Blue Marble - May 2013

VIDEO: 97 Percent of Climate Scientists Can't Be Wrong

| Thu May 16, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Telling Americans that scientists don't agree is the classic climate denial strategy. It's been over a decade since consultant Frank Luntz famously furnished the GOP with strategies to kill climate action during the Bush years, recommending in a leaked memo [PDF]: "you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue." Oh, yeah, and avoid truth: "A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth." It seems to have worked: Only a minority of Americans believes global warming is caused by humans: 42 percent, according to a 2012 Pew study.

That "consensus gap", as it's known, has proven fertile ground in which to sow resistance to climate action, says John Cook, a climate communications researcher from the University of Queensland in Australia. He has led the most extensive survey of peer-reviewed literature in almost a decade (published online this week in Environmental Research Letters). And what he found, just as in other attempts to survey the field, is that scientists are near unanimous.

A group of 24 researchers signed up to the challenge via Cook's website, Skeptical Science (the go-to website for debunking climate denial myths), and collected and analyzed almost 12,000 scientific papers from the past 20 years. Of the roughly 4,000 of those abstracts that expressed some view on the evidence for global warming, more than 97 percent endorsed the consensus that climate change is happening, and it's caused by humans.

His team pulled work written by 29,083 authors in nearly 2,000 journals across two decades. "People who say there must be some conspiracy to keep climate deniers out of the peer reviewed literature, that is one hell of a conspiracy," he said via Skype from Australia (watch the video above). That would make the moon landing cover-up look "like an amateur conspiracy compared to the scale involved here."

Cook is hoping to capitalize on the simplicity of his findings: "All people need to understand is that 97 out of 100 climate scientists agree. All they need to know is that one number: 97 percent."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Which States Use the Most Green Energy?

| Thu May 16, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Florida and Texas might be leading the nation's rollout of solar and wind power, respectively, but Washington, where hydroelectric dams provide over 60 percent of the state's energy, was the country's biggest user of renewable power in 2011, according to new statistics released last week by the federal Energy Information Administration.

Hydro continued to be the overwhelmingly dominant source of renewable power consumed nationwide, accounting for 67 percent of the total, followed by wind with 25 percent, geothermal with 4.5 percent, and solar with 3.5 percent. The new EIA data is the latest official snapshot of how states nationwide make use of renewable power, from industrial-scale generation to rooftop solar panels, and reveals an incredible gulf between leaders like Washington, California, and Oregon, and states like Rhode Island and Mississippi that use hardly any.

The gap is partly explained by the relative size of states' energy markets, but not entirely: Washington uses less power overall than New York, for example, but far outstrips it on renewables (the exact proportions won't be available until EIA releases total state consumption figures later this month). Still, the actual availability of resources—how much sun shines or wind blows—is far less important than the marching orders passed down from statehouses to electric utilities, says Rhone Resch, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

"Without some carrot or stick, there's little reason to pick [renewables] up" in many states, he says; even given the quickly falling price of clean-energy technology, natural gas made cheap by fracking is still an attractive option for many utilities.

John Kerry Updates His Climate Change Creds at the Arctic Council

| Tue May 14, 2013 5:13 PM EDT

Polar bear image by Patrick Kelley / US Coast Guard via US Geological Survey at Flickr. John Kerry photo courtesy the US Congress at Wikimedia Commons.

Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to Kiruna, Sweden, tomorrow, 14 May, for a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, the only diplomatic forum focused exclusively on the Arctic region. Members represent the eight nations with territory north of the Arctic Circle (Canada, the US, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden), plus representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples. The Council's concerns include a broad swath of environmental issues stemming from a wildly changing global climate amplified in the Arctic.

The meeting comes 25 years after Kerry hosted climate change hearing with Al Gore in the Senate and nothing happened. This year's Arctic Council is focused on mitigating a future oil spill as drilling in the far north ramps up. Ministers will be signing of an historic Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Agreement. The State Department describes this as an agreement that will "forge strong partnerships in advance of an oil spill so that Arctic countries can quickly and cooperatively respond before it endangers lives and threatens fragile ecosystems."

Sounds great, except we can't contain offshore spills, no matter the level of cooperation. Still, Kerry's attendance will boost interest in an obscure Council and the problems—for most—of a faraway place. 

We Just Passed the Climate's "Grim Milestone"

| Fri May 10, 2013 6:01 PM EDT
The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where NOAA watched the carbon record break.

