Blue Marble

Here's What You Need to Know About President Obama's Decision to Reject the Keystone XL Pipeline

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 12:06 PM EST

In the year’s biggest victory for environmentalists, President Barack Obama announced Friday that he will reject an application from Canadian company TransCanada to construct the Keystone XL pipeline.

The pipeline, which would allow crude oil from Canada’s oil sands to reach ports and refineries in the US, has been a major controversy for Obama ever since he took office. The White House spent years deliberating on the issue. During that time, environmental groups accused Obama of not backing up his rhetoric on climate change with real action, and Republicans in Congress accused him of blocking a job-creating infrastructure project.

In his announcement today, the president said the State Department’s analysis had shown the pipeline would not significantly benefit the US economy.

"The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the national interests of the United States. I agree with that decision," Obama said.

The timing of the announcement is significant, as it comes just weeks before the beginning of major international climate negotiations in Paris. Obama’s decision will "reverberate" with other countries and sends a strong message that the United States is serious about taking action to stop climate change, said Jennifer Morgan, director of the global climate program at the World Resources Institute.

Obama said that pipeline had been given an "overinflated role in the political discourse" by both its supporters and detractors. Still, he framed his decision as a key element of his climate legacy.

"America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change," he said. "Today we continue to lead by example."

Watch the full speech below:

This post has been updated.

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New York Launches Probe Into Allegations Exxon Covered Up Climate Dangers

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 4:43 PM EST

On Thursday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the state has officially opened an investigation looking into whether ExxonMobil deliberately covered up research into the dangers of climate change.

From the New York Times:

The focus includes the company's activities dating to the late 1970s, including a period of at least a decade when Exxon Mobil funded groups that sought to undermine climate science. A major focus of the investigation is whether the company adequately warned investors about potential financial risks stemming from society's need to limit fossil-fuel use…"We unequivocally reject the allegations that Exxon Mobil has suppressed climate-change research," [Exxon vice president Kenneth P.] Cohen said, adding that the company had funded mainstream climate science since the 1970s, had published dozens of scientific papers on the topic, and had disclosed climate risks to investors.

The announcement comes on the heels of calls from Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, for the US Justice Department to open a similar investigation.

This is a breaking news post.

 

Republicans Are Going To Hate This Chart

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 12:38 PM EST
Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama's signature climate action plan was formally published. The new regulations will require many states to reduce their use of coal, the dirtiest form of energy, in an effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by about a third by 2030. Almost immediately, the plan came under a barrage of legal attacks from two dozen coal-dependent states, almost all led by Republican governors and attorneys general. Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress introduced legislation to overturn the plan.

On Tuesday, after the House of Representatives resolution was approved in committee, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) claimed a victory for all Americans. The vote, he said, shows that "the American people are not happy with President Obama's climate change policy."

Except that, they kind of are happy about it. That's according to new polling by Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communication, which found that 61 percent of residents in the states suing the Obama administration support tight limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Individual state results are listed in the table above. Even in Kentucky, home to the plan's biggest opponent, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), most residents support the plan.

Makes you wonder whose interests all these governors, attorneys general, and legislators are really representing.

TransCanada Just Asked the United States to Suspend the Keystone XL Pipeline

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 9:26 PM EST

In an unexpected turn of events, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline proposal requested to temporarily suspend its US permit application on Monday.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, the Calgary-based TransCanada Corporation asked that State Department, which reviews cross-border pipelines, delay its decision while the company goes through a state review process in Nebraska. Earlier in the week, the White House indicated its intention to rule on the controversy-ridden pipeline by the end of Obama's term; some were expecting the State Department decision to reject the pipeline as soon as the end of the week. 

"We are asking State (Department) to pause its review of Keystone XL based on the fact that we have applied to the Nebraska Public Service Commission for approval of its preferred route in the state," TransCanada Chief Executive Russ Girling said in a statement.

But some are speculating that the request is a political play: A delay in the permit could mean pushing the issue beyond the 2016 election—and into the hands of a new administration.

TransCanada has vowed over the years that it would not back down on the proposed pipeline from Alberta to Texas in the face of economic or political challenges, and until recently, it had been pushing for a speedy border permit approval.

​This post has been updated.

Volkswagen's Pollution Scheme Could Be Even Worse Than We Thought

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 4:22 PM EST
The Porsche Cayenne was among a handful of Volkswagen models named in a new citation.

Things just keep getting worse for Volkswagen. In mid-September, the German automaker was suddenly faced with the possibility of billions of dollars in fines after federal regulators accused it of selling half a million diesel-powered cars in the United States that were equipped with software that intentionally falsified emissions performance.

