Blog Archive

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Exxon Loses Appeal to Keep PwC Auditor Records Secret in Climate Fraud Investigation

The documents, held by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, could provide a glimpse into the oil giant's calculations of the business risks posed by climate change.

by David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News, May 23, 2017

Exxon is under investigation by the New York attorney general
The New York attorney general is investigating whether oil giant ExxonMobil misled shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
ExxonMobil lost its appeal on Tuesday to keep records held by its auditors away from the New York attorney general's climate fraud probe.
The documents could afford a candid—and perhaps damaging—glimpse into Exxon's private calculations of the business risks posed by climate change. They could contain anything from a smoking gun email to plodding, yet revealing, discussions related to Exxon's posture on global warming, including whether the company was adequately calculating climate change risks for investors. Exxon still has another opportunity to appeal.
Investigators for state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed PricewaterhouseCoopers records pertaining to Exxon's assessment of climate change as part of an investigation into Exxon that was opened in 2015.
Exxon fought to have the subpoena voided, arguing the records were privileged communications with its auditor and should be kept from the eyes of investigators. The oil giant, headquartered in Dallas, based its argument on a Texas law that grants a privilege to auditors and clients much like that between a lawyer and client.
A state court judge agreed with Schneiderman's office that there was no such protection afforded Exxon under New York law and ordered the documents handed over last year. Exxon appealed that decision.
The appeals court, which had been considering the case since a hearing in March, rejected Exxon's argument.
"In light of our conclusion that New York law applies, we need not decide how this issue would be decided under Texas law," the two-page decision said.
Exxon did not respond to a request for comment.
Caroline Nolan, a spokeswoman for PwC, said the company had no comment.
The accounting firm, which has expertise in climate-related risks faced by fossil fuel companies, has remained neutral in the legal fight but has honored Exxon's request not to turn over documents pending the outcome of the litigation.
Exxon has been fighting investigations by Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey both in federal court and state courts.
Schneiderman opened his financial fraud investigation of Exxon in November 2015 by subpoenaing decades of records related to Exxon's history of research into and knowledge of climate change. The investigation revolves around whether the company misled shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change.
The attorney general followed up with a subpoena to PwC nine months later seeking documents related to the auditors' work for the oil giant. Records sought under the subpoena include documents about accounting and reporting of oil and gas reserves, evaluation of assets for potential impairment charges or write-downs, energy price projections, and projected cost estimates of complying with carbon regulations.
Attorneys for Exxon argued that the judge's ruling in October to force PwC to surrender documents "eviscerates" the accountant-client privilege afforded by the laws of Texas, where Exxon is headquartered.  
New York investigators disagreed and argued that PwC should feel a moral obligation to cooperate. "As a certified public accountant, PwC 'owes ultimate allegiance to [a] corporation's creditors and stockholders, as well as to the investing public,' " the attorney general's office responded.
Exxon could file additional appeals up to the New York Supreme Court or allow PwC to comply with the subpoena.
While it is unclear what Exxon's next move may be related to the PwC documents, the company is also asking a judge to seal five subpoenas issued by Schneiderman's office in connection with its investigation, which has grown to include missing emails from former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, now U.S. secretary of state.
The attorney general's office disclosed last week that it has expanded its probe to determine whether Exxon may have destroyed emails from Tillerson's "Wayne Tracker" email alias. Investigators are trying to determine why several weeks of emails from that account are now missing. As part of that widening investigation, the attorney general's office revealed that it has subpoenaed a number of Exxon officials.
Exxon offered few clues in its request to the New York judge overseeing the case as to why the documents and the arguments by company lawyers justifying the sealing must remain secret.

