Combined UCS Blogs

The Fate of the Clean Power Plan under President Trump

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Shortly, we are likely to see and hear much more about what jurists, Congress, and the new Administration think about the Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of our nation’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Regardless of how the court rules—and how Congress and President Trump respond—there’s no denying the reality of climate change or the many compelling reasons to double down on the clean energy transition already underway.

Imposing limits on carbon pollution would help the President deliver on two campaign promises—to create jobs and protect clean air.

Protesters rallied outside the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit early yesterday as judges prepared to hear arguments on the Clean Power Plan.

Accelerating the clean energy transition

Market trends are already driving a transition to cleaner energy. The costs of wind and solar energy are dropping dramatically, driving new renewable energy deployment that is outpacing all other new energy resources. This transition is delivering huge health and economic benefits to communities around the country.

The Clean Power Plan would lock in those gains and create a framework for continuous improvement, in the exact same way the Clean Air Act took on pollution problems in previous eras (acid rain in the 70’s, soot and smog in the 80’s, and mercury earlier this century). While these pollutant still cause problems, sometimes concentrated  in low income or racially diverse neighborhoods, the CAA required significant pollution prevention measures to taken. We need to do the same for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

How Tillerson and Pruitt view US Climate Action

As we wait to hear the DC Circuit Court of Appeals Decision, expected to be issued in the near future, we’ll likely see confirmation votes for Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of the world’s largest fossil fuel company, and possibly Scott Pruitt, one of the state AG’s who sued to have the Clean Power Plan overturned.

On left: Scott Pruitt. On Right: Rex Tillerson

As Secretary of State, Tillerson will be called upon by the foreign ministers of 190 countries to account for how the US plans to meet its commitment to the Paris Agreement. While additional policies to limit harmful global warming emissions beyond the CPP would still be needed to meet the US international climate targets, the CPP  is the down payment.

Tillerson has said he would like to see the US maintain a ‘seat at the table’ of the climate talks. If the Administration is casting aside cost-effective emission reducing actions like the CPP, he’ll find that seat more than a little warm.

As part of the EPA Administrator confirmation process, Scott Pruitt conceded that carbon is a pollutant subject to Clean Air Act regulation, indicating that the CPP has a strong legal foundation. The Clean Air Act itself, and subsequent elaborations through the 2007 Mass v. EPA Supreme Court decision and a 2009 Endangerment Finding by the EPA, make this absolutely clear.

However, when asked if there was an EPA program or rule he supported, he could not or would not cite a single one—which doesn’t bode well for his leadership of the agency.

The Clean Power Plan is the Clean Air fight of this generation

I’ve had the privilege of working with clean air advocates for 20 years. I’ve heard the stories of how they successfully fought for laws that would curb the acid rain contributing to the dying lakes in the Northeast; measures to reduce the emissions of soot that settled on cars downwind of Midwest coal plants; tailpipe standards to reduce smog-choked cities; and limits to mercury that was contaminating fish in our streams.

The pattern is always the same: scientists study the problem and identify the causes; advocates petition EPA and Congress for action; and industry casts doubt about the science and fights the solutions with claims of economic collapse.

Ultimately, when all legal remedies are exhausted, industry complies at a cost far less than predicted and the promised health improvements from cleaner air are realized. My colleague Rachel Cleetus noted in her blog the benefits of EPA for real people and cited the finding that “over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010 the Clean Air Act helped drive down total emissions of the six major air pollutants by more than 40 percent while GDP grew more than 64 percent.”

While we are far from having pristine air quality, we have a science-based process underlying the Clean Air Act that results in ratcheting down the regulations as better information becomes available and new cost-effective pollution control technologies become available.

My career has largely been spent trying to get carbon pollution treated the same way as these other pollutants.  Carbon is the pollutant driving the most pressing environmental problem of our generation. Its impacts go beyond typical local and regional air pollution effects, like the aggravation of asthma and other respiratory diseases, to threaten the ‘regulator’ of the planet, the very climate that makes human existence possible.

Climate impacts demand a response

As global average temperatures rise, arctic ice melts, sea levels rise, heat waves are more frequent and last longer, and extreme weather events intensify. Scientists and advocates began calling for action to reduce carbon emissions at least as far back as the early 1990s, hoping to prevent these events from coming to pass.  We are now seeing these impacts as our reality. They are becoming more common as every day passes, leaving little room for doubt that our climate is changing.

The predicted impacts are coming to pass, and despite the doubt continuing to be peddled by the likes of Tillerson and Pruitt, scientists do know—with a great deal of certainty—that burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of those impacts and they can predict, with ever improving reliability, what a warmer world would look like.

And it’s not good, it’s not something we can ‘adapt to’ and it’s coming to pass faster than expected.

Both legally and morally, this Administration is compelled to act on clean air and climate. Many local and state governments are fully committed to continuing clean energy and climate progress because it’s good for public health and their local economies, and many businesses will continue to ramp up their clean energy investments because it’s good for their bottom line.

Throwing out the Clean Power Plan won’t bring back coal. Coal is increasingly uneconomic for a variety of reasons, including cheaper alternatives like natural gas and, increasingly, wind and solar. Those market conditions will exist with or without the CPP. That’s why the Trump Administration and the Congress must do something real to help miners/coal dependent communities instead of meaningless posturing around the CPP. The clean energy transition is good for our health and is one of the fastest growing job creators. Now we need to make it work for all Americans.

The Clean Power Plan could also prevent us from becoming over-reliant on natural gas.  A rush to gas would hit consumers the hardest, due to the price volatility that results from the boom and bust cycles of gas exploration.  While I’m sure it is hard for an Oklahoma oil company attorney like Mr. Pruitt to believe, but too much natural gas is bad for the economy and our health.

Natural Gas Gamble

What’s your climate plan, President Trump?

So the real question is, regardless of how the court rules, what will this Administration do to tackle today’s air pollution crisis: the need to reduce the carbon pollution that is fueling global warming?

The Clean Power Plan rule did not come about on a whim. It wasn’t rushed out the door as the Obama Administration was leaving. After decades of inaction by Congress, the EPA crafted these rules over a three year period that included consultation with scientists, state officials, power companies, and public hearings. They reviewed millions of comments from citizens around the country.  Similar to healthcare, this Administration has an obligation to replace if it intends to repeal.

Before Pruitt is confirmed, Senators and all Americans are entitled to know, if not the Clean Power Plan, then what? President Trump, how will your Administration address this huge environmental and public health problem?

Erika Bolstad Ecowatch Union of Concerned Scientists

Nuclear Safety Performance at Pilgrim

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a public meeting on Tuesday, January 31, 2017, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. A large crowd of over 300 individuals (perhaps thousands more by White House math) attended, including me. Elected officials in Massachusetts—the attorney general, the governor, the entire US Congressional delegation, and state senators and representatives—had requested the meeting. Many of these officials, or their representatives, attended the meeting.

The elected officials asked the NRC to conduct a public meeting to discuss the contents of an email from the leader of an NRC inspection team at Pilgrim to others within the agency regarding the results from the first week’s efforts. An NRC staffer forwarded this email to others within the agency, and inadvertently to Diane Turco of the Cape Downwinders, a local organization. The contents of the leaked email generated considerable attention.

Unique NRC Meeting
During my nearly two decades at UCS, I have attended dozens, perhaps hundreds (maybe even millions by White House accounting) of NRC meetings. The Plymouth meeting was unique. It was the only NRC meeting I’ve attended to discuss an email.

And it was the only NRC meeting I’ve attended where public speaking slots were chosen by raffle. In all prior meetings, members of the public raised their hands to be called upon by the NRC staff, queued behind a microphone in the room in order to speak, or added their names to a list to speak in the order specified by the sign-up sheet. At this meeting, the NRC used a raffle system. I received Ticket #4 (see Figure 1), giving me an opportunity to “win” a chance to speak for up to 3 minutes (or 180 seconds, whichever came first) during the meeting.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

My ticket, along with at least 74 other tickets, was placed into a fishbowl. Brett Klukan, an attorney in NRC Region I, drew tickets from the bowl to establish the speaker order. Because the fishbowl was clear glass, Brett gazed at the ceiling to avoid charges of cherry-picking preferred ticket numbers (see Figure 2). Brett then wrote the number drawn on a whiteboard without showing the number to anyone else, somewhat offsetting the averted gaze tactic since he could have jotted down any number he wished.Unique NRC Discussion

Brett Klukan opened the meeting by introducing the NRC panelists and covering some ground rules for the meeting. The ground rules included a decorum standard—any audience member disrupting the meeting three times would be asked to leave. If the individual did not leave voluntarily, Brett explained that law enforcement officers (and there were numerous uniformed officers in the room and in the hallway outside) would escort the person from the room.

Brett then turned the meeting over to the NRC panel of Dan Dorman, the Regional Administrator for NRC’s Region I, Bill Dean, the NRC’s Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, Raymond Lorson, the Director of the Division of Reactor Safety in Region I, and Don Jackson, the leader of the NRC inspection team at Pilgrim and author of the email.

Don went through the leaked email, which he had written, updating the audience on each issue and supplementing the email with results from the team’s efforts since that initial week. I had expected the NRC to talk about what systems, components, and administrative processes the inspection team examined, but anticipated the NRC would not discuss results until the team’s report was approved and publicly released. But Don candidly provided the results, too. More than once, Don explained that the team identified an apparent violation of NRC’s regulations—in fact, he stated that 10 to 15 potential violations had been identified.

After the NRC panel finished their remarks, the meeting moved to comments and questions from the public. I was the third member of the audience to speak to the NRC. Figure 3 shows Brett Klukan at the podium to the left, the NRC panel in the center, and several members of the audience turning to look at the speaker standing at the microphone located towards the back of the room out of view to the far right.

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

I asked the NRC four questions. After I posed the four questions, the NRC panel answered. My questions and the NRC’s answers:

UCS Question #1

The NRC’s 20-member inspection team covered a lot of ground, but still examined a small fraction of the safety systems at Pilgrim. Based on the large number of safety violations in the small sample the team examined, what assurance can the NRC provide about the state of the majority of safety systems the team did not examine?

NRC Answer: The NRC’s reactor oversight process (ROP) features periodic inspections of safety systems at Pilgrim with the team inspection being supplemental to those activities. If there were problems in those other safety systems, the periodic inspections would reveal them.

UCS Response: Don Jackson described his team identifying 10 to 15 apparent violations of federal safety regulations in the small sample of safety systems they examined—violations that apparently were NOT revealed previously by the ROP’s periodic inspection efforts. Those routine inspection efforts failed to identify violations among the small sample, strongly suggesting that the routine inspection efforts also fail to find violations in the larger sample.

UCS Question #2

Don Jackson explained that the text in his email about the staff at Pilgrim appearing overwhelmed or shocked referred to their reaction to the arrival of the NRC’s 20-member inspection team. Does the NRC believe that this staff might also be overwhelmed or shocked in response to an accident?

NRC Answer: Don Jackson explained that his email comments referred primarily to the plant’s support staff (e.g, engineers, maintenance workers, etc.) rather than about the control room operators. Don said that his assessment of the operators at Pilgrim during their duties in the control room and during exercises on the control room simulator gave him complete confidence that the operators would be able to successfully respond to an accident.

UCS Response: Even if Don’s assessment is correct (and the operators losing control of the reactor during a routine startup causing it to automatically shut down to avoid fuel damage, the operators mis-operating numerous safety components following Winter Storm Juno and the operators not receiving proper training on the use of the high pressure coolant injection system leaves room for doubt), it is incomplete. The response to an accident involves considerably more than the handful of operators on duty at the time. NRC’s regulations require dozens of other plant workers to staff the Technical Support Center, the Operations Support Center, and the Emergency Operations Facility. The work force freaking out because 20 NRC inspectors arrive on site—by an appointment made weeks in advance—suggests that work force could be equally stressed out responding to an unannounced accident.

UCS Question #3

Dan Dorman mentioned the NRC planned to conduct another public meeting in late March about this inspection and to release the team’s final report in mid-April. Would it be possible for the NRC to issue the final report before the public meeting to allow the public to review the report and participate meaningfully in the meeting?

NRC Answer: Don Jackson mentioned that the report for a recent team inspection at another nuclear plant was over 350 pages due to all the information it contained. He said it would take sustained effort for the report by the team for their inspection at Pilgrim to be issued by mid-April, with no real opportunity for putting it out sooner.

UCS Response: There are two items both under full control of the NRC—the public meeting and the team inspection report. I have no reason to doubt Don’s word that mid-April is the soonest that the report can be released. I have every reason to doubt why the NRC must hold the public meeting in late March. The NRC could conduct the public meeting in late April, or early May, or mid-May, or late-May, or early June, or any time after they release the team’s report. The only reason for the NRC to conduct a public meeting about a non-existent report is because that’s the way they prefer to do it.

UCS Question #4

Audience members for this meeting are given three strikes before they are out of the meeting. How many strikes has the NRC given Pilgrim before it is out?

NRC Answer: Bill Dean began to answer the question, but Dan Dorman interrupted him. Dan labeled the question rhetorical and directed Brett to proceed with the next speaker.

UCS Response: I appreciate NRC bringing back Bert the turtle with this Duck and Cover gimmick. To be sure, I’d have better appreciated the NRC’s explanation why audience members get dragged out of the room after three strikes while Pilgrim does not get shut down after 10 to 15 violations of federal safety regulations. But this is America where everyone has the right to chicken out. My apologies if I put the NRC in a fowl mood.

To Be (Shut Down) or Not to Be (Shut Down)

The recurring theme during the meeting was whether the known performance problems warranted the shutdown of Pilgrim (either permanently or until the problem backlog was eliminated) or if Pilgrim could continue operating without exposing the community to undue risk.

Best I could tell, the meeting did not change any participant’s viewpoint. If one entered the room believing Pilgrim was troubled but sufficiently safe, one left the room with this belief intact. If one entered the room feeling Pilgrim’s problems posed too great a hazard, one probably left the room with even stronger convictions.

The meeting was somewhat like a court trial in that two reasonably supported but entirely opposite arguments were presented. The meeting was unlike a court trial in that instead of a jury, only time may decide which argument is right.

