Key Things to Watch for, Climate-Wise, Throughout 2013

All forecasts of big news events in the coming year run risks of being scooped by the unforeseen, but not so with a forecast that many differing climate news developments will compete for the finite, and shrinking, news hole … and for Americans’ attention.

No 20/20 crystal ball exists for forecasting big news events months in advance. Who, after all, foresaw “Superstorm Sandy” and its impacts this time last year?

At the same time, some big climate change stories throughout this year appear pretty likely to warrant serious, and early, attention. Numerous news outlets, blogs, and other sources have addressed big developments expected during 2013 on the climate issue. Here is a broad assessment of what media addressing climate likely will find demanding their shrinking column inches and air time in the new year.

Tipping Points

You’ve heard it before. The globe’s climate could shift irreversibly into a new and very unpleasant regime that will dominate the 21st century and beyond — but when?

A few news stories at the end of 2012 pointed the way. An NPR story on December 30, identifying the summer of 2012 as sure to be the hottest on record, cited other extreme weather events. Activist Bill McKibben of 360.org told NPR’s Jacki Lyden: “We’ve already passed all kinds of tipping points,” while warning that President Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project will be a big test of his presidency. McKibben further quoted NASA scientist Jim Hansen’s assessment that “there’s no other word for where we are now than planetary emergency.” In a more positive turn, McKibben suggested a tipping point of sorts in student activism on the issue at college campuses across the country.

On December 16, a Smithsonian blog post cited a Nature Climate Change paper that offers perhaps a more concrete assessment of where we’re headed: “There’s a startlingly small number we need to keep in mind when dealing with climate change: 8. That’s as in 8 more years until 2020, a crucial deadline for reducing global carbon emissions if we intend to limit warming to 2°C.” At the AGU meeting in December, climate scientist Robert Watson offered a talk that argued that we are way beyond hope of a future limited to a 2 degree C rise in average temperatures (see Yale Forum article).

ABC in Australia on December 21 quoted the British Met Office’s annual forecast that “It is very likely that 2013 will be one of the warmest 10 years in the record going back to 1850, and it’s likely to be warmer than 2012.” The forecast is based on the Met’s own research and also on data from the University of East Anglia, the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fast forward for a moment  to 2017: check out this depressing picture painted by The Guardian in Great Britain, part of a series of articles on the U.K. titled: “The environment in 2017: a polluted wasteland hit by floods and droughts.”

What will inaction on climate change cost? A lot more than if we act meaningfully now, according to a new report by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria (see here and here) and reported in Nature Climate Change. Here’s a news story on the study by the Environmental News Network.

The Upcoming IPCC Report

The authority on where we’re headed is, of course, the most recent IPCC assessment, published every seven years. Some early drafts of the multi-part report, scheduled for release beginning in September and extending into 2014, have already been leaked — and they’ve been reported widely. U.S. Blogger Alec Rawls, who leaked the document after gaining access after signing up as an expert reviewer — something that anyone can do, according to New Scientist — suggests that the report undermines the view that climate warming is caused by human activity because of new studies suggesting a stronger link than previously believed between solar activity and the climate. Scientists have lined up to say Rawls’ interpretation is misleading. Here are a few more news stories covering the IPCC flap:

What the leaked report does suggest is more intense droughts, more frequent tropical cyclones, the unlikelihood of a collapse (at least until 2100) in ocean circulation that brings temperate weather to the North Atlantic, an ice-free Arctic in the summer by 2100, and more sea-level rise by 2100 than had been predicted in 2007. It also claims, according to the New Scientist story, that “a large fraction of climate change is largely irreversible on human timescales.”

The U.S. Forecast

For a more focused forecast on climate change in the United States, the just-released National Climate Assessment provides for some compelling reading (see it here).

And just a few days into the new year, NOAA issued its monthly State of the Climate report, which showed that 2012 indeed was the hottest year on record in the continental United States.

“2012 marked the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States with the year consisting of a record warm spring, second warmest summer, fourth warmest winter and a warmer-than-average autumn,” NOAA said. “The average temperature for 2012 was 55.3°F, 3.3°F above the 20th century average, and 1.0°F above 1998, the previous warmest year.”

