UCS Blog - The Equation (Nuclear Weapons)

50 Years of Science In Action

Today is a very special day–the 50th anniversary of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  As a proud leader of this great organization for five of these fifty years, I would like to share my reflections, which are excerpts from a 50th anniversary speech I gave a few weeks ago.

How it all began

Fifty years ago today–March 4, 1969–this organization was founded.  This day marked an unprecedented political awakening in the scientific community.

Richard Nixon had recently been sworn in as president. Military service was compulsory in the united states and nearly 500,000 American soldiers were deployed in Vietnam. The arms race was in full swing.  The US government used hideous weapons like napalm bombs on innocent people. At the same time, here in the US, rivers were literally catching on fire, and air quality in many cities was so toxic that it was dangerous to exercise outside.

The founders of UCS—Henry Kendall, Kurt Gottfried, and others, saw clearly what others missed– our precious scientific assets were devoted to military dominance and weapons of destruction, instead of addressing the world’s most pressing problems. And the scientific community was too quiet, constrained by an understandable, but ultimately misguided idea that scientists would hurt their enterprise by engaging in advocacy.

Kendall and Gottfried founded UCS to change all that.  Their simple and compelling idea—bring the power of science to make our world safer and healthier and mobilize the scientific community behind that cause.

What has UCS accomplished?

Now, as we look back, what can we say that this noble experiment has brought us?

A long and proud history of achievements, many of which are highlighted in this timeline.  While there are far too many victories to mention them all here, several themes emerge:

UCS has a proud history of being ahead of the curve

In January 1979, UCS called for the Three Mile Island nuclear plant to be shut down; our experts concluded that it was unsafe.  It was a remarkably prescient warning.  Just two months later, that plant partially melted down, gravely threatening thousands.

In 1992, UCS issued “A Warning to Humanity” highlighting the danger of climate change, long before public fully appreciated the threat it posed to the planet.  We followed this general warning up with regional climate impact reports that identified in concrete terms the future we faced–again long before the dangers manifested themselves in the extreme weather events we see today.

Our report ten years ago highlighting ExxonMobil’s campaign of deception about climate science helped start a whole ball rolling in exposing the deceptive practices of fossil fuel companies, leading to investigations, lawsuits, and other efforts now underway to hold these companies accountable for their enormous contribution to climate change.

Our work is often indispensable

UCS has a unique history of weighing in the public interest, even when others were quiet, in fact, especially when others were quiet.  We have often punctured the conventional wisdom and brought the facts to light so decisions were not made in darkness.

For example, we led, and still lead today, on revealing the vulnerabilities of missile defense systems. It was UCS who called out that this emperor had no clothes, and showed why that was and how easily these systems could be defeated with simple countermeasures.

Many years later, UCS exposed that the George W. Bush administration was threatening scientific integrity by suppressing, distorting and maligning the work of government scientists.

Or showed the dangers to human health posed by the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed when others were assuring us that everything was ok.

UCS has devised solutions that seem impossible to many at first—impossible, that is, until they come to be inevitable

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, UCS focused on the promise of renewable energy  and pioneered the use of state Renewable Energy Standards to drive them.  Look what has happened!  Twenty nine states now have these standards and wind and solar are leading every other energy source in new capacity.

We focused on doubling the fuel economy of cars, and we got that (though it is under attack right now).

We focused on protecting the work of government scientists, and won unanimous passage of a whistleblower protection law.

And now, we are proving that you can run a modern electrical grid, primarily on renewables, and states such as California relied on our work when committing to 100% clean energy by 2045.

Looking ahead

But an anniversary of this kind is not just about looking backwards.  The focus must be on the future.  And we must be honest with ourselves–our work has never been more urgent or important and the challenges of securing progress have never been more daunting.

Let’s start with climate change.   We are learning a bitter truth the hard way–the most precious commodity of all is—time.  We are running out of it.

Despite the rather miraculous advent of new technologies, and the almost daily lessons in the dangers of climate change we are learning in the form of extreme weather events, we are not moving nearly fast enough.

On nuclear weapons, while we made significant progress cutting the US and Russian arsenals, the nuclear threat persists, and in some ways, it is harder to address now.  Many people, particularly young people whose energy and passion we need, are not even aware of the threat.  And many who understand the threat think that there is nothing they can do about it.

On food, the challenge of sustainably feeding a burgeoning population has never been more daunting. 1.2 billion people are expected to be added to the planet in the next ten years, from 7.3 to 8.5.  1.2 billion people in ten years!   For many decades agricultural productively kept up or even exceeded population growth.  But, today, there are ominous signs that this is changing, as climate change wreaks havoc with growing cycles, pollinators decline, topsoil is depleted, and supplies of usable water decline.

