December 2015

Much of my news comes from The Daily Climate, whose wonderful subscription service clues me in to what's going on each day. Another great source of stories (and commentaries) comes from my friend Jim Poyser, at Apocadocs.


December, 2015


  • Key Funding Source for Miners Is Depleted: Companies that provide the majority of ‘streaming’ financing are running low on capital
    • For struggling mining companies, an important source of financing is growing scarce. Contending with falling profits and hefty debt payments, mining companies such as Glencore PLC and Vale SA this year increasingly turned for cash to specialist lenders who pay large lump sums in exchange for metal deliveries.
  • North Atlantic storm to lash the UK, push temperatures at the North Pole 50 degrees above normal: The same weather system that spawned devastating storms across a large swath of the country over the weekend is expected to “explode” into a monstrous storm over Iceland by Wednesday. The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang notes that although big storms are common in the winter, this particular storm will bring a surge of heat with it pushing temperatures at the North Pole up to 50 degrees above normal. The storm will contribute more misery to recently flooded areas in the United Kingdom as well.
  • Polish government chokes on coal: Warsaw tries to figure out how to save jobs as coal spirals towards bankruptcy
    • The Paris climate agreement underscoring that the era of fossil fuel is drawing to an end spells trouble for Poland, which is adamant that its economy will continue to be largely powered by coal far into the future. The Polish government is already struggling to save the ailing coal industry, which is being hammered by high costs and a plunging world price that has the sector hemorrhaging red ink.
    • Poland’s coal mines tend to be deep, old and expensive — a dire combination when global coal prices are plummeting. It costs about $75 to mine a ton of Polish coal, while the thermal coal price in Antwerp is hovering at around $50 a ton. A report by the Warsaw Institute of Economic Studies found the average Polish miner digs up 700 tons of coal a year; his U.S. counterpart produces 4,000.
    • The issue is more than economic, it’s also emotional and patriotic. Poland generates almost 90 percent of its electricity with coal, and the sector provides about 100,000 jobs. It also ensures energy independence — all of Poland’s crude and most of its natural gas comes from Russia.
    • Poland is one of the few European countries building new coal-fired power plants — 14 are in various stages of planning and construction, although not all may be completed. The problem for mines is that these plants will replace obsolete old ones, and will be much more efficient in burning coal, which means that the market for Polish coal will continue to shrink.
  • 2015 in review: The year environmental and climate issues left their silos: Analysis: Journalists are starting to connect more dots: population and biodiversity, terrorism and climate, food security and ocean health
  • Warm Weather Extends Maine's Lobster Season: by Laura Wagner NPR | Dec. 28, 2015 12:35 p.m.
    • The unusually warm weather in New England has made for an unusually long lobstering season in Maine.
  • Congress agrees on microbeads ban. Wait, what?: Here’s how environmental news stories usually play out: Corporations do something bad to the environment, and people say, “Hey, stop that!” But they don’t stop because they are making boatloads of money doing it, so people go to the government and say, “Hey, can you make them stop that?” But the government doesn’t do anything because it’s in the pocket of some big company. Or maybe it does do something, but it takes forever because it’s so busy arguing with itself, ignoring crumbling infrastructure, and locking up innocent uteri.
    • The bill, called the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, was first introduced into the House back in March. It would ban companies from using microbeads — tiny bits of plastic often added to health and beauty products as an exfoliating agent — by July 2017 in order to prevent them from contaminating the oceans and water supply. The House passed the bill earlier this month, and one week later, the Senate passed it, too — in a unanimous vote.
    • [ael: Wait, what?]
    • (“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”)
    • [ael: is this the April Fool's edition?]
  • Watch the very worst GOP anti-science moments of 2015: Watch the whole, not-so-splendid, anti-science show….
    • The Snowball of Jim Inhofe
    • NOAA's primary pain-in-the-ass…. Lamar Smithaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! ("Smith is the proud recipient of more than $600,000 in campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry, and also Chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, because our national legislature was founded purely on the principles of irony.") — see previous entry, on "how environmental news stories usually play out".
    • Rick Scott versus atmospheric repurposing….
    • Measles versus the vaccine that makes you autistic
    • ISIS versus the global climate — death match!
  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect Illustrated: The Stupid do not Know that They are Stupid: Over the years, Dunning and Kruger have conducted studies over a wide range of cognitive tasks. Following the skill assessment, subjects are shown their results, and then asked to rate their performance on a percentile basis. What they have found is that those performing well — say, 65th %ile and higher — exhibit a quite accurate assessment of where they placed, while those who do more poorly are unaware of their own poor performance. In fact, those who do quite badly, say at the 15th %ile, tend to overestimate their relative skill by 50% or more. A way to summarize these results is to say that those who are truly stupid are too stupid to realize that they are stupid. As Dunning has put it, slightly less colorfully:
    • If you're incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.… [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.
    • We Are All Confident Idiots: College students who hand in exams that will earn them Ds and Fs tend to think their efforts will be worthy of far higher grades….


