UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Adults Behaving Badly: Climate Edition

Ben Stansall/Getty Images

Today, millions of children and their adult allies across the globe strike to force action on the climate crisis. All of us should feel hopeful, inspired, grateful, but not at all surprised that young people are leading the charge to save our and their future. While young people have and always been a strong force for social change in our world, in my opinion, they shouldn’t have to organize a global climate strike. That’s our job.

Yet, as children seize the moment to force change, adults are behaving badly, especially those in the Trump administration. In less than four years, this Administration has made it a priority to dismiss, suppress, and ignore climate change and its impact on our society and environment.

For example, just yesterday, Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow released a 600-page document containing 1,400 climate-related studies authored by US Department of Agriculture scientists which were hidden from public view over the last two years. Two of the studies on the list happen to be my own. Typically, USDA issues press releases on studies its own authors complete, but things changed when Secretary Sonny Purdue took the reins at USDA.

The 600-page document comes on the heels of two explosive reports earlier this summer which found that USDA was intentionally and systematically keeping climate studies under wraps and prohibiting its own scientists from speaking with the media about their research. Even before these reports, USDA forced many of its researchers to label its research as “preliminary” in an attempt to de-legitimize findings that were counter to the Administration’s political objectives. What is more, USDA has pushed out hundreds of its own scientists through a poorly managed, rushed, and potentially illegal “relocation”. Unfortunately, this kind of censorship and muzzling of researchers isn’t confined to USDA. It’s happening across our government’s science agencies.

When the adults in charge are acting naughty, no matter what their motive is, we all lose. We urgently need as many innovative ideas and solutions as we can muster to solve the climate crisis. Many of these solutions can from the dedicated and hardworking researchers in our government science agencies. But if their research is hidden, never making it into the hands of the public or policymakers, it has little impact. The badly behaving adults attempting to keep the research quiet know this.

Fortunately, the next generation is taking things into their own hands. They’ve inspired me and countless other adults already. Hopefully, they can inspire the adults in power to behave better and do the right thing on climate.

Ben Stansall/Getty Images

5 Midwest States Poised to Take Climate Action

Due to climate change the Midwest will experience worsened health conditions and the emergence of new health threats, resulting in economic impacts estimated in the billions of dollars by mid-century. Extreme heat events (days with a heat index above 100°F) are projected to increase from an average of 6 days per year to 53 days per year by the end of the century. We must act now to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

Despite federal inaction, states across the region are taking matters into their own hands and introducing 100% renewable or clean energy standards and goals. With Climate Week around the corner let’s look at five Midwest states poised to take action.

Illinois

Earlier this year the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (of which UCS is a member) introduced the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), that requires 100% carbon free electricity by 2030 and 100% renewable energy by 2050.  The bill builds on the success of the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) that passed in 2016, and quadruples the size of FEJA’s Solar for All Program. It also  creates workforce hubs that provide training across the state and expands energy efficiency gas and electric programs, which save Illinois residents money. The Electric Vehicle (EV) Access for All program will ensure EVs are accessible to all residents including those where car ownership in not an option through EV car sharing and carbon-free commuting through electric transport.

CEJA is gaining momentum with support from the majority of state Senatorsrecent polling shows that Illinois residents are overwhelmingly in favor of the bill.

Iowa

This winter State Senator Zach Wahls introduced SF 312 which directed the Iowa Energy Center to develop a strategic plan for achieving 80% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The plan focuses on the development of renewable energy production in the state, including renewable fuel production, infrastructure improvements to facilitate increased capacity and new technology, and increased energy efficiency.

While the bill has yet to move forward in the legislature, Iowa is well on its way to achieving an interim goal of 80% renewables by 2030. Wind power already made up 34% of the state’s electricity generation in 2018. As Iowa has the oldest renewable energy standard in the US—created in 1983 with a modest goal of achieving 105 MW of generating capacity for investor owned utilities—the state’s RPS could use an upgrade to further encourage Iowa’s clean energy progress.

Michigan

Last session State Rep. Yousef Rabhi introduced a HB 6466 that would ramp up the state’s renewable energy standard from 15% by 2021 to 100% by 2050. Rep. Rabhi stated that strengthening Michigan’s commitment to renewable energy is vital to the health of citizens and the state’s economy. As renewable technology becomes increasingly affordable, the state can invest in good jobs in the state, save consumers money, and protect Michigan’s air and water. Michigan’s legislature should take up this important policy this session.

In addition, in February, Governor Whitmer created an Office of Climate and Energy within the Department of  Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), which will be tasked with coordinating efforts across state government to address climate change. In June, Dr. Brandy Brown was appointed to lead the office.

Minnesota

This spring, Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan introduced their One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy, which is a suite of policy proposals that will set the state on a path to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. The plan includes provisions to assist workers and communities affected by the transition away from fossil fuels, prioritizes local job creation, and raises Minnesota’s Energy Efficiency Resource Standard. The policy proposals build on the success of the state’s current RPS  that was passed in 2007, which requires utilities to get at least 25% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025. The state has already met this target; it’s time to increase the standard.

Walz’s plan was introduced in the Legislature (HF 1956, Clean Energy First Act) by Rep. Jamie Long, and requires utilities to prioritize energy efficiency and renewable energy first before fossil fuels, when seeking to replace current or build new generation. The legislation didn’t pass this session but Minnesota Democrats have vowed to increase efforts next session to pass an ambitious clean energy bill.  Next year is not a budget year, so legislators will have more time to focus on such legislation.

Wisconsin

Last month, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed an executive order creating the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy and setting a goal of ensuring all electricity consumed within the state is 100% carbon-free by 2050. The new state office will develop a clean energy plan that will aid Wisconsin in adapting to and mitigating climate change and work to ensure the state is fulfilling the carbon reductions goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Governor Evers’ executive order further promotes clean energy workforce trainings in partnership with state universities and nonprofit workforce programs and provides measures to develop energy efficiency and clean energy standards for all new and existing state facilities.

Moving forward in the region

Governors in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have also taken the important step of joining the US Climate Alliance. Through this action, these state leaders have advanced their commitment towards implementing policies that fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement, to track and report progress to the global community, and to accelerate new and existing policies to reduce carbon pollution and promote clean energy deployment.

Overall, Midwest states have taken admirable steps in the fight against climate change, but more needs to be done. There is an urgent need to act on climate change by decarbonizing our economy, and a critical step in achieving that is passing state legislation transitioning states to 100% clean and carbon free electricity. Now is the time to hold your state legislators and Governors accountable and call on them to act on climate. But how do we do that?

Let’s strike

Today, in preparation for the UN Climate Summit, young people and adults will strike across the world to demand transformative action be taken to address the climate crisis.

In order to be heard we must be loud. Join us by finding a climate strike near you or start your own.

Jim D. Woodward/Flickr

Corporate Profit Motives Shape Our Food Environment, and It’s Killing Us

Woman in striped tank top examining orange canister in supermarket aisle

Chances are you know someone who has died or is currently suffering from cancer, heart disease, or obesity. Each year, about 1.5 million people in the United States die from these diseases, and poor diet is a leading cause. As Americans, our individualistic mindset often causes us to quickly judge people, even ourselves, for the difficulty we experience trying to eat healthily. However, a close examination of the evidence shows that eating behaviors are strongly influenced by a disease-promoting food environment that is shaped more by corporate profit motives than it is based on our understanding of our neurobiology and nutritional needs. We have the power to reverse this trend and save lives.

Much of human evolution occurred in the context of scarce food and periods of starvation. To adapt, we evolved genes that make it pleasurable to consume high-calorie, sweet, fatty foods. We still prefer these foods today. Our choices are strongly influenced by the convenience, cost, and promotion of foods in our environment. Think about the last time you walked through a grocery store. How many of the foods lining the shelves were plants – legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, or 100% whole grains? These “real” foods are too often the exception rather than the norm in our current food environment, which is dominated by mass-produced, processed foods that have been engineered in ways that result in addictive behavior patterns and chronic disease. Processed foods are widely available, cheap, and heavily marketed to us by corporations in pursuit of their raison d’etre – maximizing profits by encouraging more and more consumption, all while externalizing the social costs of chronic disease. Food companies spend about $10 billion annually just marketing foods to our children that contain about 40% of calories from added sugars. Bearing striking similarity to many of the strategies used by Big Tobacco, the playbook of Big Food also includes spending exorbitant amounts of money lobbying our elected officials and influencing policy, raising doubt about the truthfulness of scientific research, misrepresenting evidence, stoking fear about government control impinging on individual freedoms, and vilifying critics as threats to civil liberties.

Their efforts have earned them the power to shape local food environments across the nation. Processed grains and added sugars and fats have increased the calorie content of the US food supply, and the latter two now comprise up to 40% of calories in our diets. The result is a food environment that promotes disease and premature mortality so predictably that it has been characterized as overtly “toxic” and touches the most intimate parts of our lives, like expressing love with cookies or eating white pasta at the family spaghetti night. We may feel joy in those moments, but we don’t feel joy when our loved ones suffer and die from the chronic diseases they develop from these foods. Processed, high calorie, nutrient-poor foods permeate nearly every corner of society: grocery stores, schools, workplaces, and restaurants. The foods in these environments overpower our natural tendency to maintain a healthy body weight and promote overeating. To keep our bodies healthy and prevent painful and costly suffering from chronic disease, we have no choice but to constantly override our once instinctual eating behaviors with willpower. This is hard work.

The challenge is even greater for those of us who are segregated to neighborhoods based on race and income. Lower-income neighborhoods have more fast food restaurants and fewer grocery stores in favor of corner stores that stock unhealthy foods. Historical federal redlining policies that have led to race-based segregation further amplify the toxicity of the food environment. For example, compared to predominantly White neighborhoods, grocery stores in African American neighborhoods are often farther away and stock fewer healthy foods. These disparities in the local food environment may explain disparities in diet composition. Children can’t be blamed for preferring the foods most available in the zip code in which they were born.

Our children today are the first generation in the history of the United States who are expected to have more disease and live shorter lives than their parents, and the prognosis is even worse for African American children. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support this trend. We have the power to create an effective, equitable food system that is tethered to scientific evidence, structured around humans’ nutritional requirements, and tenable with our understanding of predictable and natural behaviors around eating. Focusing on individual people’s behaviors to treat obesity and chronic disease does not address the underlying cause. To replace the toxic food environment with an evidence-based food system, we need multi-level approaches that focus on prevention through policy solutions, community development, and engaging local institutions and organizations. Consider partnering with your local stakeholders, influencers, and decision-makers and support their existing efforts. They understand the needs of the community better than corporate executives accountable to shareholders. Pressure corporations to stop viewing children as marketing objects. Get involved with your local, city, county, or state food policy council, which brings together diverse people from the community to shape the food system. Consider tracking state and federal legislation related to food policy and community development and attend public hearings or provide comments or testimony if you have relevant expertise. Engage in our democracy by communicating with your representatives and tracking their voting records. Inquire about their position on food policy issues and ask them how you can help build a healthier food environment for the next generation.

For more information and suggestions for how to get involved, see the Union of Concerned Scientists Food Policy Toolkit.

Jessica is a 5th year doctoral candidate at the University at Buffalo, where she also earned her MPH. Her work examines the role of economic scarcity and stress on cognition and behaviors that promote obesity. She has studied eating behaviors and obesity for the last 9 years and is an advocate for a healthy, equitable food environment.

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. 

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I’m a Scientist and Greta Thunberg’s Speech to Congress Inspires Me

I was honored to meet Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old climate activist who started weekly climate strikes and the hashtag #FridaysForFuture, which have in turn inspired many young people to strike in their hometowns.  Greta and her fellow members of the youth climate movement asked adults to join Friday September 20th for a global strike.

