UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Inundaciones crónicas, gentrificación climática y el futuro de Miami

Esta semana, la Union of Concerned Scientists publicó un informe que analiza los impactos de las inundaciones debidas a las mareas crónicas en las propiedades costeras en los 48 estados contiguos de los Estados Unidos. La cantidad de hogares y negocios, el valor de estos, junto con la cantidad de base impositiva y, lo que es más importante, las personas en riesgo, es sorprendente. Descubrieron que para el año 2045, 311,000 hogares, por un valor de $ 117,5 mil millones de dólares según los valores de mercado actuales, estarán en riesgo de inundaciones crónicas provocadas por el cambio climático. Para el año 2100 2,4 millones de hogares, por un valor aproximado de 912 mil millones de dólares, y 4,7 millones de personas estarán en riesgo. En ninguna parte más que Florida, que soporta el 40% del riesgo, estas realidades se sienten ahora y se sentirán  más en el futuro a medida que los niveles del mar continúen aumentando. Los impactos de las inundaciones crónicas provocadas por el cambio climático podrían afectar desproporcionadamente  a las comunidades de bajos ingresos.

Mientras estuve en  UCS tuve la suerte de poder trabajar en mi ciudad de residencia, investigando cómo las inundaciones crónicas causadas por el calentamiento global están cambiando a Miami. Trabajé con residentes locales para comprender mejor cómo ya estaban lidiando con las inundaciones crónicas y cómo podían planificar para un futuro incierto.

Las dos caras de la gentrificación climática

Paulette Richards. Photo: The Solutions Project / Celia D. Luna

La activista y líder comunitaria Paulette Richards, de Liberty City en Miami, me presentó el concepto de gentrificación climática. Cuando me reuní con ella en 2014, habló sobre cómo su comunidad estaba cambiando bajo la presión de las ejecuciones hipotecarias aceleradas. Ella entendió que estaba en un terreno más alto y sabía que esto se estaba convirtiendo en un lugar deseable para los promotores inmobiliarios  que buscaban capitalizar la creciente conciencia del público sobre el aumento del nivel del mar. En palabras de Richards:: “He visto la gentrificación, pero el término que yo uso es gentrificación climática”.

Con los años Richards  ha monitoreado este cambio. Los residentes expulsados de Liberty City están siendo dirigidos al punto más al sur del condado, reubicándose en un área que está a una elevación mucho más baja y al lado de la planta nuclear Turkey Point. Ahora más personas se están dando cuenta y verificando lo que Paulette Richards ha sabido por muchos años. En 2017, Scientific American publicó una historia titulada “Un terreno más elevado se está convirtiendo en una propiedad caliente a medida que aumenta el nivel del mar”. El artículo detalla cómo la gentrificación impulsada por el clima está ocurriendo en Miami y cómo más personas , incluyendo los académicos, finalmente están tomando nota y haciendo seguimiento a estos cambios.

A solo cuatro millas de la casa de Richards  se encuentra el barrio de Shorecrest, parte de la ciudad de Miami. Es una comunidad de ingresos mixtos y de baja elevación, que representa cómo se vive la inundación crónica a nivel local. Al igual que Miami Beach, Shorecrest se inunda constantemente durante las mareas mas altas del año. Sin embargo, a diferencia del opulento Miami Beach, no tiene el mismo acceso a los fondos necesarios para abordar adecuadamente las inundaciones crónicas.

Frente a una franja de apartamentos de alquiler asequible, me encontré con residentes que me hablaron sobre su frustración con las inundaciones crónicas. Muchos relatan que sus trabajos se ven afectados por las inundaciones que a veces son intransitables; existen problemas para acceder al transporte, a la recolección de basura y a posibles impactos en la salud relacionados con vadear en aguas que han probado contener altos niveles de bacterias.

Los residentes de bajos ingresos de comunidades de baja elevación sin los recursos adecuados para adaptarse al cambio climático se enfrentan a las preguntas más difíciles. ¿Nos vamos? ¿Tenemos presupuesto para irnos? ¿Cuánto tiempo tenemos para tomar estas decisiones? Los funcionarios locales también se enfrentan a preguntas difíciles. En algunos casos, los proyectos de desarrollo que se construirían de manera adaptativa y podrían generar los ingresos fiscales necesarios para financiar proyectos de adaptación en toda la comunidad suelen ser los mismos proyectos que conducen a la gentrificación. ¿Cómo pueden las áreas costeras encontrar los recursos para adaptarse mientras mantienen la integridad de sus comunidades?

La ciudad de Miami había aprobado bonos que proporcionan $ 200 millones en fondos para hacer frente al aumento del nivel del mar. Esta iniciativa es similar a la iniciativa de la Ciudad de Miami Beach de $ 500 millones d para enfrentar su problema de aumento del nivel del mar. Comparativamente, la Ciudad de Miami enfrenta un desafío de adaptación mucho más complejo. Solo en términos de millas cuadradas, la Ciudad de Miami es aproximadamente 8 veces más grande que Miami Beach. A esto se suman los complejos canales y sistemas de agua potable y las variadas necesidades de muchas comunidades diferentes, y el desafío es abrumador.

Los desafíos tienen un sentido de urgencia adicional si la Ciudad se enfrenta a cambios en la calificación crediticia cuando el real riesgo de propiedad se refleja en el mercado inmobiliario. Esto podría llevar a dificultades para asegurar la financiación de nuevos proyectos de adaptación a medida que los mares continúen aumentando.

¿Qué se puede hacer?

Me pregunto, ¿puede la ciudad de Miami seguir siendo la metrópolis increíblemente diversa y multicultural que conozco y adoro, o se convertirá lentamente en una cadena de islas que existe solamente para satisfacer las fantasías recreativas de los ricos? Cuando se eleva el nivel del mar, no solo eliminará millas de costa y propiedades, sino décadas e incluso siglos de cultura, al mismo tiempo que desplazará a millones de vidas para fines de siglo.

Nuestra mayor esperanza de evitar lo peor es que nosotros, como comunidad global, nos adhiramos al Acuerdo de París, que mantiene el calentamiento a menos de 2 grados centígrados. En este caso, la gran mayoría de las viviendas en riesgo en Florida (93%) se salvarían.

No solo los propietarios, sino todos los residentes y empresas de las comunidades costeras deben ser conscientes de su vulnerabilidad y de cuándo este tipo de inundación causará trastornos en sus vidas cotidianas. UCS proporciona una herramienta para reunir esta información.

Finalmente, los funcionarios electos deben asegurar que la equidad sea una prioridad al diseñar y planificar para el futuro a fin de garantizar que los recursos se distribuyan no solo a los ricos sino también a aquellos que tienen menos recursos para planificar e implementar soluciones.

Para obtener más información sobre el estudio, que incluye una discusión sobre soluciones, visite: https://www.ucsusa.org/underwater.