  • Scientists say climate change could cause a ‘massive’ tree die-off in the U.S. Southwest:In a troubling new study just out in Nature Climate Change, a group of researchers says that a warming climate could trigger a “massive” dieoff of coniferous trees, such as junipers and piñon pines, in the U.S. southwest sometime this century.
    • “We have fairly consistent predictions of widespread loss of piñon pine and juniper in the southwest, sometime around 2050,” said McDowell. The paper concludes that the consequences could be vast, citing “profound impacts on carbon storage, climate forcing, and ecosystem services.”
    • Taking it all into account, then, the study concludes that there is “a high likelihood that widespread mortality” of these types of forests will occur by 2100. So many trees could die and decompose, in fact, that the study suggests that 10 gigatons of carbon — equivalent to 36.67 gigatons of carbon dioxide — could be emitted to the atmosphere as a result, in forests across the globe. That would amounting to a positive feedback that would worsen human-caused climate change; indeed, the number is pretty similar to one year’s worth of the globe’s current fossil fuel emissions.
  • Bad news: Scientists say we could be underestimating Arctic methane emissions: Arctic permafrost has become a recent star in the climate change conversation, capturing the attention of scientists, activists and policymakers alike because of its ability to emit large quantities of carbon dioxide as well as methane — a particularly potent though relatively short-lived greenhouse gas — when it thaws. As temperatures rise in the Arctic, scientists are increasingly concerned that permafrost will become a major contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming.
  • Abbot Point coal terminal expansion given approval by Greg Hunt: Federal environment minister gives green light for dredging and disposal of spoil to create one of the world’s largest coal ports, which would be linked to the proposed $16bn Carmichael coalmine
  • Study: Rising lake temperatures may worsen algae blooms: An analysis of 235 lakes that together hold more than half of the Earth’s fresh surface water found they have been warming an average of 0.61 degrees per decade, the report said. While seemingly insignificant, the increase is bigger than changes recorded in the oceans or the atmosphere.
    • Algae blooms flourish in warmer waters. The report predicted a 20 percent boost in lake algae over the next century, including a 5 percent increase in blooms that are toxic to fish and animals. An outbreak of toxic algae left more than 400,000 residents of Toledo and southeastern Michigan without usable tap water for two days in August 2014.