Energy Consumption Trends

Throughout the final weeks of 2012 and the opening weeks of the new year, there have been some good overviews of the latest trends in energy consumption. One place to begin is a December 19 Bloomberg BusinessWeek story on California’s competition with Texas to become America’s new “oil heartland” over the next decade.

The story cites the Bureau of Land Management’s sale of 15 leases covering about 18,000 acres of Monterey Shale, a geologic formation whose most productive areas stretch from east of San Francisco to more than 200 miles south of Monterey County. The story suggests a looming fight between petroleum companies and California regulators aiming to set rules on the expected boom in fracking. KQED in San Francisco also has reported on the California fracking story.

One complication with mining natural gas that California regulators are sure to focus on involves methane leakage, which is undermining the “green credentials” of natural gas. Check out this January 2 story on the subject, in Nature.

Also in the news recently was a January 1 story in the Christian Science Monitor on Africa’s skyrocketing energy demands.

For the energy blog FuelFix, California’s rise and newfound competition among states signals the coming American dominance in the fossil fuel industry:

It’s hard not to get a big ego, what with all the predictions about U.S. energy that have come out over the past month or so. Several suggest the United States will become the largest global oil producer by the end of the decade, overtaking Saudi Arabia and going on to export oil to the rest of the world by 2030.

The post cites some pretty striking statistics from energy research firms, reprinted here:

  • The United States becomes the largest global oil producer by 2020, while fuel-efficiency measures reduce demand here, resulting in dropping U.S. imports and, by 2030, exporting oil. (International Energy Agency)
  • Oil will remain the No. 1 global fuel through 2040; natural gas overtakes coal for the No. 2 spot. (Exxon Mobil)
  • Use of nuclear power and renewable energy grows, but renewable energy is still less than 10 percent of total supply by 2040. (Exxon Mobil)
  • Global spending for exploration and production of oil and gas reaches a record $644 billion in 2013. (Barclays)
  • Power companies spend $250 billion for new generating plants and transmission assets by 2020. (Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions)
  • Gasoline prices continue to swing wildly over the next year. (FuelQuest)

So, what would it take to move in the other direction? Climate activist Joe Romm at “Think Progress” weighed in with a blog post on a new PricewaterhouseCoopers study, “Too late for two degrees?” That report states that “global carbon intensity decreased between 2000 and 2011 by around 0.8% a year. In 2011, carbon intensity decreased by 0.7%. The global economy now needs to cut carbon intensity by 5.1% every year from now to 2050. Keeping to the (2 degrees C) carbon budget will require sustained and unprecedented reductions over four decades.”

“Humanity,” Romm wrote, “has its foot on the accelerator as we head toward a cliff.”

Another projection that climate change reporters should pay attention to: Global coal consumption is expected to continue to grow in 2013 and beyond. A New Scientist story on January 2 reported on an International Energy Agency report that predicts that the world will burn as much coal as oil by 2017. Increases in coal use overseas are expected to easily offset likely reductions in coal combustion domestically.

Check out this other interesting story on the subject, from the West Virginia Gazette in coal country.

And this blog post from the Christian Science Monitor, which cites increased international trade and — no surprise here — the industrialization of China as a major cause for the global rising demand for coal.

Of course, no journalist covering the intersection of climate change and energy consumption can ignore the Keystone XL pipeline story, a significant energy/climate issue headed for the news pages in 2013. On January 1, the Sacramento Bee ran an editorial urging President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline:

A dangerously obese man, serious about his New Year’s resolution to lose weight, would not begin the year by buying $7 billion worth of fat-producing candy. Nor would any nation serious about reducing greenhouse gases approve construction of a $7 billion pipeline that would facilitate the consumption of 900,000 gallons a day of tar sand oil, spewing greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere.

On this New Year’s Day 2013, America is that dangerously obese man.

Here’s another developing energy story to monitor: The Obama administration in December announced a plan to drill in the Arctic’s National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. It’s “the first time a blueprint has been drawn up for the entire 23-million-acre block on Alaska’s North Slope” and “opens 11.8 million acres for development in an area believed to hold 549 million barrels of economically recoverable oil and 8.7 trillion cubic feet of economically recoverable natural gas,” The Los Angeles Times reported on December 19.

Conservationists have praised the plan, which sets aside five areas that are off-limits to drilling.

