UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Clean Transportation Technologies Can Cut Emissions and Save Northeast Over $1 Trillion in Reduced Spending on Oil.

We can cut oil use, reduce climate and air pollution, lower costs for consumers, and strengthen our regional economy by investing in three proven strategies: increasing vehicle efficiency; transitioning to electric cars, buses, and trucks; and shifting to cleaner fuels. According to a new analysis for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) by M.J. Bradley and Associates, the states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region can:

  • Cut climate-damaging carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution from on-road transportation by 37 percent in 2030, relative to 1990 levels, and by 78 percent in 2050.
  • Reduce consumer spending on gasoline and diesel fuel by more than $125 billion by 2030 and more than $1 trillion by 2050.
  • Improve air quality, leading to more than $3 billion in cumulative avoided health impacts by 2030 and more than $30 billion by 2050.
  • Build a stronger and more reliable electric grid through smart charging, which can save ratepayers over $138 billion by 2050 and facilitate the shift to renewable electricity.
  • Save almost $25 billion in environmental damages region-wide by 2030 and almost $195 billion in 2050, by diminishing the risk of property damage from extreme climate events, preserving ecosystems, and avoiding climate-related changes in agricultural productivity, among other benefits.

Together with efforts to provide residents with better alternatives to driving through investments in public transportation, walking and biking infrastructure, and affordable housing near transit, these investments in clean vehicles and fuels can put the region on track to achieve the deep decarbonization of transportation. Furthermore, by directing investments toward the communities that need them the most, the region can make its transportation system more equitable.

Five policies to move the region forward

This analysis comes as states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region consider new approaches to addressing the challenge of transportation pollution. Transportation is the largest source of pollution in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. While the region has made progress in reducing pollution from power plants, pollution from cars, trucks, and buses have actually grown since 1990. The region will not meet our long-term climate goals without significant new policies to address transportation emissions.

Over the past year, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states have been exploring new policy approaches to deal with this challenge. Agency officials committed last year to explore market-based policies to reduce transportation emissions. State agencies have conducted analysis, and held listening sessions that have brought hundreds of people together throughout the region to discuss strategies to improve transportation.We have an opportunity right now to move the region forward with a comprehensive strategy to reduce vehicle emissions and clean our transportation system.

We evaluated three proven technology pathways by which the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states can accelerate the deployment of clean vehicles and clean fuels at a scale sufficient to meet their climate targets, calculating the investment needed to take these technologies to scale as well as the resulting financial, environmental, and health benefits. These pathways are: increasing fuel efficiency in conventional vehicles, promoting electric vehicles, and increasing production of clean biofuels.

We find that aggressive investment in clean transportation technologies can help the Northeast achieve deep decarbonization of the transportation sector. We also find that achieving this transformation will require sustained and significant efforts to overcome major obstacles to clean transportation technology, including the high upfront cost of the vehicles, the need for more charging infrastructure, and additional costs for low-carbon biofuels.

We recommend policy leaders in the Northeast take five major steps:

1. Accelerate vehicle emission standards

Vehicle efficiency and emissions standards, including federal CAFE rules as well as the regional Zero-Emission Vehicle program play a critical role in encouraging automaker investments in clean transportation technologies. The Trump administration proposes to freeze federal standards for vehicles and threatens to attack the authority of California and Northeast states to set higher emission standards. We propose instead that the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states join California to fight proposed rollbacks at the federal level and to keep vehicle emissions standards and the ZEV program on track post-2025.

With steady progress on vehicle efficiency, a new passenger car in 2030 can operate on one-third less gasoline than a car sold today. Continuing to strengthen the efficiency of buses and trucks is also important, because, although heavy-duty vehicles make up less than 10 percent of all vehicles on US highways, they constitute more than 25 percent of the nation’s consumption of petroleum-based fuels.

2. Make electric vehicles work for everybody

Electric vehicles (EVs) represent the most promising technology ever developed to help reduce the consumption of petroleum-based fuels. EVs are increasingly available in all vehicle classes and models, from sedans to transit buses and delivery trucks. On today’s grid, electric cars produce less than half the emissions of a conventional vehicle (Reichmuth 2017). They are cheaper to fuel and cheaper to maintain, and their up-front costs continue to decline, though incentives remain important for moderate- and low-income drivers to share in these consumer benefits.

Our analysis finds that the widespread adoption of electric vehicles by 2050—which assumes the electrification of 95 percent of the fleet of transit buses, 90 percent of passenger cars, 70 percent of small trucks, and 30 percent of large trucks—is cost-effective. Achieving these growth rates will require sustained investments to incentivize switching to EVs and build charging infrastructure.

To make this happen, we encourage states to increase incentives for low- and moderate-income residents, to make these vehicles affordable to people of all income levels. We encourage states to achieve the rapid electrification of port fleets and transit buses, particularly in communities with high rates of air pollution caused by diesel fumes.  And we call on states and utilities in the region to build out the charging infrastructure that we will need to support widespread electrification, and to adopt policies that will encourage these vehicles to charge at the most efficient time of day for the grid.

3. Enact a clean fuel standard

Clean transportation must be powered by cleaner fuels, a shift that can be achieved by switching to clean electricity and blending low-carbon biofuels into gasoline and diesel. In our analysis, we found that clean fuels can achieve a 10 percent reduction in carbon emissions per unit of transportation fuel by 2030, and 30 percent by 2050. Setting a steadily declining standard for the average carbon intensity of transportation fuel, including electricity, biofuels, and petroleum-based fuels, would support the transition to both electric vehicles and low-carbon biofuels, while preventing the introduction of high-carbon sources of oil, such as fuel derived from Canadian tar sands.

4. Create a clean transportation investment fund.

Making clean transportation work for all communities and constituencies in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic will require sustained, creative and strategic investments. A dedicated funding source for clean transportation investments could play a critical role in helping communities develop smart solutions to the challenge of reducing transportation emissions. Building on successful program models such as the Green Communities Act and Cleaner Greener Communities, a clean transportation fund could help engage local government and local coalitions around specific projects to improve transportation in their communities. Funds could also be used to engage key stakeholders, such as large fleet operators, auto dealers, transit agencies, universities and hospitals, and transportation network companies (TNCs).

A clean transportation fund would also provide the state with a way of dedicating revenues to the communities and constituencies that are most in need of investments in clean transportation. That includes environmental justice communities that face disproportionately high rates of asthma and air pollution, skyrocketing housing costs, and underinvestment in public transportation. And it also includes rural communities, who have the highest transportation costs and the greatest potential to save money from the transition to electric vehicles.

This fund could be supported through the same kind of funding mechanisms that are already working to improve efficiency and reduce consumer costs in the electric and gas sectors, such as a systems benefits charge or a cap and invest program covering transportation fuels.

5. Implement a market-based limit on transportation emissions.

Finally, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states should place a declining limit on emissions from transportation fuels and enforce that limit through a market-based policy similar to what the region has achieved in the electric sector through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (or RGGI).

RGGI is a policy with a proven track record of reducing emissions while improving our economy and cutting costs for consumers. It works by setting an overall declining limit on emissions from power plants and requiring polluters to purchase allowances made available in regular auctions. By limiting the number of allowances available, the program creates mandatory emission reductions. At the same time, sales of allowances raise money, which can then be invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency technology. By investing smartly in energy efficiency, RGGI has lowered net costs for consumers.

Our analysis demonstrates that this policy model could achieve this same success in transportation. For example, if the Northeast were to implement a market-based program covering transportation fuels at auction prices equal to those of the Western Climate Initiative, that would raise almost $60 billion to invest in clean transportation solutions by 2030. That alone would be sufficient to cover the entire added cost of electric vehicle technology, and together with additional complementary policies, these clean transportation investments could save consumers over $145 billion by 2030 – with hundreds of billions in additional savings in the following decades.

Public Domain

Half a Degree of Warming Could be the Difference Between Survival and Extinction for Many Species

The prairie pothole region is home to 50% of North America's waterfowl, but a climate threshold exists where they might not survive a 2°C warming. Photo: USFWS

As a conservationist who has been ringing the alarm bells on climate change threats to biodiversity for more than 25 years, I hardly know where to start in responding to the findings of the newest, and most alarming, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the impacts of a 1.5°Celsius global warming.  I’m not surprised that the IPPC delivers more bad news after reviewing more than 6,000 recent scientific reports, but I am surprised by just how bad the news is.

Half of Australia’s great barrier reef bleached in recent back-to-back extreme heat episodes. Climate change of more than 1.5°C will be lethal for coral reefs worldwide. Credit: NASA.

There’s no way to sugar coat this. We’ve ignored all the warnings. We’ve ploughed on with the use of fossil fuels in the face of overwhelming evidence that this was not just a bad choice, but the worst one. And now we’ve brought ourselves to the brink of ecological catastrophe. Half a degree of additional global warming, on top the 1°C we’ve already caused doesn’t sound like much but the truth is that it could be absolutely devastating for many ecosystems and global biodiversity. For the world’s coral reefs at least, failing to limit warming to 1.5°C will be fatal, and even at that level of warming, the new IPCC report concludes that “the majority of warmer water coral reefs that exist today (70-90%) will largely disappear”. Many other biomes, ecosystems and species will also not survive, and the natural world as we know it will be irreversibly changed.

Despite the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping temperature rise below 2°C, and ideally as low as 1.5°C, all indications are that the world is barreling towards at least 3°C by 2100, and potentially significantly more, unless rapid and aggressive global actions are taken to reduce carbon emissions.

Last chance for coral reefs

More than 500 million people rely on coral reefs for food, fisheries and storm protection. The reefs, home to at least a million species of fish, invertebrates and birds, also support a globally important tourist economy and critically important cultural context for many communities and indeed whole societies. Recent massive die-backs of corals in Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef, resulting from back-to-back coral bleaching events driven by extreme water temperatures led scientists to the conclusion that they had underestimated climate impacts on coral reefs in previous assessments. At 2°C say the IPCC authors, the evidence suggests that tropical shallow-water “coral dominated ecosystems will be non-existent”.

For many of us, protecting coral reefs and the millions of people who rely on them would be reason enough to take the hard actions that the latest IPCC’s emissions pathways analysis shows us will be necessary to rapidly and radically rein-in carbon emissions, but this new IPCC report gives us myriad other reasons to act. Aside from the catastrophic impacts predicted for coastal communities, agriculture and human health, the broad-scale implications for natural ecosystems and global biodiversity are shown to be huge.

Many ecosystems are at greater climate risk than we realized

The impacts for many ecosystems are much worse than many scientists expected when they embarked on the Special Report. For example, in addition to coral reefs, recent die-offs in mangroves (already highly threatened by deforestation and coastal development) have led scientists to realize that they had underestimated the climate threat for this vital ecosystem too. Coastal seagrass beds and kelp forests, already impacted by climate change, will be even more severely threatened by warming above 1.5°C. According to the IPCC, sea urchins which were able to reach Tasmania from mainland Australia as a result of climate-driven changes in ocean currents have already devastated kelp populations there, and the risk to kelp worldwide is growing rapidly.

Kelp forests are keystone species for marine ecosystems but their future will be in question in many places if we exceed 1.5°Celsius of global warming. Credit: Chad King/NOAA

Also of major concern are Arctic & Antarctic marine ecosystems. In the Arctic, where ecosystems are already being transformed by warming that has been higher than elsewhere on the planet, the likelihood of experiencing ice-free summers is ten times higher at 2°C than at 1.5°C. The combination of warming and ocean acidification (which changes the carbonate chemistry of the water and particularly affects species that use calcium carbonate for their shells and/or skeletons) is already impacting bivalve mollusks (such as oysters, clams and mussels), pteropods (pelagic mollusks also know as “sea butterflies) and Antarctic krill, a crucial element of polar food webs, and vitally important for whales, as well as for fish and seabirds. According to the IPCC, at temperatures above 1.5°C, the risk to bivalve mollusks shifts to high or “very high.”

Species such as this Costa Rican rufous motmot in will be at risk if 20% or more of Central America’s tropical rainforest is lost as result of climate change. Credit: Ian D. Keating.

What a difference half a degree makes!

Globally, the damage to ecosystems would be markedly more severe at 2°C in contrast to 1.5°C. Almost twice as much of the globe’s land area is projected to experience changes in biomes (major habitat types: e.g. tundra, tropical forest or desert) at 2°C (13%) than at 1.5°C (7%). For example, tropical rainforest in Central America would be reduced by 20% at 1.5°C, 30% at 2°C, and loss would rise to a staggering 50% at 3°C – most likely being replaced by savanna and grassland. New and novel biomes will likely form as the species assemblages in current biomes breakup due to climate change, and species shift at different rates, or become extinct in response to climate change. The IPCC highlights regional high risk of warming above 1.5°C to “tropical and desert ecosystems in Asia, Australian rainforests, the fynbos and succulent karoo areas of South Africa, and wetlands in Ethiopia, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe”. Largely because of drying and increased wildfire impact, South Africa’s unique fynbos biome, awarded World Heritage status for its extraordinary floral diversity and related endemic birds and insects, is predicted to lose more than twice as much area at 2°C (45%) than at 1.5°C (20%). At 3°C scientists say 80% of the fynbos would be gone.

Also since the 2014 IPCC report, the danger to insect populations has become better understood, and the new report concludes that nearly three times as many insect species may lose more than half their current habitat at 2°C (25%) than at 1.5°C (9%).  The implications for ecosystem functionality could be huge, given insects’ key role in ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling and pollination.

Tipping points revealed

Some alarming ecological tipping points are also identified in the Special Report. For example, one highlighted study shows that the biodiversity and productivity functions of the prairie pothole ecosystem of the U.S. and Canada would be preserved at 1.5°C, but not at 2°C. The prairie pothole region of the Great Plains is home to 50% of North America’s waterfowl and its wetlands provide key ecosystem services including groundwater recharge, filtering of pollutants and erosion control. There is a threshold in the Mediterranean region, where only limiting warming to 1.5°C can prevent ecosystem changes “unprecedented in the last 10,000 years”. For boreal forests (the forests that survive in the harsh, cold and nutrient poor conditions of the far north), a tipping point is thought to lie between 3°C and 4°C, a threshold that will be reached much earlier at higher latitudes than further south (NB. Regional impacts of a global average warming of 1.5°C or 2°C will vary and some regions will warm more than others). Dieback of boreal forests would also likely trigger positive feedbacks as warming and drying drive larger and more intense fires, thereby increasing carbon emissions. Boreal forest will eventually undergo a landscape-scale conversion into open woodlands or grassland.

