Combined UCS Blogs

Federal Science Advisory Boards Under Threat: Why Scientists Should Get Involved

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Serving on a science advisory board for a federal agency is an interesting and in many ways rewarding experience for a scientist. I have been on a research advisory board for the Navy, advisory boards for assessing the impacts of climate change, and for the National Academy of Sciences as well on several international boards. I always find the work challenging, I learn a lot and I feel like I am making a real contribution to both science and policy-making. So, it is an honor to serve even when providing advice on contentious topics.

In many cases, these positions are uncompensated, except for travel costs, and are “extra duties” for busy scientists. Four to six meetings a year are common.  But since we all care deeply about our work and have gone through years of training and dedicated involvement in research to develop expertise, it feels great to bring that expertise to bear to advise agencies on their research programs, or guide them to use the best scientific evidence in achieving their missions.  I have had the opportunity to summarize the scientific evidence on the impacts of climate change on the oceans, describe how the approach of ecosystem-based management may guide agency activities, and summarize how STEM education can connect to ocean education for multiple agencies, among other topics.

Scientific advisory boards are a direct extension of the independent peer review process that has served science well for decades. So the community should not only embrace the use of these boards, but advocate for their independence from political influence fiercely.

Unfortunately, there are worrying signs that the new Administration may be on course to politicize the science advisory process. Recently, several members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors were not reappointed for the conventional second term (usual practice is to rotate off most boards after two terms). At the time, agency political appointees noted that more scientists employed directly by regulated industries should be appointed instead.

At the same time, meetings of advisory boards at the Department of Interior have been put on hold and their fate is unclear as of this writing.  Science advisory boards are in critical danger of being politicized. That is not necessarily unprecedented, but it hasn’t worked out well before, and will not again if allowed to stand.

So how do these boards work? In general, science advisory boards in any federal agency are under the auspices of the Federal Advisory Committee Act or FACA. That means that the process for nominating members for the board must be public, and the meetings of the board must be open to the public. Conflicts of interest for board members must be disclosed, meetings noticed to the public and opportunities for public comment during meetings provided. In general, boards operate on a consensus model, though that isn’t required.

In my time on various boards I have served with academic scientists, some from research institutes, industry and other non-governmental organizations. All the members were appointed for their scientific expertise, and most particularly, not to “represent” any particular interest organization or viewpoint. We always had open discussions about potential real or perceived conflicts of interest and got to know each other so that we could exchange views freely in the best tradition of science. We shared the (often substantial) work, including the writing of reports. Most importantly, the agencies seemed to directly utilize our work. I never felt that the time was wasted or the agency was just going through the motions of peer review just to tick a box on a form.

In the current political rhetoric, the call for “more scientists from industry” and “greater geographical representation” might make for a political talking point but it makes little sense if you want the best advice. The boards shouldn’t be for representing interest groups! States, tribes, industry, non-governmental organizations, and the public have other opportunities for input into the policy process. Those opportunities can be improved, extended, made more balanced (regulated industry plays the dominant role by far), but not by corrupting the process of obtaining science advice.

So what should the science community—and individual scientists—do? First and foremost, get involved! As noted above, nominations to boards, including self-nominations, are a public process. At the moment, there is a call for nominations for nine positions on the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors, and in September there is likely to be a call for as many as 15 positions on the EPA Science Advisory Board. Then there is the EPA Clean Air Science Advisory Committee and many other boards in other agencies across government. The Interior Department needs experts in ecology, endangered species protections, wildlife and fisheries management, climate impacts in diverse habitats, and many more disciplines. The Departments of Energy, Defense, Agriculture, and Commerce advisors play a role in shaping the large science programs in these agencies.

Do you think you might be willing and able to take on one of these important tasks? Do you know some other great scientists that could really have an impact? Then put forward your name and curriculum vitae. If scientists don’t stand up, then it will be all the easier to pack the boards with special interests.

So Stand Up For Science—and let’s make sure that science advisory boards really do advise our agencies with independent science.


Trump Budget Bares Wholesale Disregard for Environmental Justice Communities, But a New Bill Gives Hope

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Many low-income communities and communities of color in the U.S. have not always enjoyed the environmental and public health benefits of environmental safeguards. These communities and their advocates have long demanded redress of the unequal environmental burdens they experience, and had been hopeful that the progress made under President Obama’s EPA would continue and improve under a new administration.

But those hopes were recently dashed by President Trump’s proposed EPA budget, which allocates exactly zero dollars and zero cents to Environmental Justice programs within the agency. Where will the environmental justice EPA work be housed? There are few details, but the proposed budget says it will be incorporated into the Integrated Environmental Strategy (IES) program, which has provided assistance for environmental and public health initiatives in developing countries and has been supported by USAID. This clearly signals the incoherent position that the Trump administration sees environmental justice as a matter of foreign aid and development policy! Furthermore, as the IES program is housed under the EPA Office of the Administrator, it moves environmental justice matters closer to the sorts of political manipulation and disregard for science we have seen in Scott Pruitt’s EPA.

The callousness with which the Trump administration treats vulnerable communities on the frontlines of environmental contamination is not surprising, however. In a previous post, I warned of Pruitt’s appointment as ominous for environmental justice communities, and others called out the need for an EPA leader who would protect and strengthen the existing human and environmental health protections. The EPA’s long-time Environmental Justice assistant administrator, Mustafa Ali, recently resigned from his post at the agency after being dismayed at the deep cuts to grants and programs to safeguard our most vulnerable populations.

But among all of these recent actions that do not bode well for the environmental justice community, I am relieved to see that Representative Pramila Jayapal is standing up for vulnerable communities. Rep. Jayapal has just introduced a bill to establish an office of Environmental Justice at the EPA, and to create a small grants program.

How can communities benefit from an Office of Environmental Justice? Small grants to environmental justice communities foster the development of community-based partnerships that can improve environmental conditions in those communities, in areas like clean water and air, land revitalization, and environmental health. For example, a $25,000 grant was awarded in 2010 to a community learning center in Hawaii to educate the community on the public health and climate change challenges affecting the local community. This kind of program is essential to increase the capacity of low-income and minority communities to “create and implement local solutions to environmental justice concerns where they live,” and to reduce the environmental burdens to which they are disproportionately exposed.

We thank Rep. Jayapal for introducing legislation that will continue to benefit climate-vulnerable communities. The EPA itself knows of the benefits of this kind of program, as it keeps track of federal collaboration with environmental justice communities. That is great testimony to the multitude of fruitful partnerships that environmental justice communities and the agency had engaged in until recently. We need an EPA that values the health of people and the environment we all live in. Rep. Jayapal ‘s bill is a step in making sure our government fulfills its constitutional obligation to protect us all.

An Insider’s View on the Value of Federal Research

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Not long after receiving my doctorate in biochemistry I took a research position with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Prior to retiring in 2014 I had spent my entire career, 33 years, with ARS. I had a chance to see federal research from within the system. Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s been my experience that federal research is solutions-oriented, transparent, and nonpolitical.  

Mike and his technician, Karen Wagner, developing a new method for biodiesel synthesis. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

Among the key aspects of that system were the following, which I believe pertain to federal research in general (exclusive, in some cases, of defense-related work):

  • It was problem-solving in nature, with research goals based in the country’s needs. These goals, for example, could be safer or more nutritious food, improved soil health, new uses for crops produced in excess of current needs, or any of a myriad of other topics.
  • There was daylight everywhere: Programs, goals, and outcomes were clearly published and publicized.
  • The work was not conducted to advance the sales of any commercial product, as some work in the private sector might be. It was problem, not profit, oriented.
  • The process had integrity and autonomy: Our results and conclusions were not dictated to us by management or the Administration.  During my career I published over 120 articles, including approximately 80 research papers in peer reviewed scientific journals, a dozen book chapters and half a dozen U.S. Patents. I gave over 100 oral presentations describing work.  Not one word that I authored was dictated to me by management. I am not aware of any colleague for whom that was not also true.
  • We were allowed and encouraged to patent any invention that we made. Patents were licensable under terms that were designed to aid the flow of technology to the private sector rather than to generate large sums of money for the inventor or the government.
  • We had full professional autonomy and were encouraged to interact with all parties (other than individuals and organizations from state sponsors of terrorism) as necessary to advance the work and disseminate its results. Among our partners were citizens as well as peers in academic, private sector or federal research, be they domestic or international, large or small firms. Large companies often have their own dedicated research and development teams, serving their interests. I came to see that in many ways we were the Research and Development team for the smaller firms and young industries – startups or small operations lacking the funds and staff to do dedicated research.  We collaborated with all comers, irrespective of size.
  • Research programs were up to 5 years in length, and continued beyond that if such could be justified. This led to the kind of long term, higher risk type of work that is in some cases needed and in many cases rare these days.
  • In cases of ‘crisis’ – some incident that needed a rapid research response (e.g. outbreak of a new plant disease, food poisoning incident….) – researchers were detailed into that area to assist in quickly developing appropriate responses to the threat.

Aerial shot of the Eastern Regional Research Center, USDA, near Philadelphia. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

I spent my career at the Eastern Regional Research Center near Philadelphia, one of the ARS ‘Utilization labs’ that were built in the late 1930s as part of a major effort to develop new uses for the crops produced by America’s farmers. Out of this work have come thousands of research publications and patents, which developed or assisted in developing a host of new products and processes including dehydrated mashed potatoes (and hence Pringles!); soy ink; permanent press cotton fabric; frozen foods with increased retention of flavor, color and texture; Lact-Aid; and more efficient processes for the production of biofuels.

Filling up a truck on biodiesel. Photo: Spencer Thomas/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The increased market share for biodiesel alone is a success for federal research. Beginning in the early 1990s, the desire to promote energy independence in this country and to provide new markets for our crops led researchers to begin exploring the production of what became known as ‘biodiesel’. Made from vegetable oils and animal fats, biodiesel can replace petroleum-derived diesel fuel while burning cleaner and thus reducing the emission of pollutants.  It was an obvious new outlet for U.S. lipids, and so my group and others in ARS began investigating various aspects related to its production and use.  Today biodiesel is an accepted fuel used throughout the country (and world), powering vehicles and generators and heating homes.  It is a true success story, one in which my lab, other USDA labs, and many other researchers played a part.

Based on my experiences, I see federal research as extremely valuable. As I have outlined above, it is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all Americans, and is conducted within a framework designed to maximize its integrity, reliability, impact and availability. It is also very efficacious: I am aware of two studies conducted during my career that assessed the economic impact of ARS research. These analyses determined that every dollar invested yielded between 14 and 20 dollars in benefits for the country. That’s a strong statement of the value of the work, a measure of what will be lost to all of us if programs are dropped, and a return on investment that I’ll sign up for any day.


Following receipt of a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the U. of Wisconsin, Mike Haas went on to a career with the Agricultural Research Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.  During his over 30 years with ARS-USDA his research ranged from sophisticated studies of applied enzymology to the development of the simplest of methods for the production of biodiesel, a renewable fuel produced from U.S. farm products that both replaces and burns cleaner than petroleum diesel fuel.   During his research career Mike also served as an officer in relevant professional societies and as Associate Editor of a scientific journal.   Now retired, he serves as a student mentor with the National Biodiesel Board and, after 40 years in labs and offices, enjoys a multitude of outdoor activities.    

