UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

You Heard Right—The Trump Administration is Bailing Out Coal Plants

Photo: Seth Anderson/CC BY-NC-SA (Flickr)

No one likes paying more on their electric bills. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what might happen if the US Department of Energy gets its way with a recent request that bails out uneconomic coal plants. UCS opposes both this and something similar under review by the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

Who benefits? Owners

The Trump administration proposes to force the markets to provide guaranteed profits to coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants that are failing in the competitive wholesale electricity markets. Although the proposal is thin on details, it would amount to a bailout. This primarily benefits the owners of US coal mines by paying the uneconomic coal-burning power plants upwards of $5 billion per year to keep burning coal from those mines.

The power plant owners will also have larger profits in the short-run.

Power plant owners of course understand these coal plants are uneconomic—which is why they are looking for someone to pay them to keep them online. Before the Trump DOE came along, West Virginia went through this in 2013 with the Harrison power plant, which has cost consumers more than $164 million so far. Now Harrison’s owner, FirstEnergy, is attempting the same thing with its Pleasants coal plant.

Coal plants potentially benefiting from DOE proposal in green and red. Size based on Co2 emissions. Source: UCS analysis

The track record of coal mine owners in protecting the jobs and health of coal miners is abysmal; spending money to keep coal-burning plants open is not a great policy for the communities in coal country. While purporting to support coal communities, the administration simultaneously proposed to cut federal budgets that support those communities.

Who pays? Trapped consumers

Bending the markets to require profits be given to a few plant owners is an awful idea.When the Administration rejects the markets’ results to favor a few political supporters, every business owner and every consumer should consider themselves under attack. Electricity is not a luxury or an option for our society.

The government needs a very clear explanation if the captive customers paying unavoidable electric bills are suddenly required to pay billions more in costs each year.

While FERC and state regulators do have the authority to approve rule changes that increase payments to existing power plants, using good policy to reduce the cost of an expensive change would be the responsible choice. Unfortunately, the debates are tilted against consumers.

How much money?

Estimates for increased payments to generators run in a range from $2.4 billion to $10.6 billion annually for payments under the proposed rule—but that does not include the pollution impacts. UCS offered FERC an initial estimate of costs due to increased CO2 emissions by calculating the CO2 emissions from existing coal-burning generators that appear to be eligible for the payments proposed by the DOE. UCS found over 50 GW of existing coal capacity that would potentially be eligible for the proposed subsidy and included only those that were located within energy markets of PJM, MISO,NYISO, or ISO-NE, and that are known to be presently subject to market competition.

Using their 2016 CO2 emissions, the coal plants potentially eligible for payments under the DOE Proposal create annual costs of about $9 billion from emitted CO2. Impacts from other pollutants will make this higher.

What’s wrong with the DOE proposal?

The proposed rule submitted by the DOE is worse than vague about benefits to reliability or “resilience.” The DOE proposal has not defined the need for a set of services, not defined the services, and not defined the performance improvements sought or expected from generators eligible for proposed payments. The DOE has not supported its proposal with evidence, nor is it supported by the body of science-backed reports that have been published in recent months, many of which were funded and directed by the DOE. The National Academy of Sciences described how to improve in electric system resilience, and the DOE ignored that, too.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should not approve this proposed rule with this lack of evidence and detail regarding impacts on consumers and reliability.

Further, the DOE proposal fails to define resilience. This is sufficient reason for FERC to reject the proposal. Where “essential reliability services” have been defined, those capabilities can be provided by solar, wind, and storage. Demonstrations of solar generation capabilities to provide “essential reliability services” have recently been published by the California ISO, California Energy Commission, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and First Solar. Earlier documentation of wind generation capacity providing reliability and ancillary services has been made by NREL, and deployed commercially by Xcel operators in Colorado.

Is the DOE wrong in claiming reliability is being affected?

Yes. The retirement of power plants in the RTOs/ISOs has not diminished the reliability of the electric power system, and DOE has not supported its claim that retirements of uneconomic creates a reliability impact. Reliability is closely watched, with regular comprehensive reviews provided by NERC. The DOE proposal contradicts NERC and does so despite the fact that the NERC reliability assessment is cited in the DOE Staff report. NERC’s State of Reliability 2017 report states that the bulk power system is reliable today despite the recent plant retirements.

Resilience (and reliability) for the electric power system are desirable goals for the economy and the well-being of everyone—but without a definition and means to evaluate the contribution to serving such goals, a policy or expense cannot be justified. A better approach is to invest small, distributed resources for the grid, given that the vast majority of customer outages are due to disturbances on the transmission and distribution systems and not the shortage of fuel at large power plants.
UCS continues to actively engage in the FERC and regional debates over the DOE proposal. Stay tuned for updates.

Photo: Seth Anderson/CC BY-NC-SA (Flickr)

Kathleen Hartnett White Nomination Spells Trouble for the Magna Carta of Environmental Law: NEPA

NEPA is a landmark law that is crucial for identifying and considering environmental impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment. Photo: Bill Hughes, FracTracker Alliance

President Trump’s nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to lead the nation’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) comes as no big surprise. She will be just the latest addition to a Trump team determined to slow, stem, stymie, and roll back environmental and public health protections with reckless disregard for the well-being of all Americans. 

Despite the up to $180 billion in devastation caused by a climate change fueled-hurricane in Houston, Hartnett White, the former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, does not believe that climate change is a danger to society. Ever a friend to the oil and gas industry, she sees efforts to address climate change as simply an attack on the fossil fuel industry.

I could go on (and on and on) to express my dismay and alarm about this impending appointment, and others have—see here, here, and here—but that’s not where I’m headed with this post.  Instead, I want to tell you why you should care about two acronyms most American’s have never heard of: CEQ and NEPA.

CEQ does what exactly?

The national Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is a small but important office within the Executive Office of the President. Established by a 1969 law (more on NEPA in a second), the council essentially functions as the president’s chief advisor on environmental quality within the White House.

CEQ was created to gather information on environmental quality; develop and recommend to the president national policies to foster and promote the improvement of environmental quality; set regulations that guide agency compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA; and be a source of information for the public.

In other words, CEQ is meant to play a critical role in protecting and promoting the quality of our environment, and the head of CEQ will be a primary source of advice and information for President Trump on the issue of environmental quality. 

NEPA: The Magna Carta of environmental law  

First, a bit of history. While environmental protection is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Richard Nixon, his administration ushered in some sweeping changes and had singular environmental achievements. NEPA is a case in point.

President Nixon signed the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. This landmark law charges the federal government and its agencies with a responsibility to promote environmental protection, preservation, and restoration, and notes the responsibility each generation has to act as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.

NEPA has inspired the adoption of similar requirements in 16 US states, and over 130 nations around the world have enacted national environmental policies modeled after it. NEPA has been called the Magna Carta of Environmental Law, a reflection of just how important and valuable it is considered around the world.

NEPA is important for three main reasons

1) Identifying and considering impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment

NEPA established the requirement, with certain exemptions, that all federal agencies undertake an environmental impact statement (EIS) when they propose legislation and any other major federal action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment.

Such actions include but are not limited to specific projects (such as road construction), plans or proposals to manage and develop federal land (such as national parks), and federal permitting or funding of private sector projects (such as granting an easement for a power lines or a permit for use of a waterway).

This is critical in order to ensure that federal agencies identify and consider environmental impacts on the people, communities, places, and environmental resources (i.e., air, water, land) that will be affected by their proposed actions.

2) Explaining the environmental impacts of different alternatives 

In formulating an environmental impact statement, agencies must explain the purpose and need for action, and importantly the different reasonable alternatives for addressing the need so that decision makers are fully aware of the environmental consequences of their choices. The document must explain the environmental impacts of these alternatives, and possible measures to reduce adverse impacts.

The EIS always includes as part of its analysis a “no action” alternative, that is, what would happen if the action was not taken at all. (For more, check out the Wiki page on EIS; it’s good. For a more detailed look at NEPA, check out chapter 5 in this book.)

Per Executive Order #12898, agencies are also required to consider issues of environmental justice in the NEPA process–including environmental effects on human health, and economic and social effects, specifically within communities of color and low-income communities, which are disproportionately impacted by environmental risks and harms.

3) Allowing the public to have a say in decisions (a.k.a. democracy)

NEPA also advances two essential features of our democracy—transparency and public participation. Federal projects and actions can have profound effects on our surrounding environments and thus on our daily lives—from the air we breathe and the food and water we consume to the roads we travel and the places we love.

We, the people who may be impacted by a project for years to come, should have the right to know what the agencies are planning; what alternatives they are considering; and have an opportunity to comment, question, and suggest different alternatives. Indeed, in 2007 the CEQ itself published A Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA: Having Your Voice Heard.  (I suggest you you read it now; it could easily disappear.)

So, for example, the public—not just business interests—would get to weigh in when the federal Department of Transportation proposes to build or extend the interstate highway system that might cut through communities or nearby farmlands. Or when the US Forest Services plans logging activity on federal lands, which could potentially impact tourism and local water quality. Or when the Army Corps of Engineers develops plans for flood control or river transportation on the nation’s waterways. Or when an oil and gas company needs a permit for a new drilling operation. Or for a pipeline. NEPA provides a critical opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed actions and alternatives.

Flexibility and recourse

While the process provides opportunity for public engagement and is meant to ensure that decision-makers consider different alternatives and their environmental impacts, agencies have flexibility to make the final decision they deem most appropriate.

Specifically, agencies are not bound to select the least burdensome alternative. However, agency decisions are appealable and open to judicial review. And the EIS, along with the record of public comment, provides information that can be used to fight an agency decision in court. Without getting into the legal weeds, the courts generally tend to review decisions if 1) the proper process was followed, 2) there was appropriate public participation, and 3) the alternatives considered and decisions made were not “arbitrary and capricious.”

In other words, the agency must have a logical basis for its decisions following public input. As a standard, that’s not bad!

Hartnett White: Here’s the rub

The White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) oversees the implementation of NEPA. It issues and interprets NEPA rules and regulations and reviews and approves NEPA procedures in agencies. So it matters who is running the show. Is it someone who will put public health and environmental protection first, or someone who will sideline science in favor of industry? Is it someone who truly believes in the public process and the opportunity for different perspectives and interests to be at the table, or only the most deep-pocketed players?  Is it someone who will staff the office with people who understand and support the statutory missions of the agencies or people from regulated industries who have been vocal critics of NEPA, regulatory protections, and the agencies they will oversee?

Do we want the chief environmental quality advisor in the White House to be someone who views carbon dioxide as a harmless and beneficial gas rather than a proven climate pollutant? Who sees “global warming” as a “kind of paganism” for “secular elites.”  Who has tight and profitable connections with the fossil fuel industry? If yes, then Kathleen Hartnett White is the person for the job.  President Trump certainly thinks so.

With federal promises to address our aging infrastructure in the offing, you may find yourself with a newfound interest in this somewhat arcane, often lengthy, and sometimes contentious process. As well as exceedingly grateful for a functioning NEPA and a CEQ that puts public interest first.

My worry is that powerful private interests will persuade their friends in the administration to “streamline” (read: WEAKEN) NEPA protections and processes. And a willing CEQ with Hartnett White at the helm will be instrumental in the process.

If you’re worried too, call on your senator (you can reach him or her via the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121) to oppose the confirmation of Kathleen Hartnett White!

¿Qué es la energía eólica marina? Una visita a la primera granja de los EE.UU.

Viajar a Block Island para ver de cerca la primera granja eólica marina de los Estados Unidos me hizo recordar lo mucho que disfrutaba las salidas de campo organizadas por el colegio y luego la universidad. Desde las visitas de primaria a granjas con conejos, vacas y caballos, a las salidas mientras estudiaba ingeniería a procesos de automatización e industrias de ensamblaje de productos, siempre me fascinó presenciar en vivo lo que aprendía en las aulas de clase. Ahora que me especializo en temas de energía limpia, la visita a esta granja eólica marina no fue la excepción.

 ¿En qué consiste la energía eólica marina?

La energía eólica consiste en la generación de energía por medio del uso de turbinas que aprovechan la velocidad del viento. En el caso de la energía eólica marina, las turbinas de viento están ubicadas en plataformas instaladas en el mar.

Medidas de las turbinas eólicas marinas de Block Island. Crédito: Deepwater Wind, LLC

La granja eólica marina de Block Island cuenta con 5 turbinas de proporciones impresionantes. Las torres miden 360 pies (110m), equivalente a la altura de 20 jirafas ubicadas una sobre la otra. Cada aspa mide 240 pies (73m), casi igual al ancho de un avión Airbus A380 de un extremo a otro de sus alas.

