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19 February 2017. Humans Are Changing Climate Faster Than Natural Forces

By Melissa Davey, The Guardian

For the first time, researchers have developed a mathematical equation to describe the impact of human activity on the earth, finding people are causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces.

The equation was developed in conjunction with Professor Will Steffen, a climate change expert and researcher at the Australian National University, and was published in the journal The Anthropocene Review.

Planet Earth.
Credit: NASA Goddard/flickr

The authors of the paper wrote that for the past 4.5 billion years astronomical and geophysical factors have been the dominating influences on the Earth system. The Earth system is defined by the researchers as the biosphere, including interactions and feedbacks with the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and upper lithosphere.

But over the past six decades human forces “have driven exceptionally rapid rates of change in the Earth system,” the authors wrote, giving rise to a period known as the Anthropocene.

“Human activities now rival the great forces of nature in driving changes to the Earth system,” the paper said.

Steffen and his co-researcher, Owen Gaffney, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, came up with an “Anthropocene Equation” to determine the impact of this period of intense human activity on the earth.

Explaining the equation in New Scientist, Gaffney said they developed it “by homing in on the rate of change of Earth’s life support system: the atmosphere, oceans, forests and wetlands, waterways and ice sheets and fabulous diversity of life”.

“For four billion years the rate of change of the Earth system has been a complex function of astronomical and geophysical forces plus internal dynamics: Earth’s orbit around the sun, gravitational interactions with other planets, the sun’s heat output, colliding continents, volcanoes and evolution, among others,” he wrote.

“In the equation, astronomical and geophysical forces tend to zero because of their slow nature or rarity, as do internal dynamics, for now. All these forces still exert pressure, but currently on orders of magnitude less than human impact.”

According to Steffen these forces have driven a rate of change of 0.01°C per century.

Greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans over the past 45 years, on the other hand, “have increased the rate of temperature rise to 1.7 degrees Celsius per century, dwarfing the natural background rate,” he said.

This represented a change to the climate that was 170 times faster than natural forces.

“We are not saying the astronomical forces of our solar system or geological processes have disappeared, but in terms of their impact in such a short period of time they are now negligible compared with our own influence,” Steffen said.

“Crystallising this evidence in the form of a simple equation gives the current situation a clarity that the wealth of data often dilutes.

“What we do is give a very specific number to show how humans are affecting the earth over a short timeframe. It shows that while other forces operate over millions of years, we as humans are having an impact at the same strength as the many of these other forces, but in the timeframe of just a couple of centuries.

“The human magnitude of climate change looks more like a meteorite strike than a gradual change.”

Gaffney and Steffen wrote that while the Earth system had proven resilient, achieving millions of years of relative stability due to the complex interactions between the Earth’s core and the biosphere, human societies would be unlikely to fare so well.

Failure to reduce anthropological climate change could “trigger societal collapse”, their research concluded.

Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.

18 February 2017. Wind Briefly Sets Record as Source for Electricity in U.S.

By Scott DiSavino, Reuters

Wind briefly powered more than 50 percent of electric demand on Feb. 12, the 14-state Southwest Power Pool (SPP) said, for the first time on any North American power grid. 

SPP coordinates the flow of electricity on the high voltage power lines from Montana and North Dakota to New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana.

Windmills are seen in Mojave, Calif., Nov. 1, 2014.
Credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Wind power in the SPP region has grown significantly to over 16,000 MW currently from less than 400 megawatts in the early 2000s and is expected to continue growing. One megawatt can power about 1,000 homes.

"Ten years ago, we thought hitting even a 25 percent wind-penetration level would be extremely challenging, and any more than that would pose serious threats to reliability," SPP Vice President of Operations Bruce Rew said in a statement.

"Now we have the ability to reliably manage greater than 50 percent wind penetration. It's not even our ceiling," Rew said.

Wind power briefly reached 52.1 percent at 4:30 a.m. local time on Sunday, SPP said on Monday, beating the previous penetration milestone of 49.2 percent. Wind penetration is a measure of the amount of total load served by wind at a given time.

Currently, wind is the third biggest source of generation in the SPP region, making up about 15 percent of capacity in 2016 behind natural gas and coal. This is the first time that wind was even briefly more than 50 percent of the source of electric power at any U.S. grid, according to SPP. 

"With a (generation) footprint as broad as ours, even if the wind stops blowing in the upper Great Plains, we can deploy resources waiting in the Midwest and Southwest to make up any sudden deficits," Rew said.

Of the 11 states that received more than 10 percent of their power from wind in 2015, the top five are Iowa at 31 percent, South Dakota at 25 percent, Kansas at 24 percent, Oklahoma at 18 percent and North Dakota at 18 percent, all at least partially located in the SPP grid, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Some of the biggest wind farms in the grid are operated by units of Sempra Energy, BP Plc, EDP Energias de Portugal SA, Southern Co and NextEra Energy Inc.

Reporting by Eileen Soreng in Bangaluru and Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

17 February 2017. California Farmers Use Floodwater to Replenish Aquifers

As dam managers were draining water from a Northern Californian reservoir this week to avert what could have been one of the worst flood disasters in the state’s history, Southern California farmer Don Cameron was doing something different with the watery winter excess.

Using a network of levees and irrigation gates, Cameron inundated the orchards, vineyards and vegetable and alfalfa fields of Terranova Ranch, a farm in Fresno County that he manages, using the power of gravity to drive water back into an ailing underground aquifer.

A vineyard deliberatedly flooded this week at Terranova Ranch.
Credit: Don Cameron/Terranova Ranch

Similar approaches are being considered and tested statewide as California confronts the impacts of aging infrastructure, rising temperatures and decades of unsustainable use of water from wells. Groundwater recharging can reduce flood risks, boost water storage and alleviate the sinking of lands that often follows heavy groundwater pumping.

“Our primary source of water is groundwater,” Cameron said. “We have a reservoir under our farm that needs to be replenished, and it’s a lot more easy to do that than try to build above-ground structures.”


Nearly 200,000 Californians were evacuated this week after heavy winter rains following years of drought nearly overtopped the Oroville Dam, which is the tallest in the state. Two emergency spillways used to flush excess water from the reservoir were damaged.

“The Oroville crisis certainly does seem like a call to work with nature, rather than against her, by expanding groundwater storage as opposed to big new dams,” said Kate Poole, a leader of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program. “There are many fewer environmental problems associated with groundwater storage.”

Rising temperatures are projected to cause California’s powerful winter storms to dump more rain and less snow, and to hasten the melting of snowpacks, requiring more water to be captured in winter and spring for use in the warmer months.

Water is released from the Lake Oroville Dam after an evacuation was ordered downstream from the dam in Oroville, Calif.
Credit: REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Efforts to build or expand above-ground water reservoirs are hampered by their heavy environmental impacts. Reservoirs inundate valley ecosystems, release heat-trapping methane and threaten downstream communities with flood disasters if the dam wall fails.

California voters in 2014 approved $2.7 billion in spending to boost water storage, part of a $7.5 billion water bond. Also in 2014, state lawmakers passed bills requiring agencies to manage groundwater more sustainably.

Stanford University’s Water in the West program estimated the $2.7 billion could be used to boost underground water storage in California by nearly 3 trillion gallons. That was six times the amount of storage that could be gained if the money was used instead to build and expand above-ground reservoirs.

Sometimes pumps are used to drive waters from the surface down into aquifers, but oftentimes gravity alone does the trick, with water percolating quickly below the surface after it’s deliberately pooled over quick-draining soils and rocks.

