The record heat wave searing the West Coast has drained one of California’s largest reservoirs so much that its hydroelectric power plant may be forced to shut down for the first time this summer, officials told CNN this week. This would be the first time the plant has shut off since it opened more than five decades ago.
The unrelenting heat and catastrophic drought conditions, both exacerbated by the climate crisis, have rapidly depleted the water supply at Northern California’s Lake Oroville and other reservoirs across the West. You can check out startling satellite imagery showing the megadrought’s scope here.
Due to the “alarming levels,” state officials will likely have to close the Edward Hyatt Power Plant for the first time since it opened in 1967, California Energy Commission spokesperson Lindsay Buckley told CNN.
Water from Lake Oroville, the state’s second-largest reservoir, generates enough electricity to power up to 800,000 homes when operating at full capacity, the outlet reports. In recent days, the reservoir’s water level has been hovering at around 700 feet (213 meters) above sea level, or about 35% capacity. If it continues to fall at its currently projected rate to 640 feet (195 meters), there will not be enough water to continue operating the Hyatt plant in two to three months.
“If lake levels fall below those elevations later this summer, [the California Department of Water Resources] will, for the first time, cease generation at the Hyatt power plant due to lack of sufficient water to turn the plant’s electrical generation turbines,” said Liza Whitmore, public information officer of DWR’s Oroville field division, in a statement to the outlet.
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A shutdown would further strain the state’s electric grid, which is already being pushed to its limits amid triple-digit temperatures. The situation has grown so dire that California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide heatwave emergency on Thursday allowing companies to temporarily fire up backup generators without securing the usual legal permits. At the same time, California’s grid operator called for residents to conserve their energy use during peak demand hours to keep from overstressing the system, which could lead to blackouts.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, roughly 85% of the state, including where Lake Oroville is located, is experiencing an “extreme drought”—the second-highest category of drought conditions. This time last year, only 2.45% of California was in an “extreme drought.”
The extreme weather conditions pose “extreme peril” to the safety of residents and properties in California, according to the governor’s declaration. Wildfires along with “critical” and “extreme” fire warnings have already been spreading throughout the region. Most terrifying of all is the fact that summer doesn’t even officially start until tomorrow, so it’s only expected to get hotter from here.
Following news that Peloton’s API exposed private user account data, McAfee’s Advanced Threat Research team says the Bike+ had a dangerous flaw that could enable hackers to invisibly and remotely gain control of bikes.
McAfee says its researchers began poking around Peloton’s systems once the workout-at-home trend took off during the pandemic. In the process, they found that the Bike+ software wasn’t verifying whether the device’s bootloader was unlocked, enabling them to upload a custom image that wasn’t meant for Peloton hardware. After downloading an official Peloton update package, the researchers were then able to modify Peloton’s actual boot image and gain root access to the bike’s software. The Android Verified Boot process wasn’t able to detect that the image had been tampered with.
Or put more simply, a hacker could use a USB key to upload a fake boot image file that grants them access to a bike remotely without a user ever knowing. That hacker can then install and run programs, modify files, harvest login credentials, intercept encrypted internet traffic, or spy on users through the bike’s camera and microphone.
This vulnerability may not sound all that serious for home users, as it requires physical access to the Bike+ to pull off. However, McAfee says that a bad actor could load the malware at any point during construction, at a warehouse, or in the delivery process. Peloton bikes are also popular fixtures at gyms and fitness centers in hotels and apartment buildings—an area that the company is keen to expand in. Peloton dropped $420 million to acquire Precor in December, and a big reason why is that Precor had an extensive commercial network that includes hotels, corporate campuses, colleges, and apartment complexes.
Peloton reportedly patched the issue on June 4 during the disclosure window, and there are no indications the vulnerability has been exploited in the wild. The company also confirmed that the flaw was also found on the Peloton Tread, which was recalled last month along with the Peloton Tread+.
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This is usually the point where we tell you to go and make sure you have the most recent firmware update. That said, it’s not super easy to tell whether your Peloton has the most recent update, especially since the company doesn’t publicize software release notes. It’s an omission that Peloton should perhaps fix, considering how popular connected fitness has become in the past year. In cases like these, it’s a good idea to enable automatic updates if possible. Another thing to keep in mind is Peloton prohibits users from downloading other apps, such as Netflix or Spotify, onto its bikes and treadmills. (Though there are ways to get around that.) So, if you ever happen to be on a public Peloton and it has other apps… you probably shouldn’t use it.
