Combined UCS Blogs

The Congressional Review Act: A Radical Threat To Science

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Thanks to your support, UCS has had a lot of crucial victories to improve public health and protect the environment over the last few months. But because of an obscure, radical, and rarely used congressional trick called the Congressional Review Act (CRA), all of this is at risk.

Together, we worked with the Obama administration to require companies to tell consumers how much sugar they add to foods. Together, we pushed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use science to improve the fuel efficiency of heavy duty trucks, simultaneously saving truck owners money and reducing carbon pollution.

The CRA could be used to undo important public health protections that are vital to protecting the most vulnerable populations.

The CRA could be used to undo important public health protections that are vital to protecting the most vulnerable populations.

These rules, and the many other science-based protections finalized in 2016, are vital to all of us—but especially to communities that are already facing inequitable burdens of poor air quality, unsafe drinking water, and other environmental hazards. They took years to develop, and relied on the work of thousands of scientists.

Now, these critical victories are now in danger of being rolled back. President-elect Trump, who has vowed to undo all of the sensible safeguards finalized by the Obama administration, and key members of Congress, are plotting to reverse these public health victories by utilizing the CRA.

What is the CRA?

The CRA is a rarely used, radical legislative tool that can allow Congress to review any final regulation from an agency and block its implementation. Even if the final regulation is based on science and critical to public health and safety, or protecting the environment, Congress can block it.

Congress has been successful in using the CRA only once in the past 20 years. Now they want to use it to dismantle hundreds of science-based public health and safety protections. Basically, Congress wants to substitute political judgment for scientific judgment.

For the nitty gritty detail of how the CRA works and why it’s a radical tool that doesn’t serve the public interest, click here.

How the CRA could impact you

If Congress successfully uses the CRA to void these actions, the progress we’ve made in protecting public health and the environment over the past year will be thrown out the window.

The CRA could be used to dismantle transparency requirements for companies to tell consumers how much added sugar is in their food

The CRA could be used to dismantle transparency requirements for companies to tell consumers how much added sugar is in their food

Adding insult to injury, agencies are prevented from doing any kind of similar work unless Congress gives them permission to do so in the future. In other words, if Congress uses the CRA to eviscerate fuel efficiency rules for trucks, the EPA likely can’t revisit the topic indefinitely.

But the long-term consequences are even worse. Because the CRA allows politics to trump science, we cannot afford for the use of this radical tool to become routine. In the face of continual CRA threats, the Food and Drug Administration will be less likely to even try to protect the public from tainted food. The EPA will think twice about new rules to protect drinking water. The ability of agencies to follow the science and the law is compromised when Congress can just strike down anything on a whim.

Rigging the system in favor of industry

Industry has plenty of options to weigh in while public protections are being developed. The CRA makes it easier for them to prevent these protections from being implemented. Despite all the thoughtful policymaking that went into passing legislation directing agencies to develop public health, safety, and environmental protections, the CRA makes it a whole lot easier to completely handcuff the government’s ability to fulfill those responsibilities described in their missions to protect us. Public protections that took years, or decades, to develop, could simply be undone in days.

History tells us what happens when this radical maneuver is used. Since 1996, the CRA has been successfully used once. In 2001, Congress blocked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) rule that would have required employers to help prevent ergonomic injuries in the workplace. Fifteen years later, OSHA has not touched ergonomics, and workplace injuries related to ergonomics continue to be unregulated.

Implementing the law

Let’s not forget that the work of federal agencies is in response to laws passed by Congress. Executive branch agencies have the responsibility and expertise to carry out these laws that Congress cannot possess. Agencies use the best available science, with input from all stakeholders, to develop rules based on laws such as the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act or the Clean Air Act.

Congress, of course, can always rewrite public health and environmental laws if they want to. But it’s politically unpopular to directly attack the Clean Air Act. So they’d rather use tricks like the CRA to undermine the laws without attacking them directly. Why stop at trucks and sugar? All future safeguards could be at risk.

As the next Congress gavels into session, we need to remain vigilant and tell our elected officials that they shouldn’t undermine science and use the CRA to block critical public health, safety, and environmental protections that we’ve worked so hard to achieve.


Ready and Organizing: Scientists, and Most Americans, Have Climate Change on Their Minds

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I look around and I see two things that strike me: an astonishing number of poster tubes (you know, the type you sling over your shoulder) and an astonishing number of people. I am told we are 25,000+.

 Astrid Caldas

The crowd at the AGU Fall meeting. At least one poster tube is visibile. Photo: Astrid Caldas

Last week I was at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, by many accounts the largest scientific gathering in the world. The brightest minds in science come here to showcase their work, and the world invariably watches—I remember reading news after news about this meeting before I even attended, years back.

Topics vary from atmospheric sciences to cryosphere to education to global environmental change to planetary sciences (to name just a few). But here is another astonishing fact: there is a vast number of presentations on the subject of climate change. I dare say it is everywhere.

Climate change is on the minds of the foremost scientists in the world

No matter what those scientists’ specialty is, chances are their work is being affected by climate change, in one way or another.

Social scientists are deep into researching what leads people to see climate change as a fact, and what makes them act on it at various levels, or how one can best communicate the facts of it so people really get it.

Earth scientists are dealing with a variety of earth data that define air and oceans and land processes as we know them, and those in turn are being affected deeply by climate change.

Biologists are seeing firsthand drastic changes in the organisms, populations, and communities they study—animal and plant species changing their distribution and range and being afflicted by new pests and diseases; animal species dwindling in numbers or changing their appearance because their environment is not adequate to their ways of feeding, mating, and surviving anymore; species interactions thrown out of whack because the once synchronous processes are no more.

Health scientists are in a frantic search for cure and prevention of a series of seemingly new pathogens and old ones making their way across the planet where they never occurred before.

There was a strange, sobering mood at these meetings this year

On and on and on, I saw them, speaking to full rooms, carrying their poster tubes, talking with their peers in animated tones. When I perked my ears to try to listen in, the latter mostly refer to the current state of politics and the utter disrespect for science, particularly in the United States of America.

The energetic, vigorous, upbeat attitude of scientists divulging their latest finding, discussing their methods, mentoring young minds, and networking with their peers has a different type of dynamics this time around.

It’s like the urgency of the times leaves no room for dawdling, for wondering, for marveling at the beauty of science and the scientific method. “We are running out of time!” and “we must act now!” and “what more proof is needed?” are like war cries in the throats of many. Voices want to be heard, facts need to be conveyed (note, these are facts, not hypotheses), action must be taken.

A few notable quotes I heard that capture the focused sense of urgency of the community:

“Bringing back coal is like bringing back slavery: not gonna happen.”

“One needs to reduce the federal fiscal risk; this will go well independently of the administration, and climate change is a huge risk.”

“What needs to happen to get all of us scientists to come out and stand up for science? Well, whatever it is, it is already happening.”

But it is not just idle talk. There is action being taken, everywhere, and scientists are outspoken like they haven’t been in a long time. The urgency of the times demands it.

Scientists rally and demand that all #standupforscience. Photo: Jean Sideris

Scientists rally and demand that all #standupforscience. Photo: Jean Sideris

Scientists are ready and organizing for the fight ahead

We are ready for the fight. At the UCS booth, people would come by just to sign our open letter (signed by 22 Nobel laureates and more than 2,300 scientists around the globe) to the president-elect, asking him to keep science relevant in his administration.

Another open letter from a group of women scientists gained immense momentum, and another one from members of the US National Academy of Sciences, written in September 2016 and drawing attention to the risks of climate change, was also certainly seen by the president-elect. Many others are in circulation.

A rally took place on Tuesday, December 13. Hundreds of scientists gathered near the convention center vowing to stand up for science. Several scientists spoke to the urgent need to organize and defend science, and with good reason. President-elect Trump’s nominations are a testament to the science-denialist profile his administration is likely to exhibit, and have many scientists concerned.

Rumors about the downsizing or even shutdown of NASA’s climate research program (more on that and on the importance of NASA research here and here) and a request for names of federal employees at the Department of Energy involved in climate-related meeting by the transition team (later dismissed as “unauthorized”) have led to a movement aimed at preserving scientific data that many fear could be destroyed in the new administration.

These are unprecedented actions, but they are not representative of just a few opinions. In fact, regular, non-scientist Americans do think that climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Global warming is also on the minds of most Americans

Just after the election, a nationally representative survey (1,226; including 1,061 registered voters) was conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and the results show that a majority of Americans, across party lines, support climate action. Some of the survey highlights include:

  • Seven in ten registered voters (69%) say the US should participate in the international agreement to limit climate change (the Paris Climate Agreement), compared with only 13% who say the U.S. should not.
  • Two-thirds of registered voters (66%) say the US should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what other countries do.
  • A majority of registered voters want President-elect Trump (62%) and Congress (63%) to do more to address global warming.
  • A majority of registered voters say corporations and industry should do more to address global warming (72% of all registered voters; 87% of Democrats, 66% of Independents, and 53% of Republicans).
  • Nearly eight out of ten registered voters (78%) support taxing global warming pollution (one type of carbon pricing), regulating it, or using both approaches, while only one in ten opposes these approaches.
Menwhile, 2016 is on track to be the warmest year on record  NOAA

2016 is well on its way to be the warmest year ever. Image: NOAA

The urgency of speaking out and standing up for science is compounded by the fact that records indicate 2016 is well on its way to be the warmest year ever. Followed by 2015, followed by 2014, and 2010 and 2013—in fact, the past 4 years are among the hottest years on record and all but one (1998) of the ten hottest years have happened in this century.

We are seeing the impacts of global warming: sea level rise, droughts and related wildfires, extreme events, sea ice decline (here and here), terrible floods.

If we don’t act on all fronts, and quickly, time may run out to prevent significant damage. The ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement by over 100 countries is an essential piece of the emissions reduction plan necessary to avoid worsening impacts.

We can only hope that the president-elect does not pull out of the agreement, a stated goal of his campaign, and instead does what is right for his country and for the world—and is wanted by most Americans.

In the Rush to Repeal Obamacare, A Reminder: Food Policy Is Health Policy

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2017 is nearly upon us. And while the year ahead seems full of uncertainty, some things never change, including the tendency of many Americans to make New Year’s resolutions to improve their diets and lose weight.

But the day-to-day “what to eat” decisions of individual Americans are fickle and heavily shaped by the food environment around us. Which is why, as the incoming president and Congress set out their policy priorities—including a long-planned repeal of Obamacare—it’s worth looking at potential policy changes that could make it harder for Americans to keep their resolutions in 2017 and beyond.

In a new UCS video, my colleagues Ricardo Salvador and Mark Bittman team up to cook a healthy, traditional New Year’s stew of black-eyed peas and collard greens and discuss why it’s so hard for many Americans to eat that way. They talk about the need to align federal dietary guidelines (which say we should all be eating a lot more fruits and vegetables) with policies and incentives that shape what farmers grow, and note that the next president should pursue such a policy alignment. In a different political context, that might happen. In the one we currently find ourselves in, it’s unlikely.