Monday, May 22, 2017

USGS: In Next Decades, Frequency of Coastal Flooding Will Double Globally

from USGS, May 18, 2017

The frequency and severity of coastal flooding throughout the world will increase rapidly and eventually double in frequency over the coming decades even with only moderate amounts of sea level rise, according to a new study released today in “Nature Scientific Reports.”
[Readers, note that this press release does not mention the cause of sea level rise, i.e., atmospheric carbon dioxide pollution, and it only mentions, at the very end, "climate adaptation."  Nothing is stated about how sea level rise is expected to be 2 meters (over 6 feet) by 2100.]
This increase in flooding will be greatest and most damaging in tropical regions, impairing the economies of coastal cities and the habitability of low-lying Pacific island nations. Many of the world's largest populated low-lying deltas (such as the Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, Mekong and Irrawaddy Rivers), also fall in or near this affected tropical region.
The new report from scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Hawaii shows that with just 10-20 cm (4-8 inches) of sea level rise expected no later than 2050, coastal flooding will more than double. This dramatic increase in coastal flooding results from rising sea levels combined with storm-driven flooding, including the effects of waves and storm surge.
idealizedcross-section diagram of waves running up the beach, Terms such as swash, run up, sea-level rise are indictated.
Water-level components that contribute to coastal flooding.(Public domain.)
lone road lined by palm trees on a small flat island, with water from the sea washing over the road
Wave-driven flooding and overwash on Roi-Namur Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands (Credit: Peter Swarzenski , U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)
coastal road and palm trees on a small flat island, with water waves from the sea washing over the road
Wave-driven flooding and overwash on Roi-Namur Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands (Credit: Peter Swarzenski, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)
In most coastal regions, the amount of sea level rise occurring over years to decades is small, yet even gradual sea level rise can rapidly increase the frequency and severity of coastal flooding. Until now, global-scale estimates of increased coastal flooding due to sea level rise have not considered elevated water levels due to waves, and thus have underestimated the potential impact.
The researchers combined sea level projections with wave, tide and storm surge models to estimate increases in coastal flooding around the globe. They found that regions with smaller variations in ocean water levels due to tides, waves and storm surge, common in the tropics, will experience the largest increases in flooding frequency.
“Although it is commonly understood that sea level rise will increase the frequency of coastal flooding, most of that previous scientific work has focused on analyzing tide gauges which capture extreme tides and storm surge, but not wave-driven water levels. Tide gauge data exist only for a limited number of locations around the world. Using models rather than individual tide gauges provides a comprehensive picture of the widespread vulnerability rather than at sparse points where observed data exist,” said lead author of the study, Sean Vitousek, who was a post-doctoral fellow at the USGS when he began this study. Vitousek is now a professor in the Department of Civil & Materials Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“The key findings are that areas with limited water-level variability, due to small tidal ranges (for example, the Tropics), and more limited ranges in storm water levels (such as the North American West Coast), will experience the largest increases in flooding frequency. In the Tropics, today’s 50-year water level event will occur every 5 years with just 10 cm of sea level rise,” said USGS geologist and coauthor, Patrick Barnard.
Most previous research has started with expected scenarios of sea level rise and attempted to find the flooding frequency increase. In this new study, the scientists took the opposite approach, finding the amount of sea level rise needed to double the frequency of flooding, while accounting for the uncertainty and year-to-year variability of storm patterns. One of the surprising findings was that it does not take much sea level rise to double the frequency of flooding (particularly in the Tropics). Using this analysis, Vitousek and his coauthors demonstrate that the 10 cm or less of sea level rise expected within the next few decades can more than double the frequency of coastal flooding for many locations across the globe. The areas with smaller increases in flood frequency include areas with very large tidal ranges and those along typical tropical storm paths.
“Most of the world's tropical atoll islands are on average only 1 to 2 meters above present sea level, and even in the high tropical islands such as Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Indonesia, and others, the majority of the population and critical infrastructure is located on a narrow coastal fringe at low elevations (1-2 m above present sea level) and thus susceptible to this increased flood frequency,” said USGS geologist and coauthor, Curt Storlazzi.
“These important findings will inform our climate adaptation efforts at all levels of government in Hawaii and other U.S. affiliated Pacific islands,” said coauthor Chip Fletcher, Associate Dean and Professor at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii.
The full report, “Doubling of coastal flooding frequency within decades due to sea-level rise,” is published online in Nature Science Reports.

