These Parrots Can Make Other Parrots 'Laugh'—a First
The kea of New Zealand is the first non-mammal species to demonstrate infectious laughter, a new study says.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
By Mary Bates
PUBLISHED March 28, 2017
Forget the laughing kookaburra—kea are the birds that really tickle each other's funny bones.
The highly intelligent parrot has a specific call, that—like human laughter—puts other parrots that hear it in a good mood. This makes the kea the first known non-mammal to show contagious emotion, joining the ranks of humans, rats, and chimpanzees.
Scientists already knew that kea—native to New Zealand's mountainous South Island—make a non-threatening warbling sound while playing with other kea. But since the birds also warble alone, the noise could simply be an expression of pleasure.
Hearing Calls Makes Kea Parrots Playful
To find out if kea use their play call to spread emotion among other kea, researchers led by Raoul Schwing, of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria, went to Arthur's Pass National Park and broadcast recordings of several bird calls in the earshot of wild kea. (Related: "Do Animals Laugh? Tickle Experiments Suggest They Do.")
These included kea play calls, other kea calls, and a call of the South Island robin, another species in the area.
The team then observed how the wild kea reacted to each sound. The effect was clear: When kea of both sexes heard play calls, they exhibited more and longer play behavior than when they heard the other calls.
“In many instances, we saw that the kea were immediately animated to play, but not by joining ongoing play already happening,” Schwing says in an email.
“Instead, they spontaneously started to play with the bird next to them, or played solitarily in the air or with an object.”
This suggests that the play call does not "invite" kea to play, but rather puts them in a frisky frame of mind by affecting their emotions. For that reason, kea play calls can be compared with infectious laughter in people, according to the study, published March 20 in the journal Current Biology.
No Laughing Matter
Kea play a lot—by themselves, with others, on the ground, or in the air.
While aloft, kea perform aerial acrobatics and chase each other. Playing with objects is usually solitary, with a bird manipulating an object with its beak and/or feet, but it can also involve birds tossing an object between each other. (Also see "Walruses Found Using Birds as Toys for First Time.")
Kea numbers have declined over the past century, with likely fewer than 10,000 birds left in the wild.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
The birds may also tussle, a “kea version of the wrestling one sees in cats,” according to Schwing. "Here, one kea might even present itself on its back to invite another to join."
"Although it is important not to anthropomorphize animal behavior, it is very clear to anyone working or living with kea that they are intelligent, social, and take pleasure in playing with each other—much like we see in other cognizant species, including ourselves,” Tamsin Orr-Walker, co-founder and chair of the Kea Conservation Trust, says via email.
A Very Curious Parrot Kea’s are famous for their insatiable curiosity and their multi-tool beak. This can be a problem for humans but it allows them to be the only parrot on earth that can live above the snowline.
Orr-Walker notes the new study's results are rigorous and thorough, and will "hopefully provide a better insight into the private lives and characters of these birds, [which] have for over a century been heavily persecuted."
Due to human conflict and predation by introduced mammals, the species is now vulnerable to extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"With greater understanding of the kea's unique qualities and interactions," Orr-Walker says, "we hope there will be a corresponding increase in empathy which ultimately will be what saves this species from extinction."
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on: Today at 05:32 AM
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Humans 'Domesticated' Mice 15,000 Years Ago
Ancient rodent populations may now help us fill in gaps in the archaeological record as humans shifted from hunter-gatherers to farmers.
Photograph by Joe Blossom, Alamy
By Jason Bittel
PUBLISHED March 27, 2017
Most people are all too familiar with house mice. We know them as the eaters of crumbs, gnawers of cords, and leavers of droppings. They create the pitter-patters we hear in the night and the messes we find in the morning.
Conventional wisdom has said that mice and people began living together when humans learned to farm. But new research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that our relationship with these rodents may be even more ancient.
At Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum, students in a taxidermy class learn how to make dead mice anthropomorphic.
By studying the fluctuations of house mouse fossils found in archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean, scientists have revealed that Mus musculus domesticus first cozied up to humans around 15,000 years ago.
That would be about 3,000 years before the advent of agriculture.
The findings offer an unusual glimpse into a murky period of human development, since the abundance of house mice teeth seems to track with our nomadic ancestors’ early experiments in settling down.
That makes the new study “a nice example of how house mouse research can be helpful for studying our own history,” says Miloš Macholán, an evolutionary biologist and co-author of The Evolution of the House Mouse.
For example, scientists studying the transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture may now be able to fill in gaps in the archaeological record by looking for the presence and proportions of mice molars, he says.
“I’d say it’s important to understand that mice have been accompanying us for a very long time,” says study leader Lior Weissbrod, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel. “We’ve been changing them and they’ve been changing us in ways that are not immediately apparent.”
A Tale of Two Mice
The new study examines the rise of the house mouse in the Levant, an area that today encompasses parts of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Here, researchers previously found archeological sites left by the Natufian culture of hunter-gatherers roughly 15,000 years ago.
By examining fossil teeth found at these sites, the team discovered that the house mouse’s story is deeply intertwined with that of another closely related mouse species named Mus macedonicus. More commonly called the short-tailed mouse, this rodent is considered to be more wild and less tolerant of humans.
As the Natufian hunter-gatherers started to become more sedentary, likely as a result of favorable climate conditions, the team found a rise in the amount of house mouse molars in and around human settlements.
Weissbrod says the critters were probably attracted to the small caches of wild grains the humans had to store to survive without constantly moving from place to place. (Also read "New Clues on How and When Wolves Became Dogs.")