Two workers from an underwater surveying company were doing testing at Folsom Lake last week where water levels have reached their shallowest levels on record. As they were conducting their work, their sonar device picked up a strange piece of debris. When they inspected it further, they found it appeared to be a small aircraft.
Seafloor Systems’ sonar imaging shows the outlines of a plane lying 160 feet (49 meters) below the lake’s surface, in the deepest part of the body of water. Normally, those depths would likely be impossible to scan even with sonar imaging, but the drought’s impact on the lake helped them get a clear picture of the plane’s tail and propeller.
Unfortunately, the low waters also left the water particularly murky and full of silt, so the technicians couldn’t get a clear look inside the cabin or find an aircraft number. But they said it sure looks a lot like a Piper Comanche 250 plane, the same model that crashed into Folsom Lake on New Year’s Day in 1965 and killed four people.
“The sonar gave us about 100 feet of range; you could see the plane as clear as day,” Josh Tamplin, Seafloor Systems CEO, said to local station KRON4. “We could see the fuselage here, we could see the right wing. We could see the tail.”
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Before the workers found the suspected remains of the plane, only one victim’s body, the pilot, had been recovered from the crash. The victims’ loved ones said the lack of clarity has haunted them for decades.
“He didn’t really know his brother, but him and his mom would go out to the lake periodically when the water was low and look around to see if they could see anything,” Katherine Radican said of her husband, whose brother perished in the crash, to ABC News. (Her husband sadly passed away nearly three years ago.)
Local sheriffs’ offices plan to meet with Seafloor Systems representatives next week to see how they can work together to pull the plane out of the water. If it turns out to be the wrecked aircraft, it may help the affected families to finally find closure.
Right now, Folsom Lake is at less than half its capacity because the Sierra snowpack that normally feeds it was abysmal this year. At the start of this month, the snowpack was at 0% of its average June 1 levels, indicating that snow had already entirely melted at monitoring sites. On top of a low snow year, extreme heat is largely to blame. Both are hallmarks of the climate crisis; California is seeing more extreme dry and wet years while rising temperatures wreak havoc on what precipitation does fall. Withrecord heat arriving across the West this week, the unprecedented dry conditions are only expected to get worse.
The Seafloor Systems workers’ discovery is the latest example of the strange ways that the climate crisis is revealing fragments of history. Last month, thawing frost in the Italian Alps allowed researchers to unearth World War I relics that were previously hidden. In summer 2018, drought and heat grew so extreme in the UK that the outlines of ancient buildings thousands of years old appeared in farmers’ fields.
If the recovered plane ends up bringing families closure, we should celebrate that. But we should also remember that the historic drought conditions are also making it impossible for endangered salmon to swim along their traditional paths, forcing farmers to rip up their crops, and threatening to spur more deadly wildfires across California. And the dry season is just getting started.
Starting Tuesday, June 15, if you’re fully vaccinated and going to either Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, or Disneyland in Anaheim, California, you will no longer be required to wear a mask to help prevent the spread of covid-19. Will you be asked to prove you’re vaccinated? No. No, you will not.
Disney World has been planning this change for a few days while Disneyland announced the news Monday. “While guests will not be required to show proof of vaccination, vaccinated guests will self-attest that they are in compliance prior to entry,” reads Disneyland’s site. “In addition, all guests will need to attest that they are aware of the state of California’s strong recommendation that guests be fully vaccinated or receive a negative covid-19 test prior to entering the theme parks.” The Disneyland page also reads: “Guests (ages 2 and up) who are not fully vaccinated must continue wearing face coverings indoors, except when dining.” The Disney World wording is slightly different: “While we will not require proof of vaccination, we expect guests who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing face coverings in all indoor locations, and upon entering and throughout all attractions and transportation. Guests must observe current policies on face coverings until June 15.”
