United Nations warns that humanity has 'degraded' 40 percent of Earth's land

A new United Nations report released Wednesday shows farming, mining, and logging has marred more than half of the planet. In a portrait of land degradation across the globe, the report describes entire forests razed for timber or pasture; sensitive grasslands and wetlands lost to sprawling cities; and over-exploited lands that have dried up into desert.

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People have altered 70 percent of Earth’s lands from their natural state and degraded up to 40 percent. This threatens “many species on Earth, including our own,” the report warns. If these trends continue, experts expect growing disruptions to human health, food supplies, migration, and biodiversity loss driven by climate change, in what the authors calls a “confluence of unprecedented crises.”

“The human-environment relationship must drastically change to avoid catastrophic tipping points whereby the human power of exploitation is overwhelmed by the power of nature,” the report says, noting that half of humanity already feels the effects of degraded land.

The report, called the Global Land Outlook 2, comes from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and follows a landmark UN report earlier this month that called for “rapid and deep” emissions cuts to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The authors stressed that combating the erosion of the world’s lands actually makes a lot of economic sense: More than half of the global economy — about $44 trillion a year — relies on the natural world. At the same time, restoring lands and protecting forests could stem the rippling effects of poverty, hunger, conflict, and disease. And that, in turn, could contribute more than a third of the efforts needed to sequester carbon and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

More than anything, industrial agriculture has played an outsized role. The cultivation of cattle, palm oil, and soybeans in particular has led to depleted freshwater, widespread deforestation, and rampant extinctions, all of it underwritten by $700 billion in government subsidies each year that support unsustainable, polluting practices. In turn, this has unleashed tons and tons of greenhouse gasses each year.

In a press briefing on Wednesday, Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the U.N. organization, said that for too long, people have mined the earth, used its resources, and thoughtlessly discarded the rest. He pointed to his suit jacket: “This is fiber, this is cotton, this is land, this is water, this is carbon.” Thiaw said humanity must abandon this approach and adopt a more sustainable mindset of management.

The report warns that if nothing changes, by 2050, we can expect significant hits to crop yields, the degradation of an additional expanse of land the size of South America, and the loss of carbon locked up in poor soils and threatened peatlands. On the other hand, committing to conservation and restoring about a third of the world’s lands would not only improve yields and lock in carbon, but also prevent a third of expected extinctions.

The authors used “restoration” to refer to sustainable management of land and water. That includes practices like “rewilding” natural areas, protecting wetlands and waterways, prioritizing ecosystems in agriculture, and building green spaces in cities. They pointed to a number of success stories, such as efforts to rewild Argentina’s Iberá wetlands and prepare for dust storms in Kuwait.

“It’s not complicated,” Thiaw said. “It is actually low-tech, and it is accessible and achievable.” That is, if humanity can muster up the political will.

Global warming can be kept under 2C if humanity acts quickly: study

In the early 2010s, climate scientists were painting a grim picture of the future: If humans didn’t curb carbon dioxide emissions, the world was headed toward 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the century.

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A decade later, the planet is on a different path. Scientists now estimate that current emissions trajectories make a 4-degree scenario highly implausible, even as total carbon emissions continue to rise. In fact, a new study estimates that if countries fulfill the climate pledges they made at the United Nations climate change conference known as COP26 last year, warming could be limited to just below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

That’s a more optimistic outlook than those found in the assessmentsreleased in the months leading up to COP26. Based on the pledges that countries had made prior to the conference, those studies found that there was a less than 50 percent chance of keeping warming to below 2 degrees C, the goal set by the world’s countries in the 2016 Paris Agreement. Indeed, the commitments prior to COP26 put the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7 degrees.

“Our results provide a reason to be optimistic,” the researchers noted in the new study, which was published in the scientific journal Nature this week. “Warming could be limited to 2 C or just below, if the pledges on the table are implemented in full and on time.”

It’s a big “if.” The study assessed 154 pledges submitted by countries at the end of COP26. All 154 commitments included targets to cut emissions by 2030, and 76 included long-term targets stretching out to 2050 and beyond. In modeling temperature increases, the researchers assumed full implementation of countries’ pledges and took into account both short-term and long-term commitments. For countries that only pledged short-term reductions through 2030, the researchers extrapolated a similar trajectory to the end of the century. (The study also noted that a handful of countries — including Pakistan, Turkey, and Vietnam — had set unusually high emissions targets that would be reachable without any new policy initiatives and do little to reduce warming.)

There are already some indications that countries are not on target to meet their pledges. Last year, a United Nations report found that G20 countries, the world’s 20 largest economies, are likely to collectively fall short of their initial climate pledges by 1.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year — roughly 3 percent of their total annual emissions. Of the nine G20 countries that the report examined in detail, all had promised to eventually reach net-zero emissions, but none of them had reduction benchmarks that would actually put them on the path to net-zero.

In an analysis accompanying the new Nature study, climate scientists Zeke Hausfather and Frances Moore said that long-term targets should be “treated with skepticism” if they’re not backed by strong short-term commitments that drastically cut emissions as soon as possible. “It is easy to set ambitious climate targets for 30, 40 or even 50 years in the future — but it is much harder to enact policies today that shift energy systems towards a more sustainable future,” they wrote.

The new study also adds to the growing consensus that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C — the target that became a global rallying cry following the advocacy of vulnerable island nations during the 2015 U.N. climate negotiations — is basically out of reach, even under the most ambitious policy scenario modeled by the researchers.

The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming is the difference between life and death for many of the world’s most vulnerable people — and the difference between survival and extinction for some entire countries subject to sea level rise. The prime minister of Barbados, for instance, called 2 degrees of warming a “death sentence.”

While the 1.5-degree target is increasingly unlikely, it’s not yet entirely impossible, according to the researchers.

“Strong action will leave us with peak warming around 1.5 °C, whereas weak action will see temperature continue to rise to 1.7, 1.8, 2.0 °C or higher,” they noted. “Any delay in reversing the upward trend of emissions, phasing out the unabated use of fossil fuels and developing sustainable, additional and permanent negative-emissions options will put this target out of reach.”

Humanity is going to 'overshoot' its climate change goals. Then what?

In February, on the eve of the release of a major new report on the effects of climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, several of its authors met with reporters virtually to present their findings. Ecologist Camille Parmesan, a professor at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, was the first to speak.

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Scientists are documenting changes that are “much more widespread” and “much more negative,” she said, than anticipated for the 1.09 degrees Celsius of global warming that has occurred to date. “This has opened up a whole new realm of understanding of what the impacts of overshoot might entail.”

It was a critical message that was easy to miss. “Overshoot” is jargon that has not yet made the jump from scientific journals into the public vernacular. It didn’t make it into many headlines.

But just days earlier, the topic generated extensive debate when Parmesan and her coauthors went over their findings with government representatives from around the world. And next week, after the IPCC releases another big report on climate solutions, you may just start hearing about it more and more.

“Remember this word: overshoot,” Janos Pasztor, the executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative and the former United Nations assistant secretary-general on climate change, wrote in an op-ed published in January. “It will gain increasing importance as the herculean difficulty of reducing emissions to net zero and removing vast stores of carbon from the atmosphere become clearer.”

The topic of overshoot has actually been lingering beneath the surface of public discussion about climate change for years, often implied but rarely mentioned directly. In the broadest sense, overshoot is a future where the world does not cut carbon quickly enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — a limit often described as a threshold of dangerous climate change — but then is able to bring the temperature back down later on. A sort of climate boomerang.

Here’s how: After blowing past 1.5 degrees, nations eventually achieve net-zero emissions. This requires not only reducing emissions, but also canceling out any remaining emissions with actions to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, commonly called carbon removal. At that point, the temperature may have only risen to 1.6 degrees C, or it could have shot past 2 degrees, or 3, or 4 — depending on how long it takes to get to net-zero.