What was a boon for house mice, though, seems to have been a detriment to the meeker short-tailed mice. As house mouse molars start to pile up during periods of prolonged human habitation, short-tailed mice molars all but disappear.
However, when the climate shifted again and the region became cold and dry, the Natufians reverted to their original way of life, only staying in one place as long as the resources nearby could support them. During these spells, the researchers found that the more independent short-tailed mice become dominant once again.
A Modern Analog
The link between such human settlements and house mouse fluctuations became even clearer when the team compared their fossil results to mouse populations around today’s hunter-gatherers.
The Maasai of southern Kenya still practice a semi-mobile lifestyle, herding cattle to different areas depending on the season. Like the ancient Natufians, the modern Maasai live in proximity to two closely-related mouse species, Acomys wilsoni and Acomys ignitus.
Weissbrod and his colleagues set up rodent traps in and around Maasai settlements. While populations of the two rodents were nearly equal in these areas, the traps inside Maasai homes caught far more A. ignitus (87 percent) than A. wilsoni (13 percent).
This was astonishing, says Weissbrod, because they observed almost the exact same ratio between house mice (80 percent) and short-tailed mice (20 percent) from the Jordan Valley site of Ain Mallaha, a Natufian settlement that dates to between 12,000 and 13,000 years old—placing it in between the time periods of nomadic life and the earliest farmers.
“This then gave us the key that we needed to make sense of varying mouse proportions in all of our other samples from both earlier and later periods,” says Weissbrod.
The findings are “very cool and exciting,” says Keith Dobney, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Liverpool, because they provide a “new, detailed window on the past.”
Not only does the research show that the house mouse out-competed another mouse species by developing a one-sided relationship with humans, the authors have also tracked the fits and starts that eventually led to a sedentary lifestyle for hunter-gatherers in the Levant, simply by following the rodent’s rise and fall.
The relationship between humans and mice is still continuing to evolve, of course. Some people keep the docile domesticated mice as pets, and there’s an argument to be made that we owe the little squeakers our thanks for their enormous role in biomedical research.
Whether you feel ambivalence, ire, or gratitude, it seems our relationships with mice are as complex as they are ancient.
on: Today at 05:29 AM
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This is why Americans vote for Repiglicans
Shitstain Trump expected to sign controversial hunting bill
International Business Times
28 Mar 2017 at 14:20 ET
A controversial hunting law awaits the signature of President Trump after the Senate voted mostly along party lines last week and after clearing the House in February. The Senate voted 52-47 on March 21 to overturn Obama-era hunting restrictions that protected grizzly bears, wolves and other animals on national wildlife refuges in Alaska from baiting, trapping and aerial shooting.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who introduced the resolution, said the Obama-era rules were an overreach of government power. He shared support with other Alaska Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Read: Animals Killed For Agriculture: 2.7M Slaughtered By Wildlife Services
“Not only does this action undermine Alaska’s ability to manage fish and wildlife upon refuge lands, it fundamentally destroys a cooperative relationship between Alaska and the federal government,” Young wrote on his website.
Read: How Trump's Clean Power Plan Executive Order Will Affect Climate Change
Many animal rights and environmental advocacy groups lamented the passage of the resolution.
The Humane Society described the hunting practices banned by the rules as inhumane and unsporting killing practices… in which no self-respecting sportsman would engage” and declared in a blog post after the resolution was passed, “It’s a sad chapter in our nation’s history of wildlife management, but it’s also a hollow ‘victory’ for self-styled enthusiasts of rolling back bureaucratic red tape.”
Trump is expected to sign the measure, once again thrusting him at the center of a hunting controversy. After announcing his candidacy for president in June 2015, photos of his sons hunting game in Zimbabwe four years earlier resurfaced on the internet. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump posed with wide grins, rifles and their dead game, including a cheetah.
on: Today at 05:23 AM
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Giant python swallows Indonesian farmer in one go
25-year-old who vanished while harvesting his crops found in belly of seven-metre snake
Four people hold a giant python similar to the one that swallowed Akbar in Indonesia.
Agence France-Presse in Mamuju
Wednesday 29 March 2017 12.11 BST
A farmer has been found inside the belly of a giant python after the swollen snake was caught near where he vanished while harvesting his crops in Indonesia.
The body of Akbar, 25, was found inside the seven-metre (23ft) python, which had been spotted slithering awkwardly in the village of Salubiro, on the eastern island of Sulawesi, on Monday.
“We were immediately suspicious that the snake had swallowed Akbar because around the site we found palm fruit, his harvesting tool and a boot,” said Junaidi, a senior village official.
Worried relatives launched a search for Akbar after he did not return home from the family’s plantation on Sunday.
Junaidi said the snake had swallowed the farmer whole, adding that it was the only such fatality recorded in the region.
This kind of python, which regularly exceeds 20ft, is commonly found in Indonesia and the Philippines. While the serpents have been known to attack small animals, attempts to eat people are rare.
In 2013, a security guard on the island of Bali was killed by a python at a luxury beachfront hotel.
on: Today at 05:21 AM
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Catnip to cat lovers everywhere: your fluffy friend loves you right back
Research has shown that cats love human company above all else. That may be news to some – but not to me and my loyal, sociable sidekick
Wednesday 29 March 2017 11.09 BST
In very important news: cats are nice. Yes, that’s right – forget about Legs-it; purge your mind of Trump’s climate change idiocy (if only) and don’t worry about the axing of your gluten-free bread prescription. Just turn to your nearest source of feline fluff (try a friend, neighbour or simply venture on to the street if you find yourself devoid of cat) and say “ahhhh”.