Para ver información en español, visite: https://es.ucsusa.org/bajo-agua

Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a sea-level researcher, climate change expert and environmental justice advocate. A Guatemalan immigrant, Ms. Hernandez Hammer works to address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities across the US. Most recently, Ms. Hernandez Hammer served as the climate science and community advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She was the Florida field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, and an environmental blogger for Latina Lista. Before that, she was the assistant director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, and coordinated the Florida Climate Institute’s state university consortium.

She has co-authored a series of technical papers on sea level rise projections, impacts and preparedness. Her activism and initiative on climate change earned her an invitation from First Lady Michelle Obama to be her special guest at the 2015 State of the Union address.

Nicole speaks across the country on climate change issues. Most recently, she presented at the 2018 National Hispanic Medical Association Conference and the MIT Cambridge Science Festival. She has done extensive media work and has been featured in National Geographic’s The Years of Living Dangerously,  Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, The New Yorker, MSNBC, the Miami Herald, Telemundo News, Univision.com, The Huffington Post, PRI Science Friday, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Grist, NPR and other major news sources.

How Many Homes Are at Risk from Sea Level Rise? New Interactive Map Has the Answers

Last week the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report revealing that sea level rise puts over 300,000 homes in the United States at risk of increasingly frequent, disruptive flooding in just the next 30 years. Along with the report, UCS published an interactive map tool that lets you explore the exposure of coastal real estate in your state, your community, or your ZIP code to chronic flooding, or flooding that occurs 26 times or more per year (an average of every other week). It also highlights the implications of this massive risk to our economy and the importance of both acting quickly to curtail our carbon emissions and using the coming years wisely to prepare for the changes to come.

Here are a few questions you can explore with the tool:

Which states are most at risk from sea level rise?

If you’re interested in a broad overview of which states have the most homes–or the greatest property value, most people, or largest tax base–at risk of chronic flooding due to sea level rise, check out the “By State” tab of the tool:

In this tab, you can click on any state to pull up statistics on things like the number of homes at risk and the current value of those homes. You can also use the brightly-colored buttons to view the stats for different variables like the current population and tax base of at-risk properties.

The information is organized by year so you can see how this risk grows over time. The opening maps show results of our analysis of a high sea level rise scenario, but you can also scroll down to view results from a moderate sea level rise projection.

Will homes in my community or my ZIP code be affected by flooding due to sea level rise?

Similar to the “By State” tab, you can explore the risk of chronic flooding to your hometown or your neighborhood in the “By Community” and “By ZIP Code” tabs. Click on any community or any ZIP code to bring up information about the number of homes at risk, their value, the number of people living in them today, and their current property tax contribution. And like the “By State” tab, you can change the map to show the variable or year you’re interested in by clicking the buttons, and you can scroll down to see results from the moderate sea level rise projection.

When exploring the data in these two tabs, keep in mind that the way communities are defined on the ground is not always the way they are defined by the Census boundaries we used in this analysis. In some smaller towns the community boundaries we show may encompass a few small towns.

If we cut carbon emissions and future ice loss is limited, would a slower pace of sea level rise mean that fewer homes would be at risk?

The answer is a resounding YES, and the “Homes in the Balance” tab lets you explore which communities have the most to gain from a slowed sea level rise pathway. The map in this section shows how many homes could avoid chronic flooding in each community by comparing the results of our analyses of the high and low sea level rise scenarios. The low sea level rise scenario is one we should strive for, but not one we should count on. It is predicated on global carbon emissions being reduced drastically within the next decade and also requires future ice melt to be limited. Click on any community to get information on what’s at stake.

How will chronic flooding due to sea level rise affect the real estate sector and what can we do about it?

The “Challenges and Choices” section of the tool explores the broader economic implications of chronic flooding and describes how different actors in the real estate sector–from mortgage lenders to insurance providers–could be affected. It also outlines the steps we need to take, as a nation, to address this profound risk.

Improving the maps based on data and feedback

Let us know how you’re using the interactive maps to better understand the risks of sea level rise and please do send any suggestions for improvements.

 

Department of Interior Buries Communications Policy After Attempting to Justify Muzzling Scientists

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times broke the story about the new policy at the U.S. Geological Survey requiring scientists to get permission before speaking to reporters about science. In an attempt to justify the muzzling, a department spokesperson said they were just following an Obama-era communications policy (sound familiar?). After reporters linked to the policy, it was removed from its previous location and buried deep in the DOI website. You can find it there as a Word document; I’ve made a PDF available here

A USGS scientist collects a water-quality sample in Oregon. The Department of Interior has put more controls on what USGS scientists can say publicly.

The idea that the new policy is consistent with the Obama rules is objectively false. This claim in particular sticks in my craw because UCS advocated successfully for changes to agency policies during the Obama administration that expressly and intentionally gave scientists more freedoms to share their expertise publicly. We have extensively analyzed agency scientific integrity and media policies.

So what does the DOI policy say? The DOI policy specifies that the communications office “must be notified in advance of any media interviews, media requests or contacts that may involve significant policy announcements or that may generate significant news coverage, public interest or inquiry” (my emphasis added). Notification and asking for permission are two very different approaches.

Further, regardless of whether the new policy is consistent with previous practices, political appointees should not have the authority to muzzle scientists anywhere in government. These new constraints represent a flagrant violation of both the letter and the spirit of a departmental policy that is intended to encourage scientists to publicly share their expertise. This is especially troubling at USGS, an agency with a longstanding reputation for independence that has no regulatory authority. It’s a science agency. It doesn’t make policy.

No DOI or USGS policy should give political appointees the right to control what USGS scientists share about their scientific research and knowledge. Nowhere in the communications policy or any other policy does it suggest that political appointees get to decide whether a scientist answers a question from a journalist.  Scientists even have the explicit right to share their personal opinions about important issues, so long as they make clear that they are speaking in an individual and not an official capacity.

The clamp down on scientists at USGS comes in an environment of increasing control of scientific information by the federal government. Last year the CDC told its scientists that they needed to ask permission to respond to even basic requests for data. Agency public affairs officials at EPA are increasingly acting as gatekeepers and campaigners, not as facilitators of information flow. This pattern reduces government accountability and robs states, journalists, and the public of access to scientific expertise. This is not the way a democracy should function.

As Asbestos Toll Mounts, Trump’s EPA Ignores It

Photo: NAVFAC/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Two years ago, President Obama signed a successful bipartisan effort to update the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). It was called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, named for the late New Jersey senator who had long championed it. The new act was intended to give the federal government more power to regulate dangerous chemicals that the chemical industry had previously been able to shield under the cloak of confidential business information and a misplaced priority on minimizing costs to businesses over public health. Obama said those hurdles made it “virtually impossible” for the Environmental Protection Agency “to actually see if those chemicals were harming anybody.”

Today, it seems that the mission of the EPA under the Trump administration is to make it impossible to determine the harmful effects of any chemicals in the United States. Hundreds of pages of new documents recently released by the EPA detail the administration’s plans to scale back safety evaluations for the top 10 chemicals identified in 2016 by the Obama EPA as known or suspected carcinogens or suspected threats to fetal and reproductive development.