Although California’s farming regions are already strewn with levees, pumps and other infrastructure used to corral and move water, there are limits to how existing infrastructure could be used to boost groundwater storage.

“Irrigation infrastructure was designed to move smaller amounts of water,” said Helen Dahlke, a hydrologist at University of California, Davis. “Most infrastructure doesn’t have the capacity to move large water amounts, such as we have during storm or flood flows.”

Terranova Ranch plans to expand its groundwater-storage efforts, with construction of new infrastructure planned by next summer. Analysis of its groundwater storage efforts five years ago, which was the last time California endured widespread flooding, showed the water was stored at a tiny fraction of the cost of new dam building.

Similar planning is underway elsewhere. Kern County-based Semitropic Water Storage District, which provides water to cities and farms, plans to publish an environmental review this summer detailing its plans for capturing flood waters by corralling and funneling them through the earth into a natural aquifer.

“We’re trying to identify ways to augment our water supply,” general manager Jason Gianquinto said. “So here’s an opportunity to capture floodwater.”


17 February 2017. 100 Days of Climate: Week 5

Addressing climate change using sound science is crucial not just for the U.S., but for the world. Unfortunately, that appears unlikely over the next four years under the Trump administration, which has shown signs of being apathetic if not outright hostile to climate science and science-based policies to rein in carbon pollution.

Trump has promised to rid the country of Obama’s climate policies while simultaneously propping up coal and oil, the two biggest energy sources of carbon pollution. That’s despite the fact that climate science indicates now is the time when more urgent action is needed to address climate change.

With an anti-climate agenda likely in Trump’s first 100 days, Climate Central is going  to underscore the value of science and rational approaches to policy making over that span. We’ll be tweeting facts, stories and videos that provide key scientific context of the choices humanity faces and what policy actions (or inactions) mean. We’ll be chronicling them all right here, so check back every day to see what science tells us about our warming world and what we should be doing about it.

Feb. 17-Feb. 23

Day 29, Feb. 17: Here’s how climate change may alter “critical” atmospheric rivers #climate100    

Feb. 10-Feb. 16

Before and after satellite imagery show an iceberg breaking off the calving front of the Pine Island Glacier.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Day 22, Feb. 10: Our warming world could lead to individual storms that produce heavier snow #climate100    
Day 23, Feb. 11: The Dakota Access pipeline has been greenlighted. Here’s what that means for carbon emissions    
Day 24, Feb. 12: NOAA lets the public create climate visuals with the click of a button #climate100    
Day 25, Feb. 13: The planet is losing sea ice. This winter is a dramatic sign of that trend #climate100    
Day 26, Feb. 14: The U.S. is more than 1/3 of the way toward meeting its commitment to the Paris Agreement    
Day 27, Feb. 15: Satellites reveal how our world is changing. Here’s what they just saw in Antarctica #climate100    
Day 28, Feb. 16: January 2017 continued the trend of planetary heat #climate100    

Feb. 3-Feb. 9

Day 15, Feb. 3: The language on EPA climate pages is starting to change (and disappear in some cases) #climate100    
Day 16, Feb. 4: These maps show what’s at risk along the U.S. coast from sea level rise  #climate100    
Day 17, Feb. 5: January was the 27th consecutive month the U.S. set more high temp records than low temp records #climate100    
Day 18, Feb. 6: Our infrastructure will get more vulnerable as extreme heat events increase #climate100    
Day 19, Feb. 7: Unprecedented Arctic warmth is an example of how carbon pollution is reshaping the planet    
Day 20, Feb. 8: Snow cover in North America is on the decline in part due to climate change #climate100  
Day 21, Feb. 9: Coastal cities could flood three times a week by 2045 as seas rise #climate100  

Jan. 27-Feb. 2

Credit: NOAA

Day 8, Jan. 27: The group @500womensci brought together women researchers advocating for equality #climate100    
Day 9, Jan. 28: New research shows we’re even closer to the 1.5°C warming threshold #climate100    
Day 10, Jan. 29: This new NOAA satellite will dramatically improve weather forecasts #climate100    
Day 11, Jan. 30: Syria's worst drought in 900 years helped spark a refugee crisis #climate100    
Day 12, Jan. 31: One of the nation’s biggest climate polluting power plants could close this year #climate100    
Day 13, Feb. 1: Warming winters pose serious economic consequences in states reliant on winter tourism #climate100    
Day 14, Feb. 2: Limiting methane emissions, like from natural gas pipes, is key to curbing climate change #climate100    

Jan. 20-26

Credit: Anthony Quintano/flickr

Day 1, Jan. 20: Data is the bedrock for all we know about climate change. Here's why we need to save it #climate100    
Day 2, Jan. 21: Women are the true face of climate change #climate100 #womensmarch    
Day 3, Jan. 22: Outbreaks with more tornadoes are becoming more extreme #climate100    
Day 4, Jan. 23: NASA & NOAA have declared 2016 to be the hottest year in 137 years of record keeping #climate100    
Day 5, Jan. 24: Trump has frozen EPA funds at a time when climate research is more important than ever #climate100    
Day 6, Jan. 25: The EPA has reportedly been told to kill their climate change webpage via @Reuters #climate100    
Day 7, Jan. 26: Scientists have proposed a #ScienceMarch to advocate for evidence-based policies #climate100    

Climate Central's science programs (hover to learn more): 

16 February 2017. This January Was the Third Warmest on Record Globally

While a powerful El Niño has faded, the globe’s heat continues to be an enduring phenomenon due largely to carbon pollution. This January was the third-warmest January on record, according to data released this week from both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The agencies use different baselines and techniques to measure the Earth’s temperature. NASA’s data shows the planet was 1.7°F above the 1951-1980 average while NOAA’s data indicates the planet was 1.6°F above the 20th century average.

Data show large parts of Eurasia, North America and the Arctic were extremely warm for January.
Credit: NASA

Both datasets show largely similar patterns of warm and cold spots. The eastern half of North America and parts of Russia and China were all well above normal for this time of year while Europe and the western U.S. were on the cooler side.


The real planetary hot spot was the Arctic, though. NASA’s analysis includes the region, which was blistering by January standards. Large areas saw temperatures that were up to 9°F above normal. The heat has continued into February with another wave of air up to 50°F above normal reaching the North Pole in the past week.

NOAA's analysis shows similar patterns of warm and cool areas around the world compared to NASA's analysis.
Credit: NOAA

The persistent warmth has contributed to record-low sea ice. Arctic sea ice usually tops out in mid-March and it’s possible that it could hit a record-low maximum for the third year in a row. The disappearance of Arctic sea ice is one of the clearest indicators of how climate change is altering natural systems around the world.

The global temperature, though, is the big kahuna of climate indicators. After last year’s string of record setting months, this year’s third-warmest January may not sound that worrisome. But when it comes to climate change, it’s all about the trends. The world has warmed more than 1.8°F since record keeping began, punctuated by record annual heat in 2014, 2015 and 2016. In comparison, there hasn’t been a record cold year since 1911.

Whether a given month sets a record or not is secondary to the bigger picture that the Earth has warmed and it’s being driven by human carbon pollution.


15 February 2017. Antarctica Just Shed a Manhattan-Sized Chunk of Ice

The growing crack in the Larsen C ice shelf is the most dramatic example of change in Antarctica right now. But it isn’t the continent’s only frozen feature changing in a warming world.

