsed him in a sense... So that's a good thing," he said. "I'm not a Trump supporter. I can sleep OK tonight."
In an almost impossibly bizarre coincidence, this isn't the first time the Cairns family has been caught up in a photo kerfuffle involving Nazis and American politicians. George's brother John is also a stock photographer, and took the image of Nazi reenactors that was accidentally used in a flier for the campaign of North Carolina state legislator Tim Spear in 2010.
"I have photos of American soldiers as well," Cairns said. "But for some reason, politicians seem to be downloading Nazis."
This isn't the first time the Cairns family has been caught up in a photo kerfuffle involving Nazis and American politicians.
The photo isn't a massive moneymaker for the photographer. "I've sold that image twice this year," Cairns said. Yesterday, Cairns made $8.64 on a sale. Today, $1.71. "I can buy a coffee!" he joked.
In the world of stock photography, you have basically no control over who uses your photos, Cairns said. The best you can do is pick keywords for the images you upload that let people know exactly what they're buying. In this case, Cairns said, Trump's people should have been able to tell what they were looking at.
"I tried to keyword it carefully so people would be aware that it's WWII fascists."
Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and GOP presidential candidate, is really excited about NASA's flight past Pluto today.
"This is a historic milestone in space exploration," he gushed to Politico. To the National Journal, he crowed that it was "NASA doing what it does best, pushing the boundaries of our imagination by traveling to the unknown."
But while Cruz is clearly eager to cheerlead for NASA on the day of this kickass achievement, he's been singing a very different tune over the past few months, as the New Horizons spacecraft has been pushing to the edge of the solar system. Here's a jaw-dropping look at what New Horizons found, in case you haven't seen yet:
Cruz has good reason to be watching the fly-by closely: He's in charge of the Senate's subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, which oversees NASA. His chairmanship has centered on a campaign to correct what he sees as an imbalance in NASA's activity: too much focus on Earth science, and not enough traveling to other planets. The Pluto mission is a perfect example of what he wants to see more of.
But NASA is also one of the main purveyors of the satellite observations of Earth that are a basic necessity for many fields of Earth science. That's the part Cruz doesn't like: He wants to slash the agency's budget for Earth sciences—in particular, for climate change, a subject on which Cruz's theories are, in the words of one scientist, "a load of claptrap."
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
It's not just Cruz. In the House, Republicans are forging ahead with a bill that would gut $90 million from NASA's Earth science budget.
There are a couple major problems with that approach, and they make Cruz's lauding of the Pluto mission distinctly ironic and hypocritical. First, NASA is uniquely equipped among federal agencies to send satellites into space, so it would be hard to transfer its Earth research to some other outfit. (These are the very satellites, by the way, that produce the data Cruz likes to erroneously cite as evidence against global warming.)
But perhaps even more importantly, it's pretty hard for scientists to make sense of what they see on other planets if they don't understand the one we're on.
Cruz's attitude belies a deep misunderstanding of how NASA uses basic science—the very types of research that enabled the New Horizons spacecraft to reach Pluto in the first place—says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"It doesn't make sense to pick out one achievement as if it isn't built on all this other basic research—everything from material science, to Earth science, to developing new instruments," he said. "It's not as if you have a standalone program for space that doesn't depend on a huge number of other fields."
Consider, for example, data about a new planet's atmosphere, gathered by a passing spacecraft. What can scientists compare that to, if they don't understand the Earth's atmosphere, Rosenberg said. "The same goes for water, the motion of continents, and everything else we'd want to know about some far-off planet."
The reverse is also true, said David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist and visiting scholar at the Library of Congress: There's a lot we can learn from other planets about our own. He pointed to the hole in the ozone layer as a classic example: Scientists were first alerted to the possibility that the use of certain chemicals on Earth could erode the ozone by studying the atmosphere of Venus.
"The effort to explore the solar system and the effort to learn what we need to learn to do a better job as stewards of the Earth are really one and the same," he said. "We can't understand other worlds without using experience and techniques we gain from studying Earth, and a lot of discoveries about Earth have come about from exploring other planets."
This coal-fired power plant in Indiana is owned by Duke Energy, which has the biggest carbon footprint of any power company in the country.
Coal-fired power plants are the single biggest driver of global climate change in the United States. That's why President Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency is moving quickly to put the finishing touches on a new set of regulations, called the Clean Power Plan, that aim to reduce the nation's overall carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030 by cracking down on emissions from the energy sector.
