UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

Fighting Climate Change: You’re 4x As Powerful As You Think

Photo: UCS/Audrey Eyring

The latest news on climate change is incredibly sobering stuff, and talking with my family about it hasn’t made for uplifting dinner conversation. But once you get past the initial shock, episodes like that can get you thinking about what more each of us can do. When I did, I realized that the answer is a lot—and in more ways than might occur to us. We might, in fact, be four times as powerful as we think.

Us as consumers

We’re consumers of a big range of goods and services, on timescales ranging from daily to less than annual—figuring out how to get to work or school in the morning, making choices about our meals, or thinking about where we live and how, for example. Acting in that capacity is certainly a big factor in how we contribute to climate change.

Every time we make a decision about buying something, in fact, we’re voting with our wallets. About the thing we’re buying. About the company that makes it. About the other things we’re not doing with that money.

What we can do about the carbon implications of our consumer choices is the topic of our book Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. Cooler Smarter analyzed where the carbon comes from in our lives, and offered lots of information, ideas, and inspirational examples for doing meaningful things to fight climate change at home, and beyond. The “smarter” part is about finding opportunities to cut carbon that also save you money, or help you live more healthily—things like making your home more energy efficient (lower utility bills, happier residents), using renewable energy (solar panels, for example), having efficient cars (or walking, biking, or using public transportation).

Our research found that in this country addressing carbon in our own lives typically comes down to (1) what and how we drive, (2) how we use energy at home, and (3) what we eat. And there are loads of carbon-cutting opportunities in each of those areas.

So our power as consumers is clear.

We can’t all put solar on a roof, but as consumers, we have choices, and those choices can make a difference when it comes to climate change. (Photo: PublicSource)

Us in the community

Dealing with the carbon in our lives is key, but it’s a starting place, not an end. As we’re tackling our own opportunities, it’s important to take the knowledge and experience we’re gaining and spread them far and wide.

Family and friends are great places to start. They may well know something about climate change, but maybe not know what to do about it. The important thing is to inspire, not frighten. They should understand the seriousness of climate change, but it’s essential that they also understand the seriousness of our potential responses.

And they should understand the opportunities that those responses present, that these days, those responses are increasingly attractive from our wallets’ perspective, too. You might be motivated enough without the “smarter” part of being Cooler Smarter, but it sure can help motivate action by others.

And then there’s the broader community—your office, your school, your faith community. The Rotary meeting. The bowling alley. The bus stop. Anywhere that you’re interacting with people, actually, probably presents chances to slip in something about climate change and solutions.

Fighting climate change in your own life and working to help others do it makes you twice as powerful.

Making a difference by speaking up (Photo: UCS/Audrey Eyring)

Us as advocates

Then there are decision makers at all levels of our democracy—local, county, state, and federal. Elected leaders and others in government need to hear from you that “I care about climate solutions, and I want you to care about them (and act on them)” and “I’ve done these things in my own life; I want you to make it easier for others to do them.”

Because there’s a lot we can do on climate change as individuals, from the bottom up, but there’s a whole lot more that needs to happen with the support of well-designed laws and policies. Like ones that accelerate the power sector’s move to renewable energy, or that make it easier for homes and businesses to embrace energy efficiency, or that make cleaner cars and buses more accessible to a broader swath of society.

Your advocacy efforts can also tackle those corporations that you interact with as a consumer. Companies can be forces for good on climate change, given their buying power, societal heft, and customer bases, including in response to customer campaigns. But it’s certainly not a given.

Folks who are fortunate enough to be shareholders have another route for impelling corporations in the right direction on global warming, and letting companies—think oil and gas types, for example—know that we care about honest treatment of issues, that we don’t look kindly on efforts to obscure the truth to forestall action on important issues like climate change.

Add your voice to efforts to move government, and corporations, in the direction of climate action and you just might find you’re three times as powerful.

Power at the polls (Photo: Element5 Digital/Unsplash)

Us as voters

And then there are times like right now, when many of us are getting a chance to exercise the most powerful role we have in our democracy—stepping into voting booths, and being part of making decisions that are key.

Key to determining whether the ship of state stays on its current disappointing (in many cases) course or turns toward progress on climate change… or further away from it. Whether we can count on the checks and balances that our Founders wisely put in place two centuries ago, so that we have rational policies (on climate change and more), sensibly implemented. Whether science is at the center of our decision making, or pushed aside or attacked for political gain.

It’s not a coincidence that the Union of Concerned Scientists focuses on science at times like this (as at all other times), and even has a whole initiative around standing up for science in the upcoming elections, and is part of a broad effort to make sure that “science is front-and-center in the decision-making processes that affect us all.”

Because whatever issues you care about, around public health, say, or justice, or economics, or the environment, having sound science available and appropriately considered is crucial for good decision making. “Science—free from political interference—is fundamental to building a healthier planet and a safer world,” UCS says.

Apart from the important candidate races across the country, this election cycle offers some really interesting ballot initiatives for fighting climate change. In Washington State, for example, Initiative 1631 lets voters choose to tackle climate change head-on, with a fee on carbon pollution and investments in clean air, clean energy, healthy communities, and more. In Nevada, Question 6 offers voters a chance to up the state’s renewable energy standard to the robust 50% renewables by 2030 that nearby states have embraced. Arizona’s Proposition 127 aims at the same clean energy goal.

Our roles as voters can build on each of the other ways we can be fighting climate change, or can serve as a platform for more progress in those areas.

Great power, great opportunity

Add up all those roles, and you’re four times as powerful as you would think if you were focusing on just one.

Actually, you’re at least four times as powerful, since there are other avenues for making a difference. If you’re a teacher, for example, you have an incredible power to instill a sense of respect for science, and a belief in our ability to bring about positive change. (And if you’re a student—especially a STEM major—you have a particular chance to boost the voting numbers among your fellow students.) If you’re a parent, or an aunt or uncle or grandparent,…

Climate change demands real action from a lot of people in a whole lot of roles. We’ll make better progress if we remember that our own multiple roles make us a lot more powerful than we might think.

So on Tuesday, vote for science. And don’t stop there. With great power comes great responsibility, but also great opportunity. Carpe diem, indeed.

Photo: PublicSource

PFAS Contamination on Military Bases Is A Scary Reality—And For Me, It’s Personal

Across the country, families are exposed to dangerous chemicals in their water—and the families most at risk are those living on or near military bases. This threat concerns me not just as a researcher, but as the child of a military family.

PFAS, or poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances, are a class of synthetic chemicals that are silently ubiquitous and persistent in the environment—and highly toxic. Their ability to repel oil and water and persist at high temperatures makes them attractive for use in everyday items like nonstick cookware and food packaging, in water-repellent gear, and in firefighting foam used primarily by the US military.

UCS recently released a factsheet that investigated PFAS contamination at US military bases, and the results were unsettling. A new report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) says that the threshold for danger from PFAS starts much lower than previously suspected—and that sites across the country are at risk. According to ASTDR, PFAS exposure studies have indicated certain PFAS may have negative health effects: developmental issues in infants and children, increased cancer risk, high cholesterol levels, hormone disruption, lowered immunity.


Unfortunately, this does not come as a surprise to me. Last November, I wrote about how appointing chemical industry apologist Michael Dourson to head the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention would be terrible for the public, particularly for military families, due to his conclusions that PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), a type of PFAS and a widespread drinking water contaminant on military bases, should have an even weaker safety standard than that already recommended by the EPA. Luckily, he withdrew his nomination, a victory both for science and public health. However, Dourson’s withdrawal was one small victory in the fight to stop toxic contamination at military bases, a fight that began years ago. Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), UCS obtained email correspondence between the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Defense (DoD). These emails suggested that the administration was interfering with the release of the ATSDR report on PFAS. An unnamed intergovernmental affairs aide at the White House said, “the impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful.”

The impact will be painful, it’s true—but for whom?

Me at age 12, when we were stationed in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. My dad had me on Jeep detail.

Respecting the military

Every politician brags about their support for the troops, and trust in the military is high among the public. But what does that mean in practice?

For a long time, military personnel and their families have been exposed to heightened chemical risk. But this administration has added insult to injury and taken us further from solving the problem. Intentionally stopping a study from being published because it would be a “public relations nightmare” could be, instead, a nightmare for those affected.

As of August 2017, DoD identified 401 active and BRAC installations in the United States with at least one area where there is a known or suspected release of PFOS/PFOA.

In all, 25 Army bases; 50 Air Force bases, 49 Navy or Marine Corps bases and two Defense Logistics Agency sites have tested at higher than acceptable levels for the compounds in either their drinking water or groundwater sources. Additionally, DoD tested 2,668 groundwater wells both on and in the surrounding off-base community and found that 61 percent of them tested above the EPA’s recommended levels.

Military communities deserve our support—but they’ve gotten insufficient attention in the conversation about water pollution, despite their elevated risk. Fortunately, the administration’s attempt to bury the PFAS report has backfired, drawing more attention to the issue.

This issue isn’t just scientific to me—it’s personal.

I think of my father, getting stationed in Korea at age 19, a stone’s throw from the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) – a place former President Bill Clinton called “the scariest place on earth.” When I asked my dad about it, he said only three words – “it was scary.” These are the realities many active members of our armed forces face, whether in training on US soil or deployed abroad. And while people join the service for many different reasons, I am positive none of those include “I would like to unwittingly bear the brunt of toxic chemical exposure.”

I think of my grandfather. My uncle. My aunts. My cousin. All served in the military, putting themselves and their families at risk.

If we’re not listening to science and basing our decisions on the best available information, public health and safety can be compromised and the public’s ability to engage meaningfully suffers.

Members of the military and their families deserve better than having the risks they face concealed.

We can do better. Our leaders need to act on the information they have about the dangers of PFAS. Ask your elected officials to push EPA and DoD to do more to protect their constituents from toxic contamination.



Charise Johnson

Supporting Science Policy Advocacy and Outreach through Microgrants

The Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame.

The National Science Policy Network (NSPN) unites groups of early career scientists and engineers nationwide who want to elevate the voice of scientific evidence in policy. We champion the value of science and evidence-based decision-making and believe it is critical for scientists and engineers to step outside of the research lab and communicate the importance diverse perspectives in the policy process to the rest of the scientific community, policy makers, and the general public.

NSPN member groups engage in diverse outreach including seminars, workshops, movie nights, discussion groups, public outreach, registration drives, and conferences!  These events reflect hours of dedication, time lost from the lab, and are a primary way for academic communities to put on their other hat – informed citizens.

Despite this, they receive minimal support. Based on a national survey conducted by NSPN in early 2018, over half of these student-led science policy groups operate on meager budgets of less than $1,000 per year. Recognizing that small financial contributions can catalyze significant improvements in group productivity, NSPN recently launched a microgrant initiative to facilitate growth and sustainability of these science policy groups.