Both parks add that specific spots, mostly enclosed transportation, will still require masks for everyone, and Disney “encourage[s] people to get vaccinated.” But that’s not all. Physical distancing will also be “relaxed” or “self-determined” at both parks, and temperature checks will no longer take place at Disneyland where out-of-state guests will officially be allowed back as well. One thing that’s not changing is the reservations—guests still can’t just show up to the parks unannounced, they must have previous reservations to get in.
This isn’t some random choice, of course. June 15 is the date that’s been given by the state of California to remove all restrictions put in place over the past year. It’s also, obviously, something that was going to happen eventually since the parks reopened over the past few months. Plus, having personally been to Disneyland this past weekend, while masks seemed to be monitored well, distancing was only partially enforced, simply because there aren’t enough Disney employees to check every place in the park. Also, no one checked to make sure I was a California resident. So half of this was already “self-determined” by the guests anyway which is probably not the safest way to operate. For instance, in Miami, Florida last week, a bitcoin conference had no face mask or proof of vaccine requirements for attendees and several have already contracted the coronavirus.
It’s a little scary to jump from a fully compliant theme park to almost back to normal literally overnight. There’s also the danger of non-vaccinated people lying, carrying the disease, and spreading it not just to other non-vaccinated guests, but to vaccinated guests—it’s important to remember even if you are vaccinated, you can still carry and spread covid-19. You’re just less likely to get sick or die from it yourself. Would you feel safe going to Disneyland or Disney World without a mask? Let us know below.
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It recently came to light that the Trump-era Department of Justice quietly seized phone records of journalists at the Washington Post, CNN, and the New York Times to suss out their sources as part of the administration’s rabid crackdown on leakers. Well, apparently the witch hunt didn’t stop there: In 2017 and 2018, a grand jury compelled Apple to fork over metadata from the accounts of at least two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, according to a Thursday report from the New York Times.
The subpoena also covered records from at least a dozen people connected to the committee members, including aides, family members, and one minor. Records of Representative Adam Schiff of California, committee chairman and a frequent target of Trump’s playground insults, were among those seized, sources familiar with the matter told the Times.
Apple provided the agency with metadata and account information, but did not share photos, emails, or other content, a person familiar with the inquiry told the Times. But that’s hardly a comfort given the well-demonstrated fact that you can still learn a shit ton about a person from their metadata—where they are, what they’re up to—especially when combined with publicly available info such as their social media posts.
All told, prosecutors found no evidence within the seized data that tied the committee members to leakers. Apple was under a gag order from the DOJ that prohibited the company from publicly discussing the matter, according to the Times. That order expired this year, at which point Apple contacted the committee members, who purportedly did not know they were even being investigated. The Post, Times, and CNN similarly had no clue their reporters had been under federal investigation until the DOJ notified each outlet in recent weeks.
Over the years, administrations from both sides of the aisle have relied on court orders to obtain journalists’ records as part of leak investigations. Even still, current and former congressional officials familiar with the inquiry told the Times that they could not recall an instance in which the records of lawmakers were also seized in these cases.
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In the wake of the report, Schiff called for the Inspector General to investigate Trump’s “weaponization of law enforcement” in what he denounced as a “terrible abuse of power.”
“It also makes the Department of Justice just a fully owned subsidiary of the president’s personal legal interests and political interests,” he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Thursday.
The DOJ promised to stop secretly obtaining the records of journalists on Saturday after coming under fire from media outlets, lawmakers, and President Joe Biden, who condemned the practice as “simply, simply wrong” in response to the agency’s latest disclosures.
Roughly 1,500 elegant tern eggs were abandoned at a southern California nesting island after a rogue drone crash-landed and scared off thousands of birds, the Orange County Register and New York Times reported this week.
Two drones were flown illegally over the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a stretch of protected coastal wetlands in Southern California, on May 13, according to the Register. When one of the drones went down on the reserve’s largest nesting island, several thousand terns fled their ground nests, fearing an attack from predators.
Around this time each year, the island would be covered with terns preparing for their eggs to hatch. But there won’t be any hatchlings this year; instead, the island is littered with eggshells.
Environmental scientist and reserve manager Melissa Loebl said it’s the largest-scale abandonment of eggs the coastal site has ever seen, the Register reports. The elegant tern, which is classified as a near-threatened species, is among roughly 800 species of plants and animals that rely on the reserve as a critical habitat.