Ice around the continent is disappearing as the air and water heat up and the less dramatic breakdowns are just as important to understanding the fate of the ice and the world’s coastal areas.

Before and after satellite imagery show an iceberg breaking off the calving front of the Pine Island Glacier.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

The Pine Island Glacier on the coast of West Antarctica is a case in point. A massive iceberg roughly 225 square miles in size — or in more familiar terms, 10 times the size of Manhattan — broke off in July 2015. Scientists subsequently spotted cracks in the glacier on a November 2016 flyover. And in January, another iceberg cleaved off the glacier.

Satellite imagery captured the most recent calving event, which Ohio State glaciologist Ian Howat said “ is the equivalent of an ‘aftershock’” following the July 2015 event. The iceberg was roughly “only” the size of Manhattan, underscoring just how dramatic the other breakups have been.


Simon Gascoin, an ice and remote sensing expert at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, noted on Twitter that another crack could be seen just inland from where the iceberg calved off, raising the possibility of another calving event.

In an email, he said that it’s hard to tie these individual events to climate change, but “many studies have shown that Pine Island Glacier is retreating and thinning. That the recent rifting and calving could totally be evidence of an ongoing, rapid disintegration of the ice shelf, mostly due to ocean warming.”


The ocean under Pine Island Glacier’s ice shelf has warmed about 1°F since the 1990s. That’s causing the ice shelf to melt and pushing the grounding line — the point where the ice begins to float — back toward land, creating further instability.

Since 1992, Pine Island and some of its glacial brethren in West Antarctica have seen the fastest grounding line retreat of any glaciers on the continent.

Cracks have formed elsewhere on Pine Island Glacier including about six miles inland from the calving front, according to NASA. It’s not time to put the glacier and its ice shelf on death watch like the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula, but it’s ice that researchers plan to monitor closely in the coming years.

The glaciers and ice shelves help hold back a massive ice sheet on land. Their failure would send that ice to the ocean, pushing sea levels up to 13 feet higher than they are today. Some research has indicated that the melt of these glaciers is unstoppable, though their disappearance won’t necessarily happen overnight.

Other part of Antarctica from the peninsula to East Antarctica are also in danger of slowly melting out and raising sea levels. Cutting carbon pollution presents the only path forward to stave off the worst impacts of a melting Antarctic.


14 February 2017. America’s Climate Pollution is Falling, EPA Report Says

After two years of increases, greenhouse gas emissions fell in 2015, reducing America’s overall climate pollution to below 1994 levels, according to a draft Environmental Protection Agency report published Tuesday.

The decline in 2015 was mainly because that year’s mild winter reduced demand for heat across the country, and electric power companies were using less coal and more natural gas to generate electricity than in previous years, the report says. Emissions fell 2.2 percent overall.

An oil refinery near Anacortes, Wash.
Credit: Dana/flickr

The draft report is required to be produced annually under an agreement with the United Nations. It is open for public comment and scheduled to be finalized in April, according to an EPA statement.

“These numbers demonstrate the successfulness of the policies that were instituted by the Obama administration — the Clean Power Plan and incentives for renewable energy — to lower domestic carbon emissions,” said Michael Mann, a Penn State University climatologist. “And, this underscores how disastrous it would be if the Trump administration makes good on its threat to undo the progress that was made under the Obama administration.”


The U.S. has made significant progress in cutting its greenhouse gas pollution over the past decade. America’s overall climate pollution peaked in 2007 just before the Great Recession, and the trend has been generally downward ever since. (Emissions grew slightly in 2010, 2013 and 2014.)

The EPA’s report, which quantifies greenhouse gas emissions through 2015, does not reflect more recent data from the U.S. Department of Energy showing how much progress the U.S. is continuing to make in cutting its climate pollution, especially from electric power plants.

Cheap and abundant natural gas, in addition to mercury pollution regulations over the past decade, have been an incentive for electric companies to shut down their ageing coal-fired power plants in favor of plants that run on natural gas and renewables. That led to a major milestone in 2016: U.S. carbon emissions from electric power generation dipped below emissions from transportation for the first time.

After taking office at the height of the economic crisis, the Obama administration instituted new policies to ensure climate pollution would continue to drop. The Climate Action Plan called for broad energy reforms, including energy efficiency measures, power plant and vehicle pollution controls and support for renewable energy, all of which were intended to help the U.S. do its part in preventing global warming from exceeding 2°C (3.6 °F).

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions since 1990.
Credit: EPA

When the Obama administration committed to pollution cuts under the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, the administration finalized the Clean Power Plan, a rule that sought to curb climate pollution from coal-fired power plants and encouraged electric companies to use more natural gas and renewables.

The Trump administration, however, has made a show of dramatically reversing course, casting doubt on established climate science and scoffing at any actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The president has said he views climate regulations as overly burdensome to businesses and he has promised to kill the Clean Power Plan and gut the EPA, the agency that regulates human carbon dioxide emissions.

The Trump administration’s EPA transition team spokesman said in January that he expects all EPA data released during the transition to receive some political vetting, but scientists who reviewed the EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions report Tuesday said no political influence was immediately apparent in the report.

“I do not see anything in the report to indicate political interference,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

He said the report’s primary omission is large uncertainty in the amount of methane leaking from oil and gas wells.

The report shows that U.S. emissions of methane — a greenhouse gas about 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a span of 20 years — have fallen nearly 17 percent since 1990. The largest man-made source of methane is cattle production, followed by natural gas production, landfills, agricultural manure use and coal mining.

Cattle are the largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.
Credit: USDA

Methane emissions from natural gas production and use have fallen about 18 percent since 1990 as energy companies have plugged leaks in their pipelines by building them with more leak-proof materials, such as plastic, the report says.

But research has increasingly shown that the EPA’s annual greenhouse gas emissions tallies do not fully capture uncertainties in the amount of methane leaking from mines and oil and gas wells. Independent studies using different methods than the EPA have shown that more methane is leaking than EPA reports suggest partly because the EPA’s methods of tallying methane emissions differ than those used by some researchers.

“This highlights that, while I think this report is done in good faith and that these may well be the best numbers available, there are some uncertainties that seem glossed over,” Trenberth said. “At the same time, they do a thorough analysis to understand the trends or changes, and they note how many leaks have been improved by the use of plastic piping, etc.”


14 February 2017. Congress Protects Coasts From Climate Change With Mud

As California reels from record-breaking erosion following punishing waves last winter, the federal government is turning to mud and sand from dredging projects to slow land losses and ease flooding nationwide as seas rise and storms intensify.

Pacific Ocean storms strengthened by a powerful El Niño and global warming caused yawning erosion from Washington state to California a year ago. The problem was severe in the San Francisco Bay Area, where unprecedented beach losses were worsened by a shortage of shore-nourishing mud and sand that flows from mountain valleys to beaches through rivers and bays.

Ocean Beach in San Francisco was hit hard by erosion last winter.
Credit: Nick/Flickr

The combination of powerful storms and the sediment shortfall produced what U.S. Geological Survey coastal scientist Patrick Barnard called a “worst-case scenario” that “may be an indication of what’s to come.” Barnard led research published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications that measured unprecedented West Coast erosion from storms last winter.

During the final weeks of Obama’s presidency, Congress passed a water infrastructure bill that aimed, among other things, to curb worsening coastal erosion. The bill is an early bipartisan step toward reforming how the Army Corps of Engineers manages sediment scooped up while dredging for the shipping sector.

