Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

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.

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GOP Lawmakers Scramble to Court Tesla

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
A brand-new Tesla Model S comes off the line in 2012.

Electric vehicle sales in New Jersey ran out of batteries earlier this month, when the Chris Christie administration voted to ban car manufacturers from selling directly to drivers. The companies must now use third-party dealers. The ban applies to all car manufacturers, but seemed particularly aimed at Tesla, which had been in negotiations with the administration for months to sell electric cars straight from its own storefronts in the state.

The move was a win for the state's surprisingly powerful auto dealer lobby and a loss for one of the country's biggest electric car makers. But it also cemented New Jersey's place as a non-contender for the real prize: a $5 billion battery "gigafactory" that Tesla plans to begin construction on later this year. With an estimated 6,500 employees, the factory will likely become a keystone of the United State's clean energy industry and an economic boon for its host state. Now, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada are scrambling to get picked, and last week Republican legislators in Arizona began to try pushing their state to the top of the pile.

Texas Governor Rick Perry called his state's direct sales ban "antiquated."

It's the latest sign that, at least at the state level, the clean energy industry's best friend might be the GOP. Newt Gingrich quickly pounced on Christie after the direct sales ban for "artificially" insulating car dealers, just weeks after calling for John Kerry to resign after Kerry named climate change as a principle challenge of the generation. On Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry called his state's direct sales ban "antiquated" nearly a year after a Democrat-backed bill to change the policy was killed.

New Jersey and Texas aren't the only states where you can't buy a Tesla car directly from the company: Arizona and Maryland also have direct sales bans. But a bill passed out of committee in Arizona's GOP-controlled Senate last week would reverse the state's position and allow electric vehicle companies to sell directly out of their showrooms. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Warren Peterson (R-Gilbert) said he was spurred by the New Jersey situation to amend what he sees as a creeping assault on free market principles.

"For me, it's not about Tesla or electric cars," he said. "For me, a big concern I have now is we are limiting someone's choice."

But despite backing from some prominent Arizona Republicans (Sen. John McComish told the Arizona Daily Star he didn't see why the state should "prevent someone else who has a better idea from making an effort to enter that industry"), Warren said he's faced opposition from others who see the bill as damaging to the state's traditional car market or a handout to Tesla, arguments that swayed the decision in New Jersey.

"I have a tough time understanding why Republicans are opposed to it, because free markets are such a big part of the platform," he said. "States that moved away from this have made a big mistake."

Now You Can Get Solar Panels at Best Buy

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 1:39 PM EDT
solar costs
Tim McDonnell

There was an era when putting solar panels on your roof was a time- and money-sucking hassle on par with remodeling your kitchen. But the cost of going solar has been dropping fast. The latest signal of the industry's move into the mainstream came last week, when San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity* announced it would begin to sell solar systems out of Best Buy, alongside big-screen TVs and digital cameras.

"There are a lot of people out there with unshaded roofs, paying high electricity bills, who just don't know this is an option for them," said Jonathan Bass, SolarCity's vice president of communications. The move into Best Buy "gives us a chance to have that conversation with more people."

The company is the biggest installer in the country's biggest solar market, California, a state that earlier this month broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days, churning out enough electricity from solar panels to power roughly 3 million homes. Just since last summer, California's solar production has doubled, according to the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state's electric grid. There's a lot more growth where that came from, Bass said.

These Pictures of Spring Flowers Will Melt Your Frozen Heart

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Climate change might have had a hand in the exceptionally cold winter much of the country just suffered through, but on the upside, there's new evidence that it's sending spring in early, and giving us more time with wildflowers.

That's the conclusion of one of the most exhaustive surveys ever conducted on flowering "phenology," the term scientists use for the timing of seasonal events (such as the day the first migratory birds arrive in a given place or, in this case, the first day flowers open). The study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From 1974 to 2012, biologist David Inouye* of the University of Maryland took a team to Colorado just as the winter frost was beginning to thaw, and spent the spring and summer documenting when 60 common plant species had their first, last, and peak (i.e., the most individual plants) flowering.