In an interview with the Times, Loebl called the scene “awful to see.”
“In my 20 years of working with wildlife and in the field, I have never seen such devastation,” she said. “My gut is wrenching.”
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California Department of Fish and Wildlife officer Nicholas Molsberry told the Times that no one has come to claim the drone in the three weeks since it crashed. He added that he’s seeking a search warrant to allow him to review its memory card and hopefully trace it back to whoever was operating the drone that day. If a suspect is found, authorities plan to pursue misdemeanor criminal charges related to the needless destruction of eggs or nests, the harassment of wildlife, and the use of a drone in a closed ecological reserve, according to the outlet.
Speaking with the Register, Molsberry said drone activity has become a huge headache for the reserve, which is more frequently targeted than other state lands in Orange County because of its highly visible nesting areas.
“It’s ironic,” he said. “Drone owners are attracted by the nesting colonies of birds, and then their actions destroy it.”
Besides drones, the wetlands have also been increasingly disturbed by off-leash dogs and bikes, both of which are prohibited. With mass closures due to the coronavirus pandemic driving more people to explore the outdoors, the Bolsa Chica reserve saw its visitor count jump from 60,000 in 2019 to 100,000 in 2020, according to the Orange County Register.
Loebl told the Times that while California law prohibits drones within the reserve, she hopes this disaster will prompt the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a federal rule against operating drones in the area.
The climate crisis has put sequoias on a dangerous path. A draft report from the National Park Service indicates that 10% of the largest trees in the world were wiped out in last year’s Castle Fire.
Sequoias can live for thousands of years. Trees alive today are our connections to deep time. As Christianity rose, the Han Dynasty collapsed, and countless other human activities proliferated around the world, sequoias still alive today silently rose to towering heights in isolated pockets of California’s Sierra Nevada. To stand in the shadow of a giant sequoia is to feel the heft of history drape over you.
Yet humanity’s most lasting legacy, which began during the Industrial Revolution, might be contributing to their downfall. Climate change coupled with a freak August lightning storm lit the Castle Fire. It was one of a number of explosive wildfires that stretched California’s fire resources to the brink in 2020. The firestorm caused widespread destruction, and the new draft report, shared with the Visalia Times Delta, shows we’re still getting a handle on just how much we’ve lost.
The report is based on preliminary data that shows between 7,500 and 10,000 of the giant trees were destroyed. That translates to between 10% and 14% of all sequoias in the world disappearing in one inferno. The same fire is also responsible for a sequoia that continued to burn and smolder throughout the winter. While not all the trees lost were 3,000-year-old behemoths, even relatively young trees going up in smoke is a huge blow to the health of sequoias going forward.
“Not much in my life in the natural world has made me cry, but this did,” Nate Stephenson, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who works in the park and has been studying sequoias for years, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
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Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, was equally blunt in her assessment of just how terrible the situation is. She told the Times Delta, “I cannot overemphasize how mind-blowing this is for all of us. These trees have lived for thousands of years. They’ve survived dozens of wildfires already.”
The difference between fires of the past and what happened last year is one of intensity. Sequoias are fairly well adapted to ground-level burning, which actually helps the trees by clearing out competitors. Walking in an old growth grove feels almost park-like, with gaps of open forest between the monster trees. Sequoias also have thick bark that can handle those burns and keep on trucking.
But rising carbon dioxide has created a much different climate, one that favors explosive fires that can leap between the crowns of trees. Hotter temperatures have made things more flammable by drying out vegetation and locking in drought conditions. Poor forest management that prioritized fire suppression also means there’s more around to burn. When an errant spark or lightning strike hits, it can send entire forests up in flames.
Last year’s firestorm was particularly shocking since the state rarely sees widespread lightning in the summer dry season. The flames also attacked coastal redwoods, another ancient and striking species of tree only found in a few locations in California.
But with unprecedented becoming the norm, it’s unclear what the future will hold for these ancient trees adapted to a climate of the past. Thomas Swetnam, an emeritus tree ring researcher at the University of Arizona, said in an email at the time of the firestorm last year that, “Generally, coast redwoods and giant sequoias now occur in small, isolated groves. Very hot, large, high severity fires could kill many or all trees in some groves. In increasingly warm and dry climates we are not sure if they will regenerate.”
