Combined UCS Blogs

Scientists to EPA: Stop Sidelining Science in the Air Pollution Standard Update for Particulate Matter

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More than 200 air quality and public health experts have penned a letter expressing concern about the limited scientific input into an air pollutant standard update. The 206 scientists are deeply troubled by recent actions of the EPA on its update to the health-based standard for particulate matter, a pollutant comprised of tiny solid particles that has been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular effects and early death.

The EPA recently dismissed its particulate matter review panel, a group of experts who have provided vital input into EPA’s particulate standard updates since they began more than a decade ago. Addressed to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the experts write, “As professional scientists and engineers, we strongly object to sidelining science in this decisionmaking process. We strongly urge you to reinstate the Particulate Matter Review Panel to provide the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, as well as your agency, with the best-possible scientific understanding.”

“Science is an objective search for truth.  When it is used to protect public health, it benefits everyone. When science is ignored, it is the public that is harmed,” said Dr Richard Peltier, Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who led the letter.

This should be about science

The scientists’ outcry is notable because this stage is normally NOT politically controversial. Air pollution policy decisions have been politicized in the past, but we are still at the stage in the process where we should just be talking about the science.

For four decades, the EPA has relied on the advice of pollutant review panels in addition to its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee in order to ensure it has the best scientific evidence on the connection between ambient air pollutants and health effects. After the science is reviewed and revised, CASAC makes a recommendation to the EPA about what level of pollution would protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. The EPA Administrator then makes a decision on the standard.

This process has worked remarkably well over the years. It has enabled the best scientific advice to inform EPA decisions, it has provided ample opportunity for public participation, and importantly, it has allowed our country to keep the science separate from the policy—minimizing the potential for politicization in what should be scientific decisions.

Acting Administrator Wheeler is cutting science out of air pollution protection decisions

In light of this, it is no wonder that scientists are upset. Under Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler, this well-oiled process is being shaken up. The PM review panel was nixed in October, at the same time that independent members of CASAC, mostly from academic institutions, were removed and replaced almost entirely with members from state regulating industries (even though CASAC’s charter requires only one state representative).

On top of these changes, Wheeler’s EPA has made clear it is looking to expedite the whole review process—cutting out public drafts of the Integrated Science Assessment, limiting public and expert input, minimizing the analytical documents that have historically ensured careful science and policy impact assessments.  (For more about the new changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards and what they mean, check out my prior post here.)

The scientists will submit their letter as an oral comment this Wednesday at CASAC’s meeting to discuss the draft Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter. It remains to be seen whether the new CASAC will take the advice of the letter signers and reinstate the Particulate Matter Review Panel, but it is clear the 206 air quality and public health experts are making their voices heard.

The text of the letter is below:

To: Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Mail Code 1101A, Washington, DC 20460

We write to express our deep concern with the recent dismissal of the Particulate Matter Review Panel, a long-standing and indispensable group of technical experts reporting to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).

For the past 40 years, the United States has been well-served by independent, data-driven science, and this has enabled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to meet part of its fundamental mission by protecting the public from air pollution. Non-political, fact-guided examination by scientific experts, such as those formerly comprising the Particulate Matter Review Panel, is essential for the EPA to receive the best scientific advice needed to protect public health. This process has always taken place in a transparent environment in order for all voices to be considered and decisions to be grounded in evidence.

The science of particulate matter’s impact on public health is a complex one that requires a qualified panel of experts. Particulate matter is an especially complicated pollutant because, unlike other EPA criteria pollutants, it is comprised of a mixture of many different chemical compounds that vary in concentration, composition, and physical size. Some of these compounds—even at low concentrations—are likely to pose disproportionate health risks to vulnerable populations throughout the country. In fact, exposure to particulate matter causes more than 88,000 early deaths (i) per year in the United States—more than firearms and motor vehicle traffic deaths combined (ii)—and this number appears to be growing over time. New science continues to be reported each week that requires interpretation by qualified experts who can apply understanding, scrutiny, and constructive criticism to each published report.

Without sufficient expertise by qualified, independent scientists, the EPA’s air pollution decisions are likely to lack the information necessary to provide an honest assessment of particulate matter impacts on health. The end result may be particulate matter standards that insufficiently protect the United States public, especially our most susceptible populations such as children and the elderly.

As professional scientists and engineers, we strongly object to sidelining science in this decisionmaking process. We strongly urge you to reinstate the Particulate Matter Review Panel to provide the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, as well as your agency, with the best-possible scientific understanding.

(i) Cohen AJ, Brauer M, Burnett R, Anderson HR, Frostad J, Estep K, et al. 2017. Estimates and 25-year trends of the global burden of disease attributable to ambient air pollution: An analysis of data from the global burden of diseases study 2015. Lancet 389:1907-1918. (ii) Murphy SL, Xu J, Kochanek KD, Curtin SC, Arias E. 2017. National Vital Statistics Reports: Deaths: Final Data for 2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vol 66 No 6. Online at

Trump Digs Coal… Into an Ever-Deeper Hole

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Photo: Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons

Coal, according to President Trump, is coming back.

Beautiful, clean coal.

Coming back.

Through the administration’s rolling back of power plant standards, weakening of coal ash requirements, discounting of mercury reduction benefits, intervening in power markets, opening of backdoors for polluters to emit more, and most recently green-lighting of new coal plants with nary a meaningful pollution reduction requirement to be found.

Indeed, at devastating health, environmental, and economic cost, the Trump administration has gone to bat to bring coal back.

And how has coal fared? Has President Trump traded away the health and welfare of millions for a major lengthening of the coal longevity lifeline?

In fact, he has not. Let’s review.

Coal generation is on the decline

After decades of resource primacy, representing approximately 50 percent of the electricity generation mix as recently as 2008, coal-fired generation has been suffering an unrelenting slide in the face of cleaner and cheaper renewables and natural gas.

Try as they might, the Trump administration has not reversed the fall:

Coal’s long-time dominance of the US electricity generation mix has recently fallen away. Credit: U.S. EIA.

Coal consumption is approaching a four-decade low

Relatedly, new data show that coal consumption is projected to weather its lowest level since 1979. Unfortunately for coal, it remains the case that you can dig it, and you can ship it, but if plants aren’t burning it? Then it’s only coal mine profits that are going up in smoke:

National consumption of coal has been on a sharp decline. Credit: US EIA.

Coal retirements are at an all-time high

According to the Trump administration, overzealous regulators are entirely responsible for the eroding fortunes of coal, motivating the push for all the wide-ranging regulatory rollbacks now underway.

Well, we’re two years in. The administration’s intent is abundantly clear. Handouts to the sector abound. And yet? Retirements have not stopped. In fact, the very opposite—this year marks the second-highest amount of coal-plant retirements ever, and could even end up the highest:

2018 has marked another sky-high year for coal plant retirements. Credit: US EIA.

No new coal plants are coming online

And what about now, as the sector basks anew in this hazy age of free-wheeling air quality pillage and plunder? Have we seen a change in fortune and utilities plotting to bring new coal plants online?

Truly, not even close.

Other than one miniscule unit that’s long been under pursuit in Alaska, there is not a single new coal plant on the horizon. It’s renewables on the rise, and natural gas pushing coal aside:

Additions to the power grid have been nearly exclusively limited to renewables and natural gas. Credit: US EIA.

Trump digs coal, six feet deep

The Trump administration has done everything it can think of to help out coal—up to and including appointing a former coal lobbyist as acting administrator of the EPA—except, of course, the two things that would actually bring coal workers and coal communities relief, as opposed to solely boosting the short-term profits for barons at the top.

So what would a true coal supporter do?

First, actually help the communities and workers who have powered the nation for so long, and who are now at risk of being left behind. Provide for job retraining and economic development and diversification—and do it before the plants and mines have closed. Do it when there’s still a chance to do it. Do it because coal closures are happening, and lying about it just kills precious time. States and localities all across the country are struggling to tackle this reality; a concerted effort from the top could be of immense help.

Second, attempt a bridge to the future as opposed to forcing the sector to careen headlong off a cliff. There is no world in which coal generation makes a major comeback, unless and until it’s coupled with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)—and even then, it’s a big-time stretch. The US has an opportunity to lead here; the sector could be advancing CCS technologies that would allow this heavily polluting resource to possibly keep on chugging along in a carbon-constrained world, at home and abroad.

But instead? Alongside a mortifying rejection of climate science on the global stage, the Trump administration has just proposed to undo a critical lever for pushing that technological development by excising CCS from its standards for new coal-fired power plants. Indeed, instead of helping coal, this action smothers hope.

So sure, yes, Trump digs coal! But coal’s not coming back. Because check the fine print—Trump only digs coal six feet deep.

Photo: Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons Credit: EIA U.S. EIA U.S. EIA U.S. EIA

Congress Can Finally Secure Our Right to an Equally Weighted Vote: Here’s How

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Source: Michael Fleshman/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

When the 116th Congress convenes in January, the new Democratic House majority has promised to make electoral integrity literally its first priority: House Resolution 1.

Led by veteran reform advocate Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), House Democrats hope to have a bill ready to go on January 3. The odds of eventually passing such a bill with the GOP-controlled Senate and getting it signed by President Trump are slim. Yet in true Madisonian fashion, the new House majority is seeking to thwart their opponents by siding with voters, who just passed a historic set of reform initiatives across states and localities.

This bill will cover campaign finance, ethics, and voting rights, but the voting rights section is arguably the most complex and controversial. A broad range of reforms to address electoral design and performance throughout the election cycle, from voter eligibility through the allocation of legislative seats, is required to upgrade US democracy.

“Thou shalt not use state power to discriminate against voters. Period.”

As voting rights scholar Justin Levitt recently noted, an optimal performance standard for Congress to secure voting rights through its Elections Clause authority is rather straightforward. The simplest and most effective way to break down discriminatory eligibility and registration requirements would be to explicitly prohibit states from imposing any voting qualifications, leaving constitutional (age, citizenship) requirements as the default.

Prohibition against additional voting qualifications, including registration qualifications, will empower states to empower voters, as any evidence of an election administration regime’s discriminatory effects could be used to overturn it (see below). Automatic voter registration (AVR, which has already been adopted in 16 states and D.C.) and election day registration (EDR, adopted by 17 states) would replace discriminatory registration requirements. Congress should also provide a centralized registration process, for example through federal tax filing information (No Taxation Without Representation, anyone?) and other data exchange with the federal government. Additionally, language requiring pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds as part of high school civics and citizenship education would further boost participation. These changes alone would have the single biggest impact on improving voter participation, as a recent UCS analysis demonstrated.

Crucially, Congress must ensure that states’ voter registration lists are maintained securely and without discriminatory effects, especially since the Supreme Court allowed the state of Ohio to continue its exclusionary voter purging techniques, and to anticipate more outrageous voter suppression tactics like those identified in Georgia. Specifically, Congress should prohibit purging based on demonstrably flawed “exact match” criteria, and require that any removal of voters from registration lists be based on positive evidence of ineligibility, as opposed to non-voting.

“Thou shalt provide equal and early access to the ballot.”

To ensure equal ballot access and reduce resource-related barriers to voting, H.R.1 should mandate the provision of early-in-person voting, at least two weeks prior to the end of the election period, along with no fault absentee/mail voting. Previous research has demonstrated the discriminatory impact of restricting early-in-person voting. While the research on “convenience” voting and overall turnout is mixed, the goal of Congress ought to be to provide every institutional opportunity to vote available, given the pervasive impact of socioeconomic inequalities on voter participation.

Ballot access mandates would not require total uniformity among states, in fact it would encourage experimentation in the cost/benefit analysis of ballot availability and processing returned ballots. Key standards that Congress should implement in this area are performative: prohibiting waiting times longer than one hour; prohibiting voters from being turned away for ID or similar restrictions without allowing them to cast a provisional ballot; prohibitions against disproportionate numbers of rejected ballots, ballots wasted, ballots not accepted, etc. Such performance standards would ensure security and voter eligibility requirements within a non-discriminatory framework, all the while providing the necessary data collection to monitor voting rights violations.

This is a crucial and widely underappreciated barrier to voting rights enforcement that Congress needs to break down. Enforcing election law requires support from election scientists to analyze and understand voting patterns, and this analysis is often difficult to conduct as a result of the poor quality of data availability. In a recent analysis of early voting, the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald noted that while some states have great data management practices, others, not so much: “Take Alabama. When we called local election officials for their absentee ballot counts we literally were told that they had to look in a folder so they could count them.”

Uniform data publication requirements are essential to the effective enforcement of the law, and would greatly strengthen our ability to identify voting rights violations, as well as potential election fraud and other irregularities. Full disclosure and transparency are an unmitigated good here, and by requiring local administrators to provide election returns by precinct in at regular intervals for early voting and for results on election night, not only can irregularities be identified within hours on election night, evidence-based litigation can proceed immediately after elections, not months after the injury has occurred.