These are chemicals that surround us in our daily lives, used in refrigeration, plastics, roofing materials, pesticides, paint strippers, deodorants, cosmetics, anti-freeze, solvents, electronics, arts and crafts materials, home cleaning products, dry cleaning, adhesives, sealants and degreasers. The EPA, whose mission to protect the public has been hijacked by chemical industry sycophants President Trump and agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, is lowering the bar for approving toxic chemicals to the point of essentially having no standards.

Relaxing the government’s scrutiny on such toxics essentially guts the Lautenberg Act.

Far-reaching implications

The EPA regulates about 80,000 different chemicals, but the Washington Post has reported that over the last four decades, the EPA required testing for only 200. The Obama administration said only five chemicals had been banned out of the 62,000 chemicals in existence in 1976. The bureaucratic system “was so burdensome that our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos—a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year,” Obama said when signing the Lautenberg Act. “I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by all that.”

With this latest move, Americans have reason to be shocked again, particularly since asbestos is one of the 10 chemicals that was supposed to be studied. It is so ubiquitous in older building insulation and fireproofing that a 2015 report commissioned by Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California found that 7 out of 10 reporting local school agencies had asbestos in buildings.

But Pruitt and Nancy Beck, his deputy for chemical safety and a former executive at the American Chemistry Council, have no intention of studying children’s exposure in such settings. As part of the agency’s unprecedented sweeping away of science, the EPA says, “legacy uses, associated disposals, and legacy disposals will be excluded,” from risk evaluations. For good measure, the Pruitt EPA said the exclusions include “asbestos-containing materials that remain in older buildings.”

Translated, that means the federal government will no longer study exposure to asbestos from, insulation, fireproofing and flooring already in people’s homes, cars, workplaces—and schools. Nor will they consider disposal sites.  Not only is this an insult to children, the exclusions represent a conscious denial of how the risk of asbestos exposures still plague low income Americans who often live in poorly maintained apartments and are more likely to live near toxic waste disposal areas to make matters worse.

The case of asbestos

Like many chemicals, asbestos originally was touted as a miracle mineral for its heat resistance and strength. In the middle of the last century, the asbestos industry knew its product was hazardous, but engaged in decades of cover-ups. Internal science on their hazards was censored and companies refused to give risk warnings to their own workers or to the installers at the companies that bought their products.

In the late 1950s, Owens-Illinois Glass in Toledo, famously continued to call one of its asbestos insulation products “non-toxic” despite an industry-funded study that concluded that it caused fatal asbestosis. The lead researcher for that study, Arthur Vorwald, concluded, “It is better to discover it now in animals rather than later in industrial workers.”

When it was discovered en masse in Americans, the industry faced a barrage of  lawsuits from victims, triggering asbestos trust payouts of $17.5 billion, covering 3.3 million claims between 1988 and 2010. More than 100 asbestos-related companies plunged into bankruptcy, including the nation’s biggest manufacturer.

In a 1994 commentary in the Harvard Business Review, Bill Sells, a former executive at America’s largest asbestos manufacturer, Johns-Manville, wrote that, for more than 30 years, he had witnessed, “one of the most colossal corporate blunders of the twentieth century . . .In my opinion, the blunder that cost thousands of lives and destroyed an industry was a management blunder, and the blunder was denial.”

According to Sells, the link between asbestos and disease had been known since the early 1900s, and the first indications of a connection between asbestos and lung cancer appeared in the 1930s. But, as he put it: “Manville managers at every level were unwilling or unable to believe in the long-term consequences of these known hazards. They denied, or at least failed to acknowledge, the depth and persistence of management accountability.”

The asbestos industry’s denial is part of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ corporate Disinformation Playbook—an online review of classic strategies companies use to undermine science. The playbook features a case involving Georgia-Pacific, the company better known for paper towels, toilet tissue and homebuilding products. It was hit with a blizzard of lawsuits in the 2000s for diseases that developed from exposure to a joint compound the company manufactured with asbestos from 1965 to 1977.

In a cynical effort to discredit claimants, the company paid $6 million to 18 scientists to produce scientific “findings” of asbestos safety and planted false articles in the legitimate scientific literature, while hiding the “data” from plaintiffs as privileged corporate information. A New York state appellate court ordered the company turn over its documents in 2013. After paying out $2.8 billion in settlements since 2000, with 64,000 claims to go, Georgia-Pacific, now owned by Koch Industries, last year filed for bankruptcy for its joint compound subsidiary–40 years after it stopped using asbestos.

A deadly legacy continues

Asbestos is so toxic it has now been banned in 55 countries, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Despite that, the mineral is very much with us today in the United States. In the 1970s, the EPA banned many uses, such as the sprayed and crumbly forms of the mineral in fireproofing, and pipe, boiler and hot water tank insulation. In 1989, as health concerns grew, the EPA (under the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush), began a phase-out of most other uses. But the asbestos lobby successfully avoided the phase-out when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1991 that the EPA did not adequately compare the toxicity of products that might replace asbestos.

With a straight face, the president of the Asbestos Information Association/North America, Robert Pigg, victoriously said, “We have known for many years that asbestos can be safely and securely bound in today’s products, as long as carefully controlled manufacturing and installation processes are employed. We are glad to see the court agrees that the evidence supports this view.”

But because of the Fifth Circuit ruling, asbestos continues to be used to this day in the United States in a wide array of commercial and consumer products, including automotive brake components, cement pipe, sheets and shingles, roofing, vinyl floor tile and even some clothing. That continued exposure is clearly coming at a human cost, with new research indicating a much higher toll than previously thought.

For several years, it was thought that exposure to it killed between 12,000 to 15,000 Americans a year, according to the EWG. The most prominent categories of fatalities are mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. But new research published last month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health dramatically increased the estimated death toll globally and in the United States.

A team of scientists from Singapore, Japan, Guam and Australia found that asbestos actually kills about 255,000 people around the world, instead of the up to 112,000 previously estimated by the World Health Organization. In the US, the new estimate of annual asbestos-related deaths jumped to 39,275. The new estimates were so alarming that lead researcher Jukka Takala, who is also president of the International Commission on Occupational Health, said, “It’s time for the United States to take action and recognize the need for a ban. There is no safe level of exposure.”

In a minor recognition of the hazards of asbestos, Pruitt did recently announce that the EPA proposes to require manufacturers to apply to the agency for manufacturing, importing or processing asbestos for “a significant new use.” But with a long track record of asbestos deaths and widespread bans in nations around the world, potential new uses pale next to the need to get legacy asbestos out of our homes, workplaces, and machinery.

Former Assistant Surgeon General Richard Lemen, who is science advisory board co-chair for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said the new estimate of 39,275 annual US deaths from asbestos-related diseases (which exceeds either gun deaths or vehicle fatalities) “confirms that the mortality rate of asbestos exposures is indeed of epidemic proportions.”