Moments before Greta’s powerful speech to members of Congress on September 18, 2019 in the largest room on Capitol Hill, the Ways and Means Committee room, she was preparing in a small room.  Those of us with her stood a little away so that she might think about the words she was about to share with the world.   Her father, Svante Thunberg, deftly encouraged us to speak in low tones while still engaging in friendly conversation. I remarked to him that I admired his first name because I appreciate that he shares it with the Swedish scientist and Nobel laureate in chemistry, Svante Arrhenius, who made noteworthy contributions in climate science by pointing out how different levels of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere would affect Earth’s climate (the so-called “greenhouse effect”).

Svante Thunberg smiled and replied that he grew up knowing that he was related to, and named after, the Nobel laureate.  However, until recently no one in Greta’s family quite understood exactly what Arrhenius was honored for.  Mr. Thunberg said he himself did not truly appreciate it until Greta started to seriously learn more about climate change.  With a twinkle in his eye and mirthful irony he posited this as a kind of an indicator that even Arrhenius’s own descendants were not sufficiently aware of the climate science—which likely means this applies to most people.  Sure enough, if you look at the Nobel Prize website page, “Svante August Arrhenius was born on February 19, 1859, the son of Svante Gustaf Arrhenius and Carolina Christina Thunberg.”  Greta is distantly related to Svante Arrhenius.

Full circle: we have now received two warnings from Swedish thinkers, one from the 19th century and one from the 21st century.  Svante Arrhenius put forth a theory that scientists have been building and expanding ever since, “standing on the shoulders of giants” as the saying goes. Now in this century, Greta Thunberg’s clarion call to leaders in Sweden has grown louder as she continues to speak with leaders around the world. The power of her modern approach ties scientific understanding with the justified urgency of her generation. Yesterday, Greta testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee and gave what my colleague, Alden Meyer, called the shortest and most powerful testimony he has heard anyone give in Congress during his decades in Washington.

“My name is Greta Thunberg. I have not come to offer any prepared remarks at this hearing.  I’m instead attaching my testimony.  It is the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the SR 1.5, which was released on October 8th 2018. I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science.  And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.”

Hours later, I saw her speech to members of Congress and participated in the panel discussion that followed.   It was an honor to sit beside Greta and watch her listen carefully to each question then reply with refreshing honesty, great clarity and power. I have been working in climate science and advocating for climate action for most of my working life. Even so, Greta has inspired me to do more to reduce emissions and share the latest science, with Greta’s words always in mind.  #UniteBehindTheScience

Greta Thunberg and Brenda Ekwurzel September 18, 2019

Greta Thunberg and Brenda Ekwurzel during panel discussion after her speech in the Ways and Means Committee room of the U.S. House of Representatives on September 18, 2019. Photo by Alden Meyer

Greta Thunberg and Brenda Ekwurzel; Photo by Alden Meyer

From Scientist to Activist

“Dr. Doom.” fellow students joked as we walked out of our department seminar. It was 1998 and the presenter was Richard Gammon, a co-author of the first IPCC report. I didn’t share my fellow University of Washington grad students’ joke. I was uneasy, wondering about the timing of forecasts and feedback loops.

My grad school journals detail my awakening to the climate crisis. One 1999 entry reads, “I’m probably an expert on climate change compared to my peers and the general public. I need to share my knowledge.” Then I listed areas the public needed to know: “Climate change, coral bleaching, ozone hole, air pollution, and mass extinction.” I feel a sense of missed opportunity re-reading my journal. I clearly felt a sense of urgency in 1999. In grad school and postdoc, I heard stories of colleagues, such as Michael Mann, professionally maligned and harassed by fossil fuel industry stooges. I’m afraid to admit, his experience scared my younger self away from climate action.

I was a ‘good scientist’. I stuck to the science and didn’t interject my views regarding action or policy solutions. When I taught my first climate class in 2001, the strong El Nino year 1998 was the warmest year on record and CO2 concentration was 367ppm. Today, 1998 doesn’t even rank among the top ten hottest years on record, and CO2 reached a new high of 415 ppm in 2019. It took me decades to learn that just presenting the problem and solutions isn’t enough to effect change. It is the contributions of women climate scientists, activists, and children, who inspired me to join them and raised my awareness of climate justice. Mary Heglar, Jamie MargolinGreta Thunberg, my own children, and scientists Sarah MyhreKatharine Hayhoe, and Peter Kalmus, have all inspired me to step out of my comfort zone, act, and encourage others to act with us.

If I, a climate scientist, don’t share what I know and how I feel, who will? How many atmospheric chemists are out there who can explain the science in a way that the average person can understand and connect it to justice and equity? Every scientist I know feels a sense of urgency around the climate crisis. Urgency that we should share with our families, colleagues, and public. As I tell my students, “You know more about climate change than 99% of people. Share what you know. Talk about it.”

Today, I share my sense of urgency and connect to the civil rights and women’s rights heroes of the past: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, suffragettes. I introduce audiences to today’s climate activists: Michael Foster, and scientists turned activists, James Hansen, retired Director of NASA-GISS, and Sandra Steingraber, whose peaceful direct actions all led to imprisonment. Michael Mann is also among these heroes, standing up for decades to the fossil fuel juggernaut of disinformation.

Social media helped facilitate my climate outreach and activism, connecting me with journalists, fellow climate scientists, and activists. I don’t seek out media opportunities, but when asked, I now see it as my duty to share my knowledge and sense of urgency.

It’s not enough to just study and report on the fossil fueled climate changes occurring. I feel compelled to sound the alarm. You don’t need to be a doctor to tell someone to stop smoking around a baby. All of us who understand the climate crisis have a duty to speak up.A medical doctor is not viewed as an activist when advocating for her patient. Our patient is in the ER with a fever over 1.0 C, it’s getting hotter, and the toxic buildup in her systems is reaching critical limits. What gives me hope is our human capacity for love, ingenuity, faith, and my knowledge that we already have the solutions.

The burden of responsibility lies with the business and political leaders hindering change for profit. Rich businesses and individuals don’t intend to destabilize climate, hurting the poor and most vulnerable. Yet rich lifestyles do exactly that. The lifestyles of the richest 0.54% (~42 Million people) are responsible for more emissions than the poorest half of global population (3.8 Billion people). As with all issues of equity and justice: It’s actions that count, not intentions. I find hope in the more equitable, healthier, and peaceful world we will create as we address this crisis.

My activism today is speaking out, showing up, and educating. I say yes to testifying against the continued poisoning of my patient, with a liquified natural gas plant in Tacoma, Washington. I say yes to media requests for interviews to explain climate science and discuss anxiety. I say yes to joining the youth at Friday climate strikes.

No one wants to sacrifice time and energy or become a political prisoner. Yet sacrifice of time and freedom by the great activists (MLK Jr, the suffragettes, Rosa Parks, etc…) was required to effect change. And they did not act alone. Thousands marched and sacrificed with them. You can too. Join a climate action near you on Sept 20, 2019: the Global Climate Strike. Everyone is needed.

This post was originally posted on Medium.com and has been condensed for length and clarity

 

Dr. Price is an atmospheric chemist, climate scientist, researcher and educator in Seattle Washington.

Trump Administration Just Can’t Stop Lying About Vehicle Standards

As California continues to deal with vehicle emissions and its impacts, the Trump administration attacks its ability to set strong vehicle standards. Flickr: photos_mweber

Today, Secretary Elaine Chao (Department of Transportation) and Administrator Andrew Wheeler (EPA) officially released their attack on California’s Advanced Clean Car standards, which reduce global warming emissions and tailpipe pollution from new cars and require manufacturers to sell a minimum number of electric vehicles in the state. 13 other states and the District of Columbia have signed on to this program, but the Trump administration is now revoking California’s waiver to administer this program.

This action is disastrous on many levels, but one thing that struck me during their announcement today was the blatant willingness to lie the administration has shown with regards to this program. While we’ve heard many of these outright falsehoods before, it’s worth taking a look at some of the nonsense they are trying to sell the American people.

Artist’s rendering of Administrator Andrew Wheeler at today’s press conference. (No one was harmed, although some pants may have caught aflame.)

Andrew Wheeler pulls an EV switcheroo

Much of the administration’s false claims about the current standards rely upon a lie about the technology needed to meet them. We’ve already pointed out that plug-in electrification isn’t necessary to meet these standards (though it certainly is a good thing), and we’ve got a new blog series showing exactly what tomorrow’s gas-powered vehicles could look like under strong standards, but Andrew Wheeler doubled down on this, claiming that 1) analysis shows that manufacturers would need up to 50 percent electrification to meet the 2025 standards and that 2) these vehicles cost $12,000 more and people don’t want them. This is absolutely FALSE and was designed to deceive the American public.

The “electric vehicles” Andrew Wheeler describes are vehicles deploying mild hybridization like the Ram 1500 pick-up and Jeep Wrangler, which boast new “eTorque” systems. With more than half a million of those vehicles already sold this year, it’s hard to argue that consumers don’t want them. And last I checked, Fiat-Chrysler didn’t suddenly jack up the price of these vehicles by $12,000 when they added this mild hybrid system.

What Andrew Wheeler is trying to do here is use the public’s lack of familiarity with new technology like plug-in electrification to lie his butt off about the difficulty in meeting the standards they’re working to undo…as he’s already done previously. These standards are strong, achievable, and cost-effective…and they already form the basis of One National Program.

The administration’s proposal has severe consequences for climate change

Another canard Andrew Wheeler pulled out today was the nonsense that this will have a minimal impact on climate change. This, of course, fails to acknowledge that this rule is part of a bigger picture—delaying action for five years pushes us off the trajectory on which we need to be and halts investment in and deployment of technologies that we desperately need in order to address climate change. It also fails to acknowledge the global nature of the automotive industry today, and the way in which the United States, second in new vehicle sales only to China, can help either push or hinder the global marketplace’s adoption of more efficient vehicles.

Incredibly, the administration walked out as one of their spokespersons for this rule Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California, who then proceeded to talk about the impact of wildfires in his district, absolutely failing to make the connection between wildfires and climate change. A surefire way to make things worse for his district is limiting consumer choice of more efficient cars, trucks, and SUVs and increasing fossil fuel use, both of which this administration’s action today will accomplish.

California is not in this fight alone

One of the most annoying things this administration continues to try to do is pretend like California is somehow usurping federal control, when this is patently false. This fails to acknowledge both the states who, like California, are pushing for stronger standards to protect their citizens, and the power granted these states by Congress, a right which the Trump administration cannot just will away.

California’s own efforts to reduce emissions from passenger vehicles predates federal action, so in writing the Clean Air Act Congress wisely gave California the go-ahead to continue to fashion its own emissions rules under Section 209, provided these rules are at least as stringent as the federal standards. That continues to remain true, and in Massachusetts v. EPA the Supreme Court even specifically noted how this right extends to global warming emissions.

Congress further gave states the right to adopt California’s standards, under Section 177 of the Clean Air Act, and 13 states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s strong global warming emissions regulations. These states recognized the adverse impacts that global warming emissions holds for their communities and adopted the standards as a way to try to address this tremendous issue.

The Trump administration cannot magically sign away authority explicitly granted by Congress to the states to protect their citizens.

This action is about as strong as the paper it was printed upon

The thing I thought the most while the administration was putting forth this proposal was this: just because you say the same thing repeatedly, does not make it true. It seems that Andrew Wheeler has not yet learned this lesson, and apparently it is going to take legal action to compel this administration to do the right thing.

But as I said before: California is not in this fight alone. UCS, states, and other organizations will be lining up with California to protect the legal authority granted to it by Congress, authority which protects its citizens, increases consumer choice, and reduces fossil fuel use. And if this stack of lies is the best this administration can come up with, this is a fight we can no doubt win.

photos_mweber FreeClipArt

The Proposal to Restrict Science at EPA Is Dying a Slow Death

Some modest good news: the proposal to restrict the use of science in air pollution, chemical safety, water quality, and countless other decisions at the EPA has been delayed yet again. At a House Science Committee hearing this morning, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said that the agency would issue a supplemental proposal in 2020. Politico was first to report this news.