What’s worse, a number of federal policies and programs aimed at helping Americans eat well and stay healthy may now be at risk. Here are three:

  • Obamacare: Over the last six years, Republicans in Congress have held something in the neighborhood of 60 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). With Trump’s election, they’re gearing up to do it for real in the new year. Of course, it will be harder than they think, and they have no clear plan for how to replace it—the Center for American Progress has detailed the chaos that may ensue, and we are starting to hear the phrase “repeal and delay,” which would push off implementing repeal until 2019 or 2020. There are legitimate reasons to revisit the Affordable Care Act and seek to fix its imperfections. Healthcare policy experts have ideas about how to do it, and I’ll leave that to them. But among the important elements that should be retained in whatever comes next is the law’s emphasis on disease prevention. For example, the ACA guarantees full coverage of obesity screening and nutrition counseling for at-risk children and adults. Such services are critical for identifying risks of costly and devastating illnesses before they are full-blown, and helping at-risk patients address them.
  • School lunch program: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was an early signature achievement of the Obama administration. It reformed nutrition standards for taxpayer-subsidized school meal programs for the first time in 30 years, and the rules subsequently implemented by the USDA have shown success in helping the nation’s children—especially its most vulnerable kids—eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food at school. The law was due for reauthorization in 2015, but debate stalled over House attempts to weaken key provisions, and its prospects in the next Congress are uncertain. Just last week the conservative House Freedom Caucus has put out its regulatory hit list for the incoming Congress, which includes the USDA’s school lunch standards (along with the FDA’s added sugar labeling requirement).
We can’t afford to turn back the clock on food and health policy

Earlier this month we heard the jarring news that US life expectancy has declined for the first time since 1993. The exact causes of the slight dip last year—and even whether it is a data anomaly—are not yet known. But it’s a good bet that the nation’s worsening epidemic of obesity and related diseases has something do with it.

So while the incoming Congress and Trump team ponder what to do about health insurance, child nutrition programs, and other pressing issues, here’s a suggestion: let’s focus on preventing the major causes of death and disease, reducing the need for expensive healthcare in the first place, and keeping people healthier longer. Building on food policies that work, rather than tearing them down, would be a good place to start.

Michigan Finally Moves Forward on Clean Energy, As the Final Bell Tolls on 2016 Session

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As the last day of Michigan’s 2016 legislative session came to an end, legislators finally came to agreement on energy legislation (Senate bills 437 and 438) that settles some long-standing disputes, improves Michigan’s ability to plan for ongoing changes in its energy mix, and makes some (but not necessarily enough) progress toward Michigan’s clean energy future. As the legislation heads to Governor Snyder’s desk for signature, let’s take a quick look at some of the key clean energy provisions and how they will help shape a cleaner, more sustainable and affordable energy future for Michigan.

A strengthened RPS provides economic growth and an important floor for Michigan renewables Wind turbines at the Forward Wind Energy Center, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin

Renewable energy will get a boost in Michigan from the newly-strengthened renewable portfolio standard, but Michigan could still do much more. Photo by Ruth Baranowski / NREL

Is 15 percent renewable energy the best Michigan can do? Not even close. As UCS and several other independent analyses have shown, Michigan can easily achieve 25 percent or more renewable energy over the next decade at little to no additional cost to consumers. But strengthening the states renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from its current 10 percent by 2015 to 15 percent by 2021 is important for two reasons:

First, the strengthened RPS requires renewable energy resources to be built within the service territories of utilities that serve Michigan. This mean jobs, economic development, and clean energy will all be made in Michigan, too.

Second, it ensures a baseline level of diversity in the Michigan energy mix that is at risk of shifting from an overreliance on coal to an overreliance on natural gas. Independent analysis shows that merely swapping Michigan’s dirty, outdated coal fleet with natural gas plants carries many economic, reliability and environmental risks. Ensuring a minimum level of renewable energy will help protect Michigan against these risks and demonstrate the cost-effectiveness and low risk nature of clean energy.

Common ground on energy efficiency means ratepayers and utilities will benefit

These bills also make important changes to how Michigan will use energy efficiency to meet its electricity demand. It is well-documented (and widely accepted) that efficiency is the cheapest, cleanest, and most readily available energy resource we have. This new legislation takes advantage of that by making efficiency investments an attractive, economical alternative for utilities that might otherwise look to build costly new power plants.

While the legislation switches from the state’s current (and wildly successful) energy efficiency standard to a regulatory-focused process in 2021, it will preserve current levels of energy efficiency investments by requiring utilities to regularly submit efficiency plans that must maintain energy efficiency investments as long as they are the “reasonable and prudent” for ratepayers.

The legislation also removes the arbitrary spending limits that have previously limited cost-effective efficiency investments, and adds incentives for utilities to go above and beyond the current 1 percent baseline. This is done through two different pathways: one, allowing utilities to recover lost revenue due to reduced electricity sales caused by efficiency programs, and another that allows the utility to share in the proven cost savings from energy efficiency programs. The combination of these two incentives could drive utilities to achieve annual savings of 1.5 percent or more through efficiency programs, and will make efficiency investments an attractive alternative to building costly new power plants with ratepayers’ money.

Punting the net metering/grid charge debate to the Michigan Public Service Commission (where it should be).

Under compromise language, the Michigan Public Service Commission will spend 2017 studying the costs and benefits of the growing rooftop solar industry.

Under compromise language, the Michigan Public Service Commission will spend 2017 studying the costs and benefits of the growing rooftop solar industry. Photo: NREL

One of the most contentious issues over the past year has been over fair compensation for customers that generate their own electricity (with solar panels, for example). The final bill includes compromise language that directs the Michigan Public Service Commission to explore these issues over the next year and determine what is fair for both self-generators and utilities. While maintaining current law would have guaranteed a robust market for rooftop solar in the coming years, the bill language was improved significantly during the legislative process; utilities’ original proposal would have effectively shut down the growing rooftop solar industry.

The process for determining a fair value for solar energy now goes to the Michigan Public Service Commission in 2017. The Union of Concerned Scientists and other supporters of the solar industry will be active participants to ensure rooftop solar customers are compensated fairly and the industry can continue to grow.

A few (mostly positive) loose ends

The legislation sent to Governor Snyder, along with the clean energy provisions above, contain a few other provisions that will further support Michigan’s transition to a cleaner, more sustainable and affordable electricity sector. The most significant of these is the creation of an integrated resource planning (IRP) process that will require utilities to submit plans to the Michigan Public Service Commission for approval every five years. Built into this process is a goal of achieving at least 35 percent of Michigan’s future energy demand with a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency. While this goal is not mandatory, it will provide an important consideration for the Commission in deciding whether to approve or reject utility plans.

In all, the legislation passed last week marks an important step forward for Michigan’s clean energy future. Michigan can go further, and if we’re going to truly address the growing threat of climate change, we must go further. But it’s an important step forward – one that we will continue to build on in the coming years.

The Good Food Movement—A Force That Can’t Be Stopped

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I recently teamed up with my good friend Mark Bittman—all-around food expert extraordinaire—to cook a delicious stew of beans and greens and chat about healthy eating in the United States.

It isn’t like we don’t have abundant scientific information about healthy eating. Every five years, the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans update and detail our government’s nutrition recommendations. Though there is ample critique to be made regarding how politicized that erstwhile scientific process has become, the more meaningful discrepancy is how short the reality of our eating habits falls in relation to these relatively straightforward recommendations. With mounting epidemics of diet-related chronic diseases plaguing our communities, the impact of rectifying this dietary disparity is difficult to overstate. In fact, if we were to eat according to these guidelines, we’d save 100,000 lives annually, and $17 billion in healthcare costs, from reduced heart disease alone—the number one killer of Americans.

What is most troubling about this isn’t that as a nation we don’t come close to following the best nutritional guidelines, but that it would be difficult for all Americans to follow those guidelines even if they wanted to. Our food “choices” are shaped by what the food system has on offer, and what this industry offers—with our government’s support—is not what is best for the public, but what is most profitable. The fact that public interest and private sector profitability don’t align indicates that in the food system there is clear market breakdown. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

What we lack in this country is not the knowledge of how to eat food that nourishes our bodies and safeguards the planet, but a set of policies that make that feasible. Currently, we have a collection of disparate policies governing different facets of our food system, resulting in a fragmented web of regulations and programs that undermines the public’s interests. Fixing this will require a coordinated plan that aligns policies and priorities across the many agencies interacting with our food system, to create a coherent strategy that serves our nation’s well-being.

To do this, we must remember that our nation’s well-being is predicated on more than just our health as eaters. It’s no coincidence that the food that is healthiest for us to consume can be produced in ways that nourish our soils, protect our water and air, and are kinder to workers and animals. The knowledge to implement this alignment across our food system already exists – missing is an overarching policy framework to support it. Admittedly, this is no small task, but it is an increasingly necessary one.

In the next four years, the feasibility of advancing this vision at the federal level is at best, uncertain—perhaps unlikely. Yet despite, and because of this, the next four years hold great promise for furthering an agenda of coordinated food policies at the local level. Our cities and communities have long been incubators of innovation, leveraging their more nimble governance structures to experiment and innovate. In fact, it is often from these local experiences and successes that the federal government draws inspiration, taking good ideas with demonstrated feasibility to scale.

fa-blog-good-food-graphicIn the last few years, the area of food procurement has proven to be particularly ripe for this type of experimentation. In 2012, the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a Good Food Purchasing Policy, agreeing to align their institutional food purchasing power around five core values: strengthening local economies, valuing labor, improving animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and nutrition. Together, these institutions serve 750,000 meals every day; by shifting the force of the procurement dollars behind those meals, Los Angeles has been able to make concrete investments in a healthier, fairer, and more sustainable local food system.

Building on this success, the Center for Good Food Purchasing was established to take this model to scale and harness the billions of food procurement dollars spent by public institutions around the country. Interest in the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) model has spread like wildfire, sparking similar efforts in Oakland, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, the Twin Cities, Madison, New York, and Cincinnati. The scale of this expansion is nothing short of inspiring: the collective nationwide reach of GFPP initiatives is expected to pass over 2 million meals every day in the near future.

The benefits of such values-based purchasing are widespread—benefitting farmers, buyers, sellers, eaters and administrators—and the lasting effects on our local and regional food systems are only beginning to take shape. While we will continue to watch and learn, we can already draw a number of meaningful lessons from the GFPP model:

  • GFPP operates around the most powerful decision-making lever for a government at any scale: money. It acknowledges the weight of collective buying power as a tool to actively invest in the type of food system we want to see, and establishes an expectation that taxpayer dollars will be spent on food contracts that truly serve the public.
  • It demonstrates the feasibility of enacting coordinated policies based on shared values across the food system – not just for our eaters, but for our economies, our farmers, workers, animals, and environment.
  • It prioritizes transparency across the supply chain, illuminating the relationships between food system actors, and strengthening accountability among stakeholders to operate on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation.
  • As GFPP standards are adopted across the country in varied political, economic and regional contexts, the pattern will prove the viability of such an effort on a national scale. By demonstrating that this can work not just in coastal progressive bastions but in the Midwestern breadbasket itself, in the Rust Belt, and in the South, it is becoming increasingly clear that this model holds value for all Americans.

The principles of the GFPP are so firmly embedded in sound economic, social and scientific analysis, that when we surveyed 2016 for examples of science champions we were compelled to recognize the organization’s executive director as one of 5 recipients of an award demonstrating how standing with science is improving society.