Direct air capture plant in IcelandA carbon removal facility in Iceland that came online in 2021. It captures carbon dioxide directly from the air and pumps it underground. Climeworks

The global temperature will begin to stabilize, but it will not decline. So next, nations will aim to scale up carbon removal even further. This will lower the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and bring the temperature on earth back down below 2 degrees C, if not to 1.5, or even lower, by the end of this century.

This possibility of overshoot was first conceived by scientific models that map out potential pathways for climate policy. And in the realm of a computer model, overshoot is a success story. We may fail to meet global climate targets in the next few decades, but hey, we can always turn things around and achieve them by 2100. But Parmesan and other scientists are warning that overshoot should not be considered lightly. While the rise in temperature is theoretically reversible, many of the consequences of a temporarily hotter planet will not be.

In a sense, we are on the pathway to overshoot right now. Warming is already dangerously close to 1.5 degrees, emissions are not going down, and existing policies put the world on track to warm 3 degrees by the end of the century. Policymakers are also beginning to seriously invest in carbon removal research and development, however, these solutions are still nowhere near being able to turn temperature rise around.

When I reached out to Parmesan to ask about her statement in the press conference, she was eager to talk about overshoot. “It’s so important, and really being downplayed by policymakers,” she wrote. “I think there’s very much an increased awareness of the need for action,” she told me when we got on the phone. “But then they fool themselves into thinking oh, but if we go over for a few decades, it’ll be okay.

Woman holds sign that says A protestor during COP26 in Glasgow. Current policies put the world on track to warm by nearly 3 degrees by the end of the century. Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The effects of overshoot could undermine climate solutions

The February report was part of the sixth major assessment of climate science by the IPCC, a body of hundreds of scientists convened by the U.N. The assessment is published in three volumes that look at the physical science of climate change, the effects of a warming planet on ecosystems and people and how to adapt to them, and the options for cutting emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere. That third volume will be released next week.

Parmesan said the IPCC’s recent impacts report shed light on two key risks of a future period of overshoot that she felt people were not paying enough attention to. The first is that some impacts will be irreversible, like the loss of coral reefs and species extinctions. “Global warming coming back down is not going to bring you that species back,” she said.

Though Parmesan did note that for many threatened species, “the shorter the overshoot, the lower the overshoot, the less likely they are to actually go extinct.”

Sea-level rise is also irreversible — the heat collecting in ice sheets and the ocean will continue to drive sea-level rise long after the temperature is stabilized or even lowered. Not to mention the possibility of losing entire nations and cultures to the sea, or the mass loss of human life from a world with more dangerous heat waves and storms.

Coral reefs that have turned white due to warmer ocean temperaturesA coral reef suffering from bleaching. Warming of 1.5 degrees C could destroy up to 90 percent of tropical reefs. Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

But the second risk throws the whole possibility of eventually reversing global warming into question. This is the part that stirred up confusion and controversy prior to the IPCC report’s release, when scientists were going over their findings with government delegates.

It has to do with climate feedbacks — changes to natural systems caused by climate change that then exacerbate climate change. The report documents countless examples that scientists are already observing. Insect outbreaks and wildfires are killing trees, causing huge releases of greenhouse gases from forests. Heat and drought are causing some parts of the Amazon rainforest to release more carbon than they suck up — even in intact, old-growth areas that have not been disturbed by agriculture or development. Arctic permafrost — frozen, carbon-rich soil — is thawing and beginning to release the carbon stored within. Scientists estimate that there is five times as much carbon stored in permafrost than has ever been emitted by humans.

Scientists say it is still possible to stop or even reverse these feedbacks with aggressive cuts to fossil fuel emissions and by actively restoring ecosystems. Walt Oeschel, a biologist at San Diego State University who first discovered that Arctic permafrost was becoming a net source of emissions in the 1980s, said that in northern Alaska, the permafrost is more than 1,000 feet thick, and for the most part, it’s just the surface layer that’s melting and releasing carbon. “But it’s going to get harder and harder to ameliorate or to reverse the longer we wait,” he said.

This is the crux of Parmesan’s second warning. Once some of these processes get chugging along, they may reach a point where it becomes impossible to stop them. “Humans can control human actions, but humans cannot control the biosphere’s responses to climate change,” she said. “And we’re witnessing responses that are going to make it harder and harder and harder for humans to get global warming down.”

A coastal cliff that is being eroded, exposing permafrostCoastal erosion eats away at the ice-rich permafrost underlying the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. USGS

If permafrost and rainforests begin pumping carbon into the atmosphere, the possibility of achieving net-zero, or even net-negative emissions would become a much bigger uphill battle. Even if we develop significant carbon removal capacity, these feedback emissions could make trying to remove carbon from the atmosphere feel like trying to shovel the walkway in the middle of a blizzard.

Scientists cannot pinpoint a specific temperature, or how long of an overshoot period may lead to unstoppable emissions from these systems. “But we can tell you these processes have already started,” said Parmesan. “And the longer they go on, the higher the warming, the longer the warming, the harder it’s going to be to reverse.”

Wolfgang Cramer, a co-author on the IPCC impacts report, said that when they explained this to government delegates, the discussion grew thorny. Some felt that talking about this would discredit the idea that we can aggressively cut carbon later in the century and reverse global warming. “It was seen as a way to be policy prescriptive,” Cramer said. “As if we wanted to tell them that if you don’t get it now then there’s no point in trying later.”

But to him that missed the point. “We’re just telling you that you may find it harder to come back later in the century than you think,” he said. “We were just making a case against delaying action.”

From models to policy

A future with overshoot is not some niche idea. Parmesan said the impression she gets from global climate talks like COP26 is that this is what some policymakers are planning for. “They have been talking about it as though okay, this isn’t great, but, you know, this is probably what’s going to happen,” she told Grist.

It’s unclear whether that was the case when world leaders signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, promising to limit warming to “well below 2 degrees” and “pursue efforts” to stay below 1.5 degrees. David Morrow, the director of research for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University, said it struck him at the time that 1.5 was an aspirational target, something that people took less seriously then than they do now.

John Kerry signing the Paris Agreement in 2016 while holding his granddaughterThen-Secretary of State John Kerry holds his two-year-old granddaughter while signing the Paris Agreement in 2016.

“I think it was what climate ethicist Steve Gardner calls ‘bearing witness’ to our collective failure in climate policy,” he said. “It was small island states pointing out, 2 degrees is a death sentence for us. We are not willing to accept that and so we want you to acknowledge this 1.5 degree target.”

Keywan Riahi, director of the energy program at the Austrian research institute IIASA and a prominent climate modeler, speculated that 1.5 degrees would not have been on the table in Paris if it wasn’t for climate models that showed pathways to bring temperatures back down after a peak.

Overshoot scenarios dominate the climate modeling literature. In a 2018 IPCC report, researchers analyzed more than 200 modeled climate action pathways that would keep warming under 2 degrees by the end of the century. Only nine of them avoided going beyond 1.5 degrees. For those nine, it wasn’t even a sure bet — the likelihood of staying below that threshold throughout the 21st century was only 50 to 66 percent.

There are a few reasons for this. One is time. Morrow said modelers build in an assumption that climate action will ramp up gradually, rather than accelerate dramatically in the near term and then level out. We’re already dangerously close to 1.5 degrees, so that gradual process doesn’t do us any favors. And because the goal of these models is to achieve a specific temperature far away in 2100, they can make up for the slow start by ratcheting up climate policies, as well as negative emissions, later in the century.

Riahi said another reason was cost. The models are designed to find the most cost-effective way to achieve temperature targets. “The quicker we reduce emissions, the higher the cost will be,” Riahi explained, “because we have a lot of long-lived fossil-based infrastructure which would need to be prematurely phased out if we really try to accelerate and achieve zero emissions early.”

