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 the year’s biggest victory for environmentalists, President Barack Obama announced Friday that he will reject an application from Canadian company TransCanada to construct the Keystone XL pipeline.
The pipeline, which would allow crude oil from Canada’s oil sands to reach ports and refineries in the US, has been a major controversy for Obama ever since he took office. The White House spent years deliberating on the issue. During that time, environmental groups accused Obama of not backing up his rhetoric on climate change with real action, and Republicans in Congress accused him of blocking a job-creating infrastructure project.
In his announcement today, the president said the State Department’s analysis had shown the pipeline would not significantly benefit the US economy.
"The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the national interests of the United States. I agree with that decision," Obama said.
The timing of the announcement is significant, as it comes just weeks before the beginning of major international climate negotiations in Paris. Obama’s decision will "reverberate" with other countries and sends a strong message that the United States is serious about taking action to stop climate change, said Jennifer Morgan, director of the global climate program at the World Resources Institute.
Obama said that pipeline had been given an "overinflated role in the political discourse" by both its supporters and detractors. Still, he framed his decision as a key element of his climate legacy.
"America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change," he said. "Today we continue to lead by example."
Climate scientists are pretty good at figuring out the causes of long-term trends. We know that dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will make global temperatures rise over time. But pinning down the cause of any single weather event—a specific heat wave, hurricane, or drought—is much more challenging, since extreme things could still happen without global warming. That's why scientists are so reluctant to say that any particular event happened "because of" climate change.
Nevertheless, there is a rapidly growing field of research that is attempting to improve this kind of one-off attribution. On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a dossier of 29 such studies, combing through some of 2014's worst weather events across the globe to search for the fingerprints of man-made climate change.
The scientists, who represent a range of prominent research institutions, looked at California's wildfire season; heat waves in Australia; drought in East Africa; flooding in Indonesia; hurricanes in Hawaii; and more. Their findings were as diverse as the events they examined, and they still tend to be framed as "Event X was made more likely because of climate change," rather than the simpler but less accurate "Event X was causedby climate change." Some events, such as Hawaii's hurricanes, appear to have a strong relationship to man-made global warming. Others, such as extreme rainfall in the United Kingdom last winter, showed no link at all.
Generally speaking, temperature-related events were more closely aligned with climate change than precipitation-related events. Here are a few more examples:
Wildfire in California
A wildland firefighter works in California in 2014. Kari Greer/ZUMA
Over the last few years, as California has sunk deeper into an unprecedented drought, the wildfire season has essentially never ended. 2014 was bad; 2015 is worse; and the only good news is that this year's strong El Niño could mean a wet winter and thus a less-bad fire season in 2016. The link between climate change and fire is pretty straightforward: Snowpack melts earlier, summers are hotter and drier, and boom, more fires. And sure enough, that appears to be what is happening in California.
In this study, scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory used a combination of field observations and satellite data to quantify fires in California going back a few decades. They were interested not just in the size or number of actual fires, but a metric called "fire risk" that combines data on temperature, precipitation, and other factors. Then they combined the fire risk data with a computer model that assumes greenhouse gas emissions stay relatively high into the future. Unsurprisingly, the risk of fire shoots up over time.
In the charts below, from the study, the blue line shows year-to-year fire variability with the effects of climate change removed from the model. The red line uses the same fire data, but with the climate data put back in. In other words, the gap between the blue line and the red line is the effect of man-made global warming (KBDI is the fire risk index).
Yoon, et al.
You'll notice that 2014 lands on a spot where the blue and red lines overlap. According to lead author Jin-Ho Yoon, "that means that according to this model, 2014['s fire season] could have happened without human activities at all. It's possible to have such an event."
"But if we step back from this single event," he said, "that's relatively easier to say that the fire risk is increasing and easily attributable to climate change."
There's nothing climate change deniers like Donald Trump and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) love more than a nice snowfall or cold winter to use as proof positive that global warming is a hoax engineered by China and Barbra Streisand. They got their chance a couple winters ago, when temperatures in the Great Lakes region between November 2013 to April 2014 were the lowest they'd been in decades.
But of course, one cold winter doesn't prove or disprove anything. Again, scientists are looking for trends. And when climatologists from the University of Colorado looked back at the temperature record over the last 134 years, they found that the frigid Midwestern winter was incredibly rare, thanks to man-made climate change.
"While a winter comparable to 2013/14 would have been roughly a once-a-decade event in 1881...it has become roughly a once-in-a-thousand years event in 2014," the study found. That change in probability is due to long-term increases in temperature. That's probably good news for Midwesterners, as that extreme wintry weather caused billions of dollars in economic losses.