What this means is that the agency is struggling mightily with a fatally flawed proposal that is legally and scientifically indefensible. It’s hard to see how a supplemental proposal would change that fact.

Administrator Wheeler also suggested that the EPA would not finalize the proposed rule until it is vetted by the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB). It will be essential for the SAB to review the entire rule, not just a narrow slice of it. Unfortunately, the independence of the SAB is likely to be further compromised later this month when some of the remaining independent experts are replaced by additional industry voices.

The administrator has consistently sidelined internal EPA scientists and external science advisors from reviewing the restricted science proposal. Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act previously demonstrated that the proposal was developed by political appointees without even consulting top EPA scientists.

The EPA under disgraced ex-Administrator Scott Pruitt originally intended to fast-track the rule, but 600,000 public comments derailed that plan. As Representative Suzanne Bonamici noted in the hearing, nearly every mainstream scientific organization in the country came out strongly against the rule, with none supporting it.

The proposal comes directly from tobacco industry lobbyists, who previously, and unsuccessfully, tried to get Congress to pass legislation to limit the types of science that EPA can use in regulatory decisions.

Any new proposal will be met with the same level of scrutiny from scientists and public interest organizations. I hope we won’t have to waste as many resources fighting another malevolent effort to limit the EPA’s ability to protect public health.

USDA Report: Farm Payments Up 42%, Farm Debt Rising

Photo: Mahalie Stackpole/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

On August 30th the U.S. Department of Agriculture presented its August 2019 Farm Income Forecast. What struck me most: the eye-popping one year 42.5% increase in federal government direct farm program payments. That’s right, federal government direct payments to farmers are expected to rise by $5.6 billion in just one year. 

Let’s put that into perspective. There are about 2 million farmers in the U.S., according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture. So, on average that’s an extra $2,800 check to each farmer in 2019 compared to 2018. That’s almost triple the amount presidential candidate Andrew Yang promised as an annual “freedom dividend” to American families. Unfortunately, these farm payments aren’t as equitable as Yang’s freedom dividend. According to a recent Environmental Working Group investigation the majority of these types of payments have gone to the largest, wealthiest farmers.

Why such a big bump in direct government payments to farmers?

The increase in direct payments comes from an explosion in expenditures from the Market Facilitation Program (MFP). MFP provides financial support to farmers and ranchers who grow or raise foods that are impacted by “unjustified foreign retaliatory tariffs, resulting in the loss of traditional export markets.” In 2018 USDA paid out $5.1 billion in MFP payments. But that value is expected to rise to $10.7 billion in 2019, which is a 109% increase from the prior year. The huge jump in MFP is due to shifting trade agreement terms the U.S. has with China, Canada and Mexico initiated by the current administration. Federal commodity insurance indemnities are also expected to rise, mostly due to flooding in the Midwest, by about 80% or $6.1 billion.

Again, to put these billions of dollars of MFP and insurance payments into perspective, consider the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which feeds 29.7 million children each year. NSLP costs the federal government $13.8 billion annually, or about $465 per child per year. By comparison, the one-year increase in MFP payments ($5.6 million) combined with the one-year increase in commodity insurance indemnities payments ($6.1 million) is almost equal to the cost of the NSLP for one year. That’s a lot of money.

USDA’s forecast also indicated that overall direct payments (which includes MFP insurance indemnities, conservation programs and a few other types of direct payment programs) to farmers account for nearly 22 percent of net farm income. USDA concluded that net farm income, excluding federal indemnities and direct payments, would be down in 2019. So bottom line, MFP and other federal government direct payments kept farm incomes afloat this year compared to last year.

Rising debt and bankruptcies among U.S. farmers is concerning

An increase in debt and bankruptcies among U.S. farmers was also reported in the August forecast. According to USDA, debt levels in the farm sector are at their highest levels since 1982. This is mostly due to increased real estate debt, which accounted for 60% of farm debt in 2019. Both farm sector assets and equity are expected to be about the same in 2019 compared to the prior year, which means that the debt to asset ratio (a key measure of farm financial health) for U.S. farmers will increase in 2019. Bankruptcies have also been trending upwards since 2016. All of these trends are concerning and worth watching both in the short and longer-term.

Many other trends in the farm sector were reported in the August forecast, including a decline in farm expenses from 2018 to 2019 as well as changes in prices and quantities of crops and livestock expected this year. USDA has posted the full video recording of the August forecast here.  USDA will provide another forecast on November 27th.

In the meantime, all this information USDA shared in its August forecast has me thinking about how the current system of government payments could be improved, especially for small, mid-sized, and socially disadvantaged farmers. Even more important, a key question is if the current government support system can withstand additional pressure put on it by climate change, which is already making it more difficult to grow food, fuel and fiber in the U.S. and other countries.

Which makes me wonder (I wonder about a lot of things): can more government funding also be used to reward farmers for being protectors of our climate, land and water? Can government help protect farmers from the looming climate crisis? The answer to these questions is almost certainly yes, because farmers and our food supply likely will depend upon such government action. The trick will be to ensure that new policies to address the economic, environmental and climate challenges farmers face are equitable and informed by the best available science.  Luckily, there is great energy around making equitable, science-based policies a reality and there’s no better time to act than right now.

 

Dos años después de la catástrofe climática, Puerto Rico aparece en el mapamundi

puerto rico prende sus luciérnagas

para aparecer:

luz ansiosa en el mapamundi.

          Lo Terciario, Raquel Salas Rivera

Durante los últimos dos años, Puerto Rico ha vivido el episodio más tumultuoso de su historia moderna. En 2017, el Huracán María pasó factura climática a una isla que ya no tenía recursos políticos, económicos ni de infraestructura (urbana, energética) para saldar tal deuda. El huracán—como me dijo un colega hace tiempo—no fué lo que destruyó a Puerto Rico: la crisis de gobernabilidad, la crisis por la agobiante deuda pública que melló servicios públicos, educativos, y sociales, así como la rentabilidad de la isla—la misma crisis que pensamos había tocado fondo durante el cierre del gobierno en 2006—fue lo que destruyó a la isla, y sus escombros fueron barridos por María.

En mayo del 2018, casi un año después del desastre, científicos de Harvard destapaban lo que los boricuas ya sabían: que las muertes como consecuencia de María habían sido muchas más que las informadas en los números amañados por el gobierno de Ricardo Rosselló. También se evidenció que la asistencia federal fué saboteada tanto por revanchismos políticos originados en la Casa Blanca como por la incompetencia, corrupción y oportunismo del gobierno del Dr. Rosselló.

Pero también en 2018 se dio algo alentador: un junte entre científicos boricuas en Puerto Rico y la diáspora con el fin de encarrilar sus deseos de insertarse de manera efectiva en el proceso de la política pública para contribuir a lograr una verdadera recuperación resiliente y basada en la ciencia. Este junte buscó canalizar, dentro del ámbito de la ciencia y la formulación de política pública, la histórica labor de muchas comunidades, organizaciones y coaliciones–no solamente aquellas enfocadas en la ciencia o lideradas por científicos–que redoblaron esfuerzos para la recuperación en Puerto Rico a raíz de María.

En Union of Concerned Scientists tuvimos el privilegio de apoyar, junto a nuestros colegas científicos de Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) y la Asociación Americana para el Avance de las Ciencias – División del Caribe (AAAS-CD), el lanzamiento del Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN).

En el evento de lanzamiento de PR-SPAN, la experta en energía renovable, mi colega Paula García participó en diálogos sobre la resiliencia energética con los expertos de INESI. La Dra. Elvira Cuevas, ecóloga, nos recordó que la construcción de la resiliencia es tarea de todos – no sólo de las universidades, gobiernos, u otras organizaciones. El Dr. Aurelio Mercado contó cómo ha sido testigo, desde por lo menos antes del Huracán Hugo (¡en 1989!) de la manera en que los gobiernos en Puerto Rico hicieron caso omiso a las advertencias de las y los científicos sobre el cambio climático y la necesidad de estar preparados ante devastadores huracanes.

Pudimos conversar con varios científicos puertorriqueños, quienes compartieron sus experiencias en el quehacer científico en colaboración con las comunidades a las que sirven. Algunas de estas pueden ser vistas aquí.  El año pasado compartí en un blog mis impresiones sobre lo que se habló durante el lanzamiento de PR-SPAN, cuya esencia fue plasmada en mi memoria por la máxima del Dr. Braulio Quintero: “la resistencia es resiliencia”.

En el verano del 2019, esa resistencia de la que habló Quintero, a la austeridad impuesta por una antidemocrática y colonial Junta de Control Fiscal, al desmantelamiento de la infraestructura de ciencia, educación, salud, vivienda, energía, se encrestó en una inédita jornada de manifestaciones populares que culminaron con la dimisión de Ricardo Rosselló a la gobernación de la isla.

Las masivas y continuas manifestaciones multisectoriales incluyeron estudiantes, transportistas, motociclistas, unionados, grupos LGBTQ, pensionados, religiosos, educadores, feministas, anarquistas, y artistas—por mencionar algunos grupos identificables—quienes optaron por la acción directa para exigir democracia verdadera y la restauración de condiciones de vida dignas tan maltratadas por el huracán y tan mal atendidas por tanto julepe* en todos los niveles de gobierno. El detonante fué la divulgación del contenido del infame chat entre los allegados del gobernador—en los que se evidenció el racismo, clasismo, homofobia, y desdén puro por el bienestar de los puertorriqueños que sufrieron el embate del huracán.

La movilización popular y descentralizada del verano del 2019 es parteaguas en el ejercicio de la democracia en Borinquen**: ahora contamos con un grueso de la población en la isla y en la diáspora que se moviliza para exigir gobernantes comprometidos con una recuperación equitativa y enfocados en el bienestar de los puertorriqueños.

Con esta trayectoria histórica de trasfondo, las sociedades científicas y de política pública científica como Ciencia Puerto Rico y PR-SPAN son de trascendental importancia para salvaguardar el uso de la ciencia independiente en la formulación de políticas públicas que beneficien a la población y posibiliten un futuro resiliente a los retos económicos, sociales, energéticos y climáticos a los que se enfrenta Puerto Rico.

¿Cuál es el balance de CienciaPR y PR-SPAN al presente?

CienciaPR y PR-SPAN enlazan el quehacer científico boricua con el mundo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

En su más reciente informe, CienciaPR compartió su quehacer científico en 2017 y 2018, resaltando que:

  • National Science Foundation (NSF) otorgó a CienciaPR una beca para implementar un currículo diseñado para que los estudiantes en Puerto Rico diseñen e implementen soluciones a bajo costo a problemas creados por los huracanes.
  • En colaboración con la sociedad científica AAAS División del Caribe (AAAS-CD), CienciaPR organizó la Marcha por la Ciencia en Puerto Rico, donde más de 500 personas marcharon para celebrar y defender el papel de la ciencia en la sociedad puertorriqueña.
  • AAAS-CD y CienciaPR aunaron fuerzas para crear un programa de becas para científicos desplazados por los huracanes. Casi $100,000 fueron distribuidos entre 65 becas para reparar equipo de laboratorio, pagar viajes de investigación, y completar investigaciones doctorales.
  • Más de 100 personas participaron en el lanzamiento de PR-SPAN “Ciencia en Acción: Política Pública Puertorriqueña Apoyada por Evidencia”.
  • Fue nombrado “Science Defender 2018” por Union of Concerned Scientists en reconocimiento a haber creado PR-SPAN.
  • La Dra. Greetchen Díaz, Directora del Programa de Educación en Ciencias de CienciaPR fué nombrada Embajadora del programa IF/THEN de AAAS. Como Embajadora IF/THEN, la Dra. Díaz compartirá su trayectoria personal y científica y servirá de modelo a seguir para niñas de escuela intermedia.