The bill was sponsored by Republicans and explicitly mentions sea level rise in a handful of places, a departure from recent efforts by some Republicans in Congress to downplay threats posed by climate change.

“What they’re hearing from their states is, ‘You guys, we have a problem here,’” said Sam Schuchat, executive director of the California State Coastal Conservancy, an agency that helps protect the state’s shores. “If we want to complete all the restoration that we want to do in the next 20 or 30 years, we’re going to need millions of cubic yards of sediment.”

Seas are rising at a hastening pace because heat-trapping pollution is expanding ocean water and melting ice, which is already causing routine flooding in some cities. Marshes and other natural coastal bulwarks can grow taller as seas rise, protecting against floods, but most of them need sediment-rich waters to do so.


The loss of shoreline-building sediment is coinciding with an increase in the rate at which seas are rising, making it harder for marshes and other coastal ecosystems to stay above water. Climate change is also exacerbating storms, which worsen erosion through powerful waves. The changes are increasing the urgency of America’s sediment crisis and starting to bring national attention to what once was an obscure issue.

The final version of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, or WIIN, didn’t go as far as some earlier drafts in reforming how sediment is handled, such as by laying out new rules for how the Army Corps uses its dredging spoils.

Instead, the law directs the agency to run 10 pilot projects across the country in which dredged sediment will be used to restore and protect coastlines instead of being dumped as waste, often at sea. That could lead to new rules and procedures affecting the use of sediment dug up during federal dredging work.

“Having some good pilot projects around the country that will demonstrate how to best use and how best to fund and plan for beneficial use projects will be very helpful,” said Derek Brockbank, executive director of American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, which represents coastal communities.

“Sediment rebuilds and restores our nation’s coastlines and needs to be treated as a valuable resource — not a waste product to be disposed of as cheaply as possible,” Brockbank said. “I’m pleased to see the WIIN Act encourage the beneficial use of dredged sediment.”

The Army Corps plans to finalize its list of pilot projects in the spring, at which point it may need to seek funding from Congress or agencies. “We don’t have a big pot of money that we can just go dip into for different projects,” said Theodore Brown, chief of planning and policy at the Army Corps.

Officials in the San Francisco Bay Area are already pushing to be included in the list of 10 pilot projects.

“Nobody opposes this,” said Larry Goldzband, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. “Everybody wants beneficial reuse. The question is, how can it get done in a way that fits within budgets?”

San Francisco’s Ocean Beach retreated 180 feet last winter, which was twice the annual average, Tuesday’s study showed. The beach failed to recover all of that lost ground during the warmer months before the winter erosion season began again.

Further south, the city of Pacifica declared a state of emergency last winter and residents were evacuated from neighborhoods atop crumbling cliffs.

The natural flow of sediment to the Golden Gate has slowed because of dam building upstream and years of drought, fueling a crisis for agencies charged with protecting coastlines. Sediment that reaches the Bay Area is frequently scooped up during ship channeling projects and dumped.

“A depleted beach leaves the communities more vulnerable to storm damages in subsequent winters — as is happening now,” said Barnard, the scientist who led the study. “The sediment deficit is an acute problem for many beaches throughout California.”

Evidence of the sediment shortage can be seen in the decline of marshlands that ring the rivers and bays of the San Francisco Bay Area, where voters last year approved restoration spending to protect roads and buildings from floods caused by rising seas, and across the Gulf Coast.

“This may not have been the largest El Niño event in the last 150 years — but it’s in the top three,” Barnard said. “As we have more of these extreme events, the impacts will then be compounded by accelerating sea level rise.”


13 February 2017. Sea Ice Hits Record Lows at Both Poles

Arctic temperatures have finally started to cool off after yet another winter heat wave stunted sea ice growth over the weekend. The repeated bouts of warm weather this season have stunned even seasoned polar researchers, and could push the Arctic to a record low winter peak for the third year in a row.

Meanwhile, Antarctic sea ice set an all-time record low on Monday in a dramatic reversal from the record highs of recent years.

Sea ice at both poles has been expected to decline as the planet heats up from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That trend is clear in the Arctic, where summer sea ice now covers half the area it did in the early 1970s. Sea ice levels in Antarctica are much more variable, though, and scientists are still unraveling the processes that affect it from year to year.

The large decline in Arctic sea ice allows the polar ocean to absorb more of the sun’s incoming rays, exacerbating warming in the region. The loss of sea ice also means more of the Arctic coast is battered by storm waves, increasing erosion and driving some native communities to move. The opening of the Arctic has also led to more shipping and commercial activity in an already fragile region.

‘Unusual Winter’

Temperatures in the Arctic have repeatedly spiked since the beginning of the freezing season last fall. The influx of warmth is caused by storms moving up from the Atlantic Ocean dragging warm air with them.

“This has been a most unusual winter,” Julienne Stroeve, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which tracks sea ice levels, said in an email.

Air temperature 2 meters above the surface for the Arctic north of 80 degrees latitude for 2017 (red), compared to 2016 (yellow), and the long-term average (blue).
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Zack LabeDanish Meteorological Institute

During this latest event, temperatures above 80 degrees north latitude reached nearly 30°F (15°C) above normal winter temperatures of about -22°F (-30°C). Temperatures over the weekend peaked above even the maximum seen during last winter, another exceptionally warm one for the Arctic.

The temperature rise, along with the winds and waves churned up by the storm, can stymie sea ice growth and even cause local melt.

Sea ice coverage is particularly low in the Barents and Kara seas, which sit north of Scandinavia and Russia and have been in the path of those incoming storms. In Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, which lies midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, snows melted over the weekend as temperatures rose above freezing.


With sea ice levels so low, it is possible that the Arctic will set a record low end-of-winter peak, which usually occurs in mid-March. If it does, this will be the third year in a row to set a record low maximum.

Stroeve said that this could be a sign that the significant losses of summer sea ice are starting to show up more in other seasons. As the fall freeze-up happens later and later, there is less time to accumulate winter sea ice.

Sea ice area isn’t the only way to measure the health of Arctic sea ice; the thickness of the sea ice has also suffered during the repeated incursions of warmth.

Thin ice is more susceptible to melt come spring and summer, though it doesn’t guarantee that summer will also see record lows. For example, despite record low levels of sea ice last summer, cool, cloudy weather kept melt somewhat in check. The season still finished with the second lowest summer minimum on record, though.

Antarctic Reversal

Antarctic sea ice is an altogether different beast. Instead of an ice-filled ocean surrounded by land, it is a continent surrounded by ocean that sees much more variability in sea ice levels from year to year for reasons that aren’t fully understood.

For several of the past few years, the sea ice that fringed Antarctic reached record highs. That growth of sea ice could have potentially been caused by the influx of freshwater as glaciers on land melted, or from changes in the winds that whip around the continent (changes that could be linked to warming or the loss of ozone high in the atmosphere).

But this year, a big spring meltdown in October and November suddenly reversed that trend and has led to continued record low sea ice levels as the summer melt season progressed. On Monday, Antarctic sea ice dropped to an all-time record low, beating out 1997.

Sea ice has been particularly low in the Amundsen Sea region of Western Antarctica, thanks to unusually high temperatures there. But it’s not clear what is ultimately driving this dramatic reversal in Antarctic sea ice, or whether it will be temporary or marks a longer-term shift.

