Blue Marble

Creationist Ken Ham: Climate Change Goes Back to "the Flood of Noah's Day"

| Wed Feb. 5, 2014 2:54 AM EST

When Bill Nye the Science Guy took the stage Tuesday night at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, his task was to refute the idea that biblical creationism is a scientifically valid idea—one that should be taught in schools.

But as we've seen again and again, science denial is rarely limited in scope. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Nye's opponent, museum head Ken Ham, doesn't just reject evolution; he's also spreading some rather unscientific ideas about global warming. Appearing on CNN after the debate, Ham informed viewers that "there's been climate change ever since the flood of Noah's day." Ham added that while the climate had warmed "a bit in the past," it's now "cooling again." (Not true.) You can watch Ham and Nye debate climate science in the clip above.

This has been something of a theme for Ham, who says in a series of online videos that this supposed "cooling trend" is "no surprise to creation scientists." According to Ham: "Western governments have invested so much in the carbon dioxide theory that they probably won't change their minds any time soon. But Scripture tells us what really happened: We live on a young Earth that has undergone radical climate changes from the global flood."

Watch:

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How the Feds Are Ripping You Off To Benefit Big Coal

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 6:41 PM EST

Federal coffers are missing out on what could be billions of dollars in lost revenue due to shoddy accounting work by the office that handles leases for coal mines on public land, according to a report made public today by the investigative arm of Congress.

The Government Accountability Office was asked by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a stalwart climate hawk, to look into whether the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management routinely sells leases to coal mining companies for far less than their market value. Investigators found that BLM agents in Wyoming (by far the country's largest coal producer) set prices based on coal's historic value, but, in contradiction of the department's own rules, fail to take into account how much it will likely be worth in the future. Similar problems were found in other coal-producing states. As a result, the GAO report claims, many leases were sold far beneath their true market value, depriving taxpayers of additional royalties (which, as it stands, come to about $1 billion per year) that are normally skimmed from the mines' profits.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed," said Tom Kenworthy, an energy analyst at the Center for American Progress who has kept tabs on Interior's longstanding problems with coal lease valuation.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed."

That the leases are selling for less than they're worth seems clear; what's less obvious is exactly how much money is at stake, since the values were never properly set in the first place (the GAO report doesn't specify a number). A 2012 analysis of federal lease records by former New York State Deputy Comptroller Tom Sanzillo for the independent Institute for Energy Economics found that undervalued coal leases cost the Treasury $28.9 billion in lost revenue since 1983, or almost $1 billion every year. Meanwhile, analysis by Senator Markey's office put the figure at $200 million, although a spokesperson would not specify the time period to which that applied, as the underlying data are considered proprietary to the Interior Department, he said.

Since 1990, the federal government has leased 107 parcels of public land for coal mining; these parcels typically account for 25-40 percent of the roughly one billion tons of coal produced annually nationwide. That adds up to a massive carbon footprint: Fossil fuels produced on public land create roughly a billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution every year, about as much as 285 coal plants.

Watch: Bill Nye the Science Guy Debates Ken Ham (the Creationist Guy)

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 3:02 PM EST

As we reported earlier, the case for evolution is a slam dunk. Nonetheless, a lot of people don't accept it, and tonight at 7 pm ET, a mega debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham, leader of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, goes forward. The debate will be at the museum itself. It is at 7 pm ET, and can be watched live above.

For more of our coverage of evolution, see below. I will be live tweeting the debate on Twitter; follow me here.

Here's What People Are Saying About the Big Keystone XL Report

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 5:29 PM EST

The end is in sight for the tumultuous public debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. On Friday, the State Department released its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for TransCanada Corporation's controversial pipeline project—and concluded that approving the pipeline to carry oil from Alberta's tar sands would have little impact on climate change.

The environmental assessment is one of the last major reports awaited by President Obama before he decides whether or not to approve construction of the pipeline. In his June speech on climate change, Obama said he would sanction the pipeline "only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." The pipeline requires State Department review because it crosses the international border between the US and Canada.

Obama's final decision is still weeks away. But reactions to the report are already plentiful—here's a sampling.

A statement from 350.org, the environmental organization founded by climate change activist Bill McKibben, reads, in part, "The President has already laid out a climate test for Keystone XL, that it can't significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. It's  clear that Keystone XL fails that test…the pipeline would pose an astronomical cost to our climate and a huge risk to families along the pipeline route. Keystone XL will fuel the climate crisis, which means more drought, more fires, more extreme weather events, and a more cost to our economy and the environment."