But now, modelers are beginning to try a new approach where instead of studying how to achieve end-of-the-century outcomes, they are looking at how to cap global warming at a specific maximum level. Last year, Riahi published a paper in Nature exploring the costs and feasibility of achieving temperature targets with no or limited overshoot. Contrary to the argument that gradual climate action is more cost effective, he found that the upfront investments needed to limit overshoot would bring long-term economic gains.

But these models, which are underpinned by climate science, still do not take into account the climate feedbacks that Parmesan and her co-authors are warning about. She said there’s still not enough data to plug those observations in.

That’s important to keep in mind next week, when the IPCC releases its next report on the topic of climate change mitigation. The report will evaluate our options for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, with and without overshoot. It will also wrestle with the risks of presuming that we will be able to remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and evaluate the promise of various options for doing so.

a road flooded due to sea level riseScientists say sea level rise is one of the irreversible impacts of an overshoot scenario. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Parmesan felt that the government delegates started out thinking she and her co-authors were exaggerating, but after two weeks of discussion, they started to get it. “They actually started realizing, Oh, we’ve seriously underestimated the risk of overshoot. And it’s like, yes, you have. That’s the whole point.”

It might not seem like a very challenging idea that climate change will bring irreversible impacts. Of course there are irreparable consequences of a future with more drought, heat, floods, and fires.

Cramer laughed when I put this to him. “You’re right,” he said. “It is actually not very complicated. You’re probably right that most people will understand it as soon as you talk to them about it. I think where there’s a sense in talking about it is to make people aware that the current engagement for reducing emissions is insufficient. We actually need to get emissions down now. Every 10th of a degree counts.”

Earmarks in federal spending bill are floating the president's climate agenda

Last week, as Russian soldiers and tanks pushed deeper into Ukraine, members of Congress came together in a rare show of bipartisan cooperation to rapidly approve and pass a $1.5 trillion government spending bill that will fund the federal government through September. The 2,700-page bill, which President Joe Biden signed on Tuesday, averts a government shutdown, amply funds domestic programs and the military, and channels $13.6 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine.

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But that’s not all the bill does. For the first time in more than a decade, this omnibus funding bill included earmarks — provisions that direct funds to be spent on specific projects. Democratic senators and representatives used the opportunity to funnel federal funding to climate change projects across the nation.

The earmarked funding pales in comparison to the amount of funding Biden wanted for climate action at the federal level. Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which has passed the House but not the Senate, contains upward of half a trillion dollars for clean energy tax credits, electric vehicles, and more. All of the earmarks in the omnibus bill, not just the climate ones, comprise only 1 percent of total discretionary spending, or spending that lawmakers control through annual appropriations bills. But the earmarks aren’t insignificant. With most of the president’s climate agenda stalled in Congress currently, every ounce of climate spending counts.

Prior to the mid-2000s, earmarks were a common accouterment of appropriations bills. They were meant to be used as a way to get members of Congress on board with big pieces of legislation by giving them skin in the game. A senator or representative is more likely to vote for something if they can go home to their constituents and show them that the bill they voted for contains funds specifically earmarked for a popular community project or proposal. But by the 1990s and early 2000s, the earmark system was being abused. Lobbying and gift rules were looser then, too, and some members of Congress appeared to be trading earmarks for money or favors. In 2006, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a Republican representative from California, went to prison for taking millions of dollars from a lobbyist for earmark-related favors. In 2007, Democrats instituted stricter transparency laws around earmarks. In 2011, Republicans banned the practice completely.

But Democratic leadership succeeded in bringing earmarks back for yearly budget appropriation bills this year, thanks to waning distaste for the practice and an appetite among Democrats and even a few Republicans to renew them. So far, that may be a good thing from a climate perspective. The appropriations bill contains funding for climate science, flood resilience, beach restoration work, and clean transportation projects. Earmarks like these are advocated for by members of Congress who are often trying to meet a need their constituents have been vocal about, so the climate-related earmarks in the bill are a reflection of what some communities in the U.S. are saying is important to them.

“The fact that so many members are requesting climate adaptation measures indicates the measure to which climate change is affecting daily lives,” Jared Leopold, cofounder of the climate policy nonprofit Evergreen Action, told Grist.

Sean Casten, a Democratic representative from Illinois, secured $750,000 for an urban forestry project and another $785,000 for stormwater management improvements. Mike Levin, Democratic representative from California, got $9.3 million for shoring up coastal bluffs in San Clemente, another $5 million for pedestrian infrastructure, and $2.4 million for a water desalination project in his district. Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona, took home funding for a light rail project in Phoenix. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat from Nevada who faces a stiff Senate race this fall, got $2 million for a fleet of zero-emission buses. The list goes on.

“I think you saw a lot of adaptation money through a lot of the various projects,” said Casten, who used to work in the clean energy industry (and also used to write for Grist). That’s a step in the right direction, but Casten and other climate experts say that earmarks are no substitute for a top-down, federal climate plan.

“I don’t see earmarks being any kind of replacement for a broader climate strategy,” Ryan Fitzpatrick, director of the climate and energy program at the climate and energy nonprofit Thirdway, told Grist. “But what we do see is that this gives an opportunity for members, not all of whom would normally be tapping into climate issues or concerns, to do that, whether it’s through land management or agricultural practices, weatherization of homes, and innovation investments.”

Not all the earmarks in the bill are good for the planet. There’s also funding in the bill for infrastructure that will result in new emissions, such as a 44,035-square-foot indoor fitness center at an Air Force base in Nevada. But Fitzpatrick said that all the earmarks, even the not-so-green ones, helped indirectly support climate action by galvanizing bipartisan support for the legislation.

In addition to expanding the military’s budget and sending aid to Ukraine, the appropriations bill as a whole ultimately directed increases in funding to federal agencies that are seeking to limit the effects of climate change as part of the Biden administration’s larger climate agenda. The United States Department of Agriculture is getting $78.3 million to address the climate crisis in farming and rural communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Climate and Health program is getting $10 million more to prepare for the public health consequences of rising temperatures. The Environmental Protection Agency is getting close to $10 billion to expand environmental enforcement and reduce pollution.

“Again, it’s not everything we need it to be, but we have been seeing steady increases in funding,” Fitzpatrick said. “If congressionally directed spending helps to bring people on board to continue to ramp up spending on things like clean energy and innovation, that’s a good thing.”

Geothermal energy from volcanoes could power the future

Newberry Volcano — the largest volcano in the Pacific Northwest — is the site of an experiment that’s aiming for a breakthrough in geothermal energy.

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The experiment is one small step in the high-risk, high-reward world of next-generation geothermal. The goal is to replace fossil fuels with this always-on, renewable energy. The challenge, however, is getting it to work.

To access geothermal energy you need three elements: Heat, water, and permeable rock.

The water flows through gaps in the hot permeable rock, transferring heat from deep underground to the surface. That’s geothermal energy.

The world’s first geothermal resources were the rare places where those three things just happened to come together naturally. Like hot springs or geysers, found in places like the U.S. Mountain West.

Early projects were extremely simple: pumping the water into buildings for heat and hot baths. But eventually, starting in the 20th century, countries all around the world — like Italy, Iceland, and the United States — started using geothermal energy to produce electricity, using steam to power turbines.

This form of energy has one big benefit over other renewables. To understand, let’s compare a geothermal plant and a solar farm, each capable of pumping out the same amount of power.

On the solar farm, let’s say it’s only really sunny for about five hours a day. That means that every day, it only produces 20 percent of its potential. A geothermal plant, on the other hand, can basically produce full power, all day, every day – which makes geothermal a really useful kind of energy: It’s got all the same “always-on” benefits of a fossil fuel power plant, but it’s renewable.

People were understandably excited about geothermal, and the energy source started to take off in the U.S. after the 1970s energy crisis. But for all its benefits, geothermal energy has only ever played a small role on our grid. And, to understand why, let’s compare it to that solar farm again.

