Blue Marble - November 2013

Why Climate Change Skeptics and Evolution Deniers Joined Forces

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Are religion and end times thinking now wrapped up with the denial of global warming?

All across the country—most recently, in the state of Texas—local battles over the teaching of evolution are taking on a new complexion. More and more, it isn't just evolution under attack, it's also the teaching of climate science. The National Center for Science Education, the leading group defending the teaching of evolution across the country, has even broadened its portfolio: Now, it protects climate education too.

How did these issues get wrapped up together? On its face, there isn't a clear reason—other than a marriage of convenience—why attacks on evolution and attacks on climate change ought to travel side by side. After all, we know why people deny evolution: Religion, especially the fundamentalist kind. And we know why people deny global warming: Free market ideology and libertarianism. These are not, last I checked, the same thing. (If anything, libertarians may be the most religiously skeptical group on the political right.)

And yet clearly there's a relationship between the two issue stances. If you're in doubt, watch this Climate Desk video of a number of members of Congress citing religion in the context of questioning global warming:

Indeed, recent research suggests that Christian "end times" believers are less likely to see a need for action on global warming.

And now new research by Yale's Dan Kahan further reaffirms that there's something going on here. More specifically, Kahan showed that there is a correlation (.25, which is weak to modest, but significant) between a person's religiosity and his or her tendency to think that global warming isn't much of a risk. Perhaps even more tellingly, Kahan also found that among highly religious individuals, as their ability to comprehend science increases, so does their denial of the risk posed by global warming. Here's some data he presented:

Among the highly religious, more science comprehension leads to less concern about global warming.
Among the highly religious, more science comprehension translates into less concern about global warming. Dan Kahan

"I have to say, those effects are bigger than I would have expected," wrote Kahan of his findings. The researcher went on to say that he isn't sure why greater religiosity predicts greater denial of climate change. But in his data—with a representative sample of over 2,000 Americans—it clearly does.

There are two major possibilities. And there is probably some truth to both of them.

There is the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" theory. In other words, anti-evolutionists and climate deniers were both getting dumped on so much by the scientific community that they sort of naturally joined forces. And that makes sense: We know that in general, people gather their issue stances in bunches, because those stances travel together in a group (often under the aegis of a political party).

But there's also the "declining trust in science" theory, according to which political conservatives have, in general, become distrustful of the scientific community (we have data showing this is the case), and this has infected how they think about several different politicized scientific issues. And who knows: Perhaps the distrust started with the evolution issue. It is easy to imagine how a Christian conservative who thinks liberal scientists are full of it on evolution would naturally distrust said scientists on other issues as well.

Further research will no doubt unravel what's going on here. In the meantime, we can simply observe: In the political science wars that have wracked America for well over a decade, both sides are consolidating their forces.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

WATCH: How a Canadian Town Is Teaching Polar Bears to Fear Humans in Order to Save Them

Mon Nov. 25, 2013 5:51 PM EST

Churchill in northern Manitoba bills itself as the the polar bear capital of the world and its tourism-based economy depends on it. But as climate change forces the polar bears inland in search of food, attacks on humans are increasing. Can this small community continue to co-exist with the world's largest land predator? Suzanne Goldenberg reports from Churchill where its bear alert program uses guns, helicopters and a polar bear jail to manage the creatures.

This trip was supported by Explore.org, Polar Bears International, and Frontiers North

4 Climate Policies We're Thankful For

| Mon Nov. 25, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Hang in there, buddy.

Unless it's immediately proceeded by the word "no," the phrase "good news" rarely appears these days in stories about climate change. But in a year in which we found out that our oceans may rise this century by as much as three feet and that atmospheric carbon dioxide is higher than it has been in nearly a million years, there were still some bright spots. And in preparation for Thanksgiving, we've compiled a list of four environmental developments for which you can give thanks. You can see even more on Twitter by searching the hashtag #ClimateThanks.

1. The US and the World Bank will avoid financing coal-fired power plants abroad.

Burning coal is among the dirtiest ways to produce energy and quickest ways to accelerate climate change. So this July, when the World Bank announced that it would limit funding for new coal-burning plants to "rare circumstances" where countries have "no feasible alternatives," green advocates were thrilled. At the same time, the global development giant also reversed its opposition to hydroelectric power, which many environmental activists had pushed as an alternative to cheap energy from coal. Last month, based on an announcement President Obama made in June, the United States Treasury Department also ceased financing any new coal projects abroad except in cases where coal was the only viable option for bringing power to poor regions. The US and World Bank decisions only affect coal projects that use public financing; around the world, many are built with private money. But a Treasury official told the New York Times that the Obama administration felt "that if public financing points the way, it will then facilitate private investment."