The deadly epidemic is sure to continue, with the EPA’s decision to give asbestos a free pass. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity reported on a “third wave” of asbestos disease. The first wave, the center said, was miners, millers and manufacturing workers. The second wave was insulators, ship builders and other installers.

The new wave, according to the Asbestos Disease Society of Australia, is spreading far beyond specialized crafts to affect “all of society,” through demolition, cable installation, home remodeling, car repairs and attending schools where officials do not realize that crumbling old asbestos in older buildings is releasing fibers into the air. The society says, “This elevated risk will remain until all asbestos-containing materials have been removed from the built environment.”

With such elevated risks still being discovered, with findings that make asbestos an even more dangerous chemical land mine waiting to explode into the lungs of Americans who live and work in older buildings, this is no time for the EPA to lower its guard. When Frank Lautenberg was alive, he said, “America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken. Parents are afraid because hundreds of untested chemicals are found in their children’s bodies. EPA does not have the tools to act on dangerous chemicals, and the chemical industry has asked for stronger laws so that their customers are assured their products are safe.”

Asbestos is but one example of how the Trump administration is trying to break the system, by destroying the Lautenberg Act. It would rather assure the chemical industry that its products are safe from scrutiny, rather than certify they are safe for humans. Unless the administration is stopped, it is on a path to commit—to borrow from Bill Sells—one of the most colossal public health blunders of the 21st century.

Photo: NAVFAC/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The Forgotten Scientists: LGBQT in STEM

Last year, I wrote my very first blog post during pride month. In this piece, I discussed the lack of data on representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender (LGBQT) individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Without such data, it is impossible to know whether LGBQT individuals are as equally represented in STEM as their heterosexual colleagues. It’s been one year—do we know any more about LGBQT representation in STEM?

LGBQ individuals are less represented in STEM

This year, a study was published in Science Advances to report that LGBQ individuals are less represented in STEM than their heterosexual counterparts (the study did not report on transgender students). The study found that, by the fourth year of college, 71.1% of heterosexual students were retained in STEM whereas 63.8% of the sexual minority students were retained – an approximate 7% difference between the groups. The likelihood for sexual minority students to not be retained in STEM increases to 10% when the author controlled for other factors that support retention in STEM. One factor that has been shown in this study, as well as others, to retain students in STEM is participation in undergraduate research; yet, even though LGBQ students in this study had higher rates of participation in undergraduate research relative to their heterosexual peers, they were still less likely to remain in STEM.

Diversity in STEM may result in better science

The world is now facing some of its most challenging issues: climate change, cybersecurity, and antibiotic resistance to name a few. It is important that we have a thriving STEM workforce that pushes creativity and innovation to new levels to help address these issues. Research shows that bringing diversity to the table can help. For example, in a study of 4,277 companies in Spain, companies with more women were more likely to introduce radical new innovations into the market. In another study looking at profitability across 20,000 firms in 91 countries, companies with more female executives were shown to be more profitable. While these studies were correlational, there also have been laboratory studies to show that diverse teams have increased performance.

We know that women, racial minorities, and people with disabilities are underrepresented in STEM. We also know that if you are a person of color, you are less likely to receive a competitively funded grant. We now have some evidence from the Science Advances study that LGBQ individuals are not as represented in STEM as their heterosexual colleagues, although more research should be conducted. Taken together, this means that the STEM workforce overall is not as diverse as it could be. And if the logic follows from studies showing that bringing diversity to the table increases innovation and efficacy of teams, then the STEM workforce is missing out on an opportunity to more effectively address current issues in these fields.

Places of work in STEM should be more inclusive

There are likely reasons why LGBQT individuals are not as represented in STEM as their heterosexual counterparts, many of which are related to campus and working environments that are hostile to the LGBQT community. We know that many LGBQT scientists still fear coming out to their colleagues. This is likely because publishing, receiving tenure, and getting grant funding all heavily depend on the judgment of colleagues, who might be influenced by their own explicit or implicit biases. The American Physical Society produced a report showing that 1 in 3 LGBQT physicists considered leaving their department or workplace in the last year, which correlated strongly with both personally experiencing harassment or witnessing it.

There are also studies that show LGBQT students experience hostile environments in STEM that may lead to lower retention of these students in the STEM workforce. In a study conducted at a major university in the western United States, researchers found that engineering students identifying as LGB did not have as many opportunities to succeed as their heterosexual peers due to the additional emotional and academic effort these students exhausted to internalize their sexuality. Another study of computer majors identifying as LGBQT at a university found that these students did not feel like they belonged in the field and were, therefore, less likely to continue in the major. And it’s possible that such issues, in addition to dealing with the hardships of identifying as LGBQT, keep LGBQT students from being retained in the STEM workforce.

More research on LGBQT in STEM is needed

We need more data on the extent to which LGBQT individuals are underrepresented in STEM. While the National Science Foundation (NSF) compiles detailed statistics about women, underrepresented minorities, and the prevalence of various disabilities among US researchers and STEM students, it does not ask about LGBQT identification. The agency might consider doing this in exit surveys of PhD students, for example. And as more data rolls in, we will need social scientists to research why LGBQT students are not being retained in STEM. As we understand these reasons why, then we can begin to implement actions or policies to address this inequity. We should ensure the STEM workforce is diverse. A diverse team brings different perspectives to a team which can drive creativity and innovation in solutions to issues with a basis in STEM.

A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Homosexuality suggests that LGBQT scientists feel more accepted in their fields as compared to their peers in other professions. That is great news since we know that when individuals can express their identities openly they are happier, healthier, and more productive workers, and can serve as role models to the next generation of young scientists. But if I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that there’s still more work to do. Let’s continue to make STEM an inclusive workplace for all because we all win when we do.

Breaking Through the Ice: LGBTQ+ Visibility in Stem

I grew up in one of the only Democrat-voting counties in Texas, along the border of Mexico. The majority of people who live in the city are Hispanic, and Catholic culture runs deep for those people who practice religion and those who don’t alike. My family wasn’t much for religion, but one summer my grandmother sent me to Vacation Bible School, as it’s called in Texas. I fit in perfectly because on the first day I declared to the rest of the kids that I was a boy. I guess I knew from the ripe old age of six that being a girl who was a tomboy wasn’t going to make me any friends in West Texas, and it was easier to fit in pretending to be something I wasn’t, which in this case was a boy.

In the years since, I’ve never tried to fit in as a boy but am still often mistaken for one when I visit home. The lesson I learned that summer, however, must have stuck with me because as I started my career in science I often adjusted my language in talking about my life in order to fit in. I didn’t mention my girlfriend to most colleagues in conversation, and remember once acting confused when a professor asked me about my son, just so that I could avoid the lengthy discussion of my personal life that always follows that revelation. In hindsight, most of those people have no problem with LGBTQ people on a personal level, and almost certainly not on a professional one, so I’ve often wondered why I feel so alone on this scientific journey.