Unsurprisingly, many power companies—particularly those that rely on coal as their main source of fuel—are crying foul. Recently, one major coal company and a dozen coal-reliant states tried to block the new rules in federal court. (The court decided last month not to hear the challenge, since the rules haven't yet been finalized.) And this week, executives from two of the country's biggest power companies met with White House officials in an attempt to persuade them that the crackdown would be "too much too soon."
The power companies protesting President Obama's climate plan also produce the most carbon pollution.
As it turns out, those same two companies—Duke Energy and American Electric Power—emit more carbon pollution than any other power producers in the country. That's according to a new report released from a coalition of environmental groups and power companies, which draws on public data from the EPA and the Energy Information Administration to reveal the carbon footprints of the 100 biggest power producers in the nation. Many of the names in the database, like AEP or California's Pacific Gas & Electric, might be familiar from your monthly bill, depending on where you live. The list does leave out some big utilities, like New York's Con Ed, that primarily distribute power they purchase wholesale from someone else. That said, the database offers a pretty comprehensive snapshot of the companies most responsible for producing climate-changing emissions in the US.
The chart below shows the top 10 climate offenders from the database, according to two different metrics, and where each company ranks nationwide in terms of total power production. The first chart shows total carbon dioxide emissions in 2013. Unsurprisingly, that list is comprised mostly of the country's biggest power companies, such as Duke, Southern, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. These companies produce a huge amount of power, and much of it comes from coal. Duke, for example, gets about 45 percent of its power from coal; for AEP, it's about 60 percent.
The second chart shows the companies that are the most carbon-intense—that is, the companies that emit the most carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated. Many of these are small, regional producers that rely almost exclusively on coal. While these companies generate relatively little power overall, what they do generate is exceptionally dirty, climate-wise. Big Rivers Electric, for example, provides power for a patch of western Kentucky with four coal-fired plants, the newest of which came online in 1986. Big Rivers declined to comment for this story. But a spokesperson for Great River Energy pointed out that the dataset may not fully represent a company's portfolio, because it accounts only for power plants that the companies own and not for contracts with third-party wind and solar farms.
Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk
Take another look at the top chart. You might have noticed that while many of the country's largest power producers appear on the list of major carbon polluters, a few big names are absent. That's important, and it illustrates the huge climate benefit of using low-carbon fuels. In some cases, these companies have avoided significant carbon emissions because their energy generation portfolio is made up mostly of nuclear (which practically zero-carbon) and/or natural gas-fired plants (which release relatively little CO2). For example, the nation's number-two power producer is Exelon, which gets 59 percent of its power from nuclear. The number-four producer, NextEra, gets 52 percent of its power from natural gas, 27 percent from nuclear, and 16 percent from wind. In other words, the carbon footprint ranking is essentially a proxy for which power companies are most reliant on coal.
There's some good news in the data, as well. In the last few years, nationwide coal use has dropped precipitously. That's mostly a product of market forces, rather than environmental regulation: Natural gas, made cheaper by the fracking boom, has displaced coal in power plants across the country. At the same time, renewable energy sources have boomed.
The report illustrates the huge climate benefit of power companies switching from coal to cleaner fuels.
"What you see in this report is a significant shift to cleaner fuels," said Derek Furstenwerth, a contributor to the report and the director of environmental services at Calpine, one of the country's biggest power companies. Like NextEra, Calpine gets the bulk of its power from natural gas. Calpine has also emerged as a major proponent of Obama's climate plan.
The shift away from coal has had a significant impact on emissions: Since 2008, carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector have dropped 12 percent. Other types of air emissions reported in the database are also way down, driven by regulations from the EPA that took effect prior to the Obama years. Emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide (both of which cause acid rain and other nasty environmental impacts) are down 74 percent and 80 percent, respectively, since 1990. The trends in those emissions offer a bit of a crystal ball into what will happen when the federal limits on carbon dioxide emissions kick in, said Dan Bakal, a contributor to the report and director of the electric power program at Ceres, a group that tracks environmental issues in the private sector.
"At the time, industry really thought [reducing NOx and SO2 emissions] was not going to be achievable and that it would be much more costly," he said. "But they stepped up to the challenge and found ways to reduce emissions very cost-effectively. The same thing will happen with CO2."
Just because carbon emissions are already on the decline, doesn't mean Obama's rules are unnecessary. The change isn't happening fast enough to avert dangerous climate change, Bakal said. But the current trend does show that cleaning up the power sector is possible.
Complying with the Clean Power Plan "will be a bit of a stretch for the industry, which is appropriate for a regulation intended to put us on an improving path," Furstenwerth said. "But we believe that it's definitely achievable."
The chart above has been revised for greater clarity.