UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Why Engineers Should Refuse to Work on Trump’s Wall

When it comes to President Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico (never mind the fact that many such physical barriers already exist), many people have focused on two questions: Shouldn’t there be comprehensive immigration reform instead? And who’s going to pay for it?

But there’s another question we should ask. Who is going to build it?

I’m referring to the engineering companies that will actually design and construct “the wall.” Whatever form it takes (a monolith or a mishmash), hundreds of companies are lining up to build it—and that reflects the willingness of many companies to profit from divisive politics. Unfortunately, engineering education, practice, and ethical codes provide engineers almost no guidance on the broad political implications of their work.

The presidential administration has only just begun the lengthy process of building the wall. First, on Feb. 24, the Customs and Border Protection office issued a pre-solicitation to gauge interest from companies. (The response was overwhelming, with more than 600 companies submitting proposals, of which, according to a CNBC analysis, “[a]t least 133 companies were listed as owned by minorities—including 39 by Hispanics.”) Then, on March 17, CBP issued two detailed solicitations—one for designing and building a concrete wall and another using other structures. These solicitations will really set in motion the engineering process.

Before any concrete is poured, within companies, there will be spirited discussion and debate among engineers and managers about design and costs. Memos will be written, and company leaders will be briefed. The administrative work of contracting will take shape. If a company doesn’t have the expertise or skills to do a particular task, it may join forces with another company or group of engineers who do. In short, the wall will be a product of engineering decision-making.

But how much of the decision-making process will discuss the ethics of being involved with building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?

When big contracts are on the table, there can be very little incentive for a company to refrain from doing the work in the name of good moral behavior or the public welfare. For instance, leading engineering companies are involved in designing and building pipelines to bring more tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S., in spite of the negative social and ecological impacts.

Social justice advocates see the wall within a broader discussion about immigration, and engineers should, too. Engineers have a moral responsibility to understand the context of their work. The federal judge who recently blocked the Trump administration’s second immigration-related executive order put it in the context of language used by the president over the past several months. Similarly, engineers cannot and should not view the wall as a singular engineering project. Instead, they should think of the social and political implications of the barriers that already exist between the U.S. and Mexico, and they should evaluate the social, political, and humanitarian implications in the context of another wall born of divisive politics—the one between Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Among a host of humanitarian and human rights issues, the wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories has created incredible animosity. The wall has become a symbol of conflict for so long that both Israeli and Palestinian children “grow up feeling that they are destined for conflict with their neighbors,” according to Laurel Holliday, author of Children of Israel, Children of Palestine. But for companies bidding on the U.S.-Mexico wall, the politics of the project have been stripped away and translated into technical specifications.

In today’s political climate, engineers cannot remain passive and allow legislators and politicians to decide what the “public good” is. All members of a community must be engaged and responsible in deciding what the public good is and how to create it—and that goes especially for engineers and the companies they work for, because they can have a disproportionate and lasting impact on a community.

But the engineering community’s response thus far has been divorced from these important issues. Here’s what representatives of three bidding companies have said:

  • “We’re not into politics. We’re not left or right. We’re a construction company and that’s how we survive. … We don’t see it as politics. We just see it as work,” Jorge Diaz, who manages De la Fuente Construction Inc. in California, told the Guardian.
  • “We’re focused on the work, we’re not a political body, left or right or what have you. We go after the job and provide high-paying jobs for our workforce and great opportunities for our company,” Ralph Hicks, vice president of governmental affairs for R.E. Staite Engineering in California, said to KPBS.
  • “There could be a political backlash, but we are in business to make money and put people to work and provide a good service, whether it’s a wall or substation or airport or prison. We don’t want to approach it from a political standpoint, only from a business standpoint,” George Ishee, national sales manager for Cast Lighting, based in Hawthorne, New Jersey, told a local newspaper.

Another engineering company owner, Patrick Balcazar, who owns San Diego Project Management in Puerto Rico, went even further, suggesting that building a wall will provide a future economic opportunity to employ engineers to tear it down: “My goal is to build a wall so I can make enough money so we can turn this thing around and tear down the wall again.”

Not every company bidding for the wall will share these points of view, but they highlight a particular problem with how many engineers and companies see their role in the world and how their work is valued. As it stands, much of engineering is focused more on financial incentives than social impact and human welfare.

Further, the reality is that engineers and companies always work with or for someone with particular political motives, and so their work is always political. By saying building a wall is “just work,” engineers and companies shift the moral burden from themselves—those who actually design and build these projects—to those who order and pay for them. But people, politicians, and governments can talk all they want about doing something; they do not have the skills to actually do it.

The fundamental canon of the Code of Ethics by the National Society of Professional Engineers states, “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Unfortunately, there is only vague guidance given to engineers on how to implement this canon, with emphasis more on client relationships rather than social good. The American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics does a better job here. It says: “Engineers shall recognize that the lives, safety, health and welfare of the general public are dependent upon engineering judgments, decisions and practices incorporated into structures, machines, products, processes and devices,” thus pointing to the political implications of engineering work.

For engineers working on politically charged projects, there can be friction between their professional obligations and their moral obligations, dilemmas they are untrained to grapple with. While an engineer may raise concerns about the safety of a project (to make sure, for example, the wall won’t collapse and hurt a border patrol officer), there tends to be little to no support for engineers who question the morality of the project they work on.