But over the last few years, I have read articles discussing the experience of being LGBTQ(AI)+ in STEM, and came to realize I wasn’t alone. In fact, many LGBTQ+ people working in academia and STEM professions report that they have experienced an ‘icy environment’ that makes it uncomfortable to be ‘out.’ There are statistics to back up the feelings I’d been having during my early career:

While it certainly does not make me happy to read these statistics, it confirmed that there is a larger problem. The lack of visibility of LGBTQ+ people in academia leads to a feeling of isolation, which can make one wonder, “Is it just me?” Some scientific societies have begun tackling this issue head on. For example, a 2016 report by the American Physical Society found that the major issues faced by sexual minority physicists are a heterosexist climate that reinforces stereotypical gender roles in work environments, a culture that requires, or at least strongly encourages, LGBTQ people to remain closeted at work, and a general lack of awareness about LGBTQ issues among STEM professionals. While there is not an easy ‘fix’ for any of these issues, the clear articulation of the problem is the first step in figuring out the path forward.

Getting away from the thought of “Is it just me?” is why visibility is so important. Visibility forges connections and builds a sense of community that breaks through the icy silence experienced by queer and trans people in STEM careers. 500 Queer Scientists is an online visibility campaign for LGBTQAI+ people and their allies working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs. The campaign is fueled by individual, self-submitted bios and stories intended to boost the recognition and awareness of queer scientists. Launched in early June, the campaign has already accumulated over 500 stories of incredible people in fields ranging from quantum physics to conservation biology, undergraduate students just starting out to deans and directors of research institutes. Scrolling through the Twitter feed with the hashtag #500QueerScientists, there are endless tweets and comments extolling the importance of the campaign and how uplifting it has been on an individual level. Collectively, we have found each other. What comes next is up to the LGBTQAI+ STEM community, but judging from the suggestions for 500 Queer Scientists 2.0, the single most important thing is connection. Individually, queer people working in STEM have been powerful forces of scientific progress and discovery. I am holding my breath to see what we will become together.  

If you would like to be inspired by stories of LGBTQAI+ scientists, you can read them on our website 500queerscientists.com, on Twitter @500QueerSci, or on Instagram @500QueerScientists. You can also submit your story on our website!

 

Dr. Lauren Esposito (@CAS_Arachnology) is the Assistant Curator and Schlinger Chair of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences. She is also the co-founder/director of a science, education, and conservation non-profit called Islands & Seas, and the co-creator of 500 Queer Scientists. Lauren’s current research investigates the patterns and processes of evolution in spiders, scorpions, and their venoms.

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

Good News for Colorado Drivers: Hickenlooper Moves to Adopt State Clean Car Standards

Streaks of light on Colorado road.

This week Governor Hickenlooper ordered his agency staff to move forward in adopting California Clean Car Standards for Colorado – a move that would prevent the harm to Colorado consumers that the anticipated federal rollback of fuel economy and emissions standards is expected to bring.   At the same time, California regulators released an analysis that sheds light on just how much damage a rollback of federal vehicle standards is likely to have if state clean car standards are not kept in place.  What’s at stake?  A lot, including billions of dollars in additional gasoline spending.  And sadly, the Auto Alliance – the trade group representing major auto companies including Ford, GM, and Toyota – has resorted to a misinformation campaign to turn Coloradans against cleaner cars.

Why does Colorado want to join California and the other 12 states that follow California’s emissions rules?

Every state in the nation is benefiting from the availability of cleaner, more efficient vehicles that have been prompted by current emissions and fuel economy standards. In fact, savings on fuel already tops $60 billion.

Current plans by the Trump Administration are to rollback federal standards which are currently aligned with CA and the other states that have adopted California rules.  It has been reported the administration’s proposal, currently under review before public release, would freeze the standards at 2020 levels. This would result in a major increase in climate emissions – UCS estimates an increase of more than ½ billion tons of climate emissions just for vehicles built from 2022 through 2025. By 2030, that would be the equivalent of pollution from 30 coal-fired power plants.  But it would also harm consumers more directly, increasing how much they spend at the pump for years to come.

For example, Coloradans have already saved $550 million in fuel costs thanks to existing standards and by 2030 are expected to save an average of $2,700 per household under current rules.  If EPA and NHTSA freeze the standards in 2020, these expected savings will be slashed.  Governor Hickenlooper understands what’s at stake and the move to have Colorado join 13 other clean car states will ensure Coloradans continue to get clean, more efficient vehicle choices in every class from small cars to big SUVs and pick-up trucks.

California analysis makes it clear – rolling back vehicle standards will hurt consumers and increase pollution

An analysis by California regulators paints a very clear picture that following the Trump Administration’s plan to stall progress on clean cars will be a costly mistake. The analysis examines the pollution and economic impact to California under two scenarios – (1) vehicle standards are frozen at 2021 levels or (2) vehicle standards kept in place through 2025 as currently planned.  The highlights (or low-lights) from their analysis (See Appendix A):

  • A rollback of vehicle standards will cost Californians a net $15 billion between 2021 and 2030. That’s because cleaner cars save consumers money, even after paying for the technology to reduce emissions. Weaker standards mean less fuel savings and more money spent on fuel.
  • Californians would also suffer from additional air pollution resulting from production and delivery of increased amounts of gasoline, adding another $1 billion in economic costs related to increased premature deaths and health-related damages between 2021 and 2030.
  • Adding in the economic value for the actual carbon emission reductions, the rollback adds an additional $1.3 to $5.5 billion in climate damages that would have been avoided with the standards between 2021 and 2030.
  • In California, the state has a law requiring a 40% reduction in global warming emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. The ARB analysis shows that a rollback would add nearly 57 million metric tons of CO2 between 2021 and 2030 with about a 20% annual increase in car and truck emissions by 2030. The numbers would be even worse if standards are held at 2020 levels, as reportedly may happen, instead of 2021. Many other states, including Colorado, have set emission reduction goals and are committed to contribute to efforts to avoid the costly consequences of climate change. A rollback will make their efforts that much harder.

While the analysis is specific to California, the same conclusions hold for other states.  Clean car standards are good for consumers and reducing pollution – and freezing them is a gift to the oil industry paid for by drivers at the pump.

Figure 1. Analysis by CA regulators showing emissions from light-duty vehicles under current standards (blue line) and emissions if standards are held at vehicle model year 2021 levels (green line).

Auto Industry Response to Colorado’s support for Clean Cars? Spread misinformation

Immediately responding to Colorado’s decision to ensure its consumers get the benefits of cleaner car technology, the Auto Alliance (representing companies including Ford, GM, and Toyota) and the Colorado Chamber of Commerce rolled out a new campaign attacking clean car standards as un-Coloradan, using the same scare tactics and misinformation harkening back to the days of fighting seatbelts and air bags requirements.