And last but certainly not least, here in the US, we find ourselves in a place where top officials in Washington talk openly about alternative facts, and the institutions we relied on to separate truth from falsity are no longer respected by many people.  When facts mean different things to different people, depending upon which tribe they identify with, we face a mortal threat to democracy itself.

Why do I say this? Let’s remember that the roots of democracy are in the enlightenment, that period in which we climbed out of the dark ages through scientific curiosity and empiricism.  From this came the radical insight—that facts were demonstrable and knowable to all whose minds were open to the scientific method, and therefore truth was not the special province of one tribe, or one church, or one king.

That radical notion gave birth to democracy because, when knowledge resides in all of us, all of us have the right–in fact–the duty to participate in decision making.  That means the Dear Leader, or Big Brother of 1984—or yes, President Trump—don’t get to define the truth.

And so, we must understand that the current attacks on science, the way it is maligned and suppressed and misused on behalf of those with an agenda to benefit special interests, is an attack on our democracy itself.

So, as I see it, we have four tasks ahead:
  • Bending the curve on climate change before it’s too late
  • Reducing the nuclear threat
  • Sustainably feeding our population
  • maintain and enhancing the rightful place of science in a democracy.

And a fifth overlying obligation—to make sure that this work is done in a way that includes the many and benefits the many. Now, these are weighty challenges. But in this 50th year, our Union of Concerned Scientists is the best equipped it has ever been to overcome them. Our staff and our resources have grown significantly, thanks to the thousands who support our work. We have forged new partnerships, particularly with disadvantaged communities; equity, diversity, and inclusion is woven into our work in ways that it has never been before. We have changed the way we communicate, using the best new modern tools, knowing that the way you capture people’s attention and impel them to act is very different than it was 50 years ago, or even ten years ago.  Here is the modern face of UCS in this video. We have invested in outreach and now have a science network with over 25,000 members. And we have broadened our own thinking, knowing that these problems are so big that they can’t be solved only with the solutions that are our personal favorites.

So, on this 50th anniversary, we are awed by the foresight and prescience of our founders. We are profoundly thankful for the passion and loyalty from all of our supporters who have walked with us for 50 years!

And we march forward, with what Dr. Martin Luther King called upon all of us to have–tough minds, and tender hearts. And if we stick together, and never give up, there will be a 100th anniversary of UCS. And at that anniversary, my successor will look back, and thank us for:

  • Getting the world to net zero emissions by mid century
  • Eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons
  • Finding the way to sustainably feeding the world’s population
  • And strengthening the bonds between science and democracy, so that each flourish together and become so strongly linked that they cannot be torn asunder.

Two Years in, and the State of Our Union Is Weakened—but It’ll Be Strong Again

We are now midway through the Trump administration, and the state of our union—while far too fractured and polarized to be judged strong—has, at least, proven resilient. The key institutions we count on—a free media, an independent judiciary, vigorous NGOs, strong governors and state attorneys general, and opposition representatives in Congress—have, for the most part, held the line and stemmed the damage that might have been inflicted by the wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency.

At the same time as our “old guard” institutions have held the line, a “new guard” is moving the line and changing the terms of the debate. People-powered activism is surging nationwide, and groups such as Indivisible, the Parkland students, and the Sunrise Movement captivate our imagination and demand attention with stirring ideas such as the “Green New Deal.”

Even the recent shutdown over the border wall, while a stunning example of government dysfunction that caused needless suffering, may have set a helpful precedent. How so? The border wall started out as a mnemonic device for a fledgling presidential candidate and became a symbol of toughness on immigration to Mr. Trump’s base. What it never was shown to be was an effective solution for border security. And when a policy, particularly one that involves billions of taxpayer dollars, cannot be supported by the evidence, and when there is an opposition party that will not suspend its disbelief out of blind loyalty to the president, such a policy will usually fail. That is the primary lesson of the shutdown, and one that President Trump’s administration would do well to learn if he wishes to salvage a failing presidency.

So, the question for UCS is this: How do we intend to operate in this landscape for the next two years?

Remain vigilant, but focus less on legislative defense

Two years ago, many of us reasonably feared that the president and his allies in Congress would enact what I have often referred to as “scorched earth” laws that would weaken key environmental safeguards, and restrict the ability of government scientists to do their vital work. Many of these bills had been passed by Congress but vetoed by President Obama, and we reasonably feared that they would be passed again by Congress and signed into law by President Trump.

