Combined UCS Blogs

Solar Panels vs. Gromdars—Battle of the Century, or No Contest?

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Two technologies have been going head-to-head to capture the public’s imagination. Both represent wholly new ways of doing things, and both hold tremendous potential. But what’s the reality behind the headlines? Which one really deserves the limelight?

As with so many issues, facts and data are the way to find out. So, here you have it: Solar Panels versus Gromdars, 2017 edition.

Solar’s costs keep falling; can’t tell about Gromdars.

One obvious point of comparison between products such as solar and Gromdars is the cost trajectory for each.

Solar has made incredible strides in just the last few years. The costs of residential solar systems fell by more than half from 2009 to 2015, and fell another 17% last year. That’s incredibly good news for would-be customers.

Solar’s costs keep coming down (Data source: LBNL 2016).

In terms of data on Gromdars’ cost trajectory, all we’ve got is this, from the inventor:

‘The question isn’t whether you can afford to buy a Gromdar; the question is whether you can afford not to.’

Actually, the question is how much they cost, and whether they’re getting cheaper. I really think we’re going to need something more specific than that, data-wise, if we’re going to build it into our economy in a meaningful way.

Solar keeps spreading; Gromdars…?

Scale and costs go hand-in-hand. Gromdar, it seems, has a goal “not only put a Gromdar in each home, but in each room of each home.” The company’s initial surge reportedly saw it “selling thousands of Gromdars.” There are no more recent public numbers, though, to back up any ongoing claims of success.

So solar is apparently way ahead on that score. Last year, another 370,000 solar systems got installed in the US, mostly on homes. The 2016 additions brought the residential total to almost 1.3 million solar households—more than double the total from just two years earlier.

Another home goes solar (Credit: J. Rogers)

And real-world experience bears out that sense of the relative progress of the two technologies. Think about the people you know who have gone solar, the houses you’ve passed by with solar on their roofs, the stories of people feeling empowered by solar. My kids and I make a game of pointing out every solarized home as we drive around areas where it’s taken hold.

Gromdars? Not so much. My kids almost never shout out from the back seat, “Look, Daddy — a Gromdar!”

Everyone loves solar; Gromdars are… working on it.

While there are some indications of demand for Gromdars, there are also indications that they aren’t a slam dunk, as far as the market is concerned:

Responding to concerns about the marketability of home Gromdars, the tech entrepreneur acknowledged that most new products face resistance from the consuming public when they are first introduced.

Solar, on the other hand, I think it’s fair to say has seldom faced public resistance. That is, people have always loved the idea of a beautifully silent space-age technology calmly churning out electrons for each of us whenever sunlight comes around. It was just a question of affordability.

And now solar is the most popular energy option around: According to the Pew Research Center, 89% of Americans would support getting more of our energy from the sun.

Everybody loves solar! (Source: Pew Research Center 2016)

Pew apparently didn’t include Gromdars in its survey, though we can hope they remedy that oversight.

Solar means jobs; no news on Gromdars.

Employment prospects are another reason that someone might love one or both of these technologies. Alas, no indication of how Gromdar jobs are faring.

Solar, though, is doing amazing things in that department. The 2016 solar jobs census found last year solar employment increased by 25 percent, to 260,000 people. Solar accounted for a stunning one out of every 50 new jobs in 2016. That’s real progress.

And the winner is…

It’s not always a good idea to compare two such interesting technologies head-to-head like this. But if we do (and we have), we find (and have found) that—sorry, Gromdar—solar wins, hands down.

Don’t you, though, put your hands down. Put them up, in celebration, and cheer solar’s progress.

At a time when many key decisions in Washington about our climate and energy future seem like jokes, not serious policy, we’d be fools not to.

Happy April 1.



Photo: Black Rock Solar/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Scientific Integrity Policies Do Not Make Agencies the Fact Police

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Recently, the Sierra Club filed a complaint with the EPA Inspector General alleging that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy by making false statements about climate change science. Reuters is reporting that the IG has referred the complaint to the agency’s scientific integrity official. But the EPA should proceed carefully in deciding whether to consider this as an issue that is subject to the agency’s scientific integrity standards.

Scientific integrity policies exist to prevent political interference in the process by which science informs decision making. They exist to protect the rights of scientists to communicate about their work and to prevent the manipulation and suppression of scientific evidence throughout the policymaking process.

The policies were not, however, created to fact check every statement made by a public official. They were developed in response to overt political interference in science that became common during the George W. Bush administration. Scientists were censored. Official scientific reports were altered by political appointees. Testing processes were changed to suggest that unsafe products were really safe after all. These are the types of actions that are most deserving of scrutiny.

It is tempting to want to punish public officials for lying about established science. But the scientific integrity policies do not serve this function, and for good reason. If scientific integrity officials were expected to become de facto fact police, they would spend all of their time looking at these kinds of allegations, and have little time left over to investigate actions that can have the most significant effects on science-based decision making.

To be clear, what Scott Pruitt said on CNBC was bananas. It’s unacceptable for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to make such patently false statements. But attempting to punish the administrator under the scientific integrity policy isn’t the right approach, and could even distract public attention and agency investigative resources away from the real damage that the Trump administration is doing to our collective ability to meet the challenge of climate change and protect public health and safety.

Disregarding Science, Trump Administration Trades Kids’ Brains for Dow Profit

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At the risk of exhausting you with more evidence of the Trump administration’s contempt for science and the public interest, here’s another assault. After years of study and deliberation by scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and elsewhere, new EPA head Scott Pruitt announced Wednesday night that he would not ban a pesticide that poses a clear risk to children, farm workers, and rural drinking water users.

In doing so, the administration made a 180-degree turn, handing a win to the pesticide’s maker, Dow AgroSciences (a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company) and a loss to pretty much everyone else.

An about-face on the science

Let’s be clear, the EPA doesn’t just regulate chemicals willy-nilly. It usually has to be pushed, sometimes hard. And in this case it was. Tom Philpott at Mother Jones has an excellent rundown of the years-long saga surrounding the nerve-damaging organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos at the EPA. Under a court order, EPA proposed in November 2015 to effectively ban this pesticide by revoking the agency’s “tolerances” (legal limits allowed in or on food) for the chemical:

At this time, the agency is unable to conclude that the risk from aggregate exposure from the use of chlorpyrifos meets the safety standard of section 408(b)(2) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). Accordingly, EPA is proposing to revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos.

When the EPA gets that close to banning a pesticide, you can bet the science is solid. So it’s shocking that, under another court-imposed deadline to finalize its decision this month, the agency’s new science-denier-in-chief abruptly backtracked, suggesting in his statement that the science of chlorpyrifos’s harmful effects isn’t settled.

That claim is disingenuous.

Chlorpyrifos poses a clear-cut risk to children, farmworkers, and rural residents

Chlorpyrifos has been studied extensively, and for years. Once the most commonly used pesticide in US homes, it has been increasingly regulated over the last two decades as scientific evidence of its harm has mounted. Almost all residential uses were eliminated in 2000 based on evidence of developmental neurotoxicity—that is, the chemical’s ability to damage the developing brains of fetuses and young children. Since then, many on-farm uses have also been restricted or banned.

But it’s not enough. The pesticide is still used on corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, certain vegetables including Brussels sprouts and broccoli, and other crops. And it’s still harming kids and workers.

Last year, researchers studying mothers and children living in the agricultural Salinas Valley of California documented that just living within a kilometer of farm fields where chlorpyrifos and other neurotoxic pesticides were used lowered IQs by more than two points in 7-year-old children, with corresponding impairment in verbal comprehension. Other studies have found that exposure in the womb is associated with changes in brain structure and function. Farm worker exposure is also a concern, as is exposure of rural residents through drinking water.

Which brings us back to the regulatory battle. Last fall, a coalition of environmental, labor, and health organizations petitioned the EPA to ban all remaining uses of chlorpyrifos, citing unacceptable risks to workers. In November, the EPA inched closer to a ban, revising its human health risk assessment and drinking water exposure assessment for chlorpyrifos. The agency summarized its conclusions this way:

This assessment shows dietary and drinking water risks for the current uses of chlorpyrifos. Based on current labeled uses, the revised analysis indicates that expected residues of chlorpyrifos on food crops exceed the safety standard under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). In addition, the majority of estimated drinking water exposure from currently registered uses, including water exposure from non-food uses, continues to exceed safe levels, even taking into account more refined drinking water exposure. This assessment also shows risks to workers who mix, load and apply chlorpyrifos pesticide products. (emphasis added)

The proposed ban was supported by independent scientists and a coalition of Latino, labor, and health organizations including the United Farm Workers.

Oh yeah, and it was supported by the science and the federal law meant to protect children from toxic pesticides.

EPA is legally required to ban pesticides that threaten health

In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark report titled Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Based on a five-year study, the report recommended major changes in the way EPA regulated pesticides in order to protect children’s health, noting that children are not “little adults.” Three years later, Congress acted on those scientific recommendations, passing the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 unanimously (yes, I said unanimously, can you imagine?).

This breakthrough law mandated that the EPA go above and beyond what it had ever done before in considering the developmental susceptibility of infants and children, and their dietary habits, when making regulatory decisions about pesticides. The law built in a 10-fold “safety factor” to be sure kids would be protected.

Of course, children are only protected if the EPA follows the law and the science. And Dow kept the pressure on to ensure they wouldn’t. For now, Pruitt’s announcement represents “final agency action” on chlorpyrifos, and the EPA won’t be required to revisit the question of the pesticide’s safety until 2022. (Sorry, kids.)

How else might the Trump administration undermine science and children’s health?

This latest decision, along with the proposed slashing of EPA’s budget, leaves me wondering just how far the new administration will go in ignoring science and undoing children’s health protections. While the EPA budget cuts are getting a lot of attention, some health scientists are worried as well about the fate of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) as well. In partnership with EPA, NIEHS operates a national network of research centers studying children’s environmental health and educating the public about risks. If funding for those centers is also cut, who will look out for the health of children?

I spent years back in the late 90s and early aughts pressing Congress and the EPA to tighten the rules on toxic chemicals. We’re still not where we need to be, but we’ve made progress. And now it looks like that progress is very much at risk.


Richard Leeming/Flickr

Survey Shows Abundant Snow, But Will it Stick?

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Today’s snow survey confirms abundant snow in the Sierra Nevada, an extreme turn from five years of drought. With climate change contributing to warmer winters in the Sierra Nevada, that snow may not stay put for long – an early snowmelt will cause flooding and require reservoirs to spill excess water that could threaten safety of California dams in the weeks to come.

As a consequence, Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti recently declared a state of emergency for the small town of Owens Valley located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, nearly 300 miles from LA, where much of the city’s water supply originates. The mayor is worried that the melting mountain snowpack would flood the Owens Valley and overwhelm the LA Aqueduct, causing up to $500 million in damage.

Essentially, we have a timing problem. Our increasingly outdated water system relies on high elevation dams designed to fill slowly with snowmelt over the spring and summer, delivering water in the summer and fall when water demands are highest.