To build this solar farm, you need to find sun. And you do that by, like, looking up. But for the geothermal plant, I’d need to find a rare spot that has all three of those geothermal ingredients, hidden under miles of rock. Then, I’d need to pay for expensive equipment and labor, and go through years of permitting, just to get the plant up and running. So, despite all its benefits, and the almost limitless energy in the earth, it’s hard to make a project pencil out.

Because of these challenges, geothermal energy started to slow down around the 1990s. The industry needed something to change.

That change? A new process known as enhanced geothermal. Instead of relying on places where all three of those geothermal ingredients come together naturally, enhanced geothermal allows you to tap into heat, even if you’re missing the other two.

It works by injecting high-pressure water into the ground, forming a network of little cracks for water to flow through and carry heat back to the surface. It’s a similar idea to fracking, but with a lot less pollution.

The technology really opens up the potential for geothermal. To put it into perspective: The U.S. currently produces about 3 gigawatts of geothermal electricity. Enhanced geothermal could theoretically generate more than 5,000 gigawatts of electricity — more than all the fossil fuel plants in the country.

So why isn’t enhanced geothermal powering the world? Despite a few successful pilot projects, the problem, once again, is money.

Right around the time people were getting serious about enhanced geothermal, another energy transition happened: Solar, wind, and natural gas got cheap. While enhanced geothermal could compete with coal, it had trouble with its new competition.

“With the change in the economics of power, the question was how does geothermal compete?” said Geoff Garrison, vice president of research and development at the geothermal company AltaRock.

AltaRock was one of the companies trying to build on the promise of enhanced geothermal, only to be caught off guard by that wave of cheap gas and renewables. In order to be competitive, the only option they saw was to build an even hotter enhanced geothermal project. And that’s what brought them to Newberry Volcano.

“There’s a very large magma body underneath it,” said Garrison. “It contains a tremendous amount of heat.”

AltaRock wanted to reach temperatures of 400 to 450 degrees Celsius (752-842 degrees Fahrenheit) — what the industry calls “super-hot rock.” At this temperature, you get way more energy, and extract it more efficiently.

In a normal location, you’d have to drill down about eight miles to reach these kinds of temperatures. But at Newberry, it’s so hot that you can reach those temperatures at a quarter the depth. AltaRock saw this as a perfect testing ground for super-hot geothermal energy.

If Altarock is going to reach those super-hot temperatures beyond Newberry, they’re going to need to drill deeper. And that’s really hard to do with conventional drills. Instead, they’re hoping to use another type of new technology that sounds like science fiction: A heat ray to melt rocks. It’s called a millimeter-wave — it’s kind of like a laser, in a different part of the spectrum.

The idea came from Paul Woskov, a fusion scientist at MIT. In his research, he’d seen the waves accidentally melt holes in tile walls. Years later, he started studying millimeter waves as a way to melt rock.

After a decade of research, he’s now working with a geothermal company called Quaise to test millimeter waves for geothermal drilling. They’re doing tests at Oak Ridge National Laboratory — essentially, melting holes in rocks.

Eventually, AltaRock hopes to test these millimeter waves in the real world at Newberry.

And, if they’re successful, this new heat ray might make it a little more feasible to reach those super-hot temperatures anywhere.

AltaRock, and other geothermal startups like it have a long and challenging road ahead.

But they also see a big reward.

“We’re talking about replacing every coal plant in the country, or every natural gas plant in the country with geothermal,” said Garrison. “We can do that. That’s the scale of the resource we have at hand.”

It’s certainly not guaranteed to succeed. Odds are, there will be a lot of failures along the way.

But there’s so much heat in the earth, that today’s geothermal energy is just the tip of the iceberg.

Watch below:

How a geothermal breakthrough could transform our energy

Guam sues United States Air Force to stop dangerous chemical waste burnings

On a recent Saturday, Monaeka Flores made the drive from her apartment to her family’s land on the north coast of Guam, the U.S. island territory about 1,500 miles south of Japan. As she steered through a gap in a limestone cliff, the land fell away to her right. A lush tropical forest sloped down to a white sand beach scattered with dark, porous rocks. Beyond that, Flores could see a fringe of reef and the bright blue of the western Pacific stretching to the horizon. Driving north to Inapsan Beach, toward her family’s land, she always feels “this excitement, this energy, this joy bubbling up inside me,” she said.

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Inapsan Beach is where Flores learned how to swim. It’s where she first donned snorkeling gear to gaze, wide-eyed, at the tropical fish that dart around the reef. It’s where her family camped, unfolding cots beneath the tin-roofed pavilion that her grandfather, father, and uncles built. Today, it’s where her extended family still gathers to fish, to barbecue, to play music and chat while her young nieces and nephews splash in the waves.

Inapsan is land that Flores’ family ranched on for generations. They are CHamoru, Indigenous people who have called Guam and the other Mariana Islands home for more than 3,500 years. “When I’m there, I feel the sadness and pain drain from my body,” she said. “It is such a beautiful place. Such a giving, healing place.”

Now, that place is threatened.

About three miles southeast of Inapsan, Andersen Air Force Base operates an explosive ordnance disposal range on Tarague Beach. In May last year, the Air Force applied to renew a permit to destroy up to 35,000 pounds of excess or obsolete munitions each year — everything from incendiary bombs to bullets, from anti-tank mines to smoke grenades — by detonating and burning them right on the beach.

silhouette of Guam and a zoomed in area of the northern tip of the islandGrist

If granted, the permit will give Andersen Air Force Base the option to conduct open burning and open detonation operations for the next three years, releasing a slew of toxic chemicals, including explosives like RDX, HMX, and TNT, thyroid-disrupting compounds like perchlorates, and persistent toxins like PCBs and PFAS. Black plumes could rise from the open burn pits. “Kickout” from the explosions could be flung up to half a mile away, contaminating the nearby reef and limestone forest. The chemicals could accumulate in the soil, leach down, and poison the shallow, freshwater aquifer that provides water for 80 percent of Guam.

To prevent this, in late January, a community group called “Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian” filed a lawsuit against the Air Force and the Department of Defense. (In CHamoru, prutehi means protect, and Litekyan is the CHamoru name for an ancient village in northern Guam, an area now known as Ritidian.) The group, which Flores helped found to protect natural and cultural resources on the island, says the military failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, when applying to renew the permit. They argue that Andersen Air Force Base did not consider the environmental and cultural harms that could be inflicted by detonating and burning hazardous waste in the open air.

A spokeswoman for Joint Region Marianas, which is responsible for environmental compliance for military bases on Guam and the surrounding islands, declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, but wrote: “The Department of Defense works with our Government of Guam partners to ensure we adhere to all required environmental regulations.”

“At the end of the day, the Air Force is not above the law,” said David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney representing Flores’ group. “They’re supposed to be protecting us from threats, not creating threats.”

Large group of people holding protest signs with a large sign reading Members of Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian demonstrate in solidarity with those affected by fuel leaking from the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill storage facility in Hawaii. Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian

Open burning and open detonation operations consist of destroying waste munitions by pouring diesel on top of them and lighting them on fire or by blowing them up — crude disposal methods that release contamination directly into the environment.

In 1978, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, proposed banning the open burning of all hazardous wastes, including explosives. The Department of Defense and some companies objected, arguing that there was no safe alternative for dealing with certain types of materials. When the EPA finalized the regulation in 1980, the agency made an exception for explosive hazardous wastes that could not be “safely be disposed of through other modes of treatment” — an exception that was only supposed to be a stopgap until safer technology could be developed.

Much has changed in the past 40 years. A recent report commissioned by the Department of Defense found that there are now viable alternatives for treating “almost all” conventional munitions. Some can be disassembled and the explosive material can be burned or detonated inside furnaces or kilns, some can be treated within special detonation chambers, and some can be chemically neutralized.

