UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

This Weekend’s Heatwave Is the Future of Extreme Heat: 3 Things You Should Know and Do

It’s the heart of summer and we expect it to be hot. But not like this.

Kristy Dahl

Kristina Dahl co-authored this report. She is a senior climate scientist for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Extreme heat and humidity are forecast to smother much of the lower 48 states this weekend, Friday through Sunday. Depending on where you are in the US, it may have already arrived.

In the coming days, DC is expected to feel as hot as Death Valley; Philadelphia has declared a full-blown heat-health emergency; and temperatures up to 20ºF above normal for this time of year are likely to break all-time records across the country. With nighttime temperatures expected to hover around 80ºF, many places will have little hope of relief until the weather pattern breaks.

Staying safe in the face of this brutal heat will mean having to adjust our daily lives and our approach to the outdoors for a few days. But this heat wave is also like the ghost of summer future: it’s giving us an opportunity to pause, reflect on the new climate reality that we have created, and ask ourselves if the path we’re on leads to a future we want to live in.

As the temperature rises this weekend, here are three things we can do to ensure our safety now – and in the decades ahead:

  1. Plan wisely – including changing or scrapping your plans

It’s peak summer and lots of people have plans for the weekend, whether for work or play. Depending on the heat index forecast for where you are, you may need to change those plans. Developed by the National Weather Service (NWS), the heat index is “what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature.” And the heat index is going to be through the roof.

  • If you plan to be active: think twice. If your weekend involves working outdoors, playing sports, or exerting yourself in some other way, you could be at significant risk of heat illness. This is especially true for more northern parts of the country where people are less acclimated to the heat. (My two teen daughters have farm jobs and this week when the heat index (HI) rose well into the 90s here in Massachusetts, they both came home with heat exhaustion.) Many people who are scheduled to work outdoors this weekend will not have the option of doing otherwise. But employers and employees who can reschedule work should do so, and where this isn’t possible, they should be on the lookout for heat illness (see figure below) and take care to follow worker safety guidelines that include regular water breaks and access to shade. Download this workplace heat safety app developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to get tailored safety reminders for the specific, real-time heat risk at your location.
  • If you plan to be in the sun: don’t. Many events scheduled for this weekend will be canceled or postponed because of the health risks. But if you’re planning to attend an outdoor event (think not just sports events, concerts, fairs and festivals, but also outings to public parks and pools, beaches and backyard gatherings), you may want to reconsider. The heat index gives you an idea of what it will feel like in the shade. But if you are in the direct sun, you could feel as much as 15 degrees hotter than the heat index forecast. And sunburn can also exacerbate heat stress.
  • If your plans include small children or elderly adults: proceed with great care. The heat index is forecast to top 100ºF in many places, which can be dangerous for anyone, but is especially dangerous for these people. E.g., kids often don’t read their bodies’ signals to rest and re-hydrate and elderly skin is less effective at sweating.
  • If you’re in the city: plan on it being hotter, including at night, because of the Urban Heat Island effect. The man-made material of the urban landscape (e.g., concrete, asphalt) absorbs excess heat on hot days and releases it at night, making city days and nights hotter than less urbanized areas. And on that note…
  • If you have plans at night: it will still be hot. One notable aspect of this heat wave is the failure of the nighttime low temperatures to drop low enough to provide relief. As Rich Giudice, executive director of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management, warns “Even after the sun goes down, the temperatures will not drop much below 80 degrees, offering little to no relief.”

    Residents of New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood escape the heat in one of the city’s designated cooling centers in New York, Saturday, July 24, 2010. More than 190,000 New Yorkers have visited cooling centers since the summer’s first heat wave on June 28, the city said in a statement. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  1. Treat extreme heat like it’s deadly (it is)

Heat is one of the top weather-related causes of death in the US, with an average of more than 600 deaths per year. To stay safe, it’s important to treat heat as the dangerous threat it is and stay informed and vigilant. For general guidelines, there are lots of resources to draw on, from the CDC, NWS, and others. And for location specific guidance, listen to your local weather forecaster, check your town website or call. Across the country, our phones are ringing with automated messages from emergency managers and other local officials. Listen and take note.

  • Locate the cooling resources you need: In a heatwave, you’ll need to drink more water than you think, so have it handy at all times. You’ll need shade, so stay indoors or carry an umbrella if you need to step out. And you’ll need access to cool temperatures. If you don’t have air conditioning at home or ready access to it, know where the nearest cooling center is and have a plan for how to get there. Calling 211 can help you locate the one nearest you. Some municipalities are providing transportation to the local cooling center. Calling one’s town government, including a police station, can also help track down this information.
  • Know what to do if the power goes out: heat waves drive up electricity use as demand for air conditioning spikes. High temperatures and increased electricity use can strain the power grid, and indeed, there are risks of power outages this weekend. If this happens and your AC goes down, you’ll need to get to the closest cooling center with backup power.  Many cooling centers are municipal buildings with generators for backup power, but not all are equipped, so you should confirm before making the trip.
  • Offer help: Your neighbors may not have access to AC, or people to check in on them. If you are able-bodied, be that person. The deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave became a profound tragedy with many elderly lives lost due simply to their isolation: no one stopped in to check on them and to help with their mounting heat stress. We can also watch out for strangers. My colleague, Dr. Adrienne Hollis, has been tweeting about the need to carry and hand out water during this extreme heat. Watch out for people on the street, people on the job, homeless people. Consider printing and handing out copies of this at-a-glance heat illness guide. [A link to the attached pdf] A deadly heat wave is a crisis and we need to watch out for each other.

  1. Don’t let dangerous heat become everyday heat

Nobody is going to enjoy this heat wave. While most of us will simply bear the heat, many people are going to be sickened by it, and it’s likely it will cost others their lives. The heat wave has already claimed two lives in Maryland and one in Arkansas. These are not sultry days of summer; they’re dangerous, even deadly days.

Our latest work, Killer Heat, was undertaken so we could all see the threat of many more such days coming. And they are coming by the dozens, even hundreds, in our lifetimes. Unless we slow them.

Consider how meteorologists’ descriptions of what we’re facing right now compare with the frequency and extent of equivalent conditions by midcentury if our global carbon emissions continue to rise:

  • “More than 150 million people in nearly 30 states were under a heat watch, warning or advisory on Thursday morning…” —CNN
    • Per the National Weather Service’s general national guidance that suggests issuing a heat advisory when the heat index exceeds 100ºF, by midcentury more than 150 million people across the US would be under a heat advisory for 30 or more days per year.
  • “Over the next few days, more than 85 percent of the lower 48’s population will see temperatures above 90ºF…” —CNN
    • By midcentury, more than 85 percent of the lower 48’s population would see a heat index above 90ºF for 30 or more days per year.
  • “A total of 290 million [people] will see high temperatures of at least 90 degrees at some point in the next week…” –USA Today, based on a tweet by meteorologist Ryan Maue
    • By midcentury, roughly this many people would see a heat index of at least 90ºF for 30 or more days per year.
  • “Heat wave expected to bake two-thirds of nation through weekend.” —NBC
    • More than two-thirds of the nation by population—roughly 220 million people—would be exposed each year to the equivalent of a week or more with a heat index above 105ºF by midcentury.
  • “Metro Detroit is looking at about a 109-degree heat index value [for Friday].” –Detroit Free Press
    • By midcentury, Detroit would see six days with a heat index above 105ºF in an average year.
  • In New York City, “the heat index…is forecast to reach close to 107 degrees Saturday.” –NBC News
    • By midcentury, New York City would see eight days with a heat index above 105ºF in an average year.
By mid-century (2036-2070) regions of the United States with little to no extreme heat in an average year would experience such heat on a regular basis. Heat conditions across the Southeast and Southern Great Plains regions are projected to become increasingly oppressive, with off-the-charts heat days happening an average of once or more annually.

By mid-century (2036-2070) regions of the United States with little to no extreme heat in an average year would experience such heat on a regular basis. Heat conditions across the Southeast and Southern Great Plains regions are projected to become increasingly oppressive, with off-the-charts heat days happening an average of once or more annually.

So this weekend, try stepping outside for a minute when the heat index tops 100 or 105 and ask: what would my world be like if it felt like this more than 30 days each year?

If we let global emissions continue to rise through the end of the century, the forecast for an average summer would be unrecognizable to people sweating through the summer’s heat. 180 million people facing more than a months’ worth of days with a heat index exceeding 105ºF. 120 million people exposed to more than 7 days’ worth of heat each year that actually exceeds the NWS heat index chart, feeling hotter than 127ºF, but how hot we can’t say because they’re literally off the charts. You get the idea.

Killer Heat shows that even in an optimistic scenario in which we cap future warming at 2ºC, the US is in store for substantially more heat than we’re used to. So we need to adjust to this reality. Read our report for details on solutions. But if fail to reduce emissions and let the world blow past that important 2ºC mark (3.6ºF), we’ll look back on heat waves like this weekend’s three sweltering days, even with all the dangers they bring, as child’s play.

Six-year-olds Justin Mosquera, left, and Luke Taylor, relaxing in a stream of water from a fire hydrant near the Boys and Girls Club in Bowling Green, Ky. July 21, 2011

 

 

 

AP Photo/Daily News, Miranda Pederson

Raising the Bar on Offshore Wind: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Maine, Maryland, Virginia…

Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

Not that this is a bad thing, but it’s tough keeping up with US’s offshore wind progress. The latest announcements from states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic mean even more momentum, as they keep outdoing each other in the drive to be national leaders.

I’ve been using my recent post on offshore wind’s next steps as something of a yardstick or a checklist. By that measure, we’re hopping right along. But even that doesn’t capture everything that’s going on.

My next-steps list had six things on it, and we can already check four of those boxes:

  • Massachusetts doubles its offshore wind requirement. The Bay State almost beat me to the punch on this one; it happened between when I posted the English version and when I had my Spanish translation ready to go. The legislature last year told the administration of Governor Charlie Baker to decide whether it made sense to double the state’s offshore wind requirement on local utilities, from 1,600 megawatts (MW) to 3,200 MW. And the administration’s decision was a resounding yes.
  • Connecticut leaps into offshore wind. The ink was hardly dry on Massachusetts’s announcement when Connecticut ticked off its own part of my what’s-next list: The legislature sent Gov. Ned Lamont a bill authorizing up to 2,000 MW of offshore wind, and the governor gladly signed. “Connecticut should be the central hub of the offshore wind industry in New England,” he says, and the new law aims to help make that case.
  • New Jersey goes big. The Garden State followed through on its plan to announce the first tranche of its 3,500 MW commitment. It announced the selection of a 1,100-MW project 15 miles off the state’s shores, almost 40% bigger than the largest project approved to date in this country, and bigger than any other existing project in the world.
  • New York goes even bigger. Unlike NJ, the Empire State didn’t stick to the script. It had been expected to announce what project(s) it would be moving forward with, potentially in the neighborhood of 800 MW total. When it hadn’t announced anything before NJ’s own project selection, it seemed clear that NY was going to have to find a way to make a bigger splash. And it sure did: On the same day that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill codifying a 9,000-MW offshore wind target, the state announced the selection of two more-than-800-MW projects, totaling just shy of 1,700 MW.

So those take care of the bulk of what I had been watching for.

Need a bigger yardstick

But it turns out that there’s even more going on than what I had been focusing on.

Maine began the process of getting its offshore wind plans back on track as part of an impressive suite of bills—a “Clean Energy Grand Slam”, in the words of one my colleagues—signed by Gov. Janet Mills last month. One of the bills directed the state’s public utility commission to approve a contract for a particular offshore wind project. The project is small—only two turbines, totaling 12 MW—but would be the first floating turbines in the Americas. Moving along that technology potentially opens up a lot more options for offshore wind in the deeper waters off Maine and the West Coast.

And then there’s Maryland, which, with little fanfare (I, at least, almost missed it), upped its offshore wind target to at least 1,200 MW as part of a 50%-renewables Clean Energy Jobs Act this spring.

Meanwhile, construction has just kicked off on Virginia’s own two-turbine, 12-MW pilot project, and the state is getting more serious about building out 2,000 MW over the next decade.

Welcome progress

Targets, requirements, and authorizations that send clear signals about each state’s intent are really important. They aren’t the same as getting steel in the water, which is why it’s also important to have construction underway in Virginia, and Rhode Island following up on its first-in-the-nation project (what might be the first large-scale offshore wind project, off Massachusetts, has just hit a couple of speed bumps). But they’re key pieces of the development of not just projects, but the US offshore wind industry as a whole.

So it’s great to see the states continuing to move the ball down the field. I’ll try hard to keep up.

Photo: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

What I’ll Tell Congress at Today’s Hearing on Politics and Science

At 10am this morning, two subcommittees of the House Science Committee will hold a hearing called “Scientific Integrity in Federal Agencies,” which will examine political interference in science and legislation to help fix the problem. I am honored to be one of the witnesses invited to appear. Below, you can read my five-minute oral testimony as prepared for delivery, and if you want the good stuff, you can read my written testimony at this link.

You can also watch the hearing, live or archived, on the committee’s website. Follow along on Twitter using hashtags #ScientificIntegrityAct and #sciencenotsilence.