“The precise threshold of climate change (rising temperatures, increasing drought magnitude, etc.) that may cause large and frequent high severity fires burning over entire groves, and the inability of trees to recover, are not known for coast redwoods or giant sequoias,” he added. “The fact that we are seeing some mortality of 1,000-plus year old trees now in some groves is a warning though that we may be approaching these thresholds.”
It raises challenging questions for how we protect the remaining trees—and the even more somber prospect of letting them go. Most sequoias reside in national parks, be it Sequoia, Kings Canyon, or Yosemite. The National Park Service recently published new guidance on how the park planners should be getting ready for climate change, including embracing change as part of resource management. Ominously, the report also notes (emphasis ours): “The scope, pace, and magnitude of climate-related changes will continue to present new challenges for the National Park Service, with an accompanying reality that it will not be possible to safeguard all park resources, processes, assets, and values in their current form or context over the long term.”
Given that sequoias are the namesake of a park and sit on the very emblem of the agency, it’s unlikely they’ll be tossed into the pyre of the climate crisis. But in protecting them, resource managers will need to decide what to possibly let go.
The thank-you banners are down, but New York City residents have a real opportunity to show their appreciation for a population of low-paid, primarily immigrant frontline workers. New York City residents can help now by ditching Uber and Lyft for a competing driver-owned alternative app called “Co-op Ride,” created by the mostly volunteer-run Drivers Cooperative. If Co-op’s proposal plays out, drivers could make more money while their passengers, particularly those in underserved communities, could end up paying less for rides.
Launched this past weekend and now available to New York City residentsin the App Store and Google Play, Co-op Ride is a cooperative, driver-owned business. Each driver owns one share of the company, giving them a vote in the company’s leadership and an even cut of any and all profits. (Even if you’re not in New York, you can donate here to help them grow and achieve profitability.) The app is powered by a combination of Google Maps’ API, Stripe, and Waze.
Co-op Ride claims to take a 15% commission from fares for operating expenses: much lower than 25%-30%, which drivers have said Lyft and Uber take. Neither Lyft nor Uber provide standard commission percentages on their website, due to the fact that it varies based on location and trip times relative to distance (profitability), leaving open a possible range from zero fees to exorbitantly high ones. (Oddly, Uber also cites a 25% flat commission here. It’s unclear whether this is out of date.) Longtime driver and Co-op Ride recruiter Michael Ugwu told Gizmodo that Uber can take up to 40%, depending on the circumstances.
Ugwu, who’s incurred thousands of out-of-pocket expenses on car payments, primarily wants drivers to at least know that they’re getting the maximum benefits from their labor. “Drivers’ lives are in the hands of Uber and Lyft,” Ugwu told Gizmodo. “This is our time to make money for our own selves, instead of enriching those giant companies. We made them giant, by the way. Drivers invested their money in big cars— eighty or ninety thousand dollars, just to drive for them, and they don’t care.”
On Tuesday morning, Gizmodo found that Co-op Ride seemed to cost the same as Uber—$16.55 for a 17-minute ride within Brooklyn (without tolls, etc.) versus $16.56 through Uber X. Unlike Uber, though, Co-op Ride had priced in a 20% tip. (A tip is not required, but encouraged, as an optional standard percentage the user can select during the sign-up process.)
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Erik Forman, a Driver’s Cooperative co-founder (as well as facilitator for Spectrum strikers’ cooperatively-owned ISP), told Gizmodo that every driver gets a background check and safety training as part of the licensing process through the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and Co-op Ride provides additional training. But Forman granted that lawmakers need to secure better industry standards so that Co-op Ride can operate more ethically while competing with corporate giants.
“Unfortunately our competitors Uber and Lyft have refused to pay into the state unemployment benefits fund,” he noted. “We think that’s wrong. We would like to pay the state unemployment benefits fund, but we call on the state to enforce the law equally so that Co-op Ride would not be put at a disadvantage.” Currently, the model is to just incorporate the four percent unemployment tax in additional worker pay.