Energy Efficiency

The other side of the energy consumption equation — energy efficiency — is itself worth following in 2013. A variety of recent news stories offer a roadmap of developing issues related to the drive toward energy efficiency.

The Christian Science Monitor on December 23 predicted that clean energy will continue to “creep into the mainstream.”

NPR’s Marketplace program on December 31 reported on the drive toward better fuel economy, noting that six new hybrid models and eight more plug-in models will hit the road in 2013.

The Christian Science Monitor on December 30 took an interesting look at the trend of “wireless charging” for electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, electric car sales are expected to double in 2013, to 6,000, The Guardian reported on December 29.

Also overseas, a new alliance between Germany and Central America to develop renewable energy is worth checking out in a December 27 story by Inter Press Service.

Renewable Energy Sources Getting New Life?

In China, India, and Europe, meanwhile, investments in green technology are expected to be strong in 2013, the South China Morning Post reported on January 2.

The story came with plenty of caveats: “Low U.S. gas prices are keeping renewable sources of energy uncompetitive for now,” said Simon Webber, fund manager and global sector specialist at British fund house Schroders. “In addition, there is overcapacity in wind and solar energy and we will wait until there are signs of industry consolidation before we will turn positive on the outlook of this sector,” Webber added.

In the U.S., one of the big stories for renewable energy in the first days of the New Year was the one-year extension of an important tax credit for the wind industry, which made it into the “fiscal cliff” deal signed into law by President Obama. The Desert Sun in Southeastern California, where wind energy is a valuable industry, reported on the significance of the story on January 1.

The story also was not lost on the DesMoines Register or the industry blog FuelFix.

Federal Moves at EPA and the State Department

In 2013, the EPA faces several more legal battles as it attempts to finalize pollution regulations for power plants. Check out this Reuters story. With inaction expected in Congress, look for developments in the federal courts:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, which hears most challenges to federal environmental rules, is likely to be busy as industry groups and states bring their cases against the EPA’s rules after they are finalized. The court sided with the agency in most of the recent challenges, most notably upholding its decision to use the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

The EPA, under a new nominee to succeed Lisa Jackson as Administrator, also will face challenges as it looks to regulate the boom in fracking across the nation. Reuters examined some of these challenges in a December 28 story.

The effort to move the world’s nations forward toward a new agreement on greenhouse gas emissions is expected to have a new champion on the international stage in Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry, who Obama has nominated as the next Secretary of State. A vocal supporter of efforts to reign in emissions from refineries and power plants, Kerry will likely find the Keystone XL pipeline project among his earliest assignments, as indicated in this December 26 blog post by FuelFix.

“The State Department is expected to soon issue a fresh environmental review of the pipeline after it was rerouted to avoid drinking water supplies in Nebraska,” FuelFix’s Jennifer A. Dlouhy wrote. Obama rejected a permit for the border-crossing permit in January, setting up the latest round of scrutiny, which could end with a State Department verdict early in 2013 on whether the pipeline is in the “national interest.”

Cap-and-Trade Experiments

One big story on market-based solutions in 2013 will involve California’s experiment with a cap-and-trade scheme, launched January 1. In an editorial on December 30, The Washington Post expressed skepticism about the effort:

… California’s experiment might not work well enough to persuade others to follow along. The most obvious problem with the plan is that it relies far too little on the market-based cap-and-trade system and far too much on other, expensive, command-and-control regulations. State officials expect to achieve only about 23 percent of their planned emissions reductions through 2020 with carbon pricing, and it’s not clear what happens after that. The cost of the whole package, then, is likely to be higher than necessary.

The Post editorial also cited an obvious challenge faced by carbon regulators in the Golden State, namely that the state is diving in mostly by itself:

… there are other potential problems that flow from the fact that California is acting alone. As with any market, the bigger a carbon market is, the more efficient it is. But the group of Western states that were going to join California in creating a linked carbon market have not followed through. That not only reduces the size of the market California is creating, it could also dull its effectiveness.

California’s new market will be linked to a new cap-and-trade market in Quebec, Canada, beginning the second or third quarter of this year. A January 1 story in the Montreal Gazette reviews some of the details.

The market scheme in California has had some early kinks to work out. Edison International unintentionally offered to buy 21 times more allowances than it wanted on November 14, Bloomberg reported on December 20.