“No one knows for sure what will happen, as there might be a rebounding from the very large decreases last year, or there might be a continuation of those decreases,” Claire Parkinson, a NASA sea ice researcher said in an email. “Whichever way it turns out, the added information will probably help scientists to get a better handle on the likely causes.”


12 February 2017. EU Must Shut All Coal Plants to Meet Paris Pledges

By Arthur Neslen, The Guardian

The European Union will “vastly overshoot” its Paris climate pledges unless its coal emissions are completely phased out within 15 years, a stress test of the industry has found.

Coal’s use is falling by about 1 percent a year in Europe but still generates a quarter of the continent’s power — and a fifth of its greenhouse gas emissions.

If Europe’s 300 coal plants run to the end of their natural lifespans, the EU nations will exceed their carbon budget for coal by 85 percent, according to a report by the respected thinktank Climate Analytics. It says the EU would need to stop using coal for electricity generation by 2030.

“Not only would existing coal plants exceed the EU’s emissions budget, but the 11 planned and announced plants would raise EU emissions to almost twice the levels required to keep warming to the Paris agreement’s long term temperature goal,” said Dr Michiel Schaeffer, Climate Analytics science director.

Wind and coal in the UK.
Credit: Andrew/flickr

The report will feed into a review of the EU’s Paris targets next year, which could see the bloc’s planned emissions cuts raised significantly, in line with an aspirational 1.5°C goal agreed at Paris.

Artur Runge-Metzger, the EU’s lead negotiator at the Paris talks said that the bloc’s first estimates indicated that a 95 percent emissions cut would be needed by 2050 to cap warming at 1.5°C, significantly higher than the 80 percent pledged in Paris.

“We are not only looking at what is technically feasible but what is socially bearable and how we are really going to manage that kind of transition,” he said.

Uncertainties stirred by the election of President Trump were causing “a lot of anxiety in the EU and that will spill over into the [low carbon] debate,” he added.

But the commission is making contingency plans. “You always need to look at several scenarios at the same time to be prepared and not to be surprised,” Runge-Metzger told the Guardian. “It’s a little bit like playing chess, isn’t it?”

Trump has promised a coal renaissance in the U.S. rust belt but coal plants will have to be shut across the planet by 2050 to prevent dangerous warming, the study says, with China planning to mothball its coal industry by 2040.

While the UK has Europe’s third highest capacity for coal, Germany and Poland are responsible for more than half of the EU’s coal emissions and will face the greatest challenges.

Germany is postponing its coal phase-out plans until after elections later this year. Poland, which is preparing a legal challenge to the EU’s climate policy, argues that it can plant trees to offset coal emissions, and one day apply experimental carbon capture and storage technology (CCS).

A Polish diplomatic source told the Guardian that Poland aimed to “develop the [carbon] sink potential of its forests as one of the most cost efficient ways to achieve the necessary reductions.”

Steps in that direction will be closely monitored by the commission. “Will the numbers really work?” Runge-Metzger asked. “If you count [existing forests] against emissions, I’m not sure whether that calculation will work in the end. We will have to see additional removals from the air, from land use and forestry which have a certain permanence.”

The UK on Wednesday recommitted to a coal phase-out by 2025 but environmentalists fear that “capacity payments” to seven coal plants worth £453m over the next four years could sabotage that deadline.

Earlier this week, the government granted another £78m to keep coal plants open next year — including £10m for Aberthaw, which has repeatedly violated emissions limits, according to a European court ruling last September.

James Thornton, the chief executive of the green law firm ClientEarth said that the UK’s plans were weak and filled with loopholes that coal operators could exploit to stay open.

“The first place we should see proof of ambition is in government subsidies,” he said. “When these are cut, investors catch on. So why are we still seeing subsidies for fossil fuel capacity?

“The government has not yet put its money where its mouth is,” he said

Anti-coal campaigners have been buoyed by a recent vote in the Irish Dail to divest from all fossil fuels, and a decision by Danish energy giant Dong Energy to stop burning coal at its power stations by 2023. Coal accounted for 80 percent of Dong’s fuel supplies a decade ago. 

Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.

11 February 2017. 90 Percent of New Power in Europe From Renewables

By Adam Vaughan, The Guardian

Renewable energy sources made up nearly nine-tenths of new power added to Europe’s electricity grids last year, in a sign of the continent’s rapid shift away from fossil fuels.

But industry leaders said they were worried about the lack of political support beyond 2020, when binding EU renewable energy targets end.

Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm in the UK.
Credit: StatKraft/flickr

Of the 24.5GW of new capacity built across the EU in 2016, 21.1GW — or 86 percent — was from wind, solar, biomass and hydro, eclipsing the previous high-water mark of 79 percent in 2014.

For the first time windfarms accounted for more than half of the capacity installed, the data from trade body WindEurope showed. Wind power overtook coal to become the EU’s second largest form of power capacity after gas, though due to the technology’s intermittent nature, coal still meets more of the bloc’s electricity demand.

Germany installed the most new wind capacity in 2016, while France, the Netherlands, Finland, Ireland and Lithuania all set new records for windfarm installations.

The total capacity added was 3 percent down on 2015, but a surge in offshore windfarms — which are twice as expensive as those built on land — being connected in Britain saw total, Europe-wide investment hit a record €27.5bn ($29.2 billion).

The biggest project was the Gemini windfarm off the Netherlands’ coast, which was connected to the grid last February and will be the world’s second largest offshore windfarm when finished this year. Gemini was followed in size by two other offshore windfarms, Germany’s 582MW Gode Wind 1 and 2, and the Netherlands’ 144MW Westermeerwind project.

“The installation numbers for now look OK, and the investment number is very good,” said Giles Dickson, chief executive of WindEurope. “But on the longer term outlook, only seven out of the EU’s 28 countries have clear policies and volumes [for wind power] in place for the period beyond 2020.

“We today see less political and policy ambition for renewables than we did five or even three years ago, across the member states.”

Despite Europe’s installed wind power capacity now standing at 153.7 GW, it is still a relatively small fraction of the region’s 918.8 GW of total power capacity. The industry is hoping much of its growth will come from filling the gap as governments force old coal power plants to close to meet climate change goals, as the UK has committed to doing by 2025.

“The EU is not putting much pressure on countries to close down old coal power plants,” said Dickson.

WindEurope’s new report, 2016 European Statistics, paints a picture of a Europe increasingly divided on wind power.

Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, which together drove much of the growth in new windfarms in the noughties, now amount to a tiny fraction of new installations. Poland last year passed a law limiting how close wind turbines can be to buildings, effectively stalling the industry there.

The result is an increasingly small number of countries connecting serious amounts of new wind power. Germany, which already has three times as much wind power as any other EU country, installed 44 percent of Europe’s new wind capacity last year.

Dickson said the wind power industry will be lobbying Europe’s capitals for more support in their national energy and climate plans, which member states, including the UK, have to submit to the European commission in draft form by the year’s end.

Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.

9 February 2017. Coastal Cities Could Flood Three Times a Week by 2045

The lawns of homes purchased this year in vast swaths of coastal America could regularly be underwater before the mortgage has even been paid off, with new research showing high tide flooding could become nearly incessant in places within 30 years.

Such floods could occur several times a week on average by 2045 along the mid-Atlantic coastline, where seas have been rising faster than nearly anywhere else, and where lands are sagging under the weight of geological changes.

Lewes, Del., faces steeply rising flood risks as seas rise.
Credit: Mike Mahaffie/Flickr

Washington and Annapolis, Md. could see more than 120 high tide floods every year by 2045, or one flood every three days, according to the study, published last week in the journal PLOS ONE. That’s up from once-a-month flooding in mid-Atlantic regions now, which blocks roads and damages homes.