The new IPCC assessment has revealed just how big the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C for ecosystems and biodiversity truly is. For me, the message of the science is that we have consistently underestimated the magnitude and speed of ecological impacts in the past, and that new and alarming feedbacks, tipping points and thresholds continue to be revealed as we learn more. Our understanding of the complexity of these changes is growing fast, but we already know (and have known for at least 20 years) more than enough to justify taking the political action that is needed to transform our energy systems away from fossil fuels. Keeping warming to 1.5°C is the tallest of tall orders, but it is the minimum we should aim for if time is not to run out for many of the earth’s natural systems as we know them today. As my UCS colleague, climate scientist Peter Frumhoff notes “If we care about Earth’s future on a time scale of our grandchildren’s grandchildren, we should be looking into ways to keep global temperature rise even lower than the lower bound of the Paris temperature targets.”

Credit: USFWS

Hurricane Michael Threatens Gulf Coast Homes and Military Bases

Photo: NASA

After a summer of scorching heat waves, deadly wildfires, flooding, flooding, and more flooding, we were weary. Fall’s bitter battle for the Supreme Court brought us not a refreshing crispness, but a renewed sense of the brittle fragility of the bonds that hold our country together.

And now, emotionally wrung out, we’re watching as Hurricane Michael rapidly gains strength on its way toward the Florida Panhandle. Using the most recent storm surge prediction for Michael—released by NOAA at 11 am Eastern today—and property level data provided by Zillow, our preliminary analysis indicates that nearly 50,000 coastal properties are at risk of storm surge inundation, though many more could be affected by flash flooding and heavy rain throughout the southeast.

Three of the region’s critical military installations—Tyndall, and Macdill Air Force Bases and Naval Support Activity Panama City—are also at risk, with 22, 19, and 13 percent of their usable land area predicted to flood from storm surge, respectively, according to our calculations. While only 1 percent of Eglin Air Force Base is predicted to flood with Hurricane Michael, many routine operations on the base have been suspended and the installation’s facilities on Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Islands are particularly at risk. These bases are supported by thousands of military and civilian personnel who will likely be drawn in to the response to and recovery from Michael.

So Panhandle residents cannot afford to be weary, as now is the time to heed the warnings of local officials, to make any final preparations ahead of the storm.

But nor can storm-tormented residents of the Carolinas afford to be weary, because recovery efforts from Hurricane Florence in September have barely begun and Michael threatens to bring yet another round of heavy rain. Dozens of roads and bridges in South Carolina are still closed because of the storm. Hundreds of people remain in shelters in North Carolina, and many more are unable to return home. Final data on the extent of Florence’s flooding only became available last week, and I hadn’t even finished my blog post about it before it was time for the next storm.

Puerto Ricans cannot afford to be weary either. Though electricity was restored—it took a full nine months after Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017–homes remain shockingly unlivable, and it’s clear that rebuilding will be a long and difficult process. Beyond the physical and financial difficulty of rebuilding, the ongoing fight for recognition of needs, of lives lost, and of rights, requires an emotional strength beyond that normally required of storm victims. Mental health struggles persist and deepen.

In the Florida Keys, efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Irma in September 2017 have recently ramped up. With the recognition that some residents and business owners are struggling to recover, Monroe County just launched its Rebuild Florida initiative and has had a bus-turned-resource center touring the Keys to help manage the cases of people whose homes were destroyed. So no, the residents and local leaders of the Florida Keys cannot yet afford to be weary.

In Houston, while 70 percent of those whose homes sustained damage during Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 report that their lives are “largely or almost back to normal,” 30 percent report that their lives are still disrupted. With 40 percent of affected residents overall saying that they aren’t getting the help they need and even higher percentages of black and low-income residents saying the same, it’s clear that while those with more resources are on their way to recovery, those with fewer resources are not. While some Houstonians may be able safely and comfortably watch Michael unfold on a different stretch of the Gulf Coast, others are still living with relatives or in just a single room of their homes.

And back in North Carolina, the Raleigh-based News & Observer reported on September 4th of this year that “Money for families who lost their homes in Hurricane Matthew [in 2016] has finally started trickling into North Carolina,” almost two years after the storm brought devastating floods to the state. When that article was published, Hurricane Florence was less than two weeks away from flooding many of the same areas that were hit hard by Matthew.

There is no rest for the weary.

Inside a flood zone or out, inside the wildland-urban interface or out, inside an urban heat island or out, we as Americans, and, really, as humans, cannot afford to be weary. Because if there’s one thing that the latest IPCC Special Report, released this past weekend, makes clear, it’s that the climate-related challenges we face are only expected to deepen.

The IPCC Gets Real about the 1.5°C Target

The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C  released today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), provides a stark profile of the disruptive climate futures we face with rising temperatures and the ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions across major sectors of the global economy that are now needed if warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

As a climate scientist and former IPCC lead author, this is by far the most sobering and urgent IPCC report I have read.

Why this report, now?

In the 2015 Paris Agreement, 195 nations set the goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

They made initial, modest, “nationally determined contributions” to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases that, if achieved, would limit global temperature increase to about 3°C by the end of this century.

They established formal mechanisms to take stock of the level of ambition pursued and that needed to meet the Agreement’s temperature goals.

And they called on the IPCC to report on “the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways” in advance of their first review of the adequacy of countries’ collective actions this December at the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland.

The impacts of warming at 1°5 versus 2°C

Extreme weather events across the globe have been intensifying after just 1°C increase in the global average temperature. The Special Report finds that limiting further global temperature increase to 1.5°C rather than 2°C, would:

  • Limit the further increase in the number of extremely hot days across most regions, with lower risks for heat-related morbidity and mortality;
  • Limit the extent of increased flooding from extreme precipitation, including  rainfall associated with hurricanes;
  • Lower the rate of sea level rise, exposing an estimated 10 million fewer people to associated risks by 2100;
  • Limit the reduction in yields and nutritional quality of rice, wheat and other major crops;
  • Pose far lower risks of species extinction and impacts on terrestrial and wetland ecosystems and the services they provide to humanity;
  • Substantially reduce risks to marine biodiversity, ecosystems and their services, especially in Arctic sea ice and warm water coral reef ecosystems – avoiding the virtually complete loss of warm water coral reefs that is projected to result from 2°C warming; and
  • Prevent the thawing of some 2 million square kilometers of permafrost over centuries.

It is important to bear in mind that that the IPCC wasn’t charged with looking at devastating impacts associated with the ~3°C world we are now hurtling toward.  The 2°C “upper bound” of this report is far below the path we are on today. Time is of the essence to bring about the rapid and far reaching transitions that we need to protect our communities and the natural world upon which we all depend from massively disruptive climate change.

The fierce urgency of now

Keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C is an essential and daunting task.

It would require, most critically, bringing global emissions of carbon dioxide to ‘net-zero’ by mid-century. That is, on average, no more carbon dioxide could be released to the atmosphere than is withdrawn.

We are far from that goal today.

The burning of coal, oil and natural gas and the clearing of forests together release more than forty billion metric tons of carbon dioxide now released each year, driving a steady increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

All pathways to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5° C would require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings) and industrial systems.” Such transitions would be “unprecedented in scale” and require “deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.”

For the energy sector, modeled pathways considered by the IPCC rely heavily on a massive transition to renewable energy, some nuclear energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, and a virtually complete phase-out of coal.

The 1.5°C pathways considered by the IPCC also assume that we will have a robust portfolio of technologies and approaches available by mid-century to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at scale. From planting trees to capturing and storing the carbon dioxide produced when biomass is burned for electricity, to technologies that might one day directly capture and store carbon dioxide from air, these carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies today vary widely in their “maturity, potentials, costs, risks co-benefits and trade-offs”.

Rather than banking on any one approach, the IPCC suggests that the “feasibility of CDR could be enhanced by a portfolio of options deployed at smaller scales, rather than a single option at a large scale.”

Perhaps the most sobering conclusion I take-away from this report is that the 1.5°C target, however daunting the challenge it is to limit temperatures to this level, is hardly the floor we should be seeking to stand indefinitely upon. Throughout the Special Report, the IPCC reminds us of how severe and, potentially, catastrophic, even temperature rise at this apparently modest level may be.

In considering long-term sea-level rise, for example, the Special Report finds that “instabilities…triggered by 1.5°C to 2°C of warming” could drive “irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet” leading to “multi-metre sea level rise over hundreds to thousands of years”.

Translation:  If we care about Earth’s future on a time scale of our grandchildren’s grandchildren, we should be looking into ways to keep global temperature rise even lower than the lower bound of the Paris temperature targets.

I believe that this requires us to take a serious look at the potential and profound risks of  “solar radiation management” technologies to reflect sunlight to cool the Earth, as a supplement to driving carbon emissions to net-zero;  technologies that this Special Report rightly notes may be “theoretically effective” but face “large uncertainties and knowledge gaps and risks, institutional and social constraints to deployment.”

Climate change is bringing upon us a world of hurt and hard choices. And, as all major challenges do, it also brings us a world of opportunity for leadership, innovation, risk-taking and the potential for transformational change.

It is time to step it up.

On Indigenous People’s Day, a Look at the Movement to Revive Native Foodways and How Western Science Might Support—For a Change

“Tribes are not sovereign unless they can feed themselves,” notes Ross Racine, Executive Director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council. This is such a brutal fact that that the destruction of Native foodways was used by the U.S. government to effectively weaken, destroy and remove Native people from their ancestral lands during the period of Western colonization, genocide, expansion and cultural undermining that ran from the 17th into the present century (in the form of “Food Distribution Programs,” largely the food that has made many Native communities both dependent and among the sickest in the world.)

It may be a legitimate question to some why a scientific organization wants to support dismantlement of the social inequities built into our food systems. Food and food production are fundamentally important to Native communities’ health, well-being, economic resilience, cultural heritage, and self-preservation. This means that restoring food sovereignty to Native communities requires the re-introduction of indigenous food production, distribution practices and infrastructure, in concert with the re-valuation of traditional ecological knowledge that has long been sidelined from Western notions of science.

The legacy of social and racial inequities woven throughout our food systems cannot be addressed without acknowledging the history of violent displacement and marginalization of Native American and Alaska Native communities, and the appropriation of their land and resources. In its most intensive and intentional phase, during the 60-year period now known as “the Indian Wars,” from 1830-1890, the federal government massacred tens of thousands of Native peoples and “removed” surviving communities to isolated “reservations.” Entire ways of life and foodways were intentionally destroyed. Native communities were forced to become dependent on an exogenous food system that funneled the most unhealthful foodstuffs toward reservations and further eroded knowledge about native foods and their production and preparation. These were overt control measures, including strict federally imposed limits on fishing, foraging, and hunting on Native lands. As a consequence of these measures, Native self-provisioning, traditional food knowledge and health were destroyed, and those communities now suffer some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the country and the world.

Indigenous methods of scientific inquiry have their best chance to find a home in our nation’s “1994 Land-Grant Institutions”—colleges and universities established with federal resources to support research, education, and extension related to food and agriculture. Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, then director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), stated that these tribal colleges and universities TCUs “teach in a cultural context that [empowers] students by drawing on the strength of their peoples’ history, indigenous knowledge, and traditions.” Yet research at TCUs is supported by a NIFA funding stream that is entirely separate from, and inferior to, that of other land grant institutions. Therefore, in recent years, a coalition of tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits have come together to demand increased federal funding for NIFA Tribal Programs. In addition, the pressure from dominant culture is to emulate the pattern and ostensive “success” of agricultural approaches that have been developed on the basis of western science. Instead, the leadership and autonomy of Native people must be acknowledged and supported to recapture and reconstruct their traditional knowledge of agriculture, gathering and food, together with their connection to health and wellbeing, and to integrate that knowledge with Western approaches in a manner of their own choosing.

The White Earth Food Recovery Project

One of the more significant things I ever did while on the faculty of the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University happened when a Native friend, Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe), told me about a project she was involved with to revive the foodways of her father’s people at the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. She told me how they knew that corn was central to the polycultural food system of their ancestors, and that they knew that to recover their physical, cultural and economic health they had to start by reconstructing their food system with their native species. But these had been lost to colonization and cultural destruction. She asked whether I knew how to get hold of seeds that were as close as possible to Ojibwe corn.

I called my buddy, Mark Millard, a geneticist who was the maize curator for the USDA’s Plant Introduction Center just down the road from my office. I still vividly remember the chills I felt when I repeated Winona’s question to Mark and he responded: “How close do you want to get to White Earth Ojibwe corn?” It turned out that in the 1920s, the USDA had collected seed of that very corn and dutifully reproduced it in the intervening 80 years. There was soon a package of precious seed on its way to Winona and the White Earth food recovery project was on its way.

Such efforts to reclaim food sovereignty as a way to recover health, in all its dimensions, among the nation’s survivors of a traumatic campaign of Native American genocide is gaining momentum, and particularly so among the TCU network, known colloquially as “Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities,” or even more eccentrically, the “1994s.” Ironies are plentiful in explanation. As Europeans colonized North America from the east coast westward, they established infrastructure and institutions to facilitate their settlement project.

Almost everyone has at least a glancing acquaintance with the fact that establishment of the transcontinental railroad was a keystone of this project. This was financed by a “land-grant scheme” whereby the federal government killed and removed Native inhabitants to “clear the way” for settlers, then gave itself permission to apportion the “empty land” (the popularly beloved first-person chronicler of these developments, Laura Ingalls Wilder, famously described her family’s entry into today’s Kansas with the words: “There were no people here, only Indians.”)  The federal “land-grants” were used by railroad companies not only for right-of-way but for sale to raise cash to support their operations. Similarly, the federal government “granted” land to states to establish the colleges that were to generate knowledge for white farmers to subdue the prairies and other conquered lands so that both Native people and vegetation could be replaced with more “productive” alternatives.

