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Five Takeaways From Scott Pruitt’s Nomination Hearing That Should Worry Scientists

Yesterday’s hearing on the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General (AG) Scott Pruitt to serve as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) generated controversy, media attention and perhaps some new information. As a scientist who has worked in both academia and government, including as a front-line regulator in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), I am very worried by Mr. Pruitt’s statements to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and what they portend for his leadership of   the EPA. Here are my top five concerns following the hearing:

#1: Recusal on issues under litigation—or not

Mr. Pruitt has made a name for himself by using his positions as AG for Oklahoma and head of the Republican Attorneys General Association to sue the very agency he is now nominated to lead. The legal arguments have been rather dubious, as noted in UCS President Ken Kimmell’s recent blog. Though they constitute a substantial portion of his record, AG Pruitt’s argument has prevailed in very few cases. The Senate, yesterday, probed that record in questions from Senators Carper, Whitehouse, Booker, Markey and others. From a scientist and regulator’s perspective the exchange with Senator Markey was most concerning. Effectively, Mr. Pruitt wouldn’t commit to recusing himself from court challenges to the EPA’s work on regulating greenhouse gases, mercury pollution, ozone, haze, cross-state pollution issues, clean water, and other issues, despite his clear conflicts in those cases.

Mr. Pruitt said he would be guided by the EPA ethics attorneys. The ethics office is part of the EPA General Counsel’s office, appointed by and reporting to Mr. Pruitt. They are not an independent outside counsel. Mr. Pruitt is, in effect, their client. Hopefully the office will advise him to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts. As Senator Markey said, being plaintiff and defendant as well as judge and jury in these cases seems like a pretty clear conflict.

So suppose the attorneys convince the EPA Administrator to recuse himself. Then what happens?

I find it hard to imagine an EPA where the leader of the agency is recused from working on all these issues. After all, clean air, water, climate change, interstate pollution and more constitute a huge portion of the agency’s work. An administrator sitting on the sidelines while these decisions are made would significantly hobble work on these critical public health and safety issues by the federal agency tasked to protect us.

Suppose the Administrator does not recuse himself? The very basis for most of these suits is that EPA should take a backseat to the states and that the rules for reducing the risk of these public health and safety threats should be rolled back. Then the agency has to redo or discard years of work. Fundamental scientific analyses of the public health risks must be set aside and the agency has limited ability to adequately address many of the biggest environmental risks to the public that we know about.

Either way, the result seems unworkable.

csd-blog-pruitt-industry-ties#2: Mr. Pruitt has clear financial conflicts of interest

As a scientist, every time I publish an academic paper or serve on an advisory panel or perform a peer review of another scientist’s work, I have to report any financial conflicts of interest that may arise concerning the work in question. That’s a good thing, and I fully support more rigorous and understandable disclosure of potential conflicts. It is a hard thing to get right.

So when I hear Mr. Pruitt’s financial ties to major industry players with a real interest in the work of the EPA, it is hard to understand how these can be resolved.  Senator Whitehouse held up a chart of donors to Mr. Pruitt’s campaigns and organizations he led to battle with the EPA.  It is an impressive and frightening list of major industrial polluters. In response to questions about his financial connections with industry, Pruitt was evasive about his fundraising and donor network. He was also cagey about a well-documented case where he directly used a letter drafted by one of these companies, Devon Energy, submitting it to the federal government from the Attorney General’s office as if it was his own. Tellingly, Senator Booker asked if he had ever written a letter on behalf of children suffering from asthma in his state (Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of child asthma in the country). The answer was no.

These are real financial conflicts of interest. It is not just campaign donations, but funding groups expressly set up to fight the EPA. How can a lead and co-founder of one of these groups not have a conflict?

And to top it off, in response to Sen. Rounds, Mr. Pruitt stated (with no evidence) that the EPA Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Science Advisory Committee members had conflicts of interest that needed to be addressed. This fails a red-face test by any measure.

#3: Mr. Pruitt maintains that our role in global warming is uncertain.

I suppose there is some slight relief that Mr. Pruitt stated during his hearing that climate change is not a hoax. It is somewhat ironic given that he was nominated by Mr. Trump and introduced at the hearing by Sen. Inhofe.  Both are on record, and in the latter case wrote a book, firmly claiming all the science from around the world concerning global warming is a bizarre conspiracy. Sen. Inhofe even stated in the hearing that climate change is a lie and that he is a “one-man truth squad,” after touting his close ties and high regard for Mr. Pruitt.

However the EPA is the primary agency responsible for regulating the emissions of greenhouse gases in order to mitigate climate change, a responsibility Mr. Pruitt acknowledged during the hearing. And Mr. Pruitt said he has no opinion on the human role in our changing climate. What does this mean if he is confirmed as EPA Administrator? Will the EPA take no position on anthropogenic climate change? Or does he believe that we should study the issue more before taking action?

Furthermore, Mr. Pruitt said that the impacts of global warming are still uncertain. Well I guess they won’t be after they occur, but then any actions will be too late.  Is he suggesting that we only act after all impacts are known with a high degree of precision? That is a ridiculous position that no doctor, public health scientist nor anyone concerned with the public interest could possibly support.

#4: Mr. Pruitt’s lack of concern for environmental justice

There were several references to environmental justice during the hearing, some implied and some explicit. The higher-level of impacts of environmental problems and public health risks for low-income communities and communities of color is well documented and a long-standing challenge across the US. Flint, Michigan and lead in the water supply is but one example of the many justice and equity issues that the EPA must come to grips with. Several groups working for greater environmental justice recently wrote to the administration to highlight the importance of these issues.

While Mr. Pruitt generally acknowledged that environmental injustice is important, there were two parts to Mr. Pruitt’s statements in the hearing that are worrying. First, with regard to the well-documented situation in Flint, which is representative of many other communities around the country, he said he had not “looked at the scientific research” on lead in water and didn’t know what was safe. This situation has been so widely reported that it is hard to understand how anyone with a reasonable interest in public health and safety could not have the strong sense that lead in the water supply put the residents of Flint and other communities at grave risk.

Are we to presume that for any issue to be dealt with by the EPA under Pruitt, it would require the Administrator to review the scientific research himself to draw a conclusion about the problem? That seems absurd for someone leading a science-based agency with literally thousands of scientists on staff. I can’t wait for the well-worn out phrase, “I am not a scientist but…” to be trotted out.

Secondly, Mr. Pruitt consistently maintained throughout the hearing that in his view, the lead role for addressing public health concerns and in all the work the EPA is tasked to do should be the states. He maintains, including in his legal actions, that the EPA has exceeded authority and that he believes that a federalism model devolving power to the states is the right approach. This seems to leave aside that the major statutes like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as well as one of his favorite targets, the Clean Power Plan, do rely principally on state action in order to address public health and safety threats.

But in Flint, and for many other environmental justice issues, it is precisely because a given state has failed to act that many of these long standing issues have not been resolved. There is currently a federal executive order to address environmental justice, and a plan for the EPA to move forward more aggressively on these issues. Has Mr. Pruitt championed such a plan in Oklahoma or brought any cases on environmental justice issues?  If so, they are not on record. If the Administrator of the EPA believes the states should have the prerogative to act, or not act, on environmental issues, and many of the states have historically failed to act, where does that leave the communities?

#5: Mr. Pruitt is unclear on the role of a regulator

Finally, along with all of these issues, one general line of argument really worried me concerning Mr. Pruitt’s leadership of the EPA. He stated early in the hearing, “the role of a regulator is to make things regular.” Not only do I find the statement effectively meaningless, but it suggests that Mr. Pruitt believes that one of the nation’s premier agencies for protecting public health and safety should step back and let things be “regular”—whatever that means. I believe regulators must step forward and strive to improve the status quo to best serve the public interest.

Mr. Pruitt and some of the committee members repeatedly referred to the costs of environmental regulation, without even mentioning the benefits to the public. Sure, he acknowledged that energy and environment need not be in conflict. But if cost is the major consideration, Mr. Pruitt misses the point of the work of the EPA entirely.

The job of leading the EPA is serving the needs and threats to asthmatic children all around the country by reducing air pollution, rather than representing the interests of the industries that are creating that pollution.

This job is to rely on the scientists and scientific evidence to decide what, how and where to take action on the full range of issues the EPA is responsible for, rather than waiting for state action. And it requires recognizing that the EPA’s science and regulatory capability far outstrips that of any state in the union.

And the Administrator’s job is to address risks, not certainties, because there is too much at stake in communities in every state that are challenged by global warming, pollution, environmental degradation, and other threats to sit idly by.

From yesterday’s hearing, Attorney General Pruitt doesn’t seem to realize or accept any of these fundamental tasks and is therefore the wrong choice to lead the EPA in this administration. Photo: C-SPAN screenshot Photo: C-SPAN screenshot

What to Expect—and Ways to Respond—as the Trump Administration Assumes Power

Tomorrow, Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States. We are entering a time of significant uncertainty; it will be many weeks before the administration is fully staffed with lower-level political appointees. But there are several conclusions we can draw from the events of the past two months, and a number of actions to watch out for.

A major strategy has been—and will likely continue to be—to institute radical proposals by overwhelming the public with an avalanche of activity and by attempting to distract us with the president’s cult of personality.

The stage is set. The transition team was filled with climate conspiracy theorists who have made careers of attacking scientists and undermining government efforts to respond to climate change. President-elect Trump has appointed an extreme, corporate cabinet whose members collectively possess a mind-boggling and unprecedented amount of wealth, and, by and large, have expressed antipathy towards the agencies and departments they are being asked to lead.

The Senate is intent on confirming these appointees with minimal debate. The House of Representatives passed new rules that expand its power to attack public servants and depose the public. Collectively, these actions enable significant industry influence over the role of science in government decisions.

What will likely happen

President Trump will take several immediate actions. President Obama issued several executive orders and other directives within the first 24 hours of his presidency, including one on government transparency. We don’t know what will be on Trump’s list, but it could include a few issues that impact the science community and the people we serve, from immigration to science-based public protections.

The Trump Administration will set its plans into motion before the President-elect finishes his Inaugural Address. The transition team has put in place “beachhead teams” comprised of temporary political appointees that are skipping the Inauguration to be at their desks the moment the president takes the oath of office. Sean Spicer, incoming press secretary for Trump, said to expect a “flurry of activity” on Monday, January 23.

Congress will continue to ram through radical legislation that would eviscerate the scientific foundation of our nation’s public health and environmental laws. Two bills that would substitute politics for scientific judgement passed the House in the first days of the new Congress, before new members even had their phone lines working. A third, the Regulatory Accountability Act, passed the House last week and would effectively paralyze the government, preventing it from adding, modifying, or removing any rules designed to protect the public (more on this below).

The Senate will try to confirm Trump’s appointees as quickly and with as little scrutiny as the public will allow. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a newfound sense of urgency, and his strategy is clear: ram the appointees through by holding multiple hearings in a single day (yesterday it was for the EPA, Department of Education, and Department of Commerce) so that senators and the public cannot sufficiently weigh in on their suitability before votes are held.

