Combined UCS Blogs

Beryllium Exposure: Trump Administration Delays Protecting Workers from a Devastating Risk

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Yesterday, President Trump’s Labor Department announced it would delay the effective date of a new standard to protect workers exposed to beryllium on the job, from March 21 to May 20. Part of the president’s regulatory freeze, the delay purports to give the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) an opportunity for further review.

A regulatory freeze in and of itself is not so unusual. Other presidents have done it. But this particular delay almost makes me cry.  

Beryllium exposure:  REALLY BAD

Beryllium is a useful and versatile metal. It’s widely used in a host of industries and products—from aerospace, defense, and telecommunications to the automotive, electronic, construction, shipyard, and medical specialty industries.

It’s also a very dangerous material; the health effects of beryllium exposure have been known since the 1930’s and 40’s. It’s a carcinogen and the cause of chronic beryllium disease—a devastating illness that quite literally saps the breath of those who suffer from it. And, unlike having medication and a rescue inhaler for asthma control, there’s no real rescue from this slow, incurable, and often fatal lung disease. OSHA estimates that approximately 62,000 workers are potentially exposed to beryllium in approximately 7,300 establishments in the United States.

Regulating workplace exposure to beryllium

The first occupational exposure limit (OEL) for beryllium was established in 1949 by the Atomic Energy Commission; it was known as the “taxicab standard” in some circles as it was ostensibly crafted by a government health official and industry medical consultant in the back of a cab. The standard was set at 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air (2 µg/m3) as an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA).

In 1975, based on scientific studies of beryllium’s carcinogenicity, OSHA proposed cutting the permissible exposure level in half—to 1 µg/m3.  And in 1977, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)—the nation’s workplace health and safety research agency—recommended cutting the OEL even further to 0.5 µg/m3.

But, as often happens in the regulatory process, the regulated industry objected and the inadequately protective standard stayed in place for another four decades—exposing workers for 40-plus years to beryllium levels that were clearly dangerous!

In 1999 and again in 2001, OSHA was petitioned by labor unions and others to issue a more stringent emergency temporary standard for worker exposure to beryllium, in recognition of the scientific and medical evidence of harm. With many intervening steps and processes (e.g., a formal Request for Information, a Small Business Advocacy Review Panel, risk assessments, and scientific reviews), OSHA  proposed and then promulgated a new standard of  0.2 µg/m3 in January of 2017.    

In other words, after decades of work and a thorough and painstaking process, including careful analysis of technological and economic feasibility, workers exposed to beryllium finally have the science-based protection they need. The final rule estimates an annualized benefit of approximately $487 million. The benefit to the workers whose cancer or chronic lung disease is prevented is immeasurable.

And the standard also includes critical provisions for exposure assessment, methods for controlling exposure, personal protective equipment, medical surveillance, hazard communication, and record-keeping. (You can read an influential expose of worker beryllium exposure here.) The final rule itself provides an extensive and detailed history, background, analyses, and findings underpinning the new standard.

So, what’s the worry?

Simply that this worker protection standard is already decades overdue, and any delay—even a small one—puts more workers at risk.

I worry that worker health and safety may come in second and be trumped by clamors of over-regulation and federal agencies run amok.

I worry that even the most rigorous, science-based, and drawn out process for protecting our nation’s workers will somehow be found wanting.

And I’m fearful that this delay is a bad omen—for the fate of other public health and safety protections.

On January 30, 2017—with barely two weeks in office—President Trump issued an executive order  that federal agencies must identify for elimination two regulations for every new one they might propose.  That’s a pretty sobering and worrisome directive.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope this two-month delay is simply the by-product of what happens when a new president and administration take over. And I hope the Trump administration’s OSHA recognizes both the need and the completed process—and ensures that the new standard truly goes into effect on May 20.

The Consequences of Connecticut’s Tesla Ban

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

At Tesla’s facility in Greenwich, Connecticut, you can take a look at Tesla cars. You can talk to representatives about electric vehicle technology, and learn how to install charging equipment. You can buy swag featuring the Tesla logo.

But you cannot buy a car. You cannot test drive a car. You cannot talk to a Tesla representative about pricing or financing. You cannot have your car serviced.

This is not a Tesla store.

Tesla’s Greenwich facility, you see, is an “educational gallery,” and not a store. It has to be an educational gallery, because Tesla is legally prohibited from operating a Tesla store in Connecticut. This is due to Connecticut’s dealer franchise laws that require all cars to be sold by independently licensed dealers rather than manufacturers.

If you are a Connecticut resident and you want to buy a Tesla, the first step is to go online. Through Tesla’s web site you can order a car and put down a deposit. The car is then delivered to the nearest store; for most Connecticut consumers, that means a store in White Plains or Westchester County, New York. Customers must then travel to New York where a sales representative can complete the sale.

As this is officially a New York transaction, sales of Teslas to Connecticut residents thus create New York jobs, require payment of New York sales tax, and contribute to the New York economy.

Connecticut’s dealer franchise laws are a major impediment, not only to Tesla, but to other companies that are looking to sell electric vehicles independent of the traditional dealership model, including Elio and BYD. In this post, I want to look at the arguments raised for and against these dealer franchise laws. In particular:

  • What is the justification for laws banning Tesla stores?
  • Do dealer franchise laws benefit consumers?

Spoiler alert: the arguments raised in support of banning direct manufacturer sales are poor.

What is the justification for laws banning Tesla stores?

As I discussed in my last blog post, the ban on Tesla sales is an unintended consequence of laws originally designed to protect auto dealers from unfair competition with automobile manufacturers.

Perhaps recognizing that the protection of car dealerships is not the strongest foundation to build broad public support for your policy, in recent years auto dealers have reinterpreted dealer franchise laws—laws that were explicitly passed to protect dealers—as intended to protect consumers.

The National Automobile Dealers Association for example, defends dealer franchise laws by citing a long list of ways in which consumers benefit from the dealer franchise system. Independent auto dealers create more cutthroat price competition than you’d have in a system dominated by manufacturers. Independent auto dealers are more likely to stick around and be able to service vehicle models even if the manufacturer closes down.

This reading of the law makes little sense.

By its very nature, the prohibition on direct manufacturer sales is a restriction on consumer choice—dealer franchise laws take away the option of a consumer purchasing directly from a manufacturer. If consumers prefer to buy cars from independent dealers, then there is no need for a law to force consumers to do so. The question is whether consumers should be allowed to do anything else. Indeed, all around the world independent dealerships continue to thrive in jurisdictions without laws banning direct sales by manufacturers.

Another problem with NADA’s argument: most independent economists believe that dealer franchise laws impose costs on consumers to the benefit of dealers.

Do dealer franchise laws benefit consumers?

Dealer franchise laws belong to a category of occupational licensing regulations that have been the subject of withering criticism over the past few decades by social scientists, including economists and public choice theorists, such as the recently departed Kenneth Arrow. At their best, occupational licenses act as a way of ensuring that businesses meet reasonable quality and safety standards. At their worst, occupational licensing can by captured by special interest groups and turned into an artificial barrier to entry for new businesses, stifling innovation and rewarding entrenched interests.

A recent open letter from 70 major economists to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on this issue stated the mainstream economic position bluntly:

There is no justification on any rational economic or public policy grounds for such a restraint of commerce. Rather, the upshot of the regulation is to reduce competition in New Jersey’s automobile market for the benefit of auto dealers and to the detriment of its consumers. It is protectionism for auto dealers, pure and simple. . . . In sum, we have not heard a single argument for a direct distribution ban that makes any sense. To the contrary, these arguments simply bolster our belief that the regulations in question are motivated by economic protectionism that favors dealers at the expense of consumers and innovative technologies.

Independent studies that have looked at the economic impacts of dealer franchise laws generally show that by restricting new distribution methods, these laws impose costs on consumers; one study shows that they increase average vehicle costs by 8.6 percent, or $2,225 per vehicle. For all these reasons, the Federal Trade Commission, along with most independent consumer organizations, including Consumer Federation of America and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety support allowing direct sales from manufacturers.

Connecticut should lift the ban on direct manufacturer sales for EVs

Unless you are an independent auto dealer yourself, there is simply no good reason for Connecticut to continue to prohibit Tesla from operating in the state.

The dealer franchise laws that ban direct manufacturer sales are antiquated laws designed to deal with economic circumstances that are not relevant to Tesla. The primary economic impact of these laws is to enrich dealers at the expense of consumers. The Tesla ban acts as an unnecessary impediment to achieving the state’s goals for vehicle electrification and pollution. And the most immediate practical impact of dealer franchise laws is to frustrate and irritate Connecticut residents, while depriving the state of economic activity and tax revenue.

This law should be changed.

China’s Changing Foreign Policy

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

The global security community is worried about President Trump. The report of the 54th annual Munich Security Conference suggests his election may lead to a “post truth post west, post order” world. Vice President Pence and other US government representatives failed to convince the conference otherwise.

That same day, Chinese President Xi Jinping, commenting on the meeting in Munich, confirmed his controversial defense of globalization at the World Economic Forum in Davos was not just an opportune swipe at the nationalist atavism of the new US administration.

It may mark the beginning of a new era in Chinese foreign policy.

Deng-Era Approach to Chinese Foreign Policy Outdated

Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping speaks about the “third world” in his address to the United Nations in 1974.

During a February 17 meeting of China’s National Security Committee,  Xi, paraphrasing the Confucian classics, said, “The sage remains modest about his or her abilities, but exercises them when the time comes.” (君子藏器于身,待时而动) “At this moment,” Xi argued, China must “move past the policy of ‘keeping a low profile and nurturing ourselves’ (韬光养晦) to become more involved in international affairs, not only as a participant and contributor, but also as a benefactor and leader of the international system.”

Deng Xiaoping, who initiated and led the economic reforms that jumpstarted China’s economy in the 1980s, used the term “keeping a low profile and nurturing ourselves” to describe his approach to Chinese foreign policy. Although some US observers came to see the policy as coy, or sinister, many Chinese understood Deng’s description as a shift away from the anti-capitalist revolutionary activism of Mao Zedong toward a temporary accommodation with international capitalism in the interest of domestic economic development. President Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and President Hu Jintao (2002-2012) conducted Chinese foreign affairs in the same general spirit with the same basic objective. International capital and technical expertise poured into China and its GDP grew from US$ 178 billion in 1979 to US$ 11 trillion in 2015.

Xi prefaced his argument for changing China’s approach to the world by noting, “After 38 years of rapid development, our country is now first in the world in manufacturing, first in trade, the second largest economy, and third in the use of foreign capital and in foreign investment. Our overall national capability has increased considerably. What was said about it in the past can no longer be said in the present day.”

The World is Changing

Deng worried how China might behave at this moment. He expressed concern that once China modernized it might forget about socialism and its allegiance to the “third world”, which, to him, was the large bloc of developing nations not aligned with either the Soviet Union or the United States. The pioneer of China’s opening to international trade loathed the idea that economic development might transform China into another major power that exploited and oppressed smaller and weaker nations. If it did, according to Deng, China would no longer be socialist.

Xi seems determined not only to preserve China’s socialist ideals but to put them into practice internationally. The world may be changing, as the Munich report suggests, but Xi is optimistic that a new and better international order is on the horizon.

“Today’s world is a changing world. It is a world of endless new opportunities and challenges, a world where the international system and international order are undergoing deep revision, and where comparative international strengths are undergoing profound change. Moreover, it is a world advancing towards change that is beneficial to peace and development.”

The Soviet Union has already collapsed. Now the second pole of the old Cold War order is wobbling. The authors of the Munich report fear US abdication of its role as “a provider of public goods and international security” impends a descent into nationalism, chaos and war. Xi, on the other hand, seems to be imagining that the time may have come for the leaders of the developing nations to reshape the international order.

A Global Anti-corruption Campaign?

