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Despite Rhetoric, Coal Jobs Not Set to Increase in the Future

Given the administration’s rhetoric around coal, you’d think that the president sprinkles coal dust on his breakfast cereal each morning. That’s not true—well… at least as far as I know, anyway—but the problem is that there is a great deal of misinformation out there around coal (and honestly, on a whole lot of other issues too).

For example, the president and his senior appointees continually tout an increase in coal mining jobs over the last year as evidence that they are delivering on campaign promises to bring back the coal industry—such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s wildly wrong talking point about coal jobs last year.

Late last week, Reuters reported that while 2017 saw an increase of 771 coal mining jobs nationally, in fact most coal states actually saw coal mining jobs decline. And this week, a piece in the New York Times proclaims that coal’s decline continues, despite efforts by the administration to roll back environmental safeguards.

What do all these numbers really mean? Here at UCS, we believe that facts and evidence and science really matter, especially these days—and so today I’m kicking off a blog series that I like to call “Coal in Context” to offer some facts and perspective on coal. For this post, I’ll focus on jobs.

A person behind every number

First off, let me emphasize that tables and charts of jobs numbers can feel a bit de-humanizing. Ten jobs created might not sound like a lot, but it might well mean the world to one of those people that landed it!

So, in trying to put those 771 new jobs in context, I don’t mean to imply in any way that those additions aren’t meaningful. Coming from a coal mining family, I understand in my blood what those jobs mean—taking care of a family and providing new opportunities for your children.

Here, though, I want to look at the big picture questions—what do 771 new jobs mean in the context of the broader economy, and are they an indication of a new trend? Spoiler alert: there’s no evidence of a resurgence in the coal industry.

Employment in context

From a big picture perspective, is the administration succeeding in reviving the coal industry as they promised and frequently claim? One metric to evaluate that question (and there are others we’ll explore in this series) is jobs.

According to unreleased and preliminary data from the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), in 2017 net coal mining employment increased nationally by 771 jobs, to a total of 54,819 (an increase of 1.4 percent over the 2016 number). But as the Reuters piece points out, in most coal states the number of coal mining jobs actually declined.

For the top five states in terms of coal mining employment in 2016 (West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Illinois) only West Virginia and Pennsylvania posted employment gains from 2016 to 2017. Notably, Pennsylvania’s gain will be erased early this year with the announcement of the closure of a mine in Greene County that will shed almost 400 jobs in the next few months—a painful reality for the rural community southwest of Pittsburgh, as the NYT article so vividly describes. Beyond the top five coal states, Virginia and Alabama also posted significant gains in coal mining employment (246 and 450 jobs, respectively).

Based on preliminary data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, this chart shows the change in coal mining jobs by state from 2016 to 2017.

West Virginia far outpaced other states in terms of a net increase in coal jobs, at 1,345 jobs added in 2017. So, is the president correct when he claimed in a recent interview that, “I’m the one that saved coal. I’m the one that created jobs. You know West Virginia is doing fantastically now.”

First, there’s no evidence that this uptick will change the long-term trajectory of West Virginia’s coal mining jobs. West Virginia’s coal mining employment peaked in the middle of the last century, with around 130,000 jobs in 1940. Even with last year’s increase, the state’s total coal mining employment was still just 13,972—still just a shadow of what it once was.

Coal Mining Employment in West Virginia Since 1880. Data Sources: 1880 to 1982, West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training (http://www.wvminesafety.org/historicprod.htm); 1983 to 2015, MSHA data downloaded from OpenSourceCoal.org; 2016-2017, recent and unpublished data from MSHA.

Over the latter half of the last century, West Virginia’s employment numbers fell steadily, due to increasing mechanization of underground mines and a shift toward large scale mining operations out West. Further, in the last decade or so, cheap and abundant natural gas has steadily eaten away at coal’s market share overall. Electricity generation from coal stood at 51 percent in 2008, but by 2016 had fallen to 31 percent. During that time, the cost of producing energy from renewable sources like wind and solar also fell dramatically.

As much as we hear about coal jobs, you might think that it represents a sizable fraction of the West Virginia workforce. But if you look at the total number of people employed in 2016 in the state (the last year for which the Bureau of Economic Analysis has data)—892,900—the coal miners employed in 2016 represent just 1.4 percent of the state’s workforce. (It’s true that coal mining jobs help support jobs in other sectors of the economy, particularly in rural communities, but let’s save that for a future post.) According to West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, which publishes the Business Outlook for 2018-2022, the state’s three largest economic sectors in 2016 were Government (20 percent); Trade, Transportation, and Utilities (20 percent); and Education and Health Services (18 percent). Natural Resources and Mining (a broader sector than coal alone that includes natural gas, for example) represented just 3 percent of the state’s economy in 2016.

And contrary to the president’s assertion about how fantastic West Virginia is now doing, the WVU report highlights a few critical issues facing the state, including the nation’s lowest labor force participation rate (53 percent), a declining and aging population, and improving health and education outcomes to make the state’s workforce more attractive to new businesses.

So why the increase?

Analysts who follow the industry agree that the uptick in coal production, which helped spur the increase in coal mining employment, had nothing to do with a change in federal policy. As this analysis shows, domestic coal consumption continued to decline last year. Domestic coal production increased because of a growth in exports and a decline in inventory draws. As the Rhodium Group puts it,

“A recovery in Asian coal demand, particularly for steel making, combined with supply cuts in China and Australia boosted global seaborne coal prices… This made US exports more economically viable, increasing Jan-Oct volumes 70% from the same period in 2016…”

The temporary coal supply disruption in Australia resulted from infrastructure damage due to Cyclone Debbie and led to China purchasing more coal from the United States in 2017 to make steel.

Surely the administration’s grand plan for increasing Appalachian coal mining jobs isn’t to promote Chinese steel production?

Economic models also suggest that natural gas prices are the main driver for coal’s economic competitiveness (or rather, lack thereof)—not environmental regulations. In another report, the Rhodium Group found that domestic coal consumption is expected to decline if natural gas prices remain near current levels or if renewable costs fall more quickly than expected—despite the administration’s plans to rollback Obama-era environmental standards. WVU projects that the recent uptick in coal jobs will come to an end, citing ongoing uncertainty about future coal use.

The bottom line

The reality is that a relatively small bump in coal mining employment does not suggest a major resurgence of the coal industry. It’s critical to put the numbers in context and understand the reasons behind the change in order to prepare for the future that’s actually to come. Sadly, this administration’s interest in reckoning with reality seems to be in short supply.

Still, there is hope. Folks in Coal Country understand that coal isn’t returning to its heyday anytime soon. Intrepid business leaders get that—and are hard at work creating over 100 jobs in the heart of Coal Country. Community leaders and folks all around the country are pushing Congress to pass the RECLAIM Act, which would free up existing money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and put people to work cleaning up old mine sites—with an emphasis on projects that support economic diversification. If the president really wants to help, this would be great place to start.

This is a series, so if you have ideas on other coal-related topics and questions that I might explore in future blog posts, please leave them in the comments!

Science and the Law: Two Pillars of Truth Intersect at Political Boundaries

2018 is promising to be far more consequential than your average midterm election year. A number of landmark Supreme Court and state court decisions could literally transform parts of the country’s political landscape.  Beginning with Gill v Whitford, the case heard by the Supreme Court last October alleging that the state of Wisconsin’s legislative districting plan diluted the votes of Wisconsin Democrats, and a similar suit brought by Maryland Republicans, along with districting plans recently thrown out in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, the practice of extreme partisan gerrymandering is now being challenged on multiple fronts.

Unfortunately, while few plans (Pennsylvania is an important exception) will likely be redrawn in time for state primaries, the Supreme Court’s opinions in Gill and Benisek (Maryland), expected in June, will keep the issue salient throughout Congressional campaigns, regardless of the outcome. In an era characterized as “post-truth,” with claims of “fake news” polluting our discourse, there is something redemptive to following this legal and scientific debate. Arguably the two strongest truth-generating discourses of our civilization, science and the law, are intersecting on this question of how to fairly map out areas for electoral conflict. It reminds us of just how precious truth is to this whole civilizing project.

First principles

First, the question of which constitutional principles are at stake is being addressed. In previous gerrymandering cases and those involving enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, claims of voting rights violations have relied on the Equal Protection Clause and a demonstration that a districting plan dilutes the value of some votes over others. Whitford followed this path in part, as did the North Carolina case, and the Pennsylvania plaintiffs, in State Supreme Court, successfully argued that their plan violated the equal protection guarantee in the state constitution. However, plaintiffs in that case were also successful in getting the plan thrown out on the grounds that it violated state free speech protections.

This potential of a First Amendment protection against gerrymandering was hinted at by Justice Kennedy in the Supreme Court case that first removed the threat of judicial restraint from state legislatures seeking maximum partisan advantage, Vieth v Jubelier. Taking the hint, plaintiffs in Gill also claimed a free speech violation, as did the Maryland Republicans in Benisek and plaintiffs in the successful North Carolina case. Two courts, one state and one federal, have thus already declared partisan gerrymanders unconstitutional based on violations of equal protection and free speech.

A third approach also received judicial support in the North Carolina case, but was rejected by a federal court in Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs in North Carolina successfully argued that extreme partisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts violates Article I, section 4 of the Constitution, the Elections Clause, which delegates to Congress federal authority over the “Times, Places and Manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives…” The logic of this claim rests on an interpretation of the Clause as a safeguard that protects the House of Representatives against manipulation from state legislatures. In a related vein, during Gill arguments, Justice Gorsuch pondered whether or not these cases actually fell under the Guarantee Clause, which obliges the federal government to provide a republican (majority rule) form of government in each of the states.

Testing principles

Wherever the Constitutional violation might ultimately be grounded, the actual intersection of law and science comes in the standards used to establish the truth of a constitutional violation having occurred. Indeed, language between the two fields has become a little slippery here, as there are scientific standards that scientists develop, and constitutional standards developed through case law, such that the attempt by scientists to “constitutionalize” their standards or “quantify” the Constitution has become a familiar criticism of defendants. Nevertheless, most scientists are quite clear, as were professors Gaddie and Grofman in their Gill (and other) Amicus Brief, that “social scientists provide metrics, courts specify standards.”

The scientific gold metric that has emerged over the last several decades is partisan symmetry. Given that proportionality (where a party’s seat share is equivalent to its vote share) is currently a higher standard than what the Constitution demands, a symmetry test measures how disproportionality is allocated between parties. If one party is disadvantaged, as in the extreme case where one party wins a majority of the vote but fails to win a majority of seats, that districting plan is asymmetric.