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

Does Trump’s Paris Decision Make Him the Most Dangerous Man in the World?

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In case there was any doubt, President Trump’s June 1 announcement that he would take steps to withdraw the United States from participation in the Paris Accord confirms that our president is the most dangerous man in the world.  It isn’t just the substance of his decision (which will put the US into an exceedingly small club of nations—currently consisting only of Syria and Nicaragua—who have not signed on to the Accord) that is dangerous. It’s his disregard of the established science, his misunderstanding of the Accord’s structure, his misrepresentation of the consequences of both the US’s participation in the Accord and its withdrawal, and his lack of appreciation for the significance of America’s moral authority as the foundation of true greatness, that confirms this ignoble distinction.

Given the Accord’s reliance on voluntary national commitments, any of the President’s domestic policy objectives, however dubious and short sighted, could have been pursued within the Accord’s framework, making his decision to withdraw a gratuitous assault on the global order.

Unlike other possible contenders for the “Most Dangerous Man” title—such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, or Bashar al Assad—whose motives and methods are as transparent as they are reprehensible, it is extremely difficult to ascertain any rational basis for Mr. Trump’s actions. Without articulating a “reality-based” justification for withdrawing from the Paris Accord, Mr. Trump has ignored the wishes of a large majority of Americans (including “his generals”, the overwhelming majority of respected business leaders and even, reportedly, his own daughter) and risked causing incalculable but predictable harm to the health and safety of millions of Americans as well as the political and economic stability of the world.

Who will benefit from the president’s decision? For starters, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un will benefit from the weakening of the bonds between the U.S. and its historic allies, which (among other things) will make it more difficult to maintain unified sanctions against their violations of international law. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other petroleum-dependent countries, as well as a handful of American investors in coal assets, may enjoy a near-term benefit from the perception that the inevitable transition to a low-carbon global economy will be slower as a result.

China’s president, Xi Jing Ping, has already begun to fill the void in global leadership on the world’s biggest challenge created by Mr. Trump’s abdication of responsibility, and Chinese workers, investors and business leaders may prove to be the biggest beneficiaries of the estimated $1 trillion in new investments in renewable energy infrastructure which is predicted over the next five years as the 194 signatories to the Accord implement their pollution reduction targets.

Even before Mr. Trump’s announcement, China had committed to invest $120 billion/year for the next three years in renewable energy, which it believes will create 13 million new jobs and position China to capitalize on the global scientific and political consensus. Rather than China “stealing American jobs”, President Trump is effectively handing millions of jobs in the fastest-growing sector of the energy economy to China.

Many have noted that Mr. Trump’s budget proposal and initiatives on health care and taxes are designed to benefit America’s wealthiest families at the expense of middle class families, older Americans, low wage workers and communities suffering from the consequences of technological change and globalization, including many Trump voters. Unlike those policies designed to benefit virtually all of America’s most advantaged, withdrawal from the Paris Accord is only likely to benefit a small handful of American investors in coal assets, and given the strong market preference for natural gas and renewable energy alternatives to coal, even these benefits will be short-lived. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s dubious claim that his action will save “millions of US jobs”, the absolute number of coal mining jobs in the US (currently less than 70,000) is unlikely to increase meaningfully as automation in that industry will undoubtedly continue.

Who is likely to be harmed in the short term?  The 2.6 million men and women working in America’s burgeoning clean energy sector, including 1.2 million people in states that voted for Mr. Trump. Solar jobs alone are growing 17 times faster than the overall U.S. economy. To the extent Mr. Trump’s unnecessary and reckless decision impairs growth of the renewable energy sector in the US, the effect will be to hurt, rather than help, the US economy. And of course, any interruption in the momentum to curb global warming will have enormous adverse consequences on global health and stability over the long term.

Hopefully, the strong opposition to the President’s decision by America’s most successful and respected business leaders and informed voices among state and local governments and academia, when combined with the steadfast assurance by leaders of other global powers of their continued commitment to abide by the Paris Accord, will suffice to mitigate the worst consequences of his dangerously ill-considered act.  While it is impossible to quickly repair the damage to the reputation and moral authority of the US inflicted by the President’s decision, the prompt and virtually universal condemnation of his decision represents an encouraging sign that the global “immune system” is awakening to contain the risks posed by the fact that the Most Dangerous Man in the World has three and a half years left in his current term, and it’s impossible to predict what he might do next.

John H. Steed, J.D., retired as Managing Partner with the international law firm, Paul Hastings LLP. He has 31 years of experience in private practice after earning his degree from Harvard Law School in 1977. He has specialized in corporate law, financial services, and real estate transactions with private law firms in Orlando, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and Tokyo. He continues to investigate opportunities for collaboration between US and Japanese companies in the fields of renewable energy generation and power storage.

The views expressed in Guest Commentary posts are those of the author alone.

Palo Verde: Running Without a Backup Power Supply

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

The Arizona Public Service Company’s Palo Verde Generating Station about 60 miles west of Phoenix has three Combustion Engineering pressurized water reactors that began operating in the mid 1980s. In the early morning hours of Thursday, December 15, 2016, workers started one of two emergency diesel generators (EDGs) on the Unit 3 reactor for a routine test. The EDGs are the third tier of electrical power to emergency equipment for Unit 3.

When the unit is operating, the source of power is the electricity produced by the main generator (labeled A in Figure 1.) The electricity flows through the Main Transformer to the switchyard and offsite power grid and also flows through the Unit Auxiliary Transformer to in-plant equipment. If the unit is not operating, electrical power flows from the offsite power grid through the Startup Transformer (B) to in-plant equipment. When the main generator is offline and power from the offsite power grid is unavailable, the EDGs (C) step in to provide electrical power to a subset of in-plant equipment—the emergency equipment needed to protect the reactor core and minimize release of radioactivity to the environment. An additional backup power source exists at Palo Verde in the form of gas turbine generators (D) that can supply power to any of the three units.

Fig. 1 (Source: Arizona Public Service Company)

I toured the Palo Verde site on May 11, 2016. The tour included one of EDG rooms on Unit 2 as shown in Figure 2. Each unit at Palo Verde has two EDGs. The EDG being tested on December 15, 2016, was manufactured in 1981 and was a Cooper Bessemer 20-cylinder V-type turbocharged engine. The engine operated at 600 revolutions per minute with a rated output of 5,500,000 watts.

Fig. 2 (Source: Arizona Public Service Company)

Assuming one of the two EDGs for a unit fails and there are no additional equipment failures, the remaining EDG and the equipment powered by it are sufficient to mitigate any design basis accident (including a loss of coolant accident caused by a broken pipe connected to the reactor vessel) and protect workers and the public from excessive exposure to radiation. Figure 3 shows the major components powered by the Unit 3 EDGs—a High Pressure Safety Injection (HPSI) train, a Low Pressure Safety Injection (LPSI) train, a Containment Spray train, an Essential Cooling Water Pump, an Auxiliary Feedwater Pump, and so on.

Fig. 3 (Source: Arizona Public Service Company Individual Plant Examination)

Because the EDGs are normally in standby mode, the operating license for each unit requires that they be periodically tested to verify they remain ready to save the day should that need arise. At 3:02 am on December 15, 2016, workers started EDG 3B. Workers increased the loading on EDG 3B to about 2,700,000 watts, roughly half load, at 3:46 am per the test procedure.

Ten minutes later, alarms sounded and flashed in the Unit 3 Control Room alerting operators that EDG B had automatically stopped running to due low lube oil pressure. A worker in the area notified the control room operators about a large amount of smoke as well as oil on the floor of the EDG room. The operators contacted the onsite fire department which arrived in the EDG room at 4:06 am. There was no fire ongoing when they arrived, but they remained on scene for about 90 minutes to assist in the response to the event.

Operators declared an Alert, the third most serious in the NRC’s four emergency classifications, at 4:10 am due to a fire or explosion resulting in control room indication of degraded safety system performance. The emergency declaration was terminated at 6:36 am.

Seven weeks later after the fire had long been out, the oil on the floor long since wiped up, and all sharp-edged metal fragments long gone, and any toxic smoke long dissipated, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) dispatched a special inspection team to investigate the event and its cause. The NRC dispatched its special inspection team more than a month after it authorized Unit 3 to continue operating for up to 62 days while its blown-up backup power source was repaired. The Unit 3 operating license originally allowed the reactor to operate for only 10 days with one of two EDGs out of service.

Workers at Palo Verde determined that EDG 3B failed because the connecting rod on cylinder 9R failed. It was the fifth time that an EDG of that type at a US nuclear power plant experienced a connecting rod failure and it was the second time that Cylinder 9R on EDG 3B at Palo Verde. It had also failed during a test in 1986.

Examinations in 2017 following the most recent failure traced its root cause back to the first failure. The forces resulting from that failure caused misalignment of the main engine crankshaft. (In this engine, the crankshaft rotates. The crankshaft causes the connecting rods to rise and fall with each rotation, in turn driving the pistons in and out of the cylinders.) The misalignment was very minor—the tolerances are on the order of thousands of an inch. But this minor misalignment over hundreds of hours of EDG operation over the ensuing three decades resulted in high cyclic fatigue failure of the connecting rod.

Workers installed a new crankshaft aligned within the tight tolerances established by the vendor. Workers also installed new connecting rods and repaired the crankcase. After testing the repairs, EDG B was returned to service.

NRC Sanctions

The NRC’s special inspection team did not identify any violations contributing to the cause of the EDG failure, in the response to the failure, or in the corrective actions undertaken to remedy the failure.

UCS Perspective

The NRC’s timeline for this event isn’t comforting.

The operating licenses issued by the NRC for the three reactors at Palo Verde allow each unit to continue running for up to 10 days when one of two EDGs is out of service. The Unit 3 EDG that was blown apart on December 15 could not be repaired within 10 days. So, the owner applied to the NRC for permission to operate Unit 3 for up to 21 days with only one EDG. But the EDG could not be repaired within 21 days. So, the owner applied to the NRC for permission to operate Unit 3 for up to 62 days with only one EDG.

The NRC approved both requests, the second on January 4, 2017. More than a month later, on February 6, 2017, the NRC special inspection team arrived onsite to examine what happened and why it happened.

Wouldn’t a prudent safety regulator have asked and answered those questions before allowing a reactor to continue operating for six times as permitted by its operating license?

Wouldn’t a prudent safety regulator have ensured the cause of EDG 3B blowing itself apart might not also cause EDG 3A to blow itself apart before allowing a reactor to continue operating for two months with a potential explosion in waiting?

Whether the answers are yes or no, could that prudent regulator please call the NRC and share some of that prudency? The NRC may be many things, but it’ll seldom be accused and never be convicted of excessive prudency.

Where’s a prudent regulator when America needs one?

The Ugly: Post #3 on the NNSA’s FY2018 Budget Request

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On Tuesday, May 23, the Trump administration released its Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) budget request. I am doing a three-part analysis of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. That agency, a part of the Department of Energy, is responsible for developing and maintaining US nuclear weapons. Previously we focused on The Good and The Bad, and today we have The Ugly.

The Ugly NNSA’s “New” Warhead a Sign of Things to Come?