Websites will be altered and web pages taken off line. Inside EPA reported, and a transition team member confirmed, that the EPA and other government agencies will remove information related to climate change and efforts to mitigate it. Other issues will be targeted, too. There are a bunch of efforts to preserve data, websites, and tools that allow the public to use government data, including the End of Term Harvest and DataRefuge.

How you can respond

Persistent and energetic engagement will be necessary. Here are a few steps you can take today:

Urge your senators to get commitments from Trump’s nominees to meaningfully enforce existing scientific integrity policies. The Obama administration has put these policies in place to protect federal scientists from political interference in their work. EPA nominee Scott Pruitt, Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross, and Energy nominee Rick Perry all must promise to respect the independence of science by implementing the policies. The Senate switchboard number is 202.224.3121.

Urge your senators to oppose the Regulatory Accountability Act. We expect that bill to be considered by the Senate in coming weeks. Clean air, clean water, nuclear security, the food system, vehicle fuel efficiency, disease prevention—the bill would undermine the development of any kind of public protection. Even if you think one of your senators is hopeless or a solid vote, call them and let them know you are paying attention. Public pressure still matters. Again, the Senate switchboard is 202.224.3121.

Volunteer at a DataRefuge event. Over the next few days and weeks, citizens and scientists are teaming up to preserve government data and websites. Join them.

Pay attention and avoid distraction. Do not share articles on social media about a stupid tweet or inauguration sign. Instead, share media that explores the impact of the systemic changes that various interests are attempting to advance. Try this piece in The Atlantic or this piece in Politico.

Secure your communications. Government surveillance of citizens is certainly not expected to decrease, and Russian influence over the election demonstrated how vulnerable we all are to hacking. Here’s a guide to how you can better protect yourself with minimal effort.

Appreciate life and read some books. This guy makes sweaters of places and then takes pictures of himself wearing the sweaters at those places. Michael Mann and Tom Toles wrote and illustrated The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Making Us Crazy. Shawn Otto wrote The War on Science. And my friend John wrote the utterly delightful and depressing dystopian novel Splinterlands. All are worth your time. Joy is a form of resistance.

And finally, make sure you’re getting up-to-date information from UCS. If you’re an expert, sign up for the UCS Science Network. If you’re a concerned citizen, join our Action Network. We will need your sustained engagement in the coming months. (And feel free to throw a few dollars our way to keep our work going). Photo: Tim Brown, IIP Photo Archive/CC-BY-NC 2.0, Flickr

USDA Nominee Perdue’s Connection to Coca-Cola is Deeper Than Georgia Roots

Agriculture secretary is the last Cabinet post to be filled by the Trump transition team. The delayed nomination of this position says a lot about the administration’s interest in the agency, which is incredibly important considering that the USDA is responsible for the production, distribution, and safety of the food we eat. Ultimately, after meeting with a few handfuls of potential candidates, President-elect Trump chose former two-term Georgia governor, Sonny Perdue, as the man who will lead the agriculture sector over the next several years. What’s his experience with agriculture, you might ask? Well, besides serving as governor to the highest chicken-producing state, he grew up on a family farm, studied to become a veterinarian, owned several small agricultural businesses including grain elevators and fertilizer companies, served on the agriculture committee as a Georgia state senator, and is now the co-founder of Perdue Partners, LLC which specializes in trading goods and services, including food and beverage products. It comes as no surprise that a man with extensive ties to agribusiness would be tapped to lead USDA, as other members of President-elect Trump’s corporate cabinet include a slew of proverbial foxes to guard (and maybe even destroy) the henhouse.

The soda-can-shaped elephant in the room

Coca-Cola and Sonny Perdue share a home state. Photo: flickr user psyberuser

Coming from Georgia, the question is not whether Sonny Perdue has a relationship with Atlanta-based beverage behemoth, Coca-Cola, but the extent to which they’re connected. Coca-Cola contributed the maximum amount ($50,000) to Perdue’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2003. Then, they remained close. First Lady Mary Perdue launched the Our Children Campaign in 2003, in defense of community resources to support children in state custody. At the plenary meeting, lunch was sponsored by Coca-Cola and Chick-fil-A, which are not exactly known for their healthy children’s options.

Perdue touted his interest in ensuring healthier lives for Georgians while in office. In 2005, Perdue hosted a breakfast launching the Healthy Georgia Diabetes and Obesity Project, coordinated by the Newt Gingrich-founded Center for Health Transformation. In 2005, Perdue also announced the “Live Healthy Georgia” Initiative focused on preventing chronic disease through being active, eating healthy, and quitting smoking. He said, “We want to set an example for the rest of the nation on how healthier living can dramatically improve the quality of life for Georgia citizens.” And while Coca-Cola sold millions of sugary beverages to children across the country, Perdue praised the company (paywall) at the grand opening of the New World of Coca-Cola Museum in 2007: “We’re here to celebrate the history of a great company, but also the future of a great company. It has never lost its way.” He continued, “You have helped us sell our state through your reputation.” Granted, that was 2007. Since then, Coca-Cola’s reputation has suffered, as revelations of its intentional influence of science and marketing sugary drinks to vulnerable children has come to light.

Perdue’s close relationship with Coca-Cola explains his interest in fighting childhood obesity with physical fitness rather than change in diet. Sonny Perdue issued an executive order in 2010 that established the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, receiving staff support from the Department of Community Health, in order to incentivize physical education programs in schools aimed at reducing childhood obesity rates. But the focus on physical activity versus diet is concerning because that deflection is a known industry tactic used to distract lawmakers and the public from the negative health impacts of their products. It’s right out of Coca-Cola’s talking points.

Our children’s health on the line

It is essential that our next USDA secretary advocates for a safe, affordable, healthy and transparent food system and it is especially important for the next secretary to take a strong stand in support of food and nutrition programs that could be threatened by Congress in the first hundred days. Congress’ Freedom Caucus has already issued a wish list of over 200 rules that it would like to cut. Among that list of rules, are the revisions to the school lunch program standards, standards for all foods sold in schools, nutrition facts label revisions, the Child and Adult Food Care Program revisions, and calorie labeling of vending machines.

On the school lunch program, the Freedom Caucus writes, “The regulations have proven to be burdensome and unworkable for schools to implement. Schools are throwing food away that students are not eating.” This is a debunked argument. As for the nutrition facts label revisions to include an added sugar label, the Caucus cited extensive costs without acknowledging the potential health benefits that would come with helping consumers make informed decisions through accurate labeling.

One way that Perdue can lead on children’s health is by guiding USDA to write rules to revise the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food packages. Earlier this month, the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) released its final report on revisions to the WIC food packages based on aligning them to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. Many of their science-based and cost-neutral recommendations would allow parents more flexibility with feeding their children and would support their efforts to reduce or completely avoid added sugar in their children’s foods. In fact, they align very closely with the policy recommendations contained in my Hooked for Life report, including lowering upper limit for sugar in yogurt to 30 grams from 40 grams per 8 ounces, increasing flexibility in packages by raising the dollar value of the cash voucher and allowing substitution of the voucher instead of opting for the often sugary juice and jarred infant foods, and disallowing flavored milk from food packages.

Photo Credit: georgia.gov

Will Perdue choose health over profits?

The head of USDA must make science-based decisions in the face of overwhelming influence from a number of stakeholders. The new appointees must work to ensure that the hard-earned public health victories from the Obama administration are continually strengthened, not rolled back.

Former USDA secretary Tom Vilsack agrees. He recently told Politico (paywall), “I don’t think that any administration, coming in, following this administration, would be able to roll back everything that’s been done in the nutrition space. Because I think there is a consensus—and I believe it’s a bipartisan consensus—that we have had, and continue to have, a challenge with obesity. We have, and continue to have, concerns about the impact that’s going to have on our military, on our children’s futures, on medical expenses. So if anything happens in that space, it may be that industries are given more time to make adjustments. But I don’t think you’re going to see, ‘You know what? We’re going to go back to the day were we had more fat, more sugar, and sodium in our meals that we’re feeding our kids.'”

Vilsack may be right about the consensus on the challenge of obesity, but public health experts and industry representatives disagree on the best way to meet that challenge. The next administration needs to understand that making strides in improving children’s health involves more than just following industry talking points by increasing physical activity in schools. The integrity of The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the nutrition facts label and their place informing supplemental meal programs must not be sacrificed in a quest to cut regulations as they are critical tools used to educate consumers on how to achieve healthier diets.

It is critical that, if confirmed, Perdue fights hard at the helm of the USDA to make evidence-based policy decisions that support a strong food system instead of simply holding a service to pray for increased quality of and equitable access to food.

 

The Importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) When Examining Climate Change

It all started with a simple conversation over lunch. The fuse had been lit, the spark began, and the first step had occurred in my journey, unbeknownst to me at the time. Later that day, I realized, for the first time in my life, I had experiences that were unique. And, I realized I held knowledge. Knowledge that was different from others; knowledge that went beyond the scientific or academic type, and that ran richer, deeper, more extensive. Sitting over sandwiches, sitting with culture, sitting with knowledge.

Accumulating knowledge through experience

Truth be told, it had begun much further back, as far back as I can remember, but blissfully unaware. Lunch with a friend brought it all barreling to the forefront of my destiny, and my ancestors’ wishes. I was talking with a friend about life, when he mentioned skeletal remains that had been unearthed underneath a bridge, and how the tribe had been explaining to the non-Native state and local agencies involved that the site was one of the traditional places our Native bands migrated to and from. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) was far from being on the radar for non-Native agencies at that point, and even as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act existed, the common attitude about Native Traditional Knowledges (TK) was that it was frequently discounted and dismissed.

I was infuriated at how remains and burial areas could be so flippantly desecrated, when I asked the question about taking the agencies involved to task to acknowledge our Indigenous Knowledge. I was informed that at that time, our tribe did not have a document that would convincingly show our position, and all knowledge that had been documented was brushed off as fable-like stories.

I was initially in shock, because I’d grown up continuously learning information outside of academic schooling confines. I’d never realized how much vital information I had amassed, much of it while simply playing, until it came flying back upon reflection. It reached its peak that day when I returned home to have dinner with my Mom and Dad. I listened as Dad discussed the way Native members of a committee were being brushed off by a state agency as they sat in a meeting that they’d been specifically invited to as tribal hunters and gatherers. The tribal members shared TEK about why the deer in the Western Oregon region were losing hair. Years prior to western scientific information finding an exotic lice species responsible for what is now termed Hair Loss Syndrome, Native tribal members identified the very patterns that had been noted and passed them along through a combination of TEK and TK data. My father, along with other Elders, detailed how the warming trends had allowed a surge of “bugs” to “chew” on the deer, and the massive amount of hair loss that they were all witnessing. They’d outlined the areas in Western Oregon that had been the worst hit, held knowledge collaborations with other hunters and gatherers, and shared ongoing discussions about tribal lands and the other species that were being impacted, directly and indirectly. I sat listening, as I had done so many times before, but literally stopped eating; I suddenly realized I’d reached an awareness level I’d not been at before. There, with those two seemingly innocuous conversations, it began. My journey as a scientist, but more importantly as an educator and facilitator regarding TEK and TK.