This is the first time in a long while that Congress has devoted significant time to bringing attention to attacks on science and ways to stop them. I’m quite excited to be up on Capitol Hill to share UCS’s work and perspectives with these elected officials. And even though I’m the one speaking, there with me, either in person or in spirit, will be a fantastic team of UCS researchers, advocates, and organizers–and an incredible group of UCS supporters–who document political interference in science and keep the issue in the public eye.

Anyway, on to the show…

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Testimony for Mr. Michael Halpern
Deputy Director, Center for Science and Democracy
Union of Concerned Scientists
House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Joint Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight and Subcommittee on Research & Technology Hearing

Good morning, and thank you Chairwoman Stevens, Chairwoman Sherrill, Ranking Member Baird, and Ranking Member Norman for holding this hearing. I am Michael Halpern, and I am the Deputy Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I have spent the last fifteen years working at the intersection of science and policy, standing up for scientists and their work.

I’m thrilled to be here to talk about political interference in the work of federal government scientists, and steps to prevent that kind of misconduct. I hope that today will serve as an example to all that there can be a bipartisan commitment to promoting responsible conduct in federal scientific agencies regarding the development and communication of scientific information.

Federal government experts provide data and analysis that helps us stop the Zika virus. They help neighborhoods deal with public health risks posed by nearby chemical plants. They help journalists and policymakers understand bioterrorism threats.

There is not Democratic science. There is not Republican science. There’s just science. Decision-makers and the public want to hear directly from the experts, and they deserve that access.

Yet too often, policymakers want to keep these scientists on a leash—or worse, change scientific practices or outcomes to support predetermined policy positions. Political appointees suppress scientific reports on chemical toxicity, order staff to soften conclusions on worker safety problems, unethically change testing protocols on lead exposure, and misrepresent scientists’ work on reproductive health.

In such a closed culture, scientists keep their heads down, and we are robbed of their expertise. This keeps valuable information from the public, and makes it easier for politicians to avoid accountability for poor public health and environmental protection decisions.

The consequences are real. During the George W. Bush administration, government experts were ordered to change their testing procedures to suggest that children’s lunch boxes with lead in them were safe. The Obama EPA watered down and changed an agency scientific assessment about the impact of fracking and drinking water in a way that misled the public. And in the Trump administration, assessments of PFAS chemicals were held up, scientists have been muzzled on climate change, and experts report high levels of censorship and self-censorship across issues.

For the last twenty years, journalism associations complained consistently about access to federal government experts and asked for improvements. They were stonewalled then, and it’s only getting worse.

Recently, the US Geological Survey began requiring scientists to ask for permission before speaking with a reporter. USGS isn’t a regulatory agency. It doesn’t do policy. Yet the desire to control the message is still present.

Most federal agencies have developed scientific integrity policies over the past decade. But agencies vary widely in their ability and willingness to enforce these policies. At a majority of agencies, there’s little training and few enforcement mechanisms. Without being in statute, the scientific integrity policies can improve agencies around the edges, but lack authority and enforceability. Policies can be curtailed or eliminated at any moment.

Ultimately, we can’t depend on agencies to police themselves without additional direction and support. It’s time to codify scientific integrity standards. The Scientific Integrity Act creates transparency and accountability through clarity. The legislation would give scientists who work for government agencies the right to share their research with the public, ensure that government communication of science is accurate, and protect science in policy decisions from political interference. The bill empowers federal employees to share their opinions as informed experts in a personal capacity. And the bill prohibits any employee from censoring or manipulating scientific findings.

Now we aren’t talking about being policy prescriptive. The bill is agnostic on the weight that science should be given in a policy decision. The legislation is designed to ensure that science fully informs the decisions that we make.

It isn’t just the science community that is advocating for the Scientific Integrity Act. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Project on Government Oversight, the National Partnership for Women and Families, SEIU—all have signaled their support. This bill promotes good government. It enhances accountability. It prevents corruption.

We have learned a lot in the past ten years about what works to protect scientific integrity and what doesn’t. I look forward to exploring these issues in more detail later in this hearing and thank you again for the opportunity to testify.

Who Breathes the Dirtiest Air from Vehicles in Colorado?

Vehicle pollution is a major issue for human health and the environment.

This post was written in collaboration with David Reichmuth

Most people know that cars, trucks, and buses from our highways and city streets are a significant source of air pollution. While this pollution impacts all communities in the state to some degree, Coloradans who face the greatest exposure to transportation pollution are those who live near highways, along major freight corridors, and in urban areas.

To help understand exactly which communities bear the greatest burden and breathe the highest concentrations of this dangerous air pollution, we used a computer model to estimate the amount of fine particulate matter air pollution (known as PM2.5) produced by on-road vehicles that burn gasoline and diesel. The findings, which are not likely not to be a surprise to many residents, are quite troubling—they show that people of color are disproportionally exposed to vehicular PM2.5. For example:

  • African Americans are exposed to 64 percent higher PM2.5 concentrations from on-road transportation than the average PM2.5 exposure for all Coloradans. Asian Americans and Latinos experience concentrations 24 percent and 15 percent higher, respectively, than the average resident. At the same time, white residents have an average exposure that is 9 percent lower than the average for the state.
  • African American, Asian and Latino residents are exposed to vehicular PM2.5 pollution levels, on average, that are 81, 37, and 27 percent higher, respectively, than the exposure experienced by white residents.
  • A higher percentage of white residents than the state average live in the cleanest areas: white residents make up 76 percent of the people who live in census tracts where exposure is less than the state average, yet white residents make up just 69 percent of the state’s population.
What is PM2.5 and why is it so important?

The science is clear: no level of particulate matter is safe to breathe, says the American Lung Association. Although fine particulate matter—referred to as PM2.5—is not the only air pollutant that adversely affects health, it is estimated to be responsible for approximately 95 percent of the global public health impacts from air pollution. Exposure to this dangerous pollutant is the largest environmental risk factor in the United States, responsible for 63 percent of deaths from environmental causes.

They include particles smaller than 2.5 millionths of a meter in diameter—at least 20 times smaller than the diameter of fine human hair—so they can penetrate deeply into the lungs. The ultrafine particles – smaller than 0.1 millionths of a meter – are particularly dangerous, as some can enter into the bloodstream.

Chronic exposure to PM2.5 causes increased death rates attributed to cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks and strokes, and has been linked to other adverse impacts such as lung cancer, reproductive and developmental harm and even diabetes and dementia. Chronic exposure to PM2.5 in children has also been linked to slowed lung-function growth and the development of asthma.

PM2.5 is formed in many ways. A significant source of PM2.5 is fuel combustion. The combustion engines of cars burn gasoline and diesel. Power plants burn natural gas and other fuels to produce electricity. Burning wood for cooking and in residential fireplaces, as well as wildfires, are examples of biofuel combustion. To make things worse, not only does burning fossil fuels and biofuels produce PM2.5 directly, but the combustion reaction also emits gases such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds that go on to form additional PM2.5 through complex chemical reactions in the atmosphere.

Because there are so many ways in which particulate matter is formed, you may ask yourself if some pose more health risks than others. Indeed particles can bind with bacteria, pollen, heavy metals, elemental carbon, dust and other building blocks, and so have a broad range of effects on human health. But size is one of the most important factors, and PM2.5 is responsible for a very heavy burden of disease, disability and death. That is why we focused our analysis on this pollutant.

Greater pollution for people of color

The results are clear: PM2.5 pollution burden from cars, trucks, and buses is inequitably distributed when looking at the exposure experienced by racial and ethnic groups in the state. People of color experience an undeniable “pollution disadvantage”.

We estimated exposure to PM2.5 pollution using a recently developed model from the University of Washington, and data from the EPA’s National Emissions Inventory and the US Census Bureau. This model allows us to calculate how vehicle tailpipe and refueling emissions ultimately lead to ground-level pollution exposure, so we can understand how exposure to PM2.5 varies among groups and locations.

Looking at the state as a whole, African Americans are exposed to 64 percent higher PM2.5 concentrations from on-road transportation than the  average PM2.5 exposure for all Coloradans.  Asian Americans and Latinos experience concentrations 24 percent and 15 percent higher, respectively, than the average resident.  At the same time, white residents have an average exposure that is 9 percent lower than the average for the state.

 In an equitable world, one might expect that every area with the same pollution level would have an approximately equal representation of all racial groups. In other words, the burden would be shared equally. But only 11 percent of all white residents in the state live in the dirtiest census tracts, where pollution is more than twice the state average, while 38% of all African American residents live in these polluted areas.

We can look at this data in a different way. In the cleanest areas of Colorado—in census tracts with average annual PM2.5 concentrations less than half the state average—whites make up 76 percent of the population, while constituting only 69 percent of the state’s total population. In contrast, the most polluted census tracts have a higher proportion of people of color. Almost 12 percent of people in the highest burden areas, where concentrations are more than 2.5 times the state average, are African American, compared with a state population that is just 4 percent African American (Figure 2). The inequities are clear.

 

This chart shows the PM2.5 exposure in groups of census tracts, defined relative to state average. In areas where PM2.5 exposure is low, the fraction of white residents is high. As the analysis looks at more polluted areas, this fraction decreases. In the highest pollution areas, which correspond to urban centers with heavy traffic, the fraction of white residents is higher. Notes: Each column refers to census tracts in areas with similar PM2.5 pollution concentrations. The columns show the fraction of people belonging to each of eight racial groups living in those areas. The least polluted areas are on the left and the most polluted on the right. The 0–50% area refers to census tracts where PM2.5 pollution is less than half the state average, the 50–100% area refers to tracts where pollution is from half the state average to the state average, etc. The column at the far right shows the state’s racial composition.

Furthermore, PM2.5 exposure varies greatly within Colorado. People in the urban areas of the state, like Denver County, are exposed to vehicle pollution at levels similar to Los Angeles County in California. Denver County, the second most populous county in the state, and the most polluted, has average PM2.5 exposure from vehicles 237 percent higher than the state average.

Finally, the analysis also shows that exposure inequities are more pronounced between racial and ethnic groups than between income groups.

What is to be done?

Clearly air pollution from on-road transportation such as diesel and gasoline vehicles places significant, inequitable and unacceptable health burdens on Coloradans. This inequity reflects decades of local, state, regional, and national decisions about transportation, housing, and land use. Decisions concerning where to construct highways, where to invest in public transportation, and where to build housing have all contributed to a transportation system that concentrates emissions in communities of color. In many cases, transportation policies have left those communities with inadequate access to public transportation.

We have the tools and the technologies to transform our transportation system away from diesel and gasoline and toward clean, modern, and equitable solutions. Electrification of vehicles, both passenger and freight, could greatly reduce emissions. Battery-electric and fuel cell vehicles have no tailpipe emissions, with the exception of minor amounts of PM2.5 emissions from tire and brake wear. Not just that, but these vehicles eliminate vapor emissions associated with gasoline refueling.

Electric vehicles  can result in some additional climate emissions (carbon dioxide) from electricity generation, but these emissions are lower for an electric vehicle than for an average gasoline car, and vary depending on the location where the vehicle is charged. Seventy-five percent of people in the US live in places where driving on electricity is cleaner than a 50 mile per gallon car. It is very good news for Coloradans that Governor Polis has pledged for 100 percent renewable energy in the state’s electric grid by 2040.  By the way, Colorado ranks fourth in the US for solar potential, and eleventh for wind potential.

While residents can make a difference for local air pollution (as well as for climate emissions) by choosing cleaner vehicles and driving less, much of today’s air pollution comes from sources outside the direct control of individuals. Colorado needs regulations, incentives, and other policies to reduce vehicle emissions, with equity and the meaningful involvement of affected communities as key considerations in designing policies and strategies to reduce pollution from vehicles.

Last year, the state approved a low emission vehicle standard (LEV) for passenger cars and light trucks, which means Colorado will continue to sell vehicles that are progressively cleaner and more fuel efficient. Colorado is also considering adopting the California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standard, which would require automakers to increase the percentage of ZEV vehicles sold in the state. This state leadership is especially critical at a time when the federal government has proposed rolling back federal fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards. Furthermore, the Colorado legislature recently approved the extension of the income tax credit for purchase or lease of electric vehicles until 2025.

Other specific investments that could reduce inequities in air pollution include:

  • Investments in electric transit buses and school buses, with a priority on serving communities exposed to the highest levels of gasoline and diesel emissions
  • Expansion of electric vehicle rebate programs to provide financing assistance and larger rebates to low- and moderate-income residents
  • Utility investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, with a priority on serving communities exposed to the highest levels of gasoline and diesel emissions

Colorado has made much progress in reducing air pollution from vehicles, but it needs to continue this effort, placing a high priority on actions that reduce the inequitably distributed burden of air pollution in the state. This analysis provides important quantitative evidence of the need for and importance of such programs, and it can help inform and shape future actions to reduce on-road transportation pollution exposure and inequities in the state.

Trump Administration Dramatically Reduces Penalties for Auto Inefficiency

Photo: Marco Verch/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

In a Friday news dump last week, the Trump administration announced that they will be finalizing a reduction in fines for missing fuel economy targets. Not only is the administration working to roll back the strong standards set in place by the previous administration currently driving efficiency improvements across new vehicles, but now they are letting automakers off the hook if they miss targets between now and when that rollback goes into effect.