The NNSA’s FY2018 budget request includes what might seem to be a relatively innocuous statement:

In February 2017, DOD and NNSA representatives agreed to use the term “IW1” rather than “W78/88-1 LEP” to reflect that IW1 replaces capability rather than extending the life of current stockpile systems.

In other words, rather than extending the life of the W78 and W88 warheads via a life extension program (or LEP), the NNSA will develop the IW1 to “replace” those warheads.

To my mind, that is an admission that the IW1—short for Interoperable Warhead One–is a new nuclear weapon, as UCS has been saying for quite some time.

The Obama administration was loath to admit as much, arguing that the proposed system—combining a primary based on one from an existing warhead and a secondary from another warhead—was not a “new” warhead. That reluctance stemmed from the administration’s declaration in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that the United States would not develop new nuclear warheads or new military capabilities or new missions for nuclear weapons. Declaring the IW1 a new warhead would destroy that pledge.

That semantic sleight of hand by the Obama team was somewhat ugly: the IW1 is a new warhead. (For a lot more detail on the IW1 and the misguided “3+2 plan” of which it is part, see our report Bad Math on New Nuclear Weapons.)

However, what might be coming from the Trump administration is truly ugly.

The fact that the FY2018 NNSA budget admits the IW1 is a new warhead may be signal that the Trump team—which is doing its own NPR—will eliminate the Obama pledge not to develop new weapons or pursue new military capabilities and missions.

That change would send a clear message to the rest of the world that the United States believes it needs new types of nuclear weapons and new nuclear capabilities for its security. This would further damage the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is already fraying because the weapon states are not living up to their commitment to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Deep frustration on the part of the non-nuclear weapon states has led to the current negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. New US weapons could also damage our efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear program and undermine the agreement with Iran that has massively reduced their program to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

Moreover, a likely corollary of withdrawing that pledge would be to pursue a new type of nuclear weapon, or a new capability. Some options have already been suggested:

  1. The Defense Science Board recommended developing weapons with “lower-yield, primary-only options” (because the B61 bomb and the air-launched cruise missile already have low-yield options, this was presumably for missile warheads, though the report does not specify).
  2. The author of the Obama NPR—Jim Miller—and Admiral Sandy Winnefeld (USN, retired) have proposed reviving the submarine-launched nuclear-armed cruise missile that was retired in the Obama NPR.

Those options are contrary to US security interests. Nuclear weapons are the only threat to the survival of the United States. Given that, and because there will not be a winner in a nuclear war, the US goal must be to reduce the role that these weapons play in security policy until they no longer are a threat to our survival. Continuing to invest in new types of nuclear weapons convinces the rest of the world that the United States will never give up its nuclear weapons, and encourages other nuclear-weapon states to respond in ways that will continue to threaten the United States.

Make no mistake, the United States already has incredibly powerful and reliable nuclear weapons that would deter any nuclear attack on it or its allies, and it will for the foreseeable future.

So the idea that the United States should pursue new types of weapons? That is truly ugly.

There Are 68.4 Million Better Places for Solar Panels Than Mr. Trump’s Wall

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Yesterday President Trump suggested putting solar panels on his infamous border wall to help pay for it (since Mexico certainly won’t). While there are more things wrong with that proposal than I can cover in this space, it’s great to see that President Trump has finally figured out solar panels are cost-effective energy investments, paying for themselves even if you ignore the many environmental benefits. But here are more than 68.4 million better places for President Trump to invest in solar to pay dividends for the American people.

Solar on the roof

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) last year published a fine study of the potential of America’s rooftops to host solar. The researchers analyzed how much solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity we could get overhead, from existing buildings (considering roof orientation, tilt, and shading), and calculated what it would add up to.

One conclusion of that analysis was that “83% of small buildings have a suitable PV installation location,” and that more than a quarter of the total roof area of those buildings could work. NREL is careful to say that that’s the technical potential, not necessarily what would make sense in other regards. But if we take that 83%, and consider the number of stand-alone, single-family houses, you end up with 68,380,764 million (give or take a few million) places to put solar.

As it happens, a lot of those sunny rooftops are near our beautiful southern border:  In most Texas zip codes, for example, more than 90% of the small buildings might work for solar.

Source: Gagnon et al. 2016

From a technical potential point of view, residential rooftops across the country could meet a big chunk of household electricity needs in a lot of states: More than 90% in a dozen states, and at least 70% in 27 states.

Source: Gagnon et al. 2016

Solar on more roofs

But wait, there’s still more: Note that NREL’s “small buildings” doesn’t just mean detached single-family homes. If we add in duplexes and small apartment buildings, that would mean millions more rooftops for solarizing.

And then there’s plenty of roof space beyond small buildings:commercial, industrial, and institutional roofs. NREL found that “more than 99% of large and medium buildings” have some place that would work for solar (“at least one qualifying roof plane”). And the total rooftop area that would work is much higher than for small buildings (very few trees shading the middle of a big-box store roof…). Their calculations suggest potential on around half of the total roof area of medium buildings, and two-thirds of large ones.

If you take the rooftop potential across the various size buildings (which, unlike walls in the middle of deserts, are already connected to the electricity grid), and compare it even to the total electricity needs in each state, you find that it really adds up (particularly in states and cities that are serious about energy efficiency).

Source: Gagnon et al. 2016

Solar on the ground

Plus, roofs are definitely not the only place suitable for solar. The latest solar stats show that the progress of large-scale solar, done by utilities and others, has been even more impressive than residential and commercial (“non-residential”).

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

And large, ground-mounted solar arrays don’t just make sense in fields, farmlands, and deserts. Old landfills or “brownfields”—lands that have been degraded by past industrial activity—can be a great fit for new solar capacity. (The same could be true for solar at old power plant sites, where the plants have shut down but the infrastructure and grid connection are still there.)

Larger arrays can also be the foundation of community solar systems, a way of making solar work for people who can’t or don’t want to do it on the roof.

Solar in reality

So enough of the frivolous flights of folly in trying to use solar’s overwhelming popularity to make a wildly unpopular project slightly less unpopular. A border wall might need solar, but solar certainly doesn’t need a border wall.

Solar is real, and it makes sense. And we already have plenty of places to put it, if Pres. Trump would just put his office and budget to good use for moving American energy forward.

How the Size of Your iPhone Relates to Sea Level Rise

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Got your phone handy? Over the last month, coastal residents from Hawaii to Rhode Island wielded their smartphones and snapped dozens of shocking photos at high tide showing neighborhoods, parking lots, and public parks underwater. Meanwhile, scientists have published a spate of sobering sea level rise studies. We spend hours cradling our phones in our hands…let’s put them to use for a moment (screens off!) to put the latest sea level rise science into perspective.

How fast is sea level rising?

Hold your phone flat at eye level. If you’ve got an iPhone 6 or 7, it’s about 6 mm thick (Androids are a little thicker, at 7-9 mm). The latest research published in PNAS by Sönke Dangendorf and others, based on both tide gauge measurements and satellite altimeter data, shows that, averaged over the globe, the sea level is rising by just over 6 mm every two years. That amounts to 3.1 mm/yr.

There are a lot of wiggly lines here, but focus in on the solid black line labeled GMSL [this study, all corrections] in panel A. Over the course of the 20th century, the slope of that line–which is essentially what’s shown in panel B–increases. That’s the recent acceleration in the pace of sea level rise. Source: Dangendorf et al. 2017

Is sea level rising faster than it used to?

Yes. Take a look at the home button on your iPhone. Dangendorf’s study shows that over the course of the 20th century, sea level rose by an average of 1.1 mm/year. So every decade during the 20th century, sea level rose by the width of the home button on your phone (1.1 cm wide). And over the course of the 20th century, it would have taken about 6 years for sea level to rise by the thickness of your phone compared to just two years currently.

So the 20th century average sea level rise rate was 1.1 mm/yr, but now sea level is rising at 3.1 mm/yr. This means that, in the last 25 years or so, sea level rise has accelerated dramatically. Our appreciation of just how dramatic this acceleration is has been growing over the last few years.

As of the writing of the last IPCC report in 2013, the widely quoted 20th century sea level rise rate was 1.7 mm/yr. Compared to the present day rate of 3.1 mm/year, that implied some recent acceleration. But the latest estimates of 20th century sea level rise are significantly lower, which makes the difference between then (1.1 mm/yr) and now (3.1 mm/yr) starker.

Estimating 20th century sea level rise rates has long been a challenge for earth scientists. For one thing, sea level does not change uniformly around the globe. And tide gauges, which were the primary basis for sea level rise measurements until the early 1990s, aren’t evenly distributed on all coastlines. The farther back in time you go, the more these problems compound because there are fewer tide gauge records to rely on.

Locations of tide gauges around the world. Source: The Global Sea Level Observing System

So over the years, scientists have used a variety of methods to try to account for the spotty nature of tide gauge observations to come up with a single global average. Dangendorf’s new estimates are well-aligned with those published by Carling Hay and others in 2015 despite using very different methodologies, which suggests that we’re homing in on the right number for the 20th century, and experiencing a much faster rise in sea levels than our parents and grandparents.

Even faster sea level rise in store

The rapid sea level rise we’ve been experiencing for the last quarter century was the impetus for NOAA to revise its baseline estimate for future sea level rise through the year 2100. Back in January, NOAA released a new set of sea level rise projections that are being used for the Fourth National Climate Assessment.

This suite of projections was developed by NOAA scientists for use in the forthcoming Fourth National Climate Assessment. Source: Sweet et al. 2017

So pull out that phone again! The new lowest sea level rise scenario from NOAA projects 0.3 m (1 ft) of rise above 2000 levels by 2100. That’s just over the height of 2 iPhones stacked up end to end. And it represents a 10 cm increase compared to the projections used for the Third NCA report in 2014.

Even if global greenhouse gas emissions were to peak before 2020 and decline thereafter, NOAA scientists report that there’s a 94% chance of sea level exceeding that 0.3 m rise.

Because the most recent research coming out of Antarctica points to a potentially large contribution of Antarctic ice to sea level rise this century, NOAA has also added an extreme sea level rise scenario that projects 2.5 m (about 8 ft) of rise. That’s 18 iPhones stacked up end-to-end, which would reach from the floor to the ceiling in an average room.

What that all spells is more coastal flooding

Several studies have shown that sea level rise in the coming decades will increase the frequency of “sunny day” flooding of the sort that much of the US experienced last weekend during king tides. But recent research by Sean Vitousek and others highlights just how little sea level rise it takes to cause drastic changes in coastal flooding in other parts of the world.

With just 10 cm of sea level rise—less than the length of your iPhone—coastal flood frequency in the tropics would double. If we were lucky enough to continue on the sea level rise trajectory we’ve been on, that 10 cm rise would take place in about 30 years’ time. But most projections suggest a continued acceleration of sea level rise such that we could reach that 10 cm mark much sooner, and cities like Annapolis, Maryland, and Charleston, South Carolina are already starting to prepare.