Today’s water system is experiencing earlier snowmelt that is filling reservoirs and forcing excess water to be spilled, leading to the type of flooding and infrastructure damage that we witnessed in Oroville and San Jose over the past two months.

This winter may be a sign of what’s to come. Dr. Alex Hall of UCLA’s newest climate science research concludes that the peak snowmelt, which has historically occurred in April, will shift to January by the end of this century. Our current system of dams, reservoirs and levees is not prepared to handle an extreme shift like that and will fail to deliver anywhere near the quantity of water it does today.

That’s why we must develop a more climate-resilient water system – one that makes more effective use of groundwater storage — a critical strategy to adapting to the loss of snowpack and the shift in the timing of water supply.

California’s underground aquifers have three times the storage capacity as all of the state’s above-ground reservoirs. With global warming increasingly causing precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow, it’s time to stop looking up to the mountains for our water supply and start paying attention to the larger storage capacity underneath our feet.

President Trump’s Executive Orders Promise Energy Independence, But Deliver Trouble

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As President Trump and the Republicans on Capitol Hill are quickly learning, developing real public policy is a lot more complicated than repeating popular slogans to excited fans on the campaign trail.  And this holds true not just for health care, but for taxes, energy, environmental and transportation policy.  Earlier this week President Trump signed an executive order, instructing agency heads to take several steps toward “promoting energy independence and economic growth.”

Energy independence and economic growth sound like good goals—just like everyone wants health care insurance with better coverage, more competition, and lower premiums.  But since the campaign is over and the work of actual policy-making is getting underway, let’s consider how the measures proposed in this executive order and other recent actions stack up against the promises.

Looking for energy independence in the wrong places

My colleague Rachel Cleetus reviewed the broad implications for the planet of President Trump’s All-Out Attack on Climate Policy. I’ll focus on the transportation specific implications.  President Trump’s executive order talks about “energy independence,” but, in reality, the Clean Power Plan that the President’s order seeks to repeal focuses on electricity generation.

Virtually none of the resources used to make electricity — coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables — are imported.  The United States is a net exporter of coal, and imports a trivial share of its natural gas, mostly from Canada.  Wind and solar energy, meanwhile, are clean, non-depleting domestic resources.  That means that electricity is about 99 percent domestically produced.  The vast majority of our energy imports are oil and the Clean Power Plan has nothing to do with oil.  Eliminating the Clean Power Plan will have no impact on energy independence.

Historical data and projections from the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2017 show that the US does not import coal, and imports very little natural gas. Oil has been and is expected to remain the main energy import.

Oil Imports = Oil Use – Oil Production

It’s simple arithmetic, but the Trump administration seems to have forgotten that the amount of energy (mostly oil) that the United States does import depends on how much oil Americans use, less the amount the nation produces.  So, we can reduce imports by either using less oil or by producing more.  Of the two options, using less oil solves a lot of other problems; producing more causes more problems than it solves.

Cutting oil use through efficiency is the smart path to energy security

Cutting demand for oil is a long-term process, because we all have places to go and, on any given day, we don’t have an unlimited set of choices for transportation.  Over the last decade, the United States has made major progress improving the efficiency of the cars we drive.  A decade ago an average new car got about 20 miles per gallon (mpg), and that figure is 25 mpg today.  We are on the road to new cars averaging 35 mpg or more a decade from now.  This means that while a new car used 600 gallons of gas a year in 2005, a new car is using 480 gallons to drive the same distance today and this will fall to less than 350 gallons in 2025.

With similar improvements in the efficiency of big rigs, planes and other vehicles, this adds up to substantial oil savings as the current inefficient fleet is replaced by more efficient cars, trucks and planes.  Efficiency improvements don’t just help reduce oil use, they save drivers billions of dollars and reduce global warming pollution.

But that’s only if our efficiency programs are fully implemented. Instead, the Trump administration has signaled its intention to weaken our federal fuel efficiency and vehicle emission program. Weakening these standards would cost drivers more money, increase our consumption of oil and hurt energy independence, as well as increasing global warming pollution.

Every additional electric vehicle cuts oil use, energy imports, and slows climate change

Replacing a typical 2015 25 mpg car with a 35 mpg car in 2025 saves 130 gallons a year.  But replacing it with a plug-in electric vehicle cuts US oil use to zero.  And since electricity is 99 percent domestic, the impact on energy imports is dramatic.  In addition, electric vehicles are less polluting than gasoline powered cars, even when electricity generation is included, and are getting steadily cleaner over time. The smartest path to energy security, as well as a low carbon future, is to electrify transportation as quickly as possible.

US oil production increased rapidly in the last decade, so what problem are we trying to solve?

The administration claims that Obama-era policies have choked off the oil industry, but this does not square with the facts.  Domestic oil production grew 80 percent between 2005 and 2015, almost entirely because of expanded production of so-called tight oil from fracking, which now accounts for more than half of US oil production.  US oil production fell in 2016 because of low oil prices, and future domestic oil production depends mainly on the global price of oil, rather than on regulations.  Indeed oil companies’ financial statements make it clear that recent and proposed environmental regulations have “no material impact” on their business. What does matter is global energy prices.

The Energy Information Administration projects that if oil prices rise enough to bring gasoline retail prices to $5 per gallon, the U.S. may indeed become a net oil exporter as consumption falls and production rises.  But if oil prices are low, imports will rise.  If you are worried about Americans struggling to pay their fuel bills, investments in efficiency will do much more to protect them from volatile oil prices than will weakening regulations that protect the public from oil industry pollution.  And while many factors influence global oil prices, cutting demand for oil by accelerating the progress of efficiency and electrification will certainly help push oil prices down and protect consumers.

The administration’s proposals have nothing to do with responsible energy production

The term “energy independence” is never defined in the executive order, but the emptiness and cynicism with which it is used is clear.  This order, together with other recent energy related measures the administration is advancing, allow oil and gas producers to waste natural gas instead of collecting it, to weaken fuel efficiency standards, and permit construction of a pipeline that will encourage expansion of some of the dirtiest crude in the world.  These measures will harm many people and set back efforts to reduce global warming pollution.  They primarily remove energy producers’ and automakers’ obligations to consider the consequences of their actions on climate change, and they will not reduce US energy imports.

Real energy security means energy that does not harm our security (or health or economy)

Energy in many different forms is essential to our lives, but just because energy is important does not imply that energy companies should not be responsible to minimize the harms caused by the production and use of their products.  Climate change poses a profound threat to our health, prosperity and security, so meaningful energy security must include a path to climate stabilization.  Transportation recently surpassed electricity generation as the largest source of CO2 emissions in the United States, and these emissions come overwhelmingly from oil.  Cutting transportation emissions means using less oil, through improved efficiency and rapid electrification of transportation.  Transportation fuel producers also have an important role to play, and oil companies no less than biofuels or electricity producers must reduce the pollution from their operations.

Companies and countries that lead the way towards a low carbon future will have a competitive advantage as the world inevitably moves to grapple with climate change.  The winners will be vehicle manufacturers that produce the most efficient vehicles and lead the way towards electrification, and energy companies that avoid the most polluting fossil fuels and reduce avoidable emissions from their operations.  Smart policies will help American companies lead the way, but the short sighted regulatory rollback the Trump administration is pursuing will leave American industry uncompetitive.  Responsible industries understand that protecting their customers and the communities in which they operate is key to maintaining their social license. While the Trump administration is actively facilitating irresponsible behavior, the world is watching.  The future will ultimately and inevitably favor companies that live up to their responsibilities.

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Ignores the Science on Pesticides, Puts Children at Risk

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The appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator in the Trump administration worried a lot of people like me because of his long history of attacking the work of the very agency he is now leading. It has only been a few weeks, but one pattern is emerging. Mr Pruitt will be misstating the scientific evidence while overstating the gaps in the work of the agency’s scientists as an excuse for inaction.

Pruitt refuses to regulate pesticides that impact child development

Yesterday, Mr. Pruitt denied a long-standing petition by public interest groups to restrict the use of pesticides containing chlorpyrifos, a chemical whose health impacts include long-term, irreversible effects on children’s brain development.

Pruitt’s action overturns the decision made by the EPA last year to protect children from developmental delays caused by exposure—in food and in water—to residues of this commonly used pesticide. The analysis of risk to children by agency and academic scientists has been reviewed and re-reviewed and is supported by a wide range of scientists from academia and research institutions.

So what was Administrator Pruitt’s conclusion in one of his first official actions? He uses telling phrases in his press release:

EPA needs to provide “regulatory certainty,” which apparently means do nothing.

And the EPA must return to using “science in decision-making – rather than predetermined results.” Given that the science in this case was well reviewed and that the petition was under consideration for years, it seems the only result that was predetermined is that Pruitt would side with industry groups that have consistently resisted regulations to restrict the use of this pesticide.

The press release incorrectly asserts that there are serious scientific concerns and the studies on risks were misapplied. But that is not what the scientists said, so apparently Mr Pruitt is overruling the evidence in making his decision. Maybe “sound science” is Pruitt pseudo-science.

Play it again Scott

It was only a few weeks ago that Administrator Pruitt, speaking on the role of CO2 emissions in changing our climate. had this to say:

“I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet, we need to continue the debate we need to continue the review and analysis.”

Once again, Mr. Pruitt attempts to sow seeds of doubt on the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change, just like with pesticides. But as my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel points out, he is just wrong on the science.

Misstating the scientific evidence is just that, falsifying the facts. And it is not an excuse for inaction.

Mr. Pruitt, your job—by law—is to protect the public health and safety. Please do it.

Climate Enters Unchartered Territory—But We Can Prepare for the Risks Global Warming Brings

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The World Meteorological Organization recently released its State of The Global Climate for 2016. There was a wealth of information in it: a new temperature record (approximately 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period and 0.06 °C above the previous record set in 2015), CO2 new highs (400.0 ± 0.1 ppm in the atmosphere at the end of 2015), unprecedented global sea-ice extent (more than 4 million km2 below average in November), and global sea level rise in early 2016 values making new records (with plenty of coral bleaching and acidification).

To top it all, news were also released that ice in both the Arctic and Antarctica have reached record low extents (for winter maximum in the Arctic and summer minimum in Antarctica).


State of the Climate 2016, WMO 2017.

“Truly Uncharted Territory”

All of those facts are eye-catching and concerning enough, but they were not the headline-makers. That honor went to the line “Truly Uncharted Territory”. It describes perfectly the situation – we have no exact grasp of all the potential consequences because we have never been there. Yes, we do know that the temperatures will keep going up, but that does not mean we know all of the effects the higher temperatures can have – . But we could take a few guesses – and we’d probably be right.

Among the more intuitive consequences: more extensive and longer-lasting wildfires (check). More extensive and longer lasting droughts (check). More frequent and heavier downpours (check). More severe floods (check). Among the not-so-intuitive: An increase in winter storms frequency and intensity (check). An increase in the intensity, frequency and duration of Atlantic hurricanes (check). An increase in health problems related to the increase in ozone as a consequence of warming (check). There are more, but you get the idea.

