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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public protections matter

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

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

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

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

Scientists’ Letter to Trump Supporting Iran Nuclear Deal

Donald Trump has made conflicting statements about how he views the Iranian nuclear deal and what he plans to do about it once he takes office. But the deal has now been in effect for a year and experience shows the agreement is working—and that it would be foolish to discard or undermine it.

I’m one of 37 scientists who signed a letter delivered to Mr. Trump’s team yesterday explaining the successes of the deal and the value of keeping it. The letter was organized by a group of scientists, including Richard Garwin, who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Sig Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory—one of the two US labs that design nuclear weapons. The signers include six Nobel laureates in physics.

The goals of the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are to significantly lengthen the time it would take Iran to make nuclear weapons and to put in place a set of intrusive verification measures that would give the world confidence that Iran was abiding by the terms of the agreement—or unambiguous warning if it was not.

 US Dept. of State)

Diplomats announcing the framework of the JCPOA in 2015 (Source: US Dept. of State)

The past year has shown that the deal is working. Iran has taken important steps specified in the agreement, and human inspections and continuous monitoring by instruments are underway. We conclude, as we say in the letter, that the nuclear deal “has dramatically reduced the risk that Iran could suddenly produce significant quantities of nuclear-weapon materials.”

Our letter ends by telling Mr. Trump:

The JCPOA does not take any options off the table for you or any future president. Indeed it makes it much easier for you to know if and when Iran heads for a bomb. It provides both time and legitimacy for an effective response.

Our technical judgment is that the multilateral JCPOA provides a strong bulwark against an Iranian nuclear-weapons program. We urge you to preserve this critical U.S. strategic asset.

Year in Review: How 8 States Made 2016 a Huge Year for Clean Energy

With the Clean Power Plan’s future up in the air, and concerns about how science might fare given the recent election results, some may think 2016 wasn’t a great year for clean energy.  However, lots of great state level policies were passed — some with bipartisan support—and there’s even some good news on the national front. Looking back at the last year I see a lot of clear signs that the clean energy transition is moving forward in the US.  Here are eight states that really stepped up to become climate leaders:

1. California

In August, the California legislature passed remarkable climate change legislationSB 32 builds on Assembly Bill 32, the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 that required California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  SB 32 now sets the next target, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.  Another bill, AB 197 increases legislative oversight and transparency for the state’s climate change programs and emphasizes the state’s commitment to ensuring these policies help communities most impacted by climate change and air pollution.

California is on track to meet its emissions reductions goals, and its overall economy is growing.  UCS brought in our scientists, and passage of these two bills cemented the state’s commitment to leading the fight against climate change.

2. Illinois

On December 1, Illinois passed the Future Energy Jobs Bill (SB 2814).  The bill was passed with bipartisan support, and was signed into law by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.  The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (which UCS is a member of) worked on the bill for nearly two years.  The bill includes several big wins for clean energy including a meaningful fix to the state’s existing Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law that corrects flaws in the policy, new in-state renewable build requirements for wind and solar, the state’s first community solar program, and a new Illinois Solar for All program which is a comprehensive low-income solar deployment and job training initiative. The bill also increased the state’s energy efficiency policies; ComEd will achieve a 21.5% reduction and Ameren will achieve a 16% reduction in energy use by 2030.

3. Maryland

The state passed landmark legislation, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act (SB 323), which was signed into law by Republican Governor Larry Hogan. The law requires Maryland to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 2006 levels by 2030.  This target was unanimously recommended by the state’s bipartisan Climate Change Commission in fall 2015. The legislation was supported by a diverse group of stakeholders and is expected to create and maintain thousands of jobs.

4. Massachusetts

This summer Massachusetts legislators passed an omnibus energy bill that will once again make Massachusetts a clean energy leader.  The bill includes a large scale clean energy procurement requirement for hydro, wind, solar and other renewable sources and the necessary transmission to power the state. The legislation also calls for Massachusetts utilities to solicit contracts for 1600 megawatts of offshore wind development by 2030.  That’s enough to meet 15 percent of Massachusetts’s electricity needs. In all, up to 40 percent of the state’s electricity could come from clean energy sources by 2030.