Though the next four years carry a great deal of uncertainty for our collective work toward a better food system for all, the lessons we are learning from the innovation of GFPP efforts bring me a great deal of hope and inspiration. Whether we can convince the next administration to realign our federal food policies coherently—so that they work better for all Americans—remains unknown. What I am certain about, however, is that we can continue to support and amplify efforts across the country demonstrating every day that this is not a fantasy, and in fact it is already happening.

Last Call! Obama’s Final Actions on Nuclear Weapons

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At the beginning of his presidency, President Obama gave a soaring speech in Prague, promising that the US will “put an end to Cold War thinking” and “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

His record so far has been somewhat mediocre—but it’s not too late to make a little more progress. Obama could reduce the hedge stockpile of weapons the US keeps in storage, and the amount of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium that the US keeps in case it wants to build even more weapons. It’s surprising that he hasn’t already taken these incremental steps. But their incremental nature also means that the Trump administration is unlikely to object.

The record so far  White House)

President Obama in Prague (Source: State Dept.)

Those of us who have been working to change US nuclear weapons policy were delighted by the Prague speech. While reducing arsenal size is important, so is reducing the potential that US weapons will be used. The US practice of keeping its land-based missiles on high alert creates the risk of an inadvertent launch in response to a false warning of an incoming Russian nuclear attack. And under US policy, the purpose of its nuclear weapons is not just to deter the use of nuclear weapons by other countries. Rather, US plans include options for the deliberate first use of nuclear weapons.

But frankly, it’s been a pretty disappointing eight years.

The US did negotiate the New START agreement with Russia, which will limit deployed long-range (“strategic”) nuclear weapons to 1,550 by 2018. Actually, because the treaty’s rules count all the weapons on an aircraft as just one, the real number will be more like 1,750 nuclear weapons. When Obama entered office, the US deployed some 2,200 strategic weapons, which is the upper limit permitted under the US-Russian Moscow Treaty negotiated by President Bush. The difference—450 weapons—amounts to a 20% reduction. That’s good.

And Obama did reduce the number of countries the US would attack first with nuclear weapons. The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review conducted by the George W. Bush administration named as potential targets Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria. At that time only Russia and China had nuclear weapons; North Korea did not conduct its first nuclear test until 2006.

Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review states that the US reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first against countries with nuclear weapons or not in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While the document doesn’t name names, this currently amounts to three countries: Russia, China, and North Korea. (The U.S. is presumably not in the business of using nuclear weapons against the other countries with nuclear weapons—Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan and India.) So Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya are no longer on the target list. That’s also good. But Obama’s failure to decide that the US would never use nuclear weapons first is a big disappointment.

And that’s pretty much it when it comes to reducing the US nuclear arsenal and changing US nuclear weapons policy.

What about removing land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert? Before Obama was elected to his first term, he wrote that “Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation…” But he left this Cold War practice in place.

What about further cuts to the deployed arsenal? In 2013, following a comprehensive review, the administration concluded that the United States could safely reduce by an additional third from New START levels—even if Russia did not make similar reductions. Again, Obama did not move forward.

Remaining steps

As noted above, there are two remaining things Obama could do. They are mundane enough that it’s likely the Trump administration won’t care, especially if they are not accompanied by excessive self-congratulation. But they are still steps in the right direction.

First, he could cut the hedge stockpile of weapons the US keeps in storage. Currently the hedge is actually 50% larger than the deployed arsenal. The US keeps weapons in reserve for two reasons: (1) in the unlikely event that an entire class of deployed weapons experienced a technical problem, weapons of a different type could be deployed from the hedge to replace the faulty ones; and (2) if political leaders decided to rapidly increase the number of deployed weapons, weapons from the hedge could be added to existing delivery systems.

Leaving aside the merits of these rationales, the current hedge is larger than it needs to be to fulfill its purpose, as my colleague Eryn MacDonald explains. Obama could cut it by almost half, from 2,750 weapons to 1,400—and move the rest into the queue to be dismantled.

Second, he could cut the amount of weapon-usable fissile material—plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU)—that the US originally produced for weapons and still keeps on hand. Ultimately, weapons cuts will only be meaningful if this material is disposed of. Previous administrations have declared that tons of this material is excess to weapons purposes and slated it for disposal, but much remains. As Eryn discusses here, the US produced almost 100 metric tons of plutonium, and has declared about 2/3 of it excess. Obama could declare an additional 15 metric tons as excess. The US stockpile also includes some 600 metric tons of HEU, of which 250 is available for weapons. Obama could declare an additional 140 metric tons of HEU excess.

This amount of plutonium and HEU—15 and 140 metric tons, respectively—would be enough to build several thousand nuclear weapons.

By cutting the hedge and declaring more fissile material excess, Obama would go a little further in fulfilling the promise he made in 2009.

End of the (Weekly) Line

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

It began on July 6, 2010, with commentary about a flood inside the Unit 2 containment building at Indian Point. Fission Stories were weekly commentaries about nuclear power plant problems. Fission Stories #198 ended the series on September 29, 2015.

In March 2013, the weekly Fission Stories were supplemented by Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) commentaries. The NEAT commentaries were more educational than advocacy, seeking to explain technology and regulatory processes rather than critique them. NEAT #64 ended the series on September 22, 2015.

The Disaster by Design/Safety by Intent weekly commentaries began on October 6, 2015, with a summary of how U.S. nuclear plants are vulnerable to flooding.

After nearly 325 posts, UCS is retiring the weekly commentaries. Instead, we are reactivating the Fission Stories and Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit commentaries to join the Disaster by Design/Safety by Intent. When we come across something that warrants commentary, we will use whichever of these templates fits best and post it. The result may be multiple postings in one week or multiple weeks between postings.

This change gives us the freedom of posting commentaries that are more timely and topical rather than finding topics that match the current theme. Hopefully, this will result in better use of our resources and, more importantly, better meet your needs.

We truly appreciate those who have read these commentaries over the years and look forward to sharing our perspectives with you in the future via this revised format.

You can sign up for an RSS feed and be notified of new AllThingsNuclear posts by clicking here. (Note: If you get a screen full of html code when you follow this link, try using a different browser.)

Pruitt EPA Appointment Ominous for Environmental Justice Communities

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Contempt for the EPA’s mission and prioritizing the interests of fossil fuel industries are incompatible with ensuring protection of communities on the frontlines of climate impacts and environmental pollution. After all, the Environmental Protection Agency’s fundamental mission is to “protect human health and the environment—air, water, and land”. So it’s a little mind-boggling to see how Scott Pruitt—President-elect Trump’s pick for the agency’s top job—will fulfill that mission if he is confirmed to the post.

Such is Mr. Pruitt’s disdain for the scientific and legal basis of the EPA’s mission to protect people and environments that he has joined multi-state legal challenges to regulations to curb methane, as well as water and power-sector pollution, and has characterized the Clean Power Plan as “unlawful and overreaching”. As my colleague Angela Anderson has said, the next EPA leader should take us forward in addressing the challenges of climate change, not reverse existing standards that we know are working. How can Mr. Pruitt be well-suited to lead an agency that he has demonstrated so much contempt for? Quite simply—he’s not. His record on this matter is clear: he’s focused on eliminating the environmental protections that prevent companies like Devon Energy—with which Mr. Pruitt has formed what the New York Times called a “secretive alliance” to undermine environmental protections—from putting profits before the health of people and the environment. Pruitt’s actions to weaken our most important environmental regulations are right out of the polluting industries’ playbook.  My friends at the Natural Resources Defense Council are also scratching their heads trying to find one good reason to appoint an enemy of the health of people and environments to lead the EPA.

But there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about how a Pruitt EPA will weaken equity in environmental quality for climate-vulnerable populations.  For example, the recently-finalized guidance instructing EPA programs and regions to consider environmental justice in rulemaking could be undermined or ignored altogether. And what of EJ 2020 Action Agenda, the agency’s long-term environmental justice strategy? These internal actions by the EPA improve the agency’s ability to include historically-underrepresented communities in environmental decision-making, mainly minority, low-income, and indigenous populations and sovereign tribal nations, precisely the communities that bear the starkest disproportionate environmental burdens. Leading environmental justice organizations agree, and have expressed concern about the growing threat of environmental racism under a Pruitt-led EPA.

Many of the country's largest power plants are located in or close to low-income communities.

Many of the country’s largest power plants are located in or close to low-income communities.

Pruitt’s appointment threatens to not only undermine environmental protections for the most vulnerable, but also to decrease community engagement in the environmental decision-making process, thereby eroding democratic rights, the responsible use of science in environmental policy, and the health and well-being of environmental justice communities across the country. Recent proposals in Congress by his allies undermine the connection of science to policy and the ability of the public to have a voice.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has strongly condemned the nomination of Scott Pruitt to the EPA as unacceptable. We have also been joined by over 2300 scientists—including 22 Nobel laureates—in urging the President-elect and Congress to take action to keep the safeguards afforded to all Americans by the Clean Air Act and other bedrock environmental legislation.

Are you a scientist? Read and sign our open letter to President-elect Trump and Congress to ensure that federal science and scientists are protected.

Reflections on the IAEA Nuclear Security Conference: More Participants, Less Focus

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Last week I had the opportunity to attend the conference on nuclear security in Vienna sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The conference was enormous, with 2,000 participants from 130 countries. The US official delegation alone had over 100 people. I heard (but have not substantiated) that the ministerial meeting that preceded the technical meeting attracted a larger number of national delegations than any other IAEA conference in its history. By one measure—inclusivity—the conference seems to have been a success.

However, that success came at a price: a reduction of focus on the most serious nuclear threat—the theft of fissile materials (highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium) that terrorists could use to make improvised nuclear weapons.

The greatest threat: Nuclear-weapon-usable materials


HEU (Source: DOE)

Addressing the threat of theft of these materials was the original purpose of the Nuclear Security Summits that began in 2010 under President Obama and ended in April this year. Countries attending these meetings were encouraged to reduce or eliminate their civil stocks of HEU (and to a more limited extent, plutonium) by shipping them to the US or Russia.

As there is little optimism that the incoming Trump administration will continue a comparable effort, many hope that a successor ­to these Nuclear Security Summits will continue under the IAEA’s mantle. The conference last week was the first to occur after the final Summit in April, and was regarded as the potential launching point for an enduring successor.

Only a relatively small number of countries possess significant quantities of weapon-usable uranium or plutonium (and the number has decreased as the result of the Nuclear Security Summits). Attendance at the Summits was limited to around 50 states that collectively possess 98% of the world’s civil fissile materials (if Russia, who declined to attend the final Summit in 2016, is included).

Radiological threats

However, many more countries have nuclear power plants and research and test reactors than stocks of fissile materials, and even more have radioactive sources for use in medicine and industrial applications. To get more member states actively involved, the IAEA had to broaden the scope of what it considered “nuclear” security to include what is more commonly referred to as “radiological” security. This would range from preventing the sabotage of nuclear power plants to preventing the theft and dispersal of radioactive sources, encompassing a wide spectrum of radiological consequences.

While the risk of radiological attacks is a significant concern, even the most severe radiological terrorism events would be less devastating than the detonation of a crude nuclear weapon, at least in terms of immediate deaths, injuries, and destruction of infrastructure. To lump all these issues together under the general rubric of “nuclear security” distracts from a focus on the greatest dangers.