The Science Policy Initiative at the University of Virginia

NSPN received over 25 proposals for the first round of microgrant funding, and was able to provide awards to 7 of them. The review committee for this microgrant initiative consisted of several students from the NSPN leadership as well as 3 external reviewers including Kate Stoll (Senior Policy Advisor, MIT Washington Office), Mahlet Mesfin (Deputy Director, Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS), and Bill Bonvillian (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The review committee was impressed with the quality and creativity of all the proposals and ultimately the following groups were selected to receive funding:

  • Science Policy Initiative at the University of Virginia
  • Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group (PSPDG) at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Science Policy and Advocacy at Rutgers University (SPAR)
  • Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame
  • Emerging Leaders in Science Policy and Advocacy (ELISPA) at the University of Florida
  • Missouri Science and Technology (MOST) Policy Fellows at the University of Missouri

Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group (PSPDG) at the University of Pennsylvania

The proposals address key themes of professional development for early career scientists and engineers as well as advocacy opportunities to interact with policy makers and the public. Several groups proposed workshops to offer training in areas such a writing policy memos and op eds, writing skills that are essential in the world of science policy, but not a skill taught to graduate students. They also address gaps in training on science communication to a wide audience, and effective science advocacy. ELISPA at the University of Florida, for example, is planning a memo-writing workshop where students will learn how to write policy memos and practice by writing a memo on an issue relevant to their local community.

The winners selected from this competition will travel to the state capitol to present their ideas to policy makers for the state of Florida. FOSEP at the University of Colorado is tackling science communication by producing a series of podcasts that will encourage scientists and engineers to think critically about the intersection of their work with policy, ethics, justice, and diversity. The Science Policy Initiative at the University of Virginia is interested in advocating for state level science policy fellowships for STEM graduate students and postdocs in order to engage scientists and engineers at all levels of government, not simply the federal government.

We are excited about the potential impact of these proposals, both locally and nationally, and believe that this is an essential step to encouraging more scientists and engineers to take a seat at the policy table. NSPN will launch another round of applications for the microgrant initiative at their annual symposium at the Rockefeller University in November. If you have questions or are interested in sponsoring microgrants for student groups in future application cycles, please contact scipolnetwork@gmail.com.


Michaela Rikard is a Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia. Her research as UVA focuses on cardiovascular disease and improving therapeutic options for wound healing following a myocardial infarction. Michaela is a co-founder and National Co-chair of the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). Launched earlier this year with support from Schmidt Futures, the NSPN is a rapidly growing network of over 60 campus-based student led science policy organizations, representing some of the largest and most prestigious research universities across the United States. She is passionate about changing the paradigm for graduate education and empowering scientists and engineers to be active participants in science policy.

Students, Don’t Forget to Vote. You Too, STEM Majors

Photo: Mike Olliver/UCS

When I was 17, I set up an ironing board on the side of Market Street in downtown San Francisco. I wore a brand new shirt with straight-out-of-the box creases, which read: “Ask me to help you register to vote.” Panicked about the possible re-election of George W. Bush (remember him?), I had convinced four friends to spend the day with me trying to register distracted shoppers.

Although we aren’t voting for a president this year, our congressional representatives have enormous power, shaping everything from the Supreme Court to our health care options. State and local representatives also have important impacts on our lives. For example, in Ellicott City, Maryland regional planning decisions affected recent extreme flooding, which had fatal consequences.

Why I’m voting

I am now postdoc at Johns Hopkins University where I study floods and how they are changing. One reason I will vote is because I am worried about the consequences of climate change—both the impacts we are already experiencing in the U.S. as well as worldwide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released a report detailing devastating impacts which are likely to occur within our lifetimes unless we take aggressive action. Already, five tiny islands among the Solomon Islands have disappeared.

As an engineer, I was embarrassed to read recent findings that STEM majors vote less frequently than other majors. Apparently this has something to do with gender differences: men vote less than women and make up a larger fraction of STEM majors. But accounting for these differences doesn’t completely explain the discrepancy. Students majoring in science, engineering and math were found to be less interested in other forms of civic engagement as well.

STEM majors, let’s change this

We have just as much at stake compared to everyone else — maybe even more, given how much funding for science is provided by the federal government. Having tried to “do it all” in college (why not add a minor in comparative politics, extra Swahili class and an honors thesis?), I know how hard it can be to find time to vote amidst relentless problem set and paper deadlines.

Let me suggest some reasons that voting is a worthwhile investment of your time

First, the representatives we elect pass bills which affect our economy and thus your job opportunities after graduation. When I graduated from Stanford in 2010, the implications of the financial crisis were still being felt and it was difficult to find a job.

Second, even if you opt instead for graduate school, as I did (maybe even because of aforementioned challenges in obtaining a desirable job), these representatives impact your lives. Last winter, a proposal to tax tuition benefits as income would have made graduate school unaffordable for many students.

Finally, average student loan debt at graduation now tops $30,000. The people we elect can support or fight proposed cuts to student loan forgiveness programs, which give some graduates the opportunity to reduce the size of their loans.

When I moved across the country, I left my ironing board at home in California. While you won’t find me on the side of the quad with voter registration forms, I strongly encourage you to register to vote.

This election is likely to have a big impact on your life

Have a say in what happens. Vote on November 6th.


This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

Annalise Blum is a postdoctoral fellow in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. 

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.

Milwaukee Area Science Advocates Collaborate to End Lead Exposure

MASA and community members came together for a “science in action” lead resource fair on June 23, 2018 - titled Amani Un|Leaded. Photo: John Saller

Lead exposure, especially from water in older pipes, is a major health problem in Milwaukee. A 2016 Wisconsin state report on childhood lead poisoning indicated that nearly 11% of children tested in Milwaukee showed elevated blood lead levels, which was double the percentage found in Flint, Michigan. Children from low-income families, especially within the African-American community, are disproportionately affected. Earlier this year, a previous employee of the Milwaukee County Health Department, emailed 15 alderman and Mayor Tom Barrett informing them that the department was not testing water in the homes of lead-poisoned children. This launched an investigation which revealed that the Milwaukee County Health Department failed to notify thousands of parents of the high blood lead levels found in their children, resulting in the resignation of the local health commissioner. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently suspended the Milwaukee lead abatement program after an audit revealed many problems.

Amani Un|Leaded workshops informed residents about lead poisoning and prevention.

The Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA) believes it is imperative to address the lead exposure problem, and that doing so requires working collaboratively with Milwaukee community organizations and residents. Thanks to generous support from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Science for Public Good Fund, MASA was able to work with the Children’s Outing Association (COA) Youth & Family Centers, the Hunger Task Force, the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, Amani United, the Dominican Center, the Social Development Commission, the Interfaith Earth Network, and Children’s Hospital to organize and hold a “science in action” lead resource fair on June 23, 2018 – titled Amani Un|Leaded.

Amani Un|Leaded brought together scientists, residents, and community leaders to begin working together to address the lead problem in Milwaukee. The event was held at the COA Goldin Center in the Amani neighborhood, which is an area of Milwaukee with especially high lead exposures. The event covered a wide variety of lead topics and featured workshops entitled: Science of Lead, Lead-safe Homes, Growing Healthy Soils, Nutrition and Lead, Lead in Water, and the Path to 0%. These workshops informed residents on lead chemistry and bodily absorption, policies aimed to reduce lead poisoning, and steps families can take to limit lead exposure. Following the workshops, residents engaged in a strategic discussion with community leaders and organizers regarding lead education and abatement strategies. Topics covered included how public policy can reduce lead poisoning, filter distribution, and cartridge replacement. More than 80 people attended and organizers of the event distributed water filters to remove lead to many residents.

MASA and other community groups are continuing to work towards addressing lead exposure with new initiatives and better public policies.

The event led to a new program – “Unleaded” – which is a water filter distribution, follow-up, and education program designed to reach several communities in Milwaukee. MASA and aforementioned community partners are working to increase efficiency in lead filter distribution, installation, and city-wide lead education. Initiatives in this program include an electronic notification and communication system for lead filters as well as door-to-door canvassing to raise awareness of lead dangers.

Thanks to generous support from organizations like UCS, and many dedicated volunteers, Milwaukee is progressing towards a safer and lead-free community. Learn more about Unleaded, or learn about ways to get involved in your community.


Anna Miller is a science writer and philanthropist who focuses on improving scientific literacy and awareness in the community. She currently works on the leadership team at Milwaukee Area Science Advocates. Dr. Miller hold a Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology from the Medical College of Wisconsin.  

Dave Nelson is a public health consultant.  He worked for many years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Cancer Institute, where he conducted research in cancer prevention, tobacco control, and other health topics. He currently works on the grants team with Milwaukee Area Science Advocates. He holds an M.D. from the Oregon Health Sciences University and an M.P.H. from the University of Michigan.  

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: John Saller Photo: John Saller Photo: John Saller

Fighting for Facts and Family: What Will We Tell Our Kids?

This post first appeared on Scary Mommy.

They call my name. I walk to the stage and sit at the mic. I feel the eyes of the government decision-makers in front of me and the audience watching below. I start to speak. I’m interrupted by a baby crying. My baby. He’s four weeks old and strapped to my chest. I look down and frantically try to put a pacifier in his mouth. I lose my place in my notes. An awkward pause. The audience hears only my baby crying as I struggle find the words I scribbled down in a notebook earlier. I finally find them, press on to the end of my testimony, and step off the stage.

It was a flustered moment but it’s part of my new normal. I’m a scientist and a mom. My job is to advocate for science, but these days it feels much more personal. On the night that Donald Trump was elected, I crept into my toddler son’s room and watched him peacefully sleep. What would the days and years to come have in store, I wondered, and how would they change the country he’ll grow up in? We would soon find out.

I'm on maternity leave but this felt important enough to show up for. Today I'm at the EPA testifying against the agency's proposed restricting science policy. #sciencenotsilence pic.twitter.com/eqKucpydpI

— Dr Gretchen Goldman (@GretchenTG) July 17, 2018

That day I testified to the US Environmental Protection Agency, I spoke about a policy that, if enacted, could mean more Americans exposed to air pollution, to harmful pesticides, or to toxic chemicals in our products. The proposal is only one of an ever-growing list of actions taken by the Trump Administration that chip away at our country’s science-based policies that protect my family and yours.

I find my mind is constantly consumed with thoughts of how our leaders’ actions today will affect my children tomorrow. I think about it when the Trump Administration allows power plants to emit more toxics into the air. I think about it when industry representatives are put in charge of keeping children’s toys safe. And I think about it when people who don’t accept the basics of reproductive health are placed in the courts and at government agencies. In just the last month, the Trump administration has gutted the leadership of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection and announced plans to allow more emissions of mercury, a neurotoxin that damages the brains of infants and children. We certainly aren’t leaving our kids a safer world.