En 2019, a casi un año de su creación, PR-SPAN cuenta con varios logros:

  • Recibió una beca del National Science Policy Network gracias a la cual llevaron a cabo un panel donde se discutió el papel que las y los científicos pueden desempeñar en la defensa de política pública basada en la ciencia, así como talleres para enseñar como escribir editoriales y comentarios para vistas públicas.
  • Sus miembros han publicado más de 40 blogs y seis columnas en diarios locales en temas relacionados, por ejemplo, al cambio climático, seguridad alimenticia y prácticas pesqueras y medidas de descontaminación de Vieques.
  • Ha participado en entrevistas y eventos de defensa de la ciencia en la Legislatura de Puerto Rico.
  • Cuenta con 15 voluntarios quienes laboran en alertas relacionadas a política pública, escriben blogs, coordinan vinculación a través de redes sociales, desarrollan estrategias de comunicaciones, y colaboran con sociedades científicas puertorriqueñas.

CienciaPR y PR-SPAN lideran la conversación sobre la necesidad de autonomía e integridad en las instituciones científicas en Puerto Rico

A pesar de la reciente creación de PR-SPAN, los logros alcanzados son importantes y aún falta mucho más por hacer por hacer para desarrollar en Puerto Rico un proceso de política pública transparente y con participación ciudadana. Puerto Rico continuará enfrentando serios retos económicos, sociales, energéticos y climáticos. La comunidad científica boricua representada y movilizada por CienciaPR, AAAS-CD y PR-SPAN, son—para tomarle prestada la palabra a la poeta boricua Raquel Salas Rivera—unas de las más brillantes luciérnagas que ha encendido Puerto Rico para aparecer en el mapamundi. Union of Concerned Scientists reitera su compromiso con las y los científicos boricuas y su gestión comunitaria para crear un Puerto Rico resiliente a través de políticas públicas basadas en la ciencia y el bienestar de su gente.

*Aunque la palabra julepe tiene múltiples acepciones, en Puerto Rico significa un gran lío o desorden.

**Borinquen es el nombre ancestral dado por los taínos a la isla.

By Daryana Rivera – Photograph, CC BY-SA 4.0 Ciencia Puerto Rico

Fellow Parents, Why Supporting the Climate Strike is What It’s All About

Photo: Roy/Flickr

Friends, If you are weighing whether to support your child in striking this Friday during the global climate strike, can I have a minute? First, let’s put this on the table: it’s not easy being a parent, and in the era of climate change, it’s unnerving.

Photo: earthtoeyes

Whether you think about the problem a little or a lot, climate change requires us to hold two opposing beliefs in our minds at once, which is the definition of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, that our most important job is raising these people up right. And on the other, that the world in which they’re supposed to be good people and live good lives is becoming inhospitable to the acts. It’s like thinking “I hope you settle down someday and raise a family yourself”. And then “someplace safe from the flood, fire, drought, deadly heat, and other growing threats of climate change. So, nowhere I can think of.”

If you spend a lot of time in that state of cognitive dissonance, you know it’s not just bewildering, it’ll break your heart. But hold those two things we must because we’re their parents and it’s a fact: the future ain’t what it used to be.

On most days spent as a parent we focus on the mundane but necessary features that make up a family’s life: clean bodies, cooked meals, finished homework, folded laundry. Assuming we’re lucky enough not to live under the strain of poverty, we give these things and our 9-to-5 jobs nearly all our energy. We do this because, the story goes, they move the enterprise of our families and the people in them forward. Devotion to our day-to-day industry is supposed to help ensure our children’s safety, expand their choices, and secure their future. It’s not a formula that all in America can believe in, given racism and other enduring inequities, but it’s a formula most of us sign up for, believing or not.

But either you know or I have to break it to you (and in either case, I wish we were doing this over coffee or a beer): because of climate change, no amount of your day-to-day hard work and preparation can do that. You can no longer give them a secure future because the whole future is at risk.

Today, we’ve warmed the planet 1 degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels, and with just this modest warming, each year brings new unprecedented hurricanes, floods, heat waves and wildfires. Young people, from recent high school graduates on down, have only known a world of record-breaking temperatures. Kindergarteners starting school this month have lived in the five hottest years on record. And with this warmth, the world’s sensitive systems from the poles to the equator (you know, the really wondrous ones) have suffered. E.g., during two of those years, warm water killed half the coral of the Great Barrier Reef.

We could surpass a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees C in just the next 5 years, which would accelerate harm like shrinking water supplies and strained crop production. And scientists expect an increase of 2 degrees C, which today looks hard to avoid in our kids’ lifetime, would be accompanied by devastating changes, upheaval, displacement, and loss: a world transformed.

A world no child should inherit.

Youth climate strikers. Photo: Laura Campbell

But on our watch and with our participation, we parents and grandparents, the future got broken like a hundred-generations-old family heirloom that we disregarded and dropped. As that meme tells us, “You had one job.” And that’s the thing about being a parent in the climate era. We still have to fulfill the day-to-day compact of raising good people to live good lives. But we have to face it: presently, the legacy we’re going to leave all children is a dangerous, damaged future. Emissions reached an all-time high last year and are continuing to rise, critical policies like our federal Clean Power Plan are being repealed, the US intends to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, the list goes on.  If we don’t get it together right now to do this one all-important job and work for a safer, more stable future, then the rest of our labors won’t count for much in the long run to the good people we raised.

It’s a raw deal. When they deserved to be children with uncomplicated hope for the future, they were instead made stewards of a 21st century all but sacked by natives of the 20th. When they needed us to act to safeguard their future, they got complacency and deepening injustice, an irrational devotion to business-as-usual, and a winding down of the climate clock while they were still learning to tell time. If they’re not yet furious with us, they will be.

For many adults, we feel busy, stressed, and overworked. The status quo and its emissions are just comfortable enough, to date, and in that comfort, some of us don’t perceive and others of us ignore what a rapidly growing threat the status quo is. Polling will tell you that a large majority of Americans think climate change is real and caused by human activities. But to date, there are never enough bodies, voices, or votes in the climate fight to make the difference. As Swedish youth activist, Greta Thunberg, warned us earlier this year, “I want you to act like the house is on fire, because it is”. Many adults, it seems, understand that something’s burning, we’re just not getting that it’s the whole damn house and everything that matters is in it.

Not so, our kids. Separate polls released this week show how deep their concern runs, and how seriously they are taking the science. But it also shows how resolved they feel, and how very many of them – one in four teens according to one poll – have taken some action, including joining a school walkout. Someone has to make the difference while older generations are MIA.

Our kids have stepped up in huge numbers to become the vanguard in the climate fight. And they’ve been using the limited tools at their disposal – their bodies, their absence from school, their gathering in numbers – to disrupt and demand attention through the school climate strikes. With business-as-usual eating their future, and without money or power, what else can they do?

Fair question, asked by student strikers at the March 2019 strike, Columbus Circle, NYC. Photo: Pamela Drew

On September 20th, they are aiming for the biggest global strike yet. There are over 4,500 strikes planned in over 150 countries – 958 strikes here in the U.S. alone at last count. But this time they are asking us to join them. And many thousands of adults will do so, including members of major labor unions, employees of companies large and small, and now a growing coalition of employees from 8 big tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter (hopefully Apple by Friday).

If it’s not a fully “mainstream” view, that it’s necessary to miss a day of school or work to help shift the balance in the climate fight, it’s clearly a widely held view. More than a hundred companies are supporting the strike, the NYC public schools have given its 1.1 million students a green light to strike, and more than 600 doctors and medical professionals have signed a “medical excuse note” to help justify student absences. And it will inevitably become a mainstream one. As extreme weather events get even more frequent and devastating, and even more people are harmed, then it will be mainstream. And some people will wait until then to act, landing on the wrong side of history and the future.

Don’t wait.

My whole letter comes down to this: as parents, it’s our fight, too.

If the young people in your life want to strike, will you support them?

And if you can take the day or a few hours to strike yourself, will you join them?

Please do. Read this post for a round up of what adults need to know about the strike. Accompany your younger children to a strike near you. Let your older teen strikers know that you have their back. (Tell them you’ll be the one with the “One Mad Dad!” sign; you can probably do better.) Be an ally. Not for nothing, your kids will know that, while anyone could see this threat coming, you got it and you stepped up and you did it for them.

And, look, we can do this. It’s possible to steer the world in a different direction. It will be hard. And it requires us to make some “heroic assumptions,” what scientists call it when we assume the stars align and best-case scenarios prevail. But there is uncertainty in all directions. Just as the frightening things could be worse than we know, breakthroughs and game-changers are out there, too, societal, technical, and political. Take these young and determined people. No one was counting on them, but there they will be on Friday, all around the world. A glorious game changer.

When we, on my team, try to hold the two things in our minds it once — the climate odds and the people we love — and we acknowledge the heroic assumptions required to make it all go well, my friend Kate will say: “then I’m going to assume heroes”.

She means you, too.

Photo: earthtoeyes/Flickr

The Climate Strike Is On. We Will Be There.

It’s time to strike. For climate action. For climate justice. And for the youth-led movement that is demanding change, inspiring hope, and mobilizing this Friday’s global climate strike.

This Friday, September 20, in more than 4,500 places in 137 countries around the world, climate strikes will take place. They are designed to disrupt business as usual on a school and work day, and to elevate the overwhelming urgency of the climate crisis.

The future is theirs

Today’s youth understand that they will live their lives in a world affected by climate change. They know that without dramatic and immediate action, their future will be a dangerously hot one, with accelerating sea level rise, stronger hurricanes, larger wildfires, and wrenching social and economic disruption, particularly for the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Indeed, the Northern Hemisphere just endured the hottest summer since we began keeping temperature records. And young people today are realizing that it’s just a harbinger of the increasingly severe impacts to come if we don’t act boldly now to deal with the climate crisis.

They know we are not headed in the right direction on climate. That we are not on track to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, and that the Trump administration has announced its intention to withdraw even from that. But today’s youth leaders are refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer as they fight relentlessly for change.

Their demands for the strike are clear and simple: we must act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid clean energy revolution with equity and climate justice at its heart.

The strike is for everyone

This isn’t the first climate strike. But this one is different. Previously, the youth movement has asked adults to stay back and let them demonstrate their leadership and approach. For this strike, however, youth activists are asking everyone to join them.

There are many ways to get involved. You can find a strike near you, support the young activists in your life as they join a strike or organize one of their own, or amplify the strike in your community and on social media; the organizers have created lots of resources for you to use. And even if you can’t strike, there are still other ways you can get involved. For more information, you can read the youth movement’s helpful guide for their adult allies.

We will be there

The Union of Concerned Scientists supports this strike because we believe in this movement and its power and potential to make a meaningful difference in the climate fight. We believe in the inspiring youth who rise and demand action at this most critical time. And we will support and fight with them to protect their future, their climate, and the planet they will inherit.

Just as we have been honored to support the Peoples’ March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice, UCS is supporting the youth climate strike as a science partner, encouraging our own staff and supporters to join, and providing key science resources, support, and science talking points that youth activists have requested, including a science backgrounder via Twitter we’ll be sharing between now and the strike.

Every great social movement has two key elements: an undeniable moral message, and powerful messengers. The fight for a habitable world has both in this effort. The moral message that adults have no right to leave a dangerously compromised world for their children and grandchildren. And the world’s youth as the powerful messengers who have everything to lose if adults do not listen.

And just as I listen to my own children—and support and join in their endeavors when it’s right—I am proud to listen and to join in this climate fight.