Curiously, Xi reached back to a 2014 speech on Chinese domestic legal reform for a phrase to describe the principles that should guide the emerging new international system. Xi said, “The keys to governing a country are fairness and integrity.” (理国要道,在于公平正直). In 2014 Xi used this semi-classical Chinese idiom to explain his anti-corruption drive, which aimed to save Chinese socialism from the negative influences of opening China’s economy to international capitalism.  Xi used the exact same phrase in his February speech to China’s National Security Council. His speech echoes the critique of the global economy Xi articulated in his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Fairness and justice are the objectives of global governance, as well as the common pursuit of all humanity. As humanity becomes more developed and the world becomes more civilized, the expectations of the people for fairness and justice become higher.”

The US economic crisis of 2008 was a turning point for China: a moment when its leaders realized they could no longer depend on the United States for responsible global economic governance. Xi appears to have concluded that the corruption plaguing China could not be remedied with reforms that imitate or adapt the practices of the United States. As the Chinese leader approaches his second five-year term in office, he also seems to have concluded that the flaws in US-led global economic system—what critics in the US disparagingly refer to as “neoliberalism“—are inherent in the way the United States has shaped the international order.

In this sense Xi may be embracing the populism, and anti-corporatism, of both the left and the right in the United States and in Europe. But instead of seeking a retreat to pre-globalization era nationalism, Xi embraces the essence of globalization: the practical reality that the individual national fates of the various peoples of the world are inherently interconnected. As Xi told China’s National Security Council,

Each nation coexists in the same world, humanity lives in the same village Earth, the same space and time where history and reality flow together, a community where you are part of my fate and I am part of yours. This is the inevitable trend of global development and an inexorable law of human development. The world needs a new order where cooperation leads to collective success and shared development; the construction of a community where humanity’s fate is shared.” 

The Road Ahead

Xi, unlike President Trump, does not want to tear apart or abandon the international institutions that already exist. In his words, “Reforming and perfecting the exiting international system does not require tearing up the kitchen and making a fresh start.” The nature of the reforms China may suggest is still unclear. Xi points to China’s own initiatives to finance and build basic infrastructure throughout Asia as an example. China’s continued support for the Paris Agreement on climate change is another important indicator.

If Xi is attempting to initiate a new era in Chinese foreign policy, the concepts in his speech in Davos and his speech to China’s National Security Council on the occasion of the Munich Security Conference should be codified in the final report of the Chinese Community Party Congress later this year. Depending on the outcome of what is anticipated to be a contentious fight over China’s political future, Xi may emerge as a significant force for change not only at home but internationally as well.

The Social Cost of Carbon Underscores an Obvious Fact: Climate Change is Costly

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

This morning the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is holding a hearing on the social cost of carbon (SCC). Past experience indicates that the majority members on this committee are not big fans of science or facts. Hopefully, some of the witnesses at the hearing will get some real economic facts on the table. The most important one: climate change is costly and our policies need to reflect that reality.

What is the social cost of carbon?

The social cost of carbon is metric that helps quantify the costs of climate change related to our carbon emissions, in terms of dollars per ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted. It can also be used to quantify the benefits of reducing carbon emissions. The current value of the social cost of carbon is roughly $36/ton of CO2.

Our global warming emissions are already contributing to climate impacts such as flooding from sea level rise and increased heavy precipitation; longer, more intense wildfire seasons; heat waves; and droughts. The risks of these types of impacts will grow as emissions rise.

In 2016 alone there were 15 extreme weather and climate-related disasters that cost more than a billion dollars apiece (see map). Climate change is contributing to worsening risks of many of these types of events. If you go to this EPA site, you can click on the map to see the impacts of climate change where you live in the nation. (Assuming that webpage is allowed to stay on line of course…)

In previous blogposts I’ve explained why the social cost of carbon is so important and how we have arrived at the current US government value for the social cost of carbon through an extensive and ongoing interagency process including a public comment period. (Note that the SCC information also used to be available on the Obama administration Office of Management and Budget website).

How is the social cost of carbon used by the federal government?

The social cost of carbon is used in cost-benefit analyses that agencies routinely undertake as part of the regulation-setting process. Cost-benefit analyses, which have been a feature of rulemakings since the Reagan era, are meant to quantify the impacts of a regulation. For regulations that help cut carbon emissions, the benefits of carbon reductions are quantified by applying the dollar per ton estimate of climate damages avoided based on the SCC.

Michael Greenstone, formerly at the Council of Economic Advisors and one of the witnesses at today’s hearing, co-authored a recent op-ed in the New York Times together with Cass Sunstein (former Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator at OMB), explaining why the SCC is a necessary and legal component of federal cost-benefit analyses.

As they point out, attempts to do away with the SCC would “defy law, science and economics.”

Why does the SCC include global damages?

One red herring that may come up in today’s hearing is the claim that the SCC should not include global damages from our carbon emissions. This type of reasoning fundamentally misstates the challenge of climate change, which is a result of global carbon emissions. No single nation can solve this problem alone. And no nation is immune to the effects of our collective emissions.

Just one manifestation of this is the growing challenge of climate refugees, people around the world displaced by climate factors such as drought and sea level rise.

Solving climate change will require us working together in cooperation with all the nations of the world. Each nation must recognize that their emissions have impacts on everyone and make choices that further our collective good. If, instead, we all retreat to our own corners and act solely out of narrow self-interest, we will fail together to constrain emissions to the levels necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. (This type of problem has been called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons.’)

The US also benefits from global reductions in carbon emissions. News that China’s emissions may have stabilized or fallen for the fourth year in a row is good news for us all. (Even as we know that more action to cut emissions is required by all major emitters). In other words, solving climate change is like the ultimate team sport. With very high stakes if we fail to win.

Improving the social cost of carbon

There’s no doubt that the social cost of carbon must be updated on a regular basis to take account of the latest science and economics. Just as an example, we are seeing unprecedented changes in the Arctic and the Antarctic that could portend significant impacts on weather patterns and sea level rise. A recent article also pointed out the need for better climate and economic modeling to include a wider range of social and economic impacts.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently undertook a project to assess approaches to update the social cost of carbon and released two reports with recommendations. Some of these recommendations were already being implemented by the Obama administration, although more work remains. The methodology has also been extended to methane and nitrous oxide emissions, two other potent global warming gases.

What we should not and cannot afford to do is refuse to accept the facts: climate change is real and it is already having serious and costly effects on people. Therefore our policy choices must appropriately reflect the benefits of cutting global warming emissions.


The NRC and Nuclear Safety Culture: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Many times over the past 20 years the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has intervened when evidence strongly suggested a nuclear power plant had nuclear safety culture problems. The evidence used by the NRC to trigger its interventions was readily available to the plant owners, but the owners had downplayed or rationalized away the evidence until the NRC forced them to face reality.

The evidence used by the NRC to detect these nuclear safety culture problems included work force surveys indicating a sizeable portion of workers reluctant to raise safety concerns and allegations received by NRC from workers about reprisals and harassment they experienced after raising safety concerns.

Ample evidence strongly suggests that the NRC itself has nuclear safety culture problems. The NRC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has surveyed the safety culture and climate within the NRC every three years for the past two decades. The latest survey was conducted during 2015 and released in March 2016. Figure 1 from the OIG’s 2015 survey along with data from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys and other sources show safety culture problems as bad as—it not considerably worse—than the worst safety culture problems identified at Millstone, Davis-Besse, and yes, even the TVA reactors.

FIg. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Office of the Inspector General)

After the OIG’s 2009 survey of the NRC’s safety culture and climate, UCS submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all records related to the actions taken by the agency in response to the survey. We obtained many records which described very few actions. And regardless of the number of actions, the OIG’s 2015 survey showed that the NRC’s safety culture was worse than in 2009 (see the last column on the right in Figure 1).

Why would the NRC take steps to remedy safety culture problems at nuclear plants yet have taken no steps to remedy its own safety culture problems? The answer is the same as to the question of why the plant owners failed to take steps to correct safety culture problems before the NRC intervened—they did not perceive the problems to exist. Likewise, Figure 2 shows that the NRC’s senior management does not perceive safety culture within the agency to need remediation.

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Office of the Inspector General)

The OIG employs a consultant to conduct the triennial safety culture surveys. I attended a briefing several years ago by the consultant on the survey results. The consultant reported surveying many other federal agencies and large private corporations. The consultant pointed out that the gap between results by senior management and by the overall workforce was wider at NRC than at any other federal or private entity it had surveyed.

Just as plant owners failed to correct the problem they could not see, NRC senior management cannot fix the agency’s “invisible” safety culture problems. The NRC intervened to enable owners to see, and then fix, their safety culture problems. Someone needs to intervene to help NRC senior management see the agency’s safety culture problems so they can take the corrective measures they have often compelled plant owners to take.

UCS recently issued a report on the NRC’s safety culture problems and its history of inducing safety culture fixes at nuclear plants. And The Bulletin posted my commentary about the NRC safety culture report.

If I found a lamp washed up on a beach and rubbed it to release a genie who granted me three wishes, my first wish would be for irradiated fuel to be transferred from dangerous, overcrowded spent fuel pools into more safe and secure dry storage as soon as practical. But my second wish would be for the NRC to undertake the reforms needed to achieve and sustain a positive nuclear safety culture at the agency. My third wish would be for a thousand additional wishes, so don’t worry that I squandered my first two.

Will the US Choose to Be on the Right Side of History and Welcome Climate Refugees?

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How the US and the world respond to the growing global refugee crisis will be a defining moral issue for this generation. And understanding how climate change will impact the future flow of refugees and displaced persons is one of the most important challenges we face today.

Refugees are fleeing conflict and violence in war-torn countries—including Syria, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo—but climate-related events are also causing a rising number of displacements worldwide. In some parts of the world, extreme weather events such as drought are increasing the risk of conflicts and worsening conditions for refugees and displaced people.

One person every second is displaced by climate

According to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) one person every second is being displaced by climate factors, with an average of more than 26 million people displaced by climate and weather-related events annually since 2008. More than 65 million people worldwide are currently displaced and 21 million of them are classified as refugees. Developing countries host the vast majority of refugees, and the number who are permanently resettled in the developed world is only about 100,000 annually, or less than 1 percent.

More than 20 million Bangladeshis may be displaced by climate impacts by 2050. Photo: Connor Ashley/Asia Foundation

The US has been the international leader for refugee resettlement for at least the last 40 years. Since 1975, the US has admitted more than 3 million refugees for resettlement, including 85,000 in 2016. But is that about to change? In his campaign for the presidency, Donald J. Trump threatened to send Syrian refugees back to a war zone where more than 11 million people have been driven from their homes since 2011. Within a few days of becoming president, Trump tried to ban all Syrian refugees, along with those from six other predominantly Muslim countries.

Outdated legal definitions don’t take climate change into account

The number of people displaced by sea level rise, coastal inundation, drought, and other extreme weather events is projected to rise sharply in the next few decades. And yet people who are forced to leave their homes because of climate-related impacts cannot currently be legally classified as refugees.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, only those who have had to flee their country because of conflict or persecution qualify as refugees. According to international law, people fleeing famine, drought, or natural disasters do not qualify as refugees, even if they are forced to cross international borders. However, in the light of worsening climate impacts, some climate mobility advocates are testing the traditional definition of refugees, and recent court cases have been brought in New Zealand and Australia by and on behalf of Pacific islanders who are being forced to abandon their homes and communities as a result of rising seas.

Climate change will vastly swell numbers of displaced persons

At the recent Global Security Conference in Munich, Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, the UN’s top climate official said, “Climate change is a threat multiplier that leads to social upheaval and possibly even armed conflict.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned of an increase in climate migrants and refugees driven by extreme event, and concluded that “Populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, particularly in developing countries with low income. Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

The Government of Bangladesh has estimated that more than 20 million Bangladeshis may be displaced by mid-century. The 22 Pacific Island nations estimate that 1.7 million of their 9.2 million inhabitants (nearly 20 percent of the total population) will face displacement by 2050. The International Organization on Migration (IOM) has estimated that by 2050 the number of people displaced by climate change could be as high as 250 million worldwide.

Unfortunately, the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change fell short on practical measures to respond to climate displacement and made no recommendation about changing the international definition of refugees to include climate refugees. The agreement merely notes the importance of respecting the rights of migrants, and setting up a “Climate Displacement Task Force” to propose measures “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse effects of climate change.”