“The flooding would generally cluster around the new and full moons,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a Union of Concerned Scientists analysts who helped produce the new study. “Many tide cycles in a row would bring flooding, this would peter out, and would then be followed by a string of tides without flooding.”


The analysis echoed findings from previous studies, though it stood out in part because of its focus on impacts that are expected within a generation — instead of, say, by the end of the century.

It showed high tide floods along southeastern shorelines are expected to strike nearly as often as they will in the mid-Atlantic, portending a fast-looming crisis for more than 1,000 miles of coastal America.

Seas have recently been rising worldwide by an average of about an inch a decade, a rate of change that’s accelerating as global warming expands oceans and causes ice to melt. The East Coast endured sea level rise at more than twice the global rate from 2002 to 2014.

“The way to bring it home is to talk about this 30-year horizon,” said Jason Evans, a Stetson University scientist who researches sea-level rise and advises coastal communities trying to adapt. He wasn’t involved with the new study. “That’s the life of a mortgage. It’s not abstract.”

High tide flooding will be less common along the northeastern and Gulf coasts, but flooding in those regions is projected to occur more frequently in the decades ahead than is currently the case in vulnerable mid-Atlantic cities and towns. Gulf Coast communities are also grappling with widespread erosion caused by oil and gas infrastructure and flood control projects.

The study did not analyze the West Coast, where flooding problems are less widespread, although parts of the San Francisco Bay Area are highly vulnerable.

The analysis pointed to heavy future impacts from rising seas if coastal communities fail to adapt to climate change and if the world fails to substantially reduce greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels, deforestation and farming.

“The analysis presented here indicates that flood risk is likely to increase significantly and consistently for regions from the Gulf of Mexico to the Northeast,” said Andra Garner, a sea-level researcher at Rutgers who wasn’t involved with the study. “This emphasizes the urgent need for adaptation.”

Work is underway in many coastal states, counties and cities to reduce flooding and its impacts, such as by raising roads and blocking construction of flood-prone homes. Adapting to rising seas can be painstaking and expensive, however, often requiring extensive coordination among agencies and governments.

In some cases, residential lots, roads and parks are expected to be abandoned to the sea. That already happened in some parts of New York and New Jersey affected by Hurricane Sandy.

“This is not something that we can address alone,” said Theodore Becker, mayor of Lewes, Del., a town of a few thousand residents that swells with summertime visitors.

The new analysis showed high tides could bring floods to Lewes every second day on average by 2045 — a risk that local and state leaders are toiling to reduce.

“We engage in at least two programs to educate people about what they can do to prepare themselves,” Becker said. “We have a very engaged community. They get it.”

To reduce future risks and impacts from current flooding, Lewes lawmakers recently adopted new rules for building and renovating homes in flood-prone regions. The city is also seeking funding from the state to elevate roads that frequently flood. It protects and enhances sand dunes, which can buffer floods.

“Lewes is an interesting example of a fairly proactive community in terms of sea level rise preparedness,” said California-based climate scientist Kristina Dahl, one of the authors of the new study.

“The stuff that’s happening in Lewes is statewide — there’s a lot of action within Delaware and a lot of awareness,” Dahl said. “A lot of the things that are being done there could be looked at by a lot of other coastal communities and used as models.”


8 February 2017. Conservatives Push Carbon Tax to Address Climate Crisis

With President Trump and Republicans in Congress moving swiftly to repeal regulations that slow global warming, a group of prominent conservatives on Wednesday touted a different potential solution — a carbon tax that pays cash dividends to Americans.

In a paper titled “The Conservative Case For Carbon Dividends,” op-eds in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, former advisors to presidents Nixon, Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush argued for phasing out most of the EPA’s power to regulate carbon dioxide pollution and replacing it with a carbon tax.

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker discussed a proposal for a carbon tax at the National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday.
Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

“Increasingly, climate change is becoming a defining issue for this next generation of Americans, which the GOP ignores at its own peril,” the eight prominent conservatives, including James Baker, Henry Paulson and George Shultz, each of whom held cabinet positions for Republican presidents, wrote in the report.

“The opposition of many Republicans to meaningfully address climate change reflects poor science and poor economics, and is at odds with the party’s own noble tradition of stewardship,” they wrote. “A carbon dividends plan could realign the GOP with that longstanding tradition and with popular opinion.”


The proposed carbon tax aims to turn around widespread Republican skepticism about climate action by touting a market-based tool that may be more amenable to conservative principles than government rules and regulations. About half of polled Trump voters recently said they’d support such a tax.

Trump has taken office at a crucial time for the climate. The past three years have broken global heat records because of the effects of pollution from fossil fuels, farms and deforestation, worsening storms, floods and droughts. Nearly all nations agreed in late 2015 to a new approach to tackling climate change through a United Nations treaty.

Trump’s strong support for the fossil fuel industry and his vows to undo environmental regulations have heightened concern about the climate crisis, prompting liberal states and foreign leaders to vow to forge ahead with their own climate programs even without the cooperation of the U.S. government.

“I would personally be delighted if a carbon tax were politically feasible in the United States, or were to become politically feasible in the future,” said Harvard economics professor Robert Stavins. “At some point, the politics will change, and it’s important to be ready.”

The proposal for a $40-per-ton carbon tax is more straightforward than the cap-and-trade system backed by Democrats early in Obama’s first term, which was blocked by Republicans in the Senate. Environmental groups welcomed Wednesday’s paper but indicated they would oppose efforts to eliminate other climate rules and programs.

“Whether it’s the right plan or not, we certainly believe that there need to be conservatives at the climate discussion,” said Jeremy Symons, a government affairs official at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund who said he was still reviewing the proposal.

A carbon tax would help reduce the amount of heat-trapping pollution released by America's power sector.
Credit: Kevin Dooley/Flickr

President Obama built and strengthened environmental protections during his eight years in office using the types of big-government approaches that are opposed by many conservatives, including rules limiting carbon dioxide pollution from cars and power plants in the years ahead.

Many of the climate-protecting programs in place in liberal states and abroad impose fees on climate-changing pollution, particularly carbon dioxide, mostly through cap-and-trade systems. Such systems impose caps on the amount of carbon pollution that can be released. Rights to release some of that pollution are sold to polluters are traded among them.

China is rolling out a nationwide cap-and-trade system this year, while officials in northeastern states and European lawmakers are debating options for raising prices, which would boost revenues and further reduce pollution.

British Columbia is among the governments that use a carbon tax instead of a cap-and-trade system to reduce pollution. The tax increases costs of fossil fuel energy, making cleaner alternatives more economically viable.

“A price on carbon is the best, most sensible policy for making sure polluters pay for the damages their — our — actions cause,” said Gernot Wagner, an environmental economist at Harvard who researched current cap-and-trade systems for the World Bank. “It helps ensure that prices reflect the full social costs.”

Wagner cheered Wednesday's proposal but warned it would face political opposition.

“You need bipartisan support — you can’t get to 60 votes in the Senate without bipartisan support,” Wagner said. “If there are moderate Republicans proposing a sensible climate policy, it ought to be possible to get the Democrats on board.”

The proposed carbon tax would differ from most other systems of pricing climate pollution that are being put in place around the world. It would not impose a hard cap on pollution levels, such as those in place in Europe and California and parts of China. And the revenues would be disbursed to Americans as cash instead of being used to reduce electricity bills or fund environmental programs.

