From Obama’s Chief Scientist,
Parting Words of Caution on Climate
John Holdren is the longest-serving presidential science adviser in U.S. history and probably one of the most influential,
having advised President Obama on key energy issues for the last eight years. A physicist by training, Holdren was among the chief architects of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan. The plan has been lauded by environmentalists, but is loathed by conservative politicians, some of whom have filed suit against it. Holdren spoke with Yale e360
contributing writer Elizabeth Kolbert about the difference between “dangerous” and “catastrophic” warming, the incoming Trump administration, and how to talk to people who deny the existence of climate change. “Part of the reason that I retain some optimism about the future is that there are these fundamental forces pushing us toward doing the right thing,” he said.
Read the interview.
06 Dec 2016:
Google to Power Itself Using
100 Percent Renewable Energy in 2017
Google announced that it has purchased enough solar and wind capacity, 2.6 gigawatts, to run entirely on renewable energy
The company, whose data centers and offices consume as much electricity as the city of San Francisco, will get most of its wind
energy from the U.S. Midwest, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, and its solar from contracts in North Carolina and Chile. Google bought its first wind power in 2010 and is now the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy. “The science tells us that tackling climate change is an urgent global priority,” said Urs Hölzle, Google’s senior vice president of technical infrastructure. “We believe the private sector, in partnership with policy leaders, must take bold steps and that we can do so in a way that leads to growth and opportunity.”
30 Nov 2016:
Soils Could Release 55 Trillion
Kilograms of Carbon By Mid-Century
The world’s soils act as critical storage for carbon, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere to fuel plant and microbial activity.
Permafrost in Greenland.
But scientists warned this week
that as soils warm in response to climate change, they could release 55 trillion kilograms of carbon by mid-century — roughly equivalent to the projected emissions of the United States, or 17 percent of all countries, during that same period. The largest losses will be from high-latitude ecosystems, the new study, led by scientists at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and published in the journal Nature
, said. This includes Arctic and sub-Arctic permafrost, where colder temperatures and slow microbial activity have led to the buildup of massive carbon reserves over thousands of years. The scientists found that for every 1 degree Celsius of global warming, soils will release approximately 30 trillion kilograms of carbon into the atmosphere, or twice the annual emissions from human activities.
23 Nov 2016:
Trump Will Scrap NASA
Climate Research, Senior Adviser Says
NASA’s world-renowned research into climate change will be eliminated
under a Donald J. Trump administration, with some of the space agency’s climate work being transferred to other parts of the U.S. government, according to Robert Walker, Trump’s senior adviser on NASA. Walker said NASA’s chief function will be space exploration and that there will be no need for it to conduct what he has called “politically correct environmental monitoring.” He added, “Mr. Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science.” NASA, a global leader in monitoring climate change using satellites and other technologies, has a $2 billion earth sciences budget. Walker, a former Congressman, falsely claimed that only half of the world’s climate scientists believe that human activity is driving climate change. Trump said on Tuesday that he has an “open mind” about climate change
and is re-evaluating his pledge to withdraw U.S. support for the Paris climate accords.
21 Nov 2016:
Canada to Phase Out
Nearly All Coal-Fired Electricity by 2030
Canada’s Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, has announced that the country will eliminate virtually all coal-fired power plants
by 2030, which would mean that 90 percent of Canada's electricity would come from carbon-free sources of energy by that time. Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, McKenna said that four provinces still burn coal for electricity — Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. They will either phase out coal use or will be allowed to temporarily keep some coal-fired power plants open if equivalent CO2 emissions reductions are achieved in other sectors, McKenna said. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal Party took power a year ago, ran on a platform of reducing carbon emissions and embracing renewable energy. Roughly 60 percent of Canada’s electricity is generated using hydropower, and analysts predicted that the Liberal government’s announcement Monday will stimulate the development of wind, solar, and other renewable forms of energy.
16 Nov 2016:
Hundreds of U.S. Businesses Call
For Continued International Climate Action
More than 360 U.S.-based businesses, including some of the world’s largest multinational corporations, sent a letter
Delegates at UN climate meetings in Morocco.
U.S. and world leaders this week asking them to continue to support the Paris climate agreement and speed up the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. "Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk,” the group said. “But the right action now will create jobs and boost U.S. competitiveness. We pledge to do our part, in our own operations and beyond.” The statement, presented at United Nations climate meetings
in Marrakesh, Morocco this week, was addressed to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, U.S. President Barack Obama, Congress, and world leaders. Signatories include major conglomerates such as General Mills, Hewlett-Packard, Hilton, Nike, Kellogg, Unilever, Starbucks, and DuPont, as well as more than 50 other companies and investors with annual revenues exceeding $100 million.