I think too about whose kids will be most affected. The unfortunate truth is that the impacts of these actions won’t be shared evenly. The burden of more toxic pollution, for example, will fall to those living and working nearby, who tend to be low-income communities and people of color. Groups that are already exposed to greater air pollution. Children, the elderly, and those with lung diseases will feel the effects more.

This isn’t just politics. Under both Democrats and Republicans, our nation has a long history of using science to benefit its people. From medicine to engineering to national security, our government’s investment and trust in science have built a remarkable place to live and raise a family, with each generation safer and healthier than the previous. But I worry that strong relationship between science and our decisionmakers is slipping away. To be fair, we have never lived in a world without political interference in science, but the Trump Administration is taking these problems to new heights.

My first son was born days before the start of the United Nations climate talks in Paris, where my husband was set to represent the US there. He missed the first two weeks of our child’s life but we told ourselves it was worth it. The Paris negotiations would be and were a promise and a hope for my son’s generation. The historic Paris Accord set the world on a course to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We were elated. And then we watched in horror as the Trump Administration pulled the US out of the agreement, shattering what many worked so hard to build. That year, we marched with our son in Washington DC at the People’s Climate March under (fittingly) oppressive heat.

My son has now been to five major marches in our nation’s capital. He and his new brother have had to wait for me while I talked with journalists, wrote blog posts, and organized with colleagues. My children won’t remember any of these political decisions. The names of those implementing them will be a footnote in their history books but I’m certain they’ll feel the impacts.

I want to believe that when this Administration is over, we will return to a “normal” America. But these forces didn’t start with Trump and they won’t end with him either. My children will grow up in a different world than I did. A world with more knowledge and more diversity than we’ve ever had and yet also a deeply divided nation, one that ignores evidence to the detriment of its children.

I was still on maternity leave when I testified to the EPA that day. I didn’t have to be there but I needed to be. These threats are too big, the consequences too real, my kids too important. As I sat breastfeeding my infant in the meeting overflow room waiting for my turn to testify, I thought, as I often do, about what I will tell my kids if decades from now they ask me about this time in our nation’s history. I’ll tell them I didn’t just watch it happen. I’ll tell them I did everything in my power to ensure their generation had a chance to thrive. I’ll tell them I was right there fighting, and they were too.

EPA’s Proposal to Restrict Science Will Be Delayed: Score One for Science.

The Environmental Protection Agency released its updated regulatory agenda this week. That document lays out the timeline for regulatory actions the agency is working on over the next two years. One item of note: the administration is delaying by a year its timeline for finalizing the agency’s terrible proposal to restrict the science it would rely on to only those studies where the raw data and all other information can be made public. The science community and those who believe our public health and safety protections should be based on science can take some credit for forcing the agency to re-think and consult before moving ahead.

As my colleague Michael Halpern put it to me, “This is a fundamentally flawed concept wholly conceived and promoted by industry lobbyists to limit the types of science that EPA can use in making decisions. Not even the EPA Office of the Science Advisor had any clue what was going on until the proposal was published. When legislation that tried to accomplish the same goal repeatedly died on the vine in Congress, they tried to ram it through the agency. The proposed rule should be framed in the National Archives as a notable example of how a government agency can be co-opted by extremists and failed tobacco lobbyists.”

Michael had it right. The proposal was originally designed to fight limits on second-hand smoke by essentially excluding from the decision-making process studies that would demonstrate population-level impacts on public health. Those studies rely on the confidential medical records and health data of individuals that cannot, and should not, be made public. By requiring the agency to only use studies whose raw data can be public, the proposal would exclude a huge number of epidemiological studies. In other words, it requires the nation’s premier public health agency to ignore scientific evidence of public health impacts.

The EPA received more than half a million comments on the proposed rule, including mine. And scientists, scientific societies, major scientific journals and thousands of others raised concerns about the proposal.

Is that why the EPA has slowed the process down? It is hard to tell, but it seems to have had a significant impact. And at such a challenging time, with a flood of attacks on science confronting us every day, let’s take some credit for being heard. All of us. We aren’t out of deep water yet, but maybe we are stemming the tide.

November Elections and the Art of Voter Suppression

Source: Michael Latner/UCS

Voting rights violations are emerging across several states with less than a month before the conclusion of midterm elections in the United States. As a result of discriminatory election laws and procedures, representation and policy making power could be distorted in favor of powerful, entrenched interests, against the will of a majority of the electorate. The threat of such democratic dysfunction illustrates the need for meaningful electoral reform and the protection of voting rights for all citizens.

Early voting is underway in seventeen states, including at least two states where voting rights have already become a flashpoint in pivotal elections.

In North Dakota, Senator Heidi Heitkamp and challenger Kevin Cramer is in a race that Cook Political Report rates as a “toss up.” The election could determine control over the US Senate—but the Supreme Court of the United States just refused to block the state’s discriminatory practice of requiring voter identification from a residential street address.

Because the US Postal Service does not provide delivery to rural reservations in North Dakota, most Native American tribal members use P.O. Boxes, which is listed on their identification. The state’s voter identification law specifically requires a street address for valid identification. Earlier this year a district found that nearly 5,000 members of North Dakota tribes lack valid identification, and many of them also lack supplementary documentation that allow them to cast a provisional ballot. Senator Heitkamp won her last election by fewer than 3,000 votes.

In an even more egregious smear on democracy, Georgia gubernatorial candidate and current Secretary of State Brian Kemp has frozen over 50,000 registration applications, most of them from African-American voters, according to an AP analysis. Kemp claims “voter roll maintenance” is necessary to preserve the integrity of elections and ensure that only legal citizens are voting. However, previous scientific and legal challenges have shown that voter impersonation is nearly non-existent.

Moreover, Kemp’s “exact match” tactic used to remove unvalidated voters from the state registration file was already prohibited as a violation of voting equality in a previous lawsuit, but the law was reinstated by the state legislature to allow for a “curing” of unmatched voters records within, wait for it, 26 months. Kemp has chosen to keep using this method despite scientific studies that show there are far superior methods for record matching.

Even though he knows about the disproportionate, discriminatory impact these laws have on African-American voters in Georgia, Kemp maintains that he is a defender of electoral integrity. His opponent Stacy Abrams, who would become the first African-American woman elected governor in the United States if she won, has a different title for Kemp: a “remarkable architect of voter suppression.”

Earlier this year, a Brennan Center analysis estimated that the purging of registered voters from state files has increased by approximately four million people since 2008. Much of the increase is attributed to states that were previously covered under the 1965 Voting Rights Act preclearance provisions.

The Mississippi governor’s race in 2019 may similarly turn on Jim Crow era electoral restrictions. Popular Attorney General Jim Hood has an opportunity to be the state’s first Democratic governor in nearly two decades. However, the state constitution requires that the governor win not just a majority of the popular vote, but a majority of state House seats, which are heavily gerrymandered in favor of the incumbent party.

These and other restrictive election laws are distorting the representation of voters across the country, weakening the ability of already under-represented groups to protect their own health and safety. This is just one of many reasons why it is so important that citizens exercise their voting rights and mobilize communities to elect candidates that will advance effective electoral reforms before 2020.

Why Andrew Wheeler’s Social Media Actions Matter

Photo: Alamy

Andrew Wheeler took over as acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency when former administrator Scott Pruitt resigned amid a flurry of ethics scandals. It is no less of a scandal that Mr. Wheeler has been engaging with racist content and conspiracy theorists on social media. Whether he remembers it, or claims it was a mistake or not, Mr. Wheeler’s actions disrespect people of color and demonstrate an affinity for theories that have no scientific backing.

Like all Americans, Mr. Wheeler is free to express his personal political views. But when a public official espouses views or, through his actions, legitimizes fringe voices who propagate dangerous race or conspiracy rhetoric—he has crossed a line that should give Americans across the political spectrum pause.

Mr. Wheeler’s position is to protect public health and safety from the impacts of pollution. And those people most impacted by that pollution, most in need of a high-level effective and committed voice in government, are the poor and communities of color. There is overwhelming evidence that these communities suffer more from pollution and have long been denied public health and safety protections.

The Environmental Protection Agency—and indeed all our government agencies—are mandated to use empirical evidence to advance the public interest.  Yes, they do so imperfectly. But, conspiracy theorists and racial baiting are the antithesis of any rational, fact-based approach.

As we saw with Pruitt, ideologies, values, and biases of public officials shine through in their governance. When biases flow unchecked from federal agency leaders, it reflects in their agency’s policies and actions and has lasting consequences. Racial bias is no exception.

This cannot be the norm. This administration has a long way to go to show the country that they care about all of us, not just their friends in industry, or in wealthy white communities. Mr. Wheeler has made that road even longer. Yes, he should apologize. But more importantly, he must show us all by his actions that he knows his job is to enact policies that actively protect those most impacted by pollution across the nation. Show us now.

Scientists Cut Out of EPA’s Particulate Pollution Standard Setting

Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

In the latest of several moves targeting EPA air pollution protections, the Trump administration appears to have cut scientists out of a process for reviewing particulate pollution standards.  The move breaks with a longstanding process for how the agency gets independent scientific review into its decisionmaking on air pollution protections. Without such expertise involved, EPA won’t have the best available scientific input to keep people safe from air pollution, as the law requires.

What the heck is PM2.5?

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is responsible for thousands of deaths in the US annually. The Trump administration is undermining the science-based air pollution controls that have reduced particulate pollution for decades.

Particulate pollution or particulate matter (PM) is a kind of air pollution comprised of tiny solid particles (as opposed to gaseous air pollutants like ozone and carbon monoxide).  These particles—especially ones smaller than 2.5 micrometers—are especially harmful because they can reach deep into human lungs, causing pulmonary and respiratory issues.  In fact, particulate pollution kills more people in the US than any other form of air pollution, with tens of thousands of premature deaths per year attributed.

The good news is that PM pollution has gone down over the past few decades.  Most of the country now meets the current annual PM standard. Cities and industrial sources have invested significantly in technology and other strategies to keep their particulate emissions down.

NAAQS: A Science-based Process

Our nation has had success in reducing PM because of our strong science-based standards. Under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), every five years the EPA must revisit the science of particulate matter pollution and health. After a thorough review of all science available and extensive input from PM experts, the EPA administrator will set a standard based on what level of pollution protects public health with an adequate margin of safety.  This process has worked remarkably well, at least until now.

The EPA relies on the air pollution and health expertise of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and pollutant review panels. CASAC (as I’ve written about before) provides the EPA with a recommendation for the standard based on its understanding of the science.  Both the EPA and CASAC rely on help from pollutant review panels to ensure they are using and interpreting correctly the best available science.