Larry Schweiger, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, tells the Washington Post:

Regardless of what the EIS says, the Canadians have admitted that the amount of carbon they're going to be releasing from the tar sands will increase Canada's total emissions by 38 percent by 2030 instead of reducing emissions when all the science says that's what we need to do in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Cindy Schild, senior manager for refining and oil sands policy at the American Petroleum Institute, told Bloomberg News, "If they can't show this project is in our national interest, what is? The only thing left [is] for the president to decide that this project is in our national interest."

Brian Straessle, a spokesman for API, added, "The president has had five years of inaction on the Keystone XL pipeline. If 2014 is really his 'year of action,' he should start by approving Keystone."

In a statement, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the Natural Resources Defense Council's international program director, said, "This is far from over. Next we must address whether the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would be in America's national interest. To that question, there is only one answer: No. The evidence is overwhelming that this project would significantly worsen carbon pollution, endanger our farms, our homes and our fresh water, create few jobs and transport dirty tar sands to the Gulf for export."

Only Obama Can Block the Keystone Pipeline Now

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 5:04 PM EST
Activists protest the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House.

The decision on whether or not to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, has always been President Obama's to make. But the environmental stakes are so high—leading climate scientist James Hansen is fond of referring to the pipeline as "game over for the climate" because it would promote the extraction of one of the dirtiest kinds of oil—that a decision has been delayed for the last few years as the State Department carries out a review of the project's likely environmental impact.

That wait ended today, as State released its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The report says the annual carbon emissions from producing, refining, and burning the oil the pipeline would move (830,000 barrels per day) would add up to 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. (By contrast, the typical coal-fired power plant produces 3.5 million metric tons of CO2 annually.) That sounds like a lot, but the report comes with an important caveat:

Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.

In other words, according to the report, those emissions are likely to happen whether the president approves Keystone XL or not. That's an important distinction, given that President Obama has already said that in order to gain approval, the pipeline must not increase carbon emissions. But there are other ways to move oil: For example, the report mentions that "rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if pipelines are delayed or not constructed." Rail transit is already underway; yesterday an ExxonMobil exec said the company had begun to use trains to pack oil out of the tar sands (despite their pretty awful safety record). But if the oil is going to be extracted (and the emissions emitted) one way or another, the case for blocking the pipeline per se becomes less clear.

There's still one more important document yet to be released by State: an investigation by the department's internal Inspector General into a potential conflict of interest by a contractor who helped produce the report, Environmental Resources Management. As Mother Jones first reported, State Department officials took steps to conceal that some ERM employees had ties to companies that would profit from the pipeline's construction. Last December, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz) led a coalition of House members who asked the president to delay release of the environmental impact statement until after the Inspector General's report is released, which is not expected for several more weeks.

How 2 Inches of Snow Created a Traffic Nightmare in Atlanta

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 2:17 PM EST
Gridlock in Atlanta.

This article originally appeared on Conor Sen's personal site and was published by the Atlantic. It is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

I know what you’re thinking (I grew up outside of D.C. and Boston): "How can 2 inches of snow shut down Atlanta?"

Before I got here, I thought that too. I wonder it every time there's a run on the grocery stores before a storm, or when some other city cancels schools before a flake has even hit the ground.

And surely, the drivers play a part. I was out getting coffee around noon yesterday, just when things were starting to get bad (at the time there was, at most, a half inch of snow on the ground), and set out to drive my 2 miles home, a straight shot on a fairly major surface street. It took me around 30 minutes. Part of the reason was one of the drivers in front of me (with Tennessee plates) was going 5 miles-per-hour in a 35 miles-per-hour zone with no cars in front of them. But even with my car—2013 model, 10,000 miles on it—I was skidding at times on the gentle incline of a street that hadn't been treated with sand/salt/gravel at all.

My wife left work in Woodstock, a city 30-35 miles northwest of here, a little after noon yesterday, and took 3.5 hours to get home. She was one of the lucky ones.

Yes, Atlanta has many drivers who are inexperienced in the snow, but for a region that gets a storm (I know, I know "2 inches = storm") like this at most once every few years, how is anyone supposed to be experienced in the snow? How do you think San Francisco would handle a couple inches of snow? Going north/south on Franklin or Gough, or east/west on Fell or Oak? How do you think the N-Judah out in Cole Valley or the Sunset would handle it? This is a metro area of 6 million people, and it's time to think beyond "those silly southern drivers."