Administration, oversight and legal enforcement would also be enhanced by a uniform national ballot for all federal elections (which would also incentivize uniformity for state and local elections), as advocated by Richard Pildes. We still rely on local election officials to design and administer unique ballots across races, and the results are predictably awful. Uniformity in ballot design would benefit data management, auditing and analysis of results through the public provision of election data in a user-friendly format.

“Thou shalt not dilute the weight of votes for any reason.”

Ah, gerrymandering, what’s a Congress to do? Plenty. At a minimum Congress should require non-partisan, citizen-focused redistricting practices for all states, as is done in California and some other states. However, the most effective solution for both racial and partisan vote dilution is moving away from the single-seat district system that incentivizes gerrymandering in the first place. Congress should allow states to elect members using proportional representation (PR), as already outlined in the Fair Representation Act and recently endorsed by an increasing number of public intellectuals, as well as the New York Times. Under PR, every voter’s vote counts whether they are with a majority or minority of voters in their multi-seat districts.

Further, the adoption of PR would address more than the bug of gerrymandering; it would also minimize voter inequality that is a feature of our current First Past the Post (FPTP). This year in California, Republican voters earned just 13% of House seats with 35% of the statewide vote, not because of gerrymandering, but because of the way our system amplifies the voting strength of the largest party. Adoption of proportional representation should be a bipartisan reform if ever there was one.

The move to proportional representation would also help to integrate the currently bifurcated case law on partisan v. racial gerrymandering. As Rick Hasen has articulated, courts are currently forced to determine whether racial or partisan factors predominate a Voting Rights Act violation, though the two are increasingly blurred empirically. The constitutional integration needs to be clarified by Congress, such that an upgraded Voting Rights Act would prohibit any deviation from sound election administration practices that burdens any voters without justification based on nondiscriminatory reasons and rigorous evidence.

“Thou shalt pay the price of pre-clearance for discriminatory effects.”

How does the Voting Rights Act need to be resuscitated after the overturning of the section 4 coverage formula, and the subsequent re-emergence of Jim Crow-style voter suppression? The real damage done by the Shelby v Holder decision was eviscerating preclearance, or the requirement that “covered” states with a history of discrimination were required to get advance approval by the Department of Justice or federal courts before making any election administration changes.

At a minimum, Congress should accompany uniform data standards with an expanded (section 3) trigger that will “bail-in” states to preclearance for findings of discriminatory effect, as discussed recently by Travis Crum. While critics like Hasen are skeptical that the Supreme Court would allow jurisdictions to be bailed into coverage for conduct that is less than unconstitutional, the nature of the coverage could be “congruent and proportional” to the crime; if only registration or redistricting laws were found to be discriminatory, only those parts of election administration would be covered. It would make bailing in jurisdictions easier, and possibly getting settlements easier and faster.

Upgrading the Voting Rights Act to enforce all these reforms ultimately needs more than an enhanced bail-in trigger. As Lisa Manheim has explained, enhanced bail-in capacity is no substitute for the pre-Shelby preclearance regime that fully shifted the burden of protecting voters onto jurisdictions, rather than voters who have already suffered injuries. However, any new coverage formula, which Congress should develop, will of necessity be a product of legislative compromise. Building a new preclearance regime by protecting against discriminatory effects in the Voting Rights Act would be a great start, a major victory for voters, and a strengthening of our democratic republic.

Monumental Disaster at the Department of the Interior

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This is a tough time to be a federal scientist—or any civil servant in the federal government. The Trump administration is clamping down on science, denying dangerous climate change and hollowing out the workforces of the agencies charged with protecting American health, safety and natural resources.

At the Department of the Interior (DOI), with its mission to conserve and manage America’s natural and cultural resources, the Trump administration’s political appointees are stumbling over one another to earn accolades for disabling agency operations. I should know; I was one of dozens of senior executives targeted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for reassignment in a staff purge just six months into the new administration.

From that day onward, Zinke and his political staff have consistently sidelined scientists and experts while handing the agency’s keys over to oil, gas and mining interests. The only saving grace is that Zinke and his colleagues are not very good at it, and in many cases the courts are stopping them in their tracks. The effects on science, scientists and the federal workforce, however, will be long-lasting.

A damning report

In a new report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has documented some of the most egregious and anti-science policies and practices at the DOI under Secretary Zinke. The report describes suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of agency staff, and attacks on science-based laws that help protect our nation’s world-class wildlife and habitats.

It is a damning report and required reading for anyone who values public lands, wildlife, cultural heritage, and health and safety.

It would be impossible to cover everything this clumsy political wrecking crew is up to, but the report provides details on the most prominent actions that deserve greater scrutiny, such as: the largest reduction in public lands protection in our nation’s history; a systematic failure to acknowledge or act on climate change; unprecedented constraints on the funding and communication of science; and a blatant disregard for public health and safety.

Why is this administration so scared of science? Why cancel a study into the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining so soon after lifting a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands? Why keep scientists from speaking with the press? Because, while science provides the best evidence we have for making policy decisions that serve the broader public, Ryan Zinke has been very clear that he is in office to serve the oil, gas and mining industries, not the general public.

The attacks on science never stop

It is challenging to keep up with the relentless attacks on science coming from Secretary Zinke and his team of political appointees. Since the finalization of UCS’s report, we have seen Secretary Zinke blame “radical environmental groups” as the cause of wildfires, with no mention of climate change, which scientists know is creating the conditions for bigger, hotter, more ferocious fires. Like President Trump, he continues to suggest that poor forest management is the real reason for the deadly fires, regardless of whether they occur in suburbs or shrublands, far from federally managed forests. His ignorance of science is perhaps only surpassed by that of his boss.

It has also recently come to light that DOI has taken steps to roll back protections for individuals impacted the most by the agency’s anti-science actions. In November, it was reported that DOI rescinded two environmental justice policy memos that were put in place over 20 years ago to reverse decades of environmental racism and the marginalization of low-income communities. This is an affront to Native American communities suffering from the ongoing impacts of fossil fuel development.

Zinke’s disdain for science was on display again the day after Thanksgiving, when the Trump administration quietly released two groundbreaking climate reports that featured the work of DOI scientists: the 2018 National Climate Assessment (NCA) and a report on the greenhouse-gas emissions produced from fossil fuel development on federal lands. The NCA describes a stark future for the United States if climate change is left unchecked: destructive sea-level rise, long-lasting droughts, infectious disease outbreaks and crippling economic costs. The federal lands emissions report pointed out that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels produced on federal lands represent nearly 24% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. These are vitally important reports sounding a clarion call that climate action on federal lands is essential to the safety and well-being of the American public.

How did Zinke respond? With the standard anti-science lies being trotted out by Trump and others in the administration. Like his colleagues, Zinke claimed that the NCA was based only on extreme scenarios, when in fact it considered a broad range of emissions scenarios; he also claimed that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at DOI had “concerns” with the NCA when in fact dozens of USGS staff, as well as scientists from other DOI bureaus, were co-authors and contributors to the report. Apparently he didn’t have time to get to the other administration talking point about how climate scientists are just trying to get rich off of their work—a laughable assertion for anyone familiar with the compensation afforded to scientists who volunteer to contribute to such reports. He had nothing at all to say about the federal lands emissions report that was produced entirely within DOI.

A desecration of public service

It is a desecration of the concept of public service for Zinke to ignore science aimed to protect the public’s best interest, and an insult to the taxpayers who pay his salary and those of his political colleagues. Zinke won’t be around forever, but he has filled the ranks of political appointees at DOI with like-minded industry lobbyists and climate deniers, so things are not likely to change at Interior anytime soon unless Congress, with a vocal public behind it, insists on transparency, scientific integrity and immediate climate action.

America’s public lands, and the natural and cultural resources they contain, belong to all of us. It is astounding that a small group of ideologues thinks they can hand these resources, and the agencies that manage them, over to industries eager to carve them up for private profit. To do so with blithe disregard for the impact upon our planet’s operating system is careless and dangerous, and we must demand better.

In addition to the comprehensive new report, UCS is providing resources and support for Americans eager to fight for science in our democracy while supporting federal scientists under siege. A new Congress will soon be asking harder questions and holding DOI leadership accountable for its actions. We can make it much harder for Zinke and his colleagues to run roughshod over the agency at the expense of our health, our safety, our heritage and our shared public lands.

This post originally appeared on Scientific American

The Global Warming Emissions Report Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Didn’t Want You to See

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At the end of November, the Trump administration tried to downplay the stark findings contained in its own National Climate Assessment (NCA4) by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving when most people were away from their news sources. They failed. It was a blockbuster.

But the NCA4 was not the only report the administration tried to release without fanfare that day.

Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior also released a groundbreaking new report from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) titled “Federal Lands Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sequestration in the United States: Estimates for 2005-2014.”

The title is innocuous, but the report is not. Despite decades of conflict over how our public lands should be used, never before had federal scientists been asked to generate estimates of the role these lands play in global warming.

Now we have our answer, and it’s shocking.

Coal mining in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Photo: James St. John/Flickr

24% of US carbon dioxide emissions come from public lands

Employing a transparent and rigorous methodology, federal scientists used federal data to answer two important questions. First, how much of our total national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are coming off of federal lands and offshore areas? Second, how much carbon do those same federal lands store in their ecosystems?

The answer to the first question is that on average, 24 percent of our national carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions came from the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels that originate on public lands and offshore areas. In other words, the coal and oil and natural gas that is extracted from public lands, regardless of where it is used or burned, was responsible for nearly a quarter of our national CO2 emissions. The percentage for methane, an even more potent GHG, was over 7%.

All we have to do is look around the world to see how significant these numbers are. If the 2014 CO2 emissions total from America’s public lands was inserted into a list ranking overall CO2 emissions by country for 2015, it would be fifth on the list—higher than Japan and only slightly lower than Russia!

Fossil fuel-associated emissions of greenhouse gases from federal lands. Credit: USGS

The report didn’t stop there however. It also broke down the emissions by state. Of course some states have far more federal land than others, but it is still shocking to see that Wyoming generates some 57 percent of all GHG emissions from federal lands—a reminder of just how much pollution is generated by the coal that comes out of the Powder River Basin and elsewhere in Wyoming.

The second part of the study reported on the carbon that is stored in federal land ecosystems. Public lands are important carbon storage “sinks,” as carbon is sequestered in forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems. The study indicated some of the “hotspots” of carbon storage, such as the peat soils of North Carolina and the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, and demonstrated the importance of natural systems as carbon storehouses. A recent study showed that our forests and wetlands have immense potential to store additional carbon if managed carefully, and we now have a means to track our progress on that front.

Science under siege at the Department of the Interior

This new report provides USGS and land managers with the evidence they need to measure how policies can help reduce our emissions and increase carbon sequestration in forests and soils and other natural systems. By regularly updating these data, federal scientists can continue to guide and evaluate policies that reduce risk to public lands and the ecosystems we depend upon.

The information in this report is essential for developing smart climate policies as we reel from the grim news contained in the NCA4–and its findings are made even more urgent by the recent news that global carbon emissions continued to increase—dramatically—in 2018.

Unfortunately, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Trump administration are instead dismissing the evidence and making it easier, not harder, to drill for oil and gas on public lands. This fits a pattern of ignoring and attacking science when it does not suit their industry agenda, and will have the inevitable effect of ramping up global warming emissions from public lands and pushing us down a dangerous path toward increasingly catastrophic climate impacts.

The numbers and trends disclosed by this report will be essential to measuring and guiding our way to better health and safety in the decades ahead. But until we have responsible leadership in the executive branch, we must demand that Zinke and his colleagues do the job they were hired to do—use the best available information to effectively steward our shared public lands. Anything less is an insult to the notion of public service.

For more, see our new report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior: Our Health, Parks, and Wildlife at Risk.  

The National Climate Assessment Provides Exactly the Information the Country—and Its Leaders—Need to Hear

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Kingfisher, OK, August 19, 2007 -- Children play in flood water from Tropical Storm Erin. Photo: FEMA

Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director for the Center for Science and Democracy here at UCS, and Dr. Rachel Licker co-authored this blog post. 

The federal government delivered to Congress and the American people the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NC4) on the Friday after Thanksgiving. This year, “Black Friday” takes on a new meaning—the new report is stark and grim, filled with clear information on how climate change has affected the country, and how much more damage we can expect if we do not take immediate action.

The Trump Administration tried to bury the report, which they were legally mandated to issue, over a holiday weekend. When that failed and the report drew wide coverage, President Trump, his press secretary, and two cabinet secretaries tried to discredit the assessment and disparage the work of more than 300 scientists and experts from federal, state, and local governments, tribes and Indigenous communities, national laboratories, universities, and the private sector who contributed to the report, many on a purely voluntary basis.