Integrating different types of knowledge

Just as with any system, applying and infusing TEK into studies and research is not a guarantee of clarified clear-cut results in a specific topic or area, and following the Indigenous community’s guidelines is imperative when working with any Indigenous tribe or community. The exploitation and theft of Native communities’ information and resources has left an indelible mark,  which must be approached with careful consideration and allowance of Indigenous oversight to sensitive material and intellectual property. The history of theft and destruction is the reason that the publication Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges (TKs) in Climate Change Initiatives was developed for protection.

Wild horses are an integral aspect of the TEK as an indicator species for the Duckwater-Shoshone tribe (NV)

Wild horses are an integral aspect of the TEK as an indicator species for the Duckwater-Shoshone tribe (NV)

Traditional Knowledges are foundational systems with which most Indigenous populations operate.  Traditional Ecological Knowledge evolves from generations of experience; a base that is incomparable in terms of the depth, breadth, and holistic perspectives that it provides for a given ecosystem. While there can be many forms of knowledge, such as Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK), Farmer’s Ecological Knowledge (FEK), Fishermen’s Knowledge (FK), TEK is often highly developed relating to traditional Indigenous areas, and can span hundreds of years back through multiple generations. In most of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon, families relied on detailed information being correct, as they lived subsistence lifestyles. Survival depended on informational accuracy, and concerted sustainability efforts. Even small environmental indicators such as squirrel behavior in the fall, or caterpillar markings, can illustrate a TEK data set that has been established and relied on for other traditional activities, such as gathering or hunting and/or fishing. Much trading occurred between all tribal systems, particularly in the Columbia Gorge at Celilo Falls, and different areas’ TEK was often shared for planning purposes. Western Oregon and Eastern Oregon have very different climate and weather patterns, but reliance on TEK information systems was vital for all Natives. Even today, more traditional aspects of cultural information rely heavily on reciprocity and sustainability aspects of TEK for maintenance of cultural traditions and traditional value systems.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is often discounted as “irrelevant” in ideologies which are based in traditional western scientific paradigms. Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte expertly articulates how western scientific assumptions discount TEK. Colonist thought processes are still prevalent, as evidenced in science curricula. Very little Indigenous information is available for students, at any level, and the lack of TEK and biases are then carried into professional realms. Working to shift this paradigm can be difficult, and daunting. As described in Paul Nadasdy’s book Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon, when Indigenous people are invited to conferences and workshop, they are expected to utilize the vocabulary and manner of western science. The invitations come with expectations of addressing one issue at a time. Each issue, or resource, is expected to be divorced from all others, which makes accuracy for TEK experts extremely difficult. TEK is holistic and the expertise regarding the ecosystem addressed, relies on interdependence behaviors of multiple species and is uniquely separate from other, even nearby, ecosystems. TEK observations, sustainability practices, and active participation in TEK resource use and management rely on information databases that can extend back hundreds of years. These long held foundations have often been exclusionary, and TEK still remains the “underdog”, if you will, in western scientific contexts.

Writing, presenting, and collaborating in traditional science areas of research and development are accompanied with challenges of TEK information systems. Because TEK research is relatively new, and due to its interdisciplinary aspect, it’s slow to be accepted and integrated into western science methodology, and funding is not as accessible as it is in other areas. I’m continuously looking for grant funding to continue my research. Increased TEK documentation that is in accordance with the aforementioned Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup (CTKW) guidelines will help contribute to the information of how climate change effects are impacting aspects of anthropogenic causes of climate change and other human impacts on the environment.

I strive to contribute information, along with other TEK scientists and Indigenous communities, to illustrate the relevant contributions that TEK has in scientific communities, and the positive impacts it has in tribal nations. I strive to help change the preconceived notion that TEK is a misnomer, and irrelevant to western scientific systems. TEK is somewhat like an outlier dataset point that, when examined and applied, can illuminate the entire context of the topic. TEK can help to clarify, enhance, and even augment knowledge that is long believed to have been studied exhaustively. When properly applied, TEK can often create a 3D approach to climate change issues presently, rather than the usual 2D regular printed paper or computer screen analyses that have been traditionally relied upon. TEK offers an integrated system of environment and timing knowledge that adds a dimension where none has been fully examined previously. It is the Indigenous science that puts faces and names in congruence with places and events, and assists in the long term assessment of what exactly is going on, by looking at long-held trends from the past.

An added dimension in studying climate change

Many scholars are, and have been, examining climate change issues from a very pragmatic and logical regimented approach that is rooted in western scientific dogmas. Everything from temperatures to land base changes, agricultural crops impacted to increased diseases that are being altered from climate change events. This logic and pragmatism provides much needed information, but difficulties arise when data is deficient in areas of human interaction with the environment, and impacts to human cultural issues. Models that are run for specific tasks cannot offer nor evaluate qualitative measures of human interaction issues such as cultural impact adaptations, traditional food set shifting, or phenology sequencing in relation to traditional cultural activities. Multiple data sets and models are run daily on issues at hand happening worldwide, lacking the insight that TEK can offer. TEK adds a holistic approach to climate change that no other data set can provide. Through the depth, breadth, and length of documented TEK and TK, there is a wealth of information that models and western science cannot reach though western science approaches alone. Human interaction and observation of the environment has been commonly relied upon for multiple generations. This type of interaction is noted in petroglyphs, and in communities FEK, FK, and LEK provide a much shorter timeframe and often a more limited dataset than Indigenous TEK, however. There is a realm of information offered that is complementary, or even new in some instances, when TEK is applied and adjusted to examine environmental events that are occurring. Dovetailing TEK and western scientific methodology can provide datasets that address climate change Impacts in an effective holistic manner, and more comprehensively illustrate human interfacing systems.

Traditional canoe of the Quinault Indian Tribe (WA)

Traditional canoe of the Quinault Indian Tribe (WA)

My 2013-2014 research work was funded through the Northwest Climate Science Center and Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, involving in-depth research with tribes in Pacific Northwest. My research examined climate change impacts to Northwest Native traditional culture and practices. My 2015 research work through generous support of the Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative extended that research to include tribes in the Great Basin region. This research involving tribes’ TEK traditional cultural adaptation responses to climate change both in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Basin brought forth new results of a time and phenology issue perceived in Native American culture that extend beyond seasonality. This newfound timing issue is based on surrounding environmental cues rather than the linear time sequencing that is common with clocks, and calendars devised from abstract time creation. Additionally encompassed are various levels of anticipated changes, with resulting adaptation response measures by Native communities. Adaptation responses included practices such as traditional food substitutions, adjusting timing sequences of hunting, gathering, fishing, or ceremonial events, or noting the changes in environmental and ecological cycles. These responses brought forth results that models and data sets could not have produced alone.

Much like analyzing tree rings for fire, disease, and flood events, TEK can offer a broader view of ecological and scientific topics researched and examined  that are localized in nature, but broad in perspective. Trends that have been documented through generations are more likely to offer detailed long term data patterns, provide tools for a better analysis, and add more comprehensive insight than stand alone western scientific methodologies. Items such as basket materials, regalia changes and fluctuations (due to materials being impacted by events such as floods, fires, or other catastrophic impacts can cause alterations and fluctuation patterns to traditional regalia and use), or even cooking and eating utensils can provide data that can be added into assessing climate change researched topics such as weather fluctuations, tree material adaptations, foods and crop impacts, any issue relating to environmental composition and the human interaction with environmental resources. Even songs, or stories that were once assumed to be merely entertainment can prove to be valuable tools in the quest to understand our changing environment and climate change events.

TEK, when applied, has been able to realize information that can clarify climate change research and analyses further, adding to the base knowledge about cycles and anticipated results, explaining certain impacts with an added depth and breadth that has been lacking in western scientific methods sans TEK. In this time of climate change uncertainty, TEK offers a tool that, can be applicable for insightful results, bridging the interdisciplinary gap that has existed within the traditional rigor of conventional scientific research. Unconventional methods are now at the forefront of addressing climate change research, information, analyses, and policy. This is one of the many ways that Traditional Knowledges can provide understanding in a rapidly changing world.

Dr. Samantha Chisholm Hatfield is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, from the Tututni Band, and is also Cherokee. She earned a Doctorate from Oregon State University in Environmental Sciences focusing on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of Siletz Tribal Members, from Oregon State University. Dr. Chisholm Hatfield’s specializations include: Indigenous TEK, tribal adaptations due to climate change, and Native culture issues. She’s worked with Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, and successfully completed a Post-Doctoral Research position with Northwest Climate Science Center. She’s spoken on the national level such as the First Stewards Symposium, National Congress of American Indians, Northwest Climate Conference, and webinars. She’s helped coordinate tribal participation for the Northwest Climate Science Center and Oregon State’s Climate Boot Camp workshops. Her dissertation has been heralded nationally by scholars as a template for TEK research, and remains a staple conversation item for academics and at workshops. She is a Native American Longhouse Advisory Board member at Oregon State University, was selected as an H.J. Andrews Forest Visiting Scholar, is actively learning Tolowa, Korean, and continues her traditional cultural practices. In her spare time she dances traditionally at pow wows, spends time with family, and is the owner of a non-profit organization that teaches the game of lacrosse to disadvantaged youth.    

 

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.

Two Surprising Facts about NOAA

This week the US Senate committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation holds the nomination hearing of Wilbur Ross for Secretary of the Department of Commerce. If confirmed, Ross will take the helm of the department that has a critical mission to ‘create the conditions for economic growth and opportunity.’

There are two facts that may surprise you about the major bureau within the Department of Commerce—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA includes the oldest civilian science organization, established by Thomas Jefferson Ferdinand R. Hassler lead the first survey of U.S. coasts.

Ferdinand R. Hassler proposed a science approach that was adopted for the survey of US coasts. He was charged with overseeing the design and manufacture of special scientific instruments to accomplish the goal of the 1807 Act signed by President Jefferson. Source: http://bit.ly/scoast. Image source: NOAA

On Feb 10, 1807, Thomas Jefferson signed the act that led to the formation of the oldest science “agency” at the time, the Survey of the Coast. The purpose of the act was to survey “the coasts of the United States” including “…any other bank or shoal and the soundings and currents beyond the distance aforesaid to the Gulf Stream, as in his opinion may be especially subservient to the commercial interests of the United States.” (Emphasis added.)

From the very beginning, successful navigation by ships to and from US ports was understood to be foundational to economic activities of the young democracy. The agency may have changed names over time, but it still exists as part of NOAA in the Department of Commerce.

NOAA services support more than one-third of US GDP

According to the NOAA Chief Scientist’s 2016 report, products and services of NOAA affect more than one-third of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States. This initially may seem surprising, but it starts to make sense if you think about just a few of the services provided.

NOAA helps ships navigate successfully to and from port by providing accurate nautical charts for the safety of maritime commerce. In addition, NOAA shares timely and accurate information on factors influencing water levels (tides, storm surge, sea level rise, etc.). NOAA also developed the Air Gap system which updates every 6 minutes to inform ship’s captains about changing conditions to keep ships from running aground or into the bridge.