The resulting institutions, today’s “Land Grant Universities,” thereby have a complicated history. In the history of education, they were the first established expressly so that a higher education was accessible to the salt of the earth, and was no longer the exclusively for society’s privileged, but it was also clear who these colonizer institutions were for. They were not for Natives, and they were not for African Americans, both of whom were the victims and subordinates of colonization. It is for this reason that a completely separate network was subsequently established to “serve” the African-American population of farmers and rural citizens, now known as the “1890 Land Grants.” It is important to remember that this underscores exclusion than rather social equity, since they were established to reinforce that African Americans were not welcome (in the Southern US) within the exclusive hallways of the original Land Grant universities (now known as “the 1862s,” for the year their authorizing legislation was passed.) It will surprise no one that compared with the 1862 Universities, the Crown Jewels of the Land Grant University system, the 1890 and 1994 counterparts are egregiously underfunded.

What Must “Science” Now Do?

Which brings us to the “1994 Land Grants.” It took that long for the federal government to recognize the exclusion of the continent’s first peoples from its tradition of public support for higher education. But that support historically had been in an effort to destroy Native life, knowledge and culture, acknowledging it only as an item of study. For Native people, of course, the object is instead to revive the thriving worldview and knowledge system that sustained their forebears for millennial generations.

So this is where the federal government is now with this  project: The federal government funds research, education, and extension activities at 1994 institutions through the Tribal College Research Grant Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The program is to help 1994 institutions become centers of scientific inquiry and learning for remote and rural reservation communities, with an emphasis on research questions generated by Native community interests. Projects funded through this program may help a tribe “improve bison herd productivity, discover whether traditional plants can play a role in managing diabetes, or control invasive species,” among other areas of emphasis. Alongside the research program, the Tribal College Extension Program supports informal, community-based learning, which may include farmer education, youth development, and rural entrepreneurship.

In the summer of 2017, the Native Farm Bill Coalition—made up of 22 tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits—published a report assessing risks and opportunities for Native communities in the 2018 farm bill. The authors acknowledge that tribal organizations have “struggled to rally the support of tribes to effectively advocate for greater Native inclusion in previous Farm Bills,” and present the report as a springboard to amplify tribal voices in the federal food and agriculture policy process. The report’s recommendations, include increased funding for extension services for tribes, earmarked funding for tribal groups within existing NIFA research grant programs, and new research programs at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, that focus on the important and increasing role that traditional knowledge plays in the environmental, natural resources, ecological, food science, nutrition, and health research.

Science is a human endeavor. It does not exist without humans, and it serves the purposes of humans. It served the colonizing and genocidal project of the United States in several ways. The Union of Concerned Scientists seeks to put science in service of the project to recover the dignity and viability of lifeways that respect and sustain Native wisdom and healthful, thriving cultures. For this reason, my team and I will be working to establish a relationship with leaders, faculty and fellow scientists at the nation’s Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities, and to learn how me might become part of a project that aligns our science and intentions with a completely different direction and outcome than the perverted precedent we all must thoughtfully reflect on each October on Indigenous People’s Day.

Pathways to 1.5C: Carbon Budget in the IPCC Special Report

View of Denali. Credit: NPS Photo / Ken Conger

The historic Paris Climate Agreement generated a request of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to prepare a Special Report on 1.5 degrees Celsius increase above pre-industrial temperatures. Scientists and government representatives are in the final stretch assessing that every word of the summary for policymakers (SPM) accurately conveys evidence presented in the report.  Policymakers, business leaders, and energy system planners will be paying close attention to what the SPM says about the carbon budget remaining to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Figure 1: Note the logarithmic scale on panels b) and c). Original Source: IPCC AR5 WG1 Fig 8-06 and reproduced in USGCRP NCA4 CSSR which can be consulted for full figure explanation here.

Why is the carbon budget so important?

This is largely because carbon in the atmosphere lead to the global temperature increase. The CO2 budget depends also on how much and how fast we reduce the other contributions to temperature rise.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, methane (CH4) emissions (which transform into CO2 in a little over a decade after being emitted to the atmosphere), other well-mixed greenhouse gases and halocarbons from human activities all change the radiative forcing energy (watts per meter squared) which changes the surface temperature of Earth (Figure 1).   Or more precisely:

We already see that climate change influenced impacts are changing at a pace and scale that has surprised many.  Typically, climate change uncertainties tilt in the direction toward larger magnitude impacts due to the tendency to amplify different parts of the ocean, atmosphere, and biosphere system.  The special report will reflect the scientific advances regarding the greater risks that come with another half a degree Celsius temperature increase.   This represents a great advance for small island nations or species that depend on Arctic sea ice to last all year long.  Both are examples of being at risk of crossing perilous thresholds at lower temperatures. More extreme precipitation, dangerous heat waves, and other impacts occur at 1.5 C.  The incentives to stay within the carbon budget grow larger as we gain more evidence on the dangerous thresholds likely crossed with every half a degree additional temperature increase.

What if the carbon budget gives the world a little more time to reduce emissions?

Even if the carbon budget were found to be a bit larger, can we really take a break from our collective efforts to achieve carbon neutral human activities that alleviate poverty?  No.  Imagine a mountaineering expedition preparing to climb the largest mountain in North America – Denali.  Would they really take any less precautions or delay preparations after learning that a new more accurate scientific survey indicated the mountain was slightly shorter?  No. As climber, Nick Parker, put it, “It’s still high, it’s still hard, it’s still cold.”  Just as it is no walk in the park to stay within the carbon budget for remaining below 2 degrees Celsius global temperature increase and especially 1.5 degrees Celsius increase.

IPCC AR5 WG1 Technical Summary TFE.8-1

Figure 2. Source: IPCC fifth assessment report technical summary figure TFE.8-1

Yet it is possible because we know we still have some carbon budget remaining to work within as we transform our energy systems in equitable, sustainable ways toward net zero carbon emissions.  The scientific community has given the likelihood of achieving a temperature target based on a range of the carbon budget.  According to the IPCC AR5:

‘Limiting the warming caused by anthropogenic CO2 emissions alone with a probability of >33%, >50%, and >66% to less than 2°C since the period 1861–188022, will require cumulative CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources to stay between 0 and about 1570 GtC (5760 GtCO2), 0 and about 1210 GtC (4440 GtCO2), and 0 and about 1000 GtC(3670 GtCO2) since that period, respectively23. These upper amounts are reduced to about 900 GtC (3300 GtCO2), 820 GtC (3010 GtCO2), and 790 GtC(2900 GtCO2), respectively, when accounting for non-CO2 forcings as in RCP2.6. An amount of 515[445 to 585] GtC (1890 [1630 to 2150] GtCO2), was already emitted by 2011.’

The carbon budget range is likely an area of great discussion at Incheon, South Korea where everyone is gathered to decide upon the final approved language in the SPM.  To get a sense why, look at the green and yellow stacked bar chart at the bottom of figure 2.  It conveys the range of the carbon budgets that stem from the different models.  Not surprising since these approaches have to assess the natural and human influences on climate as well as the time frame of responses within every part of the system (surface temperature, ocean acidification, biological uptake and releases of carbon, land ice response, etc.).  One check on how well these approaches are doing when taken all together, is to compare the stacked bar chart for the temperature increase Earth already experienced above pre-industrial and compare that with the carbon we already emitted. Spot on. 90 percent of the models agree that Earth would have reached the temperature increase that actually occurred based on the cumulative emissions over the historical period (figure 2).

As soon as the special report is released – expected October 7 at 9 P.M. Eastern US time (October 8 at 10 A.M. local time (KST)) – I plan to tweet the carbon budget numbers for giving a greater than 66 percent probability of less than 1.5 degrees Celsius increase since the pre-industrial period.

IPCC AR5 WG1 Technical Summary

Will the IPCC 1.5 Degrees Special Report Help Drive Greater Climate Ambition?

As the IPCC report will make clear, when it comes to climate change, we are all in the same boat. Photo taken by the author at COP23 in Bonn, Germany last November

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will soon release its special report on the impacts of both a 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius increase in global average temperatures above pre-industrial levels, and on the actions that would be needed to avoid exceeding those temperature limitation goals.  The report is the result of hard work by experts from all over the world, drawing on a broad base of peer-reviewed scientific literature; drafts of the report underwent an intensive series of reviews by both experts and scientists, and the report’s Summary for Policymakers is being approved line-by-line by government representatives at a meeting that will soon wrap up in Incheon, South Korea.  UCS senior scientist Rachel Licker provides an excellent overview of the report’s origins, structure, and the process that led to it here.

The report will provide vital information to countries as they consider whether to enhance the ambition of their emissions limitation pledges (which are referred to as “nationally-determined contributions,” or NDCs) under the Paris Agreement; as the report makes clear, those current collective pledges are nowhere near adequate to meet the goal set forth in the Agreement of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels.”  As I noted just after the Paris Agreement was adopted, “getting the 1.5⁰C reference in the Agreement represents a major victory for small island states and other countries who have been correctly making the case that a 2 degrees C limit is by no means ‘safe,’ and for some island states, in fact poses an existential threat.”  The special report will make these dangers abundantly clear; as my UCS colleagues detail here and here, there are substantial differences between temperature increases of 1.5 and 2⁰C when it comes to extreme precipitation and extreme heat.

The report will also inform the actions of states, provinces, cities, businesses, and other subnational actors as they develop or strengthen their own emissions limitation commitments.  More on that below.

Some context

The special report was requested by the member states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the historic Paris climate summit in December 2015; in their decision adopting the Paris Agreement, the IPCC was invited “to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 ⁰C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways.”  That same decision “notes with concern that the estimated aggregate greenhouse gas emission levels in 2025 and 2030 resulting from the intended nationally determined contributions do not fall within least-cost 2 ˚C scenarios…and also notes that much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than those associated with the intended nationally determined contributions in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 ˚C above pre-industrial levels…or to 1.5 ˚C above pre-industrial levels.”

The Paris Agreement itself acknowledged the transformational nature of the actions required to meet its long-term temperature limitation goal, stating that: “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”  The IPCC report will flesh out in great detail what will be required to meet this profoundly challenging objective – as well as the very serious consequences of failing to meet it.

The reason countries asked the IPCC to complete its special report by 2018 is because they decided in Paris that they would organize a “facilitative dialogue” at the climate summit being held this December in Katowice, Poland, in order “to take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the [Paris Agreement’s] long-term goal…and to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions.”

The Talanoa Dialogue

When Fiji became the first small island country to hold the rotating presidency of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC in November of last year, its Prime Minister announced that this process would be renamed the Talanoa Dialogue.  As the UNFCCC background page explains, “Talanoa is a traditional word used in Fiji and across the Pacific to reflect a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. The purpose of Talanoa is to share stories, build empathy and to make wise decisions for the collective good. The process of Talanoa involves the sharing of ideas, skills and experience through storytelling.”

The Talanoa dialogue asks countries to address three simple questions: ‘where are we,’ ‘where do we want to go,’ and ‘how do we get there.’  There has already been a rich and in-depth preparatory phase of the dialogue, involving inputs from countries as well as states, cities, businesses, and every sector of civil society seeking to answer these questions; the IPCC special report will add greatly to this technical background.

The current Fijian and incoming Polish COP presidencies will conduct a political phase of the Talanoa dialogue at COP24 in Katowice; they have declared that “the outcome of the dialogue is greater confidence, courage and enhanced ambition; this outcome is expected to capture political momentum, and help Parties to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions.”  The IPCC will be asked to present the key findings of its special report to ministers and negotiators at the opening of this high-level political event on December 11th, which will be followed by a series of interactive roundtables where ministers and non-Party stakeholders (representatives of subnational governments, business, and civil society) will be asked to address the question of ‘how do we get there.’

The 21 Talanoa sessions held at the May UNFCCC negotiating session in Bonn, Germany, displayed a constructive tone and open exchanges between the participants that contrasted sharply with the zero-sum, finger-pointing dynamics that are all too prevalent in the climate negotiations themselves.  As one participant put it, “Everybody talked to each other like people, not like parties.”  We can only hope that the high-level roundtables in December benefit from a similar spirit, and help pave the way for more countries to join the Declaration for Ambition issued last June by the Marshall Islands and 22 other countries, which declared “we commit to exploring the possibilities for stepping up our own ambition, in light of the forthcoming IPCC Special Report on 1.5⁰C…[and] call on other countries to join us in expressing their desire to lead from the front.”


The UN Secretary-General’s Climate Leaders Summit

In May of last year, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that he would hold a summit of world leaders during the opening session of the General Assembly in New York in September, 2019 to address the need for enhanced climate ambition.  “Climate change is a direct threat in itself and a multiplier of many other threats — from poverty to displacement to conflict,” he said. “The effects of climate change are already being felt around the world. They are dangerous and they are accelerating. And so my argument today is that it is absolutely essential that the world implements the Paris Agreement – and that we fulfil that duty with increased ambition.”

In a speech in New York last month, the Secretary-General reiterated his warning about the mounting threat of climate change. “As the ferocity of this summer’s wildfires and heatwaves shows, the world is changing before our eyes,” he said. “We are careering towards the edge of the abyss. It is not too late to shift course, but every day that passes means the world heats up a little more and the cost of our inaction mounts.”

He also elaborated on his vision for the summit:  “The Summit will provide an opportunity for leaders and partners to demonstrate real climate action and showcase their ambition. I want to hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. I am calling on all leaders to come to next year’s Climate Summit prepared to report not only on what they are doing, but what more they intend to do when they convene in 2020 for the UN climate conference and where commitments will be renewed and surely ambitiously increased.”

In addition to enhancing ambition at the national level the summit will challenge states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens to step up action in six areas: the energy transition, climate finance and carbon pricing, industry transition, nature-based solutions, cities and local action, and climate resilience.  Building on the commitments announced at last month’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, UN agencies and key countries will work with non-governmental stakeholders over the next year to identify high-impact actions that can be taken in each of these areas.  The IPCC Special Report provides a roadmap to the transformational actions that will be required on these and other fronts, and will help both to inform and to gauge the adequacy of these actions. My colleague Rachel Cleetus lays out the technical and policy implications of the IPCC report in much greater detail here.