  • World leaders adopt 1.5 C goal — and we’re damn well going to hold them to it: Bill McKibben
    • Here’s the crucial plaintive paragraph from the preamble to the Paris climate agreement released today, written in the almost indecipherable bureaucratese that attends this international circus: "Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C …"
    • What it says is: The world is a doughy fellow who has promised to drop three suit sizes in time for his wedding, which is now only a month away. The world is an anxious student who has to ace the next morning’s test to pass the course but hasn’t yet started to study. The world has promised his kids a great raft of presents under the tree, but now it’s suddenly Christmas Eve and the shops have started closing.
    • The “significant gap” is the crucial thing. In the agreement, the world promises to hold the rise in the planet’s temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius. Heck, it promises to aim for 1.5 degrees, which is extraordinary. It’s what actually needs to be done; if we succeeded, it might just head off complete calamity. (We’re now at 1 degree above average pre-industrial temperatures, and considering what that’s already done in terms of melt, flood, and drought, 1.5 C will still be trouble, but maybe manageable trouble.)
    • But once you get past the promises part, the actual plans submitted by various governments commit the world to a temperature rise of 3.5 degrees, which is more or less the same as hell. It’s a broken planet. This is the difference between hoping and doing — a common enough part of the human condition. I kind of hoped I wouldn’t buy the pain au chocolat at the boulangerie down the street this morning. I had good ambitions. But, you know.
    • But once you get past the promises part, the actual plans submitted by various governments commit the world to a temperature rise of 3.5 degrees, which is more or less the same as hell. It’s a broken planet. This is the difference between hoping and doing — a common enough part of the human condition. I kind of hoped I wouldn’t buy the pain au chocolat at the boulangerie down the street this morning. I had good ambitions. But, you know.
    • So if you want to be cynical about the Paris agreement, there’s plenty of reason.
    • But if you want to be hopeful, here’s the thing: The world’s governments have now announced their intentions. And so the rest of us can hold them to those promises, or at least try. What, you want to build a pipeline? I thought you were going to go for 1.5 degrees. You want to frack? Are you fracking kidding me? You said you were going for 2 degrees at the absolute worst.
    • This is a little like that moment when Barack Obama, upon winning the Democratic nomination in 2008, said that his administration would mark the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow.” He soon forgot about it, but the rest of us didn’t, and those words appeared on a thousand placards in the course of the fight over Keystone. Which we won.
    • Now every world leader has said something similar. And even if we harbor suspicions that they didn’t quite mean those words, we will use them again and again. We’ll be the nagging parent/teacher/spouse. We’ll assume they really want action. And we’ll demand they provide it.
    • Game on.
    • Bill McKibben is the founder of and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College.
  • How U.S. negotiators made the Paris climate deal Republican-proof:Under U.S. insistence, the 31-page agreement was explicitly crafted to exclude emissions reductions targets and finance from the legally binding parts of the deal. Other areas of the deal, including five-year review cycles, do carry legal force. That would free Obama from having to submit the deal to Congress.
    • The other exclusion zone was any clause in the agreement that would expose the U.S. to liability and compensation claims for causing climate change.
    • The U.S. — and European — position was a huge disappointment for the low-lying and small island states, which argued they needed recognition that their countries could pay the ultimate price for climate change in terms of land loss and migration.
    • “The idea of even discussing loss and damage now or in the future was off limits. The Americans told us it would kill the COP,” said Leisha Beardmore, chief negotiator for the Seychelles. “They have always been telling us: ‘Don’t even say that.’”
    • But that was the price of the deal.
  • How global warming is literally making your day longer: Solving a scientific mystery over 20 years old, a team of Harvard researchers published a paper proving global warming's role in slowing the Earth's rotation. Melting glaciers caused by global warming will likely impact the Earth’s rotation, researchers suggest in a paper published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
    • In 2002, Munk defined an important enigma of 20th century global mean sea-level (GMSL) rise that has yet to be resolved. First, he listed three canonical observations related to Earth’s rotation [(i) the slowing of Earth’s rotation rate over the last three millennia inferred from ancient eclipse observations, and changes in the (ii) amplitude and (iii) orientation of Earth’s rotation vector over the last century estimated from geodetic and astronomic measurements] and argued that they could all be fit by a model of ongoing glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) associated with the last ice age. Second, he demonstrated that prevailing estimates of the 20th century GMSL rise (~1.5 to 2.0 mm/year), after correction for the maximum signal from ocean thermal expansion, implied mass flux from ice sheets and glaciers at a level that would grossly misfit the residual GIA-corrected observations of Earth’s rotation. We demonstrate that the combination of lower estimates of the 20th century GMSL rise (up to 1990) improved modeling of the GIA process and that the correction of the eclipse record for a signal due to angular momentum exchange between the fluid outer core and the mantle reconciles all three Earth rotation observations. This resolution adds confidence to recent estimates of individual contributions to 20th century sea-level change and to projections of GMSL rise to the end of the 21st century based on them.