We must be prepared for a range of climate-induced risks

So how can we prepare for possible outcomes of global warming? The answer is actually pretty simple: by preparing for a range of risks. Just as home insurance covers a variety of risks (but, for the record, does not cover flood), so should climate preparedness. And just as in a home we can do things to reduce risk (sprinklers, handrails, door locks), so can we do in the case of global warming.

Disaster risk reduction is a concept that has been around for quite a while. Risk reduction and management comes in many ways, such as the update to the federal flood risk management standard, part of Executive Order 13690 signed by former President Obama in 2015, which requires federal agencies to ensure that public infrastructure (including public housing, hospitals, and water treatment plants) is more resilient to flooding.

Why prepare? It makes sound fiscal sense, and saves taxpayers in the long run. The National Institute for Building Sciences in 2005 found that, on average, every dollar invested in hazard mitigation results in $4 saved in recovery costs. And from 2005 to 2014, the federal government spent $277.6 billion on disaster assistance, while FEMA designated less than $600 million toward its primary pre-disaster mitigation program. Increasing preparedness investments before disaster strikes is just plain smart – it saves not only money but disruption of the economy and human lives.

Risk reduction requires science, policies, and financial resources

Budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration can seriously undermine disaster mitigation. Not only does preparedness require financial investments, the planning must be based on solid science. Agencies like FEMA, NOAA, EPA, and HUD – all at risk of diminished budgets – are the ones providing the science and evidence-based decisions that guide disaster risk reduction programs and policies. Without the myriad scientific information streaming regularly from NOAA and EPA science programs and monitoring, FEMA and HUD can find themselves at a loss when deciding next steps. The American people will pay the price – twice: in their pockets and in their everyday lives.

Last but not least, the rolling back of climate safeguards through Executive Order will have significant impacts not only on disaster preparedness and risk reduction, but also on the necessary global warming mitigation efforts. The logic is straightforward: if we do not reduce emissions, warming rate will be higher, and with more warming, comes a broader range of possible risks, which will require more resources and more preparedness. And one thing we do not need is to have to figure out even more protections – we are struggling enough as it is.

We can effect change – one step at a time!

No matter how discouraging the news is, we can keep the fight everywhere we are, everywhere we go. Everyone has a stake in this fight, scientists and non-scientists alike. We can change things, for the people are truly powerful – and they are learning about their power. A movement has started that will not be stopped, and will hold our nation’s leaders accountable.

Please join us on April 29 for the People’s Climate Movement in Washington DC. You too can – and should – be part of the movement.


President Trump’s New Anti-Climate Executive Order Threatens Our National Security

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Yesterday, President Trump signed the Presidential Executive Order on “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth” which, as my colleague states, represents an all-out attack on climate solutions.

While policy watchers had been expecting the Administration’s attack on climate policy for some time, what many of us are still amazed at is that President Trump’s anti-climate science and policy flies in the face of the American people, who on average believe global warming is happening (70%), is caused by humans (53%), is harming people (51%), and will harm future generations (70%).

Even more amazing is the Administration’s failure to understand the climate connection when it comes to our national security.

The Military has connected the climate and security dots











During his recent visit on March 2 to Newport News Shipbuilding in Hampton Roads, President Trump was flanked by Defense Secretary Mattis and two Republican congressmen Reps. Scott Taylor of Virginia Beach and Rob Wittman.

Aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford he “lauded the Navy and the shipyard’s workforce” and underscored that he will be strong on defense (pledging to increase defense spending).  In a region that is a sea level rise hotspot, where municipalities along with military bases are taking steps to cope with rising seas, the obvious, glaring omission from his speech was climate change.

 While the omission was jaw-dropping, it’s not surprising, as he continues to fail to connect the climate and security dots. He has called climate change a hoax and as many people have pointed out, even President Trump’s own “Winter White House” aka Mar-a-lago, located at what can be argued as a hot spot of sea level rise, hasn’t helped him make this connection. And finally, not even the long history of the military recognizing climate change as a threat nor President’s Trump’s own Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, have helped.  In Mattis’ unpublished testimony, he swiftly connected the dots on climate change & national security stating that climate change is a national security issue, it requires a whole of government approach, and the DoD needs resources to adequately prepare for these changes.

President Trump’s ‘Energy Independence’ Executive Order comes in stark contrast to the military’s record on climate change and binds the hands of the Department of Defense (DoD) in ensuring our nation’s readiness in the face of climate change. The Executive order revokes the 2016 memorandum on Climate Change and National Security which established an agency-wide working group to set priorities and recommendations on addressing climate change impacts to our national security.

Alice Hill, who served in the Obama administration as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Resilience Policy for the National Security Council (and who led the working group) underscores that in addition to the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the National Intelligence Council (NIC) all recognize that climate change is a threat and that we are already feeling the impacts.

The NIC’s September 2016 report, entitled Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change, finds six key pathways in which climate change will threaten national security:


ONE:  threatens the stability of countries.

TWO:  heightens social and political tensions.

THREE:  adversely effects food prices and availability.

FOUR:  increases risks to human health.

FIVE:  negatively impacts investments and economic competitiveness.

SIX:  increases risks of abrupt climate change or “climate discontinuities and secondary surprises”.


Indeed, this is all too true and we have an abundance of evidence on these six pathways:

  • On the stability of countries: the risk of armed-conflict outbreak is increasing and that social and political tensions are fueling armed conflicts around the world particularly prone are North and Central Africa and Central Asia (also see G20 Policy Brief on Climate and Displacement)
  • On heightened social and political tensions: we know that climate change is swelling the numbers of displaced persons (in fact one person every second is displaced by climate change).
  • On food prices and availability:  studies show that climate change is already affecting food prices and scarcity, take for instance northeastern Syria from 2007 to 2010 when the worst drought on record caused crop failures and mass migration all of which were contributing factors that led to the civil war in 2011 (see this link for more evidence on climate change causing Syrian instability).
  • On risks to human health: the American Public Health Association has dubbed 2017 as the year of climate change and health and the Medical Society Consortium recently released their “MEDICAL ALERT! Climate Change Is Harming Our Health” report indicating among many other facts that children bear a greater burden of climate-associated health impacts.
  • On investments and economic competitiveness: Schroders climate change survey found that climate change represents a significant threat to the global economy in the current century and will have an inflationary impact on the world economy.
  • On abrupt climate change: The Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics published a paper by James Hansen and many others, who warn that the current climate mitigation targets don’t go far enough and will actually lead to a more dangerous climate with stronger storms, rising sea levels among other impacts (click here for a “101” on abrupt climate change).



Our recent study, US Military on the Frontlines of Rising Seas, drives home how our own military installations are at risk to being mostly underwater in the near future due to sea level rise.



Moreover, the Center for Climate and Security’s Military Expert Panel Report: Sea Level Rise and the U.S. Military’s Mission  finds that “sea level rise risks to coastal military installations will present serious risks to military readiness, operations and strategy.”


While President Trump has hit the “Ctrl-Alt-Delete” on climate science and climate policy, he can’t delete the stark evidence of the impacts of climate change that are happening now (more and longer-lasting droughts and wildfires, more frequent and heavier downpours, more severe floods, to name a few) and that billion-dollar disasters are increasing across the nation and worldwide.

Nor can President Trump press the Ctrl-Alt-Delete buttons on the hard-wired role of the military to ensure its readiness to any threat, including climate change.


The Union of Concerned Scientists Flickr National Intelligence Counci Center for Climate and Security NOAA

8 Simple Words Energy Secretary Rick Perry Can Say Right Now to Reaffirm that Scientists Won’t Be Muzzled

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Late Tuesday afternoon, Politico reported that some managers at the Department of Energy (DOE) orally instructed employees in the department’s Office of International Climate and Clean Energy not to use phrases such as “climate change” or “emissions reduction” in official communications. The department denied that any words or phrases had been banned. In the current political context, there are steps the administration should take to clear up the confusion that these allegations create.

The report suggests that the directive came from career-level DOE managers concerned about inflaming tensions with Secretary Rick Perry’s office or the White House. It is fairly common for civil servants to talk about the work they do in terms that political bosses want to hear.

Amidst confusion about whether Department of Energy employees can speak openly about climate change, Secretary Rick Perry should affirm that the government is in the business of uncovering the truth, not covering it up.

Further, social science tells us that it is important to frame conversations differently for different audiences depending on their values. When it comes to climate change, this might mean emphasizing energy independence or infrastructure resiliency. Indeed, a former DOE staffer told E&E News (paywalled) that “the drill is you change ‘climate change’ to competitiveness.’ ”

But the science—and public understanding of it—can suffer greatly when scientists don’t feel free to share information related to their jobs, even (and especially) if that information is politically inconvenient to some. Science-informed decision making is possible only when scientists feel empowered to take risks, ask difficult questions, and talk about what their results might mean for policy solutions.

Federal employees who continue to communicate climate change are simply doing their jobs. This is a critical point: it is not defiant or rebellious for scientists to communicate scientific facts. This is recognized by the existing DOE scientific integrity policy, which states in part that federal supervisors:

[w]ill neither suppress nor alter scientific or technological findings and will not intimidate or coerce federal staff, contractors, recipients of financial assistance awards, or any others, to suppress or alter scientific or technological findings or conclusions.”

During his confirmation hearing, Secretary Perry was asked by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell if he would “protect the science research at DOE related to climate,” he responded as follows:

I’m going to protect all of the science, whether it’s related to the climate, or to the other aspects of what we’re going to be doing…I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone that would attack them, no matter what their reason may be, at the Department of Energy.”

Now would be a great time for the secretary to double down on those words and clear up any confusion by publicly affirming that DOE experts are encouraged to collaborate with each other and communicate with the public.

He can do so by saying these eight words: Department experts should communicate openly about their work.

This is especially important now given that DOE employees who work on climate change were targeted during the transition and the department appeared to have difficulty allowing its experts to openly express their views in the not-so-distant past.

This positive and public affirmation is important. Right now, scientists across the government are deeply concerned about whether they will be able to continue to use their expertise to protect public health and the environment. This feeling is especially acute for climate experts. Indeed, the CDC already cancelled a climate change conference in anticipation of the new administration’s priorities. Such moves send a message to scientists to be careful communicating their work.

Far worse than banning words, however, is the idea that the government will just zero out climate change work altogether, or abandon any efforts to prepare our country for the future. Climate change research and data collection programs are heavily targeted in President Trump’s proposed budget.

While it’s not surprising that the climate change conspiracy theorists who swarmed the Trump transition team had significant impact on the proposed budget, the fact remains that cutting these programs would be a grave mistake. Let’s not let a debate over what words we can use get in the way of focusing attention on the tragic effects that the president’s plans to cut climate science and roll back science-based public protections will have on our future.

Because if a scientist yells climate change but there’s nobody there to hear it, well, it really doesn’t matter if it makes a sound now, does it.

