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Science Museums Urged to Cut Ties With Fossil Fuel Donors

Letter from Nobel laureates and other scientists goes to 330 institutions urging them to cut ties with the industry responsible for climate misinformation.

Mar 24, 2015

Hundreds of museums across the country––including some of the most prestigious––are being asked by more than 30 scientists to cut their ties to the fossil fuel industry.

In a letter sent to more than 330 science and natural history centers on Tuesday, the researchers said that when "some of the biggest…funders of misinformation on climate science" give millions of dollars to science-focused museums, it acts to "undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions."

"Museums are feeling budgetary crunches, and these donors bring in large sums of money," said Beka Economopoulos, co-founder and director of the Brooklyn-based Natural History Museum, a new educational organization that coordinated the letter. "Museums, even unintentionally, are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them. There is a threat of self-censorship where the philanthropy serves to make museums more reticent to offend the donor, or certainly to critique the practices of the donor." 

The campaign comes just weeks after the release of public documents show Smithsonian-affiliated astrophysicist Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon published articles arguing that the sun, not greenhouse gases, is driving modern climate change after receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel interests. He later failed to disclose that funding in academic journals' conflict-of-interest statements.

Museums are some of the world's top tourist destinations, particularly for families. Science-related institutions made up four of the top 10 most visited museums across the globe in 2014.

Concern over these museums' close financial ties with major oil-and-gas donors has been mounting for years. Fossil fuel billionaire David Koch, for example, sits on the boards of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Koch gave the Smithsonian $15 million to build the Hall of Human Origins, which opened in 2010. The exhibit has been widely criticized for ignoring the role humans play in driving modern climate change, and the challenge it poses to modern society.

U.S. Is Laggard Among Developed Nations in Understanding Climate Change

The Middle East, Africa, Russia, Commonwealth States and developing nations of Asia still trail America in understanding the threat of climate change.

Mar 23, 2015

For three decades, more than half of Americans have considered climate change a serious threat. Yet today, the U.S. still lags behind much of the rest of the developed world as understanding of global warming has become more widespread.

That's one finding of a new analysis of dozens of international climate polls since the 1980s by researchers at Cardiff University in Wales.

"Broadly speaking, people that are skeptical are in the minority across most of the world," said Stuart Capstick, a Cardiff scientist who studies public perceptions of global warming and was the lead author of the recent analysis.

Fracking Fumes Force Texas Resident to Shutter Home Business After a Decade

The Buehrings' property on the south Texas prairie is surrounded by more than 50 wells and nine oil-and-gas facilities, all within 2.5 miles of their home.

Mar 22, 2015

It's the height of tax season, when Texas tax preparer Lynn Buehring would usually be working horribly long hours to keep ahead of the crush of clients wanting to beat the April 15 filing deadline.

Not this year. After a more than a decade in business, Buehring has closed her Karnes County office.

Buehring said she was forced to shutter the business because noxious fumes from the dozens of oil-and-gas facilities that surround her rural home and office became so overpowering she could no longer work.

The unbearable odors also were driving away clients who couldn't stand to come to her office, she said.

"The smell and how it would make you sick...I just couldn't take it anymore," Buehring said.

So she notified her 85 clients that she was closing the Business Barn––so named because Buehring had established her office in a small red barn that sat in the yard of the ranch house she shares with her husband, Shelby.

"It was the hardest thing to do," she said. "But I had to do it."

New Federal Fracking Rules Draw Swift Response

The Interior Department’s new regulations are quickly opposed by oil and gas industry groups, but environmental groups say they don’t go far enough.

Mar 20, 2015

The Interior Department released long-awaited rules today for oil and gas wells on federal and tribal lands. Four years in the making, the regulations take aim at the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing, an extraction technique used on 90 percent of the nation's wells.

The rules, which will go into effect in late June, focus on protecting water quality and wildlife, but do not regulate the industry's effects on climate change. However, the Obama administration is working on a separate set of regulations to address emissions of methane—a powerful greenhouse gas—from oil and gas wells.

Immediate reaction from environmental groups was a mixture of cautious praise and criticism. The oil and gas industry reacted almost instantly with two lawsuits challenging the regulations.

Map: Tracking Academia's Fossil Fuel Divestment

More than $50B in divestment pledges have come from 28 universities, 41 cities, 72 religious institutions, 30 foundations and hundreds of individuals.

By Zahra Hirji and Elizabeth Douglass

Mar 20, 2015

As the fossil fuel divestment movement enters its fourth year, nearly a third of the 28 schools that signed on have completely purged oil, natural gas and coal investments from their endowment portfolios.

Many of the nine schools that have fulfilled their divestment pledges joined the fast-growing campaign as early as 2011; this group mostly involves small New England and California colleges that are overseeing relatively modest endowments.

Unity College, a small private school in Maine, is one of them. In 2012, the college pledged to divest from fossil fuel companies––then 3 percent of its total exposure­––over the next five years. But it finished the task in 2014, three years ahead of schedule. And so far, the school's portfolio "is performing past our expectations," said Bob Mentzinger, a Unity College spokesman.

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U. of Delaware Refuses to Disclose Funding Sources of Its Climate Contrarian

Citing academic freedom, the president and provost decline a congressional request for funding disclosures surrounding the work of Professor David Legates.

Mar 19, 2015

The University of Delaware has declined a congressional request for documents related to the external funding of one of its professors—a known climate contrarian—saying it was an intrusion into academic freedom.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, had requested documentation related to the funding sources of Professor David Legates and six other skeptic climate researchers. He did this after it was reported that Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon had failed to disclose funding from fossil fuel companies for his published work, studies that advanced discredited theories about the causes of climate change.