Thanks to advances over recent decades, symmetry can be measured numerous ways, with bias, median-mean gap and efficiency gap being the most widely cited in these cases. These are complimentary measures in so far as they converge on clear cut examples of partisan gerrymanders. Further, advances in spatial and computational science now make it possible to assess how durable a gerrymander is through simulated vote swings and the sampling of alternative plans that meet standard districting criteria.

“Advances in statistical and empirical theory and application” like these, noted Judge Wynn (North Carolina) in one of the more eloquent decisions to date, “have the potential to allow parties, experts, and amici to provide courts with more rigorous and probative evidence,” and he warned against those who would dismiss science as gobbledygook: “The Constitution does not require the federal courts to act like Galileo’s Inquisition and enjoin consideration of new academic theories, and the knowledge gained therefrom, simply because such theories provide a new understanding of how to give effect to our long-established governing principles.”

Establishing the truth

Just how the Supreme Court will ultimately apply the science is not clear, but if they do, it is likely to take some form of three-part standard that uses the test of symmetry as evidence of effect, and a statistical estimate of how durable, or unresponsive, a plan is to vote swings compared to alternative or historical plans, which could also serve to demonstrate intent and/or invalidate alternative explanations for the degree of observed asymmetry. These sorts of applications were developed by the lower courts, in addition to use of non-quantitative evidence of intent, including, in the case of North Carolina, public acknowledgement of the partisan intent of the designers.  It won’t always be that easy.

The final truth to be established through this discourse is “how much is too much?” While it is unlikely that a constitutional standard against gerrymandering will tolerate no asymmetry, or “as little as possible,” courts are not likely to overturn just the few extreme cases like Wisconsin or Virginia, where majority rule has repeatedly been violated. The crucial question is whether any voter whose party loses at least one seat through gerrymandering is entitled to relief. Whatever the decision, science and the law will continue this truth-generating application of facts to principles, in a way that hopefully upgrades our capacity to democratically address collective disagreements.

Building Momentum After the Tax Bill: A Call for Scientists to Remain Engaged

Photo: Brandon Mejia, AZPM

The recent process of moving proposed tax changes into law was a demonstration of graduate students’ power to influence change. While many may feel that the time to speak out is over – it’s not. Due to the projected $1.4 trillion increase in the federal deficit resulting from dramatic reductions in tax rates for corporations and wealthiest of individuals, the government will likely be unable to support current and future tax funded programs at current levels. Without tax revenue flowing into the government, it is inevitable that discussions will begin where cuts to entitlement and discretionary funding are put on the table.

The scientific community must voice their objections to discretionary funding cuts that would reduce research funding at the NIH and NSF, as well as cuts to entitlement spending that funds non-defense discretionary spending for agencies such as the EPA and FDA. To accomplish this we must harness the collective power of graduate students and others to protect the research enterprise and graduate education. We learned during the latest tax legislation process that concerned students needed advice and resources related to proposed legislation and the potential downstream effects if passed into law.

While many concerned individuals turned to their universities for guidance, administrators and staff were not always prepared to provide the necessary information, as this is not their normal role. It’s important for individuals and institutions to understand where they can turn to for guidance related to policy. As a community, we are fortunate to be supported by a number of policy groups, including the Coalition for the Life Sciences, Research America, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Additionally, advocacy (Future of Research, Rescuing Biomedical Research, March for Science) and professional organizations (American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society for Cell Biology, Genetics Society of America, and National Postdoc Association) are also resources for information or to actively engage in advocacy efforts. All stakeholders in the community should provide resources as well as understand those resources. This will enable rapid response to proposed policy changes in the future.

We urge the entire scientific community to remain vigilant and policy-engaged, reaching out to congressional representatives to voice concerns and priorities. Connect with local graduate school personnel, inquire about institutional legislative interactions, and learn about how institutional efforts ensure understanding and inform action for legislation that affects students and science policy. Discuss policy concerns with directors of graduate studies, graduate office support staff, students, and faculty. Engage with professional societies and science policy groups to better understand community resources and collaborate on solutions. Openly and regularly explore issues that impact graduate education and the scientific enterprise. Practice science advocacy and communication so that when the next threat occurs, we are ready to mobilize.

Future of Research wants to empower early career scientists to speak up and advocate for policies that support the research enterprise and higher education. This requires that, as a community, we have a unified voice of the value of graduate education and its positive impact on the economy and medical advancements. Please share useful resources and suggestions with us.

 

McKenzie Carlisle is a social and health psychologist trained in conducting translational and transdisciplinary science. She has been an advocate for early career scientists at both the institutional and national levels and is currently working for a Salt Lake City-based biotechnology company supporting cross-disciplinary projects.

Dr. Sonia Hall commits her career to building engagement in the spirit of developing innovative programs to enhance the training experience of graduate students and postdocs. Sonia received her PhD in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Kansas and invested two years in postdoctoral training at the University of Massachusetts Medical School – one-year in a research laboratory followed by a year training in academic administration at the Center for Biomedical Career Development with Cynthia Fuhrmann. Sonia has led the development of multiple educational outreach initiatives, including building the DNA Day Network in collaboration with UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Kansas.

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.

Three good things Massachusetts is doing on climate

Photo: Rappaport Center

Three recent steps in Massachusetts show that the Governor Charlie Baker’s administration continues to make progress identifying solutions to pressing climate challenges:

  1. This week, the Baker administration announced a new commission on the future of transportation. This commission will bring together 18 experts, including UCS President Ken Kimmell, to help address some of the critical challenges facing transportation in Massachusetts.  This work is important, as transportation is now the largest source of pollution in the state. Major questions to be addressed include: how we make electric vehicles a mainstream choice for consumers, how we can best manage the transition to automated and shared vehicle fleets, and how we can protect our transportation system from the impacts of climate change. We are excited to play a role in this discussion and look forward to helping the administration think through these critical issues.
  2. Building on Governor Baker’s 2016 Executive Order establishing a Climate Strategy, yesterday the Baker administration further announced $2 million in new funding for climate adaptation projects. As the dramatic scenes of coastal flooding from Winter Storm Grayson demonstrated, Massachusetts remains vulnerable to coastal flooding, among other impacts. Now, if the legislature follows suit by passing the Comprehensive Adaptation Management Plan bill (S.2149), Massachusetts will truly be getting serious about our climate risks.
  3. Finally, in December the Baker administration launched their Housing Choice initiative, a $10 million fund that will provide grants to cities and towns in the state who meet certain criteria for new housing construction. Solving the housing affordability crisis remains a critical challenge for the Commonwealth. As rents in the metro Boston area increase, low income residents are increasingly left behind or pushed into outer suburbs where they face higher transportation costs and produce greater transportation emissions.

Taken together, these polices demonstrate that the Baker administration remains engaged on many of the critical climate issues facing Massachusetts.

The challenge for the Baker administration and folks in the legislature in 2018 is to figure out how we are going to pay for all of these investments. The housing and adaption challenges facing the Commonwealth will require far greater investments than $10 and $2 million respectively, while building a clean and modern transportation system will require billions in new funding.

One approach would be to build on the cap and invest model of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. This policy has successfully cut emissions while raising millions for efficiency and clean energy projects in the electricity sector. A similar approach covering new areas such as transportation fuels could provide the state with over $450 million in dedicated funding for climate projects every year.

This November, Massachusetts was one of seven Northeast states to join in a statement at the Bonn climate talks announcing that they were considering a program modeled after RGGI in the transportation sector. We look forward to working with the Baker administration as they consider this and other approaches to key climate questions over the coming year.

Should the President Have Sole Authority to Launch a Nuclear Attack? In the Age of Trump, Experts Offer an Alternate Plan

Flickr/Creative Commons/Pierre J.

More than a million people in Hawaii thought it was time to say their final alohas. A state cellphone alert announced that nuclear missiles were heading their way. “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii,” the January 6 text read. “Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

Fortunately, it was a false alarm. It turned out that a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee had pushed the wrong button during an early morning shift-change safety drill. At a press conference later that day, Hawaii Gov. David Ige promised that no single person would be able to send such a warning again. The next day, the agency announced it now would require that two people issue an alert.

Good idea. But an even better idea would be to take the same approach to the US nuclear button, the one that President Trump insists is bigger than North Korea’s.

In a paper published Wednesday in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, two experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and a University of Maryland national security specialist recommend that US policy require at least two other officials sign off on such a critical decision.

“There’s no reason to maintain our current, unnecessarily dangerous policy,” said paper co-author Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the UCS Global Security Program. “There are viable alternatives that would allow other officials to take part in any decision to use nuclear weapons, whether it’s first use or a response to a nuclear attack.”

Not even a ‘stable genius’ is reassuring enough

Putting aside the fact that the nuclear button is actually a briefcase that for some reason is called a football, the US president has the sole authority to order the launch of a nuclear weapon, for any reason and at any time. That’s terrifying, regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office. No one person, not even our current, self-described “stable genius,” should have the license to start a nuclear war. As former Defense Secretary William Perry has said, “Certainly a decision that momentous for all of civilization should have the kind of checks and balances on executive powers called for by our Constitution.”

President Trump’s ignorance about nuclear weapons and his chest-thumping threats to incinerate North Korea have prompted some members of Congress to take action. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last January that would prohibit the president from ordering a first nuclear use without Congress declaring war, and last fall the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the sole authority question for the first time in four decades.

But don’t bet on Congress to pass legislation on the matter any time soon. The Markey-Lieu bill does not have the requisite bipartisan support, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who had previously warned that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric could put the country “on the path to World War III,” told reporters after the November 14 hearing that he did “not see a legislative solution today.” Something could happen “over the course of the next several months,” he added, “but I don’t see it today.”

Who’ll be the next in line?

A few days after Corker’s hearing, Columbia University professors Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman published a proposal to constrain the president’s sole authority. They suggest a protocol requiring the secretary of defense and the attorney general to certify the validity and legality of a presidential first-use order. The certification requirement would not apply if the United States were attacked, however, because Betts and Waxman presume it would delay a response.

Gronlund and her co-authors, UCS Global Security Program Co-Director David Wright and University of Maryland School of Public Policy professor Steve Fetter, agree that at least two other officials should be involved, but recommend the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives, the next two officials in the presidential chain of succession.

Tapping officials from the presidential succession list has three main advantages, Gronlund et al. explain. First, they have political legitimacy. Both are already designated by law to become commander-in-chief and assume authority to order a nuclear attack. Second, they would provide democratic input. Both were elected, and one—the speaker—can act on behalf of Congress. Finally, unlike the defense secretary or the attorney general, they are both independent. The president cannot fire either of them for refusing to follow an order.