The Argument for Pilgrim Continuing to Operate

The team inspection led by Don Jackson is a direct result of an increasing number of problems at Pilgrim that caused the NRC to drop its performance assessment from Column 1 of the ROP’s Action Matrix into Column 2, 3 and eventually 4. The NRC developed the ROP in the late 1990s in response to high-profile troubled nuclear plants like Millstone, Salem, and Cooper.

The Action Matrix has five columns. A reactor with performance so bad that the NRC places it into Action Matrix Column 5 cannot operate until the NRC is satisfied enough of the problems have been corrected to permit restart.

Dan Dorman and Don Jackson tried to explain during the meeting that it was not the number of problems that determined placement into Column 5, it was the severity of the problems that mattered. They said several times that the 10 to 15 apparent violations identified by the team reinforced the NRC’s determination that Pilgrim was a Column 4 performer, but did not cause them to feel movement into Column 5 was warranted.

The Action Matrix is like our legal system. Persons guilty of a single misdemeanor generally receive lesser sanctions than persons guilty of multiple misdemeanors who in turn generally receive lesser sanctions than persons guilty of a single felony. Persons guilty of multiple felonies tend to be those receiving the severest sanctions and incarceration.

Pilgrim got into Column 4 as the result of several violations identified by NRC inspectors that were classified as White, the second least severe classification in the NRC’s Green, White, Yellow, and Red system. The data suggest performance shortcomings warranting regulatory attention, but it doesn’t suggest a trip to nuclear jail.

The Argument for Pilgrim Shutting Down

The NRC panelists stated several times during the meeting that they did not see any immediate safety concern that required Pilgrim to be shut down. Those assurances would be more meaningful and credible had the panelists or their NRC colleagues periodically seen an immediate safety concern, even from a distance.

The last time the NRC saw an immediate safety concern and ordered an operating reactor to shut down was March 31, 1987 when the agency ordered the Unit 2 and 3 reactors at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania to be shut down (the Unit 1 reactor had already been permanently shut down). Dan Dorman and Ray Lorson did not join the NRC staff until 1991. Don Jackson did not come to the NRC until 2003. Of the four NRC panelists, only Bill Dean was with the agency the last time an immediate safety concern was spotted.

Yet there have been times since 1987 when immediate safety concerns have existed:

Davis-Besse Safety Blindspot

In the fall of 2001, the NRC staff drafted an order that would require the Davis-Besse nuclear plant to be shut down. To justify the order, the NRC staff assembled the strongest circumstantial case one could hope to build that an operating reactor was unsafe. The NRC staff evaluated the reactor against five criteria in Regulatory Guide 1.174 (RG 1.174). All five criteria had to be satisfied for a reactor to be considered safe. The NRC staff determined that one criterion was not met and the other four criteria were most likely not met. Absent dead bodies or a mushroom cloud, you cannot build a stronger case that an operating reactor is unsafe.

Fig. 4 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

But NRC senior managers shelved the order and allowed Davis-Besse to continue operating. When the reactor finally shut down, workers discovered the reactor was less safe than the NRC staff had feared. Per the NRC, Davis-Besse came closer to a meltdown than any reactor since the Three Mile Island accident in March 1979 (much closer than Peach Bottom ventured in March 1987).

Worse still, when interviewed by the NRC’s Office of the Inspector General, the NRC senior managers stated, under oath, stood behind their decision. They claimed they needed absolute proof that an operating reactor was unsafe before they would order it shut down. Somehow, failing to meet five of five safety principles does not constitute absolute proof to the NRC. Perhaps not meeting eight or nine out of five safety principles would suffice.

Oconee Safety Blindspot

In June 2010, the NRC issued a confirmatory action letter (CAL) to the owner of the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina. The CAL required that the owner take fifteen steps to reduce risk of failure at the upriver Jocassee Dam (which was also owned by Oconee’s owner) and to lessen the flooding vulnerability at Oconee should the dam fail.

The NRC staff discovered that the failure rate for the Jocassee Dam was as high as other hazards that Oconee was protected against. Thus, failure of the dam could not be dismissed as incredible or overly speculative.

The NRC staff further estimated that if the Jocassee Dam failed, flooding at the Oconee site created a 100 percent chance of causing all three operating reactors to melt down, all cooling of the spent fuel pools to be lost, and all three reactor containments to fail.

The high risk of flooding causing three operating reactors to melt down prompted the NRC to issue the CAL to Oconee’s owner nine months before flooding caused three operating reactors at Fukushima to melt down.

The hazard was real enough to cause NRC to require the owner to take steps to lower the risk, but not real enough to warrant the reactors to shut down until the risk was better managed.

Most galling is the fact that the NRC withheld information about this hazard from the public. Their June 2010 CAL was issued in secret. When the NRC conducted their annual public meeting in the Oconee community in April 2011—about six weeks after flooding melted three operating reactors at Fukushima—they said nothing about the CAL being issued to better manage flooding vulnerabilities at Oconee. The public cannot trust an agency that withholds relevant information from them.

It may be true that the NRC would order an operating reactor to be shut down if it saw an immediate safety concern. But it’s been nearly thirty years since the NRC noticed an immediate safety concern at an operating reactor. Since then, the NRC has noticed very serious safety problems at Davis-Besse and Oconee, yet allowed those reactors to continue operating.

The Davis-Besse and Oconee cases occurred after the NRC adopted the ROP and its Action Matrix. None of the safety problems that led to the NRC staff drafting a shutdown order for Davis-Besse or issuing a CAL for flood protection problems at Oconee were considered in the ROP. Thus these safety problems were entirely invisible as far as the Action Matrix was concerned.

The NRC should not rely on a safety yardstick that ignores significant safety issues.

UCS’s Argument about Pilgrim

Because the NRC has demonstrated its ability to jettison safety standards when an operating reactor doesn’t measure up, and because it has not recently demonstrated an ability to spot an immediate safety concern, it is entirely reasonable for the community around Pilgrim to have anxiety about the plant’s known performance problems. Shutting down Pilgrim would lessen that anxiety.

Should public anxiety be used as a pretext for shutting down an operating reactor?

Absolutely not.

Instead, the public should have trust and confidence in the NRC to protect them from Pilgrim’s problems. But the NRC has not done much to warrant such trust and confidence by the NRC. If public anxiety is high, it’s because public trust and confidence in the NRC is low.

Public trust and confidence in the NRC should be the proper context for a troubled reactor continuing to operate.

That proper context is missing.

The NRC must take steps to restore public trust and confidence. They should consistently establish and enforce safety regulations. NRC senior managers must stop looking for absolute proof that operating reactors are unsafe and instead look for absolute proof that operating reactors comply with federal safety regulations.

And when NRC senior managers see safety problems, they must disclose that finding to the public. Hiding such information, as they did with the flooding vulnerabilities at Oconee, provides the public with a distorted view. And such antics provide the public with zero reason to trust anything the NRC utters. When you cherry-pick what you say and when you say it, you stop being a credible authority.

If the NRC allows Pilgrim to continue operating and the reactor has an accident, will the agency be able to honestly look victims and survivors in the eye and say they did everything they could to protect them?

Will the FDA’s Picture of “Health” Match Ours?

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

As we enter month two of 2017, our New Year’s resolutions of leading healthier lives might be starting to plateau. But that of course depends on how we are defining “healthy.” What’s healthy to me might not be the same kind of healthy to you. My vision of a healthy day done right might be eating a Sweetgreen salad for lunch and walking back and forth to the metro, while yours might entail a ten-mile morning run and a steak dinner.

What does the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) consider “healthy”? Well, the agency currently has an open comment period asking the public to weigh in on how it should redefine the term to stay up to date with evolving nutrition science. You would think that the FDA’s definition of “healthy” would be a bit more straightforward, since it has a wealth of consumption and nutrition data at its fingertips. However, in draft guidance to industry on the term “healthy,” the FDA has so far failed to include added sugar as an ingredient that can only bear a “healthy” claim if it meets an enforceable limit, despite the scientific consensus surrounding added sugar’s role in chronic disease risk. And depending on who ends up being appointed to run the FDA, the definition of “healthy” could be scrapped completely if it’s deemed too burdensome for food manufacturers (more on that later).

What’s “healthy,” anyway?

Under the FDA’s current definition, in order to bear a “healthy” claim on a food package, a food must have at least 10 percent of the daily reference value (DRV) for at least one of either vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber and not have more than a certain limited amount of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Unacceptably high levels of these ingredients, known as disqualifying levels, bar a food from being labeled as “healthy.” Notably absent from the list is added sugar.

How does this play out at the grocery store? Well, have you ever reached for a box of cereal with a big “healthy” claim on the front, only to find out that it has more sugar in a serving than you might like to eat in an entire day? This is entirely common, and especially concerning given the fact that these claims are allowed on packages for children as young as two years old. And it is these kinds of deceiving claims that contribute to the excess amount of added sugars that Americans consume every year.

The FDA must take further action to protect consumers from misleading food claims

That is why we submitted a citizen petition to the FDA last week to ask that the agency set a disqualifying level for added sugars that would apply to nutrient content and health claims, including the term “healthy.” Over 30,000 men and women across the country signed onto our petition in support of this measure!

It’s high time that the agency take action to protect consumers from misleading statements about the health of a product with regard to added sugar. There should be a clear limit on added sugars deemed by food manufacturers to be “healthy” to help consumers navigate the food environment that has become chock full of sugar. A brand new U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service report looking at trends in food and nutrient availability data revealed that Americans are still eating far too much added sugar: about 366 calories (23 teaspoons) per day, which is 83 percent higher than the Dietary Guidelines recommended limit of no more than 10 percent of calories (less than 200 calories or 12.5 teaspoons per day).

While President Trump’s “2 for 1” executive order will certainly make rulemaking an even tougher lift for agencies, as they’ll have to get rid of two rules for every new rule issued, the FDA should continue to build on its progress around added sugar. Just last May, the agency released its nutrition facts label revisions that created daily reference values (DRVs) for added sugar so that new labels will include a discrete line for added sugars beginning in July 2018.  Now that the FDA has set DRVs for added sugar, and overwhelming evidence—supported by leading medical and public health organizations like the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization—has illustrated that excessive added sugar consumption is linked to several chronic diseases, the FDA has the science on its side and the authority to add a disqualifying level for added sugar.

A strong FDA means a healthier America

The science certainly supports the FDA moving forward with this commonsense measure on added sugar, but the political reality is that the Trump administration seems to be fairly uninterested in science-informed policies so far. Last week began with scientists at agencies like the EPA and USDA being told by leadership not to communicate their taxpayer-funded scientific findings with the public and that there would be a freeze of hiring, grants, and contracts at the EPA. And then earlier this week, President Trump signed an executive order requiring that agencies must eliminate two rules for every one new rule issued (which is likely illegal, according to UCS president Ken Kimmell). All of these directives have a chilling effect on federal scientists, with the “2 for 1” order forcing agencies to make impossible choices between protecting the public from one threat to their health versus another.

The Trump administration’s cabinet selections haven’t been heartening, either. Whether it’s the climate denying and EPA-suing Scott Pruitt or the agribusiness-supporting Sonny Perdue, it’s looking pretty clear that the corporate cabinet will favor industry talking points over actual science to inform policies. The FDA commissioner has yet to be nominated, and while this job usually goes to someone with a science background and an interest in protecting public health, the Trump administration appears to be focusing its search on individuals with experience working in the biotechnology industry, advised by venture capitalist, Peter Thiel, who has some pretty radical ideas about how to run the FDA more like a Silicon Valley startup. Some of the names that have been mentioned as being in the running for FDA commissioner include Thiel’s associate Jim O’Neill, American Enterprise Institute fellow Dr. Scott Gottlieb, executive director of Lewis Center for Healthcare Innovation and Technology Dr. Joseph Gulfo, and former biotechology company executive Dr. Balaji Srinivasan.

This shortlist of men is riddled with conflicts of interest in their former and current ties to biotechnology companies, and features a man who thinks drugs should be approved if proven safe, regardless of efficacy (O’Neill), a man who has criticized the FDA for being too restrictive in its regulations (Gulfo), a man who has claimed that FDA regulations have nothing to do with health and are merely “safety theater” (Srinivasan), and a man who has accused the FDA of “evading the law” due to an overregulated drug approval process (Gottlieb). Note that none of these men have expertise in the food and nutrition space, and it seems like any regulation that inhibits the ability of drug or food manufacturers to approve and introduce an endless stream of new drugs and food additives will be unpopular under this administration.

Whether it’s one of these men or not, whoever is selected to lead the FDA must respect the role of public servant and abide by the agency’s mission to first and foremost “protect public health,” guided by science, not by drug and food manufacturers’ interest in increasing their quarterly earnings. In this case, there’s only one way to define a “healthy” public, and that’s one whose safety and well-being is protected over the profits of Big Pharma and Big Food. Taking further action to regulate added sugar amounts on front of package labels would be a strong science-backed policy maneuver that will advance the crucial fight against obesity and help all Americans make clearer decisions to improve their health. That’s my kind of “healthy.”

Join UCS and urge the FDA to include a limit for added sugar in its “healthy” definition by submitting a comment on regulations.gov before April 26.

Massachusetts Moves to Limit Pollution from Transportation: 5 Things you Should Know

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

The state of Massachusetts has been an important leader in the fight to protect our climate from global warming. But there’s one area where Massachusetts continues to struggle: controlling pollution from transportation. New limits on transportation emissions now under consideration by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) could determine whether the Commonwealth can stay track to achieve our climate mandates, or whether transportation emissions will undermine the progress the state has been able to make building a clean energy future.

Clean Vehicles, CV

Transportation and the Global Warming Solution Act

The Bay State has passed one of the strongest climate laws in the country, the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), which requires the state to reduce emissions throughout our economy by at least 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. Massachusetts also leads the nation in energy efficiency, and last year, passed an energy bill that will see the largest ever procurement of offshore wind in the United States.

Massachusetts has been able to make significant progress on these issues because the people of the Commonwealth care a lot about climate, because our state is uniquely threatened by the impacts of sea level rise and other climate change impacts, and because our state boasts a proud bipartisan tradition of leadership on climate and energy.

