Combined UCS Blogs

The Trump Administration’s Hostility Toward Independent Expert Advice Spirals Out of Control

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Shealah Craighead/The White House

Since day one, the Trump Administration has been actively ignoring its own scientists, external experts, and seeking advice from the wrong people. Now, President Trump has further waged war on expert advice by ordering the federal government to rid itself of one-third of its 1,057 advisory committees, getting down to a maximum of 350 advisory committees before September 30th.

Take a minute to process that. Over the course of a little over three months, all agencies will have to arbitrarily decide to get rid of panels that have historically provided valuable advice on a range of issues, not just on scientific matters. The Trump Administration dropped this order on a Friday afternoon in a clear attempt to remain under the radar but this utterly inane policy needs to be called out for what it is: pure dreck. Here’s why:

It’s completely arbitrary

In line with many of the policy decisions that have come from this administration, this order is 100% arbitrary. It appears to be taking a hatchet to the federal advisory system not because there’s a need to cut costs but simply because it can.

Perhaps the best example of this in this order is the maximum number of committees for the government. Why one-third of advisory committees? Why this 350 number? Did President Trump pull this number out of a hat? Does he like the way the number looks or sounds? Your guess is as good as mine.

It escalates a pattern of abandoning science advice

Next, the order requires that agencies terminate committees for which the mission is complete, the work is now obsolete or replaced by another body, or in which the costs outweigh the benefits. What the order of course fails to mention is that agencies already do annual reporting and make decisions about whether a committee’s job is done. The thing is—a good portion of federal advisory committees focus on perennial issues for which there will almost always certainly be a need for expert advice, from animal health to transit safety. How exactly are agencies expected to count the largely unquantifiable benefits of these committees? This is made even more ridiculous when you consider that many advisory committees have been failing to meet and to do the work that’s included in their charters since the Trump administration began. Perhaps the administration was playing the long game, first neglecting its advisors and then moving into phase two of its master plan to use the neglect as a data point to remove the committees altogether.

It’s bad math

The numbers don’t add up. This order does not apply to committees that are authorized by statute or created by presidential order, but does apply to those that are authorized by law (but not required) or were created by agency discretion. This means that the EPA’s Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee are theoretically excluded. However, according to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) database, in 2018 there were almost 600 committees authorized by statute and 425 authorized by law or through agency authority.

It seems like no one devising this scheme even took a look at the data that exists on federal advisory committees because if they did, they would know that the one-third rule and getting to 350 committees that aren’t statutorily required doesn’t work with the current exclusions. Then again, this administration cares little for actual data and facts so it’s not surprising it failed to consult experts as this executive order was drafted.

It’s not equitable

This order will hit the agencies with the most advisory committees hardest because they will be faced with the burden of doing cost/benefit analyses and making impossible-to-make decisions about which committees to cut. For example, the US Department of Health and Human Services has 50 grant review panels, so those would be theoretically exempted from this order, but they also have 93 scientific panels including 27 different Boards of Scientific Counselors for a range of public health issues, from drug abuse to occupational health.

How exactly should HHS prioritize some issues that are deserving of independent science advice and others that are not? This is a choice they shouldn’t have to make.

It has a carve-out for private industry

The other exemption in the order is for committees “whose primary purpose is to provide scientific expertise to support agencies making decisions related to the safety or efficacy of products to be marketed to American consumers.” In other words, committees that determine drug or other product safety and are essential in getting products to market in a timely fashion, are considered beneficial enough to keep around but committees that serve other functions could face the chopping block. The administration is choosing to protect committees that help expedite profits of private industry and dole out research money, but spares the committees that provide advice on other government decisions.

If not thousands of experts, then who?

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this proposal is that the result of shedding thousands of independent experts on 700 advisory committees will be that the Administration will seek advice from individuals that have no business consulting the government (case in point: Myron Ebell) or no one at all to help policymakers make decisions on complex issues.

This is not just an affront to science, because these advisory committees advise on more than just science issues. This is an attack on the way that facts and verified information feed into our government. Its very premise threatens our democracy. We will fight it tooth and nail.

Shealah Craighead/The White House

Hurricane Florence Lessons Underscore Need for the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2019

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High waters surround homes and businesses in the small town of Bucksport, S.C. as rivers continue to rise and flooded areas expand as a result of Hurricane Florence, Sept. 24, 2018. Photo: US Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Jorge Intriago

The 2019 hurricane season is now upon us, nine months after Hurricane Florence caused devastating flooding in the Carolinas. And this comes at a time when the Midwest and Southeast are reeling from heavy rains and flooding. Yesterday the House Financial Services Committee unanimously passed a bill to reform and reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program. Here’s why those reforms are critical, informed by lessons from Hurricane Florence.

In some places, the historic rainfall accompanying that storm was more than double the rainfall from Hurricane Matthew, which hit North Carolina two years prior. The highest rainfall from Florence was recorded in Elizabethtown, NC, at 35.9 inches. The endless rain-filled days caused catastrophic, long-lived flooding far inland and widespread damages.  53 people lost their lives and there were $24.2 billion dollars in damages.

While the forecasts were remarkably accurate, the sobering reality was that many people were still unaware of the risk or did not have the resources to evacuate.

Congress has a critical opportunity now to reform the National Flood Insurance Program

While there are many solutions needed at the local, state, and federal levels, Congress has the opportunity to take lessons learned from Hurricane Florence (and other disasters) to reform critical pieces of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Established 50 years ago, NFIP was designed to provide flood insurance to properties at risk of significant flooding and to reduce overall flood risk primarily through a community’s adoption of floodplain management standards as well as mapping flood risk.

After 12 short-term NFIP reauthorizations, it was welcome news when this week the Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), introduced H.R. 3167, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2019. We applaud Chairwoman Waters and the Committee for their bipartisan efforts to reauthorize the program for five years and make critically important improvements in many areas (see this link for a section by section summary). The bill was passed unanimously out of the committee 59-0.

What are some of the lessons we can learn from recent hurricanes and other flood events that underscore the need for the reforms proposed in the House bill?

Lesson #1:  Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must adequately map and communicate flood risk

My colleague Juan Declet-Barreto estimated how much flooding from Hurricane Florence occurred outside of FEMA’s designated Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) and the moderate flood area (the 1-percent or 1/100 annual chance and the 0.2-percent or 1/500 annual chance flood).

In three out of the 10 counties in South Carolina (30 percent), more than 50 percent of the flooding occurred outside FEMA flood zones. In 28 out of the 49 North Carolina counties that were flooded (57 percent), more than half of the flooding was outside the FEMA flood zones.

We found that overall, more than half of the flooding from Hurricane Florence in North Carolina and South Carolina occurred outside of FEMA’s designated 1-percent and 0.2-percent flood zones. Clearly, FEMA’s 1-percent and 0.2-percent flood zones are not adequately communicating flood risks. A national study found similar results: the US population is exposed to serious flooding 2.6 to 3.1 times more than previous estimates and that both population and GDP growth will increase exposure in the future and that this change will be exacerbated by climate change. This means that a large percentage of people were likely unaware of their flood risk and therefore did not buy flood insurance, or were not required to buy flood insurance.

When it comes to recovery, this amounts to a “double whammy”—both not knowing one’s own flood risk and not having the insurance to recover from property loss.

That is not a surprise when we consider that many of FEMA’s flood maps are outdated. In the Carolinas, for example, in many flood-prone areas, FEMA’s flood maps have not been updated in 20 to 40 years. In addition, FEMA maps are not taking into account future changes in conditions such as tidal flooding due to sea level rise and increases in extreme precipitation events, as well as growing development in floodplains and demographic shifts.

Last year, Carolyn Kousky with the Wharton Risk Center at University of Pennsylvania laid out five reasons why the nation fails to communicate flood risk. It comes down to the fact that we’re not indicating the true flood risk to homeowners and renters in ways that people can easily access it, understand the risk, and act on reducing their risk.

How does the House bill help to improve flood risk mapping and communication?
  • Funding. Sec. 201 of the House bill (H.R. 3167) would authorize $500 million per year over five years to expand flood mapping coverage and update flood mapping such that it incorporated future flood risk. The funding and incorporation of future flood risk are critically important provisions to improve the accuracy and communication of flood risk nationwide.
  • Urban flood Study. Sec. 203, the “Flood Mapping Modernization and Homeowner Empowerment Pilot Program,” would create a pilot program to improve mapping and assessment of urban flood risk.
  • Transparent risk disclosure and communication. Chairwoman Waters’ manager’s amendment includes “Sharing Access of and to Information,” which ensures that private insurance companies must share their policy claims and damages to FEMA so that FEMA and US taxpayers can have a full picture of flood insurance coverage, damage assessments, and claims. It also includes a provision that allows homeowners access to NFIP and private flood insurance policy claim information so that any homeowner can know the true flood risk of the property and any flood insurance claims made on the property. We know that across the nation, the disclosure laws vary state by state. The first step to becoming better prepared for the next flood is for a property owner to understand his or her risk. That’s why we enthusiastically support this section of the manager’s amendment.
Lesson #2:  Congress and FEMA must increase the coverage of flood insurance across the nation

A recent study estimated the percent of people who did not have flood insurance during five recent disaster events and found that between 60 and 99 percent did not have flood insurance. Additional Hurricane Florence analysis estimates that fewer that 10 percent of households affected by Florence in North and South Carolina were likely to have had federal flood insurance. Without that insurance, flood victims will receive less funding for repairs and the assistance will come more slowly.

There are many reasons why so few people buy flood insurance, including:

  • Many homeowners mistakenly believe their homeowners insurance or renter insurance covers damages due to flooding.
  • As our analysis and other analysis indicates, the current FEMA designated flood zones on the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) provide a false sense of security for those people who are outside of the designated 1-percent and 0.2 percent flood zones.
  • People with low to moderate incomes living in the nation’s floodplains are less likely to be able to afford flood insurance.
  • Some insurance policies don’t reflect actual flood risk because rates are kept artificially low for many reasons, including grandfathered provisions.

Unfortunately, those without flood insurance will have less resources to recover after a disaster like Hurricane Florence. According to FEMA’s Deputy Administrator Peter Gaynor, the average payout after Hurricane Harvey for emergency disaster assistance was approximately $3,000, while the average payout for flood insurance holders was more than $117,000 (for a list of average claims from 1980 to 2017, follow this link).

Given the widespread and devastating impacts from Hurricane Florence, many counties in both states were eligible for federal disaster assistance. To date, North Carolina has received $1.3 billion in federal disaster assistance while South Carolina received $73.8 million in federal assistance. We know that every dollar helps but recall that only roughly 10 percent of the people in the Carolinas had flood insurance, and that flood insurance payout provides a larger pot of funds for an individual to recover compared to those who solely rely on disaster assistance.

How does the House bill make positive strides to increase flood insurance coverage?
  • Community-Based Insurance Pilot program. Sec. 305 establishes a Voluntary Community-Based Flood Insurance Pilot Program which is a notion that has gained attention over the years and would be one single policy that a local government would purchase that covers a designated group of properties. This is one way to enhance widespread insurance coverage and increase community resilience while also potentially offering lower insurance premium rates.
  • Studies.
    • Sec. 404 requires FEMA to study flood insurance participation rates so that we can know how well the different provisions are helping to increase coverage.
    • While Sec. 405 requires a study on how to increase flood insurance participation. The amended version expands this to provide an even more robust study.
Lesson #3:  Congress must act to provide affordable insurance for the most vulnerable

Most of the counties flooded by Florence in North Carolina, as well as the 10 counties flooded in South Carolina, rank high in measures of “social vulnerability” as assessed by socioeconomic and demographic factors. Congress must ensure an affordability provision is included in the NFIP reauthorization to increase access to insurance in vulnerable communities—arguably the hardest hit by events like Florence.