Given that the Federal Emergency Management Agency continually tracks the location of the top officials in the line of presidential succession, Gronlund et al. point out, it would be relatively easy to include the vice president and House speaker in the decisionmaking process and make it possible for them to sign off on a first use order and a retaliatory nuclear launch.

“If the US government is confident that the current system would allow a quick and smooth transfer of launch authority if the commander-in-chief were killed or incapacitated,” they write, “it should also be confident that this system would allow a small number of additional officials to affirm a launch decision by the president.”

End hair-trigger and declare no first use

Gronlund and her co-authors recommend two other changes in US nuclear policy that they say would make the world safer. First, they call on the United States to take its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) off high alert and eliminate the option of launching them in response to an attack warning.

The policy of keeping US land-based missiles on a hair trigger dates to the Cold War era, when both US and Soviet military strategists feared a surprise first-strike nuclear attack on cities and industrial sites as well as on their land-based nuclear missiles and bombers. To ensure that they maintained the capability of responding, both countries kept their land-based nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert so they could be launched within minutes to avoid being destroyed on the ground.

Today, even if all US ICBMs were destroyed in their silos, most US nuclear weapons are deployed on submarines, which are virtually undetectable. They are designed to be able to survive a first strike and launch a retaliatory attack.

It is now much more likely that the United States would launch a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an erroneous or misinterpreted nuclear-attack warning than an actual incident, the chance of which is extremely remote. Indeed, the possibility of an accidental nuclear launch is frighteningly real. A number of technical glitches and human errors in both Russia and the United States over the past few decades have nearly triggered one.

Finally, Gronlund et al. urge the United States to embrace a no-first-use policy. The sole purpose of US nuclear weapons, they write, should be “to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies.”

A leaked draft of the soon-to-be released Nuclear Posture Review, however, indicates that the administration plans to permit the use of nuclear weapons under a wider range of circumstances, including “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” which presumably would include cyberattacks. To push back on this ill-advised idea, Gronlund and her co-authors urge Congress to pass the aforementioned Markey-Lieu bill requiring Congress to declare war and authorize the use of nuclear weapons as well as a bill introduced by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) last November that simply states: “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”

ExxonMobil’s Jekyll-and-Hyde Act: A Year in Holding Fossil Fuel Companies Accountable

Photo: Brian Katt

Just a few weeks into the new year, ExxonMobil has turned the page on 2017—a year of significant gains for corporate climate accountability and significant setbacks for major fossil energy companies. However, some of these companies are aggressively fighting back, continuing to spread climate disinformation and refusing to plan for a low-carbon future. ExxonMobil, in particular, has moved toward countersuing California communities that are suing it and other fossil fuel producers over climate-related damages, and launched a webpage and video attacking the #ExxonKnew campaign. ExxonMobil’s retaliation against advocates for climate action and corporate accountability is a sure sign that our work is having an impact, and that now is the time to redouble our efforts.

Here’s a look back at important 2017 developments in three key areas: science attributing climate impacts to particular companies, efforts to hold fossil fuel producers legally accountable for their role in change, and investor pressure for improved climate-related disclosure and governance—and a look ahead to what we can expect from ExxonMobil and other major fossil energy companies in 2018 and beyond. (Spoiler alert: we need to be prepared for both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

For more information, listen to UCS’s Got Science? podcast featuring my colleague Peter Frumhoff.

1) Advances in company climate attribution science

A UCS-led study published in September in the scientific journal Climatic Change for the first time links global climate changes to the product-related emissions of specific fossil fuel producers, including ExxonMobil and Chevron. The study found, for example, that emissions from the manufacture, extraction, and burning of the products marketed by 90 fossil fuel companies and cement manufacturers contributed nearly half of the rise in global average surface temperature and nearly 30 percent the rise in global sea level between 1880 and 2010.

Importantly, the study also quantified the climate change impacts of emissions traced to these companies’ products from 1980-2010—when major investor-owned companies knew the risks of burning fossil fuels and not only did not take steps to reduce those risks but also supported a concerted campaign to deceive the public and block action.

Read more here, and share this information with your networks.

This new analysis is timely, as communities in the US and worldwide are experiencing climate impacts from record flooding, extreme drought, severe wildfires, and devastating storms like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Advances in climate attribution science support the argument that taxpayers alone should not have to foot the bill for climate damages and adaptation costs.

In October, billboards in Houston raised the question of fossil fuel company accountability for damages caused by Hurricane Harvey.

2) Moves toward legal accountability

New York City recently joined several California communities in suing major fossil energy companies over climate change-related damages. Most of the complaints focus on addressing climate-related sea level rise and preparing for future climate impacts. For example, sea level rise increased Hurricane Sandy’s flood damages to property in New York City by $2 billion, more than $230 per New Yorker, according to one study. Meanwhile, New York City officials have already estimated it will cost more than $19 billion to adapt to climate change.

The lawsuits filed by the City of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County were the first to call out disruptions to the hydrologic cycle caused by fossil fuel pollution, including more frequent and severe wildfires, heat waves, droughts and extreme precipitation events. This week, the city of Richmond, California—home to a large Chevron refinery—filed a similar broad complaint.

These complaints are grounded in the outsized role of fossil fuel companies in making the problem of climate change worse—not only through emissions from the burning of their products, but also through their decades-long campaign to sow doubt about climate science. As communities begin to demand that fossil fuel companies pay their fair share of harm caused by their products, the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general continue to investigate whether ExxonMobil violated any laws by deceiving shareholders and the public about climate change. (A federal judge may rule soon on whether ExxonMobil’s efforts to block these investigations can go forward).

For more information about holding fossil fuel companies liable for climate change harms in California, join a live webcast of an event this Thursday, January 25, co-sponsored by the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, UCLA School of Law, and UCS.

3) Mounting investor pressure

It’s no wonder that investors are feeling antsy about climate risk and calling companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron to account.

ExxonMobil began 2017 by appointing a climate scientist, Dr. Susan Avery, to its board of directors—acceding to demands from shareholders to improve its corporate governance on climate-related issues.

Both ExxonMobil and Chevron faced shareholder resolutions calling for them to report on how they are aligning their businesses with global climate action. Chevron released a report, “Managing Climate Change Risks: A Perspective for Investors,” which, though short on details, bought the company more time to explain to shareholders how it factors climate change into its strategic planning. ExxonMobil shareholders, meanwhile, voted in May by a two-to-one margin to call on the company to report annually on how global measures designed to keep global temperature rise well below 2° Celsius would affect its business.

In June, the industry-led Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)—chaired by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg—reinforced the demands of ExxonMobil shareholders. In its final recommendations, the TCFD recommended that companies across all sectors and jurisdictions disclose what a 2°C or lower scenario would mean for its business, strategies, and financial planning. Royal Dutch Shell was among more than 100 companies that supported the TCFD’s final recommendations.

In December, on the eve of the deadline for submission of shareholder proposals for consideration at the company’s 2018 annual meeting, ExxonMobil pledged in a filing to US securities regulators that its board will provide shareholders details on climate change risks and impacts to its business. However, the filing raised more questions than it answered. Take action here to tell the company what you expect to see in its report.

At the other end of the socially responsible investing spectrum, fossil fuel divestment is also gaining traction. In March, the Barnard College Board of Trustees took an innovative approach to divestment, voting to divest from all fossil fuel companies that deny climate science or otherwise seek to thwart efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change. In December, Barnard announced the criteria it will use to assess a fossil fuel company’s position on climate change, working with Fossil Free Indexes and UCS toward the release of a public list in spring 2018.

Divestment momentum continues into 2018, with New York City announcing that its pension funds plan to divest $5 billion in fossil fuel investments.

4) Crumbling public trust

In March, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden admitted, “Trust has been eroded to the point where it is an issue for our long-term future.”

In 2017, several major fossil energy companies took baby steps away from the deception and disinformation that cost them the public’s trust.

  • ExxonMobil was one of many companies that urged President Trump not to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell endorsed the Climate Leadership Council’s proposal for a carbon tax (albeit without a concrete advocacy plan).
  • BHP Billiton Limited reported on misalignment between its climate-related positions and those of trade associations of which the company is a member—and based on its review, pledged to get out of one group, reconsider its membership in another, and put a third on notice about the inconsistencies it identified.
  • ExxonMobil publicly pressured the American Legislative Exchange Council to refrain from drafting a sample resolution against the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 finding that greenhouse gases are endangering the planet.

Lest we lapse into complacency that we are dealing with Dr. Jekyll, ExxonMobil’s aggressive counterattacks against public officials, communities, and civil society organizations are a reminder that Mr. Hyde can still emerge. Ultimately, both corporate personas are a response to growing pressure from advocates—including UCS experts and supporters.

Courtesy of Public Citizen, Air Alliance Houston, and Center for Climate Integrity

Why the Solar Tariff Slows Clean Energy Progress and hurts Californian Workers

Photo: Audrey Eyring/UCS

Yesterday President Trump imposed a new tariff on imported solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules. More than 80% of all US solar installations rely on foreign solar modules, mostly from Asia.  The intent of President Trump’s tariff is purportedly to give made-in-the-USA solar panels a boost and support US solar manufacturers. The problem is, of the approximately 260,000 solar jobs in the country, only about 8,000 are in manufacturing. So increasing the cost of solar panels for the majority of US solar companies will have a negative impact on workers that install, operate, and repair solar equipment. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates that more than 20,000 US solar workers could lose their jobs. What’s worse, it’s also likely that the tariff does not go far enough to rescue the companies and workers making solar modules in the US. So, the whole package is a loser for US jobs and clean energy. Sad.

What does the solar tariff do?

The decision imposes a 30% tariff on imported cells and modules in 2018, and declines 5% each year for 4 years, settling at 15% by 2022. The first 2.5 GW of imports are excluded from the tariff every year. GTM Research estimates that a 30% tariff amounts to an additional $0.10-$0.15/watt. For those wanting more details on the tariff and its potential implications for the US solar industry, SEIA put together an informative frequently asked questions webpage.

What does this mean for California?

California has the largest solar market in the country and accounts for more than one-third of workers in the US solar industry.

Source: Solar Jobs Census 2016, Solar Foundation

More than half of those jobs are installing solar modules, which means that these workers become vulnerable, solar costs rise, and as a result fewer people decide to put solar panels on their homes and businesses.

Solar jobs and solar installations have grown rapidly in California in the past few years because we have strong policies in place to promote clean energy investments, but also because scaled-up solar cell manufacturing around the world has helped bring prices down dramatically, making solar PV competitive–and sometimes cheaper–than natural gas generation.