This action is par for the course for this administration, which is doing whatever it can to increase pollution and oil use.

Thwarting a Congressional mandate

Since 1975, manufacturers have been required to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) targets which govern the average efficiency of new vehicles sold. If a manufacturer missed its annual target, they had to pay a penalty, which was initially set at $50 per miles-per-gallon, per vehicle. This penalty was adjusted slightly in the 1990s to $55/mpg/vehicle, but obviously this is nowhere close to the level of inflation that has occurred since 1975, which is why in 2015 Congress required Federal agencies to adjust all of their penalties with respect to inflation in order to ensure that they remained as strong a deterrent as they were when initially finalized (Title VII, HR 1314). The resulting penalty of $140/mpg/vehicle put in place under the Obama administration did not fully account for inflation since 1975, but it was the maximum allowable increase under the law set by Congress.

Fines this low are not a deterrent

Historically, while luxury manufacturers often treated the fines as part of their business model of selling nothing but overpowered vehicles to high-income buyers, large full-line automakers have managed to comply with the standards (or get the federal government to weaken CAFE standards, as in the 1980s) in order to avoid millions of dollars in fines for noncompliance. However, last year saw Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) fined for failing to ensure that the FCA cars produced in North America are approximately as efficient as the average car sold in the United States. The penalty rate is the same as it is for the CAFE standard, and with FCA falling nearly 3 mpg short of the rest of the industry, the decision not to improve the efficiency of its domestically-manufactured vehicles cost the company $77 million in fines last year, a fine which would have been nearly three times higher if NHTSA had not delayed implementation of the CAFE fine increase.

FCA knew years in advance that it would miss its efficiency targets and would therefore have to pay fines, and it did not adjust its behavior. And according to the Auto Alliance, the largest automaker trade group, its members are willing to pay billions of dollars in fines instead of complying with the regulations.

Clearly, the fine is not acting as a deterrent and should be increased—however, to no one’s surprise this administration is instead moving in the wrong direction.

This action gives manufacturers a free pass to sell more gas guzzlers

Under dubious legal arguments that the CAFE fine is not, in fact, a “penalty”, the Trump administration is rolling back the penalty from $140 back down to $55/mpg/vehicle, an argument at odds with previous increases under the Clinton and Obama administrations. Automakers themselves are even saying the fine is not high enough to push them to comply with the regulations, since the fine may be lower than the cost of putting more efficient technology in new vehicles. Since automakers assume their customers don’t care much about saving money at the pump, regulations are a key driver in getting technology to market, even technologies which pay for themselves. Lower fines simply reduce that push to actually comply with the rules, limiting the availability of consumers’ choices of more efficient vehicle options.

The Trump administration is already standing in the way of improvements beyond 2020 by rolling back fuel economy regulations. This action serves only to mute progress between now and then.

This administration gives polluters a green light

This action is like far too many others under this administration—Trump’s EPA has seen substantial reductions in penalties assessed to polluters and the number of inspections and actions taken towards those who put profit over public welfare. The agency has also ignored the health impacts of air quality worsening under their watch.

Unsurprisingly, automakers lauded the decision to lower the penalty, even while working to roll back the standards to fuel economy levels which are so meager that nearly one-third of vehicles sold today already meet them.

The administration’s actions to make enforcement of strong fuel economy standards as toothless as possible are consistent with the rest of their environmental and energy policies—give industry what it wants, and to hell with the rest of us. But that’s not a justifiable policy in the courts, and it is up to NGOs like UCS, as well as the states bearing the adverse impacts of these policies, to give ‘em hell right back, holding the administration and, thus, industry accountable for its actions.

Climate Change and Wine – Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

In the past decade, there have been a number of stories written on the connection between climate change and wine. Climate change is already one of the greatest challenges our planet is facing. Its effect will continue to take hold and shake up countless aspects of our lives. As a scientist who studies the connection between climate and agriculture with a focus on viticulture, I’m asked routinely – is climate change good, or bad, for wine? – which is a fair question. Perhaps better put: If the world is on fire, will there be Merlot?

It depends, in part, on if you are a wineglass half-empty, or half-full kind of person. And in part on other factors, like terroir.

Lightning wine 101 lesson

The concept of terroir is central to winemaking. Terroir, or the characteristics of the land where grapes are grown, is made up of four components:

  • Soil
  • Topography
  • Tradition/Grape variety
  • Climate

Soils are important for vine growth and fruit quality. Soils control factors like water and nutrient availability, drainage and pH. Topography is also critical, as even a slight slope to the land can have a large influence in vineyard management. Tradition and grape variety are tied more to the history and types of wine produced in a region. These are all significant variables that  explain why one area may be famous for an expensive delicate white wine that one would pair with a heavenly seafood meal and another region may be famous for a bold red that you picked at the store for $6 that’s going to go great with that $4 frozen pizza* you also bought. These components change over space, but they stay relatively static over time. The fourth component, climate, changes over space too.

*This is a judgement free zone here

Different wine-grape varieties thrive in different climates. Climate change will greatly influence regional, and global, wine trends. Click to enlarge.

The fact that climates changes over space is important because it helps establish the types of wine-grape variety grown in the major production regions of the world. Each variety has an optimal temperature threshold, thus growers traditionally pair their location’s climate with a certain type of grape. We have warm-climate regions like Sicily, Spain, Southern France, the Murray-Darling region in Australia, or the Central Valley in California which produce red wines; we have cool-climate regions that produce lighter reds and numerous white wines like Germany, Northern France, Oregon, or New Zealand; and we have many places in between. This concept of climate changing over space allows for thousands of varieties of wine-grapes to grow on six continents.

However, climate also changes over time. This can mean two things: 1.) year-to-year climates vary such that no two growing seasons are ever the same for one location, and 2.) large-scale climate change greatly influences regional, and global, wine trends. For now, let’s focus on the second aspect because the first feature is worth an entire blog post of its own.

A brief history of climate change and wine

Climate change is directly connected to wine throughout history. It is written in to the DNA of Vitis vinifera and its thousands of varieties. Even for times before there were reliable temperature or rainfall measurements, historians can estimate regional climate fluctuations via records of grape and wine production, wine quality, and even pricing. We have reliable historic records that tell us that when the world warms up (Medieval Warm Period, approximately 900 to 1250), wine production moves poleward. When the world cools down, production shifts equatorward (Little Ice Age, mid-1600s). We know where people were growing winegrapes, and we get a picture of their success – and the climates they were experiencing – on a year-by-year basis. This is incontrovertible data that bears no ability to be twisted to conform to an ideological thought process. Simply put, you can’t argue with it.

In modern times, we’ve seen warming of nearly 1˚C (>1.5°F), and we now have a robust, reliable network of weather measurements for entire planet. The change we see now is different than what we have seen in the past, and that change is yet again being reflected in the vines. Most of the world’s major producing regions have seen significant warming, particularly in the last few decades. This has sped up the cycles of fruit maturation, changed fruit biochemistry, introducing new pressures to these regions. Growers have methods for counter-acting some of these issues, but most problems do not have simple solutions. For example, increased water stress coupled with a rise in the cost of water, is one of several issues that warmer regions will need to contend with more and more.

Maybe that glass of Merlot is starting to look half-empty.

Michigan Pinot Noir grapes undergoing full fall colors.

Or is it? Warmer global temperatures allow for production to move poleward which can introduce winegrapes to regions that could not previously accommodate production. My research, across four peerreviewed papers, looked at one such region: Michigan. Before the late 1960s, there were virtually no Vitis vinifera varieties of grapes growing in the state. The growing season was too short and not reliably warm enough to sustain winegrapes. Additionally, brutal winter temperatures would drop below the threshold for traditional winegrape varieties. A few enterprising growers attempted some plantings, and after a few rough years, they managed to survive. By the mid-2010s, there were nearly 3000 acres of more than a dozen varieties of vinifera. So what happened?

Michigan, in particular the SW corner of the state along the shores of Lake Michigan, has experienced a rise in temperature of at least 0.55°C since 1950. Using seasonal Growing Degree Days (a measure of thermal time that allows one to compare how much heat “accumulated” over time), we found that the region had warmed significantly since the 1950s. Average growing season temperatures had increased, and, perhaps most importantly the growing season increased by 28.8 days from 1971 to 2011. That is nearly an entire month more of proper growing conditions that allow for growers to harvest when they want to, rather than when they need to. This reliability, particularly since 1980, saw an explosion of vinifera acreage that continues in to the present. There are, of course, challenges. Inconsistent late frosts, pest pressures, and severe weather still make Michigan a challenging location for expansion, but the opportunity is alluring.

As the climate changes, so will our wine

Currently, there are several “Michigans” across the globe which are emerging as viable winegrape producing regions. As global temperatures very likely will continue their rise, these regions will also grow in reputation, size, and number. At the moment, it’s a waiting game.

To recap: climate change is happening. And one place to see, or taste, it is a glass of Michigan Riesling or a snifter of Oloroso Sherry. Climate change has impacted global winegrape production in the past, it is having an impact in the present, and will almost certainly continue to do so in to the near and foreseeable future. For the warm wine producing regions of the world, it is already becoming more difficult and new vineyard management strategies will be needed. But, there are many areas that are now gaining the ability to produce winegrapes, like Michigan. Those places are not without difficulties, but as these regions continue to warm up, new varieties and methods will almost certainly bring them to the forefront of global wine production.

Ultimately, it largely depends on if you are a wineglass half-empty, or half-full kind of person.

 

Steven R. Schultze is an assistant professor of Geography at the University of South Alabama. He teaches courses on atmospheric processes, climatology, and the geography of alcohol. His research focuses on agricultural climatology and the links between wine and climate change. Additionally, he is conducting studies on the connection between microclimates and specialty crop production on a sub-field level, and on the viability of growing beer hops (Humulus lupulus) in the Central Gulf Coast region. For copies of studies done by the author, please email him. You can follow him on twitter @GEO_Schultze

 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.

Public Domain Image: WineFolly.com

5 Great Public Health Resources for Dealing With Extreme Heat

As a new mom, I’ve had to think about heat safety in many new ways since pregnant women and young children are among the most vulnerable to extreme heat.

While I was pregnant, my neighborhood lost power for a few days during an excruciating heat wave as a result of a power surge. The heat index reached 108°F and to keep safe, I spent time in cooled buildings and ran an extension cord from a neighbor with electricity through my mail slot to power a fan.

In May, I had to buy a fan for my baby’s stroller when the heat index neared 100°F. And I’ve had to spend many days indoors as, so far, 21 days this year have been at least 90°F in the District of Columbia.

So where does a parent – or an outdoor worker, a student, a retiree, or any US resident for that matter – turn to figure out how to keep safe in the face of extreme heat?

These are five resources that can help you and your loved ones stay safe during an extreme heat event. There are others available, some of which you can find by way of these resources. You can also help keep others in your community safe, for example by checking in on elderly neighbors or other people you know who are particularly vulnerable to heat.

  1. Is there an active heat alert? An important step in staying safe is to know what conditions are like – and are forecast to be like – outside. All US residents can turn to gov – the National Weather Service’s homepage – to find out whether there are any active heat alerts. The National Weather Service maintains a list of phone apps, websites, and other sources of weather alerts here. Local weather forecasters will also provide this information and it is important to follow their advice – heat is currently one of the top weather-related causes of death in the US, and there is a lot that people can do to prevent heat-related illness.
  2. Learn the signs of heat-related illness. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) maintains this helpful guide to heat-related illness signs and symptoms, and what to do if you exhibit them.
  3. What to do to stay safe. The Heat Safety Tips and Resources website from the National Weather Service is chock-full of resources on how to stay safe during an extreme heat event. There is information specific to particular segments of the US population, including parents, outdoor workers, Spanish speakers, and pet-owners. Similarly, the CDC also maintains this helpful website that has information for many other groups, including older adults, low-income households, those with diabetes, and athletes. It is important to know about the unique vulnerability of yourself and any dependents you might have.
  4. Find your closest cooling center and other local resources – call 211. Many cities and communities have cooling centers in places such as libraries, town government buildings, senior centers, or shopping centers that residents can visit for respite from the heat. The federal government set up 211 as a line that people can call to get connected with expert help. Some states and communities, including New York have this information online. Calling one’s town government, including a police station, can also help track down this information.
  5. What’s your plan? It is important to have a plan in place on how you and any dependents will stay safe should a heat wave hit. gov provides suggestions on how to prepare.

Last but not least, there are measures that need to be taken now by our federal and state governments, as well as our communities, to reduce the threat of extreme heat in the future.

As our most recent report, Killer Heat, shows, this threat is projected to worsen dramatically in the next few decades for nearly all U.S. residents if we do not act on global warming. These measures need to include efforts to both reduce heat-trapping emissions to limit the frequency and severity of extreme heat and build resilience to heat so that when an extreme heat event hits, communities are prepared.

While we can’t prevent some increases in extreme heat, we can ensure that future generations will, at the very least, have the tools necessary to cope and the ability to stay safe.