Three people in US Air Force uniforms walking past a sign warning of an explosive disposal rangeU.S. airmen conduct training at Andersen Air Force Base’s explosive disposal range. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Amanda Morris / Released

In the mid-1980s, about 80 percent of the waste munitions that the Department of Defense destroyed were handled at open burning or open detonation sites. In recent years, that fraction has fallen to about 30 percent. Still, there are currently 67 open burning and open detonation facilities operating within the U.S. and its territories. Some are run by private industry and other government agencies, but the majority, 38, are run by the military. These sites destroy excess, obsolete, or unserviceable munitions, including bullets, projectiles, mines, fuzes, and missiles, as well as bulk propellants used to manufacture ammunition, bombs, and explosives. During fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the Department of Defense destroyed more than 44,000 tons of munitions via open burning and open detonation.

In 2021, the EPA began working on rule-making to consider requiring owners and operators of open burning and open detonation facilities to evaluate and implement alternative methods of treating waste munitions. The agency began holding meetings with stakeholders last month and anticipates publishing a proposed rule in late 2022 or early 2023. Frontline communities are skeptical about whether the new rule will address the root cause of the problem.

In the meantime, these sites continue to wreak havoc on communities across the country, as detailed in an investigative series published by ProPublica in 2017. More recently, a new Earthjustice analysis revealed that 88 percent of open burning and open detonation sites are in low-income communities, and many are in communities of color.

“These are our ‘domestic burn pits,’” said Laura Olah, co-founder of the Cease Fire Campaign — a coalition of more than 70 groups against open burning and open detonation of waste munitions. “They are here, at home, in the United States and its territories, and almost exclusively in communities that are the most vulnerable to harm,” she said.

map with grey silhouette of the United States, Puerto Rico, and Guam with red, blue, and gray dotsAnalysis done by Earthjustice using the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. The tool does not include demographic data for Guam. Grist / Earthjustice / Getty Images

Flores and other members of Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian first heard about the Air Force’s permit renewal application in October last year when Guam Senator Sabina Perez held an informational hearing on Zoom. Perez explained that the Air Force’s explosive ordnance disposal range on Tarague Beach had been in use since 1980, and permitted by the Guam EPA since 1982. Open detonation operations had been taking place for decades, but open burning operations had been paused in 2002. Now, the Air Force was seeking to continue open detonations and to potentially resume open burning.

Representatives from the Guam EPA were present at the informational hearing. To Flores, the way they discussed the three-year permit renewal, “it almost felt like it was just going to be rubber-stamped,” she said.

The Guam EPA has not yet made a decision on the permit renewal application and is currently consulting with EPA Region 9. “This is at the discretion of the Guam EPA administrator, and he is taking into account every consideration before he issues his notice of decision,” said Nic Rupley Lee, public information officer for the Guam EPA.

After the hearing, Flores was frustrated. She was concerned that open burning and open detonation operations would pollute the island’s drinking water. Tarague Beach sits above Guam’s sole source aquifer: a fragile pool of fresh water that floats atop denser salt water within the island’s permeable limestone. In response to questions from Grist, an EPA spokeswoman wrote that “certain contaminants [from open burning and open detonation] pose more risk than others because they are highly soluble in water, and relatively stable and mobile in soil or surface water and groundwater … Ideally, OB/OD [open burning/open detonation] operations treating explosive wastes containing these constituents would not be located on a shallow aquifer.”

But some of the 104 different types of waste munitions that the Air Force listed in its permit renewal application, which it is seeking permission to burn or detonate above a shallow aquifer, do contain water-soluble contaminants, like PFAS. “These are chemicals that will never break down in our environment, that will continue to poison the land and the water for many generations to come,” Flores warned.

If approved, the permit would also allow the Air Force to burn and detonate materials not specifically listed in the application. In the past, the military has used the site to dispose of unexploded ordnance found around the island that dates back to World War II.

Three people with protest signs reading Monaeka Flores (right) at a solidarity protest in Guam for the protection of Mauna Kea. Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian

Flores was also concerned that the smoky air that blew away from the burn pits would be unsafe to breathe. That the fish her family and friends caught by spearfishing along the reef or from boats in the open water would be unsafe to eat. That CHamoru people would be unable to cultivate and gather traditional medicines near the range. And that green sea turtles, an endangered species, would be unable to nest on the beach where the blasts occur.

Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian says that the Air Force and Department of Defense never completed the requisite environmental review to address these concerns and consider alternatives.

Henkin says that the group wants to ensure that the Air Force complies with NEPA by making an informed decision and keeping the public apprised of the process so that they can provide input. “People need to know that things aren’t happening behind closed doors that are going to harm their environment,” he said.

In Flores’ view, “they decided that they didn’t need to do the work,” she said. “That’s why we’re taking them to court.”

A large explosion on a beachAn M117 air-dropped demolition bomb explodes on Andersen Air Force Base’s Tarague Beach explosive ordnance disposal range. National Archives photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua P. Strang / Released

To Flores, the Air Force’s plan for Tarague Beach is one more hazard on a long list of threats that CHamorus have faced throughout 500 years of colonialism. This threat, however, is especially personal. Part of Tarague Beach once belonged to Flores’ great grandfather.

In the 16th century, Spanish colonizers came to Guam, inflicting genocide through war and disease and reducing the CHamoru population by 90 percent. In 1898, the U.S. took control of the island as a result of the Spanish-American War. Then, on December 8, 1941 — the same day that Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on the other side of the International Date Line — the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Guam.

Flores’ grandfather, Damian Castro Flores, who passed away nearly 20 years ago, remembered the day well. He told Flores that, for a few peaceful weeks, his family hid near Tarague Beach. They had a ranch there, where his father raised pigs and had planted hundreds of coconut trees to produce copra (dried sections of coconut meat that yield coconut oil). “They thought they might be safe there for a while,” Flores said.

When Japanese forces discovered the ranch, they took all of the pigs. They made Damian, 13 years old, work from sunrise to sunset processing the copra, and then they took that too. They also forced Flores’ great grandfather and grandfather, along with many CHamorus, to do hard, manual labor.

The U.S. returned to Guam in July of 1944 and retook the island in a grisly battle that went on for weeks. After World War II, the U.S. military gobbled up land. The government invoked eminent domain to seize CHamoru families’ properties, creating the military bases that span 30 percent of the island today.

“My great grandfather was really heartbroken to lose that land at Tarague Beach,” said Flores. It was where he had ranched, hunted, and fished throughout his life. He and Flores’ great grandmother began ranching in Inapsan, on a parcel of land just north of Tarague that belonged to her great grandmother’s family and still belongs to Flores’ family today.

view of a beach and ocean with conifer and palm trees in foregroundThe walk from the Flores family’s property toward Inapsan Beach. Monaeka Flores

Though they own the property in Inapsan, they can only access it by driving through Andersen Air Force Base. Each year, Flores has to apply for a pass to show an armed gate guard every time she drives north. “They’re our ‘hosts,’ and it’s a ‘privilege’ to be able to travel through the base,” said Flores. After 9/11, the installation locked down for months. Flores’ family was no longer raising livestock by then, but other families were, and many of their animals died. “It was horrible,” Flores said.

Flores hopes that one day, her family will be able to access their land in Inapsan freely, and that the government will return Tarague Beach. The land once owned by her great grandfather is currently split between the explosive ordnance disposal range and a recreational area for military families, equipped with volleyball nets and concrete picnic tables. Sitting below a hand-painted sign that reads “Land Back,” Flores said, “Every single family who’s lost land dreams about one day being able to return.”

Flores and her family won’t be able to return, though, if the land is too contaminated, or if unexploded ordnance remains. Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney, has seen it happen before in Hawaii. At an open burning and open detonation site on Oahu, the military failed to fully destroy anti-personnel bomblets. Now, the area is off-limits to everyone.

Sandy beach with green cliffs in the distanceThe view from Inapsan Beach looking towards Tarague Beach at sunrise. Monaeka Flores

The federal government is legally required to “clean close” open burning and open detonation sites, meaning they must restore contamination levels to below what the government deems safe. But Flores has good reason to be skeptical that the government will meet these obligations. ProPublica’s investigation found that, at military hazardous waste sites across the country, “some of the most dangerous cleanup work that has been entrusted to contractors remains unfinished, or worse, has been falsely pronounced complete.”