But transportation has been a challenge for Massachusetts. Pollution from our cars and trucks is the largest source of emissions in the state, and it’s the one area of our economy where emissions have actually grown since 1990, as increased total driving in the state has outpaced gains in fuel efficiency:

Achieving significant reductions in transportation emissions basically boils down to using a lot less oil. The good news is that we know how to do this! More efficient cars, cleaner fuels, electric vehicles, and a transportation system that gets us where we need to go without spending so much time behind the wheel, can all help cut pollution from transportation.

Kain v. Department of Environmental Protection

This week, Massachusetts will take an important step towards tackling the pollution from transportation, as the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) considers new limits on emissions in the sector.

These proposed regulations are in response to last year’s landmark decision in Kain v. Department of Environmental Protection, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the state needs to set mandatory and enforceable limits on the total mass of pollution emitted within the state from different sources, including transportation. These proposed regulations represent DEP’s response to the Kain decision. So how did the DEP do? Here’s what you need to know:

#1: DEP is proposing to limit most, but not all, emissions in the transportation sector.

The proposed DEP regulation covers the “surface transportation system” within Massachusetts, which means emissions that come from passenger vehicles, light and heavy duty trucks, and transit systems. The new regulations do not cover aviation or marine transportation. All told, that means that approximately 85 percent of Massachusetts transportation emissions are covered by this regulation.

Leaving aviation and marine travel out of the current regulation may make sense, given that these areas present different administrative challenges. In the long run, however, Massachusetts will need to make progress in these areas as well, and the state should consider additional regulations that will establish limits on boats and airplanes.

#2: The proposed limits are ambitious.

Overall the state is proposing to cut emissions in the transportation sector by approximately 1.87 percent per year for each of the three years covered by this regulation (2018, 2019 and 2020). That’s pretty challenging! Massachusetts has not been able to achieve a 1.87 percent reduction in transportation emissions for three consecutive years since 1990-1993, 25 years ago.

But, while ambitious, a 1.87 percent linear decline isn’t quite enough to achieve our long-term climate goals. Overall, the DEP proposal would put the state on track to achieve a 35% reduction by 2030 and a 57% reduction by 2050. So while these regulations represent an ambitious effort to begin to get transportation emissions under control, we’ll need to accelerate progress over the coming years to achieve our climate mandates.

#3: Achieving these limits will require additional policies.

The two biggest challenges with this regulation are: it isn’t clear how we are going to achieve these limits, and it’s not clear what happens if we fail to achieve them.

Right now, Massachusetts is relying heavily on federal and regional policies to reduce emissions in transportation. In fact, 93 percent of the projected emission reductions in the state’s most recent Clean Energy and Climate Protection plan come from National Greenhouse Gas and Fuel Economy Standards that, if fully implemented, will approximately double the fuel efficiency of new vehicles by 2025. These standards are now very much under threat from a combination of automaker intransigence and the current administration in Washington.

The new federal administration means that Massachusetts and other states are probably on our own when it comes to achieving our climate limits.  Massachusetts needs to think big about new policies that will help our residents and businesses drive less or purchase cleaner vehicles. Aside from reducing emissions in state fleets, the DEP is not yet proposing new policies to achieve the limits that they lay out in this regulation. But they are going to have to if they want to be successful.

#4: It’s not clear how these regulations will be enforced.

What happens if we go over our limit? The regulations are not clear on this very important point.

The most straightforward way to make the limits on transportation emissions enforceable is through a requirement that polluters purchase allowances from a limited pool (or cap). This market-based approach would build on the successful model of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has been really effective in reducing emissions while promoting economic growth in the electricity sector. RGGI is also an important source of funding for Massachusetts’ clean energy and efficiency programs. A market-based approach to ensuring emission reductions is explicitly authorized by Section 7 of the GWSA.

Without some kind of mechanism to ensure that the state actually achieves the reductions, this regulation will not be the kind of mandatory and enforceable limits required by the Supreme Judicial Court.

#5: Achieving long-term reductions in the transportation sector will require regulations that extend past 2020.

One major challenge facing DEP throughout this whole process is that the GWSA regulations that they are in charge of implementing sunset by statute in 2021. Achieving short-term reductions is challenging in the transportation sector, as vehicles, community development patterns, and transportation infrastructure investments all change slowly.

A more sensible approach would be for the state to establish limits through 2030. Several proposals in the Massachusetts legislature would eliminate the 2020 sunset and allow DEP to consider limits on a longer time horizon.

Working together, both parties and all three branches of government in Massachusetts have made significant progress reducing emissions from electricity generation and increasing the efficiency of our homes. Massachusetts’ policies to promote solar energy, for example, have allowed the technology to explode into the mainstream, providing thousands of Massachusetts residents with affordable zero-emission energy. With the growth of new technologies such as electric vehicles, new transportation systems such as car sharing, and ever-increasing use of public transportation and cycling in the Bay State, we have more options then ever before to promote clean transportation. It is time for policy leaders in Massachusetts to bring the same urgency and focus that has lead to so much success in the electric sector to the task of reducing pollution from transportation.

 

Climate Change, Resilience, and the Future of Food

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The United States food system has proven remarkably adaptable over the last 150 years, producing an abundant supply of food, feed, and fiber crops for national and international markets amidst dynamic social change, and despite dramatic natural resource variability across North America.

The story of American agriculture’s rise to world class status is usually told with technology in the hero’s role. In the typical story, the major “revolutions” in the industrialization of American agriculture came about as the result of one or more technological innovations—such as mechanical harvesters, hybrid corn and more feed-efficient livestock, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and genetic engineering. As awareness of the current and potential costs of climate change to agriculture and food systems increase, this singular focus on technological solutions continues through widespread enthusiasm for sustainable intensification.

Public investment: The true hero of the story

Rarely acknowledged is the real, underlying reason for the success of industrial agriculture: the continuous intended and unintended investment of public resources to develop, support, promote, and enable the industrial food system. These resources have taken many forms:

  • Financial resources such as direct and indirect payments designed to stabilize production, recover from disasters, and reduce environmental harms
  • Public financing of the education, research and development programs and institutions that serve the agricultural-industrial complex
  • Unintended human resource subsidies as farm families struggle to balance the demands of full-time farming with full-time off-farm work to maintain family well-being in the face of steadily declining farm profitability
  • Unintended natural resource subsidies in the form of degraded soil, water, and air quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem services
  • Unintended social resource subsidies in the form of degraded health and well-being of rural communities both at home and abroad
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Resilient Agriculture grower Jim Koan explains to USDA-FSA administrator Val Dolcini how FSA programs have helped him reduce climate risk on his 500 acre organic farm located near Flushing, MI.

Although the costs of industrial food and the benefits of sustainable food systems are widely recognized, and despite new evidence that the global industrial food system is uniquely vulnerable to climate change and other 21st-century challenges, national and international agricultural policy continues to support public investment in an unsustainable global industrial food system.

Sustainable agriculture is the future of agriculture

Sustainable intensification, the newest chapter in the industrialization of agriculture, is just business as usual for many actors in the global industrial food system. Sustainable intensification rhetoric often promotes the widely discredited myth that low agricultural productivity is the root cause of world hunger and suggests that new resource-efficient technologies that reduce the environmental degradation associated with agriculture are the solution to global food security.

My work to apply resilience theory to questions of agricultural and food system sustainability suggests that sustainable intensification, rather than advancing sustainability and the broader public good, actually keeps us locked into a clearly maladaptive path. Measures to reduce the environmental damages associated with industrial practices are welcome and needed, but agricultural innovations that do not also regenerate the natural, human, and social resources degraded by 150 years of industrialism will do little to enhance the climate resilience of the global food system. In contrast, sustainable agriculture and food systems offer successful models of locally-adapted, climate-resilient alternatives that we can build upon to put humanity on a path to a sustainable and resilient food future.

 Karl Wolfshohl

Texas ranchers Gary and Linda Price produce cattle for the source-verified wholesale market on 2000 acres of restored tallgrass prairie in Blooming Grove. Credit: Karl Wolfshohl

Local and regional actions, supported by enabling policies at local, regional, national, and international levels, can be used to enhance the sustainability and resilience of existing agriculture and food systems. My research indicates that we can use existing USDA programs, integrative initiatives, and international partnerships to address six significant levers of change:

  1. Redirect USDA credit and crop insurance investments through programs such as the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Direct Operating Loans Program and the Risk Management Agency’s  Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program to increase support for farmers and ranchers transitioning to or already using ecosystem-based, diversified production and marketing practices, especially small and mid-sized agricultural businesses supplying local and regional markets with minimally-processed, nutrient dense foods.
  1. Expand incentives and rewards for producers who use production practices that enhance sustainability and resilience of the U.S. food system through the protection and regeneration of ecosystem services. Programs such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and the FSA’s Conservation Programs could be reoriented to achieve these goals.
  1. Redirect economic development investments, such as those funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA’s) Community Food Projects Program and the Rural Business Development Grants Program, to promote the re-regionalization of the U.S. food system.
  1. Redirect agricultural education, research, and extension investments to promote the study, investigation, and development of sustainable and resilient agroecosystems as a core mission of the land-grant university system. This goal can be addressed through the expansion of existing programs such as NIFA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Higher Education Programs, and the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Program.
  1.  Climate Listening Project

    Farmers markets, like this one in Raleigh, NC, increase consumer access to fresh, locally-produced farm products and help build relationships between producers and consumers. Credit: Climate Listening Project

    Expand nutrition assistance and education programs that support sustainable and resilient regional food systems, such as the Farm to School Grants and Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

  1. Redirect U.S. international development investments such as those made through the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management, USAID Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Innovation Lab, and Feed the Future to support collaborative, place-based development of sustainable and resilient regional food systems

The global industrial food system faces unprecedented challenges that are projected to increase in intensity in the years ahead.  Persistent hunger and poverty, growing human population, a degraded and eroding natural resource base, failing agricultural communities, increasing and shifting consumer demands, and the uncertainties of climate change demand a reexamination of the basic underlying assumptions of industrialism. We must accept that we cannot burn or build our way to global food security, that we cannot depend on human ingenuity alone, but must finally acknowledge the fundamental role that healthy ecosystems play in human well-being. We know enough to begin now to cultivate a new kind of food system, a sustainable food system that has the capacity to produce global food security as it protects us from the inevitable challenges ahead.

 

Laura Lengnick is an award-winning soil scientist who has explored agricultural sustainability for more than 30 years as a researcher, policy-maker, educator, and farmer.  Her work in sustainable farming systems was nationally recognized with a USDA Secretary’s Honor Award and she contributed to the 3rd National Climate Assessment as a lead author of the USDA report Climate Change and U.S. Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation. In 2016, Laura launched Cultivating Resilience, LLC, a private consulting firm offering ecosystem-based climate risk management services to government, business, and communities. Her book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate (New Society Publishers, 2015), examines climate change, resilience and the future of food through the adaptation stories of 25 award-winning sustainable producers located across the U.S. You can learn more about Laura and her work at http://www.cultivatingresilience.com

 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

These Investments in Food and Farm Research Will Pay Us Back—Urban and Rural Alike

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This fall, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent out an important announcement that went largely unnoticed (those of us interested in food and agriculture were, and continue to be, preoccupied with other things). Namely, the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) reported recent investments in research designed to improve food, fiber, and fuel production while protecting natural resources that farms and communities depend on and recognizing the pivotal importance of the farmer’s bottom line.

To refresh your memory, NIFA is the part of the USDA’s integral Research, Education, and Economics Mission Area (which also includes the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service (ERS), and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Before this news falls too far back in the rearview mirror, let’s take a moment to recognize its importance in strengthening America—as a whole.

In public agroecological research, spare change can lead to big change

The $6.7 million investment by NIFA that I am so excited about came via the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Foundational Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment (BNRE) program area. While this is pennies compared to the $156 billion USDA budget, it’s still big.

For one thing, investment in agricultural research and development just tends to pay off. Further, this particular funding program is relatively young and is already helping to fill a gap that is important and urgent, as noted in a statement signed by over 400 PhD experts. While much agricultural research has focused largely on yields, this program encourages research on how anything from “soil, water and sun to plants, animals and people, interact with and affect food production.” It requires attention to economic, societal and environmental benefits to uncover solutions that don’t unintentionally create costly consequences.

Critically, although the current agricultural system—even in a high production year—doesn’t ensure economic success,  BNRE focuses on solutions that not only work for the environment, but can provide better economic incentives and options for farmers and for rural America.

The recent announcement explained how BNRE is enabling progress on working lands that range from grasslands to croplands to forests. Details on new projects (including a powerful workshop on the critical role of soils) are provided here. A few highlights:

In grazing lands ranging from the Chihuahuan Desert to the Corn Belt to Florida, researchers are

  • Considering how adding legumes to pasture can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient loss, increase soil carbon, improve access to local healthy food, and benefit farmers
  • Developing ways to convert lands dominated by invasive species to diverse grasslands that improve pollinator health, biodiversity, and cattle and landowner well-being
  • Evaluating how shrub control methods affect wildlife, plants, livestock productivity, and communities, and searching for ways to use keystone species to speed up restoration
  • Using native grasses and cover crops to reduce fertilizer needs, maximize profits and foster environmental benefits
  • Finding the best grazing and fire management strategies to improve water use, reduce climate impacts, and increase forage production and farm economics

In rural and urban farms from the Midwest to California, teams are

  • Working with farmers to optimize configurations of diversified farms to improve insect management and meet growing demands for local produce
  • Investigating how using multiple species of crops in fields (polycultures versus monocultures) affects yields, economics, weeds, pests, and drought resilience
  • Studying how urban garden management affects biodiversity, pests, pollinators, and food access
  • Evaluating how management practices in farms and gardens have revitalized industrial urban areas, and investigating the role of soils health in sustained improvements
The unique significance of public funding

One of the most important aspects of this new research is quite simply that it is funded publicly.

While the private sector has undoubtedly supported some needed areas of research, private sector funding cannot be expected to fill all the research gaps. When research investments can be recovered through products and profits, for example, private funding is logical. However, as reported in a recent ERS report, there is often little or no incentive for private investment into research geared toward valuable outcomes that are harder to put a price on (such as reduced reliance on fertilizers, or cleaner air and water). To enable this type of research, public funding is imperative.

