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Matthew Berger's articles

Plant Growth Declining in Warming World, Despite Predictions

New data has implications for food security on a more crowded, hotter planet

By Matthew Berger

Aug 19, 2010

When Steve Running co-authored that found warmer temperatures had led to increased plant growth over the preceding two decades, he expected that terrestrial net plant productivity – "which is really just plant growth" – would continue to rise with temperatures.

The warmer temperatures did continue, making 2000 to 2009 the warmest decade on record, but plant growth actually declined.

This is the finding of out in this week's issue of the journal Science, co-authored by Running, the director of Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group at the University of Montana, and his colleague Maosheng Zhao.

The study picks up where the 2003 one left off. Put together, they form a cohesive picture of climate change's effects on terrestrial plant life. The story is fairly straightforward: for 20 years the amount of carbon-storing plant matter on the Earth's land surface had continued to increase as warmer temperatures led to a longer growing season, but somewhere around the start of the last decade, it began to decline.

Drought appears to be one of the main culprits.

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Ecosystems Make Dollars and Sense for Business

New report tallies free services, cost benefits supplied by healthy wetlands and forests

By Matthew Berger

Jul 13, 2010

When the Stern Review came out in 2006, suddenly climate change was not just an issue for environmentalists and scientists; everyone became aware of the economic risks and costs associated with global warming.

A report released Tuesday aims to bring the same dollars and cents perspective to biodiversity and ecosystems.

The report comes from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative, a project of the U.N. Environment Programme. It details the costs to business arising from the loss of biodiversity, as well as the opportunities presented by the free-of-charge services that ecosystems provide.

Those services include everything from purifying drinking water and pollinating crops, to sequestering the carbon emissions linked to global climate change. Yet, for the past half century, people have been ramping up the rate at which they limit the planet’s ability to perform these vital functions. The new report attributes this to "the economic invisibility of nature's flows into the economy."

The TEEB hopes to increase awareness among businesses and consumers of the ways in which their livelihoods – and bottom lines – are tied to the natural world.

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New Clean Air Act Rules Likely to Apply to Embattled Kansas Coal Plant

Final permitting will probably not be complete before new federal rules kick in January 2nd

By Matthew Berger

Jul 9, 2010

The long-awaited draft air permit for a proposed coal-fired power plant in Kansas was released last Wednesday, starting a race against the clock that will determine whether the plant – if approved – will then also be subject to the EPA's new rules regulating the emission of greenhouse gases that go into effect January 2nd.

The draft permit was released in response to a new application, submitted to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) last January by Sunflower Electric, which is hoping to build an 895 megawatt extension to their current plant in Holcomb, Kans.

Originally, they had sought permission for a 2,100 MW facility, but their air permit for that plant was denied in 2007 by KDHE. It was the first instance of a regulatory agency denying a permit for coal plant construction on the basis of the dangers of greenhouse gas pollution.

Now that the EPA has declared greenhouse gases a danger to human health and welfare and tailored rules for phasing in regulations starting in 2011, Sunflower Electric will likely face yet another hurdle in obtaining approval to break ground on the troubled, controversial coal plant that has been a focus of repeated national attention.

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EPA Okays First Mountaintop Removal Mining Project Under New Guidelines

Decision made quietly disappoints opponents, skirts science

By Matthew Berger

Jul 7, 2010

The EPA has given tentative – and quiet – approval to a new mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia. It is the agency's first decision under the which promised to prevent "significant and irreversible damage to Appalachian watersheds at risk from mining activity."

Environmental groups say the approval, which was indicated in a letter last week, shows the agency is not serious about sticking to those stricter new regulations and the science behind them.

In mountaintop removal mining, coal mining companies strip away forests then blast the bare mountaintops to cut through hundreds of feet of rock and reach the coal seams buried below. The dynamited rock, soil and unearthed heavy metals, collectively called "spoil" or “overburden,” are dumped into adjacent valleys, often burying streams that wildlife and area residents depend on. Toxins from those mine sites that make it into the water and air have been blamed for health problems including birth defects and chronic heart and lung diseases.

But the EPA contends its modifications to the proposal for the Pine Creek Surface Mine, which are laid out in the letter, will bring the project into compliance with its new guidelines and that its final approval depends on whether those recommendations are sufficiently taken into account.

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EPA Petitioned to Regulate Release of Coal Mine Methane

Safety issue number one for miners and a powerful greenhouse gas that has slipped through the cracks of clean air regulations

By Matthew Berger

Jun 23, 2010

A of environmental groups have filed a with the EPA asking it to establish the first-ever limits on air pollution from coal mines.