Fortunately, for the most part this did not happen due to Senate Democrats working together to block noxious legislation. This was an all-hands-on-deck effort, supported by the work of many, including UCS, and it produced good results. Now, with a new majority in the House of Representatives that seems guided by science and motivated by constituencies who value clean air and water, it seems highly unlikely that such legislation will pass. For UCS, this means that some of the resources devoted to legislative defense can be deployed for other purposes.

Counter executive action

However, because Mr. Trump’s agenda will be stymied in Congress, it is also likely that he will double down on executive action.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these gambits lie in foreign policy, an area presidents often turn to when their domestic agendas are blocked. President Trump has already inflicted damage on our standing in the world and relationships with allies by seeking to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. Now he has announced the U.S. will begin withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, with the potential risk of unraveling other arms accords, such as the New Start Treaty which expires in 2021 unless extended. There is no obvious way to counter these actions, at least in the short term, but we and others can and will challenge these actions.

On the domestic front, we will continue to see the president attempt to impose his will even when he cannot get Congress behind it. An example is the recently-announced effort to impose punitive work requirements on recipients of the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) after Congress chose not to include these requirements when it passed the farm bill in late 2018. As UCS experts have noted, the Department of Agriculture is now charging forward with a proposal that makes it harder for states (that have high unemployment rates and other barriers) to waive work requirements, thereby disqualifying many hungry Americans from accessing food through the program.

On top of new efforts such as cutting SNAP eligibility, the Trump administration will scurry to complete final rules eviscerating climate change policies. His administration will keep forcing rollbacks of proactive climate policies such as fuel economy standards and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, threatening public health by changing the formula for conducting cost-benefit analyses, stacking federal advisory boards with industry representatives, and limiting how scientific evidence can be used by federal agencies. These may be the only remaining “wins” Mr. Trump will be able to secure, and they are highlighted well in this recent UCS report.

UCS, and others, have fought hard against these rollbacks, soliciting thousands of comments of concern on these regulations before they’re finalized. What will most effectively derail the deregulation train? The nation’s courts. Courts are fact-based forums: when an administration makes spurious claims, they can expect skepticism from federal courts, particularly because the administrative record, as added to by UCS and others, contains the grounds to tear such arguments apart.

Take advantage of new oversight opportunities

In addition to litigation, we now have a new tool in countering excesses—Congressional oversight. Our elected officials can—and should—expose malfeasance and cronyism, rouse public opinion, and block misguided executive branch initiatives.

The challenge is that there is much material to work with—the US House committees that conduct any review of the Trump administration’s actions since taking office will need to be judicious. While there will be many competing demands, part of the new Congress’s agenda must be devoted to investigating regulatory rollbacks. We will be prepared to assist Congress in the legwork that goes into making oversight effective.

Examples of Congressional oversight that could be particularly illuminating include investigating:

  • The nefarious role that oil companies may have played in convincing the Trump administration to weaken fuel economy standards further than even the car companies wished;
  • The EPA’s decision to jerry-rig its cost-benefit analysis to minimize the benefits of regulations that Trump campaign contributors such as Murray Energy oppose;
  • The true facts about whether proposed missile defense systems actually work in real-world testing.
Perfect our science-based policies and build a coalition to support them

The next two years also give us time to lay the groundwork for 2020 and beyond. In part, we can start this by pushing for relatively modest measures that have bipartisan support now. Examples include funding increases for clean energy R&D, extensions of popular tax incentives for wind and solar energy, and broadening current incentives for deploying more energy storage and electric vehicles. And, if there’s a national infrastructure bill, UCS will push for “green” components, such as transmission lines that connect renewable energy to population centers and building EV charging stations.

But more importantly, we can use these next two years to draw up “rough drafts” of more ambitious legislation to solve our greatest challenges. Lawmakers can get feedback from stakeholders, for example, and continue to build public support for science-based policies so that when change happens again in Washington, we as a nation are ready to act decisively on climate change.

In addition to climate legislation, we should also lay the groundwork for ambitious action on nuclear weapons, including a bill to prohibit the US from launching a first use of nuclear weapons and/or restrict the president’s sole authority to launch a nuclear strike. We’ll be ready to inject these ideas into the next presidential debates, and educate a new cadre of legislators, as well as mobilize the public around them. We should also anticipate opportunities around—and lay the groundwork for—bills to protect scientific integrity and restore hollowed-out federal agencies.

Drive change at the state level

The polarized and dysfunctional state of the federal government likely won’t get better without a new election. But at the state level, there are abundant opportunities to make progress now. On the West Coast, all three governors and their legislatures can continue to show leadership on climate change—and California must begin the hard work of implementing the goals it set under Governor Brown. States like New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have new governors who recognized the value of clean energy in their campaigns, and these states are poised to adopt ambitious climate goals, aided by ample and inexpensive supplies of renewable energy. And on the East Coast, nine states and Washington, DC, just pledged to create a “cap and invest” program to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector—the largest source of emissions. These local governments can make good on their pledge in 2019 and transition their states to clean transportation.