Anyone who eats seafood benefits from NOAA’s stewardship of sustainable fisheries and healthy ecosystems in ways that support jobs and helps keep our seafood safe. NOAA has improved forecasts for harmful algal blooms. Scientists at the agency and cooperative institutes conduct research and monitoring for changes in fisheries and marine ecosystems from ocean acidification and temperature changes.

Businesses, farmers, homeowners and nearly everyone living in the US at some point makes important decisions based on weather forecasts. No matter your source of weather, all forecasts are underpinned by observations and models provided by NOAA through its National Weather Service (NWS) and National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS).

National Hurricane Center Hurricane Track Improvement

Recent Tropical storm and hurricane forecasts from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) have improved track forecasts over time by narrowing the evacuation region over longer lead times (NOAA).

Working with domestic and international partners, NOAA provides increasingly accurate hurricane tracks which gives people more time to get out of harm’s way. More accurate forecasts help save lives and lessen disruptions to economic activities.

Annual US GDP in 2015 was 18036.6 billion US dollars. Services that support one-third of GDP are s worth it. NOAA’s budget is equivalent to only a nickel a day for every American (FY16 Budget).

 NOAA

Coastal intelligence for the 21st century. NOAA provides the latest science and observations for protecting lives and supporting a growing economy. Source: NOAA

  NOAA (http://bit.ly/frHassler) B. Ekwurzel created combined image with labels (left image: http://bit.ly/hurEvac; Right image: http://bit.ly/2jytXsf)

Can President Trump Uphold Scientific Integrity in Government Decisionmaking? New Report Tells What’s At Stake

Last week, the US Department of Energy released a revised scientific integrity policy in what was likely the last move by the Obama administration to promote scientific integrity in federal decision-making. But we cannot forget the many steps that preceded it. Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists releases a report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking: Lessons from the Past Two Administrations and What’s at Stake under the Trump Administration. The report characterizes the progress, missteps and unfinished business of scientific integrity under the Obama administration and considers what’s at stake under the Trump administration.

How will our new president treat government science? Will his administration follow the new scientific integrity policies now in place at federal agencies? And importantly, will the new policies and practices across the government be able to safeguard science through his presidency?

We’ve certainly seen some alarming indicators of how President Trump will respect science. In addition to spreading false information on climate science, vaccines, and wind farms (to name a few), we continue to see cabinet nominees with strong records of disparaging science or undermining science-based policies. It is hard to imagine a Trump administration where science won’t be politicized.

To be fair, as the report details, the Obama administration was not without missteps when it comes to politics overriding science (Think: ozone and emergency contraception). But it’s easy to forget where we came from.

Scientific integrity from Bush to Obama: We’ve come a long way, baby

In the early 2000s, reports started trickling out revealing that the George W Bush Administration was misusing science. We heard from government scientists across federal agencies that their work was being suppressed, manipulated, or misused by political forces. And this was happening across federal agencies and across issue areas—from FDA drug approvals to education to endangered species to climate change. The scientific community was caught off guard. Never before had political interference in science been so pervasive and so widespread across the government.

But the scientific community fought back. The Union of Concerned Scientists organized 15,000 scientists to tell the administration that this disrespect of science would not stand. We surveyed thousands of federal scientists to quantify and document the state of science in federal decision-making. We developed detailed policy recommendations—many of which were ultimately enacted by the next administration. We got strong media coverage, pushed other prominent scientific voices to speak out on this issue, and raised the political price of misusing science for political purposes. The administration ultimately walked back on several political moves where science had been undermined.

csd-blog-si-progress-chart

This chart from “Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking” assesses the scientific integrity progress made at various federal agencies to date. (Click for full-sized version.)

When the next president came in, scientific integrity was high on the agenda. In his inaugural speech, President Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” and took several steps in his first hundred days to do so. There are now scientific integrity policies at 24 federal agencies. While they vary in quality, the policies are designed to guard against the kind of abuse we saw under the Bush administration. Many federal scientists now have more rights written into their agencies’ policies—rights to share their scientific work with the media and public, rights to review documents based on their science before their public release, and rights to share their work in the scientific community. Many policies also explicitly prohibit political appointees and public affairs staff from manipulating agency science, and some agencies have instated scientific integrity officials to oversee the new policies. We have a long way to go in terms of ensuring these policies are implemented, but we are certainly in a better place than we were eight years ago.

Scientists to Trump: We are ready and watching

So how will government science fare under Trump? Scientists are not just going to wait and see. More than 5,500 scientists have now signed onto a letter asking the president-elect to uphold scientific integrity in his administration. Government scientists are more prepared to recognize losses in scientific integrity than ever before and they are now equipped with more tools for dealing with it when they occur. Scientists everywhere are archiving government data and websites, watching every move of the administration, and prepared to hold the new administration accountable when they misuse science or target scientists. We know what’s at stake. We’ve come too far with scientific integrity to see it unraveled by an anti-science president. It’s worth fighting for. And I won’t sit on the sidelines.

The Truth About Pruitt’s EPA Lawsuits is Even Worse Than You Might Think

One well-reported thing about Scott Pruitt, President-elect Trump’s nominee for EPA Administrator, is his penchant for filing lawsuits to block the EPA from enforcing clean air, clean water and climate regulations, rather than suing polluters in his own state of Oklahoma.

This alone ought to provide ample grounds for rejecting his nomination. But a closer look at these lawsuits and the legal arguments Pruitt has advanced (or signed onto) tells an even more disturbing story. The legal arguments are disingenuous, often unprincipled and extreme, and display an unfortunate strategy of saying just about anything to win a case.

Consider these three examples.

Pruitt takes on climate scientists: the 2010 lawsuit challenging the EPA’s “Endangerment” finding

global_surface_tempsIn 2009, the EPA made a long overdue, and wholly unremarkable finding that greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels may endanger public health and welfare. In this finding, the EPA acknowledged the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community and the multiple lines of independent evidence supporting this conclusion.

While the finding broke no new ground scientifically, it was important legally: when the EPA finds that a pollutant endangers public health or welfare, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate sources of that pollutant. In this case, that meant power plants, cars, trucks, and other sources that combust coal, oil, and natural gas.

To stop such regulation in its tracks, Scott Pruitt filed a lawsuit to overturn the endangerment finding, which he and his fellow litigants characterized as “arbitrary and capricious.” Believe it or not, Pruitt’s primary argument was that the EPA should not have relied upon the multiple reports on climate change issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)(established by the United Nations which synthesizes the work of thousands of scientists), the US Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) (a Bush administration body of 13 federal agencies that issued 21 reports on climate change), and the National Research Council (NRC)(the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences).

Pruitt’s legal brief never quite explains what is wrong with relying upon the world’s most prominent experts, but it claimed that the EPA in effect wrongly delegated its decisionmaking to these bodies.

Here are the rather sharp words the court used when it unanimously dismissed this claim:

This argument is little more than a semantic trick. EPA simply did here what it and other decisionmakers often must do to make a science-based judgment: it sought out and reviewed existing scientific evidence to determine whether a particular finding was warranted. It makes no difference that much of the scientific evidence in large part consisted of “syntheses” of individual studies and research. Even individual studies and research papers often synthesize past work in an area and then build upon it. This is how science works. EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question [emphasis added][Page 27]

Take a moment to digest this: the person nominated to head the EPA sued that agency because it relied upon the work of the world’s most knowledgeable scientists when making a finding regarding the most important scientific question of our lifetime—whether humans are causing global warming.

Pruitt’s lawsuits to block mercury reductions using a rigged cost-benefit analysis  Peggy Davis/CC-BY SA (Flickr)

Photo: Peggy Davis/CC-BY SA (Flickr)

Mercury has long been known to be one of the most potent neurotoxins: ingestion of even very small amounts can have devastating effects, particularly on children. Coal and oil-fired power plants are responsible for more than 50 percent of the mercury emissions in the United States, which travel long distances and deposit in water bodies, leading to ingestion by fish and humans who consume fish. There is effective technology that many power plants use to control mercury and other toxic pollutants, but approximately forty percent of existing power plants do not use it.

In 1990 Congress amended the Clean Air Act to specifically authorize the EPA to address mercury emissions (and other air toxics), but no progress was made due to EPA delays and litigation. In 2011, the Obama Administration issued a rule to cut mercury emissions from power plants.

The rule required approximately 40 percent of existing power plants to install the same proven controls that the other 60 percent had already adopted.

The EPA estimated that it would avert up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year.

Scott Pruitt and others launched a lawsuit to prevent the EPA from cutting mercury and toxic air pollutants from power plants. He scored an initial victory on a technicality—the EPA had failed to consider cost of regulation at the preliminary stage when it was considering whether to regulate mercury. (I call this a technicality, because the EPA did perform a formal cost benefit analysis at the later stage when it issued the regulation).

The EPA subsequently complied with the court order and used an updated analysis to support the rule. The analysis showed “monetized” benefits of between $37-90 billion versus a cost of $9 billion.

Unsatisfied, Pruitt filed a second lawsuit, this time taking aim at the cost benefit analysis. As was the case with the endangerment finding, Pruitt’s attack led with an absurd argument – this time about cost benefit analysis.

When the EPA tallied up the costs of the regulation, it included direct costs, like the cost of installing the pollution control, and indirect costs, like higher electricity prices. Similarly, when the EPA calculated the benefits of the regulation, it considered direct benefits, like improved public health from mercury reduction, but also indirect benefits, like reductions in other pollutants such as smog and sulfur dioxide because the pollution control technology used for mercury also reduces these pollutants.

Pruitt’s new lawsuit claims that the EPA cannot consider these “co-benefits.” Instead, he contended that the EPA should only be allowed to count the benefits from mercury reduction. His argument makes no sense—the whole point of cost–benefit analysis is to determine whether an overall societal benefit of a regulation exceeds its overall cost. And nothing in the Clean Air Act or in past practice requires the EPA to use blinders when judging the benefit. In fact, for years, under both political parties, the EPA has factored in “co-benefits” and federal guidance on cost-benefit analysis calls for it to be included.

The court has not yet ruled on this specious claim, but it did reject a request to put the rule on hold while it sorted the question out, suggesting the court’s early skepticism of the argument’s merit. Regardless of the ultimate ruling, the bottom line in the case is this: Pruitt indefensibly favored economic analysis of regulations that considers all of their costs, but only some of their benefits.

Pruitt’s interstate pollution lawsuits reveal further hypocrisy  OK.gov

Photo: OK.gov

It is revealing to note that, at the same time as Pruitt was suing the EPA to count all the costs (but not all the benefits) of its mercury ruling, he also argued against factoring in costs in a separate lawsuit that sought to block an EPA rule that prevents upwind states from sending their pollutants to downwind states in such quantities as to cause the downwind states to exceed heath-based pollution concentration limits.