At a proposed price of $40 per ton for carbon dioxide emissions from coal, oil and other fuels, which would increase over time, polluting the climate in America would be more expensive than in most other places.

A family of four could expect to receive a payout of about $2,000 a year under such a system, according to the proposal, helping compensate them for rising gasoline, heating and other energy costs. The system could help reduce renewable energy costs in the long run by spurring more projects and more research.

"A conservative, free-market approach is a very Republican way of approaching the problem," Baker told reporters during a press conference before heading to the White House for a meeting on Wednesday. "We know we have an uphill slog to get Republicans interested.”

Environmental groups reacted cautiously to the proposal, welcoming the concept while expressing strong skepticism about the proposal to simultaneously eliminate many of America’s existing climate regulations. Green groups are already running campaigns and preparing and filing lawsuits to block Trump’s efforts to reduce energy industry regulations.

“Putting a price on carbon could be an important part of a comprehensive program,” Rhea Suh, president of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped craft Obama-era climate regulations, said in a statement. “It can’t do the job alone, though, and is not a replacement for carbon limits under our current laws.”

Editor’s note: This article originally incorrectly attributed comments by Baker to the Washington Post to a spokesman for the vice president.


8 February 2017. Dakota Pipeline Greenlighted As Fossil Fuels Move to Fore

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cancelling an environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline and will grant approval of an easement that allows the final link in the pipeline to be constructed.

The decision on Tuesday makes good on President Trump’s executive order advancing the controversial project, which has been the subject of months of protests at the construction site in North Dakota.

The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction near the North Dakota-South Dakota state line.
Credit: Lars Plougmann/flickr

The Obama administration shelved or postponed both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines because of public outcry about their environmental, cultural and climate impacts.

Though they will tap different oil fields, both pipelines will have a measureable effect on the climate because they will make it cheaper and easier to send crude oil to refineries — fuel that will reach consumers’ gasoline tanks in the U.S. and abroad.


In the U.S., the use of crude oil for transportation is now a larger source of the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change than electric power generation, which has long been the country’s largest source of climate pollution.

Building oil pipelines may help companies tap more oil, but to prevent global warming from exceeding levels that scientists consider dangerous — 2°C (3.6°F) over pre-industrial levels — at least one-third of the world’s oil deposits need to remain untapped, said Jonathan Koomey, an earth systems scientist at Stanford University.

“Anything that makes extraction and transportation of oil easier and cheaper like building more pipelines to landlocked high-emissions oil sands, makes it harder to achieve that goal,” he said.

Trump has said he supports the construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines in addition to the full-scale development of public lands for oil and gas as a way to create jobs, ensure U.S. energy independence and rid the country of federal regulations that he and many other Republicans find burdensome.

“The national security of the United States is enhanced because of low-cost petroleum,” Rick Perry, Trump’s Energy secretary nominee, said in written testimony to the U.S. Senate in January.

When completed, the Dakota Access Pipeline will ship up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil 1,172 miles every day from the Bakken shale oil fields of western North Dakota to an oil depot in southern Illinois.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe began protesting the construction of the pipeline last fall because of the potential for oil spills to contaminate Missouri River water and cultural sites near their land, and because of the role of oil in causing climate change.

A road blockade near the site of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Credit: Dark Sevier/flickr

In response, the Obama administration in December declined to grant an easement for a leg of the pipeline to cross beneath a lake on the Missouri River straddling the North Dakota-South Dakota border, effectively halting construction.

In the last days of the Obama administration, the Army Corps promised an environmental review of the pipeline’s route, but on Tuesday, the Corps heeded Trump’s order by cancelling the review and issuing the easement.

Robert Speer, acting secretary of the Army, said in a statement that there was already sufficient information to support the Army Corps granting the easement and allowing construction to continue.

Environmental groups and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe vowed to challenge the decision in court.

“The drinking water of millions of Americans is now at risk,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a statement. “Americans have come together in support of the tribe asking for a fair, balanced and lawful pipeline process. The environmental impact statement was wrongfully terminated.”

A spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s primary developer, did not return calls seeking comment.

The Trump administration’s decision to complete both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines symbolizes America’s renewed commitment to fossil fuels and is a rebuke of the Obama administration’s climate change policies.

Established science shows that the use of fossil fuels, including coal, crude oil and natural gas, are the primary cause of global warming. Rising temperatures caused by burning those fuels are expected to threaten the lives of millions as coastal cities are flooded by rising seas, severe heat waves and drought become more common, and extreme weather such as hurricanes and tornadoes become more violent.

The Trump administration has so far favored industry -- and in this case, the fossil fuel industry -- while rejecting climate science and the Obama administration’s policy of supporting renewables and low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.

Obama rejected Keystone XL partly because his administration believed the U.S. needed to show global climate leadership by committing to renewables and natural gas instead of Canadian oil sands, which are among the dirtiest fossil fuels on earth. The production of oil sands, or tar sands, emits at least 17 percent more carbon dioxide per barrel than conventional oil produced elsewhere.

The Keystone XL pipeline would primarily send carbon-laden Canadian oil sands from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas, while also tapping into North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil fields. In 2015, the Obama administration declined to issue a permit for the Keystone XL’s construction partly because of oil sands’ effect on the climate.

Flags representing tribal opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.
Credit: Joe Brusky/flickr

Though the Canadian oil sands, which are expensive to mine and ship, are currently struggling at a time when oil prices are low, new pipelines could help make it profitable for companies to tap the sands as well as shale oil in North Dakota, said Peter Erickson, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Seattle.

“Were new pipelines to provide a relatively certain, lower cost way to get oil to market, they could absolutely tip many future oil fields into pencilling out in investor eyes, and therefore going ahead,” Erickson said. “Bottom line: In the current oil price environment, pipelines could matter a lot for Bakken (and) oil sands investment and future production.”

Building the Keystone XL also amounts to a U.S. commitment to selling Canadian oil, said Jennifer Spinti, a University of Utah chemical engineering professor whose research focuses on oil development and policy.

“The Keystone XL pipeline would shorten the route of the current pipeline and allow increased capacity in the system,” Spinti said. “Building the pipeline indicates a long-term commitment to moving oil from Canadian oil sands to the U.S. market, and many people who are concerned about climate change do not want to see that type of commitment.”

Danny Cullenward, an energy economist at Stanford University, said the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines are likely to increase oil production because the costs of shipping oil via pipeline are lower than shipping oil via rail or truck, two of the primary modes of transport for Bakken shale oil and Canadian oil sands today.

The Obama administration’s rejection of the pipelines wasn’t merely symbolic because additional greenhouse gas emissions from tapping such large sources of oil are likely to make it difficult to keep global warming from exceeding 2°C, Cullenward said.

“The total emissions that would come from long-term exploitation of the oil sands are not inconsequential in global terms, and therefore activists who believe they are stopping that long-term trend are consistent in claiming the significance of their actions in climate terms,” he said. “If that’s where you draw the line in the sand, then it’s not mere symbolism to oppose these pipelines.”


7 February 2017. Food Security, Forests At Risk Under Trump’s USDA

U.S. food security, forest health, and the ability of farmers to respond to climate change are all at risk if President’s Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture brings climate change skepticism to the agency, agricultural researchers and environmental law experts say.