Funky music video (I kid you not!): Debris flow from a retrogressive thaw slump

Monday, May 8, 2017

Joe Romm: Carbon pollution is suffocating ocean life and speeding up the next mass extinction

Oxygen levels ‘falling 2 to 3 times faster than predicted’ in our warming oceans, study finds

Much of the ocean is seeing sharp drops in oxygen levels (purple). CREDIT: Georgia Tech.

by Joe Romm, Climate Progress, May 8, 2017
Depletion of dissolved oxygen in our oceans, which can cause dead zones, is occurring much faster than expected, a new study finds.
And by combining oxygen loss with ever-worsening ocean warming and acidification, humans are re-creating the conditions that led to the worst-ever extinction, which killed over 90% of marine life 252 million years ago.
Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology reviewed ocean data going back to 1958 and “found that oxygen levels started dropping in the 1980s as ocean temperatures began to climb.”
Scientists have long predicted that as carbon pollution warms the globe, the amount of oxygen in our oceans would drop, since warmer water can’t hold as much dissolved gas as colder water. And, Georgia Tech researchers point out, falling oxygen levels have recently led to more frequent low-oxygen events that “killed or displaced populations of fish, crabs and many other organisms.”
But what is especially worrisome about this new research is how quickly it is happening. “The trend of oxygen falling is about two to three times faster than what we predicted from the decrease of solubility associated with the ocean warming,” said lead researcher Prof. Taka Ito. “This is most likely due to the changes in ocean circulation and mixing associated with the heating of the near-surface waters and melting of polar ice.”
Global warming drives ocean stratification — the separation of the ocean into relatively distinct layers. This in turn speeds up oxygen loss, as explained in this 2015 video.

2011 study, “Rapid expansion of oceanic anoxia immediately before the end-Permian mass extinction,” found that rapid and widespread anoxia (absence of oxygen) preceded “the largest mass extinction in Earth history, with the demise of an estimated 90 percent of all marine species.”
As National Geographic reported in 2015, we’re already starting to see the impacts of anoxia. “The waters of the Pacific Northwest, starting in 2002, intermittently have gotten so low in oxygen that at times they’ve smothered sea cucumbers, sea stars, anemones, and Dungeness crabs,” the magazine reported.
Finally, a 2015 study found there is no techno-fix to prevent a catastrophic collapse of ocean life for centuries if not millennia if we continue current CO2 emissions trends through 2050.
If we don’t start slashing carbon pollution, then, as co-author John Schellnhuber put it, “we will not be able to preserve ocean life as we know it.”
Thanks to Samantha Page.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Catastrophic mesoscale convective system storms in the Sahel now three times more likely

Climate change brings more Sahel storms

Climate change is upsetting rainfall patterns and the frequency of flooding in West Africa as it makes the region's Sahel storms three times likelier.

by Tim Radford, Climate News Network, May 7, 2017

– Climate change has already made a difference to life in the West African Sahel, the arid belt of land stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea which separates the Sahara desert from the African savanna. It has made catastrophic storms three times more frequent.

And, according to a new study in the journal Nature, Sahel storms are among the most powerful on the planet. In 2009, one vast downpour deposited 263 mm of rain over Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, claiming 8 lives, flooding half the city and forcing 150,000 people out of their homes.

Researchers believe the pattern of thunderstorms known as mesoscale convective systems will increase in frequency as global temperatures rise, as a consequence of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in turn driven by worldwide use of fossil fuels as sources of energy.

Mesoscale convective systems are big, bad, and very cold columns of thunderous cloud: up to 16 km high, covering an area of 25,000 square kilometres, and with temperatures at the highest altitude as low as minus 40 °C.

Between 1986 and 2005, Burkina Faso registered floods at a rate of little more than one a year. In the 11 years between 2006 and 2016, it was hit by 55 flood events.

Repeated warnings

Climate scientists have been warning for three decades that global warming will be accompanied by an increase in “extreme” events: in particular drought, flood, heat wave, and tropical cyclone.

Global warming has already been observed in the Sahel, and the consequences have not necessarily been bad: overall, precipitation has increased, and farmers have benefited, although in a dryland region south of the Sahara where people have endured a 2,000-year history of periodic drought, famine remains a constant hazard.

And now, so do massive downpours of rain: the Sahel storms. British and French scientists examined 35 years of satellite data and the rain gauges in the region to identify a rise in extreme daily rainfall totals. They found 85% of extreme rainfall cases coincided with satellite records of a passing mesoscale convection system.

