Combined UCS Blogs

Hyping US Missile Defense Capabilities Could Have Grave Consequences

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

In response to North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test, which flew higher and farther than any of its previous launches, President Trump told Americans not to worry. “We will take care of it,” he said. “It is a situation that we will handle.”

The big question is how. Unfortunately, Trump’s assertion may rest on his unwarranted confidence in the US missile defense system. During a recent interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity about the threat posed by a potential North Korean nuclear strike, he declared that the United States has “missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time.”

The facts, however, tell a different story.

The reality is that the US Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system has succeeded in destroying a mock enemy missile in only 56 percent of its tests since 1999. And, as I’ll explain, none of the tests approached the complexity of a real-world nuclear launch.

What’s more, ever since the George W. Bush administration, the GMD program has been exempt from routine Pentagon oversight and accountability procedures. The result? Fifteen years later, all available evidence indicates that it is still not ready for prime time, and may never be.

Of course, Trump is prone to exaggeration. In fact, he has averaged more than five lies per day since taking office. But it is critical to understand the potential ramifications of this particular Trumparian boast: It could lull Americans into a false sense of security and, even more alarming, embolden Trump to start a war. As veteran military reporter Fred Kaplan pointed out, if the president truly believes the US missile defense system is infallible, “he might think that he could attack North Korea with impunity. After all, if the North Koreans retaliated by firing their nuclear missiles back at us or our allies, we could shoot them down.”

Such wishful thinking could clearly lead to a disastrous miscalculation. And what’s worse, Trump just may believe his preposterous claim because he’s not the only one making it.

If You Repeat a Lie Often Enough…

Missile defense advocates have a long history of hyperbole. A 2016 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists included an appendix with a selected list of some three dozen statements administration and military officials have made extolling the GMD system’s virtues. They are incredibly consistent, and given the facts, consistently incredible.

In March 2003 — before the GMD system was even deployed — then-Undersecretary of Defense Edward Aldridge assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that its “effectiveness is in the 90 percent success range” when asked if it would protect Americans from the nascent North Korean threat.

Seven years later, in December 2010, then-Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly told the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee that “the probability will be well over in the high 90s today of the GMD system being able to intercept” an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) targeting New York City.

Fast forward to April 2016, when Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee. “The US homeland,” he maintained, “is currently protected against potential ICBM attacks from states like North Korea and Iran if it was to develop an ICBM in the future.”

Wrong, wrong, and yet again, wrong. As Washington Post “Fact Checker” columnist Glenn Kessler wrote in mid-October, the claim that the GMD system has a success rate in the “high-90s” is based on “overenthusiastic” math. The system has succeeded only 56 percent of the time over the last two decades, but the calculation is predicated on a hypothetical, never-been-tested launch of four GMD interceptors with a 60-percent success rate producing a 97-percent chance of destroying one incoming ICBM. If one interceptor missed because of a design flaw, however, the other three would likely fail as well. “The odds of success under the most ideal conditions are no better than 50-50,” Kessler concluded, “and likely worse, as documented in detailed government assessments.”

No surprise, defense contractors also wildly overstate the GMD system’s capabilities.

This September on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing’s Defense, Space & Security division, stated unequivocally that the GMD system would “keep us safe” from a North Korean attack. The system is “doing exactly what is needed,” Caret said, but added that it will ultimately require even more rocket interceptors from her company, the prime GMD system contractor since 1996. There are currently 40 interceptors in underground silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, all made by Boeing.

Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy, whose company produces the “kill vehicle” that sits atop Boeing’s interceptor, was equally sanguine about the GMD system when he appeared on Squawk Box the following month. “I say relative to the North Korean threat, you shouldn’t be worried,” Kennedy said. “But you should ensure that you’ve talked to your congressman or congresswoman to make sure they support the defense budget to the point where it can continue to defend the United States and its allies.”

Given such glowing reviews, it’s no wonder President Trump asked Congress for $4 billion for the GMD system and other programs, such as the ship-based Aegis system, designed to intercept short- to intermediate-range missiles. In a November 6 letter to lawmakers, Trump wrote: “This request supports additional efforts to detect, defeat, and defend against any North Korean use of ballistic missiles against the United States, its deployed forces, allies, or partners.”

The House of Representatives apparently is even more enthused about the GMD system’s much-touted capabilities. It passed a $700-billion defense authorization bill on November 14 that includes $12.3 billion for the Missile Defense Agency — more than triple what Trump requested. Some of that money would cover the cost of as many as 28 additional GMD interceptors, but lawmakers asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to develop a plan to add 60, which would increase the overall number of interceptors to 104.

Unrealistic, Carefully Scripted Tests

If members of Congress bothered to take a closer look at the GMD system’s track record, they would hopefully realize that committing billions more is throwing good money after bad. Even the most recent test, which the Missile Defense Agency declared a success, would not inspire confidence.

That test, which took place on May 30, resulted in a GMD interceptor knocking a mock enemy warhead out of the sky. At a press conference afterward, then-Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring claimed it was “exactly the scenario we would expect to occur during an operational engagement.”

Not exactly. Yes, the Pentagon did upgrade its assessment of the GMD system in light of the May exercise, but — like previous tests — it was not held under real-world conditions.

In its 2016 annual report, the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office cautioned that the GMD system has only a “limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.” The “reliability and availability of the operational [interceptors],” it added, “are low.” After the May test, however, the office issued a memo stating that “GMD has demonstrated capability to defend the US homeland from a small number of intermediate-range or intercontinental missile threats with simple countermeasures.”

Despite this rosier appraisal, Laura Grego, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) physicist who has written extensively about the GMD system, is not convinced that the latest test represents a significant improvement. After analyzing an unclassified Missile Defense Agency video of the May 30 exercise, she concluded that it was clearly “scripted to succeed.”

As in previous tests, system operators knew approximately when and where the mock enemy missile would be launched, its expected trajectory, and what it would look like to sensors, she said. And, like the previous tests, the one in May pitted one GMD interceptor against a single missile that was slower than an ICBM that could reach the continental United States, without realistic decoys or other countermeasures that could foil US defenses.

The key takeaway? The GMD system has destroyed its target in only four of 10 tests since it was fielded in 2004, even though all of the tests were held under improbably ideal conditions. If the tests had been more realistic, the deployed GMD system likely would be zero for 10. Moreover, the system’s record has not improved over time. Indeed, it flunked three of the four tests preceding the one in May, and not because the Missile Defense Agency made the tests progressively more difficult.

According to the 2016 UCS report Grego co-authored, a primary reason for the GMD system’s reliability problems is not funding, but lack of oversight. In its rush to get the system up and running, the George W. Bush administration exempted the program from standard military procurement rules and testing protocols. That ill-advised decision has not only run up the system’s price tag, which to date amounts to more than $40 billion, it also has produced a system that is incapable of defending the United States from a limited nuclear attack.

“Regardless of what President Trump and other missile defense boosters want us to believe, the data show that we can’t count on the current system to protect us,” said Grego. “We need to reduce the risk of a crisis escalating out of control. Only diplomacy has a realistic chance of doing that.”

Photo: Department of Defense

You Might Be Wasting Food, Even If You’re Not Throwing It Away

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Biofuels, if grown and processed correctly, can help contribute to emissions reductions.