Another potential holdup for the profit-sharing concept is that even Uber and Lyft are not yet profitable. Forman pointed out that keeping exorbitant lobbying costs, such as about $3 million on down-ballot New York State legislators and over $200 million (with DoorDash) on Prop 22 could help. “When you’re not buying [state] senators, it turns out you can actually save a lot of money,” he said. (And also investments like flying taxis.) In the event of a loss, Co-op Ride can draw on grant funding and donations.
Co-op Ride would also need to be mindful of the balance of riders to drivers. Researchers have found that Uber and Lyft drivers’ pay has decreased in part because the companies put too many drivers on the road, reducing wait times for riders but also the number of fares per shift.
“We think it’s frankly reprehensible that Uber misled tens of thousands of working-class New Yorkers into investing money in vehicles and going on the road when they knew that demand would outstrip supply,” Forman said. “They artificially flooded the market and priced themselves below break-even in order to put their competition out of business. We think there needs to be planning to match supply and demand to make sure drivers can make a decent living and make sure to make sure people who live in transit deserts, especially, can get a car when they need it.”
For tax purposes, Co-op Ride drivers are still independent contractors, a status which legislators have correctly argued for years bars drivers from labor protections. Uber and Lyft have claimed that non-employee status is better for drivers, primarily allowing them to retain flexibility. If all goes well for Co-op, we’ll find out what they think about ownership status.
Fresh off of playing a smug prick prosecutor in Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Joseph Gordon-Levitt will lend his considerable talents to portraying former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in a new Showtime series from the creators of Billions.
Variety announced the casting news on Monday, saying the show will be based on New York Times reporter Mike Isaac’s book Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, and it “will depict the roller-coaster ride of the upstart transportation company, embodying the highs and lows of Silicon Valley.”
Your mileage may vary, but I think this is inspired casting. He looks a bit like Kalanick in the way that a Hollywood actor is capable of looking like an average person. And like the Uber founder, JGL is extremely annoying. It hasn’t always been this way, the guy can act. But his reach often exceeds his grasp.
The point at which I turned against Gordon-Levitt was when he tried to pull off a ridiculous French accent in 2015’s The Walk. We can’t blame all of that movie’s failings on its lead actor but his overachieving energy is without a doubt its central problem.
What’s more, Gordon-Levitt’s perfectly suited for the role because he’s a startup founder himself. Remember HitRecord? It was a website where JGL posted videos of himself kind of vlogging or something and he encouraged other people to post videos of themselves vlogging or something. Like Uber, it still exists whether anyone wants it or not.
All that’s to say, I’m super pumped for this show. The Billions folks know how to write a corporate sleazeball as well as anyone and Gordon-Levitt will get under our skin in all the right ways.
Ben Santer, one of the nation’s leading climate scientists, said he is cutting ties with a prestigious government-funded laboratory over its plans to invite a scientist who has spread climate denial to speak in a seminar.
Santer’s work has shaped much of climate science for the past 25 years. His work studying the “fingerprints” of climate change have informed decades of research and he was the author of a seminal sentence in a crucial 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that said the science showed “a discernible human influence on global climate.”
On Monday, Santer, who is affiliated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, sent out an emailed statement viewed by Earther and first published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in protest of a planned LLNL seminar with Steve Koonin, a well-known climate denier whose new book on how climate science is “unsettled” has attracted widespread praise from right-wing media and condemnation from basically everyone else.
In his statement, Santer didn’t mince words, alleging that Koonin is “not an authoritative voice on climate science” and that LLNL management had not adequately responded to Santer’s concerns about the seminar, which was scheduled to be held on May 27. (We’ve reached out to LLNL for comment and will update this post if they respond.)
“Writing and releasing this statement may be viewed by some as an act of disloyalty,” Santer wrote. “I do not see it that way. I chose to remain loyal to the climate science we have performed at LLNL for over three decades. I do not intend to remain silent while the credibility and integrity of this research is challenged.”