These review panels are comprised of experts on the pollutant under review specifically, allowing the agency to benefit from subject matter expertise. For example, CASAC will include folks with air pollution modeling or monitoring expertise and epidemiologists, but the PM review panel might include experts on the toxicology of particulates or an expert on particulate measurement error. This is especially important because CASAC is small (seven people). No matter how expert, it would not be possible for this group to have working expertise of all elements of the relationship between a pollutant and health AND have that knowledge for all six criteria pollutants under CASAC’s purview. As a result, EPA decisions on pollution standards can benefit from scientific expertise on all facets of the science on particulates and health.

Think of it this way: You could create a team of seven doctors from different disciplines to oversee your general health but if you developed a brain tumor you’d probably want the advice of a specialist who had experience in brain surgery.  Likewise, EPA needs the help of specialists to fully assess the state of the science on individual pollutants.

Nixing the PM (and Ozone) Review Panels?

Yesterday, the EPA issued a statement noting that CASAC would be leading the review of the science for PM and ozone standard updates, with no mention of the PM and ozone review panels that have always been convened to inform the scientific assessments.  This is a break with how the agency has always done things.  By nixing these panels, the EPA would be cutting off the vital expertise it needs to get the science right on the health effects of air pollutants.

The administration might claim to be making this move in the name of streamlining but there are much bigger consequences to eliminating science from the process.  Sure, it will be a faster process to update the PM standard without a review panel, but we’ll also have a less science-based process. Review panels effectively serve as a public peer-review of the EPA’s integrated science assessments, which detail the state of the science on pollutants.  Without a PM review panel, there is far less expert input informing the PM standard.

But perhaps this is precisely the point. The administration has made clear that they are interested in fast-tracking the PM and ozone reviews in order to set new standards before the end of the administration.  This is an aggressive timeline, considering that the EPA is only required to update the standards every five years, and usually needs more time to conduct the careful, science-based process of characterizing the state of the science on a pollutant’s health effects and working with scientific experts to issue a standard that is protective of public health. If you can eliminate this careful scientific assessment, you can speed up the process, but at the expense of public health.

An EPA hostile to clean air

The announcement is especially concerning in light of the other changes that the Trump administration is making to air pollution policy and science advice at the EPA.

  • Ongoingly the administration has been gutting science advisory committees at the EPA, replacing independent scientists with conflicted and unqualified individuals. Yesterday’s announcement continued this pattern, by removing four independent experts on CASAC and replacing mostly with individuals that work for state agencies. Only one academic scientist remains on CASAC, a committee historically dominated by academic scientists with extensive publication records on air pollution and health research.  The administration is treating advisory committee positions like political appointments. In reality, the science advisory committee are intended to capture the breadth of scientific understanding—not to have specific policy views, and not to get stakeholder input.
  • Last April a Presidential Memorandum outlined other changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards process, including restricting the kinds of science that EPA can use to inform the standards for PM and other pollutants. Implementation of these changes will limit the science EPA looks at in determining the relationship between air pollutants and health, i.e. the science that determines the health-based air pollution standards.
  • PM has also been the primary target of the EPA’s proposed rule to restrict the science that EPA can use in decisionmaking broadly. Chronic exposure to particulates is linked to premature deaths. As a result, reducing PM pollution has a huge bang per buck, saving many lives with every improvement in air quality. This fact is inconvenient for industries that want to continue to emit particulate pollution, making PM science a long-time target by ideological and financial interests that don’t want the tighter PM standards that save lives. The proposed rule to restrict EPA’s use of science is the latest assault to undermine the use of the science on PM’s health impacts.
Less Science, More Soot

These changes to the air pollution standard setting process will make it easier for the administration to weaken air quality standards for particulate matter and ozone.  With less science and fewer scientists to inform decisionmakers, challenge assumptions, and verify scientific assertions, we are on a path toward political decisions cloaked in science.  The administration might be able speed up the process by removing the crucial steps where the science is assessed, and experts weigh in, but this will come at the expense of our health.  Can the EPA protect public health if it doesn’t take the time to determine what level of pollution is unsafe?

If the PM standard is weakened, public health will undoubtedly suffer. Pollution sources would be able ease controls on their pollution and potentially build new polluting facilities in more places. And the health burdens won’t fall equally. Low-income communities and communities of color that are already disproportionately burdened by air pollution from industrial and traffic sources are likely to be harder hit.  Vulnerable populations like the children, the elderly and those with lung diseases are more likely to face health effects of increased soot in the air.  In near literal terms, by removing the science, we remove the air from our lungs.

Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

Sidelining Science Hurts Children

Photo: CMRF Crumlin/Flickr

That week, her mother chose groceries over her daughter’s asthma inhaler. Food for your children over medicine for your children; for a parent, there is not a more tortuous game of Russian Roulette than this. That week, this mother lost that gamble. Her daughter had an asthma attack. There was no inhaler. She died gasping for air in their living room.

These are the words of Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus as he describes the disproportionate impact climate change has on black communities, particularly children. In this case it was a 14-year-old girl who lived in Southeast Washington, DC. The reverend explains here that 1 in 6 African-American children in the US have asthma, and 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a power plant.

The Reverend Yearwood’s story is one that I cannot shake ever since I heard it in-person when he spoke to the Union of Concerned Scientists nearly one year ago. It is a powerful story that illustrates that when science-based issues are poorly addressed, the results can be deadly, particularly for children and our country’s most disenfranchised people.

Yet, the Trump administration has made it easier for these power plants to release toxic air pollutants known to cause asthma and other disease. This administration  is literally deleting scientific evidence that climate change disproportionately affects the health of children. And then last week, they abruptly placed the director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, which has the authority to weigh in on decisions around power plant emissions and many other public health threats, on leave. These decisions paint a worrisome picture for the future of the safety of children as UCS Executive Director Kathleen Rest detailed here.

When science is sidelined, there is often an underlying story of the people who are hurt by these decisions and it is often children.

Impairing children’s brain development

When the EPA reversed course and decided not to ban the harmful insecticide chlorpyrifos, many families worried about their children and their health. Fidelia Morales notices chemicals float onto her children’s jungle gym in their very own backyard in California. Her children have had learning issues, and have suffered from bronchitis, asthma and other chronic illnesses. Morales fears the pesticides are the reason for these illnesses. There is a good chance that she is correct given that the swath of research showing chlorpyrifos affects the brain development, IQ, and health of developing and young children.

Children are losing parents

In 2017, President Trump rolled back President Obama’s Executive Order 13690 that would have increased protection from future extreme floods. Such floods are expected to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change, science that Obama’s Executive Order embraced, but that President Trump refuses to acknowledge. Ten days after Trump’s rescission of this executive order, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas with historic rainfall causing unprecedented flooding. The floods left an estimated 30,000 people in need of shelter.

One mother made the ultimate sacrifice saving her child during the floods of Harvey. A woman and her 3-year old child were swept out of a parking lot by the flood waters of hurricane Harvey. Two police officers spotted a child clinging to their mother in a canal. When the police arrived at the scene, the mother was unresponsive and pronounced dead shortly after arriving at an ambulance, whereas the child suffered from hypothermia but was cared for and released to family members in stable condition. What if we recognized the threats of climate change and prepared for them? Maybe this child could grow up knowing their mother.

Children lose when vaccines are lost

President Trump has on many occasions misrepresented overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe. In 2015, when asked about getting the flu vaccine during an interview, Trump said, “I’ve never had one… Thus far I’ve never had the flu. I don’t like the idea of injecting bad stuff into [my] body, which is basically what they do.” Such statements have bolstered the movement of people who refuse to vaccinate their kids, causing real harm to their and other children.

Flu season is upon us. Last winter, the flu took 172 children with it – the largest death toll in nearly a decade. One of those children was 6-year old Eden Murray, whose family thought that maybe she was just tired from school when she stayed in bed all day. Most families don’t think they are going to lose their child to the flu – this also was the case for the family of 6-year old Emily Muth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that most children that die from the flu (around 85%) are not vaccinated.

President Trump is wrong to lambast vaccines for children. Make sure your children and you are safe this season, go get your flu vaccine.

How many more children must suffer?

The Trump administration’s chlorpyrifos decision was reversed by courts this year – one strategy that has worked in favor of public health. These successes are great, but there are still major issues to be addressed. Extreme flooding is continuing this year. The floodwaters of hurricane Florence have been attributed to 35 deaths thus far. The Trump administration also is attacking air pollution standards on many fronts, even though there are a number of studies that provide evidence that increased air pollution is linked to decline in human health and life expectancy.

How many more teenage girls have to gasp for air? How many more children must grow up without knowing a parent? How many more mothers must worry about their children playing outside?

I never thought that I would be writing a blog to advocate for children’s health – it is seriously mind-boggling for me. And while this all may seem alarmist, these stories are real. Let’s acknowledge these stories, the lives, and faces of those affected by the sidelining of science – we must learn from them to protect children now and in the future.

Photo: CMRF Crumlin/Flickr

Three Reasons Bernard McNamee is a Horrible Choice for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

President Trump’s nomination of Bernard McNamee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) may not grab a lot of headlines but make no mistake – it’s a blatant (and oft repeated) move by the Trump administration to pollute an independent regulatory body with political operatives intent on carrying out his crony capitalism. A hearing to consider McNamee’s nomination is already set for Tuesday, October 16th – a clear sign that Trump’s political allies are trying to ram through his appointment without thoughtful consideration. But here’s three reasons McNamee is a horrible choice to be a FERC commissioner and why his potential confirmation should worry all of us.

But first, what is “FERC”?

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – or “FERC” – is an independent federal regulatory body that is organized as part of the Department of Energy and that oversees much of our modern energy infrastructure. From pipelines, to hydroelectric dams, to our interstate transmission system and wholesale electricity markets, FERC is tasked with ensuring “reliable, efficient and sustainable energy services at a reasonable cost”. To put it simply: FERC’s decisions impact our wallets, our environment, and our climate.

Now that we understand why it’s important who our next FERC commissioner is, here are three reasons why Bernard McNamee is the wrong man for the job:

1. McNamee has serious conflicts of interest.

Bernard McNamee has been a key player in the Trump Administration’s unsuccessful attempts to bailout the coal industry. Now McNamee’s been nominated to join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission despite a lack of qualifications and clear conflicts of interest.

President Trump and the Department of Energy led by Rick Perry have been trying to bailout their buddies in the coal industry since they got to D.C. In his positions with the DOE, McNamee helped craft a previous proposal to provide subsidies to uneconomic coal plants. That proposal was unanimously rejected by FERC in January. We also know that DOE is still working to find the legal authority to order subsidies – with cost estimates of $34 billion or more – be paid to these same plants.

McNamee almost certainly had a role in crafting this latest proposal that is opposed by nearly everyone except the coal industry. To date he has not divulged exactly what role he’s played, who he’s worked with, or what communications he’s had with FERC about the upcoming proposal. Working to craft a bailout proposal for the coal industry would create a serious conflict of interest if he were to then be appointed to FERC that would ultimately vote on the proposal.

