Category: Climate

Stories about climate change, science, policy, and adaptation

What’s at Stake: Adapting to Climate Change

What’s at Stake: Adapting to Climate Change

A view of Ray Lake, on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Like other parts of the Great Plains, the region is prone to extreme dryness. (Photo by Natalie Umphlett/ via NOAA)

Potential budget cuts are alarming because much of the country is already behind in adapting to climate change, including the Great Plains. Dennis Ojima, director of the North Central Climate Science Center, projects that the region will face a “dramatic increase” in the number of extremely hot days (95°F and higher) and warm nights by mid-century, regardless of any action to curb carbon emissions. The increased heat will affect patterns of rainfall and drought, forcing farmers and ranchers to experiment with growing practices and eventually plant different crops. It will stress existing infrastructure, challenging the reliability of water supplies and electric grids. The sooner managers can get ahead of these changes and begin adapting, the better.

“What’s at Stake: Adapting to Climate Change”

Audubon, November 2017

A tax on carbon pollution faces surprising opposition

A tax on carbon pollution faces surprising opposition

Initiative 732 supporters get ready to canvass in Seattle (Photo courtesy of CarbonWA campaign)

Soon, Washingtonians will vote on Initiative 732. It would be the first statewide carbon tax in the U.S., and a major step toward reducing climate-changing pollution. For Court Olson, a civil engineer and long-time Sierra Club member, voting ‘yes’ on the measure is a no-brainer. “We desperately need to get off fossil fuels and incentivize clean energy,” he says. “And the most effective first step is to put a price on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.” Initiative 732, in his view, is “the right thing to do.”

And yet the proposal has run into some surprising opposition — from environmentalists, social-justice groups and the state Democratic Party. The Sierra Club and Washington Environmental Council have taken formal positions opposing the measure, while the climate activist group 350 Seattle endorsed and then unendorsed it this summer. Meanwhile, many of these groups’ members, including Olson, are campaigning for I-732. 

“A tax on carbon pollution faces surprising opposition”

High Country News, October 25, 2016

‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions

‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions

Climate activists protest a BLM oil and gas lease sale in Denver in May 2016 (JZ)

Lease sales, where energy companies bid for the right to drill for oil and gas on federal land, used to be mundane events. But lately they’ve become raucous, with climate activists in Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno urging the government to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Eventually, they hope to end public-lands drilling altogether.

In response, some industry leaders want auctions to move online — eBay style. The Bureau of Land Management agrees, and will host its first online sale this September. Explaining the move to Congress this March, BLM Director Neil Kornze said online sales are cheaper to host and will speed up transactions. He added that the agency is on “heightened alert” and concerned about safety as a result of incidents like the militia occupation at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “And so a situation that we are not used to — separating out who is a bidder and who is not — gives us pause,” Kornze said.

So far, environmentalists are uncertain whether an online system will help or hurt their cause. “If this is part of a broader effort to make BLM processes more efficient and transparent, it’s a great idea,” says Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. But if it simply allows energy companies to escape growing scrutiny, “it’s not progress.”

“‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions”

High Country News, July 20, 2016

How some Western cities are leading on climate action

How some Western cities are leading on climate action

This community solar farm in Fort Collins will reduce CO2 emissions by 39,500 tons over its 50-year lifetime (Photo courtesy: Poudre Valley REA)

A college town of 155,000 people known for its beers and bike lanes, Fort Collins, Colorado, adopted an ambitious climate action plan this past spring to cut its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 and be carbon-neutral by 2050. The initiative lacks worldwide reach, but it outpaces the goals of the Paris pact, with an aggressive timeline matched by only a few other cities, including Seattle, Copenhagen and Sydney. Even as world leaders have dragged their feet, taking 21 frustrating years and annual conferences to finally set some climate goals,  cities like Fort Collins have charged ahead, determined to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid ecological catastrophe. 