Here’s some fact checking:

  • Claims of higher gas prices resulting from clean car standards are completely bogus. Clean car standards require manufacturers to make cleaner cars. These cars reduce fuel use and save consumers money at the pump. Yet the Alliance’s website claims adopting CA standards somehow means Colorado gas prices will be affected.  This is a blatant attempt to use California’s higher than average gas prices as a scare tactic to Colorado consumers and is not based on facts—Coloradans will save money on gas as a result of this action, not spend more on it.
  • Strong standards will provide Coloradans more choices, not less. The Alliance claims clean car standards are bad for Colorado consumers and would restrict vehicle choices. The opposite is true. Current standards are driving innovation and giving consumers more fuel efficient choices in every class especially in small SUVs as documented in our recent Automaker Rankings report.  As we’ve pointed out time and again, selling SUVs and trucks doesn’t make it harder to manufacturers to meet clean car standards but it remains a talking point of the Auto Alliance.
  • The Zero Emission Vehicle Program does not require automakers to sell 15 percent electric vehicles by 2025. Peddling misinformation about CA’s Zero Emission Vehicle program trying to make the case it is unreasonable is standard fare for the Auto Alliance. In fact, they know quite well that updated regulatory analysis from 2017 shows the program requires plug-in hybrid, battery electric or fuel cell vehicles to be about 7-8% of new sales by 2025 in California and slightly less in other states that have adopted CA’s program. CA is already at 5 percent new vehicle sales. Governor Hickenlooper’s announcement doesn’t include the California electric vehicle requirements, but even if it did, characterizing the requirement as 15 percent is a clear mischaracterization of what the program requires.

 

The Trump Administration, prompted by the automakers, has decided to throw out a well-coordinated national program for vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency —a move that is bad for consumers and moves the auto industry backward.  Initiation of lawsuits to prevent the rollback and Colorado’s recent announcement to join the clean car states clearly demonstrate that states recognize the myriad benefits to their residents from these standards.  They should not be deterred by tired auto industry arguments.

 

 

What Our 50-State Scorecard Says About Farming and Water Pollution (and What the Farm Bill Should Do About It)

Water flows off a farm in Tennessee following a storm. Photo: Tim McCabe, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Last week, my colleagues and I launched a super-cool data tool on the UCS website. The 50-State Food System Scorecard compiles loads of publicly available data dealing with the health and sustainability of food and farming, and ranks the states on their performance in various data categories and overall.

Finding and evaluating a critical mass of data to say something reasonably comprehensive about each state’s food system—from farm to fork—was a big project, and its lead scientist Marcia DeLonge summarized how we did it and why we bothered in a post last week. So today, I want to home in on just one of the aspects we looked at.

We called it “ecosystem impacts,” which really means how farming affects critical natural resources like our water and soil, as well as our climate system.

We evaluated this impact by considering several kinds of indicators. First, we looked at existing data showing farming’s climate implications, with indicators including percentage of total climate emissions from agriculture, climate emissions per farm acre, and carbon loss or gain from land-use change and forestry. We also looked at data revealing agriculture’s impact on soil erosion. And finally, we incorporated data on water quality, with indicators ranging from nutrient loss (read: fertilizer runoff) per land area; percentage of surface waters that are impaired (the EPA’s term for rivers, lakes, and bays polluted beyond applicable water quality standards); and percentage of the state’s area with groundwater contaminated by high levels of nitrate, a common water pollutant for which agriculture is a major source.

As you can see on this map of state rankings in the “reduced ecosystem impact” category (one of nearly a dozen available maps), the 10 best performers are an eclectic collection of states from all corners of the country: Alaska, New Hampshire, Maine, West Virginia, Wyoming, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Michigan.

MAP 4: REDUCED ECOSYSTEM IMPACTS

 

And digging a little deeper into the data (which you can do yourself by downloading a data spreadsheet from our methodology document), we get a clearer picture of the states in which the water resources people depend on—for drinking, fishing, and swimming—are the least negatively affected by pollution strongly linked to agriculture. The data showed that Montana, New Hampshire, and South Dakota had the lowest groundwater nitrate pollution. Maryland and Wyoming had the smallest fraction of surface waters impaired, and Wyoming had the least nutrient loss.

Other states didn’t do so well.

Another year, another Corn Belt-fueled ‘dead zone’

Let’s look at the worst performers according to the data we have for nutrient loss in particular. They are New Jersey (50), Kentucky (49), Missouri (48), Louisiana (47), Iowa (46), Ohio (45), Indiana (44), and Illinois (43). Those last four clustered near the bottom are at the center of the Midwestern Corn Belt, a region that has long sent massive amounts of nutrient runoff to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Every year, that runoff contributes to a dead zone just off the Gulf coast, in which nutrient-fueled algae blooms rob the shallow waters of oxygen, killing or driving out other life forms. This year will be no exception. According to a recent press release from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), by August we can expect to see a Gulf dead zone that is about the size of Connecticut. That would be about 4 percent larger than the average over the past 31 years.

Unfortunately, that’s the good news. Because last year’s dead zone was even bigger—at least the size of New Jersey. And no matter which Eastern seaboard state you compare it to, it’s bad. In their 2018 prediction, the scientists at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (who partner with NOAA annually) note that, if they’re right, the dead zone will be about three and a half times the size of the federal goal set in 2001 and reiterated in 2008.

“Efforts to reduce the nitrate loading have not yet demonstrated success at the watershed scale,” they conclude, sounding glum, for scientists.

Big problems need big solutions

In fact, the efforts to reduce the problem to date haven’t exactly been monumental. Which brings me back to our scorecard and two of its other data categories.

We looked at the implementation of farming practices that can reduce farming’s contribution to water pollution and other negative ecosystem impacts. These practices include adopting no-till (aka no plowing) cropping systems; planting cover crops; using organic, rotational grazing, and other innovative techniques; and taking less-productive farmland out of cropping or grazing altogether. Ranking the states on these indicators produced a map that looks like this:

MAP 5: CONSERVATION PRACTICES

 

Comparing these rankings with the ecosystem impacts rankings is interesting. The four Corn Belt states that did poorly on water pollution measures above also rank low on conservation practices. But while one might expect states where sustainable farming practices have been implemented more widely would have better ecosystem outcomes, this is only sometimes true. Yes, New Hampshire and Maine each ranks in the top 5 in both categories. But then there’s a state like Maryland. Despite ranking #3 in implementation of conservation practices, it lags in terms of ecosystem impacts, coming in at #35.

The scorecard also ranks states according to federal dollars their farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders receive, through a variety of USDA programs, to study and implement soil-, climate-, and water-conserving agriculture.

MAP 6: FARM INVESTMENTS

 

This produces a different picture, though with some of the same states performing best (Vermont and New Hampshire) and worst (Arizona, Nevada, and Florida).

Because of the differences, comparing states across all three closely related farm sustainability categories is interesting, and there’s at least one state that stands out for me…

Iowa. The state is 49th for ecosystem impacts and 47th for implementation of conservation practices. But it finishes a surprising 15th in federal investment for sustainable agriculture. Now, you might be thinking, “doesn’t this mean those federal dollars just don’t work?” But I don’t think that’s the story here.