Photo: Flickr / Irene / Creative Commons license CC-BY-NC 2.0

Top Ten Heat-Related Terms You Need to Pay Attention to While Reading UCS’s Killer Heat Report

Six-year-olds Justin Mosquera, left, and Luke Taylor, relaxing in a stream of water from a fire hydrant near the Boys and Girls Club in Bowling Green, Ky. July 21, 2011 AP Photo/Daily News, Miranda Pederson

Because extreme heat is one of the deadliest weather hazards we currently face, Union of Concerned Scientist’s Killer Heat Report for the United States is the most important document I have read. It is a veritable wake up call for all of us. It is timely, eye-opening, transparent and factual and it deals with the stark reality of our future if we do not make changes quickly (think yesterday). It is important to ensure that we all understand it. Here are 10 terms that really help drive home the messages in the heat report and help us understand the ramifications of inaction.

Weather vs Climate

One of my four brothers loves to cook – and he is great at it. One day I made the mistake of calling him a cook. He quickly corrected me by saying: “Cooking is what I do, a Chef is what I am.” See the difference there? It is the same with weather and climate. In Andrew John Herbertson’s words: “Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.” You expect it to be hot this summer season but what you really get is a heat wave.

Global Warming and Climate Change

Global warming is a long-term increase in the Earth’s annual average surface temperature, caused mainly by increased fossil fuel emissions. So – when the Earth heats up over time, it is global warming. Climate change, on the other hand, refers to a change in the climate system of the Earth, including its weather patterns.

Current climate change is mostly caused by the fossil fuel emissions that increase atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. A host of changes flow from this: ocean acidification, global mean surface temperature increase (aka ‘global warming’), shrinking glaciers in the Arctic, Antarctica, Greenland and mountain glaciers, sea level rise, changes in flower blooms, animal and plant distribution shifts, and changes in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

There should never be a time that, when the temperatures are really low, we wish for ‘global warming’ so that the temperatures will increase — Ever. Because there will always be winters. However, the problem is that winters around the globe are getting warmer, on average — even if northern hemisphere winters have periodic extreme cold snaps in places, such as what occurs when the Arctic air blasts to lower latitudes in parts and warmer air shifts more northward at other parts with a wavier jet stream at times.

Temperature and the Heat Index

The heat index is slightly different from the temperature, although temperature is used to calculate it. Temperature is what we can measure in the thermometer. But the heat index is what we feel that temperature to be when we factor in relative humidity. That is why the National Weather Service calls the heat index the “feels like” temperature. For example, in Mobile, Alabama where I grew up, the thermometer might register 80°F outside, but because of humidity and other factors it can feel like a temperature of 100°F!

The Urban Heat Island (UHI)

When I was in graduate school in Tennessee, the air conditioner in my apartment did not really work well. So, I would sit directly in front of the fan – DIRECTLY. If I stuck an arm or leg outside of my “fan zone” I would immediately be assaulted by what I can only equate to the infamous ‘Heat Miser’ from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Outside of that zone, the heat showed no mercy and my body’s response was first shock, then intense sweat. I think of the Urban Heat Island in a similar way, except that there are no “fan zones” and very few mechanisms for relief from the heat for at-risk populations.

The UHI occurs because cities are much warmer than surrounding rural areas – cities resemble an “island” of heat among a broader “sea” of cooler temperatures. Concrete, glass, asphalt, and other surfaces that make up cities trap heat during the day and then release it at night, but it escapes much slower than it was trapped, so there is not much relief from the heat!

Temperatures do drop a little at night, so people can open their windows and doors or sit outside to get some relief. Can you imagine what it is like for our homeless brothers and sisters or people without adequate air conditioning, or whose electric bills are so high that they can not afford to turn on their fans or air conditioners? What about people whose work requires them to spend a lot of time outside, or children who play outside the majority of the time? Think about that…

Heat Cramps, Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke

When I was growing up in Mobile, Alabama, my Mom would tell my brothers and me to be careful outside when it was hot – that we could have a “heat stroke.” (She also used to say that we smelled like “the sun”, whatever that meant, when we came inside after playing outdoors so I suspect that she just did not want us to get too sweaty.)

Luckily, none of us ever had serious complications from heat. But prolonged exposure to extreme heat can cause heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke.

Heat cramps, caused by the loss of body salts and fluids during sweating, can be painful.

Heat exhaustion is how the body responds to loss of water and fluids from heavy sweating; symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness, weakness, thirst, and heavy sweating.

The most serious is heat stroke, which happens when the body gets so hot it cannot regulate its core temperature. People going into a heat stroke stop sweating, so their bodies cannot get rid of the excess heat, which could cause confusion, loss of consciousness, and seizures.

Heat strokes are a serious medical emergency that can result in death. Under a changing climate, the likelihood of dangerous heat-related health risks increasing is all too real. Sadly, if my Mom were to issue that “heat stroke” warning under the current and future conditions, she would probably be right.

Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs)

RCPs are future emissions scenarios used to model the choices that we can make about carbon emissions. RCP8.5 refers to a “no action” scenario where no substantial reductions in emissions are pursued through the late century. RCP4.5 is the “slow action” scenario, under which emissions start to decline around mid-century. In addition, with the “rapid action” scenario, future global warming, even by late century, is limited to 2ºC above pre-industrial temperatures. Achieving this would require rapid reductions in emissions over the next few decades.

RCPs make assumptions about how carbon emissions in the atmosphere will change in the future as a result of human activities. In other words, think of it as an “if this occurs, then this will happen” scenario for global warming.

The more immediate and impactful actions we take now, the greater our chances are of avoiding KILLER HEAT conditions, serious adverse health outcomes and the worst consequences of climate change – especially on our most at-risk populations.

AP Photo/Daily News, Miranda Pederson

Attacks on Public Health and Safety that the Scientific Integrity Act Could Have Prevented

Photo: Chris Quintana/CC BY-NC-SA (Flickr)

In March, Senator Schatz (D-HI) and Representative Tonko (D-NY) introduced the Scientific Integrity Act (hereafter referred to as the “SI Act”). The legislation is a step forward to protecting federal agency scientists and their work from political interference.

Attacks on science come from both sides of the political aisle and have for many years. If enacted, this legislation could prevent future attacks on science and protect the health and safety of people across America who depend on science-informed policies.

The SI Act protects public health

The SI Act would codify and bolster scientific integrity policies already in place at science-based federal agencies. This is a great idea because there have been inconsistencies between agencies in terms of how robust policies are. The SI Act requires an agency’s scientific integrity policy to ensure that no individual at a science-based federal agency will “suppress, alter, interfere, or otherwise impede the timely release and communication of scientific or technical findings.”

Suppression and alteration of scientific reports for political purposes has long been a problem at federal agencies. Examples include altered biological opinions on endangered species at the Department of Interior and White House reports on climate change. The SI Act might have prevented issues like the recent case of suppressed science within the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which produced a risk assessment report on the potential health hazards of formaldehyde in 2017, but the report and its findings are being suppressed. Formaldehyde is a common chemical found throughout the home. Formaldehyde in household materials can vaporize, and when such fumes are inhaled over the long term this can lead to increased cancer risk.

Risk assessment reports produced by EPA’s IRIS often serve as the underpinning of public protections that keep people from being exposed to dangerous chemicals at unsafe levels. But federal agencies cannot put protections in place if the science is suppressed. By suppressing this report, the Trump administration is increasing the risks of certain types of cancer associated with exposure to formaldehyde in the general population.

The suppression of this risk assessment report would be considered a violation of scientific integrity under the SI Act. Classifying the suppression of this report as a violation of scientific integrity could help Congress and officials at federal agencies take steps to release the formaldehyde report, spurring development of a science-based policy to regulate this chemical and protect any further damage to public health.

The SI Act grants fundamental rights to scientists

The SI Act also grants key rights to federal scientists across all science-based agencies. Such protections are crucial for ensuring scientists feel empowered that their scientific work is protected and that they are able to speak up when it isn’t.

Federal agencies release information about scientific reports and publications, but sometimes do not allow scientists who conducted the work to review the information before being communicated externally. The SI Act would allow scientists “the opportunity to review” public statements for “technical accuracy.” The SI Act also provides scientists with the right to correct any inaccuracies in publications jointly with the agency in external communications.

Administrations have communicated information that is not scientifically accurate previously. For example, under the Obama administration, the EPA produced a report about the risks to drinking water presented by hydraulic fracturing. In an executive summary, the agency wrote that the scientists of the report did not find “widespread systemic impacts” of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. However, this was not in line with the scientific evidence reported. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), its primary federal science advisory board, determined the EPA did not provide quantitative evidence to support its claim that hydraulic fracturing did not have widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water. Following this report, the EPA deleted the language from the executive summary.

Under the SI Act, the scientists involved would have been able to review report materials before they were released publicly. This might have prevented the release of misleading scientific information from the agency and saved the agency the time and resources of convening the SAB to deliberate whether the agency’s language was in line with the scientific evidence.

The SI Act protects workers from harm

Another provision of the SI Act says agency policies must ensure that “scientific conclusions are not made based on political considerations.” There have been several times when science has been sidelined, resulting in policies that are not effective at protecting the public from harm, that undo reproductive health measures, or that put our environment’s health at risk. One such example is the lack of consideration of science in allowing the poultry business to increase worker line speeds, which will likely increase poultry worker injuries.

Poultry workers are at high risk for on-the-job injury. As described by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “Workers employed in the poultry industry face many serious hazards, including high noise levels, dangerous equipment, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals such as ammonia, used as a refrigerant, and peracetic acid used to kill bacteria.”

This is why a policy was put in place in 2014 establishing a maximum line speed of 140 birds per minute. This speed was not arbitrary; it was based on evidence that increased line speeds result in increased worker injury. However, in February 2018, some poultry processing plants received waivers to increase line speeds up to 175 birds per minute.

The science is clear: an increase in line speeds will increase worker injury. Therefore, the decision to increase line speeds was not based on science or the public’s input, it was based on political considerations. The SI Act would create conditions such that decisions that are clearly based on politics and not science could be considered a violation of scientific integrity. In the case here, that could have resulted in increased safety for poultry workers and the general population, who may now be at increased risk of food borne illnesses.

The SI Act protects reproductive health

The provision of the SI Act that ensures that “scientific conclusions are not made based on political considerations” may also have prevented science from being sidelined on reproductive health decisions.

In the case of emergency contraception, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) attempts to move forward on a drug which science had shown to be safe were undermined during the Obama administration. Critically, the FDA is legally bound to only consider evidence when making drug approval decisions.

While Obama’s FDA commissioner and science advisors supported an application to make an over-the-counter emergency contraception drug available to young women, the Secretary of Health and Human Services overruled the FDA, stating concerns about potential health effects of the drug on 10- and 11-year-old girls. Obama publicly supported this rejection despite scientific evidence showing that the drug did not have negative health effects on young women. In April 2013, a judge ordered the FDA to make emergency contraception available to women of all ages, arguing that the Secretary’s action was “politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and contrary to agency precedent.”

The SI Act may have created conditions such that the administration’s move to challenge a science-based decision would have been considered a violation of scientific integrity. It’s possible that this might have allowed young women access to safe emergency contraception earlier.

The SI Act fights censorship

The SI Act would allow scientists to speak more openly and freely about their work to the public, in conferences, and through scientific peer-reviewed journals—for example, climate change scientists in the federal government could explain to the public and policymakers what their research shows.

The SI Act has a number of provisions that would allow scientists to make their work more transparent to the public and prevent censorship of scientific information. Censorship and alteration of scientific materials on publicly contentious topics has continued to happen, especially around climate change work. We also know that it is critical that scientists be allowed to discuss their work publicly with the media, especially during emergencies or natural disasters when the public may require information from a scientific expert.  A number of the SI Act provisions “promote and maximize the communication and open exchange of data and findings to other agencies, policymakers, and the public…” The SI Act prohibits conduct of an individual to “intimidate or coerce an individual to alter or censor, or retaliate against an individual for failure to alter or censor, scientific or technical findings.”

Recently, climate change scientists and their work have been particularly targeted. Political appointees have refused to fund grants that mention “climate change,” federal scientists have been reprimanded for publicly discussing the effects of climate change, and even the phrase “climate change” has been banished from government documents.

The negative impacts of climate change are already affecting the US now, and these negative effects will be amplified in the future. Therefore, it is critical that our government supports, conducts, and communicates its climate change research and policies. This is important for the US public and the world.

Having transparency on this government work, as well as other scientific concepts, would allow policymakers and the public alike to better understand if an administration’s policy actions are in line with science. If not, the SI Act would create conditions that allow an administration to be held accountable when science is sidelined.

The SI Act is a step forward for science

There are countless other examples of attacks on science from the Trump administration. In fact, we’ve documented over 100 attacks on science to-date. Many of these and the harms they have caused to the American people could have been prevented by legislation such as the SI Act. While we cannot go back in time, we can ensure that the future is brighter for our brothers and sisters in this country by encouraging our decisionmakers to pass this common-sense legislation. Science is still our best system of knowledge gathering – it just makes sense that our best knowledge informs policies that protect the public and our environment from harm.

Want to protect federal scientists and their work? Take action now to encourage your decisionmaker to ensure that science remains at the forefront of policy decisions.