This is no idle “ahhhh” mind – this is admiration backed by hard, scientific data – a study of 45 felines led by researchers at the University of Oregon has found that the majority of cats prefer the company of humans to food (yes, food), toys and smells such as catnip and other cats. The simple test, known as a free operant preference assessment, put cats in a room with four different kinds of stimulation and measured the time the animals spent with each one. The majority of the cats – who were both pets and chosen from local shelters – opted for human interaction, with food coming second.
This will not be news to cat lovers. I have a cat. I may have mentioned this before. She is exceedingly nice. She follows me around, she materialises on my lap the second I sit down, caring not for the laptop, the plate of food or the newspaper in her path. She gets visibly excited when she hears me coming downstairs.
Ask any cat owner, and stories of their pet’s sociability will abound – cats who beg to be picked up, cats who like to be worn around their owner’s necks like scarfs, cats who sleep on people’s heads (very common), one amazing cat who meets her owner at the tube station every night (“We walk home together – about a quarter of a mile,” she says – doesn’t your own cat seem inadequate now?), cats who are loyal in relationship break-ups (my cat has bitten all my boyfriends to date, but never me – I’m proud of her) and one cat who slept on a colleague’s pillow for months after her mother died. Another colleague’s sadly missed cat was so friendly “he actually got more Christmas cards from the neighbours than us”, she says.
‘Why do cats get such a bad press?’
So why do cats get such a bad press? As the Oregon researchers point out, despite this evidence, it is still common belief that cats are not especially sociable or trainable. They add that the data can be used to better train cats, using their preferred stimuli as a reward – but at the risk of contradicting science, if you are attempting to train your cat, good luck to you.
Cats are so often misunderstood. “I think she missed you,” said an astonished dog-owning neighbour some years ago when she looked after my (previous) cat. Like many non-cat owners, she assumed cats were snooty, distant creatures, indifferent to human companionship.
It is interesting that this study comes to an opposite conclusion to one last year from the University of Lincoln that appeared to show that cats did not demonstrate attachments to their owner. That research, based on Mary Ainsworth’s “strange situation” test, originally formulated to demonstrate how attached children were to their caregivers, found that when you put a cat in an unfamiliar room it did not look for reassurance from its owner or seem to miss them if they were absent. The test seemed flawed to me – cats are territorial, so simply do not look to their owners for reassurance in unfamiliar places. But it nevertheless played into popular prejudices about cats being aloof and uncaring – unlike, of course, dogs.
Ah, dogs. Cats are often talked about as diametrically opposed to dogs. I am resisting the temptation to tell you that my cat is better than your dog, for example, because I don’t have to get up at 6am to take her for a walk. But I understand that some people see taking a dog for a walk at 6am as a fun thing to do. And, truth be told, I am extremely fond of dogs myself. I am, for the first time ever, thinking about getting a dog, and have recently taken to spending inordinate amounts of time online researching which dog breeds get on well with cats. Just don’t tell the cat.
Like people, like dogs, like all living things, cats exist on a continuum – some are friendlier than others, but the vast majority, you’ll find, are loyal, friendly, and outgoing – just like dogs. But this simple fact perhaps doesn’t have the hard-hitting us versus them, cats versus dogs, black versus white dichotomy so many people seem to hold dear. Perhaps it’s just simpler to think that way. But isn’t the truth – your cat likes you, she really likes you – rather nice?
on: Today at 05:18 AM
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Nearly extinct tigers found breeding in Thai jungle
Hopes rise for critically endangered big cats, with only 221 Indochinese tigers thought to remain in Thailand and Myanmar
Oliver Holmes in Bangkok and agencies
Wednesday 29 March 2017 04.09 BST
The critically endangered Indochinese tiger has been found to be breeding in a Thai jungle, providing hope for a subspecies whose total population may number only a couple of hundred.
Conservation authorities in Thailand, along with two international wildlife organisations, released photographs of new tiger cubs in the country’s east.
The images support a scientific survey that confirmed the existence of the world’s second breeding population. The other breeding ground is in the Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary in western Thailand.
The Department of National Parks of Thailand, the anti-trafficking group Freeland and Panthera, a wildcat conservation organisation, said only 221 Indochinese tigers were estimated to remain in just two Asian countries, Thailand and neighbouring Myanmar.
The group said it had been tracking the tiger population since 1999 and, for the first time last year, camera traps had photographed six cubs from four mothers.
“Poaching for the illegal wildlife trade stands as the gravest threat to the survival of the tiger, whose numbers in the wild have dwindled from 100,000 a century ago to 3,900 today,” the agencies said in a statement.
It noted the tigers’ “remarkable resilience given wildlife poaching and illegal rosewood logging” in the eastern jungle.
Indochinese tigers are smaller than the better-known Siberian or the Bengal subspecies, which is the most numerous with a total population estimated at 3,500.
Tigers, which once ranged across much of the region, are all but extinct in southern China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and much of Myanmar. Although there is no evidence of their medicinal effect, tiger bones are used in traditional Asian remedies such as “health tonics”.
Alan Rabinowitz, the chief executive officer of Panthera, said in a video call from New York that Thailand had “one of the best-protected and best tiger areas left in the world”.
“Thailand has shown that you can protect tigers and bring them back. They can do this now in the eastern forest complex as they have done in the western forest complex,” he added.
Panthera said on its website that only 8% of tiger sites had a confirmed breeding population, meaning the photos were “a huge – and rare – win”.