Striking for Global Climate Justice

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS

The global climate strike on September 20th is likely to be the biggest global climate action to date. My kids and I will be joining the strike in New York City and we’ve been talking a lot about what this moment means. It’s incredibly powerful to see the young people leading these strikes recognize the global nature of the challenge and the need to center justice in how we address it. 

Why strike?

Strikes demonstrate the collective power of ordinary people. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the freedom struggles of countries seeking independence from colonial powers—they have all channeled the power of strikes. People can challenge the status quo, the powers-that-be, by bringing daily life to a standstill for a short time and forcing public attention on the critical political or social issues of the day.

That’s why young people are asking adults to leave work and join them on Sept 20th. Millions of people all over the world will be joining together with one message: climate change is one of most pressing problems we face, and we demand policymakers take action to address it now.

When I look at the global climate strike map listing the thousands of strikes already planned around the world—from Accra, Ghana to Kiribati, all over the US (nearly 1000 as of this morning!), Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, Pacific island nations—it fills me with hope and courage. Yes, together, we can do this.

Young climate leaders leading these strikes recognize some important truths:

  • The impacts of climate change are already apparent everywhere—in the form of record heat, floods, droughts, storms, and wildfires. And there’s no doubt that they are having a disproportionate impact on those who live in poverty, here in the United States and around the world. These impacts will only worsen if we fail to take bold action now.
  • The transition away from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy is vital to meeting our climate goals and brings with it the promise of economic opportunities and public health benefits. But it also poses a huge challenge to workers and communities currently dependent on fossil fuel jobs.
  • It’s also abundantly clear that fossil fuel companies and their political allies are fighting climate action tooth and nail. They are a huge obstacle to the political change we need.

So, when we’re in the streets, we’ve also got to demand that our climate solutions address the needs of those who have the least and have contributed the least to creating the problem. We must demand investments in a just transition for fossil-fuel dependent communities. And we have to call out our policymakers who are beholden to fossil fuel interests and demand that they act on our behalf instead.

Strikes may not be for everyone

Going on strike can be risky and those risks are different for different people depending on their circumstances. History shows that peaceful strikes and marches have sometimes been met with violence. It required a particular kind of bravery and moral courage to march from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King. Or to join the salt satyagraha to Dandi led by Gandhiji.

The climate strikes on September 20th aim to be a peaceful and I hope and fully expect everyone who joins will be safe wherever in the world they are. Understandably, some people, especially those with small children or those who have been unfairly targeted by law enforcement or political entities, may not feel comfortable with the very small chance that something could go wrong.

Going on strike can be a luxury. Not everyone can take a day off work without risking losing their job or pay. Not everyone has the resources to travel to the nearest big city where a strike may be happening. Some people are in the midst of daily life struggles that might make it impossible to even think about striking.

It’s easier to strike if you have some privilege or power. So if you do, use it! (Yes, that’s most of you reading this blogpost).

Join the global climate justice movement

Climate justice is not about just one day. Whether you join a climate strike on the 20th or not, you can be part of the movement for change. There are lots of ways to contribute your time, your expertise—and, for those who can afford to, your money. And remember, your vote counts too.

The good news is low-carbon energy has never been cheaper or more abundant. Just within my (11 and 13-year-old) kids’ lifetimes, the cost of wind energy has dropped by over 60 percent and solar photovoltaics by nearly 90 percent, and we have seen coal go from about half of our electricity mix in the US to about a quarter. Those are incredible changes in a short time! It’s no wonder that young people are pushing for bold action—because they know that carbon emissions are still rising and we can do much more to accelerate the shift to low-carbon energy if our policymakers enact ambitious policies.

Of course, the fight for a just climate-safe future is about more than cutting heat-trapping emissions. How can we do right by workers and communities currently dependent on fossil fuels? How can we ensure that our efforts to cut CO2 emissions bring direct health benefits to communities disproportionately burdened by pollution from our dependence on fossil fuels? What will we do to help protect and prepare all communities from the ravages of climate change? What will the US do to contribute its fair share to global climate efforts to help developing countries cut their emissions and cope with climate impacts? These are all vital issues that we have to engage with as citizens of the world and voters (and future voters).

We’re not going to solve the climate crisis if we don’t solve it in a just and equitable way. Our fate is connected to the fate of millions of people around the world.

Young people have put forth a strong set of demands for this climate strike. The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and Solidarity for Climate Action are additional resources (full disclosure: UCS is a signatory to both these documents).

There is much work ahead in turning these ambitious visions into reality, and young people are calling us to do that work with them and for them. Please join—on September 20th if you can, and in the weeks, months and years of the good fight ahead.

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS

A Timeline of Recent Attacks on the EPA’s Science-based Ambient Air Pollution Standards

Smoggy skyline in Salt Lake City, Utah

Trump administration officials at the US Environmental Protection Agency have made several moves that undermine the longstanding process that the agency uses to ensure that independent science informs ambient air pollution standards.

For decades, under both democratic and republican administrations, the EPA has used the best available science and science advice to set air pollution standards at levels that protect public health with an adequate margin of safety, as the Clean Air Act requires. But now that process is under threat. Below is a timeline of actions the Trump administration has taken that upend this time-tested and science-based process for setting health-based air pollution standards.

31 October 2017: Pruitt Memo on Grants and Advisory Committees

Then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issues a memorandum banning scientists with current EPA research grants from serving on science advisory committees, while permitting individuals from regulated industries to continue to serve. The move forced several scientists on EPA’s seven science advisory committees to either step down or give up grants they were awarded in order to continuing serving.

12 April 2018: Presidential Memorandum on NAAQS

Presidential Memorandum orders the EPA to make sweeping changes to implementation of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), including requiring science advisors to consider non-scientific information, restricting the science that can be used in decisionmaking, and shifting responsibility to the states without increasing their resources.

9 May 2018: Pruitt Memo on NAAQS Process

Then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt follows the president’s memorandum with his own, articulating details of how he will implement the orders at the agency. The Pruitt Memo announces that EPA will follow an expedited timeline for review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter and ozone, and that the kinds of scientific information EPA can use in its ambient air pollutant standard policy decisions may be restricted.

10 October 2018: PM Panel Disbanded

EPA leaders disband the Particulate Matter Review Panel and announce they will not convene an Ozone Review Panel, bodies of independent expertise that have informed air pollution standard reviews for decades. At the same time, EPA leaders replace the members of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) largely from academic institutions with those from state and local regulatory agencies, led by an industry consultant.

11 April 2019: CASAC Lacks the Needed Expertise

In an unprecedented move, CASAC sends a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler acknowledging that the seven-member group needs additional expertise to adequately advise the agency on the particulate matter ambient air quality standard.

5 September 2019: PM Policy Assessment Released

The EPA Draft Policy Assessment for Particulate Matter is released. The document is inclusive of the risk assessment (which has been a separate document in recent history) and considers the agency’s Integrated Science Assessment, which characterizes the state of the science on particulate matter and health and welfare effects.  The Policy Assessment recommends that in order to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety, as the Clean Air Act requires, the primary fine particulate matter standard should stay the same or be tightened.

13 September 2019: Consultants Appointed

Rather than appoint a Particulate Matter Review Panel as CASAC and the broader scientific community have asked, EPA leaders appoint a group of consultants to supplement the seven-member CASAC in its review of the particulate matter standards. The consultants will be available for a highly controlled Q&A process, where committee members’ questions must be asked by the committee and answered by the consultants in advance of CASAC’s meeting. Unlike the Particulate Matter Review Panel, the consultants will not be able to engage with the committee or with each other in real time and will not be able to deliberate on topics outside of the narrow questions they are posed.

18 September 2019: CASAC Meeting Structure Announced

The CASAC meeting to discuss the Policy Assessment for the Particulate Matter National Ambient Air Quality Standards review is set for October 24 in North Carolina. In an atypical move, the meeting will detach public comments as a separate teleconference two days prior. One challenge with this structure is that public commenters may not have access to the committee members pre-meeting comments and agency briefing material. If all materials are not available by October 22, this would limit the ability of the public to make informed comments to CASAC and the EPA in their discussion of the particulate matter standards.

The administration intends to finish the ambient standard reviews for both particulate matter and ozone by the end of 2020. Stay tuned for new developments as EPA leaders strive to meet this tight timeline.

Photo: Eltiempo10/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia)

SOS Congress: Nation’s Flood Policy Is Not Keeping Up with Climate Change Reality

Office of the Missouri Governor

September is preparedness month and for good reason. It is a time when the Atlantic Basin Hurricane season is at its peak.

The National Hurricane Center is now tracking three storms, Hurricane Humberto, tropical depression Imelda, and tropical storm Jerry. Preparedness month provides the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with an opportunity to focus the public and Congress’s attention on the need to prepare the public to extreme weather events. The reality is, we need to be prepared for extreme weather and climate change-related impacts year-round.

The official hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin (the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico) is from 1 June to 30 November. As seen in the graph above, the peak of the season is from mid-August to late October. However, deadly hurricanes can occur anytime in the hurricane season.

The cornerstone 50-year old policy targeted on flood risk preparedness is the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Congress must reauthorize NFIP by the end of this month. The House and Senate have bills teed up to address this. For more background on the NFIP, please see previous UCS blogposts here and here.

I’ll say more on that but first, let’s review some of the recent rainfall, flooding and hurricane events and impacts and the climate connection to underscore why Congress ought to act with urgency to reauthorize NFIP.

An above normal hurricane season: check

Our hearts and minds are with the many families and communities in the U.S. and territories that are still working to get their lives back to normal after sequential years of record rainfall and back to back flood disasters.  Most recently the Category 5 Hurricane Dorian devastated Abaco Island in the Bahamas but luckily just grazed the  U.S. southeastern coastal states. We’re still in the middle of the hurricane se, we need to brace for additional storms fueled by climate change during this hurricane season and in the future.

Up until just a few days ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had tracked 7 events. The number of named storms changed quickly to now ten named storms for the six month season that ends on November 30.  AccuWeather predicts this hurricane season will be “back-end-loaded” and NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center’s latest outlook finds that there’s a 45% probability for an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season. This means we could likely see as many as 10-17 storms, 5-9 of which could become hurricanes. NOAA predicts that of those hurricanes, 2-4 could be major hurricanes (winds of 111 mph or greater).

A soggy nation: check

NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin and Joshua Stevens using soil moisture data from the NASA-USDA SMAP team and using GRACE data from The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and rainfall data from The Iowa Environmental Mesonet The Iowa Environmental Mesonet (IEM). Story by Mike Carlowicz.

In May of this year, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that the United States experienced the soggiest 12 months in 124 years of modern recordkeeping as far as both groundwater and soil moisture. NASA’s map of the levels of groundwater across the U.S. shows a largely blue map, indicating an abundance of groundwater.  While the map of soil moisture shows a swath of green indicating that the majority of the nation’s soil was swamped with moisture from all of the rainfall. 

The National Weather Service’s (NWS) latest and preliminary assessment of direct flood fatalities finds that there have been 80 direct flood fatalities to date this year.  Heavy rainfall events to date include:

  • An active tropical depression Imelda brewed quickly and with it will come heavy rainfall and flooding in the Houston area. Rainfall is already coming down and causing localized flooding and over the next few days the Houston area could expect up to 18 inches of rainfall and widespread flooding.
  • Also this week, the Missouri River is likely to see a third round of record flooding based on a forecast of 58.8 million acre feet of water just second to the 61 million acre feet in 2011. The National Weather Service estimated that rainfall over the first two weeks of September was between 200 and 600 percent of normal rainfall over the entire Missouri River Basin. The U.S. Army Corps of 
  • Engineers is watching the changes closely and will likely need to authorize releases at Gavins Point Dam.
  • In May, the Southern Plains states—especially Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana–saw historic flooding that also impacted agriculture, roads, bridges, levees, and dams, as well as other infrastructure.
  • In March, heavy precipitation and snow melt brought historic flooding in the Midwest. Seven states were severely impacted including Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Floodwaters inundated millions of acres of agriculture, numerous cities and towns, and caused widespread damage to roads, bridges, levees and dams.