Over the last couple weeks, scientists and environmentalists have been keeping a particularly close eye on the Hawaii-based monitoring station that tracks how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, as the count tiptoed closer to a record-smashing 400 parts per million. Yesterday, we finally got there: The daily mean concentration was higher than at any time in human history, NOAA reported today. 

Don't worry: The earth is not about to go up in a ball of flame. The 400 ppm mark is only a milestone, 50 ppm over what legendary NASA scientist James Hansen has since 1988 called the safe zone for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and yet only halfway to what the IPCC predicts we'll reach by the end of the century.

"Somehow in the last 50 ppm we melted the Arctic," said environmentalist and founder of activist group 350.org Bill McKibben, who called today's news a "grim but predictable milestone" and has long used the symbolic number as a rallying call for climate action. "We'll see what happens in the next 50."

We could find out soon enough: With the East Coast still recovering from Superstorm Sandy and the West gearing up for what promises to be a nasty fire season, University of California ecologist Max Moritz says milestones like these are "an excuse for us to take a good hard look at where we are," especially as the carbon concentration shows no signs of reversing course.

Scientists first saw the carbon scale tip past 400 ppm last summer, but only briefly; the record reported today by NOAA is the first time a daily average has surpassed that point. For the last several years concentrations have hovered in the 390s, and we're still not to the point where the carbon concentration will stay above the 400 ppm threshold permanently. But that's just around the corner, said J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society.

"It's clear that sometime next year we'll see 400 consistently," he said. "Avoiding the future warming will require a large and rapid reduction in greenhouse gases."

Most scientists, environmentalists, and climate-conscious policymakers agree this will require, at a minimum, slashing the use of fossil fuels, and in the meantime, taking steps to adapt for a world with higher temperatures, higher seas, and more extreme weather. For example, according to Hansen, the world will need to completely stop burning coal by 2030 if returning to 350 ppm is to remain possible. What's the holdup? Texas Tech climatologist Katherine Hayhoe blames "the inertia of our economic system, and the inertia of our political system." But she, like most of her peers, believe it can—and must—be done: "We have to change how we get our energy and how we use our energy."

Arkansans to Kerry on Keystone: "Come to Our State to See the Devastation"

| Fri May 10, 2013 6:05 AM EDT
Genieve Long holds a photo of her son at a rally outside the State Department on Thursday.

Two residents of Mayflower, Arkansas, the site of the March 29 pipeline spill, traveled to Washington on Thursday to ask Secretary of State John Kerry to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

They came here, Genieve Long said, to ask Kerry to "come to our state to see the devastation and hopefully get the Keystone XL stopped." They are working with All Risk, No Reward, a coalition of local and national groups that oppose the proposed 1,600-mile pipeline that would carry oil from Canada to Texas.

"I'm just a concerned single daddy who happens to have 400 feet of this pipeline running through his property."

Long and her four children—ages 9, 8, 7, and 5—live beside Lake Conway, not far from where Exxon's Pegasus pipeline spilled at least 210,000 gallons of crude oil from Canada's tar sands into a subdivision. Exxon has said that while there is oil in a cove on the lake, clean up crews haven't seen oil in the main body of water. But Sierra Club has said that an independent contractor the group hired found evidence of oil in the lake. Long thumbed through photos on her phone on Thursday morning, showing me images of oily sheen and what appeared to be black residue along the shores.

She says that Exxon has not been responsive to the complaints of people who live outside the area where the oil originally spilled. "I've asked them to just relocate us due to the smells," she said, noting that several of her children have asthma. "They told us the air quality was fine and they wouldn't relocate us." She's maintaining a Google Map that catalogs where people have reported seeing or smelling oil or experiencing negative health effects, as well as photos and video. She's also maintaining a Facebook page on the spill.

Reported oil sheen on Palarm Creek, off of Lake Conway. Genieve Long.

The oil is bad, but so is the cleanup, she says. "It's horrible. They have roads blocked down to one lane, constant police, constant traffic."

She was joined in Washington by fellow Mayflower resident Damien Byers, whose house is about a half a mile from the spill site and sits atop another portion of the Pegasus pipeline. He worries about the air quality in the area, especially when his 15-month-old son is staying with him. "I'm not an environmentalist, I'm not a treehugger," says Byers. "I'm just a concerned single daddy who happens to have 400 feet of this pipeline running through his property."