Drilling Down on the Attempted Takedown of the Government’s Advisory Committees

Photo: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

The House Science committee will be holding a hearing tomorrow to talk about the status of the government’s advisory committees, which is extremely timely considering the Trump administration is attempting to get rid of them altogether.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a brand new report on the subject and will be testifying about the details of its study on how EPA’s advisory committees have been faring under the Trump administration. Spoiler alert: EPA has been skirting its own protocols to alter membership on SAB and CASAC. GAO found that in addition to ignoring staff recommendations and making appointment decisions in a black box, EPA failed to ensure that all committee members were in compliance with federal ethics rules. This assessment tracks closely with findings from our 2018 report looking at the first year of the Trump administration, which found many advisory committees were being disbanded, neglected, or the composition altered dramatically after the start of President Trump’s first term. While it covers a few discrete process issues, the GAO report fails to go into the implications of the agency’s directive to ban EPA-funded scientists from serving on its advisory committees or how its dissolution of subcommittees, like CASAC’s particulate matter panel, has meant the inability of the agency to do its statutorily mandated work.

The stakes have gotten a lot higher now that, according to the Executive Order issued last month, all federal agencies (with some exceptions) will have to select one-third of their advisory committees to cut by the end of September. I’ve already explained why this order is absurd, but if agencies do go through with this exercise, here are some of the impacts we foresee.

Agencies will have to make impossible choices

Using the government’s public data on advisory committees, we took a look at all of the advisory committees across the government and exempted those that are not likely to be covered by the order, including committees that are formed by presidential order or statutorily required, formed by independent regulatory agencies, those at agencies with fewer than three committees, those that are merit-based or grant review committees, and those that deal with product safety (which we applied to drugs, food, and other consumer products). Once those exemptions were applied, we ended up with 311 committees that are at risk of being cut, 88 of which are scientific  and technical advisory committees. Those facing the biggest cuts are the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior, and Department of Defense.

According to a 2016 Congressional Research Service analysis, agency-authorized committees and national policy issue advisory boards are more likely than the other committees to have a higher rate of recommendation implementation. The same is true for those advisory committees that are authorized by agency authority, over statutory authority. It’s not a coincidence that the most influential advisory committees are those that are the first to feel the heat from this administration. It’s abundantly clear that President Trump doesn’t want smart people and facts informing government decisionmaking.

Not only will axing committees hurt federal agencies’ ability to protect public health and the environment, but it will be forcing agencies like the Department of Homeland Security cut out expert advice on issues that help keep our entire country safe from safety threats. The department of homeland security has 6 advisory committees that are candidates for being cut which means that two will need to be removed. That means sacrificing two of the following important advisory threads: preparing and responding to disruptions that can damage infrastructure (from natural disasters to cyber risks), network resilience and telecommunications integrity for disaster response, general homeland security advice (which includes recommendations on how to best care for individuals in custody at the U.S. border), scientific and technical advice to strengthen U.S. security and resiliency, and the safety of water transportation of large amounts of hazardous materials. All of these DHS committees met in 2019 and help the agency meet its mission so why must any of them be removed? Why would we forego more expert input on such important issues when there’s no persuasive reason to?

The same impossible choices exist at every agency. There are scores of committees at risk that provide the government with vital advice. Here are just a few:

  • At the Department of Commerce, the Census Scientific Advisory Committee has met to advise the Secretary of Commerce on issues related to the census since 1994. Among committee members are statisticians, demographers, computer scientists, economists, and policy experts who provide scientific expertise to the secretary on the proper deployment of the census, including recently recommending that the bureau has “continued vigilance about all potential sources of reduced quality in population counts and household characterizations” that would occur as a result of the notorious attempt to include a citizenship question.
  • The EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee is a policy advisory committee formed in 1997 which advises the agency on regulations related to children’s health. Over the years its recommendations have been incredibly consequential resulting in administrators conducting specific studies on environmental exposures of children, revising risk assessment procedures for children working in agriculture, and adopting standardized levels for indoor asthma allergens for childcare environments and federally funded homes. Its most recent agenda in May 2019 took on issues ranging from PFAS, TSCA implementation, to the federal lead action plan. We should all take great comfort in knowing that there’s a group of qualified experts making sure that the EPA is adequately considering children’s health as it designs policies that stand to impact generations to come.
  • The Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Infant Mortality at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) helps to inform and influence national policies that may impact infant mortality and health outcomes from women, children, and families. As our infant mortality rate continues to be the highest of any wealthy country and racial disparities in mortality continue to increase, the need for experts informing the Secretary’s decisions related to maternal health care and the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid for the health of women and infants is vital. But then again, so are all of the HHS’ committees dedicated to public health.

For this analysis, we only looked at discretionary committees (established by agencies and former presidents) because they will be considered in the first wave of cuts, but President Trump’s executive order also threatens those established by statute, so the threat to our government’s external advice infrastructure is gigantic. The order sets a ceiling of 350 total advisory committees across the government, but there’s every indication that this administration wouldn’t stop until it has eliminated the entire federal advisory committee network. With an administration that doesn’t even listen to its own experts and no network of external advisors to check its work, our government will be flying blind and we’ll all suffer the consequences. I’m looking forward to the hearing on this critical topic tomorrow and want to encourage Congress to continue oversight on this administration’s efforts to dismantle its own expert advisory system. This valuable resource, and the tens of thousands of experts who are a part of it, needs to be protected to ensure informed decisions with the public’s best interest in mind.

Photo: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

Groups Urge Support of Scientific Integrity Act as Congressional Hearing Looms

Photo: Mike Olliver/UCS

On the eve of a congressional hearing about preventing attacks on science, more than 60 organizations sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to co-sponsor and advance the Scientific Integrity Act. I’ve written previously about how the legislation would empower federal agency scientists to speak publicly about their work and protect federal science in policy decisions from inappropriate political influence and interference. What’s exciting to me isn’t the number of groups, but the diversity of interests that they represent. 

It’s not just scientists who are supporting the Scientific Integrity Act. The list of organizations includes government accountability groups such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, environmental groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, women’s health organizations such as the National Partnership for Women & Families, and unions such as SEIU.

The letter describes the potential impact of the legislation:

Our nation relies on scientific integrity to maintain the role of best available science in policymaking. This research is critical to improving air and water quality, protecting workers, safeguarding public health and safety, advancing reproductive health, defending civil rights, preserving biodiversity, and responding to threats posed by diseases and extreme weather events. We urge you to sign on as co-sponsors of S. 775 or H.R. 1709 to take this important step toward ensuring that our government uses science and evidence to best protect our public health and well-being.

The House Science Committee will consider the legislation in a hearing this coming Wednesday, and I will be testifying about the importance of strong scientific integrity protections. This is the first hearing in years to examine real solutions to attacks on science, so I’m thrilled to be a part of it. I’ll have a more detailed examination of the legislation along with links to my testimony early Wednesday morning on this blog.

 

Photo: Mike Olliver/UCS

Trumpery, Codswallop, and this Administration’s Real Environmental Record

Earlier this month President Trump, surrounded by multiple Cabinet members, presented his administration’s environmental “accomplishments” in a speech to the nation. As noted by many fact-checkers, the president and his Cabinet made statements that were a series of half-truths, cherry-picked data, and outright fabrications.

One of my favorite words is “codswallop,” meaning nonsense. And a great synonym for codswallop is “trumpery.” I couldn’t have coined a better word myself to describe this ludicrous series of statements.

It is not insignificant that there were so many cabinet members in the room, including three who spoke (Interior Secretary Bernhardt, Energy Secretary Perry, EPA Administrator Wheeler, plus Mary Neumayr, director of CEQ). It is not clear why the other secretaries—Mnuchin, Azar, Chao, and Ross—were there. Maybe it was a slow day at Treasury, Labor, Transportation and Commerce. Or maybe it was just a way to stay out of the torrential rain that flooded DC that day.

Environmental action is too often pejoratively called “tree hugging,” when the reality is that it isn’t about that at all—it is truly about public health and safety. Protecting us from the health impacts of polluted air, water, soil, and oceans. Preserving natural systems to provide the critical services we need as a society (e.g. filtering water, buffering storms, sequestering carbon, providing food and recreation). And the loss of these “environmental” protections falls most heavily on the most vulnerable among us—the elderly, children, the poor, and communities of color.

Yes, this is a vital role of government—safeguarding our people. My colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists have written on many of the issues we are confronting where real federal government leadership, not Trumpery, is needed. The links below take you to a subsample:

Climate change

Trump’s speech falsely claimed the US federal government is leading the battle against climate change and its impacts. As recent Congressional hearings have shown, this is far from the case. And the consequences are dire for our economy, our security, and human health. To make real progress, we need to heed the international scientific advice on climate change, aggressively pursue carbon sequestration policies, and reverse the administration’s actions on greenhouse gas emissions.

We need our government in both branches to enact national standards to make the transition to low-carbon energy. Some states, like Maine, are leading the way, but we need the federal government to get with the program. And we need to recognize and act upon the fact that energy poverty afflicts poor Americans with a heavy burden. We have many of the tools to change our energy system if our leaders will only help get us there.

Some members of Congress have stepped up, with innovative proposals for a Green New Deal (which bears no resemblance to Trump’s description of it). This is a real opportunity to address climate change, environmental justice, and economic growth, if only our leaders can push ahead, not backward.

Transportation

Cars and trucks are a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. It is clear that the brunt of that pollution falls on poor communities and communities of color. Even as Transportation Secretary Chao and WPA Administrator Wheeler are trying to roll back fuel economy rules, Congress is pushing back.

The future of transportation is electric as our electricity system moves to zero carbon. Freight transport is a big part of this picture, and again, the tools are available if our leaders would only aggressively lead the changes we need.

Air pollution

Air pollution kills. Trump and Wheeler were right when they said that we have made enormous progress as a country in reducing air pollution since the 1970s. That was accomplished by strong legislation, good regulations, and efforts to enforce the rules. What they left out was that this administration is working hard to dismantle many Clean Air Act protections by rolling back rules and sidelining science. Overall, Administrator Wheeler and his team seem to want to move the agency backward, not forward.

Because we have worked so long and so hard as a nation to reduce air pollution, we know what needs to be done if we had leaders who would step up to the problem, not deny it. Tightening standards based on science, evaluating regulations based on benefits to the public and not just costs, addressing ongoing issues such as cross-state pollution, and monitoring and enforcing the rules rigorously. Congress needs to step up and insist upon rigorous implementation of the Clean Air Act and other laws. And our agency leaders need to take the public interest as their mission, not industry convenience.

Other pollution issues

While the President and Administrator Wheeler touted their work on Superfund site clean-up, the reality is rather different. Even the shining examples the President listed—West Lake landfill in St. Louis and the Kalamazoo River papermill in Michigan—are not completed, nor will they be in the near future. In addition to rampant conflicts of interest, the Trump Administration has dramatically cut the budget for the Superfund program and reduced enforcement and accountability for industry, and the Superfund office has been hemorrhaging staff under Wheeler. And ignoring the impacts of climate change on Superfund sites adds to the mess.

What is really needed is a reinvestment in Superfund itself, a renewed effort to hold polluters accountable for legacy toxic waste, and prioritizing overburdened, vulnerable communities. And planning for the severe weather events and other impacts that climate change is bringing.

Similarly, on water pollution, chemical safety, and toxic substances, Congress has pushed forward, but the administration has sidestepped the law. Congress needs to hold their feet to the fire and make sure real progress is made on these critical public health issues.

Federal science and scientists

Real leadership to protect the public interest and public health and safety would ensure that our federal scientists continue to be at the top of their fields, their advice is valued and critical to policy decisions, and that political interference that censors science is stopped in its tracks. That’s not the record of this administration. Simply put, you cannot serve the public unless the professionals in our federal agencies are supported and listened to, young talent is joining public service, and policies are shaped with the best information possible.

We need real environmental leadership in the federal government

All the Trumpery aside, we as a country clearly have a long way to go on a wide range of public health and environmental issues. We need to move forward and address the many challenges we face, new and old. The Trump Administration’s approach is seemingly predicated on the false assumption that we have no more public health and safety challenges to address and it is time to take a step back. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Reinvigorating our democracy means reinvigorating the approach the federal government takes to serving the public interest—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To do that will take real leadership, not Trumpery. My colleagues and I will keep writing about what this administration is doing. We will also continue to write about what needs to be done. And when we do, we will call upon the American public to raise their voices—tell this administration that backtracking on public health and safety will not stand. Call on Congress to exercise their constitutional duty to oversee and as needed push back on the Executive branch. You are the constituents they are duty bound to serve, so speak up! Contact our federal agencies, submit formal comments on proposed actions, reach out to your elected representatives. We can help alert you to what is happening, but democracy is not a spectator activity. Democracy is a verb—something we all must do , not watch while shaking our heads.

10 Ways Andrew Wheeler Has Decimated EPA Protections in Just One Year

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signs the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule, replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that would have reduced coal-fired plant carbon emissions. Photo: EPA

On July 8, President Trump hosted a White House event to unabashedly tout his truly abysmal environmental record. The next day, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), first as acting administrator and then as administrator after the Senate confirmed him in late February.