The citation, which named half a dozen models sold since 2009, drove the company's share price off a cliff and forced the ouster of CEO Martin Winterkorn. In testimony last month in Congress, VW's chief of US operations apologized for the deception but maintained that responsibility lay with a handful of German engineers and not with the company's top management. That same day, the company's offices in Germany were raided by police.

The story took another turn on Monday, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced it is expanding its investigation to include several previously unmentioned VW models, covering an additional 10,000 cars sold in the US. Those models are the diesel versions of:

  • 2014 VW Touareg
  • 2015 Porsche Cayenne
  • 2016 Audi A6 Quattro, A7 Quattro, A8, A8L, and Q5

The inclusion of a Porsche on the list is especially interesting, as Winterkorn was replaced in VW's driver's seat by Matthias Müller, who had previously run the Porsche division. Volkswagen did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new allegations.

By some estimates, the excess emissions caused by VW's cars could contribute to thousands of deaths. In addition to continuing its investigation into VW, the EPA has also promised to implement more stringent emissions testing procedures designed to counteract such software.

Bill Gates Thinks It’s Time to Fix Capitalism

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 4:11 PM EST

On Friday, the United Nations released a survey of the plans laid out by more than 100 countries to fight climate change. Its report uncovered some interesting trends, including that most countries are planning to invest in renewable energy and that global adaptation efforts focus first and foremost on protecting the food and water supply. 

But the survey also affirmed that all this collective global action doesn't add up to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the internationally agreed-upon goal. That brought to mind the great interview with Bill Gates that The Atlantic, one of our Climate Desk partners, recently released. In the above video, Gates points out another key flaw in the international negotiating process: Most countries' goals focus on the progress to be made by 2030—phase one of the global push to slash greenhouse gas emissions. The United States' goal, for example, calls for cutting emissions by about a third by that time. 

If we're really serious about keeping global warming in check, Gates argues, we need to start thinking more concretely about what comes after 2030. The Obama administration has promised that the short-term goal will get us on track to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050. But Gates cautions that that second phase will much more difficult to achieve than the first.

"Let's be realistic about how we're going to get to the 2050 goal," Gates says. "There are things that have such long lead times—including innovation itself—that if they're a part of your 2050 solution, you need to get started now. The rate of innovation should be doubled."

To that end, Gates has pledged $2 billion out of his own pocket to invest in sustainable-energy projects. He thinks research and development funding by the United States and China needs to grow massively, since "the climate problem has to be solved in the rich countries." In the extended interview between Gates and Atlantic editor James Bennet, he also makes a case for a "significant" global tax on carbon emissions. That's the only way to fix the market failure that lets companies get away with the pollution caused by fossil fuels—and, he says, the only way to encourage the private sector to switch to clean energy.

"Yes, the government will be somewhat inept," he said. "But the private sector is in general inept."

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The World's Plan to Save Itself, in 6 Charts

| Fri Oct. 30, 2015 3:18 PM EDT

World leaders have a pretty comprehensive plan to fight climate change, according to a United Nations report released Friday—even if it doesn't go as far as many of them had hoped.

In just over a month, representatives from most of the countries on Earth will gather in Paris in an attempt to finalize an international agreement to limit global warming and adapt to its impacts. The video above is a snappy explainer of what's at stake at this meeting, but suffice it to say the proposed deal is split into two keys parts. First is the core agreement, parts of which may be legally binding, that comprises broad, non-specific guidelines for all countries. It calls on countries to take steps such as transparently reporting greenhouse gas emissions and committing to ramp up climate action over the next few decades.

But the real meat-and-potatoes is in the second part, the "intended nationally determined contributions" (INDCs). The INDCs are what sets the Paris talks apart from past attempts at a global climate agreement in Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Those summits either left out major polluters (the US dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol; China and India were exempted) or fell apart completely (Copenhagen), in large part because they were built around universal greenhouse gas reduction targets that not everyone could agree to.

The UN process is like a potluck, where each country brings its own unique contribution based on its needs and abilities.

This time around, the UN process is more like a potluck, where each country brings its own unique contribution based on its needs and abilities; those are the INDCs. The US, for example, has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, mostly by going after carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. So far, according to the World Resources Institute, 126 plans have been submitted, covering about 86 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. (The European Union submitted one joint plan for all its members.) Those contributions are likely to limit global warming to around 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2100. That's above the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) limit scientists say is necessary to avert the worst impacts—but it's also about 1 degree C less warming than would happen if the world continued on its present course.