Even worse, some nations used this broader agenda to divert attention from their greatest security problems. For instance, the French devoted their ministerial statement largely to radiological source security, and failed to address the risks associated with the large stockpile of plutonium within France, or France’s continuing efforts to promote spent fuel reprocessing (which produces plutonium) around the world.

Different threats need different venues

Nuclear terrorism, nuclear power plant sabotage and malevolent use of radiological sources are very different threats and require different measures to protect against them. Optimally they should be addressed in distinct venues.

On the other hand, the scope of the conference should not be so narrow that it excludes issues that do have an important nexus with fissile material security.

Consider one of the actions announced by the United States in its ministerial declaration at the conference: namely, the commitment to make 6 metric tons of excess plutonium that the United States had previously decided to directly dispose of available to the IAEA for monitoring and inspection. Since IAEA safeguards are not intended to protect material against terrorist theft, but to verify that the owner nation is not misusing the material for nuclear weapons purposes, some attendees questioned the relevance of this announcement to the purpose of the conference.

However, as UCS has long pointed out, direct disposal of excess plutonium poses fewer opportunities for theft than the main alternative approach, converting the plutonium to MOX fuel and using it in nuclear reactors. To the extent that the US declaration strengthens the political legitimacy of the direct disposal option, it will further diminish the prospects for the MOX approach and ultimately will avoid an increase in the risk of theft of US excess plutonium by terrorists. It could also provide a model for other countries, like France and Japan, who have accumulated worthless and dangerous stockpiles of plutonium.

Ryan Zinke on Climate Change: What You Should Know about Trump’s Choice for Department of Interior

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US natural and cultural resources—the parks, landmarks, and history of America—are under assault from climate change. So it is troubling that Ryan Zinke, Trump’s pick to run the Department of the Interior (DOI), seems unsure whether climate change is a real problem or not.

Just this week, in an interview with the LA Times Zinke said “The climate is changing, I don’t think you can deny that. But climate has always changed” continuing that “I don’t think there’s any question that man has had an influence” but that “what that influence is, exactly, is still under scrutiny.” And in October 2014, Zinke said “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either…”

Who is Ryan Zinke?

Zinke is a 23-year Navy Seal veteran and fifth-generation Montanan who was elected to the House in 2014 after serving six years in the state senate. He ran for election on national security and energy independence issues and is an advocate of increased coal, oil, and gas development on public lands.

In his first term as a Congressman he has voted to:

  • Weaken controls on air and water pollution in national parks
  • Lift the federal ban on crude oil exports
  • Undermine protections for endangered species
  • De-fund efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay
  • Weaken the Antiquities Act by limiting the president’s ability to designate new national monuments

The Statue of Liberty was closed to visitors for nine months after Hurricane Sandy. Photo: NPS/earthcam

In 2015 the League of Conservation Voters gave Zinke a bottom-of-the-barrel 3% score for his environmental record. He would have scored zero but for his one positive vote against cutting off funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).

In 2016 the National Parks and Conservation Association gave Zinke an F for his voting record on key bills affecting national parks. He has, however, been a strong supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and co-sponsored a bill to extend funding for the Historic Preservation Fund.

Congressman Zinke favors opening more public lands to oil and gas drilling, is a strong supporter of Montana’s coal industry and has voted against regulations to protect waters in national parks from toxic surface mining run-off. He has drawn the line, however, at the prospect of privatizing public lands, saying selling them off is “a non-starter … in Montana, our public lands are part of our heritage.”

In July 2016, he resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Congress over the inclusion of the transfer of federal lands to the states in the party platform. According to a March 2016 profile by Troy Carter in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

“Zinke sees himself as a traditional conservationist and he’s upset about the current state of forest health. Annual forest fires, he believes, are only going to get worse. The answer is for Congress to “put more scientists in the forest and less lawyers…I have a deep admiration for Teddy Roosevelt. I have a deep admiration for the original concept of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, all of which were signed, by the way, into law by Dick Nixon.”

Why is the Department of Interior so important?

The Department of Interior’s primary responsibilities are to protect and manage the United States’s natural resources and cultural heritage, provide scientific information about those resources, and uphold the federal government’s responsibilities to recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

DOI manages 500 million acres of public lands, 700 million acres of subsurface minerals, 35,000 miles of coastline and 29,000 historic structures. DOI agencies include the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.


National Park Service archaeologists working at an Alaskan site. Photo: NPS

With 70,000 staff and a huge and diverse portfolio, DOI is the steward of the nation’s extraordinary natural, cultural, historic, and heritage resources, and nowhere is that more apparent to the American public than in the national parks. The National Park Service is the most popular federal agency after the Postal Service, and its more than 400 properties receive more than 300 million visits annually.

To take on the role of Secretary of the Interior is to assume responsibility for the legacies of John Muir,  Theodore Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, and all the other American visionaries that have recognized the sacred trust each generation should have for the next in protecting and managing the United States’ natural and cultural heritage.

To do this with any kind of success in the 21st century requires that any incoming secretary must support climate change science and monitoring within DOI and advocate its incorporation in management and resilience strategies for public lands, wildlife, cultural resources, and historic sites. A recent analysis concluded that sea level rise alone poses a risk to more than $40 billion worth of national park assets and resources.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has called climate change “fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced” and current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at Glacier National Park in August this year “You cannot get out on these landscapes and deny climate change is there.] I see it everywhere I go.”

When Glacier National park was established there were 150 glaciers, now there are only 25 and all are expected to gone by or before 2030. A new climate attribution study published in Nature GeoScience concluded that global glacier retreat provides “categorical evidence” of climate change.

Congressman Zinke, whose district includes Glacier National Park also has noticed the changes, but questions the extent of human responsibility.

In May 2015 in Bozeman, Montana, he said, “I think, without question, the climate is changing…You know, if you go up to Glacier (National) Park and you have your lunch on one of the glaciers, you will see the glacier recede as you eat lunch…So you know I have seen the change in my lifetime. I think man has had an influence…the degree to what that influence is..?”

Zinke’s acknowledgement that the glaciers of Glacier are melting hasn’t yet shaken his faith in fossil fuels: “I think you need to be prudent.  It doesn’t mean I think you need to be destructive on fossil fuels, but I think you need to be prudent and you need to invest in all-the-above energy…I think natural gas probably provides the easiest path forward and the cleanest protection…”

Climate change and our national parks  NPS

Saguaro National Park is one of many vulnerable to climate change. Photo: NPS

Under the leadership of Secretary Jewell, her predecessor Secretary Salazar, and Director Jarvis, the National Park Service has become one of the most active US agencies in monitoring and communicating about climate impacts as well as putting in place management strategies to respond. Its interdisciplinary Climate Change Response Program is a ground-breaking and highly successful initiative that has gained international attention and plaudits, and which should be continued and expanded under the new administration.

In June 2014 Secretary Jewell told USA Today “I would say the science is clear. Whether or not you choose to think about the causes of climate change, all you have to do is open your eyes and look around you to see that climate change is real…So we can no longer pretend it’s going to go away. We have to adapt and deal with it.”

Secretary Jewell’s personal observations from her travels throughout the National Park system are backed up by a large and growing body of scientific literature. A recent study concluded that three-quarters of all national parks are experiencing early spring. As UCS showed in our 2014 report Landmarks At Risk, climate impacts such as intense extreme rainfall events, damaging floods, worsening droughts, thawing permafrost, and coastal erosion are affecting national parks throughout the country.

Some of the moist convincing evidence of climate impacts of climate change and of the work of National Park Service scientists can be found right in Congressman Zinke’s backyard—Yellowstone National Park. Average annual temperatures have risen 0.17˚C per decade since 1948 and spring and summer temperatures are predicted to rise by 4.0-5.6˚C by the end of the century, making hot dry summers the norm and transforming the ecosystems this iconic landscape.

Across the American west, climate change is driving a trend toward larger, more damaging wildfires, and fire season has lengthened by an extraordinary 78 days since 1970.

 Adam Markham

Whitebark pines in Yellowstone National Park are threatened by warming temperatures, shorter winters and mountain pine beetle infestations. Photo: Adam Markham

Yellowstone winters are already shorter, with less snowfall and many more days when temperatures rise above freezing than there were in the 1980s. Earlier snow melt and warmer summer temperatures are dramatically changing stream flow, river temperatures, and the condition of seasonal wetlands in the park, putting populations of native cutthroat trout, chorus frogs, and trumpeter swans at risk for the future.

Damaging climate impacts to wildlife and ecosystems have been recorded in Saguaro, Rocky Mountain, Glacier Bay, Biscayne, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks as well as Yosemite, the Everglades, and many others.

Cultural resources are no less at risk. As UCS’s 2016 joint report with UNESCO and UNEP, World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate documented, The Statue of Liberty was closed for nine months after Hurricane Sandy and $77 million has had to be spent to restore services and access on Liberty and Ellis Islands.

Extreme rainfall has damaged the Spanish mission church at Tumacácori in Arizona; sea level rise threatens black history at Fort Monroe in Virginia and the Harriett Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland; colonial heritage is at immediate risk from rising water levels at Jamestown, Virginia; American Indian heritage has been damaged by floods and fires at Mesa Verde and Bandelier; and Native Alaskan archaeology thousands of years old is being lost forever as a result of coastal erosion at Cape Krusenstern and elsewhere in Alaska.

Unlike natural ecosystems which have the capacity to change or move, cultural heritage such as buildings, artifacts or archaeology can be permanently damaged or instantly destroyed by a fire, flood, or storm.

In a 2014 policy memorandum to all NPS staff, Jon Jarvis noted that “Climate change poses an especially acute problem for managing cultural resources because they are unique and irreplaceable — once lost, they are lost forever. If moved or altered, they lose aspects of their significance and meaning.” Aside from thousands of historic structures and sites, there are approximately 2 million archaeological sites within the National Park System alone, many of which are vulnerable to climate change.

Moreover, responsibility for managing the National Register of Historic Places—well over 1.5 million buildings, structures and historic sites—also lies with the National Park Service. Hundreds of sites or historic districts on the register have already been identified as severely vulnerable to climate impacts, including, for example:

  • San Francisco’s Embarcadero
  • Boston’s Faneuil Hall
  • The historic districts of Annapolis, Maryland and Charleston, South Carolina
  • NASA’s Kennedy Space Center
  • Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois
The role of climate science in the Department of Interior

As incoming secretary, Congressman Zinke will inherit a department steeped in climate science and well organized and equipped to deploy it in the service of managing the nation’s natural and cultural heritage for future generations. It will be vital that he listens to the scientists and resource managers on his staff.

 Victor Grigas

Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, is one of hundreds of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places at risk from climate impacts. Photo: Victor Grigas

DOI plays a vital role in delivering policy-relevant climate science, monitoring climate impacts, and adapting management strategies in the light of the latest scientific findings. The department’s 2014-2018 strategic plan states that:

“Impacts observed by Federal resource managers include drought, severe flooding, interrupted pollination of crops, changes in wildlife and prey behavior, warmer rivers and streams, and sea level rise. The DOI will bring the best science to bear to understand these consequences and will undertake mitigation, adaptation, and enhancements to support natural resilience and will take steps to reduce carbon pollution, including through the responsible development of clean energy. The DOI will be a national leader in integrating preparedness and resilience efforts into its mission areas, goals, strategies, and programs; identifying vulnerabilities and systematically addressing these vulnerabilities; and incorporating climate change strategies into management plans, policies, programs, and operations.”

