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Climate change fueled the Australia fires. Now those fires are fueling climate change.

Australia is in the midst of a devastating wildfire season that is being exacerbated by climate change. But the fires, which have been burning for months and could rage on for months to come, are also impacting the earth’s climate in several ways. Some of those impacts are well understood, while others lie at the frontiers of scientific research.

The most obvious climatic impact of the fires is that they’re spewing millions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to a vicious feedback loop of heat and flame. But the fires are also kicking up lots of soot, creating a smoke plume that’s circling the globe and could hasten the melting of any glaciers it comes in contact with. Preliminary evidence suggests some of that smoke has even made its way into an upper layer of the atmosphere called the stratosphere, buoyed aloft by rare, fire-induced thunderclouds. That, too, could have subtle but far-reaching climate impacts.

The fires, which started burning at the end of Australia’s winter, raged across the eastern half of the country throughout the spring and kicked into high gear in the country’s populous southeast over the last few weeks. They’re a disaster of an unprecedented nature.

Exceptionally hot, dry, gusty weather, brought on by recurring ocean and atmospheric dynamics and amplified by the warming and drying effects of human-caused climate change, has made it all too easy for an errant match or a lightning strike to explode into a raging inferno. Which is exactly what’s been happening. To date, the Guardian estimates that more than 26 million acres of land have burned nationwide — a region larger than Indiana. That includes over 12 million acres in New South Wales alone, a dubious new record for the state.

Much of the land that’s burning is covered in eucalyptus forest, although flames have also razed farmlands, grasslands, heathlands, and even some patches of Queensland’s subtropical rainforests, said Lesley Hughes, an ecologist and climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. Whatever the fuel source, the net effect on the atmosphere is a massive release of ash, dust, and a cocktail of different gases, including carbon dioxide.

From the start of September through early January, the wildfires released around 400 million tons of CO2, which is roughly the same amount the UK emits in an entire year, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. That’s not a record, he said, noting that considerably more carbon was emitted in 2011 and 2012, when very large fires raged across Australia’s northern territory and out west. But in New South Wales, this year’s wildfire emissions are off the charts.

By any measure, 400 million tons is a significant chunk of heat-trapping gases that will get mixed into the atmosphere, fueling more global warming. “It’s a great example of a positive feedback of climate change,” Hughes said. “It all comes together, unfortunately.”

In addition to carbon pollution, the fires are producing, well, regular air pollution. Since early November, vast smoke plumes have been wafting from eastern Australia all the way across the Pacific to the shores of South America. Just this week, Parrington said, forecasts from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service showed carbon monoxide from wildfire smoke creeping into the South Atlantic, a “really clear indicator of just how intense those fires have been.”

As the smoke circumnavigates the globe, some of it is passing over New Zealand’s alpine glaciers, turning them an eerie caramel color. Lauren Vargo, a glaciologist at Victoria University of Wellington who recently traveled through New Zealand’s Southern Alps, said that the soot is “really clear and obvious” and that “most of the ice on the South Island” is likely to have been impacted. Vargo is currently studying aerial photographs of New Zealand’s glaciers going back to the 1970s. In 40 years of records, she hasn’t seen anything comparable.

Soot on glaciers does more than spoil hiking photos. It reduces the reflectivity, or albedo, of ice, allowing it to absorb more sunlight, which can hasten its melt, said Marie Dumont, the deputy scientific director of the French Meteorological Service’s Snow Research Center. Exactly how much extra melt New Zealand’s browning glaciers will experience over the coming weeks and months is unclear, but the fact that the color change is occurring during the summer, when the sunlight is fiercer and there’s less chance of fresh snow falling, isn’t a good sign.

“It’s super likely that it will accelerate the melt” of these glaciers, Dumont said, “at least for this year.” She added that she wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar, albeit smaller effect on some Patagonian glaciers, given that the wildfire smoke is passing over South America.

“With ice, when we are seeing a color change, it means the change in albedo is about 10 percent,” Dumont said. “That’s already huge. Even a 2 to 3 percent change is a lot.”