It said: “A breeding population here means that the future of this subspecies is less precarious and could potentially even expand – tigers here could disperse and repopulate Cambodia and Laos, where no breeding populations persist.”
on: Today at 05:16 AM
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RSPCA animal cruelty caseload rises to almost 150,000 investigations
Calls to cruelty hotline rose by nearly 5% in 2016, but charity says increase reflects more sharing of abuse footage on social media
Wednesday 29 March 2017 00.01 BST
The number of animal cruelty investigations by the RSPCA jumped by nearly 5% last year to more than 400 a day, according to figures released by the animal welfare charity.
In its annual prosecutions report the RSPCA said it had investigated almost 150,000 cases in 2016. Calls to its 24-hour cruelty hotline rose by nearly 4%, averaging one every 27 seconds.
Dermot Murphy, assistant director of the RSPCA inspectorate, said he thought that rather than the figures representing a rise in cruelty they suggested that more people were sharing abuse images on social media, leading to more investigations.
He said: “I believe that the figures from last year show that we’re not becoming more cruel, but that people are simply less willing to stand by and do nothing if they think an animal is suffering. People are increasingly likely to share images or footage on their social media accounts of animals they believe are not being cared for properly, while many will see material their friends have shared and then contact us about them.”
A total of 149,604 complaints of animal abuse were investigated by the RSPCA in 2016, including the case of Reo, a nine-year-old German shepherd who was whimpering in agony when she was found, suffering from open wounds on her ears, jaw and eye. Her owner was banned from keeping animals for life after being prosecuted by the RSPCA. The charity said the dog was now thriving in her new home.
Other cases highlighted in the RSPCA report include:
A bulldog repeatedly thrown down a flight of stairs, stamped upon and headbutted;
A royal python and boa constrictor which were both decapitated with a pair of scissors;
A shih-tzu dog repeatedly stabbed in the face and neck with a kitchen knife before being left to die in broad daylight;
Badgers dug out of a sett and a waiting pack of dogs encouraged to attack them as their ordeal was filmed on a mobile phone;
A golden eagle kept in a cramped kitchen, surrounded by broken glass and empty tin cans.
Murphy said: “It never fails to shock me when I look back on the extreme instances of animal cruelty the RSPCA has been called upon to investigate. It continues to outrage and sadden me that people can be capable of such deliberate brutality towards animals. But equally it drives me on to ensure that perpetrators of animal cruelty are put before the courts.”
The majority of complaints received by the RSPCA were about the welfare of dogs (84,994), followed by cats (36,156) and equines (19,530).
The highest number of complaints investigated were in Greater London (11,812), West Yorkshire (7,920) and Greater Manchester (7,708).
Murphy said: “People might see these figures as a negative, and I certainly take no satisfaction from knowing that any animal has suffered. What I do take pride in is knowing that because of the RSPCA’s intervention we have prevented many more animals from suffering at the hands of those whom we have successfully investigated and brought before the courts.”
on: Today at 05:12 AM
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Shitstain Trump to Strike Biggest Blow Against Obama Climate Legacy
President Trump will travel to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today at 2 p.m. to sign a broad executive order that will take aim at key Obama-era climate policies, setting the stage for several extended energy fights in the months and years to come.
Ordering a review and rewrite of the Clean Power Plan is the main target in the executive order's crosshairs, but the order will also highlight several other policies in jeopardy, including the social cost of carbon figure, regulations on coal plants and methane emissions and the moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands.
"The Trump Administration continues to fulfill its campaign promise to trample on environmental protections and prioritize the jobs of fossil fuel executives under the guise of protecting American workers," said Ken Berlin, president and CEO of The Climate Reality Project.
While the move to scrap the Clean Power Plan raises questions on the efficacy of the U.S. involvement in the Paris agreement, a White House official said on a Tuesday night press call to review the order that staying in Paris is "still under discussion."
"Trump is sacrificing our future for fossil fuel profits—and leaving our kids to pay the price," said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This would do lasting damage to our environment and public lands, threaten our homes and health, hurt our pocketbooks and slow the clean energy progress that has already generated millions of good-paying jobs."
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club agrees. "The best way to protect workers and the environment is to invest in growing the clean energy economy that is already outpacing fossil fuels, and ensuring no one is left behind," Brune said. "At a time when we can declare independence from dirty fuels by embracing clean energy, this action could only deepen our dependence on fuels that pollute our air, water and climate."
Why Shitstain Trump rollback of Obama climate policies could be a long slog
President Trump signed an "Energy Independence" executive order at the EPA Tuesday. He wants to scrap the Clean Power Plan, which calls on states to reduce electric-utility emissions that scientists say are changing Earth’s climate.
March 28, 2017 Washington—With a flourish of his pen Tuesday, President Trump promised a full-scale assault on the Obama administration’s signature climate-change initiative.
But changing America’s course on the issue isn’t likely to be that simple.
Mr. Trump's executive order starts the process of scrapping Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which calls on states to reduce electric-utility emissions that scientists say are changing Earth’s climate. Instead, Trump wants to go all-in on expanding US energy jobs, notably in coal mining and fossil fuels.
“You’re going back to work,” he told a group of miners who flanked him as he signed the executive orders in Washington.
Yet when it comes to climate change, a key question remains: Just how will the administration go about undoing policies with deep legal and scientific roots?
The US Supreme Court has affirmed the view that carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are pollutants, and the Environmental Protection Agency has made a formal “endangerment finding” that these pollutants threaten public health and face federal regulation under the Clean Air Act.