Droughts in Africa and the Middle East
Aleppo, Syria, has been devastated by a civil war that was exacerbated by drought. Ameer Alhalbi/ZUMA
Drought in the Middle East is a matter of vital concern to US national security, since the failure of crops can enflame pre-existing political tensions and contribute to violent conflict. This has already happened in Syria. Some research also exists linking Syria's unprecedented drought to climate change, and that conclusion is generally supported by a couple studies in the NOAA report.
One study, focusing on Syria, combined observed rainfall data and climate modeling to show that the country's lack of precipitation during the 2013-2014 rainy season was made about 45 percent more likely by climate change. Another study, looking more broadly at the Mediterranean and Middle East, found that at least one of the major drivers of drought in the region—sea surface temperatures in the western Pacific—was definitely amplified by global warming. Two other drivers, central Pacific sea surface temperatures and atmospheric conditions in the North Atlantic, did not appear to be influenced by climate change.
A third study focused on the Horn of Africa, which includes parts of countries such as Kenya and Somalia that also face high food insecurity and political instability. The rainy season that should have arrived in late 2013 was virtually nonexistent, leading to drought in early 2014 and widespread crops failures. That study failed to find a connection between climate change and the lack of rainfall, but it did blame global warming for higher temperatures and increased solar radiation that made the effects of the drought worse.
Studies like this will get better over time, Yoon said, as scientists get more practice and better data-gathering tools. Ultimately, the goal is to provide a real-time answer to the question of "Did this happen because of climate change?" Searching for the causes of particular events also helps scientists understand, and therefore predict, what types of events are likely to occur more or less often in the future. Then, hopefully, we take steps to prepare for them.
No one thinks the fight against climate change will be cheap. But the US economy stands to benefit handsomely—in the trillions of dollars—from the efforts other countries make to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study.
Opponents of action on climate change like to claim that the United States acting alone will accomplish nothing, and that countries such as China and India will get a free ride while Americans suffer. "America is not a planet," Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio observed at a debate in September. "We're not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government we're under wants to do." Chris Christie added that "we shouldn't be destroying our economy in order to chase some wild, left-wing idea that somehow, us, by ourselves, are going to fix the climate."
Existing global policies to limit warming could benefit the American economy by up to $2 trillion by 2030.
On the contrary, economists at New York University's Institute for Policy Integrity found that existing global policies to limit warming could benefit the American economy by up to $2 trillion by 2030. That's because the consequences of climate change are expensive: losses in agricultural productivity, storm damage, disruptions to supply chains, public health impacts, etc. Averting those impacts saves money, but because climate change is a global phenomenon, stopping it requires contributions from countries worldwide. And in the run-up to this year's major climate summit in Paris, more than 100 countries have made commitments to reign in their carbon pollution.
In other words, every ton of greenhouse gas emissions not released by China, Germany, or wherever, eventually benefits American pocketbooks as much as it benefits pocketbooks in those countries.
The same logic works in reverse, explained report co-author Jason Schwartz. "If the US takes a back seat [on climate action], then we're the ones who risk looking like a freeloader, and risk undermining a global agreement that would really benefit the US enormously. It's in our interest to act on climate change globally."
Here's another way to put it: The benefit to the US economy from global climate action far exceeds the cost of our own domestic climate policies. The Environmental Protection Agency projects that President Barack Obama's signature climate plan, which seeks to cut emissions from the power sector about a third by 2030, will cost about $8 billion per year to implement. The domestic public health benefits alone will add up to more $30 billion per year by 2030, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And to the extent that Obama's plan encourages other countries to come to the table with plans of their own, the bargain looks even better, since the emissions cuts other countries implement (and pay for) will lead to further savings for the United States.
Schwartz's analysis is built from a metric called the "social cost of carbon," a peer-reviewed number produced by federal scientists that attempts to quantify the financial cost, globally, caused by every ton of carbon dioxide emissions. The cost increases over time, reflecting the incrementally worsening impacts of climate change:
Institute for Policy Integrity
Schwartz worked backwards from that number, totaling the carbon costs the world will avoid if countries follow through on existing climate commitments. Then he and his colleagues came up with what he calls "a very conservative" estimate of what the US share of that avoided cost will be.
