Blue Marble

We Fact Checked Aaron Sorkin's Climate Science on "The Newsroom"

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 12:29 PM EST

I watch too much TV drama, so I can say this with a degree of certainty: It's rare that climate change comes up. (Television news programs also contain "tepid" coverage, in general, according to watchdog group Media Matters). That's why it was so weird/exciting for this climate reporter when global warming received its very own subplot on Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama The Newsroom over the last two episodes.

First, a little context: Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) is the show's once daffy news producer whose role this season seems exclusively designed to reverse earlier charges of sexism against Sorkin. She's now good at her job! During a convoluted scene on a train from Boston to New York, Maggie overhears and records a top EPA official talking shit on the phone about President Obama to another journalist, off-the-record. Even though that agreement of confidentiality doesn't extend to the other Amtrak passengers, she eventually tells the official she won't use his juicy Obama-dissing quotes. So impressed by her ethics, the official, Richard Westbrook (Paul Lieberstein), rewards her with a scoop: an embargoed EPA report. WHOA! WHAT A SCOOOOOP! (For the uninitiated, while a heads-up about a study is great to get a jump on your competition, reports are circulated and embargoed all the time). Anyway... Maggie also gets an exclusive interview with the official, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA (WHAT A GET!) and in the most recent episode, she produces a segment for host Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) about the report's dire warnings.

The scene is odd for a number of reasons. The Newsroom packages its drama based on last year's events, and at that time, the news that the world was approaching 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been publicly anticipated for weeks. So, not a scoop in any way, or anything that anyone following the science didn't already know.

But putting that aside, let's take a look at Sorkin's "facts", as presented in the episode. How do they measure up? Let's go line-by-line through the scene above.

 

In the weird parallel universe of The Newsroom, I'm not sure when these "latest measurements" were meant to have been taken. But he's right. We covered this at the time: The world passed that 400 ppm threshold for the first meaningful way in May 2013, when the daily mean concentration of carbon dioxide was higher than at any time in human history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The measurements are indeed taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii; you can follow what's known as the "Keeling Curve"—a measurement of atmospheric concentration of CO2—on Twitter, naturally, thanks to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

 

Depends what you're defining as catastrophic failure, I suppose.  Say you were born last year, when I assume this episode was meant to be set. If we follow along current emissions trends, the planet will be 3.96°F-8.64°F (2.2°C–4.8°C) hotter than preindustrial times by your retirement. (You can type your birth year into this cool interactive, driven by data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to check how hot it will be when you're old). That's above temperatures recommended to be in the supposedly "safe" zone by the IPCC, and could definitely result in a variety of "catastrophes" and "failures". As deaths increase due to things like extreme weather, droughts and wildfires, this statement seems true enough when applied to individual episodes of calamity, which will surely increase. (The number of annual deaths in the UK due to heat, for example, is predicted to rise by 257 per cent by 2050.) The EPA official is right, in one sense. But it's also arguable that deaths are already and will continue to be linked to climate change events. The line in the script infers the failure of the planet as a whole, which I think is artful flourish to illustrate just how glum this fellow is feeling.

 

Yup. That's what the science says. The last time the atmosphere clocked 400 ppm it was 3 million years ago—the "Mid-Pliocene"—when sea levels were as much as 80 feet higher than today (see this 2007 research paper authored by a group led by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University.) I'd probably add an "around" or "about" before the "80 feet higher" in the above statement; the studies leave a margin of error. But this statement checks out.

 

His point is sound, but I'd like to see the writers' sourcing—these numbers seem to date to around the late 1990s. According to a more recent 2011 NOAA report, 55 percent of the world's population lives within 50 miles of the coast. The UN has a slightly different number: Over 40 percent of the world's population, or 3.1 billion, lives within 60 miles of the "ocean or sea in about 150 coastal and island nations." In the US, 39 percent of the nation's population lived in counties directly on the shoreline in 2010.

 

That seems right.

 

There's consensus amongst 97 percent of climate scientists that global warming is happening and that's it's a manmade disaster. And I've heard climate scientists use this analogy before. (For what it's worth, there are other things that can influence the boiling point of water, including altitude.)