But just because a project is politically and professionally justified and economically feasible does not make it ethically or morally justified. That’s why it’s frustrating that most engineering education programs across the country provide only scant ethical training, particularly in the context of social good; there are few resources, examples, and role models for ethically conflicted engineers to turn to. Engineers have incredible power, but if they aren’t managers or company leaders, it can be difficult to speak up about the ethics of particular projects. Historically, engineers have been routinely ostracized and silenced when questioning leadership decisions. For example, engineers predicted the failure of the O-rings on the Challenger space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters yet NASA proceeded with launch. We all know what happened next.

Look through most engineering programs at colleges and universities in the U.S. and you’ll see very few courses dedicated to ethical training. Frequently, those that are offered aren’t required, or ethics forms a two- or three-week component of other classes, either at the beginning or the tail end of an undergraduate career. Efforts to infuse ethical training deeply in engineering education struggle against already packed course schedules, and ethical issues are rarely discussed at engineering conferences. So those of us who are engineers have to take it upon ourselves to deeply engage with the ethical challenges and dilemmas we face. Engineers should constantly ask themselves (adapted from the founding document of Science for the People): Why are we engineers? Who do we work for? What is the full measure of our moral and social responsibility?

If engineering is only about making money, then let’s not call it engineering; profiteering would be a more appropriate description. But if engineering is “rooted in a goal to improve our societies by producing structures that render them more just, more equitable, and more beautiful,” as the Architecture Lobby writes, we—engineers—need to do a better job at thinking about who and what is affected by the choices we make. If engineering is about working on technical projects that “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public,” then a thoughtful, compassionate, and contextual reading of this fundamental canon cannot justify engineers giving their expertise, time, and resources to a border wall that will embolden and embody divisive politics.

“We’re just doing our job” just does not cut it with morally challenging, hot-button issues. It never has, and it never should.

Originally appeared on Slate.com.

Darshan Karwat is an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s Polytechnic School and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and a former AAAS fellow in Washington.

The Penn State Science Policy Society: Filling the Gap Between Science and Community

Graduate school. It’s where generations of scientists have been trained to become independent scientists. More than 60 hours per week spent in lab, countless group meetings, innumerable hours spent crunching data and writing manuscripts and proposals that are filled with scientific jargon.

Unfortunately, it’s this jargon that prevents scientists from effectively communicating their science to the non-technical audiences that need it. Penn State’s Science Policy Society aims to bridge this gap by helping current graduate students and post-doctoral fellows learn how to bring their research into the community.

We occupy an important niche at Penn State as we continue to educate members of the Penn State community about the connection between our research and public policy, with a dedicated focus on science advocacy. We are helping our future scientists translate their stories and make connections with community members and policy makers.

Identifying a gap between science and community

Penn State researcher Dr. Michael Mann discussing the science behind climate change at Liberty Craft House in downtown State College.

Early on, we recognized a growing disconnect between the local State College community and the groundbreaking research occurring at Penn State. A growing desire within the Science Policy Society became apparent. Our members wanted to help our fellow community members, but we didn’t have the skills or the relationships within the community. We began to plan events to address this problem, looking to others who have fostered strong community ties as guides.

We began our relationship with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in March 2016 when Liz Schmitt and Dr. Jeremy Richardson came to Penn State to discuss UCS’s efforts to promote science-community partnerships. In May 2016, SPS members traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with UCS staff for science advocacy training. With the help of UCS, we have been able to begin to build our own community relationships. We started with Science on Tap, a monthly public outreach event designed to showcase Penn State science in a casual downtown bar setting. By having leaders in science-community partnerships to guide us, we have been able to begin our own journey into outreach.

Science & Community: A panel event

While our Science on Tap events were successful, we still felt there was still a gnawing gap between Penn State science and our local community. The local news was filled with science-related issues in State College and the surrounding central Pennsylvania region, but it wasn’t obvious how science was being used to help decision makers. We recognized an urgent need to learn how other scientists use their science to help, or even become, activists that fight for their local community.

The Science Policy Society panel discussion on Science & Community. From left to right: Dr. David Hughes, Dr. Maggie Douglas, and Dr. Thomas Beatty.

On September 14, 2017, the Science Policy Society partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to organize an event called “Science & Community.” Taking place at the Schlow Centre Region Library, the event was a panel discussion focused on how scientists and community activists can work together. The event featured three Penn State researchers: Dr. Maggie Douglas and Dr. David Hughes from the Department of Entomology, and Dr. Thomas Beatty from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Dr. Douglas works closely with local beekeepers and farmers to promote pollinator success, while Dr. Hughes is a leading member of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition, an organization that aims to protect the water of State College and the farmland it flows under. Dr. Beatty is a member of Fair Districts PA and speaks across central Pennsylvania about gerrymandering.

All three of these scientists saw problems in their community and decided to take action. Even more remarkable, most of these issues are outside their areas of scientific expertise. Astronomers typically aren’t trained in political science, but that did not stop Dr. Thomas Beatty from applying his statistical toolset to impartial voter redistricting. Same with Drs. Hughes and Douglas, who took their expertise into the community to help farmers and beekeepers protect their livelihoods.

Lessons learned

Easily the most important lesson that we learned from this Science & Community panel event was how hard it is for scientists to move into the local community and begin these conversations and partnerships. There was an overwhelming sense that the majority of the scientists in attendance did not feel comfortable using their scientific expertise to engage on local community issues. The reasons were numerous, but seemed to focus on (1) not knowing how to translate their science so that it is useful for non-specialists and (2) not having enough room in their schedule.

Moving forward, the Science Policy Society is aiming to address these concerns as we work towards filling the void between Penn State science and the surrounding communities. For example, we will be hosting science communication workshops to train scientists on how to strip jargon from their story of scientific discovery. Additionally, a panel event currently being planned for Spring 2018 aims to discuss how science and religion are not mutually exclusive, and will show how scientists can work with religious organizations and leaders to promote evidence based decision-making.

