Combined UCS Blogs

Trump’s “Skinny” Budget Would Starve Farmers of Support, Leave Kids and Seniors Hungry

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

I wasn’t surprised to see that the president’s “skinny” budget proposal, released last week, would gut the EPA and the State Department. Appalled? Of course. But not really surprised, as the two-month-old Trump administration had already made its antipathy toward environmental protection and international cooperation abundantly clear.

But we’ve heard ad nauseam since the election that farmers and rural voters came out in droves to elect the president, believing he understood their problems and would help solve them. Rural voters felt forgotten, and throughout the campaign, candidate Trump told them they mattered. Now, with his initial budget document, President Trump seems to be telling them something quite different.

That’s because his budget proposal calls for a 21 percent decrease in funding for the Department of Agriculture (USDA), proportionally the third largest proposed reduction of any federal agency. The USDA serves all Americans, of course, but none more than farmers and rural communities.

The USDA’s budget overall would decrease by $4.7 billion, though specifically-identified cuts add up to nowhere near that amount, suggesting that we’ll see many more significant and specific cuts when the budget request is fleshed out in May. In the meantime, what are some of the consequences?

Trump’s cuts would gut research, financial and technical assistance that helps farmers

While the budget proposal lacks detailed reductions, it outlines deep cuts to staffing for the USDA’s Service Center Agencies, a little-known collection of agencies that includes the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Established as the Soil Conservation Service during the Dust Bowl in 1935 (the name was changed in 1994), NRCS works in partnership with farmers and ranchers, local and state governments, and other federal agencies to maintain healthy and productive working landscapes. In particular, the service offers financial and technical assistance to help farmers implement voluntary conservation practices to protect and enhance soil, water, and wildlife.

Drastic reductions in the number of field staff providing direct technical assistance to farmers would hamstring their ability to implement effective conservation practices such as cover crops—which can pose a challenge to farmers trying them for the first time. The president’s proposal suggests that staffing reductions would encourage “private sector conservation planning.” What this means is anyone’s guess, but it may signal dramatic changes to federal conservation programs, including reductions in financial incentives to farmers through NRCS. As recent UCS analysis has shown, farming practices supported by these programs can deliver major payoffs to farmers and taxpayers. But they only work if there is funding and people in place to carry them out.

The president’s budget proposal contains mixed but potentially troubling hints about the USDA’s continued commitment to agricultural research to help ensure the long-term sustainability of farming. It appears to maintain funding of the department’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative—under which the USDA announced last fall it was increasing investment in agroecology—at FY16 levels, though this still falls short of what is needed. At the same time, however, last week’s budget document hints at significant restructuring of the USDA’s wide-ranging research and economics branch, which would alter the scope and priorities of federally funded agriculture research and statistics-keeping.

Trump’s cuts would put water resources and rural water supplies at risk

Remember when the Trump campaign promised Americans “absolutely crystal clear and clean water”? (It’s #194 on this list of campaign promises.) Well, even before the inauguration, I noted that many of the incoming administration’s decisions didn’t bode well for clean water. And though last week’s budget proposal trumpets its “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure,” a look at the details doesn’t inspire a lot of optimism. As Vox’s Sarah Frostenson writes, under this budget, EPA would have no new money to fix America’s crumbling water systems, and cuts to the agency’s enforcement office would hobble its ability to punish drinking water violations.

The budget would also eliminate EPA funding for long-running regional clean water efforts, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chesapeake Bay Program—both of which contend with significant pollution from farm runoff.

And crystal clear water for rural households? Not so fast. The budget blueprint would completely eliminate the USDA’s Water & Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program, a rural development program that does what it says—provides funding for clean drinking water systems and improvements to sanitary sewage and solid waste disposal and storm water drainage in eligible rural areas. The budget blueprint calls it “duplicative,” almost laughably suggesting that the EPA could potentially be covering this. (One wonders how.)

Trump’s cuts could slash food programs that serve rural (as well as urban) communities

You’ve probably heard that the budget proposal eliminates federal funding for Meals on Wheels, though the White House is disputing that. The privately-run program will probably lose some funding as a result of federal budget decisions, though it’s unclear how much. But the largest federal nutrition assistance program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), is even more of a question mark. SNAP isn’t included in the skinny budget, but will likely see deep cuts in a more comprehensive budget proposal expected from the White House later this spring.

And if that happens, rural communities will be hit hard. SNAP is often regarded as a program serving urban communities, but research from the Center for Rural Affairs shows that rural areas have a larger percentage of households receiving SNAP benefits than either metropolitan or micropolitan (small city) areas. One in seven rural households—including many children and seniors—relies on this program.

When is a budget not really a budget?

President Trump’s shot across the budgetary bow suggests that his White House has little interest in investing in rural and farming communities or giving them the tools they need to thrive. You might notice a pattern here, as his budget proposal similarly thumbs its nose at coal miners, another constituency Candidate Trump courted.

Almost immediately, members of Congress (on both the left and the right) blasted the president’s budget as a betrayal of rural America, or dismissing it out of hand. The ranking member of the House agriculture committee went so far as to say that the document will be ignored, “as it should be.”

That’s a good reminder that, as in any year, the president’s budget proposal isn’t really “the budget.” As a UCS colleague pointed out, it’s Congress that actually sets the government’s spending levels and priorities. Which means this conversation is just getting started.

When I March for Science, I’ll March for Equity, Inclusion, and Access

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We are on the verge of something big. Scientists as a group are politically engaged like never before. They are communicating with decisionmakers, ready to march, and ready to run for office. The March for Science—an event that formed organically by a few enthusiastic people on Reddit and snowballed from there—is slated to be the largest demonstration for science that this country has ever seen. I’ve personally been blown away by the unprecedented support for scientists in the streets.

But let’s not mess this up. Some have not been pleased with how the March organizers handled diversity thus far. The March for Science organizers initially failed to include diversity within its scope and claimed that the event wasn’t “political” and that it was about the science, not scientists. Several twitter fumbles later, it is clear that the organization has been struggling with how to handle diversity and intersectionality and how to manage the differing interests of its supporters and critics. (Dr Zuleyka Zevallos does an excellent play-by-play and take here). The March for Science twitter account had an encouraging thread yesterday addressing diversity, inclusion, and harassment. Let’s keep going.

This is an important discussion. I hope the Science March organizers continue to listen and respond to constructive criticism from scientists of color, scientists with disabilities, and others who feel excluded by the movement. As participants in the march and in the broader movement for science, all of us can and must play a role in lifting these voices, standing in solidarity with our fellow scientists, and rejecting the idea that science is somehow value-free.

Science is driven by values and politics

Science isn’t partisan, but it is political and it always has been. For anyone who values science and scientific thinking, it is tempting to believe that facts will speak for themselves and that the practice and use of science will prevail above politics, discrimination, and hate. But this has never been the case.

History shows us that who has access to science, what questions are asked, and how science is used have always had political dimensions. Early scientists butted heads with the religious establishment. And who were most early scientists?  Any mainstream history book will tell you that this was mostly white men. And that’s the first problem: Because of who controls history books, the history we hear about tends to focus on white male Europeans. And just as important, access to science was largely unattainable for others, and those that did break though often didn’t get credit for their work. You may have seen the recently resurfaced story of  19th-century Irish doctor Margaret Ann Bulkley, who became James Barry, concealing her born gender for 56 years in order to practice medicine.

Moreover, we know science isn’t always used for good. And we needn’t go back to Nazi Germany to find examples of this. Forced sterilization in the eugenics movement didn’t end until the 1970s in some places. The siting of industrial facilities in African American neighborhoods without first assessing health and safety risks continues to happen, and the unsafe chemical exposure of crop workers—more than 80 percent of whom identify themselves as Hispanic—has been well documented. These things are happening today. This dark side of science means that we cannot ignore the politics of how science is used and misused.

The centrality of diversity in science

A tremendous amount of the scientific progress made in this country is made by non-Americans and non-whites. I witnessed this first hand. In graduate school, my engineering program was overwhelmingly non-white and non-American. It meant we could all perform better for it—sharing different perspectives, techniques, and ideas. Science requires creativity, collaboration, and perseverance. The whole process works better when you have a diverse group of scientists to help brainstorm, troubleshoot, and solve tough problems. Science benefits from diversity.

But the scientists also benefit. On one occasion, I lamented to a classmate (who was in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship), that I hadn’t traveled. (My brother has mental disabilities that made traveling difficult for my family.) At the time, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t traveled the world, experiencing other cultures. “You don’t need to,” he said. “Look around. You are experiencing diverse cultures right here.” He was right. To say that the science produced in this country includes diversity is an understatement. I got a scientific education and also a social and cultural one. And I’ve since visited my former classmates in their homes in Jordan, Turkey, and Colombia.

My Georgia Tech research group at the 4th Colombian Congress and International Conference on Air Quality and Public Health in Bogota, Colombia.

But it wasn’t at all a perfect melting pot. We were all given the same assignments, but my classmates of color, transgender classmates, and classmates with disabilities often carried a bigger load. I watched my friends and classmates face many barriers I didn’t have to—outright discrimination, language barriers, immigration and visa challenges, and police profiling, to name a few. Their success and progress in graduate school was more challenging because of these factors. Yet most persevered, and I owe my own success to the help and friendship of these classmates.

In fact, the success of my whole department depended on the success of its diverse student body. In this space it was clear to me just how central diversity is for science. We all have a role in helping others succeed in science. We must support our fellow scientists and work incessantly to eliminate the institutional barriers that have long restricted access to science to a privileged few.

Threats to marginalized groups are threats to science and scientists

Within the scientific community, much attention has focused on the looming threats of massive budget cuts to public science funding and science-based federal agencies. But many intersectional threats also loom large, and they have everything to do with the future of science and scientists.

Cuts to healthcare, public educational programs, Pell grants, and so much more will disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color. As Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmell recently said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, these threats will do more to adversely affect potential future scientists than anything else.

Threats have consequences

The racist, misogynistic, able-ist and xenophobic actions of our new presidential administration have made many feel unsafe. The scientific community has felt this too. And unfortunately, a fear of violence isn’t unfounded.

On February 22, two Indian men, engineers at Garmin, were attacked in a Kansas restaurant by a white man yelling “Get out of my country.” One of the men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, died from his injuries. This and other similar events compounded the feelings of many non-white Americans of not being welcome or safe in their own country.

Importantly, these threats are now happening on top of everything else that many scientists in marginalized groups are already facing. The scientific community has continued to struggle with addressing institutional racism, sexism, ableism, and religious discrimination. The recent escalation in violence against people of color by police has had a profound impact on the nation and the ability of scientists of color to do their work. By the way, the number of people killed by police has continued at 2016’s alarming rates in the past two months, despite fewer headlines.

The movement for science must be unapologetically inclusive

Many are new to conversations on equity and inclusion in science, this is evolving understanding. The March for Science and the broader movement for science are huge opportunities to introduce people to the significance and centrality of these issues to the present and future of the scientific enterprise they care so much about. Some of us have the luxury of not being confronted with these issues daily, but that’s why we mustn’t be complicit. We can’t sit on the sidelines.

If you are new to this conversation, there are many places to get you started. You might be interested in UCS’ recent webinar on Integrating Social Justice in Science with Yvette Arellano, research fellow at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS); Navina Khanna, director, HEAL Food Alliance; and Michele Roberts, co-director, Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform. Showing Up for Racial Justice has several resources available for getting started as well.  And follow the conversation at #marginsci to learn about the concerns that many scientists have around the March for Science.

We need to do better. Dialogue is important. Calling out missteps when we see them is crucial. As scientists and organizers, we must remember to listen, respond in earnest, and elevate messages of those marginalized or excluded. This is what makes a good ally. Indeed, this is what makes a good scientist.

The Safety of Coal Miners—and Every Worker in America—Is at Risk

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Three and counting.  That’s how many coal miners have been killed on this job so far in the first two and a half months of this year. Two in West Virginia and one in Kentucky. You don’t know them, but you can be sure that their families and friends are grieving and heartbroken. They were expecting them to come home after their shifts. 

Their deaths are just the most visible of the tragedies that befall our nation’s coal miners every year. In 2016, there were nine fatalities and 1,260 reportable cases of workplace injury in the US coal mining industry. We’re not talking scratches here, but serious injuries that require medical treatment, including injuries that result in loss of consciousness, lost time, temporary job reassignment, or wholesale transfer to another job.

And then there are work-related illnesses, which can be notoriously harder to track as many take years to develop. For coal miners, these include coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (Black Lung)—a devastating, irreversible, and often deadly lung disease—as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases like bronchitis and emphysema.

An investigative report by National Public Radio recently revealed a major resurgence of black lung in Appalachia. This includes a cluster of 60 cases at a single eastern Kentucky radiology practice from January 2015–August 2016!

Sad and angry

These incidents sadden me greatly. As a former Acting Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and a former Chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), I know that these and other workplace fatalities, injuries, and disease shouldn’t happen; they are largely preventable.

