Policy & Politics
25 Oct 2013:
Major Pension Funds Question
Long-Term Outlook for Fossil Fuel Profits
Leaders from some of the largest pension funds in the U.S. and the world are concerned about the future profitability of fossil fuel companies, and they have asked those companies to report on their plans for managing a long-term shift
toward renewable energy. Managers of 70 major pension funds, which together control about $3 trillion in investments, asked 45 of the world's largest coal, oil, gas, and electric power companies to complete the profitability studies by spring. The pension funds are concerned that, because large investments in fossil fuel exploration take decades to recoup, future legislation could limit production or regulate expensive pollution controls that will significantly cut profitability. "The scientific trajectory that we're on is clearly in conflict" with the business strategy of the companies
, Jack Ehnes, the head of the California's State Teachers' Retirement System, told the AP. "We've been pleasantly surprised by the seriousness" of some of the fossil fuel companies, who are "not just blowing us off," a spokesman for the coalition that is coordinating the efforts told the AP.
16 Oct 2013:
Climate-Driven Disasters To Keep
Impoverished Populations Poor, Study Says
Extreme weather events driven by climate change will exacerbate poverty in regions where people are already among the world's poorest, according to a study
by the U.K.'s Overseas Development Institute. Where disasters
Floods in Mozambique
such as drought are common, those events are the leading cause of poverty, the authors say, rather than poor health or societal factors. Across the globe, up to 325 million people will be living in countries that face natural hazard risks by 2030, the report says; in sub-Saharan Africa alone, 118 million people in poverty will face extreme events. To brace against the effects of disasters
, aid money should be spent on reducing those risks, rather than only on humanitarian relief after an extreme event, the authors argue. Currently, money tends to flow to a region after a disaster instead of before, when it could be used for prevention. "If the international community are serious about ending extreme poverty, they need to get serious about reducing disaster risk for the poorest people," the institute's Tom Mitchell told the BBC.
09 Oct 2013:
Antarctic Research Operations
To Be Halted Amid U.S. Government Shutdown
The National Science Foundation (NSF) says it is curtailing the 2013-2014 Antarctic research season because the U.S. government shutdown has delayed funding for operations there. The U.S. Antarctic
Program, which is managed by the NSF, announced yesterday
that the three U.S. research stations, ships, and other facilities there will switch to "caretaker status" when funds are exhausted around October 14. All research activities not essential to human safety and preservation of property will be suspended, according to the statement. Because of the remote location and long lead time necessary for planning and travel, the NSF has already started the process of shuttering research facilities. Once funding is restored, some research operations could be restored, the U.S. Antarctic Program said. Around 700 scientists typically travel to the continent between October and February each year, according to Nature
Forum: Climate Scientists Assess
The Latest Report from U.N. Panel
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently issued a report containing the latest data and
scientific assessments of the physical science of climate change. It is one of three so-called “working group” reports that will be released in advance of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, due out in September 2014. In a Yale e360
forum, seven climate scientists discuss what they consider to be the most noteworthy or surprising findings in the recent report. Read more.
27 Sep 2013:
IPCC Scientists Warn
Of Upper Limit on CO2 Emissions
Saying it is 95 percent certain that humans have caused most of the global warming of the last half-century, scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned today that the world can afford to burn about 1 trillion tons of carbon
before facing extreme climate change. The IPCC’s working group on the physical sciences for the first time set an upper limit on CO2 emissions, contending that humanity can combust only one-third of the 3 trillion tons of fossil fuels that still remain in the ground. If carbon emissions continue at their current pace, IPCC scientists forecast that the trillionth ton of carbon will be released around 2040, and beyond that the world will face potentially destabilizing temperature increases exceeding 2 degrees C, or 3.6 degrees F. The physical sciences report,
compiled by hundreds of scientists and released in Stockholm, marked the first time that the IPCC had forecast that sea levels could rise by as much as three feet this century. The physical sciences report is the first of several to be released in the next year in advance of the 2014 publication of the IPCC’s fifth report on global climate change.