Graduate students looking to help their community are not given the necessary tools needed to do so. Hours spent in lab and at conferences talking only in scientific jargon leaves many unable to talk about their science to the general public. The Science Policy Society is filling this need by providing an outlet for scientists to learn communication and advocacy skills and begin to build relationships with community members and policy makers. With help from scientists and science outreach professionals, we are fostering science and community partnerships in State College and throughout central Pennsylvania.

 

Jared Mondschein is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. He was born and raised near New York City and earned a B.S. in chemistry from Union College in 2014. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Penn State University, where he studies materials that convert sunlight into fuels and value-added chemical feedstocks. You can find him on Twitter @JSMondschein.

Theresa Kucinski is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. She was born and raised in northern New Jersey, earning her A.S. in chemistry at Sussex County Community College in 2014 and B.A. in chemistry from Drew University in 2016. She currently studies atmospheric chemistry at Penn State University as a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry.

Grayson Doucette is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He was born into a military family, growing up in a new part of the globe every few years. He earned his B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech in 2014, continuing on to Penn State’s graduate program. At PSU, his research has focused on photovoltaic materials capable of pairing with current solar technologies to improve overall solar cell efficiency. You can find him on Twitter @GS_Doucette.

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.

 

Vehicle Fuel Economy Standards—Under Fire?

Photo: Staff Sgt. Jason Colbert, US Air Force

Last year, transportation became the sector with the largest CO2 emissions in the United States. While the electricity industry has experienced a decline in CO2 emissions since 2008 because of a shift from coal to natural gas and renewables, an equivalent turnaround has not yet occurred in transportation. Reducing emissions in this sector is critical to avoiding the effects of extreme climate change, and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions standards are an important mechanism to do so.

The most recent vehicle standards, which were issued in 2012, are currently undergoing a review. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is initiating a rulemaking process to set fuel economy standards for vehicle model years 2022-2025. At the same time, DOT is also taking comments on its entire policy roster to evaluate their continued necessity (including the CAFE standards).

A number of criticisms have been raised about fuel efficiency standards, some of which are based more in confusion and misinformation than fact. An intelligent debate about the policy depends on separating false criticisms from those that are uncertain and those that are justified.

In fact, as new research I did with Meredith Fowlie of UC Berkeley and Steven Skerlos of University of Michigan shows, the costs of the standards could actually be significantly lower than other policy analyses have found.

Costs and benefits of the regulations

What my co-authors and I have found is that automakers can respond to the standards in ways that lower the costs and increase the benefits.

Many policy analyses do not account for the tradeoffs that automakers can make between fuel economy and other aspects of vehicle performance, particularly acceleration. We studied the role that these tradeoffs play in automaker responses to the regulations and found that, once they are considered, the costs to consumers and producers were about 40% lower, and reductions in fuel use and GHG emissions were many times higher.

The study finds that the fact that automakers can tradeoff fuel economy and acceleration makes both consumers and producers better off. A large percentage of consumers care more about paying relatively lower prices for vehicles than having faster acceleration. Selling relatively cheaper, more fuel-efficient vehicles with slightly lower acceleration rates to those consumers allows manufacturers to meet the standards with significantly lower profit losses. Consumers that are willing to pay for better acceleration can still buy fast cars.

Debunking some common criticisms

One common criticism is that the regulations mandate fuel economy levels that far exceed any vehicles today. This misconception stems from the frequently quoted figure when the regulations were first issued that they would require 54.5 mpg by 2025. But, the regulations do not actually mandate any fixed level of fuel economy in any year. The fuel-economy standards depend on the types of vehicles that are produced each year. If demand for large vehicles is up, the standards become more lenient; if more small vehicles are sold, they become more strict. The 54.5 mpg number was originally estimated by EPA and DOT in 2012 when gas prices were high. EPA has since revised it to 51.4 mpg to reflect lower gas prices and higher sales of large vehicles. Taking into account flexibilities provided in the regulations and the fact that this number is based on EPA’s lab tests, which yield higher fuel economy than drivers experience on the road, the average target for 2025 is equivalent to approximately 36 mpg on the road. Fueleconomy.gov lists 20 different vehicle models that get at least this fuel economy today.

Another common but unjustified criticism of the standards is that they push consumers into small vehicles. The regulations were specifically designed to reduce any incentive for automakers to make vehicles smaller. The standards are set on a sliding scale of targets for fuel economy and GHG emissions that depend on the sizes of the vehicles. As a result, an automaker that sells larger vehicles has less stringent fuel economy and emissions targets than one that sells smaller vehicles. Research has shown that the policy likely creates an incentive for automakers to produce bigger vehicles, not smaller.

Two easy ways to strengthen the fuel economy standards

There are, of course, advantages and drawbacks to any policy, including today’s vehicle standards, which focus entirely on improving the efficiency of new vehicles.  Fortunately, there are improvements that can be made to the CAFE and GHG regulations to increase their effectiveness and lower costs.

The first is ensuring that automakers that violate the standards pay very high penalties. Companies who cheat steal market share from those that follow the standards, effectively raising the regulatory costs for the automakers that are playing fair.

The second improvement involves the way automakers are able to trade “credits” with each other.  These credits were created to equalize regulatory costs across companies. So, if one automaker finds it relatively easy to reduce emissions, it can reduce more than its share and sell credits to another automaker having trouble reducing emissions. This trading is currently negotiated individually by each pair of automakers, which raises the costs of the transaction. Creating a transparent market to trade these credits would help to achieve the target emission reductions at lower costs.