But I’m more than sad. I’m dumbfounded and angry. Last week, the Republican-controlled Kentucky legislature approved a measure that sets coal mine safety back decades, cutting back annual inspections from four to as few as one. And West Virginia is gearing up to seriously weaken mine safety standards and inspections in their state. You can read about it here, here, here, and here.

Meanwhile coal country legislators are trumpeting federal worker protections for coal miners—a supreme irony given that our president is proposing to cut the very federal department (Labor) that is responsible for federal inspection of our mines.

Coal mining is still a highly dangerous occupation. Lost in the debate over the use of coal and our needed transition to a renewable energy future is the continuing toll that coal mining takes on the workers that mine it. These workers are already facing the industry’s precarious economic future—and thus the welfare of their own families and communities. They shouldn’t have to fight for their own safety. Do we really think its’s right – and even smart – to bolster company profits at the expense of worker safety?

Coal mines today. Maybe your workplace tomorrow.

These rollbacks of public and worker protections should surprise no one—the states are clearly emboldened by the anti-regulatory, industry-first furor coming from the White House and Congress. They are also harbingers of how these sorts of actions could affect your workplace as well.

See for example, the President’s ill-conceived two-for-one Executive Order that planted this anti-regulatory flag as an almost first order of business. Or the imminent congressional effort to roll back the ability of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to cite employers for record keeping failures. (Record keeping may sound less consequential; it’s anything but.)

And be wary, very wary, of congressional attempts to undermine the role that science plays in policy making and public protections. Bills like the HONEST Act (Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act), the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny ), and the Regulatory Accountability Act may have high-sounding names, but they are designed to seriously erode the regulatory and science advisory processes that give us the safeguards we all count on. And when you hear about regulatory rollbacks or reforms, wonky as they may sound—take a moment to think about what would be lost. For coal miners, that may be their lives or limbs.

We have a voice. Let’s use it.

Let’s keep this top of mind: Our elected officials work for us—we the people. We need to let them know what we think and what we expect of them in terms of protecting and promoting our interests—not treating us as secondary to the interests of corporate and business leaders who generally have more resources and access to the halls of power.  And then we need to hold our elected officials accountable for what they do and what they don’t do.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is there to help keep you informed about attacks on science, engaged, and to provide tools and resources to help maximize your effectiveness. eWe’re all in this together.  Your voice matters.

Photo: Mgtmail/CC BY (Flickr)

Fact-checking the Trump Administration’s Claims about EPA’s Vehicle Standards

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It’s been one week since the administration caved to auto industry lobbyists and reopened the mid-term review of the EPA’s successful vehicle efficiency standards.  In that time, there’s been a lot of hot air around what this means for the industry, so I thought I’d look into the factual basis for some of the more common assertions made around the announcement.

Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the EPA, called this action “good news for consumers”

FALSE.  To date, the vehicle efficiency standards have saved Americans more than $37 billion at the gas pump.  If the administration follows through with rolling back the standards under the mid-term review, the average new car buyer stands to lose about $1600.  Limiting consumer choice to less efficient vehicles is never good news, not for consumers or the country as a whole.

Donald Trump, President of the United States, vowed to “eliminate the industry-killing regulations”

FALSE.  There’s nothing “industry-killing” about these standards.  The auto industry has had back-to-back record-setting sales years, while at the same time exceeding the level of improvement required under EPA’s standards.  More than 300,000 automotive manufacturing jobs have been created since 2009, jobs like those General Motors highlighted last Wednesday building their new 10-speed transmission, a technology developed to meet the very same standards the administration is working now to undo.  Perhaps the President listened a bit too long to the erroneous jobs claims pitched by Mark Fields (Ford), but even a conservative analysis paid for by the auto industry shows that these regulations are good for jobs, netting about 300,000 new jobs for the economy if we move forward with the regulations as-is.

Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the EPA claimed that “CAFE standards should not be costly for automakers or American people.”

TRUE.  And they aren’t, as a rather lengthy and rigorous review already determined.  These standards are poised to save consumers money, increase jobs, and reduce oil usage without posing undue burden on industry.  Automakers may be trying to supplant facts with politics, but it is the American people who stand to lose the most with last week’s action.

Donald Trump, President of the United States, said he didn’t want “an extra thimbleful of fuel” to stop manufacturers making great cars.

Maybe this is the thimble President Trump was talking about? Of course, you could still fill at least a dozen of these with the fuel savings for even just one vehicle thanks to these regulations.  “Uniform Measure/Stack”(1997) by Stephen Cruise, in Toronto’s garment district Photo: Michael Dolan/CC BY 2.0

TWO REALLY BIG THUMBS DOWN.  Firstly, the regulations the administration is threatening to rollback are set to increase the fuel economy of new vehicles from an average of about 25 miles per gallon today to about 36 or 37 miles per gallon—that means well over 2000 fewer gallons of gas over a typical vehicle lifetime, hardly a thimbleful.  Secondly, these rules have been pushing manufacturers to innovate, leading to a greater use of lightweight materials like aluminum, transmissions with a greater spread in gear ratios, smaller turbocharged engines, stop-start systems, and many other fuel-saving technologies which can be found throughout Motor Trend’s various Car/Truck/SUV-of-the-Year winners and other such “great” vehicles.  [Also great but being driven by state policy goals—electric vehicles, which have captured three of the last seven Car-of-the-Year titles.]

Rebecca Lindland, analyst from Kelley Blue Book:  “Consumers want the most fuel efficient version of a vehicle they already want to buy.”

TRUE.  Thankfully, that’s exactly what these rules are designed to protect, that consumers can have more efficient vehicle choices in all types of vehicles year over year.

Philly Murtha, J.D. Power:  “With current lower gasoline prices and increased consumer demand for SUVs and pickup trucks, automakers are in a difficult position.”

FALSE.  Selling more SUVs and trucks actually LOWERS the fuel economy target a manufacturer needs to hit—if anything, that means selling more trucks and SUVs makes it easier for a manufacturer to meet these rules.  Ford’s most efficient F-150, which represents about 1 in 5 sold, well exceeds today’s standards—in fact, it could meet standards out to 2021-2024, depending on the specific configuration.  That means that Ford could sell nothing but that F-150 and still meet the standards for the next 5 years with no additional improvements.

Brent Snavely (Detroit Free Press) and Chris Woodyard (USA Today):  “If the review eventually results in the standards being lowered, automakers potentially wouldn’t have to make as many cars with advanced carbon emission-cutting technology like hybrids, electrics and hydrogen fuel cells in order to hit the minimums.”

PARTIALLY TRUE.  On the one hand, lower targets will certainly mean less deployment of all fuel-efficiency technologies, so that is accurate and terrible news for all. On the other hand, as we’ve noted repeatedly, these standards do not require the deployment of electric vehicles or much in the way of hybridization, so that non sequitur is a completely incorrect mischaracterization of the standards.  For example, automakers’ own data shows that they can meet the standards with improvements to conventional vehicles.

Donald Trump, President of the United States:  “I brought American auto companies to the White House.  Mary Barra is here.  Mark Fields is here.  Sergio is here, and others.  And none of them ever got to see the Oval Office before, because nobody took them into the Oval Office—our Presidents.”

¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  While it may be technically correct that neither Mary Barra nor Mark Fields have, in their short tenures as CEO, met with a sitting president at the White House, auto companies have not had any difficulty getting an audience with the past few presidents.  In fact, Sergio Marchionne probably knows this best of all, having been in extensive meetings with the Obama White House ever since his tenure as CEO began, first with the Chrysler-Fiat merger and bailout and then pursuant to the fuel economy standards to which he signed on.  Also:

(L) President Bush meets with CEOs of the Detroit Three.(R) President Obama meets with 10 automaker CEOs supportive of the fuel economy and global warming emissions standards for passenger vehicles (including Sergio Marchionne, just to his right). Photos: White House Archives/ CC BY 3.0

Bette Grande, Research Fellow at the Heartland Institute:  “The review and subsequent pullback from EPA’s CAFE standards…is a win for oil producers and mineral owners, because when consumers are free to choose the vehicles of their choice, domestic oil demand will increase.”

TRUE.  Bette is right—oil demand will increase, increasing emissions, decreasing national security, and raising prices for everyone.  Yay?

Counting the Attacks on Science by the Trump Administration and Congress

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Today the Union of Concerned Scientists launches a webpage to track attacks on science by the Trump Administration and the 115th Congress. The page will be consistently updated, and we’re planning to add a filter option to view the attacks by issue, agency, and type of attack (e.g. censorship, political interference, conflicts of interest, etc.).

We aim to document the impact of political interference in science on public health and safety, and to enable to others to see patterns in Trump administration and congressional behavior. We’ve already seen quite a few attempts by the administration and Congress to dismantle the processes by which we use science to inform policy decisions. Only in recent years have we seen an uptick in the number of anti-science bills in Congress and many of them now have a significant chance of passing. This new political context is why UCS is devoting more resources to tracking and publicizing these wide-ranging and sometimes unpredictable attacks.

All the presidents’ missteps

Presidential administrations have politicized science for decades. During the George W. Bush administration, in response to a significant increase in attacks on science, UCS began keeping track of abuses compiled them here. The list of attacks, coupled with surveys of thousands of federal scientists, demonstrated the breadth of the assault on science by the Bush administration. It was happening across issue areas and across federal agencies. It wasn’t just political meddling in a few controversial areas. Rather, it spanned reproductive health to endangered species to climate change to consumer product safety. It included political appointees rewriting and censoring scientific reports, muzzling of government scientists, and people being chosen for science advisory committees based on their political affiliations. At times, the White House interfered directly in what should have been science-based decision-making. All told, the attacks on science dented the public trust in government science and had adverse consequences for the American people.

When the Obama administration came in, UCS continued to document attacks on science, and pushed the administration hard to develop systemic protections for science and scientists. Vowing to “restore science to its rightful place,” the Obama administration took several steps to safeguard science from the kinds of attacks we saw under the Bush administration, including developing scientific integrity policies, creating scientific integrity officials, and implementing various transparency initiatives (Happy Sunshine Week, btw!).

A new website will track attacks on science by the Trump administration and Congress. All modern presidents have politicized science. In 2014, the Obama administration interfered with the FDA’s science on risks from cigar smoke. Photo: Brian Birke/Flickr.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration was not without issues when it came to science-based decisionmaking.  The administration chose politics over science when it overrode FDA Administrator Margaret Hamburg’s science-backed decision to approve Plan B emergency contraceptive as over-the-counter for all ages; never before had the White House overruled a drug approval decision. Bending to industry pressure, the administration initially failed to set  a ground-level ambient ozone standard that aligned with scientific advice despite pledging to do so. The White House weakened the scientific language on the health risks from cigar smoke in a draft FDA rule. Journalists repeatedly reported significant problems accessing government experts, and surveys of federal scientists suggest problems persist across agencies.

In many ways, the science-related missteps of past presidents give us clues as to the kinds of attacks on science we might expect from the Trump administration. We know the playbook, but with President Trump, this could be a different sport. We’ve already seen the president take several unprecedented steps beyond the type of politicization of science we’ve seen before. Just one example is the president’s illegal and illogical two-for-one executive order that if fully implemented would prevent federal agencies from carrying out their science-based missions.

Assessing the overall environment for science under President Trump

The webpage of attacks on science won’t be exhaustive, but instead will provide a representative sample of threats to the federal scientific enterprise. Likewise, the list won’t include many moves by the president and Congress that have implications for federal science and scientists. For example, the President’s Muslim ban hurts science and scientists, including those working for the federal government. And the President’s rescinding transgender protections is damaging to the inclusivity of the scientific community. Across the board budget cuts, as opposed to politically targeted ones, can still demoralize the federal workforce. These actions undoubtedly contribute to an adverse working environment for federal scientists trying to do their jobs. To measure cumulative impact, UCS will repeat surveys of government scientists once the Trump administration is fully up and running.

We don’t know where the next attack will come from. But now more than ever, it is crucial for us to document, understand and share. I’ll be busy for the time being.

Know of an attack on science that you don’t see on our page?  Let me know! You can contact me here, on Twitter at @GretchenTG, or via encrypted messaging services.

Why Freezing North Korea’s Weapons Programs Would Make Us Safer

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Last week, China proposed a way to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula: Pyongyang would freeze its missile and nuclear programs in exchange for Washington and Seoul halting their current round of military exercises. China also sees this as a way of starting talks between the US and North Korea, which it believes is necessary to resolve hostilities on the peninsula.

In comments in South Korea on Friday, Secretary of State Tillerson said “we do not believe the conditions are right to engage in any talks at this time. … [C]onditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume, whether they be five-party or six-party.” Whether the last phrase means the US is consciously rejecting the idea of one-on-one talks with the North is not clear.