By way of background, the EPA has tried for years to address the problem of interstate air pollution, but it is fiendishly complex. Many upwind states emit pollutants to multiple downwind states, many downwind states receive pollutants from multiple upwind states, and some states are both upwind and downwind states. Thus, it is difficult to devise a formula to fairly and effectively apportion responsibility.

In 2011, the EPA crafted a “Transport Rule” to address the problem. They conducted extensive analysis of the costs involved to determine how expensive it would be, per ton of pollutant reduction, to ensure that upwind states do not cause downwind states’ air quality to exceed federal standards. They then gave each upwind state a pollution “budget” for the state to use to reduce the pollutants that were wafting beyond their borders, based on this “cost per ton” reduction benchmark.

Scott Pruitt and others challenged this rule, arguing—believe it or not—that costs of compliance should not be the yardstick, arguing instead for an approach that would have been nearly impossible to administer. Not surprisingly, in a 6-2 vote, the Supreme Court rejected his attack.

The bottom line in this case is this: the EPA focused on a problem that states can’t solve on their own (interstate air pollution). They solved the problem using a cost-effectiveness benchmark that is fair to all states, and that conservatives profess to favor. Pruitt’s attack on this approach demonstrates an abandonment of conservative principles in the service of what appears to be his ultimate objective—stopping regulation.

Opposing science to block regulation

Pruitt’s lawsuits clearly demonstrate that he is against regulation, particularly of the oil and gas industry. That much we already knew. But when one looks at the actual cases he has filed and the legal arguments he has advanced, one sees something even more disturbing—a disrespect for science, a penchant for a rigged method of performing cost-benefit analysis, and a lack of interest in helping to police the problem of interstate air pollution—which clearly must be done at the federal level.

This all adds up to someone who uses the law to block good science. This is not acceptable, particularly for the head of the EPA. And that is why I, and twelve other former state environmental protection agency heads, have signed a letter opposing this nomination. Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr) Photo: Peggy Davis/CC-BY SA (Flickr)

The Department of Energy Just Created a Powerful Tool to Protect its Scientists

It’s harder to create good science, and to follow the evidence where it leads, when your work can be easily corrupted by political meddling. The Department of Energy has significantly expanded protections for its scientific workforce, the majority of which work in America’s great national laboratories, by finalizing a significantly improved scientific integrity policy.

The policy was announced today in a post on Medium and at a National Press Club speech by Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz.

What the policy says

The policy forbids employees from censoring or altering scientific documents or directing scientists to change scientific findings or conclusions. It commits the DOE to complying with federal whistleblower protections for scientists. And it designates a Scientific Integrity Official to serve as an ombudsperson for scientific integrity complaints. In addition, the policy:

  • encourages scientists to participate in scientific conferences and publish in scientific journals;
  • explicitly protects the ability of scientists to share personal opinions as private citizens, including on social media; and
  • gives scientists the right to review and correct public materials that rely on their work, both before and after release.

The language is strong and precise, giving scientists and science advocates a solid platform to stand on in pushing back against the manipulation and suppression of science and the harassment of scientists. Notably, the new policy extends protections to contractors in addition to DOE employees—essential because nearly all of the national labs are run by contractors.

Why do DOE scientists need protections?

The department has been working on this policy for more than two years. Previously, DOE had a “policy statement” that was short on details and provided little meaningful protection from political interference in their work.

In 2014, a veteran DOE scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory appeared to have been fired for an academic article he wrote on his own time. My colleague Gretchen Goldman pointed out at the time how the whole embarrassing episode could have been prevented if the department had a better scientific integrity policy. At many federal agencies, these policies stop problems before they start.

In the wake of the firing, UCS met with senior DOE officials to provide specific advice on how to improve protections for DOE scientists. It’s great to see that they took our concerns seriously.

What comes next at DOE

Now that the policy is in place, it will be up to the next energy secretary to implement it. The new policy could not have come at a better time, just days after Congress claimed authority to slash the pay of federal scientists who produce politically unpopular research and amidst enormous uncertainty over what the Trump administration means for scientific independence.

 NRCgov via Flickr

Senators will have the opportunity through the confirmation process to get Energy Secretary nominee Rick Perry to make firm commitments to implementing the new scientific integrity policy. Photo: NRCgov via Flickr

Rick Perry now has a road map. The Senate should use the confirmation process to ensure he commits to following it. Senators should prioritize asking Governor Perry for details on how he plans to implement the new scientific integrity standards. And then they should hold him to those commitments through continued oversight.

A few questions I’d ask Governor Perry: Are there any parts of the scientific integrity policy that he would change? What plans does he have to train DOE employees about how to use the new policy? Will he give the ombudsperson the authority to investigate allegations of political interference in science? What kind of public reporting will the department do?

This last point is important. Scrutiny will be essential for the policy to be meaningfully implemented. Currently, for example, the EPA and Department of Interior publicly report information about allegations of political interference in science and how they were resolved. How will the DOE follow their lead?

Scientific integrity policies across the government

All modern presidents have politicized science—including President Obama. But the Obama administration has simultaneously taken steps to make federal government science and scientists more resilient to such activity. It began with the president’s inaugural pledge to restore science to its rightful place, followed by a presidential memorandum and a directive from the White House science advisor instructing federal agencies and departments to develop scientific integrity policies.

While there are still some laggards, most large federal agencies and departments—including the EPA, NOAA, NASA, the Department of Interior, USDA, and now DOE—now have policies in place that set high expectations for ensuring that independent science and scientists can fully inform government decisions. It’s our responsibility to ensure that these expectations are met. We’ll have more to say on this topic next week.

The Inquisition Congress, Abetted by Trump, Has Begun

The increasingly reckless House of Representatives, caught up in a public mutiny, may have walked back its abandonment of congressional ethics. But it simultaneously took several other steps that will enable corruption and greatly expand political influence over the work of experts at NASA, NOAA, EPA, and other science agencies, compromising their ability to serve the public interest.

The House rules assault

This week, the House made significant changes to the rules under which it operates. First and foremost is the Holman rule, resurrected from the 1870s, just at the end of Reconstruction. This rule allows Congress, through spending bills, to target specific initiatives and reduce the salaries of individual federal employees whose work they find irksome to $1.

Does your research suggest a chemical company that happens to be located in the district of a powerful member of Congress is responsible for environmental contamination? You could be on that list.

Remember Dr. Tom Karl, the NOAA scientist who published a climate change paper in Science and was rewarded by a subpoena from House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith? Never mind that the chairman’s actions were widely repudiated by scientific organizations. He can now just dispense with the subpoenas and retaliate against Dr. Karl by effectively eliminating his salary (or even threatening to do so).

But don’t think those baseless, political subpoenas are going away. Another change in the House rules suggests they’re going to get worse. Previously, in most committees a member of Congress needed to be present for a formal deposition under a subpoena to move forward. Now, depositions can be done by staff, whether or not members are present or Congress is in session.

In yet another rules change, the House determined that it is no longer necessary for committee chairs to affirm that subpoenas are “material and relevant,” calling that move “redundant,” perhaps attempting to set precedent that committees can go after whatever they want—a potential threat to civil liberties of all who question government.

In sum, the House now claims the authority to cut any employee’s salary without justification, and to depose anyone whenever it wants about whatever topic it wants. Even Joseph McCarthy would have been shocked.

The legislative assault

There are 52 new members of Congress who have barely found their offices, much less had time to read, analyze, and discuss legislation. But that didn’t stop the House leadership from ramming through, with little discussion or debate, legislation that would greatly increase political control over the scientists who are charged with implementing our nation’s public health and environmental laws.

The radical REINS Act passed yesterday in a mostly party-line vote. It would substitute political judgement for scientific judgement by requiring Congress to approve every significant public protection developed by federal agency scientists. This means politics could further prevent the government from protecting communities from unsafe drinking water or chemical plant explosions. The Midnight Rules bill also passed this week. It would enable Congress to roll back rules finalized last year that took years and many thousands of scientist-hours to develop—such as the standard that would improve fuel efficiency for heavy duty trucks, saving truck owners money and cutting carbon pollution.

Hey, freshman member of Congress. Are your phone lines working yet? Are you fully staffed?

Next week comes the Regulatory Accountability Act, sponsored by Bob Goodlatte, the same member of Congress who moved to gut the congressional ethics office. It’s a radical bill that would make laws like the Clean Air Act and Safe Water Drinking Act unenforceable, putting millions of Americans at risk. This bill, too, will likely pass the House with votes by members who have little understanding of its potential impact.

A strategy of sabotage

It is clear that many in Congress have little interest in government working. They aim to destroy faith in government by sabotaging its ability to function and protect the American people. And they see in the president-elect someone who may help them achieve this objective.

Donald Trump is so far sympathetic to attempts to undermine the federal scientific workforce. His transition team has targeted employees at the Departments of Energy and State. He has nominated people who have made careers of compromising the missions of the agencies they are being asked to lead. In this sense, it really doesn’t matter if Trump has a clear vision for where he wants to take the country. What matters is that those are filling the ranks of his administration know exactly what they want to do and are ready to take advantage of the commander in chief.

It is up to us to stop those in Congress and the administration who prioritize private interests over the public good. They dress up their attacks in arguments about bureaucracy run amok. They exaggerate the costs of science-based government rules while ignoring the massive benefits.

We need to see through this smokescreen. The American people did not vote to give politicians more control over the scientists who have dedicated their lives to protect them, or to shift the burden of environmental and public health threats away from those who create them.

It’s time to be calling Congress every time one of the bricks of democracy is smashed. Express your displeasure about the Regulatory Accountability Act—expected on the floor next week—and the legislation that has already passed. And let them know we will continue to watch and they will be held accountable.

Attacking Science in Week One: How Congress is Trying to Dismantle Public Protections

You may have heard that Congress is back in session this week. The House of Representatives started off by trying to eviscerate their own independent ethics watchdog behind closed doors on a national holiday. The public noticed, raised hell, and forced the chamber to reverse course.

But the absurdity in the House continues. Over the next few days, votes are scheduled on two radical proposals designed to erode the ability of federal agencies to use science to protect public health, safety, and the environment.

Congress is trying its best to eviscerate science-based processes to ensure that we have access to things like clean water (Flickr user Joe Dyer).

Congress is trying its best to eviscerate science-based processes to ensure that we have access to things like clean water (Flickr user Joe Dyer).

We’ve successfully prevented these ridiculous ideas from becoming law in the past. However, as we enter a political era where President-elect Donald J. Trump wants to dismantle our public protections, there is a legitimate path for these reckless bills to become law. And just like we noticed the ethics overreach, we have to notice these radical bills and call them out for what they are: a wonky way to undermine, politicize, and dismantle science-based public health, safety, and environmental protections and weaken popular laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

#NewYearSameCongress

One proposal, called the Regulations From The Executive In Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS Act), would force Congress to approve science-based safeguards within a narrow timeframe. If they failed to do so, the federal government would not be allowed to implement that public protection.

The other proposal, called the Midnight Rules Relief Act, would make it even easier for Congress to dismantle a significant number of science-based safeguards finalized last year, including a new standard that would improve fuel efficiency for heavy duty trucks, simultaneously saving truck owners money and reducing carbon pollution.

