Keystone XL: The Science, Stakes, and Strategy Behind the Fight Over the Tar Sands Pipeline

Join us for a Climate Desk Live event focused on Keystone XL.

Watch Thursday’s event here:

Watch live streaming video from climatenexus at


On February 17, more than 40,000 people rallied in Washington to convince the president to reject the Keystone XL, a proposed 875-mile pipeline running from the Canadian border into Nebraska and slated to transport oil from tar sands (which is 17 percent more greenhouse gas intensive than standard crude oil). The crowds outside the White House provided overwhelming proof that opposing Keystone has mobilized a new and powerful grassroots constituency.

But in the US Senate, the mood was different. In a nonbinding vote, 62 Senators—including 17 pro-Keystone Democrats—voted to approve the pipeline. Just 37 Senators voted against it. In fact, the amendment was co-sponsored by four Democrats, including Max Baucus of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

So are activists’ efforts all in vain? What will happen to the environmental movement if President Obama ultimately lets Keystone go forward?

And more broadly: What does this say about the best strategy for fighting climate change? Does compromise, horse-trading, and winning industry allies ultimately work best—or do you have to push the limits of the possible? You’re invited to the next Climate Desk Live event—hosted by myself—for a debate and discussion between some of the leading voices on this issue:

May Boeve, executive director and co-founder,

David Roberts, Grist magazine, who has been covering Keystone regularly and recently wrote about the “Virtues of Being Unreasonable on Keystone.”

Michael Levi, director of the program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the new book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle For America’s Future (Oxford, May 2013), where he writes that combating climate change will require “doing deals [with those] who want to expand production of oil and gas.”

Michael Grunwald, senior national correspondent for Time magazine, author of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, who recently declared that on Keystone, “I’m with the Tree Huggers!

Join us for a Climate Desk Live event focused on the Keystone XL: Thursday, April 18, 2013, 6:30 p.m. at the University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036. To attend, please RSVP to

How the US Navy is Leading the Charge on Clean Energy and Climate Change

Damn the do-nothing Congress. The Navy is going full steam ahead on green energy.

Event live stream to start 02/27/13 around 9:30 a.m. EST:

Increasingly, the US Navy is leading the charge towards clean energy, which can in turn impact national security and even climate change. Through investments in biofuels, construction of a more energy-efficient fleet, forward thinking about issues like rising sea levels and a melting Arctic, and commitments to reduce consumption and reliance on foreign oil, the Navy is leading the charge of a vast energy reform effort to “change the way the US military sails, flies, marches, and thinks.”

Please join host Chris Mooney for the next installment of Climate Desk Live on Wednesday February 27 at 9:30a.m, where he’ll discuss the Navy’s charge towards energy independence with Dr. David W. Titley, retired naval officer who led the US Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change; Capt. James C. Goudreau, Director, Navy Energy Coordination Office; Dr. D. James Baker, Director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the William J. Clinton Foundation and Former Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the Clinton Administration; and Julia Whitty, environmental correspondent for Mother Jones whose cover story on this topic appears in latest issue of the magazine.

Event Details:
Date: February 27, 2013, 9:30 a.m.
Location: University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, Washington, DC
Please RSVP to
About Dr. David W. Titley:

Dr. David W. Titley is a nationally known expert in the field of climate, the Arctic, and National Security. He served as a naval officer for 32 years and rose to the rank of Rear Admiral. Dr. Titley’s career included duties as Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy and Deputy Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance. While serving in the Pentagon, Dr. Titley initiated and led the US Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. After retiring from the Navy, Dr. Titley served as the Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Operations, the Chief Operating Officer position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dr. Titley has spoken across the country and throughout the world on the importance of climate change as it relates to National Security. He was invited to present on behalf of the Department of Defense at both Congressional Hearings and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meetings from 2009 to 2011.

About Captain James C. Goudreau:

Captain James C. Goudreau serves as the Director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office. His sea duty and overseas assignments include: Assistant Supply Officer onboard USS REASONER (FF 1063) and USS NIMITZ (CVN 68), Supply Officer, USS THE SULLIVANS (DDG 68) and Supply Officer, Joint Maritime Facility, St. Mawgan in Cornwall, United Kingdom. His most recent assignment was as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Logistics at Expeditionary Strike Group Seven and Amphibious Force Seventh Fleet Based in Okinawa, Japan. Captain Goudreau’s ashore tours include: Naval Air Station Key West, FL; Naval Inventory Control Point, Philadelphia, PA as the P-3 Weapons Team Lead and Director of Aviation Industrial Support; Fleet and Industrial Supply Center San Diego as Site Director, Fleet Readiness Center Southwest; and Commander, Defense Logistics Agency North Island. Captain Goudreau is a member of the Defense Acquisition Corps (formerly the Acquisition Professional Community) and is qualified as a Naval Aviation Supply Officer and as a Surface Warfare Supply Corps Officer. He has been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (three awards), Navy Commendation Medal (five awards), Navy Achievement Medal (two awards), and various campaign and unit awards.