The good news, if there is any, is that Wheeler is an Eagle Scout compared to his ethically challenged predecessor, Scott Pruitt. The bad news is, as predicted, Wheeler has been more effective than Pruitt in rolling back and eliminating EPA safeguards.

My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has compiled a list of 80 Trump administration attacks on science since taking office, and Wheeler has been the driving force behind many of them. Below are 10 of the more egregious ways he has undermined the EPA’s time-honored role to protect public health and the environment so far.

1. Sidelined scientists

Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, has taken a number of steps to systematically reduce the role of scientists in the agency’s policymaking process. Last fall, for example, he eliminated the agency’s Office of the Science Advisor, which counseled the EPA administrator on research supporting health and environmental standards, and placed the head of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave. He also disbanded a 20-member scientific advisory committee on particulate matter, or soot; failed to convene a similar panel on ozone; and packed a seven-member advisory committee on air quality standards with industry-friendly participants.

2. Proposed to restrict the use of scientific data

Claiming his intent is to increase “transparency,” Wheeler is promoting a rule Pruitt proposed that would dramatically limit the scientific studies the agency considers when developing health standards. If adopted, the rule would restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions if the underlying data are not public and reproducible, which would disqualify many epidemiological and other health studies the EPA relies on to set science-based public safeguards. Given that EPA health standards often rely on studies that contain private patient information, as well as confidential business information that cannot be revealed, the rule would significantly hamper the agency’s ability to carry out its mission. Wheeler plans to finalize the rule sometime this year.

3. Gutted the coal ash rule

The first major rule Wheeler signed as acting administrator refuted his claim that he could fulfill President Trump’s directive to “clean up the air, clean up the water, and provide regulatory relief” at the same time. By rolling back the Obama-era coal ash rule, Wheeler provided regulatory relief to his old friend the coal industry by weakening environmental protections established in 2015 to clean up coal ash ponds, which are laced with toxic contaminants that leak into groundwater. The move was a top priority for coal baron Bob Murray, owner of Murray Energy, Wheeler’s most lucrative client when he worked for the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm.

Coal-fired power plants have been dumping this residue from burning coal into giant, unlined pits for decades. According to the EPA, there are more than 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, and a recent analysis by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that 91 percent of the coal plants filing monitoring data required by the 2015 rule are polluting water with unsafe levels of toxic contaminants. Wheeler’s EPA says the new rule—which extends the deadline for closing some leaking ash ponds and allows states to suspend groundwater monitoring and set their own standards—will save utilities as much as $31 million. But the agency ignored the enormous costs of cancer and neurological and cardiovascular diseases linked to coal ash ingredients, which include arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury.

4. Recommended unsafe levels of drinking water contaminants

Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used in firefighting foam and a variety of nonstick, cleaning, packaging and other household products, have been linked to thyroid disease and kidney, liver, pancreatic and testicular cancer. According to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, these chemicals threaten the drinking water supplies of an estimated 19 million Americans. A 2018 Union of Concerned Scientists report, meanwhile, found that PFAS water contamination at 130 military bases across the country exceed the 11-parts-per-trillion safety threshold determined by the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Nearly two-thirds of the sites had contamination that was more than 100 times higher than the safe level.

In February, Wheeler announced the “first-ever nationwide action plan” to regulate PFAS chemicals in water, saying the agency would develop and set a limit for two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. During the announcement, he told reporters he believes the agency’s voluntary 70-part-per-trillion health-advisory level for the chemicals is “a safe level for drinking water,” despite the fact that this level is more than six times higher than what the Disease Registry considers safe.

While Wheeler slow-walks the EPA’s response, members of Congress have introduced at least a dozen bills to address PFAS contamination, and the Senate recently passed a defense bill that would require the EPA to set a science-based standard for PFAS in drinking water.

5. Rolled back Clean Water Act protections

Clearing up a decade-long dispute over the scope of the Clean Water Act, the Obama EPA adopted a broad, science-based definition of the law that included protecting intermittent and ephemeral streams and wetlands that do not have surface water connections to other waterways. A 2015 EPA meta-analysis of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies concluded that even infrequently flowing small streams and isolated wetlands can affect “the integrity of downstream waters.” Trash them and that pollution could wind up in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and estuaries.

Regardless, Wheeler announced plans during a December telephone press briefing to reverse the Obama EPA definition of waters protected by the Clean Water Act, a thinly disguised gift to land developers and the agriculture industry. When asked what wetlands would no longer be protected, Wheeler replied, “We have not done … a detailed mapping of all the wetlands in the country.” Likewise, EPA Office of Water head David Ross—who represented industry clients against the EPA before joining the Trump administration—told reporters on the call that the agency had no idea how many streams would be dropped from Clean Water Act protection under the proposal.

In fact, Wheeler and Ross were well aware of the damage their new definition would do. At least 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands across the country would not be covered under their proposed definition, according to an internal 2017 slideshow prepared by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers and obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.

6. Suppressed an inconvenient formaldehyde report

Last August, Wheeler disingenuously told a Senate committee that the EPA was holding up the release of a report on the risk of cancer from formaldehyde to confirm its veracity. “I am sure we will release it,” he said, “but I need to make sure that the science in the report is still accurate.”

In fact, the report—which concluded that formaldehyde can cause leukemia and nose and throat cancer—was completed by EPA scientists a year before Wheeler testified, according to a Senate investigation, and their conclusion was hardly a surprise. Both the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the US Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program have already classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.

The EPA’s review process normally takes 60 to 90 days. The formaldehyde report has been in limbo for at least a year and a half, a blatant giveaway to the American Chemistry Council, the US chemical industry’s premier trade association, which has blocked tighter restrictions on formaldehyde for decades.

7. Ignored EPA scientists’ advice to ban asbestos

Instead of heeding the advice of agency scientists and lawyers to follow the example of 55 other countries and ban asbestos completely, the EPA announced in April that it would tighten restrictions on asbestos—not ban it—despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its dangers. Manufacturers will be able to continue to use the substance if they obtain EPA approval.

Asbestos has not been produced in the United States since 2002, but is still imported for use in a wide range of commercial and consumer products, including auto brake components, roofing, vinyl floor tile, fire-resistant clothing, and cement pipes, sheets and shingles. One of the deadliest known carcinogens, asbestos kills nearly 40,000 Americans annually, mainly from lung cancer.

8. Weakened the mercury emissions rule

In late December, the EPA proposed to significantly weaken a rule restricting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by recalculating its costs and benefits. The Obama EPA, which issued the rule in 2011, estimated it would cost utilities $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually to install pollution controls and lead to $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits by reducing not only mercury, a potent neurotoxin, but also sulfur dioxide and soot, thus preventing 130,000 asthma attacks, 4,700 heart attacks, and as many as 11,000 premature deaths. The Wheeler EPA ignored the “co-benefits” of limiting sulfur dioxide and soot, and flagrantly lowballed the health benefits of curbing mercury alone at only $4 million to $6 million annually.

Most utilities have already complied with the mercury rule at a fraction of the estimated cost, but health advocates fear that this new, industry-friendly accounting method, which makes it appear that the cost to polluters far outweigh the rule’s benefits, will set a precedent for the EPA to sabotage an array of other public health protections.

9. Slammed vehicle emission rules into reverse

Last August, the EPA and the Transportation Department issued a proposal to freeze vehicle tailpipe pollution and fuel efficiency standards, rolling back a 2012 Obama-era rule requiring automakers to boost passenger vehicle fuel economy to a fleetwide average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “Make Cars Great Again” published a few days before the two agencies announced their proposal, Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao charged that the Obama-era standards—the first to limit vehicle carbon emissions—are too burdensome for automakers and “raised the cost and decreased the supply of newer, safer vehicles.”

Parroting the Trump administration’s line of reasoning, Wheeler and Chao argued that fuel-efficient cars—which weigh less than gas-guzzlers—are not as safe, a contention that has been widely debunked. In fact, a 2017 study concluded that reducing the average weight of new vehicles could result in fewer traffic fatalities.

In any case, freezing the standards at 2020 levels would be hard on the planet, not to mention Americans’ wallets, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. It would result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040, amounting to 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone—the equivalent of the annual output of 43 average size coal-fired power plants. It also would cost drivers billions of dollars. In 2040 alone, they would have to pay an additional $55 billion to fill their gas tanks. Meanwhile, the design improvements automakers have made so far to meet the standards have already saved drivers more than $86 trillion at the pump since 2012, and off-the-shelf technological fixes, the Union of Concerned Scientists says, would enable automakers to meet the original 2025 target.

10. Rescinded the Clean Power Plan

Perhaps Wheeler’s most damaging move to date came late last month when he signed a final rule to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have required coal-fired power plants to dramatically cut their carbon emissions. Yet another gift to the coal industry, Wheeler’s so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule grants states the authority to determine emissions standards but sets no targets, leaving them the option to do absolutely nothing.

Before Wheeler released the final rule, an April study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that his draft version would boost carbon emissions in 18 states and the District of Columbia and increase sulfur dioxide emissions in 19 states. The EPA’s own analysis of the draft rule, meanwhile, found that the proposal could have led to as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 due to an increase in soot, and as many as 15,000 cases of upper respiratory problems.

Reversing decades of bipartisan protections

If Wheeler truly cared about transparency, he would petition the Trump administration to change the name of his agency to “Every Polluter’s Ally.” In just 12 months, he has killed or weakened dozens of safeguards with the sole intention of bolstering polluting industries’ profit margins even after Congress slashed the corporate tax rate. As a result, millions of Americans will be drinking filthier water and breathing dirtier air, and more will suffer from serious diseases, according to his agency’s own accounting.

Wheeler and his predecessor Pruitt have sullied the bipartisan track record of one of the nation’s agencies entrusted with protecting public health and safety. So it is little wonder that three former EPA administrators who, notably, served under Republican presidents, recently sounded the alarm on Capitol Hill, urging legislators to step up their oversight of the agency and denouncing its attempts to hamstring science.

“There is no doubt in my mind that under the current administration the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards,” former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush, stated in her written testimony for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “This administration, from the beginning, has made no secret of its intention to essentially dismantle the EPA…. Therefore, I urge this committee, in the strongest possible terms, to exercise Congress’s oversight responsibilities over the actions and direction of the EPA.”

Two Major Takeaways from the Second Dietary Guidelines Public Meeting

This week, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee convened for its second public meeting at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The committee is charged with developing a scientific report that will lay the foundation for the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—the ninth edition of science-based nutrition recommendations that shape the food choices made by millions of kids, parents, and seniors every day.

These meetings are designed with transparency in mind: their purpose is to grant public access to the deliberations of the full committee as it builds out research protocols and eventually shares its findings. Last week’s meeting was the second in a series of five, and the first of two opportunities for the public to deliver comments to the committee in person.

And while this week’s public meeting made it crystal clear that the committee of experts is putting in hard work, there were also clear signs of the ways in which this work has been constrained by the Trump administration, including agency Secretaries at the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These are our two major takeaways from the second public meeting of the committee.

1. It’s clear that the committee is putting in the work

Anyone hoping to see committee members clashing ideologies or lobbying for their diets of choice would have been disappointed. The committee, of which 16 of 20 members were present, engaged in substantive discussions for the better part of six hours. Each subcommittee delivered a presentation outlining the questions it was tasked with answering, as well as the research protocols that subcommittees have developed to begin to answer those questions. (These are available online, and will be updated with each subcommittee’s progress.) Some committee members, like Dr. Joan Sabaté, raised larger questions about the core focus of the guidelines—for example, is their objective to promote good health, with a focus on foods, or good nutritional status? But the majority of the questions posed throughout the course of the day were procedural. Things like, how do we make sure we’re including the right variables and setting the correct criteria to get the best results? Or, how can we better coordinate across subcommittees to ensure consistency? From where I sat, both the technical expertise in the room and the collaborative nature of the work—among committee members and USDA staff alike—were visible from start to finish.

2. It’s also clear that this work has been constrained by the administration

Even with the full dedication of the committee, the resulting scientific report—and the Dietary Guidelines issued thereafter—is likely to fall short of its full potential to promote public health. That’s because the Trump administration has hamstrung this committee at two critical junctions in its work: it preselected the questions the committee would address, and it limited the scope of research the committee could use.

The selection of research questions is the step that can put the rest of the Dietary Guidelines process on the right path. After all, there are hundreds of ways our diet can affect our health, and exponentially more questions about how and why. If I eat more fruits and vegetables, am I less likely to get cancer? Which types of cancer? Can I drink alcohol if my child is breastfeeding? If so, how much is safe? Choosing and prioritizing these questions so that the resulting research and recommendations maximize public health benefits is key. In previous iterations of the guidelines, the committee was asked to use its collective expertise to develop these questions. But in this cycle, the USDA and HHS developed the questions first. Though the agencies have claimed this was done to promote a deliberate and transparent process, it’s also clear that this move allowed the agencies to dodge controversial questions on topics like sustainability—with profound implications for public health.