 Mark Jurrens (Wikimedia)

Photo: Mark Jurrens (Wikimedia)

5. Michigan

This month the state passed Senate bills 437 and 438, that make progress on Michigan’s clean energy future.  The legislation strengthens the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from 10 percent by 2015, to 15 percent by 2021, and requires renewable energy resources to be built within the service territories of utilities that serve Michigan.  The strengthened RPS ensures a baseline level of diversity in Michigan’s energy mix.
For energy efficiency, the legislation changes the state’s current standard to a regulatory-focused process in 2021, but it will preserve current levels of energy efficiency by requiring utilities to regularly submit efficiency plans that must maintain efficiency investments deemed reasonable and prudent. The legislation also removes the existing cap on energy efficiency program spending, and provides a new incentive structure that could drive utilities to achieve annual savings of 1.5 percent.

6. New York

 The New York Public Service Commission (PSC) gave approval to Governor Cuomo’s plan for New York to obtain 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, through the state’s Clean Energy Standard.  The PSC order established an overall legally binding renewables target for 2030, and requires New York state utilities to ramp up long-term purchases of renewable energy credits to meet those targets.  This builds on the state’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by signing the Under 2 MOU in 2015, which sets a laudable target to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

7. Oregon

In March, the Oregon Legislature passed the Clean Energy and Coal Transition Act (Senate Bill 1547) with bipartisan support.  The legislation doubles Oregon’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from 25 percent by 2025 to 50 percent by 2040, and requires the state’s two largest utilities (Portland General Electric and Pacific Power) to phase out coal generation imports by 2035. A huge advantage of Oregon’s coal phase out is that it creates room in the power supply for cleaner energy sources. The legislation had true consensus with support from environmental groups, the state’s consumer advocate, businesses, and the state’s two largest utilities.

8. Rhode Island

The state passed HB 7413 that will increase the state’s renewable energy standard by 1.5 percent each year, requiring 38.5 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewables by 2035.  Also, the state’s Block Island became the site of the first offshore wind project in the Western Hemisphere.  The project consists of five wind turbines adding up to 30 megawatts which became operational this year, and more offshore wind is coming!

Wait, there’s more!

Sometimes good news comes in the form of stuff that didn’t happen. Florida’s Solar Amendment 1, an anti-solar ballot initiative, didn’t pass.  The amendment was backed by utilities and fossil fuel interests, and was an attempt to deceive voters and limit solar development in the state.

 Peter Juvinall - NREL.

Source: Peter Juvinall – NREL.

National level

And on the national level, the five-year extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar signed into law late last year was a huge driver for clean energy development this year and in the coming years. One million solar installations are now turned on in the US.  Solar is being installed throughout the US  thanks to falling prices and a vast supply of sunshine.  And US wind generation set new records in 2016 as costs continue to fall.  More wind generation will be installed in 2017 due to the current administration approving the Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission project.  The project is one of the biggest renewable energy projects in the country and will allow construction of approximately 4,000 megawatts of wind power. This project will expand the reach of large scale renewables from the Plains into the Southeast.

Job growth occurred in both the wind and solar sectors this year. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report, Year Ending 2015 American wind power supported 88,000 jobs at the start of 2016, which is a 20 percent increase from the previous year. And nearly 209,000 Americans work in solar, and that number is expected to rise to 420,000 workers by 2020 according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Next steps

These victories – many of them bipartisan – across the country give me hope for 2017. Our work isn’t done.  We must continue to fight for clean energy polices to create new jobs and curb the harmful effects of climate change.  And we must continue to fight anti-science rhetoric. But for now, let’s celebrate our 2016 victories! Photo: Mark Jurrens (Wikimedia)

Breaking News From the Arctic: It Is not Santa, It Is Global Warming

As we gear into the holidays in full force, we often think of family gatherings and dinners and gifts. So, it is not surprising that the North Pole is a big news item around this time of the year. Or is it? In fact, the image of Santa coming from the North Pole on his sleigh pulled by reindeer is being replaced by one of the Arctic with very little sea ice, and temperatures predicted to be above average by as much as 50°F by Christmas eve 2016.