Not all of the wildfire smoke is settling on the earth’s surface. More of it is lingering 3 to 4 miles up in the troposphere, Parrington said, scattering light and resulting in ominous reddish sunsets. Where the smoke is densest, it’s likely impacting the weather, said Robert Field, a climate and atmospheric scientist at Columbia University. Over hard-hit parts of Australia, Field said he wouldn’t be surprised if temperatures are 10 to 20 degrees F lower on dense smoke days as soot blocks incoming sunlight. He emphasized, however, that any such effects will be very temporary.

Where the smoke might have a more far-reaching impact is in the stratosphere, a very dry, very cold part of the atmosphere that starts around 6 miles up and is home to fast-flowing jet stream winds. Pollution from the earth’s surface doesn’t often reach the stratosphere, but recent satellite data shows that Australia’s wildfire smoke has hit this lofty mark, a fact that speaks to “the power and intensity of the fires,” according to Claire Ryder, a research fellow at Reading University’s meteorology department.

The most likely explanation, she said, is fire-induced thunderclouds.

Also known as pyrocumulonimbus clouds, these menacing-looking storms, which form when heat from intense wildfires creates a powerful updraft, can blast particles into the stratosphere in a manner similar to a volcanic eruption. Over the past few weeks, the wildfires in southeastern Australia have spawned a series of pyrocumulonimbus events that Neil Lareau, a fire weather researcher at the University of Nevada Reno, called “really superlative.”

The smoke that’s reached the stratosphere may linger there for weeks to months, Ryder said. But exactly what impact it’ll have is an open scientific question.

Volcanic eruptions, she said, shoot tiny sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. These particles reflect sunlight and can trigger temporary cooling at the earth’s surface. By contrast, fire smoke contains carbon-rich organic matter, including particles that are brown, gray, and even black in color. Black carbon, in particular, is a potent absorber of sunlight, and whether its presence in stratospheric soot will ultimately have a warming or cooling effect on the planet is unknown.

It will likely be years before scientists have teased out the full impact of this year’s wildfire season on the climate — first, the fires need to end. But it’s clear the effects have rippled far beyond Australia’s borders. As fire seasons become longer and more intense across the world, understanding this complex web of planetary impacts will only become more urgent.


Climate change fueled the Australia fires. Now those fires are fueling climate change.

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Some economics nerds just realized how much climate change will cost us

A bunch of economists just put down their calculators and concluded that we should act on climate change sooner rather than later. Really.

For decades, economists have suggested that the government should charge a fee on every ton of carbon dioxide that gets emitted, giving companies a bottom-line incentive to change their polluting ways. The conventional wisdom is that we’d ease into it, starting with a low price — say, $40 per ton — and gradually ramp it up over time.

But according to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that prevailing wisdom is backwards. The authors argue that a carbon tax should start out steep, above $100 per ton (and potentially above $200 per ton), rise higher for a few years, and then slowly fall over the next few centuries as people get the whole climate crisis thing under control.

Such a high price would encourage countries and businesses to clean up their act much faster. Part of the reason is that we need to make up for lost time. The implication is that the United States and most governments have waited so long to put a price on carbon that a milder approach just doesn’t make much sense.

“To me the most surprising result of the research was how quickly the cost of delay increases over time,” said Robert Litterman, a risk management expert who used to work for Goldman Sachs, in a statement accompanying the study. His team found that if the world procrastinated on a carbon price by just one more year, the damages from climate change would climb an additional $1 trillion. Waiting 10 years would put the price tag at $100 trillion. In other words, the time to act was yesterday (or, like the 1980s).

No one knows exactly how much our planet is going to heat up in the coming decades. The degree of nightmarishness depends on the amount of greenhouse gases we send into the atmosphere and how quickly and ferociously the planet responds with feedback loops that accelerate warming. The euphemism for this is “uncertainty.”

Because studying the climate is a risky business, the researchers borrowed a model from the world of finance, which is hyper-focused on measuring risk (hello β). Their unconventional model considered the damage climate change would bring to agriculture, coastal infrastructure, and human health in the future. Their takeaway: For something as high stakes as the climate crisis, governments should be trying to avoid the worst outcome at all costs.

“We need to take stronger action today to give us breathing room in the event that the planet turns out to be more fragile than current models predict,” said Kent Daniel, a professor at Columbia Business School, in the statement.