Savings From Fuel Economy Regulations (Already in the Billions) Keep on Ticking Up

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By the time you’ve finished reading this sentence, American drivers will have saved another $4,000 in fuel costs thanks to the current fuel economy and global warming emissions regulations.  And that number will keep on ticking upwards with each new vehicle purchase, since the cars and trucks available today continue to improve in efficiency each and every year.  But it hasn’t always been this way—and the current administration seems to want to take us back.

Fuel economy has not historically improved in absence of regulation

Fuel economy regulations have been critical in moving the needle towards energy efficiency—the auto industry is historically resistant to change, pushing back on safety improvements like air bags and seat belts, resisting and circumventing requirements to reduce tailpipe pollutants, and even fighting fuel economy standards despite the tremendous benefits to their customers, the environment, and national security.  The data speaks for itself—in the years when fuel economy standards remained constant, manufacturers didn’t improve the fuel economy of their offerings, choosing instead to put technology improvements towards more power and bigger engines.

Standards have been a boon to consumers

Historically, fuel economy has only improved when standards have been tightened. (Values shown are lab test values—the “sticker” value is about 20 percent lower today.)

Research just published by the Baker Center for Public Policy shows the tremendous impact that these standards have had for consumers.  Over the lifetime of the CAFE program, it is estimated to have saved about 1.5 trillion gallons of gasoline to-date, leading to over $4 TRILLION in net savings for American drivers, even including any additional technology costs to achieve those standards.  And those savings are especially important for the most economically vulnerable populations who buy on the used car market and spend a greater share of their income on fuel—fuel economy standards are a progressive policy measure, resulting in proportionally greater benefits for poorer households.

A helpful visual to consider

To put the fuel savings from the current standards in perspective, we’ve put together a savings ticker showing how American drivers have been saving money with this program.  The program has saved tens of billions of dollars and growing with each passing second because manufacturers have had to provide consumers with more cars and trucks that are much more efficient than they were back in 2010, before the current EPA and NHTSA program took effect.

Every vehicle fueled by these standards is using less gasoline, keeping money in the hands of consumers and not oil companies, money which can be used to further drive the economy forward.  These fuel savings represent not just economic benefits but also the environmental and national security benefits of using less gasoline.

The standards are under attack

Despite the obvious benefits of these cost-effective fuel economy and global warming emissions standards, the auto industry has engaged the current administration to weaken the rules.  Thus far, the regulators have capitulated to industry’s demands—if that trend continues, we could see a rollback that could cost the American people about $100 billion, not to mention the additional use of more than 1 billion barrels of oil that will reduce our national security and result in more than 500 million metric tons of additional global warming emissions.

If you need a reminder of what’s at stake, just check out our tickerShare with your network so we can continue to tell the story of what the auto industry and this administration are threatening to take away from the American people.

The House Science Committee’s Shameful Climate Sideshow

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There are a lot of ways one can imagine, in principle, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology holding a constructive, timely hearing on the state of climate science and its implications for our nation’s climate and energy policies.

Such a hearing could, for example, examine the impacts of the Trump administration’s proposed deep cuts in federal climate research budgets on our nation’s ability to monitor and forecast the trajectory of our changing climate and protect public health and safety from increasing extreme weather and rising seas.

It could assess federal research priorities to inform and motivate public and private sector investments in clean energy innovation essential to support US competitiveness in the emerging global low-carbon economy.

Or perhaps the committee could provide our nation’s top scientists with a valuable platform to give the American public a clear-eyed briefing on the causes, consequences, and solutions to climate change, and the urgency of action, as informed by assessments by the US National Academy of Sciences and virtually every leading scientific society.


The science hearing equivalent of a World Wrestling Entertainment match

Under the misguided chairmanship of serial climate science denier Lamar Smith (R-TX), the House Science Committee we have is, sadly, not the House Science Committee we need.

On the heels of President Trump’s Executive Order aimed at gutting federal climate policies, the committee held a hearing today—mistitled as “Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method”—that presented a tired sideshow of familiar actors on the climate denial stage going through their well-rehearsed paces—the science hearing equivalent of a World Wrestling Entertainment match.

Invited to testify by the Republican majority were John Christy (University of Alabama, Huntsville), Judith Curry (emeritus, Georgia Institute of Technology), and Roger Pielke Jr (University of Colorado), who  played their familiar contrarian roles, predictably.

Only Michael Mann (Penn State University), invited to testify by the Democratic minority, accurately characterized the state of climate science as reflected by the true (and vast) majority of climate scientists.

If you really have nothing better to do, you can watch the hearing here.

Just another shameful production

We’ve seen many versions of this sideshow before. From hearings and subpoenas promoting false accusations of climate data tampering by NOAA scientists to aggressive campaigns to chill work that the Union of Concerned Scientists and others have done to brief state attorneys general on ExxonMobil’s extensive history of climate science disinformation, the House Science Committee under Chairman Smith’s leadership has long engaged in political theater to sow doubt about the reality and risks of climate change.

Today’s hearing was just another shameful production.

The strategy is clear. Writing in the Washington Post, climate scientist and retired rear admiral for the Navy David W. Titley notes that “these hearings have been designed not to provide new information or different perspectives to members of Congress but, rather, to perpetuate the myth that there is a substantive and serious debate within the science community regarding the fundamental causes or existence of human-caused climate change.”

Widely respected climate change experts share their views on the hearing

To provide some additional mainstream perspective, I asked several widely respected climate change experts to share their views.

Weighing in just before the hearing, prominent climate scientist and MIT professor Kerry Emanuel wrote that “the composition of this group is designed to reinforce the existing misapprehension among US citizens that climate scientists are divided on the question of climate change risk. This misapprehension is the largest obstacle to concrete actions to reduce the risk to our descendants and to ensure US economic leadership in the transformation of the $6 trillion global energy market to clean power sources. Lamar Smith and other radical Republicans evidently wish to prolong this misapprehension as long as possible, presumably to appease fossil fuel interests.”

Upon watching the hearing, environmental sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel University, wrote:

“The House hearing on climate change today took its expected trajectory….Following the long-term strategy developed by the tobacco interests with their motto that “Doubt is our Product,” the witnesses, with the exception of Michael Mann, attempted to create the mistaken impression that climate science is uncertain. This is a well-known political strategy to attempt to defer taking action on climate change.”

Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute, highlighted misleading testimony:

“[John] Christy complains about how atmospheric models are representing …the effects of changing atmospheric composition on climate. But the computer algorithms used to estimate tropospheric temperature from the atmospheric radiation reaching his satellite instrument are exactly the same that are used in the global climate models. The inconsistencies he has found….have been the result of his failure to properly correct for changes in the orbital height of the satellite, its time of passage, and so on.”

And as my UCS senior climate scientist colleague Juliet Christian-Smith points out, legitimate scientific uncertainty about climate risks is no excuse for inaction:

“In California, we build every building to withstand violent seismic forces despite the fact that we don’t know where or how strong the next earthquake will be. That’s because we understand the serious risks of doing nothing. Climate science is much better at modeling how the climate is changing than seismology is at predicting when and where the next earthquake will take place. And yet, climate science is under attack.”

These efforts to misconstrue science and evidence for partisan purposes must be called out and rejected

Hearings designed to promote faux climate science debate get picked up and amplified in the partisan media echo chamber. And, as recent research shows, partisan media profiling of climate doubt-mongering plays a powerful role in reinforcing and strengthening opposition to climate action among some Republicans. It’s hardly surprising, then, that a hearing designed to fire up distrust of climate science is timed to align with President Trump’s Executive Order to roll back climate regulations.

Climate science, like all science that informs policy, is inherently political. But the scientific consensus on climate change is not partisan and these egregious efforts to misconstrue science and evidence for partisan purposes must be called out and rejected by the mainstream media and by Americans across the political spectrum for the distracting and dangerous sideshow that they are.

The Clean Power Plan Has Already Accomplished One of Its Most Important Tasks

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Tuesday’s attack on the Clean Power Plan (CPP) did not exactly come as a surprise. Since the day President Trump was elected, the rule’s fate has seemed near-well sealed—when CPP lawsuit ringleader Scott Pruitt was confirmed as EPA administrator, all lingering doubts were reduced to specifics about how and when. Well here we are, and now we know.

But here’s the thing. Though the administration spoke of “relieving the burden” of the rule, and though there had been much braying when the CPP was first announced, there has been a conspicuous absence of utilities leaping to change course after the lifting of the (supposed) crushing yoke of the CPP. Today, in fact, most utilities seem much as they did yesterday: increasingly comfortable with, and confident in, the idea of serving electricity in a carbon-constrained world.

It turns out that Tuesday’s actions relating to the CPP may well be moot: while the administration is clamoring to throw things in reverse, the power sector itself is pushing full-clean ahead, kick-started in part by the CPP but now rolling with a momentum all its own. More policies will be needed to accelerate the transition, but this train has undoubtedly left the station.

The CPP is all-important, unimportant, and somewhere in-between

As my colleagues and peers have made clear, a rollback of the rule would hurt our country, from the environment, to public health, to businesses, to foreign policy. It would also ignore the tremendous value derived from the very existence of a mechanism that can continue to push our climate goals forward.

We must fight hard for the EPA to do the job it is legally required to do: put limits on carbon emissions from power plants and other major emitting sources that are contributing to climate change and harming our health and welfare.

At the same time, others importantly highlight that market forces are currently pushing the deployment of renewable resources to unprecedented levels. And where there exist market gaps, state policies have been skillfully bridging them, using tools like renewable portfolio standards and support for distributed generation. Independent of any power plant rule, an enormous amount of progress is being made.

But beyond the debate about the relative importance of the CPP in driving near-term emission reductions, there is one clear benefit that the rule has already provided and that no rollback can now reverse: the triggering of a fundamental shift in power sector perspectives. By requiring stakeholders to consider what it might mean to walk a cleaner, greener energy path, the CPP has illuminated for a wide-ranging audience that the route was not only eminently achievable and affordable, but also beneficial.

Once you can see that future, there’s no more pining for the past.

Why did things change? The CPP got people talking… and listening

Since the CPP was first proposed in June 2014, the rule has generated significant discussion at all levels of society. The initial draft generated more than 4.3 million comments, an incredible volume for a rulemaking. And while everybody had an opinion—too weak, too strong; readily attainable, impossible to achieve; an economic boost, an economic drag—it also meant that stakeholders were engaged. This was in no small part facilitated by the agency itself, which went to tremendous lengths to conduct public hearings and listening sessions and trainings, and provided a range of tools and guidance.

Over time, as quick-takes evolved into deeper considerations of impacts and outcomes, stakeholders continued to be repeatedly exposed to the CPP debate. From joint discussions between energy and environmental regulators, to regional collaborations of regulators and power generators and environmentalists, to assessments by (and between) regional energy markets, to collaborations between federal energy bodies, discussion and analysis was unrelenting.

This, in turn, meant growing comfort and fluency, even when unintended.

As a result, though the rule’s fate has been dangling in legal limbo since last February, stakeholders from across the political spectrum have long-since acquiesced to the motivations driving it—a noted departure from when the rule was first proposed. Here, a few:

Clean energy means jobs.

