As Pope Francis steps up his moral campaign for global action on climate change, Republican Roman Catholics in Congress are more likely to listen to fossil fuel interests and party leaders than their pontiff, religious and political researchers say, based on lawmakers' track records.
The pope hosted a global warming summit at the Vatican this week with economists, scientists and religious and government leaders. The global leader of the Catholic Church plans this summer to issue the first-ever encyclical, a high-level Catholic teaching document, devoted to global warming and its effects on the world's poor.
But as much sway as the pope has with a sixth of the world's population, party doctrine will probably trump church doctrine in Congress, experts told InsideClimate News. The position of Pope Francis on climate change—and nearly every mainstream climate scientist—bucks that of American conservatives and fossil fuel interests such as the billionaire Koch brothers, who have spent millions of dollars casting doubt on the reality of human-driven climate change and supporting candidates who oppose action to address it.
"If the science hasn't persuaded Republican politicians, the Pope won't," said R.L. Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a super PAC that works to elect climate-conscious candidates. "American Catholics have been in the habit of mixing and matching parts of Catholic doctrine when it suits them for decades. I don't see this as an exception."
If countries' greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, one in every six species on the planet could go extinct.
That is the finding of new research published this week in the journal Science. Climate change is a big factor in what has been tagged "The Sixth Extinction," potentially the worst die-off in Earth's history since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Ecologists warn it could threaten our economy, food security and human health.
"Imagine if we lose an important predator for an agricultural pest," said Mark Urban, an expert in ecology and evolution at the University of Connecticut and author of the new study. "Suddenly we have a major pest problem that threatens our ability to grow food."
More than 138 million people, or nearly 44 percent of the nation, live in areas plagued with dirty air for part of the year, according to a new report.
Although the numbers show an improvement over recent years, too many people are still at risk of being exposed to toxic air, concluded the "State of the Air" study by the advocacy group American Lung Association.
Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, reached historic low levels over the weekend, another indication of the persistent drought that grips the American West.
Saturday night, even after a prolonged rainstorm, the gauges at Lake Mead settled out at 1,080.13 feet. It's the lowest recorded lake elevation since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s, said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that oversees water resources.
And it didn't stop there. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, the lake was at 1,079.76 feet. If lake levels are projected to fall below 1,075 feet in January 2016, it will trigger restrictions on the amount of water than can be drawn from the lake. Additional restrictions would follow if levels reach below 1,050 feet and 1,025 feet.
The city of Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead, is so concerned about falling reservoir levels that it is building a new intake pipeline deeper within the lake, to ensure it will be able withdraw water even if lake levels continue to decline.
Lake Mead is part of the Colorado River Basin, which provides a crucial source of water to seven states and Mexico. The region is in the midst of a 15-year drought, while the state of California is in its fourth consecutive dry year.
A year after a Texas jury awarded $2.9 million to a family who claims to have been sickened by gas and oil wells, the case remains in limbo because critical court documents needed for an appeal have not been prepared.
The landmark case is being anxiously watched by industry and environmentalists for the legal precedent it may set. The verdict, if upheld, would open the door to other lawsuits against industry by people living nearby oil and gas production, according to legal experts.
"There is a lot on the line in this case," said Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law school professor who specializes in environmental and administrative law.
Last April, a Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the health of Bob and Lisa Parr and their daughter, Emma. The jury concluded the family was made sick by emissions generated by Aruba's 22 gas wells surrounding the family's ranch in Wise County, and awarded the damages.
The award appears to be the largest against the oil and gas industry in a lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions sickened residents. Aruba, a Plano, Texas company, immediately appealed the decision.
Last month, more than 30 students at Swarthmore College tried an increasingly popular tactic to pressure their school to divest its $1.9 billion endowment of fossil fuels: a sit-in in the hallway of the administration's office.
Thirty-two days and more than 200 protesters later, officials at the 151-year-old liberal arts college near Philadelphia finally agreed to discuss divestment at a board meeting in May.
Since January, Swarthmore and nine other schools with endowments totaling more than $72 billion have been beset with campus sit-ins. Those students are urging their universities to join the 30 schools worldwide—along with 41 cities, 72 religious institutions, 30 foundations and hundreds of individuals—that have divested or pledged to divest from fossil fuels. Most recently, the staff at SOAS, University of London pledged April 24 to divest their fossil fuel holdings over the next three years.
These so-called "escalation" efforts, according to those involved with the campaigns, have involved thousands of students, alumni and community members in eight states over 70 days.
"We were pleased with the movement on the Swarthmore campus, but not surprised," said Jenny Marienau, the U.S. divestment campaign organizer at the green group 350.org that’s helped the movement grow. For the last three years, the student divestment group Swarthmore Mountain Justice has been building support from students, alumni, faculty and the community, she said.
The primary argument for divestment is: "If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage," according to 350.org's website. Divestment involves selling off stocks and bonds tied to oil, natural gas and coal companies, and can take months to years.
The informational graphics in the "Big Oil + Bad Air" investigative series by InsideClimate News in conjunction with the Center for Public Integrity have been awarded a Sigma Delta Chi award by the Society of Professional Journalists.
As a bitterly fought case over the future of New Mexico's largest coal-fired power plant nears a climax, the outcome has the potential to reverberate through the faltering U.S. coal industry. It could also steer the debate over how soon and at what cost renewables are embraced as the country's energy future.
That landmark moment could come any day, when New Mexico regulators decide whether to accept a utility's controversial plan to close only two of its four coal-fired units, replacing them mainly with natural gas and nuclear energy. The Public Regulation Commission's regulatory panel could deny the request, potentially forcing the plant to shut down and opening the door for renewable replacement power.
San Juan is one of the largest––and most polluting––power plants among the hundreds facing retirement amid the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's crackdown on coal pollution and the boom in natural gas production that has undercut coal prices. The case has drawn attention nationwide as it could influence the fate of middle-aged and younger plants and possibly accelerate the power industry's pivot to climate-friendly energy sources.
The San Juan decision "carries with it potentially precedent-setting and national implications for how to deal with current haze and future carbon regulations," said Robb Hirsch, executive director of New Mexico Independent Power Producers, a trade group of workers in renewable energy, natural gas or transmission lines.
Environmental justice advocates may have found a climate champion in Mayor Bill De Blasio, who this week made income equality the centerpiece of his sweeping sustainability plan for New York City.
The plan, known as OneNYC, is a rebranding and revamping of the city's eight-year-old sustainability agenda PlaNYC, but the emphasis on economic justice came as an unexpected swerve. Urban development and environmental experts told InsideClimate News that OneNYC is the most ambitious strategy in the nation to link the fight against income inequality with climate action and may inspire officials in other municipalities to follow.
De Blasio's plan is a municipal-level equivalent to the thorny discussions between rich and poor nations over an international climate deal. There is now growing recognition that a climate deal that fails to lift poor nations out of energy poverty would not succeed. Guaranteeing people access to clean electricity would promote economic development, uplift the lives of the poor—and address the economic justice issues that have plagued climate progress.