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Climate Desk Associate Producer
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.
The Supreme Court dealt a blow to President Barack Obama's climate agenda Tuesday evening by putting his flagship greenhouse gas emissions rules on hold. In a 5-4 ruling, the justices granted the stay in response to a lawsuits by coal companies and two dozen coal-reliant states. The plaintiffs have argued that by setting new limits on carbon pollution from power plants, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency is overstepping its authority to control the electricity sector.
The ruling is far from a death knell for the Clean Power Plan, as the policy is known. Rather, it allows power companies and state official to hold off on preparing for the new regulations until the courts decide whether the administration went too far. The cases will most likely end up in front of the Supreme Court sometime next year, so there's still plenty of time before the plan's fate is sealed.
According to Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, the Court's track record on EPA regulations is pretty favorable for environmentalists.
"Every regulation from EPA is attacked legally," she said. "There might be delays, but there is almost always a rule that come out the other end."
The trust of other big polluters—China, India, the European Union—could be shaken.
But in the meantime, the ruling could throw a wrench in the delicate diplomacy surrounding the global climate agreement reached in Paris in December. One defining feature of the Paris summit that made it the most successful round of climate talks in two decades was the leadership of Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials. It was the Clean Power Plan that gave other countries confidence that the US was finally willing to do something about its own massive carbon footprint. In other words, the plan was supposed to be Obama's proof that the US would follow through on its Paris promises. Now, the trust of other big polluters—China, India, the European Union—could be shaken. That could have a chilling effect on climate action around the globe.
"I think the stay raises doubts in other countries' minds," said Jake Schmidt, international program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I'm already getting a lot of questions and confusion [from policy analysts abroad]. There will be a lot of outreach to explain what this really means."
Their concerns may well be justified—even if the Supreme Court ultimately does rule in favor of the administration. That's because, regardless of the case's final outcome, yesterday's stay will make the Clean Power Plan more vulnerable if a Republican wins the presidential election in November. All of the leading GOP candidates have vowed to roll back Obama's climate agenda. (Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both promised to carry it forward.)
"Most countries aren't moving forward solely on the basis of what the US is doing."
The problem is the timeline, explained Robert Stavins, director of Harvard's Environmental Economics program. Until yesterday, state regulators and power companies were in the early stages of putting together their plans to comply with the regulation. But with the stay in place, power companies can push off the investments and upgrades required by the plan—switching coal-fired power plants to natural gas, improving efficiency on the electric grid, building more wind and solar energy, etc. That means that by the time the next president takes office, the power companies will have sunk less capital into implementing the plan, and will have less incentive to see it survive than if they had already made those investments, Stavins said. With that potential roadblock out of the way, a Republican president would have an easier time killing the plan.
"That's a subtle chain of causality, but it's the one that—if understood—may reasonably cause concern to other countries regarding the ability of the USA to live up to its [Paris promises]," Stavins said.
Still, at least in the short term, the US doesn't need the Clean Power Plan to follow through on its initial Paris commitments, Schmidt said. The US will be required to submit its first progress report under the agreement in 2020, a couple years before the Clean Power Plan was originally scheduled to take effect. Moreover, he said, even if countries such as China and India are spooked by the Supreme Court's new ruling, they're unlikely to jump ship on their own climate plans.
"When you look at what's happened over the past couple years, it's really hopeful that the US is moving forward," Schmidt said. "But most countries aren't moving forward solely on the basis of what the US is doing."
Public health experts were not impressed with his debate performance.
Tim McDonnellFeb. 8, 2016 5:56 PM
During Saturday night's Republican primary debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he would use quarantines to prevent the Zika virus outbreak from spreading in the United States. Froma Washington Post transcript:
MARTHA RADDATZ (ABC MODERATOR): Governor Christie, at the peak of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, you ordered an American nurse who landed at Newark Airport be detained and quarantined. As fear spreads now of the Zika virus and with the Rio Olympics just months away, is there a scenario where you would quarantine people traveling back from Brazil to prevent the spread in the United States?