These efforts to dismiss and sideline the science aren’t just frustrating to us as scientists—they’re deeply disturbing to us as engaged citizens. It’s an unethical strategy to undermine the case for action, putting the public at risk to advance the short-term prospects of powerful industries, and it’s an incredible disservice to the country.

The fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) is the most comprehensive report to date on how and why climate is changing in the U.S. and how it’s likely to affect us in the future. It represents a collaboration among 13 federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the Departments of Defense, Interior, and Agriculture, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

NCA4 represents a collaboration by public servants and experts across the country, and it was developed in an extremely transparent manner. The NCA4 went through an eight-step review process, including a review that was open to the public – all 251 pages of comments that were submitted and the author responses are available on the report’s website. This is how science is supposed to work—the top experts collaborating, scrutinizing the evidence, and putting their ideas to the test to come up with the most robust, reliable, and useful answers.

We both have worked in government as scientists—Dr. Licker at the State Department and Dr. Rosenberg at NOAA—so we know how much work goes into a report like this, and how critical it is for everything federal agencies do. At the State Department, this report demonstrates the vital role of U.S. leadership in the world’s science community, and reveals implications of international climate impacts for our national security and trade. NOAA, where climate weighs on every part of the agency’s work, takes a leading role in managing the NCA. Thousands of NOAA scientists and policy experts have deep experience with many aspects of climate change, from weather and severe storm forecasting to charting, coastal management and marine resource management. To dismiss the scientific evidence of global warming is to virtually ignore the important public service that NOAA is tasked to perform.

The NCA4 conclusions, based on hard evidence, are stark, clear and inescapable. Climate change is here and now in the United States, is caused by humans, and is expected to pose increasingly serious consequences for each of us. The report is a huge rebuke to what Trump Administration officials have claimed about climate change, and it critically undermines their arguments for rolling back global warming emissions-related policies.

The NCA4 makes it clear that climate change is a matter of health and justice, with some communities at even greater risk. The elderly and children are likely to face disproportionate health effects in the face of increased exposure to extreme heat and weather-dependent diseases like West Nile. Some communities of color and low-income communities could be more exposed to the dangers of climate change if they live in places more exposed to risk or have fewer resources to cope. The report also notes risks for indigenous peoples whose livelihoods and cultures are uniquely dependent on natural resources.

Another thing NCA4 makes painfully clear is the cost of inaction to our economy. The report has the most in-depth consideration of the economic impacts of climate change ever reported—what we’ve already lost, and how much this could escalate in the future. These are real, concrete numbers, from the $17 billion in damages to Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure from hurricanes Maria and Irma to the $33 billion in agricultural and transportation losses in the Heartland from the catastrophic 2012 drought. There’s no option to avoid dealing with climate change—either we work now to mitigate and adapt, or we pay an ever-increasing price in years to come.

There is one piece of good news, though: everything we do now to reduce emissions and reduce the risks of climate change will help make our world safer in the long term. The NCA4 makes it clear that there are many adverse impacts of climate change that can be limited or avoided if we take immediate action to drastically reduce global warming emissions.

Getting on track to a safer future isn’t something any one individual can do on their own. It requires collective, transformative actions and policies. We can’t wait for some hypothetical breakthrough to solve climate change for us—we can and must act now, using the tools and policies that are already here. We know we need to ramp down the use of fossil fuels, move to in cleaner energy, and invest in adaptation and resilient infrastructure.

What we need now, more than anything, is political leaders who don’t run away from difficult problems or deceive the public about the facts. Our leaders need to listen to hard facts, roll up their sleeves, and get to work on a path towards a safer future.


McNamee on FERC Harmful to Kansas and Iowa Wind Industries and Rate-Payers

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Photo: Hancock County Wind Center

There’s a little known independent federal agency whose decisions could have big impacts on states like Kansas and Iowa.  It’s called the Federal Electricity Regulatory Commission (FERC).  FERC makes decisions that affect electric power markets and approval (or rejection) of applications to build interstate electric transmission lines that are essential for the continued growth of the thriving wind industries in these states.  But the independence of this agency is being threatened by the Trump Administration with the potential confirmation of Bernard McNamee for FERC Commissioner; a Trump politico who has no regulatory experience or experience in the electric utility industry and is an avowed critic of wind power and renewables.

FERC’s decisions aim to ensure there are fair and competitive markets, protect consumers from exorbitant electricity prices and maintain electricity reliability -keeping the lights on.  Those decisions also affect how our electric grid develops and what type of energy resources we use to power our nation.  Whether we stick with old, expensive, polluting sources of the past (like coal) or whether we increase access and reliance on newer, cheaper, cleaner sources of the future (like wind power).  An anti-wind FERC commissioner would be an absolute disaster for Kansans and Iowans.  The wind industry in these states provides 36-37% of electricity generation and supports thousands of jobs (9,000 jobs in Iowa alone according to the Iowa Wind Energy Association). Wind energy also helps protect Kansans and Iowans from volatile gas prices and higher electric bills.

McNamee has publicly criticized wind and renewables, asserting that “it screws up the whole physics of the grid” and that fossil fuels and nuclear are preferable for “keeping the lights on”.  Such statements show one, that he would be unable to uphold FERC’s long history of fuel neutrality; and two, McNamee doesn’t know how the grid works. His statements run counter to what we know about the evolving benefits of distributed generation, renewable energy resources, transmission, and emerging grid technologies, like energy storage.  A FERC commissioner willing to put his thumb on the scale for fossil fuels would hurt Iowa and Kansas’ wind industries, preventing fair competition and access to lucrative markets.  But a look at McNamee’s previous job reveals why the Trump Administration wants him on the commission.

McNamee was one of the key architects of the Administration’s controversial DOE proposal to use executive authority to force consumers to buy electricity from struggling over-priced coal and nuclear plants; a proposal would cost $10 billion per year. FERC soundly rejected the proposal earlier this year, but it’s likely to be taken up by the commission again.  This is a huge conflict of interest.  What’s increasingly clear is that the Administration wants an “inside man” to subvert the growing wind and solar industries that are positioned to dominate our energy future.  Our transition to a clean energy economy will benefit states like Iowa and Kansas enormously, but a Trump-captured FERC could stall out that transition and hurt wind-state economies and electricity consumers around the country.

The Senate is expected to vote today to confirm Bernard McNamee to be one of five FERC commissioners with the power to make decisions that will significantly affect our nation’s electricity system and could uniquely affect states like Kansas and Iowa.  Beyond the adverse impact McNamee’s confirmation would have on these states, it would also be a blatant threat to good governance and an enormous conflict of interest.  The Senate delegations from Kansas and Iowa should be putting their state’s industries and economy over politics and fealty to President Trump, and vote NO on Bernard McNamee for FERC commissioner.  A vote for McNamee is a vote against wind -Kansans and Iowans simply have too much to lose.

Photo: Hancock County Wind Center Photo: Drenaline/Wikimedia Commons

Let’s Celebrate Soil! New Science and Stories for World Soils Day

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Photo: NRCS Soil Health/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

There’s never a bad time to celebrate soil—it’s an incredible living ecosystem and a foundation for much of the food, fiber, and fuel we use every day. But if there was ever a time when celebrating soil seemed particularly important, it might be now. And it’s not just because another World Soils Day has rolled around.

Over the past year, a series of scientific studies and reports have contributed to a message that is growing and crystallizing day by day: investing in our soil is a no-brainer—for farmers, rural communities, the environment, and (probably) you. There are lots of reasons why building up soil is a smart way forward, but here are just a few that have emerged since soil’s last big day:

Healthy soils = resilience to climate impacts

According to the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), written by over 300 experts and representing 13 federal agencies, farmers and rural communities have a lot at stake as climate change is settling in. This federal report describes significant risks and challenges ahead for agricultural productivity, soil and water resources, livestock health, and the lives and livelihoods of rural communities.

Alongside the dire projections, the NCA4 makes it clear that growing intensities in both extreme rainfall and droughts create an urgent need for spongier soils. That’s because soils with sponge-like qualities cover at least two critical bases. Not only do they hold onto precious water during times of drought, but they reduce polluted runoff and flooding during extreme rain events, preventing degradation of water quality and damage to downstream communities.

Fortunately, the NCA4 also provides several examples of possible next steps to manage the risks ahead, and these include adopting practices that protect and build soil health. Among the examples highlighted is one we have written about before—integrating strips of deep-rooted native prairie plants back into crop fields. Based on several years of research in Iowa, scientists and farmers have shown that it is possible to protect valuable soils, improve water quality, and boost biodiversity, all by introducing just a small change to croplands. Through the phenomenal power of soils, scaling up practices like this could play a big role in a future with thriving farms and ranches, perhaps against the odds.

Soil carbon can be part of the climate solution

Healthy soils can do more than just build resilience to extreme weather and enhance productivity. They also store a lot of carbon, which has direct implications for climate change. The links between the carbon cycle and soils (including in agricultural lands) are just one of the valuable topics covered in the Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR2), another major report released the same day as the NCA4 and involving over 200 experts. And it’s this relationship between soil and carbon that forms the basis of what two additional reports had to say about soils just weeks earlier.

In late October, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine—the nation’s premier source of expert advice on scientific, engineering, and medical issues—released a report titled Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda. The goal of this report was to explore what we know and what we need to learn about how we can get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The findings? With more research to avoid unintended consequences, increasing soil carbon by changing agricultural practices is a promising strategy that can be scaled up at relatively low cost.

The other report, also released in October, was from the International Panel on Climate Change, the leading world body for evaluating climate change science. The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC paints a grim picture for our world if we stick to the current trajectory, emphasizing the substantial benefits that would come from limiting global warming. Like the Academies report, it identifies soil carbon sequestration as a potential part of the solution, flagging potential co-benefits like biodiversity and food security.

Time to invest in soils

The steady drumbeat of major studies highlighting the importance of soils to a brighter future is encouraging, and at the same time makes it all the more important to remember that there’s still a lot to learn. That’s why it’s great news that the scientific community is continuing to dig in—working to figure out what practices and strategies are (and aren’t) the most promising, and how much we can bank on soils in the portfolio of solutions to a long list of challenges.

But continued and increased investment in soil is critical going forward. That means new and expanded public policies that direct research and incentives to the healthy soil effort. For starters, Congress should invest more (not less) in the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, and research and technical assistance for on-farm soil-building through programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program, and the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).

The science is clear: paying attention to soils is key. Now let’s get to it.

Photo: NRCS Soil Health/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Will Koch Pull the Plug on Electric Cars?

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Photo courtesy of General Motors

When multibillionaire industrialist Charles Koch perceives a potential threat to his fossil fuel empire, he doesn’t mess around.

To undercut the burgeoning wind industry, Koch’s network of advocacy groups, think tanks and Capitol Hill friends fought to terminate the federal production tax credit, and Congress ultimately agreed in 2015 to phase it out over the following four years.

To slow the exponential growth of solar power, his network has been lobbying state legislatures to curtail the practice of net metering, which gives solar panel owners credit for the excess energy they generate and send back to the grid.

Now Koch wants to kill a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500 for electric vehicle (EV) buyers for the first 200,000 EVs each automaker sells. Although EVs make up less than 2 percent of total vehicle sales nationally, 123,000 of them were snapped up in the first six months of this year, more than twice the amount sold in all of 2015, and more carmakers are expected to introduce new EV models over the next few months. Alarm bells are going off at Koch Industries headquarters.

Last year, the initial draft of the House Republican tax reform bill included a provision ending the EV tax credit, but it survived in the final, end-of-the-year tax package President Trump signed in December. This year’s tax-break-extenders bill finds the Koch network back at work to block the EV tax credit, and it got a boost this week from White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who said the Trump administration wants to end EV subsidies.

A fight looms

The rationale behind the tax credit, which Congress passed in 2009, is to create a stable market for EVs much in the same way government policies helped the gasoline-hybrid market grow. Congress has a long history of providing tax breaks to help emerging and established industries alike, and EVs are a natural candidate because auto industry entry barriers are steep, and electrifying the US transportation sector is one of the most important steps the country can take to address global warming.

The battle over the EV tax credit’s future is expected to play out before Congress adjourns for the holidays. Leading the fight in favor of the tax credit is Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who introduced a bill in mid-September that would remove the 200,000-unit cap—which Tesla has already hit—and  extend the credit until 2028. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced the same bill in the House.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) introduced a pair of bills in mid-October that would eliminate the 200,000 sales cap but begin to phase out the credit in 2022. That would still help out Tesla, which built an electric car battery factory in Nevada, and Nissan, which manufactures its Leaf EV in Tennessee.

On the other side: Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas), other strategically placed Republicans, and at least 20 advocacy groups—all making the same specious arguments, and all beneficiaries of Koch largesse.

In early October, Barrasso introduced a bill in the Senate that would not only eliminate the EV tax credit, but also slap EV owners with a user fee that would go to the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by the federal gasoline tax. Koch Industries has been one of the senator’s top 10 supporters since 2013, donating $45,400 to his campaign and leadership political action committees.