Neither of these proposals are new ideas. You’re probably most familiar with the REINS Act, which my colleagues have written about here, here, and here. Like a cockroach, the idea just doesn’t die. It keeps getting reintroduced at the urging of highly-paid special interest lobbyists who apparently are more interested in evading science-based safety standards rather than ensuring access to clean air and safe drinking water.

We have to notice what is happening in Congress. We cannot allow legislators to gut public protections (Flickr user USCapitol).

We have to notice what is happening in Congress. We cannot allow legislators to gut public protections (Flickr user USCapitol).

The bill threatens the integrity of the federal regulatory process and foolishly injects politics into a process that should be rooted in science. If passed, federal agencies could be prevented from implementing potentially lifesaving public health safeguards, preventing millions of Americans, especially the most vulnerable populations who often face the gravest threats, from receiving the protection afforded to them by existing laws.

The “midnight rules” bill, which just passed the House last November, is the Congressional Review Act (another radical threat to science) on steroids. To put it even more bluntly, it’s a FASTPASS for Congress to undermine, politicize, and dismantle science-based public health protections. If it were to become law, Congress would easily use just one vote to undo important clean air, chemical safety, and nutrition standards. Worse, federal agencies would be prevented from working on similar protections in the future. So, if Congress blocks clean air protections finalized last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) couldn’t revisit the topic indefinitely.

What the “midnight rules” does do is give Congress sweeping authority to substitute political judgement for scientific judgement. It gives Congress permission to ignore all of the years of technical work and public comment used to develop public health, safety, and environmental protections, and simply dismantle all these vital safeguards in one fell swoop.

Both the REINS Act and the “midnight rules” bill ignore the fact that Congress can already undo regulations they don’t like (they just have to rewrite popular laws like the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, or the Endangered Species Act). Furthermore, it ignores the fact that federal agencies are doing their work at the behest of Congress. The EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration, are just some of the agencies that are charged by Congress to use science to protect the public.

Public protections matter

These wonky bills aren’t improving the federal government. They are an attack on our daily lives. These bills exist to “rein in” public health, safety, and environmental protections, and nothing more. They have been written and drafted by corporate lobbyists not to improve the federal regulatory process, but to stymy it, and add yet another roadblock for implementing sensible safeguards.

If these bills were to become law, they would override science, and hurt our democracy as well. Whether it’s to guarantee that our drinking water is safe, the air we breathe is clean, or to even prevent a chemical disaster in our community, we must not allow ideological and other special interests to rig the rules in their favor and gut our ability to have an informed dialogue about the decisions we need to make to address the complex challenges we face. Otherwise, we are just sacrificing the “public” part of public policymaking.

The REINS Act and the “midnight rules” bill are just the first in an avalanche of bills that will be used to gut our science-based public protections. Over the next few months, we’ll see many more proposals that we’ve seen before, and some we that we haven’t.

And while we’ve prevented almost all of the efforts to undermine our science-based rulemaking process over the last few years, the path for some of these radical ideas to become law gets easier on January 20. We must notice, remain vigilant, and frequently tell our elected officials why science-based public protections matter.

Mr. Pruitt, the EPA’s Job Is to Protect Our Health and Safety. Will You?

President-elect Trump’s nominee to serve as the head of the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is well known for his attacks on the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Power Plan. But the EPA has a much broader responsibility to protect the health and safety of Americans. EPA was given the responsibility by Congress to reduce the threat of industrial pollution that impacts us all, which runs the gamut from air and water pollution to solid and radioactive waste disposal.  If he is confirmed, that will become Mr. Pruitt’s mission. But frankly, after looking into his history in Oklahoma, I am worried that he is fundamentally opposed to carrying out the agency’s charge to defend environmental and public health.

With regard to the ongoing effects of global warming, his approach so far has been to deny it is a problem through the courts and in public statements with complete disrespect for science and scientists. He has led the charge in suing the EPA on the Clean Power Plan, filing suit four times against the plan itself. Three of these were unsuccessful suits filed before the plan was even final. The fourth is pending. He has also filed suit against rules for new or modified plants to meet higher CO2 standards, as well as, unsuccessfully, against the finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health. The latter “endangerment finding” was upheld by the US Supreme Court, though Mr. Pruitt continues to refer to it as “unlawful”. I guess he puts himself above the Court. All this seems to pass for “action” in Mr. Pruitt’s view and those of his principal supporters—the oil and gas industry companies who are primarily responsible for the pollution in the first place. In fact, it seems those supporters even write some of Mr. Pruitt’s opinions for him to hasten his “action”.

But what about other issues that the EPA must confront on behalf of us all? What about other air or water pollution issues? Or enforcing the laws to hold accountable those who violate the rules? Perhaps one can argue the attorney general is not the primary public health, safety and environmental protection officer for the state. But as the highest-ranking law enforcement official, surely prosecuting bad actors that threaten the public is part of his job description (as it will be at the EPA)?

Map of EPA air quality ratings for Oklahoma

A map of EPA air quality ratings for Oklahoma shows how badly we need the agency to carry out its mission. Unfortunately, Scott Pruitt’s record doesn’t offer much hope.

Mr. Pruitt’s office has clearly been busy protecting the health and safety of Oklahomans by, you guessed it, filing lawsuits against the EPA for their rules to reduce ozone, mercury and other air toxic contaminants, regional haze, cross-state air pollution and Clean Water Act protections. Clearly, to the Attorney General, filing suit is far more important than enforcing environmental laws, because while in office he closed the environmental law enforcement unit in the Oklahoma AG’s office, and opened a Federalism unit. His spokesman stated that environmental enforcement is now handled by the solicitor general. E&E News reports that in the Solicitor General’s office, the Federalism Unit, in the first year of Mr. Pruitt’s leadership, went from a budget of zero in 2010, to over half a million dollars in  2014. At the same time the budget for environmental law fell from just under half a million dollars in 2010, to zero in 2014. Not surprisingly, a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry commented that Mr. Pruitt had found a good balance in addressing environmental concerns. That balance? Sue the EPA to reduce protections and stop enforcing them at home.

What about within the state of Oklahoma—has Mr. Pruitt been front and center on any public health and safety issues? Among many others, a huge spike in earthquakes associated with fracking and wastewater disposal from fracking operations is a major concern. Has the Attorney General been prominent on this issue that affects so many Oklahomans? Well, no. But then again, his 2013 campaign chairman and now strong supporter for his nomination to head the EPA, Harold Hamm, tried to have scientists researching the link between fracking and earthquakes fired from the University of Oklahoma.

Another major health and safety issue in Oklahoma is coal ash disposal. And this is an issue ready-made for the Attorney General. After all, he has spent much of his term suing the EPA for “overreach”, and lauding the role of the state in managing environmental and public health problems. But with coal ash, EPA regulations are acknowledged to be too weak.  So what has the state done to protect citizens, with the strong arm of the AG to back them up? Umm, nothing really.

We need an EPA Administrator who takes the mission of the agency as their own—to protect the public health and safety of all Americans. Mr. Pruitt has shown repeatedly that his mission is to protect industry from owning up to the impacts they are having on the public’s health. He has spent his public service career fighting against needed protections. He is quite clearly the wrong choice to lead the EPA. Map: creativemethods.com

The Congressional Review Act: A Radical Threat To Science

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.

 

Pruitt EPA Appointment Ominous for Environmental Justice Communities

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.

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

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 www.scileadership.com, email info@scileadership.com. Representatives of university graduate student associations can email uni@scileadership.com 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.

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

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.

Lies Hurt. Facts Matter. And So Does Resistance.

Any observer of truth will tell you that 2016 is a lie-soaked lost cause. Will 2017 see a pro-truth resistance? We’d better see to it.

We, the people, can be forgiven for some angst over the free-falling role of truth in our democracy.

We all took civics in school. We know democracy depends on reason and truth. So when your president-elect peddles conspiracy theories and continues to promote lies just weeks before his inauguration, you break a sweat. When he taps a climate denier to be the head of the agency tasked with solving climate change, you try not to panic. And when he taps the CEO of the world’s largest oil company to be our nation’s leading diplomat amidst the global climate crisis, you try not to break things.

But the truth, for all the abuse its taking, isn’t going anywhere soon.

Not only does reality function on facts, but a broad pushback against disinformation and outright lies is starting to take shape, driven by people from across American life who value reason and truth too much to put up with the foolishness. The madness, really.

It gives me hope that we can resist this descent and turn it around.

But to do so we need to collectively stay on it, push facts to the fore, and drive fact-free politics back to the wild-eyed fringes.

truth-duncam-ctr

Credit: Cause Collective, In Search Of The Truth.

There’s wrong and there’s wrong

One way of being “wrong” has to do with justice—the breach of law and of fairness across race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, and on. It’s a founding principle of this nation; we hold justice dear. But rhetoric during the presidential campaign and hateful actions in the weeks since the election show that this kind of wrong is now spreading.

Thankfully, a social movement is starting to take shape in the wake of the election. (So many early examples, like this and this and this.) It’s very formation is to resist this kind of wrong. As in, we see what you’re doing, it’s wrong, and we will work to stop you.

The other way of being “wrong” is simpler. It’s the loud gameshow-buzz “wrong.” It’s just: No. You are factually incorrect. This wrong just requires rejection. As in, we see what you’re doing, you’re wrong, and we call BS.

In a better world, all moral folks would show up to right the first wrong. And all thinking folks would instinctively reject the second. But “post-truth” became Oxford’s word of the year because of the pervasiveness of truth-distortion, outright lying, and wild fabrication in the 2016 election cycle, and the unwillingness of enough people to call BS.

This election cycle showed that you can be flat-out wrong and not face the consequences because others don’t know better or don’t care.

Take for example Trump’s nominee, as of last week, to head the Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has repeatedly distorted the truth about climate change—and now he’s nominated to lead the very agency most responsible for dealing with it.

Take also Trump’s pick, as of this weekend, to serve as Secretary of State: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has played a central role at ExxonMobil for years, a corporation called out by groups like mine for a decades-long disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about sound climate science. And now he’s nominated to serve as our nation’s chief diplomat in a time of climate crisis.

Between false statements, distortions of truth, support of junk science, and questionable motives, these two deserve our rejection. And that of the Senate.

The facts aren’t going anywhere….

The president-elect has shown a confounding disregard for facts, and his surrogates have now famously spoken of facts simply not mattering anymore. But that is of course nonsense. Would you purchase a home without the key facts in hand? Can you pay your bills without verifiable funds in your account?

For that matter, is the Fed poised to raise interest rates in the absence of evidence of the need? Are our water resources managed by what’s measurably in the reservoir, or whether we feel that glass is half full or half empty? Did the US Department of Defense develop a climate change strategy based on whimsy, or on data and analysis?

Yes, bias can be introduced when values come in to play, and this can be a good thing (e.g., when society decides to recognize the intrinsic value of species or landscapes, or intangibles like well-being) or a bad thing (e.g., when we only value what certain messengers have to say and devalue all others).