The tab for cleaning up open burning and open detonation sites can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars — though it’s difficult to parse out exactly how much is attributable to open burning and open detonation and how much is due to other sources of contamination, like livefire ranges, that are often co-located.

Once certain pollutants reach the water table, no clean-up effort can remedy the damage. Olah, co-founder of the Cease Fire Campaign, lives in rural Wisconsin near the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Two open burning sites at the plant created toxic groundwater plumes. Olah’s group estimates that the federal government has spent over $250 million remediating the former plant. Still, DNT, which is used in the manufacturing of explosives and propellants, has been detected in groundwater monitoring wells at the site of the former plant at concentrations 25,000 times higher than what the state deems safe.

Five people stand in front of a building with the words Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian members Maria Hernandez May, Jessica Nangauta, and Monaeka Flores, along with attorney Rachel Taimanao-Ayuyu, after filing a lawsuit against the Air Force and Department of Defense. Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian

On the morning of January 24, 2022, Flores and several members of Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian stood outside the U.S. District Court of Guam, gazing up at the gleaming granite pillars. Flores felt a little intimidated as she walked into the federal building and slid her belongings through a metal detector. But when the court clerk stamped the complaint they were there to file, she felt tremendously proud. “We felt like our ancestors were there with us,” she said.

The Air Force and Department of Defense have until late March to respond to Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian’s complaint. Andersen Air Force Base can either withdraw its permit renewal application and conduct a new environmental review, or the case will be decided by the court, most likely this summer.

If Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian succeeds in preventing the Air Force from conducting open burning and open detonation operations on Tarague Beach, their work will not be done. In January 2021, in response to concerns expressed by the group, three United Nations Special Rapporteurs sent a letter to the U.S. regarding human and civil rights violations against CHamorus. The letter called attention to the ways in which the United States’ military buildup in the Pacific, and specifically the construction of a massive new live-fire training range complex, threatens to contaminate the island’s drinking water, decimate its wildlife and biodiversity, and desecrate CHamoru’s sacred sites, including burial grounds.

“The desecration that’s taking place, the access that’s being lost, the contamination that’s happening, it’s all connected,” said Flores. “It feels relentless.”

A brown sign reads: The sign marking where Andersen Air Force Base ends and private property on Inapsan Beach begins. Monaeka Flores

When it all starts to feel like a little too much, Flores hops in her car and heads for the north coast. She passes through the familiar gap in the limestone cliff and follows the road down into the forest. Where the pavement turns into a dirt track leading to Inapsan Beach, she parks, steps out of the car, and takes a deep breath of fresh, salty air. She reaches out to touch the sign to the side of the road: “Private Property: DoD personnel, dependents, contractors and employees are not allowed beyond this point.” She smiles.

“There’s something about seeing that sign that just never gets old,” she said. “It’s a small reminder that we’re still here. And we are not leaving.”

Big oil 'increased fossil fuel production and expanded exploration' despite climate pledges: study

Big oil companies love to talk about a cleaner future — and how they’re going to make it happen. Over the last two years, Shell, BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil have pledged to zero out their carbon emissions by 2050. Watching Exxon’s algae-heavy advertisements, you’d think the company is swapping oil barrels for biofuel farms. Shell’s website is sprinkled with pictures of solar panels and claims that it’s taking action to create “a more sustainable, renewable, energy-rich, lower carbon future.”

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At a closer look, however, all this starts to seem hollow. According to a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, there’s a big disconnect between oil companies’ words and behavior when it comes to climate change. Researchers in Japan analyzed how those four big oil companies, accounting for 10 percent of global carbon emissions since 1965, talked about climate change in their annual reports from 2009 to 2020. Then they scrutinized whether the companies had taken concrete measures to cut down on fossil fuel production and to shift their business to clean energy production.

What they found is that these oil companies have increased fossil fuel production and expanded exploration while making only surface-level investments in clean energy.

“There’s a lot of talk now, and there was a lot of talk in the past, but especially in the long period that we looked at, there’s been very, very little action,” said Gregory Trencher, a coauthor of the study and an environmental studies professor at Kyoto University in Japan. His team’s research provides the most comprehensive analysis to date on whether oil companies are actually moving away from fossil fuels.

In the last decade, oil companies have begun talking about the climate more than ever before — a trend reflected in their annual reports. Shell’s use of the phrase “low-carbon energy,” for instance, increased more than eightfold from 2009 to 2020. Over the same period, BP’s rhetoric related to making a clean-energy transition rose a similar amount. But that has yet to translate into concrete action: Fossil fuel production has remained relatively steady over the last decade, and from 2015 until the pandemic in 2020, most of the oil majors actually increased fossil fuel production. Shell, for instance, went from producing around 1,358,000 barrels of oil a day to 1,752,000.

A line chart showing the percent change in climate keywords in energy-company reports versus the percent change in oil production through 2020 (relative to 2009). Climate rhetoric has risen, but oil production has remained constant.Grist / Clayton Aldern

Environmental advocates have long accused oil companies of “greenwashing” — putting a climate-friendly face in front of the public while continuing to drill for more oil behind the scenes. The recent study provides solid evidence for those accusations, concluding that “no [oil] major is currently on the way to a clean energy transition.”

Chevron and Exxon’s spending on clean energy was so insignificant it was “almost absent,” said Trencher, with Chevron spending a mere 0.23 percent and Exxon 0.22 percent of their total capital expenditures — the money a company uses to buy and maintain its physical assets — on developing low-carbon energy from 2010 to 2018. As for Exxon’s algae efforts, it turns out the company has spent more money on corporate advertising ($500 million between 2009 and 2015) than on its research into the biofuel ($300 million since 2009). Only BP and Shell met the researchers’ conservative benchmark of spending 1 percent of their capital expenditures on clean energy efforts.

In terms of electricity generated from clean energy sources, BP has made the most progress of any of the oil companies — but even then, its global renewables capacity only adds up to 2,000 megawatts, the equivalent of about two gas-fired power plants.

If oil companies were truly trying to switch to clean energy, Trencher said, you’d expect to see a shrinking emphasis on fossil fuels in their everyday business — such as a slowdown in searching for new oil and gas reserves. The study didn’t find convincing evidence that this was happening. BP and Shell have promised to reduce their investments in new fossil fuel extraction, but at the same time, they’ve expanded the territory where they explore for oil. In 2020, Shell’s undeveloped exploration territory went up by almost 15,000 square miles from the year before. The company’s target of reducing exploration by 2025, Trencher said, may have “triggered a rush before the deadline for them.”

Mei Li, a co-author of the report, suggested that the ability to continue profiting from fossil fuels was the chief reason that oil companies haven’t lived up to their climate promises. Wall Street is more likely to reward quarterly profits than moves to overhaul a business over the long-term. “They do not have the incentives to force them to make a clean energy transition,” Li said.

In response to the report, oil companies pointed to their climate promises but offered little in the way of proof. Exxon said that it planned to play “a leading role in the energy transition,” Chevron noted that it aimed to spend $10 billion on lower-carbon investments by 2028, and Shell pointed to its goal of becoming a “net zero emissions energy business by 2050.” BP said the study didn’t take its full progress into account since most of the data the researchers analyzed only ran through 2020, when the company first laid out its strategy to cancel out emissions.

Trencher said he wasn’t aware of any new pledges that would significantly change their findings and pointed to historical trends as reason to take oil companies’ promises with a grain of salt. “These companies have not been anywhere near as serious about climate change and decarbonization as their words have been,” he said.

The study follows previous research that has shown that oil companies spread misinformation about climate science, tried to shift the blame for climate change from fossil fuels to individuals, and tried to stop governments from taking action to curb carbon emissions. In the three years following the 2016 Paris Agreement, for example, the five largest oil companies spent more than $1 billion on lobbying against climate legislation and on rebranding themselves as climate-conscious combined, according to data from the think tank InfluenceMap.