Metro areas of 6 million people need to be prepared for anything.

Which leads into the blame game. Republicans want to blame government (a Democrat thing) or Atlanta (definitely a Democrat thing). Democrats want to blame the region's dependence on cars (a Republican thing), the state government (Republicans), and many of the transplants from more liberal, urban places feel the same way you might about white, rural, southern drivers. All of this is true to some extent but none of it is helpful.

How much money do you set aside for snowstorms when they're as infrequent as they are? Who will run the show—the city, the county, or the state? How will preparedness work? You could train everyone today, and then if the next storm hits in 2020, everyone you've trained might have moved on to different jobs, with Atlanta having a new mayor and Georgia having a new governor.

Regionalism here is hard. The population of this state has doubled in the past 40-45 years, and many of the older voters who control it still think of it as the way it was when they were growing up. The urban core of Atlanta is a minority participant in a state government controlled by rural and northern Atlanta exurban interests. The state government gives MARTA (Atlanta's heavy rail transportation system) no money. There's tough regional and racial history here which is both shameful and a part of the inheritance we all have by being a part of this region. Demographics are evolving quickly, but government moves more slowly. The city in which I live, Brookhaven, was incorporated in 2012. This is its first-ever snowstorm (again, 2 inches). It's a fairly affluent, mostly white, urban small city. We were unprepared too.

The issue is that you have three layers of government—city, county, state—and none of them really trust the other. And why should they? Cobb County just "stole the Braves" from the city of Atlanta. Why would Atlanta cede transportation authority to a regional body when its history in dealing with the region/state has been to carve up Atlanta with highways and never embrace its transit system? Why would the region/state want to give more authority to Atlanta when many of the people in the region want nothing to do with the city of Atlanta unless it involves getting to work or a Braves game?

The region tried, in a very tough economy and political year (2012), to pass a comprehensive transportation bill, a T-SPLOST, funded by a sales tax. It wasn't perfect, but it was an attempt to do something. The Sierra Club opposed it because it didn't feature enough transit. The NAACP opposed it because it didn't have enough contracts for minority businesses. The tea party opposed it because it was a tax. That's politics in the 2010s. You may snicker, but how good a job has any major city done with big transportation projects over the past 30 years?

As anyone paying attention knows, Atlanta's finally moving in the right direction. The Beltline build-out is underway and reshaping neighborhoods. Downtown is finally getting some investment, and we'll see how useful it is, but it's building a streetcar that will be up and running this year, with plans in the works for extensions. More and more counties in the region are tipping from red to purple/blue (Henry, Gwinnett, soon Cobb), which should help ease some of the racial and partisan tensions associated with regionalism. Most of the development dollars in a region driven by real estate are now flowing to urban, walkable projects. There are increasingly serious conversations about extending MARTA to the north and east. We've become one of the top 3 markets in the country for electric vehicle sales.

But clearly, there's work to be done.

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You Might Be Cold Right Now, But Your Planet Isn't

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Snow in Georgia from Winter Storm Leon

This week, the Central, Southern, and Eastern United States have all experienced yet another bout of frigid cold and snow, one that left motorists in the Atlanta area stranded in their cars overnight. Freezing air from the Arctic has been an all too frequent visitor this month, and with this latest arrival we've seen record-low daily temperatures for Detroit (minus-9 degrees), Grand Rapids, Michigan (minus-9 degrees), and Lubbock, Texas (7 degrees), among other locations, according to Weather Underground.

There's no denying that it's cold out; and once again, that's prompting anecdotal claims that somehow, global warming is in question. Yet it's important to bear in mind that just because you're freezing—or even have seen a new daily record-low temperature in the particular place where you live—that doesn't mean that what's happening to you accurately reflects what's happening to the planet overall, or even to the United States.

In other words, don't be the white-capped guy in this XKCD comic:

So how do you avoid this particularly annoying kind of weather-induced cluelessness? Rather than thinking with your gut about cold temperatures, try thinking with your (or, science's) statistics.

Consider: If global warming is not happening, then scientists say that the planet ought to be breaking just as many hot temperature records as cold temperature records overall. In a warming climate, however, you would naturally break more hot records than cold records over time. So what kind of climate do we live in?