How does the House bill help to ensure flood insurance is affordable? The House bill would establish the following:
  • An affordability pilot program. Sec. 102 of the House bill establishes a Demonstration Program for Policy Affordability. Much work (FEMA, Government Accountability Office, and the National Academy of Sciences Report 1 and Report 2) has been done to understand how Congress could establish an affordability program within NFIP. This is a first step to provide a means-tested approach that would decouple the subsidy from the property and instead attach it to the policyholder base on the financial need. This pilot program will help provide access to affordable flood insurance while also communicating the actual flood risk to property owners. The pilot program also requires a report back to Congress so FEMA, Congress, and the public can learn what worked and what can be improved upon.
  • Monthly premium payments. Sec. 104 would establish Monthly Installment Payment of Premiums to allow policy holders to pay monthly payments instead of one lump sum.
  • Inclusion of replacement cost. The House manager’s amendment includes an important provision that would help to ensure affordable insurance rates by allowing FEMA to take into account the replacement cost of a property when determining premium rates.
  • Resources for flood risk reduction measures. A number of sections of the bill would help property owners and communities reduce their flood risk, which could help to reduce a property owner’s flood insurance premium:
    • Sec. 105 would establish a State Revolving Loan Funds for Flood Mitigation, which will provide states with funding for flood risk reduction measures including elevation or relocation. This will also help low to moderate income property owners to become more resilient and could help to reduce their flood insurance rate.
    • Sec. 301 would establish an increase in the Increased Cost of Compliance program from $30,000 to $60,000 which will help a property owner, particularly a low- to moderate-income owner, cover the cost of mitigating a substantially damaged building.
    • Sec. 306 provides $200 million each year for five years for the pre-disaster hazard mitigation program, which will help reduce flood risk through different mitigation measures such as elevating a home above the base flood or buying out a property that is repeatedly flooded to keep that in permanent open space.
Next steps toward long-term, holistic NFIP reauthorization

We applaud Chairwoman Waters and the House Financial Services Committee for offering a bill that brings bipartisan efforts on critically important changes to NFIP. While the House bill provides numerous and badly needed improvements, a few outstanding issues include:

  • A provision that ensures the private insurance sector helps to sustain the multiple functions of the NFIP flood risk management functions by including a fee to help support mapping and mitigation measures specifically (learn more on why this is important).
  • A forgiveness of FEMA’s debt to the US Treasury in order to limit FEMA’s costly interest payments. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report from 2017 underscores why forgiving the debt makes sense and recommends options such as setting a certain threshold above which any additional claims would be paid from the general fund. However, debt forgiveness must only happen in concert with critical program reforms that ensure a more sound financial footing, as the House bill proposes.
  • While the House bill makes many strides in supporting studies, mapping, and mitigation measures that will be needed in a changing climate, over the longer term, it is important for the program to more clearly reflect the growing flood risks from climate change and other factors.

The amended National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2019 will move the nation towards better flood risk management, disclosure, mapping, insurance rating, affordability, and coverage as well as consumer protection. We applaud the leadership of the House Financial Services Committee for unanimously passing the bill out of committee.

We urge the full House and the Senate to be steadfast in enacting legislation that moves these critical reforms forward while reauthorizing the NFIP for five years. It’s time to learn from the lessons from the past. The House bill makes sure that when it come to the devastating impacts from flood events, as a nation, we’ll be better informed and ready for the next flood event. And that’s something to celebrate.

Photo: US Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Jorge Intriago

Here’s Why New York Should Pass the CCPA

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Photo: Zach Miles/Unsplash

New York State is on the verge of passing one of the nation’s most ambitious economy-wide climate laws.

The Community and Climate Protection Act, or CCPA, would not only require New York to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2040, but also pave the way for the complete transition of New York’s economy to clean energy. The CCPA is the result of years of work by grassroots activists and leaders within the New York Renews coalition, demonstrating that with persistence and determination, momentum on the ground has the potential to achieve big things in climate policy.

Ensuring that New York is on a path to becoming a national climate leader is not only about the future – it’s about today, too. New Yorkers are already feeling the impacts across the state, from superstorms to extreme heat. With each passing year of inaction, we face increasingly dire threats from climate change.

Elected officials in Albany have only a handful of days left before the end of this legislative session, but we cannot afford to wait another year before ensuring that New York has a climate law on the books. If New York succeeds in passing this historic legislation, it will be critical that state officials take a hard look at the largest and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions: transportation.

Tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks, and buses are the largest source of pollution in New York, as it is throughout the United States, and is responsible for 43% of New York’s climate emissions. Transportation is also a leading source of particulate matter and other forms of toxic air pollution that harm the health of our communities every day, particularly communities near highways and ports.

Implementation of the CCPA must therefore include a big-picture vision for how New York builds a clean, modern transportation system that works for everyone. Here’s what we believe to be the essential components of that vision:

We should electrify everything

Electric vehicles (EVs) are here, and they are increasingly available in all models and vehicle classes. Electric vehicles are also awesome. It’s a better mousetrap. Electric engines use energy far more efficiently, which means a great automotive experience with lower costs for consumers. They have fewer moving parts, which mean lower maintenance costs and greater longevity. By plugging into the grid and managing EV charging strategically, we can power EVs with renewable energy, make our electric grid more efficient, and help facilitate the transition to renewable energy.

But the better mousetrap doesn’t always win in the constrained market for vehicles. Gasoline and diesel vehicles still have major market advantages, in terms of infrastructure, consumer expectations, and upfront vehicle cost. Transitioning the 11 million vehicles operating in New York to electric vehicles will be a challenge that requires more ambitious policies. We need to build out the infrastructure that makes keeping an EV fully charged even more convenient than filling up at a gas station. We need to expand incentives to reduce the upfront vehicle cost for consumers, especially low- and moderate-income consumers and rural residents who currently cannot afford an EV. And we need to do more to make the buying of an EV a simple and easy process for consumers.

Electric vehicles are not only a solution for passenger vehicles, but also for heavy duty vehicles such as buses and trucks. We commend New York City for their commitment to achieve the complete electrification of their transit bus fleet by 2040 and we encourage other cities and RTAs operating in New York to make similar commitments. New funding from New York State could help transit agencies and fleet operators replace diesel engines with zero-emission alternatives, which in turn would help reduce fuel and maintenance costs and improve service for riders.

We should invest in alternatives to driving, through improved public and active transportation

Electrification alone cannot solve all the problems impacting New York’s transportation system. We also need to do more to provide New Yorkers with alternatives to driving, through enhanced public transportation, and improved infrastructure for walking, biking, and micromobility solutions such as electric scooters.

This year the legislature took a big step toward improving public transportation in the New York City metro area by approving congestion pricing and allocating significant new resources to the MTA. But we know that we need to do more to fully fund the national treasure that is the MTA and make it the first-class public transportation system New York City needs and deserves. And we also know that we need to do much more to improve public transportation services throughout the state. All New Yorkers deserve to be able to get where they need to go without a car, regardless of where they live.

We should build more affordable housing near public transportation

Issues of transportation emissions and congestion are inextricably linked to housing and land use. People want to live in neighborhoods that have strong public transportation services – if they can afford it. But for many low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, finding affordable housing close to public transportation is impossible. Expanding public transportation services to new communities without investing in affordable housing can inadvertently encourage gentrification. Climate policy in New York should look to expand the production of permanently affordable housing near public transportation so that more New Yorkers can get to work and the places they need to go without driving.

Solutions should focus on communities shouldering the greatest burdens from transportation pollution

Pollution from transportation impacts all communities in New York, but the communities suffering under the weight of the greatest burdens are those near major traffic corridors, highways, and ports. These impacts fall disproportionately hard on communities of color. For example, in the Bronx, where over 70% of the population is non-white, over 20% of children have asthma and the rate of asthma-related deaths is over three times the national average. We believe that the current CCPA language directing 40% of funds towards solutions in disadvantaged communities would be a good start and a potential model for other states looking to solve transportation challenges in these communities.

We should create a market-based limit on transportation emissions

The CCPA would also authorize one of the most important tools in achieving limits on emissions from transportation and other sectors: a market-based program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

New York State already participates in one market-based climate program: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI works by setting an overall cap on emissions from power plants, requiring polluters to purchase allowances based on their emissions, and investing the proceeds from those allowance sales in efficiency and clean energy. RGGI, together with other smart programs like the Renewable Energy Standard as well as the switch from coal to gas, has helped put the Northeast region on track to reduce emissions 65% by 2030.

An expansion of this policy model into transportation fuels could create an enforceable limit on overall emissions from transportation and provide one source of funding for the investments we need in clean vehicles, public transportation, and affordable housing.

Our regional partners are at work on a policy that would build on the success of RGGI. Last December, nine states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic along with Washington DC made a commitment to design a market-based program similar to RGGI, covering transportation fuels through the Transportation and Climate Initiative. The CCPA would authorize New York State to join this important initiative.

Enact the CCPA

This is the time to act.

It has taken activists and champions years to get to this point, but today the Governor, the Senate and the Assembly have all indicated their support for ambitious and comprehensive climate legislation this session. It is important to get the details right, but it is also important to get this legislation done so that that hard work of implementing the CCPA can begin.

Photo: Zach Miles/Unsplash

What Will DTE’s Electricity Future Look Like?

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DTE wind energy facility in Huron County, MI Photo: James Gignac

On June 20th, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) is holding a public forum and information session on an important electricity planning process involving DTE Energy’s electric subsidiary.

This is a key opportunity for residents and business owners to learn about—and share their views and input on—DTE’s long-term proposals for fulfilling customers’ electricity needs.

As Michigan’s largest electric utility, DTE provides electricity to 2.2 million customers in southeastern Michigan. Through a combination of coal, nuclear, gas, hydroelectric pumped storage, and renewable resources, DTE has the capacity to generate over 11,000 megawatts of power.

 Flickr/Tgrab

DTE’s Belle River Power Plant in East China, MI Photo: Flickr/Tgrab

While DTE has taken positive steps by announcing a carbon reduction goal in 2018 and shuttering some of its oldest coal-fired power plants, two of its coal plants have been listed in the top 100 greenhouse gas polluters nationwide. The Monroe and Belle River plants together spewed 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere in 2014.

DTE’s Risky Gas Plant Investment

In December 2016, Michigan enacted wide-ranging energy legislation that included a requirement for utilities to develop and submit integrated resource plans, which are intended to be robust studies into the best resources for providing power needs to customers in the future.

DTE, however, sought approval to build a large new gas-fired power plant after the legislation passed but before the integrated resource planning requirement kicked in.

Gas plants are not clean resources and investing in them is a risky proposition for electric utilities. Union of Concerned Scientists and other advocates showed that the cost to build a portfolio of clean energy resources was about $340 million less than the cost to build and run DTE’s proposed $1 billion gas plant.

Unfortunately, the MPSC approved DTE’s gas plant project in April 2018.

An Opportunity for a New Direction

Now that the integrated resource plan requirement is in effect and DTE has longer-term proposals before the MPSC, it is crucial to ensure the company is retiring additional coal plants quickly and replacing them with clean energy resources—not more gas.

Another large Michigan utility, Consumers Energy, filed its integrated resource plan last year that was just approved by the MPSC. Consumers’ plan includes a phase-out of all its coal plants, replacing them with clean energy resources such as energy efficiency, demand response, and a large increase in solar power.

In its integrated resource plan filing, DTE is currently proposing to retire its Belle River and Monroe coal-fired power plants in 2030 and 2040, respectively. The MPSC must closely examine whether continuing to operate these plants for that long is in the best interests of ratepayers. Additionally, DTE’s plans to increase solar power are mostly delayed until after 2025. Earlier investments in solar could avoid the potential need to build another expensive and risky gas plant contemplated in some of the company’s future scenarios.

Stakeholders, residents, and business owners have an opportunity to make their voices heard to the MPSC on June 20th. Let’s make sure DTE moves away from coal and gas and toward a clean energy future for Michigan.

Winning at Climate Change: an Arctic and Boreal story

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Climate change is definitely not a competition, but if it were, arctic tundra and boreal forests would be crushing it by getting hotter and changing faster than the rest of the world.

 

Due to a phenomenon called Arctic amplification, these ecosystems are warming alarmingly fast, at twice the rate of other global ecosystems.

Boreal forest extent shaded in green (Riccardo Pravettoni, UNEP/GRID-Arenda) and conservative projections of climate warming. Note the overlap of increased warming with arctic and boreal zones ( IPCC AR5)

But these ecosystems also store huge amounts of carbon in soil and permafrost (aka frozen, ancient soil), more than twice the carbon that is currently in the atmosphere. As these ecosystems heat up, this carbon becomes increasingly vulnerable to microbial decomposition and release to the atmosphere. That in turn exacerbates warming, creating a feedback loop where warming begets carbon loss begets warming etc.

Global carbon storage, notice how the darker colors (indicating the most soil carbon) are mostly in boreal/arctic regions, Riccardo Pravettoni, UNEP/GRID-Arenda

So not only are these ecosystems winning at climate change by feeling the brunt of climate impacts,  when it comes to carbon and the potential to release even more global warming gases to the atmosphere, they also have the most to lose.