En cuanto a las plataformas, para este proyecto se usaron jackets  los cuales están situados entre 75 y 90 pies (23 a 27m) bajo el nivel del mar; en el buceo recreativo la profundidad máxima autorizada oscila entre 20 y 40m. Las plataformas están aseguradas a su vez con pilotes que penetran 200 pies (60m) el fondo del mar.

La energía generada por esta granja eólica marina de 30 megavatios (MW) es suficiente para cubrir las necesidades de 17.000 hogares. Esta energía es transmitida a través de un cable submarino que conecta la granja con Block Island, y la isla a su vez se conecta con la red eléctrica continental del estado de Rhode Island a través de un segundo cable submarino.

¿Cuáles son los beneficios de esta tecnología?

Granja eólica marina de Block Island: energía limpia hecha realidad. Foto: P. García.

Son múltiples los beneficios del uso de la energía eólica marina.

Ambientales. Debido a su naturaleza, no produce emisiones contaminantes al utilizar el viento y no plantas diésel u otros combustibles fósiles para generar energía. En el caso de la granja eólica marina de Block Island, anualmente evitará la emisión de 40.000 toneladas de dióxido de carbono, equivalente a sacar de circulación 7.500 carros. Esta transición a energías renovables es de singular importancia para contrarrestar los peores efectos del cambio climático.

Económicos. El diseño, implementación y mantenimiento de proyectos eólicos marinos requiere de mano de obra, lo que se traduce en empleos, desarrollo industrial y por ende económico. Tan solo en Block Island para un proyecto de 30MW se han creado más de 300 empleos. Esto es un claro abrebocas de lo que viene para la región si tenemos presente las metas de desarrollo de energía eólica marina establecidas por estados como Massachusetts (1.600MW) y Nueva York (2.400MW).

Tecnológicos: La costa este de los Estados Unidos presenta un especial potencial para la eólica marina debido a la velocidad del viento y la poca profundidad del mar. Sumado a esto, la energía eólica marina provee un mayor rendimiento y eficacia en comparación con la eólica terrestre debido al tamaño de las turbinas, y a que hay menos obstáculos para el viento al no haber construcciones o alteraciones geográficas. Adicionalmente, la energía eólica marina es usualmente ubicada cerca a los lugares donde la energía es consumida, evitando así el uso de extensos sistemas de transmisión para poder transportar la energía a su destino final.

Sociales y ecológicos. La debida planeación, integración de la comunidad científica y consulta previa con comunidades y pescadores de la zona, garantizan la sana coexistencia de proyectos tecnológicos como la granja eólica marina de Block Island y el desarrollo de actividades productivas, la continuidad de la vida diaria de las comunidades y la conservación de especies marinas y de aves de la zona.

Presenciando como se construye el futuro. Foto: P. García.

Mi deseo para la energía eólica marina: ¡Buen viento y buena mar!

Sin duda, la energía es esencial para nuestra vida diaria. Visitar esta granja eólica marina ha sido una valiosa oportunidad para dimensionar las proporciones de esta tecnología, comprobar su increíble desempeño, y reafirmar que proyectos sostenibles como este son no solo viables, sino esenciales para nuestro desarrollo económico, social y ambiental. Dadas las innumerables oportunidades para su implementación en la costa este de los Estados Unidos y muchísimos más lugares del mundo, espero que la energía eólica marina tenga cada vez más: ¡Buen viento y buena mar!

Paula García Deepwater Wind, LLC Paula Garcia P. Garcia

Fast and Getting Faster: The Verdict on Sea Level Rise from the Latest National Climate Assessment

Sea level rose more rapidly during the 20th century than during any of the previous 27 centuries, and humans bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for that rise. That’s just one of the sobering takeaways from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Climate Science Special Report (CSSR), released today, but leaked to the New York Times in August. Billed as Volume 1 of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA), the CSSR captures the state of sea level rise science and its implications for the coasts of our country.

Here are six noteworthy findings from the sea level rise section of the CSSR:

1. People are responsible for 80% of the sea level rise since 1970

The first key finding in the CSSR’s sea level rise chapter contains a bold statement that is backed up in the chapter’s main text: “Human-caused climate change has made a substantial contribution to [global mean sea level rise] since 1900…contributing to a rate of rise that is greater than during any preceding century in at least 2,800 years…”

This finding is based on eight independent studies published in the last three years that aim to quantify the human contribution to sea level rise since 1900. All of them conclude that the human contribution is “substantial,” and at least two find that, in the absence of human activity, sea level rise over the course of the 20th century would have been about 50 to 60% of what has actually been observed.

The human contribution to sea level rise is even more striking if we look at just the last 50 years: People are responsible for about 80% of the global mean sea level rise since 1970.

These findings broadly reflect the rapid evolution of attribution science–or assessing whether–or what proportion of–observed climate and weather events can be attributed to human activity. A recent study published by Brenda Ekwurzel and others takes this sea level rise attribution one step further by showing that about 30% of global sea level rise since the Industrial Revolution was caused by the burning of products from 90 major fossil fuel companies.

Given the tendency of climate-confused politicians such as Scott Pruitt to say things like “Science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change…the human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be,” this high-confidence finding would ideally help to lift some of their “confusion.”

2. Sea level rise is accelerating, and a growing proportion of that rise is due to loss of ice on land

Estimates of how much sea level rose over the course of the 20th century have been changing, which has implications for our understanding of how the pace of sea level rise has been changing. The average rate that has long been quoted for the 20th century, from a 2011 study by Church and White, is 0.06 inches/year. But a few more recent studies, including one by Hay et al. cited in the CSSR, have found that rate to be slightly lower–0.05 inches per year. That amounts to 4-5 inches of sea level rise in the 89 years between 1901 and 1990.

Since 1990, less than 30 years ago, global sea level has risen by about 3 inches. The rate of sea level rise is now 0.13 inches per year–more than double the 20th century average–with both tide gauges and satellite data confirming the changing pace.Over the course of the 20th century, the pace of sea level rise varied. This recent acceleration is different for at least a few reasons. First, it’s coming on the heels of a century of already above-average sea level rise that we know is attributable to human activity. Second, projections show that this acceleration has only just begun. And third, loss of land-based ice is contributing more to sea level rise than it did during the 20th century.

The six scenarios used by the CSSR to project future sea level rise show that the rapid pace of sea level rise we are experiencing today could pale in comparison to what lies ahead. With an intermediate scenario, the pace of sea level rise would increase to 0.2 inches per year in 2020 and to 0.6 inches per year in 2090. With a high sea level rise scenario, those rates increase to 0.4 inches per year in 2020 and 1.7 inches per year in 2090.

The six sea level rise scenarios developed by NOAA as input to the Climate Science Special Report for the National Climate Assessment.

Changes in sea level arise largely from two sources: loss of land-based ice and warming of the ocean, which causes seawater to expand and take up more space. Over the course of the 20th century, warming oceans contributed the bulk of the sea level rise signal. But since 2005, about two-thirds of observed sea level rise has come from loss of ice. When we look into the future, there is still a considerable degree of uncertainty about how much ice loss will contribute to sea level rise.

3. Antarctic ice loss is still a wildcard, but its game-changing potential contribution is becoming clearer

Quantifying the response of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to future warming has been a consistently large source of uncertainty in global sea level rise projections for over 15 years (here’s the third IPCC report from 2001, for example). In the past couple of years, however, major developments in the ability to model the response of the Antarctic ice sheets to warming have begun to hone our understanding of Antarctica’s potential contribution to sea level rise this century.

And it’s scary.

The CSSR is unequivocal that Antarctica (and Greenland) are losing ice, and there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the pace of that loss is accelerating. The rate of ice loss is about 100 gigatons per year–an amount that this Washington Post article can help us to wrap our heads around.

The Thwaites Glacier, part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, appears to be in “an irreversible state of decline,” according to a 2014 study by Eric Rignot and others.

Models suggest that ice loss from Antarctica could contribute more than three feet to global sea level rise this century on top of rise from other sources. This growing body of knowledge is reflected in what the CSSR calls an “extreme” scenario in which sea level rises by an average of 8.5 feet by 2100. The previous NCA report’s highest sea level rise scenario projected about 6.6 ft by 2100.

There’s a concerted effort in the CSSR to incorporate the latest science about Antarctic ice loss into sea level rise projections. But there’s still enough uncertainty that Antarctica’s potential contribution couldn’t be fully accounted for when assigning probabilities to potential sea level rise futures.

4. Sea level rise scenarios tied to emissions scenarios and assigned likelihoods

NOAA has developed a new set of sea level rise projections that are designed for this round of the National Climate Assessment. New SLR scenarios designed for understanding risk given a range of different carbon emissions scenarios. Each sea level rise projection is assigned a probability based on emissions pathways, as in “with a high emissions scenario (RCP8.5), the ‘very likely range’ of SLR is about 1.7-4.3 ft by 2100”.

Here’s where the big Antarctic wildcard plays in, though: The probabilities do not factor in the possibility of major ice loss from Antarctica.

5. Communities will be affected by more frequent, more severe flooding before they are permanently underwater

Since 2014, there’s been an increased focus on what happens between now and the point at which coastal regions are permanently underwater due to sea level rise. This in-between time will be characterized by an increase in the number and extent of high tide flooding events, and a number of studies in the past three years have painted a picture of what that looks like quantitatively and qualitatively.

 

King tide flooding in Charleston, SC, on October 7, 2017. The local National Weather Service office has issued 38 Coastal Flood Advisories for the region already this year.

The CSSR puts this issue of tidal flooding up front in key message #4: “As sea levels have risen, the number of tidal floods each year that cause minor impacts…have increased 5- to 10-fold since the 1960s…Tidal flooding will continue increasing in depth, frequency, and extent this century.”

While the tidal flooding findings described here won’t be news to regular readers of this blog or to residents of flood-prone places like Charleston and Annapolis, their elevation to key finding status will hopefully highlight the insidious threat of frequent flooding that hundreds of communities in the U.S. could face in the coming decades.

6. Buckle up for centuries of sea level rise

When we look at projections for how much sea level will rise through the end of this century, it’s tempting to assume that 2100 is so far off that of course we will have cracked the climate change nut by then and be back to a climate that feels right. A climate in which people will know what a month of below average temperatures feels like. A climate in which coastal towns see a couple of high tide floods per year instead of dozens.

But sea level takes time to respond to the emissions we are pumping into the atmosphere, and even if temperatures stabilize, sea level is projected to continue rising for centuries if not millennia. Emissions through 2100 could lock us into a sea level rise of 12 feet by 2200 and up to 33 ft in the next 2,000 years.

Again, major ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet is the big wildcard because once that ice is lost, it cannot easily be regained. The CSSR states: “Once changes are realized, they will be effectively irreversible for many millennia, even if humans artificially accelerate the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere (DeConto and Pollard 2016).”

This new report shows us that we are on the comfortable end of the steep sea level rise curve. As this report gains attention in the coming days there will be those who will wave their hands and insist “nothing to see here.” Clearly, there is far more to see here than we want. Thank you to the dozens of authors and researchers who are enabling us to see it coming.

 

Sweet et al. 2017 NASA Simran Paintlia for mycoast.org

On Climate Change, a Major Public Health Conference Stands in Stark Contrast to the Trump Administration

Our nation’s oldest, largest, and most highly respected public health organization—The American Public Health Association—begins its 2017 conference on November 4. Photo: Courtesy of APHA

The Trump administration may be hell-bent on sidelining any effort to address global climate change—or even have an intelligent conversation about it—but the public health community is having none of it. 

Public health experts know full well that climate change is an existential threat to people’s health, safety, and security. So much so that our nation’s oldest, largest, and most highly respected public health organization—The American Public Health Association—declared 2017 as the Year of Climate Change and Health.

“We’re committed to making sure the nation knows about the effects of climate change on health. If anyone doesn’t think this is a severe problem, they are fooling themselves.”  APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, in The Washington Post

The organization is also ready to host its annual meeting. Attended by thousands of public health professionals from around the country, the theme of this year’s meeting is Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health.

I’m struck by the enormous disconnect between what is happening in our nation’s capital and what’s happening in the community of public health experts. There is quite a gulf on so many issues—from gun violence, reproductive health, exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and worker safety to minimum wage and health disparities.

But let’s cut to the chase and talk about climate change.