The Department of Transportation (DOT), which implements the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, is currently soliciting comments on regulations “that are good candidates for repeal, replacement, suspension, or modification.” The comment period ends December 1.

 

Dr. Kate Whitefoot is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. She is a member of the NextManufacturing Center for additive manufacturing research and a Faculty Affiliate at the Carnegie Mellon Scott Institute for Energy Innovation. Professor Whitefoot’s research bridges engineering design theory and analysis with that of economics to inform the design and manufacture of products and processes for improved adoption in the marketplace. Her research interests include sustainable transportation and manufacturing systems, the influence of innovation and technology policies on engineering design and production, product lifecycle systems optimization, and automation with human-machine teaming. Prior to her current position, she served as a Senior Program Officer and the Robert A. Pritzker fellow at the National Academy of Engineering where she directed the Academy’s Manufacturing, Design, and Innovation program.

 

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.

Lessons from the Land and Water Songs to Heal

Photo: Samantha Chisholm Hatfield

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

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

Photo: Samantha Chisholm Hatfield

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

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

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

Reciprocity with the land

Photo: Samantha Chisholm Hatfield

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

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

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

Respecting how much Traditional Knowledges can teach us

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Always in “Hot Water”

My wife likes to joke that I am always in “hot water.” It’s a play on words that reflects my career from college, at two National Laboratories and now in retirement.

America’s National Laboratories are hotbeds of scientific research directed at meeting national needs. In my case, working at two national labs helped me contribute to resolving growing issues of environmental impacts of energy technologies—thermal electric generating stations, in particular on aquatic life of rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

Getting a PhD in 1965, I was recruited by the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC’s) Hanford Laboratory (now the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy) to conduct research on thermal discharges to the Columbia River from nine Hanford, Washington, plutonium-producing nuclear reactors. They were part of cold-war nuclear weapons production, but their thermal discharges were not unlike those from a power plant, just larger.

With pretty good understanding of potential water-temperature effects on aquatic organisms, our team of researchers sought effects of elevated temperatures on various salmon populations and the river’s other aquatic life. We had two main objectives: (1) to identify effects of the Hanford reactors on the river’s life, and (2) to translate our findings into criteria for safely managing thermal discharges (like the 90-degree limit for damages I found for Delaware River invertebrates).

Our Hanford research caught the attention of AEC headquarters and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. There was interest in countering the public thermal pollution fears by doing research that could be applied to minimizing ecological impacts everywhere. Thus, in the fall of 1969, I was asked to leave Hanford, which I greatly enjoyed (as a Northeasterner, the Pacific Northwest was like a paid vacation!) and moved to Oak Ridge in spring of 1970.

At Oak Ridge, I put together a team to develop criteria for minimizing ecological effects of thermal effluents nation-wide.  Oak Ridge had no power plants of its own. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power stations nearby were research sites, but our focus was on developing general criteria. We built a new Aquatic Ecology Laboratory with computer-controlled tank temperatures, a set of outside ponds to rear fish for experiments, hired biologists and engineers, and assembled a “navy” of boats for field work. We set to work at a fever pitch.

But then…. The Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the AEC was handed the Calvert Cliffs decision that mandated the AEC conduct complete reviews of the environmental impacts of the nuclear power stations it licensed. In 1972, our research staff was “reprogrammed” to prepare Environmental Impact Statements on operating and planned nuclear power plants. This turned out to be a tremendous opportunity to carefully evaluate not only thermal discharges but other impacts of using cooling water. By evaluating facilities across the country, we gained the nationwide perspective we needed for our research. With the National Lab having staff from many scientific and engineering fields to assign to the assessments, we gained a hugely valuable multi-disciplinary perspective that has helped us advance beyond just biology, fish and bugs.

Many years of productive thermal-effects work followed, with satisfaction that our contributions were often followed and our data used. We saw many of our efforts resolve issues for power plant thermal discharge permitting. The National Academies used our framework for water quality criteria for temperature; EPA used them as criteria for “Balanced Indigenous Communities” in thermally affected waters and setting temperature limits. As “thermal pollution” became more resolved, the Department of Energy and our National Laboratory provided our scientists the mission and capacity to work on other issues, most notably aquatic ecological effects of hydropower, that is helping with future innovation as technologies shift.

Throughout our research and analysis, we fostered “technology transfer” to the public through educational seminars and information aid to electricity generators. ORNL sanctioned some outside, site-specific consulting. I have been fortunate in retirement (since 2005) to continue to do this, and have assisted more than 50 companies and regulatory agencies (both domestic and foreign) with thermal effects issues. I feel good that the problem-solving research and analysis and application of this knowledge outside the labs (my “hot water”) have benefited society.

Through my time at the Hanford/Pacific Northwest and Oak Ridge national labs, I’ve worked with world-class researchers and scientists in many disciplines and have worked on projects that have advanced our understanding of ecological impacts from various energy sources. We need to continue to invest in our scientists at federal laboratories of the Department of Energy. I would like to thank my fellow scientists at government labs this Thanksgiving for the work they’ve done problem solving and finding innovative solutions for the public as well as private sector.

Dr. Charles Coutant retired as distinguished research ecologist in the Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2005. Dr. Coutant received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in biology (ecology) from Lehigh University.  Since retirement he has served part time as an ecological consultant to regulatory agencies and industry.

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.

