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 coming food crisis, and what we can do about it.
Tim McDonnellJun. 30, 2016 2:54 PM
A man carries animal feed in the Sitti Zone of Ethiopia on April 8, 2016, near the border with Somalia. The region is afflicted by a severe drought.
Last December, the climate summit in Paris offered journalists an unprecedented opportunity to reframe the global warming story. Climate reporting used to rest on the tacit understanding that the problem is overwhelming and intractable. That no longer rings true. While we have a better understanding than ever of the potential calamity in store, we finally have a clear vision of a path forward—and momentum for actually getting there.
To that end, Paris was a turning point for me personally, too: It was the end of the beginning of my career as an environmental journalist. This week I'm leaving Mother Jones after five years covering climate and other green stories. Paris underscored that it's past time for me to look beyond the borders of the United States. That's why, this fall, I'm going to undertake a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. For at least nine months, I'll move between Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria to document how climate change is affecting food security.
Agriculture in Africa is one of the most important yet underreported stories about climate change today.
I see agriculture in Africa as one of the most important yet underreported stories about climate change today. It's a fascinating intersection of science, politics, technology, culture, and all the other things that make climate such a rich vein of reporting. At that intersection, the scale of the challenge posed by global warming is matched only by the scale of opportunity to innovate and adapt. There are countless stories waiting to be told, featuring a brilliant and diverse cast of scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, farmers, families, and more.
East Africa is already the hungriest place on Earth: One in every three people live without sufficient access to nutritious food, according to the United Nations. Crop yields in the region are the lowest on the planet. African farms have one-tenth the productivity of Western farms on average, and sub-Saharan Africa is the only place on the planet where per capita food production is actually falling.
Now, climate change threatens to compound those problems by raising temperatures and disrupting the seasonal rains on which many farmers depend. An index produced by the University of Notre Dame ranks 180 of the world's countries based on their vulnerability to climate change impacts (No. 1, New Zealand, is the least vulnerable; the United States is ranked No. 11). The best-ranked mainland African country is South Africa, down at No. 84; Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda rank at No. 147, No. 154, and No. 160, respectively.In other words, these are among the places that will be hit hardest by climate change. More often than not, the agricultural sector will experience some of the worst impacts. Emerging research indicates that climate change could drive down yields of staples such as rice, wheat, and maize 20 percent by 2050. Worsening and widespread drought could shorten the growing season in some places by up to 40 percent.
This isn't just a matter of putting food on the table. Agricultural productivity also lies at the root of broader economic development, since farming is Africa's No. 1 form of employment. So, even when hunger isn't an issue, per se, lost agricultural productivity can stymie rural communities' efforts to get the money they need for roads, schools, clinics, and other necessities. "We only produce enough to eat," lamented Amelia Tonito, a farmer I met recently in Mozambique. "We'd like to produce enough to eat and to sell." More food means more money in more pockets; the process of alleviating poverty starts on farms.
"We only produce enough to eat," lamented Amelia Tonito, a farmer I met recently in Mozambique. "We'd like to produce enough to eat and to sell."
The story goes beyond money. Hunger, increased water scarcity, and mass migrations sparked by natural-resource depletion can amplify the risk of conflict. Al-Shabaab in Kenya and Boko Haram in Nigeria have both drawn strength from drought-related hunger.
This is also a story about new applications for technology at the dawn of Africa's digital age. It's a story about gender—most African farmers are women—and the struggle to empower marginalized sectors of society. It's about globalization and the growth of corporate power, as large-scale land investors from Wall Street to Dubai to Shanghai see a potential windfall in turning East and West Africa into a global breadbasket. Such interventions could boost rural economies—or disenfranchise small-scale farmers and further degrade the landscape.
Of course, all the data points I've just mentioned are only that: cold, lifeless data. They work as an entry point for those of us who are thousands of miles away from Africa. But they don't tell a story, and they won't lead to action. They won't help Amelia Tonito improve her income. My hope is my coverage of this story will help provide the depth of understanding that is a prerequisite for holding public and corporate officials accountable, so that the aspirations of the Paris Agreement can start to come to fruition.
Obama’s attempt to crack down on the oil and gas industry just hit a major roadblock.