Sidelining climate change: A round-up of recent Trump administration actions

We all know where President Trump stands on climate change; we knew it well before he took office. His suggestion that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese is maybe his most memorable tweet on the issue, but he’s followed up this nonsense with real action—perhaps best personified in the successful nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. And then fulfilling his promise to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Followed by fossil-friendly Pruitt announcing his intention to repeal the Clean Power Plan.

And they are just getting started, using every tool in the toolbox.

Here is a quick round-up of the administration’s efforts to seriously sideline climate change – just over the past couple of weeks.

Keeping climate change front and center: A look at the APHA public health conference

Public health scientists and practitioners have been raising the alarm about climate change and its impacts on human health for years (see for example, here, here, here, here, and here). And just this week, the Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, released a report on climate change and health, noting that its  impacts are “far worse than previously understood.”

This year’s APHA annual meeting stands in stark contrast to the control, alt, delete strategy we see coming out of Washington. I’ve done a quick scan of the upcoming APHA program and its keynote addresses, panel presentations, scientific sessions, posters, group gatherings, and continuing education offerings that are in store for the thousands of public health professionals and advocates who will be attending next week’s meeting.

Here’s just a snapshot of the breadth and depth of the discussions that will be happening.

  • Opening Plenary Session: Climate Changes Health
  • President’s Session: Climate Change and Health: The 21st Century Challenge
  • Global Faith and Health Perspectives on Climate Change: An Interfaith Celebration
  • Climate Change and its Impact on African Americans (Poster)
  • Climate Change and Vulnerable Populations
  • Nature and Human Health: Vectors and Climate Change
  • Climate Change and the Medical Care System
  • Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness
  • Climate Change Denial: Who Will Suffer Most and First?
  • Climate Change and the Possible Effects on Arbovirus Transmission in the Americas
  • Reproductive Health and Carbon Footprints
  • Climate Change and Health in Epidemiological Research
  • Climate Change, Energy, and Heat: Implications for Human Health
  • Climate-friendly Farming: A Public Health Imperative
  • Climate Change and Children’s Health
  • Ethics, Environmental Justice, and Climate Change
  • Climate and Geospatial Determinants of Health
  • Best Practices of Policy Initiatives at the Local and Community Level to Address Climate Change

On Sunday, I’m heading to Atlanta to attend the annual meeting. It’s something I look forward to every year. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues from across the country; hear about new findings, issues, and initiatives from public health researchers and practitioners; share and test ideas; peruse new books, products, and educational resources in the popular exhibit hall (while picking up a couple of free tchotchkies and an occasional apple or piece of candy); and then come home with renewed energy and new friends.

APHA is a vibrant, active, and diverse community and, for me, the meeting helps recharge my battery. It’s like an annual booster shot. And this year’s booster is all about climate change.

Trust and listen to the public health community, not the Trump administration

There is real leadership here—and it’s not coming out of Washington.

The public health community, with far less capacity and significantly fewer resources than our federal government, is WAAAY ahead when it comes to understanding, exploring, planning, managing, advising, educating, and otherwise addressing climate change.

We can count on this community (my community) to put public health, public safeguards, and public protections first—including those focused on climate change. These experts come from every state in the nation and can bring voices and expertise to bear at every level of government.

We will come out of Atlanta next week more prepared and committed than ever to speak up, speak out, and hold our leaders accountable for failing to address this existential threat.

APHA members and public health supporters participate in the March for Science on April 22. Photo: David Fouse/APHA

Pruitt Seeks to Reopen Truck Pollution Loophole per Cronies’ Request

That shiny new truck could have a 15-year-old engine that doesn’t meet today’s standards, and you may never know…except for the plumes of pollution behind it, if it’s a glider vehicle. Photo: Jeremy Rempel. CC-BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

In a particularly scary development, the EPA just proposed to repeal part of the recent regulations on heavy-duty vehicles. The proposal would affect “glider vehicles” and would reopen a loophole so big you could, well, drive a truck through it…leaving a ridiculously large cloud of pollution in its wake.

What the heck is a glider?

Glider vehicles are trucks that are built from a refurbished engine and a brand-new chassis (called a “glider kit”).  They have been around for a long time and can serve a useful purpose—heavy-duty diesel engines are built to last hundreds of thousands of miles and are a significant part of the upfront cost of a vehicle, so if you crash your truck in the first couple years, it would be worth it to make sure you got the full lifetime use out of that powertrain.

The thing is, no one’s going joyriding in a semi—truck drivers are doing it for a living and generally try to take immaculate care of their vehicle, so one wouldn’t think these types of accidents are very frequent.  In fact, up until recently, only a few hundred such gliders were sold in a given year.

Glider sales on the rise…

That all changed in the past couple years, when members of the glider cottage industry decided to exploit a loophole.  In 2007 and 2010, EPA put into effect new pollution controls for heavy-duty vehicles which cut soot and smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 90 percent.  However, because there is a menagerie of truck types and uses, those regulations are based on emissions tests of the engine, not the vehicle.

Fitzgerald, the leading assembler of glider vehicles, decided to make a few bucks by building a brand around assembling new glider vehicles with old, polluting engines that predate the EPA’s regulations and then selling the trucks as new vehicles.  They and other glider assemblers even put out ads trying to increase the availability of these more polluting engines!

Glider vehicle assemblers typically offer the trucks at a significant discount compared to other new vehicles—it’s amazing at how much cheaper you can make a truck when you don’t care about how much pollution it’s spewing (about 25 percent cheaper, in fact).  This is one of the major complaints from the rest of the industry—it isn’t a level playing field.  In fact, most of the industry is opposed to glider vehicles.

…leads to a LOT of excess pollution

Of course, the public shouldn’t be too crazy about these trucks, either.  Thanks to that “pollution discount” for not meeting modern emissions standards, glider vehicle sales have gone through the roof—just a few hundred glider vehicles were sold a decade ago, but industry sales are now up to about 10,000 vehicles…and perhaps still on the rise.

So just how bad is it?  Virtually all of Fitzgerald’s vehicles are sold with a pre-2004 diesel engine.  Those engines emit upwards of 10 to 20 times the amount of soot and smog forming nitrogen oxides (NOx) of a brand-new engine.  By 2025, EPA’s own analysis shows that these gliders would be emitting about 300,000 tons of NOx and 8,000 tons of soot each year!

Putting that into perspective:

  • That amount of NOx is about 10 times that of the VW Dieselgate scandal (to date)…all in a single year!
  • These levels of NOx emissions would effectively cancel out the reductions in NOx made in passing EPA’s Tier 3 Emissions and Fuel Standards.
  • Small in numbers but not impact—despite representing just 5 percent of the long-haul trucks on the road, by 2025 these glider vehicles would emit about 1/3 of all soot and NOx pollution from long-haul trucks.
  • These excess emissions would have serious health impacts—if this loophole isn’t closed by 2025, these glider vehicles would result in up to 12,800 deaths that could have been prevented, not to mention countless additional emergency room visits and other health issues.

It’s also worth noting that the engines being put into these new trucks are engines that EPA had already previously found in non-compliance with the Clean Air Act because of the use of defeat devices.  That’s right–not only do these engines not meet today’s emissions standards, but they didn’t even meet the emissions standards in place when they were originally manufactured!

In the most recent heavy-duty vehicle standards, the EPA wisely closed this loophole by requiring all new vehicles, including gliders, to have an engine that meets the same model-year standard as the vehicle itself.  Recognizing the previous legitimate use of gliders, they even allowed a small-volume exemption for up to 300 vehicles, curbing the rampant exploitation of the loophole while still maintaining a volume that could keep companies like Fitzgerald in business.

Pruitt’s cronyism threatens public health

The EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is threatening to throw that all away by repealing the sections of the rule that closed the glider loophole.  And he is doing so at the behest of Fitzgerald and Representative Diane Black (R-TN), who’s currently a candidate for the governor of Tennessee.

Rep. Black has tried unsuccessfully to restrict EPA from regulating glider kits via legislative action, willing to sacrifice public health because a few hundred jobs at Fitzgerald are in her district.

Fitzgerald’s owners met directly with Scott Pruitt in May.  They also worked with Rep. Black and a couple smaller glider assembler to submit a petition with some seriously shoddy “evidence” collected by a third party, Tennessee Tech University.  The thing is, TTU’s facilities are…in the Fitzgerald Industrial Park, paid for by Fitzgerald.  Coincidentally I’m sure, these tests were taken and signed off by the head of the center paid for in part by Fitzgerald even before the public-private partnership between TTU and Fitzgerald was announced.

Lo and behold, after receiving the petition from Fitzgerald, Scott Pruitt announced that he would be re-examining the glider provisions of the heavy-duty regulations.

It isn’t clear who exactly benefits from all this backroom dealing (besides the small number of glider assemblers like Fitzgerald)—but it certainly isn’t the American public.

Pending internal review by the executive branch, this proposed repeal should be made available for public comment, so stay tuned as we continue to push back on Scott Pruitt’s ridiculous dismantling of public health protections—I’m sure UCS will be calling on you for your support.

What is the National Climate Assessment? The Most Comprehensive Report on Climate Change in the United States

The amount of scientific research and brainpower that goes into the National Climate Assessment is kind of astonishing. Scratch that. It’s really astonishing.

This report is on my mind because the first draft of the next version (the fourth National Climate Assessment, or, NCA4) and one of its associated technical reports (the State of the Carbon Cycle) are due to be released for public comment this fall. In addition, the final version of the Climate Science Special Report – billed as Volume 1 of the National Climate Assessment – is due to be released in November.

So far, these reports have proceeded according to plan and are slotted to provide the President, Congress, and the public with the best available science on climate change and its impacts on the United States.

The National Climate Assessment is mandated by Congress

Before I get back to how astonishingly comprehensive the National Climate Assessment is, the National Climate Assessment (NCA) is a report that an office in the White House called the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is required to prepare for the President and Congress every four years. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Global Change Research Act, which mandates that this report analyze human and naturally caused global changes, and analyze their effects on things like agriculture, energy production, and human health. This Act passed unanimously in the Senate.

The Climate Science Special Report – part of the NCA process – tells you how and why the Earth is changing

The Climate Science Special Report is like going to a doctor and being given a report of your vital signs. It has information on changes in things like the Earth’s temperature, extreme weather events, and sea level, as well as what is causing these changes. The NCA is like being told by a doctor what the symptoms of these changes in your vital signs are going to be like for your community and state (e.g. more sea level rise = chronic flooding along coasts).

The Climate Science Special Report and the NCA consolidate massive amounts of scientific research

Okay, back to the astonishing amount of science that is in the NCA. Take the Climate Science Special Report. Again, this is just one part of the NCA process. In the leaked draft of the Climate Science Special Report (the final version is due to be properly released to the public in November), the authors assess more than 1500 scientific studies and reports. 1500!

I can tell you first hand that publishing a single study in a credible journal is a major feat. First, there’s the time you spend conducting the research (this is oftentimes a multi-year process during which you get feedback from colleagues at conferences). When you have significant results, you write a paper about them. It is standard practice to solicit feedback on your paper from colleagues who have related expertise before you try and get it published. Then, you submit your paper to a journal, which sends your paper to experts in your field who judge whether it is a solid piece of work or not, and offer feedback on the ways that your study and paper can be improved. If your paper is accepted, you have to revise your work according to the feedback received. Then and only then does your paper see the light of day.

Multiply that process by 1500 and you can now get a sense for how much scientific research and knowledge the Climate Science Special Report is based on. Factor in all of the other components of the NCA process that rely on similar amounts of information (e.g. the aforementioned State of the Carbon Cycle Report and the full NCA itself), and you now have a sense for how astonishingly comprehensive the NCA is.

The NCA tells us what the state of the science is on climate change and its impacts for the United States

The experts involved in the NCA and its associated technical reports not only review massive volumes of scientific studies, they spend large amounts of time comparing their findings.

For any given topic, the experts systematically look at what studies found and how similar the results are, as well as how many studies have been carried out on the topic. The experts then use all of that information to carefully communicate exactly what science can tell us on any given topic. The findings in the NCA are thus not radical, but reflect careful assessments of large volumes of science. As a result, Americans have a place that they can rely on to learn what the state of the science is on climate change and its impacts.

The NCA is authored by hundreds of experts from across the country

In addition to the sheer volume of information contained in the Climate Science Special Report and the full NCA, the reports are also incredibly rigorous with respect to the number and breadth of experts involved and the amount of scrutiny the reports undergo.

More than 300 experts were involved in the third version of the NCA. 50 authors contributed to the forthcoming Climate Science Special Report.