When I was a child, I was often told not to waste food. Phrases like “Clean your plate or no dessert,” and “Just cut out that little spot. It’s a perfectly good banana,” and “Don’t put that in the back of the fridge. It’ll spoil and then we’ll have to throw it out.”

Now, half a century later, food waste has grown from family stories into a worldwide policy issue. A common estimate is that 40% of food is wasted. Scientific papers analyze consumers’ feelings about the sensory and social qualities of meals, and reducing waste is becoming just as much a concern as local, organic, and community-supported. This issue is critical. Yet an important part of the food waste problem remains unseen.

This additional waste involves not the food that is thrown out because no one eats it—but the food we do eat.

Recent studies by an international group of researchers led by Peter Alexander of the University of Edinburgh have shown just how important this additional kind of waste is. Alexander and his colleagues have published a series of papers that give detailed, quantitative analyses of the global flows of food, from field to fork and on into the garbage can. The results are striking. Only 25% of harvested food, by weight, is consumed by people. (Measuring food by its energy values in calories or by the amount of protein it contains, rather than by its dry weight, does increase the numbers but only a bit—to 32% and 29% respectively.)

But beyond these overall figures, Alexander and colleagues point to the importance of two kinds of waste in the ways in which we do eat our food, but in an extremely inefficient way. One is termed “over-consumption,” defined as food consumption in excess of nutritional requirements. (For the purposes of this discussion, I am referring to food consumption in excess of caloric requirements. However, it is critical to note that calories consumed only tells a small part of the story. A complete analysis would include the quality of the foods consumed and the many systemic reasons why we “over-consume”—including the structure of the food industry, the affordability of and access to processed foods relative to healthier foods, etc. But that is the subject for several books, not one blog post.)

Even using a generous definition of how much food humans require—e.g. 2342 kcals/person/day, compared to the 2100 kcal used in other studies—Alexander et al. find that over-consumption is at least comparable in size to the amount of food that consumers throw out (“consumer waste”). This is show in the graphic below, in which in each column, the uppermost part of each bar (in dark purple) represents over-consumption and the second-to-the-top section (light purple) shows consumer waste.

Losses of harvested crops at different stages of the global food system. The four columns represent different ways to measure the amount of food: from left to right, by dry weight, calories, protein, and wet weight. Source: Figure 4 of Alexander et al., 2017, Agricultural Systems; DOI: 10.1016/j.agsy.2017.01.014.

So, it turns out that for many people, reducing consumption could improve health while also potentially saving food and therefore also the many resources that go into growing and distributing it.

But neither overconsumption nor consumer waste are the largest way we waste the resources that can be used to produce food. That turns out to be livestock production—the dark red sections in the graphic above. Livestock are an extremely inefficient way of transforming crops (which they use as feed) into food for humans, with loss rates ranging from 82% (in terms of protein) up to 94% (by dry weight) once all of the feed they consume during their lifespans is considered. It’s not food that goes into our garbage or landfills, but it represents an enormous loss to the potential global supply of food for people just the same.

The reasons have to do with ecology: when we eat one level higher on the food web we’re losing about 90% of the edible resources from the level below.

Achieving the ultimate goals of reducing food waste—for example, reduced environmental consequences and ensuring more people have access to foods that meet their nutritional requirements—of course will require additional and critical steps. For example, additional food doesn’t help if it isn’t nutritious or can’t be accessed by the people who need it. Also, spared land doesn’t help if that land isn’t managed in a way that contributes to a healthier environment. However, thinking more about all types of food waste can help us to find better ways to protect our natural resources while producing and distributing healthy food for all.

The results of these new analyses should expand what we think of when we hear the words “food waste.” Yes, it includes the food we buy but don’t eat—the vegetables we leave on our plates and the bananas we throw into the compost bin—and it’s very important to develop habits and policies to reduce this waste. But we also need to confront the wastefulness in what we do eat, by asking: how much and what kind of food should we be buying in the first place?

Climate Summit Makes Progress Despite Trump, But Much More Urgency Is Needed

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

The Fijian COP23 presidency placed this sea-faring canoe outside of the main plenary hall in Bonn, symbolizing that when it comes to climate change, we are all in the same boat. Photo: By the author.

As the 23rd meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—or the annual UN climate talks—opened in Bonn, Germany on November 6, the urgency for much greater action on climate change could not have been more clear.  Just two days earlier, Typhoon Damrey barreled into Vietnam, resulting in 69 deaths and nearly $1 billion in damages.  The storm was the worst to hit the southern coastal region of Vietnam in decades, and came on the heels of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which devastated communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean islands; as well as raging forest fires in western North America and Brazil; heatwaves in Europe; and floods in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.

The week before COP23 started, the United Nations Environment Program released its annual Emissions Gap Report, which found that the global warming emission reduction commitments put forward by countries under the Paris Agreement “cover only approximately one-third of the emissions reductions needed to be on a least cost pathway for the goal of staying well below 2°C.”

The report said that current commitments make a temperature increase of at least 3oC above pre-industrial levels by 2100 very likely, and if this emissions gap is not closed by 2030, it is extremely unlikely that the goal of holding global warming to well below 2°C can still be reached.  The report’s warning was reinforced by analysis released by the Global Carbon Project during the talks, projecting that after three years in which global CO2 emissions have remained flat, they are likely to increase by 2% in 2017.

The UNEP report contains good news as well, outlining practical ways to slash emissions in the agriculture, buildings, energy, forestry, industry and transport sectors, along with actions to control hydrofluorocarbons and other high-potency greenhouse gases.  The report finds that nominal investments in these sectors could help to avoid up to 36 GtCO2e per year by 2030.  Almost two-thirds of this potential is from investment in solar and wind energy, efficient appliances, efficient passenger cars, afforestation and stopping deforestation — actions which have modest or net-negative costs; these savings alone would put the world well on track to hitting the 2oC target.

In the context of these risks and opportunities, the progress made at COP23 was far too modest compared to what is needed.  But negotiators did succeed in laying the groundwork for more substantial achievements down the road, and the fact that countries pushed ahead despite President Trump’s announced intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement is in itself a welcome accomplishment.

Getting the rules right

A major focus of the negotiations in Bonn was on hammering out the detailed rules (or “implementation guidelines”) for the Paris Agreement, on a range of issues including transparency and reporting, accounting standards for both emissions and finance, the new market mechanisms created in the agreement that would allow reductions achieved in one country to be credited against another country’s emissions reduction commitments, how to raise the ambition of national actions over time, and actions needed to cope with the mounting impacts of climate change.

Countries had set a goal in Paris of resolving these and other implementation issues at the 2018 climate summit in Poland next December, so there was no expectation of final agreements on any of these issues at COP23.  Rather, the objective at COP23 was to narrow the differences amongst countries and to clearly frame the options on the key issues involved, so as to facilitate their resolution next year.

Progress was made across the range of rulebook topics, but it was uneven.  A bright spot was on the sensitive issue of transparency and reporting, where differences were narrowed and a fairly clear set of options was laid out.

By contrast, the negotiations on “features” of the “nationally-determined contributions” that countries are required to put forward under the Paris Agreement, as well as accounting standards for these NDCs and the up-front information requirements to ensure their “clarity, transparency, and understanding,” were much more polarized, and the end result was an unwieldy 179-page list of issues and options.