Boreal Forests at Risk

The Arctic, as a geographic region (above 66°N), has received well deserved attention as of late. Record breaking sea ice loss is eroding coastlines, devastating communities, and may even be contributing to the recent spike in Gray whale deaths. The Arctic has also become a defining example of US climate inaction and deception, with the Trump administration lauding warming temperatures in the region as good for business and burying important scientific material when making decisions about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Arctic sea ice loss, NOAA

And while the Arctic deserves all the attention it receives and more, coverage about ice, tundra and coastlines don’t do the region justice, when it also includes carbon rich boreal forests. These forests (some of which are IN the Arctic circle) play an equally important role in global carbon dynamics and are experiencing many of the same ecological and climatological impacts (namely permafrost thaw, species shifts, and carbon loss). But like Kelly and Michelle in Destiny’s Child (#RecycledJokes), the importance of boreal forests is largely overlooked, even though its fate is critical to our future climate.

Boreal forests, also called taiga, are dominated by coniferous and deciduous species like pine, fir, spruce, larch, birch, alder, and willow. Interspersed within these forested ecosystems are bogs and wetlands that create a rich mosaic of habitat on the landscape. Boreal zones are also home to many iconic species like salmon, grizzly bears, wolves, and moose, not to mention iconic locales like Denali National Park in Alaska.

Permafrost Failure

For millennia, boreal forests have been carbon sinks, taking up more carbon than they released. This is primarily due to the fact that, in such cold temperatures and harsh conditions, plants take up more CO2 than microbes break down and release back to the atmosphere, leading to the large accumulations of below ground carbon that we see now.

Much of this carbon is now locked away as permafrost, which is precisely what it sounds like – permanently frozen ground. It underlays most of the boreal forest (as seen below), and stores HUGE amounts of carbon. It’s made of ice, rocks, and soil, with soil being where the bulk of the carbon in these ecosystems is stored.  Permafrost can be “continuous” – i.e. frozen all year round – or discontinuous – where patches of permafrost are interspersed with non-permafrost (but still carbon rich) soil.

Permafrost extent in arctic & boreal areas, State of the Carbon Cycle 2, Ch. 11

In both types, we’ve also observed an uptick in permafrost failures, known as thermokarst. Rapidly thawing permafrost visibly disturbs the landscape by destabilizing what would be solid ground, causing depressions, slumps and thermokarst lakes. As permafrost melts, shallow root systems and loss of solid ground can cause some boreal tree species to tilt or even fall over, leading to the appearance of drunken trees.

Drunk and failing: permafrost, it’s just like us! #relatable, photo on left – National Park Service, photo on right Sarah Ludwig with river bank thermokarst in Siberia, photo courtesy of Woods Hole Research Center

These visible changes to boreal forests are important reminders of how climate change can modify our ecosystems. However, the unseen consequences of permafrost thaw are far more insidious, because these failures expose huge amounts of ancient carbon to microbial decomposition.

Invisible Threat

So as temperatures rise and microbes begin to feast on newly available carbon, boreal forests may be shifting from a sink to a source, and thus releasing more carbon to the atmosphere than plants take up.

Boreal forests (and their vast stores of carbon) are also under threat from wildfires and lightning strikes. Wildfires affect the largest land area of any disturbance in boreal forests, and are projected to increase in frequency and size with continued climate warming.

Boreal ecosystems are also under threat from increased localized lightning strikes due to climate change. As lightning strikes increase, so do wildfires which send massive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and black particulate matter into the atmosphere AND increase rates of permafrost thaw. Just like arctic warming can impact weather patterns around the globe, carbon released from these ecosystems will also have a global impact.

Boreal and arctic regions are harbingers of climate change to come for the rest of the world. Their fate not only serves as the opening act of our climate drama, but will also play a key role in regulating the intensity and extent of impacts throughout the rest of the world.

While these ecosystems may be breaking temperature records, and topping the charts for climate change impacts, if they keep winning, we all lose.

NASA

Chevron Evades Questions About its History of Climate Disinformation

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On May 29, I joined Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) at the annual Chevron shareholder meeting in San Ramon, California. There, I asked the company’s CEO, Michael Wirth, about

Dr. Benjamin Franta is a PhD Candidate at the Stanford University Department of History and a JD Candidate at Stanford Law School. He has a PhD in Applied Physics from Harvard University and is a former Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Chevron’s past and present promotion of climate disinformation.

Documents continue to be uncovered showing the internal knowledge fossil fuel companies had of the harm their products would do to global climate. Two reports in particular — one from Exxon in 1982 and another from Shell in 1988 — stand out for their detailed predictions of global warming and its consequences.

Chevron Knew About “Globally Catastrophic Effects”

Although ExxonMobil has received the most attention for its early knowledge of climate science (spawning the hashtag #ExxonKnew), the entire petroleum industry knew its products would cause global warming.

In 1959, the physicist Edward Teller warned the industry about global warming in a keynote address. In 1965, the President of the American Petroleum Institute (API) followed with a warning of his own.

By 1968, the API was commissioning scientists to write private reports assessing the problem, and by the end of the 1970s, the trade association had established a committee to monitor climate science. That committee was warned of “globally catastrophic effects” by the middle of the 21st century if fossil fuel production continued to expand. Chevron’s precursor companies were members of the API and had this information.

Industry Disinformation Campaign

Despite knowing that its products had dangerous side effects, the industry didn’t warn the government or the public.

And when, in the late 1980s, governments around the world began proposing policies to avert climate change by reducing fossil fuel use, fossil fuel interests coordinated with each other to form the Global Climate Coalition, which spread disinformation about climate science and blocked climate policies for over a decade.

Chevron’s precursors, including Texaco and Unocal, were members of the Global Climate Coalition, along with industry-wide trade associations such as the API.

Chevron and other fossil fuel producers knew their products would cause the climate change damages we’re now experiencing, such as sea level rise, drought, and flooding. First, these companies failed to warn the public despite studying the problem privately. Then, they actively denied the problem, spread disinformation, and blocked attempts to prevent the damage –- practices Chevron and its peers continue to this day.

Lawsuits Against Chevron and Other Fossil Fuel Companies

That brings us to lawsuits. A variety of cities, states, and private groups — including New York City, Rhode Island, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations — are bringing suits against fossil fuel companies in order to be compensated for climate-related damages resulting from the industry’s products and corporate behavior.

Chevron is a defendant in at least eight of these suits so far, and more are being filed regularly. These lawsuits expose fossil fuel producers — and their shareholders — to significant liability risks.

My question for Michael Wirth, Chevron’s CEO, was simple: How will the company protect shareholders from its own history of disinformation?

His answer was part avoidance and part additional disinformation. Wirth stated, without rationale, that the growing number of lawsuits facing the company won’t help to address global warming (a claim the plaintiffs presumably disagree with). He then went on to tell shareholders that the suits bring “no new science” and “no new evidence” to the table.

Both claims are false. Attribution science — the epidemiology of climate change — is central to these lawsuits and can causally link Chevron’s products to damages from global warming.

Additionally, historical researchers continue to uncover more and more evidence of industry knowledge, denial, and malfeasance. These two prongs — science and history — proved devastating to Big Tobacco in American courts, and Big Oil may be next. That’s likely why fossil fuel producers are now seeking legal immunity from climate lawsuits in exchange for a small carbon tax.

Chevron’s CEO might be misinformed about these lawsuits. Or he might be lying to shareholders. Either way, it’s not a good look for Chevron.

 

HBO’s Chernobyl: A Fictionalized Representation of the True Horrors of Sidelining Science

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HBO’s new five-episode miniseries “Chernobyl” at the time of this writing is the highest rated TV show on IMDB. I’ll say straight out that the show is a fictionalized account and that I recommend reading Forbes and the New Yorker’s summaries on what the show gets right and wrong. And if you want to know more about the real events of Chernobyl disaster, check out our summary on the topic and our work trying to answer how many cancers resulted from the Chernobyl disaster.

But what got under my skin when I watched the show was how the scientists and politicians interact. Here’s one quote from the show:

“I must tell you– this is why no one likes scientists. When we have a disease to cure, where are they? In a lab. Noses in their books. And so, grandma dies. But when there isn’t a problem? They’re everywhere. Spreading fear.” (episode 2)

And while this scene probably never went down like this in real life (see the New Yorker article), I had to wonder: was there truth ensconced in the fiction? Is it common for scientists to be sidelined by political leaders? While I can’t speak about what exactly happened at Chernobyl, I can certainly speak to the fact that the sidelining of science has occurred for decades in the US, and that it is especially egregious under the current administration.

Why does the TV show feel relevant today?

Incidents like this are not ancient history. Whistleblower protections for scientists are as important today as they were in 1986. And we need to protect our scientists and the science they produce more than ever – science saves lives and political leaders ignore it at their peril. These issues aren’t simply relegated to the Soviet Union, they are happening in the US. Here are some examples of recent attacks on science by the Trump administration, which now number over 100:

  • Ignoring inconvenient scientific truths: The director of US Geological Survey (USGS) ordered scientists to only use climate models that end at 2040, thereby ordering scientists to ignore the worst impacts of climate change.
  • Ignoring scientific evidence of a public health crisis: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has flat-out refused to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a nasty pesticide that decades of science shows can harm the brains of children.
  • Reports buried and ignored by political officials: The White House buried a health study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a chemical class called PFAS (which is super common, it used to be found in Teflon and Scotchgarde) because it was “a potential public relations nightmare.”

While safeguards were put in place at RMBK power plants after the Chernobyl disaster (though it should be noted that wasn’t a perfect solution), the Trump administration has dismantled safeguards put in place at offshore oil rigs after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth”

Again, it should be noted that HBO’s Chernobyl is not a documentary. But the purpose of good fiction is to make you think. And I was definitely thinking.

I was thinking that it angers me that scientists are still being censored today, and that their evidence-based words on issues like asbestos, pesticides, and toxic chemicals are being suppressed and ignored in favor of a more politically-friendly narrative. The science that can save countless lives should never be hushed up simply because it is politically inconvenient.

And so, like the unseen cloud of radiation that erupted from Chernobyl, the current administration’s actions to dismantle science are seeping into our lives and are messing with our health.

Public Domain

One Thing You Can Do to Stand Up for Science This Week

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Today kicks off the National Call Out to Protect Scientific Integrity. And UCS is making it easier than ever for you to stand up for science and help restore science to its rightful place in public health and environmental decision-making. This week (and beyond!), we’re speaking out about the Scientific Integrity Act, legislation that would give federal government scientists the right to share their research publicly and protect science in policy decisions from political manipulation.

The Scientific Integrity Act’s main sponsors, Representative Paul Tonko and Senator Brian Schatz, are building support for the legislation within the House and Senate, and co-sponsors are joining the bill on a regular basis. But legislation won’t move, or even get a hearing, without constituent pressure on Congress to demand legal protections for scientists who work for the federal government, from the EPA to the FDA.

That’s why we’re joining with science, environmental, health, and good government organizations throughout the United States to mobilize thousands of people to call their legislators to urge them to support and move the Scientific Integrity Act through Congress.

We’ve made it incredibly easy for you to take action. We’ve developed a resource guide and series of fact sheets that gives you all the background you need to raise your own voice—and then, if you have time and inclination, to organize others to do the same.

We kicked off this week-long series of engagements with a webinar called Power of a Story: How to Use Your Voice to Advocate for Real Scientific Integrity.”  By replaying the webinar, you’ll learn the current state of play of the legislation and get tips on how to compellingly talk about critical yet abstract issues like this one.

Now, we’re calling on people to do the following:

  • Pick up the phone and call your senators and member of Congress (if you got ‘em!) and urge them to support and help advance the Scientific Integrity Act.
  • Share information about the National Call Out to Protect Scientific Integrity on Twitter (or just retweet me).
  • Write a letter to your local paper about the importance of scientific integrity to public health and the environment, and the importance of your elected officials supporting this legislation.
  • Encourage others to participate by planning an in-person or online event.

All you need to do is raise your hand and commit to taking one step for democracy this week. And once you take action, it is even more helpful to us if you can let us know how it went.

From chemicals in household products to the impacts of climate change, scientists need to be able to follow their research wherever it leads—without political interference—and share their findings honestly with the public. If we demonstrate that the public is paying attention to attacks on science, then Congress is more likely to move this kind of legislation, and presidential candidates—including the current president—are more likely to incorporate scientific integrity standards into the reforms that they are willing to advance.

So again, here’s the Call Out action page, webinar, fact sheet series, and resource guide. This week is critical moment to spark the drumbeat of action needed to move meaningful scientific integrity protections forward. I look forward to people joining this week and invite local advocates who want to take action throughout the summer to reach out to my colleague Paola Salas at UCS. Thanks!