Imagine if you were accused of a crime and, once the prosecutor had made his closing arguments, he was appointed to be the judge in your case. That is akin to what we’re now facing with McNamee’s potential appointment to FERC. Free and fair electricity markets, low-cost electricity, and our clean energy future are at stake.

 2. He’s horribly unqualified.

Bernard McNamee has no experience in the utility or natural gas utility industries and has no experience as a regulator of these industries. He was appointed to the Department of Energy (DOE) by President Trump, and before that worked for a conservative think tank in Texas and was an advisor to Senator Ted Cruz and the Texas Attorney General.

3. He would destroy FERC’s standing as an independent regulatory body.

FERC was specifically designed to be independent from political interference. BY nominating Bernard McNamee to join FERC, the Trump Administration is trying to pollute that longstanding independence.

FERC has a long history of steering clear of the political fray, particularly in its responsibility to protect free and fair energy markets. In fact, FERC is specifically designed to be independent from political influence so that it can remain objective. To protect against undue influence at the Commission, no more than three of the five commissioners can be from the same political party, FERC is not funded by taxpayer dollars (and therefore not subject to appropriations battles), and FERC decisions are not reviewed in advance by the President or Congress.

This independence has already been thrown into question by FERC’s chief of staff, Anthony Pugliese – another unqualified political operative inserted at FERC by President Trump. The appointment of McNamee to be a FERC commissioner would double down on Trump’s efforts to make FERC a pawn to his political agenda. Everyone should be concerned about the erosion of independent decision making and the precedent that would set.

Before any hearing is scheduled on his nomination, a full accounting of his activities since joining the DOE, including his communications with the coal industry and his role in the ongoing effort to bailout uneconomic coal plants, should be made public. Then it’s up to the Senate to ask serious questions about how he plans to fulfill his duties at FERC given his lack of qualification and his apparent conflicts of interest. If we can’t get acceptable answers to these questions, then it’s painfully clear that McNamee has no place at FERC.

Photo: Ryan McKnight Photo: Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons

On Indigenous People’s Day, a Look at the Movement to Revive Native Foodways and How Western Science Might Support—For a Change

“Tribes are not sovereign unless they can feed themselves,” notes Ross Racine, Executive Director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council. This is such a brutal fact that that the destruction of Native foodways was used by the U.S. government to effectively weaken, destroy and remove Native people from their ancestral lands during the period of Western colonization, genocide, expansion and cultural undermining that ran from the 17th into the present century (in the form of “Food Distribution Programs,” largely the food that has made many Native communities both dependent and among the sickest in the world.)

It may be a legitimate question to some why a scientific organization wants to support dismantlement of the social inequities built into our food systems. Food and food production are fundamentally important to Native communities’ health, well-being, economic resilience, cultural heritage, and self-preservation. This means that restoring food sovereignty to Native communities requires the re-introduction of indigenous food production, distribution practices and infrastructure, in concert with the re-valuation of traditional ecological knowledge that has long been sidelined from Western notions of science.

The legacy of social and racial inequities woven throughout our food systems cannot be addressed without acknowledging the history of violent displacement and marginalization of Native American and Alaska Native communities, and the appropriation of their land and resources. In its most intensive and intentional phase, during the 60-year period now known as “the Indian Wars,” from 1830-1890, the federal government massacred tens of thousands of Native peoples and “removed” surviving communities to isolated “reservations.” Entire ways of life and foodways were intentionally destroyed. Native communities were forced to become dependent on an exogenous food system that funneled the most unhealthful foodstuffs toward reservations and further eroded knowledge about native foods and their production and preparation. These were overt control measures, including strict federally imposed limits on fishing, foraging, and hunting on Native lands. As a consequence of these measures, Native self-provisioning, traditional food knowledge and health were destroyed, and those communities now suffer some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the country and the world.

Indigenous methods of scientific inquiry have their best chance to find a home in our nation’s “1994 Land-Grant Institutions”—colleges and universities established with federal resources to support research, education, and extension related to food and agriculture. Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, then director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), stated that these tribal colleges and universities TCUs “teach in a cultural context that [empowers] students by drawing on the strength of their peoples’ history, indigenous knowledge, and traditions.” Yet research at TCUs is supported by a NIFA funding stream that is entirely separate from, and inferior to, that of other land grant institutions. Therefore, in recent years, a coalition of tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits have come together to demand increased federal funding for NIFA Tribal Programs. In addition, the pressure from dominant culture is to emulate the pattern and ostensive “success” of agricultural approaches that have been developed on the basis of western science. Instead, the leadership and autonomy of Native people must be acknowledged and supported to recapture and reconstruct their traditional knowledge of agriculture, gathering and food, together with their connection to health and wellbeing, and to integrate that knowledge with Western approaches in a manner of their own choosing.

The White Earth Food Recovery Project

One of the more significant things I ever did while on the faculty of the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University happened when a Native friend, Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe), told me about a project she was involved with to revive the foodways of her father’s people at the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. She told me how they knew that corn was central to the polycultural food system of their ancestors, and that they knew that to recover their physical, cultural and economic health they had to start by reconstructing their food system with their native species. But these had been lost to colonization and cultural destruction. She asked whether I knew how to get hold of seeds that were as close as possible to Ojibwe corn.

I called my buddy, Mark Millard, a geneticist who was the maize curator for the USDA’s Plant Introduction Center just down the road from my office. I still vividly remember the chills I felt when I repeated Winona’s question to Mark and he responded: “How close do you want to get to White Earth Ojibwe corn?” It turned out that in the 1920s, the USDA had collected seed of that very corn and dutifully reproduced it in the intervening 80 years. There was soon a package of precious seed on its way to Winona and the White Earth food recovery project was on its way.

Such efforts to reclaim food sovereignty as a way to recover health, in all its dimensions, among the nation’s survivors of a traumatic campaign of Native American genocide is gaining momentum, and particularly so among the TCU network, known colloquially as “Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities,” or even more eccentrically, the “1994s.” Ironies are plentiful in explanation. As Europeans colonized North America from the east coast westward, they established infrastructure and institutions to facilitate their settlement project.

Almost everyone has at least a glancing acquaintance with the fact that establishment of the transcontinental railroad was a keystone of this project. This was financed by a “land-grant scheme” whereby the federal government killed and removed Native inhabitants to “clear the way” for settlers, then gave itself permission to apportion the “empty land” (the popularly beloved first-person chronicler of these developments, Laura Ingalls Wilder, famously described her family’s entry into today’s Kansas with the words: “There were no people here, only Indians.”)  The federal “land-grants” were used by railroad companies not only for right-of-way but for sale to raise cash to support their operations. Similarly, the federal government “granted” land to states to establish the colleges that were to generate knowledge for white farmers to subdue the prairies and other conquered lands so that both Native people and vegetation could be replaced with more “productive” alternatives.

The resulting institutions, today’s “Land Grant Universities,” thereby have a complicated history. In the history of education, they were the first established expressly so that a higher education was accessible to the salt of the earth, and was no longer the exclusively for society’s privileged, but it was also clear who these colonizer institutions were for. They were not for Natives, and they were not for African Americans, both of whom were the victims and subordinates of colonization. It is for this reason that a completely separate network was subsequently established to “serve” the African-American population of farmers and rural citizens, now known as the “1890 Land Grants.” It is important to remember that this underscores exclusion than rather social equity, since they were established to reinforce that African Americans were not welcome (in the Southern US) within the exclusive hallways of the original Land Grant universities (now known as “the 1862s,” for the year their authorizing legislation was passed.) It will surprise no one that compared with the 1862 Universities, the Crown Jewels of the Land Grant University system, the 1890 and 1994 counterparts are egregiously underfunded.

What Must “Science” Now Do?

Which brings us to the “1994 Land Grants.” It took that long for the federal government to recognize the exclusion of the continent’s first peoples from its tradition of public support for higher education. But that support historically had been in an effort to destroy Native life, knowledge and culture, acknowledging it only as an item of study. For Native people, of course, the object is instead to revive the thriving worldview and knowledge system that sustained their forebears for millennial generations.

So this is where the federal government is now with this  project: The federal government funds research, education, and extension activities at 1994 institutions through the Tribal College Research Grant Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The program is to help 1994 institutions become centers of scientific inquiry and learning for remote and rural reservation communities, with an emphasis on research questions generated by Native community interests. Projects funded through this program may help a tribe “improve bison herd productivity, discover whether traditional plants can play a role in managing diabetes, or control invasive species,” among other areas of emphasis. Alongside the research program, the Tribal College Extension Program supports informal, community-based learning, which may include farmer education, youth development, and rural entrepreneurship.

In the summer of 2017, the Native Farm Bill Coalition—made up of 22 tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits—published a report assessing risks and opportunities for Native communities in the 2018 farm bill. The authors acknowledge that tribal organizations have “struggled to rally the support of tribes to effectively advocate for greater Native inclusion in previous Farm Bills,” and present the report as a springboard to amplify tribal voices in the federal food and agriculture policy process. The report’s recommendations, include increased funding for extension services for tribes, earmarked funding for tribal groups within existing NIFA research grant programs, and new research programs at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, that focus on the important and increasing role that traditional knowledge plays in the environmental, natural resources, ecological, food science, nutrition, and health research.

Science is a human endeavor. It does not exist without humans, and it serves the purposes of humans. It served the colonizing and genocidal project of the United States in several ways. The Union of Concerned Scientists seeks to put science in service of the project to recover the dignity and viability of lifeways that respect and sustain Native wisdom and healthful, thriving cultures. For this reason, my team and I will be working to establish a relationship with leaders, faculty and fellow scientists at the nation’s Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities, and to learn how me might become part of a project that aligns our science and intentions with a completely different direction and outcome than the perverted precedent we all must thoughtfully reflect on each October on Indigenous People’s Day.

Kids Deserve to Have Healthy Lives: The Uncertain Fate of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection

October 1 marked the beginning of Children’s Health Month, the month when health organizations, health professionals, government agencies, and others work to raise public awareness of children’s unique vulnerabilities and highlight their support for child health. And there certainly are many issues that merit our attention and efforts to protect and promote the health of our nation’s children, from prenatal care and adolescent health to immunization and nutrition.

These issues also include the environmental threats and hazards that affect the health and safety of our children, like air and water pollution, exposure to lead, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals and yes, even climate change.

From asthma to brain damage, exposure to chemicals and other environmental hazards can have both immediate and lasting effects on children’s health and well-being. What’s more, these hazards often affect children differently than they do adults, so it makes sense that public protections should take these differences into account. And, along with providing science, information, and expert advice, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to be the cop on that beat.