The researchers aren’t the first to recommend this “start high, decrease later” approach to implementing a carbon tax, nor are they the first to propose such a steep price. A landmark report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year suggested that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels would take an array of tough climate policies, including a carbon price of at least $135 per ton by 2030, and perhaps as high as $5,500 per ton.

Around the world, carbon prices are either nonexistent or simply not cutting it. Though more than 40 countries have implemented some sort of carbon price, including Canada, Mexico, and Switzerland, their prices are generally considered too low to be very effective.

Even though old-school Republicans and even some oil companies have publicly called for a nationwide carbon tax, it’s not like voters are clamoring for it. Measures have failed in otherwise environmentally-friendly states such as Washington and Oregon in recent years. No carbon tax exists in the United States, though California and a group of states in the Northeast have cap-and-trade programs that serve a similar purpose. Offering an even higher tax would unlikely help a measure’s odds of passing.

So how to square all this? Perhaps a little wordplay will help. A recent study said that people might be more willing to rally behind a plan to tax carbon if proponents simply dropped the t-word and called it “a fine on corporations” instead.

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Some economics nerds just realized how much climate change will cost us

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Climate experts to New York: Go green or go home

Thirty-five scholars, policy experts, and researchers from across the country are urging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers to commit the state to zero net emissions by 2040 by the end of this year’s legislative session in June.

In a letter sent to Cuomo and state Senate leaders on Monday, these experts laid out how and why New York state is uniquely positioned to achieve this goal and serve as a model for other state, national, and international policies.

The thinking behind the letter: New York finally has the support it needs to pass strong climate legislation, so lawmakers should strike while the iron is hot.

“Now that the Senate has flipped to Democratic control and is led by advocates of climate action as well, this seems a perfect time to enact a new law,” said Michael Gerrard, a signee and professor at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

Cuomo has a track record of talking big, and sometimes acting big, on climate. He famously banned fracking in New York state, and was one of President Trump’s most fiery critics over the plan to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. But Cuomo’s critics point out that he has been slow to condemn the Williams pipeline, which would bring fracked gas from Pennsylvania into the state.

With the exception of the pipeline, things are already looking greener in New York. The state Senate just passed a landmark package of bills on Tuesday, amending the state constitution to guarantee a right to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment for all. They’re also in the process of considering the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), a progressive measure that would mandate a totally carbon-neutral economy by 2050 and institute a handful of equity provisions. Plus, New York City just passed its own Green New Deal, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to take the New York real estate industry to task over its emissions.

The letter proposes a two-pronged approach to reaching zero net emissions by 2040: Decarbonizing the energy sector first, and only then buying offsets for some of the most challenging sources of emissions to eliminate, such as those from agriculture, flying, and cement production.

“Achieving zero net emissions, rather than zero direct emissions (which means not emitting any CO2 at all), is ambitious, consistent with the scientific recommendations of the IPCC, and provides greater flexibility to meet climate goals at lower cost,” the letter reads.

The experts say decarbonizing electricity is the “linchpin” to achieving zero emissions, not only because energy is one of the biggest emissions culprits, but also because carbon-neutral energy is essential for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the industrial, heating, and transportation sectors. They advocate for using all possible forms of carbon-free energy. “The legislation should focus on achieving key ends (carbon-free electricity) rather than specifying a limited set of means (specific technologies),” they write.

Michael Davidson, a signee and research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, said he is excited to see what New York state passes. The resulting legislation be a guide for other states looking to uphold the Paris Agreement, and it could inform the national discussion about how to decarbonize the economy, he said.

“We hope that the leaders in Albany will now sit down and hammer out a deal that works for everyone,” said Gerrard. “The differences seem quite bridgeable.”