Under Our Noses: PFAS Contamination in Southern Colorado

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I was born an only child in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1979. My father, who is a retired military officer, moved us from coast-to-coast and across the country until we finally returned home in 1989. By the time I was 20, I had traveled and seen parts of the Western world that continue to enrich my life. However, Colorado has always held me safe, secure, and nestled in the Rocky Mountains as I continued to mature into adulthood. The quiet solitude the outdoors here provided me just as much ecological insight as scuba diving in the Grand Caymans or walking along the coasts of Hawaii. Now I’ve seen the delicate balance of nature in Colorado disrupted by devastating wildfires and operations from fracking plus other continued operations of big oil and gas.  

There were a lot of wake-up calls to the United States in 2018. Following my own personal revelations, I emerged from my own cave of isolation as a single parent to learn just how bad things have gotten. Seeing the corruption of facts and scientific evidence in my own local community I started working to illuminate truth in others and grasped what an uphill battle it is.

In January 2019, my formal training as an activist began. As an advocate for Colorado’s environment, one of the first things that truly disturbed me to the core was the contamination of drinking water—which I thought I was well-informed upon regarding my involvements in attempting to ban fracking last year in Colorado. The data in front of me stated that immediately south of Colorado Springs the worst circumstance imaginable was already over and done with, the PFC levels detected in water supplies makes it unfit for human consumption.

Contamination of the Widefield aquifer

Fountain Creek flows through the heart of downtown Colorado Springs, past the Martin Drake Power Plant fueled by coal, south-southeast to the communities of Fountain, Widefield, Security, and others in Southern Colorado. At least 57,000 residents were drinking water from the Widefield Aquifer, which is a paleochannel of Fountain Creek, in a renewable annual supply of nearly four billion gallons. During 2013-2014, as part of regular EPA testing done under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology collected surface and groundwater samples from various areas of Fountain Creek and Sand Creek.

Solid phase extraction followed by high pressure liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry pinpointed the examination of ten separate PFAS compounds of differing lengths and makeups. The data was compiled using ArcGIS software to indicate concentrations along the paths on surface water. This initial study produced conclusions that showed contamination in every area that was sampled, the contamination exceeded the EPA’s advisory of 70 ppt being as high as 320 ppt, and that one of the local United States Air Force (USAF) bases was likely responsible for the contamination. It’s an Air Force base I know well.

Peterson Air Force Base, like other airstrips and airports and institutions throughout the world, has conducted firefighting training for its airmen using aqueous film forming foams since the 1970s. For decades the foam seeped into the Widefield Aquifer. In addition to that, base leaders admitted to disposing of foam-contaminated wastewater directly into the sewers in Colorado Springs three times a year. A report released by the Air Force clearly downplayed their responsibility for this contamination, but they did admit to it.

While the ultimate source of the Widefield Aquifer’s contamination may never be determined, just as the contamination might ever be fully removed, Air Force officials immediately began discussions with local congressional delegates, county commissioners, city staffers, and representatives of environmental agencies plus regional water districts. The Air Force committed to a five-year plan in providing alternative drinking water and funding installations for water treatment. Still, local and state officials have clearly indicated that even the proposed $4.3 million would not be enough to restore the damage done. To this day residents surrounding the Widefield Aquifer don’t trust that the water that comes from the taps in their homes is safe.

New watchdogs emerge

As of July 2017, the United States Air Force no longer uses AFFFs (aqueous film forming foams) as part of an internal mitigation plan. In April 2018 the USAF announced plans for delivering clean water to the impacted residents outlining the installation of filtration systems and purchasing 235 million gallons of drinkable water. Investigations continue in and around Peterson while local and state environmental scientists establish standards to limit contamination of the aquifer to 70 ppt. Water officials and advocates from the towns of Fountain, Security and Widefield continue their efforts in exposing and preventing further water contamination. Their sights are upriver directly at the Martin Drake Plant where its residual coal combines with surface runoff flowing downhill right into Fountain Creek. Also, in downtown Colorado Springs is Colorado College (CC), whose students and faculty are on the front lines of creating a sustainable future. CC’s chemistry students and faculty collaborators are working on an intensive curriculum of analyzing and eventually predicting contamination from surface water flow. All involved have established direct communication and contacts with different officials of the EPA.

The EPA gathered for a conference in Fountain, CO on February 14, 2019 for discourse on the contamination there and across the country. EPA regional administrator Doug Benevento and senior counsel to the administrator Peter Wright were present. One thing communities have been demanding is an enforceable standard, known as a maximum contaminant level, for drinking water. Benevento and Wright stated that the Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to gather this data, but they must go through legal steps in this as well as recommendations for treatment. PFOAs and PFOSs are planned to be first for detection with steps in place by the end of the year and will begin regulating PFASs as dangerous chemicals. Furthermore, the eight examples of contamination, which were given direct orders from the EPA, will provide information and cleanup recommendations for maximum containment levels in drinking water plus establishing timelines for future purification efforts.

If our communities are going to have any semblance of normalcy in recovering from such disaster, then it is the communities who need to be directly involved. This sentiment is mirrored directly by Cornell Long of the Air Force’s Civil Engineer Center, “Thanks to our strong partnership with Fountain, Security and Widefield, these agreements will help us protect those communities as we move forward.” The more we know, the more we can prevent things like this from happening again, even if we can’t undo the damage that has already been done.

 

Ryan Nelson has profound loving respect for the Earth learning from invaluable conservational wisdom and traditions for over 25 years. Ryan grasped the importance of activism as a lead volunteer citizen advocate in his community. Now he works internationally empowering others in their own contributions enacting environmental and social justice. 

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: FEMA

Reality Bites: Fossil Fuel Companies Face Climate Liability Claims After Decades of Denial

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Fossil fuel companies knew they were damaging the planet—and spent millions to mislead the public. Is the law about to catch up with them?

This post was co-authored with Kristin Casper, Senior Legal Counsel for Strategic Litigation, Greenpeace International. Kristin advises on the development and execution of cutting-edge legal strategies to protect the climate and human rights.

In the just completed annual general meetings season, climate change was a top priority for investors. While continuing to call for climate-proof business plans, investors should keep a close eye on the wave of climate lawsuits too.

The suits were triggered by revelations that the industry has known for well over 50 years that burning fossil fuels would lead to a climate breakdown. Instead of raising the alarm, fossil fuel companies and their trade associations spent millions to mislead the public and undermine both climate science and action. Given the growth of climate lawsuits, this is an increasingly pressing issue for shareholders. Here’s why:

1) The fossil fuel industry failed to warn investors and the public for decades, while it engaged in climate science and had clear knowledge of the significant climate risks.

Journalists and organizations such as the Center for International Environmental Law, the Climate Investigations Center, Greenpeace USA, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have been documenting internal company research on climate change and public-facing campaigns to cast doubt on climate science and solutions.

For example, corporate members of the American Petroleum Institute knew at least 50 years ago that unabated burning of their products would change the earth’s climate. There is evidence Exxon knew back in 1982 about the risk of reaching the record high rates of atmospheric carbon dioxide registered this year.

By 1988, Shell was aware of the threat its products posed to the global climate too. Instead of taking action to prevent a climate crisis, some companies deliberately deceived the public, policy makers, and their own shareholders. These disinformation campaigns have delayed investments in the energy transition even as climate impacts worsened.

2) In response to the revelations of corporate efforts to undermine action and mounting climate harms, affected communities are suing to recover the costs or to force companies to align business models with much-needed climate action.

In 2018, the New York Attorney General sued ExxonMobil over “an alleged fraudulent scheme to systematically and repeatedly deceive investors about the significant impact that future climate regulations could have on the company’s assets and value”.

Additionally, over a dozen US cities and counties, one state, and one industry association have filed lawsuits to hold fossil fuel companies financially responsible for their role in global warming-related damages. In Canada, the City of Toronto is looking into the costs of climate damage and exploring legal recourse to recover them.

In the Philippines, the Commission on Human Rights has concluded a first-ever national inquiry into the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for climate-related human rights violations. The investigation was triggered by a legal petition filed by disaster survivors and many others in 2015.

The Commission is expected to issue a report and resolution this year, which could result in a first-ever legal finding on corporate responsibility for the climate crisis and lay the foundations for accountability in other forums.

Not only is the risk of climate litigation here and growing, it was also foreseeable. Internal Shell Group documents dated 1998 foreshadowed the litigation we are seeing today. ConocoPhillips’ 2018 10-K disclosed that it is facing lawsuits, but other major fossil fuel companies including BP and ExxonMobil do not acknowledge existing climate liability lawsuits in their financial filings.

Lack of transparency about climate litigation risks could compound corporate liability.

3) More lawsuits are on the horizon because fossil fuel companies are failing to meaningfully respond to climate risks.

While some companies are responding to pressure from investors, their efforts remain insufficient to prevent the worst effects of the climate breakdown.

UCS’s in-depth analysis of the climate-related positions and actions of eight major oil, gas, and coal companies found that several have publicly supported the Paris climate agreement to limit harmful warming, but none of them has set company-wide emissions reduction targets consistent with that stated support.

Even worse, many continue to downplay or misrepresent climate science and the dangers of carbon emissions. At Chevron’s 2019 annual general meeting, it was reported that CEO Michael Wirth falsely claimed that there is no new science or evidence to back up climate liability cases against the fossil fuel companies.

Meanwhile, all eight of the companies UCS studied continue to support trade groups that spread climate disinformation and seek to block climate policies. In a new twist, BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell are funding a lobbying push for a carbon tax proposal that conveniently includes a climate liability waiver for fossil fuel companies.

Expectations for improved corporate disclosure of climate-related risks are mounting, and proposed measures to strengthen disclosure in the EU and the US would provide new levers for climate accountability. Meanwhile, shareholders are expressing dissatisfaction with the leadership of ExxonMobil and others, sending an industry-wide message that foot-dragging and obstruction will not be tolerated.

Incomplete or misleading disclosures are among the key claims currently raised by shareholders. The next stage could be shareholder lawsuits over support for trade groups whose climate advocacy contradicts stated company positions.

Shareholders have upped the ante at this year’s annual general meetings, suggesting that they will use every tool at their disposal to pressure major fossil fuel companies to respond to the climate emergency.

This blog was originally published by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre at https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/reality-bites-fossil-fuel-companies-face-climate-liability-claims-after-decades-of-denial.

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Secretary Perdue is Moving The Cheese and It’s Not Good For Any Of Us

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U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue takes a big bite out of his bacon cheeseburger at the Discovery Elementary School cafeteria, in Arlington, VA. Photo: USDA

In a recent interview by the North Carolina News and Observer, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue discussed the current proposal to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) outside Washington DC. When asked if he was worried about employee backlash he replied, “anytime you make change or move people’s cheese, there’s always anxiety.”

While I’m sure Secretary Perdue isn’t the first Agriculture Secretary to use a food reference to get across a message in a folksy way, this felt different. So far as I can tell, the reference to people’s “cheese” comes from a highly popular 1998 self-help book called Who Moved My Cheese? Having only seen the book in thrift stores until now, I did a little internet search to learn what it was about. I quickly discovered that Who Moved My Cheese? was (and maybe still is) the go-to resource for corporate leaders to ease employee concerns in times of great change (think reorganizations, layoffs).  In the book, mice seek cheese in a maze, but an unseen hand moves the cheese, forcing the mice to adapt, resulting in lessons learned about life and work, and the joy that can be had from change.

Albeit a bestseller, the book has been criticized by many. For example, Harvard Business School Professor Deepak Malhotra wrote a 2011 book titled I Moved Your Cheese: For those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else’s Maze. He said of the original book, “There are ways in which the message of Who Moved My Cheese? is not simply incomplete, it’s dangerous.” Professor Malhotra explains that the danger of the book lies in its key message to employees: don’t “waste time wondering why things are the way they are”. Just put “your heads down and keep running around the maze chasing after cheese”.

The Secretary’s tone-deaf reference is a signal to me that, at best, he doesn’t understand why USDA employees (willing to speak on the record to reporters about how bad this is), along with thousands of outside scientists, plus farm groups, members of Congress, and a who’s-who of former USDA administrators—are so concerned about the damage this relocation and restructuring will do to the quality of work done by ERS and NIFA which directly supports farmers and protects our food supply. At worst, he simply doesn’t care.