Director of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection: OUT

The EPA garnered significant news over the past week when it abruptly placed the director of its Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP) on administrative leave. The director, Dr. Ruth Etzel, is a pediatrician, health scientist, and renowned environmental health expert who literally wrote the book on children’s environmental health.

If the surgeon general is the nation’s doctor, Dr. Etzel has been the children’s doctor at the EPA and a tireless advocate for children’s environmental health throughout her career. Her expertise and experience, along with the work of the OCHP staff, have been vital to informing the EPA on the unique vulnerabilities of children and how the agency’s proposals, policies, and efforts could affect them. There are no other MDs, much less a pediatrician, in this office.

The persistent sidelining of science and other scientists at the EPA makes it essential for the agency to explain how OCHP will continue to play a meaningful role in the agency’s decisions.

Children are not little adults

Exposure to pollution, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals can make kids sick, as parents, family members, health care providers, teachers, and day care providers are generally well aware. They know, for example, that air pollution, second-hand smoke, mold, and some chemicals can trigger asthma attacks. Indeed, the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 6.1 million children (8.3% of kids under the age of 18) suffer from asthma, and that there were 13.8 million asthma-related missed school days in 2013, plus the countless visits to doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and hospitalizations.

They certainly know that lead can poison kids, seriously damage developing brains, and result in lasting cognitive and behavioral problems. They may know that there is no safe level of lead exposure in children and that lead exposure continues to be a significant problem in the US, with approximately 500,000 children ages 1 to 5 years having blood lead levels higher than the CDC reference level. And some may be waiting for the promised updated Federal Lead Strategy (see here and here), which is expected to be available for public comment in late 2018 (that means now, so what and where’s the hold-up?).

And then there’s the worry about the thousands of chemicals used in household and consumer products, home furnishings, building materials, and even toys. The saga of EPA’s decision on the pesticide chlorpyrifos is a story onto itself (see here, here), though one with a hopeful ending thanks to the courts (though the EPA intends to fight the decision).

In so many words, we know that in many cases chemicals and kids are a bad mix.

That’s why it’s particularly noteworthy that the EPA has both a policy and an office dedicated to children’s health.

OHCP: Not just another cog in a bureaucratic machine

In 1995, the EPA established a policy to “consistently and explicitly evaluate environmental health risks of infants and children in all of the risk assessments, risk characterizations, and environmental and public health standards.” In 1996, the agency established a national agenda to protect children’s health from environmental threats.

In 1997, the EPA Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP) was established by executive order. It is the only office in the agency totally dedicated to the health of children. The office was and for now remains located within the Office of the EPA Administrator. Its proximity to top EPA leadership reflects the importance of its fundamental goal, which is to “to ensure that all EPA actions and programs address the unique vulnerabilities of children.”

The OHCP’s web site further defines its major work as: “increasing environmental health literacy of health care providers through support of Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units; and evaluating and communicating trends in environmental contaminants that may contribute to childhood disease through publication of America’s Children and the Environment.”

Kids are uniquely sensitive and vulnerable to environmental hazards. As the OCHP also notes on its web site, children are more vulnerable to environmental exposures because “their bodily systems are still developing; they eat more, drink more, and breathe more in proportion to their body size; and their behavior can expose them more to chemicals and organisms.”

Our nation’s doctors and nurses rely on the expert advice and resources in the OHCP in caring for our children. EPA policy makers need the same to effectively safeguard our kids.

Speaking out and what worries me most

That’s why it’s particularly troubling to see the EPA potentially put the work of the office in jeopardy (not to mention the notable timing given Children’s Health Month). More than 120 organizations have written to EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler asking the EPA “to immediately clarify what action it has taken with regards to Dr. Etzel and with regards to OCHP, and make no further attempts to dismantle, re-organize, diminish, or otherwise reduce the abilities and authorities of OCHP.” Signatories include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the March of Dimes, National Association of County and City Health Officials, National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, Moms Clean Air Force—and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But what’s even more troubling is the context in which this occurs. This administration has an established track record of devaluing and sidelining science and scientists. We are tracking these assaults on science here—but I admit it’s hard to keep up.

Just in the past week, we have also seen the EPA disband its Office of the Science Advisor (see here, here) and then appoint the lead lobbyist for Koch Industries to the top political position inside the office that is now in charge of science advice and coordination at the EPA. And we also learned that a rule to restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions was developed without involvement of the agency’s science advisor.

Also in the news this week are White House efforts to suppress attention to climate change and children’s health at the same time, scrubbing language about how climate change affects children’s health from a draft EPA proposal on heat-trapping chemicals.

So call me concerned? Heck Yeah. I’m troubled that there seems to be no due process in removing the EPA’s top expert in children’s environmental health. I’m worried that in the daily onslaught of the Trump administration’s efforts to sideline science, scientists, and elevate private profit over the public good, what’s happening to children’s health at the EPA will get lost in the shuffle as people move on to the next outrage.

We can’t let this happen

The health of each child in this country is just too important. The Trump administration’s EPA is actively reopening important protective rules—from mercury to methane, power plant emissions to how communities deal with chemical disasters. In the first two years of this administration, we have learned that reopening these rules is simply the first step in attempts to delay, weaken, or entirely gut health protections. We need strong science and scientists within the EPA to be in a position to stand up for children.

So please raise your voice again and again on this one. Call your elected representatives, tell your friends and neighbors, write a letter to the editor of your hometown newspaper. Tell them what children’s health means to you, and why the EPA needs to push forward, not retreat, on protecting our families.

Take action now! Send EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler a message that we are paying attention and know these moves are dangerous and unacceptable.

Photo: Runar Pedersen Holkestad/Flickr

Electoral Reform Update: One State at a Time

Across the country this November, voters have an opportunity to improve the quality of U.S. elections in their states, and for the country as a whole.

Reforms ranging from redistricting to registration requirements and ballot access could lower voting barriers and reduce inequalities in turnout, particularly in environmental justice and other overburdened communities, where our recent analysis showed especially low levels of turnout. A handful of states are also trying to raise barriers to free and fair participation in elections, which we highlight below.

In the following states, these reforms would improve the quality of future elections:


Proposal 2, Independent Redistricting Commission Initiative—the organization Voters Not Politicians collected more than the required 315,654 signatures for the initiative.

A Detroit Free Press poll released last week showed the initiative ahead, up 48-32 percent, with 20 percent undecided. Proposal 2 receives significant support from both Democrats and independents, but is losing by 33-44 percent among Republicans.

Michigan’s “Promote the Vote” which will be Proposal 3 on the ballot, would allow for voter registration up to the day of the election, allow people to get absentee ballots for no reason and allow straight-ticket voting. Proposal 3 received the most support in the poll with 70 percent of those surveyed saying they’ll vote for the proposal, and 25 percent opposed.


Amendment 1 would create a position called the non-partisan state demographer, which would draw state legislative districts. The state demographer would be selected from a pool of applicants, with the state auditorstate Senate majority leader, and state Senate minority leader involved in the selection process. The state demographer would file the proposed map with the existing commissions, which would be permitted to amend the demographer’s map via a 70 percent vote of the commissioners, provided that amendments meet Amendment 1’s redistricting criteria.

Amendment 1 would also address campaign finance and lobbying policies related to state legislators and legislative employees. The ballot initiative would forbid the Missouri State Legislature from passing laws allowing for unlimited campaign contributions to candidates for the state legislature. Amendment 1 would establish campaign contribution limits for legislative candidates and their committees for a single election cycle to $2,500 per person to a state Senate candidate and $2,000 per person to a state House candidate.  Finally, the measure would prohibit making or accepting contributions using a fake name, using the name of another person, or through another person to conceal the actual donor’s identity.


With unanimous support from the state legislature and both state party chairs, Colorado will become the first state to have an equal number of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters on independent commissions that redraw legislative and congressional boundaries. Under the amendment, districts would need to be competitive. Competitive is defined in the amendment as having a reasonable potential to change parties at least once every ten years. Measuring competitiveness would entail evidenced-based analyses, voter registration data, and past election results.


Proposition 4 would create a seven-member independent redistricting commission to draft maps for congressional and state legislative districts. Members would be appointed by the governor and state legislative leaders. A person would not be eligible to serve as a commissioner if, during the four years before appointment, he or she was a lobbyist; was a candidate for or holder of any political or elected office; received compensation from a political party, political party committee, or political action committee associated with a political party.

The following states also have voting rights related initiatives:

Florida: Amendment 4, Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative—automatically restores the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. A recent poll shows 42 percent of voters plan to vote “Yes” on Amendment 4, while 20 percent will vote “No.” But with 36% undecided, and the amendment requiring 60% to pass, its fate is still uncertain.

Maryland: Question 2, Election-Day Voter Registration Amendment—legislative Democrats voted to place the amendment the ballot. The measure was designed to authorize a process for registering qualified individuals to vote at a precinct polling place on election day.

Nevada: Question 5, Automatic Voter Registration via DMV Initiative—the measure was designed to provide for the automatic voter registration of eligible citizens when receiving certain services from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

A handful of other states are moving in the opposite direction, seeking to raise further barriers to voting:

Arkansas: Issue 2, Voter ID Amendment—would require individuals to present a valid photo ID to cast non-provisional ballots in person or absentee.

Montana: LR-129—The Montana State Legislature voted to place the measure on the ballot, through the support of 80 of 91 Republicans and one of 59 Democrats. The measure was written to ban persons from collecting the election ballots of other people, with exceptions for certain individuals.

North Carolina: Voter ID Amendment—This amendment was referred to the ballot by the state by the state legislature along party lines with Republicans voting in favor of it and Democrats voting against it. It would create a constitutional requirement that voters present photo ID

North Dakota: Measure 2, Citizen Requirement for Voting Amendment Initiative—The measure was designed to clarify that only a U.S. citizen can vote in federal, state, and local elections in North Dakota.

These and similar restrictions have been proposed with the support of climate change-denial groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in an effort to entrench representatives under their influence.

Across the country, it is crucial that citizens get out to vote by November 6 and take part in this historic opportunity to reassert popular control over government and policy making.

Photo: Erik (HASH) Hersman/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Top EPA Science Office Sidelined as Political Appointees Hatched Controversial Science Proposal

The EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor (OSA) was excluded from discussions around a proposal to restrict the types of science that could be used in agency decisions, according to an email obtained by UCS. Described by EPA as providing “leadership in cross-Agency science and science policy,” the OSA would normally be principally involved in such an effort. This is further evidence that the science rule was developed by political appointees while completely excluding top EPA scientific staff.

OSA Director Tom Sinks seemed taken aback when the rule was published.

“Even though OSA and I have not participated in the development of this document and I just obtained it (have yet to read it), I am listed as the point of contact,” he wrote in an email to colleagues. “No doubt we will all have a lots [sic] of questions re this – but I wanted you to be aware of this and encourage you to read about it.”