26 Sep 2013:
Major Initiative Announced
To Help Curb Elephant Poaching in Africa
The Clinton Global Initiative and 16 conservation organizations have announced that they are investing $80 million
over three years to stem the epidemic of elephant poaching in Africa, which has surged recently due to increasing demand for ivory in Asia. The Partnership to Save Africa's Elephants, which includes the governments of seven African nations, will fund programs that scale up anti-poaching enforcement, combat trafficking at ports and markets with more enforcement and harsher penalties, and curb the demand for illegal ivory with ad campaigns aimed at consumers in China, Vietnam, and other nations. "We cannot hope to reverse the dramatic decline in elephant populations without addressing all three parts of the problem," said Patrick Bergin, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation.
20 Sep 2013:
U.S. Places CO2 Limits
On New Coal-Fired Power Plants
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will for the first time begin regulating carbon dioxide emissions from new coal- and natural gas-fired power plants
under the Clean Air Act, EPA Adminstrator Gina McCarthy announced. Speaking in Washington, McCarthy said, “Climate change is real, human activities are fueling that change,
and we must take action to avoid the most devastating consequences.” The EPA regulations, which the coal industry vows to challenge in court, will require new coal plants to emit fewer than 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, considerably lower than the average 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour currently produced by coal-fired power plants. Such limits would require the new plants to deploy carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which has not been used on a wide scale. The difficulty of using CCS technology will be at the heart of lawsuits challenging the EPA move, industry officials say.
18 Sep 2013:
Climate Change Reporting
Focuses on Disasters and Uncertainty
Nearly 80 percent of news articles about climate change either warn of current or future disaster scenarios related to global warming, or contain discussions about the uncertainty of climate science, an Oxford study of 350 news articles
from 2007 to 2012 has found. Fewer than two percent of the articles from the media in six countries discussed opportunities to be gained from switching to a lower-carbon economy. Journalists were attracted to "gloom and doom" stories about climate-related disasters, the team wrote, which is in line with findings from previous studies. Uncertainty was discussed in nearly 80 percent of the articles, which the researchers say poses a problem for dealing with climate change
because it keeps debate focused on what's considered conclusive proof of global warming
, rather than directing discussion toward the comparative costs and risks of different policy options.
16 Sep 2013:
Canadian Scientists Fight Back
Against Government Censorship Rules
Recent rules silencing government researchers in Canada have sparked protests in 16 major cities, the Guardian reports
. The Harper administration over the past few years has ordered scientists at Canada's National Research Council, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and other government research agencies not to discuss work on a number of climate- and environment-related issues with journalists, the public, or even fellow researchers. Scientists have been asked not to comment on topics ranging from snowflakes to salmon, even after results have been published in major scientific journals. Critics charge that the Harper administration has a track record of muzzling environmental research
. Earlier this month the administration was accused of stalling a major report on greenhouse emissions — widely expected to document significant rises in carbon pollution — because the study could deal a blow to Harper's efforts to secure U.S. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Guardian reports.
Interview: Finding a Better Message
About the Risks of Climate Change
It’s a common refrain: If people only knew more about the science, there wouldn’t be so much polarization on the issue of climate change. But Dan M. Kahan’s
groundbreaking work has gone a long way to prove that idea wrong. In fact, he’s found, it’s not the lack of scientific understanding that has led to conflict over climate change, but rather the need to adhere to the philosophy and values of one’s “cultural” group. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School, maintains that in order to break down the polarization, the issue needs to be reframed in a way that minimizes the likelihood that positions on climate change will be identified with a particular group. “Are there ways to combine the science with meanings that would be affirming rather than threatening to people?” he says. “I think if somebody believes that there just aren’t any, I think that person just doesn’t have much imagination.”
Read the interview.