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Climate experts to New York: Go green or go home

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Bringing Columbia Home – Michael D. Leinbach, Jonathan H. Ward, Robert Crippen & Eileen Collins


Bringing Columbia Home

The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew

Michael D. Leinbach, Jonathan H. Ward, Robert Crippen & Eileen Collins

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: January 23, 2018

Publisher: Arcade


Timed to release for the 15th Anniversary of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, this is the epic true story of one of the most dramatic, unforgettable adventures of our time. On February 1, 2003, Columbia disintegrated on reentry before the nation’s eyes, and all seven astronauts aboard were lost. Author Mike Leinbach, Launch Director of the space shuttle program at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center was a key leader in the search and recovery effort as NASA, FEMA, the FBI, the US Forest Service, and dozens more federal, state, and local agencies combed an area of rural east Texas the size of Rhode Island for every piece of the shuttle and her crew they could find. Assisted by hundreds of volunteers, it would become the largest ground search operation in US history. This comprehensive account is told in four parts: • Parallel Confusion • Courage, Compassion, and Commitment • Picking Up the Pieces • A Bittersweet Victory For the first time, here is the definitive inside story of the Columbia disaster and recovery and the inspiring message it ultimately holds. In the aftermath of tragedy, people and communities came together to help bring home the remains of the crew and nearly 40 percent of shuttle, an effort that was instrumental in piecing together what happened so the shuttle program could return to flight and complete the International Space Station. Bringing Columbia Home shares the deeply personal stories that emerged as NASA employees looked for lost colleagues and searchers overcame immense physical, logistical, and emotional challenges and worked together to accomplish the impossible. Featuring a foreword and epilogue by astronauts Robert Crippen and Eileen Collins, and dedicated to the astronauts and recovery search persons who lost their lives, this is an incredible, compelling narrative about the best of humanity in the darkest of times and about how a failure at the pinnacle of human achievement became a story of cooperation and hope.

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Bringing Columbia Home – Michael D. Leinbach, Jonathan H. Ward, Robert Crippen & Eileen Collins

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Shell shows how Big Oil cracks up over climate change

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The decades-old alliance of fossil fuel interests is starting to fracture.

Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, recently said it had dropped out of a Washington D.C. industry lobbying group, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, or AFPM. Why? Because Shell supports the Paris Agreement on climate change and the lobbying group doesn’t.

“We must be prepared to openly voice our concerns where we find misalignment with an industry association on climate-related policy,” wrote Shell’s CEO Ben Van Beurden. “In cases of material misalignment, we should also be prepared to walk away,”

This could be a crucial fissure in a larger crackup. Shell also said that it might leave nine other industry associations — including the American Petroleum Institute, and the Chamber of Commerce — over climate policy. It’s unlikely to reconcile with all of these groups, said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

There’s a recent precedent for corporations falling out over climate action. The once-powerful American Legislative Exchange Council has lost dozens of corporate members (including Shell) over recent years, as a result of its position on climate change and other issues. ALEC, which has worked closely with the climate-denying Heartland Institute, says that climate change is “inevitable” and that its causes are still up for debate.

None of this suggests that Shell’s corporate executives will soon join valve-turners to shut off their own pipelines. The oil giant is still trying to make a profit by selling fuels that contribute to climate change. Last year, it raked in $21.4 billion. It’s also still contributing to lobbying groups that fight efforts to curb carbon emissions .

But compared to it’s Big Oil brethren,, Shell stands out for calling on the federal government to regulate greenhouse gases and funneling money into clean energy efforts. In the end, this political realignment matters. If fewer powerful corporations are standing in the way of taking action on climate change, necessary legislation is more likely to pass.

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Shell shows how Big Oil cracks up over climate change

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The Camp Fire’s flames were deadly. Its smoke could be even more dangerous.

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A year of fire and relentless heat has spilled over into a grimy, smoky, full-blown public health crisis in northern California.

While the epicenter of the Camp Fire’s gruesome tragedy is in the town of Paradise, where 63 people are known to have died and 631 are still missing, many more people in the region are suffering from the life-threatening impact of wildfire smoke.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar officially declared a public health emergency for California on Tuesday, and since then, air quality conditions have only gotten worse.

On Thursday, northern California’s Air Quality Index, a measure of how polluted the air is, was the worst of any region in the world. Chico, Oroville, and Sacramento reported pollution levels in the “hazardous” category — the highest on the scale — topping parts of China and India and breaking records for the worst air quality in the area since record keeping began. It’s the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.