The email was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and shared with the Washington Post, which broke the story earlier this afternoon.

It’s a lot easier for fringe scientific views to take root when the agency’s own scientific experts aren’t even allowed a seat at the table. Adding insult to injury, EPA leaders announced last week that the Office of Science Advisor would be eliminated and that some of its functions would be buried deep inside one EPA office, diminishing the role of science advice at the agency.

The email from Dr. Sinks shows the exclusion of the science advisor’s office from important policy discussions started long before EPA leaders decided to get rid of it.

Previously, the EPA attempted to justify its proposed rule by claiming that it was consistent with recommendations from several prominent scientific organizations, forcing those organizations to disassociate themselves from the rule.

“Contrary to the stated purpose of the rule, the rule would result in the exclusion of valid and important scientific findings,” said Rush Holt, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in testimony before the Senate today, according to the Washington Post.

Hundreds of scientific associations, industry groups, public interest organizations, scientists have expressed concern about the proposal in public comments. Even the Department of Defense told EPA that this idea is unwise.

DOI’s New Policy Restricts Science Under the Guise of Transparency

Photo: NCinDC/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Last week, Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order, “Promoting Open Science”, purportedly to increase transparency and public accessibility of the research used by the Department to make science-based decisions. This seems dubious coming from a person who spent much of his career lobbying for the oil and gas industry and who at his confirmation hearing professed, “Here’s the reality: We’re going to look at the science whatever it is, but … policy decisions are made — this president ran and he won on a particular perspective.” The order, effective immediately, is not unlike the EPA’s “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” proposed rule, in that it restricts the use of science in important decisions that affects the public and our environment. At its surface, the order seems to make science a hallmark of DOI policy:

This Order is intended to ensure that the Department of the Interior (Department) bases its decisions on the best available science [emphasis mine] and provide the American people with enough information to thoughtfully and substantively evaluate the data, methodology, and analysis used by the Department to inform its decisions. Further, it is intended to ensure that the American people have sufficient information [emphasis mine] about what their Federal Government is doing to assess where it is coming from and correct the Federal Government when we err.

The only problem is that science already is and has been part and parcel of the work of the Department.  So, what has changed?  When you dig deeper it is easy to see this order for what it is:  an attempt to place unnecessary burdens on the use of scientific evidence that runs contrary to the Trump administration’s agenda.

To date, this Administration has shown disdain rather than respect for science.  Here at UCS we have been tracking attacks on science and several are at DOI.  Our survey of DOI scientists (at the US Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, as well as the Bureaus of Ocean Energy Management and Safety and Environmental Enforcement)  reveal deep concerns among the professionals in the agency about the way their political leaders are managing the science program in the department.  The following details from the order are also important to note:

Raw data and reproducibility

Any decision based on scientific conclusions that are not supported by publicly available raw data [emphasis mine], analysis, or methodology, have not been peer reviewed, or are not readily reproducible [emphasis mine] should include an explanation of why such science is the best available information.

Requiring that scientific data be publicly available means that some high-quality data can’t be used in federal government research. Raw data may include confidential information such as private addresses and locations of sacred spaces and cultural resources or even the locations of the last remaining individuals of an endangered species. A colleague said, “it’s like telling poachers where the last rhinos are living,” an astute analogy. Allowing such data to be publicly available could put individuals, species, and culturally or religiously important sites at risk. In some cases, data from older studies may be inaccessible where the authors or data sources may not be available. This would be an issue for reproducibility as well, especially considering that long-term studies and studies determining the natural history of species often rely on data obtained before the advent of modern data storage.

As Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists previously pointed out, raw data is not typically reviewed even in the most rigorous peer-reviews. Instead, the research questions, the methods, the summarized data, the results and conclusions are reviewed to assess the quality of the work.

Also cited in the order is an excerpt from the Office of Management and Budget, Guidelines for Ensuring and Maximizing the Quality, Objectivity, Utility, and Integrity of Information Disseminated by Federal Agencies. “If an agency is responsible for disseminating influential scientific, financial, or statistical information, agency guidelines shall include a high degree of transparency about data and methods to facilitate the reproducibility of such information by qualified third parties [emphasis mine].”

In other words, the OMB guidelines already call for the science to be as transparent as is reasonable.  So, is this order calling for it to go beyond the bounds of reason?

Best available science

“The Department issues regulations on a wide swath of activities that have a tremendous impact on the lives of Americans. Accordingly, the Department has an obligation to the American people to ensure that decisions are based on the best available science [emphasis mine]. On March 28, 2018, President Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order 13783, ‘Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,’ declaring it ‘the policy of the United States’ that environmental regulations ‘are developed through transparent processes that employ the best available peer-reviewed science and economics.’”

No one in DOI political leadership seems to view science as anything more than an inconvenience. Instead it seems they are just industry favorable heads making decisions that sound like they’re in the public’s best interest – but are not. We’ve already seen how the DOI is treating science. In less than two years, the DOI has manipulated, dismissed, and ignored science and scientists; they’ve canceled studies on oil and gas operations, restricted scientists from attending conferences essential for keeping abreast of research and methods in their disciplines, gone against their own communication policy by requiring scientists to get permission to speak to media about their work…and subsequently hid the communication policy deep in the DOI website, buried a report on the effects that climate change and sea-level rise have on coastal communities, and even gone so far as to reassign scientists from their posts without justification. Recently, the DOI proposed a rule that would undercut the scientific basis of the Endangered Species Act by prioritizing economic considerations when determining endangered or threatened status for species.

Industry waivers

The requirements of this Order may be waived, in whole or in part, by the Deputy Secretary upon a written determination that a waiver is necessary and the least restrictive means of protecting privacy, confidentiality, including confidential business information and trade secrets [emphasis mine]; national security, and homeland security. With appropriate redactions, all waivers shall be posted on Regulations. gov (or any similar successor site) concurrent with publication of the related rule in the Federal Register.

There are waivers for industry. Of course there are. There is nothing explicitly mentioned about protecting the privacy of individuals, but hopefully this is implied and won’t require extra rigmarole. However, they made sure to be clear that any data revealing industry information and “trade secrets” could be eligible for a waiver by the Deputy Secretary, making it a wholly political decision.  Shouldn’t it be up to the scientists to decide when the scientific information is important in order to advise policy-makers?  Otherwise, policy-makers can just choose the information that supports their political positions.

The DOI’s decisions under this administration leave a trail of crumbs that lead to one thing: short-term economic gains at the expense of wildlife, public lands, and public health. Manipulating the process by which science informs policy only serves to tilt the scales farther in this direction.

Connecting the dots

Restricting the scientific information eligible for use at DOI would leave many agencies and bureaus therein unable to meet their missions and statutory obligations. This proposal could make the conservation of endangered species all the more difficult because of the requirement to reveal location data, landholder information and other information that is best kept confidential in order to protect endangered plants and animals. Additionally, these restrictions would increase burdens on agency scientists that are already encumbered by budget cuts, reorganizations, and understaffing, resulting only in reduced capacity to make science-based decisions.

In his order, Deputy Secretary Bernhardt quoted late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynilian as saying “everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts”, adding his own take, “Differences of opinion are inevitable as people of good will pursue different priorities. Differences of facts are not.” On that we can agree – so stop trying to choose what should be seen as fact. Adding unnecessary hoops is not in the best interest of the public, wildlife and lands that DOI is tasked with protecting, it only serves to slow down science-based decision-making processes as a part of the administration’s anti-science agenda. If DOI really wants to keep the public informed, they could start by not pulling studies and deleting information from websites, but by properly funding programs and offices committed to sharing knowledge with communities.

Photo: NCinDC/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Trump’s USDA vs. Science

The United States has a complicated history when it comes to science. The very birth of the nation is bound up with the European Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, culminating in the notion that reason should inform the self-government of free peoples. President Jefferson wrote that science “is more important in a republic than in any other government.” Decades later, President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences to “provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.”

But science has also been frequently misused by the US government. And in the Trump era, independent scientific advice is increasingly under threat. Such advice has been ignored and devalued across federal agencies under this administration, including at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), where last year, we might well have had a “Chief Scientist” with no scientific credentials at all, but for that nominee’s past racist statements and unseemly ties to Russians during the Trump presidential campaign.

And it is at the USDA that we are observing what follows after merely ignoring scientists. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is relocating, defunding, muzzling and otherwise belittling the standing of his department’s scientists. In a move that stunned the staff and administrators of the Department’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Secretary summarily announced, without consultation, that these agencies would be banished from their DC locations and that the ERS would be shuffled from its current position in the organizational chart, where it logically reports to the Department’s Chief Scientist, to within the Secretary’s office.

Lest you believe that these are obscure bureaucratic moves of little consequence, opposed only by self-interested researchers and administrators who are threatened by what Perdue is characterizing as a cost-saving, streamlining move, take stock that no informed observers accept or understand the Secretary’s stated rationale, including professional scientific societies, farmer organizations, and even the members of Congress charged with USDA oversight. In fact, over 1,100 scientists have stated their resolute opposition to this move.

But what is clear is that the agencies will become less effective in fulfilling their mission to support independent scientific research and analysis, that the agencies will be less appealing to scientists and economists, and that ERS in particular will be subjected to political pressure to ensure its analysis supports the Secretary’s agenda. In the words of Susan Offut, former ERS administrator under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Secretary is “throwing away a world class research institution.” The Chairs of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senators Roberts (R, Kansas) and Stabenow (D, Michigan), wrote Perdue asking for fuller explanation of the Secretary’s irascible move, including its legal premises. Rather than elaborating and illuminating his rationale, the Secretary responded obstinately, only restating his original rationale, the equivalent of a breezy teenage “whatever.”

And why would an administrator seek to diminish and dilute the labor of a first-rate scientific establishment? One doesn’t need to look too intently to realize that the various outlandish claims on which Perdue’s agenda is based are contradicted by the objective analysis of his department’s own scientists, ranging from the effectiveness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to the degree of economic concentration in agriculture and the asymmetrical distribution of government subsidies to large corporate farms.

Many won’t remember, but the Trump USDA’s efforts to suppress inconvenient facts are not without precedent. The predecessor to ERS was the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), shut down in the 1950s by the racist namesake of the USDA’s main building on the mall today, Jamie Whitten. Late in his life Whitten recanted some of his earlier odious social views, but when it mattered, the Representative from Mississippi and chair of the powerful House Agriculture Appropriations Committee opposed, among other progressive measures, all efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act. And he did to the USDA’s economists what Perdue is again attempting to do now. The crime of the BAE? They documented the USDA’s discriminatory practices against the African-American farmers of Whitten’s home state of Mississippi. When Whitten was persuaded by President Kennedy to approve reestablishment of today’s Economic Research Service, he did so subject to the condition that its economists refrain from repeating such “hound dog studies.” In other words, this has happened before. It can happen again.