2. The White House will push carbon limits for new and existing power plants.

Natural gas and coal-fired power plants are responsible for 40 percent of the United States' carbon emissions and one-third of its greenhouse gas emissions. The country can't address climate change without regulating this sector of the economy. In his June speech at Georgetown University, President Obama announced that for the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency will propose rules to cap carbon emissions from existing power plants. His administration also pushed forward a rule to limit pollution from new power plants, which had stalled last year. If the EPA finalizes the rule and it's upheld in court, it would limit new coal-fired plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour—the average coal power plant releases 1,800 pounds—and new gas power plants to 1,000 pounds. Obama said the rules were necessary for the US to meet its pledge to bring greenhouse gas emissions down by 17 percent—or below 2005 levels—by the year 2020.

Explained in 90 Seconds: Breaking the Carbon Budget

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 7:00 AM EST

As we reported this week, some of the world's richest nations are lagging behind on their climate protection pledges. Most often, these commitments follow the formula: "We aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions X percent below year Y levels by year Z." It seems like a straightforward proposition, but have you ever wondered where those numbers come from? The answer is a scientific concept known as the carbon budget, and like a teenager with her first credit card, we're well on our way to blowing right through it.

In the video above, Kelly Levin, a climate policy expert at the World Resources Institute, explains what our carbon budget is, how much we've already "spent," and why it matters.

Back in 2009, delegates to the UN climate summit in Copenhagen agreed that in order to avoid the worst potential impacts of climate change, global temperature rise should be limited to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. For their report this fall, scientists on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change looked at how emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have warmed the planet since the Industrial Revolution, and extrapolated how much more we could emit before breaking the Copenhagen limit, the same way you might draft a budget to keep your checking account balance above zero.

CHART: These Members of Congress Are Bankrolled by the Fracking Industry

| Wed Nov. 20, 2013 5:19 PM EST

The growing fracking industry is "yielding gushers" of campaign donations for congressional candidates—particularly Republicans from districts with fracking activity—according to a new report from the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The report, "Natural Cash: How the Fracking Industry Fuels Congress," examines data compiled by MapLight covering a period spanning from 2004 to 2012. In that time, CREW finds, contributions from companies that operate hydraulic fracturing wells and fracking-related industry groups rose 180 percent, from $4.3 million nine years ago to about $12 million in the last election cycle.

These donations are flowing to members of Congress at a time when some legislators are trying to increase regulation of fracking, a process in which drillers inject a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the bedrock to release oil and natural gas reserves. The most serious of these legislative efforts is the FRAC Act. First introduced in 2009, the act would require EPA regulation of the industry and would force fracking companies to disclose the chemicals that they inject under high pressure into the ground. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill are stalled in committee.

US Ranks 43rd in the World on Climate Policy (and Canada is Even Worse)

| Wed Nov. 20, 2013 7:00 AM EST
North America's climate policy laggards: Canada and the US rank 58th and 43rd in the world, respectively.

Recently, there's been some good news when it comes to US greenhouse gas emissions: They're actually going down. The bad news, though, is that despite this progress, we still only rank 43rd in the world for the overall effectiveness of our climate policies.

 
 

That's the upshot of a new report by the Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch, a public policy think tank with offices in Bonn and Berlin. The two groups release an annual Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) to assess how much individual countries are contributing to the global carbon problem, and how much they're trying to do about it. The rankings include the globe's 58 leading countries for greenhouse gas emissions—countries that, together, account for 90 percent of the globe's carbon emissions from fossil energy use. Each country is assessed based its emissions trends, its energy efficiency, its progress on renewable energy, and its overall climate policies.

The US ranked 43rd last year and ranks 43rd this year as well, right between New Zealand and Croatia. We get particularly good marks for our 8-percent decrease in carbon emissions from energy sources in the last half decade, but we still fall well short of a stance that could be considered truly progressive or proactive on climate and energy. Still, if we want to gloat then it's easy to compare ourselves to our northern neighbor, Canada, which was "the worst performer of all industrialised countries" and only fared better than Iran, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia. (For more on Canada's recent dismal climate performance see here.)