Source: Lazard; Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis 2017

If the Trump Administration wants to protect US workers, making things more expensive for the great majority of the solar industry is not the way to go. According to the Solar Foundation’s 2016 National Solar Jobs Census, the solar industry created jobs in 2016, 17 times faster than the rate of job growth for the overall economy, and accounted for nearly 2% of the 2.07 million jobs added by all US employers in 2016, equal to one in every fifty new US jobs.

Is this really about saving a few thousand solar jobs or about stalling meaningful progress to lower greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change? To me, it looks like another reason why California’s leaders and not the federal government must continue to lead the world on climate change and clean energy policies.

UCS Sues to Stop EPA from Kicking Independent Experts Off Advisory Boards

The Union of Concerned Scientists and Protect Democracy – a legal non-profit dedicated to preventing our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government – have teamed up to challenge EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s directive that would ban anyone from serving on EPA advisory boards if they receive EPA grant funding. Under the guise of improving advisory board balance, Pruitt is using this directive to populate advisory boards with industry-funded scientists and state government officials who have made a career fighting federal regulations. The EPA Science Advisory Board, for example, now includes fourteen new members who consult or work for the fossil fuel or chemical industries, which gave Pruitt nearly $320,000 for his campaigns in Oklahoma as a state senator and attorney general.

Banning EPA grant recipients from EPA advisory boards excludes academic scientists from serving on EPA advisory boards in particular, since academics often rely on outside funding – from EPA or elsewhere – to conduct research, fund graduate students, and work in the public interest. For example, EPA grants have funded research linked with projects that: protect children who are at-risk for lead poisoning in Indiana, restore coastal forests in Connecticut, and maintain clean drinking water in Mississippi. It’s hard to argue why conducting research in support of these types of projects would make someone provide biased advice to EPA, yet that’s the reasoning that Pruitt uses to justify this directive. The reality is that industry-funded science tends to be biased, not science from independent academic institutions.

The scientists that Pruitt has removed from EPA advisory boards also happen to be some of our country’s best. Those already dismissed include a Fulbright Scholar and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, for example. Pruitt has replaced these leaders with scientists who work for the fossil fuel, tobacco, and chemical industries and have a history of downplaying the health risks of secondary smoke, air pollution, and other public health hazards.

The real reasoning behind this directive is to make it easier for Pruitt to delay, rollback, or dismantle the EPA regulations that are designed to protect clean air, water, and public health. As we begin 2018, EPA is reconsidering rules that would address: the high asthma and cancer rates caused by heavy-duty trucks on busy roadways, the huge amount of global warming emissions from passenger vehicles, and the outdated emergency response requirements for facilities that store explosive or hazardous chemicals. These types of regulations rely on advise from EPA advisory boards, which are now more likely to support Pruitt in loosening rules that cover the industries tied to the new EPA advisory board members.

Our suit challenging the advisory board directive, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, alleges that the Pruitt directive is arbitrary and capricious (legalese for b.s.), and has no basis in law or EPA precedent. Our complaint also details how this directive violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires all advisory committees to be “fairly balanced,” and not be “inappropriately influenced” by the appointing authority.

I’ll keep you posted on how this suit develops. In the interim, if you have received EPA funding or have served on an EPA advisory committee, send me your story at (jgoldman@ucsusa.org).

Even if you aren’t an EPA-connected expert, check out how you can get more involved in the fight against Pruitt’s anti-science crusade by visiting the UCS action center. This Administration needs to hear from everyone, not just scientists, and UCS provides a platform for you to join the hundreds of thousands of UCS supporters across the country in standing up for independent scientists and an EPA that seeks to protect public health, not industry profits.

A Good Move from Chairman Smith and the House Science Committee: Tackling Sexual Harassment in Science

The government may not be operating this week and Congress has been an ongoing part of the many attacks on science in the past year but last week Congress did something good. A bipartisan effort in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will look at sexual harassment in science and ways to crack down on it. This is big and I’m ecstatic. In a rare bipartisan moment, Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson have come together to work on a pressing problem in science.

Despite a bumpy recent history on supporting science, the House Science Committee last week took a bipartisan step forward to address sexual harassment in science. Photo: Gretchen Goldman

Last week, the House Science Committee sent a letter asking the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) for an investigation into what federal science funding agencies, like the National Science Foundation and NASA, are doing to address sexual harassment in the scientific community (building on a bipartisan letter the committee sent in October investigating sexual harassment claims against a Boston University professor).

Under Title IX, institutions receiving federal money are required to take steps to ensure they are complying—i.e, that the institutions are “providing all students, regardless of sex, equal access to educational programs and activities.” However, it is less clear how much federal agencies are currently implementing this requirement with the academic institutions they fund. That’s why the committee is trying to get answers about how federal agencies are handling this issue, especially when it comes to individual cases.

A tide of reckoning: #MeToo and beyond

This is an important step to help the scientific community think about how to address this large (and now more visible) problem. Here’s why this is big. As the #MeToo movement has grown, we’ve seen more and more survivors of sexual harassment and abuse come forward and their abusers face consequences. A tide of reckoning has come and doesn’t look like it will stop any time soon.

The scientific community is no exception when it comes to problems of sexual harassment and abuse. Problems of sexual harassment, particularly where the offenders—often professors or other senior researchers—are in positions of power over their accuser—often a student—are far too common. Several elements of the scientific community make these issues a bigger challenge. One is prevalence of field research, where small teams of researchers are far removed from academic institutions and (potentially) societal norms. An alarming number of women report harassment happening when they were early career researchers working in the field. Another challenge is the fact that junior researchers are often very dependent upon their advisor and the small circles of niche fields for future jobs and collaborators. Burning relationships can have professional costs and that makes coming forward with an accusation potential career suicide.

For this and other reasons, many choose not to report such instances to proper authorities. And perhaps more alarmingly, when instances are reported, universities have often failed to take action and allowed such instances to continue for years. As the committee’s letter states, “this raises a question of whether the current systems and protections in place to address harassment are ineffective, inadequate, or inaccessible to those who need them.”

Accountability and consequences for sexual harassers

Several high-profile cases and events in recent years have laid the groundwork for the scientific community to join other spheres in holding individuals accountable for their actions. Thus far, it has been a challenge to ensure that abusers face appropriate consequences and aren’t just shuffled somewhere else within the scientific community where they can continue their inappropriate behavior.

For example, on several occasions, professors accused of sexual harassment have been asked to leave their university only to get a similar position at a different institution where their record is clean and they are free to continue their behavior at only a minor inconvenience to their career. This isn’t exactly a strong incentive against the behavior. That’s why this Congressional inquiry stands to have an impact.

Focusing on the role of granting agencies could create consequences for abusers and importantly it would hold to account universities that have long found it easier to avoid addressing such issues upfront. Granting agencies tying public funding to behavior and withholding funding from harassers would hit ’em where it hurts—grant money, aka, the currency of major universities and their professors. If anything will get universities to take seriously issues of sexual harassment, it’s the threat of losing grant money.

The House Science Committee: an inconsistent history on science

Another way this move by the House Science Committee is remarkable is because of the politics. This is a bipartisan effort to benefit science coming out of Chairman Smith’s House Science Committee. Despite a long history of bipartisanship to support science, the science committee under Chairman Smith has been a different story. From inserting politics into grant selection, to targeting scientists with invasive subpoenas, to legislative efforts to dismantle the EPA’s use of science, Lamar Smith has been leading the effort to attack science before the Trump Administration brought more attention to the issue. It is encouraging to see Chairman Smith use his position to help scientists, especially women scientists, who have been adversely affected by this issue. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new era on the Science Committee where we can once again see bipartisan support for advancing our nation’s scientific enterprise.

Standing Ground: The State of Voting Rights in Year One of the Trump Administration

Flickr/Michael Fleshman

On January 20th, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of these United States.  By the time the president-elect had actually taken office, he had already put into motion his intent to see through a radical transformation of the nation’s electoral laws.  Mr. Trump’s nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, his collaboration with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to establish an “electoral integrity” commission, and his nomination of a series of controversial judicial appointees soon after inauguration, all reflected an extension of his campaign’s attacks on the integrity of U.S. elections.

Fears of non-citizens voting and election rigging emerged as a major pillar of candidate Trump’s nativist agenda, and its emphasis on the contamination of our institutions by outsiders.  Having already established his legitimacy-bashing credentials as a leader of the conspiracy to question President Obama’s citizenship, Mr. Trump regularly attacked electoral institutions, once tweeting “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.”  He even went so far as to declare at a rally, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election – if I win!”  Not more than a few weeks after his Electoral College victory, Mr. Trump re-initiated his attack, claiming, as usual without any evidence, that he would have won the popular vote, were it not for “millions of people who voted illegally.”

Total retaliation

Hunter S. Thompson once referred to the sort of vengeful resentment that characterizes Trumpist politics as an “ethic of total retaliation.” That sounds like an accurate account of this administration’s attempts to dismantle voting rights this year.

First came President Trump’s appointment of Alabama Senator Jefferson Sessions as Attorney General. Sessions, who applauded the 5-4, 2013 Supreme Court decision overturning the preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act, had previously been called “a disgrace to the Justice Department” by Senator Ted Kennedy during a failed appointment for a federal judgeship.

Under Sessions, the Department of Justice has reversed position in several major voting rights cases. It has urged that a Texas voter identification law that it previously deemed racially discriminatory remain in effect.  Sessions has similarly reversed the Department’s interpretation of the National Voter Registration Act, and is now defending an Ohio voter list purge case where thousands of eligible voters were removed from the polls.

Next, and after the Trump team legally acknowledged that “all available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake,” came the “election integrity” commission lead by Kobach and Vice President Mike Pence.  Kobach had previously pushed illegal citizenship and identification requirements on voters in Kansas, but was successfully sued multiple times by the American Civil Liberties Union for violating federal voting rights.  In his new role, he sought to dismantle those protections.

Instead of recruiting actual election experts, the commission looked like the S-Men of voter suppression, with members like Hans von Spakovsky, J. Christian Adams, and Ken Blackwell.  The first substantive act of the commission was to try to collect sensitive voter list information from states, an act that the Election Privacy Information Center referred to as “without precedent and crazy.”  The mere threat of the Kobach commission acquiring control over private electoral data initiated a never-before-seen voter deregistration, at the same time that election administrators wasted precious resources addressing commission concerns.