Giving Thanks to Climate Researchers of the Federal Agencies

Most of my science career I worked for the Department of Energy as a climate modeler and numerical expert at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since my retirement in 2010 I have written a text on computational climate modeling and taught graduate level engineering classes on climate science at the University of Tennessee. I had the privilege of working with many talented and dedicated scientists and hate to see their work go unappreciated because climate has become such a politicized issue. In particular, the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) Special Science report is the culmination of many years, even decades of scientific focus that the Congress and the nation should study with an open mind and use to reset the climate discussion in the United States.

In the early 1990’s I was one of the principals organizing an “Inter-agency agreement’’ between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Our researchers were called the CHAMMPions (a long acronym worth remembering as Computer Hardware, Advanced Mathematics, Model Physics, Inter-agency Organization for Numerical Simulation). Most of us were new to climate research with my own background in applied mathematics. The congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment of 1990 had not found any U.S. based modeling groups producing a high-quality climate model. They borrowed the Canadian and Hadley Center models to complete the first US NCA in 2000. A little bit of national pride and the opportunity to one up the rest of the international community by using U.S. developed high performance computers was a timely motivation for our group. The models we developed and continued to improve through the 1990’s ad 2000’s contributed to many national and international studies, in particular the CMIP (Climate Model Inter-comparison Project) study series sponsored by the DOE. We faithfully followed through on giving policy makers better tools for making informed decisions. Focusing on the science and not the politics supported our DOE sponsors through a variety of administrations.

As a DOE funded climate researcher for 20 years, I had a privileged view of the motivations behind DOE climate research. It all started with the first Secretary of Energy, James R. Schlesinger. He read a report from the Russian scientist, Mikhail Budyko, suggesting the link between earth’s climate and CO2 levels in the atmosphere, a physical theory of climatology. Knowing that the department could not ignore this connection, he asked his department heads what they were going to do about it. This was the start of DOE’s exemplary Carbon Dioxide Effects and Assessment Program in 1977.

The model that the inter-agency agreement developed is now one of the worlds most respected models. It is open source meaning that anyone can see what is in it and even new groups are welcome to contribute new physics or chemistry or ecology to the earth system modeling effort. The Climate Science Special Report, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I is the first to provide regionally specific results. The global temperature is not the only climate parameter that can now be discussed with confidence. For example, one of the findings pertains to extreme events from heavy rainfall to heatwaves that can impact human safety, infrastructure and agriculture.

This kind of detail would not have been possible without the new capabilities that the U.S. modeling effort provided. Indeed, the report draws from the results of many modeling groups by measuring the skill of different models compared to the observational record.

The scientists I have worked with through the years in these inter-agency projects have performed a service to the nation with their dedicated focus on staying true to the science and providing usable information for policy makers. I for one am grateful for their effort and support continuing to invest in our federal scientists to help move forward on research for solutions to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the research capabilities and resources of the National Lab system and my colleagues who always put science first.

 

Dr. John. B. Drake was a researcher and group leader at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 30 years and lead the climate modeling efforts at ORNL from 1990 to 2010.  Since his retirement from ORNL, he has taught graduate courses on climate modeling in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Tennessee and conducted research into the impacts of climate change. 

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.

One Simple Trick to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Photo: Rennett Stowe/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Want to save the planet? Are you, like me, a young professional struggling to reduce your carbon footprint? Then join me in taking the train to your next professional conference.

Take the train and reduce carbon pollution while looking at this. Photo credit: Anna Scott.

Most of my low-carbon lifestyle is admittedly enforced on me by my student budget. I have no kids, bicycle to work, and share a house with roommates. What dominates my carbon footprint is the flights I take—I’ll be hitting frequent flyer status this year thanks to traveling for conferences, talks, and workshops (not to mention those flights to see my family during the holidays—even being unmarried doesn’t get me out of visiting in-laws overseas). This is a bittersweet moment for a climate scientist—my professional success gives me an opportunity to impact the world with my science, but is hurting the planet and leaving future generations with a mess that will outlive me.

There’s no silver bullet to fixing climate change, but I think scientists and science enthusiasts can start with ourselves.

Every year, together with 25,000 of my closest climate and Earth science buddies, I attend the American Geophysical Union meeting. (You may have heard about it last year on NPR).

Prof. Lawrence Plug calculated that the 2003 meeting generated over 12,000 tons of CO2. Since then, the meeting has more than doubled in size, suggesting that the carbon footprint is upwards of 25,000 tons of CO2 from flights alone.

Prominent scientists like Katherine Hayhoe have suggested that we shift to teleconferencing instead. I think this is great for small meetings of folks who already know each other, or for prominent scientists like Dr. Hayhoe, who have an established publication record and name recognition.

For the little folks like myself though, meetings offer tremendous opportunities to connect with colleagues at other institutions, meet potential collaborators, and scout new job opportunities. The ‘serendipitous interaction’ that meetings allow is similar to the design principles that tech firms like Google enact when designing their public spaces. This fall alone, I’ve filled a shoebox with business cards from colleagues working on similar problems, potential collaborators working in similar fields, and, most lucratively, established scientists who have news of post-doctoral fellowships and job opportunities.

This last point may be especially critical for minority scientists, who may lack the social networks needed to get jobs.

In short, I’m not switching to virtual anytime soon, mostly because I can’t see it paying off (yet—Katherine Hayhoe et al, if you’re reading this, hire me!). But I still need to reduce my carbon footprint.

My solution? Replace one conference travel flight with a train ride. Repeat every year. Last year, I took Amtrak’s California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago back from AGU’s fall meeting and crossed the Rockies next to a geophysicist explaining plate tectonics and identifying rocks.

The year before, I returned from New Orleans and wrote my thesis proposal while rolling through bayous, swamps, and pine forests of the Southeast.