 A Climate Connection: check
  • More Intense Rainfall:  From 1958 to 2016, New England and the Upper Midwest have seen 36-45% increase in the top 1 percent of the heaviest rainfall events and this is projected to intensify into the future. While new analysis finds that monsoon rain storms have become more intense in the southwestern U.S.
  • More Frequent Coastal Flooding: a new study assessed how climate change influences the frequency of coastal flooding along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico Coastlines into the late century under a high emissions scenario (RCP 8.5). By looking at the combined impacts of storm surge, sea level rise, and the projected increase in occurrence and strength of tropical storms and hurricanes they found  that the historical 100-year flood levels would occur annually in the New England and mid-Atlantic regions and every 1-30 years in the southeast Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions in the late 21st century.  Given this change in frequency the authors strongly recommend that future flood mapping and flood mitigation planning account for these projected effects of sea level rise and tropical storms due to climate change.
  • More Powerful Hurricanes: We know that warmer air which holds more moisture, warmer oceans have been found to increase hurricane power. Imagine that Dorian is now the fifth hurricane to reach category five—the highest level possible on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale—over the past four hurricane seasons in the North Atlantic.

Recent House and Senate actions to date

The Midwest and southern plains flooding, along with the recent devastating hurricanes, combined with the implications of the latest climate change science together are a recipe for a SOS call to Congress to fast-track a robust NFIP reauthorization.

Here is a brief overview of the most recent House and Senate actions:

 

On the House side, on June 12 the House Financial Services Committee unanimously passed Rep. Maxine Waters (CA 43) bill H.R.3167, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2019, which would reform and reauthorize the NFIP for five years (I provided an overview of this bill in a previous blog).

H.R. 3167 includes important reforms including $500 million a year for five years for flood mapping and a five year pilot program to increase insurance affordability as well as allowing for monthly premium payments. In addition, the bill provides more resources for flood risk reduction, including $200 million each year for five years for the flood mitigation assistance program and funds for a state revolving loan program for flood mitigation. Here’s a section by section summary of what the bill does.

Roughly one month later on the Senate side, Senator Bob Menéndez (D-NJ) (along with 10 influential senators who co-sponsored the bill) introduced S.2187, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2019 that would also reform and reauthorize NFIP for five years. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ 6) along with 15 co-sponsors introduced a similar, “companion” bill in the House, H.R.3872, the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2019.

 

The Senate bill goes further than the House bill in addressing the affordability of flood insurance. In addition to a five-year pilot program to provide means-tested assistance for low-income policy holders and authorizing monthly payments, it would also exclude catastrophic loss years and cap annual rate increases to 9 percent.  This would cut FEMA’s authority to increase premiums in half. This provision would ensure a risk-based insurance premium while also helping to keep affordability in check. S.2187 would provide $400 million per year for the National Flood Mapping Program. This Senate bill would also require the disclosure of flood risk and prior flood damage to homebuyers. Such a provision is a big step forward in ensuring transparency regarding previously flooded properties and consumer protection for homebuyers and renters. Here is a section by section summary of all of the provisions included in the S. 2187.

There is also the House bill H.R. 3111 which would make administrative changes on NFIP to address flood insurance claims and appeals issues.

A Fast Approaching Deadline

We need steadfast Congressional leadership to become a climate-ready nation. FEMA is stretched thin and doesn’t have the resources to respond to the big disasters, extreme weather events are causing more mental health issues, and climate change is outpacing the implementation of adaptation measures.  Studies indicate that people have short-term memories, are quick to normalize extreme and unusual weather events, base their future expectations on the past, and have ‘optimism bias’. To summarize, society is not prepared for the “new normal”. Given that NFIP is the keystone of our current flood preparedness and recovery policies, Congress ought to treat the reauthorization as a “must pass” bill instead of yet another short-term extension that would maintain business as usual.

While Congress will likely put off any new, robust policies and extend NFIP for a 14th time, there is one effort that will bring new thinking on how best to provide relief to communities recovering from federally declared disasters. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced recently that the agency will release $7.65 billion to 15 states and localities to help make disaster-damaged communities more resilient, particularly low- and moderate-income people. Different from the past disaster aid packages, the rules for this disaster assistance ensure that resources must go to projects that will withstand increasingly severe storms, hurricanes, and other impacts of climate change instead of simply repair and rebuilding.

Given the extreme weather and climate change impacts we’re already experiencing, this isn’t the time for Congress to kick the can down the road on reforming the National Flood Insurance Program.

Both the House and Senate should have meaningful discussions to ensure the most robust policy proposals are incorporated into one bill and passed unanimously. As my colleague Rachel Cleetus previously blogged, NFIP reform policies should:

  • Update and fund flood risk maps nationwide using the latest technology, science, future conditions including climate change, and the Technical Mapping Advisory Council
  • Phase in risk-based insurance premiums and expanding the number of people carrying insurance to ensure adequate coverage for the growing numbers of homes exposed to flood risk, and to put the program on a more financially and actuarially-sound footing.
  • Include affordability provisions for low- and moderate-income households through targeted vouchers, rebates, grants and low-interest loans for flood mitigation measures.
  • Provide more resources and expand FEMA’s budget for homeowners and communities to invest in reducing their flood risks ahead of disasters, including expanding funding for and expediting voluntary home buyout programs and nature based solutions especially in places that flood repeatedly.
  • Ensure the disclosure of flood risk and prior flood damage to homebuyers to provide consumer protections and educate homebuyers on the potential for flood risk.
  • Ensuring that a well-regulated private sector flood insurance market complements the NFIP without undermining it, including mandating that private insurers contribute to flood mapping fees and provide coverage at least as broad as NFIP policies.

The current outlook indicates that Congress will probably pass a short-term reauthorization through November or December. That means any meaningful reauthorization bill will likely be delayed until after the new year. Instead, we need the House and Senate to come together on the many bipartisan points of agreement and let the reality of where we’ve been and what we’ll face in a warming world move critical reforms forward in a bipartisan bill ASAP.

Nebraska National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Herschel Talley NOAA

Here Is Why State Regulators Are Rejecting Utility Resource Plans

Utility resource plans, which often take the form of “Integrated Resource Plans” (IRP), are a business plan, of sorts, for utilities. It lays out what utilities plan on doing to meet customer’s demands. In California, the process tends to look like this. Outside California, the primary questions being looked at are how much coal will be retired, how quickly it will be retired, and what resources will replace that coal.

Recently, many of those plans have been rebuked or flat out rejected by state regulators. That could be a good thing for customers; after all, when bad utility decisions go unchecked, it is their customers, people like you and me, that end up paying the bill.

Here are (nearly) six examples of when a state utility regulator has rejected a utility resource plan.

# 1: Hawaii

In 2014, the commission rejected the Hawaiian Electric Companies’ IRP for several reasons including:

  • Failure to produce reasonable or meaningful analysis that supports the resources HECO was proposing
  • The use of a model (Strategist) that didn’t produce accurate or credible results
  • The company’s opaque decision-making process
  • Ignoring and dismissing stakeholder comment and
  • Failure to calculate “principle issues,” including the rate and bill impacts of customers

The company’s following two resource plans would go on to fail to get approval (with one being rejected and the other being recognized but not approved.) But elements from the commission order can be found in modern-day IRP rejections.

#2 Virginia

In 2018, Virginia’s utility regulators rejected the IRP of the state’s largest utility, Dominion, pointing out that the company had failed to:

  • Include requirements with recently-passed state law (including offshore wind, a battery storage pilot, and increased spending on efficiency programs)
  • Properly account for a reasonable expectation of load growth

These graphs (which I call “porcupine charts” ) aren’t an uncommon sight in the world of utility resource planning. On the right, Dominion projection for load growth which has remained remarkably similar, with just new starting points. An unidentified western utility on the right, from an LBNL study, follows a similar pattern.

Now, in 2019, the commission acknowledged the re-summited IRP as being “legally sufficient” but pointed out that the approval of the IRP doesn’t translate into approval of future spending plans.

#3 Puerto Rico

PREPA is the state-run utility in Puerto Rico who answers to a commission that rejected the utility plan in 2018. It took the commission 22 pages to enumerate the failures of the PREPA IRP that ranged from material shortcomings to outright errors. Most could be categorized as falling into one of two buckets:

  1. Failure to provide enough numeric support for the plan
  2. Failure to support a transparent and stakeholder-driven process
#4 Arizona

The commission in 2018 pointed to failures by the company to adhere to at least four of the directives set out at the start of the IRP process. Specifically, the companies failed to account for

  • Factors that affect demand include accounting for efficiency
  • Uncertainty and so produce sufficiently flexible plans
  • The best interest of its customers when selecting new resources
  • Opportunities to coordinate with other local utilities.
# 5 Indiana

The commission in Indiana doesn’t accept or reject utility IRPs, which is not unique to Indiana. The Indiana Commission can, however, ‘pre-approve’ utility plans to build specific power plants. This is typically done in a process known as a “certificate of need.” Often the arguments made in those cases are the same as those made in IRPs. Some state commissions have developed a bad reputation for rubber-stamping such requests, but the commission in Indiana rejected a utility’s request to build a gas plant in 2019.

# 6 North Carolina (sorta)

The commission in North Carolina didn’t technically reject Duke’s IRP in 2019 but it did reject some of the underlying assumptions of the IRP, ordering the utilities to improve future IRPs that are expected to be filed every two years. The commission stated that it “does not accept some of the underlying assumptions upon which [Duke’s] IRPs are based, the sufficiency or adequacy of the models employed, or the resource needs identified and scheduled in the IRPs beyond 2020.”

Repercussions

It is worth noting that not all commissions accept/reject utility IRPs. For some, it little more than a pro forma process, while for others it just seems that way. But the rejections listed above indicate changing winds for the utilities.

So, what happens when a commission rejects an IRP?

Well, for one, usually the utility comes back with an improved plan. In every one of the above instances where a utility had its IRP rejected, it came back to the commission with considerably improved analysis. Generally, the utilities were able to find opportunities that translate into consumer savings.

But what about the utility’s financial results? Does a rejected IRP translate into a negative outlook on stock price or credit rating?

Well, to answer this let’s look at HECO’s struggle to get approval for a resource plan…

Forcing the company back to the drawing board made the company think critically about what kind of business they wanted to be running. It pushed the company to focus less on building generation and more on the transmission and distribution system to handle a high renewable grid. It forced HECO to initiate one of the first stakeholder-driven integrated distribution planning processes in the United States and would precipitate discussions of the feasibility of a 100 percent renewable energy and new utility business models.

Oh, and investors responded very favorably. NextEra even tried to buy HECO!

At the end of the day, there is no indication that rejecting an IRP has any material downside for customers or for the utility. Which is not to say that commissions should go around summarily rejecting IRPs. But, when the conditions are right, it can be the smart move. There are tremendous upside potential and little downside risk.

Who’s next?

Union of Concerned Scientists, along with a slew of other groups, recently testified that the Michigan Commission should follow this trend and reject DTE’s IRP, I was even quoted by the media as pointing out that I’ve “seen commissions reject resources plans for less.” It’s true. Let’s compare the complaints leveled at DTE to the reasons why other state commissions have rejected IRPs.

The table shows the reasons state officials cited in rejecting these utilities’ plans.

It is worth noting that most of these shortcomings biased the utilities to develop plans that would force customers to be over-reliant on old coal and/or new gas. Fixing for those errors often produces results that would have these utilities accelerate coal retirements, bypass natural gas, go straight to renewables, efficiency, and storage.