05 Sep 2013:
Swapping Corn for Rice Benefits
China's Miyun Reservoir, Study Shows
After years of contamination and decreasing output, China's Miyun Reservoir is rebounding
, say researchers from China and the U.S. Rice farming had contaminated and tapped the reservoir, which lies 100 miles north of Beijing and is the main water source for the city's 20 million inhabitants. But four years ago, the Chinese government began paying farmers to grow corn instead, which requires less water and leads to less fertilizer and sediment runoff than rice farming
. Now, water quality tests show that fertilizer runoff declined sharply, the researchers found, and the amount of reservoir water available to Beijing and surrounding areas has increased. Farmers also made more money growing corn instead of rice and were able to spend less time tending their crops, the study concluded
04 Sep 2013:
Scientists, Governments Question
'Blockbuster' Climate Change Reports
Scientists and government officials are questioning the way the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, widely considered the definitive authority on global climate risk, handles its major reports. The panel typically issues "blockbuster" reports every five to seven years; the next is set to be released this month in Stockholm. But The Guardian reports
that international climate scientists, many of whom have been involved in drafting those major reports, are now suggesting future assessments should be more targeted in scope and released more frequently. Scientists and government officials say that narrower reports, such as studies focused on specific regions or phenomena, would be more useful to policymakers. The panel's governing body will meet in October to discuss its future.
27 Aug 2013:
Mexican Gray Wolves
Granted Increased Protection in the U.S.
The U.S. government has agreed to expand the territory
where a small population of Mexican gray wolves in the southwestern U.S. can be protected and reintroduced.
Mexican gray wolf
Under a pair of agreements with the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also has consented to a plan under which Mexican gray wolves that cross the U.S.-Mexico border and establish territories in Arizona and New Mexico will no longer be captured by U.S. authorities. The agency will also start releasing captive Mexican gray wolves into Gila National Forest and allow them to establish territories throughout much of New Mexico and Arizona. That rule, set to be finalized by January 2015, significantly expands the habitat for a beleaguered population of about 75 Mexican gray wolves
in those states. Wildlife ecologists have been advocating for such measures, saying increased protections and expanded territories are essential to the recovery of the Mexican wolf population, but states in the region have strongly opposed such an expansion.
19 Aug 2013:
Future Flood Losses
Could Increase Ten Times by 2050
The rapid growth of the world’s coastal cities, coupled with sea level rise and land subsidence, could mean that flood losses in major metropolitan areas could rise from
$6 billion in 2005 to more than $60 billion in 2050
, according to a new study. Reporting in the journal Nature Climate Change
, researchers said sea level increases of 8 to 16 inches by 2050 could cause $60 billion to $63 billion in damages in 136 of the world’s coastal cities.
That figure assumes the cities will undertake some flood control measures. Cities whose infrastructure and buildings are now most at risk — including New York; New Orleans; Miami; Guangzhou, China; and Osaka, Japan — will be joined in four decades by other rapidly growing cities,
such as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
16 Aug 2013:
Ecuador Abandons Moratorium
On Oil Drilling in Biodiverse Yasuni Park
The Ecuadorian government has abandoned its moratorium on oil drilling in Yasuni National Park
as a proposal to protect the park with the help of international donations fell apart. In a nationally televised speech, President Rafael Correa blamed the failure of the ambitious conservation plan on a lack of funds, saying that a UN-administered trust fund had raised only $13 million of the $3.6 billion target. Located in eastern Ecuador, where the Amazon basin ascends into the Andes, Yasuni is home to an unprecedented number of animal and plant species
. According to a 2010 study
, one section of the park held at least 200 species of mammals, 247 amphibian and reptile species, and 550 species of birds. But Yasuni also sits atop an estimated 1 billion barrels of oil. Correa had said Ecuador would forego oil income and protect the park if foreign donors would contribute billions of dollars to compensate for the loss of oil revenue.