Another hurdle for the rollback effort is public opinion. Most Americans and even many Republicans support action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The result is that, while Trump and his team can certainly slow US efforts to respond to climate change, it may be much harder for them to lock a different direction into place. For instance, unless that “endangerment finding” is overturned – which policy experts say would be extremely difficult – Trump could find himself needing a “replace” strategy in the form of his own climate policy, rather than merely a “repeal” of Obama’s.
“The executive order has some symbolic importance for some of President Trump’s supporters, but on the ground it’s not clear how much difference it’s going to make,” says Richard Revesz, an environmental law expert at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law.
The Paris factor
Trump’s stated focus is on unlocking job opportunities. He didn’t mention climate change in calling for the Obama policy, “this crushing attack on American industry,” to be expunged.
But a senior administration official said Monday that he did not know how long the effort could take: “whether that's two years, three years, or one year, I don't know." And in the longer term, it could involve steep legal battles – if Trump tries to argue that America needs no federal policy on climate change – or pressure to come up with a new policy approach.
Many influential conservatives hope to see a Trump assault on the consensus view, evidenced globally in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, that carbon emissions need to be reduced.
“My guess is that eventually Trump will see that he has to formally renounce Paris, or some judge will try to force him to implement the CPP [Clean Power Plan] and all the rest,” says Benjamin Zycher, an environmental policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“I don't think any [new policy] should replace them, as there is no evidence whatever of a climate ‘crisis,’ and the effects of such policies would be unmeasurable,” Mr. Zycher adds, commenting by email.
Many policy experts, however, say backing out of all action on climate change isn’t realistic.
“Given that the virtual unanimity of scientific evidence points to the endangerment finding [being valid] it’s hard to imagine a court would uphold” an effort to overturn it, Mr. Revesz says.
A window of opportunity for conservatives
And for some conservatives who support action on climate change, this offers a potential window of opportunity – albeit some ways down the road.
“I believe there will soon enough be a significant backlash” to a repeal-only climate strategy by Trump, Ted Halstead, leader of the recently formed Climate Leadership Council, said at a Washington event Monday. “The majority of Americans care about this issue.”
His group is pitching a conservative-oriented approach to climate action, backed by former Reagan and Bush cabinet officials, that would tax greenhouse emissions and pay out the proceeds as “carbon dividends” to all Americans.
Mr. Halstead said he’s under no illusions his idea will be quickly embraced on a bipartisan basis. But he argues it’s realistically positioned for whenever Trump or others are ready to seek an efficient way to reduce emissions.
The Paris Agreement, under which nations are setting their own targets for emission reductions, is built around the goal of holding a global rise in temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Reaching that goal, scientists say, could avert the worst impacts of climate change.
Allowing innovative responses
Many policy experts see some form of government-set “price” on carbon emissions as the optimal way to reduce emissions, because it then leaves businesses and consumers free to respond in innovative ways.
“I know we’re going to win,” says Bob Inglis, a Republican former congressman who backs a carbon-price approach. “The question is whether we’re going to win soon enough to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change.”
For now, Trump has shown little interest in climate change except to publicly dismiss it. Still, significant debate is under way within his administration about policies, such as whether the US should remain in the Paris Agreement or try to back out.
Trump’s executive actions Tuesday included various steps that he said will boost energy production and jobs, including easing regulations on oil and shale gas producers and making it easier to mine coal on federal lands. He also aims to undercut Obama’s emphasis on factoring the “social cost of carbon” – the impacts of climate change – into federal decision-making.
Since states have their own policies (often boosting renewable energy sources like wind and solar), and since other market forces play a key role in job creation, it’s not clear if Trump’s policies will have dramatic impacts on US energy markets or jobs.
And on climate, all this, along with the goal of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, could mean several years ahead with little in the way of federally induced cuts in US emissions.
“My guess is with the CPP for instance, there will be some scaled-back replacement,” says Joseph Majkut, director of climate science at the libertarian Niskanen Center in Washington.
“Whether Congress or this administration will embark on a more ambitious program, like putting a price on carbon in lieu of regulation, I think they certainly have an opportunity. There would be plenty of support for them if they do that, but I see no indication that they will do that at this time.”
As Shitstain Trump halts federal action on climate change, cities and states push on
By Steven Mufson and Brady Dennis
March 28 at 10:53 AM
Jim Brainard is a Republican mayor in a Republican city in a Republican state. But that hasn’t stopped him from taking aggressive steps in recent years to combat climate change and become more energy efficient.
During his tenure, Carmel, Ind., has shifted its fleet to hybrid and biofuel vehicles, replaced streetlights with LED bulbs, installed hundreds of miles of bike paths and spent millions of dollars planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide and provide shade.
Carmel now has 102 roundabouts — more than any community in the country, he says proudly — that have reduced traffic accidents as well as helped to conserve gasoline, reduce air pollution and save electricity by negating the need for traffic lights. “For a long time, taking care of our environment was a nonpartisan issue,” Brainard said. “I have yet to meet a Republican or Democrat who wants to drink dirty water or breathe dirty air.”
But Tuesday afternoon, President Trump signed an executive order instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s signature effort to combat climate change by limiting carbon emissions from power plants and requiring states to cut down on overall emissions.
Trump maintains that Obama-era regulations have unnecessarily hampered businesses and that freeing companies from such burdensome requirements will provide an economic boost.
Some mayors, governors and business leaders plan to press ahead with plans to clamp down on carbon emissions, saying it makes sense for the economy as well as the climate. “It doesn’t impact anything we’re doing,” Brainard said.
