UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Always in “Hot Water”

My wife likes to joke that I am always in “hot water.” It’s a play on words that reflects my career from college, at two National Laboratories and now in retirement.

America’s National Laboratories are hotbeds of scientific research directed at meeting national needs. In my case, working at two national labs helped me contribute to resolving growing issues of environmental impacts of energy technologies—thermal electric generating stations, in particular on aquatic life of rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

Getting a PhD in 1965, I was recruited by the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC’s) Hanford Laboratory (now the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy) to conduct research on thermal discharges to the Columbia River from nine Hanford, Washington, plutonium-producing nuclear reactors. They were part of cold-war nuclear weapons production, but their thermal discharges were not unlike those from a power plant, just larger.

With pretty good understanding of potential water-temperature effects on aquatic organisms, our team of researchers sought effects of elevated temperatures on various salmon populations and the river’s other aquatic life. We had two main objectives: (1) to identify effects of the Hanford reactors on the river’s life, and (2) to translate our findings into criteria for safely managing thermal discharges (like the 90-degree limit for damages I found for Delaware River invertebrates).

Our Hanford research caught the attention of AEC headquarters and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. There was interest in countering the public thermal pollution fears by doing research that could be applied to minimizing ecological impacts everywhere. Thus, in the fall of 1969, I was asked to leave Hanford, which I greatly enjoyed (as a Northeasterner, the Pacific Northwest was like a paid vacation!) and moved to Oak Ridge in spring of 1970.

At Oak Ridge, I put together a team to develop criteria for minimizing ecological effects of thermal effluents nation-wide.  Oak Ridge had no power plants of its own. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power stations nearby were research sites, but our focus was on developing general criteria. We built a new Aquatic Ecology Laboratory with computer-controlled tank temperatures, a set of outside ponds to rear fish for experiments, hired biologists and engineers, and assembled a “navy” of boats for field work. We set to work at a fever pitch.

But then…. The Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the AEC was handed the Calvert Cliffs decision that mandated the AEC conduct complete reviews of the environmental impacts of the nuclear power stations it licensed. In 1972, our research staff was “reprogrammed” to prepare Environmental Impact Statements on operating and planned nuclear power plants. This turned out to be a tremendous opportunity to carefully evaluate not only thermal discharges but other impacts of using cooling water. By evaluating facilities across the country, we gained the nationwide perspective we needed for our research. With the National Lab having staff from many scientific and engineering fields to assign to the assessments, we gained a hugely valuable multi-disciplinary perspective that has helped us advance beyond just biology, fish and bugs.

Many years of productive thermal-effects work followed, with satisfaction that our contributions were often followed and our data used. We saw many of our efforts resolve issues for power plant thermal discharge permitting. The National Academies used our framework for water quality criteria for temperature; EPA used them as criteria for “Balanced Indigenous Communities” in thermally affected waters and setting temperature limits. As “thermal pollution” became more resolved, the Department of Energy and our National Laboratory provided our scientists the mission and capacity to work on other issues, most notably aquatic ecological effects of hydropower, that is helping with future innovation as technologies shift.

Throughout our research and analysis, we fostered “technology transfer” to the public through educational seminars and information aid to electricity generators. ORNL sanctioned some outside, site-specific consulting. I have been fortunate in retirement (since 2005) to continue to do this, and have assisted more than 50 companies and regulatory agencies (both domestic and foreign) with thermal effects issues. I feel good that the problem-solving research and analysis and application of this knowledge outside the labs (my “hot water”) have benefited society.

Through my time at the Hanford/Pacific Northwest and Oak Ridge national labs, I’ve worked with world-class researchers and scientists in many disciplines and have worked on projects that have advanced our understanding of ecological impacts from various energy sources. We need to continue to invest in our scientists at federal laboratories of the Department of Energy. I would like to thank my fellow scientists at government labs this Thanksgiving for the work they’ve done problem solving and finding innovative solutions for the public as well as private sector.

Dr. Charles Coutant retired as distinguished research ecologist in the Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2005. Dr. Coutant received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in biology (ecology) from Lehigh University.  Since retirement he has served part time as an ecological consultant to regulatory agencies and industry.

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.

Giving Thanks to Climate Researchers of the Federal Agencies

Most of my science career I worked for the Department of Energy as a climate modeler and numerical expert at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since my retirement in 2010 I have written a text on computational climate modeling and taught graduate level engineering classes on climate science at the University of Tennessee. I had the privilege of working with many talented and dedicated scientists and hate to see their work go unappreciated because climate has become such a politicized issue. In particular, the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) Special Science report is the culmination of many years, even decades of scientific focus that the Congress and the nation should study with an open mind and use to reset the climate discussion in the United States.

In the early 1990’s I was one of the principals organizing an “Inter-agency agreement’’ between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Our researchers were called the CHAMMPions (a long acronym worth remembering as Computer Hardware, Advanced Mathematics, Model Physics, Inter-agency Organization for Numerical Simulation). Most of us were new to climate research with my own background in applied mathematics. The congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment of 1990 had not found any U.S. based modeling groups producing a high-quality climate model. They borrowed the Canadian and Hadley Center models to complete the first US NCA in 2000. A little bit of national pride and the opportunity to one up the rest of the international community by using U.S. developed high performance computers was a timely motivation for our group. The models we developed and continued to improve through the 1990’s ad 2000’s contributed to many national and international studies, in particular the CMIP (Climate Model Inter-comparison Project) study series sponsored by the DOE. We faithfully followed through on giving policy makers better tools for making informed decisions. Focusing on the science and not the politics supported our DOE sponsors through a variety of administrations.

As a DOE funded climate researcher for 20 years, I had a privileged view of the motivations behind DOE climate research. It all started with the first Secretary of Energy, James R. Schlesinger. He read a report from the Russian scientist, Mikhail Budyko, suggesting the link between earth’s climate and CO2 levels in the atmosphere, a physical theory of climatology. Knowing that the department could not ignore this connection, he asked his department heads what they were going to do about it. This was the start of DOE’s exemplary Carbon Dioxide Effects and Assessment Program in 1977.