Finally, judicial appointments have initiated a more subtle but certain erosion of voting rights. President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has already provided a 5th vote to protect a racial gerrymander in Texas.  Lower level nominees like Thomas Farr, referred to as the “legal architect of North Carolina’s voter suppression” who built a career defending the state against voting rights claims, has been nominated, rejected, and renominated to a district court there.  Mark Norris, a Tennessee legislator who has similarly promoted “proof of citizenship” requirements at voting precincts, was nominated to the Western Tennessee district court.  The list goes on, demonstrating the president’s intent to use the judiciary as a stronghold, from which to beat down and destroy the legacy of voting rights that has been built over the last half century.

This year also saw the House Administration Committee try to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission, the only federal agency charged with improving electoral integrity.  Similarly, the Federal Election Commission, which is supposed to investigate violations of the (Watergate-inspired) Federal Election Campaign Act, has been rendered so dysfunctional from stalled appointments and partisan stalemate that it will never investigate potential violations of the 2016 Trump campaign.

Standing ground

Nevertheless, the story of voting rights in 2017 is one of mobilized resistance and cautious optimism. From its inception, civic journalism and organized resistance have kept public attention focused on both the Justice Department and the Kobach commission.  Excellent reporting by ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman revealed that von Spakovsky had authored a memo received by the Attorney General before he was even on the commission, arguing for the exclusion of any Democrats, academics or moderate Republicans from the commission.  A White House official recently acknowledged that the commission was a “shit show” after it was dissolved, in part because a federal court had ordered that Kobach release internal communications from which one of its Democratic members, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, had been excluded.

Voting rights groups ranging from Hip Hop Caucus’s Respect My Vote! campaign, to the A.C.L.U., Common Cause, and Democracy Initiative rallied to protest the commission at the few public meetings that it held.  Nearly every state refused to hand over at least some of the sensitive data that Kobach had requested, and multiple lawsuits were filed by voting rights litigators to protect voter information.  News organizations also analyzed the numerous problems with flawed data being presented at commission meetings.

Also leading by example, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine established its own Committee on the Future of Voting, which has so far held four easily accessible, public meetings, bringing together the nation’s top election law experts, political and computer scientists, security advisors and administrators to address very real challenges to free and fair elections.  They have shown what a real electoral integrity commission looks like.

Moreover, there is hope that the Supreme Court, having heard its first partisan gerrymandering case in a decade last year, will establish a constitutional standard for identifying redistricting plans that violate political equality.  The Supreme Court is set to hear a similar case against a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland this Spring, and there are a host of other cases from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas that could result in stronger redistricting and voter eligibility requirements across the country.  These and related cases highlight the advances that social scientists have made in the measurement and estimation of constitutional standards.  None of these cases would have moved forward last year without the commitment of mobilized citizens, the research of impartial social scientists, and the legal assistance of voting rights advocates fighting on their behalf.

Looking back, the state of voting rights one year into Donald Trump’s presidency has inspired fear, as intended, but also confidence in the use of evidence-based arguments to hold government accountable.  That’s good, because 2018 is going to be a voting rights battle, given the November opportunity to replace Congressional leadership with actors who will bring the president to heel.  Citizens must be ever more vigilant in protecting their electoral institutions, and demand that integrity, rather than ideology, be the guiding principle of election law.

Michael Fleshman

3 Reasons Why the Trump USDA’s School Nutrition Rollbacks Should Worry You—and What You Can Do About It

Photo: USDA

In May of 2017, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue moved to make school meals great again by issuing a proclamation in support of more lenient school nutrition standards. Specifically, the proposed rule permits the continued use of whole grain waivers, which exempt certain products from meeting whole grain standards; freezes current sodium limits through 2020, rather than moving forward with progressive sodium targets; and allows schools to serve low-fat flavored milk, which is currently disallowed due to its added sugar and fat content.

The nutrition standards in jeopardy are among those established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a landmark piece of legislation championed by former first lady Michelle Obama that marked the first overhaul of child nutrition regulations in decades.

And although May of last year might seem like a lifetime ago (a few things have happened since then), the USDA is now inviting public comments on the proposed rule, with a deadline of January 29, 2018.

Here are the top three reasons we should all be worried about this rule—and what’s driving us to take action to oppose it. You can submit a comment on behalf of yourself or your organization here.

1. We can’t afford to let children’s health become a second-tier priority.

Let’s get this out of the way: the most worrisome thing about the administration rolling back child nutrition standards is that the administration is rolling back child nutrition standards. Childhood obesity rates tripled between the early 1970s and 2005, prompting public health researchers to predict that, for the first time in centuries, children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. Childhood obesity rates have since plateaued at around 17 percent—progress that has undoubtedly been propelled by nutrition and physical activity policies like the HHFKA—but we have a long way to go to change the trajectory of US population health. Half of all American adults currently live with one or more diet-related chronic diseases, and about two thirds are overweight or obese. The medical costs associated with obesity now account for an estimated 21 percent of all national health expenditures. Our kids deserve better.

2. We can’t afford to let industry interests become our top priority.

The proposed rule cites several justifications for altering school nutrition standards, including helping school food service authorities overcome procurement and menu planning challenges, and ensuring that students receive palatable meals that won’t go to waste. But according to the USDA, more than 99 percent of schools nationwide are already successfully meeting the nutrition standards put in place by the HHFKA. With full recognition of the tremendous amount of work it takes for schools and school food service staff to make these changes, the proof remains in the pudding: they did it. Meanwhile, the USDA reported higher school lunch revenue, greater fruit and vegetable consumption among kids, and no increase in food waste in the years following adoption of the new nutrition standards. So if this proposed rule isn’t for schools, and it isn’t for kids… who is it for? Hmm.

3. This rule could be a harbinger of more harmful regulatory rollbacks to come.

A multitude of other evidence-based health and nutrition standards were established with the passage of HHFKA, including required minimum servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables in school meals, availability of free water where meals are served, and limits on total calories, sodium, sugar, and fats in snacks sold in schools. These nutrition standards are rooted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone scientific report that guides federal nutrition policy and dietary recommendations for the general public; as such, they were adopted with the explicit aim of curbing childhood obesity and improving health outcomes for future generations. Just as a step toward these guidelines brings us closer to a healthier future, a step (or more) away takes us further, and lays bare a pointed preference for profit over people. If the “flexibility” granted to schools by this proposed rule is any indication of changes to come, we may be in some trouble.

 

 

From National Parks to the EPA, Trump Administration Stiff-Arms Science Advisers

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to meet with National Park System Advisory Board members last year, prompting most of them to quit. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Trump administration’s testy relationship with science reminds me of that old saying: Advice is least heeded when most needed.

Earlier this week, three-quarters of the members of the National Park System Advisory Board resigned because Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to hold a meeting with them last year. The board was established more than 80 years ago so scientists and former elected officials could advise the Department of the Interior on a variety of national park and monument issues, including the designation of national historic and natural landmarks.

With zero input from the 12-member board, Zinke dramatically reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah to open them up to grazing and mining; arbitrarily increased park visitor fees; and reversed a ban on plastic water bottles in the park system.

Their resignation should not come as a surprise. Zinke’s cavalier treatment of the National Park System Advisory Board is just the most recent example of an administration-wide rejection of independent scientific expertise, according to a report released Thursday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

After reviewing the status of 73 science advisory boards at six federal agencies and interviewing 33 current and former board members, UCS researchers found that last year the boards met less often than in any year since the government started keeping records in 1997. They also found that nearly two-thirds of the boards met fewer times than their charters recommend, and board membership dropped 14 percent from the previous year, twice as much as during the first year of the Obama administration.

Some of the meetings that did take place, meanwhile, could hardly be designated as such. Panel members told UCS researchers that several in-person meetings were replaced by perfunctory telephone conference calls, some lasting for as little as 15 minutes.

The boards UCS included in its analysis advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration, and provide a good representative sample of the 218 scientific and technical panels currently serving the federal government. Generally comprised of volunteer experts from academia, industry, nonprofit organizations, and state and local governments, these committees keep federal agencies abreast of the latest, cutting-edge research and make recommendations on short-term challenges, such as epidemic outbreaks, and ongoing issues, such as nuclear safety.

Besides Interior, one of the biggest offenders is the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who sued the agency 14 times on behalf of his campaign contributors to try to block air and water protections. Last October, Pruitt issued new rules barring anyone who receives EPA grants from serving on agency advisory panels. Remarkably, he maintained that those scientists have a conflict of interest, regardless of the fact that the EPA does not dictate the outcome of its grantees’ research. He then packed the agency’s Science Advisory Board with industry scientists with clear conflicts of interest.

Perhaps most emblematic of the Trump administration’s contempt for science is the fact that the president has yet to appoint his science adviser, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Last October, The Washington Post reported that Trump has taken longer than any president in modern times to name his science adviser. That was three months ago, and the position is still open, as are the posts of deputy director and four congressionally mandated associate directors. In the meantime, the president has made a string of “unadvised,” ill-advised science-related decisions, most notably pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and appointing Pruitt, a climate-science-denying attorney, to run the EPA.

When the nine National Park System Advisory Board members quit last Monday, former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, the head of the board, explained their rationale. “We resigned because we were deeply disappointed with the [Interior] Department and we were concerned,” he said. “[Zinke] appears to have no interest in continuing the agenda of science, the effect of climate change, [or] pursuing the protection of the ecosystem.”

The same holds true for the entire Trump administration, and that doesn’t bode well for public health or the environment.

New Report Reveals Trump Administration Is Abandoning Science Advice

Photo: sharply_done/iStockphoto

Unease. Frustration. Indignation. Experts serving as members of federal advisory committees are being frozen out of the very avenues that were designed to encourage external input on scientific issues to the federal government.

A new Center for Science and Democracy report released today, Abandoning Science Advice: One Year In, the Trump Administration is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees, reveals the Trump Administration’s widespread under-utilization of science advice in its first year.

In an effort to cut science out of the equation, this sidelining has taken different forms: Meetings have been postponed, cancelled, or abbreviated. Experienced experts have been dismissed. Rules governing committee membership have been altered to ease the stacking of committees with industry-affiliated scientists, and to crowd out independent experts. In some cases, committees have been disbanded entirely, or placed in limbo for agency-wide “review.”

What we found

In this report, we analyzed the membership and meeting schedules of 73 science advisory committees across 24 departments, agencies, and sub-agencies at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Interior (DOI), Food & Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Commerce (DOC). We also interviewed more than 30 current and former advisory board members.

We found that last year, the DOE, EPA, and DOI met less often than in any year since the government started tracking in 1997. At the DOE, DOC, and EPA, fewer experts are serving on advisory committees than at any time since 1997. And nearly two-thirds of the 73 committees surveyed are meeting less than they are directed to in their own charters.

