Blue Marble

EPA: Low Oil Prices Will Make Keystone XL A Climate Nightmare

| Tue Feb. 3, 2015 6:28 PM EST

Earlier today the Environmental Protection Agency released a letter that one of its top officials sent yesterday to the State Department, weighing in on the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. The letter is part of a last round of comments from federal agencies before the Obama administration makes a final decision about whether to approve the pipeline, and environmentalists had hoped that it would spell out the threat the project could pose to the climate.

They weren't disappointed. The EPA letter argues that the recent drop in oil prices means that Keystone XL could come with a major carbon footprint. This is an argument environmentalists like Bill McKibben have been pushing for years. And it's a big deal—President Barack Obama has said that the pipeline will be approved only if it won't increase overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Here's the logic: A pipeline is the cheapest way to move oil; trucks and trains are much more expensive. Canadian tar sands oil is especially expensive to produce. When the price of oil is high, it makes economic sense to export it with trucks and trains. This is the line of reasoning the State Dept. has used to argue that approving the pipeline won't contribute to climate change: The oil is going to get burned with or without Keystone XL, because producers will just send it out some other way. Republicans in Congress have cited that same State Dept. analysis as evidence that Keystone XL isn't the climate-killing monster environmentalists make it out to be.

But when the price of oil is so low, that calculus gets turned upside down. According to State's own analysis, the economic rationale for using trucks and trains starts to erode once the price of oil dips much below $75 per barrel. Right now, oil is hovering around $50 a barrel. So if prices stay low and the if the pipeline isn't built, that oil might actually stay buried—where many climate scientists have said it needs to stay if we're to avoid disastrous levels of global warming.

You can read the full EPA letter below. Here's the key line:

"At sustained oil prices within this range, construction of the pipeline is projected to change the economics of oil sands development and result in increased oil sands production, and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, over what would otherwise occur."

Some energy analysts disagree, arguing that oil prices would have to drop much further than current levels to have an impact on tar sands production. And even though there's reason to think oil could be cheap for a while, energy companies don't tend to make big expensive decisions about where and how to drill based on short-term market trends. So there's still room for debate on the EPA's take here.

The EPA letter is likely to become a centerpiece of the pipeline debate as Congress continues to wrangle over the issue. (A bill to approve the pipeline passed the Senate last week, and next week the House is expected to take it up once again. President Obama has promised to veto the bill.) But the more important thing to watch is whether it changes any minds in the Obama administration, which is nearing a final decision on whether the pipeline will be built.

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We Have Some Good News For You About the Koala That Was Burned in the Fire

| Fri Jan. 30, 2015 6:09 PM EST
Jeremy the koala in rehab after burning his paws. He was released back to the wild today.

After a series of devastating bushfires ripped through Australia earlier this month, volunteers across the world quickly came to the rescue with custom-knitted mittens for the burned paws of koalas (way too many volunteers, it turns out). The poster koala that sparked the movement was Jeremy, whose heart-rending hospital room portrait quickly went viral.

Good news! Jeremy is fully recovered and back in the wild. From the BBC:

He has since made a complete recovery, says Aaron Machado, who operates the clinic that treated the animal... "The only thing he has to do now is get used to not having any more room service," Mr Machado told the BBC.

Here's to koalas everywhere!

Attention, Sunday Shows: Here Are 5 Republicans Who Won't Lie to Your Viewers About Climate Change

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 6:48 PM EST
If Sens. Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte have a moment after the next Benghazi press conference, you should ask them about global warming.

On Wednesday, I wrote about a new Media Matters for America study that shines a light on a big problem with how TV news shows cover climate change. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are warming the planet, but Media Matters found that the highly influential Sunday morning talk shows often feature misleading talking points from global warming skeptics. Frequently, these segments turn into bizarre debates between those who accept science and those who reject it.

On NBC's Meet the Press, for example, almost two-thirds of the climate coverage last year included "false balance," according to Media Matters. Fox News Sunday and ABC's This Week had similar problems:

mmfa_chart6

The Media Matters study drew the attention of Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). In a press release, he slammed the news networks for misleading viewers "by framing the facts of climate change as a 'debate.'" He urged them "to stop creating a false debate about the reality of climate change and engage in the real debate about how we can solve it."

This presents something of a dilemma for the Sunday shows. Interviewing elected officials from both sides of the aisle is a big part of the reason these programs exist in the first place; they can't host a debate about climate policy and invite only Democrats. At the same time, however, global warming denial is so ingrained on the right that it's becoming increasingly difficult to find Republicans who can talk about the issue without misinforming viewers. The Media Matters report cites a couple examples of this: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) saying on Meet the Press that there's no scientific consensus on climate change, and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) saying on This Week that "the big debate is how much of it is manmade and how much it will just naturally happen as Earth evolves."