The most charged discussions were around finance, specifically the requirement in Article 9.5 of the Paris Agreement, that every two years developed countries must provide “indicative quantitative and qualitative information” on their future support for developing countries, including, “as available, projected levels of public financial resources to be provided.”  The African Group of countries pushed for more clarity and detail on this projected financial support by developed countries for developing country actions, a move that was strongly opposed by the U.S. and other developed countries.

Developing countries want greater certainty of the financial resources available to them going forward, so they can plan projects accordingly; but developed countries are loathe to make multi-year commitments that they can be held accountable for. This issue will be revisited at the intersessional meeting in Bonn next spring, and then brought to ministers at COP24 in Poland in December, 2018.

We left Bonn not with the draft negotiating text on the Paris rules that some had hoped for, but instead with a set of “informal notes” produced by the co-facilitators of each of the working groups, which capture and organize the proposals put forward by countries.  Much work lies ahead to meet the goal of adopting the full Paris rulebook at COP24, and while negotiators can work out some of the technical details in advance, it will clearly be up to ministers to resolve the political differences on the major crunch issues.

Catalyzing higher ambition

The decision adopted in Paris explicitly acknowledged the substantial shortfall in collective ambition that could keep the world from meeting the aggressive temperature limitation goals embodied in the Paris Agreement, and called for a “facilitative dialogue” at COP24 next year to address ways to close this gap.  Working with last year’s Moroccan COP22 presidency, Fiji put forward its vision of how this process should be conducted, renaming it the “Talanoa dialogue.” As Fiji explains, “Talanoa is a traditional approach used in Fiji and the Pacific to engage in an inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue; the purpose of Talanoa is to share stories, build empathy and trust.”

This will be a year-long process consisting of a preparatory phase starting in early 2018 and a political phase involving ministers at next year’s climate summit in Poland. The dialogue will be structured around three key questions: “Where are we? Where do we want to go? and How do we get there?”  One major input will be the Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change examining the impacts of global warming of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, scheduled for completion next October.  Additional analytical and policy-relevant inputs will be welcomed in the preparatory phase, not just from countries but from NGOs, businesses, research institutions, and other stakeholders as well.

To succeed, this process must do more than reaffirm the ambition gap; it must spur concrete steps to close it.  A central focus will be on the need for countries to signal, by 2020, their intention to raise the ambition of their existing commitments between now and 2030.  But the dialogue should also examine how states, cities, businesses and other “non-state actors” can contribute to closing the ambition gap, and encourage a range of sectoral initiatives on renewable energy, energy efficiency, forestry and agricultural sectors solutions, carbon pricing and other areas.

The Talanoa dialogue process will be jointly led by Fiji and Poland, as the current and incoming COP presidencies. Given Poland’s heavy dependence on coal-generated electricity, there are legitimate concerns about that government’s interest in generating the specific outcomes from the dialogue needed to enhance ambition.  It is clearly up to all countries to ensure the dialogue stays on track and produces meaningful results.

Dealing with climate impacts

Even if we are able to close the emissions gap and hold temperature increases well below 2 degrees Celsius, as leaders committed to in Paris, the world is going to suffer increasing climate impacts over the next several decades, as a result of the emissions we have already put up in the atmosphere.  Developing countries, together with environmental and development NGOs, pushed in Bonn for faster progress on helping vulnerable countries and affected communities cope with these impacts, both through enhanced measures to adapt to current and future impacts, as well as strategies to deal with the now-unavoidable “loss and damage” they are facing, both from “slow-onset” impacts such as sea level rise and desertification, and from typhoons, hurricanes, floods, and other extreme events.  At COP19 in Poland in 2013, countries established the Warsaw Implementation Mechanism on Loss and Damage (or “WIM”), and explicit provisions on loss and damage were included in the Paris Agreement.

Sadly, not enough was accomplished in Bonn on this front.  Five European countries did pledge a total of $185 million of renewed support for the Adaptation Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund.  But developed countries blocked a push by vulnerable countries to make the issue of mobilizing the much greater level of financial resources to deal with loss and damage a standing agenda item at future negotiating sessions.  All they would agree to is to hold an “expert dialogue” on this issue at next spring’s subsidiary body meetings in Bonn, which in turn will inform technical analysis on financial resource mobilization for loss and damage activities that is already being undertaken by the WIM.

Expect this issue to continue to be a major topic of debate in the negotiations going forward, including at COP25 in late 2019, where countries have agreed to conduct a full-blown review of the WIM.

The elephant in the room

When President Trump announced in June of this year his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, there was widespread condemnation from other countries, as well as from business and civil society both in the United States and around the world.  Not one country indicated that they intended to follow President Trump out the door; in fact, during the first week of the Bonn climate summit, the only other Paris Agreement holdout, Syria, announced that it intended to join all the other countries of the world in the agreement, rather than be lumped in with the United States as a climate scofflaw.

The U.S. negotiating team in Bonn kept a low profile, hewing largely to past positions on issues like transparency and reporting for developing countries and robust accounting standards.  They were quite tough in the negotiations on climate finance and loss and damage, though, perhaps out of concern that any sign of flexibility risked an unhelpful response from the Tweeter-in-Chief.

White House staff organized a side event on the role of coal, nuclear, and gas technologies as climate solutions, which generated a well-organized and creative protest led by U.S. youth groups.  It was also overshadowed by the launch of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a coalition of 20 countries led by Canada and the United Kingdom that is committed to phasing out use of coal no later than 2030.

California Governor Jerry Brown, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and other officials at the Nov. 11th launch of America’s Pledge at the U.S. Climate Action Center in Bonn. Photo: By the author.

But the real energy at the Bonn climate summit came from the We Are Still In initiative of university presidents, mayors, governors, business leaders, and NGOs who showcased their steps to reduce climate pollution and pledged their intention to meet America’s emissions reduction commitments under Paris, regardless of President Trump’s efforts to dismantle federal leadership on climate policy.

Through an intensive schedule of side events, press briefings, and bilateral meetings with ministers and business leaders from other countries, this U.S. subnational delegation went a long way to assuring the rest of the world that President Trump represents a short-term deviation in U.S. policy, not a long-term trend.  Of course, until there is a clear demonstration of bipartisan political support at the federal level for climate action, other countries will understandably continue to harbor concerns about the reliability of the United States as a partner in this endeavor.

What lies ahead

Negotiators will reconvene in Bonn on April 30 for a two-week session of the UNFCCC’s subsidiary bodies, working to make progress across the range of issues to be decided at COP24 in Katowice, Poland next December, and Fiji and Poland will convene several informal ministerial discussions over the course of 2018 focusing on the key political decisions that must be reached at COP24.