The yellow and red areas of the map show places where a 10 cm or less increase in sea level–less than one iPhone length–would double the frequency of coastal flooding. Source: Vitousek et al. 2017

While relatively well-heeled places like Miami Beach have been investing heavily to reduce recurrent flooding issues that have long plagued the city, many low-lying tropical island communities have fewer resources to invest in flood mitigation measures. With the US exiting the Paris Agreement and reneging on its pledge of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, developing countries will have even fewer resources available to protect themselves from the floods to come. With the budgets for FEMA, the EPA, and the Department of the Interior in the crosshairs, communities here in the U.S. could be operating with limited resources as well as they watch the water rise.

Some politicians are taking note of the US’s coastal flooding problems and introducing legislation that would help.

Dangendorf et al. 2017 The Global Sea Level Observing System Sweet et al. 2017 Vitousek et al. 2017

The Ill-logic of Alternative Facts (sic)

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Philosophers of science are always on the lookout for the logic underlying the successful practices of the scientific community.  For us, that is a window into epistemology more generally, how humans manage to acquire knowledge of nature. The recent surge of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and claims that accepted science is a “hoax” propagated inside some conspiracy is not just disturbing, but threatens to undermine the hard-won authority of scientific facts. What’s going on, logically speaking, beneath the surface of these attacks?

Webinar Today: Scientific Facts vs. Alternative Facts

How can we understand and respond to “alternative facts” when they are presented as of equal value as scientific facts? The UCS Center for Science and Democracy joins with the Philosophy of Science Association to invite you to participate in a webinar to investigate the differences between scientific facts and so-called alternative facts.

Sign up to participate >

The phrase “alternative facts” was introduced by Kellyanne Conway to describe false claims by Sean Spicer about the number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration. While we might agree with Chuck Todd that “alternative facts are lies,” for a philosopher it is important to understand how they work in order to know how to respond to the challenge they present to legitimate facts. Appeals to “alternative facts” reveal a pattern of reasoning that is in stark contrast to the ways in which scientific facts are supported. What’s the difference?

Science comprises a set of practices that generate our most accurate views of what nature is like. That is why we appeal to scientific results to guide our choices of what materials to use to build a bridge or what drugs to take to treat a disease. Humans have their limitations: our first impressions are often wrong, and our in-house perceptual and cognitive abilities are not as acute or unbiased as what we can get by outsourcing to computers or to microscopes, telescopes, spectroscopes etc. The natural conditions we initially confront may obscure causes and confounding influences, and so science crafts experiments that strip away the clutter to expose the main effects, the most relevant variables, the predictive features.

The justification of the results of science is a community affair, founded on critical examination by replication, peer review, and multiple forms of checking structured by the assumption that any fact, data, explanation, hypothesis or theory might well be false or only an approximation of the truth. Science works because it is rigorous in these ways, and that’s what warrants its authority to speak truth to power (or to wishful thinking, or to non-empirically supported beliefs).

The rigorous practices of the scientific community are founded on the most objective procedures humans can implement. The life history of a scientific fact might begin with a hypothesis, or a hunch, or a new application of a well-accepted theory, but to mature into a fact it must pass through the gauntlet of experiment, replication, critical challenge and scientific community skepticism. The logic of accepting a scientific fact goes as follows: If there is good, reliable evidence for it, then it will be accepted (as long as there is not better evidence for a different claim). Its persistence as an accepted fact is not guaranteed, however, as new challenges must be survived when new data, new ideas, or new technologies suggest refinements or adjustments.

Alternative facts follow a different course. They might also begin as a yet-unsupported hypothesis of how things are—how large a crowd might be, how humans might not be causing climate change.  But then the life history looks very different.  Rather than appealing to objective means of determining IF the world matches the hypothesis, purveyors of alternative facts instead consult their ideological, economic or political interests.  Non-objective procedures kick in to cherry-pick data, appealing only to what supports the hypothesis, ignoring or debunking data that contradicts it.  The critical scrutiny of the scientific community is replaced by the sycophantic agreement of those that share ideological, economic or political interests (e.g. “people are saying….”).

The ill-logic of accepting an alternative fact (sic) goes like this. If the hypothesis conforms to one’s interests, accept it as a fact and barricade it from any impugning evidence. If there is some isolated evidence that supports it, treat that evidence as definitively confirming. If there is evidence that contradicts it, ignore, debunk, or deny that evidence. If others who share the same interests voice support for the hypothesis, treat that community as a justifying consensus that the world is the way that group wants it to be.

In short, alternative-fact logic replaces evidence of how nature is with personal preferences for how I want the world to be. Data from experiment or observation, and survival of critical challenges by replication, meta-analysis and peer review, are replaced by what “fact” would be best to increase profits (smoking isn’t addictive), or reduce the need for regulation (CO2 is not a major cause of climate change), or bolster some ideology (most Syrian refugees are young men).

By misappropriating the language of “fact,” this practice undermines the authority of science to speak for nature. Policies that should answer to the facts are no longer constrained by the non-partisan procedures of testing and critical challenge. Instead they are guided purely by partisan interests.  The acceptance of scientific facts is not determined by how we want the world to be. The acceptance of alternative facts is determined exclusively by those preferences.

The consequences of treating “alternative facts” on a par with scientific facts can be dire. The claim that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism was proposed in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield, a UK doctor, reportedly based on faulty analysis and a financial conflict of interest. Wakefield had developed his own measles vaccine and was funded by those suing the producers of MMR. His paper was later retracted and his medical license revoked, but his “alternative fact” continues to be promoted and believed.

Dozens of scientific studies have shown no relationship between MMR and autism, but do show that the vaccine is 93%-97% effective at preventing measles. In the decade prior to the introduction of the vaccine in the US in 1963, millions contracted the disease, and an estimated 400 to 500 people died from measles each year. By 2000 measles was no longer endemic in the US. One study estimates that between 1994-2013, 70 million cases of measles and 57,000 deaths were prevented by the vaccine. In recent years there has been a rise in measles in the US, with the majority of cases occurring in unvaccinated individuals. In 2014, 85% of those who got measles declined vaccination due to religious, philosophical or personal objections.

People may choose what they want to believe, but they do not get to choose the consequences of those beliefs. Because measles is so highly contagious, it takes 90-95% of a population to be immune to protect those who are vulnerable (too young or medically compromised to be vaccinated). Relying on “alternative facts” about measles vaccines by even a small percentage in a community can have harmful effects on those who cannot choose.

By exposing the underlying logic of defenses of “alternative facts” we can move beyond the standoff (that’s your fact, this is my fact) to a conversation about what counts as evidence, and how it contributes to what we should believe about nature. Do you really want the pill you take for hypertension to be the one that most increases profits, rather than the one that is most effective and has the least side effects?


Sandra D. Mitchell is professor and chair of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh and is the President of The Philosophy of Science Association.  She teaches courses on philosophy of biology, the epistemology of experimental practices, morality and medicine, and practices of modeling in science.  Her research has focused on the implications of scientific explanations of complex systems on our assumptions about nature, knowledge and the ways to use knowledge in policy.  She is the author of Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity and Policy (2009)

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

7 States Give Pruitt an “F” in Science, Challenge EPA Over Pesticide That Harms Children

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Back in March, EPA Administrator and science skeptic Scott Pruitt ignored his agency’s own science when he canceled a planned ban on chlorpyrifos, a well-studied pesticide that has been shown to damage children’s developing brains and make farmworkers sick. But the fight to protect kids and workers from this toxic pesticide isn’t over. In a welcome new twist, the Attorney General of New York and his counterparts in six other states announced today that they have filed an objection with the EPA for its inaction.

Joining New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the legal challenge are the Attorneys General of California, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington, and Vermont. They charge that the EPA “failed to make a key safety finding needed to continue to allow levels of chlorpyrifos, a common agricultural pesticide, on fruits and vegetables consumed by the public.  The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (Food Act) requires EPA to revoke allowable levels—or ‘tolerances’—for pesticide residues on foods if the Agency is unable to determine that the levels are safe.”

Chlorpyrifos has been studied for decades and increasingly regulated, but it’s still used on a variety of fruits and vegetables—including apples and broccoli—that millions of American moms and dads feed their kids every day. The EPA was all set to ban those last uses due to the pesticide’s ability to damage children’s developing brains, when Pruitt abruptly changed course.

The announcement of the states’ lawsuit comes as the saga of this pesticide continues to grow. Chlorpyrifos reportedly poisoned nearly 50 California farmworkers in an incident near Bakersfield in May.

And in another troubling development last month, Pruitt also put the kibosh on a planned proposal to ensure that pesticides including chlorpyrifos are safely applied. That proposal was supposed to regulate “restricted use pesticides,” defined by the EPA as having the “potential to cause unreasonable adverse effects to the environment and injury to applicators or bystanders without added restrictions.” It would have required workers handling such pesticides—including chlorpyrifos—to be at least 18 years old and to have regular safety training.





Americans Deserve Better than the Heartland Institute’s Climate “Experts”

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Last Thursday, President Trump held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden—a setting where many past presidents have given great speeches, announced new initiatives, and held special events to honor or protect great Americans. President Trump did none of these things.

Instead he announced his intent for the US to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord—the first ever global agreement to address climate change, signed by nearly every country on Earth.

Presidents typically invite guests to such events, including people who will benefit from the policy move, those who worked closely on it, or honorary guests who inspired the move in the first place.  So who did President Trump invite? A cadre of industry-tied lobbyists and others who have peddled climate disinformation for years.

Americans deserve better.

Thorny issues in the Rose Garden

Among those in the Rose Garden were representatives from the Heartland Institute—a marginalized climate denial group made infamous for its billboards that likened those who accept climate science (i.e. now the majority of Americans) with the Unabomber.

Heartland’s president, Joe Bast, was there. To illuminate just how outrageous that is, consider this excerpt from my colleague Elliott Negin:

Bast, Heartland’s president, is hardly an expert on climate science. He has tried to pass himself off as an economist, but he doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree.

Bast’s slide show presented such patently false claims as: “There is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change” and “The [U.N.] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) … is not a credible source of science or economics.” Bast urged ALEC legislators to “oppose carbon taxes,” “repeal renewable power mandates,” and “oppose Obama’s plan to regulate CO2 as a pollutant,” despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority and responsibility to do so under the Clean Air Act.

Another attendee to the Rose Garden was the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell, who headed President Trump’s transition team and has a long history of sowing doubt and spreading misinformation on climate change. Notably, Ebell was a member of the American Petroleum Institute’s “Global Climate Science Communications Team,” which developed a plan to deceive the public into thinking climate change was highly uncertainty. The plan read, “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom’.”

A tired list of long discredited “experts”

In the aftermath of President Trump’s Paris announcement, the Heartland Institute sent a message to the media, taking credit for the pullout from the Paris Agreement and sharing a list of ‘experts’ to the media. The message said:

President Trump yesterday made the bold and correct decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. He offered sound economic arguments for exiting the accord, but the scientific justifications for getting out are just as strong.

The Heartland Institute – a national free-market think tank based in Illinois – has done more to promote the work of scientists skeptical of catastrophic man-caused global warming than any other organization. Below is a list of more than 200 scientists, economists, and policy experts who can make the scientific case for the United States exiting the Paris Climate Accord.

To be clear, the Heartland Institute is claiming credit for a move expected to have devastating consequences for people around the globe now and in the future. The media availability list was a laundry list of anyone known to spread misinformation on climate science or obstruct efforts to get meaningful policy actions.