Now, we have a bit more insight into how countries are planning to make this happen. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the group that is overseeing the Paris talks, combed through all the INDCs to look for trends. Its report is a bit convoluted and repetitive; I don't recommend it to any but the nerdiest climate nerds. But I pulled out a few of the charts as an overview of what global action on climate change really looks like.

Types of targets: Most of the INDCs contain specific emission reduction targets. (Not all do; some countries, such as the small island nations, have such small or nonexistent emissions that it wouldn't make sense to promise to reduce them.) The most common way to state these targets is to promise that emissions at X future date will be lower than they would be with no action. Indonesia, for example, has pledged to increase its emissions over the next 25 years by 29 percent less than it would have under a "business as usual" scenario. The US commitment fits in the second category, an "absolute" target where emissions actually begin to go down. Others specify a date at which emissions will "peak," or set a goal for emissions per unit of GDP or energy production ("intensity").

targets
UNFCCC


Greenhouse gases: The commitments cover a broad range of greenhouse gases (most cover more than one), but carbon dioxide is the most common enemy. That's no surprise, as it's by far the most common.

gases
UNFCCC


Economic sectors: In different countries, different economic sectors are more or less responsible for climate pollution. In the US, the number-one source of emissions is coal-fired power plants; thus, President Barack Obama's plans focus on the power sector. In Indonesia, by contrast, deforestation is the biggest problem. Most plans cover more than one sector, but the most common is energy.

sectors
UNFCCC


How to fix it: This section finds that implementing renewable energy is the most common way countries are planning to meet their targets. More interesting is the tiny role played by carbon capture, use, and storage, down at the bottom of the chart. This refers to technology that "captures" greenhouse gas emissions on their way out of power plants, or directly from the atmosphere, and buries or re-purposes them. Support for carbon capture—also known as "clean coal"—is popular with policymakers who don't want to curb coal use (including GOP presidential contender John Kasich), even though it remains costly and unproven at scale

areas
UNFCCC


How to adapt: Many countries' INDCs also contain information about how they plan to adapt to climate change. Water use, agriculture, and public health appear to be the biggest areas of focus.

adaptation
UNFCCC


A terrible, no-good, very bad summary: The most important question is clearly how all this adds up to reducing the world's greenhouse gas footprint and averting the worst threats posed by climate change. But the chart that addresses this question (below) is…not great. I'm including it so you have some sense of one big drawback of the Paris approach—without universal emissions targets, it's a lot harder to specify what the cumulative effect of these plans will really be. In short, here's what this chart shows: The gray line is global greenhouse gas emissions up to today. The orange line is how emissions will grow over the next couple decades if we do nothing. The three blue lines show how quickly we would need to reduce emissions to keep global warming to 2 degrees C; the longer we wait to take action, the steeper the cuts have to be. The yellow rectangles show a snapshot of where the INDCs leave us.

crappy chart
UNFCCC

So, we're better off than before, but we're not out of danger. That's why it's essential for the core agreement to include requirements that countries adopt even more aggressive goals in the future; that's one of the key things that will be debated in Paris. In other words, the Paris meeting is just one key battle in a war that's far from over, Jennifer Morgan, director of the WRI's global climate program, said in a statement.

"Despite the unprecedented level of effort, this report finds that current commitments are not yet sufficient to meet what the world needs. Countries must accelerate their efforts after the Paris summit in order to stave off climate change. The global climate agreement should include a clear mandate for countries to ramp up their commitments and set a long-term signal to phase out emissions as soon as possible."

This Commercial Might Be One of the Only Factual Things to Air During Tonight's GOP Debate

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 11:59 AM EDT

If you watch tonight's Republican primary debate on CBNC, you can expect to hear opinions on the economy and pot, attacks on newly annointed front-runner Ben Carson, and more. You can also expect to see the ad above, which lays out the economic case for action on climate change.

The 30-second spot is part of a six-figure TV and digital ad buy from NextGen Climate, the advocacy group run by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. At the beginning of the primary season, Steyer promised to focus his group's energy on holding Republican presidential candidates accountable for their lack of climate action, and to pursue a campaign to "disqualify" any candidate who doesn't accept mainstream climate science.

"America has never been a country of quitters," the ad states, over bucolic b-roll of farmers, veterans, and small town Main Streets. "We don't ignore threats like climate change."

Then the scene changes to wind farms and solar panels, as the narrator promises that American-made clean energy will produce jobs, innovation, and energy independence. At the end, it advocates a specific goal of getting half the country's power from renewable sources by 2030. (We're at about 7 percent now.)