DOI operates eight regional Climate Science Centers (CSCs) that synthesize climate impacts data and make it useful and relevant for resource managers and the general public. It has also established a network of 22 Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) which bring federal and state agencies together with non-governmental organizations, tribal entities, and academic institutions to manage natural and cultural landscapes across jurisdictional boundaries, with a strong emphasis on integrating climate management.

Playing roulette with Ryan Zinke?

Zinke will become the nation’s top steward of our natural and cultural heritage. It would be the height of folly to take this on without fully acknowledging the damage climate change is causing our public lands and historic sites, or the predominant role of fossil fuels in causing climate change.

And it would be nothing short of catastrophic to roll back the leadership steps that the National Park Service and other DOI agencies have taken to develop and communicate science-based management strategies to make public lands and cultural resources more resilient.

In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt said:

“There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks …is that the country belongs to the people, [and parks make] for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”

Congressman Zinke has the opportunity to further this vision in the service of us all, but to do so he must acknowledge the role of climate change and most of all, listen to the hundreds of dedicated scientists on the staff of the Department of Interior.

In the past, Zinke has likened energy policy in a potentially changing climate to Russian roulette:

“If we’re playing Russian roulette…you have a one in six chance of that chamber being loaded with a bullet and you spin it, and you’ve got to put it to your head, and squeeze the trigger. So even if there’s a one in six chance…even if it’s a chance of global warming and it’s a catastrophe, then I think you need to be prudent.”

The scientists whose work he will be overseeing at DOI can tell him, however, that there’s more than just one bullet in the gun. Maybe it’s already fully loaded.


Trump’s New China Policy: The Flynn Factor

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In a recent interview, President-elect Trump confirmed what UCS anticipated in the first post of its China Transition Watch; that the Nixon-Kissinger era in US – China relations, established on the basis of the “one China policy,” is coming to a close. The question now is what comes next?

If the call is any indication of how President Trump intends to manage consequential decisions on US-China relations, his foreign policy advisors are likely to play a decisive role.

The Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor direct many of the human, technological and fiscal resources involved in the formation and execution of US foreign policy. Although it now appears that retired General James Mattis may become the Secretary of Defense and Exxon-Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson may become the Secretary of State, both prospective nominees need to be confirmed by the Senate before assuming office.

Lt. General Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, does not. So it is worth examining his views on world affairs and how they might influence the course of US-China relations.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (far right) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with President-elect Donald Trump during the prime minister's visit to Trump Tower shortly after the US election.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (far right) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with President-elect Donald Trump during the prime minister’s visit to Trump Tower shortly after the US election.

“Informed” Intelligence ?

Mr. Flynn is a retired US intelligence officer who believes China is part of a “working coalition” of state and non-state actors composed of  “jihadis, Communists and garden variety tyrants.” He also believes the United States is engaged in “a world war” against this collection of bad actors, who Flynn believes are bound together by a shared hatred of “the West.”

China does not appear to play a major military role in this war. The principal enemy is something Flynn describes as “radical Islam” and he identifies Iran and Russia as its two most important sources of state support. He described China’s involvement as “more of an economic issue.” Flynn did write that his experience as a young military officer with the 25th Infantry Division brought him into contact with “a wide swath” of enemies in the Asia-Pacific who he believes are still out there. But these Asian enemies are unidentified and receive scant attention in his 2016 best selling book, The Field of Fight.

In a discussion of the book at the Heritage Foundation Flynn singled out the Beijing-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a cause for concern. He described it as “a partnership that China and Russia just signed” that is “anti-American” and “anti-Western.” Flynn did not seem to realize it was officially founded by six nations more than 15 years ago and that eight other nations have varying degrees of semi-official representation as of 2015. There is no anti-Western or anti-American language in the SCO charter, which expresses support for the United Nations, international law, the prevention and peaceful resolution of international conflict, disarmament and arms control, cultural exchanges and global economic cooperation. Moreover, one function of the SCO is cooperation on anti-terrorism measures, which, presumably, would make the member nations of the SCO allies in combatting Flynn’s “radical Islam.”

Flynn also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China has 800,000 “cyber warriors,” a figure that strains credulity. He also told the committee China was spending more than twice as much on its military as it publishes in its official budget—an estimate significantly higher than those published by the US Department of Defense and credible independent observers. Exaggeration is not a trait normally associated with a trained intelligence officer but Lt. Gen. Flynn does it quite often. During the campaign, for example, he warned an audience about the “strategic threat” of demographic changes in the US population, which he claimed had “tripled since 1950.” (It hasn’t.) This was not a slip of the tongue. He said it twice, just before arguing that the word “progressive” is a “politically correct way of saying socialist” and just after claiming Democratic Party state legislators tried to impose Islamic law on the citizens of Florida.

The Clash of Civilizations: Who is the Enemy?

Flynn makes repeated references to the Chinese military strategist Sun Zi (545-460 BC) in his book and in his public remarks, most frequently in regard to distinguishing friends from enemies. Flynn believes Sun Zi’s most important admonition was to “know your enemy.” Understanding who Flynn thinks he is fighting in his “world war” requires us to imagine what could possibly tie together Middle Eastern jihadists, the Chinese and US progressives.

Flynn explained to US journalist Charlie Rose that in his view the United States is facing a “moral, social and cultural” threat more than a military one. What ties Flynn’s disparate collation of adversaries together is their supposed rejection of “the West,'” a term Flynn uses interchangeably with both “American” and “Judeo-Christian” culture. Flynn, it seems, thinks the United States is in a global struggle to defend Western civilization from its enemies, both foreign and domestic.

Flynn’s conception of the world as an arena of competing cultures fits within a strain of US foreign policy analysis that emerged from Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington‘s seminal 1993 article in Foreign Affairs on The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington argued that “world politics was entering a new phase” where “the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” In this new phase the “centerpiece” of international politics is “the interaction between the West and non-Western civilizations.” Huntington argued nations that did not join “the West” were coalescing around a “Confucian-Islamic connection that has emerged to challenge Western interests, values and power.”

In a best-selling book on the same theme Huntington broadened his analysis by connecting foreign policy to domestic politics. He warned that “the West” was going through “a universal stage of decay” characterized by “moral decline, cultural suicide and political disunity.” This decline was brought on by a “small but influential number of intellectuals and publicists” who advanced “a multicultural trend” in the wake of “the civil rights acts of the 1960s” that made “the encouragement of diversity one of its major goals.” This elite also promoted “multi-civilizational economic integration plans” like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) pact.

Huntington compared this liberal internationalist elite to Marxists for promoting a “universalist” ideology that sought to subordinate human cultures to the social, economic and political forces of globalization.

He believed this elite effort to promote multiculturalism at home and universalism abroad was doomed to fail, and if the United States continued to promote it Western civilization would inevitably fall to the more dynamic non-Western cultures resisting globalization. This is the same fear that animates Lt. Gen. Flynn, and is a fear that brought a surprising number of non college-educated whites, Christians and nationalists to the polls to support Mr. Trump, who ran on a zero-sum foreign policy that promised to put “America first.”

Implications for US China Policy

An important motivation for the US “one China policy” that Trump put up for negotiation was the expectation that “engagement” with China would eventually transform the communist regime into a “responsible stakeholder” in a US-centric international order. The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” was a hedge against a potentially irresponsible China seeking to upset that order. But the pivot policy also held on to the hope that change would eventually come to China.

In contast, Trump’s world view appears closer to Huntington’s. He may deal with China but he won’t engage it with the expectation or objective of changing it.

Flynn has little experience dealing with the “Confucian” members of the anti-Western, anti-American axis he believes he is fighting. One consequence may be that Flynn will be inclined to subordinate the economic and security needs of Japan and other US Asian allies to what he perceives to be more urgent concerns in other parts of the world. Trump has already signaled he expects Japan and other Asian nations to pay more to sustain the US military.

Neither man displays an understanding or special interest in Asian peoples or cultures. Nor do they see the need to keep Asians invested in the idea of global economic integration. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a global trade agreement President Obama argued was needed to prevent China from controlling Asian commerce, will go forward under President Trump without US participation, if it goes forward at all.

The President-elect introduced his choice for National Security Advisor as “one of the country’s foremost experts on military and intelligence matters.” Flynn’s expertise in Asia, however, is clearly lacking.

Huntington predicted that the United States would be unable to prevent Chinese dominance in Asia. It is unclear if Flynn and Trump would agree. What does seem clear is that both see China as an implacable adversary in a divided world rather than a potential partner in the construction and maintenance of a global community.

That’s a seismic shift in US foreign policy that could force US Asian allies into choosing sides; a choice they’d rather not have to make. It could also increase animosities between the United States and China, and between Asian nations, that produce self-fulfilling prophecies and prevent them from working together.

Unleash the Ocean Winds: 3 Signs that Offshore Wind Energy Has Arrived in the US

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It’s been quite a week for offshore wind in the US—new leases, new deals, and the first-ever offshore wind electrons in the Western Hemisphere.

The first-ever offshore wind project in the Americas officially turns on.

The week kicked off with the first-ever offshore wind project anywhere in the Americas getting the go-ahead to start delivering energy to Block Island (RI) and beyond, and officially turning on.

The Block Island Wind Project‘s five turbines are the vanguard of an amazing revolution in renewable energy in the Northeast and beyond—jobs, economic development, carbon-free energy, and a whole new way of getting the power we need to run the region’s homes and businesses. (Turn, baby, turn!)

There’s offshore wind action in Massachusetts.

The week’s offshore wind oomph continued with an announcement yesterday that Eversource, a local electricity and gas utility in several New England states, had signed on to get a piece of offshore wind action in the region.

Eversource has bought a 50-percent stake in a venture owned by the Danish company DONG. Bay State Wind, as it’s known, holds one of the offshore wind leases off Massachusetts’s south coast—enough area, they say, to power at least one million Massachusetts homes.

Thanks to the Massachusetts energy law from this past summer that will drive Massachusetts utilities to buy offshore wind, we’ll need all that, and much more.

One of the biggest prizes in offshore wind is up for auction. Right now.

And even as I write this, I keep hitting the refresh button to watch a host of offshore wind bidders competing for one of the biggest prizes to be had: New York. BOEM, the US government agency responsible for managing our coastal areas (the Outer Continental Shelf) that will host future offshore wind projects, is conducting an auction on several lease areas south of Long Island, and close to New York City. A new round of bidding is happening every 20 minutes, and so far no bidders have dropped out.

So stay tuned. I can’t guarantee that every week is going to be this exciting in the world of US offshore wind. But I can guarantee that the next few years of offshore wind activity are going to be well worth keeping an eye on.