Friday is the eighth consecutive day that millions of people in Northern California are breathing wildfire smoke. Public health officials fear that chronic smoke inhalation could lead to a whole suite of new health problems, like those seen in Asian megacities.

The smoke in the region is so bad, it’s disrupting the regular flow of life. The vast majority of schools are closed across the Bay Area. The cable cars in San Francisco have stopped running. Flights are being delayed due to reduced visibility. Cars are forced to use headlights in the middle of the day.

The current smoke emergency mirrors one earlier this year in the Pacific Northwest, which darkened the skies over Seattle for days.

So far, there hasn’t been a noticeable uptick in emergency room visits across California, but that’s likely to change. Past studies show that particulate pollution, like smoke, aggravates pre-existing conditions, especially in seniors. Young children are particularly at-risk because they are still growing and tend to be more active than adults. Homeless populations, farmworkers, and low-income residents are all especially vulnerable because they are more likely to work and live in places where it’s difficult to avoid exposure to the pollution.

Smoke, not flames, is the deadliest public health risk of wildfires. The fine-grain air pollution it carries (classified as particulate matter fewer than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) is already one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. — an estimated 17,000 people die of wildfire smoke-related causes each year. By the end of the century, it could cause twice as many deaths as it does now — to 44,000 each year.

Each year, wildfire smoke leads to thousands of premature deaths, much more than other types of extreme weather. It often hits with little warning, adversely affecting people who aren’t prepared in places hundreds of miles away from the fires.This summer, when wildfires broke out in British Columbia, public health alerts were issued as far away as Minnesota — roughly 2,000 miles east of the fires.

Across the world, more than 7 million people die each year due to air pollution from smoke and exhaust from fossil fuel burning. A study last month from the World Health Organization found that more than 90 percent of children in the world breathe toxic air every day.

Air pollution caused by wildfires is a problem that’s just going to keep getting worse thanks to climate change. As drier and hotter weather continues to intensify the fire season — creating the conditions for massively destructive wildfires like the Camp Fire — the number of people affected by smoke on the West Coast is expected to increase by 50 percent in just the next two decades.

This week’s smoke outbreak should remind us that, as we talk about preparing for future fire catastrophes, we need to also prepare for their wider public health impacts.

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The Camp Fire’s flames were deadly. Its smoke could be even more dangerous.

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The West Coast is fired up for a coal battle with Zinke

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently proposed using military bases to export fossil fuels to Asia. The move could circumvent and undermine the decade-long struggle to stop coal exports on the West Coast.

So far, Zinke has just proposed using an Alaska base, but Northwest activists and state authorities say they won’t back down if the Trump administration tries to bring fossil fuels through their states.

“The people of Oregon and Washington have rejected coal export and our government leaders have made really clear decisions that it’s too dangerous for our communities and our climate,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, the executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.

In Washington state, leaders have worked on several fronts to successfully block coal export terminals, such as the Millennium Bulk Terminals Project in Longview, along the Columbia River.

The State of Washington’s Department of Ecology denied permits to the Longview terminal after determining that the risks it posed were too great. The project would have dredged 41.5 acres of the Columbia riverbed and increased dangerous diesel pollution in a neighborhood along the rail line in Longview.

“At some point enough has to be enough,” said Dave Bennett, a spokesperson for the department. “We will not back down from our legal responsibility to protect Washington’s people and environment, including the Columbia River.”

In Oregon, activists worked to pass the first law prohibiting fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland. The year-long battle began with protests over a Shell drilling vessel. Activists delayed its departure while chanting “Coal, oil, gas, none shall pass!”

“[Zinke’s proposal] completely flies in the face of local and state action all up and down the West Coast,” said Mia Reback, the former organizer of a Portland climate group involved in the efforts. “This is really a matter of life and death — for our local communities and for the biosphere,” she said.

Jan Hasselman, a lawyer with EarthJustice who has litigated against the Longview terminal, does not see this proposal as having much legal ground. Even with military projects, he says that states have a say when it comes to protecting water quality. Under the Clean Water Act, any federal permit also requires a state water quality certification, which was denied in the Millenium Bulk Terminals Project.

What Hasselman finds particularly alarming is the use of the military to corporate ends. “We have a military whose purpose is to protect the national interests,” he said. “It’s not there to benefit private corporate interests. Let the military be the military and do their jobs and don’t saddle them with propping up a dying industry.”