  • “We’ve always had a point of view at Southern that there’s a reasonable trajectory in which to move the portfolio of the United States to a lower carbon future. There’s a way to transition the fleet now.” Tom Fanning, CEO, Southern Co.
  • “And to me, a utility commissioner isn’t doing their job, given that they make a long-term projection, if they’re not including resource diversity that includes non-carbon resources.” Ted Thomas, Chairman, Arkansas Public Service Commission
  • “We do recognize that if it’s not this, it’s going to be something else, because the Supreme Court has given the EPA the jurisdiction to do something [to control greenhouse gas emissions].” Tom Heller, CEO, Missouri River Energy Services
  • “[Under the Clean Power Plan] there has been struck a comfort level among many states and between stakeholders with regards to how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. […] I think there are states who feel far more comfortable engaging in regional solutions than they ever were before the Clean Power Plan was developed.” Bill Becker, Executive Director, National Association of Clean Air Agencies
Keeping our eyes on the clean energy horizon

Tuesday’s claw-back of the CPP came as part of the broader Energy Independence Executive Order, which establishes a policy directive to increase US energy independence, including by winnowing out policies that present “impediments” to domestic energy production. In the process, the order seeks to lay waste to a bevy of climate and clean energy policies, including the CPP.

But though its scope is far-reaching, the order still managed to fail to catch the biggest impediment to domestic energy production of all: this administration’s pitifully small vision of what our nation’s energy future can be.

As we move forward—clean energy resolve intact, federal clean energy rulemaking in question—it’s critical that we keep supporting those states, utilities, and regulators that see the bigger picture, and keep making the case for those who don’t.

Because here’s the thing: while the Trump administration may have a blinkered view, the vast majority of those implicated by the CPP now see the full clean energy horizon, and have no interest in looking back.

Critically, as the map below illustrates, they also have the strong support of the American public—a new study shows over 80 percent of Americans support funding research into renewable resources, three-quarters support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and more than two-thirds support strict carbon pollution standards for coal plants, even if it costs them more.

And so we persist.

Seventy-five percent of U.S. adults believe that carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant. Here, rates are displayed at the state level. Credit: Yale Climate Opinion Maps (2016)


President Trump’s All-Out Attack on Climate Policy

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Today President Trump launches an all-out attack on our country’s policies to address climate change, via an Executive Order expected to be signed this afternoon. We’ve known for some time that something like this was in the works. Yet that doesn’t take away from the shock of the order’s destructive details, which were previewed yesterday by administration officials. It doesn’t just seek to undermine efforts to cut carbon emissions; it also rescinds commonsense measures to help protect people from the impacts of climate change.

This much is clear: Our president has so little regard for science that he is blind to the risks Americans face from unchecked climate change. He is so beholden to fossil fuel interests that he’s willing to stand in the way of the economic opportunities provided by a transition to clean energy. And he does not at all understand our deep moral obligation to limit the dangers of climate change for future generations, who will be left to face the consequences of our failure to act.

A battering ram of an executive order: What it means and doesn’t mean

This Executive Order (EO) is a serious blow to our country’s hard-won progress on climate action. Its aim is to dismantle, halt, or slow down many policies that have been years in the making. But most concerning is that there has been no responsible alternative plan proposed to address climate change, showing a real lack of leadership.

Obviously, this EO doesn’t change the reality that climate change is happening, it’s caused by us, and we bear the responsibility to act now or put current and future generations at grave risk.

Nor does it change the market factors that are driving a clean energy transition, or the considerable public health and economic benefits that would accompany this transition. Recent studies of the Clean Power Plan, for example, show that Americans would reap billions of dollars in health co-benefits, such as reduced cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, from the reductions of harmful emissions from power plants. We shouldn’t have to wait on those benefits, especially when renewable energy is becoming cheaper by the day.

And that’s why many states are determined to forge ahead despite this about-face at the national level. Power sector emissions will continue to decline because of state policies and the falling costs of renewable energy and natural gas.

But at a time when we need to accelerate our transition to a clean energy economy and work harder to protect communities from the growing impacts of climate change, this administration is choosing to step back and slow down our progress. Without national leadership to boost state and local efforts, our country’s efforts to address climate change are bound to fall short.

Rolling back limits on power plant carbon emissions

President Trump’s Executive Order takes aim at core elements of our country’s efforts to cut carbon emissions: the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which limits emissions from existing power plants; and standards to limit emissions from new power plants.

To be clear, President Trump cannot just undo these standards via executive order, which is why today’s EO calls for a process of reviewing of the rules that could take an indefinite amount of time. As legal experts have pointed out, the EPA will now have to undertake a long process of unwinding these standards through a proposal and comment process, much like the process it took to finalize them. And the agency is sure to face legal challenges along the way. This is likely to be a years-long process—which is, of course, of little comfort to those who recognize the need for urgent climate action now versus some uncertain future date.

The CPP, promulgated under the Clean Air Act and finalized by the EPA under the previous administration in August 2015, is firmly grounded in law and science and has been years in the making. Among other things, it is underpinned by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling (Mass v. EPA), and the EPA’s Endangerment and Cause and Contribute Findings, which established that global warming emissions threaten public health and welfare. The process of drafting and finalizing the CPP involved an extensive comment period and stakeholder engagement. This was no “midnight” rule.

What’s more, the CPP’s goal of reducing power sector emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 is modest at best. EIA data show that national power sector emissions were already about 21 percent below 2005 levels at the end of 2015. Many states are well on their way to meeting their CPP targets. This standard could clearly have been made more ambitious over time in a cost-effective way, given the progress to date and the declining costs of clean energy.

So all the talk about the EPA’s regulatory overreach are clearly at odds with reality. It’s just one more instance where facts do not seem to matter for the Trump administration.

Taking aim at commonsense climate protections

There’s a lot at stake with this executive order, including commonsense measures to protect people from climate impacts and ensure a responsible use of taxpayer dollars.

Early reports indicated that the EO might roll back a recent update to the federal flood risk management standard (FFRMS). The FFRMS, recently updated for the first time in over 37 years, would have helped ensure that federal agencies use protective design standards to guard against flood risks when they build or rebuild in flood-prone areas. With this recent update, communities around the country would be better protected from flood risks and taxpayer dollars would be more wisely invested.

Agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have already published rules (a circular in the case of USACE) for implementing the updated FFRMS, which were accompanied by a robust public comment process. If this rollback is included in today’s EO, that would force agencies to reconsider those rules.

The EO is also expected to repeal efforts by federal agencies to help states, local, and tribal governments prepare for the climate change. We’re talking about valuable planning resources including the data and tools available through and, as well as better coordination across federal agencies. State and local officials are counting on leadership and resources from the federal government to help them face the many challenges posed by climate change—including heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and flooding—and make their communities more resilient.  Now they will be left in the lurch.

Further, the EO will overturn guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality that required federal agencies to take into account the climate implications of their actions in their National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews. At a time when agencies from the Department of Defense to the US Army Corps of Engineers already understand and are preparing for the risks of climate change to their operations, this guidance would seem like a basic commonsense measure with no downside.

Looking beyond our borders, the EO is expected to roll back support for climate-resilient international development, which is just plain cruel. Many of the world’s least developed countries—which bear little responsibility for rising global carbon emissions—are at the forefront of climate impacts including drought, famine, and forced migration, which can also contribute to civil unrest and war. Millions of people in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Ethiopia are at risk of starvation and death from famine right now.

Helping ensure that agencies like USAID incorporate climate resilience in their good work is a small, but meaningful, way in which our nation can help countries cope with these types of crises. Arguably, that’s a responsibility in keeping with the fact that the US leads the world in cumulative global warming emissions since the industrial revolution.

Dialing down the social cost of carbon

The EO takes aim at the social cost of carbon, a metric that federal agencies use in rulemakings to ensure that they take into account the monetary benefits of cutting carbon emissions.

This action shows that the administration does not seem to care about the very real costs of climate change that Americans are already bearing. Just ask the ranchers who have lost livestock in recent wildfires in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Or local planners in Miami Beach trying to hold back the rising seas with multi-million dollar pumps. Costs like these will rise as temperatures increase and climate impacts worsen, so we have to take them into account as we make decisions about policies to cut carbon emissions today.

Instead of building upon the current social cost of carbon based on the latest science and economics, as the NAS has recommended, the administration is seeking to artificially lower its value.

Setting the record straight on some facts related to the executive order

An advance White House briefing on the Executive Order was filled with a load of fact-free rhetoric from the administration that simply does not accord with reality. Let’s set a few things straight for the record:

  • Human-caused climate change is real, serious, and requires immediate action to cut emissions. There is no putting off the urgency here if we want to have a chance of limiting truly dangerous climate impacts, as numerous scientific bodies have stated. It’s deeply troubling and disingenuous for the administration to seemingly acknowledge man-made climate change and then cast doubt on how serious it is and whether and to what extent we need to act now.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) core mission is to safeguard public health and the environment—and that includes a responsibility to help address climate change, as well as protect clean air and water. The Clean Air Act is pretty clear on that and the courts have upheld EPA’s role on addressing climate change. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt even admitted as much in his nomination hearing but he seems to be flip-flopping now. It makes no sense for the administration to claim it is returning the EPA to its mission, but then undermine its work on climate change.
  • Putting the brakes on the Clean Power Plan (CPP) is not going to bring back coal mining jobs, so let’s put that trope aside once and for all. The reality is that coal-fired power is becoming increasingly uneconomic relative to cheaper, cleaner alternatives like natural gas and renewable energy, pluus coal mining jobs have been lost to mechanization over decades. Regardless of what happens to the CPP, those fundamental underlying market dynamics won’t change. What coal communities need now are real solutions that help diversify their economies and provide transition assistance for workers.
  • Claims that the CPP would lead to huge electricity price increases are false, despite the administration’s parroting of talking points from bogus industry studies. The CPP’s emission reduction goals are modest. We’ve already seen power sector carbon emissions come down substantially over the last few years and at the same time in 2016 power prices hit record lows because of cheap natural gas and rapidly falling costs of renewable energy.
  • Halting the CPP does nothing to promote so-called “energy independence.” The US already gets most of its electricity from domestic sources so this argument doesn’t hold water.
  • Finally, the administration should stop hiding behind misleading economic arguments in defending its inaction on climate change. Make no mistake: This EO is about protecting the profits of fossil fuel companies, not protecting the American economy. The real long-term threat to our economy is unchecked climate change. Just to give a few examples of the types of economic risks that climate change contributes to: Sea level rise threatens millions of people and billions of dollars of real estate along our coasts; recent wildfires have caused millions of dollars in agricultural damage in Texas; and California’s recent drought cost the state billions of dollars. What’s more, ramping up renewable energy would provide significant economic benefits to our country.
The world is watching

Climate change is a global problem, of course. It’s going to require ambitious action by all nations across every sector of their economies to actually hold down the global average temperature increase to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

That’s why it’s illogical to suggest, as the administration has, that because the CPP wouldn’t achieve that goal by itself by 2030, it’s useless. No single short-term policy by any one country will make a noticeable dent. But by adopting ambitious, comprehensive policies and acting together over the next few decades, we have a chance.