This list included such notable disinformers as:

In short, the list was a who’s who of climate denial—a tired list of long discredited ‘experts’ whose arguments couldn’t hold water at an actual scientific conference. In fact, the list closely parallels a letter by “300 scientists” calling on President Trump to leave Paris – which my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel debunked and John Abraham at the Guardian took down with a scathing look at the signers.

A frightening reality in the Rose Garden

The idea that these individuals now have the ear of the President of the United States is a disgrace for the nation and a frightening reality for the world.

We deserve better. No matter our policy preferences, we can agree that our decision makers should make informed decisions. They can do this best when they hear from experts who are respected in their field.

Policy decisions are complex and science of course isn’t the only input that goes into leaders’ decisions. But our political leaders should have access the best available scientific information when making those tough policy choices.

Last week’s announcement in the Rose Garden is the latest example revealing just how far the president is from this basic concept. This builds on the administration’s dismissal of scientists on a federal advisory committee at the EPA and Department of Justice, and the delay and review of 200 advisory committee’s meetings at the Department of the Interior.

President Trump never promised us a rose garden, but it’d be great if he at least could leave us a habitable planet for future generations.


Nevada Lawmakers Say Yes to More Clean Energy

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Yesterday the Nevada Legislature did its part to ensure Silver State residents will breathe cleaner air and benefit from more clean energy jobs by passing a bill, AB 206, that would raise the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) to 40% by 2030.

Wind and solar electricity prices are at all-time lows, and in many parts of the country they are the cheapest sources of power. This makes a switch to renewables a good move for any state.

But for Nevada, a state extremely reliant on natural gas and therefore vulnerable to shortages and price spikes, diversifying its energy portfolio with more renewables is an even better idea.

A PV solar array in Nixon, Nevada. Source:BlackRockSolar

Raising the RPS in Nevada will bolster its growing clean energy economy and send an important message to Washington D.C. that states won’t sit idle while the Trump Administration tries to take the country backwards.

Kudos to Assemblyman Brooks for spearheading this bill and making sure that Nevada will not be left out of the clean energy transition. We now wait for Governor Sandoval to firmly establish Nevada as a clean energy leader and sign the bill into law.

Fighting Back Against Trump’s Illegal “Two for One Rule”

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In the aftermath of President Trump’s disgraceful decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, we are fighting back today against another presidential order that will do great damage.

The Union of Concerned Scientists filed a friend of the court (“amicus”) brief in a case brought by Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen and the Communications Workers of America, challenging the so-called “two-for-one” executive order. This executive order requires federal agencies to repeal two regulations for every new one they issue, and ensure that the costs of any new regulation are fully offset by the cost savings of repealing existing regulation. UCS has critiqued this order forcefully before here and here.

UCS does not often go to court, but we are now because this “2-for-1” order goes against everything we stand for. It is profoundly irrational, substituting a slogan for the hard work of government and willfully requiring the government to ignore the best science. The executive order seems to assume, without a shred of evidence, that there are stacks of regulations sitting on a shelf that can be easily repealed without causing any harm.  And it directly prevents federal agencies from protecting Americans from new threats to health, safety, or the environment. Just think about this: if this order had been in place, we probably wouldn’t have been able to take lead out of gasoline, or mandate seat belts, or keep toxics out of kids’ toys.

Already, the executive order is having its intended effect. A headline captures it: “under Trump, agency rulemaking grinds to a halt.” As one example, EPA was poised to issue a regulation to prevent the discharge of mercury into public sewer systems, but has pulled the rule because it will have to find two rules to repeal in order to go forward.

It is also flatly illegal. UCS is fortunate that a venerable Boston law firm with a long history of public service, Foley Hoag, agreed to represent us pro bono to challenge this executive order. Our attorneys have written a compelling brief showing the many ways that this executive order violates the law. Here is a summary:

The order forces agencies to ignore statutory mandates. Our attorneys point out that Congress’ “goal in enacting environmental, public health, consumer protection, and safety statutes was to achieve benefits for society, not to save costs. If saving costs was the only relevant factor, Congress could simply have chosen not to legislate.”

When an agency makes regulations to implement a statute, courts will insist that they “live up to their mandates to consider the public interest” that congress sought to advance in passing the law. They are not allowed to “avoid or dilute their statutorily imposed role as protectors of the public interest values.” But that is precisely what the two for one rule does—it requires agencies to essentially ignore the public interest in new safeguards, no matter how needed they are, unless they can somehow find two old safeguards that are cost the same amount.

The executive order not only violates statutes that mandate specific safeguards and protections, but a general, landmark law known as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The law was enacted in the early 1970’s when environmental values were systematically ignored, resulting in catastrophes such as the Cuyahoga river catching fire, and urban smog that resembles what we see in cities in developing countries today. The law requires all federal agencies to take environmental impacts into account when making decisions such as issuing permits and regulations. As one judge wrote in an early decision interpreting this law, NEPA mandates a rather finely tuned and ‘systematic’ balancing analysis [of] economic, technical, and environmental factors] in each instance.”

The 2 for 1 rule violates this statute. In order to comply with 2 for 1, agencies will be forced to forego the “finely tuned and ‘systematic’ balancing analysis” and focus solely on the issue of the cost of a new regulation, and the costs of existing ones.

The order compels agencies to take “arbitrary and capricious action”. When agencies issue regulations, their decisions must not be “arbitrary and capricious.” Agencies act arbitrarily and capriciously when they rely “on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider” or “entirely fail to consider an important aspect of the problem.”

Our attorneys show that the executive order actually compels agencies to act arbitrarily and capriciously. This is because the order requires agencies to focus on the costs, and ignore the benefits. For example, if a proposed new Department of Energy regulation requires companies manufacture washing machines to add energy-efficient controls at a cost $10 million, but those controls save purchasers $30 million in energy costs, the agency must ignore the $30 million in benefits of these savings in the “2 for 1” calculus. In order to issue this regulation, DOE would have to repeal two existing regulations that cost at least $10 million to go forward with the new regulation—even though the benefits of the regulation exceed the cost by a factor of three!

But it gets even worse: when calculating the costs of existing regulations to be repealed, agencies cannot consider the sunk costs of the existing regulations, meaning the costs that businesses have already incurred to comply. So, to build upon the prior example, if DOE were to repeal two other appliance efficiency regulations that cost industry $10 million to comply, but $8 million of those costs have already been incurred, DOE’s repeal of two existing regulations would only give it $2 million as an offset to the new $10 million “cost” of the new regulation.  DOE would have to find repeal numerous other regulations with present day costs of $8 million in order to reach the $10 million in offsets.

Have you ever heard of a more rigged (and arbitrary) system?

Next steps

The four plaintiffs in this suit, and now UCS, have asked the court to rule that the executive order is invalid on its face. If we prevail, the government will not be allowed to enforce it.

Is Researching Oceans Worth the Cost? Oregon’s Example Says Yes!

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As an active research scientist working on climate change impacts on organisms of economic importance, it is easy to feel discouraged and frustrated by the politicization of science. Given how hard most of us actually work, and how much more money we could make elsewhere for less effort, it is easy to be frustrated by the criticism and attacks on climate science, particularly for early career scientists.

While it is easy to notice the attacks, it is perhaps harder to see the increasingly positive and strong public support for sustainable stewardship of our oceans. Today’s scientists are more engaged than ever with stakeholders, the public, policy makers, and politicians. Sea Grant is an organization that helps provide that bridge and turn research into actionable support for those who will benefit directly or indirectly from that research.

Nationally, Sea Grant funded research across the country includes everything from sustainability of marine resources, to understanding inundation from sea level rise, to reducing land-based pollution on coastal resources, visualizing ocean changes, etc. There are 33 Sea Grant programs nationally; in the last presidential race, 12 of those programs sat in states carried by Donald Trump. And within many blue states, there are coastal counties that were also carried by Trump. The ocean and the people who make their living from and benefit from it span the political spectrum, and we can all agree that healthy coastal economies depend on understanding our oceans 

The economic argument for keeping Sea Grant funding

Oyster at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery. Photo by Oregon State University.

From a fiscal conservative standpoint, what is the cost and return on these investments in our oceans and their future? It is important to point out research investments are not entitlements. Estimates by Oregon Sea Grant put their current annual economic benefit at roughly $8.4 million, and that lacks many of the economic multipliers that could be included. Oregon Sea Grant receives approximately $2.4 million per year in federal funding, suggesting a return on investment of nearly $3.50 for every federal dollar invested into the program, or a 350% return on investment (ROI).

These federal investments in Sea Grant are matched by state contributions, thus leveraging funds and allowing state Sea Grant programs is to manage these resources to the benefit of local stakeholders (an approach that all political ideologies can agree upon). If we put this another way, the very top hedge fund investors often get returns on their investments of 15-20%, Oregon Sea Grant gets an ROI of between 160% (including state matching funds) or 350% (only federal investments).

Aggregated nationally, Sea Grant as a whole costs approximately $73 million in federal funds annually; cutting that funding (and assuming a national ROI similar to Oregon’s Sea Grant program) would be the equivalent of removing $255.5 million dollars annually from the US economy. This is why I have never understood why investments in science are always in political crosshairs. We mostly all understand it costs money to make money, and clearly research and Sea Grant generate large economic impacts for the relatively small costs. Specific examples abound, including here in Oregon during the oyster seed crisis from several years ago, research investments bolstered the $110M U.S west coast oyster industry that employs thousands in rural coastal communities.

I am optimistic that there will continue to be bi-partisan support for one of the things that has actually made America great: Research and Development; it has always been one of our greatest exports. We must remind our elected officials of how valuable research and science is to our country, and of the economic benefits of science. Who wouldn’t want over 100% returns on their investments? Research and science have been extremely profitable endeavors for our country, and we must continue to invest in them, if we are to continue to be great.



George Waldbusser received his Doctoral degree in Biological Oceanography at the University of Maryland. He teaches Biochemical Earth, Ocean Acidification and Bivalves, and Biostatistics, and his research focuses on, among other things, bivalves’ responses to acidifying waters in estuaries. Specifically, Dr. Waldbusser is interested in the role of organisms in modifying physical and biogeochemical processes in sediments, species interactions in sediments, coastal and estuarine acidification effects on bivalves, the importance of benthic habitats in biogeochemical cycling, structure and function of sedimentary habitats, and tidal flat ecology. He is currently being funded the Oregon Sea Grant and the National Science Foundation to research ocean acidification’s effects on oysters and other bivalves.

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

While You Weren’t Looking, Energy Efficiency Became One of Our Nation’s Top Energy Resources

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Here’s a fact I bet you didn’t know: in 2015, energy efficiency saved more electricity than was produced by every type of electricity resource in our country but for coal and natural gas. Hydro, renewables, even nuclear—energy efficiency saved more than each of them produced.

That is incredible. It also means that energy efficiency came through as the third-largest electricity resource in the United States that year.

When it comes to clean energy, we spend a lot of our time talking about the tremendous benefits and abilities of resources like wind and solar. But do you know the very cleanest energy resource we have? That would be the one that helps us never call upon an electron at all.

Over the past few decades, energy efficiency has slowly but steadily helped us make better use of the energy we consume for all types of activities, from heating and cooling to lighting and transportation. Everybody has benefited as a result, so it makes sense to keep pushing forward, right?