Before the EV tax credit gets to a floor vote as a part of a tax-extender package, it has to go through the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, and Charles Koch has cultivated a critical mass of friends on both. Since 2013, Koch Industries has given $253,600 to 11 of the 14 Republicans on the Senate committee and $374,000 to 21 of the 24 Republicans on the House committee, including Chairman Brady. (The company gave nothing to the 13 Democrats on the Senate committee and only $1,030 combined to two of the 16 Democrats on the House committee.)

Koch-funded groups—and Koch Industries—enter the fray

Three weeks before Barrasso introduced his bill, 30 seemingly independent, self-described free-market organizations signed a letter to Brady urging Congress to either retain the cap on the first 200,000 EVs sold—which would penalize US automakers Tesla and General Motors for selling more EVs than their Asian and European counterparts—or just “eliminate the tax credit entirely, as the House proposed in last year’s tax bill.”

But it turns out that they are not true free-market groups at all. Yes, they argue that the government shouldn’t subsidize any energy technologies, but they confine their objections to tax breaks for clean energy alternatives, claiming all the while that the oil and gas industry receives no subsidies. In fact, since 1918, permanent oil and gas tax breaks and other subsidies have averaged $4.86 billion per year in 2010 dollars, according to a 2011 study by investment firm DBL Partners. Taking inflation into account, that amounts to an average of $5.62 billion today.

Why would free-marketeers make such an exception?

Perhaps because they get significant funding from fossil fuel interests, most notably Charles Koch, whose privately held Koch industries owns three oil refineries, thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines, and bulk coal delivery services. These think tanks and advocacy groups essentially function as public relations arms of their benefactors, representing their interests under the guise of being neutral, albeit conservative, policy shops.

Consider the group that organized the anti-EV tax credit letter: the American Energy Alliance. AEA is the political lobbying arm of the Institute for Energy Research, and the president of both groups is Thomas J. Pyle, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. Between 2012 and 2016, Koch foundations gave $8.9 million to the groups—which together employ only a dozen people—and in previous years, ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute were among their patrons.

Like AEA, 15 of the other 29 organizations that signed Pyle’s letter, including Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Heritage Action—the Heritage Foundation’s political lobbying arm—are Koch grantees, collectively receiving $142.6 million over the same five-year time period. And two other groups on the letter—the National Black Chamber of Commerce and Taxpayers Protection Alliance—got AEA grants in 2015. Including those two, at least 18 of the 30 signatories are known cogs in the Koch network.

Koch Industries itself weighed in on October 24, when company lobbyist Philip Ellender sent a letter to members of Congress opposing the Heller and Black bills that would extend EV tax credits for four more years and eliminate the 200,000-unit cap. “Congress should not be in the business of picking winners and losers by subsidizing one form of energy over others,” Ellender wrote, “regardless of its source.” Left unsaid, of course, is the bogus Koch World claim that oil and gas industry tax breaks are not subsidies.

Koch-funded think tanks provide deceptive arguments

If direct funding of politicians and advocacy groups weren’t enough, Koch foundations also underwrite the libertarian think tanks that produced the studies cited by Barrasso, Pyle and Ellender to make their case: the Pacific Research Institute, which received $200,000 from Koch funds between 2012 and 2016, and the Manhattan Institute, which received $954,500 in Koch grants and another $535,000 from ExxonMobil over that same five-year period. The two studies’ spurious arguments are that the EV tax credit largely benefits wealthier Americans and reduces US tax revenue, and that the internal combustion engine-powered cars are as clean as EVs.

The Pacific Research Institute study found that nearly 80 percent of EV tax credits in 2014 went to households with an adjusted gross income of at least $100,000 and more than half went to households with adjusted income levels of at least $200,000. What the study failed to mention, however, is the fact that upper-income Americans are generally the only ones who can afford to buy any kind of new vehicle, whether electric, hybrid or gasoline-powered. As a 2018 study by the National Center for Sustainable Transportation pointed out, the average income of households buying new cars in 2012 was $119,400; accounting for inflation, that would equal an average annual income of $131,000 today.

The Pacific Research Institute study also ignores the fact that some EVs are a relative bargain, and the federal tax credit makes them even more so. The average price of a new vehicle across the country in January of this year was $36,270. The tax credit reduces the cost of a 2018 Nissan Leaf to $22,490 and a 2018 Chevy Bolt to less than $30,000, making these two EVs more affordable options for middle-income households.

The Manhattan Institute study, meanwhile, argues that the EV tax credit is cheating the US Treasury out of tax revenue. Last year, the EV tax credit amounted to $670 million. Compare that to the cost in lost tax revenue of the oil and gas industry’s permanent tax breaks in 2014, which totaled $4.7 billion.

Unlike many of the other Koch-funded groups, the Manhattan Institute grudgingly concedes that the oil and gas industry indeed gets tax breaks, but insists that those subsidies provide consumers a “tangible benefit” by reducing the retail cost of oil and gas. In other words, it’s fine for the government to pick winners and losers as long as it picks your preferred subsidy recipient.

EVs significantly cleaner than gas engines

The Manhattan Institute study also makes the ludicrous claim that new internal combustion engines emit next to no pollutants while EVs, which are powered by the electricity grid, likely produce more pollution and will not significantly reduce carbon emissions.


Experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a truly independent energy think tank, posted a thorough take-down of the Manhattan Institute report last July. In a nutshell, they found that it used “flawed methodology and flawed assumptions” when comparing monetary damages  associated with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from EVs and internal combustion vehicles and completely ignored the damages associated with carbon dioxide emissions. “A methodology that accurately accounts for all emissions,” they concluded, “results in a dramatically different result.”

“Nonpartisan institutions, including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Electric Power Research Institute, have published accurate and reliable studies of these questions that found the opposite of what [the Manhattan Institute report] concludes,” they added, “as have others cited by the Energy and Policy Institute.”

In fact, according to UCS Senior Engineer Dave Reichmuth, 75 percent of Americans live in areas where an EV is cleaner than a gasoline-powered car that gets 50 miles per gallon, and the carbon emissions from an average EV sold in the United States this year are equivalent to that of gas-powered car that gets 80 MPG. “And the good news,” he says, “is EVs will only get cleaner as the US electricity grid adds more renewable energy.”

Will the EV tax credit survive?

The Koch network is working overtime to pull the plug on the emerging electric car market, but the momentum is not in its favor.

Demand for EVs is growing. An AAA survey published this spring found that 50 million Americans will likely buy an EV for their next car, 5 percent more than in 2017.

The supply of EVs is growing as well. The number of available EV models jumped from only two in 2010 to more than 40 today.

Sticker price, as with any vehicle purchase, remains a sticking point. Falling manufacturing costs, aided by the EV tax credit, are already starting to help. The cost of an EV battery, for example, plummeted 80 percent between 2010 and 2017 and will become even cheaper as more automakers ramp up electric vehicle production. And EVs have built-in cost advantages over internal combustion cars: They are much cheaper to maintain—and they save owners a ton on gas. Keeping the EV tax credit in place for another decade and removing the 200,000-unit cap would certainly help ensure that EVs can become cost-competitive with gas vehicles.

Finally, Tesla, Nissan and General Motors—which manufacture EVs in California and Nevada, Tennessee, and Michigan, respectively—as well as Ford and Fiat-Chrysler will be pressed to compete with automakers in Asia and Europe that are getting significant support from their governments to go electric. Encouraging EV sales here at home may threaten Charles Koch’s fossil fuel empire, but retaining the EV tax credit will not only help combat climate change, it will fortify the US auto industry, which—even with the recent layoffs at General Motors—still employs more than 2 million people.

Want to stay up-to-date on EVs? Text “EV” to 662266 to receive special updates and opportunities to get involved on all things EV.

Danya AbdelHameid provided research assistance for this article. Koch grant data came from the following Koch-controlled foundations’ 990 tax forms (which can be found at ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer and the Foundation Center’s 990 Finder): American Encore, Charles Koch Foundation, Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Campaign contribution data came from the Center for Responsive Politics website,

With Lessons from Los Angeles, D.C. Takes a Good Food Policy Coast to Coast

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Lunch at DC Public Schools prepared by DC Central Kitchen (DCCK). DCCK prepares nearly 6,300 healthy, scratch-cooked breakfasts, lunches, and suppers each day for low-income children at 10 public and private schools in Washington, DC, working closely with local farmers to supply healthy, seasonal food. Photo: DC Central Kitchen/Flickr

Just a week after the Council of the District of Columbia advanced a bill that would transition the city to all renewable energy sources by 2032, it scored a big win on another forward-looking policy issue: putting healthy, local, and sustainable food on the plates of many of its youngest residents.

The D.C. Council voted unanimously today on the passage of the Healthy Students Amendment Act (HSAA), a bill aimed at improving student health and wellness. But don’t let the title fool you—the bill isn’t just about healthy school meals, and it won’t just benefit students. In fact, the positive impacts of this legislation will likely extend to farmers, food businesses, and families throughout the mid-Atlantic.

That’s because it endorses a food purchasing model called the Good Food Purchasing Program. This innovative program helps schools and other institutions source food that not only is healthy, but also supports the local economy and promotes environmental sustainability, fair labor, and animal welfare. (Think of it as farm to school on steroids.) And if the program’s previous successes are any indication, the potential reach of ripple effects in the D.C. region is vast.

Lessons from Los Angeles, birthplace of the Good Food Purchasing Program

With today’s vote, D.C. Public Schools are now the first on the east coast to adopt the Good Food Purchasing Program—but their big win was built on the success of their west coast predecessors.

Among the ways LAUSD is working to meet Good Food Purchasing Program standards is by sourcing more food from certified sustainable producers. More than 80 percent of all bread products served in LAUSD schools is made with sustainably produced wheat grown and milled in California.

A quick history of the program: it was first developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council in 2012 with input from more than 100 stakeholders and procurement experts. That same year, it was officially adopted by the City of Los Angeles, followed by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). As the second largest school district in the country, LAUSD serves more than 739,000 meals and snacks per day, with an annual food budget of more than $150 million. And while school staff and supporters will be the first to tell you that the purchasing program continues to be a work-in-progress, they were also among the first to prove that it could work.

In our 2017 report Purchasing Power, we teamed up with the L.A. food policy council, school district, and other local and national partners to demonstrate the impact and reach of the program. Here’s what we found:

Since its adoption in 2012, the Good Food Purchasing Program has helped LAUSD:

  • Direct about $30 million annually to local food purchases—including 45 million servings of bread and rolls made from sustainably and locally grown wheat—with a projected benefit of between $48 and $94 million to the local economy;
  • Create more than 220 well-paying jobs in the food chain and helped more than 300 workers achieve union contracts with higher wages, better health benefits, and stronger workplace protections;
  • Reduce purchases of industrially produced meat by nearly a third, with substantial decreases in the district’s carbon footprint and water usage; and
  • Shift US poultry production through the negotiation of new contracts of up to $50 million for antibiotic-free chicken.
What’s next for D.C.?

Another lesson learned from Los Angeles? You don’t achieve progress without participation. One of the common threads among the dozen school districts, cities, and municipalities currently working to pass or implement the Good Food Purchasing Program is a dedicated group of individuals driving the work forward. And D.C. is no different—a coalition of parents, D.C. Food and Nutrition Services, labor unions, local business leaders and community groups have been working for more than a year to make sure that students have access to healthy, high quality meals, and that local communities can reap the added benefits of “good food.” In the coming months, this group will continue to work to engage D.C. parents, food producers, and community members to propel the policy in the right direction.

To find out more about the Good Food Purchasing program—and to see if there’s an active coalition in your area—visit the Center for Good Purchasing website, and check out our website to view our full report.

Understanding Local Impacts to Inform Wildlife Conservation

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Photo: mopictures/Flickr

It’s 16:30 in rural Myanmar and my field crew, who had spent the day surveying for elephant dung, are racing our caravan of motorbikes back to the field camp before dusk descends. As the day fades tempering the oppressive heat, elephants emerge from the shade of the forest to begin foraging, sometimes in the sugarcane and rice paddies that are increasingly spreading across the country. Running into one of these giants as they too use the network of dirt roads to travel through the landscape can be fatal, necessitating a strict policy of returning to camp before dark for the safety of the team. While my field season lasts a short three months, this is one of many concessions residents are forced to make or risk their lives encountering an elephant as night falls.

A large chunk of elephant skin

It is unsurprising that most of the remaining endangered charismatic mega fauna are in some of the poorest areas on earth. It is in these areas where wildlands still exist, and the lack of economic development has prevented the boom of industry and infrastructure that could spell the end for remaining mega herbivores and carnivores. It is also in these areas where the people tasked with the burden of living with the species disproportionately bear the brunt of human-wildlife conflict. Though local community members indicate they value elephants for religious and cultural reasons, as well as the important role they play in the ecosystem, increasing human-elephant conflict may lead to a greater acceptance of elephant poaching as a way to prevent crop-raiding and reduce human injury and death from run-ins with their giant neighbors.