For more of a taste of the excitement around the Block Island project, check out what the National Wildlife Federation, the Conservation Law Foundation, Environment America, and the Natural Resources Defense Council each had to say. People are pretty pumped.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in 2016: the Lazy Dragon Woke Up

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In Brazil, deforestation in the Amazon has been compared to a starved dragon. However, this dragon has been under control in the past. Deforestation in the region declined 70% from 2005 (19,014 km2) to 2014 (5,012 km2) in response to different strategies described in the literature. But the monster was not killed, it was just taking a nap. Since 2012, the annual rate of deforestation has stayed at around 5,000 km2 (4,571 km2 in 2012, 5,891 km2 in 2013, 5,012 km2 in 2014 and 6,207 km2 in 2015), according to data from the PRODES 2016 database. Unfortunately, in 2016 the sleepy dragon woke up. On November 29, the Brazilian government released data on deforestation in 2016 showing that an area of forest equivalent to 10 times the size of the New York City (7,989 km2) was devastated (Figure 1). This figure is the highest since 2008, when deforestation hit 12,911 km2, possibly indicating a return to the old pattern of deforestation.

 PRODES 2016)

Figure 1: Amazon deforestation rates evolution from 2015-2016. (Source: PRODES 2016)

The Amazon states of Pará, Mato Grosso, and Rondônia are again the main states to have lost forest cover. Jointly they account for 75% of all deforestation as measured by PRODES, the official monitoring system operated by the Brazilian Space Agency (INPE). The surprise, however, came from the State of Amazonas, which contains huge preserved forests. Since 2014, deforestation rates there have been on the rise, and in 2016, totalled above a 100% accumulated increase (Figure 1).

 Agência NaLata

Photo: Agência NaLata

The sad message Brazil is giving to the world with 2016’s startling new deforestation rate is that its impetus to control deforestation may be waning. The country was already ranked the fourth largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world in 2007 due to emissions from forest destruction in the Amazon. It is a past that we simply cannot return to in order to avoid putting the climatic balance of a significant portion of national territory at risk. Deforestation can bring severe consequences for agricultural production that accounts for a large part of Brazilian GDP, as shown by scientific studies in the Xingu region.

In addition to risks posed to the local and regional climate, the new deforestation rate threatens to discredit Brazil before the international community, given that the government announced its emission reduction targets from deforestation (to stop illegal deforestation only by 2030) under the Paris Agreement signed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Brazil also announced in 2009 that it would reduce deforestation in the Amazon 80% by 2020, promising that the rate for that year would be 3,925 km2. With the recent increase to almost 8,000 km2, the effort required to reach that target will be far more challenging. That is, to reduce that rate by 50% in the next four years.

On the other hand, Brazil has all the elements needed to reverse this new frightening trend. The paths to extinguishing deforestation in the Amazon are already known, as recently showed by studies published in the scientific journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. For example, full implementation of the Forest Code (the legislation protecting forests), the allocation of public forest as protected areas, and positive incentives to those conserving forest are put forth as the most crucial paths to zeroing out deforestation in the region.

Also, the Amazon contains extensive areas that have already been deforested and are available for agriculture and improved efficiency in livestock rearing. In addition, a significant portion of the private sector already recognizes the importance to keep their supply chains free of deforestation (the soy moratorium, for example). So a strong response from all Brazilian sectors – including the private sector – is needed to reverse this emerging trend of increasing deforestation rates. Otherwise, the country’s capacity to control destruction of the largest forest on the planet will, undoubtedly, be greatly hampered. We need to produce more, export more, and create more economic benefits for our population, but not at the expense of future generations.


Bio: Dr. Paulo Moutinho is an ecologist interested in understanding the causes of deforestation in the Amazon and its consequences on biodiversity, climate change and inhabitants of the region. He has worked in the Amazon for 20 years and was co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). He earned his M.Sc. and D.Sc. in Ecology from University of Campinas, Brazil. He is currently a senior scientist at IPAM, Brasilia, Brazil, and a Distinguished Policy Fellow at WHRC.

Dr. Raissa Guerra is a biologist from the University of Brasília (UnB) with a MSc degree in public policies and sustainable development (UnB) and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Ecology from the University of Florida, where she analyzed the potential for implementation of Payments for Environmental Services projects in the Amazon region. She is currently a researcher at IPAM, where she is involved in developing strategies to reach zero deforestation in the Amazon forest biome, among other 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.

Ending Tropical Deforestation: Have We Got Our Priorities Backwards?

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In working to change the world, there’s always a need to keep asking ourselves whether we’re focusing on what’s most important. This certainly applies to the effort to end tropical deforestation, which is why I and my UCS colleagues have put a lot of emphasis on figuring out what causes—and in particular, which businesses—are the main drivers of deforestation. Unfortunately, a recent study indicates that that global corporations that have committed to ending the deforestation they cause, have got their priorities backwards. And it suggests that the NGO community—and that definitely includes me—may have had our priorities wrong too.

The study, by Climate Focus and many collaborators, is part of an assessment of the impact of the New York Declaration on Forests two years ago. That Declaration, launched at the September 2014 Climate Summit that also featured a march of 400,000 people through the streets of New York, highlighted commitments by hundreds of companies, governments, NGOs, Indigenous Peoples’ groups and others to work towards a rapid end to deforestation. The Climate Focus report looked in particular at the Declaration’s “Goal 2”: “Support and help meet the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, paper, and beef products by no later than 2020, recognizing that many companies have even more ambitious targets.”

 Doug Boucher, UCS.

The September 2014 Climate March through the streets of New York, with yours truly on the left, helping to carry the UCS banner. The New York Declaration on Forests was launched just a few days later. Source: Doug Boucher, UCS.

In evaluating progress toward achieving Goal 2 by 2020, Climate Focus looked at the most recent data showing what are the main drivers of deforestation. Here’s the graphic that gives these results, from two different data analyses (on the left, from Henders et al. 2015; on the right, from European Commission 2013):


The main commodities driving deforestation, from the analysis of Climate Focus based on two different data sources. Source: Climate Focus 2016.

The data is pretty clear: by far the biggest driver of deforestation is beef. Soy is second, but far behind in terms of importance. And palm oil and wood products are even smaller drivers, causing only about a tenth as much deforestation as beef.

You’d expect that corporate priorities, as shown by their pledges to eliminate deforestation, should reflect the relative importance of these four drivers, at least approximately. But Climate Focus found that in fact, it’s the opposite. Here are the percentage of active companies that have made pledges concerning each of these four drivers:

  • Palm Oil – 59%
  • Wood Products – 53%
  • Soy – 21%
  • Beef – 12%

So, it’s not just that the percentage of commitments doesn’t reflect the importance of the drivers. It actually reverses them. The more important a commodity is, the less likely that a company will have pledged to eliminate the deforestation that it’s causing. We’re just three years away from the Declaration’s deadline, but only one out of eight corporations have even stated a pledge to reach that 2020 goal for what is the largest driver of deforestation by far.

The Climate Focus report goes into more depth about this, but in all honesty, and in a self-critical spirit, I have to admit that one reason that companies have emphasized palm oil and wood is that we NGOs have pushed them the hardest on those commodities. And the “we” here includes UCS, and me personally during most of the time that I directed UCS’ Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative (2007-2015).

Sure, we had good strategic reasons to focus on palm oil. Some of these were based on data—palm oil was growing rapidly in terms of global consumption, and was linked to the tropical peat clearance that releases large amounts of global warming pollution. Other reasons were more emotional—we could see that orangutans, which are threatened by the expansion of oil palm plantations, are incredibly cute and charismatic. But the end result was that we concentrated on getting corporate zero-deforestation commitments relating to crops that weren’t the main causes of deforestation.

In the last year UCS has changed the emphasis of its zero-deforestation campaigning to beef cattle and soybeans, and I’ve helped by pointing out its overwhelming importance in other reports that I’ve written. But looking backward, even though the companies can’t escape their fundamental responsibility for their own actions, pledges and priorities, we in the NGO community should have done better too.

This issue of misplaced priorities was made all the more poignant by the recent release of the past year’s annual data on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It’s not good news—almost 8,000 km2 of forest were cleared from August 2015 to July 2016. Here is the data for the last two decades, from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, INPE:


Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, in km2 per year (August through July). Source: INPE (Brazilian National Institute for Space Research):

You can see that this is the second year in a row, and the third of the past four years, that deforestation has risen. Although the level is still down about 60% from the average for the decade around the year 2000, the recent trend is in the wrong direction.

Why is this relevant to the issue of priorities? Simply because beef is by far the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, and soy is the second. There are lots of factors related to the increase (e.g.  the political turmoil leading up to the impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Roussef and her removal from office in August) but it’s hard to argue that the lack of corporate commitments to ending Amazon deforestation was totally irrelevant.

I don’t want to go overboard with the mea culpa here. Companies have to take responsibility for their actions, and their lack of action. They can’t just say “the NGO community made me do it.” But the Climate Focus report and the new data from the Amazon demonstrate forcefully that when we get the priorities wrong, there are consequences.

Polar Vortex Returns. Will Wind Energy Be Left Out in the Cold?

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The Polar Vortex in 2014 revealed issues with over-reliance on natural gas  and under-appreciation of wind and customer demand response. The Union of Concerned Scientists is pushing to correct mistakes when made when the low price of natural gas for most of the year fooled a lot of people who should know better. Assumptions that natural gas would be just as available in a cold snap as in mild weather created havoc with electric power plants that rely, perhaps over-rely, on natural gas when the cold snap came.

Will YOU bundle up when it’s cold?  pinterest./benitodream

Arctic family knows how to prepare for polar weather. Credit: pinterest./benitodream

One surprise in the January 2014 cold weather was how many fossil-fired power plants could not run because of frozen pipes and other failings due to lack of protection from the cold.  (data from PJM report)  Preventing this sort of failure to prepare for the cold is neither complicated nor expensive. Now, much like a kindly elder reminding the young ones to get on a hat and coat, the grid operators require a check-list of preparations for power plant owners as the cold weather approaches.

But what if I didn’t pay the fuel bill?!?

Yeah, the power plant owners need to buy fuel, and pay for deliveries. Gas pipeline space for fuels deliveries can be reserved ahead of time, or you can wait and see if there is some leftover available capacity when you, and every other gas-burner in the region, needs it. The big surprise in the mid-Atlantic region was that dozens of the gas-fired power plants that are counted for their reliability did not have gas delivery arrangements for January. These plants notified the grid operator, PJM, that they too were not able to run.  They had skimped on arrangements to obtain gas during  the same time demand from homes heated with gas was at its peak.

Mid-Atlantic electricity prices approached $1 per kWh on Jan. 20, 2014.

Mid-Atlantic electricity prices approached $1 per kWh on Jan. 20, 2014.

In this demonstration of over-reliance on gas, the operating assumption of power plant owners in January 2014 was that if they could buy gas last year, they would be able to buy gas again the next year, even though they were not making reservations and reserving gas pipeline capacity.  The electricity supply was made adequate by some unexpected over-performers.

Unexpected, and under-paid. Windfarms in the PJM system produced more than their reliability requirements. Demand response from commercial buildings and businesses, expected to respond only in the summer, also came through when PJM called for their help. As these resources don’t require fuel, they were not caught in the gas squeeze.

Did everyone get the message?

No, not really. The immediate effects are being addressed. Power plant owners now know the gas pipeline capacity they use in warm months will not be available for every power plant.  PJM has also corrected this assumption, but oddly only for the gas pipelines and not for the electricity transmission. Just as bad, PJM has turned its back on the demand response from customers and renewable energy that saved the day.

What’s missing and what’s being done

The focus is now on how well the electricity transmission system, the network of wires connecting the power plants to the consumers, is able to deliver in winter. The good news for wind energy is PJM is adopting our advice of testing the transmission to see if the higher levels of wind energy in winter can flow, and thus be eligible to be counted as a winter resource.