Even beyond the need for public funds to fill certain research gaps, there are broader reasons why a strong contribution of public funds to food and farm research can be considered critical. As a recent post of Policy Pennings shared, public funding supports academic freedom, independent analysis, and research targeted towards the good of farmers, farm families, and the public. As public institutions become squeezed for resources and private sector funding starts playing a bigger role, additional risks—such as potential bias in academic research—can become a concern.

Taking strides to protect the US lead in public investments for agriculture

The role of the US as a world leader in public investment in agriculture, with all the benefits that can accrue as a result, is at risk.

Historically, the public sector made up the majority of total US agricultural funding (50% between 1970 and 2008), and public funding from the US made up the largest portion of the global investment (20-23% between 1990 and 2006). But recent research has documented that the US is falling behind. The US has cut back on public funding for agricultural R&D while private sector contributions have grown, bringing public sector contributions down to less than 30% of the total, behind private investments. Also, as the US has reduced public investments, other countries have ramped up. As a result, the US share of global public agricultural funds has dropped significantly, to just 13%.

It is time to up our game. And, by the way, the full burden doesn’t have to be on USDA. Other agencies have made relevant investments, which could be built upon. For example, the Department of Energy recently announced $35 million for new projects that could help develop new crops to replenish soil health, conserve water, and reduce climate emissions.

Whether we live in corn country or among skyscrapers, research in an agriculture that jointly considers the economy, society and environment is a smart investment. Thanks to programs like BNRE, the committed administrators and staff that have made programs like this possible – in NIFA and across the USDA, and the researchers who are taking on some of the work outlined above, we are on the right path.

P.S. If you are interested in taking action to support public funding for agriculture, and agroecology, click here!

What’s Congress Doing to our Methane Waste Regulations?

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Yesterday I spoke at a forum in the Capitol on the Bureau of Land Management’s Methane Waste Rule, an event organized by Democratic members of the House Natural Resources Committee. I offered testimony on a panel of experts including a former BLM official involved in developing the rule, a nurse speaking about the public health benefits of the rule, a scientist from Clean Air Task Force who discussed the Colorado rules on which parts of the BLM rule were modeled, and a pastor who talked about the moral imperative to use natural resources responsibly, and limit the harms caused by climate change.

I joined a panel of experts testifying on the BLM methane waste rule (I am wearing a red tie).

Four democratic Representatives asked questions and made statements. These included Congressman Grijalva from Arizona, who is the ranking member on the Committee for Natural Resources, along with Congressman Huffman (CA), Congressman Lowenthal (CA), and Congressman McEachin (VA).

Representatives (from left to right) Lowenthal, Huffman, Grijalva, and McEachin

Republicans are threatening to eliminate the BLM Methane regulation using an obscure, radical, and rarely used congressional trick called the Congressional Review Act (CRA).

The CRA allows Congress, with a simple majority, to completely revoke any rules made in the last 6 months of the Obama administration. It is a blunt tool that would revoke regulations that went through extensive stakeholder review, used evidence-based science, had public notice and comment, and took a few years on average to be finalized.

In addition, it stipulates that any rule that is similar to the rule can NEVER be done again, unless Congress gives explicit permission–thus salting the earth.

The BLM methane regulation updates rules issued in the Carter administration governing how oil and gas are produced on Federal and tribal land. The new rules will reduce leaks, venting, and flaring of natural gas, which not only wastes a resource that belongs to the American people, but also turns it into a health and climate hazard.

Apparently, the oil industry likes the 1979 vintage rules better, and the new Congress is rushing to do their bidding, quickly moving to revoke a rule that was three years in the making. But rolling back the regulatory clock to 1979 would be as dumb as removing requirements for airbags and anti-lock brakes from modern cars.

A lot has changed in the last 38 years, including the rise of fracking and the associated methane pollution from tight oil production. Rapidly reducing methane pollution–the leading non-CO2 pollutant responsible for climate change–is more urgent than ever before.

The last decades have also seen new technologies to measure, manage and utilize natural resources responsibly. An up-to-date regulatory framework for the oil and gas industry is essential to holding a massively polluting industry accountable.

The CRA is touted as a tool to exert control over unauthorized, unnecessary, or unreasonable agency regulation, but the methane and waste prevention rule is clearly authorized, necessary and reasonable.

Former Counselor to the Director of the Bureau of Land Management Alexandra Teitz explains in her testimony that BLM is required by law to prevent waste and ensure that resource extraction on public lands is conducted in a safe and responsible manner. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that State and Federal taxpayers are losing as much as $23 million per year in royalty revenue due to this waste, and GAO found that the BLM needed to update its rules to address this waste.

The BLM worked on these rules for three years, holding numerous hearings around the country. They received more than 300,000 public comments and made changes to the final regulation based on this feedback. As Dr. David McCabe, Senior Scientist at the Clean Air Task Force explained in his testimony, the waste rule was modeled on policies already implemented in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

As these states’ experience shows, sensible up-to-date standards work to cut pollution and waste, and their requirements are easily implemented. These rules are not going to stop the oil industry from drilling for oil and gas; they just set reasonable standards of performance that reflect the current best practices modeled in states.

Responsible industries recognize that an up-to-date regulatory framework is necessary to protect the public and ensure that irresponsible actions by a few bad actors do not tarnish the whole industry. Cars, trucks and even appliances are subject to numerous standards that ensure that as technology changes, so do requirements for safety, pollution and efficiency.

The history of oil and gas extraction is filled with egregious examples illustrating the need for strong regulations to protect the public, and it is especially obvious that oil companies operating on public lands, who are extracting resources that belong to the American people, should be held to reasonable standards to avoid waste and unnecessary pollution.

The same day I was speaking to House Democrats, Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was being narrowly confirmed as Secretary of State and Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute was speaking at a hearing on regulations in the Senate.

Under cover of the maelstrom that is DC this last couple weeks, Mr. Gerard invented some alternative facts and head-spinning doublespeak about the CRA. API’s press release on Mr. Gerard’s testimony was titled “smart, science-based regulation needed to advance America’s energy renaissance and jobs.” Apparently even API knows that is what people expect and demand.  But what Mr. Gerard actually said was:

This week, we support the efforts of Congress as it takes the first step to pull back a number of these ill- considered and hasty regulations under the CRA. These include Section 1504 of Dodd-Frank, which places U.S.-based energy companies at a competitive disadvantage in the world marketplace, and BLM’s methane regulations, which are technically flawed and redundant to state regulation. Furthermore, we look forward to the anticipated CRA resolution on EPA’s redundant and unnecessary Risk Management Program rulemaking.

Despite Mr. Gerard’s doublespeak, the CRA has the opposite effect – killing smart, science-based regulations and blocking agencies from issuing any similar updates in the future, unless Congress passes new legislation specifically authorizing it.

The CRA is the opposite of a smart science-based regulation; it is a dirty trick that Congress can use to do the oil industry’s bidding.

What Can “Local” Food Do?

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What does “local food” mean? Most of us think of local food as something that was grown nearby geographically, although the distances can vary a lot.

We also tend to make a lot of assumptions about what local food can do. For example, we think of “local” food, as a more sustainable alternative to the global, industrial food system that produces lots of food, but is also environmentally destructive, makes people sick, and leaves many hungry.

Thinking critical about the role of local food in creating more sustainable food systems.

Thinking critical about the role of local food in creating more sustainable food systems.

Supporters of local food often assume that it’s fresher, more nutritious, and that it’s better for farm and other food system workers, the environment, and local communities. One of the themes of my research on food systems has been that we need to question assumptions like these, and to separate as much as possible our assumptions of how the world is, from our goals for how we think it should be. One of the biggest challenges of local food is disentangling these two kinds of assumptions.

Local food can do a lot to improve our food system, but our assumptions about what it’s doing may or may not be true in any specific case, and if they aren’t tested, they can fool us (what I call drinking green Kool-Aid®), and enable corporate greenwash. This means our food choices won’t be helping change the food system the way we hope they will, and can even work in the opposite direction.

So, we need to keep asking questions: What are our specific goals for a more sustainable alternative to the global industrial food system? Is promoting local food helping us to make progress toward those goals? Is “local” a good indicator of progress toward those goals? How can we adjust our actions and policies, and the indicators we use to measure them, to make more progress? I’ll give a few examples of how this works, from our research in Santa Barbara County, California.

Local food, transportation, and climate change The effect of localizing fruit and vegetable consumption in Santa Barbara County, California.

The effect of localizing fruit and vegetable consumption in Santa Barbara County, California.

We often assume that because local food doesn’t travel very far to get to us, that it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) overall, because of less transportation. So, a question we asked in our Santa Barbara research was, “Is reducing food miles a good way to reduce GHGE?”

Santa Barbara County (SBC) is a prime example of the missed potential for local food; despite having an active local food movement, 95% of fruits and vegetables consumed in 2008 was imported from outside the county, while 99% of the more than $1 billion dollars’ worth (2.36 billion pounds) of vegetables and fruits grown in Santa Barbara county in 2008 was exported.

To see what contribution localization could make to reduce GHGE, we modeled the effect on GHGE of a change to all fruits and vegetables consumed in the county being grown in the county. We found that this would be a savings per household of only 0.058 MT of GHGE per year, or about 9% of the average U.S. household’s annual GHGE for produce. However, that only amounts to about 0.7% of a U.S.  household’s total GHGE for food, and less than 0.1% of total U.S. GHGE per person.

In fact, most GHGE from food are from production, especially of animal foods. So if fighting climate change is a goal, maybe we need to look beyond localization. For example, the only life cycle assessment of the complete US food system found that eliminating meat and dairy from our diets just one day a week could reduce GHGE more than totally localizing the entire food system.

What about food gardens, food waste, and composting?

You can’t get more local than growing food in your home, community, or school garden. So, we modeled the effect of converting an area of lawn to a household vegetable garden in Santa Barbara County, and composting household organic waste at home for use in the vegetable garden. We found that gardens reduced GHGE by about 2 kg per kg of vegetable, compared to households with no gardens, purchasing all their vegetables, an 82% reduction in GHGE. And if 50% of single-family housing units in Santa Barbara County had a 200 square foot garden, they could contribute 3.3% of the official county GHGE reduction target, and if scaled to the state level, 7.8% of California’s target.

We also looked into the effect of the way household organic waste was managed, since this accounted for the largest portion of garden emissions savings, even greater than the emissions savings from reducing purchased vegetables. We found that if landfills that efficiently captured and burned methane for energy and efficient aerobic composting operations were an option, gardeners could have the greatest emission reductions by exporting their organic waste to those operations. They could then import the compost, rather than composting at home, so gardeners need to ask questions about their options for processing their organic waste—it may be more climate-friendly to advocate for municipal composting facilities, rather than the more local option of composting on site.

What about the bottom line? Wesley Sleight and Anna Breaux, founders of Farmer Direct Produce local food hub

Wesley Sleight and Anna Breaux, founders of Farmer Direct Produce local food hub

Can local food be economically profitable? Local food hubs that consolidate local farm harvests and redistribute them are an important tool for localizing food. But when they try to scale up volume to have a larger impact and more revenue, they need to adapt to the dominant industrial food system, from infrastructure to economics. This can compromise their goals, because there are often tradeoffs among environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainability. Can local food be economically viable while prioritizing people and the environment?

In our case study of a local a food hub in Santa Barbara, we found that the key to success in meeting the goals of environmental sustainability and improved community nutrition was prioritizing those over the goal of economic profit, while still being economically viable.

Helping local food do more

On September 28, 2016, Senator Debbie Stabenow [D-MI] introduced S.3420, the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016. It includes support for a wide range of urban agriculture, from community gardens to technology intensive methods like aeroponics, based on the assumption that these will support local food infrastructure and economies, better nutrition, and environmental sustainability.

This bill is timely, as urban agriculture has become a popular form of local food production. For example, in our survey of Santa Barbara County residents, we found that the majority favored not building on land used for urban agriculture.

I think one of the strongest parts of this bill is the provision calling for research on the funded projects. This means asking if the goals of urban agriculture are actually being promoted, and providing information for improving them.

As our research has demonstrated, while local food systems can do a lot to promote more sustainable alternatives to the industrial system, we need to keep asking questions to ensure that our good intentions aren’t unintentionally compromised. In many cases other actions, such as changing production practices, and especially changing diets, may be more effective, or are needed to complement localization.

 

Bio: David Arthur Cleveland is Research Professor in the Environmental Studies Program and the Department of Geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is a human ecologist whose research and teaching focuses on sustainable, small-scale agrifood systems, including work with small-scale farmers and gardeners around the world. He is currently researching the potential for agrifood system localization and diet change, to improve nutrition, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote food and climate justice, in California, the US, and globally. His latest book is Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture.

For copies of studies by David Cleveland not available on his website, please email him.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

President Trump Just Put America’s Workers at Risk

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Every day, men and women across this country go to work with the expectation that they will come back to their homes and families at the end of the day—healthy and in one piece.

From fields to factories and mines, from hospitals and nursing homes to schools and stores, from office buildings and construction sites to fishing vessels and fire stations—workers are the real engines of our economy. (Not to mention the irreplaceable place they hold in our hearts as our partners, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children, and friends.)

Earlier this week, President Trump decided that one way to make America great again was to order federal agencies to identify for elimination two regulations for every new one they might propose in fulfillment of their statutory responsibility to protect our health, safety, and environment.

Aside from questioning the legality of such a directive, let’s take a look at what this means for working men, women, and even children in this country.

Think you’ve had a hard day at work?

Yes, we’ve come a long way since the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths still take a grave toll on our nation’s workforce.

In 2015 (the last year for which data are available), 4,836 workers died after sustaining an injury at work. That’s 13 people every day. In America. Another 2.9 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private industry employers and an estimated 752,600 injury and illness cases were reported among state and local government workers.

The economic burden is immense, over $250 billion annually in medical and productivity costs.  And cost estimates cannot begin to capture the pain, suffering, and loss experienced by these workers and their families.

Two for one: Who would you protect?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), have been given the authority and responsibility to help protect our nation’s workforce.

President Trump has now sent them a chilling directive. If you find a new hazard or new exposure that threatens the health and safety of workers, and want to require employers to control or eliminate then, then repeal two existing rules.

Which protections would you eliminate?