The model that the inter-agency agreement developed is now one of the worlds most respected models. It is open source meaning that anyone can see what is in it and even new groups are welcome to contribute new physics or chemistry or ecology to the earth system modeling effort. The Climate Science Special Report, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I is the first to provide regionally specific results. The global temperature is not the only climate parameter that can now be discussed with confidence. For example, one of the findings pertains to extreme events from heavy rainfall to heatwaves that can impact human safety, infrastructure and agriculture.

This kind of detail would not have been possible without the new capabilities that the U.S. modeling effort provided. Indeed, the report draws from the results of many modeling groups by measuring the skill of different models compared to the observational record.

The scientists I have worked with through the years in these inter-agency projects have performed a service to the nation with their dedicated focus on staying true to the science and providing usable information for policy makers. I for one am grateful for their effort and support continuing to invest in our federal scientists to help move forward on research for solutions to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the research capabilities and resources of the National Lab system and my colleagues who always put science first.


Dr. John. B. Drake was a researcher and group leader at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 30 years and lead the climate modeling efforts at ORNL from 1990 to 2010.  Since his retirement from ORNL, he has taught graduate courses on climate modeling in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Tennessee and conducted research into the impacts of climate change. 

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.

One Simple Trick to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Photo: Rennett Stowe/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Want to save the planet? Are you, like me, a young professional struggling to reduce your carbon footprint? Then join me in taking the train to your next professional conference.

Take the train and reduce carbon pollution while looking at this. Photo credit: Anna Scott.

Most of my low-carbon lifestyle is admittedly enforced on me by my student budget. I have no kids, bicycle to work, and share a house with roommates. What dominates my carbon footprint is the flights I take—I’ll be hitting frequent flyer status this year thanks to traveling for conferences, talks, and workshops (not to mention those flights to see my family during the holidays—even being unmarried doesn’t get me out of visiting in-laws overseas). This is a bittersweet moment for a climate scientist—my professional success gives me an opportunity to impact the world with my science, but is hurting the planet and leaving future generations with a mess that will outlive me.

There’s no silver bullet to fixing climate change, but I think scientists and science enthusiasts can start with ourselves.

Every year, together with 25,000 of my closest climate and Earth science buddies, I attend the American Geophysical Union meeting. (You may have heard about it last year on NPR).

Prof. Lawrence Plug calculated that the 2003 meeting generated over 12,000 tons of CO2. Since then, the meeting has more than doubled in size, suggesting that the carbon footprint is upwards of 25,000 tons of CO2 from flights alone.

Prominent scientists like Katherine Hayhoe have suggested that we shift to teleconferencing instead. I think this is great for small meetings of folks who already know each other, or for prominent scientists like Dr. Hayhoe, who have an established publication record and name recognition.

For the little folks like myself though, meetings offer tremendous opportunities to connect with colleagues at other institutions, meet potential collaborators, and scout new job opportunities. The ‘serendipitous interaction’ that meetings allow is similar to the design principles that tech firms like Google enact when designing their public spaces. This fall alone, I’ve filled a shoebox with business cards from colleagues working on similar problems, potential collaborators working in similar fields, and, most lucratively, established scientists who have news of post-doctoral fellowships and job opportunities.

This last point may be especially critical for minority scientists, who may lack the social networks needed to get jobs.

In short, I’m not switching to virtual anytime soon, mostly because I can’t see it paying off (yet—Katherine Hayhoe et al, if you’re reading this, hire me!). But I still need to reduce my carbon footprint.

My solution? Replace one conference travel flight with a train ride. Repeat every year. Last year, I took Amtrak’s California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago back from AGU’s fall meeting and crossed the Rockies next to a geophysicist explaining plate tectonics and identifying rocks.

The year before, I returned from New Orleans and wrote my thesis proposal while rolling through bayous, swamps, and pine forests of the Southeast.

(Don’t think you have time for this? I spent the trip writing a paper, now published in PLOS-ONE. Amtrak seats all come with electrical outlets and seatback trays that function terrificly as desks.)

Is this a practical solution for everyody? Nope, and I won’t pretend that it is. Your time might be better spent with your kids, or volunteering in your community, or maybe you want to drive instead- I don’t know your life. Train infrastructure is lacking in the US, and delays are common as Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks and must give way to commercial freight. But I maintain my hope that increased demand for train travel can spur future investment, sending a market signal that young people want to travel this way.

This year, I’ll be taking the train to AGU’s fall meeting in New Orleans from Washington DC.

I estimate that I’ll be saving about one ton of CO2 equivalent (calculation included radiative forcing). If you’re headed that way, I invite you to join me, tell your friends, or even just reflect on the possibility that low carbon alternatives to flying exist. We can’t fix everything. But if we all do our little part, we can accomplish something. And something is always better than nothing.

Anna Scott is a PhD student in the Earth and Planetary Science Department at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from University of Chicago, a Master’s degree in Applied Mathematics from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and a Master of Arts and Sciences in Earth Science from Johns Hopkins University.  She has installed sensor networks and led field campaigns in Birmingham (Al.), Nairobi (Kenya), and Baltimore, Maryland, as part of her thesis research on quantifying urban temperature variability and heat waves. She has been known to dabble in projects on regional hydrology, the climate impacts of aerosols, and North African precipitation. She recently started Baltimore Open Air, an air quality monitoring project that has designed, built, and deployed 50 air quality monitors in the Greater Baltimore regions. Anna will be taking Amtrak’s Crescent line to the 2017 American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in December. She’ll be sharing the journey on social media using the hashtag #TrainToAGU.  

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.


I Am a 30-Year Veteran Scientist from US EPA; I Can’t Afford to Be Discouraged

. . . And neither can you.

Since January, we have seen a continual assault on our environmental protections. EPA has put a political operative with no scientific experience in charge of vetting EPA grants, and the agency is reconsidering an Obama-era regulation on coal ash. The well-established legal processes for promulgating environmental regulations, and—very pointedly—the science underlying environmental regulation are being jettisoned by the Trump administration. As scientists, we must stand up for science and ensure that it is not tossed aside in public policy and decision-making.