And we have made hard-won progress on the global front in securing the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. While today’s EO is silent on US participation in the Paris Agreement, it should be considered an assault on the spirit of Paris.

The Paris Agreement relies on a ‘pledge and review’ framework where countries volunteer commitments and then aim to live up to them by implementing domestic policies. The US has pledged to cut emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. We’re already more than a third of the way to meeting that goal based on the latest US Greenhouse Gas Inventory, but there’s more work to be done to get all the way there.

The Trump administration is attempting to roll back national policies that were meant to deliver on that pledge, even as it doubles down on an energy plan that prioritizes fossil fuels. That’s a recipe for turning up the spigot on emissions at time when sharp cuts are urgently needed.

Yes, state policies, the federal renewable electricity tax credits, and market forces will continue to drive progress on renewable energy and help cut emissions. But, no, that’s not enough.

In fact the next phase of the Paris Agreement was supposed to encourage country’s to ratchet up the ambition of their emissions cuts to bring them more in line with a long term goal of net zero emissions later this century. We need the US government to show more leadership so the world can trust that we fully intend to live up to both the short and the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement, and by the same token create the conditions for other countries to do the same.

While the Trump administration dithers, China is showing that it intends to not only meet, but likely surpass its Paris commitments. China’s National Energy Administration forecasts that the country’s carbon dioxide emissions will fall 1 percent in 2017, marking the fourth year in a row that its emissions have fallen or remained stable. The country aims to invest over $360 billion in renewable energy through 2020, and create over 13 million jobs in the sector. Of course, the massive public health benefits alone make the switch to cleaner energy worthwhile for the people of China.

Fighting for climate action

President Trump is ignoring science—and, even worse, he’s ignoring the long-term interests of the American people and the global community. In a democracy, that type of arrogance inevitably has consequences. Congress too will ultimately need to answer to the public if it continues to duck its responsibility to act on climate.

Despite the setback from today’s executive order, our fight for climate action will continue. In cities, states, and at the national level. In town hall meetings, legislatures, boardrooms, and in courts. With businesses; labor, faith, and environmental justice groups; students; scientists; and everyone else who cares about the future of our planet and our economy.

We’re building a movement for positive, transformative change that will bring benefits to everyone in our country, and we will ultimately hold our nation’s leaders accountable.

You can be part of it. On April 29, the People’s Climate Movement will march in force in Washington DC. Please join us!


California’s Opportunity to Show Leadership with Clean Cars

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Today the California Air Resources Board will evaluate a midterm review of its Advanced Clean Car Program (ACC) and decide how it will move forward with standards designed to reduce global warming pollution and air quality pollutants from new vehicles.

The clean-car standards, adopted in 2012, were developed to reduce smog-causing pollutants, particulate matter, and global warming emissions in passenger cars and other vehicles through 2025. One key part of the standards, the zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) regulation, requires auto manufacturers to make an increasing number of plug-in hybrid, battery electric and fuel-cell electric vehicles available to car buyers.

California’s Advanced Clean Car (ACC) standards are working

These clean-car policies are the single biggest measure taken to reduce the state’s global warming emissions and petroleum consumption while meeting our climate goals. Among their achievements so far:

    • Since 2011, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates the standards have avoided an estimated 13 million metric tons of carbon emissions, 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline, and $4 billion in gasoline costs.
    • More than 260,000 electric vehicles have been sold in California since 2010 and the number of models available to consumers continues to grow.
    • Electric vehicles on California’s roads today are avoiding the burning of 82 million gallons of gasoline each year and have annual fuel savings of $111 million (at 2016 gasoline and electricity prices).
    • Electric vehicles are reducing the state’s global warming emissions by 660,000 metric tons a year. An EV charged on California’s increasingly clean electricity grid has global warming emissions equivalent to a gasoline vehicle with an 87-mile-per-gallon efficiency.

Cumulative ZEV sales in California now exceed a quarter million vehicles.

In-depth review shows vehicle standards are working

The Air Resources Board (ARB) has produced a comprehensive review of the ACC program and the findings are clear: The ACC standards are effective, science-based regulations that are producing economic and public health benefits for Californians. And with technology advancing faster than expected, the current standards can be achieved with even lower costs than anticipated.

Some automakers have argued that the ZEV standards should be weakened, both in California and the other nine states that have adopted California’s ZEV standard. However, the data in ARB’s Midterm Review report fails to support any need to weaken the standard.

  • Rapid progress on EVs over the past 7 years means that automakers can now meet the standards with fewer vehicles: 1.2 million electric vehicles and about 8% of new car sales by 2025, compared to original estimates for 1.5 million and 15% of new car sales.
  • Automakers that are leaders in ZEV technology are already well ahead of targets. For example, General Motors exceeded 5% plug-in vehicle sales in California in 2015.
  • The statewide average for EV sales last year rose to 3.5%, despite some automakers like Honda that were almost completely absent from the ZEV market.
  • ZEV sales in California accelerated in 2016, rising more than 18% compared to the previous year.

Automakers have also requested looser standards in the nine states that have adopted California’s ZEV rules (sometimes termed ‘section 177 states’ after the enabling section of the Clean Air Act). However, this request is not supported by the evidence.  Instead we find:

    • The rate of EV sales in these states is lower than California. However, the current rule allows manufacturers to satisfy their requirements with little to no EV sales in these other ZEV states.
    • Some automakers have responded by not offering cars in these states, especially on the East Coast. For example, the Fiat 500e EV is only offered in California and Oregon, despite annual sales of over 5,000 in California the last three years.
    • A comprehensive study of the plug-in EV market conducted by UCS shows stark differences in the availability of EVs between California and the other ZEV states. For example, between January and June of 2016, Boston had 90 percent fewer EV listings at car dealerships than Oakland, when adjusted for relative car ownership.
    • In order for EV sales to increase outside of California, ARB should allow the 2018-2025 ZEV standards to go into effect because those rules will require ZEV sales in the other nine states. Together with California, those states comprise more than a quarter of all car sales nationally.

Many more plug-in electric vehicles are listed for sale at dealers in California than other clean car states.

Technical experts say stronger standards should be developed for beyond 2025

 To meet California’s goals for air quality improvements and global warming emissions reductions, the state’s transportation systems will need to continue to become cleaner. ARB can help ensure we stay on track by beginning to develop ACC standards for after 2025. The ACC program has been successful in ensuring that the first generation of ZEVs were deployed, and harmful emissions reduced from the entire light-duty fleet. The ARB should continue these standards as recommended through 2025 and start the hard work needed to design a strong ACC program for the post-2025 period.


How Does Your Whiteness Inform Your Climate Work? Fair Question.

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This past weekend, I had the honor and challenge of presenting at the Fifth Annual Climate Conference of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). For the past three years, UCS has been proud to be one of the sponsors of this summit at Dillard University, in New Orleans, and we’re looking forward to continuing to support it in years to come.

For me personally, this year’s event took an important turn when a Howard University student stood up and posed a good, hard question: How does your whiteness inform your work on climate change?

An honor…

It’s an honor to speak to the HBCU Climate Conference.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood delivering a moving keynote address to the HBCU Climate Conference. Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried

Its co-conveners are environmental justice luminaries, people you feel lucky to have met. Dr. Beverly Wright of Dillard University is founder and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and a larger-than-life EJ scholar and voice. Dr. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University is considered the father of environmental justice.

The conference’s speakers leave an imprint. Friday’s keynote speech, for example, was delivered by Reverend Lennox Yearwood, leader of the Hip Hop Caucus, a star in the climate movement, and a source of inspiration since I first heard him speak back in February, 2013 at the DC rally against the Keystone Pipeline. (I was so happy, I told him, when he tweeted one of my blog posts earlier this year…)

And its participants—the students, experts and activists gathered—were energized as they discussed both their studies and their activism. As Dr. Bullard described the buses of HBCU students that would be heading north to DC for the April 29th People’s Climate March, I was inspired and hopeful for the climate movement taking shape.

And a challenge

And it was a challenge for two simple reasons.

First,“green groups” have historically had a poor reputation in this community. In addition to being overwhelmingly white, groups such as the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and UCS, among others, gained that reputation over many decades by, at best, not obviously caring about environmental justice concerns, and at worst, diverting attention from those concerns and exploiting them when advantageous.

Indeed, in his keynote address, Reverend Yearwood elicited strong, even angry agreement from the audience when he railed against these groups that, in essence, have not cared about them.

Second, I’m white. One of the many things that means is that the privileges I wear around—for much of my life, many of them unwittingly—are perfectly obvious in this setting. And it doesn’t really matter if I try to check my “invisible backpack” at the conference door; everyone knows I leave with it and that this sets me, maybe irrevocably, apart from the mostly African-American attendees. And that, if I’m totally honest, makes me uncomfortable.

Most participants at the HBCU gathering have had to become familiar with being one of just a few people of color in the crowd. The same isn’t true for most white folks; I get to be comfortable most anywhere I go.

As Reverend Yearwood spoke, however, I felt my whiteness more and more acutely. In his narrative, as a member of the environmental community I wasn’t necessarily the enemy of those gathered, but nor was I a friend. As African-American children grew up in the shadow of coal-fired power plants, breathing unhealthy air and developing childhood asthma, environmentalists from the big green groups showed up, he lamented, only when it was in their interest—e.g., as part of an effort to shut down a particular power plant.

As he spoke, I started scratching out and scribbling over my original opening remarks. I couldn’t, I realized, launch straight into our shared cause and mutual enemies in the climate fight. Before I could do anything close, I needed to make clear that at UCS we get it, or at least we’re really trying to; we’re here at this conference as part of ongoing efforts to right some past wrongs, and to support the growth and strength of the environmental justice movement on its own terms and turf.

UCS scientist Erika Spanger-Siegfried, "EJ coastal communities face special risks from flooding and rising tides" #HBCUClimateChange2017

— Robert D. Bullard (@DrBobBullard) March 17, 2017

An excellent question

I was on an all-white panel. I gave my talk. The audience seemed engaged and people lined up to ask questions. The young woman from Howard University prefaced hers by saying “at Howard, we learn to ask the hard questions.” And she did.

Her question—how does my whiteness inform my work on climate change—was kind of the elephant in the room, she said. The whole conference was about how the participants’ blackness informed their work. What about my whiteness?

Indeed. Oddly, it was something of a relief to get this question. I had no immediate idea what to say. So I started with where I come from; with the fact that I grew up within half a mile of a coal-fired power plant; that I developed asthma as a child. I guess I was trying to say that what Rev. Yearwood was describing isn’t completely foreign to me. Or that my whiteness might mask relatable things about me or connote some privileges that I didn’t in fact have. I suppose I was just trying to humanize myself and be seen.

My parents were activists, I went on; my dad was a social justice organizer when I was small. Of the many issues we would talk about, the many things wrong in the world, climate change is the one I was drawn to. It felt like the mother of all problems; how could I not work on it?

After this, I said, is where my whiteness probably comes most into play.