Climate change makes the droughts that help drive famine and conflict more likely

Globally, climate change is driving more intense storms and floods, coastal inundation and erosion, and worsening wildfires and droughts.

The impacts of extreme weather events on people can be dramatic. In 2015, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) for example, 3 million people in Myanmar and the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh were displaced by flooding. And Cyclone Pam caused 55 and 25 per cent respectively of the populations of Vanuatu and Tuvalu to seek safety away from their homes.

Last November, ActionAid published a report on the drought effects of the 2015-16 El Niño during which approximately 30 percent of the world’s landmass was affected by drought and more than 400 million people were negatively affected. This extraordinarily severe and complex drought has caused countless people to be displaced globally, including more than 200,000 in Ethiopia alone. The drought has forced people in Djibouti, Somalia, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, the Philippines, India, and many other countries to move away from their homes and communities, or to seek help across the borders of other countries.

Natural El Niño cycles have always caused weather disruptions, but there is a growing body of scientific evidence to suggest that El Niños are likely to be intensified by climate change. The 2015-16 El Niño was stronger than the prior record-breaking El Niño of 1997-98, which, in its turn, was worse than previously recorded El Niños. New science is helping to show the extent to which individual events are becoming more intense or more likely. Other studies predict that mega-droughts are likely to become more frequent in some regions of the world.

Whilst the causes of the current conflict in Syria are complex and multi-faceted, there is some science indicating that it may have at least some of its roots in climate change. The severe drought in northeast Syria from 2007 to 2010 was the worst in the instrumental record, causing widespread crop failures and mass migration from rural to urban areas, factors which contributed to the economic disruptions and social unrest that were factors in the 2011 outbreak of civil war which has caused at least 11 million Syrians to flee their homes, with nearly 5 million those becoming refugees. One study estimated that that a regional drought of this magnitude was made two to three times more likely to occur by human-induced climate change.

Climate impacts are driving people from their homes in the US as in Pacific nations

The droughts that drive people from their homes develop over a period of months, years, or even decades and are called “slow onset events” by the humanitarian aid community (in contrast to floods and storms which are “rapid onset events” and cause immediate displacement). Sea level rise and coastal inundation are the slow onset events most associated with climate change in the public mind, and many communities across the globe are already moving, or preparing to move.

Approximately 1700 Carteret islanders from Papua New Guinea will have to be relocated to the mainland. Most of their food gardens have already been damaged by rising sea levels. Photo: Friends of the Earth

Many villages impacted by sea level rise have already had to relocate or plan relocations in the Pacific nations of Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa. In the US, the residents of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, mostly members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, are being forced from their land by sea level rise, and the Quinault Indian Nation village of Taholah on Washington’s coast is planning to relocate as is the Alaskan Native village of Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea. Thirty more native Alaskan villages have been identified as in imminent danger from climate impacts.

The US should be a leader on climate displacement and mobility

With internal climate displacement already manifest inside the US, and the seeds of a climate refugee crisis growing in vulnerable countries worldwide, now is the time for the US to reaffirm, not retreat from its commitment to refugees, and to provide international policy leadership on climate displacement.

An immigrant nation, the US has long been a beacon for the rest of the world, welcoming millions seeking a better, safer life. More than a million Irish immigrants sought to escape from famine between 1845 and 1855, refugees and political exiles fled to America after the European political upheavals of 1848 and the Mexican and Russian Revolutions of 1910 and 1917.

America’s values are embodied by the Statue of Liberty, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for being “a masterpiece of the human spirit” and “a highly potent symbol—inspiring contemplation, debate, and protest—of ideals such as liberty, peace, human rights, abolition of slavery, democracy, and opportunity.” At the statue’s centennial celebration in 1986, President Reagan said “Miss Liberty is still giving life to the dream of a new world where old antagonisms could be cast aside and people of every nation could live together as one.

Despite the US priding itself on being an immigrant nation, refugee policies have often been controversial here, and undercurrents of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia have frequently surfaced. President Harry Truman fought hard to get Congress to pass the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, and when he did finally get the bill to sign, he was incensed at its limitations, particularly what he saw as discrimination against Jewish and Catholic refugees in the Allied occupation zone of Germany. He said “The bad points of the bill are numerous. Together they form a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice.” Nevertheless, more than 650,000 displaced Europeans were allowed to enter the US between the end of the Second World War and the early 1950s.

Ronald Reagan welcomed more refugees to the United States than any other president since Harry Truman. “It’s good to know that Miss Liberty is still giving life to the dream of a new world” Reagan said in 1986.

Is President Trump abandoning US moral leadership on refugees?

Every president since Truman has supported programs to bring refugees to the United States. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said of the Refugee Relief Act of 1952, “In enacting this legislation, we are giving a new chance in life to 214,000 fellow humans. This action demonstrates again America’s traditional concern for the homeless, the persecuted and the less fortunate of other lands.”

More refugees were resettled under President Reagan than under any other president, especially from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Iran, and he reiterated traditional American values. In 1985 in an address to the UN, Reagan reaffirmed “America is committed to the world, because so much of the world is inside America. After all, only a few miles from this very room is our Statue of Liberty, past which life began anew for millions… The blood of each nation courses through the American vein.”

President Trump’s vision couldn’t be further from the post-war presidential tradition of acceptance of refugees as a moral duty or the acknowledgement that immigrants provide the lifeblood of America’s strength, vibrancy and diversity. The Trump administration is divisively stoking fears of foreigners, increasing deportations, clamping down on refugees, deliberately scaring undocumented immigrants ,and seeking ways to discourage legal immigration, especially from majority Muslim countries.

Meanwhile, the international refugee crisis is worsening. There have never been more people displaced by conflict, political violence, and natural disasters than there are today. Climate change is already exacerbating the problem and will become a direct driver of unprecedented forced mobility in the next few decades.

When climate displacement reaches a critical point, which side of history will America come down on? Will it be the closed borders of President Trump’s America First isolationism, or will we respond in the manner of President Truman to “human suffering that the people of the United States cannot and will not ignore”?

History will judge us on how we respond to the coming climate displacements, just as it will judge us if we fail to do all we can to support today’s refugees from conflict in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and so many other places.

A Tribute to Kenneth J. Arrow, Nobel Prize Winner and a Giant Among Economic Thinkers

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Earlier this week, Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel prize-winning economist passed away at the age of 95. Dr. Arrow was a prolific thinker, truly a giant among economists. His research spanned areas as diverse as welfare theory, innovation, labor market networks, public health, and risk. Many extensive obituaries to Dr. Arrow have been written in major newspapers. He was also a great champion of ideas and values we hold dear at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

The incredible breadth of Ken Arrow’s work

As students of economics will attest, it is difficult to find a field of economics that hasn’t been influenced in some way by Dr. Arrow’s thinking. As a graduate student, I recall being introduced to ‘Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem’ and discussing its real-world implications for voting and social choice. That’s also when I first read about his work on learning curves and its bearing on technological progress. In a seminal paper, titled The Economic Implications of Learning by Doing, he wrote that:

“Learning is the product of experience.” And “The role of experience in increasing productivity has not gone unobserved, though the relation has yet to be absorbed into the main corpus of economic theory.”

Today these insights can help explain some of the extraordinary decline we’ve seen in the costs of renewable energy.

Right until the end, he was engaged in cutting-edge work, including coauthored research on the risks of climate change, the social cost of carbon, appropriate discount rates for decisions with long time horizons, and public health.

In a recent paper on the social cost of carbon, he and his coauthors argued that, “Costs of carbon emissions are being underestimated, but current estimates are still valuable for setting mitigation policy.” (An insight which is highly relevant for an upcoming hearing on the social cost of carbon in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology!)

To get a fuller sense of the amazing breadth of Ken Arrow’s work, take a look at these resources:

Engagement with the Union of Concerned Scientists

Dr. Arrow shared common interests with UCS, especially in recognizing the threat of climate change and the need for swift, cost-effective solutions. He also had a lifelong commitment to issues related to peace and security.

As far back as 1997, he was a signatory to the World Scientists’ Call for Action at the Kyoto Climate Summit, a statement initiated by UCS. The statement included this exhortation to world leaders, one that resonates poignantly even today:

We, the signers of this declaration, urge all government leaders to demonstrate a new commitment to protecting the global environment for future generations. The important first step is to join in completing a strong and meaningful Climate Treaty at Kyoto. We encourage scientists and citizens around the world to hold their leaders accountable for addressing the global warming threat. Leaders must take this first step to protect future generations from dire prospects that would result from failure to meet our responsibilities toward them.

Closer to home, he signed on to a 2015 UCS-sponsored letter to California legislators urging the adoption of strong climate and clean energy policies to help ensure a reduction in the state’s global warming emissions of 80 percent below 1990 levels.

In December 2016, Dr. Arrow was one of over 5,500 scientists who signed An Open Letter to President-Elect Trump and the 115th Congress, calling on them to ensure that science continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being.

I had the honor of meeting him briefly when he attended a UCS reception at the American Economic Association meetings in January 2009. He was gracious and encouraging of our work to engage more economists in designing and advocating for solutions to climate change.

A social scientist of the highest order

Dr. Arrow took the charge of a social scientist with great seriousness. He received the highest honors in the economics profession, including the Nobel Prize and the National Medal of Science, and was a widely published academic researcher. But he was no ivory tower academic.

Ken Arrow engaged widely and deeply with the real and urgent problems of the day. What’s also striking is the strong global perspective he brought to his work. He was a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Second Assessment Report in 1995. He was also a founding trustee of Economists for Peace and Security, an organization of economists, other social scientists, and citizens concerned about issues of peace, conflict, war, and the world economy.

In an email tribute, Geoffrey Heal, UCS Board member and the Donald C. Waite Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School wrote this:

Ken Arrow dominated the social sciences for half a century, just as in their eras Newton and Einstein dominated the physical sciences. In addition to being the giant on whose shoulders we all stand, Ken was a charming, modest, friendly and unassuming person. I knew him for over half a century, and will miss his friendship, his encouragement to think differently and his unparalleled intellectual insights.

Congress Does Industry’s Bidding by Cutting Public Safeguards

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The past month has not been kind to environmental and public health protections. A bevy of science-based rules are now on the chopping block thanks to the congressional sleight-of-hand called the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows a simple majority in Congress to undo provisions issued within the final six months of the previous administration.

Right now, industries clearly feel empowered to try to roll back public safeguards in the name of profits. But the American public will pay a steep price from the erosion of these protections and science is being sidelined in the process.

Promoting water pollution

For a case in point, look no further than the recent overturning of the Stream Protection Rule issued by the Department of Interior’s Office of Stream Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). This science-based rule was designed to protect streams in the United States, including headwater streams, from the often devastating impacts of pollution with mining waste and debris.

All told, this rule would have improved the quality of some 263 miles of streams downstream of mines each year, the benefits of which would have been felt by nearby communities. But a CRA measure to overturn it recently passed in both the House and Senate and was signed on February 16 by President Trump.

The Stream Protection Rule was a commonsense safeguard based upon clear evidence that, once a waterway’s flow has been disturbed, it is very difficult to restore it to its original condition. This is bad news for all of the native plant and animal species in the ecosystem and for communities and farmers downstream who will reap fewer of the natural benefits that riparian buffers provide, like reduced flooding, filtration, and increased groundwater recharge.

Additionally, one of the mining techniques—known as long wall mining—extracts coal underground, which often causes sinkholes that can damage structures aboveground. This activity has led to all sorts of calamities including a cracked dam, homes and businesses with damaged foundations, structural problems with the sources of groundwater property owners rely upon, and even the disappearance of an entire lake once used for boating and fishing in a Pennsylvania state park.

Representatives Bill Johnson of Ohio and Evan Jenkins and David McKinley of West Virginia were among the sponsors of the legislation to revoke the Stream Protection Rule. Between them, they have taken more than $1 million in political contributions from the mining industry, which will no doubt benefit mightily from the removal of this commonsense check on their operations. The talking points of the National Mining Association and America’s largest mining company, Murray Energy Company, are also echoed in the representatives’ misinformed statements about the rule.

By overturning this protection, the bill’s sponsors are ensuring that residents across America will continue to see their water sources, their homes, and their environment degraded. And the message that their elected officials are sending is loud and clear: profits over people.