The selection of the research that will be used to answer these questions is equally important. There’s a lot of nutrition research out there—not all of it good—and the committee needs to have the best information available to do its work. That’s why it was so puzzling when the USDA made an unprecedented decision to exclude one of four types of evidence previously used by Dietary Guidelines committees: systematic reviews from external groups. In other words, research produced by institutions like the World Health Organization—no matter how high the quality—can’t be used by the committee it to make recommendations. Instead, they will now have to rely on their own systematic review. The USDA addresses this protocol change on the Dietary Guidelines website, claiming that outside systematic reviews aren’t useful because they won’t directly address the questions the committee is considering, and won’t have the same criteria. Yet previous committees, which carefully screened external reviews for quality and relevance, were able to use these reviews to save time and more effectively address questions. In fact, the 2015 committee used such reviews and reports to answer nearly half (45%) of its research questions.

Though several comments from committee members alluded to the fact that topics had been predetermined before the committee selection, there was little mention of the limitations placed on external systematic reviews. As the subcommittees work with USDA staff to begin implementing their research plans, we’ll likely find out more about if and how this hinders the process.

The next chance to get a glimpse at the committee deliberations will be on October 24-25 in Washington, DC. In the meantime, you can learn more about some of the key science issues in the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—and how to weigh in with your own public comment—on our website.

How Climate Risks Get Compounded: Louisiana Grapples With Heavy Rain, Tropical Storm Barry, and Swollen Mississippi

Clouds associated with a tropical disturbance bubbled up over the Gulf Coast on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Credit: NOAA

Heavy recent rains, along with the looming threats from tropical storm Barry, are putting New Orleans and other Louisiana communities at risk of major, life-threatening flooding.

Images from earlier this week show city streets turned into rivers as close to 9 inches of rain fell in three hours. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) is predicting that tropical storm Barry could come ashore on Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane. Meanwhile, the Mississippi is flowing very high due to heavy rains in the Midwest and South Central US earlier this year. Additional rain and storm surge from Barry mean that flooding is forecast to be extensive, and warnings have been raised that some levees in Louisiana could be overtopped or come close to that.

This chain of compound climate-related risks highlights the kinds of unprecedented threats climate change is forcing on people.

Tropical storm Barry threatens to worsen flood risks

The National Hurricane Center, local national weather offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and local officials are providing regularly updated information about the risks from Tropical Storm Barry, which has the potential to become a hurricane. Flash flooding and extended flood conditions are the greatest risks, especially given already high waters.

This morning, the NHC advisory highlighted three main dangers, which as of this writing are:

  • Storm surge, which can cause significant, and potentially life-threatening, coastal flooding. Depending on when the storm hits relative to the high tide, predictions for storm surge are:

Mouth of the Atchafalaya River to Shell Beach: 3 to 6 feet

Shell Beach to Biloxi, Mississippi: 3 to 5 feet

Intracoastal City to the Mouth of the Atchafalaya River: 3 to 5 feet

Lake Pontchartrain: 3 to 5 feet

Biloxi, Mississippi to the Mississippi/Alabama border: 2 to 4 feet

Lake Maurepas: 1 to 3 feet

  • Heavy rainfall. Total rain accumulations from Barry alone are expected to be 10 to 20 inches over south-central and southeast Louisiana and southwest Mississippi, with isolated maximum amounts of 25 inches. The slow-moving storm will produce extensive flooding over the weekend and into next week.
  • Hurricane or tropical-force winds. A hurricane warning is in effect from Intracoastal City, Louisiana to Grand Isle, Louisiana. A tropical storm watch is in effect from the east of the mouth of the Pearl River to the Mississippi/Alabama border. Tropical force wind squalls could extend as far as portions of the Alabama coast and the western Florida panhandle.

Credit: NOAA

And these risks come on top of the existing high river levels of the Mississippi. That’s why dangerous, life-threatening flooding is the number one danger from these compounding climate-related extreme events. 

As NOAA just noted, the US has just experienced its wettest 12 months on record–again. Along the Mississippi, that has contributed to record flooding and high water levels.

Keeping safe

Governor Edwards has declared a state of emergency and mandatory evacuations are underway in Plaquemines Parish and Jefferson Parish. President Trump has also declared a federal emergency in Louisiana, allowing for federal resources to be deployed to help the state prepare. The areas between Intracoastal City, Louisiana and Shell Beach, Louisiana are particularly at risk.

New Orleans Mayor Cantrell has also declared an emergency for the city and intense preparations are underway to get ready for the storm.

Residents in the path of the storm should pay careful attention to warnings from authorities, especially as flash flood conditions can change quickly and catastrophically. Flood waters often carry toxic substances, including sewage, chemicals and animal wastes, so people should be careful about being exposed to floodwaters.

Residents of New Orleans can track street closures due to flooding. Entergy is predicting widespread power outages in Louisiana. Oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico are also being evacuated, and the interruption of operations is contributing to a spike in oil prices.

No longer an isolated risk

Unfortunately, catastrophic flooding associated with extreme precipitation events is no longer an isolated risk for Louisiana. In recent years, the state has experienced multiple flood-related disasters.

In 2016, for example, the state suffered devastating floods when 20 to 30 inches of rain fell in parts of southeast Louisiana and southwest Mississippi over a period of three days. Scientists from NOAA and other colleagues showed this event was made at least 40 percent more likely and 10 percent more intense due to climate change.

This weekend the area will experience a major confluence of flood risks—high water levels on the Mississippi due to earlier rainfall, exacerbated by heavy rainfall earlier this week and now the looming threat of storm surge and extremely heavy extended rainfall associated with hurricane Barry—each of which bears the fingerprints of climate change in some way. The combined effect of these risk factors should not be underestimated and is likely to cause significant harm to existing infrastructure in the region designed to protect life and property.

Quoted in a recent news article, John Barry, a historian and former member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, called current conditions “unprecedented in recorded history.” He went on to say, “I can say that when I was on the board, we were always concerned about a surge coming up the river and overtopping the levees, and we did have conversations with the corps about it. But what we expected was a surge of 15 feet on a river running at 3 to 4 feet. That’s not what we’re going to see this time.”

St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis similarly said: “There is no protocol for this unprecedented event. We’re asking our families in St. Bernard Parish to be prepared and have a plan for your families’ safety.”

Repeated trauma to communities

Each of these extreme events falls as a fresh blow to communities, and their cumulative effect is devastating. Right now, it is important to focus on making sure those in the path of the storm have all the resources they need to keep safe, and for residents to heed all warnings from officials.

In the weeks and months to come, communities will need help getting back on their feet. Experience shows that communities of color and low-income communities often bear a disproportionate brunt of disasters and struggle the most to recover. It will be critical to target recovery efforts to meet the needs of these communities, including ensuring access to affordable housing, health services, childcare and jobs.

Action needed to address climate change

Let’s also keep the big picture in mind: climate change is increasing the risks of these types of extreme events, oftentimes compounding those risks. To truly protect communities, we cannot just react to these events as one-off disasters; we must reckon with these emerging, complex and interrelated challenges, and we must address the root cause, climate change.

We urgently need federal action to help build climate resilience and put the country on a path steep cuts in heat-trapping emissions.

If you are able and would like to support a community-based and community-led effort for equitable climate disaster recovery, please consider donating here.

(This fundraiser is administratively managed by the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy. 100% of proceeds will go directly to the United Houma Nation  and Zion Traveler’s Cooperative Center  — where local Black & Native people will use a collective process to determine how to use the funds.) 

 

NOAA

Don’t Fall for Atkins PR Ploy: For Healthy Diets, We Need Strong Government Support

Readers with an interest in food and health might have been intrigued by full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post calling for an overhaul of our nation’s official Dietary Guidelines for Americans. After all, as the ad argues, national obesity and diabetes rates have more than doubled since introduction of the Dietary Guidelines in 1980. They must be doing something wrong.

The problem with this seemingly sensible appeal is that it is misleading—not the least for being led by a company, Atkins Nutritionals, with a clear conflict of interest in that its transparent intent is to drum up business by arguing for a shift to a dubious low-carbohydrate regimen. But moreover, the ad’s basic premise is flawed: if we just had better information about healthy diets, we would all be healthier. But there’s an obvious difference between knowing what to do and being equipped with the right environment, genes, gut microbiota, health care, resources, or social support to do it successfully. And obesity in particular is a condition with a complex etiology. The notion that we could have curbed obesity rates in recent decades with stronger dietary recommendations alone is both inaccurate and insulting to the millions of Americans who wage war against their weight each day.

The reality is, with some notable exceptions, we do have strong science-based dietary recommendations. Historically, the process for developing Dietary Guidelines has employed some of the most rigorous methodology available for reviewing scientific nutrition literature. If we’re doing something wrong, it isn’t that we’re publishing Dietary Guidelines that are woefully inadequate. It’s that the food industry spends billions of dollars annually to fight medical advice, nutrition recommendations, and common sense to promote their products at the expense of our health—Atkins being one of any number of examples—and by and large, it has done so unchallenged by the federal government.

There are hundreds of decision points between accessing information and acting on it. And in all the places we make decisions about our diets, from the cafeteria to the checkout lane, we are likely to find that industry is there to whisper in our ears. By comparison, the federal government has done very little to bridge the enormous gulf between the scientific recommendations contained in the Dietary Guidelines and the effective implementation of those recommendations. Although law requires that the official dietary guidelines be integrated across all federal agencies carrying out federal food and nutrition programs—programs used by approximately one in four Americans over the course of a year—there is little enforcement or accountability to ensure that this happens. Our country spends $3.5 trillion in health care costs each year, the vast majority of which are attributable to chronic disease. The government allocates no funding to the implementation of our federal nutrition guidance.

So, yes, we need to take drastic action to change the current trajectory of population health. But overhauling the Dietary Guidelines isn’t going to do it. To counter the market power and sophisticated techniques of the food industry to promote unhealthful eating, the public sector should be implementing measures commensurate with the gravity of our public health crisis—particularly when it comes to the industry’s deliberate practice of influencing lifelong eating patterns by heavily targeting their advertising to children. This starts with thorough integration of the Dietary Guidelines into public spaces where federal nutrition programs operate, but it should also manifest in stronger funding and support for policy, systems, and environmental changes within the private sector. Our health care system, in particular, would benefit enormously from greater investment in nutrition, both for the prevention and treatment of disease.

That’s the political economy of the matter.

Now, for the nutrition science. The ad calls for a “controlled carbohydrate eating approach” as a viable option for Americans. While there isn’t a set definition of a controlled carbohydrate diet, it sounds similar to carbohydrate counting—a legitimate dietary approach, endorsed by organizations like the American Diabetes Association, that can help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood glucose. If the Dietary Guidelines were designed to cater to different chronic disease states (and they’re not), this would be reasonable enough. Controlled carbohydrate diets would, indeed, be a choice for Americans with diabetes.

But the signers of the letter aren’t just talking about diabetes; they’re talking about obesity, too. Which makes me think they’re not really talking about carbohydrate counting; they’re talking about low-carbohydrate, or low-carb, diets. Which would make a whole lot of sense for a company called Atkins Nutritionals. Unfortunately, there have been mixed results at best on the efficacy of low-carb diets, particularly when it comes to long-term health outcomes. And even where research shows promising results, the success of the low-carb diet depends on what you put on your plate instead—and your ability to stick with it.

Don’t get me wrong: we have a complicated relationship with carbs, and it’s hurting our health. As a nation, we eat far too much refined grains and not enough whole grains. Research also suggests that highly processed foods—of which refined grains are a common ingredient—are also likely harming our health by promoting weight gain. But the answer isn’t simply to eat less. It’s also to eat better. Science continues to show that whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet, and can help prevent chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and—you guessed it—type 2 diabetes.

Readers concerned that their eating choices are their own business—and not any affair of the government’s—should reflect that the nation’s dismal public health status (intrinsically and by contrast with other wealthy nations) is both a first-order crisis as well as a massive market failure, reflecting the disproportionate power of industry messaging over that of the public sector. Trillions of dollars of profits are gained on one side and trillions of dollars of healthcare costs are lost on the other, not to mention the years and quality of lives lost. The market failure is clear in that—contrary to the expectation that in a market economy the best outcomes for all are produced with open competition and perfect information—in the real world, the more profit the food sector makes, the sicker we all seem to get. Per the social contract that undergirds all modern democracies, it is the proper role of government to step in when such obvious and catastrophic market failure occurs.

Rather than undermine or relinquish the rigorously evidence-based Dietary Guidelines—least of all in favor of a niche special-interest business—we should double down on the government’s role and responsibility to the public. As we and many others have documented, we must create social and economic conditions where access to nourishing food and routine physical activity result in default healthy lifestyles.

 

PFAS Amendments Form a Blueprint for Remedying National Toxic Threat

The House of Representatives will vote today on the inclusion of several PFAS-related amendments to the House National Defense Authorization Act that will help us to understand the extent of the PFAS public health threat and its health impacts, limit current PFAS pollution, and clean up legacy contamination on DOD and Superfund sites and nearby communities. These are all commonsense measures that should have already been in place to protect us from these chemicals, but because of a failure of our regulatory system and industry hiding scientific data on its products, we have waited too long for policy remedies. The inclusion of PFAS amendments on the Senate and House versions of the NDAA are a great first step toward much-needed reform to remedy the PFAS contamination situation we find ourselves in today, and we hope to see the two chambers work together to form the strongest package possible in conference that then becomes law.

