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Editorial viewpoints from Climate Central's writers and editors.

After Fukushima Nuclear Crisis, U.S. Flying Blind

COMMENTARY
By Andrew Freedman

A little more than a year ago, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by a more than 100-foot-tall tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, about 160 miles northeast of Tokyo. The tidal waves knocked out the plant’s backup generators, which were situated on low ground. Without the generators, workers could not keep the reactors cool. The resulting partial meltdown and release of radioactivity into the air and water dislocated tens of thousands of people who lived near the plant. Most of these people will likely never be able to move back to their original homes.

The Fukushima crisis re-awakened the world to the threats that extreme events pose to complex manmade systems. Fukushima was a disaster that could have been avoided, if the operators of the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), had heeded scientific warnings that came out after the plant was built, indicating that the installation was located in an area that had seen far more powerful earthquakes and larger tsunamis than the facility was initially designed to withstand.

TEPCO was still studying its options for improving the plant’s safety when the quake hit. If they had taken this evidence into account sooner and built taller sea walls, or moved the backup generators to higher ground, the disaster might have been prevented.

A storm surge is an abnormal wave of water created during a storm, such as a hurricane, which rises above regular sea level. For more information check out NOAA's Storm Surge Overview website. Credit: NOAA.

There are reasons to fear that a similar scenario is playing out in the U.S., but here the most ser...

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Listen to the Skeptics! Except When They Talk Nonsense

COMMENTARY
By Michael D. Lemonick

I got an email the other day from an occasional visitor to the Climate Central website, asking whether we’d be covering a series of recent challenges to conventional climate science. He was being facetious: he knew we probably wouldn’t, and he was right — clear evidence, he proclaimed triumphantly, that our claim of following the science wherever it leads is just a lot of empty talk.

My first reaction was: “how dare you suggest such a thing!” But that’s a throwaway line, not a response, and I thought I should provide a fuller answer. The bottom line is that we ignore people who claim to have found holes in the mainstream ideas of climate change if their claims don’t make lot of sense. Who gets to decide? Well, we do. But it’s not arbitrary: there’s a thought process behind it, and it’s a pretty valid one, though it’s not infallible.

Galileo, Alfred Wegener and Ignaz Semmelweis.

Here’s what I mean by “not infallible.” More than once in the history of science, a new insight by someone outside the intellectual mainstream has been dismissed — often rudely — by the establishment.  Take Galileo, whose insistence that the Earth goes around the Sun got him in terrible trouble with the Catholic Church, whose leaders just knew it didn’t. Or take Alfred Wegener, who claimed in the early 1900’s that continents move about the Earth. Crazy! said professional geologists. But he was right, too. Or how about Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who argued in the m...

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42 Years Later, Do We Suffer Green Fatigue on Earth Day?

COMMENTARY
By Michael D. Lemonick


I don’t remember all that much about the very first Earth Day, which happened 42 years ago, on April 22, 1970. I was a junior in high school at the time, and my youthful outrage, such as it was, was focused more on ending the Vietnam War than on saving the environment. Just 10 days later, Richard Nixon would push the Vietnam protests over the top with his announcement that the U.S. had expanded the war into Cambodia; a few days after that, four students would be shot to death by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, in Ohio.

The day didn’t go unnoticed, though. School officials had decided to tear up a patch of lawn to build a new parking lot; the bulldozers had begun their work, and a pile of dirt was sitting at the edge of the work site. So the students, galvanized into action by this new day of national protest, grabbed trays from the cafeteria, ran outside and shoveled all the dirt back where it had come from. The pile was leveled in just a few minutes. (I also remember that someone dug a hole and planted himself, like a tree, and stood with his arms out, drizzle lightly falling, for much of the afternoon. Yes, he had been smoking something.)

On the following day, the bulldozers returned. The parking lot was finished a week later.

But the effect of Earth Day itself has proven a lot more durable. The nationwide demonstrations that happened on that day brought some 20 million Americans out (...

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If A Tree Falls in the Senate, Will Anyone Hear Sea Rise?

COMMENTARY
By Michael D. Lemonick


New Report: Sea Level Rise Threatens Hundreds of U.S. Energy Facilities (PDF)
Interactive Map: Surging Seas, Sea Level Rise Analysis
News: Senate Hearing Focuses on Threat of Sea Level Rise
Watch: Archived webcast of Senate hearing
Read: Senate testimony of five witnesses

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, goes the question pondered by generations of college sophomores late at night, does it make a sound? Despite the noble intentions of Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) in holding a hearing on sea level rise this week, the same question, only slightly modified, applies. Bingaman brought in five experts to testify at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, including Climate Central’s Ben Strauss.

Six senators showed up — five Democrats and Republican Lisa Murkowski. And according to a liveblog on Daily Kos, six reporters showed up to cover it. And so despite dramatic (and scientifically rock-solid) statements like Strauss’s assertion that “rising seas raise the launch pad for coastal storm surges and tilt the odds toward disaster,” there’s a good chance that nobody will hear much about it.

On the other hand, climate hearings are awfully rare on Capitol Hill these days. And the number of senators and reporters at Thursday's hearing was nothing out of the ordinary. So if you want to look on the bright side, the fact that the Senate held a hearing on sea level rise offers at least a bit...

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Forget the Warm Winter: Let’s Talk About the Cold

COMMENTARY
By Michael D. Lemonick

This will come as a shock, I know, but it was really warm last month.

OK, just kidding. You know perfectly well that it was warm in March, and that the winter was unusually warm, too, in most parts of the U.S. You know because it was blasted from practically every news outlet in the country; Leno and Letterman and Conan and Jon Stewart probably joked about it, although I don’t stay up late enough to say for sure. And the media blast was perfectly appropriate, too: the normal is not (normally) newsworthy, while the bizarre and unusual and troubling generally is.

Much of the coverage focused solely on shattered records, with little mention of climate change — unless it was to point out, as CNN did, for example, that, “Short-term weather patterns . . . are poor indicators of global climate trends . . . ”

But others, including ABC News, mentioned global warming more prominently as a possible suspect, and those of us who specialize in climate coverage, including Climate Central, almost universally did, too. Nobody asserted that the heat was primarily due to climate change, which would have been scientifically bogus, but we did make the perfectly valid point that a warming planet raises the odds (or “loads the dice”) for these events to happen more often.

Even the most vehement of climate hawks, Joe Romm at climateprogress.org, included the caveats — pretty far down in his story, to be sure — in a post pro...

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Winter Warming Trends in the U.S. See the trend in winter high temperatures across the U.S.

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