Sadly, several other efforts to rescind commonsense protections are also now underway. Here are some we’re watching closely:

Communities like Galena Park in east Houston need stronger health and environmental policies to protect residents from toxic air pollution and potential chemical release from nearby chemical facilities. Instead, Oklahama Rep. Markwayne Mullin is using the CRA to weaken those protections for the benefit of industry.

Undermining chemical safety

Oklahoma Representative Markwayne Mullin, who has received more than $410,000 from the oil and gas industry during just two terms in office, has introduced legislation to remove a rule issued by the EPA last year designed to improve safety at facilities that use or store large amounts of dangerous chemicals and to further protect first responders and fenceline communities. Major industrial facilities, including oil and gas companies, have been vocal in their opposition to this rule, and Mullin has become the elected mouthpiece of those entities.

The updated EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule is a commonsense, science-based provision designed to regulate industrial facilities all across America that release toxic chemicals. On average in recent years, approximately 150 catastrophic accidents have occurred annually at these facilities, posing often-grave risks to the workers and to the neighboring communities.

There are a significantly greater percentage of African Americans, Latinos, and people in poverty living near these facilities at higher risk for exposure to chemical releases. As noted in the 2016 report written by UCS and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s), Double Jeopardy in Houston: Acute and Chronic Chemical Exposures Pose Disproportionate Risks for Marginalized Communities, residents in Houston communities with RMP facilities have a higher risk of developing or worsening lung diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis due to exposure of high toxic concentrations of air pollutants including harmful chromium compounds.

Improvements to the RMP rule would have helped to make facilities safer for surrounding communities, reduced the number of catastrophes, and ensure that first responders were fully informed and protected. While the original rule will remain in place even if the amendments are rolled back using the CRA, the status quo has not been enough to fully protect Americans from toxic chemical exposures, and people of color and in poverty will continue to bear the brunt of health impacts from future accidents and spills at these facilities.

The CRA bill that would nullify the EPA’s rule is still pending a vote in the House, and industry representatives are lobbying hard for its passage.

Fostering air pollution and hastening climate change

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Methane and Waste Prevention Rule was issued to update the Carter administration regulation that governs how oil and gas is extracted on federal land. The update would have reduced some of the most dangerous impacts of fracking for natural gas extraction, including leaks, venting, and flaring, which was especially timely given that reductions in methane pollution are needed to get us on track to meet emissions standards.

Two of the sponsors of the legislation that would eliminate this rule are Utah’s Rob Bishop and Wyoming’s John Barrasso, who have received over $1 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over the course of their political careers. This effort is only the newest in a succession of attacks on this rule since it was first proposed. Recently released emails from the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General (yes, that of our newly confirmed EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt) reveal 2013 correspondence with a fracking company, Devon Energy Corporation, discussing how they both planned to meet with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to convince them to “completely do away with the present thrust” of the BLM’s methane waste rule.

Pulling the methane rule will result in the continued release of methane pollution, which perhaps not surprisingly occurs at the highest levels on tribal lands in Rob Bishop’s state of Utah—and John Barrasso’s state of Wyoming has one of the highest methane emission levels on federal lands, according to this 2015 report. Remember when a 2,500 mi2 cloud of methane floated over the borders of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona in 2014? We can expect more of that phenomenon to occur without these rules. ‘

And what does that mean for the livelihoods of Wyoming and Utah residents and all Americans? Well, increases in methane pollution can lead to increased ground-level ozone levels as well as other hazardous air pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide, which can trigger asthma and even cancer. Not only will air quality continue to get worse in areas of highest methane emissions, but we will all experience the impacts associated with a changing climate thanks to excessive and irresponsible release of the most potent greenhouse gas.

This CRA bill still requires passage in the Senate to move onto the President’s desk.

Vitally needed: checks and balances

Along with rollbacks to regulations allowing polluters to freely pollute, industry is referencing another page from its playbook to chip away at transparency measures designed to keep companies accountable for their business dealings. The President signed a CRA resolution last week to roll back a Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring that oil and gas companies disclose payments to foreign governments. Ohio representative Sherrod Brown remarked, “This kind of transparency is essential to combating waste, fraud, corruption and mismanagement.” Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, was a vocal critic of this rule before his confirmation and can check that off of his to-do list now that he’s a cabinet member.

The first few weeks of Trump’s presidency have affirmed that money talks, and that power can be bought and used to further maximize profits. We have seen a corporate takeover of our government, as several individuals with strong industry ties were nominated and confirmed for key agency leadership positions; the President has issued legally questionable executive orders, one of which requires that agencies repeal two regulations for every one that it issues (with the intent of freezing regulation and allowing industry to get away with business as usual); and Congress is hastily working to nullify a slew of Obama-era regulations that would prevent industry misconduct, using the Congressional Review Act in an unprecedented fashion.

While industry is ready to profit from CRA rollbacks both here and abroad, a regulatory freeze, and industry-friendly cabinet appointments, everyday Americans will be missing out on unrealized health and safety benefits. And members of Congress who are using techniques like the CRA to undermine public health and safety are making a grave mistake that will surely catch up with them as Americans come to see the effects of these misguided rollbacks.

Our democracy is built on a foundation of checks and balances. Among these are the need for governmental protections to place a vital check on industry in order to keep our water, food, and environment healthy and our workplaces and our children safe. Unfortunately, in the current political environment, industry is influencing decision makers with political contributions, and effectively making many members of Congress beholden to them. The result: elected officials spouting off specious industry talking points and designing policies that leave industry excesses unchecked. When industry interference prevents government from making decisions based on science, it undermines our democracy and the public suffers.

We will continue to work to ensure that agencies have the freedom to fulfill their critical missions, and we will be ready to hold industry accountable for noncompliance or misdeeds.


Photo: Jack Pearce/CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS Photo: Tim Evanson/CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr

Overpopulation, and a Movie that Definitely Won’t Get the Oscar

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As Oscar Night approaches, I’ve gotten to thinking about the movies I saw last year—not just the good ones, but a bad one too. It’s Inferno, which seemed to have everything going for it, but has sunk into cinematic oblivion with scarcely a trace. Why?

Before I saw it last fall, I thought it had all the elements that would make lots of Americans like it—including me. It stars Tom Hanks, the actor who would definitely be America’s Sweetheart if he weren’t so old and so male. It’s directed by Ron Howard, one of Hollywood’s most respected directors. Its title and underlying theme come from Dante’s description of Hell—seven centuries old but still unsurpassed.

Dante—a portrait by Andrea del Castagno, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Source: Web_Gallery_of_Art,

And it’s based on the best-selling novel by best-selling author Dan Brown of DaVinci Code fame. Put those four together, and how could we fail to like it? For that matter, how could I fail to like it? (OK, I’m not a Dan Brown fan, but Hanks, Howard and Dante are all favorites of mine, so three out of four…)

Well, even with all that going for it, there’s no way it’ll be mentioned Sunday night. In fact I suspect that Tom Hanks and Ron Howard would just as soon we forget they ever were associated with it. (Not sure about how Dan Brown or Dante are feeling). The critics’ consensus, as summarized by the Rotten Tomatoes web site, is “Senselessly frantic and altogether shallow, Inferno sends the Robert Langdon trilogy spiraling to a convoluted new low.” Ouch! And even more painful, Hollywood-wise, it made only $34 million at the box office. I.e., a total flop.

How could it fail so badly? I thought briefly that it might have to do with the plot and the villain. (Spoiler ahead, although frankly it’s so far past its sell-by date that this can’t make it worse.) Inferno’s evil genius turns out to be a millionaire who thinks the world’s fundamental problem is … overpopulation. Through TED-like talks he builds up a cult of Malthusian followers who conspire with him to kill off half the world’s people for the sake of preserving nature.

So, was that the problem? Was seeing a twisted kind of environmentalist as the epitome of Evil just too much for American audiences to take? Is our fear of population growth so strong that we refuse to accept any negative portrayal of that fear? Just too much cognitive dissonance?

Nahhh…..I don’t think so. It’s easy for us intellectuals to overthink pop culture, and in this case I think there’s a simpler explanation. It’s just a bad movie. And as Dante’s contemporary William of Ockham taught us, there’s no need to come up with a complicated explanation when a simple one will do just fine.

So, on Sunday night I won’t be regretting the fact that Inferno’s not in the running for Best Picture. Personally I’m rooting for Hidden Figures. It had me right from the opening scene in which a young African-American girl is walking down a lane counting “….eight, nine, ten, prime, twelve, prime, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, prime…”

Just the nerd version of sentimentality? Sure, I admit it. But it’s also a great movie. And nowadays science can use all the help it can get from pop culture, so I’m really hoping it wins.

Marginalizing Transgender Students Weakens Science and Diminishes America

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Yesterday, the Trump administration turned back the clock on civil rights by giving schools more rights to discriminate against and bully transgender kids, some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The New York Times reports that the withdrawal of protections for transgender students comes at the behest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the objections of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

A student celebrates after the Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. Photo: Michael Halpern

The move comes amid recent research demonstrating that suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth decreased in the wake of state court decisions that formalized marriage rights for all Americans. It makes intuitive sense: actions that give an individual the opportunity to live a full life make it more likely that the individual will stay invested in that life. Legitimacy matters.

Science, like any creative endeavor, works best when people of different backgrounds are at the table. But LGBT people still face significant barriers to participation in the scientific enterprise. A recent American Physical Society report found that thirty percent of transgender scientists “characterized the overall climate of their department or division as ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable.'”

The action hurts and marginalizes transgender kids. It also undermines the promise of our public education system, which should welcome, not exclude, and give everyone an opportunity to learn and thrive. We all suffer when kids are prevented from reaching their full potential because they feel unsafe.

The most memorable part of the attorney general’s confirmation process involved the silencing of Elizabeth Warren, who was attempting to read a letter Coretta Scott King wrote in 1984 when Sessions was up for a federal judgeship. “It is only when the poor and disadvantaged are empowered that they are able to participate actively in solutions to their own problems,” King wrote, in reference to her concerns about Sessions’ willingness to defend the voting rights of black Americans.

I fear that this action is the first of many at the Department of Justice with the potential to weaken science and diminish America. The guidance makes some of the most bullied kids in America less safe.

The United States does not have a good history of leaving the protection of civil rights to the states. But for now, it is up to state and local governments and school boards to guarantee the ability of all students to pursue an education so that our country can continue to benefit from the contributions of all. Please take a moment today to weigh in with your local education officials and let them know that you want them to secure basic protections for all students so that every kid has the chance to thrive.

Governor Dayton Must Step Up to Protect Energy Consumers

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Two bills are making their way through the Minnesota legislature that would hack away at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (MPUC) authority to protect consumers. Given the unnerving level of bipartisan support these bills are receiving in the legislature, it’s time for Governor Dayton to step up and protect consumers, as well as Minnesota’s long legacy of clean energy achievements.

Setting a dangerous precedent in Minnesota’s oversight of utility monopolies

Perhaps the most dangerous bill in the bunch (HF113/SF85) would legislatively approve Xcel’s proposed natural gas plant to replace two retiring units at the Sherco coal-fired power plant in Becker, Minnesota. The bill would strip the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (MPUC) traditional role of reviewing plans to ensure investments are in the best interest of consumers.

While Xcel included the proposed natural gas plant in its latest integrated resource plan, the MPUC declined to approve it, expressing concern that other alternatives might be more beneficial to ratepayers over the long term. Significant doubt remains whether the investment makes sense, but that debate will be silenced if this bill becomes law. The House voted to pass the bill on February 9, and last week the Senate voted to pass a similar bill as well.

The House will now take up the bill to reach a compromise. Governor Dayton has signaled his support for the bill despite the risks to ratepayers, but he should reconsider.

Despite the Governor’s good intentions to help protect the local Becker economy,  this bill sets a dangerous precedent for future utility investment decisions. What happens next time the MPUC declines to approve a proposed billion dollar (or more) investment by Xcel? Do they come back to the legislature for another blank check? Protecting ratepayers from paying for bad investments is a core function of the MPUC. If this bill becomes law, Minnesota ratepayers face an uncertain and potentially costly energy future.