  • Rules requiring personal protective equipment  such as hard hats, respirators, and safety goggles to avoid head injuries, lung damage, burns, cuts, or blindness?
  • Ventilation to ensure air quality and prevent exposure to harmful dusts and chemicals?
  • Noise control or ear protection to avoid hearing loss?
  • OSHA’s new beryllium standard rule  that offers protection to many thousands of workers in construction, shipyards, and general industry (like electronics, telecommunications, and defense). (Beryllium causes lung cancer and chronic beryllium disease.)
  • Protection from needle stick injuries and the transmission of blood-borne disease?

This kind of across the broad directive defies common sense. It essentially forces the agencies to pick which workers will be winners and losers when it comes to safety on the job. Or, as my friend Celeste Monforton so aptly said, “one step forward, two steps back is never a good thing.”

What message is President Trump sending?

Well, that’s pretty clear.  He wants to chill, halt, and stop the use of a critical tool in the public protection toolbox.

Here’s what he said:

“If you have a regulation you want, number one we’re not going to approve it because it’s already been approved probably in 17 different forms. But if we do, the only way you have a chance is we have to knock out two regulations for every new regulation. So if there’s a new regulation, they have to knock out two. But it goes way beyond that.” 

Yes, it sure does.  The same Executive Order set a budget of exactly $0 for the total incremental cost of any new regulations in 2017.

While nobody loves the abstract idea of government regulation, I think we can all agree on the need for rules that keep our nation’s working men and women safe and healthy. They, after all, are what has and will continue to make America great.

President Trump is sending a clear message. It’s time to send a message right back. Let him and your representatives in Congress know that this new policy puts our nation’s workers at risk and is not acceptable.

Standing Up for Science: Notes from the Field

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The February issue of San Francisco Magazine on shelves today is titled “Resistance,” and features stories of politicians, lawyers, activists…even scientists who are involved in challenging some of the early actions of the Trump administration. My colleague, Jimmy O’Dea, and I are both featured with other scientists who attended the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). With approximately 24,000 attendees, AGU’s annual meeting is the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world — but the 2016 conference was different. Faced with an incoming administration that has demonstrated disrespect for science and denial of climate change, hundreds of the scientists left the meeting halls to protest on the streets.

Below, are the interview questions sent to me by San Francisco Magazine (in italics) and my responses:

What specifically inspired you to take action and protest?

I was at AGU to present my research on the impact of climate change on California’s groundwater. I was approached by a fellow scientist who was passing out fliers about the protest. I was immediately intrigued. I have been to several AGU conferences over the years and I have never seen any kind of protest take place.

As my colleague, Peter Frumhoff, who spoke at the protest stated: “Science and evidence is at risk. It is on us to ensure it is protected.” In my lifetime, I have never seen the scientific community as politically organized as it is now. Scientists are rightfully concerned about what it means to live and work in a “post-truth” or “post-science” society.

I think people rarely think of scientists as politically active in that way…tell me why that is a misconception.

Scientists are typically focused on researching specific, technical questions, but in almost all cases these questions are connected to public policy in one way or another. Scientists care deeply when research, facts, and evidence are misstated or ignored. That’s actually what led to the creation of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In 1969, scientists and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were concerned about the misuse of science by the U.S. government. Senior faculty members, including the heads of the biology, chemistry, and physics departments, drafted a statement calling for scientific research to be directed away from military technologies and toward solving pressing environmental and social problems.

The statement began: “Misuse of scientific and technical knowledge presents a major threat to the existence of mankind…The concerned majority has been on the sidelines and ineffective. We feel that it is no longer possible to remain uninvolved.” We remain true to that founding vision. The Union of Concerned Scientists has followed the example set by the scientific community: we share information, seek the truth, and let our findings guide our conclusions.

What are some of your biggest concerns/political flash points concerning the forthcoming Trump administration?

My biggest concerns revolve around transparency and democracy. As a single party takes the presidency and both houses of Congress, the normal oversight system of checks and balances is weakened, as evidenced by the recent attempt to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Watchdogs  like non-profit organizations and journalists will take on an even more important role in holding the incoming administration accountable. Transparency is a key ingredient to build accountability and trust, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies.

Are you planning on taking future action in response to the Trump administration? Anything specific planned?

My hope would be that we can find constructive ways to work with the administration, though I am very concerned about some of the early statements and proposed appointments that point to a lack of understanding of the role, principles, and practices of science.

Responding to the misuse of science is in the very DNA of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists was formed during a time of political upheaval, it was founded by people who believed that the ethical use of science and knowledge could help build a better and safer world.

It is more important now than ever for scientists and citizens to work together, engage in our democratic processes, and push for reforms to ensure that our policies are informed by science and evidence – our Center for Science and Democracy was specifically established to advance these goals. Together, we will continue to stand up for science.

Half-Not: 8 Things We’d Rather See the Trump Administration Cut in Half

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President Trump’s new directive to cut two regulations for every new one makes as much sense as the call from the former head of his EPA transition team to cut our lead environmental agency in half: zero. If Mr. Trump and his team are really in a cut-stuff-in-half mode, there are a whole lot of much better targets for those societal scissors. Here are a few of them.

What we want more of: blue skies, clean water, time with family. At least two of those things require good regulations and a strong EPA. (Photo: J. Rogers)

Mr. Trump’s ill-conceived proclamation on regulations is an idea that Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, has rightly called “reckless”, “absurd”, and “illegal”. With the many (many) ways government agencies and regulations make our lives better, safer, healthier, it seems clear that this proposal hurts us all, from our children on up.

The new executive order echoes a statement by Mr. Trump’s erstwhile EPA transition head and vocal climate change denier, Myron Ebell, who recently advocated for cutting the EPA in half as a starting point: “Let’s aim for half and see how it works out, and then maybe we’ll want to go further.” Better idea: Let’s not.

What should we really target?

There is something appealing, though, in applying that 50% idea to the real ills that plague us in 2017, including in the energy and environment spaces, and particularly related to the EPA, as near-term targets. Here are just a few ideas of where that could work:

Smokestack at coal burning power plant in Conesville, Ohio

One of those half-this targets (Photo: justice.gov)

  1. Half the air pollution – In the power sector alone, we’ve got a range of pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and mercury to worry about. We’ve made a lot of progress since Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law in 1970, but we’ve still got a way to go—and any improvements will require a robust EPA.
  2. Half the water pollution – While we’re at it, let’s cut down on bad stuff going into the lakes, rivers, and streams that we count on for so much in our daily lives. That includes thermal pollution from power plants that haven’t kicked the water habit. We know how to help. But we’re going to need the EPA, and the Clean Water Act.
  3. Half the carbon emissions – A 50% cut would be a terrific down payment on our long-term need to cut emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change. UCS has actually looked at much deeper carbon reductions in the power sector, based on ramping up low-carbon options like wind, solar, and nuclear power. A strong tool for achieving real reductions over the next dozen years, the Clean Power Plan, resides with… wait for it… the EPA.
  4. Half the natural gas risk – While renewables like wind and solar have made incredible gains in US electricity production in recent years, low natural gas prices have had a lot of states doubling down on that one fuel. That means that some states are pretty exposed to the risks of natural gas overreliance, with potentially bad implications for their consumers. There are plenty of ways of reducing those risks as we’ve laid out for the incoming head of… well, the Department of Energy.
  5. Half the oil use – If we’re talking energy, let’s not forget petroleum. My colleagues working on transportation practically invented the cut-stuff-in-half genre, with a terrific campaign for just these occasions. Half the Oil shows the way to get there through efficiency and innovation. Who has enabled efficiency standards for cars, trucks, and big rigs? Yup: the EPA.
  6. Half the inequity – While we’re fixing all these other things, we need to keep a strong eye on how the benefits get spread around, and make sure that we’re attacking head-on the unbalances that persist. Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by power plants, and by climate impacts. Environmental justice doesn’t just happen, and we have plenty of reminders that addressing it’ll take smart choices all around—starting with who we get to head the EPA.
  7. Half the monkeying with science – As more than 5,000 scientists (and counting) have declared in an open letter to Mr. Trump and Congress, “…people benefit when our nation’s policies are informed by science unfettered by inappropriate political or corporate influence.” Let’s cut the monkeying—including at the EPA (and including with really important stuff like climate science).

And, as a bonus:

  1. Half the ill-considered tweets – While we’re at it. I’m not actually on Twitter, but somehow each of those 140-character gems from on high keeps wheedling its way into the public consciousness, inciting international and domestic firestorms. I’d be okay with 50% less of that—either half as many tweets or each only half as long. (How much trouble can you possibly get into in 70 characters…?)

The list could go on. This half-it-now methodology could be good in other sectors UCS focuses on—nuclear weapons risks, for example, or unhealthy food policies.

What should be clear is that, in each of the above areas, a 50% cut would be only the next step. We have the tools to go much further.

What should be equally clear is that Mr. Trump’s proposed approach—“using a bludgeon when a scalpel would work better,” in the words of Ken Kimmell—won’t cut it. (Though it could mangle it beyond recognition.) Government regulations play a key role in our society, and we’re going to want them to continue to do that, no matter who’s sitting in the White House.

So, how about it? If Mr. Trump is truly of a mind to cut stuff, how about weighing in with more suggestions about what more could we usefully add to his 50%-off chopping list?

The Navy Understands Climate Change is a Grave National Security Issue – Will the Nominee for Secretary of the Navy?

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As the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Bilden will lead and manage the hundreds of thousands of sailors, Marines and civilians and oversee the under secretary, four assistant secretaries, and a general counsel. In his role as Secretary of the Navy, Bilden will be stepping into a now well-established record of the Navy leading the Military on climate change science and action.

Phil Biden, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Navy

A Snapshot of The Navy’s Climate Leadership Demonstrates Smart Action

Climate action by the Navy dates back to 1990 when the U.S. Navy War College published a report on their climate change research and analysis entitled Global Climate Change Implications for the United States. Since then, civilian and military defense leaders alike have taken climate change seriously (chronological list can be found here) because they recognized it as a matter of national security.   Today, the thinking is found across all branches of the military, for good reasons, but the Navy maintains an important leadership role in ensuring our military is preparing for the threat of climate change

Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the longest standing Secretary of the Navy who served throughout President Barack Obama’s administration and led the Navy’s climate change actions, stated in his farewell speech that climate change is a grave national security issue.

The scientist behind much of the steadfast climate change efforts was Rear Admiral David Titley, the former Oceanographer and Navigator of the US Navy, who led Task Force Climate Change (TFCC).  Created in 2009, this task force addressed the naval implications of a changing Arctic and global environment. In this interview, Rear Admiral Titley underscored that the military ‘would prefer to plan for something that doesn’t happen than to be taken by surprise.’

In 2010, the Navy released “A Navy Energy Vision for the 21st Century” that committed the Navy to both reducing climate pollution and mitigating climate impacts.

Rand’s assessment of the Navy, compared to the Department of Defense efforts on climate change resiliency and adaptation, found that compared to other military branches the Navy’s roadmap was structured particularly well and the implementation plan had actionable items, responsibilities and timeframes.<

The Impacts of Rising Seas on the Navy Are Already Being Felt NS Norfolk is located in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, a region where natural subsidence, low-lying topography, and changing ocean circulation patterns contribute to above-average rates of sea level rise. Much of the station is less than 10 feet above sea level. With between 4.5 and nearly 7 feet of sea level rise expected later this century, land loss is foreseeable.

At Naval Station Norfolk, located in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, rising seal levels between 4.5 and nearly 7 feet is expected later this century.

It is no wonder that the Navy’s efforts to address climate change impacts are ahead of those of other branches. Navy installations tend to be at sea level and therefore are more vulnerable to rising seas and storm surge.

The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted analysis of how sea level rise will impact 18 military installations along the East and Gulf coasts. The results of this analysis can be found in the US Military on the Frontlines of Rising Seas report.  We found that over the next 100 years, all of the sites we studied will be at risk of more frequent and extensive tidal flooding, loss of land to flooding, and more impacts from storm surge.

Of the sites studied, Naval Air Station Key West (NAS Key West) faces the starkest risks. Located in the low-lying Florida Keys, NAS Key West will experience rising sea level between 3.8 and 6.2 feet over the course of this century.

By 2100, our analysis found that between 70 and 95 percent of NAS Key West will be inundated by daily flooding.

Global sea level has risen about eight inches since 1880 and while this affects all of the world’s coasts, the East and Gulf coasts of the United States have seen some of the fastest rates and highest absolute increases of sea level rise. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a new sea level rise study and found that the East Coast and parts of the Gulf Coast will experience even higher sea levels than the world average. This means the seas could rise 8 feet higher than it is now by the end of the century (a foot and a half higher than predicted in the latest assessment, in 2014).

While the Navy has a strategic road map for climate action, there’s a long way to go to ensure its infrastructure and operations are resilient to the changes ahead. The Navy needs a strong leader at the helm.

NAS Key West is Expected to Lose Currently Utilized Land to Sea Level Rise.

If Confirmed, Will Bilden Continue the Navy’s Leadership on Climate Change?

The short answer is we don’t know. There is little information on the nominee. But here’s what we do know. First, if you have been following my colleagues’ blogs on the Administration’s nominations for Secretary of State,  the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, and the Secretary of the Department of Interior, then you know that batting average of nominees who believe in climate change isn’t good.  They all say that climate change is real but obfuscate about the human contribution.

Second, we know that according to Breaking Defense, Bilden has less relevant experience than any of his nine predecessors since 1980. Bilden also became the frontrunner above Representative Randy Forbes (R – VA) who had been the lead candidate.

Here are a few relevant things we do know:

According to the US Naval Institute News, Bilden is originally from Rhode Island, having returned just three years ago after spending twenty-one years in Hong Kong, where he founded and led the Asian branch of a private equity firm HarbourVest Partners, LLC. During his tenure there, the Washington Free Beacon reported that he opened a Beijing office in 2012 where he was in charge of large investments in Asia and served on advisory boards of several large hedge funds. Bilden’s two sons served under former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus under the Obama Administration, who as mentioned earlier implemented many climate change initiatives.