Does this Administration think so little of its workers, by comparing them to mice on the hunt for cheese? And if it has such apathy, then the logical next question is: does it value the work they do in direct service to farmers and consumers across the country? I’m not sure, and that’s the problem.

But whatever is in Secretary Perdue’s heart, he has not clearly articulated to the public how the proposed restructuring of ERS and NIFA will be better for farmers, our environment, and the people who eat food every day (that’s all of us). So my key message for the Secretary is that what’s at stake here isn’t just “people’s cheese.” He should know that.

Photo: USDA

Three Times EPA Administrator Wheeler Failed His Science Advisors This Week

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Photo: Genna Reed

I told E&E News before this week’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) meeting that my concern was that Administrator Wheeler was using the board “as a box he needs to check off” on his path to deregulation. He called out my quote in his statement to the SAB on Tuesday morning and refuted the underlying assumption that he didn’t value his science advisors. I didn’t have to wait long before the proceedings of the meeting proved my very point and illustrated exactly how little Administrator Wheeler cares about the scientific underpinnings of regulations, the opinions of his own scientists and science advisors, or even in getting basic scientific facts correct. Here are just a few anecdotes from this week’s SAB meeting that made this clear:

“The devil’s in the details and we don’t have any of the details”

The very first matter of business for the SAB was to hear from the EPA about its restricted science rule. Remember, the SAB was not informed about this policy until it was proposed and went to public comment. At the last SAB meeting in May 2018, the committee voted in favor of asking former Administrator Pruitt to charge them with reviewing the policy. They sent an official letter in June 2018 and then waited for a response. EPA responded a whopping 10 months later in April. I mean, I had a baby in the amount of time it took for the EPA respond to its own science advisors. Not only was the response late, but Wheeler asked only for input on a very narrow piece of the rule–how the agency will deal with access to confidential business information and personally identifiable information).

Over forty members of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board deliberated this week to decide which EPA actions merit review. They voted to take a full look at the agency’s restricted science proposed rule, even though Administrator Wheeler only asked for their feedback on a narrow slice.

Now, as the agency intends to get this politically-hatched rule out the door by the end of 2019, the SAB still hasn’t responded to the SAB’s questions it sent last month. After much discussion about how the agency has given them no information about the rule and answered none of their questions, yet it has the potential to impact public health science in a major way. There was also much consternation from the committee about the fact that at this point, any contributions they make to the rule will come too late to meaningfully inform it. In the end the SAB almost unanimously voted to do a full review of the rule, which the chair Michael Honeycutt aims to get done before the fall. A quick side note on this is that the people that raised their hands when asked who had enough time to help write the first draft of a full review over the summer were mostly affiliated with industry and consulting firms, whose involvement in these matters demands scrutiny anyway.

In his opening statement, Administrator Wheeler defended the agency’s so-called transparency rule by pointing to the “safeguard” is that the Administrator could allow studies to be used even without making the data public on a case by case basis to  “ensure that studies beneficial to public health won’t be ignored.” But as we’ve explained before, the fact that this is even a part of the rule undermines its entire raison d’etre and shows exactly how arbitrary it is. Administrator Wheeler may say he wants SAB feedback on this rule, but it’s abundantly clear that he doesn’t really want scientific input because it would result in a grand takedown of this mess of a policy.

Attempt to fix SAB engagement process misses the mark

Administrator Wheeler told the SAB Wednesday morning, “Today we are beginning the transition to a new process. It’s no secret that the process was broken, and was not beneficial to the EPA, the board, or the public we all serve.” He harped on this theme quite a lot, later saying, “I’m glad to be here to lay out a new direction for how EPA interacts with and uses the SAB,” he said. “I will be the first to admit we have not utilized you the way that we should. We can and we will do better.”

After all of this lead-up, I expected something much better thought-out than what the agency presented the SAB with. It seems that the “interim process” would notify the SAB of agency actions “closer to” when they are published in the federal register. The agency then gave no further details on what “closer to” meant and whether it would be in the spirit of the law governing SAB. The lack of information in the presentation made it clear that Wheeler felt he needed to make SAB feel as if it was being included, even if the inclusion is all for show. A box checked.

Changing best practices of term lengths and conflicts of interest has done noticeable damage

If Wheeler truly believed that “science is the foundation for everything the agency does,” as he said in his statement, and wanted an independent, diverse, and expert SAB, he would have rolled back former Administrator Pruitt’s nonsensical directive that declared EPA grants a conflict of interest so egregious that it would disqualify scientists from serving on the board. UCS and more than 20 other organizations directly asked Wheeler to reverse this ridiculous ban, but he pressed onward. What this directive and changes to term lengths on this committee has done is reduce the institutional knowledge significantly so that only a few veterans know how SAB’s process works and everyone else is flying blind. By the time everyone figures out what to do it’ll be too late to get anything done, thus rendering the SAB nearly useless. This, of course, is exactly what this administration wants from its science advisors because if the science of many of the deregulatory and anti-science actions taken by this EPA was checked by independent scientists, it wouldn’t pass the sniff test.

What’s the path forward?

While it was encouraging to see the SAB members agree to take on many important scientific issues within the EPA’s deregulatory agenda, there’s nothing in Wheeler’s former actions to give me faith that that his rhetoric about weighing the SAB’s feedback and valuing science is anything more than talk. As he continues to further undermine the science advice process at the agency, the integrity of the SAB is at stake. To find out more about what happened at the meeting this week, check out my twitter threads from Wednesday and Thursday.

Bury Myers’ NOAA Nomination

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Photo: C-SPAN

We became scientists to make discoveries and explore the unknown, not to wonder why science is rife with sexual harassment and discrimination. But that is not how our paths have gone. One of us (Dr. Willenbring) survived severe sexual harassment at a remote field station in Antarctica, which only recently resulted in the firing of the perpetrator. The other (Dr. Freitag) is a NOAA contractor who has watched how handling of sexual harassment cases can make or break a career in science.

We knew from our own experience that sexual harassment in the scientific fields is all too common. And so we were appalled, but not surprised to learn that AccuWeather—led by the President’s pick to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Barry Myers—agreed to pay $290,000 to 35 women as part of a settlement after a federal oversight agency found the company subjected female employees to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. We also were not surprised that AccuWeather denied any knowledge of harassing activity, declined on-site access to investigators, and objected to any expansion of the investigation. And sadly, we were particularly unsurprised at the original 2016 complaint by a former AccuWeather employee alleged that she was, among other things, subjected to a hostile work environment and ultimately terminated due to her sexual orientation.

But despite our hard experience, we were surprised, shocked, and disgusted by the sheer extent of the harassment that occurred while Myers was CEO of AccuWeather, which was detailed in a federal report that became public earlier this month. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP) found, “Over two dozen witnesses spanning many different departments and in positions ranging from administrative support to senior management described unlawful sexual harassment that occurred at the company. This sexual harassment was so severe and pervasive, that some female employees resigned.” The investigation confirmed that AccuWeather was indeed aware of the sexual harassment but took no action to correct the unlawful activity.

At the same time that women at AccuWeather were being subjected to this pervasive harassment, so were women scientists, observers and contractors at NOAA. After several came forward to alert Congressional leaders to a system that had failed to protect them, Congress passed legislation to require the agency to develop a comprehensive policy on sexual assault and harassment prevention and response. NOAA complied with that requirement in February 2018.

NOAA’s reforms are working. We have seen them play out in practice and are cautiously optimistic that progress is being achieved. But those steps forward are still incremental enough to be undermined and will only be as strong as the leadership of the agency enforcing them. Myers claimed to be unaware of rampant and pervasive sexual harassment in a company of only about 500 office employees, How are we to have any confidence that he will have the capacity to ensure that an agency with 11,000 employees and contractors, many of whom are at sea and in remote locations, is aggressively enforcing an anti-harassment policy? As we both know all too well, serial harassers thrive in isolate environments where their victims have little recourse.

Myers has already made clear how he views such matters. When asked by the Senate during his confirmation process if “any business where he served as an officer had ever been involved as a party in an administrative proceeding, criminal proceeding, or civil litigation,” he responded that the company has been involved in “routine civil and administrative actions, such as (1) contracts disputes; (2) employee claims for unemployment compensation, EEOC matters, workers compensation, and OFCCP compliance; and (3) other personnel matters.” In other words, he views a settlement of pervasive sexual harassment in his own company, and financial payouts to at least 39 women who were subject to that harassment, as “routine.”

The women and men of NOAA, and of the ocean science community, deserve better than for gross sexual harassment and a hostile workplace to be considered routine. The nation’s premier ocean science agencies cannot and should not be led by anyone who does not understand that. The environmental threats facing our ocean today can only be addressed by the best scientists and subject matter experts in the world – and they should be led by someone committed to protect them. Barry Myers has shown he is not up to the task. We urge the Senate to reject his nomination.

 

Dr. Jane Willenbring is an Associate Professor at the Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, and Dr. Amy Freitag is a contract social scientist for NOAA.

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: C-SPAN

Wheeler’s Breathtaking Ignorance of Science, in One Comment

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EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at the EPA Science Advisory Board meeting on June 5, 2019 Photo: Gretchen Goldman

Yesterday at the EPA’s Science Advisory Board meeting, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler made comments on the agency’s proposed Restricting Science Rule that raised eyebrows for anyone who understands the basics of health studies. In his defense of the rule (which the scientific community agrees will severely hamstring the agency’s ability to rely on the best available science in its decision-making), Wheeler asserted that the EPA should be more like the FDA in its data transparency. The FDA uses double-blind studies and the EPA should be taking that approach, he suggested. Um, what?

To understand exactly how misguided this statement is, let’s take it from the top.

Dear Administrator Wheeler, this is what a double-blind study is

Double-blind studies involve study designs where both researchers and study subjects don’t know which subjects are given the placebo versus the treatment. These studies are a great way that researchers can reduce bias in scientific studies since those involved in reporting and collecting data won’t be influenced by knowledge of a potential effect. These study designs are especially useful in clinical trial research for new drugs, where scientists are interested in the efficacy of a drug, the presence of side effects, and other health outcomes.

The EPA and FDA study fundamentally different things

What would a double-blind study even mean in the EPA context? Your guess is as good as mine.

Here’s the problem: There is a fundamental reason that the EPA is different than the FDA. The EPA is studying environmental contaminants, i.e. pollutants that are out in the world. As a result, we have to rely on observational data of people living their lives in the world, with all the variability in pollution exposure that comes with that. We cannot control who is and isn’t exposed to pollution if we want to study populations. There are of course natural experiments that scientists can learn from but as I explain in a recent piece in Science, it is not possible or ethical for scientists to expose groups of people to harmful levels of pollution—something that would be required if we wanted to attempt a double-blind study. This is very different than the FDA context where researchers in clinical trials have a level of control over which study subjects are provided drugs.

Air pollution studies with Scuba gear?

But let’s entertain Administrator Wheeler’s idea, shall we? If we wanted to design a double-blind study on an EPA issue like air pollution, here’s what that would look like. You would need groups of people who are and aren’t exposed to harmful levels of air pollution. But to make it double-blind, both those people and the researchers conducting the study would need to not know whether they were breathing clean or dirty air (until after the data was collected). To do this, the participants can’t breath the ambient air because we wouldn’t be able to control the pollution level of the environment, i.e. it would mess up the study.

Thus, a double-blind EPA air pollution study would need to involve something like study subjects living their lives in scuba gear, where neither they nor the scientists studying them would know whether their scuba tank contained clean or contaminated air.

It is very easy to see how this is completely unworkable. Does Administrator Wheeler need a crash course in study design?

The FDA is not a poster child for the transparency Wheeler claims to want

Administrator Wheeler had complimentary remarks for FDA disclosure of scientific data in its decision-making. This is a head-scratcher for anyone who follows FDA decision-making.

The FDA is not always forthcoming in disclosing detailed information about its decisions on drug approvals, food additives, and other agency regulatory actions.While the FDA has made many improvements in process, leadership, and transparency, when it comes to drug review and decisions, information disclosure is still lacking. For other products like medical devices, the standard is less rigorous, and primary data is often not publicly available. Also of note, even FDA advisory committee members might only see summary reports from companies and FDA reviews, not the raw data itself. Finally, label changes and safety alerts may or may not be based on publicly available data.

Importantly, the FDA is certainly not following the extreme requirements in the EPA Restricting Science Rule. Like EPA, the FDA handles much confidential business information as well as personally identifying information. It is true that some studies involving this kind of information are released publicly in ways that protect the sensitive information. For example, by statute, large pivotal clinical trials are required for companies seeking approval for new drugs. When drugs are approved, the studies the FDA relied on are released publicly and more information is now becoming available through Clinicaltrials.gov. The FDA is not, however, releasing raw data in the way that the EPA Restricting Science Rule suggests.  This isn’t the model of disclosure that Administrator Wheeler claims to be aspiring toward.