Interview: Scientists, Aid Experts
Prepare for a Warmer Future
Harvard University recently sponsored a conference that brought together two groups — climate scientists and humanitarian relief workers — that will undoubtedly be collaborating more closely in the future
as natural disasters intensify in a warming world. The woman who was instrumental in opening a dialogue between these two factions was Jennifer Leaning
, the director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights
at the Harvard School of Public Health. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Leaning says the meeting underscored the huge challenges the aid community will face in a world of more extreme weather and rising seas. But at this point, she says, climate science cannot offer the specific predictions about timing or locations of climate upheaval that the aid community is seeking. “The humanitarians found that the questions they were asking were not the ones that the climate scientists were prepared to answer,” says Leaning. Read the interview
13 Aug 2013:
Too Many Urban Beehives
May Do More Harm Than Good, Experts Say
A surge in urban beekeeping may be doing more harm than good to honeybee populations
, according to UK scientists. As the number of rooftop hives increases in cities worldwide
— including London, where there are
A Berlin beekeeper
now 10 hives per square kilometer — two researchers from the University of Sussex warn that too many hives can be detrimental. Writing in The Biologist
, the magazine of the Society of Biology, they suggest that inexperienced beekeepers can create conditions in which there isn’t enough food for their insects. “If there are too many colonies in an area, then the food supply will be insufficient,” Francis Ratnieks, a professor at the university’s Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, told the BBC. “This will mean that colonies do not thrive, and may also affect other species that also visit flowers.”
06 Aug 2013:
Timelapse Map Illustrates
Steep Growth of U.S. Wind Energy
The U.S. installed more than 13 gigawatts of new wind energy capacity in 2012, nearly doubling the amount of wind power installations added in 2011 and pushing the
total capacity connected to the grid nationally to 60 gigawatts, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy
(DOE). That capacity represents enough electricity to power 15 million homes annually, officials say, adding that for the first time wind energy has become the top source of new electricity generation in the U.S. To coincide with the report, the DOE published an interactive map
illustrating the steep growth in wind projects nationwide, particularly in the last decade. The map shows that until the mid-1990s, only a few dozen wind projects existed, all in California. But by 2000, projects started appearing in states nationwide, particularly in Texas and Iowa. In the past two decades the number of wind energy projects has increased from 49 to 815, the DOE said.
30 Jul 2013:
Return of Yellowstone Wolves
Triggers Surge in Grizzly's Prized Berries
The reintroduction of wolves at Yellowstone National Park has caused a cascade of ecological effects that has led to the regrowth of berries
, an important food source for the park’s grizzly bears, scientists say. Writing in the
Journal of Animal Ecology
Yellowstone National Park
Grizzly bear at Yellowstone Park
, scientists from Oregon State University and the University of Washington report that the percentage of fruit found in bear scat has nearly doubled during the month of August in recent years. According to researchers, this reflects a recovery of berry bushes triggered in large part by the wolves, which have reduced overbrowsing by the park’s elk herds. The removal of wolves for most of the 20th century triggered the demise of the park’s young aspen and willow trees, as well as berry-producing shrubs, scientists say. According to the report, berries may be so important to the health of bear populations that their recovery could mean a lifting of the species’ “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act
24 Jul 2013:
European Investment Bank
Will Not Finance Most Coal Power Stations
The European Investment Bank (EIB), the main lending arm of the European Union, has decided to stop financing most coal-fired power plants
, part of an effort to help the 28-nation bloc meet ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets by 2030. The EIB says that new and refurbished coal-fired power stations will be ineligible for funding unless they emit less than 550 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, a standard that traditional coal power plants would be unable to meet. Power stations that burn coal would only be able to meet the standards if they also produce heat for municipal or commercial heating systems or burned biomass. The EIB says it plans to further tighten its emissions standards for coal- and natural gas-fired power plants in the future.