Rigorous science is the foundation of EPA

Attending a march with some friends.

While at US EPA, I served as a senior scientist in human health risk assessment.  I was among the cadre of dedicated professionals who worked long, hard, and intelligently to provide the science supporting management of risks from exposure to environmental contaminants. Often, we engaged in the demanding practice of issuing regulation.

Regulations to limit human and environmental exposure are not developed overnight.  The laws that enable US EPA to issue regulations specify requirements and procedures for issuing rules; these can include notice of proposed rulemaking, multiple proposed rules, public comments on proposals, responses to comments, more proposals, more comments, review by other Federal bodies, review by States, review by Tribal governments—review, review, review. Often, the environmental laws also note requirements for the science leading to risk management choices. For example, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996 (SDWA) requires several judgments to be met affirmatively before any contaminant can be limited through regulation.

The US EPA Administrator must base his or her judgment, among other factors, on what SDWA calls the best available, peer-reviewed science.  This refers not only to experimental or epidemiologic studies, but also to the US EPA documents analyzing the risks and the best ways to mitigate them.

Requirements to regulate environmental contaminants in other media are no less rigorous.  To regulate emissions from coal- and oil-fired boilers used in electrical power generation, US EPA engaged in major scientific programs to understand the nature of these air pollutants (including toxic mercury), the risks they pose, and how best to deal with them. This began in 1993 and culminated in the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) finalized in 2012. Building the scientific basis for the rule spanned several administrations and a few careers.  It was frustrating at times, and exhausting, but we kept our focus on the goal of doing the right thing to improve public health.

Regulation protects the public—and we’re watching it be undermined

The message here is that environmental regulation based on sound science is not a trivial exercise, nor should it be. Regulation can be costly, and sometimes may have societal impacts. But ask anyone who has lived in a society without sound environmental regulation, and she will tell you that legally enforceable limits on environmental contaminants are necessary. We estimated that each year the implemented MATS rule prevents 11,000 premature deaths and more than 100,000 heart and asthma attacks. And it greatly reduces release of mercury, which accumulates in fish and poses risk of neurotoxic effects to both developing children and adults.

The process that EPA follows to publish a regulation must also be used to reverse a regulatory action. Creating regulations is not a simple process—but undermining, overturning, and not enforcing regulations is easy and has major consequences for health and the environment. I fear that both the process and the science are being given short shrift as this administration acts to reverse sound regulatory decisions made by US EPA. This dismantling of environmental protection has begun in earnest, and I expect it will have severe, long-lasting effects.

Scientists must defend evidence-based regulation

There are ways to impede the regulatory roll-back. Writing, calling, emailing elected officials is one avenue. Another avenue is joining groups such as Save EPA, an organization of retired and former US EPA employees with expertise in environmental science, law, and policy. We are using our collective skills to educate the public about environmental science, environmental protections, and the current Administration’s assault on US EPA and our public health. You can help by reading our guide to resisting de-regulation; submitting public comments on rules being considered for rollback; and supporting our efforts to defend environmental regulations. As scientists, we must continue to insist on the validity and thoroughness of our discipline, and we must repeatedly communicate about this to decision-makers. In one of many hearings and reviews of mercury hazard, my late scientist friend and US EPA veteran Kathryn Mahaffey quoted John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things.” She was right.

Rita Schoeny retired from USEPA in 2015 after 30 years, having served in roles such as Senior Science Advisor for the Office of Science Policy, Office of Research and Development, and as the Senior Science Advisor, Office of Science and Technology, Office of Water. She has been responsible for major assessments and programs in support of the several of EPA’s legislative mandates including the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Food Quality Protection Act. Dr. Schoeny has published extensively in the area of human health risk assessment.

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.

New UCS Report Finds High Health Risks in Delaware Communities from Toxic Pollution

Refineries, such as the Delaware City Refinery shown here, can emit toxic chemicals that can increase risks for cancer and respiratory disease.

For decades residents of communities in Wilmington, Delaware’s industrial corridor have dealt with high levels of pollution. People in these communities, which have higher percentages of people of color and/or higher poverty levels than the Delaware average, are also grappling with health challenges that are linked to, or worsened by, exposure to pollution, such as strokes, heart diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, and chronic childhood illnesses such as asthma, learning disabilities, and neurological diseases. These are some of Delaware’s environmental justice communities.

To assess the potential link between environmental pollution and health impacts in these communities, the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS collaborated with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections, Inc. and Coming Clean, Inc. Analysis of the following health and safety issues using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data were conducted:  the risk of cancer and potential for respiratory illnesses that stem from toxic outdoor air pollution; proximity of communities to industrial facilities that use large quantities of toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals and pose a high risk of a major chemical release or catastrophic incident; proximity of communities to industrial facilities with major pollution emissions; and proximity of communities to contaminated waste sites listed in EPA’s Brownfield and Superfund programs.

The seven communities analyzed—Belvedere, Cedar Heights, Dunleith, Marshallton, Newport, Oakmont, and Southbridge—were compared to Greenville, a predominantly White and affluent community located outside the industrial corridor, and to the population of Delaware overall. The findings from this analysis have been published in a new report titled Environmental Justice for Delaware: Mitigating Toxic Pollution in New Castle County Communities.

Proximity to major pollution sources and dangerous chemical facilities

TABLE 5. Sources of Chemical Hazards and Pollution in Environmental Justice Communities Compared with
Greenville and Delaware Overall. Note: All facilities are located within 1 mile of communities.
SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). No date (i). EPA state combined CSV download files. Online at www.epa.gov/enviro/epastate-combined-csv-download-files, accessed May 18, 2017.

Dunleith and Oakmont have several Brownfield sites and are in close proximity to facilities releasing significant quantities of toxic chemicals into the air. Southbridge has, within its boundaries or within a one-mile radius around it, two high-risk chemical facilities, 13 large pollution-emitting industrial facilities, four Superfund sites, and 48 Brownfield sites. Southbridge is home to more than half of all Brownfields in Delaware. Cedar Heights and Newport also have several large pollution-emitting facilities within one mile as well as being close to two EPA Superfund contaminated waste sites.