 

He's talking about the "carbon budget", and again this is sound, despite Newsman Will's growing anguish at a pretty devastating interview. The 565 gigaton number was popularized by Bill McKibben in a 2012 Rolling Stone article that Newsroom writers seem to have read. The number is "derived from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades" (done by financial analysis firm Carbon Tracker) and is what we can add into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have a reasonable chance of success of staying below that safe two degrees warming threshold. Our grumpy scientist is so despondent because, yes, 2,795 is the number of gigatons of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves in the hands of fossil-fuel companies and petrostates. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn, writes McKibben. Carbon Tracker says 80 percent of these assets need to remain unburned.

 

All of these things are predicted by the IPCC—I mean, not the permanent darkness thing, I don't think that's meant to be scientific. But yes, as we reported in May this year, Europe faces freshwater shortages; Asia can expect more severe flooding from extreme storms; North America will see increased heat waves and wildfires, which can cause death and damage to ecosystems and property. Especially in poor countries, diminished crop yields will likely lead to increased malnutrition, which already affects nearly 900 million people worldwide.

So, in all, well done Newsroom. Informative, accurate, if a little heavy-handed on the doom and gloom.

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Video: A Drone Shoots Hauntingly Beautiful Footage of Buffalo's Snowstorm

| Thu Nov. 20, 2014 5:02 PM EST
James Grimaldi/YouTube

Flying personal camera-equipped drones directly over big events like the Hong Kong protests and Independence Day fireworks is becoming commonplace. Now come these amazing aerial images of Buffalo, New York, besieged by snow for the third day in a row. The Buffalo area was coated with up to six feet of snow on Wednesday and there's been even more today. The eighth storm-related death was annouced this morning.

When the storm first set in, James Grimaldi of West Seneca, New York, sent his drone into the blizzard to film a bizarre world drained of color, and uploaded the stunning results to his YouTube channel. (Grimaldi has also posted his drone videos to his CNN's iReport page.)

Grimaldi's second-day video reveals the vast extent of the snow, the result of a massive "lake-effect snowfall event". The houses now look like giant mushrooms:

And finally, posted today, a new storm bearing down on Grimaldi's suburb:

This weekend's forecasted rain won't help recovery efforts. "We're going to have a lot of water running off quickly," the Weather Channel's Wayne Verno told NBC News. "We'll more than likely see some flooding."

We Just Had the Hottest October on Record

| Thu Nov. 20, 2014 12:29 PM EST
october map
NOAA

It's cold outside, which means it'll soon be time for the annual rousing chorus of climate change denial from people who think snow means global warming is fake.

Good thing NOAA is here to help. Today the agency released two new maps illustrating that even if you're cold right now, the planet is still getting hotter. In fact, 2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record.

The map above shows where global temperatures for the month of October stood relative to the 20th century average. Overall, this was the warmest October since record-keeping began in 1880.

And it's not just October that was remarkably warm. The entire year so far, since January, has also been the warmest on record—a good 1.22 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. If the trend persists, 2014 will beat out 2010 as the hottest year on record:

year map
NOAA

Watch a Wall of Snow Consume Buffalo, N.Y.

| Wed Nov. 19, 2014 12:59 PM EST

Today it is literally freezing in every state in America. But no where has been hit harder than Buffalo, New York, which yesterday got buried under 70 inches of snow. Yeah, seven-zero, as in nearly six feet. At least six people there have died, and one hundred are still trapped.

The video below, from Buffalo-based producer Joseph DeBenedictis, shows yesterday's apocalyptic storm sweeping across the city. The insane snowfall was brought on by something called the "lake effect," which could grow more severe with global warming—our friend Eric Holthaus at Slate has the details on that.

BREAKING: The Senate Just Voted Not to Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 3:19 PM EST
President Obama walks between sections of pipeline destined for the southern stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline.

UPDATE (11/18/14, 6:17 pm ET): A controversial bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline failed in the US Senate Tuesday evening. It received 59 "aye" votes, just shy of the 60 needed to send the bill to President Obama's desk. The fight isn't over yet; Republicans have said they plan to prioritize approving the pipeline once they take control of the Senate next year.