The Climate Science Special Report, State of the Carbon Cycle, and the full NCA itself undergo extensive review and offer a platform for feedback from diverse perspectives. The full process is outlined here, but in a nutshell, the reports are open for review by technical experts from both within and outside of the government, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public alike. The previous NCA received 4161 unique comments in total. Report authors are required to respond to each comment submitted.

The NCA provides critical information on risks from climate change for decision makers

The NCA provides critical information on the impacts of climate change on well-being and the economy of the United States. However, it stops shorts of making policy recommendations – it leaves it up to decision-makers to decide what to do about the risks that the report identifies.

Because the NCA and associated technical reports are so comprehensive and rigorous, they offer an unparalleled starting point for decision-makers, our military, the private sector (the report is broken out by sector), and members of the public alike to both assess the risks that Americans are facing and consider solutions so that we can chart a prosperous and secure path forward.

 

Scott Pruitt’s EPA Grant Ban Doesn’t Apply to States or Tribes. Here’s Why That’s Interesting.

This afternoon, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that nobody who receives an EPA grant should be allowed to provide scientific advice to the agency. Yep—those scientists, the ones that the EPA thinks do the most promising research related to public health and the environment? Their advice isn’t welcome anymore. We’ve written a lot about how this represents a major step in the political takeover of science advice at EPA.

Except! The ban doesn’t apply to states or tribes who receive government funding. Why would that be? Pruitt believes that anyone who gets millions of dollars from the government must have an agenda to impose regulations on the American people. Why wouldn’t this apply to states and tribes? Let’s go deep in the heart of Texas.

According to its own data, the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) received $58,273,661.63 from the EPA in 2016. Michael Honeycutt is the lead toxicologist at TCEQ, a state agency that often acts as more of an advocate for the refineries that do business in the state than the environment it is charged with protecting. The American Chemistry Council and the Texas Oil and Gas Association love Dr. Honeycutt so much that they labored unsuccessfully to get him appointed to the board in 2016.

In a press conference earlier this afternoon, Scott Pruitt suggested that the millions that university scientists had received in grant funding should make them ineligible to provide science advice to the agency. And then, in virtually the next breath, he turned around and appointed Dr. Honeycutt to chair the board. Not just a participant. THE CHAIR.

So, then, millions of dollars of government funding is A-OK.

Just as long as you’re giving the administrator the information he wants.

No wonder the American Association for the Advancement of Science was livid, noting that, “policymaking cannot thrive when policymakers use politics as a pretext to attack scientific objectivity.”

Scott Pruitt Deals Yet Another Blow to Independent Science Advice at the EPA

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Wikimedia)

Before September, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board was composed of 47 scientists volunteering their time as public servants to help advise the agency on issues ranging from the safety of selected chemicals to the types of models used by the agency to sufficiently study emissions.

The process of becoming an SAB member has always come with full ethics disclosures and careful consideration of potential conflicts of interest, from all sources of funding, whether it’s an EPA grant or industry funding. Scientists with agency funding have served on the board ever since the SAB was first formed, and because EPA grants are awarded through a competitive, peer-reviewed process, the objectivity of scientists with EPA grant funding was not likely to be questioned. SAB members with conflicts pertaining to specific subjects have mitigated those by disclosing them and recusing themselves from conversations that might represent a conflict.

After nearly 40 years of operation, it appears that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has decided to change the rules of the SAB and possibly other advisory committees at the agency by ordering that no individuals receiving EPA grant funding can serve on the board. Why would the administrator of an agency whose mission is to protect public health and the environment actively work to ensure that some of our greatest minds wouldn’t be allowed to advise him on pressing scientific questions? No need to ask Pruitt, just ask his friends from the regulated community who have been working to turn conflict of interest on its head at the agency in the name of “balance.”

Trade group gets warm and fuzzy about “balance”

The Federal Advisory Committee Act, under which federal advisory committees operate, requires that committees are “fairly balanced,” and it’s up to the agency to determine what that means for each committee. For the EPA SAB, the 2017 charter and membership balance plan explicitly say that balance involves a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.” For the SAB and CASAC, balance should not be a balance of opinions or interests in the EPA’s policy outcomes. The American Chemistry Council and other industry representatives disagree.

In March, the American Chemistry Council endorsed the EPA SAB Reform Act, writing, “The Science Advisory Board Reform Act would improve the peer review process—a critical component of the scientific process used by EPA in their regulatory decisions about potential risks to human health or the environment. The Act would make peer reviewers accountable for responding to public comment, strengthen policies to address conflicts of interest, ensure engagement of a wide range of perspectives of qualified scientific experts in EPA’s scientific peer review panels and increase transparency in peer review reports.” The press contact on this release? Liz Bowman. Yes, the same Liz Bowman who is now a spokeswoman at the EPA. A cherry on top of the revolving door sundae.

After the bill passed the House in March, the ACC wrote again, “We urge the Senate to take up the bill and are committed to working with Congress to advance legislation that will enhance accountability and ensure appropriate balance in EPA’s peer review process.”

In May, the American Chemistry Council responded to Pruitt’s dismissal of BOSC members by saying, “A number of people and groups have been concerned in the past the membership of EPA’s scientific advisory boards lacked diversity: diversity of interests, diversity of scientific disciplines, and diversity of backgrounds, resulting in a narrow or biased perspective concerning issues EPA was researching,” Openshaw said. “Everyone benefits when regulations are based on the best available science.”

After the nominees were announced in September, the Heartland Institute told E&E news that: “We applaud any effort by Administrator Pruitt to bring qualified non-alarmist scientists onto the EPA’s advisory boards. There is a vigorous debate over the causes and consequences of climate change, and it’s vital that EPA acknowledge that fact and have a more balanced approach to the agency’s rule-making.”

Administrator Pruitt parroted these same arguments in his announcement on the impending SAB decision made at a recent Heritage Foundation event.

What’s in store for the SAB?

The new SAB will consist of five fewer members than it did before, operating with 42 instead of 47 members. According to its new charter, it will also meet fewer times, 6-8 instead of 8-10 each year. While there may be representation from more states in the name of diversity, the number of women scientists on the committee has been slashed by half from nearly 21 to just 10. The decision not to renew the terms of six individuals who had already been fully vetted and were qualified to serve again also breaks with precedent. Additionally, rather than appoint a current SAB member as chair as has been done in the past, it appears that Michael Honeycutt from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will be leading this new board’s deliberations. Honeycutt was one of the individuals I urged Pruitt not to choose last month. Clearly, that plea fell on deaf ears.

The number of industry representatives on the SAB has more than doubled, which doesn’t include the individuals from consulting firms or state governments who have long histories of working very closely with the private sector.

New member Donald van der Vaart wrote an op-ed in 2015 criticizing the North Carolina Attorney General for his support of the Clean Power Plan, which van der Vaart called an “act of overreach” and “federal intrusion.” He supported Myron Ebell as a suitable leader to run the EPA transition team. He later wrote a letter to President-elect Trump, alleging that the EPA has “run out of control,” is “agenda-driven” and an “autocrat.”

Also on the list are S. Stanley Young and Richard Smith, two of the co-authors on this paper, whose thinking on air pollution science is far outside the mainstream, ignoring long-held and understood concepts about air pollution and health risks.

The American Chemistry Council achieved its request for so-called “balance” to include more industry perspectives on the board, and gained an inside look at the SAB, as long-time staffer Kimberly White will also be a member.

These individuals are likely to dramatically skew science advice to the EPA in a way that will support Pruitt’s decisions to loosen pollution regulations and emissions standards. A hit on the quality of science advice at the EPA is a direct threat to our health and safety.

Fixing advisory committees to reach predetermined conclusions

Last week we introduced the plays of the Disinformation Playbook, often used by companies and trade associations to manipulate or suppress science in order to achieve a specific policy outcome. The way in which Scott Pruitt is stacking the Science Advisory Board to manipulate the science advice process is an example of “The Fix.” Unfortunately, we’ve already seen several examples of this play used by the likes of Dow Chemical Co. and the American Chemistry Council to cast doubt on the science to delay or obstruct public health and safety provisions just within the EPA in the past year.

In light of this blatant attack on independent science at the EPA, we’re calling on Congress to conduct oversight at the agency and to investigate Scott Pruitt’s actions with the SAB, CASAC, and BOSC as potential interference in the scientific process.

Key Messages on US Offshore Wind, in 5 New Quotes

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

The annual offshore wind conference of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) last week felt even more energized (and energizing) than usual, now that we have offshore wind turbines actually spinning in US waters. Here are five takeaways in quotes from conference speakers that capture where we find ourselves at this moment in clean energy history.

1.      “Our energy challenges are economic development opportunities.”

This quote, from Kevin Law, the president and CEO of the Long Island Association (a chamber of commerce), really struck me as a beautiful when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade kind of approach to offshore wind.

As Mr. Law pointed out, Long Island, being an island, is surrounded by water. (No, really.) Their particular position on the Eastern seaboard means that frequent storms are an issue. Combine those with an aging power plant fleet and myriad impacts on power infrastructure from climate change, and you’ve got good reason for doing things differently.

Credit: J. Rogers

Offshore wind is totally up for that. For Mr. Law, this new-fangled approach to making electricity reliably and nearby suggests a real opportunity. Not just for what offshore wind could mean in terms of jobs and related economic development, but also for what it could contribute to keeping the lights on when more storms come.

2.     “It all comes back to signposting and visibility.”

If Mr. Law’s quote was a taste of what offshore wind can do for states and regions, the quote from Jonathan Cole of wind developer Iberdrola Renewables was a hint about how—how the offshore wind industry will most effectively get costs down and get projects online.

It comes down, in part, to letting developers and manufacturers know what we expect of them and where we want to head together: signposts, and visibility. As a 2016 study on offshore wind costs put it,

The key… is making a firm commitment to scale so the market can do its work. By providing market visibility—the State’s commitment to a pipeline of projects over a set period—the offshore wind industry in the U.S. can deliver energy costs on the kind of downward trajectory seen in Europe.

This was the argument we and many others made in pushing for strong offshore wind commitments in Massachusetts last year.

All up and down the East Coast (and beyond), we want industry players to see their way clear to investing in those states, in this country, in ways that help bring down the costs—by setting up shop here, in one form or another, and by relying less over time on materials brought in from other, established offshore wind markets, for example.

3.     “We’ve got a great message.”

This quote, from AWEA President Tom Kiernan, is right on—and, like the two previous ones, also about economic development. And more.

In so many ways, this is a technology that practically sells itself. Or would, if people had all the facts about it—the jobs potential, the manufacturing options, the energy potential, the proximity to where so many of us need the power, the compatibility with fishing and other uses of our country’s Outer Continental Shelf—and if costs keep dropping so impressively. It is a great message.

AWEA Offshore Wind 2017

4.     “We think this is a race we can win.”

The conference was held in New York City, and the keynote speaker was NY Lt. Governor Karen Hochul. And the lt. governor threw down the gauntlet, in no uncertain terms.

The race she was talking about wasn’t the contest between us and the increasing effects of climate change. It was about the race to become the center of America’s offshore wind activity, or even the world’s.

Lt. Gov. Hochul laid out three reasons why New York will serve as the “preeminent global hub” for offshore wind in this country. According to her: wind is not a political issue in New York (it enjoys bipartisan support), the Empire State embraces innovation, and the state is laying down the building blocks (“smoothing the road for you”), with the forthcoming New York Offshore Wind Master Plan that they previewed at the conference.

Credit: J. Rogers

Good arguments, all. But Massachusetts isn’t yielding. At the same conference the Bay State unveiled a new study of ports and infrastructure—in particular, waterfront properties “that could be acquired and potentially improved through private investment to become suitable facilities for a number of offshore wind activities.” And don’t think they’re thinking about those facilities serving only Massachusetts markets…

Maryland isn’t ceding ground, either, or Rhode Island—first-to-offshore-wind Rhode Island—or New Jersey (once they have a new governor), or…

While some cooperation will be useful to make sure that activities in different states complement each other to the extent possible, that competition can be a powerful motivator.

5.     “There is a transition… ongoing and we all should be part of it.”

This quote is from Michael Olsen of Statoil Wind US, the company developing the newly named “Empire Wind” farm off NYC and Long Island, and it sums it up. Offshore wind is happening, with more than 14,000 megawatts of offshore wind outside the US, in 13 countries and two continents. The 30 megawatts installed last year off Rhode Island was part of an 18% increase in wind farm capacity globally in 2016. And there’s lots more on the way.

For American jobs, for American energy, for American security, for our environment… we should indeed be part of it.