There are a number of other events where ministers and even heads of state will be discussing ways to enhance climate action over the next year, including:

  • The One Planet Summit being convened by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, with a focus on mobilizing increased public and private sector climate finance.
  • Two more sessions of the Ministerial Meeting on Climate Action (MOCA), a dialogue launched by Canada, China, and the European Union in Montreal in September; the next meeting will be hosted by the EU next spring, followed by a meeting hosted by China next fall.
  • The ninth meeting of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, a ministerial-level discussion to be co-hosted in mid-2018 by Germany and Poland, as the incoming presidency of the Conference of the Parties.
  • The G7 leaders’ summit, to be hosted by Canada on June 8th and 9th 
  • The Global Climate Action Summit being hosted in San Francisco next September by Gov. Jerry Brown, which will bring together national, state and local political leaders, businesses, scientists, non-profits and others to “showcase the surge of climate action around the world – and make the case that even more needs to be done.”
  • The G20 leaders’ summit, hosted by Argentina and starting just two days before COP 24, on November 30th.  Leaders should build on the Climate and Energy Action Plan adopted at the G20 summit last July under the German presidency, which was agreed to by all G20 countries except for the United States.

All of these events can – and must – contribute to accelerated progress at COP24 in Katowice and beyond in implementing and strengthening the Paris Agreement.  As the UNEP report and other analyses clearly show, we have the solutions we need to the crisis we face. But what we need now is a much greater level of political will.

North Korea’s Longest Missile Test Yet

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

After more than two months without a missile launch, North Korea did a middle-of-the-night test (3:17 am local time) today that appears to be its longest yet.

Reports are saying that the missile test was highly lofted and landed in the Sea of Japan some 960 km (600 miles) from the launch site. They are also saying the missile reached a maximum altitude of 4,500 km. This would mean that it flew for about 54 minutes, which is consistent with reports from Japan.

If these numbers are correct, then if flown on a standard trajectory rather than this lofted trajectory, this missile would have a range of more than 13,000 km (8,100 miles). This is significantly longer than North Korea’s previous long range tests, which flew on lofted trajectories for 37 minutes (July 4) and 47 minutes (July 28). Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, DC, and in fact any part of the continental United States.

We do not know how heavy a payload this missile carried, but given the increase in range it seems likely that it carried a very light mock warhead. If true, that means it would not be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to this long distance, since such a warhead would be much heavier.

Which States are Most Energy-Efficient? Here are the Latest Results

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Adding insulation to your attic is an effective step to improve the efficiency of your home, save money, and cut carbon emissions.

Autumn makes me think of leaves colored orange and amber and red, of the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg wafting from a range of desserts… and of states vying for top honors in the annual state ranking of energy efficiency policies and progress.

The leaves are mostly done, and the desserts are in my belly. But the latest ranking from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy is out and available, and ready for sampling. It’s always a beautiful sight and a tasty treat.

Energy efficiency – Why and how?

Energy efficiency is already one of the main tools we use for meeting new energy demand. Why it makes sense as a tool is clear, as the new report says:

[Energy efficiency] creates jobs, not only directly for manufacturers and service providers, but also indirectly in other sectors by saving energy and freeing up funds to support the local economy. Efficiency also reduces pollution, strengthens community and grid resilience, promotes equity, and improves health.

The annual scorecard “ranks states on their efficiency policies and programs, not only assessing performance but also documenting best practices and recognizing leadership.” ACEEE does that by looking at a range of metrics that are shaped by each state’s efforts:

  • Utility and public benefits programs and policies
  • Transportation policies
  • Building energy codes and compliance
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) policies
  • State government–led initiatives around energy efficiency
  • Appliance and equipment standards


ACEEE state energy efficiency scorecard rankings, 2017

Who’s on top?

The highlighted states include some familiar faces plus a few new ones. The top states were the same in 2017 as in 2016, and highlighted the strong focus on efficiency in certain parts of the country:

  • Massachusetts took the top spot for the seventh straight year, and stood alone at the top (after tying with California for 2016 honors). Northeast states also took third (Rhode Island), fourth (Vermont), sixth (Connecticut), and seventh (New York).
  • The West Coast states garnered high marks, too, taking second (California), fifth (Oregon), and seventh (Washington).
  • The Midwest also made a good showing, at ninth (Minnesota) and eleventh (Illinois and Michigan, tied).

ACEEE makes a point of calling out some “most improved” states, too, and this year that brought in states from other parts of the country:

  • Idaho was the most most improved, jumping up seven spots and landing it in the middle of the pack—its best performance, says ACEEE, since 2012—due to investments in “demand-side management”, increased adoption of electric vehicles, and building energy code improvements.
  • Florida gained three spots in part due to its work on energy efficiency for the state’s farmers.
  • Its work to strengthen building energy codes in the state helped Virginia move up four notches.

The savings add up. (Source: ACEEE state energy efficiency scorecard)

How do states take it to the next level?

No state got a perfect score, ACEEE points out, so every state has room for improvement. Fortunately, they offer a few tips on how to make that happen:

  • Establish and adequately fund an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) or similar energy savings target.
  • Adopt policies to encourage and strengthen utility programs designed for low-income customers, and work with utilities and regulators to recognize the nonenergy benefits of such programs.
  • Adopt updated, more stringent building energy codes, improve code compliance, and involve efficiency program administrators in code support.
  • Adopt California tailpipe emission standards and set quantitative targets for reducing VMT [vehicle miles travelled].
  • Treat cost-effective and efficient CHP [combined heat and power] as an energy efficiency resource equivalent to other forms of energy efficiency.
  • Expand state-led efforts—and make them visible.
  • Explore and promote innovative financing mechanisms to leverage private capital and lower the up-front costs of energy efficiency measures.

But we’re making progress, and leading states are demonstrating what a powerful resource energy efficiency is.

And with a federal administration that seems determined to move backward on clean air and water by propping up coal, and backward on climate action, that state action on clean energy is more important now than ever.

So congrats to the efficiency leaders among our states, and thanks.


Lessons from the Land and Water Songs to Heal

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: Samantha Chisholm Hatfield

Recently, I was fortunate to be selected as an HJ Andrews Visiting Scholar, and was able to complete an HJ Andrews Scholar Writing residency, where I had the incredible opportunity to view the forest area through a Traditional Ecological Knowledge lens.

I had scheduled the residency specifically so that I could take my child along, teaching Traditional Knowledge as it has been taught to me, passing along generations of information and skills in areas that had been historically traversed by ancestors. There were times when I doubted my decision, as complaints of spotty wifi access began. That quickly subsided as complaints turned to questions, and I knew I had made the correct decision. Spiritually my child felt it; there was connection again, as I’d hoped.

Photo: Samantha Chisholm Hatfield

My child and I sat at the river’s edge, watching the water roll by. We discussed the water, and the tall trees and the bushes that walked alongside the water’s path. We discussed the tiny bugs skimming around on the water, and the spiders, and the rocks. We joked about how Sasquatch must love this area because of the incredible beauty. Time stopped, and the symphony of wind and water rose around us as we watched branches and flowers dance and sway.

At one point my child broke out in traditional song. To most, this would not seem unusual, but to those who live traditionally, this is spectacular. It was song that came to him, gifted through, and from the waters, about the water and the beauty he found. The water ran clean, and the birds sang freely.

This is who we ARE. As Native People, we are living WITH the land, rather than simply ON it. We engage with the tiniest of tiny, as well as with the largest of large. This is a concept that many cannot fathom. Reciprocity with the land is at the core of where we come from, and has been a basis for our survival as well as our identity. It has been essential that we as Native people continue to nurture the land as it nurtures us. Reciprocity is in traditional information, and is an everyday integrated expectation, that fosters well-being of ourselves and our identification as Natives.