"There doesn't have to be a physical climate impact within the US boundaries for it to matter to the US," he said. Devastating storms in Thailand could disrupt supply chains for computer equipment. Violent conflict linked to water shortages and crop failures in the Middle East could result in military costs and drive up the price of oil. So when other countries take steps to avert these impacts, it helps the US save money; combined with our own actions, that adds up to $2 trillion, Schwartz found.
The upshot is that taking action on climate change is, as Donald Trump would say, a great deal.
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama's signature climate action plan was formally published. The new regulations will require many states to reduce their use of coal, the dirtiest form of energy, in an effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by about a third by 2030. Almost immediately, the plan came under a barrage of legal attacks from two dozen coal-dependent states, almost all led by Republican governors and attorneys general. Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress introduced legislation to overturn the plan.
On Tuesday, after the House of Representatives resolution was approved in committee, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) claimed a victory for all Americans. The vote, he said, shows that "the American people are not happy with President Obama's climate change policy."
Except that, they kind of are happy about it. That's according to new polling by Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communication, which found that 61 percent of residents in the states suing the Obama administration support tight limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Individual state results are listed in the table above. Even in Kentucky, home to the plan's biggest opponent, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), most residents support the plan.
Makes you wonder whose interests all these governors, attorneys general, and legislators are really representing.
The rationale, according to the letter TransCanada sent Secretary of State John Kerry, is to await a decision by regulators in Nebraska about a possible change to the pipeline's route. But since that decision isn't expected for seven to twelve months, a delay would likely punt the final decision to whoever takes over the White House after President Barack Obama.
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley have said they would reject the pipeline application; all the GOP candidates have expressed support for it.
Environmental groups were quick to claim the development as a victory, a sure sign that TransCanada knows its project doesn't stand a chance under the Obama administration (which has to approve the construction permit, since it crosses an international border), and is reverting to desperate tactics.
"Clearly TransCanada has lost and they recognize that," Bill McKibben, founder of activist group 350.org, said in a statement. "It's one of the great victories for this movement in decades."
But the $8 billion pipeline, which would enable crude oil from Canada's oil sands to reach refineries and ports in the United States, isn't dead yet. The next step will be for the State Department to decide whether or not to grant TransCanada the delay it is seeking. The Department is "reviewing" the letter while it continues to weigh a final decision, a spokesperson said today. If it does choose to delay, the final outcome will essentially boil down to whether a Republican or a Democrat wins the 2016 presidential election. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley have said they would reject the pipeline application; all the GOP candidates have expressed support for it.
The other option, advocated by McKibben and his peers, is that State reject the requested delay and forge ahead to reject the permit. That would send a clear signal to other countries that Obama is serious about climate action ahead of upcoming international negotiations in Paris. It would also test the relationship of Obama with soon-to-be Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has promised to take more serious action on climate than his predecessor Stephen Harper, but who last month visited Washington, D.C. to advocate for the pipeline.
Whether that rejection would really benefit the climate is less clear. The oil sands oil destined for Keystone XL—some of the most carbon-intense fossil fuels on Earth—needs to stay buried in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change, according to a growing body of science. Would a rejection from Obama keep in the ground? Not necessarily: TransCanada would have the option to re-apply for the permit starting from scratch under the next administration.
Without sufficient pipelines in place, the low oil price is already squeezing oil sands production and forcing companies out of the game.
Meanwhile, with global oil prices persisting at the very low level of around $50 per barrel, oil sands developers are eager for more pipelines, since exporting oil by pipe is much less expensive than doing so by truck or train. An analysis this year from the Environmental Protection Agency noted that as long as oil prices remain under about $75 a barrel, building the pipeline would lead to "increased oil sands production, and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, over what would otherwise occur."
Even if oil prices dip further, the pipeline could still look attractive to oil producers, so they can be prepared to pounce when the market turns back in their favor, said Anthony Swift, an international affairs attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"For risk-averse companies, in many ways knowing that cheap transportation is available is more important than a sense of where oil prices are today," he said.
Still, a rejection from Obama would be a considerable setback. Reapplying, which would require starting the State Department's complex formal environmental review process from scratch, could still be long and costly even under a Republican president. And TransCanada would be racing against the clock: Without sufficient pipelines in place, the low oil price is already squeezing oil sands production and forcing companies out of the game. Just last week, Shell announced it will abandon a $2 billion investment in a oil sands project in Alberta, citing concerns about how it would move the oil to market.
Meanwhile, opposition to the project by environmental groups isn't getting any weaker.
"TransCanada would be reapplying in a very different climate" than when it first proposed the pipeline in 2008, Swift said. "On both sides of the border there's a new awareness of the environmental impacts of tar sands development."