Here are the Climate Change Performance Index rankings for the top ten biggest emitters (most of which have declined in rank since last year):

CCPI ranking and data for the ten largest greenhouse gas emitting countries.
CCPI ranking and data for the ten largest greenhouse gas emitting countries. CAN Europe/Germanwatch

Based on the new report, here are some other surprising and intriguing facts about the nations of the world and how they're performing in the uphill battle to save the globe from humans and their energy habits:

* Europe is one of the best performing regions overall, but there's wide variability, especially among countries hit hard by the Eurozone debt crisis. On the one hand, bailed-out Portugal ranks sixth in the world on the CCPI index, suggesting economic hardship does not necessarily entail regression on climate policy. But on the other hand, bailed-out Greece ranks 47th, having "almost totally abandoned all climate policies" in the wake of its economic crisis.

* Morocco is a surprising success story, ranking 15th overall thanks to its "national solar plan" as well as a "national action plan against global warming."

* Industrialized countries in the Pacific region have a lot to answer for. Japan slipped to 50th overall from 44th last year. Korea dropped to 53rd from 50th. And Australia plummeted to 57th thanks to its recent change in government.

* Large developing nations (the BRICs) are also lagging. India declined to 30th and Brazil slipped to 36th. Perhaps most important for the planet, China climbed to 46th in the rankings, a turnaround due to the fact that its dramatic rate of emissions growth is slowing somewhat, even as renewable energy investment continues apace. The Russian Federation is the worst of the BRICs, coming in at 56th.

Overall, there isn't a ton of good news around the world this year when it comes to climate policy. No wonder, then, that the CCPI doesn't put any country in positions 1, 2, or 3 of its rankings, noting that "no country is doing enough to prevent dangerous climate change."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

3 Countries That Are Bailing on Climate Action

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 3:11 PM EST
James West/Climate Desk

When Japan dramatically slashed its plans last week for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, from 25 percent to just 3.8 percent compared to 2005 figures, the international reaction was swift and damning.

Britain called it "deeply disappointing." China's climate negotiator, Su Wei, said, "I have no way of describing my dismay." The Alliance of Small Island Nations, which represents islands most at risk of sea level rise, branded the move "a huge step backwards."

The decision was based on the fact that Japan's 50 nuclear reactors—which had provided about 30 percent of the country's electricity—are currently shuttered for safety checks after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, despite the government trying to bring some of them back online. That nuclear energy is largely being replaced by fossil fuels.

Japan's announcement has cast a shadow on this week's climate negotiations in Warsaw. Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics and a former lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, described the mood as "a downward spiral of ambition" which is "undermining confidence in the process and the ability to move forward."

Elliot Diringer, the executive vice president of the DC-based think tank Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, says NGOs and policymakers are feeling frustrated: "There was a great deal of sympathy for Japan in the aftermath of Fukushima," he says. "And that's now converted to disappointment."

But Japan isn't the only industrialized country at Warsaw walking away from previously stated climate goals and attracting criticism for throwing a spanner in the works, an issue also explored here in Grist. Australia and Canada are emerging as strong opponents of more aggressive climate action and are likely to come up short on their commitments to reduce their emissions.


Australia Guts Carbon Policy

Sweeping to power on a carbon tax backlash in September this year, Australia's new prime minister, Tony Abbott, has wasted no time in shifting the country's policy course—and rhetoric—on climate action.

The conservative government is dismantling the country's market-based carbon pricing laws in the parliament as a matter of first priority, and replacing it with its own system, "Direct Action," a $3 billion plan to fund projects that it says will help lower emissions. The problem is not many people believe it will work. Analysis by Climate Action Tracker, which assesses reduction programs around the world, shows that rather than cutting greenhouse gases by the promised 5 percent, the policy will actually increase emissions by 2020 by 12 percent compared to 2000 levels. Independent modeling shows that even if the government stuck to its 5 percent pledge, it couldn't be met without coughing up an additional $3.7 billion.

Australia's new policies are "registering shock," in Warsaw, says Hare, who also helps run Climate Action Tracker. "It's being met with disbelief."

At the Warsaw talks, Australia is contributing "to a sense that there's some unfortunate backsliding among some countries," Direnger says.

