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Mr. Obama Goes to Cushing, OK

Climate
Mr. Obama Goes to Cushing, OK

Bill McKibben

The president makes a potentially interesting speech on Thursday in Cushing, Oklahoma.
 
It comes amidst a completely unprecedented March heat wave—2,000 records fell last week as cities like Chicago broke records dating back to the 19th century, and that heat is expected to move towards the eastern seaboard this week; meanwhile, record levels of atmospheric moisture are expected to trigger flooding in Texas and Oklahoma. It comes on the tail of a year when America set a new record for multi-billion dollar weather disasters. And it comes on his first visit to the Sooner State since it set the all-time American record for the hottest summer by any state—the average reading for June, July and August was 86.9 degrees, breaking the old record (also Oklahoma, this time 1934) by an astonishing 1.7 degrees. In other words, if there was ever a moment for talking about global warming, this would be it.
 
But I'm guessing the president won't. 
 
My bet is he'll talk about what's he's called his "all of the above" energy policy—about how America has drilled a record number of oil and gas wells during his administration, about how fracking technology has spread around the country. He'll laud sun and wind, but as supplements to gas and oil, not replacements.
 
And to make it especially painful to ranchers, indigenous people, and assorted environmentalists, he may do it while standing next to pipe waiting to be laid for the southern half of the Keystone Pipeline, an enterprise he has promised to "expedite."
 
Amidst the many environmental disappointments of the Obama administration—the fizzled Copenhagen conference, the opening of vast swathes of the Arctic to drilling and huge stretches of federal land across the northern Plains to coal-mining, the failure to work for climate legislation in the Senate, the shameful blocking of regulations to control ozone—the president has done one somewhat brave thing. He responded to the largest outpouring of environmental enthusiasm so far this millennium and denied a permit for the main Keystone XL pipe from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico.
 
Cynics said he did so just to avoid disappointing young people before the election, and pointed out that he invited pipeline proponent Transcanada to reapply for the permit. It's hard not to wonder if those cynics might be right, now that he's going to Oklahoma to laud the southern half of the project just as Transcanada executives have requested. 
 
True, the most critical part of the pipeline still can't be built—thanks to Obama and 42 Democratic Senators, the connection to Canada remains blocked, and hence that remains a great victory for the people who rallied so fiercely all fall. But the sense grows that Obama may be setting us up for a bitter disappointment—that his real allegiance is to the carbon barons. In recent weeks he's been talking tough about removing subsidies for the oil industry, a good idea that many of us will work hard to achieve—but so far he hasn't mentioned by far the most important subsidy, the fact that unlike every other industry fossil fuel gets to dump its main waste product, carbon, into the atmosphere for free.
 
And if you think about it, "all of the above" is not a particularly coherent energy policy, not if one worries about climate change. Burning all the oil you can and then putting up a solar panel is like drinking six martinis at lunch and then downing a VitaminWater. You're still a drunk—just one with your daily requirement of C and D. If a presidential candidate said they had an "all of the above" foreign policy, where every other nation was an equal ally, they'd be thought lightweight or even dangerous. 
 
But with energy, it apparently seems politic to insist we need never make a choice. Or at least to tailor your talking points to your audience. Obama is making his first presidential visit to my state, Vermont, at month's end. We had the worst disaster in our history last summer—while Oklahoma baked, record rainfalls washed away half the state. And he'd be applauded if he talked about climate change here.
 
But if he won't do it in Cushing, I kind of hope he doesn't in Burlington either. It would just reinforce the idea that he tells us what we want to hear, not what we need to know.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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Although heat waves rarely get the attention that hurricanes do, they kill far more people per year in the U.S. and abroad. greenaperture / Getty Images

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Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020

If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

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