Closing the door on rural ratepayers

Another legislative proposal, HF234/SF141, would remove the MPUC’s authority to resolve disputes between Minnesota’s rural electricity cooperative utilities and their members. The weak rationale for this proposal suggests that somehow cooperative members don’t need this dispute resolution venue because they have local control over their utilities.

In reality, disputes do occur between electric cooperatives and their members, and without an objective arbitrator to resolve them, the co-op holds all the cards. This bill is particularly directed at disputes that have arisen over the exorbitant fees that cooperatives are charging members to connect solar PV systems to the grid.

These fees are an attempt by cooperative managers to maintain the status quo and only serve to slow Minnesota’s transition to cleaner, lower-risk energy sources. Maintaining the MPUC’s role as arbitrator of these disputes provides protections for cooperative ratepayers as well as Minnesota as a whole.

Commission’s role

The MPUC’s role is to protect and promote the public’s best interest in safe, adequate, and reliable utility service at fair and reasonable rates. This is done by providing much needed independent and comprehensive oversight and regulation of utilities. Unfortunately, these bills seek to erode the MPUC’s mission, and authority.

Governor Dayton can’t have it both ways. He must stand by his word not to accept any bill that limits or weakens the Commission’s authority to protect the interests of Minnesota’s energy consumers.

Creative Commons/Mulad (Flickr)

Why You Can’t Buy a Tesla in Connecticut (and 5 Other States)

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The state of Connecticut is a progressive state, with a strong track record of support for laws and policies that will reduce global warming emissions and a goal of putting over 150,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025.

Given the policy commitments of the state of Connecticut, one might assume that Connecticut would be a place that would welcome an innovative, important business like Tesla, the largest manufacturer of electric vehicles in the United States. And given the significant fiscal challenges that Connecticut faces, one might think that Connecticut would be excited to see Tesla operate new stores within the state, bringing jobs and tax revenue.

But in fact, Tesla is legally prohibited from operating its Tesla stores in Connecticut.

Under Connecticut’s dealer franchise law, and under the law of many states throughout the country, automobiles may only be purchased through independent car dealerships. Tesla’s cars are sold directly from the manufacturer, which mean that Tesla stores are not welcome in Connecticut.

The problems that Tesla has faced with automotive dealers and state dealer franchise laws represent a combination of unintended consequences, special interest influence, and the challenges of developing new technologies in marketplaces dominated by entrenched interests and outdated laws. The Tesla wars are also a part of a broader story of how changes in technology are impacting laws and regulations governing transportation in the United States.

In this blog post, I want to explore some of the key questions raised by the battle over Tesla. In particular:

  • Why do we have dealer franchise laws?
  • Why doesn’t Tesla sell their cars through franchised dealers?
  • Why do some states allow Tesla stores and others do not? (Hint: it depends on the meaning of ‘its’).

In part 2 of this post, I will look at some of the policy arguments that have been made by auto dealers, by Tesla and by economists on dealer franchise laws.

  • What is the justification for laws banning Tesla stores?
  • What does the evidence suggest about dealer franchise laws?
  • What are the consequences of Connecticut’s ban on Tesla stores?
Why do we have dealer franchise laws?

The car dealership model as we know it today arose in the 1920s and 1930s, as first General Motors, and then eventually all of the “Big Three” American automakers chose to license the rights to sell their cars to independent dealers, rather than selling the cars directly to consumers.

The independent dealership model worked because it allowed both parties to focus on core competencies: the manufacturers could focus on making the best cars possible, while independent dealers made the inroads into local communities that allowed them to most efficiently sell the cars directly to consumers.

From the beginning, one challenge in the independent dealership model is the obvious power imbalance between the “Big Three” automakers who dominated automobile manufacturing, and the thousands of independent dealerships that were licensed to sell their vehicles. Stories abounded of auto manufacturers exploiting their superior market position to gain unfair advantages on independent dealers. For example, manufacturers could force independent dealers to purchase cars that they didn’t want as a condition of maintaining their relationship, or terminate the franchise relationship at will without cause, or coerce profitable dealerships into selling their business at below-market rates.

Beginning in the 1930s and accelerating greatly in the 1950s, legislatures in all 50 states passed a series of laws, known collectively as dealer franchise laws, which were intended to protect independent dealers from abusive practices at the hands of vehicle manufacturers. Among other things, these laws prohibited the Big Three from owning licensed dealerships themselves, or selling cars directly to consumers.

The prohibition on direct manufacturer sales was intended to protect independent auto dealers from unfair competition from their own manufacturers. The classic concern addressed by the ban on direct sales from manufacturers is the independent car dealer who spends money, time and effort building a market for, say, Ford vehicles in a certain town, only to have Ford Motor company jump in and open up a rival direct from manufacturer store that undercuts the independent dealer on price and takes his market share.

By the 1950s when most of these laws were passed, the independent dealer model was so entrenched in the American car market that it was simply presumed that all auto manufacturers would have independent dealerships selling their cars, and that any direct manufacturer sales would necessarily be in competition with an independent dealership. Dealer franchise laws therefore did not contemplate the challenge posed by a company like Tesla, a company that refuses to sell its cars to independent dealerships at all and instead insists that all sales must be direct from the manufacturer itself.

Why doesn’t Tesla distribute through franchised dealers?

Tesla has adopted this policy because they believe that the traditional independent dealership model does not work for electric vehicles. According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk:

Existing franchise dealers have a fundamental conflict of interest between selling gasoline cars, which constitute the vast majority of their business, and selling the new technology of electric cars. It is impossible for them to explain the advantages of going electric without simultaneously undermining their traditional business. This would leave the electric car without a fair opportunity to make its case to an unfamiliar public.

Tesla points to the failure of Fisker and Coda as examples of electric vehicle start-up companies that failed because of their reliance on independent dealerships to sell a new technology. In addition, Tesla argues that because electric vehicles have lower maintenance costs than traditional cars, independent dealerships that make money off of service will always have an incentive to steer consumers away from electric vehicles. Tesla offers service for all of their vehicles for free.

Recent studies confirm that, with a few exceptions, most auto dealers in the Northeast are not making enough of an effort to sell electric vehicles. Between January and June of 2016, dealers in the Bridgeport to New York City metro area had 90 percent fewer EVs listed for sale than Oakland, when adjusted for relative car ownership. A recent report by the Sierra Club found that Tesla stores provide EV customers with far superior service, as Tesla was more likely to have EVs available to test drive, more likely to be knowledgeable about state and local incentives, and more likely to be able to correctly answer technical questions about charging EVs, than traditional car dealerships.

A Tesla store looks and feels more like an Apple store than a car dealership. They are placed in high volume, high traffic areas such as shopping malls. They have almost no inventory, as Tesla cars must be ordered individually from the manufacturer rather than sold on site. There is no haggling over price. And Tesla stores sell only Tesla products, including cars and batteries; with the recent merger with SolarCity, Tesla stores will soon sell solar panels as well.

Why do some states allow Tesla stores and others do not?

Over the past few years, courts and legislatures across the country have struggled with the question of whether and how to apply dealer franchise laws to Tesla stores. Some state courts, including Massachusetts and New York, have found that dealer franchise laws are only intended to apply to manufacturers that have licensed independent dealers, and do not provide a cause of action against Tesla stores. Other states, including New Hampshire and Maryland, have recently changed its law to permit Tesla stores through legislation.

States that currently ban Tesla stores include Texas, West Virginia, Utah and Arizona, in addition to Connecticut. Some states, including Virginia and Indiana, allow a limited number of Tesla stores. New Jersey proposed a regulation that would have banned Tesla stores in 2015, but then relented last year, amending the regulation to allow 4 stores in New Jersey.

Often the difference between a jurisdiction that permits Tesla stores and a jurisdiction that bans Tesla stores comes down to minute differences in statutory language. For example, until 2014 Michigan’s dealer franchise law prohibited auto manufacturers from “[selling] any new motor vehicle directly to a retail customer other than through its franchised dealer.”

The word “its” in the statute arguably suggests that the law only applies to manufacturers that have franchised dealers, and thus does not prohibit Tesla stores. But then a legislator allied to the auto industry slipped a provision into an unrelated piece of legislation removing the word “its” from the statute, and just like that, Tesla stores were banned in Michigan.

Beyond narrow questions of statutory interpretation, judges and legislators wrestling with these questions need to consider the purpose of dealer franchise laws. Are these laws meant to regulate a relationship that arose within the context of the independent dealer system? Or are these laws intended to mandate that the independent dealer system must be the only way automobiles are sold in the United States forever? If it is the latter, then the dealer franchise laws represent not only a ban on Tesla, but a ban on all innovation in distribution methods.

Can such a ban be justified? In part 2 of this post, I’ll explore some of the policy consequences of dealer franchise laws and the Tesla ban, for consumers, and for Connecticut.

Will New Mexico Join the Next Generation of Clean Energy Leaders?

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More and more states across the country are redefining what it means to be a clean energy leader by doubling down on their commitments to deploy solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. Now the New Mexico legislature wants to add their state to the growing list. Recently introduced legislation would increase New Mexico’s successful renewable electricity standard (RES) from its current level of 20 percent by 2020 to 80 percent by 2040. Adopting the measure would capitalize on the state’s tremendous renewable energy resources and deliver substantial economic, health, and environmental benefits to all New Mexicans.

A renewable energy economy is achievable and affordable for New Mexico

The New Mexico Wind Energy Center, located in the southeast part of the state, generates clean, renewable power for energy consumers. Photo Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Introduced as SB312, the legislation builds on New Mexico’s current RES (also referred to as a renewables portfolio standard or RPS) and would require investor-owned utilities like PNM, Southwestern Public Service, and El Paso Electric to increase their supply of electricity from renewable energy sources to 80 percent by 2040.

Rural co-ops would have to achieve a slightly lower target (70 percent renewables by 2040).

While this newly proposed commitment is substantial, transitioning New Mexico’s economy to one powered primarily by renewable energy is certainly achievable. That’s because New Mexico is home to some of the best and most diverse renewable energy potential in the country, including vast untapped wind, solar, and geothermal resources.

A 2016 National Renewable Energy Laboratory analysis found that New Mexico’s economic renewable energy resource potential, which accounts for the renewables’ cost as compared with the typical regional cost of electricity, is more than 2.6 times total state electricity sales in 2015 (see figure). That means there is more than enough cost-competitive renewable energy resources available today to comply with the proposed targets that utilities have more than two decades to achieve.

Of course, New Mexico’s technical renewable energy resource potential far exceeds these economic potential estimates. As technology costs continue to decline, more and more of the untapped technical resource potential will also become cost-effective over time.

New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Economic Potential vs. Electricity Sales.
New Mexico has more than enough cost-effective renewable energy potential to achieve an 80 percent RES. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates the state’s economic potential at more than 260 percent of total electricity sales in 2015.
Sources: Economic Potential from Primary Case 3a in NREL’s Estimating Renewable Energy Economic Potential in the United StatesElectricity Sales from U.S. Energy Information Administration’s New Mexico State Electricity Profile 2015.


Wind and solar costs, in particular, are falling rapidly. The most recent comparison of costs by the energy consulting firm, Lazard, shows new wind and solar to be cheaper than new fossil fuel generation, even without subsidies.

This trend is reflected in recent power purchase contracts for wind and solar projects in the region. For example, Southwestern Public Service signed a contract for a 140 megawatt (MW) solar project near Roswell for about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour (c/kWh). Similarly, reported costs for recent wind projects in the Southwest have been as low as 2.3 to 3.8 c/kWh.

For context, Lazard estimates the cost of power from a typical new natural gas combined cycle plant ranges from 4.8 to 7.8 c/kWh.

The proposed 80 percent by 2040 RES expansion ramps up gradually over time, with interim targets for public utilities of 35 percent in 2025, 50 percent in 2030, and 65 percent in 2035. That level of increasing targets affords utilities plenty of time to plan for new renewable energy development as older fossil fuel generators retire. What’s more, the legislation builds in consumer protections should compliance costs prove to be higher than anticipated.