Effects of toxic air pollution on cancer risks and the potential for respiratory illnesses

TABLE 2. Cancer Risks for Environmental Justice Communities Compared with Greenville and Delaware Overall
Note: Cancer risk is expressed as the incidences of cancer per million people. For the respiratory hazard index, an index value of 1 or less indicates a level of studied pollutants equal to a level the EPA has determined not to be a health concern, while a value greater than 1 indicates the potential for adverse respiratory health impacts, with increasing concern as the value increases. SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2015. 2015 National Air Toxics Assessment. Washington, DC. Online at www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment, accessed May 18, 2017.

Of the seven environmental justice communities studied, people in Marshallton face the highest cancer and respiratory health risks. Cancer and respiratory health risks there are 33 and 71 percent higher, respectively, than for the comparison community Greenville, and are 28 and 55 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

The communities of Dunleith, Oakmont, and Southbridge, whose residents are predominantly people of color and have a poverty rate approximately twice that of Delaware overall, have cancer risks 19 to 23 percent higher than for Greenville and 14 to 18 percent higher than for Delaware overall. Respiratory hazard in these three communities is 32 to 43 percent higher than for Greenville and 20 to 30 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

For Newport, Belvedere, and Cedar Heights, which have a substantial proportion of people of color and poverty rates above the Delaware average, cancer risks are 21, 15, and 12 percent higher than for Greenville, respectively, and are 16, 10, and 7 percent higher than for Delaware overall. Respiratory hazard in Newport, Belvedere, and Cedar Heights is 44, 30, and 24 percent higher than for Greenville, respectively, and 31, 18, and 13 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

Children at risk

Kenneth Dryden of the Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice and a former Southbridge resident leads a tour of toxic facilities to teach scientists and community members about the dangers of local air pollution.

Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of toxic air pollution. Particularly concerning is that seven schools within one mile of Southbridge, with a total of more than 2,200 students, are in locations with substantially higher cancer risks and potential respiratory hazards than schools in all other communities in this study.

In addition to having daily exposure to toxic pollution in the air, children in these communities are at risk of being exposed to toxic chemicals accidentally released from hazardous chemical facilities in or near their communities. For example, the John G. Leach School and Harry O. Eisenberg Elementary School near Dunleith, with a total of 661 students, are located within one mile of a high-risk chemical facility.

Achieving environmental justice for vulnerable communities

Using multiple EPA data bases, the findings of this study indicate that people in the seven communities along the Wilmington industrial corridor face a substantial potential cumulative health risk from (1) exposure to toxic air pollution, (2) their proximity to polluting industrial facilities and hazardous chemical facilities, and (3) proximity to contaminated waste sites. These health risks are substantially greater than those for residents of a wealthier and predominantly White Delaware community and for Delaware as a whole.

This research provides scientific support for what neighbors in these communities already know—that they’re unfairly facing higher health risks. We need to listen to communities and the facts and enact and enforce the rules to protect their health and safety. Environmental justice has to be a priority for these and other communities that face disproportionately high health risks from toxic pollution.

Ron White is an independent consultant providing services in the field of environmental health sciences. Mr. White currently is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and also holds a part-time faculty appointment in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He earned his Master of Science in Teaching degree in environmental studies from Antioch University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in environmental science from Clark University.  

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.

How Pruitt Listens: Removing Clean Power Plan Web Resources Undermines Public Engagement

On Monday, Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced his long awaited formal proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the defining regulation in President Barack Obama’s battle against climate change. Talk of the repeal has made headlines for months, after President Donald Trump’s executive order addressing energy and climate policy and his announcement that he intended to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. News about a potential replacement for the rule has swirled for weeks.

Yet amid all of the discussion, the Web resources and information that the government has long provided to help inform us about climate change, the social cost of carbon, and the Clean Power Plan itself have been disappearing from federal websites. For members of the public looking to learn about the science and the policy analyses that underlie years of rulemaking and debate, the sources have become harder to find. We’ve found and reported on a number of examples of these types of removals through our work monitoring federal websites at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative.

Web resources gone missing

After the EPA’s announcement on April 28 that it would be overhauling its website to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt,” most of the sections of EPA.gov devoted to climate change and work to adapt to and mitigate its harms were removed. While most of these resources were archived, few have been returned or replaced on the official EPA website, where they can be most easily accessed. Certain portions, like “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change,” never even made it into an EPA Web archive, likely due to copying errors.

During the same set of EPA website removals, the website for the Clean Power Plan was itself removed and its URLs began redirecting to a new website about implementing President Trump’s executive order. While the previous website hosted resources for the public to understand the Clean Power Plan and for states to develop emissions plans, the new website links to the Federal Register, the order notice, and related news releases, but provides minimal informational resources directed at communicating the significance of the policy shifts to the public. The previous website linked to Spanish language Web resources, like Clean Power Plan facts sheets and community resources, which were also removed without being archived, likely as a result of the same errors mentioned above.

In Administrator Pruitt’s announcement and in the proposed repeal itself, Obama-era analyses of the potential health benefits of the rule and the overall social cost of carbon have been questioned and tossed aside. The information and resources that could provide the public insight into this debate have, once again, been removed: the EPA’s webpage on the social cost of carbon was part of the April 28 removals and the White House webpage on the topic, containing a wealth of relevant links, was removed and archived on inauguration day.

The legal basis for the requirement that EPA regulate greenhouse gas emissions, known as the endangerment finding, is another crucial resource in understanding the debate over the rule. But the EPA’s endangerment finding webpage, too, was swallowed up by the April 28 removals, and has since been either hard to access or, at times, simply not available.

The importance of well-informed public comment

Notice-and-comment rulemaking, used by the federal government whenever it puts new regulations in place or removes existing ones, relies on the ability of the public to provide informed input about the ways in which we will all be affected by a new regulation and how we weigh the costs and benefits. Public comment dockets today are often dominated by industry groups and civil society organizations. Making government-funded information harder to access simply serves to further the divide between those who have the capacity to craft a substantive public comment and those who do not.