(Don’t think you have time for this? I spent the trip writing a paper, now published in PLOS-ONE. Amtrak seats all come with electrical outlets and seatback trays that function terrificly as desks.)

Is this a practical solution for everyody? Nope, and I won’t pretend that it is. Your time might be better spent with your kids, or volunteering in your community, or maybe you want to drive instead- I don’t know your life. Train infrastructure is lacking in the US, and delays are common as Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks and must give way to commercial freight. But I maintain my hope that increased demand for train travel can spur future investment, sending a market signal that young people want to travel this way.

This year, I’ll be taking the train to AGU’s fall meeting in New Orleans from Washington DC.

I estimate that I’ll be saving about one ton of CO2 equivalent (calculation included radiative forcing). If you’re headed that way, I invite you to join me, tell your friends, or even just reflect on the possibility that low carbon alternatives to flying exist. We can’t fix everything. But if we all do our little part, we can accomplish something. And something is always better than nothing.

Anna Scott is a PhD student in the Earth and Planetary Science Department at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from University of Chicago, a Master’s degree in Applied Mathematics from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and a Master of Arts and Sciences in Earth Science from Johns Hopkins University.  She has installed sensor networks and led field campaigns in Birmingham (Al.), Nairobi (Kenya), and Baltimore, Maryland, as part of her thesis research on quantifying urban temperature variability and heat waves. She has been known to dabble in projects on regional hydrology, the climate impacts of aerosols, and North African precipitation. She recently started Baltimore Open Air, an air quality monitoring project that has designed, built, and deployed 50 air quality monitors in the Greater Baltimore regions. Anna will be taking Amtrak’s Crescent line to the 2017 American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in December. She’ll be sharing the journey on social media using the hashtag #TrainToAGU.  

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.

 

I Am a 30-Year Veteran Scientist from US EPA; I Can’t Afford to Be Discouraged

. . . And neither can you.

Since January, we have seen a continual assault on our environmental protections. EPA has put a political operative with no scientific experience in charge of vetting EPA grants, and the agency is reconsidering an Obama-era regulation on coal ash. The well-established legal processes for promulgating environmental regulations, and—very pointedly—the science underlying environmental regulation are being jettisoned by the Trump administration. As scientists, we must stand up for science and ensure that it is not tossed aside in public policy and decision-making.

Rigorous science is the foundation of EPA

Attending a march with some friends.

While at US EPA, I served as a senior scientist in human health risk assessment.  I was among the cadre of dedicated professionals who worked long, hard, and intelligently to provide the science supporting management of risks from exposure to environmental contaminants. Often, we engaged in the demanding practice of issuing regulation.

Regulations to limit human and environmental exposure are not developed overnight.  The laws that enable US EPA to issue regulations specify requirements and procedures for issuing rules; these can include notice of proposed rulemaking, multiple proposed rules, public comments on proposals, responses to comments, more proposals, more comments, review by other Federal bodies, review by States, review by Tribal governments—review, review, review. Often, the environmental laws also note requirements for the science leading to risk management choices. For example, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996 (SDWA) requires several judgments to be met affirmatively before any contaminant can be limited through regulation.

The US EPA Administrator must base his or her judgment, among other factors, on what SDWA calls the best available, peer-reviewed science.  This refers not only to experimental or epidemiologic studies, but also to the US EPA documents analyzing the risks and the best ways to mitigate them.

Requirements to regulate environmental contaminants in other media are no less rigorous.  To regulate emissions from coal- and oil-fired boilers used in electrical power generation, US EPA engaged in major scientific programs to understand the nature of these air pollutants (including toxic mercury), the risks they pose, and how best to deal with them. This began in 1993 and culminated in the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) finalized in 2012. Building the scientific basis for the rule spanned several administrations and a few careers.  It was frustrating at times, and exhausting, but we kept our focus on the goal of doing the right thing to improve public health.

Regulation protects the public—and we’re watching it be undermined

The message here is that environmental regulation based on sound science is not a trivial exercise, nor should it be. Regulation can be costly, and sometimes may have societal impacts. But ask anyone who has lived in a society without sound environmental regulation, and she will tell you that legally enforceable limits on environmental contaminants are necessary. We estimated that each year the implemented MATS rule prevents 11,000 premature deaths and more than 100,000 heart and asthma attacks. And it greatly reduces release of mercury, which accumulates in fish and poses risk of neurotoxic effects to both developing children and adults.

The process that EPA follows to publish a regulation must also be used to reverse a regulatory action. Creating regulations is not a simple process—but undermining, overturning, and not enforcing regulations is easy and has major consequences for health and the environment. I fear that both the process and the science are being given short shrift as this administration acts to reverse sound regulatory decisions made by US EPA. This dismantling of environmental protection has begun in earnest, and I expect it will have severe, long-lasting effects.

Scientists must defend evidence-based regulation

There are ways to impede the regulatory roll-back. Writing, calling, emailing elected officials is one avenue. Another avenue is joining groups such as Save EPA, an organization of retired and former US EPA employees with expertise in environmental science, law, and policy. We are using our collective skills to educate the public about environmental science, environmental protections, and the current Administration’s assault on US EPA and our public health. You can help by reading our guide to resisting de-regulation; submitting public comments on rules being considered for rollback; and supporting our efforts to defend environmental regulations. As scientists, we must continue to insist on the validity and thoroughness of our discipline, and we must repeatedly communicate about this to decision-makers. In one of many hearings and reviews of mercury hazard, my late scientist friend and US EPA veteran Kathryn Mahaffey quoted John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things.” She was right.

