Blue Marble - August 2013

Looking Down From Space at Shanghai's Awful Heat Island

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the Atlantic Cities website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The heat-island effect that drives concrete cities to temperatures more appropriate to a pizza oven is easy enough to feel. Step outside, get spanked by sweltering air pouring off sidewalks and buildings, which during fierce summers get hot enough to fry pork or even a poor Chinese man who recently passed out on the hot ground and was cooked like "teppanyaki."

But unless you have heat-sensing pit organs on your face, like a snake, it's hard to visualize the feverish dome that covers a city in the summertime. NASA's come up with a fix for that, though, using its Landsat 8 satellite. The orbiting probe is equipped with a thermal-infrared sensor, originally intended to help U.S. water-resource managers keep track of the irrigation of farmland. On August 13, the space agency gave Landsat a different directive: Find out just how intense the heat island is over Shanghai, where 10 people (out of at least 40 countrywide) have perished due to extreme temperatures.

Shanghai and many other Asian cities is slogging through a particularly odious heat wave aggravated by a stubborn high-pressure system over southern China. This past month was the hottest July in a hundred years of records for Shanghai, which had 31 straight days with temperatures above 95, including an unprecedented high on August 7 of 105.4 degrees. Nationally, it's been the hottest summer on the books since 1951. For the first time in Chinese history officials have issued a "level two" emergency response for severe heat, an action normally reserved for major disasters like flooding and typhoons.

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Can Climate Science Be Rendered Conservative-Friendly?

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) at a March 2011 press conference.

This story first appeared on Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

One common criticism of the way climate science has been communicated over the last decade or so is that scientists and advocates have led with a liberal perspective: Here's a big problem that we need to solve with government regulations and mandates. It didn't help that climate change came to prominence via Al Gore, a partisan liberal long loathed on the right.

Such an approach, it is said, was guaranteed to incite opposition on the right. And sure enough: Those who deny the existence, anthropogenity, or severity of climate change are, for the most part, white, male, ideological conservatives. There are a great many exceptions, of course, and a great many gradations and varieties of skepticism, but the majority of overt denialists (or whatever you want to call them, I really don't care) in America share that particular cultural identity.

There's something to this critique—there's no doubt that most of the scientists and advocates speaking out about the issue are left of center—but not as much as critics make out. As I argued the other day, climate was fated to become polarized by forces far larger than the communications strategies of climate hawks.

But it is worth asking: Could climate hawks have made a pitch that appealed to conservatives? Is there such a pitch available today?

It might seem weird even to ask the question. Most people, I've found, just take it for granted that the answer is yes, that there is some message or messenger that can do the trick for any demographic or group, including ideological conservatives.

I'm not so sure. It's not clear to me that what passes for conservatism today could possibly accommodate the real facts on global warming; those facts carry implications that would do considerable violence to the conservative worldview. In a strange way, someone like James Inhofe seems to understand this better than many self-styled centrists and journalists. He knows, in a way they don't always seem to, what it means to accept the science.

7 Adorable Animals Imperiled by the Keystone Pipeline

| Tue Aug. 20, 2013 4:36 PM EDT
Species like the endangered least tern could find their lives disrupted by Keystone XL.

In its deliberations over the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department is taking flak not just from picket-sign-wielding environmentalists, but also from within the ranks of the Obama administration. This spring the EPA slammed an environmental review as "insufficient" and called for major revisions. And yesterday, ThinkProgress uncovered a letter from the Interior Department, dated from April, that outlines the many and varied ways in which the pipeline could wreak havoc to plants and animals (not to mention dinosaurs) along its proposed route. 

The letter calls particular attention to a line in the State Department's most recent environmental impact assessment that claims "the majority of the potential effects to wildlife resources are indirect, short term or negligible, limited in geographic extent, and associated with the construction phase of the proposed Project only."

"This statement is inaccurate and should be revised," states the letter, which is signed by Interior's Director of Environmental Policy and Compliance Willie Taylor. "Given that the project includes not only constructing a pipeline but also related infrastructure…impacts to wildlife are not just related to project construction. Impacts to wildlife from this infrastructure will occur throughout the life of the project."

Which wildlife? The letter raises concerns that potential oil spills, drained water supplies, and bustling construction workers could cause a general disturbance, but identifies the critters below, some of which are endangered, for special attention:

Ross Goose
Ross' geese Wikimedia Commons

The Ross' goose depends on Nebraska's Rainwater basin, which the pipeline would pass through, as a key migratory stopover. A spill in the basin could "severely impact critical habitat," the letter says.

black-footed ferret
Black-footed ferret Wikimedia Commons

Although the letter praises State Department plans to protect these endangered ferrets, it nonetheless raises concerns about the potential for infectious diseases from domestic pets at construction camps and worksites in Montana and South Dakota to spread to this population of 1,000 or less left in the wild.

sandhill crane
Sandhill cranes Wikimedia Commons

Like the Ross' goose, the Sandhill crane depends on Nebraska's Rainwater basin, which, according to the letter, could be severely impacted by an oil spill.

least tern
Least terns Wikimedia Commons

Already endangered, least terns depend for nesting on plot of protected federal land just 40 miles downstream from where the pipeline will cross Nebraska's Niobrara River. Nests could fail, the letter warns, if construction activities cause fluctuations in the river's water level.

piping plover
Piping plover Jerry Goldner/Flickr

Also endangered, the piping plover depend on the same nesting site as the least tern and faces the same threats.