Let us be clear—as citizens of the 21st century, and particularly as people living in the United States—that none of the world’s current challenges, from climate change to clean power to agricultural sustainability, can be addressed effectively without sober and competent scientific perspective. For all their flaws and imperfections, the nation’s founders were creatures of the Age of Enlightenment and students of the Scientific Revolution. They fancied themselves giving pride of place to the power of reason to advance knowledge and to build an effective and responsive government. The United States was the socioeconomic and political experiment they set up to to implement these novel and powerful insights. They envisioned the benefits that could come when science and democracy worked together. In this, they exemplified a kind of bold, novel pragmatism that aspired to put problem solving above partisanship and sought to base government policies on the best available data and the most up-to-date understanding of the world.

That experiment, fraught as it has been, is—shall we say—clearly teetering at the moment. But it is an intent well worth remembering in today’s highly polarized political environment.

New California Laws Address Climate Change—Some Bills Fall Short

California State Capitol Photo: Rafał Konieczny CC-BY-SA-4.0 (Wikimedia)

It’s Fall. That means crisp morning air, dwindling sunlight, and a chance to take stock of legislative victories and setbacks in California, as Governor Brown has now signed or vetoed the last of the bills sent to his desk this year.

As always, the progress we make in Sacramento is not only improving Californians’ quality of life, but also keeping momentum going for other states and countries. Many of the gains we make in clean technologies, for example, are reducing costs and proving solutions at scale, charting a course from which others can learn.

Big wins to fight climate change SB 100 bill signing

Governor Brown signed SB 100 into law on September 10, 2018. Adrienne Alvord, UCS Western States Director, is pictured third from left.

The biggest victory this year for UCS—and California’s climate—was unquestionably passage of SB 100 (De León), which accelerated the state’s renewable electricity requirement to 60% by 2030 and set a goal to supply all of California’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045.  The world is sure to be watching our state to see how the globe’s fifth largest economy can run entirely on carbon-free electricity while maintaining a safe and reliable power grid. UCS was proud to work with a large coalition of faith, labor, business, climate, and environmental justice leaders to move this bill across the finish line. Now that SB 100 is the law of the land, our state has an opportunity to lead the world by example and help produce the technological innovation needed to operate a truly carbon-free grid.

Another key victory was passage of SB 1014 (Skinner), which will make sure ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft reduce global warming pollution from cars running on their platforms. The law requires that the California Air Resources Board adopt targets for reducing the average emissions associated with every mile a passenger travels on ride-hailing platforms. In practical terms these targets will encourage ride sharing (such as UberPOOL and Lyft Line) and greater use of cleaner vehicles, particularly zero-emission vehicles. Uber and Lyft have become an essential part of our transportation system, but their popularity has also raised concerns about increased congestion and emissions. As such, UCS was thankful to work with Senator Skinner on this first-in-the-nation law to make sure that ride-hailing companies are taking steps to address climate change.

There were many other noteworthy bills addressing climate change passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Brown into law. Key UCS-backed measures signed into law include:

  • AB 2195 (Chau)—Requires tracking of global warming emissions from production and transport of natural gas imported into California.
  • AB 3232 (Friedman)—Requires the California Energy Commission (CEC) to assess the potential to reduce emissions from the state’s buildings to 40% below 1990 levels by 2040.
  • SB 700 (Wiener)— Reduces the cost of batteries to backup on-site solar energy systems at homes, businesses, and schools.
  • SB 964 (Allen)—Requires the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) to analyze the financial risk of their investments due to climate change.
  • SB 1013 (Lara)—Restricts the use of potent global warming gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
  • SB 1072 (Leyva)—Creates regional climate collaboratives to help disadvantaged communities access state funding to address climate change.
  • SB 1477 (Stern)—Helps develop a market for low-emissions buildings and low-emissions space and water heating equipment.
Additional victories on nuclear weapons and scientific transparency

UCS also worked to advance priorities in the state Capitol beyond solutions to climate change. For example, we advocated for two resolutions – AJR 30 (Aguiar-Curry) and AJR 33 (Limon) – that passed the Legislature in August calling on the U.S. Congress to adopt several common sense reforms to reduce the threat of nuclear war. These resolutions call for the United States to renounce the option of using nuclear weapons first and to take U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, among other changes.

We also supported AB 2192 (Stone), a bill to make more state-funded research freely available to the public. Governor Brown also signed this measure into law.

Some bills fall short

SB 64 failed to garner the 41 votes necessary to pass the California State Assembly.

Despite all the progress California made in 2018, numerous important bills failed to pass. A key loss for UCS was SB 64 (Wieckowksi), legislation we co-sponsored with environmental justice and clean energy groups to address air pollution that comes from cycling of natural gas power plants.  This is an important issue to California’s clean energy transition because natural gas power plants are likely to start and stop more frequently as the state uses more electricity from solar plants and wind farms. The bill sought to more clearly report power plant emissions data and study how to phase down use of natural gas power plants. SB 64 received 40 votes in the Assembly (one vote short of passing) before industry opposition whittled support down to 33 votes. The bill faced intense opposition in the final days of the legislative session despite its relatively modest ambition.

The highest profile bill we worked on that failed to pass was AB 813 (Holden), which would have paved the way for California’s largest grid operator, the California Independent System Operator, to expand its operations into other western states. UCS supports regional integration of the electricity grid as an important tool to meeting our clean energy goals, and we supported AB 813 for most of the year as the centerpiece of legislative debate on the issue. However, as the session came to a close, too many questions remained in the final version of the bill for our organization to remain in support and we decided to take a neutral position on the bill during the session’s final days. Going forward, we still see integration of western energy markets as a key solution to creating a reliable, cost-effective grid powered by renewable energy.

There is always next year

In 2019 California will have a new governor with his own new priorities, and a Legislature of mostly returning members who are sure to have many ideas of their own for how to address climate change. Here at UCS we have our own ideas too, and we look forward to continuing our work to make California a “coast of dreams,” striving to push the boundaries of new solutions to climate change and other pressing challenges.

Office of Governor Brown

The EPA Disbanded Its Office of Science Advisor. Here’s Why That Matters.

EPA office building with agency flag

Late last week, the EPA announced its intention to get rid of its Office of the Science Advisor (OSA) and bury its functions deep down in another agency office. This move will significantly diminish efforts to coordinate and standardize the way that EPA does science. The administrator will have significantly less access to scientific advice at normal times and during times of crisis. And it will be easier for agency leaders to sideline and politicize science.

E&E News broke the story, and the New York Times, Bloomberg, CNN, and NPR soon followed. Then, on Monday, the lead lobbyist for Koch Industries took a job as the top political appointee inside the office that is now in charge of science advice and coordination at EPA.

What the office currently does

The National Academy of Sciences in 1992 recommended that the EPA create a science advisor office to “ensure that EPA policy decisions are informed by a clear understanding of relevant science.” From NAS:

It envisioned that the essential function of the science advisor would be to ensure that EPA policy decisions are informed by a clear understanding of relevant science. The panel recommended that the new science advisor advise the EPA administrator, implement a peer-review and quality-assurance program for all EPA science-based products; be a key player when EPA makes a policy decision, ensuring that the science and uncertainties relevant to a policy or regulatory issue are considered; play a key role in evaluating the professional activities of EPA scientists; reach out to the broader scientific community for information; and maintain an appropriate relationship with EPA’s [Science Advisory Board]. The panel suggested that the role of the new science advisor might be somewhat analogous to the role of the general counsel, who will not approve a document destined for an external audience until it is judged legally defensible.

The EPA is disbanding its Office of the Science Advisor. By any measure, this is not good news for the agency’s ability to protect public health and the environment. Cartoon: UCS/Jesse Springer

OSA staff are there to provide science advice to the administrator on the development of public protections and about how to respond to crises (including contamination from hurricanes, chemical disasters, and oil spills). They work to standardize scientific practices across different agency departments that develop and communicate science. They investigate allegations of political interference in science. They provide space to address contentious scientific issues. All of this requires them to have direct access to the administrator as well as sufficient authority and stature to influence other parts of EPA.

How it should work

The science advisor position is currently parallel to the head of the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD). While the head of ORD has often served as science advisor, this has not always been the case. Administrator Lisa Jackson separated the two roles, which has distinct advantages, including a greater ability to guide scientific work across the agency and investigate violations of scientific integrity within ORD.

The best practice would be to make the science advisor more independent from ORD. Instead, they are going in the other direction by burying the science advisor’s responsibilities deep within the office. It’s highly unlikely that an ORD head is going to allow information to come from within that would put ORD programs in jeopardy.

Why this change matters

The elimination of the science advisor’s office accelerates the decay of the role of science advice within the EPA administrator’s office. The administrator needs someone who will tell it to them straight—even if it’s not the information they want to hear. Unnecessary layers between the science advisor and EPA leadership can do long-term damage to the agency’s scientific capacity, but they’re especially harmful during crisis situations when the administrator needs independent scientific analysis fast.

The move further compromises the ability of EPA to standardize and improve scientific practices across the agency. EPA’s work on human subjects protection, data sharing, peer review standards, and other best scientific practices will be diminished as their recommendations carry less weight.

Further, the agency’s scientific integrity policy (designed to prevent political pressures on scientists and scientific work) and its implementation will also be compromised. The scientific integrity officer’s ability to investigate allegations of political interference in science within ORD will be considerably more difficult.

The EPA’s response

The EPA claims that the agency is simply streamlining its workforce, and that there will be no reduced access or authority since the current acting science advisor is also the head of ORD. But this is based on several faulty assumptions.

First, it suggests that the science advisor doesn’t need a staff. Second, it assumes that there will never be a need to separate the ORD head from the science advisor position. Third, it completely ignores the OSA’s cross-organizational functions that will be significantly less prominent and that staff will be left out of important discussions due to rank.

The context

Unfortunately, the current EPA has consistently left EPA scientific staff out of the conversation on important public health matters. For example, EPA scientists were not consulted when the agency decided not to ban the brain damaging chemical chlorpyrifos (a decision that was later reversed in court). The proposal to restrict the types of science that EPA can use in decisionmaking was similarly hatched by political appointees without the meaningful involvement of agency scientists.

Under disgraced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the ban on science advice from EPA grant recipients, the appointment of multiple industry insiders to high-level policy positions, the removal of climate change information from websites, and so much more has led to an understanding that science doesn’t count for much in the current EPA. Some were hopeful that Pruitt’s departure would bring changes.

In one of his first days on the job, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler met with agency staff and pledged to include agency scientists in the work of the agency. Yet this move suggests a lack of interest in unfiltered science advice and strong science standards, which can only make the agency less effective in protecting public health and the environment. The addition of a Koch Industries lobbyist as the liasion between the science office and the administrator’s office only amplifies the concern.