The news is not what one would expect this time of the year

It is winter in the Arctic right now. Temperatures there average -30°F for most of this dark season, when sea ice starts to recover from summer melting, which usually reaches its extreme in September. Usually in March, sea ice has recovered enough to once again cover much of the Arctic Sea.

However, that is not what we have been seeing in the past two years. In March 2016, for the second time ever and second year in a row, sea ice extent hit a record low. Instead of expanding during the winter, sea ice was having a hard time recovering from a very low summer extent. And now that we had its second lowest summer extent in September 2016, sea ice will have a hard time recovering again.

Something fishy is happening in the Arctic

A recent study linked its abnormally high temperatures to human-caused climate change. Global warming is messing with it, and the result is not good. As my colleague explains well here, what happens in the Arctic affects the whole globe in more ways than one would think. And to make things worse, the World Meteorological Organization just released a statement, saying 2016 is on track to be the warmest year on record. The consequences can be many, and severe.


The cascading effects of a warmer Arctic go beyond the ice

As another colleague well stated here, a warming of the Arctic can have not only very significant biological and environmental consequences, but also cultural and historical ones. It is not just the sea ice that is disappearing. Whole cultures stand to lose critical information that has been passed on for generations, but with the loss of the regular cycles of sea ice, traditions are amiss.

Things are not looking too good for Santa either: not only there may not be enough ice for his sleigh to go on, his reindeer may not be big and strong enough to pull it anymore. Dire times indeed. It is therefore imperative that nations around the globe keep their emissions reductions targets pledged at the Paris agreement, so that this pattern of warming can be slowed and hopefully reversed. Santa – along with real-life Arctic communities, and indeed, the rest of the world – thank you in advance.

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

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

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

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

Map of EPA air quality ratings for Oklahoma

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Driving Cars in 2017: Navigating the Promises and Pitfalls

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-driving cars lately—and I’m not the only one. Predictions abound about when the technology will be fully ready, but these vehicles are already out there being tested on public roads. In fact, I’m lucky if a week goes by and I don’t see a car with a spinning roof top sensor—even my first-grader is pretty good at spotting them. I live in San Francisco and have already seen a couple of Uber’s self-driving Volvos plying the streets over the past week. I’ve been seeing Chevy Bolts too—presumably being tested by Cruise Automotive. The race for self-driving cars amongst the tech and auto industry is clearly game on and is likely to heat up in 2017.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2017) is the first week in January in Las Vegas and will set the stage for 2017. Once again it appears that self-driving tech is going to be a hot topic with both major and upstart automakers as well as technology providers looking to reveal new products. Fiat Chrysler of America—a laggard in recent EV market analysis—is expected to announce a full electric vehicle at CES, building on the recent release of the plug-in hybrid Pacific minivan.  They’ve also partnered with Google’s self-driving business Waymo and are reportedly delivering 100 Pacificas for autonomous vehicle testing. Nissan CEO Carlo Ghosn is giving a keynote, Hyundai is expected to give rides in a self-driving Ioniq, and Faraday Future has been building anticipation around its CES announcement with numerous teasers. I’m taking the trip to Vegas this year to see what all the hype is about.

image002And no doubt there is a lot of hype. Personally, I’m hopeful about the potential for self-driving technology. I’m lucky enough to do a lot of my daily trips by bicycle with my kids in tow. And I’ve seen enough close calls to always expect the unexpected—but we all know even extra vigilance can’t guarantee 100 percent safety. So wouldn’t it be great if every car actually used their turn signal, or gave 3 feet when passing bicyclists that the law requires, or eliminated the dangers of distracted driving?

But I’m also leery about how these vehicles might cause confusion and disruption. Will their behavior be predictable in the same way as a driver’s? When I get to a stop sign in a car or on a bike, all it takes is a head nod or a hand wave and everyone can pass smoothly through a four-way stop. What happens when some vehicles don’t have drivers? When I walk across the street, I always tell my kids to make eye contact with the driver before they cross to make sure they see them. Now what? With driverless cars, the rules of the road might not change, but the norms will.  Once these vehicles truly hit the streets it’s going to be important to make sure not only that the vehicles operate safely but that those they interact with—from pedestrians, to cyclists, to other motorists and any other public road users—adapt to this new technology as well. And as Brian Wiedenmeier of the SF bicycle Coalition pointed out after a self-driving Uber twice made an illegal right hand turn across a bike lane, just following the rules of the road at this point seems to be a challenge.