The pair delivered a letter to the State Department from a group of 21 residents of the town who have organized as the "Remember Mayflower Coalition." The letter asks Secretary Kerry to reject the Keystone pipeline—particularly in light of the Arkansas spill:

There is still so much we don’t know about tar sands—about the economic risks of them spilling in communities, about how they impact important water sources, and about how they effect our health. We don’t know enough to say "yes" to a massive tar sands pipeline through the country’s heartland.
Before you issue your final evaluation of Keystone XL, we ask that you and your staff come to Mayflower to see what happens when a tar sands pipeline ruptures in your backyard. We ask that you observe the remnants of black tar, smell the toxic chemicals that are polluting our air, and ask yourselves whether you can in good conscience inflict this same devastation on families along Keystone XL’s route.

"If this can happen to Mayflower," Long said, "with this Keystone pipeline, it can happen to anybody else also. We're trying to keep that from happening."

Republicans Boycott Vote on Obama's EPA Pick

| Thu May 9, 2013 2:03 PM EDT
U.S. President Barack Obama announces Gina McCarthy as his nominee to head the EPA in a March 4 ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

The Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted a Thursday morning meeting in which they were supposed to vote on the nomination of Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans on the committee complained that she had not yet adequately responded to their questions.

The vote had been scheduled for 9:15 a.m. on Thursday, but none of the committee's Republican members showed up.

Politico reports on what transpired:

Committee ranking member David Vitter (R-La.) announced the boycott by all eight GOP members around 8:30 a.m., saying they would deny the panel a quorum because McCarthy and the EPA haven't provided answers to the questions they'd posed.
Democrats have noted that the questions totaled more than 1,000 — what they call a record. Republicans also had five "requests" for EPA on issues such as how the agency handles outside groups' threats of litigation — though Democrats said the GOP senators were actually asking the agency to offer major concessions in how it conducts public business.

Democrats on the committee were quick to attack Republicans for this "obstruction." Committee chair Barbara Boxer noted that the vote had already been delayed for three weeks to accommodate the panel's Republican members.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid railed on the effort to block McCarthy in a statement on Thursday, noting that the GOP has also blocked President Obama's nominee to head the Department of Labor, Thomas Perez. "This type of blanket, partisan obstruction used to be unheard of," Reid said. "Now it has become an unacceptable pattern."

The blockade on McCarthy is even more noteworthy because, as we've reported here before, she worked for Mitt Romney back when he was governor of Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut's Republican former Gov. Jodi Rell.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Finally, Some Not-Terrible Climate News: Greenland Not Melting Any Faster

| Wed May 8, 2013 5:51 PM EDT
A member of Nick's team collects a GPS unit that had been measuring glacier movement over a year.

Back in 2006, scientists in Greenland made an alarming observation: Glaciers were crumbling into the ocean twice as fast. And not in little cocktail-sized cubes, either: Glaciologist Jason Box accurately predicted the spot where a hunk four times the size of Manhattan would later shear off into the sea.

At the same time, the inland top of the ice sheet was thawing at record levels; last summer, for the first time in 150 years, its entire surface was melting. By summer's end, this water alone raised sea levels all over the world by a millimeter.

As Box told our Climate Desk Live audience in January, rising air and water temperatures—driven by greenhouse gas emissions—are to blame. And with more warming on the way, he made a grim prediction: melting from Greenland and the world's other land-based glaciers could ultimately raise global sea levels by 69 feet, Box warns.

But don't start building your flood-proof Ark quite yet: Advanced imaging released in August suggested the ice sheet is capable of quickly reversing its melting habit. And a study out today in Nature finds that the sped-up ice loss on the water's edge, while still a problem, is unlikely to get much worse, even with a big rise in global temperatures. Taken together, these two studies suggest that Greenland's ice melt problem isn't as bad as experts like Box had predicted.

For the Nature study, Faezeh Nick, a researcher at Norway's University Centre in Svalbard, led a team that took the closest-ever look at so-called "outlet glaciers," the 200 or so outermost arms of the ice sheet that flow straight into the sea. Their findings suggest that the increase in melting rate is about to slow down, suggesting that in a medium warming scenario these glaciers will likely contribute just 19-30 millimeters to global sea levels by 2100. That's much less than if the current acceleration of melting were to persist, but still a noteworthy share of the quarter- to half-meter rise projected by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

glacier boat
Scientists on the sailboat Gambo measure water temperature and salinity in front of a Greenland glacier. Faezeh M. Nick

Biden Said What About Keystone XL Pipeline?!?

| Wed May 8, 2013 2:51 PM EDT

On Tuesday night, Buzzfeed reported that Vice President Joe Biden told an activist in South Carolina that he personally opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, but that he was "in the minority" in the administration on that opinion. The story prompted a press release from at least one anti-Keystone environmental group praising Biden for his "blunt talk." But Biden's office says that the VP's opinion on Keystone hasn't changed since an interview he gave last year: he's still waiting for the State Department to weigh in.