Fortunately—thanks to Schatz—TV bookers now have a handy list of GOP senators who acknowledge the scientific facts surrounding climate change and who, presumably, can participate in an intelligent discussion of what should actually be done about the problem. Last week, Schatz introduced legislation declaring it the "sense of Congress" that climate change is real and that human activity contributes significantly to it. Five Republicans voted in favor of Schatz's amendment: Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Mark Kirk (Ill.). The other 49 voted no.

There's plenty of room for disagreement on policy matters, of course. Alexander and Graham, for example, have called on the Obama administration to withdraw its proposed greenhouse gas emissions rules, the centerpiece of the president's climate plan. But if the networks are looking for Republicans who can speak accurately about the science, at least now they know where to find them.

(Disclosure: I used to work at Media Matters.)

The Senate Just Approved Keystone XL

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 5:10 PM EST
Senators Lisa Murkowski, Mitch McConnell, and John Hoeven convening earlier today.

The Senate has been a very busy bunch of beavers over the last month. After just a week of being in session, they had already taken more votes than they did in all of 2014. It's all thanks to the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been the primary topic of floor debate for the last three weeks.

Almost immediately after the new Congress got started, the House passed a bill to approve construction of the pipeline. As new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) had promised, the Senate then took up its own Keystone bill, which President Barack Obama promptly promised to veto. (The president has long maintained that he wants the pipeline to be approved—or not—through the normal State Department process, which is the usual protocol for cross-border infrastructure projects.) Democrats and Republicans alike have sought to load up the Keystone bill with a staggering number of amendments, ranging from an agreement that climate change is "not a hoax" to removing the lesser prairie-chicken from the endangered species list. As of this morning, only five had passed.

Over the last few days, McConnell and Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have urged their peers to wrap up and take a final vote on the bill, with leading Democrats and environmentalists responding that Republicans were trying to "aggressively" shut down debate.

This afternoon it finally happened, and the Senate bill passed 62-36. According to Politico, House leaders have yet to decide whether to take a straight vote on the Senate bill or send it to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two versions. Either way, the bill faces an assured veto once it reaches the Oval Office. And unless more Democrats change their tune soon, there is not enough support in the Congress to override the veto.

What's next for the embattled pipeline? Earlier this month, the Nebraska State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Keystone XL's proposed route, a ruling the White House had said was the last piece of the puzzle needed before the Obama administration makes a final decision. So now, once again, the ball is back in the president's court.

 
Via the State Department, the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, shown in yellow.

This Chart Shows That Americans Are Way Out of Step With Scientists on Pretty Much Everything

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 3:08 PM EST

Here's one big reason why the US has been so slow to take aggressive action on climate change: Despite the wide consensus among scientists that it's real and caused by humans, the general public—not to mention a disconcerting number of prominent politicians—remains divided.

It's not just climate change. On a range of pressing social issues, scientists and the public rarely see eye-to-eye. That's the result of a new Pew poll released today that compared views of a sample of 2,000 US adults to those of 3,700 scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the group that publishes the journal Science.

The biggest split was over the safety of genetically modified foods: 88 percent of scientists think GMOs are safe, compared to only 37 percent in the general public. Interestingly, college graduates were split 50-50. The gap between scientists and the public is smaller on the question of whether to mandate childhood vaccines. But it's still there. Eighty-six percent of scientists and 68 percent of all adults think vaccines should be required.

The poll didn't attempt to explain the gaps between scientists and the general public. On some issues there are clearly factors beyond pure science, like ethics and politics, that influence opinions. For example, scientists show more support for nuclear power, but less support for fracking, than the public. As our friend Chris Mooney has reported many times, these outside factors tend to creep into peoples' opinions even on objective questions like whether humans have evolved.

Lee Rainie, Pew's director of science research, added that trust in scientists can be a big factor. On GMOs, for example, 67 percent of the public believe scientists don't fully understand the health risks. And on issues like climate and evolution, the public believes there to be more disagreement within the scientific community than there actually is, he said.

More interesting findings are below:

Pew

6 Terrifying Facts About Measles

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 7:00 AM EST

The current outbreak of measles that began in California has sickened 86 people and landed 30 babies in home isolation. The California Department of Health has issued an official warning that "any place where large numbers of people congregate and there are a number of international visitors, like airports, shopping malls and tourist attractions, you may be more likely to find measles, which should be considered if you are not vaccinated."

