The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Climate 202

The biggest climate stories you may have missed in December

The Climate 202

Good morning! The Climate 202 took a publishing break for the last two weeks of December. We're glad to be back in your inbox. (Note: Your Climate 202 host broke her wrist while skiing, so please forgive any typos. 🙏)

The biggest climate stories you may have missed in December

The final weeks of December can be a flurry of holiday activities, even in these strange pandemic times. Here are some of the most consequential climate articles from The Washington Post and other publications that may have flown under the radar.

EPA finalized a climate rule for cars

The new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency will cut billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions from new cars and light trucks, The Washington Post's Dino Grandoni, Faiz Siddiqui and Anna Phillips reported.

The details: The rule requires that new cars, SUVs and pickup trucks release an average of 161 grams of carbon dioxide per mile by 2026. But on its own, the regulation will not achieve President Biden's goal of ensuring that half of new cars sold by 2030 in the United States are electric or plug-in hybrids. 

That goal will depend on the passage of the Build Back Better Act, which contains generous subsidies and tax breaks for electric vehicle purchases and charging infrastructure — and which Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has said he cannot support. (More on that below.)

A 500-year-old tree in Alaska could be cut down

A Sitka spruce has soared 180 feet skyward in Alaska's Tongass National Forest for centuries, but its fate rests on who controls the White House, The Post's Juliet Eilperin reports in the fifth installment of the Invisible investigative series.

Under former president Donald Trump, the U.S. Forest Service chose the tree to be cut down and removed by helicopter. But under Biden, large-scale old-growth logging in the Tongass has been halted.

The base of the tree is home to plants that the Haida and Tlingit people have used for generations, while its vast trunk could hold nearly 12 metric tons of carbon. The preservation of old-growth forests is critical to reining in global temperature rise.

Mexico's wheat fields are feeding the world — and warming it

Farmworkers in Mexico's Yaqui Valley are inadvertently releasing massive quantities of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas that is formed when nitrogen fertilizer mixes with water, The Post's Joshua Partlow reports as part of the Invisible series.

“As a contributor to climate change, nitrous oxide remains a mysterious villain, crudely measured and less-studied than carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But it has caused 6.5 percent of the world’s current warming,” Partlow writes.

Mexico's emissions of nitrous oxide may be double or even quadruple what the country reports to the United Nations — a problem the Mexican government acknowledged to The Post.

A glacier in Antarctica is in trouble

Researchers recently identified cracks in the Thwaites eastern ice shelf, predicting the shelf could collapse in as little as five years, Rolling Stone's Jeff Goodell reports. The Thwaites glacier is the size of Florida and holds back enough ice to raise sea levels worldwide by 10 feet. 

“Ten feet of sea level rise would be a world-bending catastrophe,” Goodell writes. “It’s not only goodbye Miami, but goodbye to virtually every low-lying coastal city in the world.”

John Kerry wants to close the emissions gap

The world must narrow the chasm between the emissions that countries report to the U.N. and the emissions they actually send into the atmosphere, U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry said in a wide-ranging interview with The Post's Steven Mufson, Brady Dennis and Michael Birnbaum.

“There is a gap, there will be a gap. [And] we have to be upfront about the gap, saying what has to be done in order to close it. And that is our post-COP26 work mission,” Kerry said one month after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

🚘 Our favorite line from the interview: “Kerry, who drives a Tesla and nearly pulled away with its recharging device as he spoke to The Post by phone," called for greater accountability in emissions reporting.

‘Don’t Look Up' draws mixed reactions

If you watched “Don't Look Up” on Netflix, you may have seen that some film critics panned the star-studded movie, in which Leonardo DiCaprio and ​​​​​​Jennifer Lawrence​ play two scientists who sound the alarm about an apocalyptic comet headed for Earth — to no avail. 

🍿 Netflix and no chill: However, many activists praised the film's portrayal of society's inaction in the face of repeated scientific warnings about the climate crisis, the Guardian's Donna Lu reports.