Instead, I think it’s that the scale of the problem is just so much bigger than the investments being made in solutions. Particularly in a state like Iowa, the beating heart of the Corn Belt and the epitome of the industrialized agriculture model. As the Des Moines Register had to acknowledge on the heels of last year’s huge Gulf dead zone, Iowa is a big part of that problem.

Of course, a growing number of the state’s farmers and agriculture researchers are working hard to refine and implement solutions. Researchers at Iowa State University, for instance, have developed an innovative crop rotation system that slashes fertilizer and pesticide use (and consequent runoff) while increasing yields. And the Practical Farmers of Iowa are implementing such methods one corn-and-soybean field at a time. Together, they’re changing the model. But system-wide change takes significant long-term investment, and generally speaking, the investment in sustainable agriculture in the United States has been pennies on the dollar.

Farmers want to be part of the solution—and Congress needs to support them

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that Congress is inching toward the finish line on a bitterly contested farm bill. While most of the controversy has centered around short-sighted efforts by House Republicans to gut the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, lawmakers in both houses of Congress have also taken aim at important investments that help farmers build healthy soil and prevent pollution, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The USDA’s largest and most comprehensive working-land conservation program, CSP offers incentives and technical support for farmers to take up more sustainable practices on their land.

It’s not the first time CSP has been targeted for cuts. When Congress passed the last farm bill in 2014, they slashed the program by more than 20 percent. The result? By last summer, a USDA official told a Senate committee that CSP is “greatly oversubscribed” and must turn away thousands of farmers who want to participate. That’s why, when the debate over the 2018 farm bill started ramping up last fall, UCS joined more than two dozen organizations in outlining collective conservation priorities that include a substantial increase in funding for CSP and other USDA programs. And our recent survey of farmers across seven states suggests that large majorities want the farm bill to make those investments.

But the bill that failed last month in the House (but is expected to get a re-vote any minute), did the opposite—it eliminated CSP altogether. And while the much better bipartisan bill on the Senate side takes steps to increase the effectiveness and accessibility of farm bill conservation programs, it would also trim the program’s allotted acres by another 12 percent. That’s the wrong direction.

Read more and take action on the farm bill today.

Photo: Tim McCable, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The Fate of My Grandmother’s Home: Facing Sea Level Rise in New Jersey

My family has owned this home on the Jersey Shore for four generations. Photo: Amanda Devecka-Rinear

I live in my Grandmother’s house. We are lucky. My family has owned this home on the Jersey Shore for four generations. After my parents divorced when I was two, my Grandmother’s home was my home.

My Great Grandmother, Nan; my Grandmother, Gram; and baby me. Photo: Amanda Devecka-Rinear

Our home is on the water and the water is part of who we are. My Dad paid for grad school by clamming in the bay and was the first in his family to get a college degree. I was compelled to return home in 2012, after my Gram suffered a stroke in August and then Superstorm Sandy devastated my family and community the following October. Since her passing away this past September, my home now means even more to me.

I understand the risks I face, that our communities face, from storm surge, sea level rise, and flooding. And sure, someone on the outside might say, “why don’t you just leave?” Leaving home would be like losing a family member. And my community doesn’t cut bait and run—we stand together and fight.

When I look around my living room I hear my Grandmother tell me she’s glad I live here now, and I am too.

Facing the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy

In the year or so after Sandy in 2012, it quickly became clear that New Jersey’s working families were struggling to recover and rebuild. I started talking to folks to figure out why and how, and what we could do. As a long-time community organizer, I knew the “experts” were the people on the frontlines of the disaster, and if we fought together we would win. We had to act—two years after the storm, less than 500 families in the state’s homeowner recovery program were back and rental assistance programs were ending.

Fast forward to today, and that group of amazing community members and leaders across New Jersey’ most impacted counties has built a powerful grassroots organization. Nearly four years later we are proud of the changes community leadership has created—New Jersey now has a rental assistance program and a state law to slow or stop foreclosures on Sandy families (learn more here).

Our community worked together to move an agenda based on what we experienced and needed. Now we have the opportunity to be continuing protagonists in our own story.

Documenting Sandy’s toll on people’s lives

Here’s what’s hard. Despite that good work, the storm still took a toll. Last October we released a report, The Long Road Home, based on a survey of more than 500 Sandy-impacted families. The report measured how they were doing between four and five years after the storm.

The findings show that the health and economic impacts of Sandy have been significant. Fifty-six percent had trouble paying bills and/or affording food and gas since the storm—with some families reporting that things became more difficult in the last two years as storm-related problems dragged on.

In addition to shouldering the cost of rebuilding, 41 percent of respondents say their livelihood was affected by Sandy. Factors associated with job loss include losing a job or hours at a job because of Sandy; the impact of the storm on a family-owned business; the demands of dealing with the recovery process; and health issues that worsened or developed after the storm.

Thirty-two percent of families fell behind on mortgage/rent payments, taxes, or other expenses related to their Sandy-damaged homes. And more than 70 percent of respondents reported that they had developed new physical or mental health problems or a worsening of pre-existing health conditions since Sandy.

Many individuals described anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders, often in combination with respiratory, cardiovascular, or other conditions. Many people also described an increased dependence on alcohol, tobacco products, or drugs. Of families with children, nearly 40 percent report that their children’s school performance has suffered because of the difficulties their family has faced since the storm.

Preparing for rising seas and chronic flooding

These hard-earned lessons tell us something critical. We learned from Sandy that programs meant to help us could be used for political gain, or benefited banks more than homeowners, or were not sufficient, or simply did not exist.

In the saga of rising seas and chronic flooding, we must be the protagonists. We cannot ignore the fact that sea level rise is happening and it’s worsening chronic flooding

Indeed, new research from the Union of Concerned Scientists highlights the risk to New Jersey coastal homes, which are among the most exposed. It includes some sobering details:

  • New Jersey is second in the nation, behind Florida, for most homes at risk from chronic flooding due to rising seas, both in 2045 and by the end of the century. By 2045, more than 62,000 of today’s residential properties in New Jersey, valued at about $27 billion today and currently home to about 80,000 people, are at risk of chronic inundation. Of New Jersey’s beach towns, 10 are projected to have at least 1,500 homes at risk by 2045, with Ocean City topping the list at more than 7,200. The total number of at-risk residential properties jumps to about 251,000—currently worth more than $107 billion and home to roughly 376,000 people—by 2100.
  • The New Jersey homes at risk in 2045 currently contribute about $390 million in annual property tax revenue. The homes at risk by 2100 currently contribute roughly $1.7 billion collectively in annual property tax revenue, which places New Jersey second in the U.S. for largest possible hit to its municipal property tax base.
  • Many of the New Jersey communities facing chronic inundation in the next 30 years are home to people with fewer resources to adapt. Communities such as Monmouth Beach and West Cape May for instance, which have elderly population rates above the national average, could see more than 15 percent of their homes at risk by 2045. And in communities such as Atlantic City and Wildwood, 40 percent of homes at risk by 2045 and roughly one-third of residents are living below the national poverty line.
Moving forward

As a nation, there are clear steps we can take. We need to modernize the National Flood Insurance Program, so it prioritizes flood mitigation measures and allows families to get out of harm’s way, and we need to ramp up investment in FEMA’s pre-disaster hazard mitigation grant program.