He’d rather not see the Clean Power Plan scrapped, but its absence won’t alter the trajectory of Carmel, which sits just north of Indianapolis, or many other places around the country. “Cities aren’t going to stop. They were working on things that save money and provide a better environment long before the federal government got involved with the Clean Power Plan, and they’ll continue to do so.”
It’s not only cities. About 30 states have established standards that require utilities and power companies to sharply increase their reliance on renewable energy over the next decade or more.
Falling prices for wind and solar and low prices for natural gas have further undercut coal’s share of the electricity market. According to the Sierra Club, 175 coal plants in the United States have shut down since 2010, and 73 others are scheduled to retire by 2030.
The Energy Information Administration is more sanguine about coal’s prognosis, but it still says that coal will be eased out of the electricity mix even without the Clean Power Plan. In a 2015 report, the EIA said that 90,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity would be retired by 2040 with the plan in place. Without the plan, coal capacity would still fall by 40,000 megawatts.
“We’re not building any new coal plants in this country, and the existing ones are having a harder and harder time competing with ever-cheaper renewables,” said Mary Anne Hitt, the head of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. “There’s a . . . structural disadvantage for coal in the marketplace. That’s not something Donald Trump can wave away with the stroke of a pen.”
State-level programs to boost renewable sources of electricity have support, in some cases, across party lines. In the weeks after Trump’s election, Republican governors in three Midwestern states — Illinois, Ohio and Michigan — committed to adding more renewable power and boosting energy efficiency.
“If President Trump doesn’t recognize it, we’ve seen that Republican governors do see an investment opportunity with efficiency and renewable energy,” said Dick Munson, who works on clean energy programs in the Midwest for the Environmental Defense Fund.
In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) signed the Future Energy Jobs Bill, which was negotiated with the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature. The measure would channel more than $200 million a year into renewable energy investment. It also sets tougher standards for utilities, requiring them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 56 percent by 2030. The Clean Power Plan would have required a comparatively modest cut of 34 percent.
In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich (R) vetoed a bill that would have weakened that state’s renewable standards. Major corporations such as Amazon and Whirlpool, as well as wind and solar developers, had urged him to stick to ambitious renewable goals. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“I believe it’s real,” Kasich said of climate change in a speech last fall at the University of Texas at Austin. “You can’t read these stories about these things happening all over the world, on our coasts and the rising sea levels, without being concerned about it.”
Out west, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has made clear that he will eagerly push forward with his state’s efforts to combat climate change and shift to cleaner energy sources.
“Whatever they do in Washington, they can’t change the facts,” Brown said during a state of the state address days after Trump’s inauguration. “And these are the facts: The climate is changing, the temperatures are rising, and so are the oceans. Natural habitats everywhere are under increasing stress. The world knows this.”
Months earlier, Brown had signed legislation requiring the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 — an ambitious goal compared with past targets. Weeks earlier, the state had hired an outside legal team that includes former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. to help defend its environmental and other policies in the age of Trump.
Some of the nation’s biggest utilities also say that shelving the Clean Power Plan will have little effect on their long-term actions, which aren’t aimed at four-year presidential cycles but involve looking decades ahead.
“Our long-term strategy is focused on generating and delivering electricity in ways that meet the needs and expectations of our customers,” Nick Akins, chief executive of American Electric Power, one of the nation’s largest utilities, said in an email. “That includes diversifying our fuel mix and investing in renewable generation and other innovations that increase efficiency and reduce emissions. That won’t change.”
AEP’s 2016 carbon dioxide emissions were already 44 percent below 2000 levels, and Akins said the company expects further declines as it adds more natural gas and renewable power generation. It plans to invest about $1.5 billion in renewable energy over the next three years.
Marijke Shugrue, a spokeswoman for another major utility, NRG, said the company “set our sustainability goals back in 2014 unconnected to the Clean Power Plan. Whatever happens to that, our goals still stand. It made sense before, and it still makes sense.” The plan set a goal of reducing NRG’s carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030.
Investors also understand that operating coal plants these days can be bad for the bottom line. After the owners of the 40-year-old Navajo Generating Station in Arizona announced Feb. 13 that they would close the station’s coal-fired power plant, Moody’s Investors Service called the decision “credit positive” for the owners.
Closing the enormous 2,250-megawatt facility — the largest coal plant west of the Mississippi River — “reduces risks associated with the coal-fired units meeting environmental standards,” Moody’s said. In addition, the shutdown “brings economic benefits to ratepayers.”
At the Environmental Defense Fund, Munson expects renewable energy will continue to surge even in states that lack renewable portfolio standards. “Look at Texas,” he said. “Not exactly a font of progressive policies.” Even so, Texas is home to one-fourth of the nation’s wind capacity, with more on the way.
On Nov. 27, wind energy set a record there, providing 45 percent of the state’s total electricity demand that day. Overall, wind provides 12.7 percent of the state’s electricity, and projects underway will bring that to about 16 percent when finished.
Yet it would still be a setback if Trump manages to stymie the Clean Power Plan, Munson said. “It was a symbol, and an important one, that suggests this is the path that our nation is going to take to tackle this challenge and do it in an investment-focused way,” he said. “Backing away from that sends the wrong message.”
Maryland Bans Fracking
Maryland is on track to become the third state to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and natural gas, after the Senate voted 35-10 on Monday for a measure already approved by the House.
The bill is now headed to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is in favor of a statewide fracking ban.
Hogan, who once said that fracking is " an economic gold mine," stunned many with his complete turnaround at a press conference earlier this month.