Tim McDonnellJun. 23, 2016 1:56 PM
A major push by the Obama administration to curb the environmental impacts of fracking suffered a severe blow Wednesday evening, when a federal judge in Wyoming ruled that the proposed regulations overstepped the government's authority. The decision could mean that President Barack Obama will leave office without delivering on one of environmentalists' biggest demands: Clamping down on air and water pollution from the chemicals used in fracking, a controversial oil and gas drilling technique that has driven the country's oil and gas boom during Obama's tenure.
The Interior Department had sought to require inspections of fracked oil and gas wells on public land, and also to require that companies publicly disclose the chemicals used in those wells. (Fracking entails injecting a high-pressure cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals into underground shale formations.) The proposal was contested by the state of Wyoming, a major producer of natural gas, and by a group of oil industry trade groups.According to the ruling by Judge Scott Skavdahl, an Obama appointee, "Congress has not delegated to the Department of Interior the authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing. The [Bureau of Land Management]'s effort to do so through the Fracking Rule is in excess of its statutory authority and contrary to law."
In any case, the ruling "is not the final word," as the Times explains:
While the regulation will be temporarily halted, the federal Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit is also reviewing the rule. Obama administration officials characterized Judge Skavdahl's ruling as a delay, and said they were waiting for the decision by the appeals court.
"It's unfortunate that implementation of the rule continues to be delayed, because it prevents regulators from using 21st century standards to ensure that oil and gas operations are conducted safely and responsibly on public and tribal lands," the Interior Department said in a statement from the agency's spokeswoman, Jessica Kershaw.
Will it be able to do so without causing a spike in greenhouse gas emissions?
Tim McDonnellJun. 21, 2016 1:48 PM
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on the coast outside San Luis Obispo, California.
California's biggest electric utility announced a plan on Tuesday to shut down the state's last remaining nuclear power plant within the next decade. The plant, Diablo Canyon, has been controversial for decades and resurfaced in the news over the last few months as Pacific Gas & Electric approached a deadline to renew, or not, the plant's operating license.
"California's new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon's electricity output," PG&E said in a statement, pointing to the state's massive gains in energy efficiency and renewable energy from solar and wind.
The most significant part of the plan is that it promises to replace Diablo Canyon with a "cost-effective, greenhouse gas free portfolio of energy efficiency, renewables and energy storage." As I reported in February, some environmentalists were concerned that closing the plant could actually increase the state's carbon footprint, if it were replaced by natural gas plants, as has happened elsewhere in the country when nuclear plants were shut down:
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…
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.)
Michael Shellenberger, a leading voice in California's pro-nuclear movement, estimated in February that closing Diablo Canyon "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 estimate presupposed that the plant would be replaced by natural gas. The plan announced today—assuming it's actually feasible—appears to remedy that concern. In a statement, Shellenberger's group, Environmental Progress, said the plan is destined to "fail" because the notion that the plant can be replaced without increasing greenhouse gas emissions is "a big lie."
In any case, the plant won't be closing overnight. Over the next few years we should be able to watch an interesting case testing whether it's possible to take nuclear power offline without worsening climate change.
"He's talking about rolling back the clock, which I think is very dangerous."
Tim McDonnellJun. 9, 2016 6:00 AM
A coupleof weeks ago, Donald Trump took a stage in Bismarck, North Dakota, and laid out his vision for addressing climate change and energy issues should he win the White House. It was about what you might expect from a candidate who has previously claimed that global warming is a hoax invented by Chinese bureaucrats to disadvantage US manufacturers. He railed against the historic global agreement on climate change struck in Paris last year, called President Barack Obama's cornerstone climate policy "stupid," and said that his administration "will focus on real environmental challenges, not the phony ones we've been looking at." Though after he fulfills his promise to dismantle the "Department of Environmental,"it is hard to imagine how he would make that happen.
The Washington Post called Trump's proposals "dangerous and nonsensical," and Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey and head of the Environmental Protection Agency during George W. Bush's first term, agreed. Whitman has always been a bit of a nonconformist among conservatives on climate change: She pushed hard for Bush to let the United States join the Kyoto Protocol, the last significant stab at global climate action prior to Paris, and she infamously told the Post that she left the EPA after coming under intense pressure from then-Vice President Dick Cheney to implement lax regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants.