I stand by what I’ve said in my testimony and in the press. The DTE IRP was a doozy and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it turned out to be the next IRP to get a stamp of rejection. If so, the consumers in Michigan should see lower bills, cleaner air, and a healthier utility company.

 

"Rejected (Trending Twitter Topics from 07.08.2019)" by trendingtopics is licensed under CC BY 2.0 John Wilson (left) and LBNL (right)

The Courage of Youth Repudiates New Yorker Article on Climate Change

Photo: Matt Heid/UCS

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” – attributed to Plato

Like Jonathan Franzen, who authored a New Yorker article on climate change that stirred up the twitterverse, many people are just now coming to grips with the implications of the climate problem. With each new article that sheds light on the severity of the climate crisis, many are pushed further down the road to despair and defeatism. I should know, since these are issues I’ve been wrestling with for years — as a scientist, as an advocate, and as a parent. The fundamental question is this: Can we, as a society, really change course in time to avoid the climate catastrophe?

Fortunately, the climate youth movement arriving in New York for next week’s UN Climate Summit aren’t taking “no” for an answer. They’re asking hard questions of their elders, and they are displaying a remarkable maturity in their response to the climate crisis. In contrast to Franzen’s article, they are not falling into despair and defeat. Instead, they are rolling up their sleeves and working to build a better future.

Is this foolish naivete? Childish “pretending”? After years of probing the science, working with experts, developing the policies, and understanding the fundamentals of what a societal course correction would take, I’m convinced that it’s actually within our grasp. In fact, it’s already underway, and the path is proving easier than previously thought.

So before losing hope, one should understand that Franzen’s article relies on a few unnecessarily daunting premises. Here’s one: “The first condition is that every one of the world’s major polluting countries institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy.” This is demonstrably untrue – many countries in the world have already turned the corner on emissions without “shutting down” anything or employing “draconian” measures. The per capita carbon dioxide emissions of Germany are about 40% lower than the per capita emissions of the United States, while Germany continues to operate a substantial energy and transportation infrastructure system. The state of California is another example – its climate policies are working, while its economy continues to outpace all other states. Presenting climate change as a choice between ecological disaster and economic shutdown is a false choice. No credible authority has been talking that way for years—it’s a narrative conveniently perpetuated by those vested interests who want us to believe that we can’t shake our dependency on fossil fuels. It’s a narrative that is increasingly difficult to maintain, as country after country proves otherwise.

Why do these countries (and states) succeed? The key seems to be a sustained commitment to systemic change. Once they implement some early opportunities and those start working, they open up additional opportunities for further action. What once seemed impossible is suddenly within reach. This is why vested interests resist these small early actions – even to the point of stalling a transition to cheaper, better, more efficient light bulbs.

A sustained, systemic approach to the climate problem is possible, globally — in part, because many countries never enjoyed the benefits of a fossil-fuel-dependent economy in the first place, so they have nothing to lose and much to gain by growing in a sustainable way. Others, like India and China, are at a crossroads: they are heavily invested in fossil fuels, but they are also testing out more sustainable and systemic changes (albeit for different reasons).

Franzen’s article also implies that if we go beyond 2 degrees C of warming, it’s game over. That framing conceals the fact that every 10th of a degree matters, before 2 degrees and beyond. It’s true that, as temperatures warm, populations will experience more devastating impacts, as we have already seen in examples like Hurricane Dorian, or the rampant wildfires across the tropics this year, or horrific flooding in the Midwest, which nearly led to a major crop failure this year. These impacts are already happening – and if warming continues, they will ripple through the global economy with increasing frequency and strength, leading to famines, uprisings, and suffering.  But 2 degrees is not a precipice that we fall over; rather it must be seen as an alarm bell, growing louder and more insistent as we draw closer to it. It warns us that complacency can no longer be an option, even for the most skeptical and the most jaded. The quality of life of every child on earth, and the rest of those unborn, depends critically on what we do over the next 10-20 years.  On this point, Franzen agrees: every action we take now could benefit a child later – including the climate youth arriving in New York this week to make their voices heard.

To put this in perspective, I look at how generations of the past responded to crises. A century ago, the world had just endured an unprecedented geopolitical crisis, which incurred a massive and tragic loss of life. A generation later, humanity was convulsed again in an even more devastating conflict – one that produced weapons so powerful that they continue to threaten humanity’s very existence. Climate change is similar, in that it may pose an existential threat to humanity.

But we must remember that this historical era of crisis also ushered in new, positive transformations. Leaders of that era were forced to reckon with the full potential for catastrophe, and they built new institutions to reduce the risks of such wars breaking out again. Maps were redrawn and the most egregious, visible aspects of the colonial era ended. Fragile democracies took hold in places that had never known such freedom – and citizens of these new democracies had never grappled with such responsibilities. There was an increased recognition of the value of human life, later expressed through human and civil rights movements. In a swords-to-plowshares process, industrial processes that once supplied explosives for warfare were converted to supply nutrients for an industrial agriculture system that now has the capacity to feed billions more people (which, we have also learned, has contributed to its own suite of environmental consequences). Along the way, we rebuilt America’s transportation infrastructure in the process (though here again, we are now reckoning with the long-term climate impacts resulting from its design). Then we built a space program that put people on the moon. I’m not suggesting that these changes were made for solely altruistic reasons. My point is that these transformations could scarcely have been imagined in 1919 — but by 1950, they were all but complete.  We need a similar process of transformation over the next 30 years. Just because we can’t imagine every mile of the road today doesn’t mean that the destination is unattainable. We know enough now to start down the path – and hopefully we are wise enough to avoid the tragic losses that motivated the changes in the last century.

So, while Franzen gets some facts right, and his reckoning is approximately of the right magnitude, the despair of his response feels sophomoric. Faced with the challenge of doing a hard thing, he confidently concludes that it can’t be done, rather than focusing on what it would take to do it. I get it – there are days when I don’t want to get out of bed and face the challenges of being an adult, let alone work to avert the climate crisis. But I keep doing it, day after day, along with thousands of others. And those of us who’ve been working on the hard thing for many years will tell you this: you should help us lay a few stones in this road before you turn your back on the destination. Try showing the kind of courage and moral conviction that our predecessors displayed in response to past crises. The climate crisis is dire, that’s true – but defeatism only plays into the hands of those who want to convince us that change is not possible. In fact, change is upon us, whether we like it or not. We can passively let it happen to us, or we can actively and intentionally shape it. (And make no mistake, intentionally shaping is what the fossil industry has been doing for years now, while we’re not paying attention. Their job becomes much easier if we accept defeat before we even get started.) For the youth arriving in New York this week, passive acceptance is no longer an option.

The path of fortitude does not involve either “a false hope of salvation” nor a weird “kind of complacency.” Rather, it requires us to act deliberately, intentionally, and with full awareness of the consequences if we fail. Real hope is not built in foolish naïveté; it is the only grown-up response to life in a risky and changing world. It’s time for Franzen – and everyone – to pick themselves up, take the measure of the challenge, and commit to the level of effort that can overcome it. This won’t happen in a day, or a year, or a political cycle. It will take visionary leadership, new innovations, clarity of purpose, and a commitment to a just outcome – the kind of qualities the climate youth are already displaying.

The commitment is the first step. So dry your eyes, abandon despair, and let’s get to work.

 

Jason Funk is the Principal and Founder at Land Use & Climate Knowledge Initiative a project of the Global Philanthropy Partnership and a former UCS climate scientist

Photo: Matt Heid/UCS Photo: Fabrice Florin/Flickr

What Do Brexit and Energy Markets Have in Common? A lot.

Photo: UK Parliament

To an observer of both, there are some irresistible parallels between the fiasco called Brexit and the stumbling of the US Mid-Atlantic/Midwest grid operator PJM over climate policy. The deadline is fast approaching for the UK’s long-awaited decision and still there’s no clarity, no plans and no transparency from the policymakers involved. I can’t help but be reminded of another fiasco of a deadline that fast approaching on US energy plans.

My career in electric power has prepared me to describe the role of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in promoting or squelching investment, while I have only one college tutorial on British Parliament. Thus I am not equating the issues at stake for Britain and Europe and their £600 billion trade, or the lives affected, with the $10 billion PJM capacity market and its role in judging competition between older, polluting power plants and clean alternatives supported by state laws. By no means am I minimizing the deeply concerning ramifications inherent in the UK’s gridlock on status with the European Union.

With those caveats noted, though, I offer some parallels in the unfortunate circumstances affecting our future health, prosperity and security present in the cases of Brexit and the moves by FERC and PJM to exclude states’ implementation of climate policy.

Hubris

Brexit: British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to put to a one-time popular vote the question of UK remaining in the European Union, expecting a “Stay” decision to end the discussion in 2016.

PJM: PJM management proposed to revise its auction and payment for  generator capacity, which accounts for reliable power sources. PJM did so without an endorsement from its stakeholders. The proposal would set minimum offer prices for certain resources receiving support from state laws, such as renewable portfolio standards and ignore other subsidies.

In both, the proposal for a dramatic change was at best, only partially explained. As events unfolded, the lack of transparency and confidence in each of these outcomes led to delays and indecision.

Surprise decisions

Brexit: The June 2016 vote of more than 30 million across the U.K. resulted in a 52-48% defeat against “Stay”, and Prime Minister Cameron resigning. There was an immediate economic toll, with an 8% decline in the value of the British currency against the dollar.

PJM: FERC commissioners voted 3-2 in June 2018 declaring the PJM capacity market rules unjust and unreasonable, rejected PJM’s proposals, and in a twist ordered PJM to make more dramatic changes that would include “few to no exemptions” for new and existing supplies that receive payments outside of PJM markets. The result was to throw into doubt how investments would be made in any generation in the 13-state PJM region. In simple terms, FERC used the PJM proposal to take a stand against any subsidy, whether it be for renewables, nuclear, or 60 year-old coal plants. No one knows where this will end.

FERC Commissioner Robert Powelson, Republican appointed by Donald Trump resigned after the vote. Powelson and two other Commissioners wrote a combined 24 pages of additional opinions on the matter, describing the decision as “a troubling act of hubris”, “aggressive” and “ironic.”

Depth of conflict

Brexit: The Brexit vote revealed significant disagreement over free trade and migration of Europeans under a single passport. EU membership provided (amongst other things) elimination of the fenced border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

PJM: On the heels of landmark climate science reports, the Trump Administration continued to pursue another bailout for coal plants.  PJM’s proposal gave the federal government an alternate means to stifle states’ laws to address air pollution and climate change with renewable and nuclear energy while raising the financial prospects for aging and uneconomic coal plants.

Indecision reigns

Brexit: Britain obtained two extensions in March and April 2019 to resolve disagreements over the deal with the EU. British Parliament eventually rejected three times the agreement negotiated by the then-new Prime Minister Theresa May.

PJM: PJM secured extensions of deadlines and future auctions.  In October 2018 PJM filed only a portion of the modifications that FERC required in June, arguing that trade-offs and further considerations beyond the Commission’s June order are required.  That is, PJM declined to fully implement the order to address all subsidies with “few to no exemptions.”  FERC’s only guidance in response to PJM has been an order in July 2019 to refrain from holding an auction until new instructions are given.

In both arenas, the first dramatic decision made implementation difficult.

Failed leadership removed

In the month of May 2019, both Prime Minster Theresa May and PJM CEO Andy Ott resigned their positions.  In Parliament, no vote to remove the prime minister was held, but the failure to win a majority vote for the deal on Brexit created no way to continue. At PJM, the backlash and loss of confidence in the management was evident from both frustration with the incomplete market reform, as well as a $400 M financial flub and subsequent investigation.

Disarray in governance

With deadlines for Brexit approaching, and the PJM power plant owners starting to look at cash flow if there’s a continued delay in PJM running its capacity market, the pressure is on for PJM’s 65 million consumers, utilities, generators and service territory.