Tillerson also said he believes it is “premature” to talk about a freeze since a freeze would leave North Korea with significant military capabilities. His choice of words appears to leave the possibility of a freeze on the table.

A North Korean freeze on nuclear tests and missile flight tests would be highly beneficial—and readily verifiable. It would prevent Pyongyang from developing a long-range missile capable of hitting the US.

It is important, of course, to work to eliminate the capabilities North Korea currently has, but a sensible first step is to keep it from increasing its capabilities.

Musudan test launch (Source: KCNA)

Freezing North Korean Development Would Be Valuable

Over the last two decades, Pyongyang has developed technologies beyond what many thought it was capable of doing. It has developed nuclear weapons, an array of short- and medium-range missiles that could pose a significant threat to its neighbors, and a large satellite launcher that has placed two objects in orbit (although neither appears to have been operational once in orbit).

These weapon systems are not particularly sophisticated and in some cases are highly unreliable but, as Secretary Tillerson noted, they represent significant military capabilities.

And if these development programs continue, things will get considerably worse. The past shows North Korea’s ability to make slow but steady progress, and that will continue. After all, it is developing weapons systems that the US, Soviets, and others developed 50 years ago.

What could a freeze do?

A Freeze on Nuclear Tests

North Korea has now conducted five nuclear tests, the last of which indicated it has developed a nuclear device that can produce a yield similar to that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

Getting a nuclear device to explode under test conditions, however, is not the same as having a usable nuclear warhead. A deliverable warhead needs to be small enough, both in terms of physical size and mass, to be carried by North Korea’s ballistic missiles. It needs to work in a realistic environment, rather than just in a static test environment.  In particular, it must withstand the considerable forces of missile delivery, including acceleration, vibrations, and buffeting during launch and reentry.

If the North does not yet have a weapon that is small and rugged enough for delivery by ballistic missile, stopping additional nuclear tests could keep it from developing one. Even if it does have such a weapon, stopping testing would limit its ability to improve its design.

A testing freeze could be verified by the global network of seismic and other types of sensors that make up the International Monitoring System. This network is sensitive enough to have detected North Korea’s previous tests—including the 2006 test with an estimated yield of only about one kiloton.

A Freeze on Missile Tests

A freeze on missile flight testing would limit North Korea’s ability to build more capable and longer range missiles, and to determine the reliability of existing missiles or gain operational practice in firing them.

Today, North Korea’s longest range operational missile is the Nodong, with a range of about 1,300 km—much shorter than the roughly 9,000 km to the US west coast. It does not currently have a ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead to long distances.

However, it is developing a number of the components it needs to produce such a missile.

For example:

  • North Korea appears to have had one successful flight test, with five or more failures, of its Musudan (Hwasong-10) missile, which uses a more advanced fuel than the North’s previous missiles. Developing a working missile would require additional tests. Besides giving Pyongyang a considerably longer range missile than it currently has, successfully developing this missile would open the way to modifying it for use as an upper stage of longer range missiles.
  • In the last year, Pyongyang has conducted ground tests of several new engines (April 2016, Sept. 2016, and March 2017). Some of these appear to use advanced fuels and have higher thrust than its current missile engines.
  • The North has paraded a prototype of a two-stage missile on a mobile launcher that could have a long range if it used the technology being tested in the Musudan missile. One of the engine ground tests mentioned above may be of an engine intended for the first stage of this missile.
  • Pyongyang is in early stages of testing a solid-fueled missile that could be launched from a mobile launcher on the ground or from a submarine. While the range appears to be similar to the Nodong, it would have a much shorter launch-preparation time if fired from mobile launchers on the ground, and could reach more distant targets if fired from a submarine at sea.
  • North Korea has not yet flight tested a reentry heat shield for a long-range missile, which is critical for successfully delivering a nuclear warhead. Over-designing the heat shield adds weight to the reentry vehicle, which reduces the range of the missile; under-designing it can cause overheating of the warhead that can damage it. Moreover, North Korea is likely to design a blunt reentry vehicle that reenters slowly to reduce the intensity of heating, and this can lead to very large inaccuracies—tens of kilometers or more.

Transforming these pieces into working missiles would require a series of flight tests. A freeze on missile testing would keep it from developing that capability.

A flight test ban would be completely verifiable. The US has a satellite network of infrared sensors that can detect launches essentially anywhere in the world. This system, for example, even detected the short-range Scud missiles launched at Israel during the first Gulf War. And the US is currently deploying a new generation of even more capable satellites for this job.

Would North Korea Be Willing to Freeze?  

No one knows.

It is worth remembering that North Korea observed a flight test moratorium from September 1999 through July 2006, which it began when its talks with the Clinton administration about missile and nuclear issues seemed to be moving ahead. It announced it was no longer bound by the moratorium in March 2005, in response to the Bush administration’s lack of diplomatic engagement on missile issues, and resumed testing the next year.

Things are different now, of course, and it’s not at all clear that Pyongyang would agree to a freeze. Kim Jong Un may be unwilling to stop until he has developed a credible long-range threat.

However, Kim clearly sees the US-South Korean military exercises as threatening, and offering to scale back those exercises may give the US significant leverage. Agreeing to talks once a freeze is in place could add leverage.

But whether or not North Korea would ultimately agree to a freeze, the US should not be the one to take this option off the table. A freeze would be an effective, meaningful step in limiting further development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs—and the US should be doing what it can to put a freeze in place.

What NASA Earth Missions are on the Chopping Block? – PACE, CLARREO, OCO-3, and DSCOVR

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The President’s 2018 Budget, released March 16, 2017, ‘terminates’ NASA Earth science missions PACE, CLARREO Pathfinder, OCO-3 and DSCOVR Earth viewing instruments.  What would we lose if these NASA missions were not continued through the appropriations process and eventually the President’s signature for the 2018 fiscal year?  Safeguards to avoid eating toxic shellfish, reduce aviation disruptions and take precautions for unhealthy air quality, to name a few.  Let’s tease apart the alphabet soup of NASA missions and take a brief look at a few of their potential benefits.

PACE: Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem  NOAA

PACE Mission could provide more advanced warning for harmful algal blooms that can lead to toxins in shellfish. Taking counter measures can keep our shellfish supply safe for people to eat. Photo: NOAA

The PACE Mission, if allowed to continue, would be able to discern specific species of tiny ocean organisms (phytoplankton) to such a degree that more advanced warming systems for harmful algal blooms would help safeguard our shellfish supply.  Products that would provide improved quality and earlier (i.e. seasonal and inter-annual) data on the evolution of harmful algal blooms allows counter measures to be put into place by the commercial shellfish industry. This could help reduce cases of illness or even death from eating toxic shellfish.

Remember the Iceland volcanic ash event in 2010?  It caused the largest disruption to European air traffic since World War II. Improved aviation safety would be another benefit if the PACE mission were to continue.  If an airplane were to encounter volcanic ash, it could fuse onto the blades of typical engines and lead to possible engine failure.  PACE would be able to discern the difference between water and ice of clouds and volcanic ash, therefore avoiding this risk.

The superior measurements from PACE mission would exceed those of prior satellites and provide information on harmful algal blooms and volcanic ash eruptions. It would also provide observations that support commercial fisheries, air quality (particulate matter PM2.5) data in places without ground measurements, track oil spills and more.  Check out this quantum leap in measurement capabilities of PACE compared with prior missions.

 CLARREO: The Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory PACE spectrum measurements compared to prior current or prior missions. Source NASA

Advances that would occur with the PACE mission compared to prior measurement capabilities ranging from short-wave infrared through the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. Photo: NASA

The President’s budget proposes eliminating the CLARREO Pathfinder, which is planned to be installed on the International Space Station to test some of the instruments for the full CLARREO mission.  It is hard to tell if this budget proposes terminating the Pathfinder portion of the full CLARREO mission or if this means termination of the full mission.  We do know that testing sensors for satellites on airplanes or low-Earth orbit helps ensure that NASA launches satellites with the most advanced instruments that can perform flawlessly during operational life.



Proposed CLARREO Pathfinder to be installed on the International Space Station (ISS). Photo: NASA

This would be worthwhile as the full CLARREO Mission would provide “unambiguous climate change measurements with an unprecedented level of accuracyallowing for earlier and better informed decisions with an estimated economic benefit worth trillions over the next 40 to 60 years.  The types of measurements available on the full CLARREO mission would be: net cloud feedback, temperature response and lapse rate feedback, water vapor response and feedback, aerosol direct radiative forcing, snow and ice albedo feedback, land albedo change and radiative forcing and vegetation index change.

OCO-3: The Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 3

Proposed Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 3 (OCO-3) to measure CO2 in the atmosphere. Photo: NASA

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 3 (OCO-3) would measure with high precision and high resolution carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.  The plan is to install OCO-3 on the International Space Station.  This would follow the OCO-2, which was launched in part to better understand CO2 sources and processes that take CO2 out of the atmosphere.  We need to know if natural sinks for CO2 are keeping pace with emissions or slowing down.

DSCOVR: Deep Space Climate Observatory  NASA/NOAA

The sun illuminates the far side of the moon as it crossed between the DSCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth. Photo: NASA/NOAA

The projected end of mission life for the DSCOVR satellite is fiscal year 2022.  If the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera EPIC is included in the President’s budget proposal that “terminates … DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments” then images such as this may no longer be collected.

It shows the far side of the moon captured by the EPIC camera looking toward Earth aboard DISCOVR.  The satellite is in deep space monitoring space weather so that spacecraft and electrical grid operators have time to prepare.

I have a hunch that many citizens of Earth would not want to terminate these particular NASA Earth missions.  It is time for members of Congress to learn more about these missions and the reactions of their constituents.








Cover Crop Challenges: A Reminder That In Agriculture, Even Small Changes Can Be Hard

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Why don’t more farmers plant cover crops? This is a question I am asked all the time when I talk about my research on the topic. Cover crops are not new—their historic use in agriculture includes many ancient civilizations and even our Founding Fathers. Cover crops simply mean growing a plant to “cover” and protect the soil when it would otherwise be bare. Live plant roots can reduce erosion and water pollution, and lead to more productive soil with time.

To a non-farmer it might seem like a no-brainer, but talking to agricultural producers helps highlight how complicated even seemingly simple best management can be. In a peer-reviewed paper published this week, several former colleagues and I describe the “Trouble with Cover Crops” based on focus group discussions we facilitated with Iowa farmers.

In spite of increasing attention on cover crops in the popular press, agricultural industry and in academic research circles, cover crops only make up about 2% of the overall landscape of the U.S. Midwest “Corn Belt.” Helping scale up the practice was the main motivation of our work: what could we learn from the pioneering farmers who are making cover crops work? A few key points emerged as the most salient:

The unforgiving winter season in the Upper Midwest is inhospitable to almost anything other than the most cold-tolerant cover crop, cereal rye, seen growing here in between rows of soybean. The farmers we spoke to are very interested in other cover crop species such as radishes (with deep tap roots that help reduce soil compaction) and legumes such as vetch or clover (which act as a biological plant fertilizer).

Overcoming barriers is possible with a “whole systems” approach

Our conversations with farmers highlighted the conflict they face between doing what might be best in the long term and what is needed to keep business afloat in the short term (a problem we can all relate to). So many decisions come down to economics, but the story is more complicated than just dollars and cents. Agricultural landscapes in many regions have grown increasingly simplified over the last several decades—in Iowa more than 90% of farmed acres are planted to just two crops: corn or soybean.

This means that these farmers are generally very busy when they are getting ready for corn and soybean planting periods (April and May) and during crop harvest (September and October). Those are the same part of the growing season that a producer using a cover crop would need to find the time to get cover crop seeds planted and then terminated in the spring (by using an herbicide or plowing the cover crop into the soil). That simply doesn’t leave a lot of time for a cover crop to grow adequately, especially in a cold winter season; so, not a guarantee with that narrow “window” that it was worth a producer’s monies and effort. This challenge with timing, and the labor needed to complete the tasks needed, are a definite challenge expressed by producers.

This may explain why many of the farmers we spoke to who were actually using cover crops described their approach to farm management as operating a “whole system”, where including a cover crop wasn’t an isolated tweak to their production, rather it was part of a more comprehensive approach to management. It also meant other important changes such as applying fertilizer more efficiently and utilizing equipment differently. Here is the voice of one farmer who articulated this idea so well:

I look at it as a system. You got to do the whole system. You can’t nitpick. You got to manage your nitrogen. You got to get good soil/seed contact cause you’re planting into a mass of roots sometimes and you need to do everything. Just to do one piece? One piece…it doesn’t work, they get discouraged and say that’s no good and they’re not going to do it anymore. You need to do everything.

It was an encouraging point of our conversations that soil conservation drove a desire to make the economics and timing work. Many other farmers saw the practice of cover cropping as critical to longer-term sustainability, particularly as a way to manage risks associated with growing rainfall variability.