You’d think.

But at present, energy efficiency initiatives at the federal level are under fierce attack. That won’t stop our progress, though, because we are seeing states and cities all across the country working hard to keep driving the momentum and stacking up the savings in new and exciting ways. Here’s a look at some of the promising progress afoot.

The invisible resource that could

Energy efficiency efforts were developed in earnest following the price spikes of the 1973 oil crisis. Stakeholders throughout the residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation sectors all looked for ways to use less energy while still achieving the same output. In the aftermath, research and policymaking persisted, and energy efficiency has been chipping away at our energy use ever since. And as our peers at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently calculated, these efforts have resulted in significant gains:

Between 1980 and 2014, ACEEE estimates that energy efficiency efforts (blue) have steadily increased the amount of energy we save, such that by 2014, energy efficiency savings totaled the equivalent of nearly half of our actual energy use.

As ACEEE points out, while the nation’s gross domestic product grew by 149 percent between 1980 and 2014, energy use increased by just 26 percent. The figure above illustrates why. The green wedge represents the reductions in energy use arising from structural changes in our economy (e.g., transitioning from manufacturing to service). The blue wedge, however, is strictly a result of gains from energy efficiency.

If you look carefully, you can see that by 2014, the blue wedge now totals more than half of our actual energy use. What an extraordinary achievement!

And here’s where the stat from the top of the article is derived: if you back out the savings we’ve made from energy efficiency programs implemented since 1990, the resource now ends up comprising the third-largest share of our electricity generation. Here’s ACEEE’s analysis for 2015:

When you compare energy efficiency savings against electricity generation by resource, the scale of energy efficiency savings jump out, both at an absolute level (left) and a relative level (right) of 2015 electricity generation.

Stacking the savings

So how did we achieve these remarkable gains? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we make sure we keep on achieving them? Here, so much of it comes down to fostering supportive policies—plus continuing to fund the research driving the technological innovation that gives us the ability to keep leaping ahead.

There’s no getting around the fact that policies at the federal level have resulted in major gains, and set the stage for so many of the advancements from which we’ve benefited. Indeed, it’s been estimated that for every $1 dollar invested in energy efficiency, stakeholders receive $2 to $4 in return. Further, time and again energy efficiency has been shown to be one of the most cost-effective resources when it comes to driving down emissions in the power sector.

Still, somehow, the present administration is proposing to slash budgets for energy efficiency research, pause some standards designed to save consumers and businesses money, and zero out EPA’s widely appreciated labeling program ENERGY STAR.

But here’s the thing: although federal initiatives are under fire, our states and municipalities are still charging ahead. And because of that, we can keep on looking forward to many gains to come. For that, we should celebrate. Further, this local progress can be held up as proof that regardless of rhetoric at the top, all citizens want to save money (and, in turn, clean our air). Energy efficiency just makes sense.

So let’s take a look at some actual leaders.

In a recently released report, my colleagues ranked states according to their clean energy momentum. Three of the metrics considered energy efficiency: 1) targets for electricity savings according to state energy efficiency resource standards, 2) jobs in energy efficiency per thousand people, and 3) energy savings as a portion of retail electricity sales. Here are the top 10 states for each:

Different states rise to the top when it comes to energy efficiency metrics, including through energy efficiency resource standards (left), energy efficiency jobs (center), and utility savings (right), .

But energy efficiency improvements can also take root at the local level, and in some very meaningful ways. ACEEE recently released a report that ranked cities across the United States with these opportunities in mind.

The report takes a deep dive into each of the metrics, offering a fascinating—and instructive—guide that is well worth a read. Here’s a top-line look at how the 51 ranked cities performed. Wave hello to Boston at the head of the class!

ACEEE ranked 51 cities around the country according to a variety of energy efficiency policies. Note the allocation of possible points across policy areas–it’s an instructive reflection of key opportunities at the local level.

When less is more, energy efficiency is best of all

Though we can’t always see energy efficiency at work, we can all recognize and value the resulting reductions in electricity bills, lowering of expenses, and more comfortable environments. So to keep pushing forward even if we’re stalled at the top, let’s take full advantage of the many opportunities that exist for driving gains in energy efficiency at the state and local levels. And along the way, let’s celebrate our state and local leaders out front on these issues, and continue to encourage those still finding their way.

ACEEE, October 2016 ACEEE, May 2017 Clean Energy Momentum, (UCS, April 2017) ACEEE, May 2017

Coal’s Days Are Numbered—So Where Will the Electrons Come From?

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The last big coal plant in New England is gone, New Jersey’s biggest utility is done with coal generation, and Florida’s largest electric utility is retiring yet another coal plant. These are more solid signposts on the way to our clean energy future… if we get this right. But as coal exits, what’s taking its place?

Exit Big Coal

A spate of recent energy headlines make clear that, despite President Trump’s stunning abdication of climate and energy leadership, coal is on its way out. Take these, for example:

Clean energy has been a part of this energy transformation. The biggest factor in coal’s demise, though, say the utilities involved, has been the severely eroded economics of coal versus natural gas. “The way the market works, the economics don’t work [for coal],” says PSEG. In Florida, FP&L says that shutting the St. Johns plant is part of a plan to “save customers millions of dollars on fuel costs” while cutting air pollution.

That’s worth underscoring: By retiring coal, utilities aren’t just reducing public health risks; they’re also saving money. Not the story that coal-is-cheap boosters would have you believe.

Another splash of this new reality, actually, comes from the director of President Trump’s National Economic Council himself. “Coal doesn’t even make that much sense anymore,” says Gary Cohn, citing natural gas, wind, and solar as better options.

Enter… who?

With coal on its way out, though, what’s replacing it? That’s where a new graphic about the evolution of electricity mixes is really handy.

The graphic, from Pat Knight at Synapse Energy Economics, is an updating of one of his that I talked about a couple of years ago, and the latest version is just as mesmerizing (and, with a slower rate, even easier to follow). Here’s the GIF version, which covers 1990 to 2016:

And below are stills of two of the years, showing that even the transformation over just the last decade is a marvel to behold:

While the growth in natural gas (orange bars) is worthy of caution—maybe an elephant-sized amount of caution at that—lots of positive things jump out from the GIF and those juxtaposed years, stuff like:

  • The dark upper left corner (coal) is shrinking, consistent with the straight-from-the-headlines tidbits above. Look at Nevada, Delaware, and Oklahoma. Pennsylvania and Virginia. Alabama. Even Utah, Indiana, and New Mexico. And that progress may just be a down payment on going coal free.
  • Even at the low end of coal usage, Synapse’s Pat Knight notes that the number of states producing 10% or less of their electricity from coal has almost doubled in recent years, going from nine in 2007 to 17 in 2016.
  • As the GIF version shows, while it once played a big role in electricity generation, oil is basically gone from the power sector, with the exception of Hawaii and Alaska. (In Knight’s version, the “other” in those red bars includes biomass, which is why Maine and Vermont show up redder than they otherwise might.)
  • And then there are those yellow bars, the non-hydro renewables piece that barely existed in 2006, and are now forces to be reckoned with. Knight notes that the number of states producing 10% or more (much more, in some cases) of their electricity from renewables other than hydro grew from 0 in 2007 to 17 in 2016. We have wind power to thank for that in various states—Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota each generated at least 20% from wind last year—and solar is coming on strong.

Even if President Trump is unwilling or unable to move ahead on energy, plenty of others get it. Forward-thinking utilities are continuing to embrace evolution—even revolution—in the energy sector. So are states leading on clean energy momentum.

Our changing electricity mixes and the latest news make clear that coal is on its way out. Now we just need to be smart about what replaces it.

President Trump, Paris and ExxonMobil

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It is remarkable what you can achieve when you set the bar really low.

By announcing his plan to withdraw the United States from participation in the Paris climate accord, shamefully reneging on our nation’s commitment to join with the world community of nations in fighting climate change, President Trump accomplished the striking feat of making appear virtuous and responsible almost every other major entity whose actions have contributed mightily to the problem.

Even ExxonMobil.

That’s right. The world’s largest investor-owned oil and gas company. The company whose long, well-documented track-record of climate deception and disinformation to avoid regulation of its products has earned it comparisons with the tobacco industry and brought it under investigation by state attorneys general for possible shareholder fraud.

Media coverage in the lead-up to today’s announcement has regularly contrasted Trump’s rejection of the Paris Agreement with the many calls from leading businesses for the US to stay in. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods has in particular gotten a lot of attention for his advocacy. Last month, Woods sent a letter to President Trump, calling the Paris Agreement “an effective framework for addressing the risks of climate change” within which the US is “well positioned to compete”  thanks to its “abundant low-carbon resources such as natural gas” and “innovative private industries, including the oil, gas and petroleum sectors.”

As former Clinton Administration Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers put it, he “never imagined” an administration that’s “way to the right of Exxon on a fossil fuel issue.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists has been urging ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies to support sensible climate policies. Clearly the company deserves some praise for this.

But the disconnect between Darren Wood’s words and continued ExxonMobil actions to thwart climate progress indicates that any praise should be decidedly faint, and combined with continued pressure to do better.

You might think, for example, that ExxonMobil’s call for the US to stay in the Paris Agreement implies that the company actually supports the climate accord’s core goals.

The Paris Agreement’s long-term objective is to limit the rise in global average temperatures  to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. That is a temperature target above which the risks of severe and potentially irreversible impacts from rising seas and more extreme weather increase dramatically.

But ExxonMobil, like other major fossil fuel companies, maintains a business model that aggressively invests in developing future reserves and assumes a heavy long-term reliance on fossil fuels. By its own projections, this will lead to continued high carbon emissions, driving increases in global average temperatures on a trajectory to increase 3-4 degrees Celsius this century,  posing major risks of catastrophic climate change.

The company also continues to support climate disinformation and oppose sensible climate and energy policies through its leadership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), other lobbying groups, and trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute. ExxonMobil’s failure to break from these groups’ denial of climate science and its implications for constraining carbon emissions belies CEO Woods’s assertion that “We have a commitment to fundamental science.”

Fortunately, shareholders are also now calling on ExxonMobil to take climate risks seriously. Despite strenuous objections from the ExxonMobil board, shareholders at this week’s annual meeting in Dallas passed by a nearly two-thirds majority vote a resolution calling on Exxon to report on the climate-related business risks the company faces—from changing technologies and policies that could limit fossil emissions consistent with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping temperatures from rising above 2 degrees.

The company may get some credit for appearing more progressive on climate than President Trump. But it is critical that shareholders, civil society, the attorneys general and other policymakers  hold the company accountable for exceeding that low bar by far more than they currently do.

It’s high time for ExxonMobil to walk the talk.



President Trump’s Epic Fail on Paris

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When the Paris Agreement was adopted on December 12th, 2015, it was hailed as a triumph of multilateral diplomacy, offering real hope that the nations of the world could come to grips with the climate change crisis and leave our children and grandchildren with a habitable planet. While France’s superb team steered the Agreement through to completion, it was the ability of the United States and China to put aside their differences and the joint leadership of Presidents Obama and Xi at several key moments that was seen by many as the critical factor to the success of the negotiations.