New Mexico’s renewable energy transition is already delivering benefits

New Mexico’s current RES is already successfully driving new renewable energy deployment and delivering economic and environmental benefits throughout the state. Today, more than 1,500 MW of wind and solar power capacity is cranking out clean power for New Mexico’s energy consumers. The wind power development alone represent more than $1.8 billion in investments and provide up to $5 million annually in land lease payments for local residents.

Another 1,500 MW of wind and nearly 1,400 MW of solar are either under construction or in various stages of development in the state. When completed, these projects combined with those already operational will exceed the state’s current renewable energy targets. Further diversifying New Mexico’s power supply with additional renewable energy can provide much needed investment and tax dollars to local economies and the state government’s struggling budget coffers.

Combined, the wind and solar industries are supporting 4,000 to 5,000 good paying jobs in the state, and that number continues to grow. Earlier this month, Albuquerque-based solar manufacturer SolAero Technologies announced plans for a $10 million expansion that will add more than 100 jobs. New Mexico’s excellent and affordable solar energy resource is also an important reason that Facebook decided to build a new data center in the state. An investment of $45 million will fund three new solar facilities that will fully power the new facility and create hundreds of new jobs.

Photo Source: U.S. Department of Interior

In addition to jobs and local economic benefits, New Mexico’s existing renewable energy development is helping to curb power sector carbon emissions—the principal contributor to global warming— and other air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and particulates that harm state residents. These toxic pollutants are responsible for numerous health problems including aggravated asthma attacks, breathing problems, heart attacks, and premature deaths, especially in vulnerable and disadvantaged communities closest to the sources.

In strong contrast to fossil fuel generation, wind and solar power generation also use virtually no water, an incredibly valuable benefit in a water-constrained state like New Mexico. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that in 2015, the state’s wind projects avoided the consumption of 264 million gallons of water.

All of these economic and environmental benefits are poised to grow substantially if SB 312 is adopted and New Mexico accelerates its shift away from a heavy dependence on coal for power generation.

Joining the 50 percent (plus) club

New Mexico is not alone in its pursuit of a cleaner, safer, and more affordable energy system. Several states—including California, Oregon, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Hawaii—have already expanded their RES targets to at least 50 percent (100 percent, in Hawaii’s case), and are implementing effective solutions to reliably integrate significant amounts of renewable energy on their power systems. Nevada is considering similar RES expansion legislation this year as well.

With a new federal administration seemingly determined to stay stuck in the fossil fuel age, this kind of state leadership is needed now more than ever. New Mexico should adopt SB 312 and set a course to fully embrace its renewable energy future. Doing so will deliver significant rewards for the state’s residents and set an example for other states to follow.

The Man Who Sued the EPA is Now Running It. What Does That Mean for the Environment?

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Voting largely along party lines, Congress just confirmed Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—an attorney who has spent his professional career suing the EPA to stop the agency from performing its fundamental mission of ensuring clean air and water for all Americans. This confirmation marks a sharp break with precedent; most EPA Administrators from both parties have come to the office with a demonstrated commitment to the EPA’s mission.

One might even say that this vote signals the end of an era of bipartisan congressional support for a strong federal role in protecting our environment, as this newly confirmed Administrator is likely to dismantle the safeguards that both parties have supported since the 1970s.

What that means for all of us who care about clean air and water and the protection of our environment is this: It is up to us to monitor carefully what happens next, and to be prepared to spring into action as needed.

Here are some of the key developments I’m watching for:

Will Scott Pruitt recuse himself?

As repeatedly noted in his nomination hearing, Pruitt has represented the State of Oklahoma in numerous lawsuits against EPA. Many of these cases are still active today, directed at major EPA regulations, including the Clean Power Plan (which limits carbon emissions from power plants); national air quality standards; mercury emissions from coal plants; methane limits for the oil and natural gas excavation; and a Clean Water Act rule that clarifies federal jurisdiction over bodies of water.

During the nomination hearing, Pruitt did not commit to recusing himself from these cases, but he did say he would rely on advice from the EPA ethics counsel. Common sense tells us that he cannot possibly be impartial on these issues, and conflicts of interest abound. For example, the state attorneys general who joined him in the suit against the Clean Power Plan have written a letter to the Trump Administration, asking the President to issue an executive order declaring that the rule is unlawful. Responding to this request would, in the normal course of business, require EPA input, since it is an EPA regulation. How can Scott Pruitt possibly participate in any review of that request given that, just a few weeks ago, he himself was one of the attorneys general making this claim?

He must recuse himself, as thirty senators have made clear in a recent letter.

Will Scott Pruitt cut federal law enforcement?

As a candidate, Mr. Trump pledged to dismantle the EPA. He lacks a filibuster-proof majority to change the laws that created the EPA, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Act. But he could cripple the EPA with budget cuts, which are much harder for a minority to stop.

By wide margins, most Americans favor enforcement of laws that protect our air and water. Cutting EPA enforcement will therefore be unpopular—but Scott Pruitt is likely to argue that we can rely on states to enforce environmental laws, so cutting the EPA’s budget won’t do any real harm.

This is a dangerous myth.

Having served as a state environmental commissioner, I know from personal experience that state environmental agencies are already strapped. They typically lack the technical experts employed at the EPA, and stand in no position to take on additional enforcement responsibilities shed by the EPA.

In Massachusetts where I served, for example, my former agency’s staff was cut nearly in half between 2002 and 2012 due to budget cuts, even as the agency’s responsibilities grew. That occurred in a state well known for its strong commitment to environmental protection. As a result, my agency was forced to cut back on important and effective programs, such as water sampling to locate sources of bacteria that pollute rivers. If the EPA’s budget is cut, it will mean even fewer resources for states, because states now receive a significant share of the EPA’s budget to cover enforcement activities.

Second, state environmental agencies sometimes experience political pressure against enforcement that might harm a large employer or impose significant costs on residents. We saw some of this in play in Flint, Michigan, where a state agency did not enforce a law requiring corrosion treatment of pipes to reduce lead contamination; it took an EPA staffer and outside scientists, as well as the residents themselves, to blow the whistle on lax state enforcement.

Third, states are not equipped to deal with the widespread problem of interstate pollution. To cite one of the most egregious examples, the state of Maryland could shut down virtually all in-state sources of air pollution and yet still not be in compliance with health-based air quality standards due to pollution from neighboring “upwind” states. A strong federal law enforcement presence is needed to address the simple fact that air and water pollutants do not honor state boundary lines.

We and others stand prepared to fight crippling budget cuts at the EPA, and explain that the protection of our air and water requires both federal and state environmental law enforcement.

Scott Pruitt will likely gut the Clean Power Plan; what will he replace it with?

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

During the campaign, President Trump called for abolishing the Clean Power Plan, the EPA regulations that limit carbon emissions from power plants. And as noted, Administrator Pruitt sued to block it. It now seems nearly inevitable that he will move to drastically undermine the plan.

The question is, what will he propose to replace it? The EPA does not have the option of doing nothing. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has a duty to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act if it makes a determination that such gases endanger public health and the environment. In 2009, EPA made such a finding (which Mr. Pruitt fought, though unsuccessfully).

Thus, EPA remains obligated to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in general, and in particular with respect to power plants, which are among the nation’s largest source of these emissions.

One predictable approach would be a revised regulation that reduces emissions, but by a much smaller percentage. The current litigation over the Clean Power Plan could serve as a roadmap for a diminished rule. The Clean Power Plan relies on three strategies to reduce emissions—improving efficiency of coal plants, switching from coal to gas, and switching to renewables. During the litigation, Scott Pruitt conceded that the EPA had the authority to require improvements to coal plant efficiency, but claimed that the other two strategies, which go “beyond the fenceline” of an individual source, were unlawful.

Thus, one might expect that a revised rule will mirror what Mr. Pruitt called for in court. If so, rather than cutting carbon emissions by approximately 32 percent by 2030, the rule would result in barely noticeable emission reductions.

If this happens, litigation will be necessary. The court that mandated the EPA to address greenhouse gas emissions should not be satisfied with a rule that does little to cut one of the nation’s largest sources of CO2 emissions.

How about vehicles?

The second biggest carbon cutting program of the Obama Administration is the UCS-backed fuel economy standards for cars which, it is estimated, will roughly double fuel economy between 2012 and 2025. Those standards were agreed to by the automakers at the time. They are projected to cut billions of tons of CO2, reduce oil use by billions of barrels, and save consumers an average of $8000 over the lifetime of a vehicle.

When the standards were put in place, they included a “mid-term review” provision in which the EPA would assess whether changes in technology, costs, or factors might warrant a change to the standards. The review was to be completed by April 2018, but the Obama administration in its closing days completed the review and determined, based on a thorough review, that there was no reason to change the standards, since automakers are ahead of schedule in meeting these standards, and at a lower cost than originally predicted.

Some automakers are calling for this determination to be re-opened, presumably so that the rules can be modified and perhaps weakened. And one can justifiably be anxious that they could offer something that the Trump administration is keen to secure—a commitment to increased manufacturing in the United States—in exchange for relaxing these standards.

It would be a disaster for these historic standards to be rolled back, and we’ll fight any such rollback along with many allies.

How about science?

As I wrote recently, Mr. Pruitt’s record shows little evidence of deference to scientists. After all, he sued the EPA for relying upon the world’s most prominent climate scientists, including many employed by the federal government, in finding that greenhouse gases endangered the environment. And he claimed that the question of climate change and the role of human causes of it are still an open question for debate.

As EPA Administrator, he will hear from EPA scientists whose expert judgment will not align with his deregulatory agenda in some cases. Will these scientists’ findings be suppressed or disregarded?

We call on Mr. Pruitt to declare that scientific integrity is a core guiding principal for the EPA, that he will abide by the existing EPA scientific integrity policy, and even look for ways to improve it, as recommended by UCS.

Vigilance required

Scott Pruitt comes to his new position with the heavy baggage of having devoted a good part of his career to opposing EPA, not to mention the apparent antipathy of his boss towards the agency. The Trump transition team, composed of career ideologues, further fueled anxiety over the EPA’s fate, with threats of gag orders on agency scientists, deletion of climate data from the website, and draconian budget cuts. This is why we see, for example, hundreds of career civil servants risking their jobs by publicly protesting Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation.

Scott Pruitt has a chance now to push the reset button, and position himself as an open-minded and principled conservative, rather than a deregulatory ideologue. Most helpful to him will be to invest significant time in hearing from the agency’s talented scientists, engineers, policy analysts and attorneys.

No matter what, we will be watching his actions vigilantly and stand prepared to fight to retain key protections of Americans’ health and safety at the agency he now oversees.

Photo: Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

Learning from Oroville Dam Disaster: State Water Board Proposes Climate Change Resolution

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Earlier this week, while areas downstream of Oroville Dam were still under an evacuation order, California’s State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) released a draft resolution for a comprehensive response to climate change. It resolves that the agency will embed climate science into all of its existing work, both to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. In doing so, the State Water Board demonstrates how public agencies can respond more proactively to the very real challenges that global warming is bringing our way.

A failure to plan is a plan to fail

After five years of record drought conditions, in just a couple months, California has received more rain than reservoirs can store. This may seem strange but it is exactly what climate scientists have predicted for the state since the 1980s: prolonged warm and dry conditions punctuated by intense wet spells, with more rain and less snow, causing both drought and floods.

Despite having a wealth of science at our fingertips describing how our water system is changing due to global warming, too often we have not put this information to use. During the federal relicensing of the Oroville Dam, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) chose not to assess how climate change might affect the dam’s operation. In response to this “foundational error,” Butte County and Plumas County sued DWR. Their suit argues that the environmental analysis associated with the dam relicensing should be rejected as unscientific:

“Rather than rigorously assessing climate change, DWR’s Oroville FEIR [Final Environmental Impact Report] presumes that hydrologic variability from the previous century ‘is expected to continue in the foreseeable future’ and that it would be ‘speculative’ to further analyze other climate change scenarios…Due to this error, the FEIR is predicated upon a hypothetical future that DWR knows to be dangerously false.”

While we know that the past is no longer a predictor of the future, we continue to plan for the past. It’s easier, it’s seems less expensive, but it has huge, hidden costs. Costs now being borne by the nearly 200,000 residents who were evacuated, affected counties, and, eventually, taxpayers who will pay to repair the damage.