That concern takes root not only in Trump’s own statements scoffing at climate policy, but also in the words and actions of his nominee for Agriculture secretary — former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who in 2007 resorted to prayer as a strategy to deal with a severe drought Georgia was enduring.

A USDA soil conservationist works with a farmer to examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell Farm near The Dalles, Ore., in 2014.
Credit: USDA/flickr

“Snowstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes have been around since the beginning of time, but now they want us to accept that all of it is the result of climate change,” Perdue, whose Senate confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled, wrote in a 2014 National Review column. “It’s become a running joke among the public, and liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”

In fact, the science of human-caused climate change is far from a running joke.

Established climate science shows that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are quickly warming the planet, leading to melting polar ice caps, rising seas and more frequent extreme weather. Sixteen of the world’s 17 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000 — a level of global warming leading to more frequent, more intense and more deadly heat waves and extreme drought.

Though climate models are less certain about the role of global warming in hurricanes and tornadoes, they suggest that hurricane intensity will increase as the atmosphere warms. Major hurricanes are already becoming more common in the Atlantic, and landfalling typhoons have become more intense in the Pacific, threatening millions of lives in coastal cities.


Responding to climate change is a key mission of the USDA, which is America’s chief supporter of agriculture research, forestry and rural development. The agency funds millions of dollars of research at land grant universities across the country such as Cornell, Clemson and Texas A&M to help farmers learn the risks they face from a world that has been largely warmed by pollution from carbon emissions.

The agriculture industry is responsible for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. If confirmed, the decisions Perdue will make will influence whether farms shrink their carbon footprint and how farms and forests are managed to respond to climate-related disasters.

The USDA’s climate programs extend far beyond farms. As America’s largest forest manager, Perdue will determine the direction of the science conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and whether some of America’s most carbon-dense and diverse forests are clear cut for timber harvesting or managed to sustain and blunt the impacts of climate change.

“Just about every activity that the USDA regulates is likely to impact climate policy,” said Mark Squillace, a natural resources law professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Forests and soils store vast amounts of carbon. When forests are logged or when they burn, much of that stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. Crop farming also contributes to climate change by releasing large quantities of nitrous oxides, much of it from fertilizers, and animal farming contributes vast amounts of methane especially from ruminant animals.”

If the USDA dismisses the threat of climate change, “then there is reason for grave concern,” said Michael P. Hoffman, executive director of the Cornell University Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, which focuses on sustainable agriculture.

“Those who grow our food in the U.S. are facing more extreme weather, more flooding and drought, more high temperature stress — in general more risk due to more variability, more uncertainty,” Hoffmann said. “It will be a travesty if USDA cuts back on its support of climate change research and education.”

Allison Chatrchyan, a sustainable agriculture researcher at Cornell University, said the losses both farmers and the university’s research could sustain if the USDA cuts back on climate funding could be significant. At particular risk are the USDA’s 10 regional climate hubs, she said.

The Obama administration established the hubs in 2014 to coordinate with land grant universities to help private farmers, ranchers and forest managers adapt to climate change. Through the universities, the hubs help farmers understand how global warming will alter weather patterns and affect their crops and irrigation methods.

“It is unlikely Cornell will get additional funding to work with the hub,” Chatrchyan said. “The hub has told us they will be looking to university partners to carry this work if the hubs are disbanded.”

A lab technician in Colorado, where the agency's National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation conducts research supporting agriculture.
Credit: USDA/flickr

The USDA also provides scientists at land grant universities with small research grants. At Cornell, researchers are using $6 million in USDA grant money to study how climate change is affecting food security, corn crops, trees and grasses in urban areas, the spread of invasive mussels in New York lakes, the spread of mosquitoes and much more.

Chatrchyan said that if the USDA shuts off that funding, it would be a huge setback for farmers and the research that supports them.

“We have regions of the country and the world that are going to be less able to produce food because of more extreme drought and higher temps and more pests and disease pressure,” she said. “We have to be innovative. We have to be helping farmers. We can’t step back from that.”  

The USDA manages 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands, including the rainforests of Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Those forests act as large “carbon sinks” because they store more carbon from the atmosphere in tree trunks, roots and soil than any other type of forest in the country. Altogether, America’s national forests offset and store about 14 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The agency also works with state and local agencies to help manage nearly 500 million acres of local and city forests across the country.

“The U.S. Forest Service is heading in a direction both cognizant of problems posed by climate change in terms of wildfire and bark beetle infestation, and adaptation, resilience and carbon sinks,” said Jack Tuholske, director of the Vermont Law School water and justice program. “The tone of the administration one week on the ground, they want to go back to the old days when public lands were viewed as commodity producers for private gain.”  

Tuholske is referring to statements made by some of Trump’s other cabinet nominees during their confirmation hearings in January. Interior Secretary nominee Ryan Zinke, whose Interior Department is in charge of more federal land than any other, spoke of forests and fossil fuels the agency manages as “assets” to be harvested or extracted.

For decades, the U.S. Forest Service managed national forests mainly for commodity production in the form of timber harvesting, an approach that began to change in the Obama administration, which saw forests as important for their ecological value, Tuholske said.

“The U.S. Forest Service is like a big ship slowly turning,” he said. “It took them 30 years to reach this new vision of the forest as something more than logs on a stump.”

The stakes are high for USDA-managed forests because the way they are managed can help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, promote biological diversity and store atmospheric carbon in temperate rainforests, such as those in western Washington state and the panhandle of Alaska.

“Federal lands managed by the USDA are increasingly a cost center for the effects of climate change on the United States,” said said Jayni Hein, policy director for the Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law. “With more severe droughts and a warming climate, an increasing share of the U.S. Forest Service budget is directed at fighting wildfires. The new administration must keep its eyes open and focused on this growing, costly threat.”

A U.S. Forest Service firefighter helping to knock down the Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire in New Mexico's Gila National Forest in 2012.
Credit: Gila National Forest/flickr

Firefighting made up 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget in 1995, but as climate change led to longer and more severe fire seasons, the share of the agency’s budget dedicated to fighting fires ballooned to 50 percent by 2015 — roughly $1.2 billion.

Fire seasons now average 78 days longer each year than in 1970, according to the Forest Service.

The wildfire threat will not be reduced by efforts in Congress or in the Trump administration to increase logging, said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute, a climate change think tank.

“As climate change results in more extreme fire weather in places, throwing more money at the problem won’t result in a fire-fix as climate increasingly becomes the top-down driver of fire behavior,” he said.

DellaSala said it’s also important that the USDA manage and preserve forests — especially Alaska’s rain forests — as carbon sinks in order for the U.S. to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement. The pact calls for countries to cut climate pollution to prevent global warming from exceeding 2°C (3.6°F), a level considered dangerous by the United Nations.

The Obama administration angered conservationists last year when it approved a plan to log some old-growth rainforest in southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which is America’s largest and one of its most pristine national forests.

“Any additional logging that could come under a Trump administration or congressional efforts to give away large portions of the Tongass to the state of Alaska would make matters even worse,” DellaSala said. “I worry about how forest plans will be revised in this administration, which has signaled its intent to roll back the clock to unsustainable logging levels.”

It’s unclear how far Perdue’s USDA could go to roll back forest protections because many of them are mandated by law and regulatory changes require a time-consuming process to implement.

The law that governs how the USDA manages national forests mandates that forests be managed sustainably — not just for timber harvesting, Hein said.

“This requires attention to both the impact of climate change on our national forests and the preservation of these forests as carbon sinks,” she said.