Both of these presidents recognized that climate change poses a severe threat to the security and well-being of their citizens, and understood that effectively addressing this crisis is much less costly than coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.

In sharp contrast, President Trump’s announcement today that he intends to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement demonstrates that he comprehends exactly none of this. Ignoring the advice of other world leaders, the CEOs of hundreds of major corporations, Pope Francis, and many other important voices, President Trump took an action that jeopardizes the health and prosperity of every American as well as people all over the world.

Pulling out of Paris will diminish the standing of the United States in world affairs, and make it harder for other leaders to collaborate with President Trump on trade, terrorism, and other critical issues, as it reinforces the belief of an increasing number of their citizens that he cares not a whit for their interests and concerns.

And contrary to what President Trump says, his action today will do absolutely nothing to boost the economy or create jobs; instead, it will harm the ability of U.S. companies and workers to compete in the rapidly growing global market for climate-friendly technologies.

But the deed is done. Now attention turns to the impact of this irresponsible move on the future of the Paris Agreement and the overall drive to decarbonize the global economy as is needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

We’ll always have Paris—won’t we?

With his move today, President Trump puts the United States in elite company, joining Nicaragua and Syria as the only other nations of the world not supporting the Paris Agreement. There are no indications that any other country intends to follow President Trump out the door. In fact, just the opposite has occurred in recent weeks, as other countries have reacted firmly to President Trump’s rollbacks of domestic climate action and the prospect of US withdrawal from Paris.

Here are just some of the notable statements:

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Lu Kang: “No matter how other countries’ policies on climate change, as a responsible large developing country China’s resolve, aims and policy moves in dealing with climate change will not change.” And in a clear reference to President Trump’s infamous claim that climate change is a “hoax” made up by China, Premier Li Keqiang said this: “Fighting climate change is a global consensus, it’s not invented by China.”

European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete: “The continued leadership of the EU, China and many other major economies is now more important than ever. We see the Paris Agreement and the transition to a modern, more innovative economy as the growth engine of job creation, investment opportunities and economic prosperity.”

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks: “Whoever tries to change into reverse gear is only going to harm themselves when it comes to international competitiveness.”

Indian Minister for Power and Coal Piyush Goyal: India is “pursuing religiously” its goal of developing 225 gigawatts of clean energy by 2022, which is “not subject to some other country’s decision.”

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland: “We believe climate change is one of the greatest threats facing Canadians and the world and it is a threat which is a global threat and which needs global solutions.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov: “President Putin signed this convention in Paris. Russia attaches great significance to it.”

Perhaps most eloquent was Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, who said: “A President’s job is to protect their citizens, grow the economy and pave the way for future generations. Acting on climate change is the best way to do all of this. While we are extremely disappointed to see the United States seeking to roll back its efforts to reduce emissions, we are heartened to see the rest of the world remains firmly committed to the Paris Agreement and to reaping the enormous economic opportunities that come with it. My country’s survival depends on every country delivering on the promises they made in Paris—our own commitment to it will never waiver.”

As these comments make clear, other countries see fulfillment of the commitments they have made under the Paris Agreement as not just their responsibility to the global community, but as squarely in their own national interest. Developing country leaders understand that the mounting impacts of climate change endanger their ability to achieve their economic development objectives, and both developed and developing country leaders are eager to share in the massive economic and job creation opportunities created by the clean energy revolution.

Other countries did not sign up for the Paris Agreement to please the United States, and President Trump’s abdication of leadership will not cause them to leave it.

The geopolitical consequences of today’s action

When President George W. Bush announced in March, 2001 that the United States was abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, he and his foreign policy team didn’t anticipate how negatively the rest of the world would react. As his Secretary of State Colin Powell said two months later, “when the blowback came I think it was a sobering experience that everything the American president does has international repercussions.”

The blowback to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is likely to be even worse, given the much higher profile of the climate issue now compared to 2001, and the fact that some 120 world leaders participated in the opening high-level segment of the Paris climate conference in 2015.

As Nicholas Burns, deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, said earlier this year, “I think it would be a major mistake, even a historic mistake, to disavow the Paris deal… I can’t think of an issue, except perhaps NATO, where if the U.S. simply walks away, it would have such a major negative impact on how we are seen.”

In a letter to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt earlier this month, Germany’s Environment Mnister Barbara Hendricks was quite direct about the consequences of today’s decision: “I am very concerned that a US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would cause lasting damage to the long-standing mutual trust and close cooperation between our two countries and between the US and other countries in Europe and elsewhere,” she wrote.

As Todd Stern noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed, withdrawal from Paris should be seen as “an act of diplomatic malpractice. Countries large and small, rich and poor, are deeply invested in Paris because they understand the peril of climate change and know the Paris agreement cannot be truly effective without U.S. engagement.”

Stern predicted other countries “would see withdrawal as a slap in the face, disrespecting their fundamental interests and, in turn, eroding the United States’ diplomatic capital. This matters. In diplomacy, as in life, if you tell someone, ‘to hell with what you care about,’ don’t expect open arms when you come calling with your own needs.”

The repercussions of President Trump’s action today, which some are calling his “biggest middle finger to the world yet,” will only fully play out over the coming weeks and months. But it will clearly add to growing concerns about the ability of the United States to be a responsible actor on the international stage.

What comes next?

In Paris, countries set an aggressive temperature limitation goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels,” and acknowledged that to meet this goal, countries must aim “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”

They also explicitly acknowledged that the initial commitments put forward under the Paris Agreement fall well short of what’s needed to constrain temperature increases to below 2 degrees C, much less to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees C, and they included provisions in the agreement to ratchet up their individual and collective level of effort over time, as needed to close that “ambition gap.”

As a next step, countries agreed to hold a “facilitative dialogue” at the climate summit that will take place in Poland at the end of next year, in order to “take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the long-term goal…and to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions.” They also requested the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to prepare a special report on these issues to inform the dialogue.

The expectation was that by the end of this decade, countries that had taken on 2025 emissions reduction commitments under Paris, such as the United States, would put more ambitious 2030 commitments on the table. At the same time, China, India, the European Union and other countries that had made 2030 commitments would be expected to review those commitments and as appropriate, revise them upwards. It’s already clear that many of these countries are on track to overachieve their initial commitments, partly as a result of continuing dramatic reductions in the cost of solar, wind, and other clean energy technologies.

So the feasibility of increasing ambition is not in question; it’s a matter of political will.

But it’s also clear that President Trump is not going to come to his senses, rejoin the world in the Paris Agreement, and put a more ambitious US commitment on the table for 2030. It will be up to others—starting with China and the European Union—to put their own stronger commitments on the table and challenge others to join them. It should be noted that the 48 countries making up the Climate Vulnerability Forum have already set a high standard here, by committing themselves to achieve net carbon neutrality and obtaining 100% of their energy from renewable resources—despite the fact they have a lower level of economic development than most of the world’s major emitting countries.

In that regard, the EU-China summit being held today and tomorrow in Brussels represents a significant milestone in the shift in global leadership on this issue away from the United States. Reports are that European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will issue a joint statement tomorrow saying that “The increasing impacts of climate change require a decisive response,” and that “the EU and China consider climate action and the clean energy transition an imperative more important than ever.”

Translating those strong words into collective action—not just by the EU and China, but others as well—is essential if the Paris Agreement is to not just survive, but thrive, in the wake of the at least temporary withdrawal of the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter.

Back here in the land of the free and the home of the brave

President Trump’s action today flies in the face of public opinion; fully seven in 10 Americans support US participation in the Paris Agreement. Gallup’s tracking poll shows that concern about the global warming threat have reached an 8-year high; a majority of Americans say they are worried it will pose a serious risk to their way of life. And a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of people do not support President Trump’s policies to rollback action on climate change.

While there are partisan differences on these issues, polls show that 57% of Republican voters support US participation in the Paris Agreement and 55% of Trump voters support current policies on climate change. Another poll shows that Trump supporters overwhelmingly support renewable energy, with 84% supporting the further expansion of solar power in the US.

The business community also strongly supports climate action and the Paris Agreement. In the run-up to today’s announcement, more than 1000 American companies and investors with over $1.2 trillion in annual revenues signed a statement to President Trump urging him to stay in the Paris Agreement and to strengthen, not roll back, low-carbon policies at home to meet the US Paris commitment.

Major energy companies, including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP and Shell, Total and Statoil support the Paris Agreement; even Peabody Energy and Arch Coal told the White House they believe remaining in Paris serves US interests.

As former US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said in his recent Washington Post op-ed, “The reasons for this support are clear. Business leaders are fact-based. There is no room for ideological nonsense in the ‘C-suite.’ Whatever their political party, corporate executives get that climate change is real and most are actively planning business strategy to manage its consequences and limit their own emissions. They see Paris as a balanced agreement they can work with.”

He also notes that “corporate leaders understand that the transition to clean energy presents one of the biggest economic opportunities of this century, that climate change is a major driver of this transition and that the United States is perfectly positioned to lead it with our unmatched culture of innovation. They also know, conversely, that opting out on climate change will undermine this chance to create jobs and wealth.”

Just a few quick facts to reinforce his last point: Over three million people work in clean energy in America, far more than work in the motor vehicles, oil and gas extraction, and coal mining industries combined. The solar and wind industries are creating jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the US economy, with employment in the solar industry alone growing by 25% in 2016 to 260,000.

State and local leaders also support the Paris Agreement: Governors from twelve states accounting for one-third of the US population and nearly 40 percent of America’s GDP recently sent President Trump a letter urging him to stay in the Agreement, as did fourteen Attorneys General. Mayors from 75 cities representing over 41 million Americans wrote to the president, saying that “Climate change is both the greatest single threat we face, and our greatest economic opportunity for our nation. That is why we affirm our cities’ commitments to taking every action possible to achieve the principles and goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, and to engage states, businesses and other sectors to join us.”

These governors, mayors, and business leaders are doing much more than just sending letters to the president. They are making commitments to significantly cut or even eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, to get 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, to upgrade the resilience of their infrastructure and supply chains, and to take other actions to deal with the reality of climate change.

While it is deeply unfortunate that President Trump is trying to take the federal government in the opposite direction, his actions won’t cause these leaders to reverse course; if anything, his head-in-the-sand approach is leading many of them to step up even more forcefully on the issue. As my colleague Rachel Cleetus noted in her post earlier today, these actions, combined with the rapidly falling costs of renewable energy, mean that progress towards creating a US clean energy economy will continue, despite President Trump’s efforts to slow it down.

So there it is. While President Trump’s action today is misinformed, harmful to the real interests of Americans, and will do real damage to the standing of the US in the world, it will not derail the Paris Agreement, nor should it lessen the commitment of other countries, state and local leaders, companies, investors and others to take the actions needed to decarbonize the global economy and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“You Need to Move Beyond Surviving to Thriving”: A Conversation with Mustafa Ali

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Before he resigned in March as assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency, Mustafa Ali was not a household name. He received virtually no national press during his 24 years of holding the White House and 17 federal agencies accountable for embedding environmental justice into policy making. Under a 1994 executive order issued by President Clinton, every agency was supposed to identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs on people of color and low-income communities.

Ali did that work under both the Republican administrations of George H.W Bush and George W. Bush and the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In fact, the success he has most quickly raised in interviews after his resignation is among the most bipartisan.