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

Diana Furchtgott-Roth Is a Terrible Choice for the DOT Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology

U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters

The line of political nominees for high-level positions in the federal agencies continues to slowly march through Congress. One of several nominees up for debate in the Senate this week is President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Transportation Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology (OST-R), Diana Furchtgott-Roth.

As someone concerned about the direction of the progressive transportation policy passed under the Obama Administration, Furchtgott-Roth couldn’t be a more troubling pick. Her background and regressive views on public policy make it clear that she has been chosen for this role not because she is a transportation policy expert, but because she is a hard-line conservative economist who can develop, find, and promote research that makes the case for eliminating DOT programs and policy.

Furchtgott-Roth’s views are antithetical to the mission of the DOT Office of Research and Technology

The stated mission of the OST-R is to “transform transportation and make our transportation system safer, more efficient, competitive and sustainable.” To meet this goal, the OST-R five year strategic plan focuses on promoting safety, improving mobility, improving infrastructure, and preserving the environment, which includes addressing the effects of transportation activities on climate change.

Furchtgott-Roth is not known for having expertise on any of these issues. Instead, she is best known for her views on the minimum wage (against), the gender pay gap (a myth), and unions (strong pass). She has also argued that female secret service agents can’t protect the President as well as male agents, climate change is a natural phenomenon, and fuel economy standards kill people. How wonderful! Overall, her career-long campaign against feminism, labor rights and public health make her a concerning candidate in charge of public policy at any level, but especially at the main research arm of the DOT charged with examining transportation-related impacts on the environment, public health, and personal mobility.

Furchtgott-Roth has little experience that is relevant to the DOT Office of Research and Technology

The relevant experience Furchtgott-Roth brings to the table for this role is limited to writing a few articles and blog posts for right-wing think tanks criticizing Obama’s transportation policies. She is an economist by training, a former staffer in the U.S. Department of Labor (and incidentally also formerly managed by current DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, when Chao was the DOL Secretary–#draintheswamp, indeed!), and current senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think-tank whose mission is to foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility (read: get rid of government policy and environmental safeguards). She has no direct experience in transportation-related roles, nor any experience in transportation issues outside of her general anti-regulation commentary.

She herself has a tough time commenting on any relevant experience. Here is what she wrote in response to a Senate questionnaire that asks, “what in your background or employment experience do you believe affirmatively qualifies you for appointment…”

“Nothing is more important to the economic health of America than getting the private sector involved in rebuilding the Nation’s infrastructure. As an economist with over 30 years of experience, I have studied the provision of infrastructure and transportation extensively. I have written articles on transportation issues and on regulation. In addition, I have managed staffs at the Council of Economic Advisers, at the Department of Labor, and at the Manhattan Institute. I have reviewed hundreds of papers and articles to determine their quality and suitability for publication.”

How in the world is any of that either specific enough to be relevant, or related to the mission of the OST-R?

If Furchtgott-Roth was nominated for a role in the DOL, or as an economic advisor, perhaps that would make sense. But for someone with an extensive background in labor and economic issues, not transportation issues, running the DOT OST-R is a bad fit.

Furchtgott-Roth doesn’t use data to tell the full story

Like many political commentators, Furchtgott-Roth doesn’t use data to tell the whole story. Instead, she cherry picks data from studies that best support her argument, without referencing data that supports any counter argument or data that provides a more comprehensive view of any issue. This approach may be appropriate as a bombastic conservative commentator, but not for the person in charge of providing policymakers with impartial, robust data on transportation issues.

For example, Furchtgott-Roth has argued that federal fuel efficiency standards are a bad idea because they literally kill people by requiring automakers to make cars lighter, and therefore less safe. In her book, Regulating to Disaster: How Green Jobs Policies Are Damaging America’s Economy, she writes “for the government, saving fuel is more important than saving lives. It prefers to pay in blood to save oil.”

Now, if you look at the 1,200-page technical report prepared by the EPA and DOT in advance of finalizing the 2017-2025 federal fuel efficiency standards, you’ll find that even though light-weighting can contribute to a car’s safety level (which is also related to a litany of other factors, weight only being one of them), the standards can be achieved and still save lives overall. This is because the standards encourage automakers to reduce the weight more from SUVs than smaller cars. Furchtgott-Roth conveniently left this fact out of her arguments against fuel efficiency standards. Oh, and you know what also kills people? CLIMATE CHANGE AND AIR POLLUTION, which the fuel efficiency standards and other EPA/DOT  vehicle policies directly address.

Evidence of Furchtgott-Roth cherry picking data also lies in her claims that climate change either isn’t happening, or is not caused by human activity. In 2015, she claimed “the Earth has been warming and cooling for millennia, certainly before the industrial revolution. It has been steadily warming since the Little Ice Age of the 1700s. Over the past 15 years, despite increasing greenhouse gas emissions, the warming by some measures has stopped.” Not only has average global temperature continued to increase since 2015, but the short plateau referred to by Furchtgott-Roth has been debunked as a myth.

Overall, Furchtgott-Roth’s misguided use of data isn’t appropriate to lead a public office in charge of reporting accurate data, and should be addressed by Congress when questioning her qualifications for the role.

 

 

Scientists to Senate: Reject Sam Clovis for USDA Science Post

For months, controversy has swirled around the Trump administration’s…shall we say…deeply flawed nominee for USDA chief scientist. A former business professor, talk radio host, and Trump campaign advisor, Sam Clovis has embraced unfounded conspiracy theories and espoused racist and homophobic views. And did I mention he has no scientific training whatsoever?

It’s true. And while Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is standing by the nomination, thousands of the nation’s scientists are having none of it.

Experts say no way to unqualified “chief scientist”

In a highly unusual move, a group of more than 3,100 scientists and researchers—including leading experts in agriculture and food systems from all 50 states and the District of Columbia—today sent a letter to the Senate agriculture committee expressing opposition to the president’s choice to lead science at the USDA. The letter describes the nomination of the severely under-qualified Sam Clovis to be under secretary for research, education, and economics and chief scientist as “an abandonment of our nation’s commitment to scientifically-informed governance,” and calls on the Senate committee to reject it.

One of the letter’s lead signers is Dr. Mike Hamm, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems, and C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University. Dr. Hamm has a PhD in human nutrition and decades of experience at the intersection of food and agriculture, and his research interests include community-based food systems, food security, sustainable agriculture and nutrition education. In addition to his academic posts, he served as a member of the governor-appointed Michigan Food Policy Council from 2005 to 2013 and was instrumental in developing the Michigan Good Food Charter.

I asked Dr. Hamm why this nomination has him so concerned, and what the practical impacts might be if Clovis were to take charge of scientific research at the USDA.

Dr. Mike Hamm is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems and C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University.

KPS: Scientists don’t usually rally by the thousands to oppose nominees for relatively obscure government positions. Why is this nomination so alarming to you personally?

MH: I was really concerned when I heard about this nomination, as were a number of colleagues. We look to the USDA as an authoritative source of scientific, economic, and statistical information about the nation’s food system, and it seemed extremely careless to put all that into the hands of an unqualified person. Also, we rely on the USDA to develop research funding programs that not only tackle issues of concern to agricultural production and the food system right now but also look for probable challenges down the road—finding solutions takes time and thoughtfulness, and it is clear to me that the nominee hasn’t demonstrated the ability to do this in a scientific manner.

KPS: This under secretary position holds the purse strings for $3 billion in annual research grants to universities and other institutions. How significant is that investment in the universe of agricultural and food systems research?

MH: It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this. Whether it’s developing strategies to improve current yields while reducing environmental impacts of agricultural production, or identifying resilience strategies for increasingly prevalent issues, the person in this position has to be both reactive to current events and proactive about likely future scenarios. The under secretary controls the budget for this very broad range of research needs.

KPS: What worries you most about the prospect of the USDA going backward on science?

MH: The breadth of knowledge we now have on a wide range of strategies for agricultural production and the food system is remarkable. We know a great deal about strategies for producing a greater variety and quantity of crops under different conditions and with increasingly agro-ecosystem strategies. To lose this momentum would be a disservice to the agricultural community and to consumers and the general public. Whether it’s water use in California, Texas, and other water challenged states, or late frosts for tart cherries in Michigan, we can ‘see’ an increasing range of challenges in the near future. Going backwards means not thinking about these. Going backwards means not looking for ever more ecologically sound solutions to emerging issues and recognizing that we can often improve the situation to a range of societal issues while improving agriculture. This is frightening.

Scientists speak…but is the Senate listening?

Ecologist Irit Altman speaks to a staff person for Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) in August about the need for a qualified chief scientist to oversee USDA research on climate change and agriculture.

Scientists and their allies around the country have been mobilizing for months to oppose Clovis’s nomination. They’ve published letters to the editor in newspapers across the country, including Chicago, Illinois; Bloomington, Indiana (paywall); Wichita, Kansas; Missoula and Great Falls, Montana; Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Nashville, Tennessee; and Spokane, Washington. They’ve also met with Senate staff and delivered petitions from UCS supporters directly to key Senate offices in Maine, Colorado, and Ohio (see photos from the Maine petition delivery below).

Dr. Altman was joined by local Maine farmers Lindsey and Jake Roche in delivering a petition opposing the Clovis nomination to Senator Collins.

Sam Clovis to (finally) get a hearing

Today’s letter comes as the Senate agriculture committee is expected to announce that it will hold a long-awaited hearing on November 9 to hear directly from the nominee, and to dig into Clovis’s credentials and suitability for the chief scientist position. While many Senators, including key Senate leaders, have expressed opposition to the Clovis nomination, others are still uncommitted or even supportive.

Those Senators had better think hard about it, because the scientific community is watching. As 3,100+ experts have now told them, “We expect that when your committee evaluates Clovis’ record and qualifications, you will similarly conclude that he is unfit for this position.”

ACTION NEEDED! The time to act is now, and we can win this fight. The scientists’ letter has been delivered to the Senate, but you can still tell the Senate to reject the Clovis nomination.

Use UCS’s new call-back tool to make a phone call to your senator’s office, or send a personalized email today!

New Bill Puts Environmental Justice Right Where It Belongs: Front and Center

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

One of the most satisfying aspects of working for the Union of Concerned Scientists is that I get to help amplify and support the demands of environmental justice and other climate-vulnerable communities in their quest to obtain equitable protection under law from environmental hazards.

As a person of color, I am proud to see UCS partnering with environmental justice communities like t.e.j.a.s., Environmental Justice Health Alliance, and Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice. We’re helping research, document, amplify, offer policy advice on, and in some cases litigate, the ways in which environmental injustices disproportionately expose low-income communities of color to dangerous toxic chemicals, climate change, water and air pollution, to name a few.

That’s why I am excited to announce UCS’ endorsement of the Environmental Justice Act of 2017, S. 1996/ H.R. 4114, sponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Raúl Ruiz (D-CA). It is important to recognize that this legislation was developed by Senator Booker and Congressman Ruiz working directly with grassroots environmental justice advocates.

The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 not only codifies Executive Order 12898 and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC); it places environmental justice at the forefront of our governmental considerations for permitting, development, and data gathering. The act mandates that maps and tools to assess environmental inequities be made publicly available at all times and requires the consideration of cumulative impacts in federal and state permitting decisions, making sure no community will be overburdened by, for example, petrochemical refineries or other toxic pollution sources. The bill also codifies environmental justice in the National Environmental Policy Act and increases data collection efforts of environmental hazards in vulnerable communities.

If the EJ Act of 2017 is implemented, communities will be given more opportunity for input on what facilities and pollution are allowed in their neighborhoods. Each agency would be required to receive comments by community members on design and implementation of research strategies. There is also a new method of redress for communities, and individual citizens will be able to file a private right to action for discriminatory practices under the Civil Rights Act.

In a time when the administration is rolling back environmental justice and environmental protection, UCS is glad to support the efforts of Senator Booker and Representative Ruiz to make sure that the environmental and public health of our nation is equitably distributed.

Pruitt Rejects Advice from Independent Scientists Based on False Premises

This week Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to issued a new directive, following up on his speech at the Heritage Foundation, that bans scientists with EPA grants from serving on the agency’s science advisory committee (see coverage here ). I want to share my perspective as a scientist who has served on numerous boards and panels advising government.

Mr. Pruitt’s rationale for making this decision rests on a set of false premises about science, grants and even the role of advisory boards. Given his record as administrator so far, this move is not surprising, but it is still damaging. In effect it means that the head of the agency is explicitly turning his back on independent science to guide his decisions.