I have worked on climate change for nearly 20 years. And for much of that time, I was troubled by, but didn’t engage with environmental justice issues in an active way. What would play in my head was something like: I’m a person who’s working hard on an important issue, I’m in the battle, trying to keep my head above water, and that’s enough. It’s not the only issue, I would say, but it’s a big one, and my work over here will have to do. I didn’t have to engage in environmental justice, personally, because my privileges sheltered me from most EJ concerns. And I didn’t engage in it professionally because, where I worked, we had different top priorities.

To change everything, we need everyone

What I’ve since come to see is this: that’s not how we win, any of us. There’s not my piece of the battle and your piece of the battle. There’s just the battle.

At this moment, here in 2017, many of us are losing our piece of the battle. And if we don’t join forces to win it, we’re all lost. And if we don’t come to the table with openness and willingness to engage with each other’s concerns, we won’t join forces.

I didn’t say this at the time, but I was reminded of the Peoples Climate March in New York City, back in 2014, where the motto was “to change everything, we need everyone.”And truly, it felt like everyone was there that day, marching down 6th Avenue. And as we looked around, we could feel it: this is what America looks like; this is how we change the world.

In New York City in September 2014, 400,000 people marched to demand climate action, showing the world – and ourselves – the diversity, size, and potential power of the climate movement. Photo:

And outside of those high-profile times when we come together as a movement, we at UCS have a role to play as scientists and as allies.

Quite simply, ensuring that the concern of the Union of Concerned Scientists extends to equity and environmental  justice and that, in that spirit, we show up and contribute more—that is just the right thing to do.

Good climate allies: May we know them, may we be them

It’s just the past few years that I’ve come to see this clearly. It’s a journey and I’m still on it. But I understand now that we can’t be satisfied chipping away at our issues. We’ve got to look up, see the concerns of our allies, and find ways to show up for them.

Speakers had just a minute or so to respond, and so I left it there.

There’s more to it, of course. Like the fact that my whiteness afforded me the luxury of being out in nature a lot and, through this, delivered me to the problem of climate change through a very certain door—a different door than some in the EJ community.

Or the fact that, in this battle, some of us face much greater risks than others—the low-income neighborhood that doesn’t get rebuilt after a storm, the indigenous community whose ways of life are breaking down under climate stress, the urban residents who struggle to cope as heat waves worsen. For now, folks like me are sheltered from much of this. So folks like me need to recognize that, while what we bring to the table is valuable, others are the very face of climate change.

The movement we’re seeing take shape in response to climate change is growing, necessarily, to be about more than climate change. It’s also about climate justice and jobs and social equity and human rights. And it’s only because each of those additional concerns found a place at the table that, today, we have the climate movement that we so desperately need.

I’m hanging my hopes on this movement.

I may always be one of its more privileged members. I aim to always be a fierce and hard-working one and, increasingly, a good ally.

I’ll be at the March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice in Washington, DC, on April 29. There the Peoples Climate Movement will be in the streets in all its many-faceted glory (and I do mean glory; if you haven’t marched, join UCS and others and experience for yourself). And I’ll march like I work each day: for a stable climate, for my kids, and in solidarity with the millions of folks with whom I share this common, essential cause.

If I see the Howard student there, I will thank her for sparking the good conversations I’ve had since.

And to our blog readers, please ask UCS tough questions on these issues going forward and help hold us accountable. We won’t always have a ready answer. But we will always try to do what’s right to win this fight.

Here’s an Energy Savings Plan: Buy When Prices Are Lower

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Shopping for a discount makes sense, right? Let’s see what we can save if we try this with electricity.

TOU rates can promote adoption of electric vehicles and strategic electrification. credit: M. Jacobs

The typical utility company offers the same price for electricity no matter what time of day, or even what season. This would make sense if the cost to provide electricity were the same at all times, but that is not how it works. Times of higher overall demand require more equipment, and higher fuel costs.

There’s lots to like about a rate for customers that allows some savings based on the time of the day. This can help in the current debate about changes in the energy supply and what energy supplies should be added. A time-varying, or time-of-use rate (TOU for short) for consumers can improve the picture.

On top of that, a report this week by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy finds that TOU rates are a better choice than a fixed charge or a demand charge for continued engagement and support of residential energy savings efforts.

Prices and markets help decisions

Using prices to signal to the consumer and the market is a widely-recognized tool for market forces to guide investment. A utility regulator can better judge a new utility company expense, such as a proposed power plant or gas pipeline, if the costs to meet peak demand are not hidden in a single average price for energy.

When planning for new supplies, the utility companies now have more ways to communicate the costs and consumers have more ways to manage their use. The benefits of TOU rates should be measured in these decisions in terms of both the energy cost savings, and the savings for avoiding capital investment on more capacity.

Past investments help, too

TOU rates can allow energy consumption to be shifted to low-priced electricity. Credit: UCS and SEPA 51st State Initiative

The electric utility industry has made TOU rates possible through a 10-fold increase in the installations of “smart” meters in the United States. These digital meters measure electricity use at least hourly, and are expected to be serving 70 million households. Utilities have shown how these meters can help reduce the length of outages, and can be used to manage the voltage on each line so as to keep the whole system more efficient.

As so often happens with better information, evermore improvements can be found when you can get the data.

TOU rates provide prices on-peak and off-peak, which can promote savings in energy costs and capacity costs. By offering a discount on energy, innovations that use energy on a flexible schedule are more attractive. Utilities can use TOU rates to promote charging up more electric vehicles, or switching away from fossil and inefficient fuels, and making greater use of wind and solar. Knowing there are discounted prices at some times will lead to people and product manufacturers making changes in a few areas, and reaping big gains in return. (See a UCS white paper on this here.)

In fact, TOU rates aren’t just adding a cost allocated to paying capacity needs, but open the door for ideas that allow the time of energy use to be shifted. When these TOU rates are the normal practice, utility needs for new energy supplies will be lower. This makes sense for policymakers looking at rate designs, because reducing the hours of highest demand can lower everyone’s rates.

But just as important, the reduced demand for energy can be part of the integrated planning for all types of resources. Making the smart meter and the timing of energy uses part of the energy supply tool box can help solve society’s energy needs.

A technical note

Regulators considering the value of TOU rates should measure the benefit from shifting loads every day from higher-priced energy to lower-priced energy. Typical demand response practices are applied to very few hours, so there are minimal amounts of energy to be considered. TOU rates are in place on all days, and thus will lower energy consumption when electricity is produced by less-efficient generation.

People Still Care About Science: California Commits to Using Climate Science in Water Decisions

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People still care about science even in today’s anti-truth, post-fact political maelstrom. And it’s not just scientists (who will soon be marching in the streets). It’s also the people entrusted with ensuring basic services, like clean drinking water. People like California’s State Water Board members, who passed a resolution this month to embed climate science into all of its existing work.

California represents the cutting-edge on many environmental issues so it often comes as a surprise to people that a significant part of my job is focused on incorporating existing climate science into California’s water policy. Water management is backwards-looking in many ways, using the past to plan the future – even when we know the past will be wrong.

That’s why the adoption of a climate resolution for water management is such a big deal. This resolution is the first commitment by a water-related state agency to use climate science in all permits, plans, policies, and decisions. It doesn’t just apply at the state level but also to the 9 regional boards that make more local decisions.

Federal rollbacks can be resisted by local resolutions

In the coming days, President Trump is expected to announce plans to dismantle the nation’s climate change policy framework, which was created in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. A forthcoming draft executive order gets rid of a requirement that federal agencies take climate change into account in environmental permitting.

California Department of Water Resources employee Bryan Wonderly, left, and members of the California Conservation Corps are unloading bucket loads of road base material along the walkway on the outer edge of the Oroville Dam spillway after it failed in early 2017. Photo: California DWR

This requirement has ensured that plans and infrastructure account for climate impacts – many of which we are already experiencing from more severe flooding, to more intense and destructive wildfires, to longer droughts. Without this requirement, projects are more likely to fail in the future, wasting money and potentially threatening lives. Failures like those documented in our blog series Planning Failures: The Costly Risks of Ignoring Climate Change, including:

Science can help make better decisions. That’s why the Union of Concerned Scientists was formed: to use science to help create a healthy planet and safer world. This recent climate resolution is just one example of what can be done at the state level to counter federal rollbacks that threaten science and safety.

Monsanto’s Four Tactics for Undermining Glyphosate Science Review

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Emails unsealed in a California lawsuit last week reveal that agribusiness giant Monsanto engaged in activities aimed at undermining efforts to evaluate a potential link between glyphosate—the active ingredient of the company’s popular herbicide Roundup—and cancer. The documents reveal the company’s plans to seed the scientific literature with a ghostwritten study, and its efforts to delay and prevent US government assessments of the product’s safety.

Many corporate actors, including the sugar industry, the oil and gas industries, and the tobacco industry, have used tactics such as denying scientific evidence, attacking individual scientists, interfering in government decision-making processes, and manufacturing counterfeit science through ghostwriting to try to convince policymakers and the public of their products’ safety in the face of independent scientific evidence to the contrary. This case underscores the urgent need for greater transparency and tighter protections to prevent these kinds of corporate disinformation tactics that could put the public at risk.

High stakes in glyphosate-cancer link

The case centers on the scientific question of whether glyphosate causes a type of cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the California lawsuit in which the key company documents were unsealed, plaintiffs with non-Hodgkin lymphoma claim that their disease is linked to glyphosate exposure.

The science is still unclear on this question. The EPA’s issue paper on this topic said that glyphosate is “not likely carcinogenic,” but some of its Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) members point to critical data gaps and even suggest that there is “limited but suggestive evidence of a positive association” between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemical Agency have both concluded that scientific evidence does not support classifying glyphosate as a carcinogen. Over 94 scientists from institutions across the world have called for changes to EFSA’s scientific evaluation process.

It’s complex. What is clear, however, is that independent science bodies should be conducting their assessments on glyphosate without interference from outside players with a stake in the final determination.

The stakes for public health—and for Monsanto’s bottom line—are enormous. Glyphosate is one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States. Sold by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup, it is the company’s flagship product. US farmers spray nearly 300 million pounds of it on corn, soybeans, and a variety of other crops every year to kill weeds. It is also commonly used in the United States for residential lawn care. As a result of its widespread use, traces of Roundup have been found in streams and other waterways and in our food, and farmers and farmworkers are at risk for potentially heavy exposure to the chemical. (More on the ramifications of its agricultural use and the related acceleration of herbicide-resistant weeds here.)

Setting the scene for science manipulation

In 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a compulsory risk assessment of glyphosate as part of its pesticide reregistration process. The agency’s process risked the possibility that the chemical could be listed as a possible carcinogen, as the agency is required to review new evidence since its last review in the mid-1990s and determine whether it will cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment and human health. From Monsanto’s standpoint, such a classification change posed a clear threat for its lucrative product, possibly resulting in changes to labels and public perception of the product’s safety that could tarnish the brand’s image.