These days, she co-chairs the CASEnergy Coalition, an educational coalition that promotes the use of nuclear power as a solution to climate change. In earlier, more innocent days of the Republican primary race, she endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Now she "will not vote for Trump," but is on the fence about Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee, she said, "has real flaws, but hers are more within the normal parameters we're used to. Trump's are way outside, as far as I'm concerned."
I had a chat with Gov. Whitman about the threat Trump's candidacy poses to Obama's climate legacy and why his energy "plan" makes no sense:
Climate Desk: What did you make of Trump’s energy speech in North Dakota?
Christine Whitman: Not surprised, but disappointed. I don't think he has a full grasp, not surprisingly, of the issues. He's taking moves that I believe are totally contrary to the health and well-being of the country and the citizens, when you talk about walking away from [the Paris Agreement], when you talk about having a need to restart coal plants. He should know that the reason a lot of the coal plants are shutting down now has nothing to do with environmental regulations and everything to do with economics and the low price of natural gas, which he also wants to encourage. So those two things run counter to one another in a way. He's talking about rolling back the clock, which I think is very dangerous.
CD: Trump’s comments on climate and energy might seem radical, but aren't they really just a more extreme, less articulate version of sentiments we hear from Mitch McConnell and other prominent Republicans frequently: Climate change isn't a threat, we need to save coal and the fossil fuel industry, etc.?
"First of all, environmental protection is a Republican issue."
CW: Well, first of all, environmental protection is a Republican issue. The first president to set aside public land was Lincoln. It was Nixon who established, with a Democratic Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency. This is in our DNA. Conservation is inherently conservative, and it should be something that we embrace. So I would like to see Republicans understand this and also recognize facts. You can have economic growth and a clean and green environment. We've done it. It's not a zero-sum game. They've just got to get off this attitude that you can't have them both at the same time.
[During the Nixon era] the public said, "We don't like being told not to go outside from 10 to 4 because of bad air quality," and "We don't like seeing our land turned into a garbage dump." That's what drove Congress and the president to actually take action. To walk away from [environmental issues] is a very dangerous political move, if nothing else, because the public still doesn't want dirty air and dirty water and trashed land.
You really don’t have any credible scientists who say that climate change isn't occurring, and you don't have any credible scientists who say humans don't play a role. If you want to ignore it, you do so at your peril.
CD: And yet, here we are with a Republican nominee for president who is a climate change denier. What do you think the effect of Trump's candidacy on Obama's climate legacy will be? Is he lending a sense of urgency to formally finalize the Paris Agreement?
CW: Well, I hope he's not representative of the party as a whole. I mean, he's off the charts as far as what you can expect him to do or say. He is scaring other countries, and that's pushing a desire to get [the Paris Agreement] done while we can—and make it that much harder for him to roll back. He says he's going to roll back a lot of things, but he can't do it. He's not an emperor, but he doesn't seem to get it. He is going to try to push the powers of the presidency, the boundaries. He doesn't seem to understand the Constitution or really care much about it.
"He is scaring other countries, and that's pushing a desire to get [the Paris Agreement] done while we can."
But still, some of those who oppose taking dramatic action [on climate change] in India or in China are saying, "Wait a minute, the United States is going to back out. Do we still want to be a part of this?" So it's making it much more difficult and confusing for people.
CD: What are you hoping to see from the candidates on climate change as the election moves forward?
CW: Truth? I hope they don't get into it. [An election] is the worst time to discuss serious policy, because people politicize everything. I really don't want to see a deep dive into climate change or into these issues, other than a recognition that they exist, that they're important, and that we have to take action. Right now, on every issue, the extremes are pushing the agendas.
What I'm really scared about is that people get dug in too far. And they'll have to move further to the left, further to the right, the lines will get harder, and then once someone is elected there will be an inability to move back to the center or to really get things done. We all know that people will say things during campaigns that they don't really mean. Or they'll be willing, when they come into office, to look at what the reality is. So when they get in, if they've really painted themselves into a corner, then we're not going to be able to have the kind of discussion that we need to get these issues solved.
Tuesday's primary could be partly a referendum on fracking.
Tim McDonnellJun. 6, 2016 11:13 AM
California's Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday is a make-or-break moment for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who needs a big win in the state to take anything resembling momentum to the Democratic convention in July. His rival, Hillary Clinton, has a narrow edge, leading him by about two points in the RealClearPolitics polling average as of Monday morning.