As these things often do, the explanation for this contradictory behavior mostly comes down to money. “It’s sort of difficult for a company to have a justification to destroy its own business model,” Trencher said. “If we want to force these companies to abandon a fossil fuel-based business model, then that obviously has to be done through policies.”

'Pain at the pump': rising gas prices due to Ukraine conflict echo past oil crises

“Pain at the pump. Pain at the pump! PAIN AT THE PUMP!!!!!” This refrain, manically employed by American politicians and pundits to bemoan rising gas prices, is so common that a foreign visitor might assume that we are only allowed to fill up our cars at the gas station after first submitting to a kick in the shins.

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But of course, in our hallowed American rhetoric, the most discussed pain is of the economic variety. That was apparent at this week’s State of the Union address, when President Joe Biden made sure to assuage Americans’ biggest fears about the war in Ukraine – namely, that the conflict would adversely affect their gas prices.

“Tonight, I can announce that the United States has worked with 30 other countries to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world,” Biden said. “I know the news about what’s happening can seem alarming to all Americans. But I want you to know that we are going to be OK. We are going to be OK.”

joe biden gestures with one hand in front of a podium during the 2022 state of the union speech while two women (kamala harris, left, and nancy pelosi, right) in suits sit behind him on either sidePresident Joe Biden speaks during his 2022 State of the Union address to a Joint Session of Congress. Saul Loeb – Pool / Getty Images

The price of a gallon of gas has increased, in increments of a few cents at a time, by about a dollar over the past year. If you were to examine the forces behind each of those increases, you would indeed find a great deal of pain of the physical and psychological variety: The widespread death and illness caused by COVID-19 that were treated as an inconvenience to production; the mounting, devastating evidence of climate change that has caused more and more investors to question the feasibility of gas companies’ business models; and now, the war in Ukraine.

And sure enough, President Biden’s State of the Union Address brought the conflict in Ukraine back to the ever-present theme of “protect[ing] American businesses and consumers.” Those who subscribe to a particular brand of optimism may have hoped to hear the president use this opportunity to propose — instead of rolling more barrels of oil out of the reserves — a renewed commitment to non-fossil fuel sources of energy. But even for a so-called “climate president,” Biden’s choice to focus on how we maintain the status quo is not surprising, particularly with midterm elections looming.

If the past two years of anti-mask and anti-vax hollering have proven anything, it’s that Americans consider change very, very painful — even when the refusal to change causes real and enormous pain to others. And history has certainly demonstrated that voters will not kindly suffer a fool who threatens their God-given right to drive.

If you are still struggling to understand what war in Ukraine has to do with gas prices at home, here is an extremely simple explainer: Russia is blessed with massive oil and gas reserves, which constitute a complicated bargaining chip for President Vladimir Putin. On one hand, Russian fossil fuels provide a crucial proportion of energy for a number of European nations such as Germany, which pulls more than half of its gas needs from across the Urals. But the Russian economy is also heavily dependent on its oil and gas exports, which makes it vulnerable to sanctions.

And while world leaders have so far hesitated to impose such sanctions on oil and gas in particular, a number of private corporations such as Shell, BP, and Exxon have cut off business with Russia. To that end, oil markets have already begun to anticipate widespread rejection of Russian reserves, which all boils down to the resurgence of the aforementioned bogeyman of … high gasoline prices.

a gas station sign that says Gas stations are seen in Bethesda, Maryland on February 23, 2022. Wall Street stocks fell February 22, 2022, after President Biden unveiled fresh sanctions on Moscow, while a surge in oil prices was limited by expectations the measures would not impact Russia’s crude production. MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images

Let us turn back in time to 1979, which parallels our current moment. The violence and upheaval of the Iranian Revolution, in which the Ayatollah Khomeini took power and established an Islamic government, interrupted oil production, resulting in a reduction in the oil-rich country’s exports. But the more significant cause of the ensuing dramatic price surge, economists have said, was an ongoing growth in demand combined with oil hoarding in anticipation of further unrest in the Middle East.

Then-President Jimmy Carter preached a message of conservation to his fellow Americans. He instituted gas rations and established the Department of Energy. He famously addressed the nation in a televised address in front of a fireplace: “We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources.”

Even at present, a few days after the publication of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, report that says we are very close to running out of time to avert truly catastrophic degrees of global warming, that seems like a shocking ask from a sitting president. In 1979, it was especially unwelcome. Arguably as a result of the ensuing gas shortage, President Carter was not reelected, and his successor Ronald Reagan campaigned on a message that “‘less’ is not enough,” while singing the praises of deregulating the American oil industry.

Gasoline dealers demonstrate in front of the White House against the U.S. government’s oil policy on August 1, 1979. Marion S Trikosko / US News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection / PhotoQuest / Getty Images

In June 2008, the price of a gallon of gas hit an all-time high point in American history: just north of an average of $4 a gallon, which would be about $5.22 today. President George W. Bush addressed the nation on the topic, noting that “for many Americans, there is no more pressing concern than the price of gasoline.” After some tsk-tsking of the Democrats in Congress for their role in the “painful levels” of gas prices, President Bush went on to give a rousing argument for accelerated, deregulated domestic oil and gas production that included, among other things, a hearty defense for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The climate consequences of increased oil and gas consumption were already well underway. At the very moment that Bush addressed the nation on the need for more drilling, a swath of the Midwest was underwater due to a 24-day period of torrential rains. The disastrous flooding was concentrated primarily in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri and killed 11 people, the majority of whom died in their cars. In a postmortem study of the unusual hydroclimatological circumstances that created floods, researchers with the American Geophysical Union wrote: “The occurrence of the 2008 flood event raises the question of whether its occurrence provides further evidence for a changing character of Midwestern hydroclimatology due to anthropogenic influences.”

But it was, again, gas prices that would prove a more pressing issue. In the spring of 2011, the price of gasoline shot up again, very nearly reaching the $4-per-gallon mark, and it would hover around $3.75 for the next three years. In President Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address, he sang the praises of the burgeoning shale gas boom that “has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence,” which he considered a motivation for his administration to “keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.” He expressed a commitment to “free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we’ve put up with for far too long.”

In that same speech, Obama did briefly mention that we “must do more to combat climate change,” and that the slew of natural disasters plaguing the country should not be considered a coincidence. Hurricane Sandy, which had torn across the Atlantic Coast a little more than three months earlier, killed upwards of 200 people in the United States and in the Caribbean. Those deaths, and any injury, distress, and trauma experienced by the people who survived, went unacknowledged.

And now, here we are. President Biden closed his 2022 State of the Union address — which included no mention of the IPCC report — with a message that one assumes was intended to be inspiring, but is difficult to hear without mercenary connotations: “We are the only nation on Earth that has always turned every crisis we have faced into an opportunity.”

That opportunity has already seized the attention of West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who has received more donations from the oil and gas sector than any other member of Congress. He insisted that we sanction Russia’s oil and gas and ramp up our own domestic production, “strengthening our ability to use energy to fight for our values.”

Energy giants are ditching Russia – but not fossil fuels

Major international oil companies began dumping their investments in Russian oil and gas this week following the country’s invasion into Ukraine. But experts say it’s unlikely these decisions will mean anything good for the transition to clean energy, and could actually set the companies back with their plans to achieve net-zero emissions.

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It started with BP. Last weekend, under pressure from the U.K. government, the British oil giant decided to exit it’s nearly 20 percent stake in the Russian company Rosneft. Russian crude makes up about a third of BP’s oil production, and the company said it would take a financial hit of as much as $25 billion. In a statement, BP Chair Helge Lund said, “The Rosneft holding is no longer aligned with BP’s business and strategy.”