A spokesperson for the VP's office writes to Mother Jones:

The Vice President has made his views known on this issue and his views haven't changed. Any impression to the contrary would be mistaken. For instance, he said of the project in an interview last year, "It’s going to go through the process and the decision will be made on an environmentally sound basis."

The spokesperson also reiterated that "permitting decisions for international oil and gas pipelines are delegated to the State Department."

The Buzzfeed story came from the account of Elaine Cooper, an activist with the Sierra Club, who says Biden told her this during a rope line at a campaign event in South Carolina last Friday. Cooper recounted the encounter in a blog post as well:

I asked him about the administration’s commitment to making progress on climate and whether the president would reject the pipeline. He looked at the Sierra Club hat on my head, and he said “yes, I do – I share your views – but I am in the minority,” and he smiled.

In Cooper's post, she notes that Biden famously broke from the official administration position on gay marriage in an interview back in May 2012. His comment has been described as the "catalyst" for President Obama declaring just a few days later that he had evolved on gay marriage. This was apparently much sooner than the president had planned to make that announcement.

Was the Keystone line another case of Biden speaking out of turn? Who knows. Rope lines are crowded and loud, leaving room for misinterpretation.  Besides, those things are usually more about glad-handing than they are about serious policy issues. But hey! It wouldn't be the first time the VP had staked out a position ahead of the rest of the administration.

10 Key Findings From a Rapidly Acidifying Arctic Ocean

| Tue May 7, 2013 6:05 AM EDT
Polar bear on a remnant ice floe:

As predicted by chemistry, change in the Arctic Ocean is accelerating as temperatures warm faster than the global average, as the sea ice melts, as northern rivers run stronger and faster, delivering more fresh water farther into the northernmost ocean, and as we continue blasting an ever increasing quantity of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The Arctic Ocean Acidification Assessment, a new report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), presents these 10 key findings: 

1. Arctic marine waters are experiencing widespread and rapid ocean acidification. In the Nordic Seas, acidification is taking place over a wide range of ocean depths, from surface waters (faster) to deep waters (more slowly). Seawater pH has declined ~0.02 per decade since the late 1960s in the Iceland and Barents Seas. Other ocean acidification signals have also been encountered in surface waters of the Bering Strait and the Canada Basin of the central Arctic Ocean.

US Geological Survey at Flickr

2. The primary driver of ocean acidification is uptake of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere by human activities. The ocean has swallowed our atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions and slowed global warming during the past few critical decades while we dithered in disbelief. But the cost of temporarily delaying even more warming has been the increasing acidification of seawater. The average acidity of surface ocean waters worldwide is now ~30% higher than at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

US Geological Survey at Flickr

3. The Arctic Ocean is especially vulnerable to ocean acidification. Arctic rivers plus melting ice input huge (and increasing) amounts of freshwater into the Arctic Ocean, changing the chemistry and making it less effective at neutralizing CO2's acidifying effects. Add the fact that cold waters slurp up more CO2 from the air. Add the fact that dramatic decreases in Arctic summer sea-ice cover—real and projected—allow for greater transfer of CO2 from the atmosphere into the ocean. These combined influences make Arctic waters among the world's most easily acidified. 

US Geological Survey at Flickr

4. Acidification is not uniform across the Arctic Ocean. Other processes influence the pace and extent of ocean acidification. Rivers, sea-floor sediments, and coastal erosion all supply organic material that bacteria can convert to carbon dioxide, exacerbating ocean acidification, especially on shallow continental shelves. Sea-ice cover, freshwater inputs, and plant growth and decay also influence local ocean acidification. The contributions of these processes vary from place to place, season to season, and year to year. The result is a complex, unevenly distributed, ever-changing mosaic of Arctic acidification states.