More diverse agricultural landscapes are needed if we want to see more cover crops

Since it was founded in 1985 by farmers seeking alternatives during the Farm Crisis, the Practical Farmers of Iowa have cultivated an extensive network of thousands of farmers in the state who support each other with information on practices like cover cropping. They also created the clever campaign “Don’t Farm Naked” to promote soil protection through cover crops.

Even the pioneering farmers that we spoke to, who had years (if not decades) of experience growing cover crops, expressed doubt that their neighbors would be willing to spend the extra time and money to do the same. One suggestion to increase cover crop use that we frequently heard is that there is a need for more diverse cash crop options and better integration of livestock in operations. This has everything to do with the narrow window for cover crop management and for making the dollars and cents work.

For example, if there were better markets for small grain crops such as wheat or oats that are planted in the spring or summer, it would mean more opportunity to grow cover crops outside of the busy fall and spring seasons. Also, cattle or other livestock that graze on cover crops as a feed source make the economics more attractive to producers with crops and livestock. More diverse cash crops or more integrated crop-livestock operations would create opportunities for more cover crops, a point that numerous farmers reiterated.

This is a “chicken or the egg” type of tension that we picked up on in the conversations. What should come first: More cover crops bringing landscape diversity or more diverse cash crops that help cover crops grow?

Luckily, this is a problem that improvements to agricultural policy can solve. We suggested several ideas to facilitate more cover crop use, including:

  • Increasing funds for networks of farmers to allow for learning from other innovators on how best to make new practices work
  • Creating markets for more livestock and diverse cash crops in states such as Iowa, where very few cash crop options exist
  • Better synchrony of cover crops with crop insurance programs (since it is widely known that this can be a challenge for producers and that conservation can reduce climate risks!)

Even though there are troubles with cover crops, they are an important piece of the sustainability puzzle in agricultural systems. With improved policy, more cover crops can create greater landscape diversification, and ultimately, farming systems that benefit farmers, eaters and the environment.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis: The Lone Climate Change Soldier in this Administration’s Cabinet

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Since the inauguration, we have witnessed President Trump filling his Cabinet with climate deniers and billionaires.  As each day passed, the reality of what we can expect from this administration has become all too clear.

Yesterday President Trump released his proposed “skinny budget” officially titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.”  Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, put a fine point on the implications of the skinny budget stating that it disregards science, placing communities at risk. Regarding the budget cuts at FEMA, NOAA, and NASA, he says that these cuts:

…will undermine our nation’s ability to forecast weather, prepare for and recover from disasters, and safeguard national security. These cuts will also limit our ability to monitor the impacts of ever-worsening global climate change. Such misguided changes will put the safety of Americans at risk, while costing taxpayers more in disaster assistance over the long haul.”

Indeed, all six mentions of climate change are related to cuts. In case the budget cuts to FEMA, NOAA, and NASA don’t speak for themselves, OMB budget chief, Mick Mulvaney said that President Trump sees spending on climate change programs as a ‘waste of your money’:

“As to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward: We’re not spending money on that anymore,” “We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that, so that is a specific tie to his campaign.”

OMB Director Mulvaney: “We consider spending on climate change to be a waste of money.” Photo by 

The question is, how will President Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis, arguably the lone climate change soldier within this Administration’s Cabinet, navigate his way between his deep understanding  of the impacts of climate change and the anti-science, climate change denying administration?

Earlier this week ProPublica’s Andrew Revkin published a story on Defense Secretary Mattis’ unpublished 58-page testimony, a document that answers the Senate Armed Services Committee questions raised during his confirmation hearing back in early January. In no uncertain terms, Secretary Mattis said that climate change is a national security challenge.  According to Revkin, five Democratic senators on the committee asked about climate change, including Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Here’s what Defense Secretary Mattis had to say on climate change in his unpublished testimony:

#1 Climate change is impacting where troops are operating today and is a national security challenge:

Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” and “It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.” And “Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.”

Yes, the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with Defense Secretary Mattis, as do other U.S. military leaders who applauded Secretary Mattis’ “clear-eyed view on climate change and security”.

In UCS’s report The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas we looked at the impacts of sea level rise and we found that the military is at risk of losing land where vital infrastructure, training and testing grounds, and housing for thousands of its personnel currently exist.

#2 Climate change requires whole of government response:

As I noted above, climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of government response. If confirmed, I will ensure that the Department of Defense plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects.”

Yes, the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with Defense Secretary Mattis as do other U.S. military leaders.

In our report, Toward Climate Resilience:  A Framework and Principles for Science-Based Adaptation, we outline 15 principles organized around three themes: science, equity, and commonsense ambition. The principles are designed to be used by decision makers and practitioners from the local to the federal level and are recognition of the harm communities are facing due to human caused climate change; the damaging impacts are growing, and so is the need for ambitious action on both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In September of 2016, a non-partisan group of 43 military and foreign policy experts (the Climate and Security Advisory Group), released a briefing book on how a new administration should address climate change. The expert group recommended that a new administration should:

comprehensively address the security risks of climate change at all levels of national security planning, elevate and integrate attention to these risks across the US government strengthen existing institutions and create new ones for addressing them.”

#3 The many effects of a changing climate require the military to be prepared

I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Yes, the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with Defense Secretary Mattis on the consequences of a changing climate such as maritime access to the Arctic, and that it is critical that DoD continues to address these. On our Arctic Climate Impact Assessment page, among other changes, we speak to how the Northern Sea Route navigation season is likely to increase from the current 20 to 30 days per year to almost 100 days per year by 2080.  And in this blog, Global Warming in the Arctic: A Sensitive Climate Gone Off the Rails, Erika Spanger-Siegfried notes that:

The degree to which current Arctic conditions are straying from the norm may prove to be the greatest change yet measured there—the latest signal from the Arctic that all is not well.”

For more on the impacts of a changing climate on the Arctic, see the Arctic Report Card and watch this video.

The DoD and retired Military understand the security issues of a changing Arctic as well. DoD’s Arctic Strategy outlines how the DoD will prepare for the changing conditions. Back in 2009, National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD)-66 established U.S. policy on the Arctic and documented both the national security and homeland security interests in the region.

The age of the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean at winter maximum in March 1985 (left) compared with March 2016 (right). The darker the blue, the younger the ice. The first age class on the scale (1, darkest blue) means “first-year ice,” which formed in the most recent winter. The oldest ice (7+, white) is ice that is more than seven years old. Historically, most of the ice pack was many years old. Today, only a fraction of that very old ice reamins. NOAA maps, based on NOAA/NASA data provided by Mark Tschudi.

Stanford University’s world renowned Hoover Institution has the Artic Security program dedicated to this very issue because “the changing Arctic is the most significant physical global event since the end of the last Ice Age.” For an in-depth overview of the national security issues see the Hoover Institution’s video of Admiral Gary Roughead.

Regarding planning, the Department of Defense’s Environmental Research Programs, which includes the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP), released a report entitled Regional Sea Level Scenarios for Coastal Risk Management that provides a scenario planning tool for 1,774 military sites worldwide to plan for sea level rise.

DoD’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap provides actions and plans to increase its resilience to the impacts of climate change. DoD sharpened its efforts last year with Directive 4715.21 Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, which assigns responsibilities to each of the branches.

Navigating the Anti-science Administration

Secretary of Defense Mattis’ unpublished testimony underscores 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. While it can be argued that President Trump has a wrecking ball that is aimed on climate, it can also be argued that the DoD has climate change mainstreamed into all it does (as do other agencies).  For instance, in my recent blog, I speak to how climate change is a backyard issue for Naval Station Norfolk.  But Naval Station Norfolk is just one of many installations that have climate mitigation and adaptation measures embedded in their operations.

So whether or not we see congressional attempts again to halt the Pentagon’s climate change work, my guess is that “Mad Dog Mattis” won’t back down on ensuring the readiness of the military in the face of climate change.

(For more background on what the implications of the skinny budget and what you can do, see this blog.)


Food Production Does NOT Need to Double by 2050 (And Other Required Reading for the Next USDA Secretary)

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Shortly after the inauguration, I wrote a post outlining a set of five questions I thought the Senate should ask President Trump’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture. Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue had been named to the position just days prior, and though the selection is deeply flawed, I expected a Senate hearing and confirmation vote would follow promptly.

Well, the nomination has now been on the table for eight weeks, and what seemed like a sure thing now looks less so. Amid ethics questions, a multitude of financial conflicts of interest (sound like anyone you know?), and inexplicable foot-dragging by the White House—which finally filed the paperwork to formally nominate Gov. Perdue this week—there’s still no hearing on the books.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Gov. Perdue will eventually get his hearing, be confirmed by the Senate, and take up the top post at the USDA. What will he be faced with?

He’ll have responsibility for an industrial model of farming that the USDA has long promoted, which is not doing so well. To be sure, it’s pumping out a lot of commodity crops, and more-more-more seems to be its motto and overarching goal. US farmers achieved record-high harvests for corn and soybeans last year, but at the same time, farm incomes are at their lowest levels since 2002. Farmers are losing soil to erosion at unsustainable rates, which threatens the long-term viability of their businesses and of domestic food production. And the more-more-more model relies on heavy fertilizer use, resulting in a nitrogen pollution problem that costs the nation an estimated $157 billion per year in human health and environmental damages and contributes 5 percent of the US share of human-caused heat-trapping gases responsible for climate change.

Proponents of this approach to farming justify it because they say it’s needed to feed a growing world. But it’s debatable whether past efforts to maximize US crop production have been successful even in that realm. And the world—including its farmers—also needs clean water and a stable climate, right?

Producing more food, sustainably

Which is why I want to recommend a surprising new study as required reading for the presumptive agriculture secretary. Published last month in the journal Bioscience, the peer-reviewed paper (alas, behind a pay wall) takes apart a popular claim behind the more-more-more approach—that food production must double by 2050 to feed a growing world population—and strongly advocates for more attention to sustainability.

You’ve probably heard the claim, which stems from two recent food demand projections, one by researchers at the University of Minnesota in 2011 and the other by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2012. Neither team said food production needed to double, exactly, but one thing led to another and the myth that we need to produce twice as much food in the foreseeable future took on a life of its own. It was soon repeated by everyone from the Farm Bureau and Monsanto (naturally) to the Washington Post and National Geographic. A UCS colleague took issue with it in this 2015 blog post, but the myth has persisted.

Now, a team led by Penn State University researchers says it’s just not true. Writing at RealClear Science, lead author and plant scientist Mitch Hunter summarizes the team’s finding:

We conclude that food production does not need to double by 2050, which would require unprecedented growth, but instead needs to continue increasing at roughly historical rates. We also highlight quantitative goals that indicate the scope of agriculture’s environmental challenges.

In fact, Hunter and colleagues say, their new analysis shows that a more modest increase—somewhere between 25 and 70 percent—may be sufficient to meet 2050 food demand. The discrepancy, they explain, stems partly from the fact that the previous studies used 2005 as their baseline for demand, and food production has already increased markedly in the intervening 12 years.

An increase of 25 to 70 percent is still a lot, of course. But farm yield trends are going in the right direction. More troubling is that we’re not making the same strides when it comes to improving agriculture’s impact on our environment, as Hunter points out in an interview at

In the coming decades, agriculture will be called upon to both feed people and ensure a healthy environment. Right now, the narrative in agriculture is really out of balance, with compelling goals for food production but no clear sense of the progress we need to make on the environment. To get the agriculture we want in 2050, we need quantitative targets for both food production and environmental impacts.

Hunter and colleagues elaborate on the most important environmental challenges they see for agriculture in 2050—reducing its emissions of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere and its release of nutrients to waterways—and show how agriculture is falling short of goals that have been set to date. Asserting in the paper that “sustainability cannot play second fiddle to intensification,” the authors recommend the development of a suite of quantitative environmental goals for agriculture, and advocate for shifts in farm policy to meet them.

As I said, required reading for the incoming Secretary of Agriculture.

Agroecology FTW-W-W!

While he’s at it, Gov. Perdue should also read this excellent commentary from my colleagues Andrea Basche and Marcia DeLonge. They posit in the open-access science journal Elementa (and here on our blog) that what we need are farms that support farmers, consumers, and the environment. The governor should know that the science that can achieve such a win-win-win exists. It’s called agroecology, and the USDA needs to fund a lot more of it, according to more than 450 experts on the subject.

A recent event suggests that the interconnectedness of global food security, human nutrition, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity is gaining traction even at the USDA. Just this month, the department’s Office of the Chief Scientist hosted a day-long “listening session” titled Visioning of US Agricultural Systems for Sustainable Production. The session was described by the organizers at the USDA as a landmark conversation for the future possibilities for US agricultural systems and the research needed to develop these systems for the long term.