The city passed its first action plan and started measuring its emissions in 1999. With its purple political background and acknowledged need to wean itself from coal power, Fort Collins could serve as a blueprint for other, similarly sized communities.

Even though the city’s last four mayors have all leaned to the right politically, they have all generally supported climate action. Current Mayor Wade Troxell, a Republican, was among 27 mayors who penned a letter to President Obama this June, asking him to “fight for the strongest possible climate agreement” in Paris and “for federal action to establish binding national greenhouse gas emissions reductions here at home.” While other politically fraught issues, from a city fracking moratorium to relaxed public-nudity laws, have recently split the council, it unanimously approved the aggressive new climate-action plan this spring.

“How some Western cities are leading on climate action”

High Country News, January 13, 2016

Tar Sands Mining Hits the American West

Tar Sands Mining Hits the American West

Protestors with Peaceful Uprising at the test pit of the planned Utah tar sands mine (via Peaceful Uprising)
Protestors with Peaceful Uprising at the test pit of the planned Utah tar sands mine (via Peaceful Uprising)

Tar sands, also known as oil sands, require intensive processing to produce usable crude—it can take two tons of sand to produce just one barrel of oil. The expense of extracting and refining that oil (and the pollution the process entails) has historically kept most of it in the ground. However, beginning in 2000, rising oil prices and calls for North American energy independence set off a tar sands boom in Alberta (not to mention an endless debate in this country about the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Alberta’s tar sands oil to the States). Fifteen years later the industry has cleared or degraded nearly two million acres of boreal forest, created toxic tailings ponds and other waste, and become Canada’s fastest-growing greenhouse gas emitter. And now it’s looking south. 

In July 2015, Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining issued a permit clearing the way for the opening of this country’s first commercial tar sands mine amid eastern Utah’s Tavaputs Plateau, which sits atop an estimated 20 billion to 32 billion barrels of recoverable oil. 

At a moment of growing public consensus that it’s time to move away from dirty energy, the decision to open up Utah canyon country to the development of what many consider the dirtiest energy source of all sends a decidedly contradictory—if not perverse—message. “If the fuels are made available,” says Dan Mayhew, the chair of the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, “the amount of carbon that could be emitted is staggering”—as much as 48 billion metric tons just from the oil shale, according to a Sierra Club estimate. 

“Tar Sands Mining Hits the American West”

Audubon Magazine, September/October 2015

Red States Are Getting a New Shade of Redder

Red States Are Getting a New Shade of Redder

A tractor works the fields in the Great Plains (U.S. Agricultural Research Service)
A tractor works the fields in the Great Plains (U.S. Agricultural Research Service)

Climate models project that Rep. Cory Gardner’s current House district—along with much of the food-producing Great Plains and Corn Belt—will experience the country’s most drastic temperature and precipitation changes in the coming years. Gardner’s home turf, one of the 10 largest congressional districts in terms of agricultural area, will likely face a temperature increase of more than 8 degrees Fahrenheit and a more than 9 percent drop-off in precipitation by 2100—among the most extreme projections for the country.

That’s according to analysis from a forthcoming peer-reviewed study by Brady Allred of the University of Montana and colleagues. Allred’s study looked at political representation, agricultural and natural-resources land cover, and projected climate disruptions across the nation’s 435 U.S. House districts. The researchers discovered that the districts with the most agriculture and natural resources are predominantly represented by Republicans who generally deny the science of global warming. Those districts also likely face the most severe climate changes.

Allred says the findings highlight a “disconnect between vulnerability [to climate change] and the current political rhetoric.”

The disconnect isn’t just depressing news for climate-conscious voters in other parts of the country. The failure to act on climate issues could devastate the nation’s breadbasket. Climate change could harm corn, soy, wheat, and cattle production, affecting U.S. and global food supplies. In other words, the effects of political polarization and Republican aversion to climate action could harm everyone.