But even when they are obscured, the facts, like the physics of climate change, are unchanged.

To paraphrase members of the climate community: belief in climate change is perfectly optional; participation is compulsory. The facts will eventually overwhelm all efforts to deny them.

john_adams_facts_are_stubborn_things

Credit: izquotes.com

… but they do need some tending.

Our challenge is to beat back a mindset that’s infusing American political discourse. Not because truth is dead. But because the worry is justified in this sense: democracy depends on objectivity, evidence, and truth to inform the political process, and in our current political discourse, those things are being actively abused. When they are abused, informed progress is thwarted. And from a climate change standpoint, as from a public health standpoint, an equity and justice standpoint, a nuclear security standpoint, a you-name-it standpoint, we have no time for going backwards or veering off in uninformed directions.

What’s more, lies hurt. At the moment, we see ordinary people speaking truth to power and being threatened and vilified. And we see the incoming administration seeking names of federal employees who have worked to develop climate policy. As George Orwell said “the further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it.” But as he also said “freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

I don’t see us becoming an Orwellian post-truth society. (I do a little, usually around 3 a.m.) But the place of truth in a society—its role in informing reasoned choice and thus shaping and sustaining a sane and livable world—can be eroded if we fail to uphold and safeguard its value.

So, the facts need us.

snopes-fake-news-sites

Credit: Freepress.net

And certain facts need us urgently

We should have no illusions. Based on available evidence, we should brace for a full-on assault against sound climate science and sensible clean energy policy. Climate deniers and their fossil fuel allies (and funders) are emboldened by Trump’s win.

The same people who peddled climate disinformation in the past—the chief reason we are decades behind in averting climate crisis—may draw on this playbook again. Defunding climate science, attacking climate scientists, and sowing confusion among the public—and this time, driving the country off of its clean energy path and back toward fossil-fuel dependence and massive corporate profits.

The millions of Americans who have, through reason and evidence, come to terms with the fact that the climate is changing, with real risks for people, and that human actions are largely to blame? Everybody needs to buckle up and hold tight to our powers of reason. The disinformation machine is roaring to life again.

climate-science-vs-fossil-fuel-fiction

Credit: UCS

A resistance is mustering

So, where the hell are the grownups? Starting to show up, I think. Today, actors from many walks of life seem to be awake to the post-truth threat—and many are pushing back. Here are just a few of my favorite recent examples from the science and climate change front.

  • In response to a range of signals about the role of established science in the next administration, more than 2,300 scientists signed an open letter to President-elect Trump, calling on him to ensure that science “continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being.”
  • Subsequently, many hundreds of scientists have signed a letter pointedly calling on Trump to: “Publicly acknowledge that climate change is a real, human-caused, and urgent threat. If not, you will become the only government leader in the world to deny climate science. Your position will be at odds with virtually all climate scientists, most economists, military experts, fossil fuel companies and other business leaders, and the two-thirds of Americans worried about this issue.”
  • While Trump staffs up with climate deniers and proponents of US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, this pushback comes from the business world.
  • In response to the latest false Breitbart piece on global warming, the Weather Channel released this sharp video refutation with the title “Note to Breitbart: Earth Is Not Cooling, Climate Change Is Real and Please Stop Using Our Video to Mislead Americans.”
  • In response to the House Science Committee (which oversees vital agencies like the EPA and NOAA) tweeting Breitbart’s false story, many in the science community took to social media to reject both the original story and the misuse of what should be a trusted source for science—the Science Committee’s platform.
  • And in response to the nomination of Scott Pruitt, a “green and blue” coalition pushback is underway.

And this is just recently, nationally, in the climate arena. In response to the exploding practice of spreading lies and insisting they are true, world leaders, from President Obama, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to Pope Francis, have denounced those responsible. There are many other examples, large and small. Consider adding yours below—I’d love to hear.

occupy-philly-10-7-11-028

Photo: West Philly Photography

Ways to push back

To defend science, UCS will be working in the months ahead to organize our more than 17,000-member (and rapidly growing, join us!) science network to help with science watchdogging efforts. From exposing attacks in the media, communicating to policy makers, and informing the public, there will be a lot of opportunities to stand up for science. Other groups and coalitions are roaring into action too.

So, how does each of us get in on the resistance, whether in defense of scientific facts or just everyday truth? I don’t have THE answers, just some thoughts. Please add yours.

First, we stop the spread: We need to know fake news when we see it. There are suddenly lots of helpful resources to consult, like this one. Consult a list of fake news sites. Call out its disseminators. And be as kind as circumstances permit to the real people circulating this stuff: no one likes to be seen as foolish, and civility in general can use a boost.

Spot lies and fact check: If a claim seems dodgy, poke at it. These are odd times, it may be true, but it’s not too hard to check. Dozens of fact-checking organizations have signed on to an international code of fact-checking conduct. Here are just a few of the groups we can consult:

There is also a new, vetted resource for fact-checking climate change stories, specifically. Very excited about this entry.

Call BS: If we hear elected officials distort the truth, we need to find ways to call them on it. For now, we can call their office and complain; we can call their local paper; we can encourage others to on social media and give them the contact information they need.

When media outlets spread falsehoods (the egregious kind, not the inadvertent errors that can arise in the reporting process), we can call them out in similar ways. And we can help restore the truth in the public’s eye by, for example, writing a fact-based letter to the editor, or providing a fact-based comment on a fact-distorting post. (And if this gets uncivil, as it too often does, we must walk away from said comments and not look back.) I’m not suggesting this will be pleasant. But if we value honesty and truth, we need to start demanding it.

Pick our fights: The ideological fringe from which fake news originated may never be convinced that, e.g., Hillary Clinton is not running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria. The facts, in their world view, are often just part of the cover up. It’s important for us to save our energy and let it go when someone is unreachable.

Support good journalism: Knowing the internet to be a firehose of information, let’s choose our sources of news and commentary with care. When we see brave work, demanding and ferreting out the truth, let’s praise it and share it. And when we know our sources are good, let’s subscribe, pay, and support their work. As one Senator recently lamented, “It’s the biggest crisis facing our democracy, the failing business model of real journalism.” May the fake news infection drive many of us back to the remaining bastions of quality reporting, and to new ones stepping up to fill the void, with cash in hand. As more of us do this, a reasoned, informed political discourse can be restored.

Speak our truth:  And each of us has watch the world closely, draw our best, reasoned conclusions about what’s right and true, and speak our truth to power.

To an honest New Year

Let’s let go the handwringing. In many ways, it was bound to come to this.

Long-standing and growing trends—the debasing of legitimate journalism, the rise of hyper-partisan cable news outlets, the success of a fake-news business model that thrives on the ever-expanding reach of social media—have now helped give us an unapologetically ill-informed and injudicious new opinion-leader in Donald Trump. The scenario is complete.

But now, we Americans who value evidence, trust in science, and want the truth,

who fear the undermining of social and environmental progress and reject the groundless, irrational, and shortsighted reasons given,

and who frankly, just don’t like being made the fool,

we need to stand and be counted for the objective truth and the cold hard facts on which it stands.

The First Three Reasons Senators Should Oppose Scott Pruitt for EPA

President-elect Trump has promised to return the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to its original mission to deliver clean air and ‘crystal clear’ water.  The EPA was established by President Nixon in 1970 because “Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food.” Those pollutants primarily come from the burning of fossil fuels in cars, trucks, and industrial sources like power plants and refineries.  We need an EPA Administrator that will take us forward, to tackle the pollution challenges of today, and not take us back by weakening existing standards.

Photos from the early 1970s showing the effects of industrial pollution in North Birmingham, AL (left) and Cleveland, OH (right).

Photos from the early 1970s showing the effects of industrial pollution in North Birmingham, AL (left) and Cleveland, OH (right).

We need an EPA Administrator who protects our environmental laws, is guided by science when crafting and implementing policy, puts public health ahead of dirty energy special interests, and has the qualifications necessary to safeguard the American public from climate change. The EPA must also continue to be a lead agency on addressing environmental justice issues, a critical concern for low income communities and communities of color that bear a disproportionate health burden of pollution from fossil fuels.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt meets none of those criteria and hails from the very industry whose pollution the EPA was created to oversee.

Numerous reasons for Senators to oppose Pruitt’s nomination will come to light over the next days and weeks.  And Senators would be wise to withhold their support until more is known. But here are three good reasons to consider:

  1. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt was no protector of public health and safety. He devoted his office to be the fossil fuel industry’s law firm.  He set up a legal defense fund that fossil fuel companies could donate to, he used the prestige and resources of his office to file multiple suits on their behalf to interfere with EPA doing its job, and even signed letters to public offices that were ghost written by them. He was their lawyer, not ours, and he cannot be trusted as the head of EPA.
  2. After a conference hosted by Pruitt’s office, the Republican AGs set a ‘strike force’ to block environmental protections. According to a Pulitzer Prize-winning expose by the New York Times, this handful of state officials worked to “detail major federal environmental action, like efforts to curb fish kills, reduce ozone pollution, slow climate change and tighten regulation of coal ash. Then they identified which attorney general’s office was best positioned to try to monitor it and, if necessary, attempt to block it.”
  1. Pruitt was one of the leading state AGs suing the EPA to block the Clean Power Plan, a policy that sets the first-ever limits on dangerous carbon pollution from power plants, a major driver of climate change, and encourages the development of clean, renewable energy. Pruitt is on record disputing the agency’s core legal authority, the Clean Air Act, and should be immediately disqualified from leading an agency he has fought tirelessly against. Pruitt even advised states to refuse to comply with the rules.
  2. Pruitt’s opposition to the Clean Power Plan reflects his cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry as well as his dismissal, denial, and attempts to deceive the public around the science of climate change.  According to an op-ed written by Scott Pruitt in Tulsa World, “Healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy, and global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
  1. Pruitt’s close association with Howard Hamm threatens scientific integrity at the Agency. Oil tycoon Harold Hamm told a University of Oklahoma dean last year that he wanted certain scientists there dismissed 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. The Clean Air Act requires scientists to regularly review the nation’s standards for specific pollutants, like ozone, and the EPA is required to strengthen those standards in line with those scientists’ recommendations. 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 on those panels.

The bottom line is that Mr. Pruitt is a completely inappropriate choice to head up the EPA: it’s like going into the Super Bowl and discovering that your quarterback actually plays for the opposing team. As UCS President Ken Kimmell said in a statement yesterday, “Pruitt’s statements and actions are in direct conflict with the job to which he has been nominated.”

In the days to come, UCS scientists and experts will be blogging from a variety of perspectives on why the job of the EPA Administrator matters so critically for the health and well-being of all Americans and for safeguarding  the natural ecosystems that sustain our planet.  The stakes are high for this appointment and we want to explain why we think the Senate should vote “no” on this appointment.