UCS was there, and we delivered the following four recommendations:

  • Full funding for public agricultural research programs, with a high priority given to promising agroecological research
  • Expansion of publicly-funded classical breeding programs, with a special focus on plant varieties needed in agroecological systems
  • A shift in taxpayer-funded USDA subsidies, incentives, and technical assistance toward implementing economically and environmentally viable farming practices and systems, based on agroecology
  • Greater taxpayer-funded investment in local food systems that advance economic and environmental sustainability in rural and urban communities

I’ll go ahead and put our full written comments on Gov. Perdue’s required reading list. Should he ever become Secretary Perdue, he’s got some homework to do.

Photo: US Agency for International Development/CC BY-NC 2.0, Flickr

Budget Proposal Throws Coal Communities under the Bus

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This morning the president released his “skinny” budget, an initial cut at the new administration’s priorities for government spending. This proposal will be nearly impossible to pass through Congress, but there are still many reasons to be alarmed about the proposed funding cuts (especially at NOAA, FEMA, and EPA).

One thing is absolutely clear from the proposals outlined in the skinny budget: despite many campaign promises to bring back coal jobs and support coal miners, the president doesn’t actually care about Coal Country.

What gives?

On the campaign trail, the president wooed coal miners, promising to get them back to work, and he remains wildly popular in Coal Country.

But here’s the thing about his new budget: throwing away decades of environmental safeguards isn’t going to bring back coal jobs. Instead of empty promises, the president should instead focus on increasing investments in programs that really benefit people and coal communities in the region. This budget proposal does exactly the opposite by eliminating critical funding, and taking those programs away will do real damage in coal communities.

The skinny on the skinny

How exactly would the proposal hurt coal communities? Just to name a few:

  • Appalachian Regional Commission: The budget proposal would eliminate entirely the Appalachian Regional Commission, an independent agency created decades ago “to address the persistent poverty and growing economic despair” in the Appalachian region. In just the last year and a half, from October 2015 through January 2017, ARC supported 662 projects with $175.5 million invested in Appalachian communities—matched by $257.4 million and attracting an additional $443.3 million in leveraged private investments. And the agency is meeting and exceeding its performance goals. For FY 15, ARC created or retained 23,032 jobs—surpassing its goal of 20,000 (see p.53 in this report).
  • Economic Development Administration: The Economic Development Administration within the Department of Commerce is also slated to be eliminated entirely. EDA is the only federal agency focused exclusively on economic development, and is designed to build sustainable job growth and robust and competitive regional economies. EDA’s budget has hovered near $250 million per year over the last few years and has funded projects in every state, offering grants, technical assistance, trade adjustment support, and even support for research on strategic planning for cash-strapped communities lacking the capacity for economic planning. EDA was also the lead agency in the Obama administration’s POWER Initiative, which specifically sought to drive investments in communities hurt by changes in the coal economy.
  • Department of Agriculture: The budget also proposes a $95 million cut to the Rural Business and Cooperative Service at USDA.
  • Department of the Treasury: The administration proposes the elimination the Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Fund, claiming it “was created more than 20 years ago to jump-start a now mature industry where private institutions have ready access to the capital needed to extend credit and provide financial services to underserved communities.” Some of those “underserved communities” are located in Coal Country, and many remain in dire need of support and investment.

Hal Rogers, the Republican Congressman who has represented the coalfields of eastern Kentucky since 1981, released the following statement:

“While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the President’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive. In particular, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has a long-standing history of bipartisan support in Congress because of its proven ability to help reduce poverty rates and extend basic necessities to communities across the Appalachian region. Today, nearly everyone in the region has access to clean water and sewer, the workforce is diversifying, educational opportunities are improving and rural technology is finally advancing to 21st Century standards. But there is more work to be done in these communities, and I will continue to advocate for sufficient funding for ARC and similar programs, like the Economic Development Administration.

And there’s more…

I’ve only scratched the surface. This proposal is only the opening gambit in what promises to be an interesting budget cycle, to say the least. In my mind, the question is: who will speak up to ensure that those workers—who helped keep the lights on for generations—and their communities get the support they need?

Meanwhile, on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress can’t seem to agree on addressing the imminent crisis of the miners’ health insurance and pension funds, and for some mystifying reason, no Republican Senator has stepped forward to cosponsor the RECLAIM Act—a commonsense solution using existing funds to clean up abandoned mine lands and create opportunities for long-term economic development.

And then there’s this little gem—the West Virginia Senate is considering eliminating mine safety enforcement altogether.

Given the rhetoric around all these issues, and the fact that the administration’s budget process is being driven by folks from the anti-government Heritage Foundation, these proposed cuts are not surprising. But they would be devastating to working families in Coal Country—and they must be stopped.

New START is a Winner

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U.S. military leaders continue to strongly support New START, the arms control treaty between the United States and Russia that limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed, long-range nuclear weapons by 2018.

Gen. Hyten, Gen. Selva testify in support of New START before the House Armed Services Committee, March 8, 2017

The problem is that President Donald Trump is apparently unwilling to listen to their sage advice.

Back on January 28, in his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump reportedly attacked New START, calling it a “bad deal.” It seems any agreement this president did not personally negotiate is a loser.

And that is unfortunate, because according to the Reuters report that broke the story, Putin had raised the possibility of the two countries using New START’s built-in option to extend the treaty’s life by five years. Such an extension is definitely in the US national security interest: From boots-on-the-ground inspections to detailed data exchanges, the treaty provides verification and predictability that US military leaders consistently desire.

Strategic Commander is “Big Supporter”

Just last week, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who as commander of the U.S. Strategic Command is responsible for all U.S. nuclear forces, was asked about New START in a Congressional hearing. He testified:

I’ve stated for the record in the past, and I’ll state again, that I’m a — a big supporter [of the treaty]. … when it comes to nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities, that bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.

In the same hearing, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that when New START was considered by the Senate:

the Joint Chiefs reviewed the components of the treaty and — and endorsed it. It is a bilateral, verifiable agreement that gives us some degree of predictability on what our potential adversaries look like.

While it seems he doesn’t listen to military leaders like these, it not clear just who President Trump does listen to. Reuters reported the president stopped his call with Putin to ask someone unknown what the treaty was before telling the Russian leader that it was a bad deal.

And it doesn’t stop there. More recently, on February 23, the president repeated his criticism of New START, this time in an interview where he declared that the treaty is “a one-sided deal like all other deals we make. It’s a one-sided deal. It gave them things that we should have never allowed. … Just another bad deal that the country made.”

New START passed a high bar for Senate ratification

Before they can become the law of the land, treaties must pass a high bar: approval by two-thirds of U.S. Senate. The threshold was set to ensure that “bad deals” don’t happen. In the case of New START, 71 senators voted in favor of the treaty, including 13 Republicans. It became the first major arms control treaty negotiated by a Democratic president and endorsed by the Senate. Perhaps this, more than any other reason, is why President Trump dislikes the treaty.

But it took compelling reasons to get those 71 Senate votes, and then just as now, military leaders gave strong support to the treaty. Perhaps most compelling, seven former heads of U.S. Strategic Command wrote a letter to the Senate endorsing the treaty. After detailing several reasons why the treaty was in U.S. national security interests, the letter concluded,

The New START Treaty will contribute to a more stable U.S.-Russian relationship. We strongly endorse its early ratification and entry into force.

While overall the U.S.-Russian relationship has deteriorated, the New START agreement has been one bedrock of constancy. That is what military leaders sought when the treaty was first negotiated, and why they still support it now. President Trump should start listening to their advice, and stop attacking New START. Instead, he should respond to Putin’s suggestion and extend the treaty by five years.

Will Congress Turn Its Back on the Safety of America’s Workers?

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Let’s say someone you care about—mother, father, wife, husband, partner, son, daughter, friend, and neighbor—works in a facility that’s had a history of serious injuries or illnesses. You know, like burns, amputations, and broken bones that happen at work. Or head, eye, or back injuries. Or problems that send workers to emergency rooms, clinics, or doctors with breathing difficulties, skin damage, or other health issues related to chemical exposures or other dangerous conditions at work. 

For over 40 years, larger employers in high-hazard industries have been required to keep accurate records of these types of serious, disabling events—and to maintain those records for five years. These records are vital to understanding the extent and nature of serious workplace injuries and illnesses in our nation’s larger workplaces—and PREVENTING THEM.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses these records to allocate its meager resources for inspection, enforcement, and assisting employers with compliance. Employers, unions, and workers use these records to identify dangerous conditions and take steps to fix them. The Department of Labor uses these records to publish statistics on occupational injury and illness rates, which are important data sources for researchers and professionals who study or advise on occupational safety and health.

Because these injury and illness records are so integral to safety and health at work, OSHA can cite and fine employers when they falsify, under-report, or otherwise keep inaccurate records to evade an inspection and/or avoid making the investments needed to improve workplace safety and health conditions. And there is clear evidence that stiff record keeping fines have stimulated improvements in safety programs and conditions—sometimes extending well beyond the particular workplace to an industry writ large.

In 2012, a court decision overturned four decades of precedent and made it impossible for OSHA to enforce against record keeping violations in dangerous industries if the violations are more than six months old. Essentially, this decision held employers harmless for failing to keep accurate records of serious injuries and illnesses that happened outside a six-month window—or over a period that would reveal patterns of record-keeping violations. It would also put additional onus on OSHA, with its limited budget and inspection resources, to catch poor record keeping within six months.

One of the three judges involved in the decision indicated that OSHA could cite continuing violations of its record keeping rule if it clarified the rule.  Which it did in December 2016—clarifying that an employer’s duty to record an injury or illness continues for the full five-year record-retention period. You can see more here.

This clarification was critical, as these records save lives and prevent serious and sometimes permanent disability. Hard as it is to believe, job hazards kill over 4,800 workers a year and seriously injure another 3 million—in America! These are our loved ones, our family bread winners, engines of our economy.  You know, the ones that make America great.

This Worker Protection Is on the Chopping Block—NOW

Perhaps you’ve been following how our Congress is wielding a rarely used statute to overturn recently enacted regulations that that don’t comport with their ideological and partisan preferences—even if those rules emerged after years of study, stakeholder and public input, and a rigorous rule-making process. We’ve written about how Congress is using this statute, the Congressional Review Act (CRA), here and here.

Next week, we can expect the Senate to follow the House of Representatives in using the Congressional Review Act to overturn this important worker protection. They will use familiar corporate and industry arguments.  It’s burdensome paperwork, it’s costly, it’s a job killer.

The Problem Is Killer Jobs, Not Job Killers

Actually, it’s not an overstatement to say that overturning this record keeping rule endangers workers and could itself be a killer. This week 75 civil society organizations called on the Senate to oppose any attempt to invoke the Congressional Review Act and repeal this rule (see letter here).

Protecting our nation’s workforce is not a partisan issue. And powerful regulated industries seeking to pad their bottom line should not be the predominant voice when it comes to public protections—including workplace safety. If this president and this Congress say they stand with America’s workers, then it’s time to give meaning to those words.

So please—pick up the phone and call your senators this week urging them to oppose this Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution (H.J.Res 83 – S.J. Res 27). It’s not just record keeping. It’s the safety and health of our loved ones.


Helping the FDA Define “Healthy” Food Labels

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As a registered dietitian, my perspective on healthy foods is pretty simple: there aren’t any.

Before you write to my accrediting board, let me explain. What I mean is that the extent to which a food can promote health is largely dependent on the role it plays in a person’s total diet. Are there health benefits to be gained from eating a side of salmon with dinner? Absolutely. But if I ate nothing but sockeye for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I’d be getting only a fraction of the nutrients my body needs.

It’s a different way to talk about healthy eating, I know, and you’ll catch me departing from this dogma from time to time. But I do try to encourage people to focus on healthy diets—those containing a variety of foods (most of which are minimally processed, or would be somewhat recognizable in nature) in portions that satisfy their hunger and in forms that they enjoy.  This is part of the reason I became a public health dietitian: I think it’s important to talk about food as more than the sum of its nutrients. This pertains not only to conversations about how we consume food, but also about how we grow it, distribute it, and provide (or restrict) access to it.

Needless to say, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) brought health professionals, industry representatives, agencies, and advocates together last Thursday to help define the term “healthy” for food labels, I knew we were in for a challenge. Personal philosophy aside, the regulation of foods is an extremely complex task.

A little bit of background: the FDA issued a request for comments in September 2016, following a citizen petition submitted by the makers of KIND bars calling for science-based changes to the nutrient content claim “healthy.” A focal point of the KIND petition is the inconsistency between dietary recommendations, which encourage the consumption of foods like nuts and legumes, and FDA restrictions on total fat content barring these same foods from bearing the “healthy” label. (Current nutritional science tells us that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to dietary fat.)

While high-fat, health-promoting foods like nuts, salmon, and avocados enjoyed a spotlight at the public meeting, there were no shortage of questions in the room. For example, should “healthy” items be determined by food components, nutrient levels, or both? In what amounts? Would nutrients added to fortified foods count? What about phytonutrients, like the beta-carotene found in carrots or the lycopene in tomatoes?