Self-driving car technology may be able to make our roads safer, but building the public’s trust in the technology will be important to its acceptance. Uber’s decision this past week to defy an order to comply with self-driving car registration requirements was disappointing, to say the least. In its statement Uber seemed to argue that California’s registration requirements, which 20 companies have already complied with, are too onerous and would stall innovation. Instead of complying with this public safety law (and paying the $150 application fee) in exchange for allowing the company to use public roadways as a laboratory to test their technology, Uber chose to lawyer up. This doesn’t bode well for building trust. And if Uber does succeed in skirting the law, transparency will also be undermined, as reporting on incidents related to the safe operation of the vehicle would no longer be required.

Cooperation between government and industry in deploying self-driving cars is going to be hugely important to build confidence in the technology both by policy makers and the public. And the technology isn’t just about the safety of our roads—though that would be enough of a reason for cooperation. Other areas where these vehicles could have profound impacts include energy, pollution, impacts on public transit, congestion, and labor and workforce concerns—and whether the impacts are positive or negative is yet to be seen. On climate emissions alone, various studies show a wide range of possible outcomes as a result of deploying self-driving cars, from doubling of emissions to cutting them by 50 percent or more. There’s a lot at stake.

These issues are sure to heat up in 2017, as more vehicles are tested on public roads, new research points to the positive and negative outcomes possible with self-driving cars, and policy makers at the local, state and federal level start to consider the actions they can take to ensure companies advance this technology responsibly and steer outcomes toward societal good. Additional accidents involving self-driving cars are sure to bring more scrutiny to the technology as well as the protocols and protections being in put into place by companies and government agencies. UCS will also be taking a closer look at the implications of wide-spread deployment of AVs and ways to ensure they deliver on the promises and avoid the pitfalls.  So stay tuned.

When will self-driving cars be ready for prime-time? Not sure, but 2017 will no doubt be a year for  increased attention, debate, research—and yes—hype around cars that can drive themselves.


‘Little’ errors add up: What an electric vehicles study gets right, and what it gets wrong

A new study by consulting firm Arthur D. Little (ADL) claims that the benefits of electric cars, both environmental and economic, are lower than others, including UCS, have shown. However, the differences are largely due to questionable assumptions about battery replacements and the use of electric vehicles as a gasoline car replacement.

What they get right

EVs on average have lower overall greenhouse gas emissions and lower costs to fuel than gasoline cars now, and these benefits are likely to increase over time. This is the conclusion of our report and also the ADL analysis. In our report, “Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave”, we found that the average electric vehicle results in about half the climate changing emissions than a comparable gasoline car, even when the manufacturing emissions are included. The ADL study finds a lower benefit, about 20 percent, due to assumptions discussed below. However, they also note that the emissions savings will likely grow over time as electricity generation becomes cleaner, consistent with our findings.

What they get wrong about emissions

The ADL analysis and the UCS analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is largely the same except for two factors: battery replacement and the need for a replacement gasoline car to accompany the electric car. These two factors account for nearly 40 percent of the ADL estimate of emissions from a battery electric car and therefore are critical to understanding the benefits of electric vehicles.

The ADL study assumes that all EVs will need a replacement battery after seven to ten years of use. The study cites the fact that “this is consistent with the warranty that BEV manufacturers offer on their vehicles’ battery packs” to bolster this claim. However, by analogy, gasoline cars would be expected to need a new engine and/or transmission after the expiration of a five-year powertrain warranty. We don’t know what the true lifetime and failure rate for electric car batteries are, especially for today’s second generation battery systems since they’ve only been on the market for a few years. But assuming a battery replacement at 7-10 years is a 100 percent failure rate for the battery system. Making this assumption would require some proof, and yet there’s no evidence that this is the case for battery lifetime.