Rita Schoeny retired from USEPA in 2015 after 30 years, having served in roles such as Senior Science Advisor for the Office of Science Policy, Office of Research and Development, and as the Senior Science Advisor, Office of Science and Technology, Office of Water. She has been responsible for major assessments and programs in support of the several of EPA’s legislative mandates including the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Food Quality Protection Act. Dr. Schoeny has published extensively in the area of human health risk assessment.

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.

New UCS Report Finds High Health Risks in Delaware Communities from Toxic Pollution

Refineries, such as the Delaware City Refinery shown here, can emit toxic chemicals that can increase risks for cancer and respiratory disease.

For decades residents of communities in Wilmington, Delaware’s industrial corridor have dealt with high levels of pollution. People in these communities, which have higher percentages of people of color and/or higher poverty levels than the Delaware average, are also grappling with health challenges that are linked to, or worsened by, exposure to pollution, such as strokes, heart diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, and chronic childhood illnesses such as asthma, learning disabilities, and neurological diseases. These are some of Delaware’s environmental justice communities.

To assess the potential link between environmental pollution and health impacts in these communities, the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS collaborated with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections, Inc. and Coming Clean, Inc. Analysis of the following health and safety issues using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data were conducted:  the risk of cancer and potential for respiratory illnesses that stem from toxic outdoor air pollution; proximity of communities to industrial facilities that use large quantities of toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals and pose a high risk of a major chemical release or catastrophic incident; proximity of communities to industrial facilities with major pollution emissions; and proximity of communities to contaminated waste sites listed in EPA’s Brownfield and Superfund programs.

The seven communities analyzed—Belvedere, Cedar Heights, Dunleith, Marshallton, Newport, Oakmont, and Southbridge—were compared to Greenville, a predominantly White and affluent community located outside the industrial corridor, and to the population of Delaware overall. The findings from this analysis have been published in a new report titled Environmental Justice for Delaware: Mitigating Toxic Pollution in New Castle County Communities.

Proximity to major pollution sources and dangerous chemical facilities

TABLE 5. Sources of Chemical Hazards and Pollution in Environmental Justice Communities Compared with
Greenville and Delaware Overall. Note: All facilities are located within 1 mile of communities.
SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). No date (i). EPA state combined CSV download files. Online at www.epa.gov/enviro/epastate-combined-csv-download-files, accessed May 18, 2017.

Dunleith and Oakmont have several Brownfield sites and are in close proximity to facilities releasing significant quantities of toxic chemicals into the air. Southbridge has, within its boundaries or within a one-mile radius around it, two high-risk chemical facilities, 13 large pollution-emitting industrial facilities, four Superfund sites, and 48 Brownfield sites. Southbridge is home to more than half of all Brownfields in Delaware. Cedar Heights and Newport also have several large pollution-emitting facilities within one mile as well as being close to two EPA Superfund contaminated waste sites.

Effects of toxic air pollution on cancer risks and the potential for respiratory illnesses

TABLE 2. Cancer Risks for Environmental Justice Communities Compared with Greenville and Delaware Overall
Note: Cancer risk is expressed as the incidences of cancer per million people. For the respiratory hazard index, an index value of 1 or less indicates a level of studied pollutants equal to a level the EPA has determined not to be a health concern, while a value greater than 1 indicates the potential for adverse respiratory health impacts, with increasing concern as the value increases. SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2015. 2015 National Air Toxics Assessment. Washington, DC. Online at www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment, accessed May 18, 2017.

Of the seven environmental justice communities studied, people in Marshallton face the highest cancer and respiratory health risks. Cancer and respiratory health risks there are 33 and 71 percent higher, respectively, than for the comparison community Greenville, and are 28 and 55 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

The communities of Dunleith, Oakmont, and Southbridge, whose residents are predominantly people of color and have a poverty rate approximately twice that of Delaware overall, have cancer risks 19 to 23 percent higher than for Greenville and 14 to 18 percent higher than for Delaware overall. Respiratory hazard in these three communities is 32 to 43 percent higher than for Greenville and 20 to 30 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

For Newport, Belvedere, and Cedar Heights, which have a substantial proportion of people of color and poverty rates above the Delaware average, cancer risks are 21, 15, and 12 percent higher than for Greenville, respectively, and are 16, 10, and 7 percent higher than for Delaware overall. Respiratory hazard in Newport, Belvedere, and Cedar Heights is 44, 30, and 24 percent higher than for Greenville, respectively, and 31, 18, and 13 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

Children at risk

Kenneth Dryden of the Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice and a former Southbridge resident leads a tour of toxic facilities to teach scientists and community members about the dangers of local air pollution.

Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of toxic air pollution. Particularly concerning is that seven schools within one mile of Southbridge, with a total of more than 2,200 students, are in locations with substantially higher cancer risks and potential respiratory hazards than schools in all other communities in this study.

In addition to having daily exposure to toxic pollution in the air, children in these communities are at risk of being exposed to toxic chemicals accidentally released from hazardous chemical facilities in or near their communities. For example, the John G. Leach School and Harry O. Eisenberg Elementary School near Dunleith, with a total of 661 students, are located within one mile of a high-risk chemical facility.

Achieving environmental justice for vulnerable communities

Using multiple EPA data bases, the findings of this study indicate that people in the seven communities along the Wilmington industrial corridor face a substantial potential cumulative health risk from (1) exposure to toxic air pollution, (2) their proximity to polluting industrial facilities and hazardous chemical facilities, and (3) proximity to contaminated waste sites. These health risks are substantially greater than those for residents of a wealthier and predominantly White Delaware community and for Delaware as a whole.