CHRISTIE: You bet I would. And the fact is that because I took strong action to make sure that anyone who was showing symptoms—remember what happened with that nurse. She was showing symptoms and coming back from a place that had the Ebola virus active and she had been treating patients. This was not just some—like, we picked up her just for the heck of it, alright?
We did it because she was showing symptoms, and the fact is that's the way we should make these decision. You make these decisions based upon the symptoms, the medicine, and the law. We quarantined her, she turned out to test negative ultimately after 48 hours, and we released her back to the State of Maine.
That position might make for a tough-sounding talking point during a debate. But it's totally pointless as a matter of public health, experts said.
"Zika is rarely, if ever, spread from person to person, so quarantining infected people will do nothing to stem a Zika outbreak," said Laurie Garret, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Quarantining infected people will do nothing to stem a Zika outbreak."
Zika, a mosquito-borne virus, has spread to more than 1 million people throughout Latin America. The symptoms of the virus itself are usually mild or nonexistent. But it could be dangerous for pregnant women: Zika has been tentatively linked to a spike in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect in which infants are born with small heads and can have incomplete brain development.
Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California-Davis Children's Hospital, agreed that a quarantine wouldn't be much help in controlling an outbreak. "The vast majority of transmissions are from mosquito bites, and most of the country doesn't have the [Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti] mosquito in high concentrations," he said. "So I don't think [a quarantine] is necessary or would be beneficial in any way."
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, gave a somewhat more measured response when asked a similar question about Zika during Saturday's debate:
CARSON: Do we quarantine people? If we have evidence that they are infected, and that there is evidence that that infection can spread by something that they're doing, yes. But, just willy-nilly going out and quarantining a bunch of people because they've been to Brazil, I don't believe that that's going to work. What we really need to be thinking about is how do we get this disease under control?
Christie received substantial criticism for his response to 2014's Ebola outbreak. He ordered the quarantine of a nurse, Kaci Hickox, after she returned from fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone. Last October, Hickox filed a lawsuit against Christie for false imprisonment and other claims, arguing that she had not, in fact, exhibited any symptoms indicative of Ebola when she landed at New Jersey's Newark airport. Ultimately, she did not end up having the virus. That legal case is ongoing.
"The merits of Christie's actions in the Hickox case will no doubt be decided in court, probably long after he has withdrawn from the presidential race," Garret said. "But his Zika comments can be addressed immediately."
Elizabeth Talbot, an epidemiologist at Dartmouth College's School of Medicine, said a more effective solution is to focus on controlling and eradicating the mosquitoes that can carry Zika.
"Our public health energies are best invested in providing education about preventing bites and prioritizing the protection of pregnant women by advising them to postpone travel to affected regions whenever possible," she said in an email. "The CDC is also recommending that meticulous attention be given to protect persons from mosquito bites if they are identified with Zika in the US following travel. This is so that our Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the southernmost US do not become infected with Zika and transmit Zika disease in the US. Preventing mosquito bites for ill patients is not the same thing as quarantine, which can be an inflammatory or even scary word."
In his final State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama promised to "change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet." A few days later, he followed through on the coal aspect of that pledge, with a plan to overhaul how coal mining leases are awarded on federal land. Now, he seems ready to roll out his plan for oil.
The president's budget proposal for his last year in office, set to be released next week, will contain a provision to place a new tax on oil, White House aides told reporters. According to Politico:
The president will propose more than $300 billion worth of investments over the next decade in mass transit, high-speed rail, self-driving cars, and other transportation approaches designed to reduce carbon emissions and congestion. To pay for it all, Obama will call for a $10 "fee" on every barrel of oil, a surcharge that would be paid by oil companies but would presumably be passed along to consumers…The fee could add as much as 25 cents a gallon to the cost of gasoline.
The proposal stands virtually no chance of being adopted by Congress. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the renowned climate change denier who also chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement, "I'm unsure why the president bothers to continue to send a budget to Congress. His proposals are not serious, and this is another one which is dead on arrival."
Still, the idea may be helped a little by the sustained drop in oil prices, driven by a glut of supply from the Middle East and record production in the United States. Gas is already selling for less than $2 per gallon in all but 11 states, the lowest price point since 2009. Raising that cost would also be a boon for electric vehicle sales, which have stagnated because of low gas prices as sales of gas guzzlers have climbed.