The 2020 moment

All of this is building towards the end of 2020, which is when the decision adopting the Paris Agreement requests countries to put forward new or updated NDCs; of course, as these pledges are “nationally-determined,” it is entirely up to each country to decide whether or not to enhance their ambition.  But as the science being assessed in the IPCC Special Report makes clear, if the collective ambition of these pledges out to 2030 is not significantly raised, the option of holding temperature increases below 2⁰C – much less anything approaching 1.5⁰C – will be foreclosed.  But there will be good news in the report as well: technological advances and rapid reductions in the costs of photovoltaics, LED lightbulbs, and many other climate-friendly technologies over the last several years mean that greater emissions reductions can be achieved at less cost than countries envisioned when they were preparing their initial NDCs in the run-up to Paris. These gains can and should be harnessed for the benefit of the planet in the form of enhanced NDCs.

As 2020 draws closer, we’re seeing momentum building for enhancing ambition. The “Call to Action” issued by the several thousand governors, mayors, corporate CEOs, major investors, and other leaders attending the Global Climate Action Summit calls on national governments to step up the ambition of their NDCs by 2020, as well as to develop net-zero mid-century emissions plans.  Nineteen countries – including twelve member states of the European Union – are now members of the Carbon Neutrality Coalition.  They are joined by the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, the Under2 Coalition, and the Science-Based Targets initiative involving nearly 500 companies, in working to develop and implement long-term decarbonization plans that are in line with the Paris Agreement’s temperature limitation goals.  And the Climate Vulnerable Forum – a group of around 50 countries that as its name implies, are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – has announced that it will hold a Virtual Summit on November 22nd, combining interactive live sessions with statements by Heads of State to amplify the findings of the IPCC Special Report and build momentum for increased climate ambition just in advance of COP24 in Poland.

These are hopeful developments, but they are not enough.  As the IPCC Special Report will make crystal clear, time is running out; we can – and must – do more.  The Talanoa Dialogue, the Secretary-General’s Climate Leaders’ Summit, and the 2020 deadline for countries to “step up” on enhancing their NDCs all provide important international moments to focus public attention and showcase examples of the climate ambition we need.  But it is at the national and subnational levels that the battle to limit the impacts of climate change will be won or lost.

During India’s struggle for independence from Great Britain, Mahatma Gandhi said that “the future depends on what you do today.”  Future generations will celebrate those elected officials, corporate CEOs, and leaders from the academic, faith, environmental justice, labor, and other communities who have the courage to rise to the challenge so clearly outlined by the IPCC’s Special Report.  We can only hope that enough such leaders step forward to make the difference we need.

Photo from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Heat Extremes at 1.5°C and 2°C Warming

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

A key feature of the new IPCC report is its look into how climate change impacts are likely to be different at 1.5°C and 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels. A comparative look at heat extremes at these two warming levels is among the topics covered. The implications of these kind of projected changes – from adverse effects on our health and safety, to creating pre-conditions for large wildfires – are not difficult to envision after the devastating heat waves of 2018.

To date, there is strong evidence that extremely hot days are becoming hotter around the world as a result of human-caused global warming emissions. The frequency and length of extreme heat events are also increasing in many locations. In the US, the frequency of heat waves has generally been on the rise since the mid-1960s, although the 1930s “Dust Bowl” period still holds records in many parts of the country.

Moving forward, as extreme heat responds directly to increases in global warming emissions, pronounced changes are projected around the world at 1.5°C that worsen at 2°C. In fact, increases in temperatures – and especially extreme temperatures – are projected to be larger on land than the overall increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature. Certain regions are expected to experience disproportionately large changes in extreme heat as the Earth warms, including mid-latitude regions and the tropics.

These projections mean that an increasingly large number of people will be exposed to extreme heat more often as the Earth warms. According to a study led by authors at the European Commission, at 2°C, 420 million more people are likely to be exposed to extreme heat waves at least once every five years than would be if warming is contained to 1.5°C. In the US, if global carbon emissions can be stabilized in the next few decades such that global temperatures average around 2.4°C warmer than pre-industrial levels at the end of the century (the scenario known as Relative Concentration Pathway 4.5), the frequency of heat waves is projected to be 50 percent lower at mid-century than if carbon emissions continue to grow through 2100 and global temperatures average 4.3°C warmer than pre-industrial levels (Relative Concentration Pathway 8.5).

We know from this year that extreme heat poses serious risks for our health and safety. Unprecedented heat waves flared up around the world, setting temperature records in Oman, causing large numbers of deaths in Japan, and exacerbating wildfires in the US and even in the Arctic Circle. Here in the US, extreme heat continues to be one of the most dangerous and deadliest natural hazards, with populations such as the young and elderly at a disproportionate risk.

Extreme heat is already a problem for many places, and many places are already seeing more of it because of human-caused climate change. Even in a 1.5°C world we are likely to see more intense, frequent, and longer-lasting extreme heat events than we do now. However, the science that is in the new IPCC 1.5 report is likely to underscore that we can avoid some of the most dangerous changes in extreme heat and we can prevent the exposure of significant portions of the world’s population – including here in the US – to more frequent heat waves. The science is clear that this requires taking immediate action to ramp down global warming emissions, especially as the world’s current commitments under the Paris Agreement bring us nowhere near neither 1.5 nor 2°C above pre-industrial levels – but rather around 3°C.

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

What a Difference 0.5°C Makes! Or, How a Seemingly Small Amount of Global Warming can Lead to a lot More Rain

North Carolina Army National Guardsmen and local emergency services assist with evacuation efforts in Fayetteville, N.C., Oct. 08, 2016. Heavy rains caused by Hurricane Matthew led to flooding as high as five feet in some areas.

The soon-to-be released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (IPCC 1.5) assesses, among other things, the impacts that could be avoided if global warming is kept to 1.5°C instead of 2°C, and the ways we can limit some of the worst impacts of climate change and adapt to the ones that are unavoidable. The report is the result of an invitation by member countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during the adoption of the Paris Agreement, a worldwide commitment to reduce global warming emissions, which as we know has a goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

Let us pause and think for a moment about this business of 1.5°C and 2°C, because 0.5°C just seems like such a small difference. Why so much discussion about this seemingly small difference in global temperature?

Let’s go back in time to look into the future, shall we? According to scientific and archaeological findings, the Medieval Warm Period (800 – 1400 AD) allowed Vikings to settle in Greenland around 1000 AD, but the Little Ice Age (between the 16th and 19th centuries) is believed to be behind the end of their prosperity – they couldn’t adapt enough to a changing climate. And these climatic changes were triggered by a temperature decrease of less than 1°C, taking place over a couple of centuries, which was enough to change things so much that the Vikings could not keep up with their farming ways.

Source: The lost Norse. Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear? http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/11/why-did-greenland-s-vikings-disappear

Now, imagine what 1.5°C warming would do to our planet today. We better think about that because, as of right now, we have already seen a warming of 1°C globally from 1901 through 2016 – that’s over little more than one century, NOT over a couple of centuries like the Vikings experienced – and are on a path to approximately 3.5°C by the end of the century, which would be, by all measures, catastrophic to people, fauna, flora, and ecosystems.

That rapid rate of warming is already showing us that the impacts and consequences are numerous, for many people. Among those impacts are sea level rise, extended wildfire seasons, more frequent heat waves, and an increase in rainfall in many areas, including across the U.S. Let’s go a bit deeper on the topic of rainfall.

Physics fact: warmer air holds more water vapor. The potential consequence is clear: with more water vapor in the atmosphere, when it rains, there is a bigger chance of more rain – more frequent and/or more quantity. And the more the planet warms (up to 1.5°C, 2°C), the more water vapor can be stored, leading to potentially even more rain.

With global warming of 1°C to date, increases in atmospheric moisture content, changes in precipitation patterns, and intensification of heavy precipitation (the latter two over land) have been observed on a global scale. And these changes have been linked to carbon emissions from human activity (IPCC AR5), the main driver of global warming.

Another 0.5°C increase could make a sizable difference in the amount of rainfall we will see across the globe. Some areas will see an increase in annual precipitation while others are expected to see a decrease, and one thing scientists agree on is that wet areas will likely get wetter, and dry areas drier, especially in mid-latitude regions. The most recent IPCC report, the Fifth Assessment Report from 2014 (AR5), projected that, under a high-emissions, business-as-usual scenario, annual averaged precipitation in the equatorial Pacific, high latitudes, and many mid-latitude wet regions are likely to increase, while a decrease is projected for many mid-latitude and subtropical dry regions. Mid-latitude land masses and wet tropical regions are also very likely to see more intense and more frequent extreme precipitation events – even in areas where a decrease in annual precipitation is expected, there may be an increase in extreme precipitation events, meaning when it does rain, it is likely to be a heavier rain event. These predictions are especially for the Northern hemisphere, and we are certainly seeing them play out in the U.S.

Source: IPCC SR5 2014 

According to the first volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, known as the Climate Science Special Report (CSSR), the U.S. has seen warming similar to the global average: 1°C from 1895 through 2016. Averaged annual precipitation in the U.S. has increased by 4% from 1901 to 2015, with great regional variation – some areas have seen increases higher than this average and some lower.  Region and seasonality affect the amount of rain change, both globally and in the U.S.


Annual changes in precipitation in the U.S. since the mid-20th century. Source: CSSR Chapter 7

In addition to this overall increase in precipitation, rain events in the U.S. are also becoming more extreme as the air is almost completely saturated, a pattern similar to the rest of the world. The whole continental U.S. has seen an increase in the frequency of these heavy precipitation events between 1958 and 2016. Overall precipitation is projected to increase in some U.S. regions (such as the Northeast and Midwest) and decrease in others. In regions such as the Southwest, where an overall decrease is projected, when it does rain, it is projected to be a bigger rain event than previously.

Percent increase in the amount of rain falling during the top 1% of events per region in the continental United States between 1958 and 2016. The percentages are first calculated for individual stations, then averaged over 2° latitude by 2° longitude grid boxes, then averaged again over each region of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Source: ucsusa.org/floods

According to the CSSR, for each 1°C increase in air temperature, the intensity of extreme precipitation events generally increases by 6%-7%.  Doing the math, with our current warming of 1°C, it is not surprising we have seen this increase in heavy precipitation events. If we get even warmer, more extreme rain events are likely. An increase of another 2°C would double the moisture content of saturated air to 12%-14%, and the intensity of extreme precipitation events could double. Now that’s an eye opener.

One important thing to keep in mind is that these changes are not coming by themselves. A change in precipitation comes with a change in temperature and other changes stemming from global warming. Together, the impacts can accumulate and/or act synergistically. For instance, a small decrease in precipitation paired with an increase in temperature is likely to lead to increased evapotranspiration, and less moisture retained in soils, with huge impacts for crops and natural vegetation. The consequences can be vast.

Extremes will keep getting more extreme as temperatures keep rising, and the IPCC 1.5 report should state it clearly. That is something we need to avoid, because we are already seeing enough (too many?) of these extreme precipitation events and the floods they bring, since heavy rainfall is one of the primary contributors to flooding. One need not go too far back to recall Ellicott City, MD, which saw two extreme precipitation events in two years, and Madison, WI, which was recently submerged by a rain event that exceeded the probability for a 6-hour, 24-hour, and 72-hour rain event. Both locations saw terrible floods. Keeping global warming to 1.5°C would likely reduce the probability of increases in heavy precipitation events compared to 2°C in the northern hemisphere, where they are more prevalent. This means that a difference of 0.5°C translates into a lower probability of heavy precipitation events in these regions.

Having warmed 1.0°C, we have 0.5°C to go before we reach 1.5°C averaged global warming, and 0.5°C more to reach 2°C. Each 0.5°C difference, especially brought on too fast, can mean countless (and some yet unpredicted) impacts around the globe. Even if global warming emissions were to drop to zero tomorrow, we are already committed to a series of impacts because of past emissions that will remain in the atmosphere for a century or more. The impacts of these past emissions are already playing out – some drastically – at this moment. Therefore, we must avoid continuing business as usual, and must instead focus on reducing emissions as much and as fast as we can, so as to reach net zero emissions by mid-century. This is the best, currently available way to avoid dangerous warming and otherwise irreversible impacts.

North Carolina National Guard

Seven Things You Should Know About the IPCC 1.5°C Special Report and its Policy Implications

Coast Guard Shallow-Water Response Boat Team 3 crew members and members of the North Carolina National Guard assist residents of Old Dock, North Carolina, evacuate after flooding forced them from their homes in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Photo: Chief Petty Officer Stephen Kelly

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is soon going to release an important report to help inform global efforts to limit climate change. The special report details the impacts of a global average temperature increase of 1.5°C relative to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pathways to limit temperature increase to that level. Governments of the world have come together this week in Incheon, South Korea to negotiate and agree on the report’s Summary for Policymakers, which is based on the underlying science in the final IPCC report. The summary is expected to be released on Monday morning in South Korea (late on Sunday night here on the US east coast).

Here are seven things you should know about the IPCC 1.5°C report and why it matters.

#1 The origins and purpose of the report.

The IPCC special report on 1.5°C comes at the request of countries – a request that was made at the time the Paris Agreement was reached, which “Invites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways” (Excerpt taken from the decision text accompanying the 2015 Paris Agreement). The timing of this report is critical because it is meant to help inform and motivate more ambitious emissions reduction commitments from countries. In Paris, nations also agreed to “convene a facilitative dialogue among Parties in 2018 to take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the long-term goal” of the Paris Agreement and “to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions.” There was an explicit recognition at the time that existing country commitments were inadequate to meet the Paris Agreement goals, and the hope was that countries would ratchet up ambition in light of the latest science detailed in the IPCC report. (UCS Climate Scientist Rachel Licker explains more about the report in her recent blogpost.)

#2 This is a consensus report that aims to capture the current state of the science.

The IPCC does not do new science, but it does synthesize and interpret the existing body of scientific literature using a consensus-based approach. By its very nature, this means that the scientific report is likely to adopt a fairly conservative approach to characterizing the risks of climate impacts. This is likely to be especially true about new, emerging risks that are only now being understood by scientists, such as some of the runaway risks or feedback loops related to the loss of land-based ice sheets or thawing permafrost. Unfortunately, some may use this as an excuse to downplay the potential for extreme risks. A sober reading of the recent science shows that unfortunately we have seen uncertainties about serious risks break the wrong way again and again. In addition, the Summary for Policymakers is a politically-negotiated text. It is meant to reflect the underlying science but there is some room for governments to make decisions about what to emphasize and what to downplay. The eyes of the global scientific community will be on this summary to make sure that it doesn’t water down or misinterpret the science.

#3 Will there be surprises in the report?