Not everyone is so concerned. In a Facebook post on January 16, celebrity pediatrician Robert "Dr. Bob" Sears encouraged his followers not to "let anyone tell you you should live in fear of" measles. "Ask any Grandma or Grandpa (well, older ones anyway)," he wrote, "and they'll say 'Measles? So what? We all had it. It's like Chicken pox.'"

Well, Dr. Bob is wrong—measles is serious business. Consider these facts:

  1. Measles is one of the most contagious illnesses known to man. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it infects about 90 percent of people who come into contact with it. The virus can survive on surfaces or even in the air for up to two hours. That means that if an unvaccinated person happens to pass through a room where someone with measles was a few hours before, he or she has a very high chance of contracting the disease. 
     
  2. Some people who get measles become seriously ill. Before the advent of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, between 3 and 4 million people contracted measles each year in the United States. Of those, 48,000 were hospitalized, 4,000 developed the life-threatening brain condition encephalitis, and 400 to 500 died.
     
  3. Almost everyone needs to be vaccinated for measles in order to protect the most vulnerable people. The epidemiological concept of "herd immunity" means that enough people in a given community are immunized so that people who can't get vaccinated—infants that are too young to receive vaccines, people who can't get vaccinated because their immune systems are not strong enough, and the small number of people for whom the vaccine doesn't work—are protected. The threshold for herd immunity varies by disease; for measles, it's 92 to 94 percent.
     
  4. In some places in the United States, MMR vaccination rates among kindergartners aren't anywhere near the herd immunity threshold. In Marin County, California, only 80 percent of students are up to date on their vaccinations. In Nevada County, California, the figure is 73 percent. New York magazine reported last year that dozens of New York City private schools had immunization rates below 70 percent. (Californians can check rates at individual schools here.)
     
  5. Worldwide, measles is far from eradicated. According to the CDC, in 2013, more than 60 percent of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia Nigeria, and Pakistan were not adequately vaccinated against measles. Seventy percent of measles deaths worldwide occurred in those countries.
     
  6. Measles could make a major comeback in the United States. It's happened in other developed nations: In the mid-1990s, UK public health officials considered measles eradicated in the country—but in 2008, because of low vaccination rates, measles once again hit endemic status. Between 2008 and 2011, France saw more than 20,000 cases of measles—after virtual elimination of the disease just a few years before.

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This Map Shows Why The Midwest Is Screwed

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 5:44 PM EST

The ongoing drought in California has been, among other things, a powerful lesson in how vulnerable America's agricultural sector is to climate change. Even if that drought wasn't specifically caused by man-made global warming, scientists have little doubt that droughts and heat waves are going to get more frequent and severe in important crop-growing regions. In California, the cost in 2014 was staggering: $2.2 billion in losses and added expenses, plus 17,000 lost jobs, according to a UC-Davis study.

California is country's hub for fruits, veggies, and nuts. But what about the commodity grains grown in the Midwest, where the US produces over half its corn and soy? That's the subject of a new report by the climate research group headed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer (who recently shut down rumors that he might run for Senate).

The report is all about climate impacts expected in the Midwest, and the big takeaway is that future generations have lots of very sweaty summers in store. One example: "The average Chicago resident is expected to experience more days over 95 degrees F by the century's end than the average Texan does today." The report also predicts that electricity prices will increase, with potential ramifications for the region's manufacturing sector, and that beloved winter sports—ice fishing, anyone?—will become harder to do.

But some of the most troublesome findings are about agriculture. Some places will fare better than others; northern Minnesota, for example, could very well find itself benefiting from global warming. But overall, the report says, extreme heat, scarcer water resources, and weed and insect invasions will drive down corn and soybean yields by 11 to 69 percent by the century's end. Note that these predictions assume no "significant adaptation," so there's an opportunity to soften the blow with solutions like better water management, switching to more heat-tolerant crops like sorghum, or the combination of genetic engineering and data technology now being pursued by Monsanto.

Here's a map from the report showing which states' farmers could benefit from climate change—and which ones will lose big time:

Risky Business

Obama's Trip to India Shortened His Life by 6 Hours

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 1:08 PM EST
President Obama met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the weekend.

Over the weekend President Barack Obama was in India for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on nuclear power, trade, climate change, and other topics. The climate piece was, if not necessarily a letdown, certainly less exciting than Obama's wide-reaching deal with China in November. Crucially, the China deal included specific carbon emissions reduction targets; those were left out in India over Modi's (arguably justifiable) insistence that the country be able to aggressively expand its electricity infrastructure to fight poverty.

Instead, India committed to expand its solar power capacity by 33-fold within seven years, and to work closely with the United States in advance of major UN climate talks in Paris in December. (India's participation will be vital for the summit to produce a meaningful international agreement.)