Legates is a professor of Climatology at the University of Delaware, and has co-authored several academic studies with Soon, including four of the papers for which Soon accepted funding from major utility company Southern Company. Soon reported the papers as "deliverables" without having disclosed his funding source.

Legates previously served as Delaware's state climatologist, a role he said he was fired from in 2011 after refusing to resign. Three years earlier he was asked by then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to stop using his official title while espousing climate denial.

Obama Orders 40 Percent Cut in Government Emissions

The executive order is the latest in a string of decisions the president has made to solidify his climate legacy in the face of Congressional gridlock.

Mar 19, 2015

President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 2008 levels by 2025, and mandated that at least 30 percent of its electricity come from renewable energy sources.

The executive order, which Obama signed Thursday morning, is the latest in a string of climate-related decisions the president has made in recent months to solidify his legacy on global warming in the face of Congressional gridlock. It also comes ahead of international climate treaty talks in Paris later this year, when all eyes will be on the United States, historically the world's top carbon emitter.

Obama's recent actions include vetoing a bill that would have fast-tracked a verdict on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline; banning drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay; rolling out the Clean Power Plan to curb carbon emissions from coal plants; and in a joint announcement with China, pledging to cut U.S. emissions up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

"We're encouraged to see this administration take a more aggressive stance in fighting climate change," said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for the environmental group 350.org. "But in 2017, President Obama's decision on Keystone XL and the success or failure of COP 21 in Paris are what will really define his legacy on the issue. We're going to continue urging the White House to heed the science, and do what's necessary to prevent climate catastrophe."

FEMA to States: No Climate Planning, No Money

Governors seeking billions of dollars in U.S. preparedness funds will have to sign off on plans to mitigate effects of climate change.

Mar 18, 2015

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is making it tougher for governors to deny man-made climate change. Starting next year, the agency will approve disaster preparedness funds only for states whose governors approve hazard mitigation plans that address climate change.

This may put several Republican governors who maintain the earth isn't warming due to human activities, or prefer to do nothing about it, into a political bind. Their position may block their states' access to hundreds of millions of dollars in FEMA funds. Over the past five years, the agency has awarded an average $1 billion a year in grants to states and territories for taking steps to mitigate the effects of disasters.

"If a state has a climate denier governor that doesn't want to accept a plan, that would risk mitigation work not getting done because of politics," said Becky Hammer, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program. "The governor would be increasing the risk to citizens in that state" because of his climate beliefs.

InsideClimate News Announces Staff Additions, Changes

Two senior hires strengthen newsroom team and digital prowess of expanding nonprofit operation.

By ICN Staff

Mar 18, 2015

InsideClimate News is pleased to announce additions and changes to its growing editorial team in its continuing dedication to elevating the reporting of climate, energy and environmental issues.

Lynn Zinser joined the staff this week as audience engagement editor, soon after Neela Banerjee joined ICN in January as Washington-based energy and environment reporter.

Ms. Banerjee spent the prior four years as the energy and environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau. She also previously worked for The New York Times, covering global energy, the Iraq War and other issues, and for the Wall Street Journal, as a foreign correspondent in Moscow. Ms. Banerjee graduated from Yale and grew up mostly in south Louisiana.

Ms. Zinser comes to ICN from The New York Times, where she spent 11 years as an editor, reporter and producer, deeply involved in the evolution to a digital-first newsroom as a part of the website's editorial team. She has also worked as a reporter for several newspapers, including The Star-Ledger in Newark, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Charlotte Observer and Memphis Commercial Appeal. A graduate of Syracuse University, Ms. Zinser grew up in Rochester, N.Y.

The Melting Arctic: A Fragile Frontier of Riches and Risk Opens for Business

'The burning of fossil fuels is creating opportunity to find more fossil fuels to burn' is how Sen. Al Franken framed the painful paradox.

Mar 17, 2015

In the summer of 2014, Crystal Cruises announced the latest in its opulent adventures: a 32-day voyage from Alaska to New York, via the Northwest Passage––the world's first luxury-liner cruise through the icy North.

Never mind that the passage across the top of the Earth is encased in ice much of the year, and that the 1,070-passenger cruise wouldn’t take place until 2016. And never mind that the least expensive ticket would cost $21,000 a person.

It sold out in three weeks.

With the Arctic warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, its disappearing sea ice is opening up more than cruise ship lanes. The melt is igniting a debate over how much development and commercial shipping should be allowed, what it means for the ecosystems involved, and whether the huge stores of oil and natural gas once locked underneath that ice should be extracted or left alone.

These are big questions, along with the biggest one: What does this all mean for the future climate?

The Arctic is estimated to have nearly one-quarter of the world's remaining untapped oil-and-gas reserves; while Russia and Norway are the only countries making significant strides in developing their resources so far, everyone wants a piece. The shipping routes that are becoming accessible—the Northwest Passage, where the Crystal Serenity will cruise, and the Northern Sea Route—offer unprecedented access for China and other eastern nations to bring their goods to the rest of the world. Those routes also provide a seasonal supplement to the Panama and Suez canals, which require ships to travel farther.

But the potential development in the Arctic is possible only because of global climate change; if those resources are developed, the further impact on the climate could be devastating. It's not just about the polar bears, the iconic kings of the Arctic, whose threats from climate change are well documented. A recent study in the journal Nature found that to keep global warming within the 2-degrees Celsius safe limit for all species, the Arctic's estimated 100 billion barrels of oil and 35 trillion cubic meters of gas "should be classified as unburnable." In other words, off limits.

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