“Balance” is needed in science advice: false

Mr. Pruitt seems to believe that a science advisory board needs a balance of opinions, as if it is a political body. In my experience as a science advisor, that’s not the job. The role of a science board is not to negotiate among different interest groups.

Boards exist to evaluate scientific evidence. The only balance needed is among different types of scientific expertise. Scientists can come from any sector, but there is no balance needed between their home institutions. This is even explicit in the EPA SAB’s 2017 Membership Balance Plan and Charter, which defines balance as members providing a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.”

There are many other steps in the process of deciding on a public policy option that enable interest groups such as industry, state and local governments, tribal governments, public interest organizations or affected residents to present their views. But the scientific evidence is not the place to incorporate those views and attempt to “balance” them. The weight of any piece of scientific evidence, and therefore advice, is a technical matter, not a political one.

Scientists who receive grants from the agency are conflicted: false

The fundamental premise of Pruitt’s action is that independent scientists (e.g. from universities or other research institutions) that receive grants from the agency ALL have an inherent conflict of interest that means their scientific views cannot be trusted. On the other hand, those who work for regulated industries with a direct financial stake in specific public policies shouldn’t be viewed as conflicted necessarily. This makes no sense. It turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head and misconstrues how grants work.

Research grants result from the agency putting out a general call for proposals on a topic that is important to the (usually long-term) work of the agency. Scientists submit proposals for research within the topic. They do not promise specific results. Rather, the researchers propose how new evidence will be obtained using appropriate scientific methods.

A grant proposal is evaluated by other scientists, usually from inside and outside the agency, for the appropriateness of the research questions, methods and likely usefulness of the knowledge developed for increasing understanding of how the world works. Proposals are ranked based on these criteria and then the program within the agency that issued the call for proposals makes a decision on which grants to fund based on the rankings and the resources available. It would be unusual and inappropriate for agency political staff to intervene in decisions on which proposals to fund.

When Mr. Pruitt says some researchers have received “millions of dollars” he is falsely giving the impression that the agency is shelling out big bucks for a scientist’s loyalty. It doesn’t work that way.

Grant funds are primarily used to support graduate students and research fellows or staff, as well as laboratory or field work. While some salary support may be covered for an faculty member, it isn’t some huge income driver for most.

The agency is not “buying” an opinion. It is supporting new research. The results may support, undermine or have no impact on agency decisions. So how can that possibly be a conflict of interest? It isn’t. Perhaps in Mr. Pruitt’s world, as he is an attorney, one only pays for a known opinion and you never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. But that isn’t how science works.

Why only grants to academic scientists?

Mr. Pruitt’s directive is nothing if not half-baked, like a cookie you really shouldn’t eat. He only refers to grants to university scientists it seems. But what about grants to states or tribes? Does that mean all of their scientists should be precluded from serving as advisors? Those grants are much larger than research grants. And what about contracts for services? Should all those scientists be precluded? Or what about industry scientists that are co-investigators on grants? Are they out too? Just where is it that he thinks his science advice should come from?

I suppose it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Administrator Pruitt really would prefer not to have any science advice. After all, he has already indicated that the budget for science advisory boards should be cut way back so that few meetings can be held. Now he wants to eliminate from consideration most of the scientists in the country who have expertise on the issues confronting the agency. I suppose that not weighing the scientific evidence would make decisions like the one he made to not ban a dangerous pesticide easier to justify. And it would fit in well with the industry playbook effort to cast doubt on science to avoid public health and safety protections.

But in the spirit of Halloween, I must ask, what is so scary about independent science? Really Mr. Pruitt, it won’t hurt you to save some lives by relying on science.

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

The EPA Science Advisory Board Is Being Compromised. Here’s Why That Matters.

The capture of the EPA by the industries it is supposed to regulate is expected to take another step forward as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is poised to compromise the integrity of the EPA Science Advisory Board.

Multiple sources inside and outside of EPA are reporting that Administrator Pruitt will purge independent scientists from EPA scientific advisory committees, appoint industry-tied representatives with views well outside the scientific mainstream in their place, shrink the size and scope of the Science Advisory Board, and issue a directive that prevents scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on the board in the future. Doing so would effectively implement legislation that would politicize EPA science advice that Congress has repeatedly declined to pass.

Such a move bans some independent scientists from providing scientific advice while giving those with conflicts a free pass. Collectively, these actions create an abhorrent double standard: scientists who rely on public funding are left out, while industry scientists face no restrictions on service. Fossil fuel and chemical companies already enjoy undue influence over EPA policy under Pruitt. Now, they’re taking control over science advice to the agency.

“This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to try to exclude sound scientific expertise from these advisory committees, and is consistent with efforts to pack these committees with non-science-based interests,” Mark Wiesner, a Duke University civil and environmental engineer who sits on the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, told Chemistry World.

When independent science advice at EPA is compromised, decisions that sufficiently protect public health become less likely.

By a back-of-the-envelope analysis, roughly half of current board members receive EPA funding. EPA grants are funded on the basis of merit and promise. Recipients tend to be the most knowledgeable experts on the issues that the EPA is supposed to address: protecting our air and water from environmental and public health threats.

Nothing good happens when independent experts are replaced by people who have financial incentives to skew the scientific analysis in the direction of the companies they represent. This decision would mean that scientists will be forced to choose between seeking out an EPA grant or eventually lending their expertise to volunteer as a public servant and advise EPA on technical questions.

While this post focuses on the EPA Science Advisory Board, the same rules will likely apply to the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee and other critical EPA science advisory committees.

What the Science Advisory Board does

The Science Advisory Board (SAB) was created by Congress to provide impartial science advice. It doesn’t make policy recommendations or decisions. It holds no veto power. It should exist as a check on anyone with an agenda, from environmentalists to oil companies. If the science is on your side, the board validates it. If you make unsupportable claims, the board calls you out.

Before this year, the Science Advisory Board toiled away in relative obscurity. It dutifully answered scientific questions on emerging and established topics. Scores of scientists have served on the board, for free, as part of their commitment to public service. A few selected highlights:

In 2012, the board wrote this report after conducting interviews with EPA staff to develop advice on how the EPA can strengthen scientific assessments for decision making. The report had been requested by Administrator Stephen Johnson, who served in the George W. Bush administration.

In 2013, the SAB gave the EPA advice on which model to use as it evaluates the health effects of perchlorate, a chemical that can cause cancer and reproductive health and hormonal problems. This advice was used by the agency to help create a standard for perchlorate in water that is currently being considered by the agency.

The Science Advisory Board can also be important to rooting out political interference in science. In 2016, the board found that the EPA’s claims that fracking led to “no widespread impacts” on drinking water supplies was not supported by the best available science. Evidence at the time suggested that the agency had softened its scientists’ conclusions when presenting them in report materials. This, under the Obama administration, which some believed was hostile to fossil fuel extraction. The science advisers were essential to setting the record straight.

Don’t be fooled by appeals to “balance”

In the lead up to the announcement, we have heard predictable arguments from Administrator Pruitt. Let’s take them in turn:

The Science Advisory Board should have more “balance.” This argument fundamentally misrepresents the role of a science advisory committee. Members don’t sit around having discussions about politics or policy. Their work is to evaluate the state of the science, not to negotiate stakeholders’ viewpoints.

Science isn’t about providing equal time for different viewpoints. It is about methods and evidence. Science advisers are not representatives of a constituency or a sector; they are there because they possess specific expertise.

What really should matter is a diversity of expertise, as the board is asked to consider all kinds of scientific questions. “Pruitt would not know a conflict of interest if it slapped him in the face,” said Lawrence Lash, who advises the EPA on chemicals. “Having grant money from the EPA has absolutely nothing to do with advising the EPA on the underlying science.”

The board has been a “rubber stamp” for agency decisions. The Science Advisory Board does not have authority over agency decisions. They do have the ability to determine whether draft policies are supported by the best available evidence. Further, if agency decisions are not scientifically defensible, they can be challenged in court.

The views of scientists who receive “millions” of dollars from the EPA are suspect. There are so many inaccurate implications in just this one assertion. First, most funding pays for equipment, support staff, students, and scientific materials, not to pad a scientist’s wallet. In general, industry scientists get paid significantly more than those who receive public funding.

The move to exclude independent scientists from providing advice to the EPA is part of a greater pattern of corporate capture of the agency.

Second, there is no incentive for an EPA grant-funded scientist to have a particular view on science advisory board decisions. In fact, it isn’t clear what this would even mean.

EPA grants are given to scientists to further scientific understanding of a particular research topic. Science advisory boards give advice on the use of science in EPA decisions. These are often entirely different realms. If a scientist received a grant to study multi-pollutant interactions and their health impacts, does that mean they would be incentivized to say that EPA was or wasn’t following the science on the drinking water impacts of fracking?

Grants and SAB decisions are often on divergent topics and scopes. Even if a scientist wanted to come up with science advice that pleased EPA, it isn’t clear what that would be. Current or future funding is in no way correlated with a scientist’s work with the advisory board.

Third, scientists who receive EPA grants tend to be those with the most expertise on topics. Excluding such scientists means that the agency won’t be getting the best science advice.

(Historically) what happens when an advisory committee is stacked with conflicted experts?

Politicized advisory committees end up giving bad advice, agency decisions suffer, and legal challenges to rules and regulations are more likely to prevail. According to a former Science Advisory Board member:

“Over the past 35 years I have served on numerous federal scientific advisory panels, including EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and many committees and boards of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. In my view, the history of past purges shows that stacking the deck with like-minded advocates is self-defeating. That’s true whether those advocates come from industry or nongovernmental organizations–and especially if they represent only one political party.

“Recommendations from these “friendly” panels will not win broad support from the scientific community, and I predict the committees will quickly lose their credibility, legitimacy and influence. Consequently, policies and regulations based on the panels’ recommendations will be less likely to withstand public or political scrutiny and be more open to legal challenges than if they were based on more balanced input.”

The new restrictions mean that the most qualified scientists will be left out of the process. In their place will be those who will be more likely to remain silent or attempt to provide cover for decisions that are not grounded in evidence. While over the long term this process may be self-correcting, in the short term we will all suffer from a less effective Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s all consistent with a hostile takeover of science-based policymaking: those with true conflicts of interest are exerting control over not only staff positions but also the independent entities who are there to provide science advice. Without public protections that are fully informed by independent science, more people will die and get sick, and our quality of life will suffer. We should do all we can—including challenging the new directive in court—to prevent Administrator Pruitt from excluding independent scientific advice from the work of the EPA.

The Spookiest Halloween Costume of 2017: The Fossil Fuel Company Executive

Halloween is here, and we have a lot to be spooked about when it comes to the future role of science in this country. In addition to the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on science, companies are now enjoying greater access to decisionmakers than they’ve ever had. And no industry has capitalized on inappropriate access to decisionmakers more than the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, with very little accountability, the industry has deceived the public and policymakers, and enjoyed friendly policies from decisionmakers with clear conflicts of interest.

To recap, this isn’t only a Trump-era phenomenon. Fossil fuel companies have known for decades that their products contribute to global warming, while they’ve led and funded disinformation campaigns to squash sensible climate policies. Nowadays, though, the tactics are often more elaborate than simple climate denial. These days, some fossil fuel companies are acknowledging climate change—and even their role in it—on the surface, while carrying on business as usual behind closed doors.

For instance, while ExxonMobil publicly urged the US to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, it also continues to fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),which called Paris a “bad deal”, and other anti-climate lobbying groups. And the company has yet to release a plan to align its business with the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming under 2C, despite demands from its own shareholders and the public. It’s the same old tactics we’ve always seen, only this time with a mask over it.

The Disinformation Playbook is the Fossil Fuel Industry Playbook

To help unpack the many ways that companies undermine the use of science in decisionmaking on climate policy and beyond, this week the Union of Concerned Scientists released the Disinformation Playbook. The playbook showcases five plays that industry runs, and the fossil fuel industry in particular has been complicit in all of them:

  • The Fake – Conduct counterfeit science and try to pass it off as legitimate research
  • The Blitz – Harass scientists who share results inconvenient to industry
  • The Diversion – Manufacture uncertainty about science where little exists
  • The Screen – Buy credibility by building alliances with academic institutions or scientific societies
  • The Fix – Manipulate government officials or processes to inappropriately influence policy
A Deceptive Halloween: The Fossil Fuel Industry Executive

To help you scare all your friends this Halloween, we put together everything you’ll need for the spookiest costume of the season: fossil fuel industry executive!

1. Briefcase full of money

This prop is to pay trade groups, front groups, and political candidates to do your bidding against climate science and policy. Such arrangements are very convenient for you as you can dissociate your company’s brand from all the anti-climate lobbying you are doing.