11 Nov 2016:
Just 1 Degree C of Warming Has
Altered Nearly Every Aspect of Life on Earth
Climate change has already impacted nearly every aspect of life on earth, according to a new study
in the journal Science
A bearded seal near Monaco Glacier, Svalbard.
Warming global temperatures have altered everything from entire ecosystems down to the individual genes of species. Some 80 percent of key ecological processes examined by the scientists show signs of change and distress. The disruptions could lead to unpredictable fisheries yields, reduced agricultural productivity, worsening pests and disease outbreaks, and “point toward an increasingly unpredictable future for humans,” the authors wrote. "There is now clear evidence that, with only a ~1 degree C of warming globally, very major impacts are already being felt," said lead author Brett Scheffers
, an ecologist at the University of Florida. "Species' physiology and physical features such as body size are changing, species are rapidly moving to keep track of suitable climate space, and there are now signs of entire ecosystems under stress."
Interview: At Standing Rock Protest,
A Battle Over Fossil Fuels and Land
For more than eight months, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota has been leading a protest to stop an oil pipeline from
Kyle Powys Whyte
potentially threatening its drinking water and sacred sites. In many ways, the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline is a traditional fight over Native American land rights. But as indigenous rights expert Kyle Powys Whyte sees it, the demonstration also points to the important role tribes have played in opposing fossil fuel energy projects in recent years. “Almost everywhere you go, tribes have taken direct action to protect their health and their cultures and their economies from the threats, as well as the false promises of, extractive industries,” he says. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Powys Whyte talks about the long history of coal and oil and gas development on native lands and why Standing Rock has become a lightning rod for opposition to fossil fuels.
Read the interview.
09 Nov 2016:
Could Dying Puffins in the Bering
Sea Spell Trouble for Other Marine Life?
Starting in mid-October, hundreds of tufted puffins began washing up dead on islands in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska.
A tufted puffin on St. Paul Island in Alaska.
The birds weren’t sick, but were in an “advanced state of starvation,” National Geographic reported
. While the deaths are alarming, scientists are also concerned about them being a harbinger of bad news for other marine species in the northern Pacific Ocean. Record-warm water temperatures in the region earlier this year may have shifted or reduced critical ocean food sources — small fish and zooplankton called copepods — affecting not only the puffins, but also dozens of other marine species, from seals to salmon to crab. “Clearly something very weird is going on,” said Julia Parrish, a biologist at the University of Washington. “It is basically every year now we’re getting some huge mass-mortality event… And the forage fish that everything depends on are taking it in the shorts.”
04 Nov 2016:
Scientists Attempt to
Create 3D Models of All Life on Earth
Scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst have launched a new initiative to create 3D models
of all of the world’s living organisms.
A cane toad.
Biologist Duncan Irschick invented a 30-camera array, the “Beastcam,” that captures high-resolution, full-color images of an animal’s body from all different angles. Using those photographs, Irschick and his colleagues have already created 3D models of sharks, scorpions, toads, and lizards. They plan to focus next on capturing frogs and sea turtles. The initiative, known as Digital Life
, is partnering with scientists, zoos, and non-profits to gain access to species, including those that are endangered or threatened, and providing 3D models at no cost via an open access website. “Digitally preserving the heritage of life on Earth is especially important given the rapid decline of many species,” said Irschick. “This technology can recreate organisms in a way that has never been done before.”
26 Oct 2016:
At Least 74,000 Americans Live
Near Oil and Gas Wells on Public Lands
A new online tool
mapping active oil and gas wells on U.S. public lands shows that at least 74,000 people in six states
Map showing population and oil and gas wells.
live within a half-mile of drilling sites. That close proximity puts these people at increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems from natural gas leaking from the wells, said the Wilderness Society, which together with Earthworks helped create the tool. In Wyoming, for example, 15,869 oil and gas facilities
operate on public land, and some 4,000 people live within a half-mile of them — the range that airborne pollutants from wells, such as benzene, can easily travel. The mapping tool is being released at a time when scientists, environmental groups, and policymakers are ramping up calls to reduce and regulate natural gas leaks
from drilling and storage sites.
24 Oct 2016:
Pope Francis’ Call for Climate
Action Fails to Sway Many Americans
A direct call to action by the Pope has apparently failed to inspire people to be concerned about climate change, according to a new national survey
public policy researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Last year, Pope Francis release a 200-page papal letter entitled “Laudato Si
,” or “Be Praised,” that urged 1.1 billion Catholics to address climate change and live more sustainably. The new survey, published in the journal Climatic Change
, found those who had heard of the encyclical — both Catholics and non-Catholics — were no more concerned about global warming than those who hadn’t. Those who knew about the encyclical were also more politically polarized
in their acceptance or denial of climate change. The scientists used data from 1,381 20-minute phone interviews one week before the encyclical’s release and two weeks after it was published.