The report will compare impacts of warming at 1.5°C with 2°C. This is the first time that the science on 1.5°C is being assembled in this manner so that in itself makes the report unprecedented. One growing cause for concern is that some major impacts are being experienced already even before the 1.5°C threshold has been crossed, as this past year of intense typhoons and hurricanes, wildfires, heatwaves and floods has shownThat means we can no longer rely on the notion of a “safe” temperature guardrail.

#4 Is 1.5°C feasible?

Unsurprisingly, the report is likely to be equivocal about the feasibility of limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C. That’s because any ambitious effort to limit temperature increases is a combination of scientific, technological, political, social and economic parameters. This is not just an accounting exercise about carbon budgets and emissions; it comes down to crucial choices we make right now as a global community. What’s clear is that we have no time to waste in making deep cuts in global heat-trapping emissions, and unfortunately there is a very significant probability that we are likely to exceed 1.5°C given our failure to enact ambitious policies thus far. Regardless of whether or not this specific temperature target is achieved, there’s no doubt that limiting temperature increases to as low as possible is as critical and urgent as ever. Every fraction of a degree we can avoid is important to limit worsening climate impacts.

#5 What will it take to seriously limit temperature increases?

The pathways to reach 1.5°C or other low temperature targets all involve a massive scale up of low-carbon energy technologies and energy efficiency. Numerous studies show that to achieve ambitious temperature targets, we have to get to net zero emissions no later than by mid-century, a fact that is likely to be echoed in the IPCC report. That means we have to not only cut emissions but must also invest in scaling up so-called “negative emissions” options. These options span a range including: afforestation and reforestation; enhanced land management practices; direct air capture; and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

#6 Sustainable development and climate action are inextricably linked.

The Paris Agreement enshrines the long-term temperature goals in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, an important detail that is often lost in the public discourse (see Article 2). As the science underlying the IPCC report makes clear, worsening climate impacts will disproportionately affect low-income and otherwise disadvantaged communities around the world. Many of these impacts—including threats to food security and water availability, rising extreme heat, extreme precipitation and other extreme events and disasters, and loss of land—will make it even harder for people to meet their daily needs and climb out of poverty. These impacts could significantly set back investments that countries are making to improve the well-being of their people. At the same time, pollution from our dependence on fossil fuels also disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. A transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources would bring significant near-term public health benefits to these communities.

damage from Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban City, Philippines.

Lingering damage from Typhoon Haiyan is visible from the aircraft carrying U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as he arrives in Tacloban City, Philippines, to announce $25 million in fresh U.S. recovery aid on December 18, 2013. Credit: State Department

#7 How does the report inform policy?

The IPCC is not a policy-prescriptive body and this report is specifically intended to be policy-prescriptive. But responsible governments of the world can and should make some obvious connections with policy. (See below for more on policy implications). One big takeaway from the report is very likely to be that the world is currently not on an emissions trajectory aligned with the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement, and so countries must do more to ratchet up the ambition of policies to drive down heat-trapping emissions. At the same time, some pretty sobering climate impacts are already being experienced globally, and these are likely to worsen. We’ll also need policies to help people cope with the growing harms from climate change.

Policy implications of the IPCC 1.5C report

With the release of the report, governments of the world will have the information they asked for in 2015 in Paris. It’s a fresh reminder, if one was needed, that current emissions reduction pledges are not enough to meet the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, they are not enough for any appropriately ambitious temperature target, given what we know about dangerous climate impacts already unfolding even at lower temperature thresholds. The policy implications of the report are obvious: we need to implement a suite of policies to sharply limit carbon emissions and build climate resilience, and we must do all this is in a way that prioritizes equitable outcomes particularly for the world’s poor and marginalized communities.

Numerous studies show potential pathways to make deep cuts in heat-trapping emissions. Many countries, including the United States (under the Obama administration), have outlined long-term strategies to lower their emissions. It’s now time to act.

We already have many of the solutions we need to limit emissions—such as ramping up cost-effective, low-carbon energy sources (like wind and solar energy) and energy efficiency and investing in carbon-friendly forest management and land use practices. We’ll need to invest in technologies, processes and infrastructure to advance the (low-carbon) electrification of as many energy uses as possible, including in the transportation and industrial sectors. We also have to invest in research, development and deployment of a portfolio of the next generation of solutions—which could include advanced battery storage, zero-carbon fuels and transit options, carbon capture and sequestration, safe advanced nuclear reactors, more distributed electricity generation, and changes in diet, land use and land use management choices, to name just a few options—with the understanding that there are risks that some of these investments may not come to fruition in time or may have serious side-effects. Finally, we have to find ways to increase energy access for the millions of people in the world who still don’t have access to modern energy services. An ambitious suite of solutions must be quickly scaled up globally, else we risk locking in 3.4°C or worse.

The need to invest in “negative emissions” options also raises difficult technological, socioeconomic environmental and ethical challenges. Which options will be possible to scale up in the time-frame needed, what kinds of costs and trade-offs they will involve, how should those trade-offs be weighed, and how much can these options really contribute to global efforts to limit climate change are still open questions. But there’s no doubt we’ll have to grapple with the realities of needing negative emissions technologies, including through inclusive scientific and stakeholder processes to properly evaluate them and appropriate policies to advance research into and the development and implementation of chosen technologies.

The costs of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels may be significant in the near term, although surely less than the ultimate costs of an unlivable planet. That’s why richer nations must provide the climate finance needed by the least developed countries to make this transition swiftly. There are some who suggest a false choice between sustainable development and climate action, arguing that less developed nations need to expand fossil fuel use and carbon emissions in order to lift people out of poverty. This is a sure path to runaway emissions and dangerous climate impacts—the burden of which will fall disproportionately on developing nations. The only way out of this trap is for nations of the world to come together and make equity considerations central to how we solve the climate crisis. Yes, all people have a right to a decent standard of living, and access to energy is critical for achieving that goal. Will rich nations step up to ensure swift access to low-carbon energy globally? This is as vital a question as any about technology pathways.

Many of the world’s people, today and in the future, are going to experience significant climate impacts—including worsening drought, water scarcity, flooding, heat waves and wildfires—even if we succeed in reducing emissions. The harms and loss of life, especially to those communities that are most exposed and have the least resources to cope, could potentially be immense. Policymakers also need to be thinking of the worst-case scenarios for impacts like sea level rise to help communities prepare well ahead of time, as well as factor climate projections into plans for long-lived investments in critical infrastructure. Richer nations, that have benefited from a lion’s share of the carbon budget consumed to date, have a responsibility to help developing countries cope with these worsening impacts, including by providing funding for resilience measures and real pathways for people to move out of harm’s way.

As the next annual meeting of the UNFCCC draws close, to be held Dec 3-14 in Katowice, Poland, governments must now grapple with the next steps in implementing the Paris Agreement, as my colleague Alden Meyer describes in his blog. In the context of this IPCC report, they must detail how they intend to create a process for increasing emissions reduction pledges from countries and increasing the levels of climate finance for developing nations over the next two years and beyond—all with a view to limiting the harmful effects of climate change.

By 2020 at the latest, the global community must agree on an enhanced action plan and more ambitious, firm, national commitments for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, if we are to have any chance of coming close to them.

Our choices (still) matter

The choices we must make now are daunting. We are in a world of trade-offs. Some of the solutions we may need to rely on won’t be cheap. And they may come with adverse environmental or socioeconomic consequences or unknown risks that will have to be weighed relative to climate risks. We no longer have the luxury of pure win-win choices.

How we make these choices is also important. We need to be clear-eyed about risks and trade-offs. We need to engage a diverse set of stakeholders from the global community in making key decisions. And we cannot afford to delay action any longer.

Here in the United States, it is a time of deep concern with the Trump administration rolling back every national climate policy, stepping away from the Paris Agreement, and working on every front to undermine international cooperation. It’s going to be up to states, cities, tribal communities, faith leaders, labor and environmental justice leaders, youth groups—ordinary Americans from all walks of life—to pick up the baton and do our part to contribute to global efforts to limit climate change.

Whether or not we are able to limit temperature increases to 1.5°C, the task ahead is crystal clear: cut emissions as much as possible and invest in resilience to projected climate impacts everywhere in the world. The eternal question remains: will policymakers step up and do what’s needed to make this a reality in a time-frame commensurate with the urgency of the climate crisis?

Our children and grandchildren’s futures depend on the choices we make today.

State Department photo

The Most Energy-Efficient States: 2018 Rankings

Energy efficiency is a powerful option for saving money, improving comfort, cutting pollution, making us more resilient, and creating jobs… and a whole lot easier if the state you live in has good programs and policies in place. So which states do? Fortunately, the latest annual ranking of state energy efficiency efforts is here, and lays it all out for us.

When autumn leaves begin to fall

Energy efficiency—doing more with less energy—is good to think about any time of year. But autumn is a particularly fine time to think about it; winter is coming (again), after all.

Energy efficiency is also an important tool for cutting down on fossil use in our homes and businesses, and this fall fossil fuel problems in these parts (think gas explosions) have helped underscore the need for tools like that.

As luck would have it, autumn is also the time of year when we find out from the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy (ACEEE) how states stack up when it comes to energy efficiency.

What’s clear right off the bat is that a lot of states are taking efficiency seriously, and that’s really important. “Forward progress at the federal level has somewhat stalled,” says ACEEE Executive Director Steve Nadel. “States are really taking the lead, even if Washington isn’t.”

Head of the pack

And the proof is in the 2018 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard, the 12th in ACEEE’s annual series. The scorecard is based on their analysis of a range of energy efficiency policies and programs, and covers utilities, buildings, transportation, state government, combined heat and power (CHP), and appliance standards.

Here’s what the ACEEE analysis finds about how the states rank:

Source: ACEEE 2018

Massachusetts tops the list for the eighth year in a row, with top marks in three of the six categories: utility/public benefits programs and policies, CHP, and state government initiatives.

California is hot on Massachusetts’s heels, though—only a half a point from the top spot. It earned the top spot in the other three categories: buildings, transportation, and appliance efficiency standards.

Rhode Island holds onto third, with a perfect score for its utility programs and perfect marks in two other categories. Vermont is right behind, and Connecticut rounds out the top five.

ACEEE also point out states that have made the most strides in energy efficiency, regardless of where they started the year. The analysis calls out New Jersey as the most improved state, based in part on its new annual energy savings targets, plus Missouri, Connecticut, Colorado, and South Dakota.

The score stacks (below, by region) show how the pieces add up to each state’s overall score (to a maximum of 50):

Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states (Source: ACEEE 2018)


Western states (Source: ACEEE 2018)

Midwest states (Source: ACEEE 2018)

Southwest states (Source: ACEEE 2018)

Southern states (Source: ACEEE 2018)

Don’t stop now

While there were strong performers, no state was perfect in ACEEE’s eyes, and given the lack of leadership from the federal government, we need all 50 states to be aiming high.

So ACEEE also includes guidance for states on how to up their efficiency game:

  • Make the target clear. Set an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) or other energy savings target; the report’s lead author, Weston Berg, says that an EERS is probably one of the most successful ways to boost efficiency.
  • Make efficiency work for all. Make sure that utility programs incorporate components specifically suited for low-income customers.
  • Make buildings work for all. Put in place strong building energy codes, and invest in enforcement (make sure, that is, that the strong codes get used/followed).
  • Don’t forget transportation. Follow California’s lead on tailpipe emission standards, plus focus on reducing VMTs (vehicle miles traveled).
  • Think about heating and electricity together. Consider “cost-effective and efficient” CHP as an energy efficiency resource.
  • Lead by example. Consider that change starts at home, and make sure that the state government is doing its part, as visibly as possible.
  • Get creative on financing. Find targeted ways to get customers and lenders over the hump on embracing energy efficiency even given the up-front costs.

Overall, says ACEEE’s Berg, it’s been a “pretty dynamic year in energy efficiency.” And it’s a really dynamic time in the energy sector in general, with new or improved technologies making themselves felt (think heat pumps for home heating and water heating), distributed energy technologies (solar and more) continuing their impressive growth, electric vehicles coming on strong, energy storage becoming a real player, and more. Fitting those pieces together offers tremendous potential for progress in how we make and use energy—and will take some doing.

Wherever we head, a strong focus on energy efficiency just makes sense. Efficiency, said California Energy Commissioner Andrew McAllister at the launch of the new report, “is just a bedrock resource” that makes all the rest of it more manageable.

Having this kind of good information about how each state stacks up on energy efficiency policies and programs is really important for making sure we get as much of that bedrock resource as possible.

Kids Deserve to Have Healthy Lives: The Uncertain Fate of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection

October 1 marked the beginning of Children’s Health Month, the month when health organizations, health professionals, government agencies, and others work to raise public awareness of children’s unique vulnerabilities and highlight their support for child health. And there certainly are many issues that merit our attention and efforts to protect and promote the health of our nation’s children, from prenatal care and adolescent health to immunization and nutrition.

These issues also include the environmental threats and hazards that affect the health and safety of our children, like air and water pollution, exposure to lead, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals and yes, even climate change.

From asthma to brain damage, exposure to chemicals and other environmental hazards can have both immediate and lasting effects on children’s health and well-being. What’s more, these hazards often affect children differently than they do adults, so it makes sense that public protections should take these differences into account. And, along with providing science, information, and expert advice, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to be the cop on that beat.

Director of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection: OUT

The EPA garnered significant news over the past week when it abruptly placed the director of its Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP) on administrative leave. The director, Dr. Ruth Etzel, is a pediatrician, health scientist, and renowned environmental health expert who literally wrote the book on children’s environmental health.

If the surgeon general is the nation’s doctor, Dr. Etzel has been the children’s doctor at the EPA and a tireless advocate for children’s environmental health throughout her career. Her expertise and experience, along with the work of the OCHP staff, have been vital to informing the EPA on the unique vulnerabilities of children and how the agency’s proposals, policies, and efforts could affect them. There are no other MDs, much less a pediatrician, in this office.

The persistent sidelining of science and other scientists at the EPA makes it essential for the agency to explain how OCHP will continue to play a meaningful role in the agency’s decisions.

Children are not little adults

Exposure to pollution, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals can make kids sick, as parents, family members, health care providers, teachers, and day care providers are generally well aware. They know, for example, that air pollution, second-hand smoke, mold, and some chemicals can trigger asthma attacks. Indeed, the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 6.1 million children (8.3% of kids under the age of 18) suffer from asthma, and that there were 13.8 million asthma-related missed school days in 2013, plus the countless visits to doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and hospitalizations.