Although the discussion is far from over, there seems to be general consensus around several points. First and foremost, the current definition of “healthy” is based on outdated science and is due for an upgrade. Second, new criteria for use of the term “healthy” on food labels should take both foods and nutrients into account. And third, the new criteria should align as closely as possible with the messages and recommendations contained in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.

The public comment period remains open until April 26, at which point the FDA will take time to review and respond to comments before publishing a proposed rule. Two issues we’ll have our eyes on include the thresholds that the FDA might identify for allowable levels of both sodium and added sugar. (The current definition of “healthy” sets moderate limits on the former and is silent on the latter.) These nutrients are of particular interest because, while most health professionals and researchers can agree that we’re consuming too much of them, we haven’t quite reached a consensus on what the limits should look like for a given snack food or prepared dish.

For our take on what should be included in the new regulations, including food-based criteria, allowable total fat distributions, and added sugar limits, read the transcript of our oral comment below. I’ll be following up with additional information and commentary as the public comment period draws to a close – stay tuned.


UCS Comments at FDA Public Meeting on the Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Good afternoon,

My name is Sarah Reinhardt. I am a registered dietitian, and am pleased to present this comment on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize the importance of choosing a variety of minimally processed, nutrient dense foods as part of a healthy eating pattern. The definition of nutrient dense foods provided by the guidelines reflects current scientific evidence on the health benefits associated with consumption of foods from key food groups, as well as the chronic disease risks associated with consumption of target nutrients. This definition provides the basis for our recommendations on the use of the term “healthy” in the labeling of human food.

UCS proposes the following modifications to the criteria required to bear the “healthy” label:

First, the term “healthy” should be characterized on the basis of foods, not just nutrients.

Health-promoting foods are those recommended by the dietary guidelines as part of a healthy diet, and include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, nuts and seeds, dairy products, and meats and poultry. Foods from one or more of the aforementioned groups should constitute a substantial proportion of a food item to meet standards for use of the term “healthy.” Some foods may be subject to exception from general “healthy” labels due to evidence of health risks associated with excess intake, including fruit juices, processed meat, and red meat.

Second, conditions related to total fat, cholesterol, added sugar, and sodium should be evaluated with respect to current scientific evidence.

Conditions on total fat content should be revised to provide exception to health-promoting foods with favorable total fat distributions of predominantly mono- and/or polyunsaturated fats. This reflects current scientific evidence on the health benefits of replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, including reduced blood levels of total cholesterol, reduced low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and reduced risk of cardiovascular events and related deaths.

In light of advancements in the understanding of the role of dietary cholesterol in chronic disease risk, conditions related to cholesterol should be removed. This is consistent with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines and reflects current nutritional science.

It is critical that updated criteria establish limits on added sugar content. Research shows that over 70 percent of the population consumes this nutrient in excess, increasing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer in adults. Limits should be established to help Americans limit added sugar intake to less than ten percent of daily calorie intake, as recommended by the dietary guidelines.

Lastly, allowable sodium levels should be further reduced to help protect against chronic disease.

Americans consume approximately 3,440 mg of sodium per day, 75 percent of which comes from processed foods. Foods labeled as “healthy” should contain levels of sodium to help meet daily sodium recommendations of 2,300 mg and reduce risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

In conclusion, it is the recommendation of UCS that the conditions required for food items to bear the “healthy” label should closely align with the definition of “nutrient dense foods” provided by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. Restructuring these criteria in a way that promotes healthy foods and restricts target nutrients will result in an established definition of “healthy” that provides clear and consistent messaging to consumers and follows evidence-based recommendations to reduce population risk of diet-related chronic disease. Thank you.

Photo: Marco Verch/BY-SA (Flickr)

Are Electric Buses Feasible?

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One of the largest transit agencies says yes

King County Metro (Seattle area) recently released a report analyzing the feasibility of transitioning its 1,400 buses to zero-emission vehicles. Metro found it can achieve a 100% battery electric bus fleet as soon as 2034 with minimal increases in expenses.

This is a MAJOR announcement from the 2nd largest bus fleet on the west coast and the 9th largest in the United States. It indicates the confidence Metro’s fleet managers have to deploy zero-emission vehicles on a large scale.

Metro’s fleet today consists mostly of diesel (34%) and diesel hybrid (53%) buses. Electric trolley buses powered by overhead wires make up the rest of the fleet (12%).

Transitioning to battery electric buses will reduce Metro’s climate impacts by 80% over the next 30 years compared to its current fleet. The report concluded this level of ambition is needed to meet the county’s goals for reducing global warming emissions and improving public health.

Electric bus technology is here and ready

Metro found that the range and charging times of today’s battery electric buses can meet the needs of 70% of its routes. Anticipated advances in technology will allow the remainder of Metro’s routes to be serviced by electric buses.

Between now and 2020, Metro will incorporate 120 electric buses into its fleet, making it a national leader in zero-emission transit. Based on technology readiness, the report recommends that all new bus purchases be zero-emission thereafter.

Metro recognizes the challenges in adopting a new technology, but it isn’t backing down. It engaged with power utilities, for example, to discover it’s possible to get the amount of power a large battery electric bus fleet would require.

Metro’s human resources department is also exploring how it can have a workforce with the right skill-set to meet the needs of an all-electric bus fleet. Improving the accessibility of jobs in the electric truck and bus industry was a major recommendation of a report we wrote with The Greenlining Institute.

But won’t this break the bank???

Nope. Metro reports the purchase price of a standard 40-foot battery electric bus is cost-competitive today if not cheaper than its current diesel hybrids. Including purchase, maintenance, and operation costs, Metro estimates a 6% increase in expenses to transition their entire fleet to zero-emission vehicles, with a range of -27% to +10%.

Including the monetary benefits of improved air and quieter neighborhoods, the overall costs of a fully zero-emission fleet are reduced to just 2%. These costs are real but often ignored on balanced sheets.

You might think the costs only work out because Washington enjoys cheap electricity, but the analysis was based on an electricity price of $0.15/kWh. This is much higher than the rate Metro pays today and was chosen in anticipation of future electricity rate structures.

Benefiting those most impacted by air pollution

Metro is prioritizing the roll out of zero-emission buses in communities that bear the greatest pollution burden – low-income and communities of color. A major part of the report centered on identifying bus routes that operate in the most polluted communities.

Metro concluded that taking cars off the road through public transit shouldn’t count in meeting its climate goals. Nor should it be able to buy its way to carbon neutrality with carbon offsets. Its principles for equity and reducing local air pollution rightfully played a large role in these recommendations.

A clean fleet powered by clean energy

Not only does Metro recommend a 100% zero-emission fleet, it also recommends these buses be powered by 100% renewable energy (including hydropower). Washington’s large hydroelectric resource gives Metro a big head start on this. In 2005, Seattle City Light, which would power 75% of Metro’s all-electric fleet, became the first carbon-neutral electric utility in the country.

But Washington isn’t unique in the carbon benefits of electric buses. We found that battery electric buses on today’s grid in California have 70% lower global warming emissions than natural gas or diesel buses.

Fuel cell buses with 33% hydrogen from renewable energy (per California law, SB 1505), have 50% lower global warming emissions than natural gas and diesel buses. And across the country, the grid is getting cleaner.

More than just clean buses

Metro has a lot of other great things going on. King County was one of the few transit agencies in the United States to see an increase in ridership last year. And it plans on increasing ridership even more, requiring its fleet to increase from 1,400 to 2,000 buses by 2040. Metro is proof that expanded service and clean buses can go hand in hand.

Metro also helps get people onto buses with discounted transit rates for low-income individuals. And it gets people out of their cars and into clean, shared rides with an electric vehicle carpool program.

I went to college in the Puget Sound region and have many friends and family in the area. It is very inspiring to see a place I love be a leader on clean vehicles and clean air.

If King County Metro’s work inspires you, contact board members on your local transit agency. Let them know zero-emission buses are ready to make your community a better place to live.

P.S. If you live in Los Angeles, tell LA Metro, the largest transit agency on the west coast, to also be a leader on zero-emission buses.

Who’s Marching for Science—and Why? Here Are 15 Answers

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UCS is partnering with both the March for Science and the Peoples Climate March.  UCS encourages scientist and nonscientists to participate in one of the 350+ local March for Science events on April 22 and then join the Peoples Climate March in Washington D.C. on April 29.


The role of science in society has been debated for thousands of years.

But while science and its impacts on beliefs and our world will always be the subject of some debate, in general it has been the accepted norm that the scientists themselves should largely stay on the sidelines.

Scientists should avoid politicizing their work, leaving it to policymakers to determine how their findings are implemented . . . right?

The recent election has triggered a reevaluation of this norm.

The date is now set to March for Science on April 22, 2017 in Washington, DC and satellite locations around the world.

Almost as soon as the call went out, so did the debate within the scientific community about whether and how it should respond. Do scientists have a moral obligation to stand up for their work? Or do they compromise their objectivity by taking a formal stance that can be (fairly or unfairly) aligned with political values?

Media and well-known scientists have published their personal opinions, but I wanted to take it one step further. I wondered what leading scientists, academics and science educators think about the March for Science — so I asked them, fifteen in all.

The question was simple: are you going, should others go, and why or why not?

The responses were insightful and passionate.

My main takeaway? Failing to act is not an option.

The March for Science is a signal to citizens and politicians from coast to coast, demonstrating that we will not stand by while hundreds of years’ of scientific inquiry are brushed aside.

But the follow-up question is perhaps the most important: is marching enough?

While the March for Science is seen as an important step for science advocacy, some are rightly worried that it will be a one-day news story that quickly passes without influencing action or policy.

Read on to see how some of the brightest minds in the world of science are approaching this key inflection point.

*     *     *

Dennis Bartels, science advocate and former CEO, The Exploratorium, San Francisco, Cal.

Are you going to the March? Yes

Should others go? Yes

There is a threshold when your silence becomes deadly. I believe we’ve reached that point. We follow in a very rich tradition with far, far braver path makers who had much more to lose. It’s the least we can do, and perhaps only the beginning.

Your lives and the future of your children, and their children, and the species as a whole is in much doubt. Don’t look back and wonder and wish what you should have done back when. We’ve reached the inflection point. I truly believe that.

*     *     *

George Cogan, Chairman of the Board, The Exploratorium

Are you going to the March? Yes

Should others go? Yes

I believe people trained in the methods of science are better citizens. I wish there were more than a couple of scientists in Congress. I have not typically been involved in politics, but I plan to march as a concerned citizen.

Some believe the inexorable march towards truth is best served if scientists avoid politics. I agree in general. Scientists who ‘market’ their findings are marginalized for this reason. However, when the science is settled, the stakes are high, time is short, and political action is essential to drive change, scientists have a moral responsibility to become involved in politics.

I would like to see non-scientists join scientists at this march.

*     *     *

Ellie Cohen, President and CEO, Point Blue Conservation Science

Are you going to the March? Yes, locally

Should others go? Yes

I have concerns about my greenhouse gas footprint so will not go to DC, but will attend the March in San Francisco.

Science helps humanity discover and illuminate truths, upon which policy makers can act to better the lives of the people they serve.

With non-partisan messaging and trained messengers, the March is an opportunity to train and catalyze scientists to communicate with multiple audiences across the political spectrum. Since science by definition is not dogmatic or partisan, scientists should advocate for science and scientific findings, and participating in the March is one way of doing just that.

Along the lines of Rabbi Hillel’s sage words from 2,000 years ago (If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?), if scientists don’t stand up for science, who will? And what better time than now?

Note: Dr. Cohen’s views are personal and do not reflect the view of Point Blue Conservation Science.

*     *     *

Molly Demeulenaere, President and CEO, Museum of Science and Industry, Tampa, Fla.

Are you going to the March? Yes

Should others go? Yes

I am participating in this March to stand up for the scientific process and the people that dedicate their lives to learning more. I also believe that we need to encourage all people to be curious about the world around them, learn to think critically, and understand the importance of research and how it can play a role in their lives. For me, this March for Science advocates for what I believe this world needs.

Messages are stronger in numbers. Having a clear message that everyone speaks to is crucial. This March can bring people together to share knowledge and stand up for what we believe in.

*     *     *

Beka Economopoulos, Founding Director, The Natural History Museum, Brooklyn, NY

Are you going to the March? Yes

Should others go? Yes

Scientists are heroes, they solve problems and protect the people and places we love. Medical research, climate science, and research on lead levels and water quality protect us. These are the kinds of science that are in the crosshairs. These attacks on science are attacks on our families, our communities, and our collective future.

For too long we’ve relied on facts and evidence to speak for themselves. That strategy has failed us. The March for Science is a coming-out party for a movement of scientists and supporters who are speaking out in the public sphere. It isn’t partisan, it’s patriotic.

*     *     *

Kirsten Ellenbogen, President and CEO, Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland, Ohio

Are you going to the March? Yes, satellite march

Should others go? Yes

We are more involved in our local March for Science. We’ve had difficult conversations about whether we should march together as the science center in an official capacity.