Below the headlines last week about President Obama's major climate agreement with China, another environmental story was gaining steam: a vote in Congress to force approval of Keystone XL, a controversial pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada down to refineries on the Gulf Coast. On Friday, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the pipeline, as it has done numerous times in the past. The Senate is expected to vote on an identical bill today. Previous Keystone legislation has always stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Democrats. But the vote Tuesday will likely have more Democratic support than ever before, making it the closest the pipeline has yet come to approval.

Here's what you need to know:

What's happening with Keystone this week?
As of Sunday, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the bill is still one vote shy of the 60 it would need to break a Senate filibuster, pass Congress, and land on the president's desk. If enacted, the legislation would green-light a construction permit for the pipeline, removing that authority from the State Department, which currently has the final say because the project crosses an international border. President Obama has said that his administration would only approve the project if it didn't increase total US carbon emissions; a State Department report in January suggested that the pipeline was unlikely to affect America's carbon footprint because the oil it would carry would get exported and burned one way or the other. But the final decision was postponed indefinitely in April and is awaiting the outcome of a court case in Nebraska that could alter the pipeline's route. Congressional Republicans have accused Obama of willfully kicking the decision down the road for as long as possible; on Thursday Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week's vote was long overdue after years of the administration "dragging its feet."

Why is the vote happening now?
When Republicans take control of the Senate next year, with a host of new climate skeptics in tow, they could pass a new round of Keystone legislation—perhaps even with enough support to override a presidential veto. So why rush? The answer revolves around the Senate race in Louisiana, where incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu is locked in a runoff campaign with Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, who currently serves in the House. The special election is scheduled for December 6, and Landrieu appears to be trailing Cassidy. Landrieu represents a state with close ties to the oil industry, and she has long been one of the pipeline's most vocal advocates. Last week she introduced the Keystone bill in what many on Capitol Hill have described as a last-ditch political maneuver to score points with her constituents before the runoff. Cassidy introduced the House version of the bill shortly thereafter.

This morning, anti-pipeline activists set up shop in front of Landrieu's residence in Washington:

If the bill passes, will President Obama sign it into law?
Probably not. At a press conference in Burma last week, Obama said that his "position hasn't changed" and that the approval process should go through the proper State Department channels. It's hard to imagine that after all of Obama's statements on Keystone's carbon footprint, the approval process, and his series of climate promises last week, he would capitulate on the pipeline merely for the benefit of one Senate Democrat who appears unlikely to win anyway. It seems more likely that he would save Keystone approval as a bargaining chip to keep the GOP-run Congress from attacking his other hard-won climate initiatives. We'll have to wait and see how this all plays out over the next few days.

Update: I joined Huffington Post Live this morning to talk about today's Senate vote:

This post has been updated.

Two Charts That Show How the US Is Shortchanging the World

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 5:15 PM EST
pledges
Tim McDonnell

This morning, the New York Times reported that President Obama is poised to announce a pledge of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations-administered account to help poor countries deal with climate change. That's the biggest single pledge of any country so far (see chart above); it doubles the total size of the fund and is a major step toward the UN's target of raising $15 billion before next month's climate talks in Lima, Peru. Other notable carbon emitters, such as the UK, are expected to announce contributions by the end of next week.

But viewed in a different context, the US contribution looks much less impressive. The idea behind the fund is to reconcile one of the cruel ironies of climate change: Many of the nations that will be hit hardest by global warming—countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, for example—have done very little to cause the problem. Bangladesh was recently ranked as the country that is most vulnerable to climate change, but its per-capita carbon dioxide emissions are 44 times smaller than the US's per-capita emissions, according to the World Bank. So the fund is meant to bridge the gap between the rich countries whose carbon pollution causing climate change and the poor countries that are suffering from it.

As the chart below shows, the US's contribution to the Green Climate Fund looks a lot smaller when it's adjusted to take into account America's extremely high emissions:

relative
Tim McDonnell

Cumulatively since 1980—the earliest year for which consistent data from the Energy Information Administration is available—the US has emitted more carbon than any other country, including China. (In 2008, China overtook the US as the leading annual carbon polluter). So it's probably fair to say that the US is more to blame for global warming than any other single country. And yet Obama's pledge to the Green Climate Fund only translates to about $17,100 per million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted from 1980 to 2012—placing it ninth among the 13 countries that have announced pledges. That's a bit like crashing a friend's car and only offering to pay to fix the steering wheel. By contrast, Sweden's pledge equates to $292,000 per million tons of CO2 emissions—17 times greater than the US pledge.