5. Arctic marine ecosystems are highly likely to undergo significant change due to ocean acidification. Arctic marine ecosystems are generally characterized by short, simple food webs, where energy is channeled in just a few steps from small plants and animals to large predators like seabirds and seals. The integrity of such a simple structure depends greatly on keystone species. Pteropods (sea butterflies) and echinoderms (sea stars, urchins) are key food-web organisms that may be sensitive to ocean acidification. Too few data are presently available to assess the precise nature and extent of Arctic ecosystem vulnerability, as most biological studies have been undertaken in other ocean regions. Arctic-specific long-term studies are urgently needed.

US Geological Survey at Flickr

6. Ocean acidification will have direct and indirect effects on arctic marine life. Some marine organisms will respond positively to new conditions associated with ocean acidification. Others won't. Experiments show that a wide variety of animals grow more slowly under the acidification levels projected for coming centuries. While some seagrasses appear to thrive under such conditions. Birds and mammals are not likely to be directly affected by acidification but may be indirectly affected if their food sources decline, expand, relocate, or otherwise change in response to ocean acidification. Ocean acidification may alter the extent to which nutrients and essential trace elements in seawater are available to marine organisms. Shell-building Arctic mollusks are likely to be negatively affected by acidification, especially at early life stages. Juvenile and adult fishes are thought likely to cope with acidification levels projected for the next century, but fish eggs and early larval stages may be more sensitive. In general, early life stages are more susceptible to direct effects of ocean acidification than later life stages.

US Geological Survey at Flickr

7. Ocean acidification impacts must be assessed in the context of other changes happening in Arctic waters. Arctic marine organisms are experiencing not only acidification but also other large simultaneous changes: climate change, harvesting, habitat degradation, and pollution. Ecological interactions—e.g. between predators and prey, or among competitors—also play an important role in shaping ocean communities. As different marine life responds to environmental change in different ways, the mix of plants and animals in a community will change, as will their interactions with each other. We don't know much of anything about this yet.

8. Ocean acidification is one of several factors that may contribute to alteration of fish species' composition in the Arctic Ocean. Ocean acidification is likely to affect the abundance, productivity, and distribution of marine species. But the magnitude and direction of change are uncertain. Other processes driving Arctic change include rising temperatures, diminishing sea ice, and freshening surface waters.

9. Ocean acidification may affect Arctic fisheries. Few studies have estimated the socio-economic impacts of ocean acidification on fisheries, and most have focused largely on shellfish and on regions outside the Arctic. The quantity, quality, and predictability of commercially important Arctic fish stocks may be affected by ocean acidification, but the magnitude and direction of change are uncertain. Fish stocks may be more robust to ocean acidification if other stresses—for example, overfishing or habitat degradation—are minimized.

10. Ecosystem changes associated with ocean acidification may affect the livelihoods of Arctic peoples. Marine species harvested by northern coastal communities include species likely to be affected by acidification. Most indigenous groups harvest a range of organisms and may be able to shift to a greater reliance on unaffected species, but these changes would likely exert a cultural toll. Recreational fish catches may change to different species. While marine mammals—important to the culture, diets and livelihoods of Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents—are unlikely to escape changes in the Arctic Ocean food web.

Canada Considers Shipping Tar Sands Oil Across Arctic Ocean

| Wed May 1, 2013 4:32 PM EDT
Canada's possible Arctic Ocean routes to deliver tar sands oil to Europe and Asia, bypassing the troubled Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico.

Canada is considering bypassing the beleaguered Keystone XL pipeline—which would carry oil from tar sands deposits in Alberta to the US and the Gulf of Mexico—by shipping across the Arctic Ocean instead. The proposal is in its infancy, reports the Alaska Dispatch, but is developing as Keystone XL and other proposed pipelines to British Columbia and Quebec remain in limbo.

The Arctic Ocean scenarios would also include a pipeline—north from Alberta's tar sands through (sparsely settled, presumably uncontested) regions along the Mackenzie River Valley and on to the Arctic coastal town of Tuktoyaktuk, from there to be shipped on tankers to Asia or Europe. From the Alaska Dispatch:

Alaska could find itself helplessly watching large tankers loaded with oil and gas pass by its shores. With little spill-response infrastructure in Alaska's Arctic—no deepwater port exists, for instance—the state is sitting vulnerable, [says Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead] Treadwell, a former chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. "If somebody is seriously talking about building an oil pipeline that would put oil on the water to go through Alaska waters," he said, "I believe we would have the time through diplomatic negotiation to be able to meet the challenge."

Not to mention which does Canada really think they'll escape the wrath of Greenpeace—plus a major redirect of anti-Keystone energies—on an Arctic Ocean oil shipping plan?