Shell, Exxon, and the Norwegian oil company Equinor have since followed, withdrawing from various joint ventures in oil and gas projects in Russia. While abandoning oil and gas production is exactly what climate advocates want these companies to do, the moves do not represent a shift in strategy for Big Oil.

For one thing, when BP first announced its plans to achieve net-zero emissions in 2020, the company made it clear that the plan did not apply to its stake in Rosneft. Now, the exit from Russia might actually hurt that plan, according to Jonathan Elkind, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Both BP and Shell have said they planned to fund their forays into clean energy with profits from the fossil fuel side of their businesses. “So this creates, at a minimum, a crosswind that they have to figure out a way to manage,” said Elkind, referring to the two companies’ exit from Russia. “That may translate into a need to rethink some of what their priorities had been.”

In other words, the situation in Russia won’t stop demand for fossil fuels, and major oil companies may decide to replace their Russian investments with new oil and gas ventures elsewhere. According to the International Energy Agency, Russian oil and gas production is not the most carbon-intensive in the world, but it’s also not the cleanest. If this leads BP, Shell, or Exxon to move into parts of the world with dirtier production, their emissions could increase.

It’s also unclear whether oil companies will be able to sell off their Russian assets or if they’ll be forced to walk away from them. Even if they are able to sell assets, the proceeds may not be put toward clean energy. When Shell sold off its assets in the U.S. Permian Basin last year for $9.4 billion, it said that it would spend some of the cash for the energy transition, but returned $7 billion of the proceeds to shareholders. “There’s not generally a straight line you can draw from oil majors selling out of oil and gas plays to buying into clean energy,” said Lorne Stockman, research co-director at the advocacy organization Oil Change International.

Stockman also takes issue with the idea that BP and Shell need oil and gas funds to transition to clean energy. “Companies that are in the clean energy business don’t need to run that business off of fossil fuel profits. There’s a thing called credit markets. You can get loans. You could issue shares. There are many ways to raise money to invest in clean energy,” he said.

Another question is whether Big Oil’s withdrawal of capital, and the technical expertise that comes with it, will have consequences for Russia’s plans to expand oil and gas development in the Arctic Circle — development that has been made possible due to climate change’s rapid warming of the area.

For example, Rosneft is building a multi-billion dollar oil production and export hub called the Vostok Oil project on the Taymyr peninsula, threatening a fragile ecosystem and the Indigenous communities that depend on it. On Wednesday, a key international investor in the project, Trafigura, said it was reviewing its stake.

Elkind said it’s hard to tell whether the withdrawal of investment and trade ties with Russian companies will be a short-term phenomenon or more enduring. But another factor is whether Russia can complete a project like Vostok without technological support from the West.

“All of this would create headwinds for Vostok,” he said. “Whether they can be overcome by Rosneft, it is too early to tell.”

POTUS skirts tackling climate change in SOTU address despite apocalyptic IPCC report

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that warned of “widespread, pervasive impacts” to ecosystems, people, settlements, and infrastructure if the world does not take swift action to adapt to climate change. Already, storms, floods, and other extreme weather events are displacing millions of people around the world. Heat and drought are killing crops and will put wide swaths of global populations at risk of famine. Insects and the deadly diseases they carry are migrating into new areas and jeopardizing public health. In short, things are getting worse much more quickly than even climate experts expected.

This story was originally published by Grist. You can subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.

President Joe Biden didn’t talk about any of that during his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Instead, he talked at length about his administration’s response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, his plan to bolster American manufacturing, and the actions he’s taken to keep the COVID-19 pandemic in check. He paid special attention to the American consumer, promising to “lower your costs” and touting and a collaborative effort between the U.S. and 30 other countries to release “60 billion barrels of oil from reserves around the world” to limit the effect of sanctions against Russia on domestic oil prices — a line that was met with rapturous applause from members of Congress.

“I want you to know that we are going to be OK,” Biden said. The IPCC report indicates the U.S. and other nations are going to be anything but OK if swift actions aren’t taken to avert further planetary warming. “Any further delay,” the IPCC report says, “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

Biden made only occasional allusions to the climate crisis during the speech. “We’ll create good jobs for millions of Americans, modernizing roads, airports, ports and waterways all across America,” he said, touting the bipartisan infrastructure plan Congress passed in November, “and we’ll do it to withstand the devastating effects of the climate crisis and promote environmental justice.” He advocated for cutting energy costs for American families to the tune of $500 a year on average by providing tax credits for weatherizing homes and doubling America’s clean energy production. He said he wanted to lower the cost of electric cars and build a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations. Biden’s only bill aimed at tackling the root causes of climate change in the U.S. — the Build Back Better Act, which contains $500 billion for clean energy tax credits — is currently stalled in the Senate. Biden didn’t mention the bill by name, though he did talk up some popular provisions that appeared in previous versions of the legislation.

Undeniably, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the biggest news story in the world right now, and it makes sense that Biden spent lots of time on it. This certainly isn’t the first time climate change has taken a back seat to other political priorities in a time of crisis.

In his book A Promised Land, former President Barack Obama credits the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which unleashed 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, with derailing his administration’s efforts to drum up bipartisan support for a pivotal cap-and-trade bill that would have set a limit on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020, the world’s biggest economies used money earmarked for pandemic recovery to bail out fossil fuels, opting to pour resources into polluting industries instead of investing in renewable energy. As major oil companies divest from Russian oil now, some U.S. lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the senator responsible for stalling most of Biden’s climate agenda thus far, have called for bolstering American oil and gas production.

But it was striking to watch Biden, who made climate action a centerpiece of his presidential campaign and his domestic agenda during his first year in office, skate over the IPCC’s stark warning about climate change — especially when the world’s oil addiction is also a contributing factor to Russia’s attitude of impunity in Ukraine.

“Fossil fuels have driven conflict, human rights abuses and ecological catastrophes around the world for decades,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement after the address. “It’s time for President Biden to stop equivocating and fully embrace every tool at his disposal to end the fossil fuel era.”

It’s not just Venice. Climate change imperils ancient treasures everywhere.

Saltwater rushed into St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice last week, submerging marble tombs, intricate mosaics, and centuries-old columns. A man was spotted swimming across St. Mark’s Square, normally bustling with tourists, as the highest tide in 50 years swept through.The “Floating City” of bridges, vaporetti, and gondolas is hardly a stranger to high tides. Venetians are accustomed to acqua alta, or “high water,” arriving in the fall. But as the city’s foundation sinks and sea levels rise, the floods are getting worse. The basilica has submerged six times over the last 1,200 years. Tellingly, four of those instances were in the last two decades.The rising saltwater presents a threat to the city’s prized architecture, including wall paintings and frescoes from the Renaissance. Early estimates put the damage around $1 billion so far.

It’s a vivid testament to the risks climate change poses to many of the world’s cultural treasures. In a fitting irony, minutes after Venice’s regional council rejected measures to fund renewable energy and replace diesel buses with cleaner ones, the council’s chamber was swept by floodwaters. Since 2003, the city has been working on an infrastructure project known as Mose (as in Moses) for protection against high tides, but it’s still not up and running, having been bogged down in scandal, cost overruns, and other delays. Venice has plenty of company — some 86 percent of UNESCO World Heritage sites like Venice in coastal regions of the Mediterranean are at risk from flooding and erosion, according to a study last year in the journal Nature.

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Antarctic sea ice is 'astonishingly' low this melt season

Right now, on the shores of Antarctica, there’s open water crashing against the largest ice shelf in the world. The annual ice-free season has begun at the Ross Ice Shelf — a month ahead of schedule.
This post originally appeared on Grist.
The frozen region of freshwater ice the size of France partially protects the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from collapsing into the sea. In recent years, the ice-free season in the Ross Sea has become a routine event — but it happened this year on New Year’s Day, the earliest time in history.

“Antarctic sea ice extent is astonishingly low this year, not just near the Ross Ice Shelf, but around most of the continent,” says Cecilia Bitz, a polar scientist at the University of Washington.

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