Please make your voice heard: tell your Senator to vote “no” on Scott Pruitt for EPA Administrator. Photos by Leroy Woodson and Frank Aleksandrowicz, NARA

The Internet Can’t Get Over the House Science Committee’s Climate-Denying Tweet—and That’s a Good Thing

Yesterday the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology tweeted some good ole fashioned climate denial—you know, the old tired long discredited nonsensical claim that cold weather negates the global consensus of scientists that climate change is happening (It doesn’t.).  The scientific community and the news media did not let this go unnoticed and that’s a good thing for our continuing to hold decision makers accountable for respecting science under a Trump administration.

Here was the tweet:

.@BreitbartNews: Global Temperatures Plunge. Icy Silence from Climate Alarmists https://t.co/uLUPW4o93V

— Sci,Space,&Tech Cmte (@HouseScience) December 1, 2016

It was quickly followed by a multitude of responses from other decision makers, scientists, and others. Think Progress has a nice summary of responses. I especially liked this one from House Science Committee member Representative Don Beyer:

This isn't factual, it's embarrassing, and Breitbart is not a credible news source. We need to bring *science* back to the Science Committee https://t.co/oZ6GfFAlUI

— Rep. Don Beyer (@RepDonBeyer) December 1, 2016

Another day, another Lamar Smith attack on science

I saw the House Science tweet and didn’t think much of it. Perhaps I’m cynical. Perhaps I’ve been following science in Washington DC for too long. But it didn’t seem notable to me.  This is because the House Science Committee, and particularly its Chairman Lamar Smith, now have a broad and consistent record of denying climate science, bullying scientists across disciplines, and otherwise disparaging the scientific enterprise it’s supposed to be supporting.

Not that I’m keeping a running list (I am actually), but here are some highlights:

  • The Committee attacked scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for producing policy relevant climate science, demanding to see their email communications.
  • Currently, the Committee is targeting this scientist, well, the Union of Concerned Scientists, for having spoken with state attorneys general about the role of ExxonMobil selling a product they knew to be harmful due to the risks of climate change.
  • Chairman Smith previously attempted to interfere in the National Science Foundation’s grant process, ridiculing scientists’ work that he found silly.
  • Chairman Smith tried to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job of science-based public health and environmental protections via the Sound Science Act
  • And he’s attacked science in other ways too. But who’s counting?! (Me.)

And yesterday’s climate-denying tweet was not even its first science-attacking tweet of the week. The day prior, the Committee’s handle had trolled Yale Climate Connections.

Another group ‘dealing’ w/ climate change in a non-scientific way, along w/ the other green groups who value politics & emotion over facts https://t.co/PF5lrWyXBu

— Sci,Space,&Tech Cmte (@HouseScience) November 30, 2016

We cannot normalize science denial

Despite this pervasive record of science-slamming, the House Science Committee was still taken to task for the recent climate-denying tweet and this is a good thing. We cannot normalize science denial. It is entirely inappropriate for members of Congress to be peddling misinformation on climate science—especially when they are in charge of the House Science Committee. The world noticed this and called them on it.

We need to do more of this. When science is denied by our decision makers, this cannot stand. We must persist in calling out such misinformation when we see it, whether it will come from the House Science Committee, the Trump administration, or other decision makers in the future. Americans deserve leaders who respect science and scientists. I promise to be a little less cynical moving forward and I hope you will too.

The Big Three Threats to Progress on Added Sugar Transparency

The FDA’s revisions to the nutrition facts label, which we celebrated in May, could now be under siege on a few different fronts.

1. Delay

First, the food industry is considering adding a rider to the continuing resolution appropriations bill that Congress is working on right now. This is not a new tactic. You might remember that back in April, lawmakers snuck a rider into the House appropriations bill that would have discouraged the FDA from including an added sugars line in an update to the Nutrition Facts Label.

Now, the food industry is proposing two different riders: one that would delay the FDA’s ability to enforce the rule for years, until final guidance on dietary fiber and added sugars is completed, and another that would tie FDA’s enforcement of the new rule to the implementation of USDA’s genetically engineered food disclosure rules, which haven’t yet been written. The Food & Beverage Issue Alliance (a group made up of the biggest food and beverage trade associations, like the American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association) pleaded with the USDA and HHS to link the two rules to reduce the “unduly burdensome” nature of the changes in an October letter.

This pushback from industry to delay the rule is yet another example of its efforts to thwart science-based rules to keep the status quo, in this case making sure that consumers are kept in the dark about added sugar content for as long as possible.

2. Roll back

Another threat to the Nutrition Facts Label revisions is the irksome Gingrich-era bill, the Congressional Review Act. The Congressional Review Act (CRA) allows Congress to render regulations passed within 60 days of the end of the House or Senate sessions null. According to the Congressional Research Service, this could apply to regulations finalized any time after mid-May of this year. That cutoff date depends on when Congress adjourns this year.

Unfortunately, since the FDA published its nutrition facts labeling revision rule on May 27, 2016, it could be on the chopping block. Invoking the CRA brings with it the doubly awful lever of preventing agencies from issuing a “substantially similar” rule without the express authorization of Congress. This means that if this rule is reversed, the FDA would not be able to update or revise the nutrition facts label for the foreseeable future.

There is little precedent on the successful use of this Act, but the one time a CRA bill was passed by G.W. Bush’s Congress in 2001, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s workplace ergonomics standards were rolled back, and the agency has not issued a similar rule since. For context, CRA was invoked several times during the Obama administration, but these were quickly vetoed by the president.

3. Ignore

Tom Price, Trump’s pick for HHS Secretary, has benefited from Big Soda political contributions and has a history of voting against transparency and improved federal nutrition standards. (Photo: house.gov)

The final threat is that Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is Tom Price, a physician and Georgia congressman whose voting record reveals his lack of interest in improving the quality of school meals and transparency in the food system.

While Price hasn’t been extremely vocal on food issues during his tenure in Congress, he voted against the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010, which when passed, helped to improve the nutrition of school meals across on the country, including lowering added sugar amounts. A vote against HHFKA is concerning, considering that HHS will be working with the USDA to issue the next version of the Dietary Guidelines in 2020.

Price was also a co-sponsor of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, which exempted certain retailers from menu-labeling rules. And, while the top industries contributing to Price’s campaigns have been health professional organizations and the pharmaceutical industry, he has received roughly $50,000 from Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association since he took office in 2004. Based on his record and his funding sources (and those of other members of Trump’s corporate cabinet), limiting added sugar consumption will probably not be a priority of Price’s HHS.

Why we can’t let this happen

Since 2014, UCS, and our supporters and allies, fought hard to ensure that the FDA’s revisions to the Nutrition Facts Label would be evidence-based and strong enough to inform consumers and ultimately protect public health. As sugar consumption and obesity rates continue to rise, the implementation of the new label is as important as ever. Without the label changes, it will be extremely difficult for Americans to follow the recommendations of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to reduce intake of added sugar to less than 10 percent of daily calories, since there will be no way to know exactly how much added sugar is in a particular food!

In early November, I attended the annual meeting of American Public Health Association (APHA) where I presented findings from my Hooked for Life report and spoke with many public health professionals over the course of several days. There was not a single person who wasn’t supportive of improved transparency and regulations related to added sugar in food, especially children’s food. As we’ve documented in the past, public health professionals are nearly unanimous in their support for improved nutrition labeling, and the nutrition facts label has been shown to help individuals make informed decisions impacting their health at retailers.

Right now, you can ask your representatives to do two things: Pass a rider-free spending bill and vote “no” if a CRA bill is introduced that would kill the FDA’s rule revising nutrition facts labels. We must protect this hard-earned victory on a solidly science-based rule that will protect public health. And, if you haven’t already, sign this letter to HHS and USDA asking them to prioritize the impacts of added sugar on young children as they begin the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans process. house.gov

Science and the Politics of Fracking—and What’s Ahead

Yesterday, (and then again this morning) Marketplace reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) downplayed scientists’ concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water in a draft assessment published in June 2015. According to Marketplace:

“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.”

How we got here A Marketplace investigation revealed that there is inadequate scientific support for the "widespread, systematic" language in EPA's fracking assessment.

A Marketplace investigation revealed that there is inadequate scientific support for the “widespread, systematic” language in EPA’s fracking assessment.

UCS has long had concerns about inconsistencies with how the EPA was describing the risks of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The executive summary and press materials accompanying the draft report suggested that there was nothing to fear. But that contradicted the findings in the body of the nearly thousand-page assessment.

Most people, of course, don’t read the fine print. The result? Misleading headlines, misinformation, and industry spin, all declaring that hydraulic fracturing is safe, even though the draft EPA assessment did find impacts on drinking water resources as a result of hydraulic fracturing activities.

In late June and July of 2015, UCS submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to learn more about how the EPA finalized its executive summary and press release. The Marketplace story draws on some of the documents released through this public records request. Because many of the documents we obtained were heavily redacted, UCS is still trying to learn more about how the materials were developed.

Correcting the faulty language  

Since last October, the a group of independent scientists that advise the EPA has met publicly multiple times to deliberate the findings and review public comments of the assessment. 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 found the EPA statement that “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States” concerning.

It’s now obvious that there is inadequate scientific support for the “widespread, systemic” language. The scientists have been so clear about this that it would be really hard for EPA to keep that language in the final executive summary and assessment.

Independent information about fracking is needed The EPA needs to take a leadership role and provide communities accurate, independent, and clear information about the impacts of fracking on drinking water. (Flickr Mike)

The EPA needs to take a leadership role and provide communities accurate, independent, and clear information about the impacts of fracking on drinking water. (Flickr Mike)

We can’t have an informed discussion about how to control the risks of hydraulic fracturing if we don’t have an independent assessment of what the science says about those risks. The industry has a compelling interest in preventing the federal government from doing that assessment, and regularly exerts influence to try to stop or limit the breadth of any investigation.

This particular assessment was plagued with delays and limits to its access to information. For example, while the agency conducted this assessment, the oil and gas sector prevented the EPA from obtaining data it needed to fully determine whether hydraulic fracturing is safe for drinking water. To its credit, in the report the EPA pointed this out as a limitation of the project.

And as we highlighted in a 2013 report, the EPA faced pushback from the industry when it was in the process of conducting investigations around water quality concerns in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming, causing it to back down from a full investigation.

Further, government scientists need the authority to ensure that their employers are representing their work accurately. If scientists are not free to conduct the research and communicate the results, communities will be less prepared to accurately assess the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing and respond accordingly.

Beyond fracking: federal science moving forward

As President-elect Donald J. Trump builds his corporate cabinet, science critical to protecting public health and safety will become more vulnerable to spin and suppression than ever before. Now, it is more important than ever for federal scientists to be able to follow the evidence where it leads them and communicate their findings to the public, without political or industry interference or pressure.

The scientific community will be watching the Trump administration closely and holding it to the same high standards that we would expect from any administration when it comes to the use of independent science, integrity, and transparency in federal policymaking. To put the administration on notice that we will hold them accountable, thousands of scientists across all 50 states joined 22 Nobel Laureates in an open letter yesterday outlining the scientific community’s expectations of the incoming Trump administration and Congress.

Federal scientists are critical to the health and safety of our communities, and the science community will continue to speak up to protect their ability to do this essential work.

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