Sprague's pipit
Sprague's pipit Jerry Oldenettel/Flickr

In 2010 the Fish & Wildlife Service found the tiny Sprague's pipit qualified for endangered status, but hasn't yet been able to officially list it because of higher-priority species. But the pipit breeds in Montana's North Valley Grassland, which the pipeline would pass through, raising concerns about impact from a spill.

pallid sturgeon
Pallid sturgeons Wikimedia commons

While not exactly the cutest on this list, pallid sturgeons are also endangered; the letter raises concern that as water is withdrawn from the Platte River during the construction process, the fish and their eggs could suffocate. An assertion by the State Department that no plan is needed to mitigate damage to sturgeons, the letter says, "seems unsupported and requires further documentation."

Watch: How to Talk to Your Republican Dad About Global Warming

| Tue Aug. 20, 2013 11:15 AM EDT

Does your family have certain political topics that just don't get discussed—because they're too divisive? Because bringing them up is guaranteed to ruin Thanksgiving Dinner?

In this talk, Huffington Post reporter and Mother Jones alum Kate Sheppard explains how to get through on one politically explosive topic: global warming. She tells her personal story of finding common ground on climate change with her Republican, farmer dad—and draws broader lessons about how to talk to people who often disagree with you.

This talk is from a live August 15 event held by Climate Desk—in collaboration with thirstDC and the Science Online Climate conference—to showcase new and innovative communication about climate change.

Leaked Report: Scientists Now 95 Percent Certain That Humans Are Causing Global Warming

| Mon Aug. 19, 2013 12:57 PM EDT
One impact of climate change: Melting ice, and rising sea levels.

Even though more than a month remains until an official release, Reuters is now reporting on a leaked draft of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report. The report, the first in six years by the international body, is considered the definitive scientific take on climate change (although it is sometimes faulted for being too conservative, and quickly becomes out of date).

Previous IPCC reports have made news for a variety of reasons. The 2001 report, for instance, declared it "likely" (e.g., a 66 percent probability; explanation here) that most of the observed warming that the planet has seen is caused by humans. The 2007 report upped that assessment to "very likely" (a 90 percent probability); and now, according to Reuters, scientists are giving us a 95 percent confidence in this central conclusion of modern climate research. That appears to be the chief headline that will be emerging from the IPCC this time around.

Another bombshell reportedly contained in the draft: The IPCC will now label the phenomenon of sea level rise "unequivocal" and increase prior estimates of projected sea level during this century.

IPCC reports are, invariably, attacked upon release by climate skeptics, who seek to cast doubt on some or all of the findings. Based on the Reuters report, those seeking a soft underbelly this time will know where to look: The report validates the increasingly popular skeptic claim that the rate of increase in global temperatures has "slowed" since 1998. In other words, temperatures are still going up, just not necessarily as quickly as previously.

The new report, Reuters says, offers only "medium confidence" that scientists understand the reasons for this slowing. Causes cited include the possibility that the oceans are taking up more heat, that volcanic eruptions (which tend to produce cooling) may be providing a partial offset to temperature rise, contributing too cooling, or that the climate itself has a lower "sensitivity" to greenhouse gas emissions than previously proposed. (For an explanation of why skeptics' arguments about the global warming "slowdown" are misleading and should not offer any consolation, see this explainer from Skeptical Science.)

According to Jonathan Lynn, who is head of communications at the IPCC, the organization expects that leaks will occur because report drafts wind up in so many different hands. Lynn cautions that "there's no question that the final report will not be the same as the drafts." Indeed, for the upcoming 15-page "Summary for Policymakers," requested changes are myriad. "We've received about 1,800 comments from governments, which will have to be taken into account in the approval sessions coming up in September," says Lynn.

But will any of that reverse the scientific community's overwhelming conclusion that global warming is human-caused?

Not very likely.

The Solar Industry's New Dirty Secret

| Mon Aug. 19, 2013 12:47 PM EDT

It's no secret that manufacturing solar panels often requires toxic heavy metals, explosive gases, and rare-earth elements that come from shoddy mines in war-torn republics. But here's a surprise: The solar industry is actually getting dirtier in some respects. The latest Solar Scorecard from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), released last week, reports that the industry has slipped on several key environmental metrics, with many solar-panel manufacturers now refusing to provide any information about their manufacturing practices at all.