They certainly know that lead can poison kids, seriously damage developing brains, and result in lasting cognitive and behavioral problems. They may know that there is no safe level of lead exposure in children and that lead exposure continues to be a significant problem in the US, with approximately 500,000 children ages 1 to 5 years having blood lead levels higher than the CDC reference level. And some may be waiting for the promised updated Federal Lead Strategy (see here and here), which is expected to be available for public comment in late 2018 (that means now, so what and where’s the hold-up?).

And then there’s the worry about the thousands of chemicals used in household and consumer products, home furnishings, building materials, and even toys. The saga of EPA’s decision on the pesticide chlorpyrifos is a story onto itself (see here, here), though one with a hopeful ending thanks to the courts (though the EPA intends to fight the decision).

In so many words, we know that in many cases chemicals and kids are a bad mix.

That’s why it’s particularly noteworthy that the EPA has both a policy and an office dedicated to children’s health.

OHCP: Not just another cog in a bureaucratic machine

In 1995, the EPA established a policy to “consistently and explicitly evaluate environmental health risks of infants and children in all of the risk assessments, risk characterizations, and environmental and public health standards.” In 1996, the agency established a national agenda to protect children’s health from environmental threats.

In 1997, the EPA Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP) was established by executive order. It is the only office in the agency totally dedicated to the health of children. The office was and for now remains located within the Office of the EPA Administrator. Its proximity to top EPA leadership reflects the importance of its fundamental goal, which is to “to ensure that all EPA actions and programs address the unique vulnerabilities of children.”

The OHCP’s web site further defines its major work as: “increasing environmental health literacy of health care providers through support of Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units; and evaluating and communicating trends in environmental contaminants that may contribute to childhood disease through publication of America’s Children and the Environment.”

Kids are uniquely sensitive and vulnerable to environmental hazards. As the OCHP also notes on its web site, children are more vulnerable to environmental exposures because “their bodily systems are still developing; they eat more, drink more, and breathe more in proportion to their body size; and their behavior can expose them more to chemicals and organisms.”

Our nation’s doctors and nurses rely on the expert advice and resources in the OHCP in caring for our children. EPA policy makers need the same to effectively safeguard our kids.

Speaking out and what worries me most

That’s why it’s particularly troubling to see the EPA potentially put the work of the office in jeopardy (not to mention the notable timing given Children’s Health Month). More than 120 organizations have written to EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler asking the EPA “to immediately clarify what action it has taken with regards to Dr. Etzel and with regards to OCHP, and make no further attempts to dismantle, re-organize, diminish, or otherwise reduce the abilities and authorities of OCHP.” Signatories include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the March of Dimes, National Association of County and City Health Officials, National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, Moms Clean Air Force—and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But what’s even more troubling is the context in which this occurs. This administration has an established track record of devaluing and sidelining science and scientists. We are tracking these assaults on science here—but I admit it’s hard to keep up.

Just in the past week, we have also seen the EPA disband its Office of the Science Advisor (see here, here) and then appoint the lead lobbyist for Koch Industries to the top political position inside the office that is now in charge of science advice and coordination at the EPA. And we also learned that a rule to restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions was developed without involvement of the agency’s science advisor.

Also in the news this week are White House efforts to suppress attention to climate change and children’s health at the same time, scrubbing language about how climate change affects children’s health from a draft EPA proposal on heat-trapping chemicals.

So call me concerned? Heck Yeah. I’m troubled that there seems to be no due process in removing the EPA’s top expert in children’s environmental health. I’m worried that in the daily onslaught of the Trump administration’s efforts to sideline science, scientists, and elevate private profit over the public good, what’s happening to children’s health at the EPA will get lost in the shuffle as people move on to the next outrage.

We can’t let this happen

The health of each child in this country is just too important. The Trump administration’s EPA is actively reopening important protective rules—from mercury to methane, power plant emissions to how communities deal with chemical disasters. In the first two years of this administration, we have learned that reopening these rules is simply the first step in attempts to delay, weaken, or entirely gut health protections. We need strong science and scientists within the EPA to be in a position to stand up for children.

So please raise your voice again and again on this one. Call your elected representatives, tell your friends and neighbors, write a letter to the editor of your hometown newspaper. Tell them what children’s health means to you, and why the EPA needs to push forward, not retreat, on protecting our families.

Take action now! Send EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler a message that we are paying attention and know these moves are dangerous and unacceptable.

Photo: Runar Pedersen Holkestad/Flickr

Electoral Reform Update: One State at a Time

Building a healthier democracy requires that we recognize the additional burden of restrictive election laws on communities already overburdened by economic and environmental distress. Communities that don’t have full and fair access to voting rights have a harder time advocating for themselves and preventing environmental abuses. Restricted voting rights and environmental injustice create a vicious cycle. Environmental inequalities create health and economic problems that make it harder for people to engage in the voting process—and being alienated from the political process makes it harder to challenge bad environmental conditions.

Across the country this November, voters have an opportunity to improve the quality of U.S. elections in their states, and for the country as a whole.

Reforms ranging from redistricting to registration requirements and ballot access could lower voting barriers and reduce inequalities in turnout, particularly in environmental justice and other overburdened communities, where our recent analysis showed especially low levels of turnout. A handful of states are also trying to raise barriers to free and fair participation in elections, which we highlight below.

In the following states, these reforms would improve the quality of future elections:


Proposal 2, Independent Redistricting Commission Initiative—the organization Voters Not Politicians collected more than the required 315,654 signatures for the initiative.

A Detroit Free Press poll released last week showed the initiative ahead, up 48-32 percent, with 20 percent undecided. Proposal 2 receives significant support from both Democrats and independents, but is losing by 33-44 percent among Republicans.

Michigan’s “Promote the Vote” which will be Proposal 3 on the ballot, would allow for voter registration up to the day of the election, allow people to get absentee ballots for no reason and allow straight-ticket voting. Proposal 3 received the most support in the poll with 70 percent of those surveyed saying they’ll vote for the proposal, and 25 percent opposed.


Amendment 1 would create a position called the non-partisan state demographer, which would draw state legislative districts. The state demographer would be selected from a pool of applicants, with the state auditorstate Senate majority leader, and state Senate minority leader involved in the selection process. The state demographer would file the proposed map with the existing commissions, which would be permitted to amend the demographer’s map via a 70 percent vote of the commissioners, provided that amendments meet Amendment 1’s redistricting criteria.

Amendment 1 would also address campaign finance and lobbying policies related to state legislators and legislative employees. The ballot initiative would forbid the Missouri State Legislature from passing laws allowing for unlimited campaign contributions to candidates for the state legislature. Amendment 1 would establish campaign contribution limits for legislative candidates and their committees for a single election cycle to $2,500 per person to a state Senate candidate and $2,000 per person to a state House candidate.  Finally, the measure would prohibit making or accepting contributions using a fake name, using the name of another person, or through another person to conceal the actual donor’s identity.


With unanimous support from the state legislature and both state party chairs, Colorado will become the first state to have an equal number of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters on independent commissions that redraw legislative and congressional boundaries. Under the amendment, districts would need to be competitive. Competitive is defined in the amendment as having a reasonable potential to change parties at least once every ten years. Measuring competitiveness would entail evidenced-based analyses, voter registration data, and past election results.


Proposition 4 would create a seven-member independent redistricting commission to draft maps for congressional and state legislative districts. Members would be appointed by the governor and state legislative leaders. A person would not be eligible to serve as a commissioner if, during the four years before appointment, he or she was a lobbyist; was a candidate for or holder of any political or elected office; received compensation from a political party, political party committee, or political action committee associated with a political party.

The following states also have voting rights related initiatives:

Florida: Amendment 4, Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative—automatically restores the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. A recent poll shows 42 percent of voters plan to vote “Yes” on Amendment 4, while 20 percent will vote “No.” But with 36% undecided, and the amendment requiring 60% to pass, its fate is still uncertain.

Maryland: Question 2, Election-Day Voter Registration Amendment—legislative Democrats voted to place the amendment the ballot. The measure was designed to authorize a process for registering qualified individuals to vote at a precinct polling place on election day.

Nevada: Question 5, Automatic Voter Registration via DMV Initiative—the measure was designed to provide for the automatic voter registration of eligible citizens when receiving certain services from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

A handful of other states are moving in the opposite direction, seeking to raise further barriers to voting:

Arkansas: Issue 2, Voter ID Amendment—would require individuals to present a valid photo ID to cast non-provisional ballots in person or absentee.

Montana: LR-129—The Montana State Legislature voted to place the measure on the ballot, through the support of 80 of 91 Republicans and one of 59 Democrats. The measure was written to ban persons from collecting the election ballots of other people, with exceptions for certain individuals.

North Carolina: Voter ID Amendment—This amendment was referred to the ballot by the state by the state legislature along party lines with Republicans voting in favor of it and Democrats voting against it. It would create a constitutional requirement that voters present photo ID

North Dakota: Measure 2, Citizen Requirement for Voting Amendment Initiative—The measure was designed to clarify that only a U.S. citizen can vote in federal, state, and local elections in North Dakota.

These and similar restrictions have been proposed with the support of climate change-denial groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in an effort to entrench representatives under their influence.

If we cannot fix our democracy, it is unlikely that we will fix our climate. To solve the challenges of environmental justice and policy decisions that are not grounded in evidence or public interest, we don’t just need stronger environmental laws—we need voting-system reforms so communities have the tools to fight on their own behalf. Across the country, it is crucial that citizens get out to vote by November 6 and take part in this historic opportunity to reassert popular control over government and policy making.

Photo: Erik (HASH) Hersman/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Top EPA Science Office Sidelined as Political Appointees Hatched Controversial Science Proposal

The EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor (OSA) was excluded from discussions around a proposal to restrict the types of science that could be used in agency decisions, according to an email obtained by UCS. Described by EPA as providing “leadership in cross-Agency science and science policy,” the OSA would normally be principally involved in such an effort. This is further evidence that the science rule was developed by political appointees while completely excluding top EPA scientific staff.

OSA Director Tom Sinks seemed taken aback when the rule was published.

“Even though OSA and I have not participated in the development of this document and I just obtained it (have yet to read it), I am listed as the point of contact,” he wrote in an email to colleagues. “No doubt we will all have a lots [sic] of questions re this – but I wanted you to be aware of this and encourage you to read about it.”

The email was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and shared with the Washington Post, which broke the story earlier this afternoon.

It’s a lot easier for fringe scientific views to take root when the agency’s own scientific experts aren’t even allowed a seat at the table. Adding insult to injury, EPA leaders announced last week that the Office of Science Advisor would be eliminated and that some of its functions would be buried deep inside one EPA office, diminishing the role of science advice at the agency.

The email from Dr. Sinks shows the exclusion of the science advisor’s office from important policy discussions started long before EPA leaders decided to get rid of it.

Previously, the EPA attempted to justify its proposed rule by claiming that it was consistent with recommendations from several prominent scientific organizations, forcing those organizations to disassociate themselves from the rule.

“Contrary to the stated purpose of the rule, the rule would result in the exclusion of valid and important scientific findings,” said Rush Holt, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in testimony before the Senate today, according to the Washington Post.

Hundreds of scientific associations, industry groups, public interest organizations, scientists have expressed concern about the proposal in public comments. Even the Department of Defense told EPA that this idea is unwise.

DOI’s New Policy Restricts Science Under the Guise of Transparency

Photo: NCinDC/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Last week, Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order, “Promoting Open Science”, purportedly to increase transparency and public accessibility of the research used by the Department to make science-based decisions. This seems dubious coming from a person who spent much of his career lobbying for the oil and gas industry and who at his confirmation hearing professed, “Here’s the reality: We’re going to look at the science whatever it is, but … policy decisions are made — this president ran and he won on a particular perspective.” The order, effective immediately, is not unlike the EPA’s “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” proposed rule, in that it restricts the use of science in important decisions that affects the public and our environment. At its surface, the order seems to make science a hallmark of DOI policy:

This Order is intended to ensure that the Department of the Interior (Department) bases its decisions on the best available science [emphasis mine] and provide the American people with enough information to thoughtfully and substantively evaluate the data, methodology, and analysis used by the Department to inform its decisions. Further, it is intended to ensure that the American people have sufficient information [emphasis mine] about what their Federal Government is doing to assess where it is coming from and correct the Federal Government when we err.

The only problem is that science already is and has been part and parcel of the work of the Department.  So, what has changed?  When you dig deeper it is easy to see this order for what it is:  an attempt to place unnecessary burdens on the use of scientific evidence that runs contrary to the Trump administration’s agenda.

To date, this Administration has shown disdain rather than respect for science.  Here at UCS we have been tracking attacks on science and several are at DOI.  Our survey of DOI scientists (at the US Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, as well as the Bureaus of Ocean Energy Management and Safety and Environmental Enforcement)  reveal deep concerns among the professionals in the agency about the way their political leaders are managing the science program in the department.  The following details from the order are also important to note:

Raw data and reproducibility

Any decision based on scientific conclusions that are not supported by publicly available raw data [emphasis mine], analysis, or methodology, have not been peer reviewed, or are not readily reproducible [emphasis mine] should include an explanation of why such science is the best available information.

Requiring that scientific data be publicly available means that some high-quality data can’t be used in federal government research. Raw data may include confidential information such as private addresses and locations of sacred spaces and cultural resources or even the locations of the last remaining individuals of an endangered species. A colleague said, “it’s like telling poachers where the last rhinos are living,” an astute analogy. Allowing such data to be publicly available could put individuals, species, and culturally or religiously important sites at risk. In some cases, data from older studies may be inaccessible where the authors or data sources may not be available. This would be an issue for reproducibility as well, especially considering that long-term studies and studies determining the natural history of species often rely on data obtained before the advent of modern data storage.

As Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists previously pointed out, raw data is not typically reviewed even in the most rigorous peer-reviews. Instead, the research questions, the methods, the summarized data, the results and conclusions are reviewed to assess the quality of the work.