"We must take the next step to move from virtually banning fracking to actually banning fracking," the governor said. "The possible environmental risks of fracking simply outweigh any potential benefits."
Once signed into law, Maryland would be the first state with gas reserves to pass a ban through the legislature.
Don't Frack Maryland, a coalition of more than 140 business, public interest, community, faith, food and climate groups, has campaigned vigorously for a statewide ban through rallies, marches, petition deliveries and phone calls to legislators.
"Today's vote is a result of the work of thousands of Marylanders who came out to town halls, hearings and rallies across the state. The grassroots movement to ban fracking overcame the high-powered lobbyists and deep pockets of the oil and gas industry," said Mitch Jones, Food & Water Watch senior policy advocate. "We worked tirelessly to make sure our legislators and the governor were held accountable to the demands of voters and followed the science. Now we look forward to Governor Hogan signing this bill into law and finally knowing that our water, climate and families will be protected from the dangers of fracking."
Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, also commended the Maryland General Assembly for this "bipartisan victory."
"Congratulations go to the thousands of people across the state, particularly those in Western Maryland, who stood up for their beliefs, who organized, lobbied and rallied to get this legislation passed," Tulkin said. "This ban is a major step for Maryland's path to a clean energy economy."
Supporters of fracking say it creates jobs and provides energy security.
"Denying Maryland consumers, businesses and job-seekers the benefits that come with in-state energy production through hydraulic fracturing shuts the door on an important share of the American energy renaissance and western Maryland's future economic growth," Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, told the Associated Press after the vote.
But opponents of the drilling process, which involves shooting highly pressurized water and chemicals into underground formations to release oil and gas, cite health and environmental risks such as air and water pollution and earthquakes.
Fracking does not currently take place in Maryland but a moratorium on issuing permits ends in October.
Elisabeth Hoffman of Howard County Climate Action said that alarming research about fracking's harms has emerged during the state moratorium, adding that "voices from fracked states were sounding the alarms as well."
"We are relieved and overjoyed that the state Senate has said NO to fracking," she added.
The implications of the Senate's vote are far reaching, according to Natalie Atherton of Citizen Shale.
"Western Maryland is surrounded by fracking just across our state borders. We have learned from and worked with our neighbors whose health has been compromised for years," Atherton said. "Already Citizen Shale is being approached by communities in other states, hoping to learn how they can ban fracking where they live. This has become a movement of people, and it won't stop with Maryland."
Yesterday's vote was widely applauded by environmental groups especially in light of the Trump administration's apparent assault on environmental regulations.
"Despite Trump's efforts to block climate action and roll back protections for people and the planet, communities in Maryland took matters into their own hands. This is an incredible victory that speaks to the power of grassroots organizing to take on the fossil fuel industry. Fracking is a reckless practice that threatens health and safety while intensifying the climate crisis," 350.org Fracking Campaign coordinator Linda Capato Jr. said.
Capato is urging a similar movement worldwide.
"Maryland is taking a huge step forward, but communities are continuing to suffer as fracking and extreme extraction expands worldwide. This fight is a great reminder that when communities organize, we win," she said. "As more people fight back against this dangerous and dirty industry, elected officials everywhere should follow Maryland and other state's example by banning fracking and putting the health of our communities and climate first."
on: Today at 05:00 AM
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Solar Reaches Major Milestone: Turns UK Grid Demand 'Upside Down'
The United Kingdom's expanse of solar fields and rooftop panels helped break a major record last weekend.
Due to a particularly sunny Saturday, the amount of electricity demanded by homes and businesses was lower in the afternoon than at night.
"Transmission system demand today was for the first time ever lower in the afternoon than it was overnight due to large amounts of #solar," electricity transmission company National Grid tweeted on Saturday.
This shift of peak energy demand to before sunset is significant. Demand for electricity usually peaks around 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. which can put a strain on the grid during these hours.
But solar power has turned the country's grid demand "upside down," as Duncan Burt, National Grid's head of real time operations, tweeted.
"This weekend saw gas and coal fired power stations reducing output to accommodate nearly 8 GW of solar generation," National Grid said. "On Saturday coal units produced a total of 19 GWh (2.6% of generation), 6.2 times less than wind and solar at 118 GWh (16.7%)."
At one point during the afternoon of March 25, solar power contributed nearly 30 percent of the UK's power needs.
The Solar Trade Association described last weekend's event as a "milestone."
"This milestone shows the balance of power is shifting, quite literally, away from the old centralized 'coal-by-wire' model into the hands of householders, businesses and communities all over the UK who want their own clean solar power," a spokeswoman told the Guardian.
The UK's solar PV capacity has grown leaps and bounds in recent years. According to The Energyst, at the end of 2011, total capacity stood at 750 megawatts. But the latest government figures indicate that capacity has increased to 11.46 gigawatts, with another 3 gigawatts in the works.
However, as the Guardian pointed out, new capacity largely collapsed last year after the government decided to cut subsidies to homeowners installing rooftop solar panels by 65 percent.
The Solar Trade Association added in its statement that the UK government has repeatedly underestimated the potential of solar technology.
on: Today at 04:58 AM
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What the IEA Got Wrong on Its Energy Outlook
Mar. 27, 2017 11:52AM EST
Oil Change International
By Greg Muttitt
We welcomed last week the first step by the International Energy Agency (IEA) towards describing how energy would look for the world to meet one of the Paris Agreement goals, to keep warming well below 2°C. Specifically, it looked at emissions being limited enough to give a two-in-three chance of staying below 2°C.