  • Paris climate pact sinks coal stocks, lifts renewable energy: Shares of companies that produce coal, seen as dirtier than oil and gas, sank the most. Peabody Energy Corp dropped 12.6 percent, and Consol Energy Inc fell 3.3 percent.
  • She’s braved rough seas and space walks. Can she weather climate change skeptics?: allies of the embattled chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say Sullivan’s experience as a working scientist exploring the upper atmosphere and the bottom of the sea and a Navy reserve officer for 18 years has prepared her well for the contact sport of Capitol Hill politics. They imprinted a military ethic of looking out for comrades and troops and a scientific one of sticking by the results of your research and never tailoring them to others’ political whims.
  • Brief respite for Arctic sea ice: The Arctic will stay frozen – for a few years at least. Sea ice, which even in winter has been in retreat for decades, will remain more or less steady in the immediate future, according to new research.
    • Coupled climate models initialized from historical climate states and subject to anthropogenic forcings can produce skillful decadal predictions of sea surface temperature change in the subpolar North Atlantic. The skill derives largely from initialization, which improves the representation of slow changes in ocean circulation and associated poleward heat transport. We show that skillful predictions of decadal trends in Arctic winter sea ice extent are also possible, particularly in the Atlantic sector. External radiative forcing contributes to the skill of retrospective decadal sea ice predictions, but the spatial and temporal accuracy is greatly enhanced by the more realistic representation of ocean heat transport anomalies afforded by initialization. Recent forecasts indicate that a spin-down of the thermohaline circulation that began near the turn of the century will continue, and this will result in near neutral decadal trends in Atlantic winter sea ice extent in coming years, with decadal growth in select regions.
  • The Globe’s Hottest Year Just Keeps Getting Hotter: On Monday, NASA released its latest monthly temperature data for the globe. And it’s perhaps no surprise that this November was the warmest on record for the planet. The Japan Meteorological Agency’s dataset also shows the same record warmth for the month. (These stories seem to write themselves, don’t they?)
  • Monthly Anomalies of Global Average Surface Temperature in November (1891 - 2015, preliminary value): from the Japanese Meteorological Agency
  • Study Says ‘Hydricity’ Could Boost the Use of Renewables: Hydricity is a process that uses hydrogen to generate electricity that emits no greenhouse gases, according to Purdue University research published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.
    • Greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, mainly those using coal, are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. Newer natural gas power plants emit roughly half the carbon dioxide, but renewables are seen as an even more climate-friendly alternative, emitting next to zero carbon dioxide. The hydricity process starts with water: Some is heated to a high temperature to produce electricity while the sun is shining. The rest is split into its parts — hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored so it can be burned in a power plant at night. “Basically, the technology holds the promise to provide electricity around the clock at unprecedented efficiencies and at a scale that is suitable for large cities, using solar energy and environmentally benign processes,” study co-author Rakesh Agrawal, a Purdue University chemical engineering professor, said. Hydricity uses hydrogen to produce electricity in a power plant in a way that resembles the way natural gas is used for that purpose today, but there’s a big difference: Hydrogen combustion, unlike natural gas combustion, produces only water, not greenhouse gases, Agrawal said.
    • Hydricity faces technical and cost challenges before it could actually be ready for use on a commercial scale, said Alan Weimer, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Colorado-Boulder who is not affiliated with the study. Some of the materials Agrawal’s team is proposing to use may not stand up to the complex chemical processes hydricity uses, Weimer said. It is also very expensive to store hydrogen and oxygen at high pressures, he said. “The time frame is distant — 25 to 50 years for large-scale implementation,” Weimer said. “Theoretically, this is an interesting concept as 24/7 renewable solar operation is a major challenge. The idea of combining hydrogen in the process is interesting. The concept appears good; the real challenge is implementing it.”
    • Round-the-clock power supply and a sustainable economy via synergistic integration of solar thermal power and hydrogen processes: Diminishing fossil fuel resources and increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases present a compelling case for transitioning to a sustainable economy where all human needs can be met by using abundant solar energy. In this paper, we introduce “hydricity,” a paradigm that proposes synergistic coproduction of solar thermal power and hydrogen. We realize hydricity by judiciously integrating solar water power cycle, solar thermal hydrogen production techniques, and turbine-based hydrogen power cycle and by suitably improving each one for compatibility and beneficial interaction. The proposed hydricity concept presents a potential breakthrough solution for continuous and efficient power supply and also an exciting opportunity to envision and create a sustainable economy to meet all the human needs—namely, food, chemicals, transportation, heating, and electricity.