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Koonin, a physics professor who worked at BP in the mid-2000s and who now is at NYU, is one of those dangerous figures who plays up the whataboutism that has plagued the conversation around climate science for decades. While he technically accepts the fact that humans are exerting some influence on the climate—which, in his opinion, does not make him a “climate denier”—his beef is with just how bad it’s going to be. These viewpoints—and the fact that he worked briefly in the Department of Energy under President Barack Obama—have made him a favorite among those who seek to further discredit climate science. Koonin was even tapped in 2018 by Scott Pruitt, the oil-and-gas serving, hotel lotion-loving, then-chief of Environmental Protection Agency, to lead the Trump administration’s theoretical exercise to try to discredit climate science, after Koonin authored a Wall Street Journal article proposing the idea. The exercise never came to fruition. (We’ve reached out to Koonin for comment on Santer’s letter and will update this post if we hear back.)
Koonin’s currently on a right-wing-fueled press tour for his new bookUnsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, which, as the title suggests, posits that the whole global warming thing isn’t that bad and relies on misinformation to make its points. Erroneous theories promoted by Koonin in the book include the idea that Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t melting any faster than it was 80 years ago (false) and that sea level rise isn’t accelerating (also false).
Carbon dioxide levels are higher than they were, sure, but they’re not at a planetary high, Koonin points out, so we should all just relax (he seemingly conveniently forgets that the last time carbon dioxide was this high, the Arctic was probably full of plants and ice-free). The Wall Street Journal—which routinely runs pro-oil propaganda and anti-renewable-energy screeds—simply loved the book, publishing an error-filled review written by one of its residentfossil energy boosters in April (that 12 climate scientists later took a red pen to in a major correction). Tucker Carlson also had Koonin on to claim climate science is “being used as a tool to scare young people, create depression.”
“It is simply untrue that Prof. Koonin is confronting climate scientists with unpleasant facts they ignored or failed to understand,” Santer wrote in his resignation letter. “The climate science community treats uncertainties in an open and transparent way. It has done so for decades. At LLNL, we routinely consider whether uncertainties in models, observations, and natural climatic variability call into question findings of a large human influence on global climate. They do not.”
Koonin has historically “taken potshots at the science, but doesn’t really get involved with scientists in a careful sense,” said Don Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois and a former researcher at LLNL, who knows both Koonin and Santer. “He publishes his comments in the Wall Street Journal—that isn’t exactly peer-reviewed literature.”
Wuebbles pointed out that much of the claims in Koonin’s book directly contradict exhaustively peer-reviewed science, much of which was covered in the Fourth National Climate Assessment produced by the U.S. government—and authored and peer-reviewed by dozens of top-level scientists—in 2017. Wuebbles said he talked with Koonin “a number of times” after the NCA was released about his scientific concerns.
“Several times, I pointed out that he was overstating things, and his response is he goes and writes a book,” he said. “That’s just not how science is done. There’s a peer review process. You want to write a peer-reviewed paper and say this wasn’t done right? Go ahead.”
LLNL is a pretty big deal in the climate space. Established at the University California, Berkeley in 1952, the lab is currently funded by the Department of Energy and works on a wide range of issues related to energy and national security. That includes a lot of climate programming: LLNL is one of the nation’s leading climate modeling institutions, using data and complex calculations to predict how the planet might change with increased warming. Inviting someone like Koonin to LLNL to give a talk is kind of like asking a tobacco apologist to address the American Lung Association. Santer was set to retire from LLNL in September, but said he will have no further affiliation with the lab following his retirement.
Wuebbles explained that the bulk of work at Livermore is done on nuclear weapons, meaning that the lab as a whole is aimed mostly at working on non-climate issues. “You have a lot of people with strong physics backgrounds who don’t understand the atmosphere. [They] don’t know the nuances of the science, so you’ll hear the argument and say, huh, that sounds pretty reasonable, but what you don’t realize is that it’s a misrepresentation of the science, or there’s half-truths involved. You have to understand the details, the depths of the science to understand these arguments. In my community, everyone wants the truth—we don’t want to misrepresent the truth.”
In his statement, Santer seemed to be on the same page.
“We live in a democracy. Free speech is important,” he wrote. “It is important to hear diverse perspectives on issues of societal concern. It is equally important for U.S. citizens to receive the best-available scientific information on the reality and seriousness of climate change.”
Update, 5/24/21, 2:27 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Don Wuebbles.