I began using satellite-GPS collars to monitor elephant movements in 2015 with the hope of using this data to inform conservation policy and develop ways to mitigate human-elephant conflict. Instead, these collars turned into beacons that allowed us to locate the carcasses of the elephants after they had been killed by poachers. Further groundwork revealed an astounding rate of elephant poaching occurring throughout Myanmar. And what’s more, poachers aren’t just killing elephants for their ivory- elephant skin, genitals, and other parts are increasingly being sought after for export into neighboring countries such as China.

To Chinese markets

Grey, dry, and wrinkled. Cut into palm-sized pieces, hard as a rock, yet lighter than expected. You would be forgiven to mistake it for any of the countless kinds of roots and herbs also laying on the table – if it weren’t for the thick black hairs sprouting out. This is what elephant skin looks like in a Chinese market. A few inconspicuous chunks nestled among dried seahorses, pangolin scales, muntjac antlers, and gibbon skulls. Typically, elephant skin is turned into a powder by mixing with talcum and applied externally to treat muscle soreness, ulcers, and open wounds. Of course, this is all very illegal. Elephant poaching and trafficking are prohibited and China’s recent decision to shut down its ivory trade was a milestone for the conservation community. But old habits are pervasive, and traditions die hard.

Tiger bone

Traditional Chinese medicine has an extremely long history dating back thousands of years and its practitioners number among the millions, many of whom are old, live in the rural countryside and have relied on these sorts of medicines all their life. Never heard of aspirin, but a regular shot of snake wine to improve constitution is common knowledge. Chinese demand for exotic animal ingredients is a primary driver of illegal poaching, not just in China, but in other countries including bordering Myanmar. Exacerbated by the rise of the Chinese middle class, this demand has created a biodiversity crisis in Southeast Asia and is a direct threat to many protected and endangered species around the world. Fortunately, growing domestic environmental concerns and calls to protect natural resources have resulted in greater focus on these issues in recent years with China’s new wildlife protection law taking effect in 2017.

Steeped alcohol with various species of animals

One popular form of traditional Chinese medicine involves steeping plant and animal material in high-proof alcohol for days to years. Steeping is thought to extract the medicinal properties into the liquor and often endangered animal parts are used including bear gall bladders and tiger bone. These ingredients can be degraded or removed prior to sale, which makes monitoring difficult. In collaboration with the Wildlife Forensics Center of the Yunnan Endangered Species Commission and the South China DNA Barcoding Institute at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, I am currently working to

develop a genetic method to identify which animals are being used directly from the liquor itself.

Conservation is local first

Cultural attitudes, long-standing traditions, and the economic realities of life in rural developing nations contribute to the realities of human-wildlife conflict and the illegal wildlife trade. Conservation is inherently a multi-faceted, human issue that involves many kinds of stakeholders. Conservation policy doesn’t work when foreign scientists simply come in and tell the locals what they can and cannot do. In order to reduce conflict and achieve coexistence, scientists need to engage with local communities and include their input in wildlife management strategies. Scientists can gather the data needed to answer specific questions and develop methods to solve specific problems, but we need buy in from local communities to implement effective mitigation and anti-poaching programs. Successful conservation programs require sensitivity to local cultures and working with communities to fully understand the challenges they face when saving a species: whether it’s the danger wildlife pose while they are alive or the value they hold when they are dead. As conservation scientists, we need to be open to addressing the needs of people to ultimately protect the wildlife under our care.


Dr. Christie Sampson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Clemson University, working in collaboration with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to address issues of human-wildlife coexistence and poaching. More information about her work in Myanmar can be seen at: You can follow her on twitter at @WildEcology.

Charles C.Y. Xu is a Ph.D. student in the Redpath Museum & Department of Biology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He is interested in using genetics to discover, study, and protect biodiversity. For more information visit his website or follow him on twitter at @CharlesCongXu or on instagram at @DRYBAR.

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.


Photo: Charles C.Y. Xu Photo: Charles C.Y. Xu Photo: Charles C.Y. Xu

NCA4 warns climate change puts our workforce at risk. The case of Latinos shows what we can do about it.

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May Day protest in New York City in 2017.May Day, NYC, 2017. Photo: Alec Perkins CC-BY-2.0 (Flickr).

Climate change is putting people of color at risk, and this is very bad news for everyone. The very sobering second volume of the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) was released a few days ago by the US government. The report is a congressionally-mandated assessment of climate impacts and created in collaboration between 300+ scientists and 13 government agencies, reiterates the consensus among the scientific community that climate change is real, caused by humans, and that we are at risk of very serious consequences for the livability of our planet if action is not taken now.

For the first time, the National Climate Assessment estimates the significant costs that present and future climate change will continue to impose on the U.S. economy and infrastructure, as well as on human health and well-being. As mean annual temperatures across the contiguous United States have risen by 1.8°F since the start of the previous century, climate-related events such as floods, precipitation, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and wildfires have increased in frequency and ferocity.  Today, climate change is damaging the infrastructure vital to our economy for transportation, electricity, communications, water, and food production—and will continue to put it at risk.

The report also finds that climate change affects our workforce in very real ways—it affects you, me, our families, our neighbors. Across urban and rural areas of the country, people are feeling the impacts of climate change on their health and livelihoods. These impacts, however, are not equally distributed.  Across the planet, existing socio-economic inequalities combined with climate change are increasing risks to vulnerable populations, and the U.S. is no exception. Communities already overburdened with unsafe environmental conditions are both disproportionately affected by, and less resilient to, climate change. Among the most vulnerable communities are children, people of color, those who live in poverty, or the intersection of all these sub-populations. We should all care about this because vulnerable communities are often the ones that grow our food, build our cities, drive goods around the country – they keep the world moving. Their contribution to society is vital.

Take for example the case of Latinos, who are among the most vulnerable groups. My colleagues at NRDC and I reported some time ago that geography, occupation, and socio-economic disparities make Latinos particularly vulnerable to climate-related threats. Just four states facing climate-fueled wildfires, extreme heat, sea-level rise, and hurricanes—California, Florida, New York, and Texas—account for 60 percent of the U.S. Latino population.  Lower rates of access to health care, along with immigration status preventing many from getting disaster assistance, blocks off critical ways to prevent adverse health outcomes or recover from weather-related disasters. In addition to Latinos living mostly in cities where air pollution and extreme heat episodes are increasingly severe, overrepresentation of Latinos in agricultural work and other outdoor occupations exposes them not only to extreme heat but also to economic hardships from reduced crop yields – a key impact on agriculture in rural parts of the country according to the National Climate Assessment.

In states with large African-American populations like Maryland and Georgia, a similar analysis applies to these communities. They are overrepresented in agricultural and other outdoor occupations, they live in areas with increased air pollution—experiencing worse air pollution-related health outcomes than the general population—and they often face barriers to accessing disaster assistance.

Climate change and demographic trends suggest that Latinos and other communities of color in the U.S. will play a more critical role in our economy as aging people retire, while simultaneously bearing more climate risks.

Who is replacing the retiring Baby Boomer workforce?

Demographic trends show that Baby Boomers (those born in the immediate post-World War II period up to the mid-1960s) are exiting the workforce as they approach retirement age. A recent study of the contribution of Latinos to U.S. economic growth shows that the young (ages 16-24) Latino population is entering the civilian workforce at twice the rate of non-Latinos in the same age group, adding much needed productivity vital to the gross domestic production (GDP), but also to social services (e.g., Social Security) that are increasingly tapped by retiring Boomers.  What’s more striking is that Latinos across all working age groups (young, mature, and elderly) made up 70 percent of the increase in the U.S workforce in 2010-2015 (see Figure 4 in the report).  But the non-factual notion that Latinos occupy just construction and other low-income occupations is easily refuted. As Latinos have recently made gains in educational achievement in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), their prospects for increasing wealth and contributing more to the GDP is increasing (fun sidenote: see this list of the accomplishments of Latina scientists!). Although Latinos lag behind in elected official representation (just one percent of nearly half a million elected officials is Latino) in 2017 the number of Latinos in office went up by nearly 10 percent.

Besides dispelling the false and often prejudiced notion that Latinos and other immigrants impose an economic a burden on the country (we actually contribute to the economy and to science quite a bit!), this makes me think that investing in the young workforce of color now to make it more climate resilient can be one strong safeguard against the catastrophic economic impacts that the NCA is warning about.

What’s the link between the growing, young workforce of color and climate change? Given that Latinos, along with other groups of color will continue to become a larger share of our workforce, and are more at risk than others to be seriously affected by the impacts of climate change, it is critical that as a society we invest to make them an economically-secure, healthy, and resilient workforce. The success of the Boomer generation was due in part to the availability of good jobs and access to housing, technology, transportation, and consumer credit, which in turn was made possible by society-wide investments during the postwar economic boom that the country experienced. That was more than 50 years ago, and we live in a much different world today, but history has shown that investing in the workforce that will continue to create much of the wealth for the country is a winning proposition – one that is part of the solution to our climate crisis.

If we protect and invest in the groups that are bearing the brunt of climate impacts, we’re investing in a healthy, resilient workforce for the future, and as a consequence, we’re investing in our collective well-being.


Three Ways a Trump FERC Could Negatively Impact Us

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Photo: Drenaline/Wikimedia Commons

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted Tuesday to approve the appointment of Bernard McNamee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The final confirmation vote now moves to the full Senate. McNamee’s confirmation threatens to transform FERC – with a longstanding tradition of political independence – into another arm of the Trump Administration, paving the way for Trump’s pro-fossil fuel agenda, a move that could impact all of us.

If confirmed, Bernard McNamee’s pro-fossil fuel agenda threatens the independence of the agency and our clean energy momentum.

FERC is charged with ensuring that power markets are competitive, nondiscriminatory, and protect consumers. To carry out this mission, it is specifically designed to be politically independent. McNamee, in contrast, has a long history of advocating a pro-fossil fuel, anti-renewable energy agenda. He was a key player in the Trump Administration’s first (and failed) attempt to force FERC to bailout uneconomic coal and nuclear plants and has called for a unified campaign to support fossil fuels, claiming that renewables somehow “screw up the physics of the grid.” The Trump Administration’s second bailout proposal will almost certainly come before FERC in the near future, also creating an obvious conflict of interest.

Despite this, Senator Murkowski dutifully rushed his appointment through the committee, expressing no concern about McNamee’s political past. If the full Senate fails to reject McNamee and the Trump Administration’s blatant attempt to turn FERC into a rubber stamp for this Administration, it will affect all of us. Here’s three reasons we should all be concerned:

1.) Markets for renewable energy, particularly wind energy, will shrink. 

Kansas has attracted close to $10 billion in investments from the wind industry, supporting thousands of jobs. It and several other states stand to lose ground on this economic activity if McNamee is appointed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The benefits of wind energy are undeniable: rural investments, jobs, land and tax revenues, and low-cost clean energy. States like Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and others across the Midwest are taking advantage, attracting billions of dollars in investment, thousands of jobs, and million in state and local revenue. In Iowa and Kansas alone, the wind industry has invested more than $20 billion, supporting upwards of 12,000 jobs. The success of this wind industry depends on fair access to wholesale energy markets and an interstate transmission system to carry that electricity to the markets. FERC has a big hand in regulating both of those. If FERC tips the scales in favor of fossil fuels, those markets become less attractive and wind investment will slow. As solar becomes a more dominant resource across the U.S., it will face a similar disadvantage with a Trump-captured FERC.

2.) Those suffering the effects of burning coal will continue to suffer.

Make no mistake, McNamee’s appointment could provide a direct path through FERC for Trump’s attempt to bailout the nation’s uneconomic coal fleet. A lot of these plants are the same dirty polluters that are so old they were exempted from Clean Air Act compliance, meaning they lack modern pollution controls. This means coal plant communities and downwind states like Maine (also known as “the tailpipe of the nation”) will continue to suffer the effects of this pollution as these coal plants receive consumer-funded subsidies to keep operating.

3.) Our electricity costs will go up.

The simple economic truth is that coal and nuclear plants are struggling because they’re more expensive to operate than other resources – namely wind, solar, and natural gas. If FERC becomes a rubber stamp for the Trump Administration and its intent to provide out-of-market subsidies to coal and nuclear, this money will need to come from somewhere. Ultimately it will come from our wallets – most likely through rate increases but possibly through a special tax. Either way, we pay.

McNamee’s confirmation and the politicization of FERC represent a real threat to our transition to a truly clean, affordable, and sustainable electricity supply. And a Trump-captured FERC biased against modern renewable energy technologies would have very real impacts on people across the country. The Senate should reject McNamee’s nomination and stand up for free and fair electricity markets that benefit all of us.