21 Oct 2016:
Scientists Report Finding DNA
Mutations That Caused Snakes to Lose Legs
A mutation in the DNA of some reptiles about 150 million years ago switched off the gene responsible for forming limbs — leading to the
A green tree python.
creation of modern day snakes, according to two studies published week. The findings were discovered by two independent teams of researchers, which reported their results separately in the journals Current Biology
. Some snakes, including pythons and boas, still have tiny leg bones inside their bodies, remnants of this evolutionary history; but most species lost their legs starting about100 million years ago. The scientists traced the mutation back to a docking site for proteins, known as an enhancer, situated in front of the Sonic hedgehog
gene, which controls limb development. They found that the enhancer is simply switched off, not broken. When the missing DNA was fixed and the modified enhancer was put in mice, they grew legs like normal
19 Oct 2016:
Can We Turn CO2 into a Useable
Fuel? Scientists Say They Have Found a Way
Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee report that they have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol
, a usable fuel. The team used a spiky nanotechnology-based catalyst made out of carbon, copper, and nitrogen. When they applied voltage to the catalyst, CO2 dissolved in water turned into ethanol, with a yield of 63 percent. “We discovered somewhat by accident that this material works,” said Adam Rondinone, the Oak Ridge scientist that led the research. Because the materials are relatively cheap and the reaction can happen at room temperature, the researchers say the technique could be scaled up to store renewable energy as ethanol, for example, or to convert CO2 emissions into fuel. Finding new ways to use CO2 “in order to displace a fossil feedstock,” the scientists wrote in the study
, “is an appropriate intermediate step towards a carbon-free future.”
18 Oct 2016:
September Breaks Monthly Temp
Record, Continuing World’s Warming Trend
September was the warmest September since modern record keeping began around 1880, measuring 0.91 degrees Celsius higher than the 1951-1980
Temperature anomalies in September 2016.
average, according to new data
by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. According to NASA, “11 of the past 12 consecutive months dating back to October 2015 have set new monthly high-temperature records.” Or as the website Climate Central
put it, “September [is] an exclamation point on a string of hot months.” The new temperature data nearly guarantees that 2016 will be named the hottest year on record, measuring about 1.25 degrees Celsius above the late 19th century average, according to climate scientist Gavin Schmidt
, the director of GISS. NASA’s temperature data is collected by 6,300 meteorological stations scattered across the globe, a buoy-based data system in the oceans, and research centers on Antarctica.
14 Oct 2016:
Is There Too Much Emphasis
Being Placed on Carbon Capture Technology?
The world is placing too much credence on being able to combat climate change by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a process known as “air capture
,” according to an article in the journal Science
this week. “Negative-emission technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble,” wrote the article’s authors
, Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist at the University of Manchester in the U.K, and Glen Peters, a scientist at CICERO, a climate research organization in Norway. “There is a real risk they will be unable to deliver on the scale of their promise,” and assuming otherwise is “a moral hazard par excellence,” they wrote. Carbon capture technologies are a key component of the Paris climate agreement, with many of the modeling scenarios assuming the technology will be operating on a large scale later this century, reported Climate Central
12 Oct 2016:
First Bees in the U.S. Get
Protection Under Endangered Species Act
Seven species of yellow-faced bees found on the islands of Hawaii have been officially listed as “endangered"
A yellow-faced bee.
by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) — making them the first bees in the nation to be given protection under the Endangered Species Act. The seven species, which include Hylaeus anthracinus, H. assimulans, H. facilis, H. hilaris, H. kuakea, H. longiceps
, and H. mana
, pollinate some of Hawaii’s most threatened plants and live in a variety of Hawaiian ecosystems, from the coast, to dry forests, to subalpine shrublands, reported Mongabay
. Scientists and conservation groups had been petitioning FWS to protect the bees for more than five years
, citing habitat degradation, predation, and rapidly declining population numbers. The federal agency released the new rule late last month. The rule also gave protection to three additional animal species and 39 plant species, all from Hawaii.
10 Oct 2016:
Trump Proclaims at Debate
That ‘Coal Will Last for 1,000 Years’ in U.S.