Abbott asserted last week that the goal will be met, but he added that no further money would be spent on the program if it wasn't: "We will achieve it with the Direct Action policy as we've announced it and that policy: It's costed, it's funded, and it's capped," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Australian Conservation Foundation accused the government of abandoning its promise to scale its original pledge up to 25 percent if there's stronger global climate action, calling Abbott a "deal wrecker." The opposition Labor party said the government was allowing "big polluters open slather in the future."

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott attends the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, Sir Lanka. Li Peng/Xinhua/ZUMA

A flurry of other developments Downunder have helped to cement the new government's stance at home and abroad:

  • There are plans to kill three key organs of the previous government's climate policy entirely: the independent Climate Commission, the Climate Change Authority, and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
  • The budget for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency will be slashed by $435 million over the next three years
  • For the first time since the 1997 Kyoto agreement, Australia declined to send its environment minister, Greg Hunt, to this week's international climate talks talks, saying the business of repealing the carbon legislation in the first two weeks of parliament was too important.
     

Canada Unlikely to Meet Its Own Targets

Australia is among the developed world's worst polluters in terms of of CO2 per capita. But Canada is not far behind its Commonwealth compatriot. Lately, they seem to be enjoying each other's company.

This week, both conservative governments opposed a push at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to establish a green capital fund for small island states and poor African countries to address climate change. Canada recently praised Australia's decision to repeal its carbon tax: "The Australian prime minister's decision will be noticed around the world and sends an important message." 

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper. James Park/Xinhua/ZUMA

When Canada signed the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, the country committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (bringing it in line with US goals). But last month, the Harper government admitted it's going to blow past that target by a wide margin. Environment Canada, the federal ministry that looks after climate policy, issued a report that said that without new government action, the country's emissions will be 20 percent (or 122 megatons) higher than the country committed to at Copenhagen. This amount is barely below 2005 figures.

It's this trajectory that, in part, led the Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch to list Canada as the worst performing country among all industrialized nations in their annual performance index—unchanged from last year's ranking: "Canada still shows no intention of moving forward with climate policy and therefore remains the worst performer," the report states. (In December 2011, Canada was the first country to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol).

Reading the tea leaves doesn't inspire much optimism: All of this is happening against the background of expanding tar sands development. The report from Environment Canada predicts that without a change in policy, CO2-equivalent emissions from oil sands are projected to increase by nearly 200 percent by 2020 over 2005 levels. And on tar sands, the Harper government shows no sign shifting policy direction.

The combined effect has an "ultimately corrosive effect on the ability to secure a strong international agreement if the major players aren't playing," Hare says.

Obama Administration Pisses Off Ethanol Industry, Pleases Both Oil Industry and Environmentalists

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 7:26 PM EST

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

Here's a riddle: When is the oil industry on the right side of a public policy fight? I know what you're thinking: "Never." But actually there is a potential exception: when their adversary is an equally selfish industrial complex.

On Friday, the EPA proposed to reduce the amount of biofuel required to be blended into gasoline to 15.2 billion gallons in 2014. That's down from 16.55 billion gallons this year, and it is 14 percent lower than the goal Congress laid out in its 2007 expansion of the Renewable Fuel Standard program.

Powerful Midwestern agribusiness interests are not happy. But the oil industry is pleased—and so are environmentalists.

The EPA's decision is a byproduct of good news: Americans are using less gasoline. If gas consumption were rising, it wouldn't be hard to keep increasing the total amount of biofuels blended into the gas supply. But it turns out that U.S. gasoline consumption began a downward trend in 2007, thanks to shifts toward urban living, telecommuting, mass transit use, biking, and more efficient cars. So to keep up with rising biofuel requirements, refiners have had to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline. It's currently at about 10 percent, which is considered by many to be the safe upper limit, or the “blend wall." If the percentage goes any higher, it could damage cars currently on the road. The EPA disputes that, but car companies say their warranties won't cover cars that use gasoline with 15 percent ethanol. Oil companies have been whining about the impracticality of the biofuel mandate and requesting relief.