In terms of market share, only 35 percent of the solar-panel industry responded to this year's SVTC survey, compared to 51 percent last year. According to SVTC, several major solar companies have provided almost no meaningful information about their environmental performance—stats such as the toxicity of their panels, the use of conflict minerals, or the sustainability of their supply chains—through reports to the group or on their websites.

"If they are not providing the information, we have to assume the worst," says SVTC executive director Sheila Davis.

Solar companies that do provide sustainability stats are in some cases scaling back their environmental commitments. This year, Arizona-based First Solar started giving customers in most countries the option of buying its panels without participating in its recycling program, reducing the number of solar companies with mandatory recycling programs in the United States to zero. Also, fewer companies this year told SVTC that they would commit to supporting a program to take back and recycle their used solar panels.

Davis blames the poor scores on a global glut of photovoltaic (PV) panels. Huge Chinese subsidies for solar companies have driven down global PV prices (and helped boost sales) but have forced many companies to cut costs. Some major European- and American-based manufacturers (and a few Chinese ones) that abide by strict environmental standards have lost market share or gone out of business and stopped responding to the surveys. 

The environmental opacity of the PV industry stands in ironic contrast to that of the PC industry, which, after years of pressure from SVTC and other groups, now routinely discloses a wide range of information about the environmental lifecycle of its products.

"My gut feeling is that solar companies need pressure just like the electronics industry does," Davis says. "They are not going to rise to the top on their own."

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Exploding Oil Sparks Concerns From Railway and Pipeline Companies

| Wed Aug. 14, 2013 3:26 PM EDT

Crude oil really isn't supposed to explode. But according to a Tuesday article in Bloomberg on the investigation of the July 6 train accident in Quebec that killed 47 people, that might not be true of the oil coming from North Dakota's booming Bakken region. And three major oil companies have won the right to turn down suspect shipments. 

The cases bring together three major trends for the American energy industry: the rapid growth of the oil sands in Alberta and the oil fields of North Dakota, the dizzying increase in the amount of oil being shipped by rail (as pipeline capacities currently fall far short of being able to handle the volume of oil flowing through the states), and the introduction of unexpected variables as oil companies use new and intensive methods of extraction.

According to Bloomberg, Enbridge Inc., Tesoro Corp., and True companies all won the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to refuse oil that had high levels of hydrogen sulfide, a highly flammable gas that can be a byproduct of oil production, after they started seeing oil with concentrations tens and even hundreds of times higher than what regulators have deemed safe for exposure. The danger of these elevated levels of gas in the oil was thrown into stark relief on July 6, when an unmanned, runaway train crashed carrying 72 cars of oil. Five of them exploded, killing 47.

Bloomberg writes:

"The fact that there were explosions, and crude oil is not supposed to explode, raises a lot of suspicions as to whether there were other chemicals and so on added to oil in the process before the shipment," Edward Burkhardt, chief executive officer of Rail World Inc., which owns the Montreal and Maine railway, said in an interview.

While derailments of trains hauling crude can create environmental messes, oil doesn’t usually ignite unless exposed to extreme heat, said Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental policy at the University of Colorado in Denver. Gasoline, refined from crude oil, is more more volatile.

"Crude oil doesn’t usually explode and burn with the ferocity that this train did," Burton said.

But the preponderance of flammable gas is only part of the story. The companies also raised concerns, separately, that chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, like hydrochloric acid, was also finding its way into the mix, corroding the insides of the rail cars and compromising their integrity. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, injects high volumes of water, sand, and chemicals into shale formations to create fissures and release trapped oil and gas, and is how much of North Dakota's oil is produced.  

All of this is made more important because of how much oil is moving by rail. North Dakota, now the second biggest oil producer in the states, has seen a fivefold increase in its output since 2008, with production rising to 790,000 barrels per day this year, and 75 percent of that is shipped by rail. The combination of North Dakota's boom and spiking production in Alberta's tar sands has contributed to a 48-percent uptick in oil moved by rail since this time last year. And the rate has roughly doubled since 2011, according to the US Energy Information Agency. Bakken alone saw more than a tenfold increase in oil shipped by rail between 2010 and 2012, and plans were just announced for a rail oil terminal in Western Canada—where the embroiled Keystone XL would originate—that would almost rival the besieged pipeline's capacity of 850,000 barrels per day. 

As long as pipelines lag behind the industry's demand, oil will be riding the rails, no matter what the risk. 