At the second 2016 U.S. presidential debate, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump clashed over energy policy and climate change
, with Trump
saying the energy industry is “under siege” from Obama administration regulations and vowing that “clean coal” will continue to power the U.S. for a thousand years. While both pledged to help beleaguered coal miners, Trump doubled down on his support for fossil fuel production while Clinton said the U.S. must gradually decouple its economy from coal, oil, and natural gas. “I support moving towards more clean, renewable energy as quickly as we can because I think we can be the 21st-century clean-energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses,” she said.
06 Oct 2016:
Methane Emissions From Fossil
Fuels Much Higher Than Previously Thought
Methane emissions from global fossil fuel production are up to 60 percent higher than previously estimated, according to a new study in the journal Nature
by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and several universities. Combined, methane emissions from oil and gas production and natural geological leakage are up to 110 percent greater than previously estimated. The upward revision shows that the fossil fuel industry is responsible for 25 percent of total global methane emissions, or up to 165 million tons of the 623 million tons emitted from all sources. The study comes at a time when companies are working to reduce methane leaks
from extraction facilities and pipelines, with some success. The scientists found leak rates have declined from 8 percent to 2 percent over the past 30 years. Increased natural gas production, however, has negated these improvements.
Public Art or Renewable Energy?
New Designs Aim to Produce Both
When the topic of energy infrastructure comes up, works of art don’t usually come to mind. But hundreds of such hybrid creations — part renewable power generators,
A vegetable farm off the Santa Monica Pier.
part large-scale art installations — now exist, at least on paper, as the result of a sustainable design competition known as the Land Art Generator Initiative
. Multi-disciplinary teams across the world have taken up the challenge to come up with buildable designs that produce renewable energy and “add value to public space, inspire, and educate.” In a photo essay, Yale Environment 360
highlights eight submissions to this year’s biennial competition, including the three winners announced this week. All designed for the waters off the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California, the systems range from a ring-shaped farm floating offshore to sail-like structures that harvest drinking water from fog.
04 Oct 2016:
Scientists Find Clothing Sheds
Thousands of Plastic Fibers When Washed
A single load of laundry can shed more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into water systems, according to a recent study
in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin
. Many of these tiny plastic particles make it through sewage treatment plants and enter aquatic ecosystems such as rivers, lakes, wetlands, and oceans. The study looked at the breakdown of polyester, acrylic, and polyester-cotton fabrics washed in 86-104 degree Fahrenheit water with various detergents. It found that a 13-pound load of polyester-cotton laundry shed an estimated 137,951 plastic fibers, a load of polyester clothing 496,030 fibers, and acrylic fabric 728,789 fibers. Microplastic particles in waterways are often mistaken for food and eaten by marine life, with various health impacts. The research was conducted by scientists at Plymouth University in England.
29 Sep 2016:
Climate Change Could Double
Wildfire Extent in Canada by 2100
Warming temperatures and a changing climate are expected to at least double the acreage consumed by wildfires every year in Canada by the end of the century,
A wildfire in Alberta, Canada in May 2016.
according to a new report
by the scientific agency, Natural Resources Canada. The number of large forest fires in the country is also expected to increase 1.5-fold over the same period due to milder, drier conditions, the report said. In 2015, 7,068 wildfires burned about 3.9 million hectares of Canadian forest. The annual report, The State of Canada’s Forests
, noted that even if the world manages to limit global warming to an average 2 degrees Celsius, Canada could still experience a temperature rise of 4 degrees C by 2100. The report said such warmer conditions will change the species composition, size, and age distribution of Canada’s forests
, a natural resource that generated more than $22 billion in gross domestic product for the country in 2015.
27 Sep 2016:
Could California’s Gridlock
Generate Electricity for the Grid?
California is testing whether its heavy traffic can produce not just emissions and air pollution, but electricity.
Traffic on Interstate 80 near Berkeley, Calif.
The state’s Energy Commission says it will spend $2 million to examine the potential of using piezoelectric crystals embedded under asphalt as a way to send the energy created by moving cars to the grid. The crystals generate energy when compressed by the weight of moving cars, but tests of the technology at larger scales have failed or been canceled in Tokyo, Italy, and Israel, according to the Associated Press
. California, therefore, “needs to figure out whether it can produce high returns without costing too much,” the AP writes. If successful, the technology could help the state reach its goal to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. California is expected to hit a 25 percent renewables target by the end of this year.
What’s Killing the Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?
The few remaining species of native forest birds left on the Hawaiian island of Kauai have suffered population declines so severe — 98 percent in one case — that some are near extinction.