According to data from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the United States has set 1,347 daily low temperature records so far in January 2014, and tied another 304, for a total of 1,651. (A daily record refers to the highest or lowest temperature recorded in a particular place on a particular day of the year, as opposed to an all-time record, which is the highest or lowest temperature ever recorded in that place on any day.) When it comes to daily highs, by contrast, there have been only 489 new records and 237 tied records (many of them in the West and in Alaska), for a total of 726. (These records are updated regularly; our results are based on a search conducted yesterday evening.)

So based on just this month alone, record lows are indeed outpacing record highs. The data are clear: We've had a very cold month.

Yet if you zoom out and examine the long-term trend, things look different. In a 2009 paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, for instance, a team of climate and weather researchers analyzed the ratio of daily hot records to daily cold records from 1950 to 2006, with a careful sampling of overall weather station data. The result? They found that the ratio of hot records to cold records has been rising since the 1970s, and by the 2000s stood at about 2-to-1. That's precisely what you'd expect to see if global warming is happening. Here's a visualization of their results:

Ratio of daily record highs to daily record lows in the lower 48 United States, from Meehl et al, "Relative increase of record high maximum temperatures compared to record low minimum temperatures in the U.S.," Geophysical Research Letters, 2009.
Mike Shibao/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

That study only runs through 2006, however. So can we bring it up to date?

The Weather Channel's Guy Walton, a coauthor on the paper cited above, keeps a regular tally of NCDC weather records, and emails out his compilation to interested parties. One limitation is that according to Walton, this approach does not control for different weather station ages or other complicating factors. In other words, these data are not as carefully scrubbed as those used in the peer-reviewed study above. Nonetheless, based on Walton's latest analysis of the data, the decade of the 2000s saw 312,746 daily record highs, compared with only 156,494 daily record lows, for a roughly 2-1 ratio overall. And if you consider the 2010s so far, Walton's data show 91,383 daily record highs, compared with only 38,881 record lows, for a ratio that is well over 2-to-1.

So in sum: January has been a cold month for the United States. But it's not reflective of the recent past, nor of what's expected over the long term.

Obama Just Doubled Down on His Climate Plan—Here's What Else He Could Do

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 12:51 PM EST

Updated 1/28/14, 10:30 pm ET: Reminding lawmakers that the debate over climate science is "settled," President Obama used his State of the Union address tonight to reiterate his administration's commitment to adopting stringent new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and tougher fuel efficiency rules for heavy trucks.

But Obama also doubled down on his controversial "all-of-the-above" energy strategy. He touted the role that natural gas extraction has played in reducing US carbon emissions while also saying he would work with the fracking industry to adopt stronger environmental protections.

But even with an obstinate and unproductive Congress, these aren't the only policy options available to the president; last week, the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University released a report co-authored by former Colorado governor Bill Ritter that details 200 climate actions Obama could take without Congress.

Earlier today, we outlined a few ideas:

1. Continue the crackdown on coal pollution: This month the Environmental Protection Agency released a new draft of rules that would strictly curtail emissions of carbon dioxide from new coal-fired power plants; a second set of rules that would apply to existing plants is expected later this year. Slashing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, which account for roughly a third of country's total GHG emissions, is a major pillar of the president's climate platform, even though a lengthy review process and probable legal challenges from the coal industry mean the rules aren't likely to take effect before the end of his term. But in the absence of a national price on carbon or other legislation, regulations like this are the most significant way the president can promote a transition away from our dirtiest power sources. 

2. Fix fracking: Today, regulations for natural gas drilling companies are mainly applied by states, but the president has an opportunity to influence the industry's practices when it shows up to drill on federal land. The Colorado State report calls on the Bureau of Land Management to apply stringent rules for fracking on public land, like full disclosure of what's in the fracking chemical cocktail, zero tolerance for methane leaks from wells and pipes (a major, unregulated source of highly potent greenhouse gases), and more efficienct water-use practices. The president also needs to set a more concrete timeline for how long fracking, often described as a "bridge" fuel between coal and renewables, will continue to be a major source of domestic energy, said Bill Becker, the report's co-author and executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

"We recognize that natural gas is a logical transition fuel," Becker added. "But we think that should be happening a lot faster than it's happening now."

Somehow, Becker said, the president needs to reconcile his "all of the above" energy plan with his stated goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; working with the fracking industry to cut methane leaks is a great place to start.

Donald Trump's Climate Conspiracy Theory

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 12:53 PM EST

When chilling cold first descended in early January, we had an occasion to correct Donald Trump on climate science. To do so, we simply explained that the widely recognized phenomenon known as winter doesn't refute global warming, especially since winter is inherently limited to one hemisphere. (In a widely lampooned tweet, Trump had cited "record low temps" in arguing that "this very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.")