Reciprocity with the land

Photo: Samantha Chisholm Hatfield

Our identity is connected with every tiny droplet. Every tiny speck of dust. Every rock, every tree, every winged, every insect, and four-legged. We are one among many, we do not have dominion over, but rather have congruence with.

It is not vital that we share the same communication language, it is not vital that we appear in the same form. The tiny fly deserves as much respect as the bison, or the person standing next to me. Those of us who work to protect have been given orders to do so, often by our Elders, who are at the forefront of holding our wisdom. Oral histories and Traditional Knowledges hold information and instructions that direct and guide us. There is a belief that we are entrusted to care for the earth, and for the seventh generation to come, so that life, and the earth, will remain just as it is currently, if not better for our future generations.

We are borrowing the resources that we live with, caring for the investment of life that we are blessed with. We are taught to have forward-thinking vision in our actions. We work for all, even for those who are antagonists. We do so, because we have been gifted visions by our ancestors of what Seven Generations means, and what it takes to get there. Vision, of how to care of a world that is quickly losing its grip on reality of situations that are dominating, destructing, and devaluing knowledge. Vision, of what needs repaired, who needs helped, and what path needs to be walked.

Respecting how much Traditional Knowledges can teach us

Many question the validity of TEK, and are not be able to ‘connect the dots’. It is difficult to view a system in an alternative perspective if you have not have grown up in it, nor have been enculturated to it. It can seem foreign and be discounted as baseless. Western mainstream promotes the “dominion over” ideology. Controlling and manipulating that which would challenge or hinder human desires. Reciprocity and gentleness are values taught and held in high esteem in many Native communities.

There are no separations from the environment and ourselves, it is a knowing that what befalls the land, befalls The People.

There are no escape diversions, no malls to buy excuses from, no spas to run to for the weekend.

Our escapes come in the form of clear streams, and old growth towering majestically, in the form of waves crashing on shores and dirt under our feet. We are guided alongside teachings of congregations of the finned, and the winged, the hooved, and the crawlers. Our songs, our prayers, our way of life depends on these aspects, but only when they are connected, and healthy.

Half a book, half a lesson, half a river, half a tree, half a story cannot teach. It cannot sustain culture, it cannot sustain life. Anyone’s.

The integration of knowledge is often viewed as an interloper, incongruent and irrelevant to the daily lives of westernized systems of thought. This could not be further from the truth.


Dr. Samantha Chisholm Hatfield is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, from the Tututni Band, and is also Cherokee. She earned a doctorate from Oregon State University in Environmental Sciences focusing on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of Siletz Tribal Members, from Oregon State University. Dr. Chisholm Hatfield’s specializations include: Indigenous TEK, tribal adaptations due to climate change, and Native culture issues. She’s worked with Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, and successfully completed a Post-Doctoral Research position with Northwest Climate Science Center. She’s spoken on the national level such as the First Stewards Symposium, National Congress of American Indians, Northwest Climate Conference, and webinars. She’s helped coordinate tribal participation for the Northwest Climate Science Center and Oregon State’s Climate Boot Camp workshops. Her dissertation has been heralded nationally by scholars as a template for TEK research, and remains a staple conversation item for academics and at workshops. She is a Native American Longhouse Advisory Board member at Oregon State University, was selected as an H.J. Andrews Forest Visiting Scholar, is actively learning Tolowa, Korean, and continues her traditional cultural practices. In her spare time she dances traditionally at pow wows, spends time with family, and is the owner of a non-profit organization that teaches the game of lacrosse to disadvantaged youth.    

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



How Much Does it Cost to Charge an Electric Car in Your City?

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Everyone can see what gasoline costs, but how much does electricity cost for recharging an electric car? Photo: Tewy CC BY 2.5 Wikimedia)

Most drivers know how much it costs to fill the tank with gasoline. It’s hard to miss the glowing numbers at the corner station.  But how much does it cost to recharge an electric car? And how much money do EVs  save drivers compared to gasoline-powered cars? To help answer these questions, our new report, “Going From Pump to Plug,” looks at the price of recharging an EV at home in the fifty largest cities in the US, as well at public charging stations.

Charging an EV at home can be much cheaper than gasoline

After comparing the findings for large cities across the US, the answer is clear: for every electricity provider we looked at, charging an EV is cheaper than refueling the average new gasoline vehicle.

Compared to using the average new gasoline car, driving on electricity would save on average almost $800 per year in fuel costs.

Find EV savings in your city:

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However, where you live and what electric rate plan you choose can change your savings. For almost all EV drivers, choosing a time-of-use (TOU) electric rate plan is needed to see the largest savings.

A TOU plan gives cheaper electric rates during off-peak periods (often late at night), with higher rates for using electricity during high-demand times. Because most EVs are parked at home overnight, TOU rates are a good fit for most EV drivers.

In some cities, especially in California, TOU rates are essential for saving money on fuel costs. For example, in my home in Oakland, CA, recharging using the standard electricity plan is equal to buying gasoline at $3.34/gallon, while using the TOU plan only costs the equivalent of $1.03/gallon.

Public EV charging costs are variable

Costs to charge at public charging stations varies considerably. Some stations are free, while others can cost over twice as much as home charging. However, the impact of public charger costs is often muted by the high preponderance of home charging.  For example, a San Francisco driver that uses higher-cost DC fast charging for 20 percent of charging would only see their average fuel costs increase from $0.78/gallon equivalent to $1.35/gallon.

Savings on maintenance, too

Drivers of battery electric vehicles also can have significantly lower maintenance costs. These EVs have no engine, so no oil changes, spark plugs, or engine air filter to change. Instead, the electric motors and batteries require little to no attention. This means less time and money spent on routine car maintenance. Comparing the Chevy Bolt EV to the Chevy Sonic gasoline car, the Bolt owner will spend over $1,500 less on scheduled maintenance over the first 150,000 miles.

Policies needed to ensure all can access these EV benefits

Electric vehicles can save drivers on fuel and maintenance costs, at the same time they help reduce global warming emissions and air pollution. However, good policies are needed to make sure that all can access the benefits of EVs.

  • Buyers need to be able to afford EVs. Currently, EVs cost more to manufacture compared to similar-sized gasoline cars. These manufacturing costs are coming down as EV production volumes increase and technology advances, but federal, state, and local purchase incentives are vital to accelerate the transition from gasoline to electricity.
  • Policies are needed to ensure that everyone can recharge an EV at a price lower than gasoline cost. Regulators and electricity providers should ensure that EV customers can access lower-cost electricity rate plans, which are key to making EVs a reliable and affordable alternative to gasoline vehicles. Solutions are needed for those who cannot charge at home and those that must drive long distances. Therefore, access is essential to reliable and affordable public charging, especially fast-charging stations. Also, public policies that improve charging options at apartments and multi-unit dwellings will broaden the base of drivers who can choose an EV.
  • Public policies should require manufacturers to produce higher volumes of EVs and encourage a greater diversity of electric-drive models and sizes. There are many more models of EVs available now as compared to just a few years ago, but there is still a lack of some types of vehicles with electric such as pickup trucks. Also, not all manufacturers offer EVs nationwide, making it more difficult for buyers to find and test drive an EV.