A scientist or member of the public working on their own time to write a public comment, relying only on public information resources, can make an impact, as their comment has equivalent standing to any other submission and must be accounted for just the same. The public information that the government has historically made available about the Clean Power Plan’s projected air quality improvements, for example, would provide a way for people to weigh in on the debate over how to value the regulation’s predicted health benefits. But without access to public information, we’re allowing the idea of regulation with citizen input to become nothing more than a myth.

The likely replacement for the Clean Power Plan, if there is one, will be designed to masquerade as a sufficient regulation of emissions in order to evade litigation. Instead of a comprehensive rule like the Clean Power Plan, regulating pollution from coal power plants by considering wholescale how they use energy and produce emissions, it will likely focus only on reducing pollution through improvements in efficiency or fuel replacements at individual power plants. Past EPA studies have determined that these types of changes would result in only an approximate 4% increase in coal plant efficiency.

After approving the proposed repeal on Tuesday, Administrator Pruitt said, “Any replacement rule will be done carefully, properly, and with humility, by listening to all those affected by the rule.” It’s clear from his Administration’s removal of Web resources, however, that he has no intention of enabling that pledge by ensuring that public resources remain available to help citizens understand the proposed policy shifts.

When the health and well-being of the public are threatened so directly by the harms of climate change, we cannot allow our government to censor the information that facilitates the public’s crucial expression in forming new policy.

How you can make an impact

While an overturn of the proposed repeal is unlikely, it is still important that we, as members of the public, weigh in on the benefits that the Clean Power Plan would have to the climate and public health. What we have to say must be taken into account during the rulemaking process and will bolster any litigation that occurs after the repeal.

Once the Federal Register publishes the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the coming days, the public will have 60 days to submit comment. Find out how to submit a comment here.


Here are resources about the Clean Power Plan and its benefits, some mentioned above, that have been removed from federal websites and can be used to craft your comment:


Toly Rinberg is a Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation working on documenting and contextualizing changes to federal websites, and understanding how these changes affect public access to Web resources. He also helps lead the website monitoring working group at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, working with a volunteer team to track and report on changes to environmental, climate, and energy websites. He is currently taking time off from his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University.

Andrew Bergman is a Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, where he is classifying changes to federal websites, and a member of the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, where he helps lead the website monitoring team. He is also working to monitor and coordinate response to environmental agency oversight issues with partners, like UCS. He is currently on leave from his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University.

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.

Make Public Engagement a Professional Priority

During graduate school, I believed my responsibility as a scientist during outreach events was to share my work with as many non-scientists as possible. I assumed that my extroverted personality, boundless enthusiasm, and booming voice guaranteed my success at public outreach. I never considered improving or diversifying my communication skills, nor did I value the unique perspective that I might bring to science.

Like so many others, it wasn’t until the November 2016 election that I considered how I, the daughter of Indian immigrants from landlocked villages and modest means, came to study oceans and climate change. From this foundation, I gradually developed and now execute two public engagement aims that often intersect:

1. How the observations I make in the lab and field percolate into the communities around me.

2. The concerns facing marginalized communities, especially within science.

These efforts do not always take the same form, nor are they easy to pursue—certain issues can be especially difficult to write about—but I see that sharing painful stories about minority scientists increases the scientific community’s capacity for empathy, and communicating stories of innovation and progress in the battle against climate change imbues optimism and facilitates action.

Outside of my current position as a technician at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory, I work with a local organization dedicated to raising awareness about climate change and a national organization committed to talking about the issues confronting self-identifying women scientists. I also serve on the digital advisory board of a regional publication that is seeking to add diverse voices to conversations about natural science.

Public engagement is a scientist’s implicit responsibility and can be beneficial for the public and scientist alike

Public engagement is often seen as a low priority for academic scientists. Many scientists do not feel compelled to take their research outside of academia. Common justifications include that developing resources for public engagement siphons time and energy from research, misrepresentation in the media could damage reputations, or institutions lack incentives for engagement. While these concerns are understandable, reserving our findings for our colleagues limits the impact of our work.

As scientists, we strive for intellectual products that improve and enhance our understanding of the world around us. Tools for effectively communicating to technical and lay audiences are not in opposition, nor are they as disparate as many may think; thoughtful, clear, and succinct communication tools are ubiquitously useful. By carefully considering audiences beyond our target journals and scientific societies, we create opportunities to develop unique collaborations that can result in the co-production of knowledge.

Effective public engagement is manifold, but requires experimentation

In this era of technology and social media, successful public engagement does not necessarily require face time (although you can use FaceTime or Skype A Scientist). Public outreach often encompasses classroom visits, laboratory open house events, and public talks/demonstrations. While personal interactions are inarguably priceless, these activities are generally eschewed in favor of research due to their high time commitment. This is where digital media can intervene.

During the era of MySpace, Friendster, and LiveJournal the concept of ‘blogging’ emerged—an opportunity for anyone with an opinion and keyboard to share their opinions. While these ancestral social media sites have faded, blogging has been transformed into an opportunity to use our voices (and fingers!) to reach new audiences. Websites like Medium and WordPress make blogging accessible, and many website building/hosting services seamlessly integrate blogging into their schemata. The time commitment is dictated by the blogger and the topics that they choose to communicate. Many academics will admit to initiating and abandoning their blogs for this very reason, myself included.

Conversely, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—among many, many others—provide approachable, yet professional interfaces for casual and concise communication. While a short orientation may be required to acquaint yourself with these platforms, their rewards are bountiful. Through Twitter alone, my professional network has expanded geographically as well as across disciplines and industries (a Twitter interaction instigated this very blog post!). While I maintain a blog series with pie-in-the-sky long-term goals, I find that ephemeral, short-term social media interactions can sometimes be more professionally productive per unit of effort and therefore serve as an excellent gateway into public engagement.

Identify what motivates you to speak up and connect with your community

The November 2016 election was my catalyst for public engagement, but has not been my sole motivator going forward. Specifically, blogging has been an incredible learning experience for me, providing insight on the complexity of people, and the pressure that academia puts on those who don’t conform to its rigid framework.