And this decrease in activity isn’t just as a result of it being the first year of a new administration. Membership on advisory committees decreased 14 percent from 2016, while membership only decreased 7 percent in the first year of the Obama administration and less than 1 percent in the first year of the Bush administration.

Neglect, disregard, and egregious politicization

This blatant neglect of committees at the DOI made headlines this week when 10 out of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board at the Department of Interior resigned due to frustration that the Secretary had failed to meet with them or schedule a single meeting for the committee in 2017. Its members were not consulted when making important decisions about our national parks, just as DOI’s resource advisory councils, including one in Utah, were not consulted when deciding to shrink monuments in those jurisdictions.

The disregard of science advice has gone well beyond neglect. The Food and Drug Administration completely disbanded the 25-year-old Food Advisory Committee that examined issues like nutrition and food safety and was the agency’s only committee dedicated solely to food issues. And members of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board report no contact at all from the administration over the past year, with “no plans to reconstitute it.”

And in the most egregious politicization of science advisory boards, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has pushed a new policy banning any scientist who currently receives a research grant from the EPA from serving on advisory committees. Pruitt’s directive has radically reshaped the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Board of Scientifically Counselors (BOSC), and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), breaking precedent by refusing to renew terms of committee members and tripling the representation of industry-affiliated scientists on the EPA SAB.

Experts are clamoring to be heard

Advisory committees operate differently across agencies and for good reason. They have different missions and require expertise spanning disciplines and fields. The one thing that all of these committees have in common is that they are composed of highly distinguished experts that are eager to get to work. In over 30 interviews held with members of a range of advisory committees, there was a resounding interest in resuming advisory activities and discussing the pressing issues under the relevant agencies’ authority that require their attention. Why waste the time of these individuals unless their time and potential science-based recommendations aren’t of any interest?

This suppression of information at this level makes it easier for Trump and his political appointees to make progress at deconstructing the administrative state, removes a vital check on the work being done at agencies, and prevents the best available science from being considered in the first place.

Policy decisions are based on a variety of factors, but if independence scientific analysis isn’t included as a consideration, then we’re flying blind—which might in fact be the actual goal for this administration. Why else would you neglect your own science advice infrastructure? Imagine a high school basketball coach unwilling to listen to 20 Steph Currys waiting eagerly on the sidelines with a slate of play options that would easily win his team the game. Why not listen unless your plan was to lose all along?

We can’t afford to let the Trump administration continue to make regulatory decisions without taking the time to analyze impacts. And, no, evaluating just the costs to oil companies, chemical companies, and developers is not sufficient. Experts are clamoring to be heard and members of the public would prefer that policymakers make fully-informed decisions that protect our health, rather than half-baked decisions informed by politics alone.

We must all fight to raise the political price of sidelining science and scientists. Because when policymakers don’t have access to the best independent scientific input, they can’t effectively protect all of us.

Scientists serving on federal advisory committees or working in the government who perceive that their work is being sidelined should get in touch with the UCS Science Protection Project to get confidential advice on strategic action. And we should all continue to call on our elected officials to further investigate the ways in which this administration is disregarding the government’s own scientists and external advisors, and what its squandering of this resource means for public health and safety.

Five Lessons Our Science Network Watchdogging Teams Have Taught Us

It is one year since the Presidential inauguration, though to many of us it now seems like time is measured in dog years—each approximates seven in our own lifetimes. The election really energized the science community and many others to push back against the hateful rhetoric and frightening agenda of the president and his administration.

That rhetoric too often embodies racism, misogyny, homophobia, and divisiveness. And the agenda has valued big business interests over the public interest across the board, withdrawing public health, safety and environmental protections to boost corporate profits.

Here at UCS, we called on our Science Network to help us respond to a broad range of attacks on science as part of the new Administration’s agenda. The response has been wonderful and we have a lot to show for it. Not everyone has the time or inclination to take on the challenges of advocating for science on a regular and sustained basis, but over 1,000 of our Science Network members have so far stepped up for this higher level of engagement. I don’t mean to say they are the only ones fighting back, but these individuals have agreed to be on “watchdogging” teams around the country to speak out at a local level, engage their elected representatives, and serve as focal points for bringing science into the debates over public policy.  These teams have become partners in the fight, and from them we have learned many important lessons. Here are my top five:

Constituency and local knowledge matter

Our watchdogging team members speak to their elected officials, and to their communities, as neighbors and constituent voters. And despite all the concerns that people may have about our political culture, constituency still matters to elected officials. That doesn’t mean that an official will always do what you ask, but you will at least be heard.

Team members also understand local issues and challenges, as well as local politics, that it would be hard for a national organization like UCS to gather in any other way. That local and regional perspective helps everyone in the science community to build our knowledge and our story-bank of the impacts of attacks on science on people all across the country.

Our neighbors, too, are often more receptive to information over the back fence or on the front steps from someone who lives nearby than from the expert from far away. Letters to the editor in a local paper can have as much or more impact than pieces published in national press. More than 80 of our watchdogging Science Network members have published letters or op-eds, and that is building more recognition of key science issues at a local level. Letters to elected officials in various states (Maine, Montana, Missouri, Nevada, and North Dakota) and nationally have had over 5,000 signatories. And hundreds of personal calls have been made to Senate and House members offices.

UCS Legislative Associate Amy Gutierrez and Campaign Manager Danielle Fox guiding summit participants in finding connections between local issues and federal policy (Missoula, MT), August 25, 2017.

So, when our watchdogging team members meet with their representatives—dozens of times now over the last six months—they have a chance to get up close and personal. With a little support from us, they are delivering strong messages to fight those attacks on science that might seem obscure, but when brought into a local setting can really take on new importance. Like the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would so bog down the regulatory process that even if new threats to the public are identified, it would be almost impossible to develop new protections. Or defeating really terrible nominations to science positions in key agencies, like Sam Clovis and Michael Dourson. Letters and emails from more than 4,000 scientists and calls from hundreds more helped turn the tide against these appointments.

Scientists have a lot to say

In our training as scientists we tend to focus on gaining fundamental skills in our discipline, but along the way, we all build our knowledge of how science itself works.  That means, as a marine scientist, I can certainly talk about my area of expertise, but I can also talk about the process by which science informs policy broadly across many science disciplines. And I can explain what the scientific method means, how peer review and other quality control and feedback mechanisms work, and why scientific evidence is so very different from a political opinion. More than that, it is pretty easy for me to look at data, graphs and evidence in a variety of fields and understand the basic messages even if I am not deeply engaged in that field of research.

All of that can be helpful in talking to officials and fellow residents, and in writing for a broader audience. The point is, scientists can speak out knowledgeably on issues beyond our own fields of study and have a lot to bring into a discussion of public policy. Many scientists are learning for themselves how helpful their voices can be in the public debate. For example, when Sen. Blunt (R. MO) introduced a bill to roll back progress on vehicle fuel economy standards, scientists and other concerned citizens went to meet with Sen. Donnelly’s staff (D. IN) to voice their opposition. They weren’t all automotive engineers or air pollution scientists, but they could talk about the bills misguided approach to fuel economy.

A little training goes a long way

For many experts, skills such as communicating with non-scientists, the media and a broader public don’t come naturally. We are trained to communicate to scientific audiences in our own fields. But in a public or political setting, the challenge is to be clear about the major lines of scientific evidence and their broader meaning or implication. That’s a skill we can learn, much as we have learned the other skills that make for good scientists.

So too is learning how to engage with elected officials, or journalists or media editors, or community organizations. We have been offering training and mentoring in all of these topics, and Science Network members have responded. Our 12 training workshops have reached 1184 members this past year. Our monthly calls regularly have 50 or more participating. Our state scientists’ summits in Montana, Nevada, Maine and Missouri, collectively had more than 100 participants.

Outreach Coordinator Jessica Thomas explaining the UCS Watchdog campaign with summit participants (Reno, NV), September 23, 2017.

While the summits included training in political advocacy, these workshops primarily served as opportunities for participants to learn from each other and plan actions to take on the state level. With that beginning, the sky’s the limit. Science Network members have co-authored compelling op-eds on the importance of science in our democracy, and held effective meetings with their Congressional delegations, despite doing it for the first time.

To find the best recruiters, look in the mirror

Having 1,000 scientists watchdogging is great, but the network needs to grow with a substantial capacity to self-organize to take action. That’s because to have a sustained impact on our democracy, scientists need to be active and engaged in the public discourse in as many places, in as many communities and issues as possible, not just while Trump is in office but going forward too. We are here to provide resources on issues where we can, as well as financial support through our Science for the Public Good small grants, and our Science and Democracy Fellowships (coming soon).

But it is Science Network members themselves that can help recruit more colleagues, in their states, to Stand Up for Science. They are best placed to know who has the passion and the commitment to be involved in this work, and they have made connections with wonderful local advocates we might never have known. They know how to reach the people in their states who make the decisions that affect their communities. And since the election, 4500 new members have come into our network looking for ways to get involved. We need everyone to get involved and to learn from each other. It’s about the role of science in democracy—and that impacts every person in the country.

Advocating for science feels good too

I hope we are past the old debates about whether advocating for what you believe compromises your ability to do science. It doesn’t. A friend of mine, a scientist deeply involved in the fight for environmental justice, once said, “You need to feed that other part of your brain too. The part that cares about the world, your neighbors, and the legacy we leave. That part that makes you want to advocate for what’s right.” We can still do our work as scientists and at the same time stand up for science. Everyone’s action may not look the same, but everyone needs to speak up.

We’ve heard from Science Network members how exciting it was to speak up for their community’s best interests in the public realm—and that it was easier than they had thought. And we have to admit that during a sometimes frustrating year, our watchdogging members consistently reminded us that this country is made up of its people, not just its politics.

So to our Science Network partners in watchdogging, thank you for all you do. Please stay involved, engaged and keep teaching us every day. Not signed up to watchdog with UCS? Join now.

Why Engineers Should Refuse to Work on Trump’s Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally appeared on Slate.com.

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

NAACP’s MLK Day initiative makes solar more accessible

Solar Energy Industries Association

The sun shines on everyone, and the benefits of solar energy can too.  Look at the synergies of community-supportive/community-supporting solar, how this can spread.  Solar can create jobs, clean the air, and replace fossil fuel.  As Dr. Martin Luther King said: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

Smiles in the sunshine. Credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

The NAACP is launching a civil rights economic and environmental justice initiative to connect 30+ communities of color and low income communities across the nation with solar energy infrastructure for homes and community centers, as well as skills training for solar jobs, all supported by strengthened solar equity policies. This will provide solar job skills training, install solar panels on households and community centers, and strengthen equity in solar access policies. Partners supporting this national initiative include GRID Alternatives, Solar Energy Industries Association, Sunrun, United Methodist Women, Vote Solar, and others. The Solar Equity Initiative will advance the aims of multiple NAACP civil rights initiatives: Environmental and Climate Justice, Economic Development, Labor, Education, Health and Criminal Justice.