Policies like these can help ensure that everyone has access to EVs and can make personal transportation choices that both save them money and reduce their carbon footprint.

The Senate Tax Bill: Just Say No

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By the end of this week, the Senate is expected to vote on the tax cut bill reported out of the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month.  Changes in the bill will likely be made right up to the end, as Republican leaders struggle to secure the 50 votes needed to approve the bill under budget “reconciliation” rules (normally, it takes 60 votes to move major bills through the Senate).

At least six Republican Senators are reported to have serious concerns about the bill, either because they fear it would add too much to the deficit or because it favors large corporations more than small business owners. If three or more of those Senators end up opposing the bill (and no Democrats break ranks and support it), the bill will die.  For the reasons outlined below, it should.

Equity is in the eye of the campaign contributor

As was the case with the tax bill passed by the House on November 16th, there’s been a fierce debate over the distributional impacts of the Senate bill.

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center finds that if the bill becomes law, most taxpayers would see a reduction in their tax bills in the years out to 2025 – although the cuts would be heavily skewed towards the top 1 percent of the income distribution (households with more than $750,000 in annual income).

But this changes dramatically in 2026 and beyond, because of Senate Republicans’ decision to make the corporate tax cuts permanent while sunsetting the individual tax cut provisions after 2025 (they did this to comply with the prohibition on increasing the deficit after ten years when using the reconciliation process).  As a result, by 2027, the TPC projects that some 50 percent of taxpayers would see an increase in their tax bills, while only 28 percent would still be getting a tax cut.  And once again, the impacts would be skewed: for taxpayers with incomes in the top 0.1 percent of all Americans, less than 2 percent would see an increase in their taxes, while 98 percent would enjoy a tax cut averaging nearly $224,000 in 2027 alone.

The Senate bill also eliminates the tax penalty that individuals who choose not to purchase health insurance must pay under the Affordable Care Act, in order to achieve deficit reductions that can be used to offset the cost of the permanent reductions in corporate tax rates.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates this will reduce the deficit by $338 billion over the next ten years, as the number of Americans with health insurance would decrease by 13 million by 2027, reducing government outlays both for Medicaid and for subsidies for individuals purchasing health insurance in the ACA’s marketplace.  Meanwhile, health care premiums would increase by 10 percent for individuals in the non-group marketplace, compared to the baseline.

This is Robin Hood in reverse – robbing the poor to pay the rich – and represents yet another effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act without putting anything credible in its place to deal with the health care needs of millions of Americans.

Deficit, schmeficit

Some Republicans have claimed that the Senate’s tax cuts will largely pay for themselves as a result of higher economic growth rates.  But analysis using a highly-respected economic model estimates the Senate bill would increase the deficit by some $1.4 – 1.6 trillion over the next ten years; this closely tracks the $1.4 trillion deficit increase estimate by the official Congressional scorekeeper, the Joint Committee on Taxation.  And of course, these estimates assume that Congress allows the individual tax cuts to expire after ten years, allows the generous business deduction for investments in factories and equipment to expire after five years, and allows other tax increases scheduled to take effect in 2026 to stand.  If (as is more than likely) those provisions were to be reversed by a future Congress and President, the resulting deficit would swell further, creating even greater pressure for cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, food assistance, and other programs that benefit low- and middle-income families, along with reduced investments in scientific and medical research, education and job training, infrastructure, and other public goods.

As I’ve noted previously, federal government investments in science research and innovation have led to discoveries that have produced major benefits for our health, safety, economic competitiveness, and quality of life.  This includes MRI technology, vaccines and new medical treatments, the internet and GPS, earth-monitoring satellites that allow us to predict the path of major hurricanes, clean energy technologies such as LED lighting, advanced wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, and so much more.

The work of numerous federal agencies to develop and implement public and worker health and safety protections against exposure to toxic chemicals, air and water pollution, workplace injuries, and many other dangers has also produced real benefits. All of these programs (along with veterans’ care, homeland security, transportation and other infrastructure, law enforcement, education, and many other core government programs) fall within the non-defense discretionary (or NDD) portion of federal spending, which has been disproportionately targeted for spending cuts over the last decade. As an analysis by Paul Van de Water of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out, “NDD spending in 2017 will be about 13 percent below the comparable 2010 level after adjusting for inflation (nearly $100 billion lower in 2017 dollars).”

The aging of the American population, continued increases in health care costs, the need to replace crumbling infrastructure and pay billions to help communities devastated by hurricanes and wildfires, and other factors will drive a substantial increase in federal spending over the next few decades.

One estimate is that federal spending will need to grow from 20.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 23.5 percent of GDP by 2035, largely as a result of increased costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In order to keep the national debt from growing faster than the overall economy, federal revenues will need to increase from some 17.8 percent of GDP in 2016 to at least 20.5 percent in 2035.

The need to increase spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, along with pressure to maintain (or increase) defense spending, will continue to squeeze NDD expenditures in the years ahead, even without the higher deficits created by the Senate Republican tax cut bill.

The game plan is clear as can be: pass massive tax cuts that add hundreds of billions of dollars each year to the deficit, then starting next year, use those higher deficits as an excuse for slashing programs that benefit middle- and lower-income Americans.

There’s a better way

The outcome of this week’s Senate action on the tax bill will not only determine whose tax bills will go down (or up) and by how much, important as that is; it will also impact America’s ability to maintain our global leadership on scientific and medical research and technology innovation, improve our air and water quality, avert the worst impacts of climate change (and cope with the impacts we can’t avoid), upgrade our transportation, energy, and communications infrastructure, and make investments in other critical areas.

Senators face a momentous choice.  They must refrain from handing out trillions of dollars in tax breaks to profitable corporations and the wealthiest Americans, while eroding health care coverage and laying the groundwork for deep cuts in a broad range of important federal programs down the road.  Instead, they should start over, and work across the aisle to craft a real tax reform plan that clears away the dense thicket of special interest loopholes and simplifies the tax code in a way that’s equitable to all Americans, without exploding the deficit and endangering the ability of the federal government to meet America’s current and future needs.

We know it’s possible to legislate in such a responsible, bipartisan manner; after all, it’s happened before.



I’m About to Testify at the EPA. Here’s What I Have to Say….

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Photo credit: Sanjay Suchak.

After a restful and enjoyable time with my family over the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve extended my stay here in Charleston, West Virginia, to testify at the Environmental Protection Agency’s hearing on its proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan. I’ll be speaking tomorrow morning. Below are my prepared remarks.

Testimony of Dr. Jeremy Richardson at EPA’s Public Hearing on Repealing the Clean Power Plan, on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists

Remarks as Prepared

I stand before you today as the brother, son, and grandson of West Virginia coal miners. And at the same time, I am also a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I focus on the US power sector and how the clean energy transition already underway can help us address the urgent threat of climate change. As you might imagine, we have interesting discussions at our house over Thanksgiving!

Like so many others here today, my family has helped keep the lights on in this country for generations—and also like many of you, I’m deeply proud of that history. And yet, things are changing—fast. My research confirms something you probably already know: coal has become increasingly uneconomic compared with cheaper, cleaner forms of energy like natural gas and renewable energy—and this market trend is going to continue.