Having lived in Hong Kong for two decades, its likely Bilden experienced firsthand the storm and flood risks that are increasing and becoming more frequent due to climate change. Southeast Asia is considered a disaster hotspot due to the region’s climate hazards (floods and typhoons) and to the inability to adapt to these threats. Provided his time in the region gave Bilden experience with such events, he may appreciate the need to ensure that the Navy stands prepared to protect its sailors, Marines and civilians and the infrastructure that they depend on.

The Navy Needs a Strong Leader at the Helm to Continue to Lead on Climate Change

The Navy’s role in leading on climate change is crucial to ensuring that our national defense is addressing climate change head on. Consider that in 2016, North America suffered 160 disaster events, its largest number of disasters since 1980 indicating the unrestrained effects of climate change.  Zurich’s global ranking of the likelihood of a specific risk occurring globally within the next 10 years, extreme weather events are first for likelihood and second for impact (after weapons of mass destruction).

The Senate panelists must ask is this the leadership we need in such an important position at this moment in time? It’s a sure bet they will likely ask why Phil Bilden should be put ahead of the military-backed Randy Forbes (R – VA), who has extensive Military and government experience. While Representative Forbes has a poor track record on the environment (5% score by the League of Conservation Voters), he did support legislation on flood insurance reform, clean energy, and Gulf Coast restoration. Bilden lacks military and governing experience and has no track record on the environment. He only adds to President Trump’s “wall-street” cabinet, most of whom have little to no government experience or expertise in the mission of the agencies they are being appointed to lead.

USNI Photo: Ian Swoveland The Union of Concerned Scientists

Five Reasons Rex Tillerson Should Not Be Confirmed as Secretary of State

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The nomination of Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, is on the Senate floor this week. Tillerson is a weak nominee at a time when the United States desperately needs skillful, experienced diplomacy to assert continued leadership on vital global affairs. His confirmation process confirmed one thing: he is ill-equipped to deal with the chaotic consequences of President Trump’s “America First” agenda and the risks it poses for our relations with other nations and our status as a world leader.

Over the past six weeks, we’ve gotten to know Rex Tillerson as he seeks to transform himself from head of the largest US-based oil and gas company to America’s top diplomat. Here are five reasons why the Senate should block his confirmation.

Women’s Marchers this month called for ExxonMobil to be held accountable for its role in climate change and climate disinformation. Photo: Kathy Mulvey

1. Tillerson lacks understanding of refugee and human rights issues

The actions taken this past weekend to enforce President Trump’s executive order on refugees, immigrants, and Muslims have rattled me to my core.

As a human being I’m appalled at the lack of compassion for people who have suffered devastating losses in the face of wars and repression. As a believer in our Constitution, I’m horrified at the application of a religious test to those seeking refuge in our nation. As an American I’m angered to learn about people holding valid visas or green cards detained and/or denied entry into the United States. As the spouse of an immigrant I’m alarmed by the stories of families separated at airports. As a citizen I’m grateful that elected officials like Representative John Lewis and Senator Elizabeth Warren are opposing the ban (and disappointed that so few members of the party in power have done so). As someone who has spent my entire working life in civil society organizations I’ve cheered on the ACLU and other legal advocacy groups, and felt proud of the statement issued by UCS President Ken Kimmell.

Tillerson’s inexperience and lack of knowledge of refugee issues is deeply troubling. Not only do we face the immediate crisis brought on by President Trump’s executive order targeting Muslims and refugees, but we as a nation and a world also face the growing threat of climate-driven displacement: of people driven from agricultural lands, coastal communities, mountain villages—their homes—by drought, crop and livestock loss, flooding, wildfires, disease, and other impacts.

The role of climate change and extreme weather in creating scarcity, generating conflict, and displacing people is increasingly well understood by our own military, to say nothing of the international development community. Indeed some experts believe the war in Syria has its roots in the extended drought the country has faced. Such precarious international threats demand the most considered American response.

In response to questions from Senator Ben Cardin, Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson repeatedly stated that he does not have “a comprehensive understanding” of the US Refugee Admissions Program, but that he “will work to further his understanding” if confirmed. Given the state of conflict in the world and the refugee crisis in Europe—something Trump is hoping to avoid in the US—shouldn’t the nominee have studied up on the program before his Senate appearance?

Refugees, their families, the US public, and our global allies deserve a Secretary of State who is already up to speed on US refugee programs and our international obligations and can hit the ground running.

2. Tillerson has failed to address conflicts of interest

I’ve studied Steve Coll’s Private Empire in light of Tillerson’s nomination. Coll paints a picture of a corporation so large and powerful—operating in some 200 nations and territories—that it really has its own foreign policy. The book provides examples of how Tillerson managed that foreign policy and represented ExxonMobil’s interests—sometimes at odds with US national interests—in his dealings with leaders of Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, and other countries where the company does business.

It is not a pretty picture.

For his part, President Trump has faced widespread criticism for his cavalier attitude about potential or actual conflicts between his business interests and the US national interest. In the most recent example, his executive order targets seven nations where he does not have business interests, but omits other majority-Muslim nations where the Trump Organization does business—even though many of these countries also face terrorism concerns.

(The White House denied that Trump’s business ties had any influence over the countries selected for the travel ban, saying that they were initially identified as “countries of concern” under the Obama administration.)

Tillerson, however, appears not to be concerned about potential conflicts between President Trump’s overseas business interests and American interests in any particular country. In response to a question from Senator Jeff Merkley, Tillerson expressed his “understanding that [President] Trump has separated himself from his family’s business in such a way that this matter would not come up at all.”

Meanwhile, Tillerson has received preferential treatment from ExxonMobil that could be seen as “a pre-payout for advancing ExxonMobil’s interests at the State Department.” As Secretary of State, Tillerson could, for example, intervene on the side of his former employer in legal proceedings related to human rights abuses, including a longstanding case alleging that ExxonMobil was complicit in murder and torture in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Yet he refuses to recuse himself from matters involving ExxonMobil for the duration of his term as Secretary of State.

3. Tillerson doubts and downplays climate change

One issue on which the US national interest runs counter to ExxonMobil’s business interests—and to the company’s fundamental business model—is climate change. Under Tillerson’s leadership, ExxonMobil “acknowledged” the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement when it took effect last November, but stopped short of saying it agreed with or would work toward the goal of keeping warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

While Tillerson called for US leadership in other arenas of foreign affairs, on climate change he is content with just having “a seat at the table.”

Somewhat perplexingly, Tillerson testified that climate change can only be solved by international action, yet downplayed the urgency of action and the evidence of climate risks and impacts.

The vast majority of climate scientists, of course, disagree with many of the claims Tillerson made during his testimony and in his written responses, as my colleague Rachel Cleetus blogged last week. He told the Foreign Relations Committee, for example, that “The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.” In his written responses, he followed up by asserting:

“I agree with the consensus view that combustion of fossil fuels is a leading cause for increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I understand these gases to be a factor in rising temperatures, but I do not believe the scientific consensus supports their characterization as the ‘key’ factor.”

Perhaps Tillerson is referring to the discredited research of Dr. Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon, funded by ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests as recently as 2012, which broadly overstated the role the sun plays in climate change?

Tillerson also stated “I do not see [climate change] as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do.” Those “others” include the Department of Defense, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and military leaders.

Tillerson has been credited with shifting ExxonMobil’s posture on climate change—saying that the company would no longer fund groups that deny climate change and publicly stating its support for a carbon tax. However, the company’s actions do not yet match its words.

ExxonMobil maintains leadership roles and affiliations with trade associations and industry groups that spread disinformation on climate science and policy and has been criticized for not consistently supporting a carbon tax, and as CEO Tillerson repeatedly disparaged climate science and overemphasized humanity’s ability to adapt to a changing climate.

A demonstrator in Albuquerque opposed Rex Tillerson’s nomination. Photo: Kathy Mulvey

4. Tillerson has repeatedly evaded questions of accountability

Tillerson emphasized “accountability” in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yet he evaded questions about ExxonMobil’s positions and actions under his leadership.

Notably, Tillerson dodged a question from Senator Tim Kaine about ExxonMobil’s role in spreading climate disinformation. When Kaine followed up, asking whether the 40-year ExxonMobil employee who had spent more than 10 years as CEO lacked the knowledge or was refusing to answer, Tillerson replied, “A little of both.”

Moreover, under Tillerson’s leadership, ExxonMobil attacked public officials, scientists, and civil society organizations attempting to hold the company accountable for its actions. The company is suing the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York and attempting to block their investigations into whether ExxonMobil violated any laws in misleading investors and the public about climate change.

ExxonMobil has also subpoenaed UCS, other nonprofit organizations, and scientists in relation to this investigation.

These examples run counter to Tillerson’s “Boy Scout” image.

5. Tillerson lacks bipartisan support

Tillerson came out of the Foreign Relations Committee on a narrow, party-line 11-10 vote. In announcing his position before the vote, Ranking Member Ben Cardin said:

“However, after long and careful consideration, I believe Mr. Tillerson’s demonstrated business orientation and his responses to questions during the confirmation hearing could compromise his ability as Secretary of State to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years. I will therefore not be supporting his nomination with my vote in Committee or on the Senate floor….

“While I was pleased that Mr. Tillerson said that he would support the laws I have written to hold accountable human rights abusers globally and in Russia specifically, and that America should have a seat at the table when discussing climate change with the international community, merely being willing to uphold the law or being willing to participate in global diplomacy are simply the necessary prerequisites for the job, not sufficient cause for confirmation.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has come out in opposition to Tillerson’s nomination, and says senators deserve to know where he stands on executive orders targeting refugees and immigration before being asked to vote him up or down.

The US public and our elected representatives should be asking tough questions about the capacity of President Trump and his cabinet to preserve, protect, and defend the diversity that makes America great—especially since they are almost all white men, many of them billionaires and generals. These concerns are particularly pertinent in light of the elevation of Presidential adviser Steve Bannon, with his ties to white nationalists, to the National Security Council.

Rex Tillerson is unfit to be Secretary of State. If he is confirmed, the nation—and the world—will be dealing with the consequences of Tillerson’s lack of foreign policy experience, failure to address conflicts between his personal interests and the national interest, and equivocation on climate change in the months and years ahead.

President Trump Just Put Your Child’s Safety at Risk

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My guess is that most parents are far too busy to be following what President Trump did yesterday with the stroke of a pen. But his hot-off-the press Executive Order (EO) has serious and long-term implications for keeping your infants and toddlers safe and healthy.

President Trump has ordered federal agencies to identify for elimination two existing regulations for every new one the agency may propose. The EO also sets a budget of exactly $0 for the total incremental cost of any new regulations in 2017.  While the order exempts the military and national security from this policy, let’s see how this might play out for the agency that we all count on to ensure the safety of our consumer products.

Like car seats? Baby cribs?

Don’t take for granted the childhood safety protections brought to you by our nation’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), like these safety requirements for cribs.

Don’t take for granted those childhood safety protections brought to you by our nation’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

If the CPSC finds that a new toy or other new product poses a safety risk to your child (or to you for that matter), such that it warrants regulatory protection, President Trump says that two existing rules have to go. Like what? Safe cribs? Or the rules that say crib mattresses and kids’ pajamas must be non-flammable? Or how about the rules that set safety standards for the car seat you strap the child into when you’re running errands?

Any one of these safety protections could be on the chopping block if the CPSC wants to protect your children from a new toy whose eyes might fall off or is made with something you wouldn’t want in your child’s mouth.

Setting the clock back

One way this new order is likely to play out is that new rules simply won’t be made. CPSC will be presented with new products that have caused problems –such as a baby bottle or pacifier made with an unsafe new material—but because CPSC will not want to give up essential existing regulations, it will be hard pressed to  regulate new products.

That could expose our babies and toddlers to more dangerous products over time.

What value do you place on your child’s safety?

When it comes to your kids’ health and safety, what would you trade off?  President Trump’s Executive Order means that our consumer protection agency—and other agencies that provide health and safety safeguards—will be given this onerous  responsibility, overseen by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

This kind of across-the-board 2 for 1 directive defies common sense. Trading off one childhood protection for another is a Sophie’s Choice that no parent would want to make. More than short-sighted, it is downright dangerous.

Nobody loves the abstract idea of government regulation, but we can all agree we need to have rules to keep consumer products safe. The administration would have you believe that these rules come about by some bureaucratic process run amok, but in fact rule-making is a deliberative process, ideally informed by the best available science.

Congress has given the CPSC authority to issue rules to protect our families from unsafe products. CPSC scientists study products, gather information from stakeholders, and monitor products on the market. We rely on this process and this agency for the safety of the products we provide for our children and for recalling them when the products put them at risk.

Throwing out this careful approach will undermine the very purpose of these safety standards to protect our families. Let the White House and your representatives in Congress know that this new policy puts our children’s safety at risk.

Ford Backpedals on Promises, Could Harm American Consumers

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Last Tuesday, the CEOs of General Motors (Mary Barra), Ford (Mark Fields), and Fiat-Chrysler (Sergio Marchionne) met with President Trump to discuss the auto industry. On Thursday, we finally got some more details about what they discussed, and it’s pretty bad for everyone.

Ford signed on to rules and is now trying to back out of its commitment

Ford CEO Mark Fields recently met with President Trump to weaken federal oversight of the industry, including the vehicle efficiency regulations that have sparked investments in jobs and are already saving consumers millions of dollars in fuel. Photo: Wikimedia

As part of an overall deal on regulation of the industry, Mark Fields is seeking to weaken the federal vehicle efficiency standards finalized in 2012. These standards were supported at the time by all three Detroit manufacturers, as well as nearly all other automakers.

Included in those rules was a mid-term review of the EPA’s regulations. That comprehensive review was completed by the Obama administration two weeks ago, and its results surprised no one—those rules finalized back in 2012 are easier to achieve than anticipated and at reduced costs to automakers…so sayeth not just the EPA but the Department of Transportation and California Air Resources Board; the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine; UCS; and countless others.

Now, Mark Fields is jumping at the opportunity to stick it to the American public and back out of that agreement, despite Ford seeing record profits in 2016. And he wouldn’t just be harming the environment with this decision—he’d be harming American workers and American consumers.

Vehicle standards are good for American workers

Ford invested $1.1 billion in the Kansas City assembly plant for its F-150. With the all-aluminum truck continuing to maintain its position as top-selling vehicle in the United States, it’s clear that investments in fuel economy are good for American workers and American consumers.