Up to now, the gases released when mining for coal were mainly regarded as a safety hazard to coal miners. Methane build-up has led to fatal explosions in coal mines, like the one that killed 29 in a Massey-owned West Virginia mine in April and last week's in Colombia, which has killed at least 34.

Keeping gases like methane at levels that that do not pose a risk to miners has always been and is "safety issue number one", says Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, one of the organizations backing the petition, but he would like to see regulations limiting the risk those gases pose once they are out of the mine as well.

Methane, which is combustible, is a byproduct of the process by which coal solidifies. It accumulates over time in pockets of the surrounding rock and is released when those pockets are opened through mining. In order to maintain safe conditions, the methane must be pumped out of the mine, and it is this spewing of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere that concerns the environmental groups.

Plus, adds Nichols, methane is a natural gas that – if captured – can be sold to power anything from stoves to vehicles.

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Federal Government and Military to Reduce Own Emissions 28% by 2020

President's Announcement Leads the Charge in the Face of Congressional Gridlock

By Matthew Berger

Jan 29, 2010

After formally committing the nation as a whole to a 17 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020 via the Copenhagen Accord, President Barack Obama Friday morning that the federal government itself would seek to cut its emissions even more — by 28 percent over that same time period.

The federal government's agencies and departments, taken together, are the single largest energy user in the country. By pursuing the announced targets, which use 2008 emissions as a baseline year, it will lead the charge on the U.S.'s progress toward lowering the country's emissions.

The White House expects these targets will eventually create jobs in the private sector by stimulating growth in the clean energy sector. The announcement builds on goals Obama laid out in Wednesday's address, a main focus of which was job creation.

The targets embody the increased role for the government in both promoting a shift to cleaner energy and creating jobs.

“As the largest energy consumer in the United States, we have a responsibility to American citizens to reduce our energy use and become more efficient,” the president said in announcing the goals today.

It came in the face of criticism from some climate action advocates who had been critical of the president for categorizing "clean" coal, expanded nuclear and offshore drilling as “clean energy” solutions in his address to the nation earlier this week.

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SEC Decision Requiring Disclosure of Climate Risks Could Have Broad Impact

Polluting Industries in North America, like Oil Sands, Under New Scrutiny

By Matthew Berger

Jan 29, 2010

After years of pressure from investors, environmental organizations and public interest groups, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Wednesday to require publicly traded companies to disclose information regarding business risks and opportunities related to climate change.

Some companies already take climate issues into account and disclose their findings to investors, but the "interpretative guidance" issued by the SEC will require all public firms to do so.

This is the first economy-wide requirement that companies disclose their exposure to climate-related risks, according to Ceres, an NGO that has been leading the effort to pressure the SEC to adopt such requirements.

On the day after the standards were released, opinion was divided over the impact the new standards would have, with some critics complaining that they were unnecessary. Others saw it as the start of a broader transformation that would put new pressure on major polluting industries.

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Investors Applaud Shell's Newfound Caution about the Tar Sands

Shareholder Resolutions Highlight Environmental, Social and Economic Risks

By Matthew Berger

Jan 26, 2010

With Royal Dutch Shell announcing Monday that it would scale back the pace at which it develops projects in the oil sands of Alberta, discussion has revolved around whether this decision is more a product of environmental pressure or economic realism — or both — and what this means for the industry's involvement in environmentally and economically costly projects more broadly.

Peter Voser, CEO of Shell, the Financial Times in London that unconventional resources such as the oil sands will be "developed but at a much slower pace."

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States Look to Feed-in Tariffs to Boost Renewable Energy

Rep. Inslee Working on National Feed-in Tariff Legislation

By Matthew Berger

Jan 22, 2010

California is often commended in renewable energy circles for its goal of getting 30 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. But the first stage of that goal — 20 percent by 2010 — has yet to be reached, and some experts say the state is simply running in place.

Craig Lewis pointed to one reason for this at a briefing on Capitol Hill. Lewis is the head of the , a group that hopes to lead California toward implementing a feed-in tariff that will increase the market share of renewable energy in the state. He says California's current strategy for increasing renewables' share, relying on renewable portfolio standards, is stalling progress.

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Atlantic Hurricanes to Become Less Frequent But More Intense

NOAA-Led Study Looks at the Impact of a Warming Ocean

By Matthew Berger

Jan 22, 2010

As Haiti recovers from last week's earthquake and its aftershocks, a group of scientists says the region may be in the path of greater disasters by the end of the coming century.

Warming ocean temperatures in the Atlantic are projected to almost double the number of the strongest hurricanes over the next 80 years, particularly in the waters off Hispaniola, Cuba and Florida, says a in today's issue of the journal Science.

While the overall number of hurricanes will decrease, — those with sustained winds of 131 miles per hour and above — will nearly double in frequency, according to the study's projections. The most intense of these will more than triple.

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