Brexit: The British prime minister is now Boris Johnson, and he has lost the first four votes he asked for Parliament to approve. Contributing to this bad result was the defection of one Conservative party member, ending the majority Johnson held; Johnson expelling 20 dissenters from his party, and his own brother resigning from government.

PJM: In the US, PJM has an interim CEO and all parties are watching FERC.  The three remaining commissioners (of the five that FERC is supposed to have) have added drama. In order of appearance, Commissioner McNamee declining to vote on federal regulatory decisions an astounding 160 times but has not revealed a conflict of interest or other explanation, conflicting Administration factions lobbied to deter the appointment of additional commissioners, and this month, Commissioner Glick made a transparent revelation that the Trump Ethics Pledge was misinterpreted by the FERC Office of General Counsel and has been unevenly applied.  At present, FERC does not have a quorum of commissioners eligible to vote on the PJM capacity market changes. If there were a vote, the request for review, and then court appeals, would certainly follow.

Mess of their own creation

This is really awful to watch. In the case of both Brexit and PJM, the institutions are walking themselves into their own demise.  To take extreme positions, and to declare certainty of one’s views, might make sense over a beer, or at a football game. But to carry the responsibilities that these characters have been given with such lack of circumspection, intolerance for critique, and ill-preparation for surprise outcomes is just dangerous.

I’ll leave the Brexit recommendations to someone more steeped in that world. But for PJM: The new management has to find a path between the old state-protected generation in rate-base and the new state-procurements of carbon-free energy. At FERC, we need Commissioner McNamee to reveal the conflicts of interests that are keeping him from voting, and to be open about the waivers that allow him to select whom from among his past employers his votes are affecting. We need a return to competent staff appointments, balanced commissioner nominations, and respect for the business of the American people. How many times can PJM override states before states say, “We no longer want to be a part of this?”

Photo: UK Parliament

Trump’s Witch Hunt Against California and Carmakers

For years, President Trump has decried the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt.” Putting aside whether that characterization was fair, the Trump justice department has now initiated a witch hunt of its own—an investigation into whether four car companies violated antitrust laws by agreeing with the State of California to build cars that are more efficient and emit less carbon pollution.

It is painfully clear that this investigation was launched to retaliate against these four companies and California and deter other car companies from joining it. I say this because: 1) the president was enraged by this agreement; 2) the antitrust claim is utterly baseless; and 3) the current attorney general has demonstrated a remarkable lack of independence from the president. (Mis)using antitrust laws to punish those who disagree with a policy is beyond scary.

The background

In 2012, all of the major automakers, the state of California, and two federal agencies (EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA) agreed to standards to roughly double miles per gallon for cars and light duty trucks and dramatically cut carbon pollution from these sources. As UCS has demonstrated, these standards will save a typical consumer approximately $6000 over the lifetime of a vehicle, even after accounting for a higher purchase cost, and cut carbon pollution in the aggregate by hundreds of millions tons per year. These rules are the most significant greenhouse gas cutting measure that the United States has implemented, and they are working.

Notwithstanding this success, the Trump administration is determined to roll them back, proposing that there be no increase in fuel economy after the year 2021. In addition, the Trump administration seeks to take away the right of California and thirteen other states (and the District of Columbia) to maintain the stricter standards agreed upon in 2012. (This latter gambit is also legally problematic, to say the least—California’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions is expressly allowed under Clean Air Act, EPA approved the CA standards, and two courts have already ruled that California can regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the CAA).

In what may be a first in regulatory history, the regulated entity—carmakers—do not support Trump’s rollback or the assault on CA’s authority, and they have urged the Trump administration to work with California on a compromise that will increase fuel economy over time. The administration has not heeded this call and so California and four automakers (Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW) made a reasonable decision to work together.

The four automakers agreed that notwithstanding any federal rollback, they will continue to build more fuel efficient cars nationwide, and California agreed to make several changes to its standards to allow more time for compliance and more credits for prior actions. This voluntary agreement gives these automakers the certainty they need to plan their fleets, and achieves roughly 75% of the economic and environmental benefits of the original standard. And while it is far from perfect (compromises rarely are), it keeps the trend line moving in the right direction, and it is vastly superior to the standards that the Trump administration is expected to issue this fall.

Apparently, the president was furious with this agreement. Shortly after it was announced, he publicly rebuked the four executives who signed it, and then hauled other carmaker CEO’s into the White House to demand that they not join the agreement. He also called upon his agencies to expedite taking away California’s independent authority.

Not content with this, the Justice Department, headed by William Barr, has now sent letters to California and the four carmakers apparently alleging that this agreement violates anti-trust laws. (Perhaps it is also no coincidence that the new Deputy AG, Jeffrey Rosen was the Deputy Secretary of Transportation from May 2017 to February 2019 and a key architect of the proposed rollback of the federal rules and the plans to undermine state regulatory authority.)

A baseless claim

Any notion that these four companies and California have violated anti-trust laws is absurd. Anti-trust laws are designed to foster competition, and so they forbid actions such as price-fixing, bid rigging, dividing up sales territories or product lines, using market power to destroy competitors, and the like. This voluntary agreement bears no similarity whatsoever to any of these practices. Under the agreement, these carmakers will continue to compete against one another, selling the cars they individually choose to manufacture at prices that they think the market can bear, benefiting all consumers by saving them money at the pump.

Indeed, even if a voluntary agreement of this kind were anti-competitive (which this one is not), the courts have long held that companies can join together to exercise their First Amendment rights and petition government for a change in policy. (If this were not the case, trade associations that lobby on behalf of an entire industry would violate antitrust laws). Such conduct is on its face exempt from anti-trust scrutiny, as many legal experts have noted.

This is part of a pattern

In this case, the Trump administration is directing the fearsome threat of federal prosecution against companies and a state because they favor more fuel efficient cars than does the White House. This is strikingly contrary to our constitutional values. This is also part of a widespread pattern. In recent weeks, acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross have apparently threatened to fire officials who rebuffed the President’s assertion that Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian. And this is on top of years of sacking government scientists or transferring them to meaningless roles, disbanding advisory panels, and ordering reports to exclude information on topics such as climate change, all with an eye towards rooting out those who disagree with the president.

Increasingly, our president acts as a mad king, ruling in fits of pique. The cabinet officials who might have once said no to him are largely gone, replaced by underlings who carry out his orders blindly. This is the time for leaders of all branches of government, and civil society, to fight back. For the carmakers who have joined the agreement, stand strong. For the carmakers who have not yet joined this agreement, do it now, as this president does not have your interests in mind. And Congress—now is the time for searching oversight of this and many other abuses of power.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

The Climate Strike Inspires. So Do These 5 Signs of Clean Energy Progress

The week that begins with the Climate Strike this Friday, September 20, is going to be loaded with heavy, serious messages rooted in the science that tells us, in no uncertain terms, that things aren’t moving in the right direction on climate change, in so many ways.

As you stand with the brave student strikers, or are a brave student striker yourself, or as you attend some of the many events happening during Climate Week, you’ll find yourself surrounded by portrayals of the harm that our heat-trapping ways are already bringing upon so many.

It’s also true, though, that some things are moving in the right direction—including in the power sector. Clean energy progress certainly doesn’t take away from the urgency of the climate crisis, or our need to really get our act together on addressing it. But getting inspired and inspiring others to act becomes that much easier when we get the seriousness of climate change and understand the seriousness of the climate solutions we’re already rolling out.

So here, to keep in mind and share as you rise up for climate action, are 5 images of progress—of technological clean energy momentum—to help you balance an overwhelming sense of the need to act with an overwhelming sense of the possibility of acting. Because addressing climate change isn’t easy, but the tools are definitely there.

Image 1: Solar’s growth

Solar power’s growth in the US over the last decade has been a sight to behold, and graphs like the one below should feel empowering. Rooftop solar alone now graces some 2 million US buildings. And we’ve added enough solar panels on rooftops, in large arrays in deserts, and everywhere in between in each of the last few years to generate zero-carbon electricity equivalent to 1-1.5 million typical households’ demand.

Growth in the number of solar power systems, by quarter—tens of thousands of systems each and every month. (Source: Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association)

Image 2: Wind power’s growth

Wind power has been another marvel to behold. With the growth to some 100,000 megawatts of turbines, we now have enough wind turbines to meet the electricity needs of some 30 million US households. (And wait till offshore wind gets into the picture.)

Wind power’s climb to 100,000 megawatts. (Source: American Wind Energy Association)

Image 3: Wind and solar’s contribution

The growth in our installation of solar panels and wind turbines has meant having an ever-increasing share of our overall electricity demand being met by those technologies. On an annual basis, we’ve upped the electricity contribution from solar and wind from 1 in every 71 kilowatt-hours in 2008 to 1 in every 11 in 2018.

How it adds up: the contribution from wind and solar, by month.

Image 4: Coal’s decline

A welcome corollary to the growth of renewables is the drop in coal generation, and even, in some places, the advent within a region of days with zero coal generation. That change isn’t all due to clean energy—a certain other fossil fuel has been stepping into the breach—but renewables, and energy efficiency, have been increasingly important pieces of that progress. And the bevy of commitments to zero-carbon energy, including at the state level, is upping the pressure for non-emitting electricity options, and against fossil ones.

Coal’s waning position in one region of the country. Each stripe represents one day, and the color/shade corresponds with the coal portion of that day’s generation: black = 21%, white = near 0%, and indigo = coal-free. (Credit: Emma Spellman, Union of Concerned Scientists.)

Image 5: Energy storage’s growth

Energy storage systems (batteries and the like) are a key tool for modernizing our grid, improving our resilience to natural disasters, incorporating higher and higher levels of variable renewables like wind and solar, and improving equity. And that’s been another area of noteworthy growth.

US energy storage deployment, by quarter. Energy storage works at a range of levels—in homes and businesses, or at the level of the electric grid’s distribution or transmission systems. And all those areas are seeing important progress. (Source: Wood Mackenzie U.S. Energy Storage Monitor Q3 2019.)

The tools are there

I’m incredibly grateful for the leadership and passion that will be on full display over the coming days, and for the youth who have stepped out in front because of the lack of leadership from generations like mine. The climate crisis is real, and serious, and frightening, and we are indeed at a crossroads on climate action. That’s incredibly important for us to understand.

We should know too, though, that when we make the right decision at the crossroads—when we finally turn toward a path of sanity and safety—there’ll be a whole host of tools at our disposal, waiting for us on that new path.

So after all of us together power through the Climate Strike and Climate Week, we adults owe it to our youth, and to ourselves, to make sure that the images and indications of progress, on energy and across our society, grow to be much more a part of the story than the images of climate impacts. And we all owe it to the future to make this progress an ever-bigger reality.

My reality, my hope. (Credit: J. Rogers/UCS)

Photo: Matt Heid American Wind Energy Association Credit: Emma Spellman, Union of Concerned Scientists Wood Mackenzie

SharpieGate in the Broader Context of the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Science

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Last week, we all learned more about President Trump mis-stating a hurricane forecast then forcing his administration to cover for his obvious error, now widely know as SharpieGate. It is now clear that orders came from the White House that NOAA scientists and other professional staff should not disagree with or contradict the President, even if he is wrong and public health and safety are at stake.  My colleagues wrote throughout the week (see here, here, here, and here) as the story developed so I won’t repeat the details.

I do want to highlight the broader context of the Trump Administration’s attacks on science, building upon the excellent op-ed by my colleague Jacob Carter in The Hill.   I had a chance to talk with reporters at the Houston Chronicle on this topic for their podcast, aptly named “The Burning Question.”  Of course Houston is a city that knows a lot about the importance of accurate hurricane forecasts  as well as a host of other issues that require strong science-based policies – environmental justice, chemical safety, air and toxics pollution and many others. I hope you enjoy listening to this podcast as much as I enjoyed the interview.

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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