 

Clouds of Wildfire Smoke Are Choking Southern Oregon

| Fri Aug. 9, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the Atlantic Cities website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

How intense are the wildfires blazing in Oregon and California? Let's answer that question with a photo, snapped in late July by Marvin Vetter of the Oregon Department of Forestry, showing a dang-blasted "firenado" swirling above a sea of burning trees:

Lava

This example of "extreme fire behavior" (to use the forestry department's words) went down in the Douglas Complex wildfire, one of several conflagrations turning conifers to cinders in southern Oregon. The intensity of fires in this sector of the country, which is locked in a stubborn drought, is strong enough that nearby towns and cities are getting covered with big, lung-painting plumes of ashy air.

On Tuesday evening, the state's environmental department noted that the area around Medford (metropolitan population: 207,000) had an "unhealthy" air quality index of 151, meaning that anybody outdoors could incur "serious health effects," according to Oregon Smoke. (That includes bees, for the honey-industry experts reading.) The cities of Klamath Falls and Bend enjoyed "moderate" pollution, and a several hours' drive northward, Portland residents could breathe easy with "good" air quality.

Buried in Muck, Clues to Future NYC Drought

| Fri Aug. 9, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Climatologist Dorothy Peteet is combing through New York-area marshes for clues to future drought.

Piermont Marsh seems an unlikely place to learn about drought. This warren of narrow streams and muddy, reed-choked embankments clinging to the edge of the Hudson River twenty miles north of Times Square is the domain of crabs, worms, herons, and other water-loving creatures. But as Columbia University climatologist Dorothy Peteet paddles a narrow aluminum canoe deep into the marsh, she insists that buried deep in this black, sulphur-stinking muck are clues that could reveal when, and how badly, the nation's largest city will next be struck by crippling drought.

Here, she says, "we can get these climate records that we can't get anywhere else."

Some climate researchers tap ancient air bubbles trapped in Arctic ice to read long-lost atmospheres; some slice open stalagmites in tropical caves to measure 100,000-year-old rainfall. Peteet is on the hunt for pollen. She dredges up mud from as deep as 45 feet underground and hauls it back to her lab at the nearby Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. There she boils, bakes, and filters it to sift out pollen, not much thicker than a human hair, from plants several thousand years old. The relative abundance and variety of different species indicate climate conditions at the time the pollen was dropped: An uptick of dry-weather species like hickory and pine points to drought.

Dorothy with sample
Pollen, and seeds like these, could shed light on how future droughts will impact New York City. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk

Keystone Light: The Keystone XL Alternative You've Never Heard of Is Probably Going to Be Built

| Wed Aug. 7, 2013 11:33 AM EDT

Last week, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, hit another snag: The State Department's Office of the Inspector General said that it is investigating a possible conflict-of-interest issue in the project's environmental impact study. The inspector general is probing whether the company that produced the environmental impact study, Environmental Resource Management (ERM), failed to disclose its past working relationship with TransCanada, the company building the pipeline.* But while Keystone XL languishes, a rival pipeline plan is speeding through the approval process.

One of TransCanada's rivals, Enbridge Inc., has quietly been moving ahead with a slightly smaller pipeline project that could be piping 660,000 barrels of crude per day to the gulf by 2015. (The Keystone line would carry 830,000 barrels per day.) For environmentalists hoping that blocking the Keystone pipeline would choke the carbon-intensive development of the Canadian tar sands, the Enbridge Eastern Gulf pipeline would be a disaster.

The 774-mile pipeline would run from Patoka, Illinois, to St. James, Louisiana, alleviating a pipeline bottleneck in the Midwest, where the shale oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation meets the flow from Alberta's oil sands, overwhelming the capacity of the current pipelines. And although 200 miles of pipe destined for Keystone XL sits collecting dust in North Dakota with no shipping date in sight, the bulk of the Eastern Gulf project is already built—almost three quarters of it will be repurposed natural gas line. Without the public outcry that has bogged down Keystone, the project has flown along smoothly under the radar.

There's reason to be concerned: Enbridge was behind the largest overland pipeline spill in US history. In 2010 an Enbridge pipeline loosed more than 1.1 million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River and its surrounding wetlands. The spill is still being cleaned up, with the bill rising to over $1 billion, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there may be as much as 100,000 gallons of oil still lingering on the bottom of the river.

The Eastern Gulf line is only one piece of a larger plan. As Inside Climate News reported earlier this summer, Enbridge is building a 5,000-mile network of pipelines that would far overshadow the potential impact of the Keystone line. And TransCanada has new plans in the works in case President Obama blocks the Keystone project. Earlier this month, the company announced its plan for a new venture that would link eastern and western Canada, providing an outlet for Alberta's booming oil sands producers. And the Canadian ambassador to the United States has vowed to ship crude to US refineries on trains if the pipelines aren't approved.

The recent news about the latest hitches for the Keystone XL pipeline may have cheered its opponents. But they're going to have to start thinking a lot bigger if they want to block further tar sands oil development entirely.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the company Environmental Resource Management as "Energy Resource Management." We regret the error.