Administrator Wheeler’s comments prove EPA desperately needs science advice

In conclusion, Administrator Wheeler’s comments suggesting that the EPA should mimic FDA’s use of double-blind studies makes zero sense.  Its almost as if he is in need of science advice from experts. The EPA Science Advisory Board could provide such expertise, if only the EPA will let them.

Thankfully, the SAB voted yesterday afternoon to fully consider the EPA Restricting Science Rule in addition to providing individual comments in a near-term consultation. If the administration makes good on its promise to release the final rule by the end of the calendar year, then the SAB advice would come later, but regardless of the timing these are issues where the EPA desperately needs science advice and the SAB must step up.

 

Photo: Gretchen Goldman

Will the Trump USDA Deliver on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans? Our New Report Shows What’s at Stake

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Sixty percent of adults the United States are now living with one or more chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. That’s 150 million people—not counting millions of children and young adults—whose daily lives are disrupted by poor health. These chronic conditions are the leading causes of death and disability, and they’re also the leading drivers of the $3.5 trillion we spend on health care each year.

I’m not quick to call something a “crisis,” but the current trajectory of population health renders possible a future in which the vast majority of us are simply too sick to thrive. If we don’t make some changes, that future may come sooner than we think.

Luckily, we’re far from exhausting our options. One of the most powerful pathways to better health is through better nutrition. A recent study estimated that nearly half of all deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in the US could be attributed to poor diets. This and other research suggest that there is vast untapped potential to improve our health and wellbeing with the food we put on our plates.

That’s why, in a new report, we examined just how many lives might be saved and medical costs might be spared if adults in the US made key dietary changes to eat less processed meat, less added sugar, and more fruits and vegetables. We looked at these changes through the lens of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the leading set of science-based dietary recommendations in the US, currently in the process of being updated. The results make an overwhelming case for the federal government to take a fresh look at its food policy.

A menu with multi-billion dollar benefits

Our analysis considered three separate kinds of food and their respective relationships to common chronic diseases: processed meat and colorectal cancer, sugar-sweetened beverages and type 2 diabetes, and fruits and vegetables and cardiovascular disease. (For more on our research methods, including topic selection, tables and figures, and references, see the full report online.)

Processed meat

When it comes to processed meat (a category that includes foods like bacon, deli meat, hot dogs and sausage), there is strong evidence linking consumption to higher risk of colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US, and although overall rates are declining, there has been an alarming increase in colorectal cancer among younger populations—which researchers believe may be partially related to diet. Experts have found that each additional 50 grams of processed meat (equal to two to four pieces of deli meat or bacon, or about one hot dog) eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 16 to 18 percent. As a result, most leading agencies—with one notable exception—recommend that people consume little to no processed meat. That exception, of course, is in the US Dietary Guidelines. Despite overwhelming scientific consensus, industry groups have successfully prevented federal agencies from issuing a limit on processed meat.

So what would it look like if adults in the US were following the science on processed meat, consuming the equivalent of no more than one hot dog every two weeks? According to our analysis, this might have saved nearly 3,900 lives and $1.5 billion in medical costs due to colorectal cancer in 2018, with an additional $1 billion recouped in productivity costs.

Added sugar

Adults and kids alike are getting too much added sugar in their diets. And a lot of it comes in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, including fruit drinks, soft drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened coffee and tea. Sugar-sweetened beverages make up almost half of all the added sugars consumed in the US, accounting for nearly 150 calories eaten by the average person each day. To put that into context, that means the average eight-year-old is getting one out of every 10 calories from sugar-sweetened beverages. And an ever-growing body of research shows that added sugar intake is harmful to our health in many ways—including increasing our risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Studies show that the risk of type 2 diabetes, a metabolic disorder affecting close to 30 million people in the US, increases by between 13 and 21 percent for each additional serving of sugar-sweetened beverages each day. And while the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines took a major step forward in recommending that we limit added sugar to less than 10 percent of total calories, research suggests that an even lower limit would provide greater protection against chronic disease.

What would it mean for our health if our diets were in better alignment with the science on added sugar? Our analysis found that, if adults in the US who drink sugar-sweetened beverages were consuming one fewer serving each day, this would have saved nearly 19,000 lives and decreased medical costs by $16 billion in 2018 from type 2 diabetes, and an additional $6 billion recouped in productivity costs.

Fruits and vegetables

Most of us are accustomed to hearing about the virtues of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, but we might be surprised to learn just how good they are for us. A strong body of research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables can protect us against cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death for both men and women. Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, is responsible for one in three deaths, or more than 800,000 deaths annually, in the US. The Dietary Guidelines have consistently recommended that adults and children in the US eat more fruits and vegetables. And—with equal consistency—we have fallen short. People may face any number of challenges to eating healthfully, from cost to convenience to culture, and for many populations, including low-income communities and people of color, these challenges are amplified by systemic barriers that can make foods like fruits and vegetables much harder to come by. This points to an urgent need for more than just the best science-based guidelines, but also for a coordinated strategy that will allow the federal government to implement them and the general public to apply them.

If the guidelines were implemented to their fullest—if the healthy choice could be the healthy choice the easy choice when it comes to fruits and vegetables—what would it mean for our health? Our analysis found that, if adults in the US were able to meet recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake, this could have saved almost 110,000 deaths and more than $32 billion in medical costs, with an additional $20 billion in recouped productivity costs, in 2018.

Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines

Though there are notable cases in which food companies have managed to influence the guidelines via Congress or agency secretaries, these have proven to be the exception, not the rule. By and large, the Dietary Guidelines is consistently undergirded by high-quality scientific evidence and expertise, and its content has changed relatively little over the last 35 years: recommendations typically call on us to consume more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains; to limit foods that contain high amounts of sugar or sodium; and to develop healthy eating habits based on moderation and variety.

That being said, the Trump administration has ushered in a new era. With a particularly friendly attitude toward industry and a demonstrated distaste for science and scientific expertise, it may prove more challenging under such an administration to protect the current scientific process for developing the guidelines. As the scientific advisory committee meets throughout the course of the next year to review current evidence, we are encouraging the public to get involved and hold the administration accountable. (Right now, and through early 2020, the best way to do that is to submit a public comment—check our website later this month for a helpful how-to guide.)

On the road to making a healthy diet accessible to everyone, the Dietary Guidelines will continue to be an invaluable tool for health professionals, federal nutrition program operators, and many families. But we are far from reaching our destination.

The bottom line is this: if it is important to ensure the guidelines are evidence-based, it is essential to recognize that even evidence-based guidelines are only as effective as their implementation. As the development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines is underway, the federal government should be making a renewed commitment to public health by developing a strategy that will allow the benefits of a healthy diet to be realized by all communities, particularly those most vulnerable to the effects of chronic disease. With adequate resources supporting scientific recommendations, we could begin to deliver the full potential of the Dietary Guidelines.

“Big Food” Companies Spend Big Money in Hopes of Shaping the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

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Photo courtesy of 401kcalculator.org/Flickr

The maker of Snickers, M&Ms, and Skittles has built a global conglomerate on sugar. The privately held Mars Incorporated let it be known earlier this year that it hopes to double its $35 billion annual revenue over the next decade, reportedly through expansion in pet food and other areas. But for now, confectionery treats are a main business, which could be why the company spent more than $2 million, in 2018 and early 2019, lobbying Congress around the federal government’s nutrition advice, among other food policy issues. Of course, it’s also possible Mars has a more socially responsible motive, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Why the food industry cares about the Dietary Guidelines

In general, processed food and beverage companies have an intense interest in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nation’s leading set of science-based nutrition recommendations. This federal dietary advice is revised every five years to reflect the best available science, and it informs healthy eating decisions for consumers and, most significantly, guides federal nutrition programs that serve millions of children, parents, seniors, and veterans every day.

The process to develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is now underway. And while this is a rigorous process that tends to produce strong and relatively consistent guidelines (with some exceptions), that doesn’t stop the food industry from trying to influence them through various channels.

…and what companies hope the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines won’t say.

The disclosure forms lobbyists are legally required to file with the House and Senate every quarter provide a window into who is seeking to influence the Dietary Guidelines. But without being behind the closed doors of those meetings, we have to imagine what kinds of advice Big Food companies and their lobbyists would rather we didn’t hear from the federal government’s nutrition experts. Here’s some of the science-based recommendations I suspect many of Big Food’s lobbyists don’t want included in the next iteration of the Dietary Guidelines:

  • Eat processed meat rarely. According to new UCS analysis of processed meat intake and colorectal cancer risk, that could mean something like half a hot dog per week—or for those of us who don’t eat hot dogs in increments, no more than one every other week. But such moderation wouldn’t be good for big meat processors and their lobby groups, including the Livestock Marketing Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council, Smithfield Foods, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, and the United States Cattlemen’s Association. Those groups collectively spent $4.5 million lobbying Congress on issues including the Dietary Guidelines during the two-year process of updating them for 2015. So far this cycle, the main processed meat player appears to be Hormel Foods Corporation, maker of the inimitable Spam canned meat, which has already plunked down $740,000 on such lobbying between January 2018 and March 2019.
  • Drink less soda. By our analysis, the government should consider lowering the Dietary Guidelines added sugar limit to reflect adults’ average calorie needs, and provide age-specific recommendations for kids. One good way to help people cut back on sugar and reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes, among other conditions? Continue to recommend that people drink less soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. But soda makers Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, along with their industry lobby group (the American Beverage Association, or ABA), spent a combined $23.8 million on related lobbying in 2014-2015. Since the beginning of 2018, the ABA has shouldered the burden, racking up $1.68 million in lobbying expenses, joined by Red Bull North America at $320,000.
  • For infants, breastfeeding is best. For the first time, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines will include recommendations specifically for infants and toddlers. Clear, science-based advice to breastfeed whenever possible would be a problem for leading infant formula-maker Nestlé S.A. (also the world’s largest food company). Known for its long, troubling history pushing formula on new moms, the company reorganized its infant nutrition business in 2017, listing the area as a priority for growth. Since the beginning of 2018, Nestlé has spent $1.58 million, at least in part, presumably, to ensure that growth isn’t hampered by the Dietary Guidelines.
So why are they lobbying Congress?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—and specifically, the secretaries of those federal departments—set the Dietary Guidelines, appointing a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) to review the science and present them evidence-based recommendations. (Here’s a backgrounder on the process.)

Yet as that process was ongoing five years ago, food and beverage companies and trade associations were lobbying Congress aggressively. Quarterly disclosure forms filed by such groups during 2014-2015 show more than $77 million in lobbying activities directed at Congress, on issues including the Dietary Guidelines. (Note that it’s impossible to say exactly how much of that lobbying effort was specific to the guidelines, as lobbyists lump various issues on each quarterly disclosure form filed with Congress. But it’s the best indicator we’ve got.)

There’s a reason companies and industry groups expend time and money lobbying Congress, even when legislators aren’t officially the decisionmakers—because once in a while it works. Take the Dietary Guidelines sustainability debate in 2015. Then, the DGAC took a forward-looking approach, spelling out the sizeable environmental side benefits that healthy, plant-based eating can have, and recommending that the final Dietary Guidelines include that advice. Of course, that didn’t sit well with the meat lobby, and after they gave Congress an earful…sure enough, those recommendations disappeared.

(An intriguing development: After Congress essentially barred the prior administration from considering sustainability issues as part of the Dietary Guidelines, the topic list the agencies prepared for its new expert DGAC doesn’t include those issues, and DGAC members have been instructed that it’s not part of their charge. Still, some Big Food companies—including Mars and Nestle—are, surprisingly, advocating for consideration of the environmental impacts of our dietary choices once again. UCS is all for that, of course, as we said back in 2015, and it will be interesting to see where it goes.)

Who else is Big Food lobbying?

Of course, the food industry’s lobbying surely isn’t limited to Congress. It’s just that their visits to Capitol Hill are the only ones we can document easily, with publicly available, if imperfect, data as indicated above. It’s a reasonable assumption that many of these companies are lobbying Trump administration officials directly about the Dietary Guidelines, even though we don’t have documents to prove it. And these industries surely have a ready ear in the USDA and HHS secretaries. I think it’s fair to say that big corporations and industry groups of all kinds have no bigger friend than the Trump administration. Whether coal companies, oil companies, big automakers, pesticide makers, or big poultry conglomerates, this administration has rewarded them all, giving each more or less exactly what it has asked for.