About Dr. D. James Baker:

Dr. D. James Baker is currently the Director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the William J. Clinton Foundation, working with forestry programs in developing countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and alleviate poverty. He is also a science and management consultant with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO in Paris and the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C. He is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania and at the University of Delaware.  He was a scientific advisor to former Vice President Al Gore on the Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth and lectures regularly on sustainability, climate  change, and oceanography. During the 1990s in the Clinton Administration, Baker was Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.  Most recently, Baker was President and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Before coming to NOAA, he was President of Joint Oceanographic Institutions Incorporated in Washington, D.C., the first Dean of the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington; and taught and carried out research at Harvard University and the University of Rhode Island. He has led oceanographic expeditions to many parts of the world and shares a patent for a deep-sea pressure gauge. He has more than 100 scientific  publications and is the author of the book Planet Earth: The View from Space, published by Harvard University Press. Baker co-founded and was the first President of The Oceanography Society; is a member of the American Philosophical Society; and has served  as the B. Benjamin Zucker Environmental Fellow at Yale College. He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Oceanology International in 2008 for his “contribution to oceanography and marine science” and the Vikram Sarabhai Medal by the Government of India in 1998 for his “outstanding contributions to space research in developing countries” and holds two honorary degrees.

USNS Henry J. Kaiser delivers a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuels. Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr

USNS Henry J. Kaiser delivers a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuels. Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr

Humans Have Already Set in Motion 69 Feet of Sea Level Rise

Glaciologist Jason Box describes a post-warming world that you won’t even be able to recognize.

Last week, a much discussed new paper in the journal Nature seemed to suggest to some that we needn’t worry too much about the melting of Greenland, the mile-thick mass of ice at the top of the globe. The research found that the Greenland ice sheet seems to have survived a previous warm period in Earth’s history—the Eemian period, some 126,000 years ago—without vanishing (although it did melt considerably).

But Ohio State glaciologist Jason Box isn’t buying it.

At Monday’s Climate Desk Live briefing in Washington, D.C., Box, who has visited Greenland 23 times to track its changing climate, explained that we’ve already pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide 40 percent beyond Eemian levels. What’s more, levels of atmospheric methane are a dramatic 240 percent higher—both with no signs of stopping. “There is no analogue for that in the ice record,” said Box.

And that’s not all. The present mass scale human burning of trees and vegetation for clearing land and building fires, plus our pumping of aerosols into the atmosphere from human pollution, weren’t happening during the Eemian. These human activities are darkening Greenland’s icy surface, and weakening its ability to bounce incoming sunlight back away from the planet. Instead, more light is absorbed, leading to more melting, in a classic feedback process that is hard to slow down.

“These giants are awake,” said Box of Greenland’s rumbling glaciers, “and they seem to have a bit of a hangover.”

Chart of declining areas of glaciers

To make matters worse, there’s also Antarctica, the other great planetary ice sheet, which 10 times as much total water as Greenland—all of which could someday be translated into rising sea level. That includes the West Antarctic ice sheet, which is marine- rather than land-based, making it highly vulnerable to melting.

While Greenland is currently contributing twice as much water to sea level rise as Antarctica,  situation could change in the future. According to Box, it’s kind of as though we’re in a situation of “ice sheet roulette” right now, wondering which one of the big ones will go first.

Box also provided a large-scale perspective on how much sea level rise humanity has already probably set in motion from the burning of fossil fuels. The answer is staggering: 69 feet, including water from both Greenland and Antarctica, as well as other glaciers based on land from around the world.

Chart of rising Greenland temperatures

Scientists like Box aren’t sure precisely when, or how fast, all that water will flow into the seas. They only know that in past periods of Earth’s history, levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases and sea levels have followed one another closely, allowing an inference about where sea level is headed as it, in effect, catches up with the greenhouse gases we’ve unleashed. To be sure, the process will play out over vast time periods—but it has already begun, and sea level is starting to show a curve upward that looks a lot like…well, the semi-notorious “hockey stick.

So what can we do? For Box, any bit of policy helps. “The more we can cool climate, the slower Greenland’s loss will be,” he explained. Cutting greenhouse gases slows the planet’s heating, and with it, the pace of ice sheet losses.

In the meantime, to better understand where we’re headed, Box has launched a scientific project called “Dark Snow,” which seeks to crowdfund a Greenland expedition to help determine just how much our darkening of the great ice sheet in this unprecedented “Anthropocene” era will push us well beyond Eemian territory. The video for that project is below. If the remote, dangerous science of ice sheets intrigues you enough (or scares you enough), then you definitely will want this research to succeed:


Climate Desk Live 1/28/13: Can Greenland Be Saved?

The writing is on the wall—Greenland is melting, and faster than expected, due to climate change. If it fully melts, it will raise global sea levels by seven meters, leading to even more dramatic losses of coastal land around the world, including in many major cities.

The question is not whether this is happening, but whether we’re too late to stop it. What is accelerating the melting and what research must we undertake to better understand the situation? Will cutting emissions even help save Greenland?

Join us on Monday, January 28 at 9:30 a.m. for Climate Desk Live as we explore these questions with Jason Box, the Ohio State University glaciologist recently featured in the acclaimed documentary Chasing Ice.