To show just how effective this strategy can be, let’s look at company versus trade group positions on climate action.  While some major fossil fuel companies publicly support policy actions to curb carbon emissions, they also fund trade groups to fight climate mitigation efforts at every turn. ALEC proclaimed, “The Paris Climate Agreement is a bad deal for America.” The National Association of Manufacturers criticized the Clean Power Plan, citing its “failure to incorporate potential benefits associated with increased temperatures,” and the group joined the federal lawsuit opposing the plan. The American Petroleum Institute has continued to emphasize climate uncertainties, part of its long history of communicating climate science disinformation to deliberately cast doubt on the public’s understanding of climate science.

Shareholders too have noticed this lack of transparency between fossil fuel companies and their ties to other groups. In 2017 Exxon and Chevron shareholders voted in large numbers to demand that these companies disclose their direct and indirect lobbying activities and expenses. Currently companies can operate almost in the dark when it comes to their lobbying and support for third-party groups — spooky!

2. Smug disregard for the wellbeing of the planet and its people

Fossil fuel companies have made it clear, especially in recent times, just how little they care about protecting people from the threats of climate change. In fact, they often don’t even appear to be protecting themselves from climate impacts or preparing for future changes in climate.

For starters, oil companies often fail to disclose details about the climate-related risks they face. The recent impacts of Hurricane Harvey show us what is at risk when it comes to oil and gas infrastructure and extreme storms and flooding. Several facilities around Houston sustained serious damage that adversely affected surrounding communities and first responders. At an Exxon refinery in Beaumont, Harvey damaged a sulfur thermal oxidizer, releasing 1,312.84 pounds of sulfur dioxide—far exceeding the company’s permit allowance. The company’s response? “No impact to the community has been reported.”

Also of concern: none of the major fossil fuel compan ies have a real plan to operate under a two degrees C scenario, the goal set by the Paris Agreement (which they publicly supported); they are clearly not planning for real greenhouse gas reductions or the safety of life on our planet. Worse, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Total SA even funded a report attacking the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure recommendations, which offered ways companies could better prepare and disclose on climate.

3. Scheduler to keep track of your meetings with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt:

If you’ve followed the activities of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt at all, you’ll know that fossil fuel interests have ample opportunity to meet with a new EPA head sympathetic to their needs. Pruitt’s schedule shows that his daily planner is jam-packed with industry group meetings. With his new sound-proof box, the administrator is also free to have confidential phone calls with all his industry friends.  Currently, the EPA is also being stacked with other staff with direct ties to the fossil fuel industry.  EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman (who recently told off the New York Times rather than provide information to the media like a public servant is charged to do) came from American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association that also brought scientist Nancy Beck to the EPA to rewrite chemical safety rules to be more industry friendly.  Michael Dourson is another industry puppet who’s been nominated for a top spot at EPA and has worked extensively sowing doubt for the petrochemical industries. This slate of characters is now in charge of an agency they spent years trying to dismantle.  I’m afraid now they are free to act like unsupervised children in front of a “please take one” bowl of candy. They are slowly taking the agency down from the inside, and ensuring that fossil fuel companies aren’t hit with any pesky climate-friendly regulations.

But let’s not stay spooked

While much of this is our unfortunate reality, there is much we can and must do to fight back against the deception and inappropriate influence that the fossil fuel industry has over our decisionmakers. We must remember that public servants and elected officials work for us, the public, not the fossil fuel industry. We must demand accountability, transparency, and policies that protect people not profits. But in the meantime, have a happy Halloween, however you choose to be spooked.

 

For This DC School, Every Month is Farm to School Month

Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

It’s the end of October, which means National Farm to School Month is drawing to a close. But that doesn’t matter to the students at School Within School in northeast DC—for them, it’s always farm to school month.

Thanks to a farm to school tour hosted by DC Greens and the National Farm to School Network, I was lucky enough to visit a handful of the cutest (and smartest) gardeners in the district as they cooked up some ratatouille with their fall harvest. At School Within School, kids from three years old through fifth grade get to participate in FoodPrints, a gardening, cooking, and nutrition education program that integrates science, math, and social studies into hands-on lessons about local food.

You may have heard that farm-to-school programs support the economy (they generate an additional $0.60 to $2.16 in economic activity for every dollar schools spend on local foods), benefit public health (they help kids choose healthier options and eat more fruits and vegetables in school and at home), and foster community engagement (they fuel interest in local foods and offer opportunities to combat racial and economic inequities), but if you’re like me, you may have learned most of this from behind a computer screen. It’s another thing entirely to see farm-to-school programs in action, and to hear firsthand about what they could accomplish for our kids and communities with the right funding and support.

Walking in the footsteps of FoodPrints

Around the corner from School Within School, Ludlow-Taylor Elementary also boasts a beautiful school garden. Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

Our tour, led by FRESHFARM director of education Jenn Mampara, kicked off with a quick stop at the chicken coops and then took us to the school garden, where the kids go for lessons once a week. The gardener plants summer crops in August, and when school starts, kids get to weed, water, harvest, replant, and repeat through late spring. During the summer, the garden soil is kept healthy with a rotation of cover crops and beans, which are then dried and used in the fall.

From the garden, we headed up to the teaching kitchen, where students were busy mixing together beans and onions (“It’s watering my eyes!”) from the garden. Produce from the garden is supplemented by local farmers market produce to provide all the ingredients for the monthly cooking lesson that each FoodPrints student attends. The lesson on ratatouille moved fluidly from math (“What will happen if I add one cup of water?”) to science (“Why do we need to soak the beans?”) and back again, and students were engaged in active learning every step of the way.

Watching the educator walk the kids through their recipe, it struck me as wholly unsurprising that studies have shown that kids participating in farm to school programs display greater overall academic achievement, as well as social and emotional growth. Needless to say, kids who participate in farm to school programs also tend to show increased knowledge about gardening, agriculture, and healthy eating.

“It’s a meaningful experience for these kids to have in elementary school,” Mampara said. “This will have a lasting impact on their understanding of good food and where it comes from.”

And speaking of good food—the cooking doesn’t stop in the teaching kitchen. Once a week, the school cafeteria borrows a recipe from FoodPrints, so that kids continue to connect their experience in the garden to the food on their plate. Kristen Rowe, the Nutrition and Compliance Specialist at DCP Public Schools (DCPS) said that when students are involved in the entire process, they’re more willing to try foods like fruits and vegetables. “This initiative has created an appreciation and a connection between our students and nutritious food, and it’s evident in our cafeterias on FoodPrint days!”

Farm to school funding is in high demand

Students use foods from the school garden and local farmers markets in the teaching kitchen at School Within School. Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

But the success of farm to school programs like FoodPrints, which currently operates in 10 DC schools, can come at a price. Rob Jaber, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at DCPS, said he would like to expand the program to serve all DC students, and to do that, he needs resources. Since the “heat and serve” model became a staple of school food service, many schools lack the equipment and kitchen skills needed to start making food from scratch again.

Jaber hopes that DCPS will soon be the recipient of a USDA Farm to School grant, one of the most sought-after funding sources for districts looking to adopt or expand food-based curriculum. The USDA Farm to School Grant Program, established in 2010, provides $5 million annually to fund training, planning, equipment, gardens, education, and other operational costs for farm to school programs nationwide. While that may seem like a lot, it meets only a fraction of the need demonstrated by schools. To date, 365 grants totaling $25 million have been awarded out of more than 1,600 applications requesting more than $120 million. This means that, on average, only one in five applications receives funding.

DC Central Kitchen, a community kitchen and job training program providing meals to 12 schools in the district, was awarded a grant back in 2012. Theresa Myers, DC Central Kitchen’s Foundation and Government Relations Manager, explained how their food service capacity flourished with the grant. The organization received $100,000 to purchase new equipment and hire additional staff, and increased their processing and storage capacity by nearly a third as a result. DC Central Kitchen now purchases over $350,000 in local foods from 30 regional farmers each year, which means that about half of every tray of food served in these schools is local.

What’s happening in DC Public Schools is a microcosm, explained Maximilian Merrill, National Farm to School Network Policy Director. “This is a great model of what’s going on across the country.”

Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

A farm bill for farm to school

Not far from the garden, senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) and representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) are also thinking about how to support successful farm to school programs around the country. On September 6th, they introduced the Farm to School Act of 2017, which would increase annual funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program from $5 million to $15 million; make the grants more accessible to a broader range of childcare settings and populations, including early child care, summer food service, after school programs, and tribal schools; and help beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers sell more of their produce through farm to school programs.

While National Farm to School Month is almost over (until next year), the farm bill is just getting started. To show your support for farm to school programs, you can sign on to this letter of support written by the National Farm to School Network endorsing the Farm to School Act of 2017. (You can also sign on behalf of an organization.)

Increasing the funding available for programs like FoodPrints by threefold means triple the opportunities for education and engagement, triple the economic benefit, and triple the happy and healthy kids. If that doesn’t water your eyes, I don’t know what will.

 

Spectrum of Harm: Ripple Effects of Trump’s Macabre Environmental Policies

Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS

The front pages of last Sunday’s Washington Post and New York Times starkly exposed how concerned citizens, fearful immigrants, and career scientists alike are smothered by the Trump administration’s macabre environmental policies.

Worming through the EPA

The Times zeroed in on Nancy Beck’s voracious worming through the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations of dangerous chemicals and poisons. She is figuratively trying to eat enough holes in the rules to make chemicals harder to track and control and therefore shielding polluters from prosecution.

Beck is the former regulatory science policy director of the American Chemistry Council and was appointed by President Trump in May as deputy assistant secretary in the EPA’s department of Chemical Safety and Pollution Protection. Before the American Chemistry Council, she served in the George W. Bush White House, where she badgered the EPA in such a picayune manner for proof of chemical harms that she was criticized by the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences.

During President Obama’s tenure, Beck performed the same function for the nation’s leading chemical lobbyist, questioning regulation on arsenic and other chemicals used in perfumes and dry cleaning. But Trump’s election turned the world upside down. Beck was brought back by his White House under special provisions that exempted her from ethics rules that would have prevented her from being involved in decisions involving former employers.

She has since wasted no time declaring herself a puppet of industry instead of a searchlight for safety.

Weakened rules on a kidney cancer-causing chemical and other harmful toxins

The Times highlighted Beck’s heavy hand in weakening rules on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a kidney cancer-causing agent that many large companies, including BASF, 3M, and DuPont, volunteered to phase out during the Obama administration. PFOA is present in such common items as nonstick kitchenware and stain-resistant carpeting.

But even with a total phase out, that chemical remains in millions of cabinets and on millions of floors around the nation. Beck’s rewriting of rules made it seem that the EPA would no longer make risk assessments on “legacy” use of products containing PFOA or their storage or disposal. That so alarmed staffers at the EPA’s Office of Water that they wrote a memo, obtained by the Times,  warning that PFOA’s potential to continue to pollute drinking water and ground water remains so strong that it “is an excellent example of why it is important to evaluate all conditions of use of the chemical.”

PFOA is only one of several chemicals that the Trump administration and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, with Beck as a relatively little-known henchwoman, are limiting scrutiny on to protect industry. Before Beck arrived, the Trump EPA had already refused—over the objection of staff scientists—to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide believed to stunt child development. The agency, as the Times reports, is also re-considering proposed bans of methylene chloride in paint strippers and trichloroethylene, which respectively are used in paint strippers and dry cleaning and are linked to illness and death.

A relentless assault

This relentless assault is remaking the EPA into the Everyday Pollution Agency and has reached such a pitch under President Trump that Beck’s immediate boss, Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, left the agency last month after 38 years with the agency. Hamnett supported the ban on chlorpyrifos and had a long track record of elevating public health impacts into her consideration of chemical harms, particularly on lead paint in homes. As she told the Times, science can rarely be 100 percent sure about anything but if a chemical is “likely to be a severe effect and result in a significant number of people exposed . . . I am going to err on the side of safety.”

With a White House that now errs on the side of industry, Hamnett told the Times that she resigned because, “I had become irrelevant.”

“You can’t let your windows up and enjoy a fresh breeze”

A Trump administration dedicated to making science and scientists irrelevant surely has worse in store for everyone else. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services released a report revealing how low-income residents and people of color regardless of income are more likely to live near toxic chemical facilities in the Houston area.