The largest factor inflating the ADL estimates of emissions is the assertion that drivers of electric vehicles would require a replacement gasoline car for about a quarter of all miles driven, because electric vehicles are driven fewer miles per year than gasoline cars. This questionable assumption is critical to the lower electric car benefits seen in the ADL report: it increases their emission estimates from an electric vehicle like the Nissan LEAF by 28 tons, while the baseline estimate of  LEAF manufacturing and electricity use only totals 69 tons.

The ADL study chooses an unlikely scenario — that an EV buyer would purchase a vehicle that covers only 75 percent of their trips — to arrive at their emissions estimate, rather than doing a straight up mile for mile comparison. This argument is based primarily on early electric vehicle use data from Idaho National Laboratory that showed Nissan LEAF drivers drove on average 9,700 miles per year, while gasoline cars average around 12,000 miles per year. But since that data was collected, charging infrastructure has improved and electric car drivers are going farther. Per California Air Resources Board data, drivers of 2013 and 2014 Nissan LEAFs are going an average of 11,000 miles per year. But perhaps more important, it looks like at least some of the lower mileage in electric cars is not due to the technology, but instead the lease terms that many electric car buyers choose. Auto companies have offered very attractive low-mileage lease terms for electric vehicles, with 10,000 – 12,000 miles per year included in the lease contract. Nissan LEAF drivers that chose a 12,000 mile or lower lease drove on average 9,000 miles per year, while those on a 15,000 mile lease drove over 12,000 miles per year on average. If the lower annual driving for an electric vehicle is not due to technical limitations, then there is no basis for adding gasoline vehicle use to the emissions analysis of electric cars.

However, even if electric cars were being driven fewer miles, the assumption that additional gasoline miles would be needed is biased. Drivers will choose electric cars with a range and capability that meets their travel needs. Someone who requires the ability to regularly drive long distances without refueling is unlikely to choose a short-range battery electric car as a replacement for a gasoline car. That’s not to say that they couldn’t drive electric; however, they would likely choose a longer-range electric vehicle. The comparison chosen in the ADL study overestimates emissions from assumptions about the behavior of the drivers, not the actual emissions from making or using the vehicles.

What they get wrong about costs

While our report focused on the climate-changing emissions from cars, the ADL study also attempts to estimate the difference in costs between electric and gasoline cars. The same choices (100% battery replacement rate and the need for a rental gasoline car) that inflated the emissions estimates also have a large impact on the economic estimates. For example, the cost of the rental gasoline car to make up for miles driven below the national average adds over $10,000 to the ADL estimate of the lifetime electric car cost and adds over 15 percent to the cost estimate. As noted above, these costs are unlikely to occur because a consumer who needs to rent a car 25 percent of the time is not likely to choose a short range EV to begin with.

The next generation of electric cars will be even better

The next generation of electric cars are already starting to show up on dealership lots. Starting with the Chevy Bolt, there are likely to be several battery electric cars that combine longer range, the ability to quickly recharge, and at a more affordable price. These features will make it cheaper to use an electric car and also allow displacement of even more miles that are currently driven using gasoline. Combined with cleaner sources of power, electric cars will likely show even more benefits in the future compared to gasoline vehicles.

Four Economic Errors that Cause Environmental Problems (and How to Correct Them)

Our dependence on nature runs deep. There is no denying that a pristine environment improves our health, lengthens our lives, and makes us more productive. Yet in our lifetimes catastrophic environmental change will occur because of four basic, correctable errors in the design of our economic systems.

As an economist and entrepreneur, I’ve studied these errors from both a theoretical and a practical perspective, and as a naturalist I’ve regretted the destruction of the natural world we see every day.

comms-blog-endangered-economies-coverIn my new book, Endangered Economies: How the Neglect of Nature is Threatening Our Prosperity, I argue that we can fix each of the most egregious flaws in the system to correct our neglect of nature and allow the economy and the environment to coexist and nurture one other. We can end these threats to our prosperity.