The West Coast is fired up for a coal battle with Zinke

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Think the climate change lawsuit is dead? It’s just beginning.

Another climate change accountability lawsuit appears to have died. RIP. But take heart, you fine-feathered climate hawks. No man is an island, but every court is.

As you may recall, in January, New York City sued ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, and ConocoPhillips, alleging that the companies had purposefully misled the public about the effects of climate change in order to keep raking in money.

United States District Judge John F. Keenan tossed the lawsuit straight in the proverbial trash can on Thursday. “Global warming and solutions thereto must be addressed by the two other branches of government,” Judge Keenan said.

Fat chance of that happening anytime soon.

Just last month, a U.S. district judge dismissed similar complaints against major oil companies brought by Oakland and San Francisco. “Using lawsuits to vilify the men and women who provide the energy we all need is neither honest nor constructive,” said R. Hewitt Pate, Chevron’s vice president and general counsel.

Both the California and New York suits were part of a wave of climate accountability lawsuits taking place across the country, from Rhode Island to Colorado to King County, Washington.

So are all these climate suits going to evaporate? Not quite.

“It’s easy to see this decision as momentum,” said Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. But “no other court is bound by this decision. It’s as simple as that.”

Just because one judge rules a certain way doesn’t mean other judges looking at similar cases will make the same decision. “Each judge and each panel of appellate judges is going to look at these issues independently until it gets resolved by some higher court,” Burger said.

What’s more, the New York lawsuit is likely to get appealed. That means it could get pulled out of that same proverbial trash can, dusted off, and sent along to the federal court of appeals. So Big Oil isn’t out of the woods quite yet. If a higher court does ultimately side with polluters, however, lower courts would likely follow that precedent.

Burger doesn’t know, ultimately, whether the dismissal of the New York case will change the outcome of the other climate suits. But he isn’t the only law expert who thinks this isn’t necessarily the end of the line.

“We remain optimistic that the majority of these cases will end up in state court where they belong, and that taxpayers will ultimately prevail in their efforts to recover costs,” Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity said in a statement.

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Think the climate change lawsuit is dead? It’s just beginning.

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Exxon says climate lawsuits violate its right to free speech. Seriously.

Just a short time ago, it seemed like Exxon might finally be forced to reckon with the harm it had inflicted through the digging up, selling, and burning of fossil fuels.

A wave of cities led by San Francisco and Oakland filed suit against Exxon and other major polluters last year, alleging that the companies had purposefully misled the public about the effects of climate change in order to keep profits high. In March, a federal judge handed the California cities a small win: the chance to publicly debate polluters in court about their role in denying climate science.

But if we’ve learned anything from the way the tobacco industry rapidly went on the offensive when it was accused of peddling cancer sticks, it’s that getting industry to fess up to its wrongdoings is easier said than done. And Exxon, it seems, will do anything to shift the blame from its own shoulders, even if that means spinning an entirely new narrative around who the real victim is.

After the California cities filed suit, Exxon brought a petition before the Texas 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals claiming the lawsuits were part of a conspiracy intended to waylay the company’s right to free speech and force it to change its position on climate change. Yes, you read that correctly. Exxon argued that the cities were trying to make the company agree to a number of truths about climate change, which, in effect, violated Exxon’s First Amendment rights to say whatever the hell it wants about climate change.

Yeah, sounds crazy! But the Texas judge, R.H. Wallace Jr., bought the argument and handed Exxon a victory in April. That means the company can now grill California city officials about whether the climate suits, from the Bay to New York City, have been one big conspiracy to violate the company’s right to free speech.

Michael Burger, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, doesn’t think Exxon’s free speech argument holds up under scrutiny. Exxon already tried a similar tactic in a New York court. Former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who recently resigned after four women accused him of sexual assault, started investigating the company over climate change in 2015. Exxon’s lawyers argued Schneiderman tried to “silence and intimidate one side of the public policy debate on how to address climate change” by launching the probe.