So, at this two-year mark, we have a weakened president, a resurgent House of Representatives, new governors committed to state-level progress, and an engaged and mobilized public. So, while I cannot call our state of the union strong at this moment, I see clear signs that in less time than I might have anticipated two years ago, our state of the union will be strong again.

Photo: Wikimedia

Will the Real State of the Union Please Stand Up? 7 Things President Trump Won’t Say

A great public servant and one of my mentors, William Ruckelshaus, always emphasized to me that the State of the Union was a time to put big ideas on the table, to talk about the truly great challenges facing the country, and to provide leadership for what we as a nation needed to do to live up to the ideals of our democracy. New education initiatives, cleaning up pollution, providing health care—these are some of the big ideas that previous presidents have talked about on this national stage.

Call me crazy but I don’t think that is what we will hear from President Trump.

Instead we’re likely to hear misdirection and falsehoods. According to the Washington Post, President Trump has made 8,158 false or misleading claims during his first two years in office. Even if by some miracle he sticks to actual facts during his State of the Union address, it’s a safe bet that he won’t address many of the most crucial challenges facing America. Instead he’s likely to tout the strong economy, while ignoring rising inequality and continuing losses for everyone but the wealthy. He’ll rail about border security, while dismissing the real security threats highlighted by his intelligence agencies. And he will talk about jobs, while ignoring worker safety and threats to public health.

What should be in the speech are some of the truly great challenges we need to tackle as a nation. We need a real change in direction and focus from this administration, and so I will be watching the speech live, tweeting the #RealSOTU, and calling for this nation to face up to the truth.

Here are seven BIG things that President Trump won’t say in his 2019 State of the Union speech.

Rolling back regulations hurts people

President Trump and his appointed agency heads have cut down landmark public protections that we all depend on for our health and safety, and sidelining science has consistently been one of their go-to strategies to accomplish it.

Rolling back regulations that reduce air pollution, water pollution, toxic contamination, worker protections, and more might give windfall profits to some companies. But those profits come at public expense. And who’s bearing the brunt of those impacts and costs? Poorer communities and communities of color.

That all needs to stop, right now.

And right now, with a new Congress in place there is a renewed opportunity to call on our elected officials to represent their constituents and to hold the Trump administration accountable. The administration should be doing its job of serving the public, not special interests.

We need policies that treat our people equitably, that require those who pollute to clean up their mess regardless of what neighborhood they are located in. And we need our government to hold polluters to account. Mr. President, do you want to make real change?  Then work for the people who need the government’s help. That isn’t the oil and gas or chemical industry.

We have one decade left to avoid catastrophic climate change

We have about a decade left to dramatically reduce carbon pollution and avoid truly catastrophic climate change impacts, including unprecedented and life-threatening heat waves, the loss of millions of coastal homes to rising seas, and a growing number of extreme and damaging weather events.

The IPCC’s recent special report and the Trump administration’s own National Climate Assessment (NCA4) both tell us that climate change is already affecting all of us, and that right now we are speeding down one of the most costly and damaging paths possible.

Whether it’s national security, natural disasters, the military, the economy, immigration, or any other number of issues, there’s one thing Trump will surely fail to recognize in his speech: Climate change affects all of them.

Consider, for example, the 2018 report on the vulnerability of military installations to climate-related impacts, which showed that about 10 percent of sites are being affected by extreme temperatures, and some six percent are affected by flooding due to storm surge and by wildfire. Or the 2019 worldwide threat assessment of the US intelligence community, which identifies climate change as a national security risk.  Or how the NCA4 finds that existing water, transportation, and energy infrastructure are already being impacted by heavy rainfall, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, drought, wildfire, heat waves, and other weather and climate events.

The last two years of natural disasters and extreme weather brought huge costs to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are also part and parcel of a warming climate, and our economy—indeed our very future—depends on the country getting deadly serious about the climate crisis right now.

Coal is dying and renewables are booming. Not fast enough.

Our electricity system is moving away from dirty fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Today coal produces only a quarter of our nation’s electricity, down from 50 percent a short dozen years ago. That’s an encouraging trend, but we still need faster progress and more ambitious policies to achieve the emissions cuts needed to meet the climate crisis head on.

The Trump administration is instead doing everything it can think of to try and prop up the failing coal industry. It’s not working, and coal is still on it way out, but President Trump is still wasting precious time that would be much better spent on ramping up clean energy across the country.