Since bottoming out in the recession, the US auto industry has added nearly more than 300,000 jobs in manufacturing and assembly. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how many of those jobs are related to efficiency standards, but a recent report from the Department of Energy noted that nearly half of all auto manufacturing and assembly jobs are in technology that improves the fuel economy of the vehicle.

Ford themselves know quite well how these investments pay off—their best-selling vehicle is the F-150, and they just invested $1.1 billion dollars to its Kansas City Assembly plant to manufacture the new aluminum-bodied F-150, adding 900 workers in the process. Alcoa, just one of many suppliers to the F-150, added 200 jobs to provide the aluminum for the new truck. And this is just one of many examples—suppliers around the country are creating jobs as automakers invest in new technologies at unprecedented rates.

Instead of pointing out just how good these standards have been for jobs, providing certainty for the industry and sparking a series of strong investments in the United States, Mark Fields took a cue from the President by providing his own “alternative fact,” repeating a previously debunked claim that these standards could cost 1 million jobs.

(Please see here, here, and here for why this number is fundamentally flawed.) In fact, previous analyses have shown that these standards will lead to more than 50,000 jobs in automotive manufacturing alone.

Beyond the jobs impacts, there is also analysis that these standards help make the industry, and particularly the Detroit automakers, more resilient to shifting market trends. That benefits the workers directly, particularly under the profit-sharing agreements that many UAW workers enjoy. And it also insures the industry against a repeat of the disastrous plummet in sales that led to the bailout of GM and Chrysler and nearly bankrupted Ford when consumers turned away from pricey, inefficient trucks and SUVs and towards more efficient cars.

Should this situation repeat itself (and with gas prices such a volatile commodity, it no doubt could), fuel economy standards would help, leading to profits for the domestic automakers no matter what; if Mark Fields helps scuttle those standards by focusing on the short term, it could cost the Detroit Three about $1 billion annually in the long run.

Vehicle standards are good for American consumers

In addition to protecting workers, these standards protect consumers. More fuel efficient vehicles protect consumers from volatility at the pump. This is especially important for lower income individuals who purchase vehicles on the used car market—their choices are dictated by more affluent individuals who can afford to care less about fuel economy and generally spend more of their money on the vehicle versus the fuel. For low-income households, this is flipped: for this reason, fuel economy standards benefit lower-income individuals disproportionately.

This is one of the many reasons why fuel economy standards are so critical during times of low gas prices.

Moreover, saving money on fuel means more money that can be spent elsewhere in the economy—and that means more jobs for everyone. Taken together, we estimate that the 2012-2025 standards will add $25-30 billion to the economy by 2030, which means about 650,000 total new jobs across the economy.

Regulations aren’t “out of control”—they’re protecting Americans and holding companies accountable

On the same day as the Trump-Detroit Three meeting, Volkswagen approved a settlement with dealers over its Clean Air Act-violating diesel cars. One week before that, Fiat-Chrysler was served notice that some of their vehicles are in violation of the Clean Air Act, too. A month before that, General Motors appealed to the Supreme Court to try to wriggle out of some of the responsibility for an ignition switch defect that led to 124 fatalities.

Over the past few years, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, BMW, and Mercedes have all been forced to adjust their fuel economy labels because they were misleading to consumers. And obviously there is the disastrous Takata airbag scandal enveloping Honda, Toyota, Ford, and basically the entire industry, which has resulted in at least 11 dead.

All of this is to say that it’s pretty darn clear why the auto industry is regulated. And, frankly, it’s appalling that the CEO of Ford is trying to use a new administration to undermine government watchdogging of an industry with quite the history of skirting and combatting regulation.

Maybe Mark Fields would be better served using this as an opportunity to engage more constructively, as it appears his counterpart Mary Barra at GM may be:

“We had a very constructive and wide-ranging discussion about how we can work together on policies that support a strong and competitive economy and auto industry, one that supports the environment and safety. The U.S. is our home market and we are eager to come together to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing. We all want a vibrant U.S. manufacturing base that is competitive globally and that grows jobs. It’s good for our employees, our dealers, our suppliers and our customers.”

Let’s hope GM is true to their word and Ford changes their tune. Our health, safety, and economy may very well depend on it.

Photo: Wikimedia

Why Immigrants Are Vital to Science in the U.S.

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Immigrants are central to advancing science in the United States. An estimated 4.6 million college-educated, foreign-born scientists and engineers comprised over a quarter (27 percent) of the entire science and engineering workforce in the U.S. in 2013.

These millions of scientists and engineers are helping create a healthier, safer society – especially in the area of cancer research. According to a 2013 survey, 42 percent of the researchers at the top seven cancer research centers were found to be foreign-born and the influence of foreign-born researchers at some of the leading U.S. cancer institutions was found to be even higher. At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, for example, 62 percent of the cancer researchers were foreign-born and at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, 56 percent of the researchers were considered immigrants.

Immigrant scientists and engineers tend to be exceptional

Aside from cancer research, the scientists and engineers making the largest impacts in their fields frequently come from immigrants. A study published in Science found that the individuals making exceptional contributions to science and engineering in the U.S. are “disproportionately drawn from the foreign-born.” Moreover, all six of the 2016 Nobel Prize winners affiliated with American universities were foreign-born. Speaking in reference to Brexit, an editor for the London-based Times Higher Education thought the 2016 Nobel Prize class should “serve as a serious warning to those politicians, most notably in the U.K., but also of course in the U.S. and elsewhere, who would seek to place major restrictions on the free movement of international talent.”

And Nobel Laureates

Analysis by George Mason University found that 42 percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded between 1901 and 2015 went to individuals working in the U.S., and that 31 percent of all U.S. Nobel laureates were born outside the U.S. — a figure that’s more than double the highest proportion of immigrants in the general population during those years. Absent immigrant scientists and engineers, the U.S. would have missed out on Nobel Prizes for: (1) figuring out the ribosome (Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, born in India), (2) discovering femtochemistry (Ahmed Zewail, born in Egypt), (3) linking chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs) to the depletion of the Earth ozone layer (Mario J. Molina, born in Mexico), and many others.

Immigrant scientists and engineers come for the education and stay for the career

Data suggests that over half of the foreign-born recipients of doctorate degrees in the U.S. remain in the U.S. workforce to pursue their careers, becoming part of the multicultural milieu that has made, and will continue to make, America great.  Let’s not forget the contributions that immigrants have made in advancing science, or the potential contributions to come.

As my colleague Michael noted, many scientists are taking the fight out of the lab and onto the streets. They are organizing marches, preparing to run for office, and joining watchdog teams to monitor and respond to activity. If you’re a scientist and you haven’t signed our letter outlining expectations for the Trump administration, including the promotion of diversity, do so here.

Thank a Government Scientist Today. Their Work—and Our Health and Safety—Is Under Attack.

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Today President Trump signed an executive order mandating that for any new rule issued from an agency, two would have to be revoked. Such a proposal is absurd, illogical, and threatening to our public health and safety.

Last week, the Trump administration also issued a government-wide hiring freeze, instituted a far-reaching gag-order, and stopped the normal flow of grants and contracts issuance at federal agencies. All of these actions were major hindrances to government employees’ ability to do their jobs.

But actions like these affect us all. When it comes to science-based agencies and the scientists that work there, it is worth reminding ourselves of the crucial role they play in in our daily lives.

Here are six reasons you should thank a government scientist today:

Did you check the weather forecast today?

Did you thereby know how cold it was? Or if it would rain? Or whether there were hurricane force winds outside? You can thank a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration!

Scientists at NOAA’s National Weather Service work across the country and around the clock to monitor weather conditions and warn you about life-threatening severe weather events, protecting life and property. And how do they get their information?

It is NOAA and its supercomputers that run complex atmospheric models to predict future weather at all points on the globe and it is NOAA that makes the model results publicly available. It is NOAA and NASA that work together to launch weather satellites that provide real-time information on weather patterns day and night and again, this information is publicly available.

Where do you think your weather app gets its information?  It is this freely available data from the government that allows your app, that TV station, and any private forecasting company to produce weather forecasts. Did you think you think your app was running atmospheric models? There’s not an app for that.

Did you eat something today? Did you avoid food poisoning?

You can thank a food scientist at the US Department of Agriculture! Scientists at the USDA inspect meat, poultry, and eggs at plants around the country. Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do the same for our fruits and vegetables and dairy products.

These scientists work to make sure the American public doesn’t get sick from contaminants in food. And when food-borne illness does happen, they work quickly to find the source and stop its spread. Remember that time you had to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and learn about the horrible conditions inside industrial agricultural operations at the start of the 20th century? Luckily we don’t have this kind of nightmare of a food system anymore because scientists at the USDA and FDA maintain standards that keep us safe from foodborne illnesses.

Did you take any medications today? Did they work? And did they not kill you?

You can thank a doctor at the US Food and Drug Administration! Scientists at the FDA carefully review new drug applications from pharmaceutical companies and use all available scientific information to determine if the drugs are both safe and effective. Only if drugs are proven to be both by FDA experts and their scientific advisory panels do they reach the market.

Remember when some governments thought giving pregnant women Thalidomide was a good idea? It wasn’t. And thankfully the US FDA didn’t approve thalidomide for use in the US, preventing countless babies from being born with debilitating birth defects. Thanks, FDA scientists!

Did you use any products today?

You know, everyday items like a hair dryer, a couch, a door, a swivel chair, a TV, a bicycle, a jacket, a coffee mug. Were you able to use such products without them catching on fire, choking you, cutting you, or otherwise harming you?

You can thank a scientist at the Consumer Product Safety Commission!  Scientists at the CPSC study product safety. They make sure that products can be used safely and don’t create unintended dangers, especially for babies and children who can more easily choke, be strangled, or be crushed by products meant for adults.

When CPSC scientists notice major problems associated with products, they can issue recalls and rules to prevent products from harming more people. You might not often think about the potential for your desk lamp to burst into flames or for your coffee mug to lacerate you (both of these recalls were issued this month!), but that’s exactly the point. CPSC scientists are working to keeping the products in our homes safe for us and our families before they cause widespread harm.

Did you go outside today? Were you able to breathe easily?

You can thank a scientist at the US Environmental Protection Agency! Scientists at the EPA study air pollution, its sources, and its impacts on human health and the environment. They look at the vast amount of scientific literature to determine what air pollutant standards are protective of the public, especially vulnerable populations, like the young, the old, and those with respiratory diseases.

Remember that time the air pollution was so bad that you hacked up a lung and couldn’t see your neighbors house? Me neither. That’s because the US has science-based air quality standards that have been phenomenally effective.

This country has enjoyed decreasing air pollution levels, and thereby death and sickness, for the last half century. Do you think that energy companies have decreased their stack emissions and car companies have decreased tailpipe emissions out of the goodness of their heart? Of course not. It is the EPA’s strong air pollution standards that have led us to develop technologies like the catalytic converter and power plant scrubbers that save us money and energy and also cut pollution emissions. It is all thanks to the EPA and its scientists.

Did you spend your day not thinking about the potential for a global pandemic and how you might avoid catching it?

You can thank an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention! Scientists at the CDC closely monitor the spread of infectious disease around the world. They know that we need to stay a step ahead of any virus or bacteria that stands to take down or at least weaken the human population. They study diseases in the lab so we will know how to react, they track mutations to existing infectious diseases, and they maintain facilities and infrastructure that work to produce vaccines from emerging threats.

Do you think it’s annoying that you have to get a flu shot every year?  Do you know what would be more annoying? Any global pandemic. And it wouldn’t even have to be at the scale of the monkey in the movie Outbreak or the fever in Contagion to cause widespread panic and inconvenience. Remember how much we freaked out about SARS, Bird Flu, and Swine Flu. Nature can do much worse. Thankfully, CDC scientists are ready and watching to react to the next global threat.

When we talk about cutting back on “regulations,” these are the kind of public protections we’d lose. President Trump’s 2-for-1 regulations proposal would force government scientific experts to choose between which public health and safety threat to prevent and which to allow to cause harm.

When we talk about hiring freezes, these are the federal scientists affected. We need to remind ourselves of the tireless and often thankless jobs that countless federal scientists do every day to benefit the American public.

I want to be clear: Thank you, government scientists!

PS This is not an exhaustive list. Do you know other federal scientists who are working to keep us safe and healthy every day?  Let me know in the comments!

President Trump and the New China Challenge

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Some said it would come by sea. Others worried it would come from outer space. But the most serious Chinese challenge to US leadership is happening on what used to be America’s home court: the court of global public opinion.

Three days before US President Donald Trump told the world in his inaugural address “that from this day forward it is only going to be America first,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that China was committed to developing “an open global economy, where the opportunities and benefits of openness are shared, where mutual interests are realized and everyone wins.”

After the inauguration, President Trump also made it clear that global concerns about climate change are no longer a concern of the US government. Xi, on the other hand, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change “a responsibility to our children, grandchildren and future generations we must shoulder.” Optimistically, Xi noted that addressing climate change is “in accord with the trend of global development.”

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, told the Washington Post, “I think it’d be good if people compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural.” It’s a suggestion he may come to regret. The world’s reaction to President Trump’s inaugural was decidedly negative. Xi’s defense of an environmentally sustainable and integrated global economy was well-received in China and internationally.

Xi makes the case for economic globalization

China’s president spoke for nearly an hour and in great detail about economic globalization and its pitfalls. He described globalization as “the inexorable result of objective needs and scientific progress.” He argued it “accelerated the circulation of commodities and capital, the progress of science and culture and the interaction of people from every nation.”

But Xi also admitted that international economic integration is “a double-edged sword” that globalizes economic difficulties along with economic benefits. Xi acknowledged there were “anti-globalization voices” that raised important questions “we should ponder and take seriously.”

The three major problems Xi identified suggest he believes the United States bears the lion’s share of the burden for globalization’s shortcomings, although he never mentions the United States explicitly.

The first is the slowdown in economic growth and international trade that followed the US financial crisis.

The second is what Xi called a “lag in global economic governance.” Developing nations now account for a larger share of the global economy and are the largest drivers of global economic growth. Yet a few large developed nations still dominate international economic institutions, which, according to Xi, makes it “difficult to adapt to new changes in the global economy.”