The Post’s story on Corpus Christi shows that the worst is happening already. For decades, the predominately African American and Latino community of Hillcrest has abutted a massive oil refinery complex that includes a gasoline production facility for Citgo and a Koch brothers plant making jet fuel for the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

One resident, 56-year-old Rosie Ann Porter, retired from a job supplying helicopter parts, told the Post that her daughter grew up with serious asthma. Other neighbors complained of other chronic lung diseases. Porter said,  “You can’t let your windows up and enjoy a fresh breeze coming through the house. When they’re up and the refinery’s spilling out those fumes, it’s nothing nice.”

In a solid example of environmental justice reporting that displayed the agency of residents, the Post made it clear that the residents refused to succumb to the fumes without many fights. But victories were fleeting. A federal jury found Citgo guilty in 2007 of spewing benzine, a known carcinogen, into the community. The company was fined $2 million, but the verdict and fine were completely overturned on appeals, based on improper instructions to the jury. A report last year by the Department of Health and Human Services found higher rates of asthma and cancer in males than the Texas average.

Living in the shadows of soot

More recently, Hillcrest rose up against a massive proposed $500 million bridge spanning high above the Corpus Christi shipping channel. The bridge would allow supertankers to ply beneath it, but construction of the span and a highway addition would completely box in and isolate Hillcrest from any other neighborhood.

Citing civil rights laws and banking on support from an Obama administration sympathetic to the history of highway projects ripping apart communities of color, Porter and other Hillcrest residents filed a complaint with the Federal Highway Administration. The complaint resulted in an unusual compromise in 2015. Texas officials were so eager to increase commerce that they agreed to buyout residents at two or three times their average home value of around $50,000.

That victory came with some major asterisks. One is that the buyouts still may never fully compensate residents for home values that were depressed for decades because of the encroaching refineries. Another is that undocumented residents, whom the Obama administration assumed were eligible for buyouts under nondiscrimination laws, were cut out of the deal by Texas once the Trump administration took over with its anti-Latino immigrant animus. No one knows how many undocumented families are affected because a public complaint might result in deportation.

Thus one set of people, after decades of industrial abuse, are about to set off for other parts of Texas with a payout that may or may not help them buy new homes. Another set of people will continue to live fearfully in the shadows of soot. And in Washington, an administration continues to draw a shroud over all of environmental protections, working to the day that science and safety are, to borrow from Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, irrelevant.

This Is Your Planet on Sea Level Rise. Any Questions?

This is the extent of flooding from Hurricane Sandy in Cape May, NJ (left) vs. the area that would flood twice monthly by 2100 due to sea level rise (right)

One of the most powerful televised public service announcements of my youth inspired this post.

There are moments when your own data stops you dead in your tracks. I had one of those moments a few months ago as we were preparing to release our When Rising Seas Hit Home report.

The results were so stark, the case for sound climate policy so clear that I can think of no better way, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating landfall, to convey where sea level rise could take us than by spoofing what was arguably the most powerful televised public service announcement of my youth.

Is there anyone out there who still isn’t clear about what sea level rise does? OK. Last time.*

This was the extent of flooding from Hurricane Sandy on Long Island

This is the area that would flood twice monthly by 2100 due to sea level rise

Any questions?

This is the extent of flooding from Hurricane Sandy in northern New Jersey (left) vs. the area that would flood twice monthly by 2100 due to sea level rise (right)

Any questions?

This is the extent of flooding from Hurricane Sandy in Cape May (left) vs. the area that would flood twice monthly by 2100 due to sea level rise (right)

Any questions?

*Yes, this was the actual language used in the PSA.

Data sources: UCS When Rising Seas Hit Home; FEMA Hurricane Sandy Impact Analysis; OpenStreetMap; Partnership for a Drug-Free America

Kristy Dahl

#Sandy5: Will the Nation Act on Climate Change Reality?

Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission by 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard, Oct. 30, 2012.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)

The 29th of October marks the 5-year anniversary of when Hurricane Sandy first made landfall on the mid-Atlantic coast of the U.S. It comes at a time when Americans are reeling from the unprecedented hurricane season that devastated communities in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Lives were lost, homes destroyed, schools and hospitals among other essential services were interrupted, and energy, transportation and water systems and other infrastructure were fractured. Associated health challenges can be life threatening and have lingering mental health impacts. The ability of homeowners to handle the economic damages is in question given the level of destruction to homes and low take-up rate of flood insurance.  Many homeowners impacted by these hurricanes are falling behind on their mortgages.

Hurricane Harvey may have exposed to flooding more than 160 of EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory sites, 7 Superfund sites, and 30 facilities registered with EPA’s Risk Management Program.

The 2017 hurricane season recovery challenges will sound familiar to those communities who are remembering the devastation Hurricane Sandy wrought.  At that time, multiple weather systems collided and hit one of the most populated places in the mid-Atlantic region.  While the Obama Administration declared Federal disasters in 12 states and the District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York felt the brunt of destruction. Communities lost 159 lives, had 650,000 homes damaged or destroyed and thousands of businesses were forced to close.

The climate change fingerprint on Hurricane Sandy

Before Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Brigantine, NJ, it formed over the Caribbean where it developed into a Category 1 hurricane on October 23, 2012 followed by landfall the subsequent days near Kingston, Jamaica and then the southeastern part of Cuba and Haiti as a Category 2 hurricane. Experts spoke to the climate connection, here, here, and here, and since then we have gained even more ground on the climate change fingerprint on Hurricane Sandy.

Scientists estimate that without climate change driven sea level rise, the footprint of Sandy would have been at least 10% less than observed in New York City, equivalent to $2 billion dollars of damages and an additional 11.4% people affected and 11.6% more housing units flooded.

Just this week, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published new science (reported on here) that finds flooding in New York City due to tropical cyclones will be more frequent and the flood heights will be higher because of rising sea levels. Using a worst-case scenario for sea level rise which combines the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change high-emissions scenario along with newer research on accelerated melting of Antarctic ice sheets, they find that sea level rise in New York City could reach from 3 to 8 feet by 2100 and “500-year” flood events could happen every five years.

UCS’s own analysis When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities looks at the entire coastline of the lower 48 states and identifies communities that will experience flooding so extensive and disruptive that it will require either expensive investments to fortify against rising seas or residents and businesses to prepare to abandon areas they call home.  We found that the extent of flooding associated with the storm surge event from Hurricane Sandy in 2100 under a high emissions scenario, would happen every other week. We also found that hundreds of communities could avoid this type of chronic inundation if we keep future warming below 2°C.  In New York curtailing future warming and sea level rise could spare two New York communities from chronic inundation by 2060 and three to 13 communities by the end of the century—including four boroughs of New York City.

Community recovery

Five years later what does recovery look like?  NJ Resources Project released The Long Road Home, a report that compiles stories by Sandy survivors, facts on the recovery process based on surveying 500 survivors, and local, state and federal recommendations.  It’s a sober reminder of the long road ahead the communities impacted by Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria face when it comes to recovery.

In a step in the right direction, this week NJ Governor Christie announced an additional $75 million for their Blue Acres buyout program for flooded homes to help move people to less risky areas. Buyouts are widely recognized as an essential flood risk resilience tool, but research postSandy has found that improvements can and need to  be made to ensure people truly are better off after the buyout. Additional research indicates we still have a lot to learn on how to do buyouts well, and hopefully the proposal the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reportedly considering will take these recommendations into account.

Community mobilization

Communities hit by Sandy know these realities all too well and they’re mobilizing and calling for action. A few examples include:

  • In NYC communities are mobilizing around #Sandy5 and will march in NYC on October 28 to demand action by their elected officials.
  • In New Jersey:
    • NJ Future convened the Shore of the Future symposium to underscore the need for a regional approach to coastal resilience as well as state actions the new governor can take in the face of climate change
    • Floodplain managers are convening for their 13th annual conference around changes under the Trump Administration to federal agencies and policies as well as the change that will come with the upcoming election of their new governor.

These efforts are a call to action at all levels government, but particularly the federal government. So what’s this Administration doing?

As warnings on climate change risks soar, the Trump administration’s actions place the nation in peril

The Sandy anniversary comes at a time when we not only could not imagine the 2017 hurricane season,  but we also could not have imagined the vast degree of President Trump’s roll backs on climate change policy including pulling the U.S out of the Paris Accord and repealing the Clean Power Plan.

In the first six months of this administration, UCS tracked the vast efforts to sideline science including stacking heads of federal agencies with climate deniers and appointing conflicted individuals to scientific leadership positions. One can argue that the Department of Defense is the last department where federal employees can speak to climate change.

Last month the watchdog for the federal government, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their “high risk” report calling on the need for government-wide action is needed to reduce fiscal exposure to climate change by better managing climate change risks.  This week, GAO released a report on the economic costs of climate change and finds that without climate change in check, costs could be as high as $35 billion per year by mid-century while Zillow’s recent analysis finds that nearly 2 million U.S. homes could be underwater in 80 years if oceans rise 6 feet or higher by 2100.    GAO “high risk” 2017 report includes broad strategic recommendations as well as specific actions to:

  • Protect federal property and resources by federal agencies’ consistently implementing the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (as well as other measures);
  • Under the federal flood and crop insurance programs, build climate resilience into the requirements for federal crop and flood insurance programs;
    • President Trump: released a piecemeal reform proposal to reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program.
  • Provide technical assistance to federal, state, local, and private-sector decision makers
    • President Trump: signed an executive order  revoking executive orders that helped prepare the nation for climate change; encourage private investment in reducing pollution; and ensure our national security plans consider climate change impacts.
  • Under disaster aid, adequately budget and forecast procedures to account for the costs of disasters.
Here’s what an effective national disaster response looks like

In recognition of the size and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy, in just over a month, President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Led by Sec. of HUD, Secretary Donovan, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force brought together 23 federal agencies and local and state leaders from NY, NJ, CT MD, RI, and the Shinnecock Indian Nation. At the foundation of the task force report was the use of better science and technology to inform decisions in rebuilding efforts and recovery efforts. The task force recommendations included:

  • Promote resilient rebuilding based on current and future risk and through innovative ideas
  • Ensure a regionally coordinated, resilient approach to infrastructure investment
  • Providing affordable housing and protecting homeowners
  • Supporting small businesses and revitalizing local economies
  • Addressing insurance challenges, understanding and accessibility
  • Building local governments’ capacity to plan for long-term rebuilding and preparation for future disasters

Why is this approach a model response for federally declared disasters?  It’s a model that recognized a national response must bring the “whole of government” and communities together, including those who have been historically marginalized. At the core was the understanding that we must plan for the future based on the latest climate science and future conditions. The Task Force also fostered creative, comprehensive, innovative strategies to increase community resilience bringing in all sectors and types of infrastructure. The Task Force also understood that keeping small businesses’ lights on and building the capacity of local governments to plan for long-term rebuilding were both vital to sustaining local economies.

Congressional actions needed

This week the Senate approved $36.5 billion in disaster assistance which comes after a $15 billion disaster assistance package after Harvey and includes $18.7 billion to build up the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main Disaster Relief Fund, $16 billion to the National Flood Insurance Program as well as $1.2 billion for nutrition assistance and wildfire funding.

In contrast, after Sandy, in December of 2012, the administration submitted a $60.4 billion request for supplemental funding for disaster assistance and recovery.  In 2013 Congress approved Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 or the “Sandy relief bill” at $50.5 billion (as well as an additional $9.7 billion in new borrowing authority to NFIP).

As total cost estimates of damages are still coming in, we know the Congressional disaster relief packages to date are just a drop in the bucket. Towns, cities, and states cannot be left on their own to face the costs of increasing their communities’ resilience in the face of climate change.  After the battering one-two-three punch of Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria and on the 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Congress must come together on bipartisan actions in the near-term to:

  • Defend science by protecting federal agency budgets;
  • Pass legislation to reinstate the flood risk management standard to ensure federally funded infrastructure is “flood-ready”;
  • Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program to ensure risk based flood insurance rates as well as affordability of flood insurance, science informed flood maps that reflect risk and future conditions including climate change driven sea level rise, consumer protections, and robust pre-disaster mitigation measures that invest in innovative strategies to reduce risk through buy-out programs and nature-based solutions; and
  • Authorize the Department of Defense to invest in understanding and mitigating the risks climate change pose to our national security and our military installations and surrounding communities.

Will Congress take bipartisan action to pass these policies?

The jury is out but the sad reality is that it still won’t be sufficient to address the water that will come. In fact, as we make the case here, we must have a comprehensive strategy to:

  • phase out policies that encourage risky coastal activities;
  • bolster existing policies and funding;
  • and put forth bolder, comprehensive solutions to help communities retreat from risky areas.

 

 

 

New Jersey Resource Project

Pages