Obama's prospective Democratic successors, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, haven't weighed in on this proposal yet, although they have both been broadly supportive of his climate change agenda. But the proposal could prove to be awkward for Clinton, who has promised not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year.
California wants to lead a clean-energy revolution. But what happens if it shutters its last nuclear plant?
Tim McDonnellFeb. 3, 2016 7:00 AM
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on the coast outside San Luis Obispo, California
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant sits by the scenic hills overlooking the California coast, a few hours' drive north of Los Angeles. It's the state's only remaining nuclear plant (after the San Onofre plant was closed in 2013), and it's responsible for about one-tenth of the state's electricity, serving more than 3 million homes and businesses.
"Let's decide what we're going to do right now with the largest single source of clean energy in California."
Last week, in an effort to ensure that Diablo Canyon isn't shut down in the near future, this new coalition sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown (D); the CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that owns the plant; and five state regulatory officials. The letter warned that "closing Diablo Canyon would make it far harder to meet the state's climate goals." The 61 signatories include Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, climate scientists James Hansen of Columbia University and Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.
Their concerns center around an upcoming-ish deadline for PG&E to renew the plant's operating license. The current license is good through 2024 for one of the plant's two units and 2025 for the other. If PG&E wants to keep the plant running after that, it will need to seek approval from Brown's administration and possibly from local officials in San Luis Obispo County. In its letter, the group called for a renewed operating license that could keep the plant running into the 2040s.
But the utility is on the fence. "We have not made a decision to move forward with license renewal," a spokesperson said, adding that the company is in the middle of a study on seismic activity in the area. (The plant is near a few major fault lines.) In a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tony Earley, the utility's CEO, was more blunt: "We've got a lot on our plates, and we just don't need to take on another big public issue right now." And while 2024 may seem like a long way off, the license renewal process can take a long time, and utility executives have been quietly mulling it since at least 2009.
As the global campaign against climate change has gathered steam in recent years, old controversies surrounding nuclear energy have been re-ignited. For all their supposed faults—radioactive waste, links to the Cold War arms race, the specter of a catastrophic meltdown—nuclear plants have the benefit of producing huge amounts of electricity with zero greenhouse gas emissions. That may not have mattered much to Jackson Browne and his fellow activists in the '80s, but it matters now. A recent analysis by the International Energy Agency found that in order for the world to meet the global warming limit enshrined in the Paris climate agreement in December, nuclear's share of global energy production will need to grow from around 11 percent in 2013 to 16 percent by 2030. (The share from coal, meanwhile, needs to shrink from 41 percent to 19 percent, and wind needs to grow from 3 percent to 11 percent.)
In Paris, Hansen—probably the world's most influential climate scientist since he first warned Congress about global warming back in 1988—gave a talk in which he said nuclear "has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change." It was a point Hansen and some of his allies have made repeatedly over the past year in talks and op-eds. That message has opened a rift in an otherwise cohesive bloc of climate hawks: Those who think a carbon-free energy future is impossible without nuclear are now squaring off against those who think the challenge can be met using only renewables like wind and solar.
"What's powerful about Diablo is the sheer size of it. If you flip it [off], carbon emissions go up so much."
Among the former group is Michael Shellenberger, who until recently was president of the Oakland-based environmental think tank Breakthrough Institute and now runs a new group, Environmental Progress. Shellenberger organized the Diablo Canyon campaign after he realized that the larger debate about nuclear could be crystallized around this one existing plant.
"I'm tired of arguing about the future," he said. "Let's decide what we're going to do right now with the largest single source of clean energy in California."
According to Shellenberger's research, Diablo Canyon currently produces twice as much power as all the state's solar panels (California is the nation's No. 1 solar state). Closing it, he said, would not only shave off one-fifth of the state's zero-carbon energy, but potentially increase the state's emissions by an amount equivalent to putting 2 million cars on the road per year. That's because the power gap left by the plant's closure would likely be filled by new natural gas plants—which is what happened when San Onofre was shuttered.
"What's powerful about Diablo is the sheer size of it," he said. "If you flip it [off], carbon emissions go up so much."
