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Major environmental stories of May 2014

The National Climate Assessment, a 1300 page report, was released on May 6. It describes the effects of climate change on the U.S., and it was compiled by 300 leading scientists and experts. The report notes that the average temperature of the U.S. has increased by 1.5° F (0.8° C) since 1895, with 80% of that increase happening since 1980. The last decade was the hottest recorded in U.S. history. Temperatures are expected to increase even more, with northern states like Alaska seeing particularly rapid rises. The increasing temperatures will cause droughts and wildfires in the southwest and increased rainstorms and floods in other parts of the country.

Scientists have reported that part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has declined to an irreversible point. Six of its glaciers are rapidly melting into the Amundsen Sea, and there are no barriers like mountains to stop it. Scientists consider climate change and warmer ocean temperatures to be the causes of the melting. The melting ice sheet ill cause sea levels to rise by 10 - 13 feet over the next few centuries.

The EU-funded SOLAR-JET project successfully demonstrated the production of renewable kerosene obtained from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. The process technology uses concentrated sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water to a "synthesis gas" or syngas. The syngas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, is then converted into kerosene by using commercial Fischer-Tropsch technology. The same process could hypothetically be used to make gasoline or diesel.

On May 11, Germany set a record by generating 74% of its energy from renewable sources by midday. Renewable energy sources, notably wind and solar power, filled such a large portion of the country's energy demand that electricity prices actually went into the negative for much of the afternoon. Observers say the records will likely keep coming as Germany continues its Energiewende or energy transformation, which aims to have Germany getting 80% of its power from renewables by 2050.

The Agua Caliente, the largest solar power plant in the world was completed in Arizona. It boasts five million solar panels that span the equivalent of two Central Parks between Yuma and Phoenix. It generates 290 megawatts of power, which is enough to power 230,000 homes. By contrast, the largest solar facility in the U.S. in 2010 generated only 20 megawatts. Other large solar panel facilities, like Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One in the Mojave Desert, are under construction. While solar power currently accounts for only 1% of the energy produced in the U.S., it is also the fastest-growing type of energy produced.

On May 21, Pope Francis gave a speech proclaiming protecting the environment and fighting climate change to be Christian duties. He called on his fellow Christians to become "Custodians of Creation" and reminded them of how God had made the world and then charged humans with its care. The Pope called destruction of the environment a sinful act and compared it to self-idolatry. The Pope's speech came shortly after the Vatican had held a five-day summit on sustainability.

The Energias de Portugal (EDP) has determined that onshore wind power is now cheaper than gas, coal, or nuclear power. The utility, one of the largest in Europe, conducted an assessment and found that onshore wind is the cheapest of any new utility-scale technology in Europe. EDP's head of renwables, Joao Manso Neto, also said that wind is cheaper than gas in such countries as Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and parts of Asia.

A new study published in the journal Science has determined that the current rate of species extinction is over 1,000 times greater than the background rate calculated from the fossil record and genetic data. The study has calculated that the current rate of species extinction is at least 100 extinctions per million species-year, which means for every million species, 100 will go extinct in a given year. The study also found that the extinction rate would be 20% higher for mammals, birds, and amphibians if it weren't for conservation efforts over the past few decades. Some animals, like snails and freshwater fish, are going extinct at even greater rates. The causes of the increased extinction rate are human population growth and increased consumption.

Eight states on the East and West Coasts released a collaborative Action Plan to put 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025, as per last year's agreement to work together on this project. Currently, there are 200,000 electric vehicles being used in the United States. The eight states-- California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont -- represent 25% of the new car market, and 50% of the electric car market. The Action Plan calls for items like installing charging stations, offering tax incentives to people buying electric vehicles, and replacing gas-powered public buses with electric buses.