What would the bill do?

The NDAA is comprehensive legislation that funds the Defense Department, so the PFAS section is just a sliver of the law. The House and Senate versions of the NDAA have a lot in common but have different amendments tacked on that bulk them up. They both attack the PFAS problem from three key fronts:

Understanding the scope of PFAS contamination and exposure

The House and Senate versions both contain provisions that would improve government tracking of PFAS contamination and require blood testing for DOD firefighters. The Senate version of the NDAA includes legislation that would require that USGS and water utilities monitor PFAS contaminants in water. We recommend that the House version include amendments that would provide an additional $5 million for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) health exposure assessment (#518), expand water quality monitoring (#7), and create an online health database for military members (#165).

Regulating PFAS manufacturing, use, and disposal

The Senate version of the bill includes a phaseout of PFAS in firefighting foam by 2023 (which is a quicker phaseout than the House’s deadline of 2029), requires the EPA to set an enforceable standard for PFOA and PFOS within two years and that it list PFAS on the Toxic Release Inventory, which would require manufacturers to report discharges of the chemicals into the environment and notify communities. We recommend that the House version also include faster phase out of PFAS in firefighting foam (#512), a requirement for community notification of DOD PFAS testing (#94), set limits on PFAS discharges into drinking water supplies under the Clean Water Act (#665), and regulate the disposal and incineration of PFAS materials (#352).

Cleaning up PFAS contamination

The Senate version would require the Secretary of Defense to set up cooperative agreements with states facing contamination from military sites to remediate sites expeditiously. We recommend that the House version go a step farther by requiring that EPA designate PFAS as a hazardous substance, which would require responsible parties to clean it up (#537), hasten cleanup of military sites contaminated with PFAS (#538), and also charge GAO with studying DOD cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites (#159).

What’s next for the bill?

The House will vote today on the inclusion of these amendments into its NDAA package. Once the House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the NDAA, they will have to conference the two bills to create a resolution that can pass both chambers in the fall and make its way onto President Trump’s desk. We are encouraging members of Congress to ensure that this version is as strong as possible and includes the best elements of both versions, including language classifying PFAS as a hazardous substance, listing it under the Toxic Release Inventory, and setting an enforceable standard for drinking water.

The fight continues

We are encouraged that there is bicameral legislation on the table which includes provisions that will help chip away at the PFAS public health issue and signal to the government that urgent action is needed. Communities impacted by PFAS contamination firsthand are tired of lip service—they just want clean water. EPA and DOD should be working tirelessly to understand how to detect PFAS, how to best clean it up and dispose of it, and how to mitigate related health impacts. EPA should also think about regulating PFAS as a class of chemicals rather than on a case by case basis, because as Linda Birnbaum (departing head of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences) affirmed in her testimony before the Senate this year, “approaching PFAS as a class for assessing exposure and biological impact is the most prudent approach to protect public health.” There is also much more than can be done with regard to detecting and regulating PFAS air pollution, testing and regulating PFAS presence in food byway of food packaging and through the use application of PFAS-containing sludge on U.S. crops, furthering research on health impacts associated with PFAS exposure and to develop safer alternatives to PFAS, and making sure companies are being held accountable for causing this problem in the first place. We will be pushing for continued policy fixes that incorporate the best available science on PFAS.

For now, we want the House version of the NDAA to be as strong as possible when it goes to conference. Call your representative today and tell them to vote in favor of amendments that will mean more action to protect us from PFAS.

 

How Alaska’s Recent Heat Wave May Worsen Climate Warming

Over the holiday weekend, three cities in Alaska experienced record heat with temperatures in Anchorage reaching 90°F. In a city where local July temperatures averaged 61°F in 2018, this extreme heat illustrates the dramatic effects of climate change in northern regions of the world. These record-breaking temperatures, however, could further intensify climate warming by priming Alaskan landscapes to release carbon and heat-trapping gases in two major ways.

First, extreme heat in Alaska may worsen climate change by accelerating the thaw of carbon-rich permafrost. Permafrost, which underlies most of Alaska, locks away vast quantities of carbon in continuously frozen earth.  As temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, this carbon becomes vulnerable to decomposition, which can release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. As a result, extreme heat, like that seen over the weekend, may initiate a positive feedback loop (warming begets carbon release begets warming, etc.) that threatens to further exacerbate climate warming.

Permafrost distribution in Alaska (purple shows continuous permafrost, pink shows discontinuous permafrost, and green shows sporadic permafrost). Data from National Snow & Ice Data Center.

Second, extreme heat can also prime Alaska’s landscapes for wildfires, which release huge amounts of heat trapping gases as they burn. Alaska’s soils are chock full of carbon, both in permafrost and the overlain active layer that thaws out each summer. By drying out these soils and above-ground vegetation, high temperatures create conditions that favor not only ignition, but also fire spread.

Recent wildfires have already surpassed historic return intervals and intensities, burning both a larger forested area and deeper into carbon-rich soils, magnifying the emissions from Alaskan wildfires. In a truly unfortunate synergism, wildfires can also accelerate permafrost thaw by removing the insulating active layer.

To avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, we must reduce emissions and protect what carbon is already stored, including carbon stored below ground in Alaska. While protecting permafrost carbon will require global reductions in emissions and stabilization of global temperatures, Alaskan wildfires present an unusual opportunity – one where we can intervene and reduce emissions, using a technique (fire management) with which we are already well acquainted.  Despite this opportunity, fire management is largely overlooked as an approach to reduce emissions.

As global temperatures climb, extreme heat, like we saw over the holiday, not only harms the communities that live there but also threatens to increase emissions out of Alaska and further destabilize our climate.  We ignore these feedbacks at our peril, because what happens in Alaska will have consequences for us all.

Censoring a Senior Analyst at the State Department for Telling the Truth is a Damned Shame

Image: C-SPAN

Think of it. You are an accomplished scientist in academia and decide to serve your country by going into public service. You do your job, advising the State Department, the Administration and Congress on critical security risks like climate change, based on a huge amount of well-established evidence. But then the White House censors your testimony to the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, apparently on the theory that if it doesn’t get in the Congressional Record the risks will dissipate. What do you do?

Dr. Rod Schoonover, a senior intelligence analyst at the State Department subjected to exactly those circumstances, today decided to resign rather than be prevented from doing the job he entered public service to do. Let’s be clear. His job was not to repeat political talking points for the Administration. There are plenty of political appointees in the federal government who can do that. That is their job. His job was to analyze information and tell the Administration, Congress and the American people what it means based on his scientific and intelligence expertise. And the information is telling Dr. Schoonover and many others inside and outside the US government that climate change poses grave risks to the country. The information basis? The US National Climate Assessment (here are three blogs about it from my colleagues), produced by literally hundreds of scientists inside and outside of government.

Perhaps the White House is happy Dr. Schoonover resigned. But I am not. I don’t know him personally but certainly respect his expertise. And I believe the State Department needs such expertise. Our credibility in the world and our ability to build strong alliances depend upon it. We can’t deny fundamental evidence and expect others to take us seriously, let alone solve real problems. More importantly, I think the federal government broadly, in all its agencies, needs highly trained professionals who will put their skills to use for the American people. To tell us the truth, unvarnished by what is politically expedient. If our public policies and decisions are not based on science, they will be wholly political. That can’t turn out well.

No doubt Dr. Schoonover will go on to continue to do good work and contribute to science and society. And so will many other scientists and professionals at all stages of their careers. But we should be encouraging them to engage in public service. Censoring a senior scientist’s work does just the opposite. We all lose out. That’s a damned shame, on this Administration.

Psychologists and Pediatricians Know that Families Belong Together: A Call to Action

As family medical and mental health professionals, society entrusts us not only to care for children, but to protect children when they are in harm’s way. It is for that reason, and simply as compassionate human beings, that we write with profound concern about the ongoing conditions for migrant children and families at the US border, from the ongoing horror of family separation to the deteriorating medical, physical, educational, and sanitary conditions of vulnerable families. We have watched countless families flee violence and danger, only to find themselves newly at risk at our borders. If anyone in our profession knew of children living in conditions that our colleagues have witnessed at the border, we would face professional sanctions if we failed to report our concerns to child protection services. 

We choose our vocations to protect and nurture children, the most important natural resource for any society’s resilience and sustainability. When we are not aiding children in danger, we work with them to develop resilience to overcome adversities and traumas that they may face. Yet perhaps more powerful than either healing or helping is to advocate for equitable systemic change that will minimize adverse childhood events and traumas.

This is important within, at, and even beyond our nation’s borders. Our work is to ensure that young people may grow up in healthier conditions to reach their full potential as thriving and contributing members of society. Addressing the human rights crises at our border and in the northern triangle, both of which US policy has and can impact, would prevent more of the horrors we have been seeing along the Rio Grande.

No Amount of Detention is Safe for Children

South Texas Border – U.S. Customs and Border Protection process unaccompanied children after they have crossed the border into the United States. Photo: US Customs and Border Patrol

The science is unambiguous that adverse events, including the conditions these families are fleeing and those at our borders, have a profound negative impact on emotional, psychological, and even physical development. While one only needs compassion and common sense to know that children need to be with their families, the scientific literature on attachment tells us the same thing. Children need the consistent presence of a caregiver to grow healthy, happy and resilient, and contribute to society.

The forced separation from caregivers is traumatic to children and families, as well as to many ordinary Americans who have witnessed the photos and heard the cries of the children coming through our screens. This is why in 2018 the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics called this policy “nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse.” Similarly, psychological organizations have made statements condemning family separations and acknowledging the negative consequences and costs for families and for society down the road. This persistent “toxic stress” and Adverse Childhood Experiences disrupts development, causing profound and lifelong damage to the brains and bodies of young people, costing our society far more in the long run.  Recent news brings confounding and infuriating reports of physicians being unable to visit children in the facilities.

Aerial view of the detention facility in Yuma, Ariz. as part of an ongoing response to the current border security and humanitarian crisis along the Southwest border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Despite the 2018 executive order to end migrant child separation, each week brings still more reports describing significant numbers of children who continue to be separated and held in inhumane conditions. Despite the binding legal settlement requiring that children are held under safe and sanitary conditions, the reports show that children are deprived of basic necessities such as soap and toothbrushes. One 15-year-old girl described caring for another child, age 5, in the “Ice Box,” sleeping on a mat on a concrete floor, and saying “There are no activities, only crying.” As pediatric health care professionals, if we knew of children living in the community being treated this way, we would be legally and ethically obligated to report to child protective services for abuse and neglect. From the perspective of child welfare and professional ethics, why should it make any difference whether the treatment is at the hands of an abusive adult in the community, or at the hands of our own government? Even if instant reunifications were possible, the impact on traumatized caregivers and children would be lasting.

We must remember too that the current crisis exists in a larger context of  increasing racism in society, and increasing fear and dehumanization of immigrant and refugee children. Racism itself is a public health issue, impacting both physical and mental health, with the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine recently calling for adolescent health professionals to address racism and promote equity at the individual as well as societal level.

All of these refugees are members of the human family. Most Americans living today had trauma as part of their family’s immigration story. For most, that trauma began to heal, not fester once they reached American shores. One of the authors of this piece, Dr. Vo is the son of Vietnamese refugees, and his partner was a child refugee herself in the last century. The other author of this piece, Dr. Willard, had ancestors that fled economic and political hardship in the 19th century, his partner’s family escaped Europe during WWII. Their own experiences have motivated them to continue to make the US better for the next generation, and continue to ensure the promise of our nation.

In a deeper sense, this debate is about far more than soap and toothbrushes. Children need to feel loved, they need to feel cared for, they need to feel protected and safe. This is a fundamental human need, and one of our most sacred duties as professionals who care about children. What’s more, parents, and by extension, societies need to love and care for vulnerable, so that they may continue into the future.

Families Belong Together rally on the east lawn of the Iowa State Capitol. Photo: Phil Roeder.

Call to Action

With that, we call for an immediate end to the detention of migrant children. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has recently reaffirmed, no amount of detention is safe for a child. All children have the right to basic humanitarian standards including medical care, nutrition, and sanitation. Recent reports have suggested that doctors have not been given access to children under five to assess health conditions in some facilities. We ask for this in a nonpartisan spirit of inclusiveness and compassion for people on all sides of this situation, including the separated families, their loved ones and advocates, as well as those who are suffering even as they implement this inhumane policy.

We were raised learning that the American dream, for immigrants and residents, was a better life for your children. Harming children and families who are seeking safety hurts not only those seeking refuge, but all of us who believe in continuing to make America an idea and place we believe in.

 

Dzung X. Vo, MD, FSAHM, FAAP, is an academic pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine, an author, and a mindfulness practitioner and teacher. His clinical and academic work is founded on promoting resilience and positive youth development so that our young people can thrive and grow into contributing, caring adults. He is a Vietnamese American Canadian, the son of Vietnamese refugees, and a dual US and Canadian citizen currently living and working in Vancouver, British Columbia.  

Dr. Christopher Willard (PsyD) is a clinical psychologist and author educational consultant based in Boston. His clinical work and research primarily focus on resilience and mindfulness. He teaches part time at Harvard Medical School.

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.

US Customs and Border Patrol

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