This is why it is incredibly important to plan for the future, and particularly more “extreme” climate conditions. We are on the precipice of giving away almost $3 billion of public money for new water infrastructure without requiring these new water projects use climate science and existing modeling results to assess how the proposed projects would fare under more “extreme” climate conditions. We have repeatedly encouraged the California Water Commission to require that new water projects provide a quantitative assessment of the impact of climate “extremes” on project operations. However, in December 2016, the California Water Commission approved regulations without this requirement.

State Water Board commits to using climate science

Mistakes are an inevitable part of life, but we need to learn from our mistakes. The State Water Board has taken an important step forward by drafting this resolution, which requires that the State and Regional Water Boards rely on sound modeling and analyses that incorporate relevant climate change data and model outputs to account for and address impacts of climate change in permits, plans, policies, and decisions.

There are many lessons from the Oroville Dam crisis, including the critical importance of using science to prepare for a future that will be different from the past due to global warming. We applaud the State Water Board for their leadership and hope other agencies will soon follow and commit to making better decisions using climate science.

Kudos to NRC for Lessons-Learned Review at Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility

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Disaster by Design/Safety by Intent #63

Safety by Intent

Westinghouse Electric Corporation notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on July 14, 2016, that workers at its Columbia Fuel Fabrication Facility (CFFF) in South Carolina found significant accumulation of uranium in a ventilation system. The amount of enriched uranium exceeded limits established at the facility as protection against inadvertent criticality.

The uranium accumulated in process vent scrubber S-1030 shown towards the upper left side of Figure 1.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The NRC dispatched an Augmented Inspection Team (AIT) to the site to investigate the causes and corrective actions for the event. The NRC sends Special Inspection Teams and Augmented Inspection Teams to investigate discoveries like the one reported at CFFF that have the potential for increasing the risk of an accident.

The AIT concluded in its report dated October 26, 2016, that “Westinghouse failed to provide adequate levels of oversight, enforcement, and accountability to the organizations directly involved with configuration management, operations, and maintenance of the wet ventilation systems.” Specifically, Westinghouse had assumed that only minute quantities of uranium could collect in that portion of the ventilation system and took no actions to either validate or confirm that key assumption.

To this point, both Westinghouse and NRC followed established practices. Upon discovery a condition above the reporting threshold, Westinghouse notified the NRC. Upon receiving notification from Westinghouse about a condition above its normal response threshold, the NRC dispatched an Augmented Inspection Team.

The NRC’s Extra Effort

The NRC did not stop with its AIT probe into whatever problems Westinghouse had that resulted in the event at CFFF. Two days after issuing the AIT report, the NRC chartered a team to examine lessons the agency could learn from the event. This second team was not tasked with supplemental Westinghouse bashing. That had been the AIT’s role. The lessons-learned team was tasked with assessing whether the NRC could make changes in its efforts so as to lessen the likelihood events like the CFFF would recur. Specifically, the lessons learned team was asked to evaluate the NRC’s license review process, inspection program, operating experience program, organization of oversight groups, and knowledge management programs.

It is commendable that the NRC undertook this introspective review. The review would either confirm that the agency is effective applying its resources or recommend ways to reallocate resources for increased effectiveness.

The NRC’s Extra Safety Gains

The AIT verified that Westinghouse had taken or would be taking appropriate corrective actions to lessen the likelihood of recurrence of this problem at its CFFF. The lessons-learned task force identified steps the NRC could take in all five focus areas to lessen the likelihood that such an event could recur at any NRC-licensed fuel cycle facility.

The team concluded that the NRC’s license review process and its inspection program allocated resources based on perceived risk significance. In other words, items with high and moderate risk significance received more attention than items having low risk consequences. The team did not find this triage system unacceptable. It is imperative to properly focus limited resources. But the team did make recommendations on ways NRC’s reviewers and inspectors could verify that items deemed low risk truly have low risk.

The team characterized the agency’s operating experience and knowledge management programs as being more supplemental than integral parts of business. Some of the NRC staff interviewed by the team used the programs extensively; other staffers were aware of the programs but had not used them. The team made several recommendations intended to integrate the operating experience and knowledge management programs into day-to-day work practices. For example, the team recommended training on using the operating experience database to lower the height and shorten the duration of the learning curve needed for users to become proficient with this tool.

The NRC’s Safety Backstop

In theory, NRC’s reviewers and inspectors should find no safety problems. NRC’s licensees—the owners of nuclear power plants and fuel cycle facilities—are responsible under the law for complying with regulations intended to manage risk to workers and the public.

In practice, NRC’s reviewers and inspectors could, and do, find safety problems. Not because NRC’s licensees are deliberately violating safety regulations, but compliance is a dynamic challenge.

By undertaking the lessons learned review of the CFFF event, the NRC makes its safety backstop more robust and reliable. The recommendations made by the team will, when implemented, improve the effectiveness of NRC’s reviewers and inspectors. The NRC’s reviewers and inspectors were already good, but the agency’s efforts to make them better result in making workers and the public safer.

It may not be the ultimate win-win situation, but it’s got to be among the top ten.


UCS’s Disaster by Design/Safety by Intent series of blog posts is intended to help readers understand how a seemingly unrelated assortment of minor problems can coalesce to cause disaster and how effective defense-in-depth can lessen both the number of pre-existing problems and the chances they team up.

Solar vs Nuclear: Is this the Last Chapter?

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Last year’s solar deployment numbers just came in, and they are, in a word, phenomenal. Utilities bought more new solar capacity than they did natural gas capacity: an astounding 22 states added more than 100 MW of solar each.

At the same time, there is grim news about delays in construction and associated cost over-runs  for nuclear plant construction projects in Georgia and South Carolina. SCANA—owner of South Carolina Electric & Gas and sponsor of the VC Summer Nuclear Project—has just reported new delays in the in-service dates of its new reactors to 2020. Construction started more than 7 years ago, with energy deliveries promised to begin in 2016.

Neighbors with solar. Courtesy of Grid Alternatives.

Past hopes for a “renaissance” in nuclear power in the United States, with four to eight new nuclear plant facilities projected to come on line in America between 2016 and 2018, have been overwhelmed by competition. UCS predicted this trend in costs many times.

Great solar news

Meanwhile, there is much to say about the solar boom. Just ask one of your 1,300,000 neighbors who have solar on their property.

To put these achievements in perspective, let’s talk about solar jobs and productivity. The solar industry employs more than 260,000 people in the United States. The continuous improvement in know-how in construction techniques and in manufacturing drives down solar deployment costs every 3 months. The pricing for new solar projects is coming in the range of 4 cents (Texas) to 5 cents (California) per kilowatthour.

In comparison with nuclear, the amount of solar power built in 2016, taking into account how many hours each can operate each day, is the equivalent of more than 3 new nuclear plants.

To dive in a little deeper: let’s use a 25 percent capacity factor for new solar, making the 14,626 MW installed equivalent to 3,650 MW of theoretically perfectly running nuclear plants. The Westinghouse AP 1000 units under construction for the last 7-10+ years produce about 1,100 MW.  So, in one year, solar additions were equal to what takes more than 7 years to build. The difference in speed of deployment is why UCS is clear that nuclear power isn’t a near-term climate solution.

The demise of the nuclear option

In the energy business, nuclear is fading fast. Struggles to keep existing plants open in competitive markets are roiling the electricity markets. But the recent news about the very few manufacturing firms supplying nuclear construction illustrates how very different the nuclear industry is from solar.

Cost over-runs in the US plants are so large that when state regulators finally put a cap on what South Carolina and Georgia consumers would pay, manufacturer Toshiba (owner of Westinghouse) found itself with $6 Billion in losses and the likely end of its business in nuclear power plant construction.

The concentration of nuclear component manufacturing in so few companies has shown how a problem with quality led to a “single point of failure” plaguing the fleet of French nuclear plants. Policy in the US has been to shield the utility companies from the risks of their business decisions to construct nuclear plants, continuing with the Vogtle plant in Georgia.

Would we ever go 100% solar?

Would we ever build only solar? Maybe, but that’s not the right question. “What can we do with lots of solar?” is a better one.

We can keep absorbing the solar pattern of production with the tools we have. We can plan to adjust to cheap energy in the middle of the day with time-varying rates. And if we can get energy storage further along, we can get to the end of this debate.

Public Source

One Way You Can Help Fight Against Political Interference in Science: Tell Us About It

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Since Election Day and into the first weeks of the Trump presidency, we’ve heard a lot about “alternative facts” and clampdowns on the ability of scientists to present scientific evidence or speak to the press. Congress last week signaled its intent to neutralize the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments by cutting science out of the way they make policy.

Truth and science cartoon

Federal employees can help create an accountable government by reporting political interference in science (even anonymously). More info:

But together, we can raise the political price of manipulating science or censoring scientists by exposing these actions and publicly communicating their consequences for public health and the environment. Sometimes, this requires people within government or who are funded by government to speak up and share challenges that they experience or perceive.

Learn how to securely and/or anonymously communicate with UCS here. The shortlink is

UCS has many years of experience working with government employees, journalists, and members of Congress to get stories out in a way that protects those with information to share. We want to hear about actions that compromise the ability of science to fully inform the policymaking process—and the consequences of those actions. We also want to hear your stories that describe how government data and government experts protect public health and safety.

Just as there are many steps in the policymaking process, so too are there many ways to attack and politicize science. People often think of the muzzling of scientists, or the censorship of documents. This happens, of course. But there are other, more subtle ways of inappropriately influencing how science is used to make decisions. A partial list is at the end of this post.

Political interference in science can be difficult to assess. It’s often not clear whether a person’s actions are normal or crossing the line—especially within an administration where some don’t want to leave a paper trail. To that end, feel free to share what you’ve heard or what you’ve been told verbally. Our staff are ready and willing to help you figure out the best course of action.

CensorMatic CartoonYou should also consider approaching the official who is responsible for implementing your agency’s scientific integrity policy for advice. Outside of government, in addition to UCS Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Government Accountability Project, and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund are all good resources for learning more about your rights and responsibilities.

Now that partial list of subtle and overt ways that vested interests have used to undermine or politicize science, in no particular order:

  1. Prevent scientists from publishing research, or delay publication of research (see: former EPA clearance process)
  2. Prevent scientists from presenting at or attending scientific meetings that are relevant to their work (see: airborne bacteria)
  3. Diminish or destroy agency scientific libraries and library content or similar resources (See EPA, Department of Fisheries Canada)
  4. Allow agencies with conflicts of interest to second-guess or undermine the work of agency scientists through the inter-agency review process (see: the chemical perchlorate)
  5. Require scientists to manipulate scientific methods (See: lead in children’s lunch boxes)
  6. Restrict the types of information and methods that experts can use (See: attempts to prevent climate scientists from using scientific models)
  7. Manipulate or censor scientific information in testimony before Congress (see: CDC testimony on climate change and public health)
  8. Place misinformation on official government websites (see: breast cancer)
  9. Redefine terms to prevent the successful application of science to policymaking (see: OMB peer review guidelines, critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act)
  10. Promote scientifically inaccurate educational curricula (see: abstinence-only sex education)
  11. Refuse to comply with court-mandated analysis (see: endangerment finding)
  12. Waste scientists’ time with baseless subpoenas or open records requests
  13. Manipulate agency scientific documents before release to create false uncertainty or otherwise change the scientific meaning (see: endangered species)
  14. Limit or prevent scientists from communicating with the media, the public, or Congress, including social media, or through requiring minders that sit in on interviews with agency scientists (see: numerous reports from journalists)
  15. Prevent scientists from speaking to the press, or have “minders” present to ensure that scientists say the “right” thing
  16. Selectively route interviews away from scientists with inconvenient scientific analysis (see climate change and hurricanes)
  17. Remove or decrease accessibility to government data sets, tools, models, and other scientific information, or stop collecting data altogether (see Canada’s Harper Government)
  18. Appoint technically unqualified people or people with clear conflicts of interest to federal science advisory committees (see childhood lead poisoning)
  19. Use political litmus tests for federal advisory committee membership (see workplace safety panel)
  20. Threaten, demote, or defund scientists who refuse to change information (see Vioxx)
  21. Create a hostile work environment that causes scientists to self-censor (see FDA surveillance)
  22. Disregard the law by not making decisions solely on best available science when statutorily required to do so (see air pollution limits)

Threats to science-based policymaking and public access to scientific information— essential components of democracy—have never been more real. But scientists are also ever more committed to defending the integrity of science in the policy making process. We depend on sources with knowledge of what’s happening within government to help us prevent a weakening of the federal scientific enterprise and the public protections that science informs.