This research provides scientific support for what neighbors in these communities already know—that they’re unfairly facing higher health risks. We need to listen to communities and the facts and enact and enforce the rules to protect their health and safety. Environmental justice has to be a priority for these and other communities that face disproportionately high health risks from toxic pollution.

Ron White is an independent consultant providing services in the field of environmental health sciences. Mr. White currently is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and also holds a part-time faculty appointment in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He earned his Master of Science in Teaching degree in environmental studies from Antioch University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in environmental science from Clark 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.

How Pruitt Listens: Removing Clean Power Plan Web Resources Undermines Public Engagement

On Monday, Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced his long awaited formal proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the defining regulation in President Barack Obama’s battle against climate change. Talk of the repeal has made headlines for months, after President Donald Trump’s executive order addressing energy and climate policy and his announcement that he intended to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. News about a potential replacement for the rule has swirled for weeks.

Yet amid all of the discussion, the Web resources and information that the government has long provided to help inform us about climate change, the social cost of carbon, and the Clean Power Plan itself have been disappearing from federal websites. For members of the public looking to learn about the science and the policy analyses that underlie years of rulemaking and debate, the sources have become harder to find. We’ve found and reported on a number of examples of these types of removals through our work monitoring federal websites at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative.

Web resources gone missing

After the EPA’s announcement on April 28 that it would be overhauling its website to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt,” most of the sections of EPA.gov devoted to climate change and work to adapt to and mitigate its harms were removed. While most of these resources were archived, few have been returned or replaced on the official EPA website, where they can be most easily accessed. Certain portions, like “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change,” never even made it into an EPA Web archive, likely due to copying errors.

During the same set of EPA website removals, the website for the Clean Power Plan was itself removed and its URLs began redirecting to a new website about implementing President Trump’s executive order. While the previous website hosted resources for the public to understand the Clean Power Plan and for states to develop emissions plans, the new website links to the Federal Register, the order notice, and related news releases, but provides minimal informational resources directed at communicating the significance of the policy shifts to the public. The previous website linked to Spanish language Web resources, like Clean Power Plan facts sheets and community resources, which were also removed without being archived, likely as a result of the same errors mentioned above.

In Administrator Pruitt’s announcement and in the proposed repeal itself, Obama-era analyses of the potential health benefits of the rule and the overall social cost of carbon have been questioned and tossed aside. The information and resources that could provide the public insight into this debate have, once again, been removed: the EPA’s webpage on the social cost of carbon was part of the April 28 removals and the White House webpage on the topic, containing a wealth of relevant links, was removed and archived on inauguration day.

The legal basis for the requirement that EPA regulate greenhouse gas emissions, known as the endangerment finding, is another crucial resource in understanding the debate over the rule. But the EPA’s endangerment finding webpage, too, was swallowed up by the April 28 removals, and has since been either hard to access or, at times, simply not available.

The importance of well-informed public comment

Notice-and-comment rulemaking, used by the federal government whenever it puts new regulations in place or removes existing ones, relies on the ability of the public to provide informed input about the ways in which we will all be affected by a new regulation and how we weigh the costs and benefits. Public comment dockets today are often dominated by industry groups and civil society organizations. Making government-funded information harder to access simply serves to further the divide between those who have the capacity to craft a substantive public comment and those who do not.

A scientist or member of the public working on their own time to write a public comment, relying only on public information resources, can make an impact, as their comment has equivalent standing to any other submission and must be accounted for just the same. The public information that the government has historically made available about the Clean Power Plan’s projected air quality improvements, for example, would provide a way for people to weigh in on the debate over how to value the regulation’s predicted health benefits. But without access to public information, we’re allowing the idea of regulation with citizen input to become nothing more than a myth.

The likely replacement for the Clean Power Plan, if there is one, will be designed to masquerade as a sufficient regulation of emissions in order to evade litigation. Instead of a comprehensive rule like the Clean Power Plan, regulating pollution from coal power plants by considering wholescale how they use energy and produce emissions, it will likely focus only on reducing pollution through improvements in efficiency or fuel replacements at individual power plants. Past EPA studies have determined that these types of changes would result in only an approximate 4% increase in coal plant efficiency.

After approving the proposed repeal on Tuesday, Administrator Pruitt said, “Any replacement rule will be done carefully, properly, and with humility, by listening to all those affected by the rule.” It’s clear from his Administration’s removal of Web resources, however, that he has no intention of enabling that pledge by ensuring that public resources remain available to help citizens understand the proposed policy shifts.

When the health and well-being of the public are threatened so directly by the harms of climate change, we cannot allow our government to censor the information that facilitates the public’s crucial expression in forming new policy.

How you can make an impact

While an overturn of the proposed repeal is unlikely, it is still important that we, as members of the public, weigh in on the benefits that the Clean Power Plan would have to the climate and public health. What we have to say must be taken into account during the rulemaking process and will bolster any litigation that occurs after the repeal.

Once the Federal Register publishes the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the coming days, the public will have 60 days to submit comment. Find out how to submit a comment here.

Resources

Here are resources about the Clean Power Plan and its benefits, some mentioned above, that have been removed from federal websites and can be used to craft your comment:

 

Toly Rinberg is a Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation working on documenting and contextualizing changes to federal websites, and understanding how these changes affect public access to Web resources. He also helps lead the website monitoring working group at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, working with a volunteer team to track and report on changes to environmental, climate, and energy websites. He is currently taking time off from his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University.

Andrew Bergman is a Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, where he is classifying changes to federal websites, and a member of the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, where he helps lead the website monitoring team. He is also working to monitor and coordinate response to environmental agency oversight issues with partners, like UCS. He is currently on leave from his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard 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.