Photo: Drenaline/Wikimedia Commons Photo: Photo Source: Native Energy, Inc.

Data and the Future of Mobility: An Interview with Dr. Regina Clewlow

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Photo: Seb Zurcher

I recently got to sit down with Dr. Regina Clewlow, CEO of Populus, to talk about one of the most critical, yet unappreciated, pieces to improving our transportation system: data.

Whether it’s high-level data such as the number of miles driven by cars in the United States each year or specific data such as the number of bicyclists passing through a single intersection each day, access to information already plays an important role in the design of our transportation system.

Data will also play a large role as we prepare for autonomous vehicles (AVs). And robust research and access to data related to self-driving cars is one of our seven principles for maximizing the benefits of these vehicles.

The ride hailing, bike-share, scooter-share world we are beginning to live in – let alone emergence of self-driving cars – presents huge opportunities and challenges for changing how we get around. Congestion, convenience, cost, speed, equity, and emissions associated with transportation are all subject to change – for better or worse – with the emergence of these new forms of mobility.

Regina is one of the most respected people I know working in the new mobility industry. She has worked from all angles to improve how we get around, as a researcher in the academic world to leading roles in the private sector, including her current venture as the co-founder and CEO of the mobility data platform company, Populus. Here’s an edited transcript of a conversation we recently had about data and new mobility.

Jimmy O’Dea (JO): Okay, let’s start with the big picture: new mobility companies collect a lot of data through the course of their operations. What kind of data are important to you as a researcher and how can sharing it help improve our transportation system for everyone?

Dr. Regina Clewlow (RC): The data we really focus on are centered around GPS traces of vehicles – whether they are bikes, scooters or cars – to help cities better manage street space, curb space, and parking. Collecting this data helps us understand where people are going so that cities and regions can plan around those decisions at a higher level.

On the safety side, when you have better information about how people are moving, you can better design streets, and you may find you can dedicate more space to safe bike infrastructure, which is a win-win for everyone.

There is also data that can help us achieve emission reduction goals by answering some key questions: to what extent are mobility services reducing vehicle ownership? Are people traveling more or less when they start adopting these shared mobility services? These decisions obviously have a huge impact on total transportation emissions.

JO: In a recent Forbes article, you point out that data sharing could help all parties. What are some of the benefits to companies?

RC: Sure, if cities can identify where hotspots are, they can design pick up and drop off zones, which would help ensure that these vehicles don’t disrupt the flow of traffic and make them safer for people getting in and out of them, as well as pedestrians and cyclists. This type of coordination hasn’t really happened in a scalable way, but it is a key opportunity that’s on the horizon.

JO: Okay, so better curb management could help companies get riders in vehicles, but some companies are still hesitant to get behind the idea of sharing data. Why is that?

RC: It’s not just companies concerned about the competitive intelligence aspect of revealing their business models or about the proprietary nature of the data. A lot of people are also concerned about the privacy of users.

A key challenge with GPS trace data, particularly with services like Uber and Lyft, is that many trips are going to people’s physical homes or physical work addresses. If someone were to get a hold of enough breadcrumbs, they could recreate trips and then attach other data sets to identify specific people.

JO: So how can cities etc. get access to the data they need without compromising riders’ privacy?

RC: Many experts are of the opinion that certain data should not be made publicly available in its raw form because it can compromise individual privacy. But there are many ways to aggregate data so that certain elements are made publicly available without compromising personally identifiable information. Of course, too much aggregation should also be avoided because aggregation of data can start to render it useless for transportation planning and policy.

I really believe that data needs to be made available for researchers at national labs and at research universities in order to help us understand what’s going on and what the future looks like. This can be achieved without compromising privacy or proprietary information, which is precisely what we do at Populus for cities from coast to coast.

JO: Are there any examples that come to mind in other sectors of sharing data for the public good without compromising privacy?

RC: There are numerous examples, but one that I’m quite familiar with because I was an aviation researcher previously, is that in exchange for utilizing publicly-funded airspace and airports, commercial airlines are required to report on a 10 percent sample of all trips, including origins, destinations, stopovers, and fares.  So, the FAA knows exactly how many people are getting on and off planes, and they also know with the 10 percent ticket sample how much people are paying – so what are the average fares for specific routes. All this data is made publicly available without compromising any personal information or business information, because there is a time delay in when the data is publicly released.

JO: Have there been any data sharing requirements for ride hailing services?

RC: Mobility services have rolled out very quickly, so even though there’s a clear need for data for transportation planning, at a high level, there is very limited data available to the public sector.

Cities have been frustrated by the lack of data that’s been made available to them by ride hailing services; for the most part, they have virtually no information. A key challenge that has emerged in the increasing privatization of mobility services is that these services don’t necessarily strive to meet public goals. The important, continuing role of the public sector will be to define policies that can help us meet goals such as improving safety, ensuring equitable access to transportation services, and improving efficiency – even as transportation services continue to become more privatized.

We’re starting to see some progress with cities requiring data from transportation network companies. Some examples are New York, one of the first cities that required trip data from Uber and Lyft, and DC, which just followed suit through their for-hire vehicles program.

With dockless bikes and scooters, cities have significantly more regulatory authority. There are a couple main reasons for this. One, with micro-mobility, bikes and scooters are small vehicles – cities can throw them on the back of a truck and impound them. Two, because users come and check them out and use them and then leave them somewhere, they’re stationary for a certain portion of time, and again, it’s easy to impound them. Three, they tend to be owned by mobility operators, whereas with ride hailing services, the vehicles were constantly moving, not owned by the companies, and the people driving them are technically not employees.

JO: I’m not aware of any massive data collection or GPS tracking of the trillions of miles being driven by personal cars each year. What makes data collection from new mobility companies so different?

RC: Actually, there are ways that cities can access personal vehicle data today. There are companies that aggregate connected vehicle data and sell it. Cities are making use of that kind of data. They actually just used it in a recent study on traffic caused by ride hail companies in San Francisco. But from a regulatory perspective, it’s a lot easier to establish policies that effect a few companies than trying to affect millions of individual drivers.

JO: Okay, I’ll end on autonomous vehicles. Most of the data we’ve been talking about so far is from ride hailing services like Uber or Lyft, or car, bike, and scooter sharing services. But autonomous vehicles are on the horizon and could be a major part of our transportation system. Should there be data sharing requirements for autonomous vehicles?

RC: A lot of cities are thinking about how to deal with the regulatory environment for scooters, bikes, and ride hailing companies and what that means for the potential arrival of autonomous vehicles. If AVs are rolled out in a mobility-as-a-service fashion, establishing data policies for ride hailing services could help pave the way. In addition, establishing the technical infrastructure to make use of that data and to monitor and manage mobility systems is something cities are thinking about now.

I believe it is fair for cities to require data sharing from private operators in exchange for the use of public right of way. Similar to airspace, if private companies want to use publicly-funded space, it is completely reasonable for them to pay for the utilization of that space, with data or dollars. In fact, many experts would agree that the appropriate pricing of physical space utilized by transportation services is one of the most efficient ways we can reduce traffic congestion, and ultimately the energy and emissions impacts of the transportation sector.


Dr. Regina Clewlow is the CEO and Co-Founder of Populus, a data platform for private mobility operators and cities to deliver safe, equitable, efficient streets. She is a former transportation scientist from UC Berkeley, Stanford and UC Davis, a former Clean Vehicles Kendall Fellow at UCS, and has been a leading expert on shared mobility and autonomous vehicles.

Scientific Integrity and Privacy at Risk in Census

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Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

When the Framers of the U.S. Constitution determined that political power should be allocated proportionally based on population and race (as opposed to wealth, heredity, or religion), they needed a scientific means of measuring population. That is the primary reason that we have the Decennial Census, so that population traits can be identified geographically. Since then, the Census has become the largest scientific endeavor that the nation undertakes on a regular basis. In recent days, however, testimony in several court cases challenging the current Administration’s attempt to politicize the Census has revealed an alarming threat to its scientific integrity, and by extension, countless political and economic functions that rely on the Census.

As a scientist, I understand that a central component of any behavioral research is the protection of human subjects. We are continually trained, and training young researchers, in the ethics of human subjects protections, and in the case of the Census, we are all human subjects. Institutional review boards and human subjects protocols across the behavioral sciences have been developed to ensure ethical practices among researchers and confidentiality of personal information for participants. The greatest risk of participation in social research is that information about identifiable persons will not be held in confidence by researchers after data is collected, information which could harm the reputation, social status, or even legal standing of participants.

So you can imagine my anger when I saw recent court documents revealing that under Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, scientific expertise at the Census Bureau is being ignored and the quality of Census data, including the confidentiality of information, is under threat unless protected by the courts. This is not how democracies are supposed to work.

In deposition this week for a lawsuit brought by New York and 16 other states, former assistant attorney general John Gore acknowledged that Ross (and not AG Jeff Sessions, as previously claimed by Ross) initiated a request to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, even though the Census Bureau’s lead scientist John Abowd had explained in a memo that adding a citizenship question would cost the agency millions while actually decreasing the accuracy of the decennial count. The Bureau’s own research showed that the addition of the question could depress non-citizen response from 5-12%, probably a conservative estimate, given the current political climate and the administration’s public hostility toward migrants at the border.

More alarmingly, in another case in the U.S. District Court in Northern California, a recently released email from former Justice Department attorney Ben Aguiñaga suggested that the Trump administration discussed the possibility that federal law protecting the confidentiality of responses to the U.S. census may eventually be reconsidered, and that Census information could be shared with other government entities, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

Handing confidential information on residents over to security agencies is a violation of our most basic rights of privacy, and it has happened before: during World War II, confidential information from individuals was used to identify Japanese Americans in Washington D.C., and aggregate data was used for Japanese internment practices. Publicly available data was also used by the Department of Homeland Security to identify Arab American communities in 2004, but the confidentiality of individual data was apparently protected.

Census data is used to identify population traits down to the neighborhood level, as in this migration map.

Aguiñaga, who was serving as Gore’s chief of staff at the time, suggested in an email that sharing individuals’ census information with law enforcement and national security officers may “come up later for renewed debate.” When Gore was asked by ACLU attorney Dan Ho if it was his understanding that “this administration will not reconsider the view that the Patriot Act does not compel disclosure of otherwise confidential census information?” Gore did not answer, having been instructed by another attorney that he avoid disclosing “information subject to deliberative process privilege.”

In response, current CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former acting head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta cleared up any ambiguity over the law: “There is no debate about whether to keep census information protected — census confidentiality is protected by law.” A vocal consensus in the scientific and legal community echoes Gupta’s conclusion that this administration’s failure to protect the scientific integrity of our data “is cause for great alarm.” In the words of New York plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Colangelo, damaging the integrity of the Census and violating the confidentiality of the American people would “permanently impair core elements of our constitutional democracy.”

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr Source:

Scientists Call Out EPA Over Ozone Pollution Standards

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Photo: Dave Herholz/Flickr

On Thursday, November 29, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) will meet (via phone) for the first time since the recent upheaval in its membership. The agenda? To discuss the Integrated Review Plan for updating the ozone standard. And recently ousted scientists have something to say about it.

A science-based process to protect people from ozone pollution

Ozone is one of the last remaining ambient air pollutants we don’t have under full control. Many places in the US have struggled to meet the federal standard designed to protect public health and ozone pollution at current levels affects millions of Americans, particularly those with lung diseases like asthma.  Thankfully, we’ve long had a science-based process to ensure we can set an ozone standard that protects public health. The process has always allowed for robust scientific assessment and public input, and importantly, clear separation between the science and the policy. For more background, I’ve written about this process and the history of the ozone standard here.

A Compromised CASAC and an expedited process

But under the Trump administration, this process has changed. In October, the Trump administration replaced the CASAC’s independent scientists hailing mostly from academic institutions with individuals from local and state agencies. The new seven-member committee now includes only one member primarily from an academic institution, a stark shift from CASAC’s long history of being comprised primarily of academic researchers who publish regularly in the field of air pollution and health effects.  The difference is dramatic.

In the same announcement, the administration announced it would not convene an ozone review panel—the group of experts that have informed ambient air pollution standards for four decades.  The ozone Integrated Review Plan released this November revealed the EPA’s plan to update the standard will now also be streamlined in other ways that compromise the level of scientific and public input. The schedule is greatly expedited compared to past updates to the ozone standard. The agency also indicated it would be streamlining the scientific and policy assessment documents that inform the EPA administrator’s decision on the final standard.

An ozone standard protective of public health?

Together, these changes are likely to mean less science feeding into the process of updating the ozone standard. Given the pervasiveness and serious health impacts of ozone pollution, this is concerning. When EPA last updated the ozone standard in 2015, it set the standard at 70 ppb. This was the upper limit of what the independent scientists on CASAC recommended to the EPA administrator. CASAC recommended a standard of 60-70 ppb but noted that a standard of 70 ppb might not adequately protect vulnerable groups liked children, the elderly and those with lung diseases, as the Clean Air Act requires.