Installing solar on community buildings will lower the energy bills and strengthen the budgets for those service-providers. Any non-profit can take this up, and the funds raised can be tax-deductible. Profit-minded owners of commercial buildings do this with tax credits, churches can do this with donations that are tax-deductible.

The NAACP kicking off this initiative at the Jenesse Center in Los Angeles will provide lifetime financial savings to that service organization estimated at $48,825. These savings will enable Jenesse to infuse more funds into its life-saving services.  Similar environmental and economic savings will be replicated with installations by this initiative, and others where communities combine social equity and clean energy.

Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution-emitting power plants, impacting health, education, incomes. Environmental justice can be served by using community-based solar to replace the fossil fuel burned at old power plants, and remove the plants entirely.

The NAACP has taken this direct action as part of its Environmental and Climate Justice Program.  There are toolkits, links to local efforts, full-length movies and videos and resources all available from the NAACP.

UCS is developing the science and tools to make the direct replacement of power plants with solar, efficiency and storage or demand response a common practice. We have been inspired by early work of Elaine Krieger  and real cases in California where power plants are to be closed, replaced, or never built as solar plus storage fill the need.  We have watched with hope as the solar solutions for Puerto Rico start to take shape, and as legislation in Illinois paves a path for solar for low-income folks.

To close with more words from Dr. King:

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

 

Solar Energy Industries Association

Latest EPA Automaker Reports Show Compliance with and Success of Standards

iStockphoto.com/mccaig

Today, EPA released its annual reports on new passenger vehicles. One report (Trends) highlights the historical trend in fuel economy for cars and trucks over time, while the other report (Compliance) discusses the progress of manufacturers towards meeting global warming emissions regulations now under attack by industry and this administration.

Fuel economy of the fleet has once again improved, from 24.6 mpg in 2015 to 24.7 miles per gallon (mpg) in 2016. Thanks to strong standards, every type of vehicle (car, truck, SUV) has gotten more efficient; however, consumers are choosing to purchase more SUVs, which is acting to diminish the levels of improvement we need to see to reduce global warming emissions in line with our long-term climate goals.

Taken together, the key findings from both reports are clear:  1) every type of vehicle is getting more efficient, driven by strong standards, and that’s great news for consumers; 2) despite a meager overall improvement in fuel economy, manufacturers continue to comply with the standards; and 3) there’s still a huge opportunity for future fuel economy improvements, as manufacturers continue to bring newly redesigned vehicles to market.

All types of vehicles are getting more efficient

Increasing sales of SUVs are making it more difficult to achieve our climate goals, but strong standards pushing all vehicle classes to be more efficient continue to be key to reducing our climate impacts.

The Trends report shows clearly that the regulations are doing what they were intended to do—every single class of vehicle is getting more efficient, including the fast-growing SUV segment.  In fact, every class of vehicles except vans/minivans achieved record levels of fuel economy in 2016.  This is critical both to provide consumers with fuel-efficient choices no matter what type of vehicle in which they might be interested and to diminish the negative impacts on the climate resulting from a more truck-centric vehicle mix.

The class of car-based SUVs that are so popular right now (including the Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue) actually showed the greatest year-over-year improvement.  This is not surprising—Ford CEO Jim Hackett acknowledged that fuel economy is one of the major reasons why crossover sales are doing so well.

Some automakers claim that selling more SUVs means consumers don’t care about fuel economy, but the numbers tell a different story.  Consumers continue to show that fuel economy is important, particularly when it comes to SUVs—the Consumer Federation of America showed that SUVs which saw a marked improvement in fuel economy (+10% mpg or better) outsold their competitors.

Automakers are complying with the standards

All large-volume manufacturers are entering the 2017 compliance year with a massive bank of credits to draw upon to aid with compliance during a lull in product turnover.

As I’ve reported in many years past, the industry as a whole has been ahead of the regulatory targets—this means that they have built up a bank of overcompliance credits, which many of them are now drawing upon.  Some in the media may seize on this and say that this means the automakers are not complying with the rules—however, that ignores the way the rules work or how vehicles are planned.

Manufacturers are measured on compliance over a 5-year period because that is the typical product cycle of a single vehicle.  Once every five years (give or take), a vehicle will undergo a “redesign” where major changes occur—this includes body shape and major crash safety structural elements as well as the size and efficiency of the engines, which set the performance characteristics and, importantly, fuel economy.  Once in the middle of a product cycle, a vehicle will receive a “refresh” where they may make cosmetic alterations, maybe make some minor changes to the powertrain (like a new transmission or maybe bringing over an additional engine that’s used in another vehicle built on the same platform), but largely the fuel economy and emissions of a vehicle are fairly constant over its five-year lifetime.

This means that manufacturers need to use a credit bank to compensate for the fact that a vehicle largely doesn’t improve much over the course of its lifetime—a vehicle will typically earn credits early on for overcompliance when the technology is new, and that overcompliance can then be used to compensate for any shortfalls that occur as the vehicle “ages” before its next major update.

From 2009 to 2014, manufacturers turned over new vehicles at an accelerated pace in the first few years of the regulation to introduce some new technologies, but that has declined now for 2015 through 2017.  This will correct itself for 2018 through 2020, when again these older vehicles are all redesigned.

Today, the fleet is older than usual, so while in a couple years there will be a large opportunity to add new technologies, the Compliance report shows manufacturers are dipping into their credit banks today as planned to compensate for the age of the vehicles.  And because of the early turnover in the first few years of the regulations, the industry was well-prepared by banking hundreds of millions of tons of credits, more than enough to help ensure compliance for years to come.

Manufacturers are investing in efficiency at different rates

Consumers are some of the biggest beneficiaries from these rules, having saved well over $50 BILLION since new standards went into effect thanks to rules designed to make every vehicle type more efficient over time.  And that will be even more important as these more efficient options make their way to the secondary market.  But not all manufacturers are investing equally in providing their consumers more efficient choices.

The Trends report shows that in terms of overall fuel efficiency, Mazda is at the head of the pack.  While some of this is related to its somewhat car-heavy fleet, it continues to focus on improving its conventional gas-powered engines, and deploying these engines broadly across all vehicles.  And they aren’t resting on their laurels, either, having announced the next generation of their engines, bringing diesel-like efficiency to a gas-powered engine.

Unfortunately, Toyota continues to fall behind the rest of the pack, seeing absolutely no improvement in fuel economy compared to last year, which fell short of the year prior—in 2013, Toyota had the 3rd most efficient fleet; for 2016, they have now dropped to 9th, ahead of only Mercedes and the Detroit Three.  While many associate Toyota with efficiency thanks to its Prius family of hybrids, this fall from grace is because Toyota has not made similar investments to improve its trucks and SUVs.  In fact, its Tundra pick-up and 4Runner SUV have been using the same engines since 2010 and 2009, respectively, with the 4Runner one of just three vehicles being sold today still using an outdated 5-speed automatic transmission!

The Compliance report makes clear that no major manufacturer is in danger of falling out of compliance (as I noted at the start), even if some of them are relying more heavily upon their credit bank.  But manufacturers like Hyundai and Honda are much better positioned than most not just because they have such a massive bank of credits, but because they have continued to deploy steady improvements across its entire fleet instead of banking on a single green “halo” vehicle like the Toyota Prius.

Manufacturers have a wide range of technologies available to reduce fuel use and emissions, but many “off the shelf” technologies have still not been widely deployed.

The technology assessments in the Trends report indicate clearly that while manufacturers are making progress introducing and improving technologies for conventional vehicles, they have on the whole been slow at deploying those technologies across the fleet.  This is why we continue to emphasize the ability for manufacturers to continue to comply with the regulations well into the future with continued advancement of conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.

Leaders show industry’s capabilities, while laggards exemplify industry’s past

Last month, we released a report documenting the auto industry’s well-established history of fighting automotive regulations. For better and worse, today’s Trends and Compliance reports encapsulate both where the industry could be headed and the historical pull towards resisting that change.

The indicators I’ve laid out above all show that the standards are achievable and important for both consumers and the climate. Every class of vehicles is getting more efficient, and many in the industry continue to invest in that progress, driven by these standards.  And, because SUVs and trucks represent a growing share of the market, these standards remain as important as ever to ensure continued fleetwide efficiency improvements—the fleet mix shift acts as a drag on achieving our climate goals, so weakening the standards could set us backwards, as occurred in the 1990s.

At the same time, manufacturers are trying to seize upon misinformation about how the standards work and their ability to comply to weaken the rules.  It’s critical that they stop this nonsense so we can continue the progress already set forth.

The Trends and Compliance reports released today indicate that automakers are well on a path to comply with regulations that will nearly double the efficiency of the passenger vehicle fleet by 2025—so instead of fighting it, let’s focus on achieving it and then figuring out what lies beyond so we can continue to meet our climate goals.

iStockphoto.com/mccaig

The Science of Sovereignty: Two Cases Show How the Future of Voting Rights Depends on the Integrity of Data

This week, two major court cases concerning the right to an equal and effective vote revealed how crucial scientific integrity in the courts is going to be if voting rights are to be secured for all Americans. On Tuesday, a federal court threw out North Carolina’s Congressional districting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, relying on extensive empirical models and statistical evidence that demonstrated both discriminatory intent and effect. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments regarding Ohio’s “use-it-or-lose-it” voter list purging process, during which considerable time was dedicated to issues of data integrity and availability. Both cases illustrate the growing importance of our ability to measure equal justice under law, and the degree to which claims of voting rights violations are based on quantitative arguments.

Measuring intent and effect in gerrymandering

The North Carolina decision handed down Tuesday included an extended discussion of the courts’ “obligation to keep pace with the technological and methodological advances so it can effectively fulfill its constitutional role to police ever-more sophisticated modes of discrimination.” In their 205-page opinion, the court reprimanded defendants for arguing that claims should be dismissed simply because they “rely on new, sophisticated empirical methods that derive from academic research.”

The opinion explicitly relied on such methods for establishing the intent of the North Carolina legislative leaders to discriminate against voters of the opposing party. They did this through a combination of computer simulations that showed the near impossibility of the adopted plan being chosen without intending to discriminate, given the traits of that map compared to alternatives, and data visualizations that experts say illustrate the “signature” gerrymandering effect of partisan vote shares being non-linearly distributed across districts.