Investing in community transformation

After residents in some neighborhoods in Spartanburg, South Carolina organized around cancers and other deadly and debilitating diseases that seemed connected to Superfund and Brownfield sites, the EPA gave a community group $20,000 in 1997 as seed money to plan a healthy future.

Named ReGenesis, the organization ultimately parlayed that grant into development strategies that netted more than $270 million for health centers, a community center, affordable housing, job training, transportation improvements and further environmental cleanups. A project that began under Clinton received a particularly big endorsement in 2004 by South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. In announcing $100,000 in fresh EPA funding to clean up pollution from a defunct textile mill, Graham said, “Revitalizing these sites and converting them to commercially viable properties is a great investment in future economic development. In addition, it provides for a cleaner environment and eliminates public health risks.”

Spartanburg was one of more than 1,400 community-based projects that received more than $24 million of seed funding during Ali’s tenure. From watershed pollution to resiliency to sea level rise, from toxic dumps and dust to urban gardens, from the impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations to chemical exposure in nail salons, Ali said his mission was to make sure that the predominant and final voice in solutions came from within communities.

Success stories across the nation

In a recent interview at the Hip Hop Caucus in Washington D.C., where he is now a senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization, Ali ticked off many places where small and large EPA investments made a difference.

  • There is Bayview, Virginia, where impoverished residents, most of whom had no indoor plumbing into the 1990s, rejected a prison in favor of housing and retail development.
  • There is Turkey Creek, Mississippi, a town founded by emancipated slaves, which is reviving its watershed from pollution and development.
  • There is a neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, where residents lowered crime as they turned a brownfield into affordable housing and organized children to care about their neighborhood by picking up litter.
  • There is the Environmental Health Coalition in San Diego, which is trying to reduce diesel emissions from waterfront shipping operations to adjoining low-income communities.
  • There are the efforts on Chicago’s West Side by the Bethel New Life development corporation to assure adequate transportation and commercial development, affordable housing and community services around its train station.
  • And there are the efforts by the Green Door Initiative in Detroit to promote environmental literacy among the young, environmental restoration, community health and green job training.

Speaking specifically of Green Door Initiative’s president, but in a sense for all the projects across the nation, Ali said, “Donele Wilkins has one of the most successful worker training programs in the country, working with returning vets and people returning to society (from incarceration). They’re finding traction with green jobs and hazardous abatement in housing. It’s a powerful thing to see, by putting pieces together in a holistic strategy.”

Devastating cuts

Ali resigned because his holistic vision for EPA is being ripped apart by the Trump administration and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. To be sure, there was less overall support for the EPA under prior Republican administrations, but Ali said “There was always a glimmer of hope to keep you moving. Even if there were less resources, there was always an opportunity to build.”

But now, the White House wants to completely eliminate the office of environmental justice as part of rolling back regulations for big businesses that want minimal, if any, pollution controls. Parallel to that, Ali said the massive proposed cuts to basic science in many federal agencies, from toxics to climate change, will have “a devastating effect” on the very populations who need science the most.

“For our most vulnerable communities, having authentic science is extremely important because for years folks had been trying to relay the impacts that were happening inside of their communities,” Ali said. “Folks would say, ‘Well we got to have the science to prove it,’ even though Ms Johnson says, ‘I’ve been living here for 60 years, and these health impacts were not happening before. We’ve been eating the same food for the last 60 years, but all of a sudden when this plant incinerator came in we have these new incidents of these rare diseases.’

“So science is important, but it has to be authentic science in that sense that it is listening to what folks are sharing and then helping to validate whether that is or is not true.”

Ali said that if science cuts occur as proposed, it will be easy for cynical politicians to manipulate policy “because you don’t have the science to back it up . . . It’s a very dangerous thing to try to delegitimize science or to eliminate science. It will have impacts on our minority academic institutions, where our next scientific minds are coming from. As you eliminate those opportunities for those young scientists and engineers to do fellowships and internships in the various agencies and departments, you are limiting their opportunities to a brighter future.”

Disempowering communities

That is such a dire scenario, I asked Ali why he thought the White House might be so threatened by the concept of environmental justice. He answered:

“When areas start to become revitalized, expectations are raised and people begin to have hope again. And with that hope they begin to demand certain things. Better lives mean more access to cleaner jobs. When those kinds of changes happen, people can no longer control folks in those communities.

“They’re no longer focusing on just surviving, they’re focusing on a brighter future. Certain dynamics no longer are allowed to play out. They do not have liquor stores on every corner. They do not allow certain behaviors from law enforcement. In other certain neighborhoods you don’t see pay day loans or lack of access to supermarkets.  There is a dynamic that expectation demands investment in their communities. They are more engaged in the political system.

“If you want to keep people down, don’t clean up their communities. Don’t allow them to engage in the process. So I want a question to be asked. Do you want these communities to be empowered?”

The short answer would appear to be no.  But Ali, who grew up in coal country in West Virginia, said that with America’s growing disparities assumptions that environmental justice is an entitlement for low-income people of color are rapidly falling apart. “The interesting dynamic,” he said, “is that this assault is happening on vulnerable communities regardless of color. It is happening in low-income white communities in the Rust Belt, out West, Gulf Coast, Appalachia.

“I was just back home and talking to folks who are saying,  “I’m not sure I made the right decision based on what I’m seeing being rolled out.”

“A cultural shift” at the grassroots level

Saying that just about everything the Trump administration is rolling out appears to be “deconstructing the safety nets,” Ali said, “Everything could be undone. It would be a mistake. When you talk about Making America Great Again, you need to move beyond surviving to thriving. If that’s one of your goals, you should be focused on environmental justice. If you want more people to get sick or die, if you want to place a greater burden on our health care system, then you will not give serious considerations to the lessons learned by environmental justice.”

With the current EPA seeming uninterested in those lessons, Ali has taken his efforts to the Hip Hop Caucus where he hopes to continue his grassroots work. “We should be in the barbershops and beauty shops talking about these economic opportunities (from green jobs and revitalizing communities), and when it becomes part of community conversation then it becomes part of political conservation. If influencers like Drake, Jay Z, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Rhianna start to have a conservation about these issues then people say, ‘Let me check this out.’

“What we’re talking about is a cultural shift. People are looking for a better way to invest their energy. From Katrina to BP to Flint to Standing Rock, those issues have drawn attention to the negative impacts (of environmental injustice) and when we don’t address them these are the consequences. There is now beginning to be a refocusing on the positive aspects of our communities, revitalizing communities. We want to move vulnerable communities from surviving to thriving and leverage real change. Because of the new administration and its lack of focus supporting communities, there is no better time than now for that to happen.”

Photo: Moms Clean Air Force/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

The 2017 Hurricane Season Begins: Here Are 3 Alarming Things I’m Watching

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

There are so many things happening in the world and in the US that we have a lot to digest. However, one of the things that should be on everyone’s radar – whether you live on the coast or not – is the 2017 hurricane season, which starts June 1st. Why? Read on.

Number 1: The Busy 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Forecast

Image: NOAA

Hurricane season starts on June 3, and as they do every year, the National Hurricane Center, part of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) released their forecast, which for this year predicts “45 percent chance of an above-normal season, a 35 percent chance of a near-normal season, and only a 20 percent chance of a below-normal season”, with 70% likelihood of 11 to 17 named storms, 2-4 of which could become major hurricanes.

If last year was any indication, we could see a very active season again – 2016 was the most active since 2012, and recent research suggests that hurricanes in the North Atlantic region have been intensifying over the past 40 years: since the mid-1970s, the number of hurricanes that reach Categories 4 and 5 in strength has roughly doubled.

More moisture in a warmer air increases the precipitation associated with hurricanes, and a warmer ocean fuels hurricane speed. Put that together with the higher sea levels that have been observed and predicted throughout the East and Gulf coasts, potentially impacting 24 million people, and you have a recipe for disaster: higher and deeper storm surge, and thus more powerful and destructive.

If nothing else, we should learn from the past and be prepared, but for that we need both the relevant information and the resources to prepare. Unfortunately, both may be lacking.

Number 2: Proposed budget cuts to FEMA, NOAA, and NASA.

The agencies tasked with minding hurricanes and our response to them face steep budget cuts. It is a no-brainer: to do their work properly, these agencies need resources – both financial and human. By proposing cuts to programs related to weather forecasting and climate monitoring at NASA and NOAA, the administration is basically playing with fire.

The ability to forecast and predict extreme events such as hurricanes accurately is essential to the protection of countless people and their property. But the mission and budget of both NOAA and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) are under attack by the administration, as several programs essential to weather forecasting and climate monitoring have been targeted for budget cuts.

The NOAA hurricane prediction page has a statement by Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator: “NOAA’s broad range of expertise and resources support the nation with strong science and service before, during and after each storm to protect lives and property and enhance the national economy as we continue building a Weather-Ready Nation.” Just this year, NOAA’s National Hurricane Center introduced new products and services to improve preparedness and alerts. One can’t help but wonder how the science and service will continue at NOAA if the attacks on science continue, and the budget cuts go through. NOAA needs all the talent and resources to continue its top-notch work.

As mentioned above, in addition to the latest science one also needs resources to prepare. FEMA has always been linked to its mission in recovery when disaster strikes, but helping prepare communities for the next disaster is one of their most important roles. FEMA has several programs aimed at the pre-disaster preparation that are being targeted by budget cuts: the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grants Program, whose goal is “to reduce overall risk to the population and structures from future hazard events, while also reducing reliance on Federal funding in future disasters”, is one program that would save the federal government millions in the long run, since studies show that $1 spent in preparation and mitigation saves $4 in disaster costs. Other programs under attack include the flood hazard mapping and risk analysis program, which is essential to communicating risk to communities so that they can take action to reduce their risk.

Photo: FEMA

It is not rocket science: fewer resources will not help the US population when the next disaster strikes. The administrators from FEMA, NOAA, and NASA should have the vision and fight for the resources to enable their agencies to do their job. Which brings me to my last point…

Number 3: The lack of appointed leadership at these key agencies

The Trump administration has yet to nominate a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) administrator, a NOAA administrator, and a NASA administrator. And that is bad. We need strong leadership to deal with the increasingly frequent natural disasters and extreme events that are following in the footsteps of climate change.

In addition, operating through the uncertainties stemming from proposed budget cuts will be challenging, and only strong leadership can ensure these agencies’ missions are upheld and fulfilled. This is particularly true for FEMA, who goes on the ground and on which we rely heavily when disaster strikes.

Rumors of frontrunners have been in the news (Brock Long for FEMA, Barry Myers for NOAA, no obvious name for NASA), but so far these agencies have been under acting administrators. Delayed nominations serve nobody, and only creates more hurdles to an already hard job.

One avoidable bad outcome

The active hurricane forecast, the lack of resources, and the lack of leadership make for an easily avoidable trifecta. We have what the science tells us, now we just need the administration to recognize the need for the resources and leadership. Each of these pieces cannot work without the other if we are to be prepared for the next disaster.

Let’s just hope it’s not an active early season, and that all the pieces are in place when the winds start spinning in the Atlantic. The costs of disasters are climbing but with science, good vision, leadership and resources we can prepare for the worst and be a more resilient nation


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