They also examined the pattern of temperatures over the region and found that although the annual average temperatures have risen, the so-called “wet season” temperatures have remained steady. That is, locally warmer conditions alone have not brought more rainfall.

“Global warming is expected to produce more intense storms, but we were shocked to see the speed of changes taking place in this region of Africa”

Instead, they blame man-made global warming which has changed wind and rain conditions, and this will go on strengthening during this century, “suggesting the Sahel will experience particularly marked increases in extreme rain,” they conclude.

“Global warming is expected to produce more intense storms, but we were shocked to see the speed of changes taking place in this region of Africa,” said Christopher Taylor, a meteorologist at the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, who led the study.

His co-author Douglas Parker, professor of meteorology at the University of Leeds in the UK, said: “African storms are highly organised meteorological engines, whose currents extract water from the air to produce torrential rain.

“We have seen these engines becoming more efficient over recent decades, with resulting increases in the frequency of hazardous events.”

Thursday, May 4, 2017

In controversial move, Brazil may outsource Amazon deforestation monitoring

Fires and deforestation in the Amazon, as seen by a sensor aboard a NASA satellite. NASA Earth Observatory
by Erik Stokstad, Science Magazine,
With reporting by Herton Escobar.

In a major change, Brazil's Ministry of the Environment is looking for a company to help it monitor deforestation in the Amazon. "This is a surprise for everyone … crazy stuff," says Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimate System and Observatório do Clima in São Paulo and former head of the Brazilian Forest Service. The controversial proposal led to the firing of one of the ministry's top scientists, who is a vice president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  

Since 1988, the ministry has relied on the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) to analyze land cover changes in the Amazon, which holds the world’s largest intact swaths of forest. Efforts to combat deforestation there have been the focus of worldwide interest, in large part because of the region’s rich biodiversity and the forest’s role in shaping regional climate.

The ministry says INPE will continue to monitor the Amazon, but researchers worry that the $25 million annual contract will result in significant duplication of effort, a waste of scarce resources, possible confusion over deforestation rates, and create an apparent conflict of interest for the ministry. 

The data from INPE's remote sensing analyses helped the ministry create and enforce policies that slashed deforestation by 72% between 2004 and 2016. The flagship effort at INPE is the Program for Monitoring Deforestation of the Amazon by Satellite (PRODES), in which technicians analyze LANDSAT data to identify clear-cuts larger than 6.25 hectares and produce a yearly estimate of deforestation in the Amazon.

Since 2004, INPE has added techniques to detect smaller patches of illegal cutting, and also created a program called DETER to provide monthly and weekly updates that could be used for enforcement. The long track record with PRODES and INPE's newer approaches have won praise from international experts. "Brazil is the leading country in terms of monitoring deforestation," says Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland in College Park. "No one touches Brazil."

But on 20 April, the ministry quietly issued a 160-page request for proposals for "contracting specialized services of support to the infrastructure of geoprocessing and remote sensing activities to meet the demands of environmental monitoring and geoprocessing." The 2-week deadline for proposals closes Thursday, after which the ministry will consider any bids for up to 60 days. The 12-month contract could be extended for up to 5 years. News of the proposal request was first reported Wednesday by Estadão magazine.  

The decision to hire a commercial firm to do remote-sensing analysis was disputed within the ministry. The head of the program to combat deforestation, mathematician Thelma Krug, who helped create PRODES, reportedly objected to the decision. She was dismissed from her position on 19 April, the day before the request for proposals was issued. In a statement, the ministry said she wanted to spend more time on her work for IPCC. "She's a scientist who knows better than anyone in Brazil what's going on with measuring deforestation in the Amazon," says Paulo Moutinho, an ecologist at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brasília. Her firing was "not good news for Brazilian society or those trying to protect the forest."  

In a statement yesterday, the ministry said that the purpose of the contract is to add technology, such as radar imagery, not available from INPE. The space agency will continue to monitor and estimate deforestation in the Amazon, the ministry said, and disputed that work done under the contract would be redundant with INPE’s activities. But Raoni Rajão, a social scientist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, says that much of the work called for by the bid request is already being done by INPE, so hiring a contractor to replicate it is "basically a waste of money." The contract would eat up 18% of the ministry's budget, which was cut 51% in March to $142 million. That's money that could be better spent fighting illegal logging, which rose 29% last year, says Carlos Souza, a remote sensing expert with Imazon, a research institute in Belém.