The assumption that all the power plants have adequate transmission in the winter is the weak link in this set of reliability assurances. The polar vortex weather revealed how the mix of power plants that PJM paid to be reliably perform was not the same as the mix of plants (and demand response) that actually did perform and kept the lights on. When PJM tests the capability of the system in winter peak conditions, many of the power plants are included at only a fraction of the capacity which they are obligated and expected to provide.

So, PJM is looking to avoid the mistakes made in the gas sector, but only proposing to go part way. The incremental seasonal capacity from wind is valuable, and testing if the actual winter deliverability is greater than currently assumed from the summer tests is a key first step. Additional steps to make this more permanent, and to test all generators’ transmission limits on their winter contribution to reliability are needed. Comments are coming in from around the stakeholder community in support of this. A full fix would be to make a complete assessment of how winter needs are different from summer needs, and make deliberate efforts to use that information when committing to resources, both in supply and demand.

Cold weather is no time to get caught with our plants down just because we used the assumed what works in summer will be fine in winter.

Graduate Students Organize to Promote Science-Informed Leadership in the New Executive Administration

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What do the Curiosity Mars rover, the personal computer, and the antibiotic streptomycin have in common? They’re all inventions and discoveries made in America. Science and engineering research have made America into the nation that it is today. Our country is home to some of the world’s leading research universities, medical research and treatment facilities, technology innovation companies, an extensive national park system, and a cutting-edge space research program. Such institutions, made possible by a rich history of scientific inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge through careful research, have positioned the U.S. as a global leader.

Science: turning challenges into opportunities

As we face new political, environmental, and public health challenges in the contemporary era, it is essential that all people, especially our policy leaders, recognize the pivotal role that science has played in our nation’s past and make policy decisions that enable science to contribute to our future. Scientific reasoning and research provides us with the knowledge and tools to understand the relationship between human activities and our surrounding environment, and develop solutions and technologies to adapt to a changing world. In order to continue to innovate in the face of global challenges such as food security, climate change, and public health in a changing environment, it is imperative that the leaders in the U.S. federal government value the scientific process as a tool that will move our country into the future, defer to the body of scientific evidence when making policy and regulatory decisions, and work to protect scientific integrity at all levels.

Opportunities for science in the changing administration

As rumors about cabinet and other executive position picks continue to circulate, many have expressed concern about the role of science in the new presidential administration. It is our sincere hope that the changing presidential administration brings an opportunity to forge new partnerships between the scientific community and the executive branch. Cabinet leaders, such as the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the EPA Administrator, as well as certain executive-branch officials have to be approved by the Senate. Engaging with senators and fostering a nationwide conversation about the value of science in leadership and public policy presents a real opportunity to change the way that science intersects with the federal government.

That’s where we, the Science Informed Leadership team, come in. Science Informed Leadership is an effort is led by a team of UC Davis graduate students. We are working to promote the appointment of executive branch leaders who demonstrate a track record of evidence-based decision-making that is rooted in scientific evidence and consensus, especially with regard to policy and regulatory issues that directly affect science, energy, the environment, education, and public health. We want to see federal leaders who appreciate science and the power of curiosity-driven research and make that appreciation an explicit part of their decision-making process. Dr. John Holdren, the current Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is a great example of a scientifically-informed leader who has promoted a healthy scientific environment in the federal government. During his tenure, Dr. Holdren directed White House agencies to use peer-reviewed, scientific evidence whenever possible when making policy decisions, and to develop policies to ensure a culture of scientific integrity and keep scientific research free from the influence of politics. That sort of regard for scientific evidence and explicit protection of the scientific process is something we’d like to see in future executive branch leaders.

Our approach

Our approach is simple: create and mobilize a network of science-minded citizens, and provide resources that enable them to call and write their senators to encourage the approval of executive candidates who value science and use current scientific evidence to make policy and regulatory decisions. We’ve established a nationwide network of volunteers with coordinators for each state who are working to organize phone banks and letter-writing campaigns. We will also provide state-specific resources like phone call and letter scripts so that constituents can contact their senators and express support of science in the most effective way possible.

Our main goal is to ensure that appointed federal leaders value science and use scientific evidence to make policy and regulatory decisions. Beyond that, we hope that our work helps support a national conversation about the value of science, provides a pathway for all citizens to get involved with the promotion of science, and help cement the place of science in our political system.

Join the effort for science-informed leadership!

sciinformed-logoIf you’re interested in getting involved, you can check out our website at, email Representatives of university graduate student associations can email to endorse our university consensus statement about the importance of science in the federal government.


Bio: Katy Dynarski is a PhD Candidate in the Soil and Biogeochemistry Graduate Group at University of California, Davis. Katy is one of the founders of the Science Informed Leadership effort. Science Informed Leadership is a graduate student-led effort to promote the appointment of executive branch leaders with a demonstrated track record of evidence-based governance that is rooted in scientific evidence and consensus. You can stay in touch with them on Twitter
Twitter: @SciInformedLead


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.

Trump’s Picks for Defense: What We Know About Mattis and Flynn

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Donald Trump has picked James Mattis as his secretary of defense and Michael Flynn as his national security advisor. What do we know about these two men?

While they are both retired generals (Marine Corps and Army, respectively) with experience in the Middle East and Afghanistan, they are otherwise very different. The bottom line: Mattis appears qualified for the job; Flynn does not.

James Mattis

Based on his public statements, Mattis has strongly held opinions but recognizes the value of listening to contrary views and rethinking those opinions. In a speech last year he talked about the importance of “mavericks” who are willing to ask questions that “make you uncomfortable,” and of “red teams” that are set up specifically to find the holes in your arguments.


James Mattis (Photo: DOD)

He also appreciates the value of reading. He reportedly sent a reading list to officers in his command before they deployed to Iraq in 2004 and required them to study it. In late 2003, he wrote:

“The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.”

Nuclear weapons

Mattis has questioned the status quo on US nuclear weapons policy. In Senate testimony last year he said:

“The nuclear stockpile must be tended to and fundamental questions must be asked and answered:

We must clearly establish the role of our nuclear weapons: do they serve solely to deter nuclear war?  If so we should say so, and the resulting clarity will help to determine the number we need.

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

So he appears willing to consider declaring a no-first-use policy, eliminating tactical weapons that would be used for nuclear “warfighting,” eliminating the land-based missile force, and reducing the risks of mistaken launch. Since these steps would reduce the risk that nuclear weapons would be used, he’s definitely asking the right questions.

Given his testimony and his concerns about wasteful spending, we can also expect him to ask hard questions about the current $1 trillion plan to rebuild the whole US nuclear arsenal.

Missile defense

Mattis would hopefully cast a similarly critical eye on the US missile defense program.

Congress recently voted to expand the scope of missile defense from defending against potential “limited” threats such as North Korean missiles to defending against bigger and more sophisticated arsenals, and Congress will likely add funding for an additional site for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.

Mattis’ interest in dissenting points of view will hopefully lead him to read our recent analysis of the GMD  system, which details the widely recognized problems that have resulted from insufficient accountability and oversight of the system’s development. More than a decade after it was initially declared operational, and with a price tag of $40 billion, the GMD system has still not demonstrated it could defend against a real-world attack.

Mattis talks about the importance of commanders studying “after-action reports” to learn lessons from their military campaigns; our report is essentially an “after-action report” that lays out the lessons learned from more than a decade of deployment. Hopefully he will similarly see this as required reading.


Mattis is no doubt aware that his world view and expertise are dominated by the Middle East, which has been his focus for more than 30 years. Given his interest in learning, he will hopefully commit to learning all he can, from a range of sources, about China and other key issues, so that he can avoid surprises when he has to deal with them.

Issues for Congress to consider

Given all this, Mattis may make a thoughtful defense secretary who is willing to listen to a range of views. There are at least three issues, however, that the Senate will have to think very hard about as it considers whether to confirm him.

First, as has been widely discussed, he will need a congressional waiver since he has been out of the military for only three years rather than the seven years required by law.

This is not an academic issue. Ensuring civilian control of the US military has long been a fundamental principle in the United States. This is even more of an issue than it might otherwise be since Trump is considering several ex-generals for high-level posts.

There may be a good case for granting an exception for Mattis—but the Trump administration needs to make that case. Moreover, debate on this issue should not be rushed and perfunctory.  And if Congress does grant the waiver, it must make very clear that this case is exceptional, and that the seven year rule remains the law and the expectation in the future.

Second, it is not clear that Mattis, who gets rave reviews for his work on the battlefield, is a good match for this job. People who know him say he hates bureaucracy, of which there are none bigger than the Pentagon. In fact, his skills may make him a better fit for national security advisor. Lawrence Korb makes a compelling argument that Trump should instead appoint him to head the Joint Chiefs.

Third, the Senate must consider Mattis’ potential conflicts of interests. For example, he serves on the board of General Dynamics, for which he has reportedly received over a million dollars in compensation including stock options. General Dynamics currently gets military contracts worth some $10 billion a year and will be lobbying for an expansive effort to rebuild the nuclear arsenal. The Senate must be convinced that he can avoid both real and perceived conflicts of interest.

Michael Flynn

Which brings us to Michael Flynn—Mr. Trump’s choice for national security advisor. This position does not require Senate confirmation, so he will not undergo the same sort of public vetting that Mattis and others will. That is unfortunate.


Michael Flynn (Photo: DIA)

The evidence so far suggests that Flynn is exactly the kind of person you don’t want in that position. Less than a week before the election he was tweeting fake news stories about Hillary Clinton and sex crimes with children, and about Obama laundering money for terrorists.

He appears to have an unhealthy faith in his own opinions and an unwillingness to change them despite strong evidence that he is wrong. This character flaw led his staff at the Defense Intelligence Agency to coin the phrase “Flynn Facts” to describe his tendency to assert things with little or no basis in fact. As David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and an expert on the National Security Council, wrote:

“This is a man who has now demonstrated repeatedly that he has either bad judgment or dubious motives when it comes to the selection, interpretation and dissemination of information.”

As security advisor, Flynn’s job will be to pull together and provide the president with assessments and options from a wide range of administration sources, and not simply to provide Trump with his personal opinions.

His record and recent actions raise serious doubts about whether he can do that.

With Trump now saying he will not take part in daily intelligence briefings, having him rely on “Flynn Facts” is the last thing the country needs.

A Powerful Investment: Clean Energy Financing in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont

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As the nation continues its transition to clean energy, innovative financing programs are one way states are attracting significant private investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy, while boosting their economies, saving consumers money, and reducing emissions.

New analyses from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) shows how Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont  could use modest levels of public funds to greatly increase private-sector investment in clean energy, by offering a more comprehensive approach to financing local clean energy projects.

Together, these three states could leverage $35 million of public funds into a $748 million investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects over the next 15 years.

The analysis shows how these states could expand existing clean energy financing programs to make additional low-interest loans and other financial products available to homeowners, businesses, farmers, schools, and municipalities who want to make energy efficiency improvements, install solar panels and wind turbines, or invest in other types of clean energy projects.