Box has traveled to Greenland 23 times, spending over a year on the ice there. He authored or coauthored 50 scientific papers related to Greenland, led the composition of the Arctic Report Card for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and was closely involved in the Extreme Ice Survey, using time-lapse cameras to measure Greenland’s changes.

Date: Monday, January 28, 2013, 9:30 a.m.

Location: The University of California, Washington Center
1608 Rhode Island Avenue, NW
Washington, DC

Please RSVP to

Van Jones on Obama: Climate “Is Going To Be the Issue He’s Judged On”

The green-jobs guru believes that Obama has an opportunity to tackle global warming. Will he take it?


Van Jones is a leading environmental and human rights advocate, President Obama’s former “green jobs” special advisor, a CNN contributor, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Green Collar Economy and Rebuild the Dream. Chris Mooney spoke with him by phone as part of our ongoing coverage of how President Obama can tackle the climate issue—and lead—in his second term.

Climate Desk: Obama and global warming—decode his signals for us. Is he really going to take the lead here in the next 4 years, and prioritize this issue?

Van Jones: I think it’s not clear sometimes how America is prioritizing the issue. Four years ago, both presidential candidates, McCain and Obama, ran as climate champions. The only thing that they agreed on was that global warming was real, caused by humans, could be fixed by cap and trade, and that that would lead to jobs. Four years ago, that was common ground, and the only common ground. And four years ago, people were still impacted by Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

Well, all of the horrible things that were shown in Al Gore’s film in 2007, you can see on the Weather Channel in 2012. And yet you don’t see people marching down the street, even in the wake of Sandy, even in the face of the drought, demanding change. So I think that’s a factor in Washington, DC, not being as vocal or as visible.

Now that said, I think that’s starting to change, and I think this president is going to have to deal both with the worsening science, and the returning public will to act. And I credit Bill McKibben and for coming on so strong since the election was over, and also the shock of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, for I think creating a new moment for climate solutions to take center stage.

CD: What would real climate leadership look like? You gave President Obama a “BorB- on the environment in his first term, what would he have to do to earn an “A” in the second one?

VJ: An “A” would be a major energy and climate bill as a centerpiece of his legacy. He obviously has to deal with the economy and the budget issues that the Tea Party keeps trying to politicize. And there’s a question of immigration reform, which is critical as a major part of the progressive coalition. But, ten years from now, twenty years from now, the only thing people are going to be asking of this president is either, why he didn’t find the courage to do something on climate change, or they’re going to be asking how he found the courage. I think from the viewpoint of history, this is going to be the issue that he’s judged on.

We’ve seen a lot of conversation about this fiscal cliff, which is an invented, manufactured crisis, but very little talk about the climate cliff, which is a real, unavoidable crisis.

CD: What are the chief actions that you think he can take?

VJ: I’m a board member for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and we just put a piece out this week, talking about ways to use the Clean Air Act to sharply reduce carbon pollution from the existing power plants…that would make a tremendous difference.

The other thing he can do is use the power he has as the president of the United States to force a national conversation. We’ve seen a lot of conversation about this fiscal cliff, which is an invented, manufactured crisis, but very little talk about the climate cliff, which is a real, unavoidable crisis. So if we can have the president of the United States on TV every day talking about the manufactured fiscal cliff, then he can use all of those resources to put pressure on Congress to do something about the real climate cliff.

I also think that it is still the case that the best possible way to get the economy moving is to move in a greener direction. You get on an airplane, you fly coast to coast, you look down, and you see a million rooftops that don’t have solar panels on them. You fly over the plain states, acre after acre, you don’t see wind farms and solar farms, even in places that they could exist. There is just tremendous opportunity to home-grow our energy, and put people to work. You land in any city, you are driving past buildings that are leaking energy, because they aren’t using modern energy efficiency technologies. There’s tremendous opportunity there.

So if you look at the economic case, as we begin to move in a greener direction, and you look at a the climate case, this should be more salient than it is. It should be more salient for the public, and I think that’s starting to change, and it should be more pressing for the president—and I hope that that will change.

CD: Do you think environmentalists trying to push President Obama further, through protests over the Keystone XL pipeline or, now, the new fossil fuel divestment campaign, actually works? What’s the evidence?

VJ: I think activism works. You look at the last term, the Latino community kept pushing hard on immigration, and the president came out for the Dream Act. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement kept pushing on the question of marriage equality, and the president came out for marriage equality, which then had a positive effect on public opinion and helped that movement win at the ballot box and in a number of states, within months.

So I think it takes two keys to unlock the door to change: It takes public activism and action, and it takes presidential leadership. But what we’re seeing now is the return of public action and public concern. is leading that process. The aftershocks of Sandy are going to push that process forward.

Let’s not forget, we have dust bowl conditions developing in the heartland of America, the bread basket of the world, just as Al Gore predicted. That is happening right now. So as the urgency of these disasters moves public attention, and as you see activists marching again, I think there’s an obligation for the president to meet the people on this issue.


About Climate Desk

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.