Public engagement is not a part of my formal job description, but it is something that I make time for outside of my 40-hour work week. As scientists, we are driven by questions and certainly find our own work compelling. But we must unravel these complex questions and stories and find the thread that links us with our communities.


Priya Shukla is an ocean and climate scientist with the Bodega Ocean Acidification Research (BOAR) group based at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory. She received her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science and Management at UC Davis and earned her Master’s in Ecology from San Diego State University. Priya uses science communication to bridge issues concerning social justice, rapid environmental change, and the scientific community. 

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.

Connecting the Dots on Climate Science: The Importance of a Complete Science Narrative

A 2014 session of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a crucial "dot" in a connected climate science narrative. Photo: IPCC (Flickr)

In Walter M. Miller’s classic apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, an atomic holocaust leaves the world in a modern version of the Dark Ages. In this post-apocalyptic world, books are burnt and cultural information destroyed by anti-intellectual mobs. The monks of a small knowledge-hoarding religious institution try to preserve, understand, and control what information remains.

A few pre-apocalyptic scraps of paper are unearthed and the writing on these is transformed into holy artifacts. One of these holy artifacts is The Sacred Shopping List, a hand-written memo by a long-dead engineer named Leibowitz, that reads: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.” With so little information available, The Sacred Shopping List becomes a pillar for the monks’ religious narrative.  The general population are just followers to the outlandish narrative the monks concocted from the holy artifacts.

A Canticle for Leibowitz depicts a classic problem that arises when people try to collect information to develop a narrative. The monks connected only the dots they could find, not having a clue that they had collected an incomplete and misleading set of dots. In science terms, the sample size was both small and biased, leading to their outlandish narrative.

In our own world, a functional science narrative requires a complete and well-chosen set of dots so scientists may connect them into a sensible narrative. Over the last few weeks, the Trump administration has eliminated several important dots (sources of information) about science, some openly and others more discreetly. These losses, when strung together, are significant –  they may drive us back to using our own Sacred Shopping List to develop our science narratives.

Climate science under threat

In 1989, President Reagan established the Federal Advisory Panel for the Sustained National Climate Assessment to help translate findings from the National Climate Assessment into concrete guidance for public- and private-sector officials making decisions about how to deal with climate change. This important National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) advisory group, a critical dot in this science narrative, was eliminated a few weeks back when the current administration chose not to renew the charter.

NOAA recently completed the first draft of the Fourth National Climate Assessment Report, which is intended as a special science section of the National Climate Assessment, congressionally mandated every four years. NOAA does not control how the information in the report will be used, and the loss of the Federal Advisory Panel leaves a vacuum in developing the guidance that should come from the Fourth National Climate Assessment Report. The draft report is under review by the current administration, which must approve it before the report can be published. It is critical that this important source of information be used in the science narrative about climate change.

The administration has also proposed a 2018 federal budget that zeroes out the United States’ nearly $2 million contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is crucial to coordinating efforts of several thousand scientists, industry experts, nonprofit researchers, and government representatives from across the globe who review reports that provide climate analysis for decisions ranging from the Paris climate agreement to the US military’s national security threat assessments. Eliminating funding for the IPCC would leave US scientists out of important scientific discussions and inhibit our country’s—and the world’s—ability to respond to climate threats.

Our congressional leaders will play a key role in determining whether IPCC funding will continue in the 2018 fiscal year. We need our lawmakers to uphold the United States’ climate leadership and commit to supporting funding for the IPCC. This is one dot we can’t afford to lose.

A path forward

One bright spot comes from our military, which continues to acknowledge the role of science in developing infrastructure that is resilient to the increasing national security risks from climate change. This is where the rubber meets the road. The US military is already dealing with threats from the growing numbers of refugees fleeing affected areas and numerous coastal military installations that will be impacted by climate change. They are using a useful set of dots to make their decisions.

We all benefit from these critical “dots” and need them to be connected into a sensible science narrative.  Many scientists like myself strongly support continuing funding for IPCC, bringing back the Federal Advisory Panel, and protecting federal climate science and research. It is important to use the knowledge of experts to evaluate and compare information and to be part of the plan for how the information is integrated into policy. The science narrative cannot rely on The Sacred Shopping List.


Keith Daum is an independent researcher who specializes in climate and environmental issues. In 2014, he retired from the Idaho National Laboratory after 24 years there. Previously, he served as a research scientist with RTI International. He holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Idaho and a BS/MS in Environmental Sciences from Texas Christian University.

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.

Global Solutions Start at Home

Electric vehicle charging stations line the perimeter of San Francisco's City Hall. Photo: Bigstock.

“Think globally, act locally.”

I first heard this phrase as a child who had just learned about Earth Day at school. To my 11-year old self, it felt empowering; I could help the environment by recycling and conserving water. While the idea of taking action to solve pressing problems continued to inspire me through to adulthood, I’ve recently come to fully appreciate the importance of local action.

Keep Hayward Clean & Green Task Force. Photo credit: City of Hayward

After I had spent several years in Washington, D.C., first as a legislative adviser in Congress and then as an analyst in the White House, life brought me to California where I now work as a technologist. Missing my connection to government, I successfully applied for an appointment to a standing task force in my city, Hayward, California. During this time, part of my technology work has included developing data-enabled solutions for distributed renewables such as rooftop solar and on-site batteries. While I left federal government believing I was leaving behind the ability to significantly impact policy issues that mattered to me, the intersection of my professional and my community work have shown me the importance of local government engagement.

Reflecting on my local engagement, two themes have emerged:

Local governments play a critical role in science-related policy issues, including those with global implications.

We often think of the most pressing science-related policy issues, such as climate change policy, as being national (or global) in nature. While many important policy decisions are made at the national level, local government can also play a significant role both as a testbed for new policy ideas and as the implementation arm for high-level policies.