Now to be clear, past industry lobbying hasn’t been able to substantially subvert the Dietary Guidelines, which have mostly remained strong and science based. But with the current administration, I’m more concerned. After all, former food industry lobbyists are now staffing the USDA through a revolving door that only sped up with the Trump administration. As USDA staff geared up for the Dietary Guidelines update early in the administration, they were led by former snack food and corn syrup lobbyist Kailee Tkacz (now the chief of staff to the USDA deputy secretary).

For the record, Tkacz herself lobbied on the Dietary Guidelines on behalf of global snack foods trade association SNAC International back in 2014-15 (SNAC spent $340,000 then). Now, her successors are making the rounds in Congress—SNAC has invested $440,000 just since the beginning of 2018.

What happens now?

As of now, it isn’t clear whether food industry lobbying—whether in the halls of Congress or directly with the Trump administration—will undermine the next Dietary Guidelines. For the moment, the scientific review is in the hands of the 20 experts on the DGAC, which will hold a series of public meetings (the next one on July 11-12) before presenting its recommendations to the USDA and HHS secretaries around the middle of 2020. What the agencies choose to include—or leave out—when they translate these scientific recommendations to a set of final guidelines by the end of 2020 may tell us if and how industry made its mark.

In the intervening months, it will be up to us, as eaters and taxpayers, to tell the administration they must resist industry lobbying, publish guidelines that prioritize public health, and invest in strategies to address systemic barriers to healthier diets. For more information, see our new report, Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines, and stay tuned for a comment guide you can use to weigh in.

Understanding the New Restrictions on Fetal Tissue Research, and Attacks on the Scientists Who Use It

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An intern doing scientific research in a US Navy laboratory. Photo: John F. Williams, US Navy/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has announced new restrictions on the use of fetal tissue in research. Fetal tissue research has led to profound progress in understanding and treating countless diseases and public health threats, including chicken pox, HIV, Alzheimer’s, Zika, and Parkinson’s disease.

If you want to understand the consequences of these new restrictions, the toxic and skewed discussion around the use of fetal tissue in research, and the negative consequences for individual scientists and their work, here are some good places to start.

First, critical fetal tissue research can be and is done ethically.

“There is strong evidence that scientific benefits come from fetal tissue research, [which] can be done with [an] ethical framework,” evangelical Christian and NIH Director Francis Collins said in late 2018. There is no evidence that fetal tissue procurement has any impact on abortion frequency.

Second, there is currently no substitute for fetal tissue in research.

According to Science, Dr. Collins also told reporters that “[T]here are certain areas where it’s hard to imagine that we would know what we know without the access to fetal tissue,” such as work on how the Zika virus infects brain cells and causes microcephaly in utero.

Mice models created with fetal tissue implants are considered the “gold standard” model organism for studying the long-term effects of a drug or the progression of a disease. These model organisms are essential for studying how HIV affects human immune cells. According to NIH Associate Director for Science Policy Carrie Wolinetz, there are no good alternatives currently available for developing human immune systems in mice without using human fetal tissue.

“The consensus is that there are certain things about fetal tissue that make [it] unique,” UC Davis Professor Paul Knoepfler told StatNews. “Certain experiments can really only be done on actual fetal tissue.”

Although the NIH is currently funding efforts to find alternatives to fetal tissue, NIH officials told Time Magazine that “the intent was never to cause research to stop,” and an HHS spokesperson told STAT that “by no means was [the review] meant to halt or ban or cease research.”

Equity Forward also has a helpful backgrounder on the importance of fetal tissue for understanding and combating disease and the political context that is driving the new restrictions.

Third, fetal tissue researchers have been under threat for years. 

Many researchers will not speak publicly about their work because they have received threats or fear threats. Most universities and university associations refuse to speak openly about this type of research because they are justifiably concerned about safety. Some scientists have resorted to hiring guards for their labs.

We live in a world where misinformation easily proliferates on contentious issues. In 2015, doctored videos that erroneously suggested Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue were used as justification for a congressional Select Committee on Infant Lives, a 15-month McCarthy-style boondoggle led by then-Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who has since been elected to the US Senate.

Blackburn’s committee issued subpoenas to scientists around the country, including to medical doctor Eugene Gu. Dr. Gu’s fetal tissue research was designed to save the lives of infants who are born with non-functioning heart ventricles or missing kidneys. The committee sent armed US marshals to bang on his door to demand access to documents related to his work.

“I’m a very ordinary, small individual,” Dr. Gu told Science Friday. “I’m not a professor. I don’t have tenure at a university. When I was subpoenaed, I was an intern surgical resident basically making minimum wage. I couldn’t even afford an attorney.”

Dr. Gu was railroaded out of that surgical residency at Vanderbilt University (also in Tennessee) once he began speaking publicly about the harassment he faced. Dr. Gu told Science Friday that Vanderbilt attempted to cancel his appearance on the show.

Fourth, threats and restrictions slow down research.

As Emily Crockett wrote for Vox in 2016:

“Researchers have testified before the select panel that promising studies of diseases like multiple sclerosis have been delayed due to threats and political pressure.

That’s partly because those threats and political pressure are causing the supply of fetal tissue to dry up. Some abortion providers and tissue procurement companies have abandoned fetal tissue donation entirely — and not that many of them were even doing it in the first place.”

“The fetal tissue research subpoena, demanding the names of anyone remotely involved in the research not only in the procurement of the tissue, is a direct attack on the scientific enterprise,” wrote my former colleague Pallavi Phartiyal in 2016. “It interferes with the ability of scientists to advance research on debilitating diseases, utilizing the most useful methodologies and research materials. [It] has the potential of dissuading a whole generation of early career scientists from entering controversial [fields] if they feel that they’d need to defend their science every time there’s a member of Congress who doesn’t deem their scientific methods appropriate or finds their results disagreeable.”

Ultimately, a severely skewed representation of the ethics and benefits of fetal tissue research is depriving all of us from research that can literally save us and our loved ones from disease. This is both irresponsible and sad.

Photo: John F. Williams, US Navy/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Scientists Advocating for Climate Action in Oregon: Why we are stepping up and speaking out

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Photo: BLM Oregon

We are two climate scientists, currently teaching about climate change at two universities in Portland, Oregon. We are also two concerned scientists who understand the severe threats that climate change is posing to human well-being, as well as two concerned parents (and one concerned grandfather) who are worried about the future of climate extremes that our children and grandchildren must bear. As members of the UCS Science Network, this year we have used our voices as scientists and experts to speak with Oregon state legislators and advocate for strong climate action in Oregon. Here are our stories.

Sharon Delcambre’s Story: Inspiring (and inspired by) frontline students

I am a climate scientist, teacher, mother, and North Portland resident for the past 6 years.  I am a physical scientist through and through, and worked hard to gain the credentials to call myself a scientist (MS in atmospheric science, PhD researching the impacts of global climate change on weather systems). I am currently a 2-year Visiting Instructor of Environmental Studies at the University of Portland. In my prior position at Portland Community College, I spearheaded development of a “Global Climate Change” course taught online and in-person that reaches hundreds of students each year.

Some of the science I teach is about how climate change is a real threat to our collective ability to live the good life we all desire.  Globally, carbon dioxide concentrations are higher than they have been during the past 800,000 years, primarily due to human emissions.  Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, we are witnessing less winter snowpack, leading to water shortages and increased risk of damaging summertime wildfires.  We see impacts to our fish and other marine life from changes in ocean and river temperature and chemistry.  We see the very personality of our region changing, as our abundant waters, forests, and farmlands irreversibly change.

Upon consideration of these depressing statistics, most of my students immediately ask for solutions.  And thus began my own journey of learning about the intersectional nature of climate change.  While solutions such as a decarbonized electrical grid and solar panels for everyone are powerful and worthy aspirational goals, any solution must address those most vulnerable populations in our society.  For instance, in the Pacific Northwest, just like in most regions globally, “frontline” communities are the first to experience harm due to our changing climate.  In the 2018 National Climate Assessment, Pacific Northwest frontline communities are defined as “tribes and indigenous peoples, those most dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and the economically disadvantaged.”   People in these communities do not have as many resources with which to prepare or respond to climate changes and are thus inherently vulnerable.  In fact, climate change has been said to be a multiplier of injustice, compounding co-existing gender, racial, or economic injustices that exist in our communities.

I tell my students that whether they fight for gender, racial, or climate justice they are helping prevent climate change, and I truly believe this.

I tell my students that whether they fight for gender, racial, or climate justice they are helping prevent climate change, and I truly believe this.   As a white woman with economic and educational privilege, I see my role as more than just a scientist.  If I want to be an ally for those with less privilege, I need to infuse this social justice lens into my classroom, but also step outside of my classroom and work to affect change in our society. And as a mother of a young child, I want to advance solutions that will help to avoid some of the worst climate impacts my child may have to live with.

That is why I am finally stepping up to publicly ask my legislators for action on climate and to serve as a resource on the climate science I know so well.  That is why when Union of Concerned Scientists asked me to sign an expert letter in March, urging the Oregon legislature to take strong climate action in 2019, I did it.  Then, when they asked me to visit Salem to speak with my legislators in April 2019 and again in May 2019, I did it.

The Oregon Clean Energy Jobs Bill addresses climate change at the root cause by capping carbon emissions in the state of Oregon in order to reduce the state’s emissions to 80% below 1990 values by 2050.  But it does not forget about the frontline communities in our state and invests profits in low-income and rural communities, as well as communities of color, affected workers, and Oregon’s tribal communities.

While it was my own frontline students at Portland Community College who first alerted me to this bill in spring 2018, it is the Union of Concerned Scientists who has enabled me to make a difference as a scientist.  They have kept me abreast of updates from Salem and told me what I can do to support the work my legislators are doing.  They educated me on how the political process works and where I can play a role.

Frank Granshaw’s  Motivations for Climate Advocacy: Being a glacial geologist and a grandfather

Frank Granshaw delivers a letter from 71 Oregon scientists calling for strong climate action in 2019 to Logan Gilles, the Chief of staff to Oregon state senator Michael Denbrow, the co-chair of the Oregon Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction.

I’m a retired community college geology instructor now doing climate and sustainability work with Portland State University and several community organizations in Portland Oregon.  I have also done climate advocacy work with the UCS Science Network and have participated in several UN climate conferences as a citizen observer.  Being originally trained as a physicist and a Methodist minister, I eventually went on to become a geologist and geoscience educator. As a researcher my work has been in glacier monitoring, glacier/climate interactions, and the design and use of virtual reality in geoscience education.  During my 40+ years of teaching, much of my work has revolved around helping non-scientists understand, appreciate, and care for earth systems.

During a recent visit to the state capital with UCS, a legislative staffer asked me what brought me to the capital.  I explained that I was there delivering to individual legislators a letter signed by 71 Oregon scientists supporting the Clean Energy Jobs bill (or HB 2020).  She next asked what motivated me to do this.  I answered simply that I’m a glacial geologist and a grandfather.  At which point she simply smiled and said “that definitely explains it.”

In my work as a glacial geologist in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been part of a community monitoring the decline of the region’s numerous alpine glaciers.  Some of the recent work being done by this community indicates that at current rates we may see entire ranges like the Olympics and North Cascades rendered ice-free by the latter half of this century.  While concern about this trend may seem like a nostalgic luxury, there are a host of unsettling issues involving water resource management, forest and stream health, natural hazard mitigation, and rising sea levels that come along with it.

As an elder geoscientist, I am constantly seeking ways to create a better legacy for my grandchildren and their peers.

As a grandfather, I’m aware that what I’m seeing as a glacial geologist is part of a larger package of escalating climate changes that my twelve year old granddaughter and six year old grandson will have to contend with as they become adults.  Like many grandparents, it is hard to look into my grandchildren’s eyes and not feel a sense of sadness about the world they may inherit because of our inaction.  So as an elder geoscientist, I am constantly seeking ways to create a better legacy for my grandchildren and their peers.

For this reason I started visiting the Oregon legislature with the UCS Science Network about two years ago.  It was a very new and somewhat intimidating experience to talk with legislators and their staffers.  Like other science types who have engaged in advocacy, I can find it frustrating that I have to reduce complex issues and concerns to “elevator speeches.”  But at the same time, I’ve learned a lot about the legislative process and how to listen to the spectrum of different and often competing voices.  More than once I’ve been surprised by unexpected instances of genuine support and all the serendipitous windows into being able to “talk across the divide.”