In all but one of the species, the date of first flowering moved incrementally forward each year, by more than a month in at least one case. You can see a sampling of the flowers in these photos, along with how much earlier they are flowering these days compared to 39 years ago, when the study began. Overall, said study co-author Paul CaraDonna, the ecological onset of spring advanced by about 25 days, from mid-May to late April, mostly thanks to warming temperatures (about 0.7 degrees F per decade here) that melted snow early.

"With these changes in climate, the plants are coming out a lot sooner," CaraDonna said.

In addition, CaraDonna said, last flowerings are happening later in the fall, so that the overall flower season is now about 35 days longer than it was 39 years ago.

Scientists have known for years that climate change messes with nature's datebook, throwing off plants (including flowers and trees), animals (from birds to plankton), and even fungi that rely on clues like temperature and weather to know when to breed, migrate, come out of hibernation, and whatever else they need to do. In fact, one of the first great phenologists was Henry David Thoreau, whose notes on the first flowering of some 500 plant species around Walden Pond were recently tapped by a pair of Boston University biologists to inform modern-day research, which found flowering times for these plants to have advanced an average of 10 days.

What makes this new research unique is not only the sheer size of the dataset, but that it tracks the flowers through the spring and summer until the frost comes back in the fall. Knowing the date of first flowering is important, CaraDonna said, but limited.

"It's like if the cover of a book looks cool, but you don't know what the rest of the book is about," he said. "We're really curious about how these patterns contribute to other patterns in the community that you can't see if you just look at first flowering."

In other words, flower phenology has implications beyond making nice company for hikers. The early appearance of flowers increases competition amongst them for pollinators, like bees, which can in turn get thrown off by unusual dining options, and the effects cascade up the ecological pyramid from there. In the biological marketplace, "things that used to be on sale at different times are now on sale together," said co-author Amy Iler.

CaraDonna said the next step in the study is to look more closely at how the shifted timing of flowers can destabilize an ecosystem, but even now he's confident the impacts are underway: "If you change this much of an ecological community, there will be consequences."

 
 

* Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to biologist David Inouye as "Daniel Inouye." We regret the error.

Photo credits:

Lanceleaf springbeauty: Wikimedia Commons

Glacier lily: Wikimedia Commons

Heartleaf bittercress: Wikimedia Commons

Western monkshood: Eric Hunt/Flickr

Slenderleaf collomia: Wikimedia Commons

American vetch: Wikimedia Commons

Ballhead sandwort: Wikimedia Commons

Aspen fleabane: Wikimedia Commons

Creeping mahonia: Matt Lavin/Flickr

California Just Had Its Warmest Winter on Record

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 2:26 PM EDT
temperature map
NOAA

This winter has been a tale of two Americas: The Midwest is just beginning to thaw out from a battery of epic cold snaps, while Californians might feel that they pretty much skipped winter altogether. In fact, new NOAA data reveal that California's winter (December through February) was the warmest in the 119-year record, 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.

The map above ranks every state's winter temperature average relative to its own historical record low (in other words, relative to itself and not to other states). Low numbers indicate that the state was unusually cold; higher numbers mean it was exceptionally warm. As you can see, the Midwest was much colder than average, while the West was hotter than average (despite a season-long kerfluffle about polar vortexes, the East Coast wasn't exceptionally cold, after all).

As we've reported, there's currently a scientific debate over whether climate change in the Arcitc is making the jet stream "drunk," and thereby increasing the likelihood of extreme cold spells; the exact role of climate change in California's record heat is still unclear.

As anyone working in California's farming industry could confirm, the state also had an exceptionally dry winter, the third-lowest precipitation on record. Other interesting facts from the NOAA report:

  • At the beginning of March, 91 percent of the Great Lakes remained frozen, the second-largest ice cover since record keeping began in 1973.
  • With reservoirs in central and northern California at 36 to 74 percent of their historical average levels, these regions would need 18 inches of rain over the next three months to end the drought, much more than the state normally gets in that time period.
  • Alaska's winter was the eighth-warmest on record, 6.2 degrees F over the 1971-2000 average.
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