That's an important quandary for Gov. Brown, who has tried to position his state as a national leader on climate policy and clean energy. During his first term as governor in the mid-'70s, Brown opposed the plant. But in 2012 he said he had become more open to nuclear power because "it's good for greenhouse gases." Brown's office declined to comment on Shellenberger's letter.
Gov. Jerry Brown addresses an anti-nuclear rally near the Diablo Canyon power plant in 1979. At the time, he was opposed to nuclear power, but his views may have softened. Brich/AP
The problem, Shellenberger said, is that despite the plethora of solar panels on rooftops and electric vehicles on the roads, "people don't understand how little that stuff is compared to a single nuclear plant." Moreover, he added, a nuclear plant has the benefit of being consistent regardless of whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.
"How are you going to deal with the power coming from fossil fuels?"
Other analysts have reached different conclusions less favorable to nuclear. A 2015 state-commissioned study by the private research firm Energy and Environmental Economics found that the state could meet its 2030 climate goals without nuclear by rapidly growing renewables and by investing in upgrades to energy efficiency and the electric grid.
Mark Jacobson—an engineering professor at Stanford University who has authored several prominent studies on how the United States could run on 100 percent renewable energy—added that he was confident California could meet its clean energy targets without nuclear. "Repairing Diablo Canyon will not only be costly, diverting funds from the development of more clean, renewable energy, but it will also result in down time, resulting in emissions from the background grid, which currently still emits pollution and carbon," he said in an email. ("Background grid" refers to the normal electric grid, which would have to pick up the slack in Diablo Canyon's absence.) According to Jacobs, "a more efficient solution would be to use those funds to grow clean, renewable energy further."
For now, the fate of Diablo Canyon is unclear. But Steven Weissman, an environmental lawyer at the University of California-Berkeley who has watched Diablo Canyon from the beginning, said ultimately the state's biggest problem isn't its small share of power from nuclear—it's the majority share coming from natural gas and coal.
"How are you going to deal with the power coming from fossil fuels?" he said. "If you don't solve that, you won't solve your [climate] goals."
Update, 2/2/2016: Chris Bauch, an editor for PLOS ONE, said in an email that the author of the study we reported on below "should have used a different model for some of the analyses" and that the author "is working on submitting errata." Bauch added, however, that he is "pretty sure the correction will not change the conclusions” and that he does not "foresee a retraction.” We'll update when we know more.
In a new peer-reviewed paper in the journal PLOS ONE, an Oxford physicist devised a mathematical formula for the lifespan of conspiracy theories—that is, how long it would likely take for them to be publicly unveiled if they were in fact true. It's not long: In the case of climate change, it's about 27 years if you assume the cover-up is perpetrated by only published climate scientists—and just four years if you assume it includes the broader scientific community.
The author, David Robert Grimes, found similar maximum life spans for a few other prominent conspiracy theories:
Grimes, PLOS 2016
Let's pick, somewhat arbitrarily, preeminent climatologist James Hansen's 1988 testimony to Congress about global warming as the beginning of the great fraud. According to Grimes' formula, climate change would have been publicly outed as a hoax by 1992 if it were carried out by a broad coalition of scientific organizations. And it would have been exposed by 2015 if it were carried out only by published climate scientists. Unless I missed something, that didn't happen. (Sorry, the "Climategate" emails definitely don't count.)
Here's how long it would take for four big conspiracies to fall apart: (a) moon landing hoax, (b) climate change hoax, (c) vaccination conspiracy, and (d) suppression of a cure for cancer. Grimes, PLOS 2016.
Grimes' model is based on the statistical probability that one person within the conspiracy (one climate scientist, for example) would intentionally or accidentally let slip the truth. The odds of that happening go up as the number of people involved in the conspiracy increase—hence the shorter life span for the climate fraud if it involved broad scientific organizations (whose membership Grimes totals at more than 400,000). To help in that analysis, Grimes studied a few actual conspiracies, including the National Security Agency's widespread spying on US citizens that was exposed by Edward Snowden.
Anyway, climate change is not a hoax. And we did land on the moon. And there isn't a hidden cure for cancer. And you should go get your vaccinations, dammit.