The New York judge dismissed the case this year. When Exxon tried to edit, or “amend,” its original complaint, the judge denied the amendment “as futile,” which is a fancy way of saying the judge kicked Exxon in the gnads. The fact that Exxon already tried and failed to invoke its First Amendment rights doesn’t bode well for the company’s latest attempt in California. “The idea that these lawsuits could infringe on First Amendment rights is, as the judge in New York said, implausible,” Burger says.

So, while the Texas judge gave Exxon a small window of opportunity to question California officials about the alleged “conspiracy,” Burger says that doesn’t mean it’ll turn into a full-blown court case. California has already appealed Judge Wallace Jr.’s decision.

The First Amendment claim isn’t an entirely new invention — big companies have asserted such claims before, says Peter Lehner, former chief of the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s office. But Exxon’s argument that the climate lawsuits are a big conspiracy, he says, is based on “flimsy ground.”

First of all, attorneys general communicate with each other often. And second of all, he says, “If the company is lying to their shareholders and to their consumers, then that is fraud.” It all comes back to the underlying issue: If California can prove Exxon knew about climate change and lied to the public about it, the company probably won’t be able to get out of an investigation by crying free speech. Why? Because the First Amendment doesn’t protect liars!

As for why Exxon might be pulling out the flawed free speech argument again, Burger raises one possibility: “It may well be that Exxon is threatening to bring a lawsuit in an effort to intimidate those [California] officials or enact some form of retribution.”

A major oil company acting like a huge bully? Nah, doesn’t sound like good ol’ Exxon. Psyche!

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Exxon says climate lawsuits violate its right to free speech. Seriously.

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A building El Niño in 2018 signals more extreme weather for 2019

In case you couldn’t get enough extreme weather, the next 12 months or so could bring even more scorching temps, punishing droughts, and unstoppable wildfires.

It’s still early, but odds are quickly rising that another El Niño — the periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean — could be forming. The latest official outlook from NOAA and Columbia University gives better-than-even odds of El Niño materializing by the end of this year, which could lead to a cascade of dangerous weather around the globe in 2019.

That’s a troubling development, especially when people worldwide are still suffering from the last El Niño, which ended two years ago.

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These early warnings come with a caveat: Predictions of El Niño at this time of year are notoriously fickle. If one comes, it’s impossible to know how strong it would be.

When it’s active, El Niño is often a catch-all that’s blamed for all sorts of wild weather, so it’s worth a quick science-based refresher of what we’re talking about here:

El Niño has amazingly far-reaching effects, spurring droughts in Africa and typhoons swirling toward China and Japan. It’s a normal, natural ocean phenomenon, but there’s emerging evidence that climate change is spurring more extreme El Niño-related events.

On average though, El Niño boosts global temperatures and redistributes weather patterns worldwide in a pretty predictable way. In fact, the Red Cross is starting to use its predictability to prevent humanitarian weather catastrophes before they happen.

All told, the the U.N. estimates the 2016 El Niño directly affected nearly 100 million people worldwide, not to mention causing permanent damage to the world’s coral reefs, a surge in carbon dioxide emissions from a global outbreak of forest fires, and the warmest year in recorded history.

In Ethiopia, it spawned one of the worst droughts in decades. More than 8.5 million Ethiopians continue to rely on emergency assistance, according to the UN. That includes some 1.3 million people — a majority of whom are children — who have been forced to migrate from their homes.

Initial estimates show that, if the building El Niño actually arrives, 2019 would stand a good chance at knocking off 2016 as the warmest year on record. With a strong El Niño, next year might even tiptoe across the 1.5 degree-Celsius mark — the first major milestone that locks in at least some of global warming’s worst impacts.

Recently, the United Kingdom’s Met Office — the U.K’s version of the National Weather Service — placed a 10-percent chance of the world passing the 1.5 degree Celsius target before 2022. That target was a key goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement because a sharp upward spike in temperature that severe, if sustained, would be potentially catastrophic — causing, among other impacts, “fundamental changes in ocean chemistry” that could linger for millennia, according to a draft UN report due out later this year.

Another El Niño is bad news, but it has been inevitable that another one will happen eventually. Knowing exactly when the next one is coming will give those in harm’s way more time to prepare.

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A building El Niño in 2018 signals more extreme weather for 2019

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