The report was co-published by IEA and its clean energy counterpart, the International Renewable Energy Agency, and commissioned by the German government. The two agencies are also working on a 1.5°C scenario, to be published in June.
But there's a problem with the IEA's new climate scenario: It describes a slower decline in fossil fuels than our analysis of what the climate science actually requires. Here's the key table:
Remarkably, the IEA foresees significant coal use in 2050 and gas barely declines from current levels. Let's look at how the IEA reaches this outcome.
The new report starts off well: It takes the carbon budget from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as we did in our report The Sky's Limit: 880 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide can be emitted from 2015 onwards. But the IEA then does three things that inflate the space for fossil fuels within that budget:
It understates the potential non-fossil fuel emissions (primarily cement and land use emissions);
It assumes a major breakthrough in carbon capture and storage (CCS);
It allocates a disproportionate share of the carbon budget to the pre-2050 period—deeper emissions cuts are hidden outside the period of study.
The combined effect is to inflate the emissions from fossil fuels by about 180 Gt—the equivalent to running an extra 1,500 coal plants from 2015 to 2050. Here's how the math works:
Disappearing Non-Fossil Emissions
The 880 Gt carbon budget is the total cumulative amount of CO2 that can be emitted from all sources in the future. While fossil fuels are the largest source of CO2 emissions, they are not the only source. The others are the calcination reaction in making cement and land use changes (such as agriculture and deforestation). So an estimate of these other sources must be deducted from the budget, to see how much room is left for fossil fuel emissions.
The IEA's estimate of land use emissions (zero) is only slightly smaller than ours: We estimate 20 Gt over the century (when you take into account absorption of CO2 as well as emissions—based on a median of IPCC scenarios).
But the IEA assumes only 90 Gt of cement emissions over the century. Cement emissions are current 2 Gt per year; the IEA scenario projects them peaking in the 2020s and falling to 1 Gt by 2050, due to material efficiency and CCS. Our estimate is 160 Gt, based on an optimistic reading of the IEA's own figures. The difference can only be squared with a very optimistic assumption on CCS, to which we turn next.
So the IEA assumes that only 90 Gt of the carbon budget must be deducted, leaving 790 Gt for fossil fuels. Our already-optimistic assumptions would require 180 Gt to be deducted and it could be a lot more than this. So at 790 Gt, fossil fuels are getting too much of the global carbon budget.
Burying Carbon Out of Sight
The new IEA scenario assumes that CCS will be quickly ramped up in the 2020s, capturing 3 Gt per year of fossil fuel emissions by 2035, not counting the more than 1 Gt per year of cement emissions.
This seems highly unlikely, given that both companies and governments (including the UK and the U.S.) have pulled out of investing in CCS in the last couple of years. The IEA itself has noted that "deployment has stalled." A major reason is that CCS-equipped coal or gas power—while obviously attractive to the fossil fuel industry—is significantly more expensive than wind or solar power. The IEA does not explain how it expects a turnaround to occur.
The IEA sees more than 600 GW of CCS-equipped power plants being installed by 2050, equivalent to nearly 20 percent of today's coal and gas capacity. Given the long life of power stations, the IEA believes a significant portion of this will be achieved by retrofitting existing plants—which is even more expensive than installing CCS in new plants.
The effect of the IEA's CCS assumption is to inflate the available carbon budget by around 60 Gt before 2050 and up to 200 Gt over the century, based on an expensive technological fix that has no track record to date.
Hiding Emissions Cuts Off the Page
The new report describes the energy system from 2015 to 2050. But the carbon budget stipulates how much the world can emit over all time (until atmospheric concentrations stabilize). So a key part of IEA's calculation is to decide how much of its 790 Gt budget to allocate before 2050 and how much after. The IEA opts to save just 80 Gt of the budget for post-2050 and 710 Gt for pre-2050.
This would require a sudden change in the rate of emissions once we reached 2050, as the graph shows.
Since the scenario forecasts only up to 2050, it understates the emissions reductions—and overstates fossil fuel use—during that period. Like a magician's trick, the real action is happening out of sight.
If emissions fell at a steady rate after 2020, rather than postponing some reductions until after 2050, they would have to decrease by 5 percent per year. On this basis, the IEA's pre-2050 carbon budget for energy would fall from 710 to 635 Gt. Compounding this with our more reasonable assumption on non-fossil emissions, we would start with an all-time budget of 880 – 180 = 700 Gt. Reducing emissions at a constant rate after 2020 would allocated 590 Gt of this to pre-2050. In comparison, the IEA has taken a pre-2050 budget of 710 Gt and inflated it with CCS to about 770.
The IEA's three distortions buy an extra 180 Gt for fossil fuels (see table). Over the 35 years of the scenario, that's the equivalent of an extra 1,500 average-sized coal plants.
Without these distortions, the IEA would reach the same conclusion that we did in the Sky's Limit: that there is no room for new fossil fuel development. Instead, it calls for new investment in fossil fuels—including $200 billion a year of investment in fossil fuel extraction as late as 2050—investment that will either be wasted or will drive devastating climate change.
Governments and investors routinely use IEA scenarios to inform energy decisions, especially the scenarios in its flagship World Energy Outlook, published every November. But as we've seen, even in its new climate scenario, the IEA overstates the future of fossil fuels, due to flawed assumptions and hidden distortions.
It is time for the IEA to come clean. First, the IEA must drop its outdated 450 Scenario and replace it with one in line with Paris. Second, it must fix these distortions, to give a clear picture of the action that's really needed.