An example of this is vehicle electrification, a solution advocated by Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as part of a broader environmental and climate change mitigation strategy. At the national level, the Obama Administration set goals for expanding the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. At the same time, states like California have been pioneering efforts to reduce emissions and encourage vehicle electrification. Municipal and regional governments provide the critical “last mile” for a comprehensive policy strategy. At this level, government policies can be as diverse as switching municipal fleets to EVs, ensuring the availability of charging stations in public garages, incentivizing or requiring EV-charging access in building codes, or implementing special permitting fees for EV chargers. To influence these crucial “last mile” policies, you must look to your state houses and city halls instead of to Washington.

There are few resources to help people, particularly engineering & science professionals, who want to get involved in their local communities…but we are trying to change that.

Once you appreciate the importance of local engagement, you may find yourself wondering where to start. While scientific professional societies have provided a conduit for informing engineers & scientists about national level policy issues for decades, fewer resources exist for helping people understand the issues and get involved in local (city, state, or regional) government. While a limited number of state-level fellowships provide the opportunity for a small number of engineers & scientists to work in state government, there are even fewer municipal programs.

You can, instead, create your own engagement opportunities. Visit your city’s website to read your general plan or learn about initiatives, attend city council meetings, request meetings with your city representatives—who are usually happy to meet their constituents—and apply for a board or commission. The latter is a particularly impactful, though too often overlooked, way to engage. Through my own task force involvement, I have had the opportunity to meet with leaders in my community and learn about issues ranging from gang prevention to compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

Despite its possibilities, local involvement seems to be the exception for people who are interested in science-related policy. Most of the scientists I know are unaware of how they can become involved locally and don’t realize they can have an impact. For this reason, I founded Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL).

ESAL is a non-partisan, non-advocacy organization dedicated to helping engineers & scientists increase their engagement in their city, state, and regional governments and communities. We are currently assessing interests and engagement levels of engineers and scientists. If you are a scientist or engineer, please share your interests and experiences with us through this survey.

The work of organizations like UCS helps engineers, scientists, and members of the broader public understand the critical role that science and technology plays across policy issues. This awareness has made technically informed discussions an integral part of policy formulation at the federal level. Local governments also grapple with important science-related issues. By getting involved as an engaged citizen, advocate, and volunteer in your local community, you can help shape local policies that align with global solutions.


Arti Garg is the Founder and Chair of Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL). She is a data scientist who specializes in industrial and internet of things (IoT) applications. Previously, she worked in the White House Budget Office overseeing a $5 billion portfolio or research and development investments at the Department of Energy. She also served as an American Physical Society-sponsored science policy fellow with the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She was appointed to the Keep Hayward Clean and Green Task Force in 2015. She holds a PhD in Physics from Harvard University and an MS in Aerospace Engineering from Stanford University.

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.

Warehouses As an Environmental Justice Issue

Photo: Atomic Hot Links/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

When we think of locally undesirable land uses, we often think of large power plants, puffing single plumes of pollution. But many plumes of pollution from trucks traveling to and from warehouses can have equally large impacts on health. 40% of US imports enter through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Trucks travel frequently to deliver the goods to warehouses, and further move the goods from those facilities to more customers. In the era of e-commerce, high demand for express deliveries further contributes to the massive expansion of the warehousing industry.

As an Angeleno commuter, I am deeply impressed that a large number of giant warehousing facilities emerge in the suburbs along the Interstate 10 when I drive to work. But what do these facilities bring to our communities besides consumer goods?

The significant expansion of the warehousing industry

Figure 1 Percentage changes compared to the Year 2003 in the number of establishments in selected industry sectors (Data sources: County Business Pattern 2003-2015)

Over the last decade or so, the warehousing industry has expanded substantially, especially compared to the other industry sectors. In the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, the number of warehouses and storage facilities increased by 21% between 2003 and 2015 (see Figure 1). However, during the same period, the construction sector got a 9% increase, wholesale and retail generally remained the same, and the manufacturing sector experienced a 23% plunge. While these traditional sectors in the economy stagnate, the warehousing industry becomes a star that is experiencing continued prosperity in the recent decade.

Figure 2 Number of establishments in warehousing and storage industry in the largest eight metropolitan areas in the U.S. (Data sources: County Business Pattern 2003-2015)

Expansion of the logistics industry isn’t limited to Los Angeles. Among the largest eight metropolitan areas in the US, the number of warehousing establishments increased by at least 20% in six of them: Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia and Miami (see Figure 2). The growth rate in Houston reached as high as 40%. The spatial expansion of warehouses is especially dramatic in metropolitan areas with abundant cheap suburban land. Warehousing developers favor this type of land as it offers many conveniences for warehousing development: low rent, large parcels, weak regulations, and good regional connections.

What impacts can warehouses have on communities?

The increased number of warehousing facilities not only consume large tracts of land, but also bring about substantial environmental externalities. Freight trucks generate air pollutants, noise, pavement damage, and traffic safety threats while moving into and out of warehouses.

According to studies in public health and traffic engineering, a truck creates significantly higher environmental impacts than a passenger vehicle. The exposure of local residents, especially children and elderly people, to truck related emissions like NOX and particulate matter would cause health outcomes including asthma and respiratory allergies.

A street view in the City of Carson where trucks (right) occupy all road lanes next to a residential neighborhood (left) (Photo: Quan Yuan)

Roads filled with semi-trucks are a familiar sight in areas and neighborhoods with warehouses. It suggests the great impacts that frequent truck movement could have on the local communities. More and more residents are becoming aware of these externalities associated with warehousing activities. Some of them have organized to fight against the siting of new warehousing projects. For instance, the World Logistics Center, a major warehousing project under review in the City of Moreno Valley, is opposed by local resident groups, environmental advocates, and public agencies including the South Coast Air Quality Management District. This huge project, with floor space totaling around 40 million square feet, rouses concerns about the environmental risks associated with substantial truck movement.

Do some neighborhoods receive more warehousing facilities than others?