It's great and necessary that Obama is willing to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. But I think it's fair to say the US is getting away pretty cheap.

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Obama Is About to Make the World's Biggest Pledge to Help Poor Countries Fight Climate Change

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 10:23 AM EST

What a week! First President Barack Obama announces a massive climate agreement with China designed to lower both countries' carbon emissions while doubling down on clean energy development. Now this morning, the New York Times is reporting that the president will soon announce a $3 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund, a UN-administered account that will help developing countries clean their energy sectors and adapt to the impacts of global warming.

A $3 billion pledge from the United States would double the size of the fund; the biggest donations up to this point were $1 billion each from France and Germany. More countries are expected to make commitments at a UN meeting in Berlin next week. The fund's stated goal is to reach $15 billion before a key meeting next month in Lima, Peru.

Obama's pledge "is a strong and important signal to developing countries that the US is serious ahead of climate negotiations in 2015," said Alex Doukas, a sustainable finance analyst at the World Resources Institute.

From the Times:

It is not clear whether Mr. Obama's $3 billion pledge will come from existing sources of funding, or whether he will have to ask Congress to appropriate the money. Since 2010, the Obama administration has spent about $2.5 billion to help poor countries adapt to climate change and develop new clean sources of energy, but Republicans are certain to target additional requests for money linked to climate change and foreign aid.

So there are still some details to work out. But like the US-China climate deal, the most immediate impact of this pledge announcement will be to encourage other countries to up the ante on their own commitments.

Awkward: Watch a Supercut of Republicans Using China As an Excuse to Do Nothing About Climate Change

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 12:58 AM EST

The shock announcement of an ambitious and wide-ranging climate deal between the United States and China is leaving one vociferous group of politicians red-faced: those that have always used China as an excuse for delaying climate action.

The announcement between the two biggest emitters deals a blow to the oft-stated rhetoric that the US must wait for China before bringing domestic climate legislation. And vice versa: China has long used US inaction as an excuse too.

Not anymore.

Here's What It Looks Like When a Typhoon Devastates Your City

| Fri Nov. 7, 2014 5:30 PM EST

Well before Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines on November 8, 2013, weather watchers knew the storm would be terrible. But with more than 6,300 confirmed deaths and billions of dollars in damage, it turned out to be one of the worst natural disasters of the decade. The photos below show what the town of Dulag and the city of Tacloban looked like before and after Haiyan.

Dulag

DigitalGlobe/Google


Tacloban

DigitalGlobe/Google


Tacloban

DigitalGlobe/Google


Tacloban

DigitalGlobe/Google
 

Tacloban

DigitalGlobe/Google


Tacloban

CNES-Astrium/Google


Tacloban

CNES-Astrium/Google

Meet the Senate's New Climate Denial Caucus

| Wed Nov. 5, 2014 2:43 PM EST

Well, folks, it wasn't such a great night on the climate action front. It looks like the millions of dollars that environmental philanthropist Tom Steyer invested in the midterms didn't buy much other than a fledgling political infrastructure to sock away for 2016. With Republicans now in control of the Senate, we're likely to see a bill to push through the Keystone XL pipeline coming down the pike soon. And Mitch McConnell, probably the coal industry's biggest booster, retained his seat.

In fact, McConnell and his climate-denying colleague James Inhofe of Oklahoma—the likely chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works committee—won a lot of new friends on Capitol Hill last night. It probably won't surprise you to learn that most of the Senate's newly elected Republicans are big boosters of fossil fuels and don't agree with the mainstream scientific consensus on global warming. Here's an overview of their statements on climate change, ranging from a few who seem to at least partly accept to science to those who flat-out reject it.

Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska): In September, Sullivan, a former Alaska attorney general, said "the jury's out" on whether climate change is man-made. (Actually, the jury came in, for the umpteenth time, just this week.) He repeated that position last month, when he said the role human-caused greenhouse gases play in global warming is "a question scientists are still debating," adding that "we shouldn't lock up America's resources and kill tens of thousands of good jobs by continuing to pursue the President's anti-energy policies."

Tom Cotton (R-Ark.): Cotton has seized on a common but misleading notion among climate change deniers: "The simple fact is that for the last 16 years the earth's temperature has not warmed." He admits, however, that "it's most likely that human activity has contributed to some of" the temperature increase of the last hundred years. Still, he supports building new coal plants and the Keystone XL pipeline

Cory Gardner (R-Colo.): Gardner is shifty on the issue. In a debate last month, he wouldn't give a straight yes-or-no answer on whether mankind has contributed to global warming. "I believe that the climate is changing, I disagree to the extent that it's been in the news," that humans are responsible, he said. Yet at the same time, he admitted that "pollution contributes" to climate change. Gardner doesn't seem interested in cleaning up that pollution: Last year he said the Obama administration is waging "a war on the kind of energy we use every day—fossil fuels… because they want to tell us how we live our lives."

David Perdue (R-Ga.): "In science, there's an active debate going on" about whether climate change is real, Perdue told Slate this year, adding that if there are climate-related impacts to Georgia's coast, some smart person will figure out how to deal with them. Perdue has also slammed the Obama administration for waging a "war on coal" and has called the EPA's new carbon emission rules "shortsighted."

Joni Ernst (R-Iowa): Ernst is another rider on the "I don't know" bandwagon. "I don't know the science behind climate change," she told an audience in September. She also hedged the question beautifully in a May interview with The Hill: "I haven't seen proven proof that it is entirely man-made." But she supports recycling!

Bill Cassidy/Mary Landrieu (La.): This race is going to a runoff. Landrieu, the incumbent Democrat, has never been much of a climate hawk—she recently said humans do contribute to observed climate change but criticized Obama for "singling out" the oil industry for regulation. But at least she's better on global warming than Cassidy, her Republican challenger, who flatly denies that climate change exists. He said last month that "global temperatures have not risen in 15 years."

Steve Daines (R-Mont.): Daines is a harsh critic of Obama's energy and climate policies, which he said "threaten nearly 5,000 Montana jobs and would cause Montana's electricity prices to skyrocket." While in the House, he signed a pledge that he will "oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue." He believes global warming, to the extent that it exists, is probably caused by solar cycles.

Thom Tillis (R-N.C.): During a North Carolina Republican primary debate, all four candidates laughed out loud when asked if they believed climate change is a "fact." Ha! Ha! Then they all said, "No." Later, Tillis expanded on that position, arguing in a debate with his Democratic rival, Sen. Kay Hagan, that "the point is the liberal agenda, the Obama agenda, the Kay Hagan agenda, is trying to use [climate change] as a Trojan horse for their energy policy."

Ben Sasse (R-Neb.): Sasse hasn't said much about climate science, but he supports building the Keystone XL pipeline and opening up more federal land for oil and gas drilling. He also wants to "encourage the production of coal."

James Lankford (R-Okla.): As a member of the House, Lankford called global warming a "myth." He also, along with Gardner, Cotton, Shelley Moore Capito (R. W.Va.), Cassidy, and Daines, voted to prevent the Pentagon from considering the national security impacts of global warming, even though top Defense Department officials have repeatedly issued warnings that climate change could worsen conflicts around the world. Lankford also floated an amendment to an energy appropriations bill that would have blocked funding for research related to the social costs of carbon pollution.

Mike Rounds (R-S.D.): Rounds appears to accept at least some of the science on climate change. As governor of South Dakota, Rounds said that "there are a number of different causes that we recognize, and the scientists recognize, are the cause of global warming," and that humans are "absolutely" one of those. He fervently supports the Keystone pipeline.

Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.): In a debate last month, Capito said, "I don't necessarily think the climate's changing, no." Then she clarified that her opinion might change with the weather: "Yes it's changing, it changes all the time, we heard it raining out there," she said. "I'm sure humans are contributing to it." I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. Capito is also a founding member of the Congressional Coal Caucus.

This post has been updated.