There's also the potential for conflict of interest, critics say. The ministry would be paying a company to evaluate deforestation, which is one measure of how well the ministry is doing its job. That raises important questions, Souza says: "How transparent will the system be? Can it be verified by civil society?"

INPE's methods are transparent and its analysis independent of the ministry, experts say. "If you want to save the Amazon," says Moutinho, "we need a very robust monitoring system of deforestation."
Rajão, who has created an online petition to ask the ministry to cancel the request, also worries that the ministry could cherry-pick deforestation data from the contractor or INPE and highlight the better-looking numbers. Multiple sources of government information could create confusion over the status and trends of deforestation, he says.
A big value of INPE’s annual deforestation estimates is that they offer a simple, clear indicator about how the world's largest rainforest is faring, says tropical ecologist Dan Nepstad of the Earth Innovation Institute in San Francisco, California. "It's become part of the national narrative on the Amazon," he says.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017



We are deeply concerned about inaccurate and misleading statements about the science of climate change that appeared in Climate of Complete Certainty by Bret Stephens (April 28, 2017). While “alternative facts,” misconceptions, and misrepresentations of climate science are unfortunately widespread in public discussion, we are dismayed that this practice appeared on the editorial page of The New York Times.
There are opinions and there are facts. Stephens is entitled to share his opinions, but not “alternative facts.”
Fact: The Northern Hemisphere warmed substantially more than claimed by the writer. The globe warmed by about the amount Stephens claimed the Northern Hemisphere did when he referenced the 2013 IPCC report. The subsequent correction was inadequate, failing to note, for example, that Stephens understated the warming, and that the record warmth in each of the past three years magnifies this mistake.
Using the term “modest” to describe this amount of warming is inaccurate and misleading. Science has found the warming to date to be large and rapid. Much as a fever of only several degrees can be deadly, it only requires a few degrees of warming to transition the planet out of ice ages or into hot house conditions. Importantly, the recent warming has been extremely rapid: more than 100 times as fast as the cooling that took place over the previous 5,000 years. It’s the rapidity that is most troubling. Human society is built on a presumption of stability, and the rapidness of the change is creating instability.
Not surprisingly this warming has already led to impacts that are widespread and costly. The damage incurred in New York City during Super Storm Sandy was amplified by sea level rise that elevated and significantly extended the reach of the storm surge. Estimated costs for the additional damage were in the billions of dollars. 
Stephens also mischaracterizes both the certainties and uncertainties regarding climate change, and misrepresents how science reports uncertainties. Contrary to the writer’s false accusation that scientists claim total certainty regarding the rate of warming, IPCC reports present a range of estimates for global warming -- centering around 1 °C (1.8 °F) of warming since pre-industrial times.
Some things we know for sure, for example that the Earth is warming and that humans are the dominant cause. Yet even the latter is expressed with care; the best estimate of the human influence is 110%, with a range of about 80% to 130%. In other words, natural factors alone would have caused the Earth to cool slightly, but human influences counteracted that and led instead to substantial warming.
Importantly, the scientific treatment of uncertainty extends to climate projections, which give ranges of future warming under various emissions scenarios. However, Stephens suggests that risk management should only be guided by the possibility that warming and its impacts could be less than the best estimate, and not the possibility that it could be more. This cherry picking presents only one side of the range of uncertainties. But uncertainty cuts both ways, and reasonable risk management demands looking at both.
We respect the journalism at the Times and believe its reporters consistently do an excellent job of accurately covering climate change with depth and clarity. But that does not excuse disinformation appearing on the editorial page. Facts are still facts, no matter where in the paper they appear.
We call on the Times to publish a more comprehensive correction to the inaccuracies that appeared in Stephen’s column and to avoid such errors in the future by fact checking columns as carefully as they do news stories.
There is certainly a place for a variety of well-informed opinions when it comes to societal responses to climate change. But it must be made clear that there are facts that are not subject to opinion.
If you are a scientist, click here to add your name to the letter.
Concerned members of the public, click here to take action
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