Interview: Leaving Our Descendants
A Whopping Increase in Sea Levels
Last week, a group of scientists led by Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research released a paper
that made a stark forecast:
For every 1 degree Celsius of temperature increase, the world will eventually experience a 2.3-meter increase in sea level. That means that should carbon emissions continue to rise at or near current rates, and temperatures soar 4 to 5 degrees C in the next century or two, the world could well experience sea level increases of many meters — dozens of feet — in the centuries and millennia to come. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Levermann discusses how he and his colleagues reached their conclusions, how much disruption such large sea level increases might cause, and why we need to ponder the effect of our actions on future generations. “Society needs to decide about how much damage it wants to do in the future and how much damage future generations can actually cope with,” he says.
Read the interview
23 Jul 2013:
Booming Cashmere Market
Is Threatening Snow Leopards, Study Says
A surging global market for cashmere is pushing several iconic species, including the snow leopard and wild yak, toward the margins of survival in remote regions where wool-producing goats are raised, according to a new
A snow leopard in the mountains of Central Asia
study. Demand for the luxurious wool, which has spurred a multibillion-dollar industry, has encouraged herders in Asia to drastically increase their livestock, which are devouring a growing share of the grass that had previously been eaten by antelope, wild asses, and their predators. In an analysis conducted in Mongolia, India, and China’s Tibetan Plateau, a team of researchers concluded that 95 percent of forage is now consumed by domestic animals, leaving just 5 percent for wild species, the Guardian reports
. In addition, the researchers noted a rise in the killing of leopards and wolves by herders following predator attacks on livestock, as well as the transfer of disease from livestock to wild animals. “Rather than serving as symbols of success, these species will become victims of fashion,” the researchers write in the journal Conservation Biology
22 Jul 2013:
‘Demand Response’ Programs
Saved Crucial Electricity During Heat Wave
As electricity producers struggled to supply power during last week’s heat wave along the U.S. East Coast, so-called “demand response” programs — which enable utilities to remotely reduce power usage in participating businesses and homes — were vital in avoiding blackouts
, utility officials said. The Wall Street Journal
reports that as electricity usage in New York state set a record on Friday, demand response programs produced energy savings equivalent to the output of two large power plants, just as the state was running dangerously low on power. Demand response programs enable utilities to dim lights, turn down air conditioners, and delay freezer-defrost cycles in the freezer cases of stores. Participating businesses and individuals get credits on their utility bills. Numerous states have demand response programs, and federal officials say these programs are capable of cutting peak U.S. electricity demand by 72,000 megawatts, or 9.2 percent.
19 Jul 2013:
European Fish Stocks
Show Signs of Recovery, Study Says
A major assessment of fish stocks in the northeast Atlantic Ocean shows that many species are recovering and are now being fished sustainably.
The surprising findings, reported in the journal Current Biology,
are based on data from government research institutes that collected millions of measurements of fish, both at sea and in markets. The study showed that for the first time in decades the majority of fish stocks in the northeast Atlantic are recovering, thanks to reforms instituted by individual nations and the European Union in 2002. This good news comes amid widespread criticism of EU fisheries policies
, which recently have undergone further reform. “We should be aware that low fishing pressure needs to be maintained until stocks recover,” said researcher Robin Cook of the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. “This is only the first step. Now we need to see numbers increase as a result of continued low fishing pressure.”
16 Jul 2013:
Russia Blocks Plans to Create
Massive Marine Reserve in Antarctica
Russian officials have blocked plans to establish the world’s largest marine reserve
in the waters off Antarctica, citing concerns that it would restrict their
John B. Weller/The Pew Charitable Trusts
Ross Sea pack ice
fishing interests in the region, according to news reports. The plan, which was proposed by the U.S. and New Zealand, would have protected a total of 2.3 million square miles in the Ross Sea, a deep, high-latitude body of water in the Southern Ocean. But during a meeting of the 25-member Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, Russia questioned whether the organization had the legal right to create such a haven. A key sticking point for the Russians was the potential loss of the fishery for krill, a shrimp-like creature that is a critical food source for penguins, seabirds, seals, and whales, but is netted for use in Omega-3 dietary supplements.