“Red States Are Getting a New Shade of Redder”

Slate, December 11, 2014

U.S. Military Forges Ahead with Plans to Combat Climate Change

U.S. Military Forges Ahead with Plans to Combat Climate Change

An Air Force sergeant refuels a transport plane (Image: Pew Environment Group)

A 2010 Defense Department review identified climate change and energy security as “prominent military vulnerabilities,” noting that climate change in particular is an “accelerant of instability and conflict.” It was the first time the Pentagon addressed climate in a comprehensive planning document.

A subsequent assessment by the National Research Council found that even moderate climate shifts will impact Navy operations. Sea-level rise and more severe storm surges will hit coastal military bases, and marine forces could also face more work in responding to an increase in humanitarian crises following disasters. The opening of the Arctic as sea ice disappears will likely require more patrols in harsh conditions as nations and industry interests are expected to vie for control of new trade routes and energy resources.

“The severe weather effects of climate change aren’t going to start conflicts per se,” McGinn said. But it will put added pressure on political, religious, economic and ethnic fault lines, particularly in fragile societies. “It’s not a pretty picture for the United States.”

“U.S. Military Forges Ahead with Plans to Combat Climate Change”

Sidebar: “A Tour of the New Geopolitics of Global Warming”

Scientific American/ Daily Climate, April 2, 2012

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A Discernible Human Influence: Schneider and Climate Change

A Discernible Human Influence: Schneider and Climate Change

Climate scientist and communicator Stephen Schneider

Stephen Schneider, who died in July 2010, is looked upon as a pioneering mind and voice within the climate science community. Throughout his career, Schneider’s research paralleled the exploration of global warming trends in the 1970s and the increasing sense of urgency to address the risks caused by man-made greenhouse-gas emissions.

Among his legacies, Schneider championed an interdisciplinary research agenda, drawing on the physical and social sciences in studying climate change. A rising tide of interdisciplinary academic and research programs that extend across traditional concentrations is one of his lasting imprints. A forthcoming plan of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, to be announced in September, will recommend expanding the program’s scope along interdisciplinary lines. The development would “warm Steve’s heart,” says Warren Washington, a veteran atmospheric scientist at National Center for Atmospheric Research who first met Schneider in 1972.

“A Discernible Human Influence: Schneider and Climate Change”

Pacific Standard, September 16, 2011

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After the Aftermath

After the Aftermath

A single door frame bearing a portrait of Mao Zedong remained standing in a pile of debris along the road heading to Wenyuan, the epicenter of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake
A single door frame bearing a portrait of Mao Zedong remained standing in a pile of debris along the road heading to Wenyuan, the epicenter of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake (Courtesy of Miniwiki.org/ Public Domain)

The number of recorded natural disasters has doubled in the last two decades, to about 400 a year now. Population growth, particularly in disaster-prone coastal areas, has put more people in disaster’s path, and U.N. officials, among others, claim climate change is causing an increase in weather-related disasters. Terrorism, wars and pandemics also seem likely to plague the 21st century.

Hazard managers know how to build structures that can withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. Disaster researchers are working on a more difficult problem: What can the government do to help people overcome the emotional aftershocks that continue, even after the tremors calm and the floodwaters recede? Studies of recent tragedies suggest that displaced children should be one focus of post-disaster aid. But those studies also point out just how little is known about the best ways to reduce the long-term impacts of cataclysm.

“After the Aftermath”

Pacific Standard, January/ February 2010

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Altered State

Altered State

Places set aside for nature and science in Colorado, including the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and Rocky Mountain National Park, offer opportunities to key into climate changes. Some of which are occurring on a scale that the region and the planet haven’t experienced in thousands of years.

Models predict Colorado in 2085 will be seven to nine degrees (Celsius) hotter in summer and five to six degrees warmer in winter. Snowpack, our main source of water, is predicted to drop to half of the current average. Warming will have advantages around Colorado, causing longer growing seasons, wider stretches of some wildlife habitat, and possibly more precipitation in some regions. But signs of stress are already all over the state.

“Altered State”

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, February 14, 2008


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