But in addition to its role in the delegate math—after Tuesday, Clinton will likely have secured a majority of the delegates, when unbound superdelegates are factored in—California's Democratic primary could also be a referendum on how voters in the state want to deal with climate change. California is home to some of the country's most progressive climate policies, strong industries for both fossil fuels and renewable energy, and high vulnerability to some impacts of climate change, such as droughts like the one that is still ravaging the state (Donald Trump's opinion to the contrary notwithstanding). According to Yale University polling, 62 percent of Californians are worried about global warming, compared with a national average of 52 percent. A recent poll of California voters in both parties found that clean air and water ranked among the top issues in the presidential election.
In other words, California is uniquely suited to be a prime proving ground for differences between Clinton's and Sanders' approaches to issues like fracking and nuclear power.
"I think it's fair to say overall that California is known nationwide as being an environmental leader," said Michelle Chan, vice president of programs at Friends of the Earth in California. "And it's very much part of our identity as Californians: Our environmental values are part and parcel of how we identify politically."
Both candidates appear to be acutely aware of this. Last week, they courted the environmentalist vote in California. Sanders focused on climate change at a series of rallies, lambasting Trump as a "climate change denier" and calling on Clinton to up her game by coming out in favor of a tax on carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Clinton published an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News that focused on wilderness conservation.
Needless to say, on climate change Clinton and Sanders have much more in common with one another than either does with Trump, who has called it a hoax and vowed to dismantle the global agreement on climate struck in Paris last year. In general, Clinton has stayed fairly close to President Barack Obama's "all of the above" script on energy resources—that is, continuing some level of fossil fuel production in addition to promoting more climate-friendly sources like wind and solar. Sanders, meanwhile, has advocated a plan that hews closer to environmentalists' dream scenario, with all fossil fuels left in the ground.
They differ more sharply on fracking. The controversial method of oil and gas extraction, which involves blasting underground shale formations with high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals, is perhaps more relevant to Golden State voters than to residents of any other state. Fracking in California has been in the news a lot recently: The industry has drawn criticism for its high use of water during the drought, and the natural gas industry was blamed for a massive methane leak at a storage facility near Los Angeles in January that drew comparisons to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Just last week, environmentalists were incensed by a new report from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that found that offshore fracking in the Pacific is unlikely to have a "significant" impact on the environment.
Sanders' position is cut-and-dried: a nationwide ban on fracking. Clinton's position is more nuanced. In a March Democratic debate, she said her administration would place so many new restrictions on natural gas production that "by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place." Still, as secretary of state, Clinton helped export American fracking technology to places like China and Eastern Europe. And she has argued—in line with the Obama administration—that although pollution from fracking is insufficiently regulated, it is a preferable alternative to coal and so can be a "bridge" to a less carbon-intensive energy system. There's plenty of evidence that Clinton could be right, and that a fracking ban could actually backfire by leading the country to depend more on coal. But that might not matter much to California voters, a (slim) majority of whom oppose fracking, according to a 2013 Public Policy Institute of California poll.
In other words, Sanders' message on fracking has the potential to resonate with California Democrats.
The same could be said of nuclear power, which has also resurfaced in the California news as regulators decide whether to shutter Diablo Canyon, the state's last nuclear power plant. As with fracking, Clinton sees nuclear power as key to the clean-energy transition, while Sanders wants to shut down nuclear power completely. Neither candidate has weighed in on Diablo Canyon specifically, but in a statement to Mother Jones, a Sanders campaign spokesperson said, "We cannot allow the ailing nuclear industry to endanger the lives of millions of people just to squeeze out every last cent from its failing infrastructure."
Regardless of which Democrat wins the primary, Trump's positions on climate change are the polar opposite. So the big question is whether Sanders' environmentalist supporters in California would be willing to support Clinton if she wins the nomination, rather than risk putting a climate change denier in the White House. Chan, from Friends of the Earth, said that for many environmentalists, Clinton may be an unsavory choice, but she is still one whom many in California could eventually rally behind.
"We have certainly seen Sanders' entry in the campaign pull her to more progressive positions," she said. "[It's] fair to say she's preferable to Trump."