As almost 200 countries try to work out an agreement in 2015 to slash carbon emissions, the U.S. and others are about to make the climate task tougher by adding new fossil fuel pipelines, power plants and other infrastructure that could increase pollution for decades.
The installations threaten to deepen the planet's dependence on fossil fuels and lock in new carbon emissions over the long term, jeopardizing the world's ability to slow global warming and prevent catastrophic droughts, flooding and sea-level rise. The investments also soak up funds that should be poured into nonpolluting, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, environmental advocates say.
"Projects that are approved today, they are not projects meant to last for two or three years. They have an operational and economic life span in excess of 30 years," said Anthony Swift, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group that opposes new projects involving coal, crude oil and natural gas. "In many real respects, infrastructure is destiny."
In the U.S., infrastructure has become the nation's de facto energy policy. With no comprehensive federal energy plan, and existing climate policies under attack from Congress, the U.S. fight over climate and energy is playing out over infrastructure projects. Because new energy facilities last for decades, are fiercely protected once built, and add carbon emissions for the duration, the battle lines now form around every new fossil fuel plant and pipeline proposal, from the Keystone XL oil pipeline to West Coast coal export terminals.
A coalition of some the world's top photographers launched a project this month that provides visual documentation of how climate change is altering communities, wildlife and landscapes across the globe—and measures to help prepare for and adapt to the changes.
The venture, known as EveryDayClimateChange, is housed on the popular image-sharing app Instagram. It includes pictures taken by the photographers on five continents over the past several years as they've traveled the world on assignment.
Within the last week, it has featured dispatches from far-flung locales including Tibet, Papua New Guinea and Yemen, as well as areas closer to home, such as the Colorado River and New York City. It has chronicled drought, invasive species, deforestation, disappearing glaciers, pollution from fossil fuel extraction, desertification, and extreme temperatures, among other topics. In its first week it has gathered 1,750 followers on Instagram and 630 more on Facebook.
The early years of the shale boom came with a widely held assumption that the vast quantities of natural gas liberated through high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would help slow climate change by displacing coal-fired power plants and speeding the transition to a clean-energy future.
But that notion was seriously challenged as scientists began studying the life cycle of natural gas. Although natural-gas power plants emit fewer greenhouse gases than coal plants, the process of extracting, processing and transporting natural gas releases unknown amounts of methane into the air.
Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, the shale boom's net impact on climate change remains unclear. That uncertainty has widened the rift between fracking supporters and opponents, and was cited as one of the reasons behind New York's recent fracking ban.
It has also prompted a slew of scientific studies, many of which are scheduled for this year.
As oil-and-gas producers' demand spikes for frac sand, a key ingredient used in hydraulic fracturing, there's mounting concern about the industry's air emissions. Toxic dust kicked up when the sand is produced and transported is a known trigger of lung disease.
For this reason, legislators in Minnesota, the fourth-largest producer of this special sand, committed 18 months ago to revamping air quality regulations for the industry. Staff at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) will release these much-anticipated rules for public comment in the coming months—and they expect a deluge of feedback.
That's because so much is at stake with these new rules. Local activists such as Bobby King see them as an opportunity to fill the nation's data gap on silica sand emissions from facilities handling the material—and to stand up for public health and the environment.
"People are really concerned about air quality," said King, a policy program organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota-based environmental group. "They are really expecting the MPCA to come up with something that’s meaningful and that ensures the pollution doesn't leave the site of the mine."
Editor's note: Keystone and Beyond: Tar Sands and the National Interest in the Era of Climate Change tells the definitive account of the Keystone XL saga.
Published last year, the book upends the national debate over the fractious project, tracing its origins to energy policy decisions made by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the earliest days of their administration, and to expectations about energy supply and demand that turned out to be wrong.
What was Bush's no-brainer has become President Barak's Obama dilemma, as he confronts a game-changing U.S. oil and gas boom and accelerating climate impacts his predecessors did not anticipate.
This week, as Congress prepares legislation to approve the pipeline and force Obama's hand, we are reissuing Keystone and Beyond and making it free.
A year in the making, the book was written by John H. Cushman, Jr. who worked in the Washington bureau of the New York Times for 27 years before joining the InsideClimate News staff.
This year is expected to bring a breakthrough for global climate action—and that includes the rapidly warming Arctic.
Starting in April, the United States will take over leadership of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental body charged with coordinating the eight Arctic states: Canada; Denmark, including Greenland and the Faroe Islands; Finland; Iceland; Norway; Russia; Sweden and the United States—along with a number of observer nations, including China, India, Japan and South Korea. Though the council can't issue policy, it provides the main forum for consensus building in the region, and produces recommendations that the delegates can bring back to their home countries.
Concluding that global warming will be a toxic topic in the newly elected Congress, climate movement leaders say they will press for action by state and local authorities while encouraging President Barack Obama to advance his agenda for fighting climate change.
"D.C. has always been tough ground—the fossil fuel industry owns one party and terrifies the other," said Bill McKibben, an environmental activist and founder of the climate advocacy organization 350.org. "We're aware of the hardship, but undaunted."
Local and regional governments have initiated some of the most aggressive efforts to combat climate change in the U.S. This has been particularly true in cities, where 80 percent of Americans live. Climate leaders say they will lobby more states, cities and towns to start adaptation programs to stave off the worst effects of global warming, including rising sea levels, increasing temperatures and stronger storms. They also will advocate local and regional measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, expand renewable energy and public transit, and toughen building codes.
LAREDO, Texas—Burch Muldrow was absolutely fed up with Lewis Petroleum.
The oil company was bulldozing dirt over a pit full of black, oily sludge on the ranch where he worked as caretaker.
Recalling a dramatic incident that happened two years ago, Muldrow said recently that he couldn't just stand by and watch. So he grabbed an empty one-gallon plastic milk jug from the bed of his pickup.
He cut off the top and scooped up some of the waste, muck he described as having the consistency of thick cake batter and smelling like diesel fuel.
Fracking's impacts on air quality took the spotlight this year, fueled by new research and broad media coverage.
The modern shale boom has created a massive influx of oil-and-gas wells, compressor stations and other infrastructure that spew toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the air. The consequences for public health and climate change are increasingly recognized as serious issues, on par with the water contamination concerns that once dominated debates over the pros and cons of fracking.
In mid-December, New York banned high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within its borders, effectively closing off the state's shale gas resources to producers. New York's decision was based on a public health review which cited various health risks including "air impacts that could affect respiratory health due to increased levels of particulate matter, diesel exhaust, or volatile organic chemicals."
It was January, and tennis players at the Australian Open were suffering through the scorcher that would be the year 2014.
They threw up and they fainted from the record-setting heat. They put on ice vests. The soles of their sneakers and the bottoms of their water bottles softened as the mercury marked 109 degrees Fahrenheit. They were knocked flat by the longest Melbourne heat wave in a century.
The new year seemed to be welcoming the world to the new normal.