The beneficiaries of the mandate are ethanol producers and corn growers, as corn ethanol is by far the most prevalent biofuel produced in the U.S. They benefit from consumers being forced to buy their product, especially since the inflated demand for corn drives up prices. So they are complaining about the EPA's decision, attacking it as a setback for the environment and the renewable fuels industry. Here's a typical quote, via Politico:

"EPA is proposing to place the nation's renewable energy policy in the hands of the oil companies," said Bob Dinneen, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, a major ethanol industry group. "That would be the death of innovation and evolution in our motor fuel markets, thus increasing consumer costs at the pump and the environmental cost of energy production."

But don't be fooled—there is nothing green about corn except the stalks. Corn-based ethanol is not reducing our carbon footprint. As Alex Rindler, policy associate at the Environmental Working Group, noted in a recent blog post, "An Environmental Protection Agency analysis showed that lifecycle [greenhouse gas] emissions from corn ethanol in 2012 were higher than from gasoline—and will be for years to come."

Also, when you increase the price of corn, you cause farmers to fill in wetlands, cut down trees, and plant in sensitive areas. Sure enough, as the Associated Press reported last week, we are losing carbon sinks and increasing dangerous fertilizer runoff because of the ethanol mandate. The results are more net carbon emissions, more localized pollution, and more contamination of our waters. From the AP:

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies…

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation—more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined—have vanished on Obama's watch…

Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can't survive…

The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy.

Conservative organizations, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank, are praising the EPA's decision while complaining that it does not go far enough. They would like to see the ethanol mandate eliminated altogether.

And they are right. The Renewable Fuel Standard is an example of good intentions gone awry. The American government already incentivizes environmentally irresponsible industrial agriculture through farm subsidies. We don't need yet another program that distorts the free market, transfers wealth from everyday Americans to a handful of big corn growers, and contributes to land degradation, water pollution, and climate change.

Even if ethanol were marginally better for the environment than conventional gasoline, the ethanol mandate is based on a false premise. Better gasoline is not the solution to reducing CO2 emissions. Driving less, and driving more efficient cars, is the way forward. And Americans are already doing it. Instead of creating competing subsidies to undo the damage caused by our subsidies for gasoline and driving, we need to make cars pay their own social cost and put different transportation modes on an even playing field. That would be achieved through eliminating subsidies for oil in the tax code, raising taxes on gasoline consumption, and shifting transportation infrastructure investment toward biking, walking, and mass transit.

Conservatives and the oil industry will fight those reforms with all their considerable political power. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and conservatives are right about corn-based ethanol.

Natural Disasters Have Cost $3.8 Trillion Since 1980, World Bank Says

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 3:17 PM EST
Children stand amidst the rubble of Cebu, Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan.

Aid agencies are still digging through rubble in the Philippines in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which was just one of many record-smashing oceanic storms to spring up in the last decade. Insurance adjusters have already pegged Haiyan's price tag alone—counting damage to homes, businesses, and farms—at $14.5 billion. Today, as politicians and policy wonks dive into a second week of UN climate talks in Warsaw, the Philippines' lead delegate has called for developed nations whose industrial emissions drive climate change to foot the bill for disasters like this. It could be one hell of a bill: Natural disasters altogether have cost the world $3.8 trillion since 1980, according to a new report from the World Bank.

Using data from Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance (insurance for insurers) agency, World Bank analysts found that 74 percent of that cost arose from weather-related disasters like hurricanes and droughts. They also found, as the chart below shows, that annual costs are on the rise, from around $50 billion a year in the 1980s to $200 billion a year today, thanks to a rising number of disasters and growing economic development:

cost of natural disasters
World Bank

Feds: Exxon Ignored Safety Risks in Lead-up to 210,000 Gallon Oil Spill

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 9:44 AM EST

Federal regulators investigating a crude oil spill in Arkansas have concluded that in the years before the accident, pipeline owner ExxonMobil dragged its feet on critical repairs and inspections, ignored evidence that the pipeline was disposed to failure, and cherry-picked data to downplay the risk of an accident.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency that summarized these findings in a 12-page letter to Exxon last week, proposed fining the company $2.66 million for the spill, which coated an Arkansas neighborhood in some 210,000 gallons of crude oil this March. PHMSA ordered Exxon to rewrite its emergency plan for safeguarding the pipeline, called Pegasus, which spans from Illinois to Texas, from future spills.

Exxon has 30 days to pay or contest the fine. Inside Climate News, which posted PHMSA's letter online, reports that Exxon has not officially responded to PHMSA. Exxon released a statement to the press saying that regulators "made some fundamental errors" in their assessment of the disaster.