In his speech, Trump will also likely ignore the remarkable economic benefits of renewable energy, especially that the US clean energy industry means jobs, with already more than 100,000 working in the wind sector, 250,000 working in solar, and more than 2 million making our homes and businesses more energy efficient. And the nascent US offshore wind sector offers the potential for tens of thousands of new jobs up and down our coasts.

The administration is moving full speed backwards on transportation emissions

Transportation is the largest source of carbon pollution in the US, making it more important than ever to increase the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks and reduce the amount of planet-warming emissions we’re putting into the atmosphere. (Plus I like saving money—and driving a cleaner, more fuel-efficient car helps consumers do that as well.)

The president and his administration, however, are still moving ahead with their plans to roll back fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and trucks and halt progress on reducing emissions from the transportation sector.

My colleagues cranked the numbers on what this rollback would mean and it is truly staggering, especially when it’s taken together with the administration’s threat to void state regulations on vehicle emissions. As senior UCS vehicles analyst Dave Cooke points out, rolling back these standards will result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040—that’s 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone, equivalent to keeping 43 coal-fired power plants online. These inefficient cars and trucks will use an additional 200 billion gallons of gasoline by 2040—that’s as much oil as we’ve imported from the Persian Gulf since the standards were first finalized in 2010. And it will cost consumers hundreds of billions of dollars—in 2040 alone, consumers will spend an additional $55 billion at the pump if these standards are rolled back.

It’s a safe bet that the president won’t mention any of this. And, for good measure, he will also likely fail to mention his desire to get rid of the electric vehicle tax credit, which makes it easier and more affordable to buy a cleaner car.

Fossil fuel companies are responsible, but still getting special treatment

Trump definitely won’t bring up the fact that fossil fuel companies have known for at least 50 years that their products—oil, gas, and coal—cause global warming. Or that companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have spent decades and millions of dollars intentionally manufacturing doubt about climate science and lobbying to block sensible climate policy—and are still playing dirty even today as the costs of climate change grow.

Just this past fall, BP poured $13 million into a campaign opposing a carbon pricing measure in Washington state—while simultaneously publicly claiming to support a carbon tax. Other major fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, still fund industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute to do their dirty work lobbying for anti-climate policies.

Meanwhile regular people living through the disruptive impacts of climate change are currently paying for it with their tax dollars. All while fossil fuel companies continue to cash in, plan for and envision minimal disruption to their business models, and avoid paying their fair share of the costs of climate change.

The administration is betraying farmers, workers, and children

Regulatory rollbacks and putting profits over the interests of the public don’t just affect pollution and the environment. They also impact the food we eat and the people who bring it to us, from farm to fork.

In his speech, Trump won’t mention that he and his Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have repeatedly favored ideology and the agribusiness industry while disregarding science—but that’s exactly what UCS has found. This not only restricts the products and practices that would make us healthier but also ignores the very people who feed us. Small farmers, workers, and children all lose when the administration betrays their interests for the profits of big agribusiness companies, from chemical giant Dow to multinational poultry and pork conglomerates.

Rolling back school lunch rules for the nation’s children or threatening to deny food assistance to immigrant families and low-wage workers is not worthy of this nation. Undermining the USDA’s research agencies, catering to the chemical industry, and waging a disastrous trade war threatens the future for farmers, consumers, and communities.

What the country needs is a food policy that supports public health, ensures that everyone gets the nutrition they need, and reduces the impact of agriculture on the environment and the planet.

Investing massive amounts of money in nuclear weapons is just wrong

Spending over a trillion dollars to re-build the entire nuclear arsenal while walking away from highly successful nuclear arms agreements with Russia is, well, a really bad idea. So is saying that one’s nuclear button is bigger. But the president probably won’t admit that, or indicate that doing so would take the country backwards and greatly increase the chance of nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons still pose an existential threat to our nation and the world. We should be doing all we can to reduce that threat, not just “win” another arms race. Instead the administration just announced that it plans to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty—an agreement negotiated by President Ronald Reagan which eliminated a whole class of lethal weaponry and made the world a much safer place.

Bellicose rhetoric and building newer, more enhanced nuclear weapons won’t lessen the danger either. We need to be leading the world to reduce the nuclear arsenals, not increasing the odds of nuclear war.

Share the #RealSOTU

It can be hard to listen to the president when we’ve learned to expect an avoidance of essential truths like these.

But I’ll be watching his speech nonetheless, live-tweeting using the #RealSOTU hashtag, and highlighting some of the crucial facts that the president will not.

I hope you can join me.