But these days it feels like facts don’t matter—and that’s very disturbing to a scientist like me. So, just for the record, allow me to state some things that are true and obvious, but seem to have been forgotten in the rhetoric around these issues.

First, coal miners and coal communities are suffering. The job losses experienced—especially over the last five to ten years—have been devastating for families and communities. But—the primary driver of the decline of coal is economics. Coal can no longer compete with cleaner and cheaper ways to generate electricity—largely natural gas, with renewables increasingly beating coal in some parts of the country. And coal mining jobs have been declining since the middle of the last century because of mechanization, the shift to cheaper, large-scale surface mining operations out West, and geologic realities that have led to declining productivity in Appalachian coal mines. It is easy to blame the policies of the last president for all of coal’s problems, but it simply isn’t true.

Second, it is the job of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect human health and the environment. It is not the job of the EPA to protect the coal industry. In fact, the EPA is bound by law to address air and water pollutants from producing and using coal. Many of these pollutants are hurting the health of communities right here in Appalachia, where acid mine drainage and coal ash contaminate our waterways, and are also causing harm around the country where people live downwind from coal-fired power plants. The EPA is also legally required by the Clean Air Act to curtail global warming emissions from power plants because science shows that climate change poses risks to our health and the health of future generations.

This brings me to my third point, that climate change is real, period. It is primarily caused by human activities—including the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil. Despite what you may have heard or read, this is not disputed by any expert on the issue. The recently released National Climate Assessment special report confirms what we already knew—we are observing the impacts of climate change now, and left unchecked it will likely get much worse. And importantly, we can still avoid some of the worst consequences—if we act fast.

The Clean Power Plan was an important step toward reducing emissions from one of the largest sources of US carbon emissions. Nationally, it also would have provided significant economic and public health benefits by lowering other pollutants and encouraging growth in the renewable energy industry. That is why I am here today to voice UCS’ opposition to the repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

My dad, who is a retired longwall maintenance foreman believes that climate change is real. He also understands that coal represents good paying jobs for our state. So do I.

When I left behind my previous research in astronomy more than 10 years ago, I did so because I was deeply passionate about addressing the threat of climate change. The truth is, the often-vilified environmental activists are worried about climate change because of its impacts on people. For me, I don’t really care about what happens to the polar bears—but the reality of melting ice is truly a canary in the coal mine, and the potential impacts on humans and human civilization are deeply frightening.

According to the latest scientific assessment, sea levels are expected to continue to rise by at least a few more inches in just the next 15 years, and from 1 to 4 feet or more by 2100. Tidal flooding in communities along the US East and Gulf Coasts has increased in recent decades, and is expected to get much worse in the coming decades. An analysis by Climate Central finds that depending on emissions level, between 147 and 216 million people worldwide are at risk of living on land that is below sea level in 2100. And that may be a conservative estimate, based on current population estimates and data limitations, and the authors suggest the number may be much higher—around 300 to 650 million people.

Heavy rainfall is increasing in both intensity and frequency across the United States, with the largest increases observed in the Northeast region, which includes West Virginia. Changes in extreme precipitation can lead to catastrophic flooding, like the state experienced during the historic floods of June 2016.

Even as I changed careers, I recognized that we must reduce emissions to address climate change—and that means changing how we produce energy. But I have been wrestling with a nagging question—what does a low carbon future mean for a place like West Virginia, a place I still call home?

The challenge before us is that we must figure out how to solve both problems—bringing down carbon emissions so that we protect people all around the world who are facing the impacts of climate change, and simultaneously investing in new economic opportunities in the very places where people depend on coal for their livelihoods.

As a start, we must increase federal spending targeted at economic development and economic diversification in coal country. If the current administration really cared about coal communities, it would be doubling down on those investments, not cutting federal programs, like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration, that support communities here and around the region.

I am here to tell you that it’s time we tone down the rhetoric on this issue. It’s not as if there was a “war on the horse and buggy” a hundred years ago. No, something better came along: the automobile.

Today we are seeing solar panels go up on homes and businesses right here in West Virginia, no thanks to state policies, but rather due to some intrepid business leaders who see the future and want our state to be a part of it. We need to collectively support those efforts, not because we’re anti-coal, but because we deserve to be a part of the clean energy economy that is emerging all around us.

This hearing, and this entire process to derail action to address climate change, are distracting us from the real work at hand.

We must not only work to protect the planet’s climate through strong carbon standards, but also ensure that we invest in workers and communities to spur new economic opportunities right here in the heart of Coal Country.

I do not accept that this is an “either-or” proposition.

The Union of Concerned Scientists stands ready to do its part.

Thank you.

Dr. Jeremy Richardson

Senior Energy Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists

Will Automakers Walk the Talk on EVs? Four Things to Look for at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show

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Chevy Bolt featured in the 2016 LA Autoshow. Photo: Dave Reichmuth

I’ll be attending this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show to check out the latest and greatest in vehicle technology. While the flashy presentations of the automakers will certainly grab attention, here are four things that I’ll really be paying attention to:

Are there more electric vehicle (EV) options?

The future of transportation is electric drive, but we are a long way from replacing all gasoline and diesel cars with EVs (both plug-in and fuel cell EVs). One barrier in the way of transitioning to electric cars is the availability of EV models. In California, EV sales have been increasing over the last few years, with plug-in sales reaching 4.5 percent of all cars and trucks sold in the state this year. This is a great start, but we’ll have to go a lot further to meet our air quality and climate pollution reduction goals. To get to higher levels of EV sales, we’ll need to start seeing more EV models and a larger selection of sizes and styles available. So, I’ll be looking for what new options are coming, especially in the larger-size vehicle segments like SUVs.

Will automakers showcase the available technologies powering cleaner, more efficient cars?

While the future is electric, many of the cars sold over the next 5 to 10 years will have a combustion engine. Making those conventionally-powered cars and trucks as clean as possible will be important to reduce air pollution and climate-changing emissions. The good news is that the technology needed to meet clean car standards is available and starting to be used by many automakers. This means I’ll expect to see more efficient engines like smaller, turbocharged four- and six-cylinder engines replacing larger and thirstier naturally-aspirated engines.

Last year, Nissan showed off an innovative variable compression engine that promises both higher power and better efficiency, but hadn’t released a vehicle using it. Will this year see this engine go into production?

Many automakers are talking EVs. Who’s actually following through?

When I visited the show last year, I heard from automakers detailing plans to electrify their cars and saw a number of new EVs promised for 2017. But how much was talk and who actually followed through? Some companies did bring out successful EVs. A year ago, the Chevy Bolt EV was about to go on sale and just last month it became the sales leader for EVs. Toyota’s Prius Prime was also new to the market last November and is now a top-selling EV. On the other hand, cars like Hyundai’s Ioniq EV had an impressive press showing, but since then has been virtually nonexistent in the US market, with less than 400 sales this year to date.

In California, the division between EV market leaders and laggards is stark: For the first 9 months of 2017, 11 percent of BMW-branded vehicles were plug-ins and Chevrolet had over 14 percent plug-in sales! Over the same period, Honda had less than 0.3 percent electric drive sales, Hyundai sold just over 1 percent EVs, and Subaru sold more than 55,000 cars in the state without a single plug-in option available.