Once again, that link for reporting what you see:

UCS Founder Kurt Gottfried Wins AAAS Award

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Kurt Gottfried, a founder of UCS in 1969 and a guiding spirit and intellect since then, has won the prestigious 2017 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award given by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science.

I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award, which recognizes Kurt’s lifetime of dedication and achievements. AAAS said it is to recognize Kurt’s “long and distinguished career as a ‘civic scientist,’ through his advocacy for arms control, human rights, and integrity in the use of science in public policy making.”

Source: UCS

Kurt receiving this award also means a lot to me personally, since he has been one of the biggest influences on my professional life. I first met him in 1978 when I took his quantum mechanics course as a physics grad student at Cornell. He was a wonderful teacher and communicator, and generations of students have learned the subject from his classic text book (now in its second edition).

But I actually got to know him a couple years later—early in the Reagan presidency—when we were part of a group at Cornell that brought high-level speakers to campus to talk about the nuclear arms race, which was heating up. I’ve been privileged to have continued to work with him since that time. Kurt’s way of thinking about the world and approaching the problems he worked on have helped shaped my own.

Kurt’s history

I would guess that even the people who know him may not be aware of the range of activities Kurt has taken on over the years.

Kurt was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1929. He has had a long and distinguished career as a theoretical physicist. He received his PhD from MIT, became a Junior Fellow at Harvard, and has been a physics professor (now emeritus) at Cornell since 1964.

At the same time, he has dedicated boundless energy to improving the world, in areas including international security and nuclear arms control, human rights, and preventing political intervention in scientific input in policymaking. For example:

Science, International Security, and Arms Control

On leave at MIT in 1968-9, Kurt helped draft a statement encouraging scientists to consider society’s use of technical knowledge, and calling on scientists and engineers across the country to join a national effort to discuss these issues in university classes on March 4, 1969.

Following the success of that effort, Kurt co-founded UCS that same year. His goal was to help scientists bring their expertise to bear on public policy issues that had an important technical component. From the beginning, the vision was to build a research and advocacy organization that combined technical experts with experts in policy analysis, media engagement, and outreach and education for the public and policy makers, while keeping issues of science and technology at the core of its work.

Today, UCS has grown to more than 180 staff members and has an annual budget of more than $27 million. More than 45 years after UCS’ founding, Kurt remains a valuable member of the Board of Directors.

Over the years, UCS not only helped inform debates and shape policy on a wide range of issues, it also helped legitimize the active role of scientists in these debates and created staff positions allowing scientists to work on these issues full time. And it helped engage a broad set of scientists in part-time policy work, educating them about the issues and training them in writing and speaking for policy makers.

Working with UCS, Kurt was among the first people to raise concerns about the development of missile defenses, co-authoring a report on the topic in 1969. Kurt and UCS were particularly active in the debate in the 1980s and 1990s following President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech. Kurt weighed in with articles and op-eds in Scientific American, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and co-authored the influential books The Fallacy of Star Wars (1984) and Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Planned U.S. National Missile Defense System (2000).

Kurt at a 2000 press conference in Washington. Source: UCS

Kurt also worked to prevent the development of anti-satellite weapons and weapons based in space. He wrote and spoke widely about this issue and worked with Dick Garwin to develop a draft treaty banning anti-satellite weapons, which he presented to the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees in 1983 and 1984.

In addition, he authored or co-authored articles on nuclear weapons, command and control systems and crisis stability, and cooperative security in Nature, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. He edited two books on these issues—Crisis Stability and Nuclear War (1988), and Reforging European Security: From Confrontation to Cooperation (1990)—and contributed chapters to several others.

Scientists and Human Rights

Kurt was also very active in human rights issues for many years—activities he undertook outside his work with UCS. During the 1980s he traveled to the Soviet Union to meet with and support refuseniks, and he urged others in the scientific community to actively support these dissidents.

Kurt was a major figure in the American Physical Society (APS) Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), which helped oppressed scientists in the Soviet Union and other countries. CIFS described its goal as:

The Committee was formed to deal with those matters of an international nature that endanger the abilities of scientists to function as scientists. The Committee is to be particularly concerned with acts of governments or organizations, which through violation of generally recognized human rights, restrict or destroy the ability of scientists to function as such.

Kurt served as CIFS’ first chair in 1980 and 1981. One of CIFS’ innovations was its use of “small committees,” typically consisting of three or four people, who would pick a persecuted scientist and regularly write to the scientist and his/her family, friends, and local officials.

Even when these letters were intercepted by the authorities, they raised the profile of the scientist and made clear that international attention was focused on this person. By 1983, these committees were writing to 63 scientists, and the number continued to increase through the mid-1980s.

Kurt also helped found the organization Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Sharansky (SOS) to focus attention on three of the most prominent Soviet refuseniks. He served on the SOS Executive Committee from 1978-90. SOS’s call for a moratorium on scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union to highlight concern about the treatment of scientists was joined by nearly 8,000 scientists and engineers from 44 countries, and gained international attention.

Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov was jailed for a decade in the Soviet Union after forming Moscow Helsinki Watch to monitor Soviet actions on human rights after it signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Kurt’s involvement in his case led to Orlov coming to Cornell after his release in 1986 and joining the physics faculty.

Kurt was also instrumental in winning the release in 1978 of the physicist Elena Sevilla, who was imprisoned in Argentina because of political activities by her husband, a newspaper reporter. On her release, Kurt arranged for her to come to Cornell to finish her graduate studies in physics.

Kurt’s work not only helped the refuseniks and other oppressed scientists. His actions over the years have helped inspire others in the scientific community to recognize and act on their ability and responsibility to help scientists who were denied basic human rights.

For his work on these issues, Kurt was awarded the APS Leo Szilard Award in 1992.

Scientific Integrity/Science and Democracy

In the wake of growing evidence that some officials in the George W. Bush Administration were distorting scientific knowledge and the scientific advisory process to an unprecedented degree, Kurt recruited 62 preeminent scientists to sign a statement titled Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making, which was released in February 2004.

The statement charged the Bush Administration with widespread “manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions” and called out the administration’s misrepresentation of scientific evidence, appointment of unqualified members of scientific advisory committees, and silencing of federal government scientists—actions that threatened the integrity of science in policy making.

The statement drew wide public attention to these issues. It was signed on-line by more than 12,000 scientists.

Subsequently, Kurt led the effort to create a new program at UCS to work on this issue, which researched examples of abuse, engaged the scientific community on this issue, and worked with administration agencies to reform their practices, including writing draft rules on scientific integrity for these agencies. Kurt was also the force behind evolving that program into the UCS Center for Science and Democracy in 2012, arguing there was a need to address a broader set of issues related to the role of science and evidence-based analysis in democratic society.

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Kurt, Hans Bethe, Dick Garwin, and Henry Kendall at a press conference on missile defense, March 22, 1984 (Source: James J. MacKenzie)

For half a century, Kurt has engaged the scientific community, policy makers, and the general public on important issues related to international security, human rights, and the role of science in democratic society. Moreover, he has encouraged his colleagues to become involved, mentored younger scientists in these issues, and created an organization that has magnified his efforts and will continue this work well beyond his lifetime.

Kurt has been an inspiration to me and other scientists who decided to make a career of applying our technical backgrounds to important policy issues, and helped break the ground to make a career of this kind more possible.

Love Local Food? Here’s a Promising Way to Protect the Local Land that Grows It

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Does your heart beet for farmer’s markets? Do you carrot all about protecting the soil? This Valentine’s Day, lettuce dive deeper into a promising solution for simultaneously protecting land for local food production, ensuring more sustainable agriculture, and creating opportunities for beginning farmers: land trusts.

If you heart local food, it is important to remember that farmland for the food needs protecting, and land trusts are one part of the solution.

Agriculture puns aside, land trusts are nonprofit organizations designed to protect land in perpetuity. Essentially, landowners donate or sell the long-term rights on their property to a land trust—an outside organization that ensures that in the future land is only used for specific purposes, such as for wildlife habitat or agriculture.

There are several reasons why agricultural land trusts can be beneficial. The American Farmland Trust estimates that 40 acres of farmland (roughly the size of 36 football fields) are lost every hour to urban sprawl and development in the United States (that’s over 350,000 acres per year). And there is also no shortage of concerns around existing agricultural lands, including water pollution, soil degradation, and a recent dramatic drop-off in farm incomes. Agricultural land loss and degradation necessitate conservation options such as trusts.

Protecting land for beginner farmers and sustainable agriculture

Land trusts, such as the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), are non-profit organizations that work with landowners to facilitate different arrangements, such as long-term leases or land donations that legally protect or ensure particular uses of land in the future. Land trusts fill an important need in facilitating the major transfer of land that is anticipated in agriculture because the average farmer’s age is 58, combined with growing competition for land use from urbanization and energy development. Suzan Erem, SILT’s Board President, pointedly reminded me that “the history of the U.S. is that we haven’t seen cities shrink”. Photo: SILT.

One example of an organization with a dedicated focus on sustainable agriculture is the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). SILT launched in 2015 with a mission to permanently protect land to grow healthy food, and this is the major distinction between SILT and other non-profit land trusts: the requirement for sustainable food production on their farms. While most land trust agreements include prohibitive language to prevent development-related activities, SILT also adds affirmative language requiring sustainable farming (defined by several different sustainability certifications).

SILT also hopes that more and more landowners will donate or participate in long-term leases through their model to institutionalize affordable land access. This will help make land—particularly land for sustainable food production—available so that it is not just about “where you’re born or sheer dumb luck,” according to Suzan Erem, SILT’s Board President. SILT is proud of its relationships with both national organizations such as the National Young Farmer’s Coalition and statewide programs including Lutheran Services, which assists refugee populations in finding land to launch farm businesses.

That’s another crucial benefit of SILT’s approach: landowners who hope to preserve the integrity of their land are paired with beginner farmers looking for an affordable way to get started. Erem explains that the popularity of programs like SILT is related to the excitement of seeing it “giving people a place and a purpose,” and because they provide opportunity to “redefine what you can do with your legacy.”

Local food demand and supporting midsize farms are further reasons to protect agricultural land near cities

Another important piece of this puzzle is strong consumer demand for local food. Late last year, USDA released the results of their first-ever survey of direct marketing (food products sold by farmers directly to consumers, retailers, institutions or other local food intermediaries), and reported that total sales across the country generated this way were an estimated $8.7 billion. The survey estimated that 67% of these sales were from farms located in metropolitan counties and that the 38% of producers responsible for these sales were women (a greater proportion of women than in the general farming population), and 14% were veterans. As I’ve noted previously, women and veterans are groups that have plenty of room to expand in the agricultural sector.

One component of the most profitable farms—regardless of size—is direct marketing, as Dr. Dawn Thilmany McFadden, a member of our Science Network, explained in a blog post last year. This form of sales is particularly important to protect “agriculture of the middle” or midsize farms and ranches, which have been declining for many decades (a trend likely to worsen under the present tightening agricultural economy). Growing Economies, our 2016 report, similarly noted that more direct sales from institutional food purchasers could be a multi-billion dollar boon for the state of Iowa.

Despite the benefits of protecting local farms and food, it’s important to recognize that local food is certainly not a panacea for all environmental concerns. Tradeoffs with impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions require careful consideration, as another Science Network colleague, Dr. David Cleveland, recently noted on our blog. Still, given the stimulus for local economies, and the need to protect farmland in general, how we protect land for local food deserves an important part of the conversation.

And remember for Valentine’s Day, let’s turnip attention to the idea that land trusts and local food make a great pear!


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