We are talking with the directors of three other informal science education organizations locally and we know this is an important moment for science, scientists, and future scientists in our community.

*     *     *

Jonathan Foley, Executive Director, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, Cal.

Are you going to the March? Yes

Should others go? Yes

It’s time to stand up for science. If we don’t, who will?

Of course others should go. The War on Science is a war on everything we care about — our health, our safety, our economic competitiveness, and our future. It belongs to everyone.

*     *     *

Peter Gleick, Member of the US National Academy of Sciences; MacArthur Fellow; and Co-founder, President-Emeritus, and Chief Scientist of the Pacific Institute, Oakland, Cal.

Are you going to the March? Yes

Should others go? Prefer not to give advice

Scientists have always worked in the public interest, and while public communication and advocacy are difficult for some scientists, we’re faced with unprecedented threats that must be countered. One way is to exercise our First Amendment rights to protest, speak, peaceably assemble. I plan to exercise mine.

It is up to each person, individually, to decide how to address the threats to science that we face. I can only act on my own.

*     *     *

Paula Golden, President, Broadcom Foundation, Newport Beach, Cal.

Are you going to the March? Yes

Should others go? Yes

We must resist the anti-science fake facts of the Trump regime and the right wing Republican Congress — on the streets, in the press, in the courts and at the polls. This march is a wake-up call to the nation.

Numbers count! March in DC or at a rally in your city and town. Send out the message on your Facebook, twitter and Email account.

*     *     *

Kishore Hari, Director, Bay Area Science Festival, University of California, San Francisco

Are you going to the March? Yes

Should others go? Yes

I’m one of the leaders of the movement. My family is here in this country because my father was given admission to a science program. Science is much more than a pursuit of knowledge — it’s responsible for my existence.

Science’s core integrity is being questioned, its value to our local communities and economic future is being derided, and the importance for evidence and facts is being questioned. We have an opportunity to join forces with all the science advocates and enthusiasts to show that there is a large community who believe in the pursuit of truth and evidence.

The largest mobilization of these communities is a statement that we stand together in support of an institution that has brought so much prosperity to billions and is the economic engine of our future. We have never stood in solidarity with each other — this is first of many opportunities to walk hand-in-hand.

*     *     *

Dan Kahan, Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology, Yale Law School

Are you going to the March? No, conflict

Should others go? Don’t want to give advice

Trump is devaluing the currency of facts in our democratic discourse.

Every profession, every citizen, should make unmistakably clear their opposition to what is happening — and their support for the dignity of one another’s calling.

I don’t know what the message of such an action would be. But I do know that exposing and opposing the insidious objectives of those who mock truth is the right thing, intrinsically, as a moral matter. While respecting others who have concluded otherwise, I am grateful to those willing to make the effort to protect these fundamental principles.

*     *     *

Daniel Kammen, Professor of Energy, University of California, Berkeley

Are you going to the March? Yes

Should others go? Yes

Science is critical to human innovation, equity, and progress. The threat that this new administration is presenting to science is unacceptable. I currently serve as Science Envoy for the U. S. State Department.

*     *     *

Troy Livingston  Director, Science Gallery Lab Detroit

Are you going to the March? No

Should others go? No

I believe strongly in the values inspiring the march. But I also believe it will be a mostly white, mostly privileged and elitist group who will not be or appear inclusive of all people.

Unintentionally, marchers may reinforce the negative stereotype that science isn’t for everyone.

Finally, I believe that the millions of dollars marchers will spend would have had more tangible benefit advocating for science if they went into the accounts of AAAS or the Union of Concerned Scientists or similar organizations.

I’m all for political activism, but I worry, just like with the women’s march, that many people will call this march their contribution to this cause and leave it at that.

What will matter most is not what happens on the day of the march but everything all of us have done and will do every other day of the year.

*     *     *

Anthony (Bud) Rock, President and CEO, Association of Science-Technology Centers

Are you going to the March? Maybe

Should others go? Prefer not to give advice

In the national (and global) discussions of so many critical issues today, science is finding its voice. This is not simply in response to recent challenges to broadly accepted scientific research in areas such as climate change, vaccine safety, or environmental sustainability. In a much more profound way, it is all that science represents — its purpose, its process, its accomplishments, its impacts — that reaffirms the importance of decisions and actions across all segments of society that are factual and evidenced-based.

The Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) joins the many organizations that call for a collective voice on science. As an association, we must, however, also respect the diversity of views within our membership as to how to be most effective in this messaging.

ASTC hopes, however, that all of our member institutions will use every available opportunity to open our doors and engage our visitors in our essential mission to inspire people of all ages about the wonders and the meaning of science in their lives.

*     *     *

Dr. Martin Storksdieck, Director and Professor, Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning, Oregon State University

Are you going to the March? No, conflict

Should others go? Yes

Alan Leshner summarized it nicely at this year’s AAAS conference: You can’t not speak out for science, but you have to worry about the way it will be perceived.

The other issue: If there is a March with a broad goal to showcase the benefit and need for evidence-based decision-making, the value of basic and applied research, and such, then there better be a lot of people marching across the country.

*     *     *

Dr. Susan Weller, President, Entomological Society of America

Are you going to the March? Yes, locally

Should others go? Yes

Science is about curiosity and following where your questions lead you. From this curiosity, humans have been growing our knowledge for centuries.

For entomologists, this curiosity drives us to ask how mosquitoes spread disease and how a bee finds her way back to the nest.

I look forward to celebrating science on April 22nd here in Nebraska. Our new museum exhibit opens that day, showcasing University of Nebraska-Lincoln research on parasites. Mosquitoes that carry dengue or Zika don’t care who you are — they just make you sick. Let’s show the world that science matters in their lives and that scientists work hard to make a positive difference every day.

We’ve Said It, the Post Says It, Now SciAm Too: Take Weapons Off Alert

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In the March 2017 issue of Scientific American, the editorial board calls for the United States to take its nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert as a way to reduce the risk of mistaken or accidental launch of nuclear weapons.

Minuteman launch officers in an underground command center (Source: US Air Force)

It joins the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, in supporting this step.

Both the United States and Russia keep about 900 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched in minutes. If satellites and radars send warning of an incoming attack, the goal is to be able to launch their missiles quickly—before the attacking warheads could land.

But the warning systems are not foolproof. The Scientific American editors point to some of the real-world cases of false warning of nuclear attack—in both the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States—that led the countries to begin launch preparations and increased the risk that nuclear weapons would be used.

This risk is exacerbated by the very short timeline for responding to such warning. Military officers would have only minutes to determine whether the warning that shows up on their computer screens is real. Defense officials would have maybe a minute to brief the president on the situation. The president would then have only minutes to decide whether to launch.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry warned recently that land-based missiles are simply too easy to launch on bad information.

Taking missiles off hair-trigger alert and eliminating options to launch on warning would end this risk.

Cyber threats

The editors also note an additional set of concerns that calls for taking missiles off hair-trigger alert:

The need for better preventive steps has also become more acute because of sophisticated cybertechnologies that could, in theory, hack into a command-and-control system to fire a missile that is ready to launch.

This risk was highlighted in an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times by Bruce Blair, a former missile launch officer who has spent his career studying the command and control of US and Russian nuclear forces.

He points to two cases in the past two decades in which vulnerabilities to cyberattacks were discovered in US land- and sea-based missiles. And he warns of two possible sources of cyber-vulnerability that remain today. One is the possibility that someone could hack into the “tens of thousands of miles of underground cabling and the backup radio antennas used for launching Minuteman missiles.”

On the other possibility he says:

We lack adequate control over the supply chain for nuclear components—from design to manufacture to maintenance. We get much of our hardware and software off-the-shelf from commercial sources that could be infected by malware. We nevertheless routinely use them in critical networks. This loose security invites an attempt at an attack with catastrophic consequences.

A 2015 report chaired by General James Cartwright, former commander of US Strategic Command, put it this way:

In some respects the situation was better during the Cold War than it is today. Vulnerability to cyber attack, for example, is a new wild card in the deck. … This concern is reason enough to remove nuclear missiles from launch-ready alert.

It’s time to act

Even current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee two years ago, raised the issue of getting rid of US land-based missiles in order to reduce the risk of mistaken launch, saying:

Is it time to reduce the Triad to a Diad, removing the land‐based missiles?  This would reduce the false alarm danger.

The Trump administration may not yet be ready to get rid of land-based missiles. But it could—today—take these missiles off their current hair-trigger alert status.

Taking that one step would significantly reduce the nuclear risk to the US public, and the world.

President Trump Has a Wrecking Ball (and it’s Aimed at the Climate)

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The wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency is taking aim at the foundation of our country’s response to climate change. Today, the Trump Administration is announcing a re-opening of the fuel efficiency/emissions standards for cars, which can only mean one thing—weakening or repealing them. And it is expected that he will soon issue a directive to EPA to repeal the Clean Power Plan, and may also order EPA to rescind a waiver that it granted to California to set its own vehicle standards.

If the Trump administration succeeds in rolling back all three, the effect will be to increase by billions of tons the emission of global warming gases and other pollutants that endanger our health; burden our children with much higher costs of fighting climate change; cede the United States’ clean energy prominence to other countries, and make it much harder to meet the goals we set for ourselves as part of the 2015 international Paris Agreement on Climate.

We must fight this reprehensible rollback with everything we’ve got.

Global warming pollution and fuel economy standards

In 2012, the Obama Administration issued standards to cut global warming emissions and improve fuel economy for passenger cars. These standards are expected to increase the number of miles per gallon (mpg) for passenger vehicles from about 26 mpg on average today to approximately 36 mpg by 2025. (The figures are based on “real world” driving conditions, and differ from the EPA estimate of achieving approximately 54 mpg).

The first phase of these standards are in effect now, and are working. The second phase of these standards (from 2022-2025) are projected to save consumers approximately $1,500 per car (net savings), reduce oil use by over a billion barrels, and cut carbon pollution by over 500 million metric tons.

The automobile manufacturers were key architects of these standards. But now some are trying to back out of their commitment, even though they are experiencing record sales and new technologies are coming on line that will help them meet these standards more quickly and inexpensively.

Doing the bidding of these car makers, Trump has directed EPA to “reopen” the standards that govern cars built in 2021-2025. While we can’t know for sure what the outcome of this re-opening will be, we have to prepare for the worst—that the intent is to severely weaken or even repeal the standards.

Note that this cannot be achieved with the stroke of a pen. In order for EPA to do this, it must provide notice, issue a draft regulation repealing the plan, take public comment on it, and issue a final regulation. That final regulation would likely be challenged in court, and the Trump administration will have to demonstrate that there is compelling new information that justified changing course. During the rulemaking process that will follow, we must make clear to the Trump administration that these standards are working, and that Americans want lower-polluting and more fuel efficient cars. And we must loudly register our displeasure with those automakers which received massive taxpayer assistance during the last recession, agreed to build more efficient cars in return, and are now reneging on their promise.

California waiver

When the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s, it gave the federal government exclusive authority to regulate tailpipe emissions from cars, but it included one exception: California retained the authority to issue its own, stricter standards, provided it received a “waiver” from the EPA. Since that time, California has received approximately 50 waivers from the EPA, which have helped the state dramatically improve air quality for its residents.

As part of the 2012 agreement on joint global warming pollution and fuel economy standards, the Obama Administration worked with California to set national standards sufficient to meet the state’s greenhouse gas emission reduction needs. This avoided separate state and federal standards for reducing global warming pollution from vehicles– a goal of the auto industry.

However, California also set its own standards for deploying electric vehicles and tailpipe emission standards for gasoline and diesel to combat CA’s poor air quality – something it has done several times to protect the health of its citizens. California was granted a waiver to implement all of these standards in January 2013

Reports indicate that Trump may soon direct the EPA to rescind this waiver. The reason for this is simple: it won’t satisfy car makers to relax the EPA’s fuel economy standards while still leaving California’s standards in place.

Over the past 50 years, no EPA Administrator has ever rescinded a waiver granted to California, and there is no provision in the Clean Air Act that allows it. This radical move is not only destructive, it is hypocritical. EPA Administrator Pruitt has called himself a protector of state’s rights and pledged to give states greater latitude to address their own needs. Yet now, in one of his first moves as administrator, he is working to take away California’s right to set its own standards.

Here again, a public process is required. Rescinding this waiver directly affects not only California, but also twelve other states (NY, PA, MA, ME, NJ, CT, DE, OR, WA, VT and DC) that have adopted California’s standards (which they are allowed to do once a waiver is granted). Many of these states are counting on these standards as a means to meet climate change goals and air quality targets required by their own state laws. California and these other states can be expected to challenge the waiver rescission in court, and will have a strong argument that it is arbitrary to rescind a waiver that was granted five years ago, merely because the federal government has decided to weaken its own standards.