Also cited in the order is an excerpt from the Office of Management and Budget, Guidelines for Ensuring and Maximizing the Quality, Objectivity, Utility, and Integrity of Information Disseminated by Federal Agencies. “If an agency is responsible for disseminating influential scientific, financial, or statistical information, agency guidelines shall include a high degree of transparency about data and methods to facilitate the reproducibility of such information by qualified third parties [emphasis mine].”

In other words, the OMB guidelines already call for the science to be as transparent as is reasonable.  So, is this order calling for it to go beyond the bounds of reason?

Best available science

“The Department issues regulations on a wide swath of activities that have a tremendous impact on the lives of Americans. Accordingly, the Department has an obligation to the American people to ensure that decisions are based on the best available science [emphasis mine]. On March 28, 2018, President Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order 13783, ‘Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,’ declaring it ‘the policy of the United States’ that environmental regulations ‘are developed through transparent processes that employ the best available peer-reviewed science and economics.’”

No one in DOI political leadership seems to view science as anything more than an inconvenience. Instead it seems they are just industry favorable heads making decisions that sound like they’re in the public’s best interest – but are not. We’ve already seen how the DOI is treating science. In less than two years, the DOI has manipulated, dismissed, and ignored science and scientists; they’ve canceled studies on oil and gas operations, restricted scientists from attending conferences essential for keeping abreast of research and methods in their disciplines, gone against their own communication policy by requiring scientists to get permission to speak to media about their work…and subsequently hid the communication policy deep in the DOI website, buried a report on the effects that climate change and sea-level rise have on coastal communities, and even gone so far as to reassign scientists from their posts without justification. Recently, the DOI proposed a rule that would undercut the scientific basis of the Endangered Species Act by prioritizing economic considerations when determining endangered or threatened status for species.

Industry waivers

The requirements of this Order may be waived, in whole or in part, by the Deputy Secretary upon a written determination that a waiver is necessary and the least restrictive means of protecting privacy, confidentiality, including confidential business information and trade secrets [emphasis mine]; national security, and homeland security. With appropriate redactions, all waivers shall be posted on Regulations. gov (or any similar successor site) concurrent with publication of the related rule in the Federal Register.

There are waivers for industry. Of course there are. There is nothing explicitly mentioned about protecting the privacy of individuals, but hopefully this is implied and won’t require extra rigmarole. However, they made sure to be clear that any data revealing industry information and “trade secrets” could be eligible for a waiver by the Deputy Secretary, making it a wholly political decision.  Shouldn’t it be up to the scientists to decide when the scientific information is important in order to advise policy-makers?  Otherwise, policy-makers can just choose the information that supports their political positions.

The DOI’s decisions under this administration leave a trail of crumbs that lead to one thing: short-term economic gains at the expense of wildlife, public lands, and public health. Manipulating the process by which science informs policy only serves to tilt the scales farther in this direction.

Connecting the dots

Restricting the scientific information eligible for use at DOI would leave many agencies and bureaus therein unable to meet their missions and statutory obligations. This proposal could make the conservation of endangered species all the more difficult because of the requirement to reveal location data, landholder information and other information that is best kept confidential in order to protect endangered plants and animals. Additionally, these restrictions would increase burdens on agency scientists that are already encumbered by budget cuts, reorganizations, and understaffing, resulting only in reduced capacity to make science-based decisions.

In his order, Deputy Secretary Bernhardt quoted late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynilian as saying “everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts”, adding his own take, “Differences of opinion are inevitable as people of good will pursue different priorities. Differences of facts are not.” On that we can agree – so stop trying to choose what should be seen as fact. Adding unnecessary hoops is not in the best interest of the public, wildlife and lands that DOI is tasked with protecting, it only serves to slow down science-based decision-making processes as a part of the administration’s anti-science agenda. If DOI really wants to keep the public informed, they could start by not pulling studies and deleting information from websites, but by properly funding programs and offices committed to sharing knowledge with communities.

Photo: NCinDC/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Trump’s USDA vs. Science

The United States has a complicated history when it comes to science. The very birth of the nation is bound up with the European Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, culminating in the notion that reason should inform the self-government of free peoples. President Jefferson wrote that science “is more important in a republic than in any other government.” Decades later, President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences to “provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.”

But science has also been frequently misused by the US government. And in the Trump era, independent scientific advice is increasingly under threat. Such advice has been ignored and devalued across federal agencies under this administration, including at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), where last year, we might well have had a “Chief Scientist” with no scientific credentials at all, but for that nominee’s past racist statements and unseemly ties to Russians during the Trump presidential campaign.

And it is at the USDA that we are observing what follows after merely ignoring scientists. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is relocating, defunding, muzzling and otherwise belittling the standing of his department’s scientists. In a move that stunned the staff and administrators of the Department’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Secretary summarily announced, without consultation, that these agencies would be banished from their DC locations and that the ERS would be shuffled from its current position in the organizational chart, where it logically reports to the Department’s Chief Scientist, to within the Secretary’s office.

Lest you believe that these are obscure bureaucratic moves of little consequence, opposed only by self-interested researchers and administrators who are threatened by what Perdue is characterizing as a cost-saving, streamlining move, take stock that no informed observers accept or understand the Secretary’s stated rationale, including professional scientific societies, farmer organizations, and even the members of Congress charged with USDA oversight. In fact, over 1,100 scientists have stated their resolute opposition to this move.

But what is clear is that the agencies will become less effective in fulfilling their mission to support independent scientific research and analysis, that the agencies will be less appealing to scientists and economists, and that ERS in particular will be subjected to political pressure to ensure its analysis supports the Secretary’s agenda. In the words of Susan Offut, former ERS administrator under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Secretary is “throwing away a world class research institution.” The Chairs of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senators Roberts (R, Kansas) and Stabenow (D, Michigan), wrote Perdue asking for fuller explanation of the Secretary’s irascible move, including its legal premises. Rather than elaborating and illuminating his rationale, the Secretary responded obstinately, only restating his original rationale, the equivalent of a breezy teenage “whatever.”

And why would an administrator seek to diminish and dilute the labor of a first-rate scientific establishment? One doesn’t need to look too intently to realize that the various outlandish claims on which Perdue’s agenda is based are contradicted by the objective analysis of his department’s own scientists, ranging from the effectiveness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to the degree of economic concentration in agriculture and the asymmetrical distribution of government subsidies to large corporate farms.

Many won’t remember, but the Trump USDA’s efforts to suppress inconvenient facts are not without precedent. The predecessor to ERS was the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), shut down in the 1950s by the racist namesake of the USDA’s main building on the mall today, Jamie Whitten. Late in his life Whitten recanted some of his earlier odious social views, but when it mattered, the Representative from Mississippi and chair of the powerful House Agriculture Appropriations Committee opposed, among other progressive measures, all efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act. And he did to the USDA’s economists what Perdue is again attempting to do now. The crime of the BAE? They documented the USDA’s discriminatory practices against the African-American farmers of Whitten’s home state of Mississippi. When Whitten was persuaded by President Kennedy to approve reestablishment of today’s Economic Research Service, he did so subject to the condition that its economists refrain from repeating such “hound dog studies.” In other words, this has happened before. It can happen again.

Let us be clear—as citizens of the 21st century, and particularly as people living in the United States—that none of the world’s current challenges, from climate change to clean power to agricultural sustainability, can be addressed effectively without sober and competent scientific perspective. For all their flaws and imperfections, the nation’s founders were creatures of the Age of Enlightenment and students of the Scientific Revolution. They fancied themselves giving pride of place to the power of reason to advance knowledge and to build an effective and responsive government. The United States was the socioeconomic and political experiment they set up to to implement these novel and powerful insights. They envisioned the benefits that could come when science and democracy worked together. In this, they exemplified a kind of bold, novel pragmatism that aspired to put problem solving above partisanship and sought to base government policies on the best available data and the most up-to-date understanding of the world.

That experiment, fraught as it has been, is—shall we say—clearly teetering at the moment. But it is an intent well worth remembering in today’s highly polarized political environment.

New California Laws Address Climate Change—Some Bills Fall Short

California State Capitol Photo: Rafał Konieczny CC-BY-SA-4.0 (Wikimedia)

It’s Fall. That means crisp morning air, dwindling sunlight, and a chance to take stock of legislative victories and setbacks in California, as Governor Brown has now signed or vetoed the last of the bills sent to his desk this year.

As always, the progress we make in Sacramento is not only improving Californians’ quality of life, but also keeping momentum going for other states and countries. Many of the gains we make in clean technologies, for example, are reducing costs and proving solutions at scale, charting a course from which others can learn.

Big wins to fight climate change SB 100 bill signing

Governor Brown signed SB 100 into law on September 10, 2018. Adrienne Alvord, UCS Western States Director, is pictured third from left.

The biggest victory this year for UCS—and California’s climate—was unquestionably passage of SB 100 (De León), which accelerated the state’s renewable electricity requirement to 60% by 2030 and set a goal to supply all of California’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045.  The world is sure to be watching our state to see how the globe’s fifth largest economy can run entirely on carbon-free electricity while maintaining a safe and reliable power grid. UCS was proud to work with a large coalition of faith, labor, business, climate, and environmental justice leaders to move this bill across the finish line. Now that SB 100 is the law of the land, our state has an opportunity to lead the world by example and help produce the technological innovation needed to operate a truly carbon-free grid.

Another key victory was passage of SB 1014 (Skinner), which will make sure ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft reduce global warming pollution from cars running on their platforms. The law requires that the California Air Resources Board adopt targets for reducing the average emissions associated with every mile a passenger travels on ride-hailing platforms. In practical terms these targets will encourage ride sharing (such as UberPOOL and Lyft Line) and greater use of cleaner vehicles, particularly zero-emission vehicles. Uber and Lyft have become an essential part of our transportation system, but their popularity has also raised concerns about increased congestion and emissions. As such, UCS was thankful to work with Senator Skinner on this first-in-the-nation law to make sure that ride-hailing companies are taking steps to address climate change.

There were many other noteworthy bills addressing climate change passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Brown into law. Key UCS-backed measures signed into law include:

  • AB 2195 (Chau)—Requires tracking of global warming emissions from production and transport of natural gas imported into California.
  • AB 3232 (Friedman)—Requires the California Energy Commission (CEC) to assess the potential to reduce emissions from the state’s buildings to 40% below 1990 levels by 2040.
  • SB 700 (Wiener)— Reduces the cost of batteries to backup on-site solar energy systems at homes, businesses, and schools.
  • SB 964 (Allen)—Requires the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) to analyze the financial risk of their investments due to climate change.
  • SB 1013 (Lara)—Restricts the use of potent global warming gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
  • SB 1072 (Leyva)—Creates regional climate collaboratives to help disadvantaged communities access state funding to address climate change.
  • SB 1477 (Stern)—Helps develop a market for low-emissions buildings and low-emissions space and water heating equipment.
Additional victories on nuclear weapons and scientific transparency

UCS also worked to advance priorities in the state Capitol beyond solutions to climate change. For example, we advocated for two resolutions – AJR 30 (Aguiar-Curry) and AJR 33 (Limon) – that passed the Legislature in August calling on the U.S. Congress to adopt several common sense reforms to reduce the threat of nuclear war. These resolutions call for the United States to renounce the option of using nuclear weapons first and to take U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, among other changes.

We also supported AB 2192 (Stone), a bill to make more state-funded research freely available to the public. Governor Brown also signed this measure into law.

Some bills fall short

SB 64 failed to garner the 41 votes necessary to pass the California State Assembly.

Despite all the progress California made in 2018, numerous important bills failed to pass. A key loss for UCS was SB 64 (Wieckowksi), legislation we co-sponsored with environmental justice and clean energy groups to address air pollution that comes from cycling of natural gas power plants.  This is an important issue to California’s clean energy transition because natural gas power plants are likely to start and stop more frequently as the state uses more electricity from solar plants and wind farms. The bill sought to more clearly report power plant emissions data and study how to phase down use of natural gas power plants. SB 64 received 40 votes in the Assembly (one vote short of passing) before industry opposition whittled support down to 33 votes. The bill faced intense opposition in the final days of the legislative session despite its relatively modest ambition.

The highest profile bill we worked on that failed to pass was AB 813 (Holden), which would have paved the way for California’s largest grid operator, the California Independent System Operator, to expand its operations into other western states. UCS supports regional integration of the electricity grid as an important tool to meeting our clean energy goals, and we supported AB 813 for most of the year as the centerpiece of legislative debate on the issue. However, as the session came to a close, too many questions remained in the final version of the bill for our organization to remain in support and we decided to take a neutral position on the bill during the session’s final days. Going forward, we still see integration of western energy markets as a key solution to creating a reliable, cost-effective grid powered by renewable energy.

There is always next year

In 2019 California will have a new governor with his own new priorities, and a Legislature of mostly returning members who are sure to have many ideas of their own for how to address climate change. Here at UCS we have our own ideas too, and we look forward to continuing our work to make California a “coast of dreams,” striving to push the boundaries of new solutions to climate change and other pressing challenges.

Office of Governor Brown

Experts Expose Hot Air in Fossil Fuel Companies’ Climate Risk Reporting

Last week, I participated in the 2nd Conference on Fossil Fuel Supply and Climate Policy at the University of Oxford in England. It was an exciting opportunity to discuss policies and actions aimed at limiting the supply of coal, oil, and natural gas with academic researchers, civil society leaders, and other experts from across the globe. Along with my UCS colleague Peter Frumhoff, I organized a panel on “Well Below 2°C Reporting by Major Fossil Energy Companies: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Since the 2015 adoption of the Paris climate agreement, companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell have begun to publish reports in response to mounting investor demands that they disclose their plans for a world in which global temperature increase is kept well below two degrees Celsius (2°C) above pre-industrial levels. Panelists looked at climate risk reporting by major investor-owned oil and gas companies from legal, shareholder, scientific, and advocacy perspectives.

You can watch the whole session here. Below are a few highlights.

No progress in reducing emissions that matter most

Peter Frumhoff of UCS provided an overview of the growing demand by the business and investment community for well below 2° Celsius scenario planning by fossil energy companies—including, for example, the shareholder resolution that passed by a two-to-one margin at ExxonMobil’s 2017 annual meeting. He teed up the discussion with a provocative quote from a recent report on Paris-compliant shareholder engagement by the US-based nonprofit shareholder advocacy group As You Sow:

“One hundred and sixty climate change shareholder resolutions were filed at 24 U.S. oil & gas companies between 2012 and 2018… These resolutions resulted in a range of successes—from appointing climate competent board members to reducing some operational greenhouse gas emissions.