Both the Chevy Bolt EV (left) and Hyundai Ioniq BEV (right) were featured at last year’s LA Auto Show. However, General Motors has sold over 17,000 Bolts in 2017 so far compared to less than 400 sales for Hyundai’s Ioniq. 

There were also several concept and prototype EVs at the show during the last couple of years. Will any of them show up this year as production models? Our research into the EV market last year showed that there a number of automakers that are lagging their peers in making EVs available, despite claims of progress. Our report shows that even though most companies now offer electric vehicles, many are not truly available (especially outside California). The first step in catching up is to start making EVs in volume and marketing them like they do their gasoline cars.

What models are emphasized by the manufacturers?

The LA Auto Show starts with a preview for media, with press conferences and displays of the automakers’ latest offerings. Then, after the press and auto industry executives are gone, the show opens to the public, becoming a showroom for virtually every car, truck, and SUV on the market in the US.

It’s interesting to see what models the manufacturers emphasize for each audience. For example, in 2015, Audi featured a prototype of a full-size all-electric SUV on its stage for the press days, but it was gone by the public days. Last year, Nissan didn’t even show its electric car, the LEAF on the press days. Other brands, like Chevrolet and BMW grouped their electric offerings and called attention to them for both the press and public days.

This inconsistent effort by some manufacturers at an auto show is indicative of the larger struggle playing out within the major automakers. On one hand, the car companies acknowledge that EVs are the future of transportation and will be needed to meet global emissions and EV standards being set by countries around the globe. However, they also have decades of expertise in designing and making gasoline-powered cars and trucks. This provides a powerful incentive to resist the inevitable switch from oil to electricity as the primary fuel for our personal vehicles. That’s why it’s important that we have regulations and incentives in place that both ensure that gasoline vehicles are as clean as possible while also pushing the automakers to move as quickly as possible away from combustion altogether.




Trump and Asia’s Strongmen

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses for the cameras with US President Donald Trump during his recent trip to Asia.

Earlier this month, from the gallery of the Diet building in Tokyo, I listened to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talk up his friendship with US President Donald Trump and their plans to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons. This was the centerpiece of his State of the Union address and the claim that convinced anxious Japanese voters to support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) during the October 22nd election.

It is not unusual for the US-Japan relationship to take center stage in Japan’s domestic politics. No matter who is in the White House, most Japanese voters expect their prime minister to get on well the US president. The cold shoulder Barack Obama gave Abe’s predecessors from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) expedited the demise of the only non-LDP led Japanese government in the last fifty years.

Abe’s domestic policies are unpopular. He rammed through a divisive national security law that restricted press freedom, stifling inquiry and dissent. He continues to push nuclear power despite the public’s post-Fukushima reticence. Abenomics increased economic growth but exploded the deficit and shuffled the gains to Japan’s top 1%, increasing inequality and undermining Japan’s social safety net without addressing any of Japan’s long-term economic challenges. Had the opposition not split over national security concerns, the LDP would have had a tougher time convincing Japanese voters to support them at the polls.

Playing the Field

Unfortunately for Mr. Abe, Mr. Trump is also fond of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The lavish praise Trump awarded the Chinese leader could eventually undermine Abe’s reputation as an able steward of US-Japan relations. Japanese anxieties about China run deeper than their concerns about North Korea. Sporadic fears of US abandonment have plagued Japan ever since Nixon went to China in 1972. For the time being, the Japanese media tends to underreport Trump’s budding bromance with Xi. Should that change, Mr. Abe might start to look like the weaker suitor for the current US president’s attention.

Vladimir Putin also got his share of kind words from the US president on his first official trip to Asia. Most importantly, the ex-KGB officer received a US presidential vote of confidence in his denial of Kremlin meddling in American politics. Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and his ongoing military intervention in Ukraine didn’t even make the news. Instead, the leader of the free world focused global attention on the Russian autocrat’s rough treatment at the hands of his Western critics.

Looking Forward

Sooner or later the Japanese public will start to wonder about the wisdom of Abe’s close personal relationship with Trump, especially if his US approval ratings stay in the basement and he begins to look like a one-term president. Japanese doubts may quickly turn to anger if the governing LDP spends money it doesn’t have on expensive military hardware it doesn’t need just to mollify Mr. Trump’s anger over a trade deficit that, because of the sheer size of the Japanese and US economies, could never be closed by US arms sales.

Unlike China and Russia, Japan is a democracy where its leaders are only as strong as the support of the people they govern, who eventually will hold them accountable at the polls. Mr. Abe’s tendency to stoke their fears and promise protection may win over a majority of Japanese voters for awhile, and some Japanese voters indefinitely. But the old adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln about the impossibility of successfully manipulating most voters most of the time probably still holds, even in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

Progressive opponents of authoritarian politicians can hasten their demise and prevent their return with better answers to the national security problems that often get them elected. Here in Japan, Yuriko Koike’s “Party of Hope” tried to out tough the LDP with nationalistic rhetoric on defense and trade. But the popular Tokyo governor’s party was crushed at the polls and she resigned from its leadership. Progressive Japanese legislators uncomfortable with Koike’s turn to the right reassembled as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), which fared much better in the recent election and is now the largest opposition party in the Diet.

Tsujimoto Kiyomi, who is leading the fight against Abe’s effort to limit the opposition’s ability to question him, recognizes the CDPJ needs to address the electorate’s concerns about North Korea and China if it wants to lead a progressive Japanese majority back to power. In an interview hours before Abe’s address to the Diet, she explained that Trump’s hard line on North Korea—and Abe’s willingness to parrot it—were not the source of their support in Japan. Japanese voters, like their counterparts in South Korea and the United States, are understandably nervous when they hear both men claim that the time for dialog with North Korea is over. That implies preparations for military actions that could drag Japan into a war and lead to attacks on Japanese cities.

According to Ms. Kiyomi, and other CDPJ legislators I spoke with this month, Japanese voters were responding to Trump’s camaraderie with their prime minister. They understand Japan’s national defense depends on help from the United States. Specific policies matter less than the personal relationships Japanese voters find reassuring.

Unfortunately, because the LDP has been the majority party for all but three of the past 50 years, Japan’s progressive opposition hasn’t had much of chance to develop mature relationships with US government officials. Even when progressives were in charge of the government, the career LDP officials in the bureaucracy continued to dominate US-Japan relations. Moreover, these LDP bureaucrats sought to undermine their political opponents by telling US officials, and the Japanese public, that the new progressive Japanese leadership was anti-American. It’s an unfair accusation that stuck, creating a false impression that the new leadership of the CDPJ intends to work hard to correct.

Support from leading progressive politicians in the United States would help, a lot. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, is a political hero in Japan. His campaign for the US presidency was well-received by Japanese voters who share many of the same economic anxieties Sanders spoke to during the 2016 election. Visible friendly relations with progressive US leaders like Sanders would give the LDP’s progressive opponents the same political shot in the arm that Abe got from his relationship with Trump.

More importantly, US progressives could learn a great deal about America’s most important Asian ally if they expanded their brief beyond the old school US Japan hands who steered President Obama away from progressive politicians in Japan. That’s especially true when it comes to defense and foreign policy. Progressive politicians in both countries have a hard-time convincing their respective voters that they can be effective international leaders. They might be able to change that by working together on tough problems like North Korea, rather than continuing to work separately.



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