The cause of the collapse, according to a recent study in the journal Science Advances
, is not alien plants or predators, but rather warming temperatures that have enabled non-native mosquitoes carrying deadly avian malaria to invade the birds’ high-elevation strongholds. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Eben Paxton
, an avian ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the study’s lead author, says his group’s research showed that the mosquitoes moved into the Alakai Plateau over the last decade, infecting the birds and pushing their populations to a tipping point. He cites a number of approaches for eradicating the mosquitoes, including releasing irradiated infertile males and using genetically modified mosquitoes. “The way that we view Kauai,” he says, “is that it's an early warning system for the rest of the islands.”
Read the interview.
21 Sep 2016:
Paris Climate Agreement Moves
One Step Closer to Entering Into Force
Thirty-one countries officially joined the Paris climate accords this week at United Nations’ meetings in New York City.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
The announcements bring the total number of countries joining the Paris Agreement to 60, representing 48 percent of global emissions. Once nations that generate 55 percent of global emissions officially join, the agreement will enter into force within 30 days. The new countries include
Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest emitter of carbon dioxide; Argentina; Mexico; and the United Arab Emirates. China and the United States officially joined the agreement earlier this month. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon predicted the agreement, created in December last year, would enter into force by the end of this year. “What once seemed impossible now seems inevitable,” Ban said
16 Sep 2016:
New Survey Highlights Recent
Widespread Bird Loss in North America
North America has 1.5 billion fewer birds flying its skies than it did 40 years ago, according to a new survey
by dozens of U.S. and Canadian scientists
A young snowy owl.
working at government agencies, universities, and non-profits. More than one-third of common land bird species have declined by more than 15 percent since 1970, and 46 species have lost more than half of their populations, the report found. Snowy owl numbers, for example, dropped 64 percent between 1970 and 2014. The report does not include waterfowl species, such as ducks. The scientists said land use changes, habitat loss, and climate change were main factors behind the long-term population declines. It also found collisions with power lines, buildings, and vehicles caused 900 million bird deaths each year, and domestic and feral cats kill another 2.6 billion. The report, Landbird Conservation Plan 2016, was published by the research collaborative Partners in Flight.
15 Sep 2016:
Obama Announces First
Marine Protected Area off U.S. East Coast
President Obama is creating a 4,913-square-mile marine monument off the New England coast, adding to a long list of marine protected areas established in recent years by the Obama and Bush administrations. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, contains massive undersea canyons and towering seamounts and is the first fully protected federal marine reserve off the eastern seaboard. The area is home to deep-sea corals, sharks, deep-diving marine mammals, whales, and sea turtles, and is a rich fishing ground. The fishing industry objected to the creation of the marine monument, arguing that existing fisheries management laws were sufficient to protect the area. Under the new designation, commercial fishing will be phased out over seven years. Obama has also recently created massive marine reserves off Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast, and today a quarter of U.S. waters are under strong federal protection.
09 Sep 2016:
Popular Insecticide Reduces
Queen Bees’ Ability To Lay Eggs, Study Finds
A new study has found neonicotinoids, the world’s most commonly used insecticide, cause queen honeybees to lay as much as two-thirds fewer eggs,
A queen bee surrounded by members of her colony.
jeopardizing the health and stability of entire bee colonies. The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Minnesota, was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports
. "The queens are… the only reproductive individual laying eggs in the colony," said lead author Judy Wu-Smart
. "If her ability to lay eggs is reduced, that is a subtle effect that isn't (immediately) noticeable, but translates to really dramatic consequences for the colony." The scientists also found colonies exposed to imidacloprid, a type of neonicotinoids, collected and stored less pollen than insecticide-free colonies, and removed just 74 percent of mite-infested or diseased pupae that can infect the entire hive, compared to 95 percent removal by unexposed bees.
08 Sep 2016:
The World Has Lost 10 Percent
Of Its Wilderness Over Last Two Decades
The world has lost one-tenth of its wilderness — an area twice the size of Alaska — over the last 20 years, scientists reported this week in the journal Current Biology
Wilderness loss since the early 1990s.
The hardest hit areas have been the Amazon and Central Africa, which have been plagued by rampant and unregulated logging and other industrial activities in recent decades. The scientists found there are 11.6 million square miles of wilderness remaining on earth, largely located in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and Australia. "The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering and very saddening," said lead author of the study James Watson
, a biologist at the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society. "You cannot restore wilderness. Once it is gone, the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to proactively protect what is left."
Clinton vs. Trump: A Sharp Divide
Over Energy and the Environment
Environmental and energy issues have received relatively little attention from the two major-party candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. But when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have spoken out on these issues, the differences — like just about everything else about this campaign — have been stark. In a chart, Yale Environment 360
compares what Clinton and Trump have said on topics ranging from climate change to coal. See the graphic.