In other words, scientists considered the current ozone standard only minimally protective. As a result, we cannot afford to walk back this standard.  If the Trump administration sets a standard looser than 70 ppb, we can be certain that it won’t have followed the science on ozone and health, it won’t be consistent with the advice of scientific experts, and it certainly won’t protect public health.

Scientists dissent

Scientists aren’t happy about this new process. This week, 19 former members of the ozone review panel, many of them former CASAC as well, penned a letter criticizing the new EPA process.  The scientists write that the changes to the ozone review are “collectively harmful to the quality, credibility, and integrity of the scientific review process and CASAC as an advisory body” and provide 30 recommendations for what the current CASAC should do to ensure the appropriate science-based process is followed.

I too have thoughts. Below is the public comment I will deliver at the CASAC ozone meeting:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I am the research director at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. On behalf of more than half a million citizens and scientists, we advocate for the use of science for a healthy planet and a safer world. The Center for Science and Democracy works to advance the roles of science and public participation in policy decision-making. We have never advocated for an ambient air quality standard different from the CASAC recommendation, only to ensure the proper process is followed and scientific advice is heeded.

With respect to the ozone standard update, I am concerned about this process. The greatly expedited schedule and document merging proposed in the draft Integrated Review Plan are likely to limit the ability of the EPA and its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) to follow a science-informed process that leads to ozone standards protective of public health and welfare. Typically, the process of EPA staff, CASAC, and the ozone review panel compiling, reviewing, and revising the Integrated Science Assessment, Risk and Exposure Assessment, and Policy Analysis requires far more time than this schedule allows.

Additionally, the expedited timeline with fewer drafts and fewer public meetings will mean fewer opportunities for public input. Some 124 million Americans live in areas with ozone pollution levels that exceed the current standard, with serious public health consequences for many, including those with lung diseases such as asthma, children, and the elderly. The public deserves sufficient opportunity to weigh in on a regulation with such far-reaching impacts.

The effects of this expedited timeline document skimming are compounded by the agency’s failure to convene an ozone review panel. In past reviews of the ground-level ozone standard, the panel has provided vital expert input and necessary peer review of the wide-ranging fields represented in the Integrated Science Assessment. Indeed, for more than four decades, such expertise has helped ensure EPA leadership is presented with the best available science on the effects of criteria pollutants on health and the environment. These panels provide the needed range of perspectives on critical science and science policy issues.

It would be challenging for any seven-member CASAC to compensate for this lapse of expert input. Moreover, because the current CASAC lacks experts in key fields, such as epidemiology, it is difficult to imagine that the EPA’s science assessment will receive the robust scientific review that is necessary.

The expedited time frame and merged documents, combined with gaps in expertise on CASAC and the lack of review panel and public input opportunities, are likely to undermine the ability of the EPA to set a science-based standard for ozone, protective of public health with an adequate margin of safety, as required by the Clean Air Act.

I urge you to reconsider the decision not to convene an ozone review panel. As you hear in these comments, many qualified scientists are willing to volunteer their time and expertise for such a task, as they always have since the EPA began setting ambient air quality standards decades ago. An ozone review panel would help ensure that the EPA can make decisions based on solid scientific assessment.

I urge you to follow a careful, robust process to assess the current state of the science on ozone and health, regardless of whether it meets the arbitrarily aggressive timeline laid out in the Integrated Review Plan. And I urge you to ensure there are sufficient opportunities for public input for a pollutant standard that will affect more than a third of the nation’s population. The EPA’s mission, the Clean Air Act and broad public opinion compel you to make a decision that protects the public health.

The current CASAC should use its authority to recommend that the EPA follow a science-based process that protects public health. At Thursday’s meeting we will hear their thoughts.

Photo: Dave Herholz/Flickr

EPA Chemical Office Nominee Alexandra Dunn Must Prioritize Science and Public Health

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Photo: US Air Force

Behind the headlines of the Trump administration’s attacks on science is a quiet army of government scientists continuing to do their jobs protecting the nation’s public health, safety, and the environment. This week, we have the opportunity to ensure a new EPA leader can carry out that mission. On Thursday, the Senate is holding a hearing on the nomination of Alexandra Dunn as Assistant Administrator to run the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, the EPA office charged with protecting us from toxic chemicals and pesticides. Here’s what Senators should demand and expect her to prioritize at the EPA:

At the most basic level, Alexandra Dunn should prioritize protecting the public from harmful chemicals. The EPA oversees chemicals used at homes, in workplaces and the environment and helps ensure people can avoid hazardous exposures. This is a matter of life and death for many and a job that she should take seriously. For example, the EPA has so far failed to ban methylene chloride, a chemical in paint thinners that is responsible for more than 50 accidental exposure deaths. This is the kind of issue that EPA should be addressing immediately and Ms. Dunn can make a difference here.

Alexandra Dunn should resist pressures to bend to industry wishes. Ms. Dunn should resist the ever-present pressure from the chemical industry to weaken and delay chemical regulation of all kinds. The chemical industry lobby, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), has a long history of these efforts. For example, the group spent more than $11 million annually lobbying Congress while the Toxic Substances Control Act was under debate. The ACC has questioned the science around chemicals shown to cause harm and pressured the EPA to alter its science and delay public protections. Such pressures are amplified under the Trump Administration where we know officials are willing to lend an ear to industry voices.

Alexandra Dunn should stand up to colleagues who wish to compromise the science. Specifically, Ms. Dunn should stand up for science against her potential colleague  Dr. Nancy Beck, the deputy assistant administrator in the chemical safety office, who came directly from working as the ACC’s director of regulatory science policy. For more than a decade, Dr. Beck has been fighting to question the rigorous EPA science that backs its chemical policies and delay implementation of life saving protections. When she worked in the White House under President George W. Bush, she helped the Department of Defense slow down EPA efforts to protect drinking water from perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel. At the EPA now, Dr Beck has worked internally to narrowly interpret chemical policies in ways that minimize public protections, which brings me to my final point…

Alexandra Dunn should implement the Frank R Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act consistent with what Congress intended and prioritizing public protection. Enacted in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) charges EPA with overseeing some 84,000 chemicals in consumer products. The law was overhauled in 2016 in response to its overwhelming ineffectiveness. (It successfully regulated just nine chemicals—far under 1%!) The reasons for this ineffectiveness were many and the bipartisan 2016 update was designed to address some of these problems. Ms. Dunn should work to ensure EPA is implementing the law as intended—to protect people from toxic chemicals and do so at a faster pace than the previous law enabled.

Unfortunately, Dr. Beck and colleagues have already wreaked havoc at EPA in TSCA implementation. Several interpretations of the revamped law serve to weaken its effectiveness. In one example, EPA guidelines look to exclude certain scientific studies from agency scientific assessments. Studies where all methods and data aren’t public along with the (mostly academic) studies that don’t employ a standard known as Good Laboratory Practices common in industry studies would be excluded from EPA assessments. Such needless exclusions on what scientific studies can be considered by the EPA are likely to restrict the agency’s use of the best available science and to result in favoring of industry studies over those by independent scientists.

In another example, the EPA is now employing a narrow interpretation of the law, considering only exposures involving a product’s intended use. This means the EPA wouldn’t worry, for example, about exposures to harmful chemicals through the air or water resulting from the disposal of a product. Such an interpretation doesn’t make a lot of sense when we look at the reality of how people are exposed to harmful chemicals. I have two kids under three. I can assure you they will put it in their mouth if they find it. Anything. This kind of exposure—children being exposed to chemicals by putting products in their mouth—wouldn’t be the intended use of many products, but it is reality. It is easy to see how excluding exposures outside of a product’s intended use overlooks many harmful exposures that the EPA should be thinking about how to prevent. Ms Dunn should work to change this and ensure that TSCA is as strong as its sponsors intended.

Additionally, here’s a list of other priorities that Ms Dunn should take on if she is confirmed:

The EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention has an important job. I hope Alexandra Dunn is up to the task.

Photo: US Air Force

Will Cutting Carbon Emissions Increase MY Energy Bill? It doesn’t have to.

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I get this question a lot. With energy already being unaffordable for so many people, the concern is reasonable—but the answer to the question isn’t as simple as “yes” or “no.” It’s somewhere in between.

Having said that, assuming that reducing carbon pollution will only increase the costs of energy simply doesn’t hold true. There are plenty of examples that show how lowering carbon can translate into lower energy bills.

Controlling your own bill

Before we talk about carbon emission reductions and the impact on your electric bill, perhaps it’s helpful to remind ourselves that we do have some control over the matter. Taking control of your own energy consumption is the first step in making sure reducing carbon doesn’t increase your bills. Reducing how much energy you use will help reduce your energy bills AND your carbon footprint.

Energy efficiency and conservation are both about reducing your overall energy consumption.

Turning off your lights when you aren’t using them is a quintessential example of conservation. Energy efficiency is about switching to a more efficient light bulb so that you use less electricity while the lights are on. Both are effective ways to reduce your electric bill.

Walking and riding a bike (instead of driving a car) are also forms of conservation, whereas buying a more efficient car is the transportation equivalent of energy efficiency.

Speaking of transportation, it’s also possible to reduce your energy bills by increasing your electric bill.


Switch to an electric vehicle (EV)!

Making the EV switch will increase your monthly electric bill because charging a vehicle requires a lot of electricity, but it will decrease the amount you spend on gasoline. As a result, EVs can simultaneously reduce the total amount you spend on energy while reducing your carbon footprint. The UCS clean transportation team has done a lot of research into this; I recommend learning more about the emissions benefits here.

Installing rooftop solar or signing up for community solar would also help lower carbon emissions and can reduce energy costs over the long-term. But it takes smart policies to be sure that the economic benefits of solar are available to all customers, not just some.

Interested in more examples of ways to reduce your carbon footprint? I recommend Cooler Smarter, which was published by experts here at UCS and which outlines practical steps for low-carbon living.

Greening the grid

The power sector recently lost its place as the number one source of US carbon emissions. This was, in part, due to some utilities transitioning to zero-carbon resources.

So, when utilities make the switch to zero-carbon resources, will it cost customers or help save them money?

There is abundant evidence that suggests reducing carbon can translate into consumer savings. A slew of reports have come out with similar conclusions: utilities can save customers money by shutting off dirty old expensive coal plants and switching to cleaner forms of energy.

Here are three of my recent favorites:

Soot-to-Solar (UCS): The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted an analysis to gauge the public health, economic, and social equity gains that could result by replacing Illinois’ coal plants with clean energy. We found that the benefits far outweigh the costs—and that the sooner the replacement is done, the greater the rewards will be.

UCS analysis found that adopting solar could significantly reduce customer bills.

Tri-State Coal Analysis (RMI): Tri-State is a multistate, member-owned, cooperative utility. Members of the utility pool resources and work together to serve their own needs. Rocky Mountain Institute conducted a study that showed Tri-State’s 1 million customers could save $600 million through 2030 by proactively transitioning to much higher levels of renewables. The results of the study were contested by the company but at least two of the coop members have now left, parting ways so that they can pursue lower cost, cleaner energy.

Tri-State’s coal fleet costs are generally higher than regional renewable energy costs

The costs of Tri-state’s existing coal fleet are largely above the costs to purchase renewables. This creates an opportunity to transition away from coal towards renewables while also providing savings to customers.

NIPSCO Fleet Analysis (NIPSCO): Northern Indiana Public Service Company NIPSCO, is the second largest electric utility in Indiana. In that utility’s long-term planning process, NIPSCO found that it could save customers over $4 billion by transitioning off coal. The analysis found that the more coal the utility retired the greater the savings, finding that a coal-free resource mix was both the lowest cost and the lowest risk option. Now the utility plans on moving from 65% coal to 15% coal over the next 12 years.

The utility’s own analysis shows that retiring coal and replacing it with clean energy is the lowest cost AND lowest risk option.

The utilities’ own analysis shows that the company is able to lower costs and risks by retiring coal plants.

False start

A painful reminder of how embarrassing a false start can be.

The examples above represent a small sample of the dozens of studies that show there are cost savings to be found in cutting carbon emissions. While economic theorists often doubt this is possible due to “the free lunch theorem” this outcome is well documented by academic institutions like Standford; think tanks like the Bipartisan Policy Center and World Resources Institute; financial groups like Lazard; and consulting firms like the Analysis Group and Synapse Energy Economics.

One of the important things to remember when seeing an analysis that says reducing carbon will increase energy bills is they often start from the assumption that everything is working exactly how it is supposed to already. They assume that there is no way for anyone to reduce their own energy bill cost effectively because if that was possible it would already be done.

Such assumptions are rarely true.