During the past year much of my conversations with Oregon legislators have been about the Clean Energy Jobs bill (HB 2020).  I am a strong supporter of this legislation in large part because of my experience with the UN climate negotiation process.  Although process at the international level has slowed to a crawl, many stakeholders feel a sense of hopefulness about change coming from the subnational level.  I believe that the Oregon Clean Energy Jobs Bill is a critical example of such a movement.

Advocating for more scientists to step up and speak out

Through our advocacy as scientists, we have learned some lessons we hope will help our fellow scientists to step up and speak out for science-based solutions to climate change. On the practical level: wear comfortable shoes! Stepping up for advocacy means you do a lot of walking around the state capital.

Expect surprises and enjoy what those surprises can teach you. Spend some time looking at the photos and other memorabilia on the walls of legislators’ offices. These will tell you a lot about what they value and make for interesting casual conversation that you can connect to your issues and values.

As you speak out, you have to practice and get comfortable with short conversations, sharing your story authentically, and be capable of speaking to legislators’ real concerns quickly and succinctly. As scientists we are comfortable speaking in detail about methods, complexities, and uncertainties. UCS has resources to help you hone in on your message and share your expertise in simple and credible ways. [For example, see the resources in the Science Advocacy Toolkit, like “How to Give a One-Minute Pitch” to your elected official.]

Oregon’s Clean Energy Jobs bill has passed out of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction and is being considered in the Joint Ways and Means Committee. We will continue to raise our voice as scientists and urge Oregon legislators to pass this bill and show the leadership that our country and the world needs to see: that solutions are within our reach if we work together.

We look forward to many more opportunities to create a peaceful, sustainable future by serving as a resource on climate science for UCS, for our communities, and for our legislators.

We encourage you to try it too – if not us, then who will?

 

Sharon Delcambre is an atmospheric scientist currently teaching Fluid Earth systems classes in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Portland and Portland Community College.  She believes in the importance of hands-on learning, field trips, and community-based learning and loves watching students make the connection between the theory and application while in the field. In off hours, she is most often found in her garden, walking her extra-large dog, or exploring local parks with her family and friends.

Frank D. Granshaw PhD, is an adjunct professor of Geology and University Studies and Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University. He is retired Geology Faculty at Portland Community College, and active in the National Association for Geoscience Teachers, Geological Society of America, American Geophysical Union, and Northwest Glaciologists. He considers himself a fiercely proud Oregon native, an insufferably proud grandfather, and an occasional beekeeper, gardener, carpenter, hiker, and general wanderer.

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: BLM Oregon

Climate Change and Human Health – The Win-Win of Tackling Air Pollution

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: Jonathan Johannes/Flickr

The World Health Organization estimates that an alarming 7 million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution. To help tackle this issue, this year’s World Environment Day (June 5) is shining a spotlight on this environmental threat and the multiple benefits derived from tackling it. To learn more, I spoke with Sandra Cavalieri, the Coordinator of the Health Initiative of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Secretariat who is contributing to World Environment Day.

Short-lived climate pollutants: The other global warming gases

When I asked Sandra about the work of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, she let me know that it is the only global initiative focused solely on reducing “short-lived climate pollutants.” These are global warming gases that don’t stick around in the atmosphere as long as the infamous carbon dioxide, but which are big contributors to the problem. This includes things like black carbon (for example, the sooty matter produced by diesel engines and wood stoves), methane (a gas emitted due to human activities like livestock production and landfills as well as from natural sources; methane also leads to the formation of ground-level ozone, another important climate and air pollutant), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs, commonly used for refrigeration and air conditioning).

According to the recent 1.5˚C special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), keeping warming to this level will require significant cuts to the emissions of short-lived climate pollutants; it will require a reduction of methane and black carbon emissions of at least 35% by 2050 relative to 2010 levels.

Air pollution and human health

In addition to the adverse effects of climate change, short-lived climate pollutants also contribute to immediate health-risks to people around the world. For example, Sandra explained how black carbon is a component of a type of air pollution known as PM2.5, or, fine particulate matter that enhances haze. PM2.5 is the most problematic air pollutant for human health, causing a myriad of issues from contributing to premature deaths among people with cardiovascular or pulmonary disease to aggravating asthma. Sandra also pointed out the particularly damaging effects of air pollution on children’s health. According to a World Health Organization report that Sandra shared with me, approximately 93% of children around the world under the age of 5 are exposed to levels of PM2.5 that are higher than recommended air quality guidelines.

Here in the United States, air pollution is surprisingly getting worse in many locations. The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report for 2019 found that more than 141 million people live in U.S. counties that received at least one “F” in their unhealthy air report card. The report estimates that this is 7 million more people than their 2018 report.

As a result, reducing short-lived climate pollutant emissions can both help combat global warming and create healthier living conditions for people in the U.S. and around the world.

Action

To engage with World Environment Day this year, cities, regions and countries are making commitments to improve air quality through the WHO, UN Environment, World Bank and Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s BreatheLife campaign. You can get take their Mask Challenge and take an action to reduce your contribution to air pollution (#BeatAirPollution) – whether it be by turning off a car instead of letting it idle, avoiding driving altogether and getting around by using public transit, biking, or walking, or reducing your consumption of meat, and in turn, the release of methane associated with livestock production.

In the longer term, it is critical that decision makers take leadership without delay and enact policies to reduce short-lived climate pollutants – policies that will have benefits to our health today and will help prevent some of the most dangerous impacts of climate change in the future. If we don’t do it for ourselves, let’s do it for our kids whose futures we hold in our hands.

Photo: Jonathan Johannes/Flickr

Votes of No-Confidence in ExxonMobil’s Climate Leadership

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: 350.org/Flickr

Before entering ExxonMobil’s annual meeting in Dallas last week, shareholders had to pass local activists holding a 100-foot-long banner with the message “Climate Crisis: #ExxonKnew—Make Them Pay.” I attended the meeting for the fourth year in a row and was not surprised that, once inside, shareholders wanted a voice in the company’s handling of climate change issues. ExxonMobil blocked them from voting on shareholder proposals specifically about climate change, so they used every opportunity to express their discontent with the company’s climate action. Despite the spin that shareholders “rejected” the climate-related proposals, the results are actually a vote of no-confidence in how ExxonMobil’s leadership is addressing climate change.

A barely passing grade

While shareholder proposals are framed by companies like ExxonMobil as akin to ballot initiatives (like the proposed carbon fee that Big Oil defeated in Washington state last year), a more appropriate analogy is a report card. ExxonMobil’s Board of Directors recommended that shareholders—the owners of the company—vote against all of these proposals, and yet more than one-quarter of them  rejected the recommendations of its leadership on all but one resolution.

If we look at the votes on a standard grading scale, and consider how many shareholders followed the recommendations of ExxonMobil’s Board, company leadership is barely passing. Nearly half of ExxonMobil’s shareholders want to make it easier to call special shareholder meetings and the same proportion believe that Chair and CEO Darren Woods should not continue to be his own boss.

Here’s a quick overview of how each of these proposals is climate-related.

Ability for shareholders to call special meetings

Although some of the resolutions were not obviously about climate change, all proponents made reference to the issue. Here’s a quick overview of how each of these proposals is climate-related.

This is a corporate governance issue. ExxonMobil currently retains tight control over shareholder meetings—as witnessed by its heavy-handed efforts to prevent shareholders from considering proposals about climate change. The ability to call special meetings (beyond the annual meeting) is all the more important at companies like ExxonMobil where there is not an independent chair (see below).

Separate chair from CEO

The New York State Common Retirement Fund and the Church Commissioners for England wanted shareholders to vote on whether ExxonMobil should set short-, medium- and long-term targets for reducing emissions from its operations and the use of its products, in line with the Paris climate agreement’s global temperature goals. However, ExxonMobil fought their proposal with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and blocked shareholders from voting on this question.

So New York State and the Church of England, who are the leads on engagement with ExxonMobil in the Climate Action 100+ initiative, focused instead on this governance proposal and urged other shareholders to vote in favor of it as well. An independent  chair would strengthen the Board’s oversight of company decisions regarding climate-related risks.

Report on lobbying

Support for this proposal, which called for ExxonMobil to report on direct and indirect lobbying, jumped significantly since last year. Increased transparency around climate-related advocacy by trade associations is fast becoming the norm among ExxonMobil’s competitors. BHP was the first, in 2017. In April, Shell published a review of the climate positions taken by its industry associations—and decided to leave the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers’ Association due to “material misalignment” between its positions and Shell’s. At its annual general meeting a week before ExxonMobil’s, BP pointed to a new guide to its participation in trade associations and reportedly pledged to conduct a review of its memberships. Equinor has made a similar commitment in response to demands by the Climate Action 100+.

Board matrix

Shareholders presenting this proposal linked ExxonMobil’s lagging on climate change issues with a lack of diversity on its Board. Supporters of the resolution argued that “diverse boards can better manage risk by avoiding ‘groupthink,’” and that “a Board matrix will give Exxon shareholders a ‘big-picture’ view of nominees’ attributes, both individually and collectively, and how they fit together.”

Report on political contributions

I presented this proposal as chair of the Socially Responsible Investing Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Unlike some of its industry peers, ExxonMobil fails to disclose substantial amounts of its election spending—including independent expenditures, support for (or opposition to) ballot measures, and payments to trade associations and other non-profit entities. The UUA and co-filers advocated more robust disclosure to mitigate reputational risks at a time of growing shareholder concern about misalignment between companies’ stated values and positions and their political activity—particularly on climate change issues.

Report on petrochemical resiliency risk

As You Sow, a nonprofit shareholder advocacy organization, asked ExxonMobil to issue a report assessing the public health risks of expanding their petrochemical operations and investments in areas increasingly prone to climate change-induced storms, flooding, and sea level risk. Proponents noted the impacts to ExxonMobil’s operations from Hurricane Harvey as an indicator of insufficient preparedness. (See this UCS map highlighting more than 650 energy and industrial facilities that may have been exposed to Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters).

During the question-and-answer portion of last week’s meeting, Dr. Rick Hammer of Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, an expert in local biodiversity, pointed out that Hurricane Harvey was made worse and more likely by warming ocean waters due to rising carbon emissions—and that more extreme weather is harming plant and wildlife biodiversity. (Look out for a guest blog from Rick soon.)

Climate change board committee

In presenting this proposal, Natasha Lamb of Arjuna Capital stressed that ExxonMobil faces “an existential threat that will not be assuaged by denial or simple lip service” and that it should be the Board’s responsibility “to pivot the [business] for success in a low carbon economy. Instead, proactive climate change strategy appears divergent to board priorities.”

While this proposal was supported by less than 10% of ExxonMobil’s shareholders, the strong votes in favor of other resolutions suggest that large institutional investors focused on supporting broader corporate governance reforms.

Top leadership on the defensive

ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Woods raised the specter of intermittency of wind and solar power, then touted his company’s ability to fill the gaps. Without saying “molecules of freedom,” Woods made it clear that he was promoting natural gas. Yet Oil Change International neatly debunked concerns about variable outputs from wind and solar in this new report, and my UCS colleague Mike Jacobs has explained how energy storage can provide reliability in a 100% renewable power grid.

Woods also highlighted ExxonMobil’s spending on low-carbon research and development. But as UCS shows in the below tweet, the company’s low-carbon R&D is dwarfed by its ongoing investments in new oil and gas exploration and infrastructure. Not to mention that ExxonMobil scored “poor” in our 2018 Climate Accountability Scorecard for its failure to disclose details of specific low-carbon investments.

Is @ExxonMobil committed to a low-carbon future? The numbers say no. That’s why investors at ExxonMobil's shareholder meeting are demanding that the company get serious about climate change. #ExxonAGM pic.twitter.com/qAzq64z93J

— Kathy Mulvey (@kathy_mulvey) May 29, 2019

At 11am, as he had done each of the past two years, Woods closed the annual shareholders’ meeting. It didn’t matter how many people were still waiting to speak—including Donald Tritt, a Gwich’in leader who had traveled for 12 hours to ask ExxonMobil not to drill in the Arctic Refuge. Woods had to start spinning the news.

After the meeting, ExxonMobil shareholders received their swag: umbrellas with the ExxonMobil logo on them. Painfully ironic, as Houston continues to recover from the 33 trillion gallons of rain dumped by Hurricane Harvey. But ExxonMobil’s leadership has shown before that it lives in its own virtual reality—and that’s why investors are losing confidence in Woods and his team.

Photo: 350.org/Flickr

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