  • External costs pose the biggest threat to the environment by preventing nature and the economy from working together. External costs occur when a third party must pick up the tab for the negative consequences of a transaction. A transaction that occurs every day is a good example: let’s say I buy gasoline, burn it in my car, and harm people who inhale the exhaust fumes or whose climate is altered by greenhouse gases generated. The people who are injured did not purchase the gas. Yet the purchaser does not pay for the harm done. There are many ways of solving problems like this—problems that involve a social cost.  We can levy a charge to reflect the costs to third parties, we can give damaged parties the right to sue, we can regulate activities that affect third parties, and more. What we can’t afford is to continue to ignore this harmful error in our economic policies.
  • The second most important problem with our economic policies is that property rights are not always clearly defined. The consequence here is dire. Valuable capital is actually destroyed or harmed. No one owns the fish in the sea: they only become property once they are dead in the marketplace. This lack of ownership leads to overexploitation because no one has any incentive to conserve or manage the population. As a result, many fish stocks have plummeted by 90% in the last half century. It’s not just that the number of fish has fallen. Small fish tend to mature faster and have a better chance to breed before being caught; they also have a better chance of escaping capture. Thus, natural selection has determined that we now have a diminished population of diminished fish. We are just beginning to fix this problem through systems of tradable quotas introduced in many fisheries, which are working well.
  • A third problem is that the natural world provides services that are essential to our prosperity, but we don’t value it. Natural assets provide a stream of services over time, just as physical or intellectual capital goods provide a flow of benefits, which makes the natural world a form of capital. Some of our most important and valuable assets are in fact natural capital, yet we generally don’t include them in our accounts or on our balance sheets, which means in particular that our accounts don’t reflect their depletion. Take the case of fish stocks: these are an asset we are depleting, yet we don’t see this in any of our accounts. Accounts should warn you when you are running down your capital—but ours don’t. We have to change this, and it’s easy to do.
  • The fourth and final error in the way we run the economy concerns how we evaluate our economic performance. This is an area in which economists worship false gods. We use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the standard, but it’s the wrong measure of economic performance.  GDP can go up when bad things happen, such as a hurricane or flood that necessitates rebuilding,  and down as a result of good ones, such as the introduction of long-lasting light bulbs, which means that fewer are sold  We shouldn’t be rating ourselves by GDP growth, but by sustainable increases in human wellbeing. Sophisticated ways of measuring GDP are under development. We need to implement them and evaluate our performance ourselves by the results.

The world faces serious environmental problems. Maps are already being redrawn to reflect loss of landmass to rising seas, and nations are beginning to fail because of water shortages. The natural world is critically threatened by mismanaged human activity, imperiling not only human populations but thousands of other species that call the forests and oceans home.

Now is the time to use the tools readily at hand to manage wisely. We need to use these tools broadly and boldly to rebuild a prosperous and sustainable world and end the threats to our prosperity engendered by our neglect of nature.

The Congressional Review Act: A Radical Threat To Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the CRA?

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

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

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

How the CRA could impact you

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

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

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

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

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

Rigging the system in favor of industry

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

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

Implementing the law

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

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

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


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

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

 Astrid Caldas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientists are ready and organizing for the fight ahead

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

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

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

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

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

Global warming is also on the minds of most Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common ground on energy efficiency means ratepayers and utilities will benefit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few (mostly positive) loose ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Call! Obama’s Final Actions on Nuclear Weapons

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

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

The record so far  White House)

President Obama in Prague (Source: State Dept.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remaining steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pruitt EPA Appointment Ominous for Environmental Justice Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Ryan Zinke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is the Department of Interior so important?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate change and our national parks  NPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Adam Markham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Victor Grigas

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

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

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

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

Playing roulette with Ryan Zinke?

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

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

In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt said:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

There’s offshore wind action in Massachusetts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 PRODES 2016)

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

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

 Agência NaLata

Photo: Agência NaLata

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Ending Tropical Deforestation: Have We Got Our Priorities Backwards?

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

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

 Doug Boucher, UCS.

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

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


The main commodities driving deforestation, from the analysis of Climate Focus based on two different data sources. Source: Climate Focus 2016. http://climatefocus.com/publications/progress-new-york-declaration-forests-goal-2-assessment-report-update-goals-1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, in km2 per year (August through July). Source: INPE (Brazilian National Institute for Space Research): http://www.obt.inpe.br/prodes/index.php

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did everyone get the message?

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

What’s missing and what’s being done

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

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

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

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