To assume that the current system is optimized to be the lowest cost is patently wrong. My own analysis finds that irrational market behavior of some utilities costs customers over a billion dollars each year. This type of behavior is assumed to be impossible by many energy economists and the models they use.

But starting from the assumption that the current system is already perfectly efficient means that any modification will, by definition, deviate from the lowest cost pathway. Some of those same economists also assume that energy efficiency cannot be cost effective because if it was cost effective it would be done.

In reality, there are plenty of perverse incentives that prevent low-cost, low-carbon solutions from being deployed.

Cost of NOT reducing carbon

Most of the analyses above don’t include any monetary value for the social or health costs of increased carbon emissions. This year, William Nordhaus shared the Nobel Prize in economics for his work analyzing how the market was failing to incorporate these social and health costs (known as externalities). As it turns out, once you start accounting for those externalities, the benefits of reducing carbon far, far exceeds the costs.

The cost of not acting to abate climate change is in the trillions.

Just last week, on Black Friday no less, the US government released a report that shows that, if left unchecked, climate change will cost the American economy over a $100 billion a year.

Let’s not forget the scale and importance of what we’re talking about. There are huge consumer consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions, and these consequences will disproportionately impact low income and minority communities. It’s an urgent problem that requires us all to do all that we can.

Union of Concerned Scientists Rocky Mountain Institute NIPSCO

2018 LA Auto Show: Automakers Promise an Electric Future While Moving Backwards on Emissions?

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Photo: Tracey Adams/Flickr

I’ll be at the LA Auto Show this week to check out the latest EVs and efficient cars from automakers from around the world, and to see what carmakers are saying about their future plans. The LA Auto Show is traditionally focused on new technology, and this year should bring more news and debuts of cleaner cars. I’ll also be listening for how the automakers present their lineups and future plans and am especially interested in hearing how the industry squares their efforts to rollback vehicle standards with claims of environmental responsibility and future clean models.

Cleaner cars and electric cars needed to compete in California: a tipping point?

I’ll be tracking how automakers talk about electrification and cleaner cars, but also what cars and trucks they highlight in their displays on the convention center floor. While the auto market is global, the LA Auto Show is also an important marketing event for the local automotive market. And in California, electric cars are a rapidly increasing part of the new car market. In August 2018, plug-in electric and fuel cell cars made up 10 percent of all new car sales in California, over double from just the prior year.

In both August and September of this year, the top selling model of car or truck in the state was the fully-electric Tesla Model 3. While some of these Tesla sales reflect pent-up demand for the wait-listed long-range battery electric car, it still is shocking to see a plug-in car atop the sales rankings for California. More efficient gasoline cars also account for other top spots on the sales list with 3 of the top 5 models available in a non-plug-in hybrid version. This means that automakers need to have electric and hybrid models to compete in a market that appears to be ready for cleaner cars. Traditional car companies must be a little nervous watching Tesla eat away at their sales. For example, from July through September of this year, Tesla has more sales than established brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Subaru in California.

We’ll have to see if EV sales continue to grow, especially from makers besides Tesla, but if California continues to exceed 10 percent EV sales, we may be at a tipping point for electrification of cars in the state, as automakers will need to ramp up efforts to meet this demand.

More long range, affordable electric cars coming soon

Last year’s show had several presentations about new electric cars. I’m hoping to hear more concrete plans this year. (Photo: me)

Tesla grabbed the top spot by putting a long-range, more-affordable electric vehicle on the market. So what other new electric cars will I be looking for at the show?

First on the list is the Hyundai Kona battery electric vehicle (and the closely related Kia Niro EV). The Kona is rated at 258 miles of range on a full charge and has the crossover / tall hatchback body style that is currently popular. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but all indications are that it will be less than the Model 3 and roughly in line with the Chevy Bolt EV (the only other long-range EVs currently available in the $35,000-$50,000 range). One question though will be availability. The car will only be in California initially, and then will roll out to other states that have adopted California’s Zero Emission Vehicle standards.

Subaru is expected to debut its first plug-in vehicle at the show, a plug-in hybrid version of the Crosstrek all-wheel drive SUV. It’s expected to get about 17 miles on electric power, before switching over to gasoline for longer trips. This isn’t the only plug-in all-wheel-drive SUV on the market (for example: the BMW X5, Volvo XC90, and Mitsubishi Outlander all have versions that category), but it should be helpful to a have an EV from a brand like Subaru to highlight the fact that plug-in vehicles now come in a variety of sizes and types.

I’ll also be listening for announcements from BMW and Volkswagen. Both companies have been highlighting moves towards greater electrification lately, with VW announcing plans to build a giant electric car factory and a goal of 25 percent of its sales to be electric cars by 2025. BMW has also been talking recently about future EV plans, and has hinted that a new prototype will be shown this week.

Volvo’s not-a-car display plans. (Photo: Volvo Car Group)

One new car I’m not looking for at the show: a new Volvo. In an odd move, Volvo has sent out a press release touting that they will have no cars displayed during the press days of the show. While obviously a publicity stunt, this does highlight an emerging trend in the automotive industry, the move from automotive companies solely focused on building cars to the more nebulous concept of “mobility”. Automakers are now involved in car sharing services, bike shares, and automated drive systems. The future of transportation and mobility could possibly change quickly over the next decade with advancements in automated cars and shared vehicles. However, no matter who (or what) is driving and how the vehicle is owned, the key themes remain: that we need to have more efficient vehicles, and we need to switch from petroleum to low-carbon fuels like renewable electricity as soon as possible.

Car companies talking cleaner cars while pushing for rollback of vital standards

At the same time that many of the auto companies are talking about plans for more efficient and electrified vehicles, they (either individually or through their trade associations) are asking for a rollback of fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards. Automakers are caught between the need to reassure investors that they are ready for the switch from gasoline to electricity both here and abroad, and the desire for short-term profits from selling inefficient gasoline cars and trucks now.

While electric cars are clearly the future, in the near-term most of the models at the show (and on dealers’ lots) will continue to be gasoline-powered. This is why we need both progress on electric vehicles AND strong standards that increase the efficiency of gasoline cars, which will continue to make up the majority of sales over the coming decade. Rolling back vehicle standards will both slow electric vehicle adoption and needlessly increase emissions and petroleum consumption from conventional vehicles. Given what we now know about the impact of climate change on our economy, infrastructure and health, rolling back vehicle standards is unconscionable. The auto companies need to stop directly and indirectly supporting attacks on the standards and instead focus on accelerating progress towards cleaner and more efficient cars and trucks.

Photo: Tracey Adams/Flickr Source: IHS Markit

Hope and a 250-mile Bike Ride Through Colorado with a Mother-Daughter Duo

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Melissa and Natalie Valentin are a mother-daughter duo devoted to sports and biking for the planet. But, with wildfires raging across the West and a president actively reversing our country’s progress on climate change, they have been finding it very hard to be hopeful about the future of the planet lately. Rather than give in to climate despair, they joined Climate Ride Colorado in order to meet other inspiring riders and to become a part of the Climate Ride community. They were looking to reinvigorate their optimism and activism by raising money for charities working on climate (one antidote to a lack of spending on our government’s part) and surrounding themselves by similarly committed activists. The week of mother-daughter time was supposed to be icing on that cake.

Activism runs in the family for the Valentins.

Both mother and daughter have made climate change a focus in their lives. Natalie has attended a number of community-organized conferences on the intersections between gentrification and environmental issues, and how we can make sure cities include ALL neighborhoods in sustainability initiatives. She has also worked in a variety of environmental fields – energy efficiency, environmental stewardship, environmental education, and sustainable food systems. Natalie studied Environmental Policy, and channeled her drive into organizing city-wide beach cleans in Chile, leading groups of volunteers on trail building projects in the San Juans, and selling energy efficiency solutions to building owners. Then she heard a few colleagues rave about their experiences with Climate Ride, so she decided to give it a go and convinced her mom to join her!

Melissa has made science her career and like many scientists in the US, she has been scrambling to replace climate change research funding that has been stalled or eliminated. She researches the effects of climate change on watersheds in cold regions and consults with businesses to help them understand how their operations are impacted by weather and climate change. This lack of funding interrupts critical ongoing research and careers. The administration’s budget plan for 2019 includes cuts to funding for environmental projects and research that is 70% below the average spending of the previous administration according to the New York Times. While some hope that Congress will mitigate these cuts as they did for 2018, overall, spending for environmental research and especially climate change is decreasing rapidly despite the growing impact of climate change.

Melissa is acutely aware of how climate change is having a dramatic impact on Western US forests and watersheds.

Because of her scientific background and career, she has been tracking the effects of climate change. According to Melissa, starting around 2002, warmer winters enabled bark beetles in the Rocky Mountains to overwinter, and longer summers enabled them to double their reproduction rate. This, combined with forest stress caused by a multi-year drought, led to an unprecedented bark beetle outbreak that decimated Rocky Mountain forests. The West is experiencing larger and more frequent wildfires, associated with drier and hotter summers. As of four days before the start of Climate Ride Colorado, much of the route was under an air quality advisory due to wildfires. Fortunately, due to a weather change, much of the smoke cleared out, but smoke-free summers and falls have become less common across the West.

Additionally, the timing of streamflow that originates in the snow-dominated headwaters of Colorado is changing, with more winter rain and earlier snowmelt. Ski resorts in Colorado are diversifying to include warm-season recreational activities due to the shorter ski season. The effect of climate change in Alaska (the focus of Melissa’s research) is even more profound because temperature rise there is four times greater than the global average, causing a dramatic loss of glacier ice and permafrost. Meltwater from Alaska’s glaciers are important contributors to sea level rise, and salmon may be impacted as glacial meltwater changes the timing and quantity of streamflow. As permafrost thaws, infrastructure becomes unstable, soil dries out, hydrologic pathways change, and previously stored carbon is released to the atmosphere. That’s why Melissa decided to get back on her bike after a long break and raise money to combat climate change. She rode to support the Union of Concerned Scientists because, as she put it “they stand up for integrity in science, policy, and democracy.”

Natalie has put a lot of energy into working against the outsized impact of climate change on our most vulnerable communities. She knows resiliency planning is critical to ensure that everyone in our communities, not just those with the most money or political sway, will have access to healthy food, water, and pollution-free neighborhoods. According to the UN, “Families living in poverty systematically occupy the least desirable land to damage from climate hazards, such as mudslides, periods of abnormally hot water, water contamination and flooding. Climate change has the potential to worsen their situation and thereby worsen pre-existent inequalities. ” That’s why Natalie chose to ride on behalf of Denver Food Rescue. DFR’s bike-powered volunteers rescue fresh produce from grocery stores and community gardens and deliver it to No Cost Grocery Programs in 20 underserved neighborhoods. They pull this off with only 3 full-time staff thanks to their resourcefulness and an army of dedicated volunteers. Their Board of Directors is comprised of residents of their partner communities, which ensures that food justice and health equity stay central to their mission, alongside the environmental impact of reducing food waste.

Without change, these cycles of dryer summers, more fire, and invasive species will continue to become more severe. That reality alongside a diminished effort on the part of our government institutions is enough to drive most of us towards despair. But motivation and hope weren’t the only obstacles that Melissa and Natalie faced in taking on this 250-mile ride with 20,000 feet of vertical gain up and down the rocky mountains.

These intrepid bikers also overcame physical and mental blocks to get ready for Climate Ride Colorado.

In May, Natalie tore a tendon in her wrist while rock climbing. Her doctors said the injury would take 4-5 months to heal completely and prevented her from riding for a number of weeks. For a while, she was constrained to stationary bikes where she could rest on her forearms instead of gripping the handlebars while training. With the help of a burly wrist brace and an awesome occupational therapist, she got back on her bike at the end of June, giving her just about a month of on-the-road training for the ride. She’s developed a goofy tan line from her brace, but she feels it’s worth it.

Melissa also saw the ride as a way to overcome a fear of biking that followed a serious bike crash in 2013. Before she started training for Climate Ride Colorado, just the thought of biking downhill made her re-experience the crash and brought her to tears. But her drive to raise awareness and money for climate research pushed her past her fear. She knows how crucial that work is, and felt it was more important than her fear of biking. After easing back into riding, she is happy to report that she is totally at ease on her bike again.

Building a community around the fight for our climate keeps us rolling even when the climb looks too steep.

Both mother and daughter told us that community was something they hoped to find on Climate Ride before they left. They were hoping to meet “other people who are willing to work hard and volunteer their time to raise money for environmental research.” Being connected to a wider community advocating for climate research and support of environmental non-profits helps lift the tide of hope when things are looking bleak. Everyone here at Climate Ride knows the power in this community every time we go out on one of our events, but we’re always hopeful that riders have the same experience.

Originally posted on Climate Ride, September 14, 2018. 

Melissa McShea Valentin currently works at 2100 and researches how climate change may impact natural resources and organizations.

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.


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