As Bloomberg's Obama got a first-hand taste in the trip of how important it is for India to fuel its growth with clean energy sources. India is already the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the US, and air pollution in many of its cities far exceeds even the infamous levels in Beijing and other Chinese megalopolises.

In fact, Delhi—the capital city where Obama's meetings took place—has the world's highest concentration of PM 2.5, according to the UN. These tiny airborne particulates can increase the risk of heart disease and a host of really awful respiratory ailments. The PM 2.5 levels in Delhi are so insanely bad that breathing the air for only a few hours can have irreversible health impacts…even on the leader of the free world.

From Bloomberg:

During Obama's three-day visit, PM2.5 levels in Delhi have averaged between 76 to 84 micrograms per cubic meter, according to data collected by India's Ministry of Earth Sciences…Those levels translate roughly into an estimated loss of 2 hours a day in life expectancy, said David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge, who specializes in quantifying risk in a way that is understandable to the public.

Obama was there for three days, so that's six hours off his life. That is profoundly terrifying. It also underscores how, for developing countries, the need to stem pollution from power plants is about much more than solving the long-term problem of global warming. It's about addressing an urgent pubic health crisis.

This post has been updated.

This Is Not a Drill: 29 Million Brace for Massive, Historic Snowstorm

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 12:10 PM EST

Update: Monday, January 26, 6:35 p.m. EST: This was the scene outside our office this afternoon. Yikes!

Update: Monday, January 26, 6:00 p.m. EST: From our friends at Climate Central, here's a little background on the weather forces behind the storm and how they relate to man-made climate change:

The low pressure area at the heart of the storm is tracking along the East Coast in a way that lets it exploit the contrast between the cold air over land and the warmth of the oceans, which are running more than 2°F warmer than normal along much of the coast, said Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. The warmer ocean waters mean more moisture in the atmosphere for the storm to suck up; the cold air over the continent ensures that moisture falls as snow.

Update: Monday, January 26, 5:00 p.m. EST: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has decided to put a "hard stop" on the region's public transit later tonight in preparation for worse snow conditions starting in the early hours of Tuesday:

New Yorkers were piling into the subway ahead of the evening rush hour:

Heading into the Union Square subway entrance Monday afternoon. Tim McDonnell

Update: Monday, January 26, 2:45 p.m. EST: Even just after a couple hours of snow dumped by the strengthening blizzard, New York City's landscape is white-washed for the first time this season:

NYC's heroic fleet of food delivery cyclists soldiered on as snow came down in Manhattan. Tim McDonnell
Almost as soon as it started, the snow was coming down in sheets. Tim McDonnell
In Midtown, so begins the long battle to keep sidewalks clear of snow and ice. Tim McDonnell
Stay warm, little guy! Tim McDonnell
Central Park quickly turned into a winter wonderland. Tim McDonnell

Update: Monday, January 26, 2:15 p.m. EST: As the blizzard begins to hit New York City, my colleague James West ventured out to capture some Brooklyn street scenes, in super-slow motion (flick the player to HD for some fun snow-falling prettiness):

After a few months of mild weather, today and tomorrow the East Coast is in for one hell of a snowstorm. Twenty-nine million people from New Jersey to Maine are under a blizzard alert. Here's the latest snow forecast for the Boston region from the National Weather Service:

And New York:

 

The range shown for New York here—up to two feet dumped on the city by Wednesday—is at least down from yesterday's estimates, when, as our friend Eric Holhaus at Slate reported, meteorologists were warning that it could be the largest blizzard in the city's history. Still, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told residents "to prepare for something worse than we have seen before." The worst of the worst is expected starting Monday afternoon and through Tuesday.

Stay tuned here for more updates, as well as images from inside the storm. 

One Perfect Tweet Sums Up Why Climate Denial in Congress Is So Dangerous

| Thu Jan. 22, 2015 5:13 PM EST

Here's the good news: Yesterday the Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of an amendment to the Keystone XL bill that says "climate change is real and not a hoax." Good work, ladies and gentlemen! Glad we got that on the record, only 25 years after scientists agreed on it.

Here's the bad news: Turns out the vote was just an excuse for James Inhofe (Okla.) to say, as he has many times before: Sure, climate change is real. The climate changes all the time. But humans aren't the cause.

His evidence for this dismissal of the mainstream scientific consensus? The bible.

Oy vey.

Now here's the really bad news: This same gentleman from Oklahoma recently became the chairman of the very Senate committee that oversees environmental policy. And two of his climate change-denying peers will chair other subcommittees that oversee vital climate science.

In case it isn't self-evident why these facts are so terrible, we have our lovely readers to sum it up:

Thanks, Sharon Dennis!