“Despite this movement, none of these U.S. oil & gas companies have adopted plans, or targets, to limit their full lifecycle contribution of greenhouse gas emissions…. Specifically, there has been no material progress in reducing the emissions that matter most, Scope 3 product emissions, in alignment with the Paris Climate Accord.

“These emissions, because of their size and scale, are the relevant proxy for assessing company progress on climate change goals, as is a company’s disclosure of Paris compliant business plans to rapidly ramp down these emissions.

“The fact that global greenhouse gas emissions, and oil & gas company capital expenditures on exploration and production, keep rising signals a fundamental limitation of the current shareholder engagement strategy.

“Shareholders must grapple head-on with the implications of an oil & gas business model that continues to invest unabated in products which, when used, run counter to science-based targets and the Paris Agreement.”

Sophie Marjanac

Sophie Marjanac of ClientEarth sketched out the reporting that oil and gas companies are currently doing in the context of existing climate change disclosure obligations and the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). She then outlined potential climate-related litigation risks to companies, including failure to mitigate global warming emissions, failure to manage physical and transition risks of climate change, and inaccurate reporting of climate risks.

Jo Alexander

Jo Alexander a former BP geologist now with the UK-based responsible investment charity ShareAction, showed the power of shareholder resolutions to influence climate-related financial disclosures. She zeroed in on the climate risk disclosure resolutions that won the support of 98% of BP and Shell shareholders in 2015, the companies’ response since then, and the forward-looking information that socially responsible investors need to align their investment portfolios with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Ben Franta

Ben Franta of Stanford University, standing in for Geoffrey Supran of MIT and Harvard, gave a quick overview of Geoffrey’s peer-reviewed study (with Naomi Oreskes) of ExxonMobil’s misleading climate change communications (read my blog about the study here). Ben then walked us through Geoffrey’s proposal to bring a content analysis approach to so-called 2°C reporting by major oil and gas companies. As a case study, Geoffrey examined how explicitly ExxonMobil and Shell acknowledged climate change as real and human-caused in their climate risk reports vs. in their broader communications and actions. Ben added his own analysis of how these companies use words like “address” or “risks” (instead of “halt” or “harms”) to obscure the dangers of climate change—just as tobacco companies use similar language to downplay the deadly effects of their products and shift the responsibility onto their consumers.

Myles Allen

Myles Allen of the University of Oxford pointed out that ExxonMobil’s 2018 Energy and Carbon Summary projects no emissions reductions from the energy sector through 2040 and no date by which emissions must reach net zero. Myles proposed three simple questions—based on the Oxford Martin Principles for Climate-Conscious Investment— that activist investors could be asking of fossil energy companies:

  • At what global temperature will your activities, and the products you sell, be consistent with net zero carbon dioxide emissions?
  • What is your strategy for achieving net zero, and who will pay for it?
  • How do you propose to monitor progress to net zero as the world warms?
Sneak preview of scorecard findings

I closed by giving a sneak preview of findings from the forthcoming 2018 update to UCS’s Climate Accountability Scorecard in three areas that are particularly salient to interpreting major oil and gas companies’ so-called 2°C reports:

  • How are they aligning their own business models with net-zero emissions?
  • To what extent are they directly supporting Paris-aligned public policies?
  • How well do they ensure that business groups lobbying on their behalf actually support their stated positions on climate change?

(Spoiler alert: most of the scores were “poor” or “egregious”, meaning that the eight companies we studied are, by and large, falling short of emerging societal expectations—or, worse, acting very irresponsibly—in these areas. Keep an eye out for the full scorecard report later this month.)

Three immediate demands

Then I suggested three things that shareholders, policymakers, and others should be demanding of these companies in the immediate term:

  • Set a company-wide, net-zero emissions target consistent with the Paris climate agreement’s global temperature goal.
  • Publicly and consistently advocate for specific policies and/or regulations to implement the Paris climate agreement.
  • Disavow positions and actions taken by affiliated third parties that are inconsistent with their stated positions on climate science and policy.

ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Occidental Petroleum recently made a media splash by becoming the first US-based companies to join the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), which aims to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint through investments and policy advances. The OGCI subsequently announced a target to reduce the collective average methane intensity of its members’ upstream operations. While these moves are welcome, none of the companies UCS studied has set a company-wide, net-zero emissions target consistent with the Paris climate agreement’s goal of holding global temperature increase well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.

Furthermore, even companies that are members of the OGCI simultaneously hold leadership positions in trade associations and other industry-affiliated groups that spread disinformation about climate science and/or seek to block climate action.

Until BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell make a public break from climate deception and climate policy obstruction by groups such as the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers, they are at best canceling out any positive impact they could have through OGCI. Worse still, they are fueling speculation that this and other industry-led initiatives are nothing more than a smokescreen by an industry that is pulling out all the stops to resist the clean energy transition.


The EPA Disbanded Its Office of Science Advisor. Here’s Why That Matters.

EPA office building with agency flag

Late last week, the EPA announced its intention to get rid of its Office of the Science Advisor (OSA) and bury its functions deep down in another agency office. This move will significantly diminish efforts to coordinate and standardize the way that EPA does science. The administrator will have significantly less access to scientific advice at normal times and during times of crisis. And it will be easier for agency leaders to sideline and politicize science.

E&E News broke the story, and the New York Times, Bloomberg, CNN, and NPR soon followed. Then, on Monday, the lead lobbyist for Koch Industries took a job as the top political appointee inside the office that is now in charge of science advice and coordination at EPA.

What the office currently does

The National Academy of Sciences in 1992 recommended that the EPA create a science advisor office to “ensure that EPA policy decisions are informed by a clear understanding of relevant science.” From NAS:

It envisioned that the essential function of the science advisor would be to ensure that EPA policy decisions are informed by a clear understanding of relevant science. The panel recommended that the new science advisor advise the EPA administrator, implement a peer-review and quality-assurance program for all EPA science-based products; be a key player when EPA makes a policy decision, ensuring that the science and uncertainties relevant to a policy or regulatory issue are considered; play a key role in evaluating the professional activities of EPA scientists; reach out to the broader scientific community for information; and maintain an appropriate relationship with EPA’s [Science Advisory Board]. The panel suggested that the role of the new science advisor might be somewhat analogous to the role of the general counsel, who will not approve a document destined for an external audience until it is judged legally defensible.

The EPA is disbanding its Office of the Science Advisor. By any measure, this is not good news for the agency’s ability to protect public health and the environment. Cartoon: UCS/Jesse Springer

OSA staff are there to provide science advice to the administrator on the development of public protections and about how to respond to crises (including contamination from hurricanes, chemical disasters, and oil spills). They work to standardize scientific practices across different agency departments that develop and communicate science. They investigate allegations of political interference in science. They provide space to address contentious scientific issues. All of this requires them to have direct access to the administrator as well as sufficient authority and stature to influence other parts of EPA.

How it should work

The science advisor position is currently parallel to the head of the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD). While the head of ORD has often served as science advisor, this has not always been the case. Administrator Lisa Jackson separated the two roles, which has distinct advantages, including a greater ability to guide scientific work across the agency and investigate violations of scientific integrity within ORD.

The best practice would be to make the science advisor more independent from ORD. Instead, they are going in the other direction by burying the science advisor’s responsibilities deep within the office. It’s highly unlikely that an ORD head is going to allow information to come from within that would put ORD programs in jeopardy.

Why this change matters

The elimination of the science advisor’s office accelerates the decay of the role of science advice within the EPA administrator’s office. The administrator needs someone who will tell it to them straight—even if it’s not the information they want to hear. Unnecessary layers between the science advisor and EPA leadership can do long-term damage to the agency’s scientific capacity, but they’re especially harmful during crisis situations when the administrator needs independent scientific analysis fast.

The move further compromises the ability of EPA to standardize and improve scientific practices across the agency. EPA’s work on human subjects protection, data sharing, peer review standards, and other best scientific practices will be diminished as their recommendations carry less weight.

Further, the agency’s scientific integrity policy (designed to prevent political pressures on scientists and scientific work) and its implementation will also be compromised. The scientific integrity officer’s ability to investigate allegations of political interference in science within ORD will be considerably more difficult.

The EPA’s response

The EPA claims that the agency is simply streamlining its workforce, and that there will be no reduced access or authority since the current acting science advisor is also the head of ORD. But this is based on several faulty assumptions.

First, it suggests that the science advisor doesn’t need a staff. Second, it assumes that there will never be a need to separate the ORD head from the science advisor position. Third, it completely ignores the OSA’s cross-organizational functions that will be significantly less prominent and that staff will be left out of important discussions due to rank.

The context

Unfortunately, the current EPA has consistently left EPA scientific staff out of the conversation on important public health matters. For example, EPA scientists were not consulted when the agency decided not to ban the brain damaging chemical chlorpyrifos (a decision that was later reversed in court). The proposal to restrict the types of science that EPA can use in decisionmaking was similarly hatched by political appointees without the meaningful involvement of agency scientists.

Under disgraced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the ban on science advice from EPA grant recipients, the appointment of multiple industry insiders to high-level policy positions, the removal of climate change information from websites, and so much more has led to an understanding that science doesn’t count for much in the current EPA. Some were hopeful that Pruitt’s departure would bring changes.

In one of his first days on the job, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler met with agency staff and pledged to include agency scientists in the work of the agency. Yet this move suggests a lack of interest in unfiltered science advice and strong science standards, which can only make the agency less effective in protecting public health and the environment. The addition of a Koch Industries lobbyist as the liasion between the science office and the administrator’s office only amplifies the concern.

Lapsed Farm Bill Hurts Central Texas Farmers and Low-income Families

Photo: Sustainable Food Center

When you think of Texas, a thriving local food scene probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind—but a visit to the SFC Farmers’ Market in downtown Austin might change that. The market draws large crowds every Saturday, and it plays a vitally important role in this city: linking small and midsize farmers across central Texas with customers—including those who shop using benefits from federal nutrition assistance programs—who are hungry for fresh produce and a sense of community.

But far from Austin, the federal law that gives markets like this one a leg up are in limbo. Congress has just allowed the last five-year farm bill to expire, having failed to pass a new one by the September 30 deadline. I spoke with Joy Casnovsky, the deputy director of the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) in Austin, to learn more about how federally-funded programs in the farm bill have helped make a difference in communities throughout Texas, and what’s now at stake.

A Saturday at the SFC farmer’s market

“We get a lot of phone calls from people who want to know about the market, and we know people are coming from all over to get here,” says Casnovsky of the downtown market. “There are families, older people, younger people, people doing their exercise routine, folks with kids, folks without kids.” SFC, with a mission and history of helping the central Texas food system thrive, now supports two weekly farmers’ markets and community farm stands featuring more than 60 local farmers, artisans, and food producers.

“It’s a hub. And if we can get folks to come to the market and chat with us, it’s a great way for them to get more information about how to use their benefits.”

The “benefits” Casnovsky is referring to include nutrition assistance benefits the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (WIC FMNP), which offers additional produce vouchers for WIC clients. (Think of it as WIC’s trusty farm-fresh sidekick.)

Photo: Sustainable Food Center

The signs all over the market send a clear message that shoppers who use these programs are welcome here. Not only can SNAP, WIC and WIC FMNP be used at the markets, but they can be doubled through SFC’s Double Dollar Program. The program itself, which can be used by shoppers each week, is pretty simple: show up, swap out up to $30 of your SNAP or WIC benefits for up to $60 Double Dollars, and start spending them on fruits and vegetables from local farmers. (Followed by go home, eat up, and feel good.)

But what’s incredibly complicated about programs like Double Dollars? Getting Congress to pass the bill that funds them.

The real losers of the Farm Bill fight: Local farmers and families

The grant that made Double Dollars possible is part of the farm bill, an enormous piece of legislation that touches nearly everything in our food system, from farm to fork. The deadline for Congress to renew this legislation without disruption came and went on Sunday, and every additional day they delay in passing a new one is a day without funding for such grants.

Though the House and the Senate Agriculture Committees passed their respective versions in late June, the dramatic differences in the two have proven irreconcilable for the committee charged with drafting a final farm bill. Much of the tension has to do with ill-considered and onerous new work requirements in SNAP, which were proposed in the House bill despite overwhelming opposition from leading health and nutrition groups.

Some programs, like SNAP itself, will see continued funding in the absence of a new farm bill. Many smaller and related programs will not—including those providing critical support to small farmers and low-income families in communities across Texas.

SFC launched the Double Dollars program in 2012 with the support of a grant program called the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). It was the first of its kind in Texas. “When we launched this in 2012, we only did it at one market,” Casnovsky told me. “And then we expanded it to our three other markets. And then we expanded it to markets run by other associations. It went from being a pilot to being at 16 different locations.”

“Had we not gotten that grant, I can’t say how we would have launched at all. The FMPP grant gave us the catalyst we needed to start the program, and improve it and expand it over time. That initial investment helped us get additional funding from elsewhere, too.”

Similar initiatives have sprung up across Texas and all over the country in recent years. Double Up Food Bucks, a Michigan-born model that helps shoppers double the value of SNAP dollars spent at markets and grocery stores, began operating at 10 new Texas farmers markets just this spring—adding to its growing list of hundreds of markets served nationwide. Unlike Double Dollars, Double Up Food Bucks is supported by grants from the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, a highly popular grant program introduced in the 2014 farm bill to incentivize fruit and vegetable purchases by low-income consumers. During its first five years, FINI helped more than 300,000 families put healthy food on the table, and supported more than 1,000 local farmers in the process. But this funding, too, is halted without a new farm bill—leaving many markets and the communities they support hanging in the balance.

What now?

With funding sources like the FMPP, FINI, and more now stranded, we need to tell Congress that it’s past time to pass a new farm bill.

This isn’t just about a handful of programs—it’s about maintaining the progress we’ve made in building a stronger food system for all of us. Casnovsky, who is now working with the Sustainable Food Center to seek grant funding for their next local foods project, put it this way: “I see that affecting all of Texas. It may not be our organization going after the grant next time—it may be another city or another town going after it—but that affects our food system and infrastructure. We are one big network, and we’re starting to understand how our efforts can really lift all boats.”

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Photo: Sustainable Food Center