Alas, Trump has now dug himself deeper into the snow drift. Here are the latest tweets:

With this, Trump joins the grand tradition of climate science conspiracy theorizing, as epitomized by Senator James Inhofe 2012 book title: The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. By using the word "hoax," Inhofe and Trump are suggesting that there is a conscious attempt to mislead us with fake, trumped up science, in the service of political goals.

So how do you refute this global warming conspiracy theory? Simple: You merely have to explain what a real global warming conspiracy would actually entail, whereupon the utter implausibility of the scenario becomes obvious.

For a global warming conspiracy to exist, you'd need scientists around the world to be in on it. Not scientists at one university, or scientists in one country. Scientists everywhere, from Australia to Japan, from China to America.

This is scarcely possible, especially in light of the incentive structure in science: Scientists advance and get promoted by publishing original research that is highly cited by other scientists. And it is hard to imagine a better citation-grabbing paper than one that seriously refuted what most scientists in a given field believe to be true. There is therefore a huge incentive for a scientist or group of scientists to upset everything we thought we knew about climate change, assuming that this could be achieved in a serious scientific paper that passes peer review and stands the test of time. A researcher who achieved such a feat would be on a parallel, as far as fame and renown goes, with someone like Alfred Wegner, who originally proposed the revolutionary idea of continental drift.

The incentives, therefore, are very much against maintaining a climate conspiracy. The incentives instead tilt towards exposing it. And that makes the 97-percent consensus on climate change among scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature that much more powerful.

Finally, let's take on this idea that scientists are in it for the money, which may or may not be implied by Trump's first tweet above, but is a frequent fixture of global warming conspiracy theories. According to 2012-2013 data from the American Association of University Professors, the average salary for a US assistant professor at a doctorate-granting institution was $76,822. Salaries rise as high as an average of $134,747 for full professors at doctorate-level institutions, but that's academia's most coveted level, and not everybody gets there.

Surely Trump and other conservatives who believe in the power of the free market can see that people who want the big bucks are likely to embark on a different career path.

No, Climate Change Is Not Waking Bears From Hibernation

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 2:33 PM EST
A black bear hunkers down near a pile of garbage in Sacramento last fall.

Last week, a rogue black bear made a cameo appearance for skiers at the Heavenly Mountain Resort near Lake Tahoe. The month before, a 260-pound male bear had to be put down by wildlife officials after breaking into several cars and a home in the same area. The spate of run-ins comes as California's brutal drought lingers on, with snowpack in the Sierra Nevada at a fifth of its normal level, leading several news outlets to suggest that balmy conditions have led bears here to awaken prematurely from their annual winter slumber.

That's a nice hypothesis, but according to the California Department Fish and Wildlife, there's nothing to it. Five to 15 percent of the Tahoe area's 300 black bears stay awake every winter, said CDFW biologist Jason Holley, and "we don't have any evidence to support that there's any more this winter." In fact, Holley said, the last few months of 2013 saw fewer bear complaints than average.

SF Chron front page
The front page of a recent San Francisco Chronicle. There's no evidence that more bears are awake this year than in an average year, officials said. Clara Jeffery/Mother Jones

So why all the hullabaloo? Holley's guess is that the drought cut down supplies of the bears' natural food sources—mainly grass, berries, and insects, although they'll eat just about anything—forcing those that are normally awake anyway to wander further afield, i.e., onto your ski slope or into your backyard. Not that the bears mind much.

"They are very adaptive and very mobile, so they will usually be able to take care of their daily needs in a drought situation," Holley said. "But then they're coming down to the lake to drink a lot, coming down for food. If the drought persists, it greatly increases the odds of a negative interaction with people."

What motivates some bears to stay awake while others hibernate is still somewhat of a mystery to scientists, according to Roger Baldwin, a wildlife specialist at the University of California-Davis who has conducted extensive research on bear behavior. When small mammals (a squirrel, say) hibernate, their heart rate and body temperature drop radically, toeing death's doorstep without actually stepping over, and stay that way for several months. Black bears, on the other hand, are much less extreme: They crank down their metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature just enough to get seriously lazy, but are still with it enough to be "perfectly capable of taking a swipe at you if you crawl into the den with them," Baldwin said, so rousting them is neither uncommon nor difficult.