A successful track record

The basic approach of clean energy financing programs is to leverage a pool of public-sector funds to garner a larger pool of private-sector investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. They do this by bringing together a suite of financial products that support the development of clean energy projects. Just as important, these programs raise awareness of clean energy technologies and their benefits and remove barriers to private investments in these resources.

Other Northeast states like Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island are demonstrating the success of these comprehensive clean energy financing programs. For example, Connecticut and New York have achieved an average leverage ratio across their programs of more than $5 of private funds to every $1 of public funds over recent years. Connecticut has generated nearly $1 billion in clean energy investments since 2012, with 90 percent of that coming from the private sector, while creating almost 8,300 jobs and reducing carbon emissions by 1.4 million tons.

The analysis builds on a series of UCS reports released last year in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia, as well as a report highlighting successful clean energy financing programs already operating in other states and Germany. According to the Coalition for Green Capital, 7 states and 6 countries are operating comprehensive clean energy financing initiatives (see map below).

Building on existing clean energy policies and programs

Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont already deploy a number of financing programs and incentives to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy. For example, Efficiency Maine, the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority (CDFA), and the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) all offer a variety of financing and incentive programs to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy in homes, businesses, schools, farms, and municipalities. A more comprehensive approach to financing clean energy could expand, enhance, and supplement these laudable programs

clean-energy-financing-mapAll three states also have other proven policies to support clean energy investment including renewable electricity standards, energy efficiency resource standards, public benefits funds, net metering, building energy codes, utility rebates, and property-assessed clean energy financing (PACE).  They are also part of the 9-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a market based program established in 2009 to reduce power sector carbon dioxide emissions. Revenue collected from the sale of CO2 allowances under RGGI is also an important source of funding for clean energy programs in all three states.

In addition to complementing existing policies, financing programs have been effective at addressing key market barriers such as providing loans to cover high upfront costs, aggregating loans for smaller projects to make them more attractive to financial institutions, providing underwriting support to help traditional lenders improve their knowledge of new technologies and lower risks, and increasing customer access to low cost capital.

Driving clean energy investments and emission reductions

Based on the experiences of existing clean energy financing initiatives, UCS analyzed the potential impact of expanding clean energy financing in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  Using the initial $35 million in public funds to create revolving loan programs, with loan repayments regularly returned to the program to fund additional projects, the three states could leverage a $748 million investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects over the next 15 years.

By 2031, expanded clean energy investment across these three states could:

  • Support the deployment of 190 megawatts (MW) of new solar- and community wind-power projects, producing enough clean power to meet the annual electricity needs of more than 49,000 households
  • Save homes and businesses $89 million on their annual electricity bills by investing in efficiency
  • Reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 513,900 tons, equivalent to taking 97,500 cars off the road
Benefits of expanding clean energy financing in three New England states by 2031


A more coordinated and comprehensive approach is needed

A comprehensive clean energy financing strategy in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont could be an effective tool for expanding and enhancing existing programs and policies, while leveraging additional private-sector investment, increasing the sustainability of clean energy markets, and improving access to clean energy in low-income communities.

Adding a greater focus on financing—as well as better coordination of programs both within and across the states—could be a cost-effective strategy to help these states reach their long-term goals for clean energy, carbon reduction, and economic development.


The EPA Withdraws Claim that Fracking has no “Widespread Systemic Impacts” on Drinking Water

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The EPA removed language claiming that hydraulic fracturing has no “widespread systemic impacts” on drinking water from its final report on the subject. The move follows criticism from its Science Advisory Board and revelations by Marketplace that the report’s executive summary and press release may have been edited by non-scientists.

“No widespread systemic impacts” Hydraulic fracturing activities have adversely affected drinking water quality in several locations in the US, a new EPA report shows despite misleading information in communication of its draft report last year.

Hydraulic fracturing activities have adversely affected drinking water quality in several locations in the US, a new EPA report shows despite misleading information in communication of its draft report last year.

In May 2015, EPA released its draft report and there were inconsistencies. The report itself covered the risks of fracking accurately: It found specific instances where well integrity and wastewater management related to hydraulic fracturing activities impacted drinking water resources and it identified several pathways through which the risk of water contamination exists, including spills, improper well construction, and improper disposal of wastewater. None of this was surprising for someone who was following the issue.

What was surprising was the way that the agency communicated those findings in the executive summary and press release of the draft.  Inexplicably, these more public-facing report accompaniments downplayed the risks of fracking to drinking water, claiming “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread systemic impacts to drinking water resources,” as if this was the fundamental question. But the EPA wasn’t charged with assessing whether impacts were “widespread and systemic,” it was charged with assessing the risks. This raised questions about who wrote the press release and executive summary and why such a discrepancy existed between these materials and the final report.

I noticed this oddity immediately. The EPA Science Advisory Board took up the issue.  In its final report to the EPA Administrator, the group concluded that the agency needed more clarity and support for major findings. In particular, they noted,

The SAB finds that the EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and did not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of “systemic” and “widespread.”

Communications that didn’t reflect the science

We tried to learn more about how and why these changes occurred by filing a Freedom of Information Act request. While the documents we received came back heavily redacted, we do know that there was a flurry of emails regarding the press release in the days and hours leading up to the release. We also learned that White House officials were potentially involved in developing messaging around the draft report. Last month, Marketplace was able to confirm that the EPA  downplayed scientists’ concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water in the press release and executive summary:

“Documents obtained by APM Reports and Marketplace show that in the six weeks before the study’s public release, officials inserted a key phrase into the executive summary that said researchers did not find evidence of “widespread systemic impacts” of fracking by the oil and gas industry on the nation’s drinking water.

Earlier draft versions emphasized more directly that fracking has contaminated drinking water in some places.

The documents also show that the news release accompanying the scientific study was changed on June 3, 2015, the day before it was made public. A draft displayed a conclusion that the EPA had identified “potential vulnerabilities” to drinking water. But the final release dated June 4, concluded: “Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”

Correcting the record: Fracking presents risks to drinking water

The final report has removed this language and replaced it with more accurate language that communicates the drinking water risks that the agency found. In fact, they even included an FAQ about the fact that they removed the language, noting that the claim “could not be quantitatively supported” and “did not clearly communicate the findings of the report”.  It is unfortunate that the original headlines after the draft report was released left the public with the impression that the EPA found that fracking carries no risks.

The agency listened to its Science Advisory Board and the public. But this isn’t the final word. This particular study had a lot of limitations, including a refusal by industry to provide data that would have allowed EPA to do a more thorough and comprehensive analysis. It’s important for the federal government to continue to have a strong role in providing information that states can use to protect residents from the risks of fracking.

Science wins for now…

The whole incident provides a cautionary tale for what we might expect in the next administration. If Obama’s EPA was watering down the science on fracking risks, imagine what a Trump administration might do?  President-elect Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is certainly a friend of the oil and gas industry and has a history of failing to respect EPA’s use of science.  As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt repeated defended the oil and gas industry at the expense of public health and the environment and he is currently involved in suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan (My colleague Angela Anderson has a fuller report here).

Disturbingly, Pruitt’s close association with Harold Hamm also raise questions about his ability to support the use of science on fracking. Oil tycoon Harold Hamm told a University of Oklahoma dean last year that he wanted fired certain scientists who were studying links between oil and gas activity and the state’s nearly 400-fold increase in earthquakes, according to the dean’s e-mail recounting the conversation. As my colleague Angela wrote, it’s hard to imagine that Hamm, who was Pruitt’s campaign chair and longtime associate, won’t be whispering in Pruitt’s ear to disregard or even penalize the scientists for inconvenient findings.

In this case, the EPA Science Advisory Board was able to do its job of advising the EPA (without industry or political interference), and for the agency to respond to that advice. This is how science advisory boards are supposed to work. Unfortunately, this may not be the case with Pruitt at the helm. Moreover, some members of Congress want to stack the science panel with industry representatives. Members of Congress must oppose legislation like the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, because stacking the panel with industry representatives who have clear financial conflicts of interest would undermine the agency’s science-based mission, and hinder its ability to appropriately protect the public.

Shedding light on fracking

Moving forward, we must be mindful of both bold and subtle attempts to sideline science. The EPA and other federal agencies in the next administration will be under tremendous pressure to compromise science in some cases—both the usual pressure from the industries they regulate and pressure from their own political appointees that came from those same industries.

But for now, I’m glad to see the EPA correct the record on hydraulic fracturing risks to drinking water. It’s a small victory but I’ll take it.

Arctic Breaks Many Records – Arctic Report Card 2016

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Since 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued an annual peer-reviewed assessment of the Arctic. The tenth assessment was released on December 13, 2016.  Arctic Report Card 2016 is remarkable for two reasons.

recordbreakingarcticreportcard2016_tablebybrendaekwurzelFirst, so many records were broken or ranked second in each respective observational period (see Table).  The second reason is that change is happening so fast and with such great magnitude that NOAA included an addendum to log changes leading up to the report release.  Typically the Arctic Report Card covers a year of observations from October through September – the latter being the month when the summer sea ice extent minimum occurs.  The addendum included information about October and November 2016, such as the lowest ice extent observed over the satellite record for mid-October through late-November 2016. Likely contributing factors were unusually warm air brought up from mid-latitudes and sea surface temperatures near the ice margins that were far above normal for this time of year.  All of the jaw dropping (at least to this scientist) charts and statistics in this report add up to multiple lines of evidence – ‘vital signs’ – that point to a diagnosis.  As stated in the report: “Persistent warming trend and loss of sea ice are triggering extensive Arctic changes.”  We know what the primary cause of the persistent warming trend globally is – burning coal, oil, gas and deforestation.  The Paris Climate Agreement aims to put the breaks on that global trend.

Check out this brief video showing changes in Arctic sea ice, air and sea surface temperatures, Greenland ice sheet mass, parasites from lower latitudes reaching small mammals (e.g. shrews) and ocean waters becoming more corrosive to the base of the marine food web.

Beyond the charts: Yupik word for type of sea ice that is extremely rare to observe today

The report card includes a story recounted by Brendan Kelly, Executive Director of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) that gets to the heart of the jaw-dropping charts of plummeting sea ice age for greater proportions of the Arctic.  Sea ice thickness, in general, increases with ice age (i.e. how many years the sea ice persists).

Fig 4.3 Arctic Report Card 2016

Figure from Arctic Report Card 2016 recording the changes in sea ice age from March 1985 to March 2016 (

He learned dozens of Yupik words for sea ice from Conrad Oozeva, who is from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.  The Yupik word for thick, dark, weathered ice – tagneghneq – refers to a type of sea ice that is extremely rare to observe today.  Passing on a language to the next generation involves context; it could be difficult to explain the meaning of a word that can’t be easily seen.  This poses a risk to cultural heritage.  While many are taking steps to preserve endangered Alaskan languages, over a hundred countries or parties have already ratified the Paris Climate Agreement.  A significant reduction in emissions behind the global warming trend could mean less warming in the Arctic, and less impact on sea ice. There may still be hope for tagneghneq.

Arctic Research Includes Traditional Knowledge Exchange

Photo from the Arctic Report Card 2016 of Brendan Kelly and Conrad Oozeva in 1979 conducting research aboard the USCGC Polar Sea (

Table created by Brenda Ekwurzel based on findings in Arctic Report Card 2016 Arctic Report Card 2016 Fig 4.3 Arctic Report Card 2016 Figure 12.1


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