“When the state Air Resources Board said last month that it had received three bids for every available permit, it failed to mention that Edison accounted for nearly 72 percent of the offers. Had the company submitted its proposals in the right format, about 225,000 permits would have gone unsold at auction,” the Bloomberg report said. Most of Edison’s bids were eventually disqualified after exceeding auction limits.

Climate Change on TV, this time on Showtime

The climate change issue is heading back into Americans’ living rooms with another round of television, following a series of high-profile documentaries over the past decade. This time, a documentary series called “Years of Living Dangerously” is to air on the Showtime cable network. Actors Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Alec Baldwin will be among the narrators, and producers include Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron, former California Governor (and now Hollywood returnee) Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Joel Bach and David Gelber of “60 Minutes.”

The series — Showtime has not yet announced when in 2013 the documentary will air — is expected to have six to eight one-hour segments. A Washington Post blog report on December 4 noted that it will be “the first multi-episode documentary on climate change to be aired by a major network.” You can see a copy of the actual Showtime announcement here.

Schwarzenegger Back in the Climate Change Spotlight

With some bumps in the road perhaps now behind him, the former California governor is diving back into climate change advocacy, now as a private citizen. His role in the new Showtime series and other efforts will be worth watching in 2013. Back in October, National Journal framed it this way:

Schwarzenegger, whose legacy was tarnished by California’s plunge into an economic recession under his watch and by a high-profile marital-infidelity scandal, has campaigned heavily since stepping down from office to encourage other states and regions to enact climate policies modeled after California’s, with the aim of building up momentum for national and international climate laws. Schwarzenegger brings his global celebrity to the cause, but he also brings credibility, as the only American political leader to date who has succeeded in enacting a climate-change law.

Politico, on December 20, offered some more details, reporting that Schwarzenegger “has immersed himself in work on R20 Regions of Climate Action, a nonprofit he helped start in 2010 that works closely with the United Nations to implement and help finance green projects in states and provinces around the world.”

The story continues: “The former governor has emerged as perhaps the highest-profile in a small group of Republican climate change activists, bucking those in Washington who are skeptical of the science behind global warming.”

As Schwarzenegger and others attempt to gain traction on climate change and other environmental issues, the green movement will have to overcome some major diversity challenges within its own ranks. Politico on December 28 examined some of these challenges.

Parting Signs of Change in 2013

Here are a few other forecasts of how climate change may play out on the nation’s newspaper and magazine pages and on its television, radio, and cable stations over the balance of the New Year:

‘… more weird weather …’

Research in 2012 suggested that the continued disappearance of ice in the Arctic is slowing the jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere, “bringing extreme weather to mid-latitudes, including prolonged cold spells in Europe, Russia’s 2010 heatwave, and record droughts in the U.S. in 2011 and 2012. Watch out for more weird weather in 2013,” a story in New Scientist on January 2 reported.

… faster melting of sea ice …

The New York Times, in a December 31 Green blog post, cited a new study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that examines a process that may further accelerate the melting of sea ice: the rate at which the ocean underneath the ice absorbs sunlight.

“The bottom line of the study … is that the ocean under newly formed ice (‘first-year ice’ in the scientists’ terminology) absorbs 50 percent more solar energy than the ocean beneath older ice (‘multiyear ice’),” Felicity Barringer at the Times wrote. “This means that the more the ice melts in late summer, the more first-year ice replaces multiyear ice, and the warmer the ocean beneath the ice becomes, accelerating the melting process. One sentence of the study says it all: “a continuation of the observed sea-ice changes will increase the amount of light penetrating into the Arctic Ocean, enhancing sea-ice melt and affecting sea-ice and upper-ocean ecosystems.”

… the drought of 2012, and into 2013 …

Drought conditions across the U.S. in 2012, meanwhile, are continuing into this year, particularly in the Plains states throughout winter, Climate Central reported, citing the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

Other reports examining the prospects for drought in 2013: On January 1, The Independent in the U.K. considered the prospects of a commodities shortage as the Mississippi River runs increasingly dry. On December 26, the Los Angeles Times reported on new model simulations by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which suggest that climate change could cut annual Western water runoff by 10 percent in coming decades.

… and, alas, risks to French wines …

And finally, adding insult to injury, French wine is expected to be another casualty of our warming climate.

That last point may just be what best catches the attention of those decisionmakers so far looking for a reason to take action.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.