In finding a discriminatory impact, the court relied on both simulations and statistical tests of partisan asymmetry to demonstrate the near certainty that the governing party engineered itself at least one additional seat, and likely several additional seats, through the adopted plan.

Does a non-response “count” as a signal of any relevance?

In the Ohio voter list purge case, Justices repeatedly asked about available data from both sides that would provide an empirical context for the legal arguments. In particular, Justice Sotomayor asked about estimates of how many of those purged from voter lists had actually changed residence out of their districts, as the state assumes. Similarly, Justice Breyer stated that they were looking at “an empirical question” and inquired about the availability of “numbers, or surveys” of residential movement within the state, as well as estimates of what percentage of residents typically throw away mailed notifications, so as to get some grasp of what it means when a voter does not respond to a notification.

Indeed, a crucial challenge to the defense revolved around just what information was obtained from the notifications. Justice Alito pushed Plaintiff’s counsel to assess whether nothing additional was learned, such that the removal was based purely on non-voting, which is prohibited.  Alito suggested that the state learned something, non-response, from the unreturned notifications, but counsel countered that no information about residency was obtained.

Neither side claimed that they could provide accurate numbers of the total disenfranchised, even though the arguments critically turn on the extent of discrimination taking place, and how those who do not return notifications should be classified so as to estimate what percentage of non-respondents had actually moved. Plaintiff’s argument rested partly on the claim that, because the percentage of Americans who move every year is low relative to the share of non-respondent voters in Ohio who were purged, the Ohio process necessarily results in false-positives, and must “vastly over purge” voters from registration lists.

An arms race: the technology of discrimination v the technology of empowerment

The amount of time spent on such questions in the Ohio arguments reaffirms the extent to which the identification and measurement of voter behavior is going to be central to challenging voting rights as we move forward. Further, estimating the impact of administrative procedures and eligibility requirements, while statistically difficult, is going to be of even greater importance, if we need to untangle compound effects in order to assess their performance.

Together, this week’s cases show that scientists, the courts, and the public need to advocate for greater scientific integrity, not only in the domain of legislative policymaking, but throughout the policy making process, including litigation, where improved methods and models can “provide a new understanding of how to give effect to our long-established governing principles.”

Trump Political Appointees Interfere in Scientific Grants Process Take Two: The Department of Interior

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

The Department of Interior (DOI) has directed political appointees to begin reviewing discretionary grants to make sure that they align with the priorities of the Trump administration. The discretionary grants include any grants worth $50,000 or more that are intended to be distributed to “a non-profit organization that can legally advance advocacy” or “an institution of higher education.” The memo detailing the directive was sent by Scott J. Cameron, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget.

The directive is being strictly enforced. Cameron’s memo notes that “Instances circumventing the Secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards.” The sentence is not only bolded, it’s italicized as well. To explain why the new grants process was needed, Interior Spokeswoman Heather Swift said that “the new guidance continued the responsible stewardship of tax dollars.”

Remember when this happened at the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) basically instituted the same process of grant review last year. While it is not uncommon for political appointees to get involved in the grants process, their involvement is generally limited to broadening solicitations for grant proposals. The US Federal Government refers to these solicitations as “Funding Opportunity Announcements” or FOAs. These FOAs include information about what type of work the agency is expecting and whether or not the applicant would be eligible for funding. Thus, an FOA is extremely important for both the government and the applicant because it highlights the agency’s priorities for the funding, which also serves as a guideline for an applicant’s proposal. Political appointees have generally broadened FOA’s in the past so that they are more inclusive, not restrictive to an administration’s priorities as is being seen here with DOI’s new process.

Agencies have grant review systems already in place

DOI already had a grant review system in place before this new system came along that worked just fine. This begs the question: why they are changing it? Part of the grant review system is that discretionary grants are reviewed by independent experts who assess grant proposals using a uniform rating or scoring system established by the awarding agency. The proposals are evaluated based on criteria specific to the grant—for some programmatic grants these criteria are dictated by statutory authority (e.g., grants in the brownfields program at the EPA). Therefore, as former Secretary of Interior David J. Hayes noted, “Subjugating Congress’s priorities to 10 of the Secretary’s own priorities is arrogant, impractical and, in some cases, likely illegal.”

Based on expert criteria, or those set out by statutes, a panel of experts will assign a score to each reviewed proposal and then meet to discuss the merits of each. The proposals that receive higher scores are deemed more competitive relative to those with lower scores. Depending on the amount of funding available for a grant program, the panel will recommend a percentage of the top scoring grants to be funded.

A list of recommended grants for funding are then sent to the head of the program, who may or may not be a political appointee, for review. The amount of information on recommendations that the appointee might receive varies. Sometimes the appointee might receive abstracts of proposals or they might just receive a list of the institutions or researchers recommended for funding. However, what is common practice when a head of a program receives this list is that they generally agree with the expert’s recommendations. Former EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, Christine Todd Whitman, chimed in on this issue when it happened at EPA, “We didn’t do a political screening on every grant, because many of them were based on science, and political appointees don’t have that kind of background.”

Will DOI use this new process to delete science?

In the case of EPA political appointees reviewing grants, scientifically defensible language was removed from many descriptions of grant projects, and some grants were rescinded that were already recommended by a panel of experts. It was clear that the new process was specifically set up to undermine science and scientific experts at EPA, especially those working on climate change related issues.

DOI doesn’t have a good track record of supporting science lately, having halted two important studies by the National Academies of Science, and completely scrapping climate change work from its new strategic plan. It has yet to be seen if the new grant review process will result in scientifically defensible language being deleted from grant descriptions at DOI, or if the agency will rescind important scientific work like was done at EPA. However, the scientific community will be watching for such attacks on science and we’ll fight back against them if this administration continues this appalling tactic.

Cap-and-Invest: A Key Tool to Help Oregon Fight Climate Change

With the Trump administration undermining federal action to address climate change, states like Oregon are stepping up to protect the planet for future generations.

For example, after President Trump announced that he will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, Oregon joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of states committed to the goal of reducing global warming pollution consistent with the Agreement. In joining the Alliance last year, Governor Kate Brown said, “it is our moral obligation to fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement. Oregon will continue to make meaningful strides, with the rest of the world, to ensure our communities and economies adapt to meet the challenge of climate change.”

Fortunately, Oregon lawmakers and Governor Brown have the opportunity this year to take a huge step in Oregon’s fight against climate change. Last year legislators debated the Clean Energy Jobs bill, which would establish a “cap-and-invest” program that cuts global warming emissions by requiring polluters to pay for pollution, and then use the proceeds to invest in clean energy solutions. A cap-and-invest program would be a major new tool in Oregon’s climate-change-fighting toolbox, and the Clean Energy Jobs bill is now poised to be the single-biggest issue before Oregon lawmakers in 2018.

Pricing Pollution and Funding Solutions  

Oregon is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, from higher temperatures, a warmer and more acidic ocean, increased wildfire activity, and reduced snowpack. Putting a price on global warming emissions through a cap-and-invest program helps integrate the risks of climate change into the cost of doing business because it forces the costs of climate impacts and the value of low-carbon technologies to be better reflected in decisions companies make about what to produce and how to produce it, and consumers make about what to buy. This leads to fewer emissions that heat our atmosphere.

In addition, because major polluters are required to pay for their pollution, a cap-and-invest policy also generates significant revenue. These proceeds can be used to fund investments that help reduce climate change emissions, like making renewable energy more affordable, improving the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings, increasing transportation options, and expanding clean energy job training programs.

The Clean Energy Jobs bill is modeled on similar programs in other states and Canadian provinces, which have seen impressive success in making clean energy investments. For example, through the end of 2017, California’s legislature appropriated more than $4.7 billion in proceeds from the sale of cap-and-invest pollution permits for investments in a range of useful programs, from supporting rooftop solar panels to water efficiency projects. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-invest program to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, has invested heavily in energy efficiency programs, helping 141,000 households and 5,700 businesses with investments in 2015 that will return $1.3 billion in energy bill savings. Oregon has the chance to build on these successful examples to create a program that reduces pollution and meets the unique needs of Oregonians, including its rural residents.

A Cap-and-Invest Program Will Complement Other Oregon Policies

While Oregon has already taken considerable steps to reign in global warming pollution from electricity production and cars and trucks, the state is not yet on track to meet its pollution reduction goals. Passing a cap-and-invest program is the single-biggest step state lawmakers can take to get Oregon on track.

Fortunately, a cap-and-invest program would nicely complement existing policies in Oregon to reduce global warming pollution, such as the Clean Fuels Program (CFP) and Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). The CFP requires a 10 percent reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels sold in Oregon by 2025 (compared to a 2015 baseline). The program creates a dependable market for cleaner fuels, which facilitates steady investment into research, development, and deployment of low-carbon fuels that are necessary to decarbonize the transportation sector in coming decades.

Meanwhile, the RPS requires that by 2050 half of electricity sold in Oregon is supplied by renewable sources, like wind and solar. Similar to the CFP, this policy creates a dependable market for renewable technologies, which is critical for facilitating investment in clean energy solutions necessary to decarbonize the electricity sector.

A cap-and-invest program would complement these policies by providing greater assurance that Oregon will meet its targets for reducing global warming emissions statewide. That is because the central design feature of a cap-and-invest program is a limited pool of pollution permits (i.e., the “cap”), which shrinks each year to ensure that emissions are staying in line with emission reduction targets. In addition, the revenue from the cap-and-invest program is important for helping overcome market barriers for clean technologies that performance standards—such as the CFP and RPS, but also others like energy efficiency standards—cannot solve on their own.

Finally, the programs complement each other because compliance with CFP or RPS eases compliance with the cap-and-invest program. This reduces the price of pollution permits, reducing compliance costs for all sources covered by the cap-and-invest program.

Clean Energy Jobs Bill is “Fully Baked”

The Oregon legislature has considered various forms of legislation like the Clean Energy Jobs bill for more than a decade, with a sustained push to develop a cap-and-invest policy since 2016. This past fall Senator Dembrow and Representative Helm chaired a work group process to make further refinements to the program’s design. While the Union of Concerned Scientists may not end up agreeing with every detail in the House and Senate bills that will be introduced in February, it is abundantly clear that legislators’ sustained engagement on this topic, along with extensive stakeholder input, has produced a thorough and well-vetted program design. In the parlance of the legislature, the policy proposal is “fully baked” and ready to be passed into law.

The daunting consequences of a changing climate require a swift response from governments around the world. In 2018 Oregon lawmakers have the chance to accomplish something big to maintain the Beaver State’s commitment to seriously addressing this crisis. Let’s hope—and work—to see a cap-and-invest program passed this year.

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