On the Hill

Senate returns to renewed push on Build Back Better

After Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va) said on Dec. 19 that he could not support the Build Back Better Act (BBB), the legislation appeared doomed. But Biden is continuing to fight for the measure, as the Senate returns today following a two-week recess, our friends at The Early 202 reported this morning.

Biden and White House aides spent part of the holiday recess working the phones with Senate Democrats on how to get BBB through the Senate, a White House aide told The Early. Biden also spoke with Manchin after the centrist senator came out firmly against BBB on “Fox News Sunday,” although it's unclear how much the two have been in touch since then.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter on Dec. 20, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed to bring the bill up for a vote “very early in the new year." Schumer reiterated that timeline in a virtual caucus meeting days before Christmas, pledging to push a vote by the end of January.

BBB contains a $555 billion package of tax credits, grants and other policies aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions and boosting clean energy. If passed, it would be the largest piece of climate legislation ever enacted in the United States.

Before appearing on “Fox News Sunday” in late December, Manchin made the White House a counteroffer that included hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change, although details of the proposal were scarce, The Post's Jeff Stein and Tyler Pager reported.

Extreme events

How climate change fueled Colorado’s record wildfire

A flight attendant on Southwest and a passenger on United Airlines filmed video during their flights on Dec. 30 showing the Colorado fires. (Video: The Washington Post)

The violent blaze that erupted in Boulder County, Colo., on Dec. 30 was the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, despite occurring after the traditional fire season of May through September. While the cause is still being investigated, experts say that climate change set the stage for the extreme fire, Jason Samenow, Jacob Feuerstein and Becky Bolinger report for The Post.

Warm weather and drought conditions through the fall, combined with a historic lack of snowfall, turned vegetation into a tinderbox. These conditions were exacerbated by a ferocious windstorm with gusts over 100 mph.

The devastating fire is part of a pattern of more extreme blazes. Four of the five largest wildfires known to have affected Colorado have occurred in the past three years, according to data from the state's Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Agency alert

Energy Dept. wasted money on carbon capture, government watchdog says

The Department of Energy has provided roughly $1.1 billion for carbon capture and storage demonstration projects since 2009, but many of the projects have failed to get off the ground, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

The department spent nearly $684 million to develop carbon capture and storage for eight coal plants, but only one operational facility was ever developed. The other seven plants were not built, largely because coal has become less economically competitive.

The GAO recommended that Congress exercise more oversight and accountability of carbon capture and storage funding and that Energy improve its project selection.

Energy spokeswoman Charisma Troiano said in an emailed statement to The Climate 202 that the department appreciated the GAO review, adding that “the report and its recommendations will be evaluated by DOE’s new Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations,” which was authorized by the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Climate solutions

A British general wants militaries to go green

The Post’s Michael Birnbaum tells the story of Richard Nugee, a British army officer who wants to take on one of the toughest enemies: climate change. Nugee saw the impact of extreme weather firsthand in 2003 when serving in Iraq, where temperatures routinely topped 120 degrees.

The three-star general gave up command of a staff of more than 600 for one final assignment before his retirement: Write a strategy for the British military to adapt to a warming world. His plan calls for a British military that would reduce its emissions to net-zero by 2050. 

Militaries are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. The British military emits as much as the rest of the central government combined. In the United States, the Pentagon accounts for 56 percent of the federal government’s emissions. 

The power grid

Germany shut down half of its remaining nuclear plants

Germany on Friday shut down half of its six nuclear plants still in operation. The country faces a final deadline of 2022 to end its use of nuclear energy, Frank Jordans of the Associated Press reports

Some critics have said the plants should remain in operation because they produce relatively little carbon dioxide and could help the country meet its climate targets. But the German government has said that decommissioning the plants, as well as the remaining three next year, will not prevent it from meeting its goal of becoming climate neutral by 2045.

The German government on Saturday objected to the European Commission's plans to include nuclear energy and natural gas in its green labeling system, Politico Europe's Hans von der Burchard reported.


Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab:

Thanks for reading!