Steyer is clearly right that clean energy is a major 21st-century growth industry. Solar is the fastest-growing energy source in the country, and employment in that sector already outnumbers coal miners two-to-one. Nearly $40 billion was invested in clean energy in the United States in 2014, 7 percent higher than the previous year. Earlier this month, California adopted the same ambitious target that Steyer is calling for: The state's power companies will be required to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030.

But the message hasn't yet gotten through to most of the Republican presidential candidates. Marco Rubio's energy plan is basically the exact opposite of what Steyer wants. Jeb Bush wants to eliminate all energy subsidies, including those for renewables. Other candidates have variously denied the existence of climate change, championed fossil fuels, and taken pot shots at President Barack Obama's climate agenda.

The one exception, believe it or not, is Ben Carson, who—despite engaging in climate change skepticism—recently said he wants "more than 50 percent" clean energy. Maybe tonight we'll learn more about how exactly he plans to get us there.

4,400 Dead Cows Are Decomposing in a Sunken Ship in a Brazilian River

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
The rotting bodies of the shipwrecked cattle lie on one of the beaches in the Barcarena region, in Para State, northern Brazil.

Earlier this month, a ship heading to Venezuela sank at the river port of Vila do Conde in the Amazon region of northern Brazil.

Shipwrecks are always tragic, but what made this one unique was the ship's cargo: 4,900 live cows. The animals, which belonged to the Brazilian beef company Minerva Foods, were headed to Venezuela. (This isn't Minerva Foods' first ship accident involving cows—another one happened in 2012.) The vast majority—around 4,400 animals—drowned inside the ship. Of the approximately 500 animals that managed to leave the vessel, only 100 survived. Hundreds of carcasses were carried by the current to local beaches. Local families loaded some onto trucks to take home and use for meat, but the remainder rotted in endless rows of bodies on the sand.

A few animals that managed to escape at the time of the sinking huddle on a part of the ship. Diario do Pará

Shipping live cattle is a relatively common practice in Brazil—last year, according to the country's Ministry of Agriculture, it exported 646,700 live cattle with a total value of $675 million. Some countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, prefer buying cattle rather than meat so that customers can slaughter them in accordance with Muslim halal rules; other countries buy with the intention of fattening the animals before the slaughter.

Paulo Santos/Acervo H

Despite the unexpected access to meat, the lives of thousands of fishermen's families—most of whom are very poor—have become a living hell due to the smell of the decomposing carcasses and the fear that their drinking water and fishing grounds will be polluted. Local authorities have already removed the carcasses from the beaches but do not seem to know how to remove more than 4,000 bodies rotting below the river's surface.

To make matters worse, the ship was also carrying nearly 2 million gallons of fuel, which must be removed before the animals. Some have estimated the cost of the environmental disaster at upwards of $30 million. * The real scale of the environmental impact, however, is still being assessed.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the estimated cost of the disaster. The sentence has since been fixed.

Women Can Boost Their Testosterone Just by Acting Like a Boss

| Mon Oct. 26, 2015 3:00 PM EDT

We often point to testosterone to explain the traits that make men "manly": competitiveness, horniness, impulsiveness. People have even blamed the testosterone levels of the architects of the Great Recession for the devastatingly awful decisions that led to the financial crash.

But new research shows that the reason men have more testosterone than women may have as much to do with gender socialization as inherent biology. Scientists from the University of Michigan published a study today that found that the act of wielding power increases testosterone levels regardless of gender. The study's authors went on to hypothesize that the reason women generally have less of the hormone than men may be, at least in part, because of gender norms that prevent women from accessing positions of power and discourage them from being competitive.

To come to this conclusion, researchers hired more than 100 actors to perform an activity during which they held power over someone else: firing a subordinate employee. The actors performed the firing both acting with stereotypically "masculine" traits (using dominant poses, taking up space, not smiling), and with stereotypically "feminine" traits (lifting their voice at the end of sentences, being hesitant, not making eye contact). Researchers also measured the levels of a control group watching a travel documentary. 

What they found was fascinating.

Not only did the female subjects acting in a stereotypically masculine way see an increase in testosterone (compared with the control), but those performing in a "feminine" way saw a significant boost, as well. In other words, just the act of wielding power, regardless of whether the wielder is performing maleness, increases testosterone levels. The study found that men did not have much of a testosterone boost during the activity, which, the study's authors guessed, could be because men's more frequent engagement in competitions and power-wielding activities "might paradoxically lead to dampened testosterone responses."

"Our results would support a pathway from gender to testosterone that is mediated by men engaging more frequently than women in behaviors such as wielding power that increase testosterone," the study says.

What's that in layman's terms? Gender inequality, at least in part, may be part of what's making men manly.