Figure 3 Spatial distribution of warehouses and two selected types of neighborhoods in the Los Angeles region (Date sources: Costar, Inc.; American Community Survey 2010)

Given that warehousing facilities are regarded as locally undesirable, an important question arises: are they disproportionately distributed? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. My recent analysis of warehousing location in Los Angeles revealed that low-income and medium-income minority neighborhoods contain a vast majority of warehouses and distribution centers (see Figure 3). Apart from traditional industrial clusters in the East LA and Gateway cities, suburban neighborhoods in the Inland Empire are rising hotspots for warehousing development. Econometric model results confirm the spatial patterns that minority neighborhoods receive significantly more warehouses than white neighborhoods, after controlling for household income, land rent and many other variables. The empirical evidence implies a classic environmental justice problem.

But why? Warehousing developers search for locations with low land rent, low-wage labor pool, weak political power, and favorable public policies. Economic, sociopolitical and institutional factors are equally important in the dynamics. When local authorities are indifferent about warehousing development, minority residents may not be able to resist this spatial inequity, or unequal spatial distribution of warehouses.

This environmental justice problem is drawing the attention of the public, academia, and policy makers. Land use regulations, environmental standards, vehicle fleet upgrades, and techniques (such as using plants as buffers) are all potential options for alleviating the problem. As warehouse development continues to increase, let’s take seriously this environmental justice issue, and come up with feasible solutions that stop burdening our minority communities with air pollution.

Quan Yuan is a Ph.D. candidate in Planning and Policy Development at Sol Price School of Public Policy, the University of Southern California. His research interests mainly lie in urban transportation planning, freight, parking, and environmental sustainability.

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 Soil Solution: One Reason to be Optimistic About the Environment is Right Beneath Our Feet

As a young geologist, it took me a while to appreciate the importance of soil and the opportunity soil restoration presents for addressing key challenges humanity now faces. Over time, studying how erosion moves rock, sediment and soil to shape landscapes, I became familiar with how soil both influences and reflects the evolution of topography. We’re all familiar with the topographic displays of bare rock in the Grand Canyon, sharp-angled mountain peaks, and the smooth, rounded profiles of soil-mantled slopes in the rolling hills of California. But I also came to notice that prosperous regions tended to have rich, fertile soil. Impoverished ones did not.

The state of the soil was not just of scientific interest. It was of fundamental importance to human societies.

The oldest problem

My 2007 book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, grew out of an interest in how our treatment of the land influenced the longevity of civilizations. I found that soil erosion and degradation played a far larger role in human history than I was ever taught. Societies that degrade their land do not stand the test of time.

What lies at the root of the problem? The plow. Consider the state of a freshly plowed field. That bare soil translates into vulnerability to erosion by wind or rain. While it takes nature centuries to build an inch of fertile topsoil, an afternoon thunderstorm can strip as much off a freshly plowed field. Society after society in regions around the world gradually plowed their way into poverty, from Classical Greece to the American Dust Bowl.

Yet the problem of soil degradation is not just ancient history. It is still with us and one of the least recognized, and most serious, facets of the environmental crisis facing humanity today. In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that under conventional practices the world loses another third of a percent of its agricultural production capacity to soil degradation each year. And while the soil on about a third of the world’s cropland is already seriously degraded, U.S. soils have lost about half their soil organic matter. These trends seriously undermine efforts to feed the world’s growing population.

Soil cores with differences in soil quality resulting from differing farming practices. Photo credit: D. Montgomery

Nature’s hidden half

Fortunately, soil degradation is also one of the most solvable challenges we face. I didn’t learn this from studying history. I learned it in my yard, as my wife turned our Seattle lot into a verdant garden—and changed the way we saw soil.

When we bought our house, the yard hosted a scraggly lawn with wretched soil, hard khaki-colored dirt with about 1% organic matter and nary a worm to be found. Anne set out on an organic matter crusade, layering compost and mulch on garden beds to reintroduce organic matter to the soil. In just a few years time, we found our soil turning darker brown and our plants thriving.  Now, a decade later, the carbon content of our soil is up to almost 10%. We explored this transformation in The Hidden Half of Nature and came to realize the foundational role that microbial community ecology plays in soil fertility as well as plant and human health.

Growing solutions

Restoring the soil in our yard to build a garden happened far faster than nature could have made soil. And this led me to look at the question of whether we can rapidly reverse the historical trend of soil degradation—and whether solutions can scale from small subsistence farms in the developing world to large commodity crop operations in the developed world. To investigate, I visited farms around the world that had restored fertility to the soil and life to the land. In Growing A Revolution, I describe how adopting conservation agriculture practices—combining minimal ground disturbance, cover cropping, and complex crop rotations—can restore fertility to agricultural soils and help address critical issues humanity faces today: feeding the world, mitigating climate change, conserving biodiversity, and reducing pollution.

The author’s backyard garden. Photo credit: D. Montgomery

Naturally, specific practices to adapt these general principles will vary across regions with different soils, climates, crops, economies and cultures. The lack of a simple recipe presents a tremendous challenge.  But it also provides opportunities for scientists to work in conjunction with farmers to rethink conventional agriculture and evaluate the effects of regenerative practices on soil health. Basically, we need to put soil ecology back on par with soil chemistry and physics in our philosophy of farming—and invest in the science behind the transition to conservation agriculture.

I never thought I’d write an optimistic book about the environment. But the farmers I visited who had adopted regenerative practices were using far fewer chemical inputs and far less diesel, and were much more profitable than their conventional neighbors. Their stories offer hope for wider adoption of farming practices that are not only good for farmers and rural communities but also protect our environment and can help secure a sustainable agricultural foundation for humanity’s future.

WEBINAR: Turning Soils Into Sponges

Learn about the soil-building practices that reduce drought and flood frequency with Dr. Andrea Basche, author of the new UCS report Turning Soils Into Sponges, USDA scientist Dr. Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, and UCS senior Washington representative Mike Lavender.

Register for the webinar >

David R. Montgomery is a MacArthur Fellow and professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington. He is an internationally recognized geologist who studies landscape evolution and the effects of geological processes on ecological systems and human societies. He has authored more than 200 scientific papers and 5 popular-science books, and has been featured in documentary films, network and cable news, and on a wide variety of TV and radio programs. When not writing or doing geology, he plays in the band Big Dirt. Connect with him at www.dig2grow.com or follow him on Twitter (@dig2grow).

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.