Xi argued inequality is the third and most serious flaw in a global economy where “the wealth of the richest 1% of the global population exceeds the combined wealth of the other 99%.” Xi emphasized this final point, saying:

“More than 700 million people live in the midst of extreme poverty. For many families, having a warm and safe place to live, sufficient food and steady work is still a kind of extravagant hope. This is the greatest challenge facing the world today, and an important reason for the social turmoil in some nations.”

Citing Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, Xi said that “Our real enemies are not neighboring countries, but hunger, poverty, ignorance, superstition and prejudice.”

And Xi drew a sharp contrast between China’s hopeful approach to these problems and the defeatism of unnamed others:

“Human history tells us the presence of problems is not to be feared. What is to be feared is the unwillingness to face problems directly, to search for and find a train of thought that resolves problems. In the face of the opportunities and challenges of economic globalization the correct choice is to fully utilize every opportunity, to cooperate in confronting every challenge and to shepherd the direction of economic globalization.”

President Trump responds

President Obama was fond of telling the Chinese that history was on the side of the United States. President Trump used his inaugural address to present a grim rebuttal:

“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”

President Trump depicts US global leadership as a debilitating burden. The gains of global trade, heralded by his Chinese counterpart, were, according to the new US president, “ripped from the homes” of middle class Americans and “redistributed across the entire world.” The President cannot seem to imagine the possibility that global trade created new wealth in the United States and the rest of the world at the same time.

President Trump argued that decades of US-led global integration led to an “American carnage” he would end with “a new vision” of America’s role in the world that will effect “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration and on foreign affairs.” It is a zero-sum vision supported by new US policies that “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” Trump’s “America first” policies are intended to make sure that the United States is “winning again.” Although Trump hopes to preserve and cultivate allies, he described the core of his protectionist vision as “a total allegiance to the United States of America.”

Which message has greater appeal?

If the United States turns its back on the world, the world could respond in kind. The consequences of the new US administration’s ideological atavism—Bannon called it “Jacksonian”—are impossible to predict. But President Trump’s bet against the continuation of economic globalization pits 5% of the world’s population against the other 95%. Left to fend for itself, without the US direction they’ve experienced for decades, the rest of the world may decide it is better off without it.

That does not mean the world must or will follow China. And Xi, despite US characterizations of his speech as an act of political opportunism, told the international audience in Switzerland, after extolling the successes of China’s economic development, “Many paths go through Rome. None should take their own development path as the only one, much less force one’s own development path on others.”

Xi does not appear to be contesting US global leadership. He is contesting the idea that the world needs a leader.

Global apprehensions about China, combined with global respect for the United States, has obscured much of what Xi has been saying about the state of the world and its future since he assumed office in 2012. While many may remain skeptical about Xi’s commitment to the ideas he discussed at Davos, his speech—especially when compared with President Trump’s inaugural address—should, at the very least, ensure China’s views on global governance get a more careful hearing in the court of world opinion.

Xi could help China’s case by being as broadminded at home as he was in Switzerland. International anxieties about China are rooted in concerns about the way the Chinese government handles domestic disagreements. A more benevolent and trusting approach to its own citizens—a greater willingness to allow them to express their opinions and participate in public life—would go a long way towards convincing the rest of the world the Chinese government is now strong and confident enough to comprise when considering disputes with its neighbors and the rest of the world.

Will Electric Cars Thrive, Survive, or Die Under President Trump?

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President Trump just dropped his “America First” energy plan and, not surprisingly, it doesn’t include renewable energy or electric vehicles. It does, however, mention the importance of protecting clean air and clean water though it also encourages the very energy sources that pollute both of these public goods. Weird.

President Trump’s beachhead teams are swiftly infiltrating the federal agencies meaning that the policies that helped electric vehicles during the Obama years could soon get scaled back or dismantled altogether. The electric car has already been killed once, will it be killed again?

(TL:DR – probably not, given the demand for clean transportation outside of the U.S. and the declining cost of electric vehicle batteries).

Federal support for EVs has been important

Electric vehicles (EVs) have needed federal support to compete in a market that has been dominated by the gasoline engine and a reluctance from automakers to invest in new technologies like seat belts or fuel efficiency. Aside from the federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for buying an EV, the Obama Administration enacted a series of initiatives that helped EVs to gain a finger hold in the national vehicle market. The Department of Energy provided low cost capital to Tesla, Ford, and other automakers seeking to develop EV manufacturing plants, the Department of Transportation began to make on-the-go charging easier by identifying highway corridors ripe for EV chargers, signage, and investment, and our national laboratories helped cut battery costs from over $1,000 per kilowatt hour to around $200 per kWh.

Battery costs have continued to fall, helping meet the increased demand for electric vehicles. Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

State support has been critical too

State-based policy has also been instrumental in helping EVs succeed. The California Zero Emission Vehicle Program, for example, requires automakers to sell EVs in California or obtain credits from other automakers that sold EVs in the Golden State (see: Tesla’s business model). In 2018 this program will require automakers to sell EVs in 9 other states that have adopted the California program, and which collectively make up about a quarter of the national vehicle market. Other states have EV policies too, and mayors, governors, and other elected officials across the country have pledged to continue state and local support for EVs.

Thanks in part to federal and state policy, consumers are now able to access many more electric vehicle options compared to 2011. More EV offerings from more automakers are planned in the next couple years, which will help the EV market continue to grow. Note that all BMW i3s were considered BEV, though some were the range-extender models that are PHEVs. Source: ucsusa.org

How President Trump can affect the electric vehicle market

Maybe President Trump will try to undo all of this policy support, maybe he won’t. I can’t find any mention of his possible stance on EVs, though I’m encouraged that he met with Tesla CEO Elon Musk and other automaker CEOs in his first week in office. I’m also discouraged by recent comments from Ford’s CEO on his hope that the President will ease fuel economy standards.

In theory, President Trump and Congress could not only dismantle federal EV support – through repealing the federal EV tax credit and halting federal EV programs – they could also attempt to repeal the sections of the Clean Air Act that both grant California the unique authority to set its own pollution limits and allow other states to follow California’s lead. There’s been no indication that the President or Congress will take this route, but lawmakers have taken swipes at the Clean Air Act in the past and it’s important to recognize the power of the federal government to impede state authority to combat climate change.

Don’t get too worried, though. The UCS #geeksquad is keeping a close eye on Congress and the new Administration and are always ready to help you join the fight against efforts to stop the progress our country has made toward reducing oil use and climate change pollution. Interested in finding out how you can get alerts for future engagement opportunities? Head on over here.

EV sales continue to rise even as gasoline prices decline. Sources: InsideEVs.com and U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The electric vehicle market can survive even without U.S. policy support

Join me on Hypothetical Avenue for a moment, won’t you? Assuming that U.S. policy support for EVs is put on hold, there are several indications that the global EV market will continue to grow.

First and foremost, EVs are simply a great product. The Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt, and Tesla Model S are among the highest rated vehicles on Consumer Reports, and GM’s Chevy Bolt has already been anointed as Motor Trends’ 2017 Car of the Year. I’ve driven many different EV models and am certain that once you get into an EV and press your foot on the accelerator, you’ll be hooked too. They are too much fun to drive to ever want to go back to a gas engine.

Second, driving and owning an EV will save you money. Even though gas is cheap, driving on electricity remains cheaper – by about half. All-electric vehicles, like the Nissan LEAF or Chevy Bolt, also have fewer moving parts and don’t require oil changes or other types of periodic maintenance, meaning that their maintenance costs are forecast to be 35 percent lower than a comparable gasoline car. Overall, owning an EV can save you thousands in fuel costs over the vehicle’s lifetime.

Driving on electricity is still cheaper than gasoline. Source: egallon.gov.

Third, they pollute considerably less than comparable gasoline vehicles and, when charged by energy sources other than coal, can help abate the heavy air quality pollution that plagues many cities around the world. As I type I’m listening to a news report from London where a recent spike in air pollution was the highest level recorded since April 2011. Cities in China, India, and other densely populated areas also experience poor air quality due, in part, to transportation emissions. Since all-electric vehicles don’t produce any tailpipe emissions, many leaders outside the U.S. recognize the great potential for EVs to make air cleaner and safer – especially for children and the elderly in urban areas who are more vulnerable to air quality-related health impacts.

Fourth, car companies – both newcomers like Tesla and Faraday Future, and also incumbents like GM and BMW – have heavily invested in EVs and staked their part of their reputation on EVs succeeding. The U.S. vehicle market accounts for only a fifth of global vehicle sales and other regions with fast-growing vehicle markets, persistent air pollution problems, and a commitment to combat climate change will continue to generate demand for EVs. While U.S. momentum on fuel economy and EVs may well slow under President Trump, any automaker that considers itself a global player won’t be able to – or won’t want to – simply stop work on next-generation vehicles because the global demand for vehicles that are cheaper and cleaner to drive will persist.

Of course, to generate true mass appeal an EV’s sticker price needs to be at least competitive, if not less than, a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle. Today, the upfront cost of an EV in the U.S. is partially offset by the federal tax credit and any additional state tax credits. EVs are generally more expensive that a similar gasoline-powered vehicle because (a) EVs are not made at the same scale as conventional vehicles and (b) lithium-ion batteries remain somewhat costly to produce. So, as the global vehicle market demands more EVs and they are made at bigger scales, costs will come down to some extent.

But the larger potential cost reduction comes from reducing battery costs, which have fallen 70 percent in the last 18 months and which the National Academies of Science forecast to be cut in half by 2020. In addition, there could be more breakthroughs in battery chemistry research (also applicable to cell phone batteries and other electronics, which are driving investment in battery R&D too) that could make EV batteries even cheaper. These two factors have led some auto industry analysts to forecast that EVs will be cheaper to own than conventional cars by 2022.

But the electric vehicle market will thrive if the U.S. continues to lead the way

Given the rising global demand for vehicles that cut tailpipe emissions and the potential for battery costs to come down to the point at which an EV is either the same price or even cheaper than a similar gas vehicle, EVs will likely remain on a path to success under President Trump – even if he does his best to dismantle those pesky government regulations that protect our health and environment.

However, the optimist in me thinks the President can recognize the potential for the U.S. to seize the opportunity to be the leader in the emerging clean transportation economy and continue producing clean vehicles (and jobs) here at home.

There’s a strong case to be made for why EVs can and should be an American export. Tesla – an American company – may become a global leader in EV sales and will soon begin producing lithium-ion batteries from its “gigafactory” in Nevada. The Nissan LEAF, one of the most popular EVs for sale, is made in Smyrna, Tennessee along with its batteries. And General Motors has not been shy about investing in EVs, with its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt and all-electric Chevy Bolt both coming from assembly lines in Michigan.

But foreign automakers are just as keen to win the race to electrify the global vehicle market. BMW, the VW conglomerate, and Chinese automaker BYD, for example, have all poured billions into EVs and would gladly become the primary supplier of EVs for households across the U.S.

Tesla’s are being made in Fremont, California, and their battery production is set to ramp up from the Tesla “gigafactory” in Nevada. Source Wikicommons.

Ultimately, the automaker that becomes the dominant EV supplier will likely be the one that operates in a supportive and stable policy environment. Under President Obama, domestic automakers were not only bailed out, but they were given great incentives to make the U.S. the global leader in clean transportation technology. Now it’s up to President Trump to decide whether to continue the hard won progress some U.S. auto companies (notably GM and Tesla) have made toward becoming the dominant EV exporter and leader, or become just another customer.

Droughts and Floods: How Climate Change is Affecting California’s Water Supply

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The beginning of the new year brought massive amounts of precipitation to the northern half of the Golden State. So much rain, in fact, that some rivers have flooded over their banks, damaging property and endangering lives. And today, the U.S. Drought Monitor estimates that only about 60% of the state remains in drought, with a very small portion of the state experiencing “extreme” drought conditions. Yet, a quarter of the state remains in “severe” drought, which includes some of our largest cities and dying forests. And year after year, we are using more water than we receive, causing long-term groundwater overdraft (we use about 1 million acre-feet more groundwater than is replaces, annually).

Thus, some areas of Southern California may continue to experience water shortages this year, particularly if warm weather melts much of the snow that has accumulated in the Sierras to-date. The risk is real given that scientists recently named 2016 as the hottest year on record (the third record-breaking year in a row). This spells trouble for snow.

Yesterday, the Union of Concerned Scientists held an informational briefing at the Capitol to discuss how climate change is at the root of more extreme weather  – both floods and droughts. And scientists have been warning us about this for years.

Back to the Future

Back in 1988, Discover magazine ran a cover article on “The Greenhouse Effect.” The article examined how California’s water may be affected by climate change, featuring an image depicting more rain, less snow and flooding in the winter paired with hot, dry conditions and empty reservoirs in the summer. Sound familiar?

While snowpack levels look great right now, it’s simply too soon to say whether that snow will stick around through the spring to melt into reservoirs when water demands are the highest in the hotter months. Just last year, we had above-average snowpack at this time of the year. But a warm spring meant that the state’s crucial snowpack melted much faster than in the past, creating a false sense of security before running out. So although snowpack was near normal on April 1, 2016, only six weeks later it was down to just 35 percent of normal. And you know the rest, a hot summer brought continued drought stress and water shortages.

Our reality is changing. We can no longer rely on the type of infrastructure we currently have to deliver reliable water supplies. Global warming is changing our precipitation patterns and we need to change how we store, manage, and consume water if we are to have water security in the future.

It’s Time for Solutions

It’s not all bad news. There are solutions. First, California has been a leader when it comes to reducing heat-trapping emissions that create many of these problems in the first place. Secondly, our underground aquifers have about three times the storage capacity as all of our above-ground reservoirs. These underground reservoirs are located throughout the state and are a great place to put water that comes in the form of rain, rather than snow.

Groundwater is key to adapting to climate change in California since heavy rains can be captured underground and stored for use during drought periods. The only problem is that groundwater has been virtually unregulated in the state. That all changed a few years ago when California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which is the first statewide requirement to manage our shared groundwater resources.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has been tracking the implementation of this law and is a part of the new Groundwater Collaborative webinar series all about how you can get involved in better local groundwater management (click here to find out more).  We hope you will join us.

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