  • [ael: my friend Wendy Bredhold shared this (paid advertisement in the Wall Street Journal):]
  • Amid Paris Frenzy, Sanders Goes Even Bigger on Climate Change: Sanders’ new platform envisions steeper long-term carbon cuts and tougher auto mileage rules than Obama has pledged.
  • What will his life be like with climate change?: As politicians and climate scientists debate the issue in Paris, babies are coming into a world that may be altered drastically by climate change. A look at best- and worst-case scenarios.
    • “Even in 20 years, it will be a different world, one that we will have trouble recognizing.” — John Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change, Queen’s University
    • “There will be a lot of crime, gangsterism, and intergroup violence, and police forces will often be overwhelmed.” — Thomas Homer-Dixon, Global governance expert at Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo.
    • “There’s a reason the Pentagon is worried about climate change. Shifts in climate may not cause wars, but they can destabilize regions already under stress.” — Simon Donner, associate professor of climatology, University of British Columbia
    • “I worry that social cohesion will begin to fail. It is possible to imagine that civilization is unravelling, literally … not a world I’d wish on anyone.” — Jeremy Kerr, Biologist, University of Ottawa
  • Part 1: Our Air Is Getting Warmer: Research findings from the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) reveal that climate change is not just a future concern, but is already having an impact on the temperature of our air and the length of our seasons. In our 47 years of groundbreaking research, what have we discovered when it comes to climate change?
  • Part 2: Our Lakes Are Getting Less Icy: In the last 47 years, researchers at IISD-Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) have discovered a lot about the effects of climate change on lakes and freshwater. And one of the things they have discovered is that our lakes are getting less icy and are icing over for shorter periods of time. In the second part of our series looking at the work that is happening at IISD-ELA regarding climate change, we take a look at what we have learned in greater detail.
  • Part 3: Our Lakes Are Getting Darker: In the third part of our series looking into IISD-ELA and climate change, we take a look at the effect of climate change on water clarity and learn lakes are getting darker. Here we explore why that is happening and why it matters.
  • The Invisible Spill Spewing the Gases of a Half-Million Cars: You can’t see it, but it’s there — a steady stream of natural gas seeping out of the pipe casing in a well in Southern California that may spew as much greenhouse gas into the air as a half-million cars do in a year. Pipeline operator Sempra Energy says it may take three to four months to plug…. The 8,700-foot-deep (2,650-meter) well has leaked 800,000 metric tons of gases contributing to global warming, about a quarter of California emissions by state estimates.
  • Coal kingpin faces possible prison sentence after mine explosion: Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, infamous for his flouting of safety regulations, won’t be spending 30 years behind bars, but he didn’t escape his federal criminal trial unscathed. Blankenship’s trial was the outcome of investigations into a fatal 2010 Massey coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia. After more than 40 hours of deliberation, a jury of eight women and four men convicted Blankenship on Thursday of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards, while finding him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements to investors and regulators. He faces a maximum of one year in prison out of a potential 30 years because — despite evidence that his direction created dangerous conditions that led to theUpper Big Branch mine explosion — the majority of the potential prison sentence was tied to the question of whether he’d lied to investors and the feds in a statement following the disaster.


What went on: November, 2015

What went on: October, 2015

What went on: September, 2015

What went on: August, 2015

What went on: May, 2015

What went on: April, 2015

What went on: March, 2015

What went on: February, 2015

What went on: January, 2015

What went on: 2014

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