Compounding the companies’ woes, in March 2015, the United Nations-sponsored International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released an assessment concluding that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen after evaluating the available scientific research on glyphosate’s link to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and myeloma. IARC recommended that glyphosate be classified as a 2A carcinogen, along with pesticides like DDT and malathion. IARC’s was a science-based determination, not regulatory in nature. But the IARC assessment, the pending EPA review, and a slated evaluation by yet another US agency—the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—appears to have spurred Monsanto to use at least four separate tactics to inappropriately influence public perception and the assessment process.

Tactic 1: Suppress the science

In one disturbing revelation, the emails suggest that Monsanto representatives had frequent communications with a US government official: Jess Rowland, former associate director of the Health Effects Division at the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs and chair of the agency’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee. Internal Monsanto emails indicate that Rowland tipped the company off to the IARC assessment before its release. The emails also quote Rowland as saying he would work to quash the ATSDR study on glyphosate, reportedly telling Monsanto officials: “if I can kill this I should get a medal.” The emails suggest that Monsanto was working with staff inside a US government agency, outside of the established areas of public input to decision-making processes, in a completely inappropriate manner.

Tactic 2: Attack the messenger

Immediately following the IARC assessment, Monsanto not only disputed the findings but attacked the IARC’s credibility, trying to discredit the internationally renowned agency by claiming it had fallen prey to “agenda-driven bias.” The IARC’s working group members were shocked by Monsanto’s allegations questioning their credibility. IARC relies on data that are in the public domain and follows criteria to evaluate the relevance and independence of each study it cites. As one IARC member, epidemiologist Francesco Forastiere, explained: “…none of us had a political agenda. We simply acted as scientists, evaluating the body of evidence, according to the criteria.” Despite Monsanto’s attacks, the IARC continues to stand by the conclusions of its 2015 assessment.

Tactic 3: Manufacture counterfeit science

In perhaps the most troubling revelation, emails show that in February 2015, Monsanto discussed manufacturing counterfeit science—ghostwriting a study for the scientific literature that would downplay the human health impacts of glyphosate, and misrepresenting its independence. William Heydens, a Monsanto executive, suggested that the company could keep costs down by writing an article on the toxicity of glyphosate and having paid academics “edit & sign their names so to speak” and recommended that the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology be contacted since the company “had done such a publication in the past” at that journal.

The 2000 paper Heydens referenced, the lead author of which is a faculty member at New York Medical College (NYMC), cites Monsanto studies, thanks Monsanto for “scientific support,” but fails to disclose Monsanto funding or other direct involvement in its publication. That paper concluded that, “Roundup herbicide does not pose a health risk to humans.” After a quick investigation to assess the integrity of this study, NYMC announced that there was “no evidence” that the faculty member had broken with the school’s policy not to author ghostwritten studies.

Tactic 4: Undermine independent scientific assessment

The emails and other court documents also document the ways in which Monsanto worked to prevent EPA’s use of a Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) to review the agency’s issue paper on glyphosate’s cancer risk and to delay and help shape the SAP findings through suggested changes to the composition of the panel. Within the unsealed emails, Monsanto mentioned that it opposed the EPA’s plan to create a SAP to review glyphosate because “the scope is more likely than not to be more comprehensive than just IARC…SAPs add significant delay, create legal vulnerabilities and are a flawed process that is probable to result in a panel and determinations that are scientifically questionable and will only result in greater uncertainty.” This is a bogus claim. Scientific Advisory Panels, when they are fully independent, are a critical source of science advice.

EPA’s SAP meetings on glyphosate, scheduled to begin in October 2016, were postponed just a few days before they were slated to start. This occurred after intense lobbying from CropLife America, an agrichemical trade organization representing Monsanto and other pesticide makers, which questioned the motives of the SAP looking into the health impacts of glyphosate. CropLife submitted several comments to the EPA, including one that attacked the integrity of a nominated SAP scientist. The agency subsequently announced the scientist’s removal from the panel in November 2016, one month before the rescheduled meetings took place.

Simultaneously, Monsanto created its own “expert panel” in July 2015 composed of 16 individuals, some scientists and some lobbyists, only four of whom have never been employed by or consulted with Monsanto. Who needs independent assessments when you have ready, willing, and substantially funded agribusiness scientists who call themselves “independent”?

Defending the scientific process

The revelations from the unsealed Monsanto emails underscore the vital need for independent science and transparency to ensure credibility, foster public trust in our system of science-based policymaking, and prevent entities like Monsanto from undermining objective scientific assessments. Clearly, better controls and oversight are needed to safeguard the scientific process from tactics like ghostwriting, and more transparency and accountability are needed to ensure that scientific bodies are able to adequately assess the risks and benefits of any given product. Given what is now known about Monsanto’s actions, the need for independently conducted research and impartial science-based assessments about glyphosate’s safety is more important than ever.


Why the Time is Right for Nevada to Raise its Renewable Portfolio Standard

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It’s an exciting time for renewable energy advocates in Nevada. The state enjoys world-class renewable generation potential, and state residents are widely interested in clean energy development and jobs.

Unfortunately, the state’s clean energy progress has stalled, as loopholes in the state’s main policy driver, the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), have been exploited by a major utility.

Fortunately, there’s a proposed bill that could help. Assembly Bill (AB) 206 would increase Nevada’s RPS from 25% by 2025 to 50% by 2030 with a pathway to 80% by 2040. Passing AB 206 would place Nevada in the camp with other clean energy leaders like Hawaii, Vermont, California, Oregon and Maine, and send a strong signal to the clean energy and clean technology industries that Nevada is open for business.

A solar PV array in Gerlach, NV. Photo: BlackRockSolar

There are several reasons why the time is right for Nevada to take the next step on clean energy:

Nevada has one of the best solar resources in the country. This Department of Energy map showcases how strong the solar resource is in Nevada. Costs of solar generation have fallen by 78% since 2009 and there is no question that Nevada can and should take full advantage of this clean energy resource.

The state is over-reliant on natural gas. In 2015, Nevada relied upon natural gas to meet almost three quarters of its electricity needs. Relying on one type of generation is never a smart idea, especially gas, whose price is notoriously volatile. The degree to which Nevada relies on natural gas exposes utilities and its customers to price spikes, and adds significantly to carbon emissions and air pollution. Bringing a diverse supply of renewable energy technologies online will help reduce reliance on costly and polluting natural gas.

Reducing natural gas generation will help Nevadans most vulnerable to pollution from fossil fuels. Most of the gas-fired power plants in Nevada are located in low-income communities whose residents are disproportionately impacted from pollution from fossil fuels. Ramping up renewables will reduce the amount of natural gas and air pollution generated in the state.

Nevadans want more clean energy. According to the 2017 State of the Rockies poll (see question 30), 80 percent of Nevadans want to encourage the use of solar energy.

The grid can handle more renewables. Opponents of clean energy like to say that wind and solar generation depend on the weather, so they will make the grid unreliable. This is not true. Grid operators are constantly managing for fluctuations in both the supply of and demand for electricity. Large quantities of renewables on the grid make balancing supply and demand more challenging, but we have the tools to do it.

Making sure renewable installations are spread out, creating financial incentives to shift electricity demand towards times of the day when renewable generation is abundant, and investing in energy storage like the batteries Tesla is building in the Gigafactory near Sparks are all examples of these tools. I’ve written a lot about grid integration solutions for the California RPS and all of the same issues apply to Nevada; folks interested in learning more should check out this blog.

It’s truly time for Nevada to turn its world-class renewable energy resources into sources of clean energy generation that will benefit its economy and environment. I’ll be watching AB 206 closely and hope that the Legislature supports this effort, which will help Nevada realize it’s potential as a clean energy leader.

You Can Support Science and Push Back Against the Anti-Science Agenda: Here’s How

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Dazed and confused is not a phrase typically used to describe scientists, yet many of us are feeling that way in the wake of the dramatic policy changes implemented in the first few months of the new government administration. A seemingly endless flurry of executive orders impact everything from what science is funded, what government scientists can talk about, what areas of science are considered appropriate for presentation on the official White House website, and who can work in our labs.

Yet many scientists I speak with are reluctant to participate in political activities for fear of making science too political. I argue that these new policies have intentionally made science political, and if scientists and supporters of science sit back and do nothing, we will allow the anti-science rhetoric to drown out rigorous, scientifically backed information.

You may be left asking yourself “what can I do”? Quite a lot, in fact. Below are some of the things that you can do today to get involved.

Increase science communication

Photo: Will Sweatt/VASG

One of the easiest ways to get involved is to join Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media. These outlets can be a great resource for new scientific articles, information about speakers at conferences, awards that your peers are winning, and a place to share the latest scientific discoveries that you read in the journals with a bit of perspective and context provided by you. You can also share reliable information about how new government policies affect scientists and research.

For the more adventurous, you can start a blog, or help trainees start a blog, speak with journalists about your research, or write opinion articles in local papers, scientific society newsletters, or even scientific journals. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have resources on their pages on how to write effective letters to the editor and op-eds. Lastly, work with your public relations office to promote your own research findings. Be sure to tweet and post that story.

Stand up for and promote science

There are over 390 satellite marches planned for the March for Science—and growing. Learn more at

The March for Science has received a lot of publicity, and you can check if there is a satellite March happening near you. You can also speak at local schools to create energy and excitement around science and scientific discovery, and potentially inspire the next generation of scientists. You can also join an organization that is working to defend science, like UCS, or local activist organizations. The UCS Science Network has an initiative to help be a watchdog against attacks on science. You can also share your story or donate money to organizations that promote science and discovery.

Communicate your views to elected officials

American Association of Immunologists fellows, members, and staff at breakfast preparing for Capitol Hill Day. Photo: American Assn of Immunologists.

A great way to communicate how proposed or enacted policies affect scientists is to directly call or meet with legislators. Tell them your story. Several scientific societies, including the American Association of Immunologists, also offer training and “Hill days” where they schedule meetings with many different legislators to discuss policies.

Run for office

Although there are several physicians in Congress, there is a definite lack of research scientists. There is currently only one, Bill Foster (D-Illinois), but that may soon change if Michael Eisen, an evolution and computational biologist from University of California, Berkeley, is successful in his bid for the Senate in California. He is not alone. Many scientists are becoming interested in running for office and the 314 Action (first 3 digits of pi) group is helping them get there. 314 Action is raising money to support political campaigns for scientists and provide candidate training.  Admittedly, not everyone has the people skills or the inclination to run for such high-profile positions. Keep in mind that the seeds of change are planted at the local level. So even running for school boards, city councils, or other local elected positions will make a difference.

I challenge you to find one way to promote and advocate for science. You may think that you don’t have time to participate, but there is no longer an option not to. We need every single scientist to stand up and get involved. Think big, start small, commit. The very foundation of science is at stake.


Cynthia Leifer is an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Cornell University. Her research focuses on how our immune system detects and fights infection, and what goes wrong with the immune system during autoimmune disease. In addition to her research, she participates in science outreach and communication. She has written on vaccines, women in STEM, and science denial, for such outlets as CNN, Huffington Post, and Pacific Standard. @CIndyLeifer


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.



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