12 Jul 2013:
Europe’s Offshore Wind Sector
Is Growing, But Troubles Lie Ahead
European nations installed a record number of offshore wind turbines
during the first half of 2013, adding more than twice the capacity installed during the same period in 2012, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), an industry group. A total of 277 new turbines in seven wind farms were fully connected to the grid during the six-month period, adding 1,045 megawatts of capacity, with another 130 turbines installed but awaiting connection, the group says in a new report
. Although the new turbines bumped Europe’s total offshore wind energy capacity to 6,040 megawatts, officials say the sector’s growth is already slowing as a result of regulatory uncertainty in key countries. While European nations such as Germany and the UK have relied on large-scale wind projects to achieve renewable energy targets by 2020, the lack of a binding target for 2030 will cause growth to stall, said Justin Wilkes, EWEA’s policy director. “Financing of new projects has slowed down with only one project reaching financial close so far this year,” he said.
11 Jul 2013:
‘Peak Oil’ Concerns Overstated
As Demand Will Fall, Study Predicts
Researchers say concerns that humanity will inevitably reach a moment of “peak oil,” which would be followed by a crippling decline in supplies, are unwarranted
because global demand for oil is approaching its own peak
. Writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology
, researchers from Stanford University and the University of California-Santa Cruz (UCSC) say that dire projections of peak oil mistakenly assume that an increasingly wealthy planet will continue to rely heavily on oil. On the contrary, they say, the link between economic growth and oil is breaking down as a result of increased energy efficiency, lower prices for alternative fuel sources, urbanization, and limits on consumption by the wealthy. While the researchers project surging global demand for airline travel and various forms of freight transportation, there will be less reliance on oil, with conventional oil demand declining after 2035.
26 Jun 2013:
Exposure to Lead Costs
Developing Nations $1 Trillion Annually
The exposure of children to toxic lead, and the subsequent declines in IQ and earning potential, costs the developing world nearly $1 trillion annually
, according to a new report. Based on the average lead levels in children under the age of 5, researchers from New York University found that Africa suffers the greatest costs from lead exposure, losing an estimated $137.7 billion annually, or about 4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). In Latin America, the costs are about $142.3 billion, the study found, while in Asian nations the costs are about $699.9 billion. By comparison, the annual costs in the U.S. and Europe, where exposure to lead has decreased significantly in recent decades, are about $50 billion and $55 billion, respectively. The report said lead consumption has increased worldwide
since the early 1970s, largely because of rising demand for lead batteries. The study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives
25 Jun 2013:
President Obama Unveils
Sweeping U.S. Plan To Tackle Climate Change
President Obama today unveiled a long-awaited national strategy to tackle climate change
, a sweeping plan that will include cutting carbon emissions at power plants, protecting the coastline from rising seas, and a
greater U.S. role in global climate talks. Calling the need to address climate change a “moral obligation,” Obama asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop strict new standards on carbon pollution from existing power plants
, the largest source of emissions, by June 2014, and complete standards for new plants by October. He also committed $7 billion for climate mitigation and adaptation projects, and $8 billion in incentives for energy efficiency and other innovations, including carbon capture technologies. Overall, the president’s strategy aims to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
24 Jun 2013:
Houston to Buy Half of its
Electricity From Renewable Sources
The city of Houston has agreed to purchase half its electricity from renewable energy sources
, a step that makes the Texas city the nation’s largest municipal buyer of green energy. In a contract signed with Reliant Energy, Houston committed to buying more than 140 megawatts of renewable power from July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2015, locking in nearly 623,000 megawatts of clean power annually. According to city officials, the government committed $2 million — less than 1 cent per kilowatt-hour — through the purchase of renewable energy credits that will be used to fund alternative energy projects. “Houston is already known as the energy capital of the world, but we are committed to becoming the alternative energy capital of the world as well,” Mayor Annise Parker said in a statement
. In addition to investing in wind energy, the city touted major solar projects at municipal sites and efforts to streamline its solar power-permitting process.