Clean Power Plan

In 2015, EPA issued the first-ever limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants—which are among the largest sources of this heat trapping gas. The plan would cut CO2 emissions by approximately 32 percent off 2005 levels by 2030 by relying on proven and effective tools, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, switching from coal to gas, and market-based emission trading. The Clean Power Plan will ensure that all states and utilities advance together towards a cleaner energy sector. It is particularly important to have this rule in place in 2021, when tax incentives for wind and solar energy expire.

Trump’s anticipated presidential directive is likely to call on EPA to repeal this regulation. As is the case with the vehicle standards, the repeal will have to go through a formal rulemaking process. The repeal may seem like a foregone conclusion, because candidate Trump pledged to do away with the plan and Scott Pruitt, the new EPA Administrator, previously sued EPA to block it.

But participating in the public process is extremely important nonetheless. Among other things, we should demand that, if Trump abolishes the Clean Power Plan, he replace it with an alternative that achieves the same level of emission reduction. If he does not, the next step will be the courtroom. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that EPA has a mandatory duty to address carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act, so killing Obama’s plan without a viable replacement is not only irresponsible, it is illegal.

The stakes are high

Over the past eight years, the United States has become a clean energy leader. We’ve accomplished a massive expansion of wind energy in the great plains, solar in the southwest and southeast, breakthrough battery technologies making electric cars better (and soon less expensive) than their gasoline-fired counterparts, switched to LED lightbulbs, and implemented a wide array of building materials and techniques to cut energy use. With these powerful changes, our country has risen to the challenges posed by climate change while creating millions of jobs in the process.

Some of this progress will continue no matter what the Trump administration does. But Trump’s anticipated three-way rollback will slow this progress down, probably significantly.

To get a glimpse of how high the stakes are, the graph below depicts estimated energy sector CO2 emissions. We focus on the year 2030, when both the Clean Power Plan and the fuel economy standards would be in full effect.

The graph shows that repealing the Clean Power Plan and the fuel economy standards (nationwide and for California) will increase energy-related emissions in 2030 by 439 million metric tons, or approximately 9%.

Cumulative through 2030, the repeal will increase emissions by 2.5 billion metric tons. The graph also shows that without these two policies, energy related emissions will actually increase overall from current levels. Yet under the Paris Agreement that we signed in 2015, we pledged to decrease emissions on an ongoing basis, based on the overwhelming scientific consensus that we are running out of time to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. By taking off the table these emission reductions, the Trump administration makes meeting these goals much more difficult, and transfers to the next generation the burden of billions of tons of carbon-cutting from one generation to the next.

It is a travesty that the Trump administration seeks to undo the progress we’ve made, but it is not surprising. Candidate Trump called global warming a “hoax.” He picked Scott Pruitt to head EPA due to Pruitt’s legal expertise in obstructing EPA with litigation, and Mr. Pruitt has now gone on record saying that he does not believe carbon dioxide emissions are a primary cause of climate change. And he seems to think that virtually all government regulations are detrimental, blind to the positive economic and environmental changes they can achieve.

Any false hope that President Trump might moderate some of his more radical rhetoric once in office must now be laid aside. We can see the wrecking ball and the direction it is swinging. And we must stop it before it is too late.

Photo: Rhys A/CC BY (Flickr)

EPA Pulls Back Sound Policy Judgment at Behest of Auto Industry

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Today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rescinded the determination that the EPA standards for 2022-2025 are appropriate.  This decision was made at the request of automakers seeking to supplant more than four years of robust, technical analysis with a political request from industry–a spokesperson for the administration even noted on a press call regarding the announcement that automaker complaints had been taken at face value with no additional analysis or verification, despite the tremendous body of evidence EPA has already put forth supporting the determination.  This decision could have major implications not just for our climate, but for consumers, thanks to an administration willing to bend over backwards for industry.

What does this mean?

This step backwards is the first necessary for the administration to weaken the fuel economy and global warming emissions standards set for 2022-2025 way back in 2012.  These standards were reaffirmed by the previous EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in January based on the breadth of data, which showed that manufacturers could continue to meet the standards on the books and that moving forward with the standards on the books would provide tremendous benefits to the American public.  While a stroke of a pen may be able to undo this determination, it cannot undo the significant body of evidence underpinning this well-justified determination.

It’s industry’s word versus a mountain of independent, peer-reviewed data

As I wrote in January, the determination that EPA’s 2022-2025 standards were appropriate was based upon a mountain of evidence.  The agency spent tens of millions of dollars on research and analysis, including vehicle testing and simulation that resulted in at least 20 peer-reviewed publications; studies on consumer acceptance of technology and willingness to pay for it which contradicts automaker assertions that the public doesn’t want fuel-efficient vehicles; and updated assessments of technology costs by an outside consultant that looked at how a given technology would impact the parts and engineering costs of other parts of the car, including some of the innovative technologies that weren’t originally anticipated back in 2012.

In addition to this massive amount of work accounted for by EPA, the Department of Transportation (DOT) added its own heap of analysis, including independent assessments of the costs to achieve the standards and the ability for future combustion engine and vehicle technologies to meet the 2025 standards as well as a DOT-funded comprehensive assessment by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.  DOT’s findings were published jointly with EPA in the Draft Technical Assessment Report last summer and said quite clearly that manufacturers could meet the finalized 2025 standards through the deployment of conventional technologies and at a lower cost than originally anticipated.

A further part of the process, of course, came from publicly submitted analyses.  Groups like the International Council on Clean Transportation, the Environmental Defense Fund, and of course the Union of Concerned Scientists augmented the agencies’ research with independent analysis which generally showed that the agencies’ own estimates of technology improvements were consistently conservative.  In fact, automakers could exceed standards set out to 2025 through the deployment of improved conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.  Additional independent research showed how fuel economy standards disproportionately benefit lower income individuals, who tend to purchase cars on the secondary market and for whom fuel costs are a much larger share of income, underscoring the critical importance of these standards in protecting these families from fuel price volatility while saving them up to 2 percent of their annual income since fuel economy standards first went into effect.  Consumer groups as well have pointed to the positive impacts these standards have on all Americans, with thousands of dollars in net savings over the lifetimes of these vehicles that begin the moment the typical new car buyer drives off the lot putting much needed income back in the hands of consumers.

Industry continues to cry ‘wolf’

Standing in opposition to this large body of evidence is the voice of industry, claiming absurd assertions about jobs and cherry-picking data because even studies they paid for don’t support their ridiculous claims.  A recent automaker-funded study even noted that in spite of their own conservative assumptions, these rules are, in fact, job creators.  Of course, this industry fighting progress is nothing new—automakers have tried stunts like this previously. Automakers have claimed amongst other things that reducing tailpipe pollution under the Clean Air Act “could prevent continued production of automobiles” and “do irreparable damage to the American economy;” they have also fought safety features like seat belts and air bags for decades while waging what the Supreme Court called “the regulatory equivalent of war” claiming among other things that such features would lead to decreases in sales.

[Spoiler alert: None of that happened, and now you can breathe a lot easier and have a much safer automobile because regulators didn’t kowtow to industry demands.]

On top of this, they are also claiming that the EPA “rushed to judgment” in its determination, forgetting apparently the four-plus years of analysis and the numerous detailed, daylong technical meetings held by the EPA both with individual automakers and their trade associations, in addition to pages upon pages of industry-submitted analysis which the EPA carefully considered and to which the agency responded to before finalizing its determination.  Contrary to their claims, the automakers aren’t upset about the process—they’re upset about the outcome.  And now they’re looking to bend the ear of an Administration generally opposed to regulation to, once again, fight regulations that result in tremendous public good.

By itself this signature does little, but it portends bad intentions

Rescinding the final determination at the request of the auto industry flies in the face of good, technically sound policymaking; however, it is not in and of itself a binding change in policy.  At least for now, the 2022-2025 standards limiting global warming emissions from passenger vehicles remain on the books.  Unfortunately, this action signals a strong likelihood that this administration will not follow the evidence but will simply cave to industry demands—after all, it took less than a month for Scott Pruitt to overrule a decision built on four-plus years of data just because the auto industry asked.

Any change in these regulations will require a formal rulemaking process—and we at UCS will fight like hell to make sure any such rule continues to build upon the strong, technical foundation that led to the regulations on the books today.

How’s EPA’s Science Advice Process Doing? Celebrating Sunshine and Progress at the EPA

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Happy sunshine week! It’s a week to celebrate one of the pillars of our democracy: access to information. This year’s sunshine week seems especially important because of the current Administration’s open hostility toward the media, which has been shining a light on the federal government’s operations day in and day out and illustrating the clear conflicts of interest of the corporate cabinet.

Along with new attacks on transparency, some of the old ones are rearing their ugly heads, including the HONEST Act and the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act. These pieces of legislation are Trojan-horse transparency measures that would actually hurt the ability of agencies to protect public health by wasting agency resources and allowing industry to have more influence on agency science advice. They are attempts to fix problems that do not exist.

The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General’s new report recommends that EPA make slight tweaks to improve transparency of the agency’s interactions with its FACs, but overall, EPA’s process is efficient and attentive to information access. Source: EPA IG

This week, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) released a report looking at how the EPA engages with and manages the recommendations from its eight science and research advisory committees. What do its results tell us? The EPA is already doing a very good job at ensuring that the operations of its federal advisory committees (FACs) and the agency’s responses to science advice are transparent. There is of course always room for improvement when it comes to public access to information, but the EPA is efficiently managing and communicating its interactions with its FACs. Its updates to comply with the most recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) amendments are still pending, but that’s a sunshine issue for another day.

Science advice at the EPA is already transparent

I’m glad the IG decided to take a critical look at science advice at the EPA. Federal Advisory Committees (FACs) are used throughout government, and each one is composed of experts tasked with a charge to review the science on a particular subject or to review the work of the agency in a draft report. The committee deliberates, weighs the evidence on the topic, and then provides recommendations to the agency. The Act that regulates FACs, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, requires measures to ensure transparency and public participation in the formation and management of committees, but the degree of transparency practiced by individual committees varies from agency to agency. We included recommendations for improving transparency and public access in our recent report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking.

The IG’s audit strictly looked at the recommendations piece of the process. It did not look at how that advice is implemented through policy, just how the agency responded to the FAC advice. The Science Advisory Board (SAB), Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Chemical Safety Advisory Committee were among the eight bodies analyzed by the IG. The IG looked at a random sampling of 13 FAC products and only found that three had not received responses from the EPA, one because the product’s recommendations were targeted at another agency, and two others because the EPA had already developed the responses offline. The EPA’s responses to the SAB, for example, were posted online as the IG recommended.

The IG pointed out that while the agency is already doing a good job of tracking its FAC responses and posting them online, it should update its training materials to highlight the importance of making EPA’s responses available online because, “According to the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, in order to ensure transparency, the agency needs to allow the ‘free flow of scientific information.’ The Scientific Integrity Policy is the framework to ensure integrity throughout the agency, including FACs, and states that the EPA needs to promote and provide access to the public by making scientific information available online.” While the EPA already scored highly in our assessment of agency scientific integrity policies (page 8 of this report), we would surely welcome improvements to agency processes that would further promote scientific integrity principles.

Under the Obama administration, federal agencies were charged with establishing policies and practices that would foster a culture of scientific integrity within the government. The EPA has one of the strongest scores in our assessment of these policies. Source: Goldman et al. 2017

Interviewed Designated Federal Officers (DFOs), the liaisons between the agency and FACs, had some suggestions on how to improve management of the FAC process including giving the committee more context for the charge questions, more relevant background information, and clarity on how conclusions should be reached and whether consensus is necessary. One other recommendation is that DFOs should “allow FAC chairs to provide input into committee member selection to ensure necessary expertise.”  This one is slightly concerning because if, for example, the EPA SAB Reform Act is passed, a chair might seek input from more industry representatives and fewer academic scientists, which could skew an advisory committee toward a specific industry-friendly conclusion.

The EPA has agreed to implement the IG’s recommendations, and we hope that the agency and its FACs continue to uphold the agency’s own scientific integrity policy, especially as EPA’s important work has been discounted by its own head, Mr. Scott Pruitt, and other key figures in the Trump administration.

“Democracy Dies in Darkness”

We must continue to fight back against congressional attacks that would diminish the role of science in policymaking, and ensure that agencies and their federal advisory committees are able to complete their important work with the resources provided. Many agencies are already stretched thin, and with proposed budget cuts and questionable leadership it is even more important that we allow scientific agencies the discretion to review and act on science, and give the public access to that information.

To quote the Washington Post’s new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”—and, let’s face it, science doesn’t fare too well in the dark either. In the dark, White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, will better be able to accomplish his goal of “deconstructing the administrative state,” a.k.a stripping away important science-based public health, safety, and environmental safeguards for millions of Americans. So let’s keep that light bright and fight hard to prevent further attacks on scientists and the role of science in our democracy.


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