When families remain in harm’s way because they can’t, or don’t want to, make investments in flood-proofing to prepare, we can’t trap them in a no-win scenario: stay and keep getting flooded and rebuilding, or sell the house knowing they’re selling the next family the same dead-end scenario.

Families should have the opportunity for a fair buyout, so they can be economically stable while also ensuring the property they leave remains undeveloped. Returning the land to open space can help protect nearby neighbors from flooding. We all need to have a more accurate picture of who and what is at risk—and that means more accurate flood risk maps. At the same time, we need robust affordability provisions for insurance and flood-proofing investments so people like me aren’t just priced out of our homes.

It’s up to us

Sandy taught us something key—you are either at the table, or you are on the menu. Now we need to take those lessons and apply them to face a future of rising seas and increased tidal flooding—and the worsening risks and damages that come with it when we have major storms.

It’s up to us to make sure our health and economic well-being are key considerations as we plan to address whatever future we face. If and when there are heartbreakingly tough decisions to make about the future of our homes and communities, we make them—and no one makes them for us.

I have faith in us. We look out for each other and help one another weather storms. It’s time for us to tackle the question of what rising seas and increased flooding mean, together.

California Takes Another Run at 100 Percent Clean Electricity

On June 13th, the Union of Concerned Scientists worked with the California 100% Clean Energy Coalition to bring more than 100 people to Sacramento to lobby in support of Senate Bill 100 (De León) and California’s transition away from fossil fuels. SB 100 would accelerate the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) to 60% by 2030 and require that the remaining 40% of the electricity mix come from RPS-eligible resources or zero-carbon resources by 2045.

Last year, SB 100 passed the California State Senate, but stalled in the Assembly. A day after lobby day, the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy scheduled SB 100 for a hearing on July 3rd!

Meeting 100% of California’s electricity needs with zero-carbon resources is a bold goal, but achieving it is within reach. In 2016 California received about 25% of its electricity from eligible renewables. Another 19% came from a combination of nuclear and large hydropower, which are zero-carbon resources that would be eligible under SB 100. Statewide we are already on track to exceed the current RPS requirement of 50% renewables by 2030.

California has led the nation in the transition from coal to clean energy resources and demonstrated that a cleaner electricity system need not come at the price of a growing economy. We have the technology to run a flexible and efficient grid with even more renewables, and the prices for energy storage are coming down. The time is right to double down on this clean energy momentum.

Climate change is the biggest threat to the health and economic stability of Californians. With more extreme weather events threatening the livelihoods of frontline communities, it is time to pass legislation that will prevent further damage to these communities. Cleaning up our electricity grid will also provide a blueprint for significant cuts in global warming emissions.

Peter Wright’s 50+ Chemical Facility Conflicts: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Peter Wright, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, will face the Senate Environment and Public Works committee at his nomination hearing this Wednesday. Mr. Wright has spent the majority of his career working as an attorney for Dow Chemical Company (now DowDuPont). Would he make a smooth transition from defender of polluters to defender of the public? Under Pruitt’s lead, it seems unlikely that public safety would be at the top of his agenda.

As I wrote back in April, Mr. Wright is on tap to lead the EPA’s chemical hazards arm, including the Superfund program and the Risk Management Program (RMP). The agency is currently “reconsidering” the Chemical Disaster Rule, which would have improved the RMP by helping to make the communities surrounding the 12,500 facilities regulated under the program safer and better informed.

DowDuPont itself, or one of its subsidiaries, owns over 50 RMP facilities. An analysis of EPA data on accidents at those facilities shows that Dow, DuPont, and their subsidiaries averaged 7 chemical disaster incidents per year, for a total of 99 fires, explosions, spills or gas releases from 2004 to 2016. These accidents resulted in the deaths of 6 workers and caused over 200 people to be hospitalized or seek medical treatment for injuries.

Here are just a few accounts of accidents from those DowDuPont facilities:

  • At Dow’s Texas Operations plant in Freeport, TX, there have been a series of reported accidents from 2004 to 2016. One July 2014 fire resulted in $200,000 property damage, and a liquid spill later that month injured two employees. Then, in July 2015, a gas release and liquid spill shut down a major highway for several hours. Neither the city of Freeport nor its residents were informed by Dow Chemical; instead they learned of the release from the local news network. Freeport’s fire chief, who should have been notified by Dow through the community awareness and emergency response line, told reporters, “We can’t be left in the dark while we are trying to protect our community.”
  • In Hahnville, LA, Dow’s St. Charles operations had a chemical leak of ethyl acrylate in July 2009. Parish residents reported respiratory impacts that sent almost 30 people to the hospital with eye and nose irritation. Dow notified the St. Charles Parish Emergency Operations Center (EOC) about the leak, but it was unclear whether the EOC had adequate information from the company about the chemical’s risks. This facility has continued to have issues, including a 2014 liquid spill that injured one worker and a 2015 gas release that injured three plant employees.
  • A particularly infamous DuPont facility accident occurred at its insecticide plant in La Porte, TX in November 2014. Two workers died when exposed to methyl mercaptan as they were attempting to fix what they thought was a routine problem, and two other workers died after responding to the others’ distress call. After an investigation into the disaster, Chemical Safety Board chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said that “this investigation has uncovered weaknesses or failures in DuPont’s safety planning and procedures.” These weaknesses included inadequate gas detectors, nonfunctional ventilation fans, outdated alarms, no system in place to measure the quantity of toxins leaked beyond property lines, an inadequate process of assembling an internal response team, and nonfunctional emergency vehicles. This plant had been fined in the past for spills and gas releases that had injured workers. In 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued penalties summing $273,000 to DuPont for a variety of violations at this plant, and the company finally announced that it would be closing the plant in 2016.

Note that all three of these facilities are at increased risk of flooding due to hurricanes, like the disaster at the Crosby, TX Arkema plant as a result of Hurricane Harvey last summer. Improvements to the chemical safety rule would have helped facilities plan how to manage for future floods, including implementing plans crucial for mitigating incidents and exposures. As EPA prepares to rescind such improvements, Administrator Scott Pruitt is allowing business as usual at these facilities, which face the increased threat of potential flooding, spills, and releases as a result of natural disasters.

Accidents at chemical facilities that may injure and sometimes kill plant workers and residents of nearby communities are not to be taken lightly.  There have been 46 such incidents already this year. The future head of OLEM should be advocating for changes at plants that help to prevent disasters like these from ever happening. The Chemical Disaster Rule would have helped to ensure that adequate measures were in place so that emergency responders have rapid access to chemical risks before entering buildings after reports of a spill or release.

Mr. Wright has spent years defending Dow Chemical Co, a member of the American Chemistry Council, which has lobbied long and hard to avoid more safety precautions for chemical plants to save its member companies the money it would cost to make critical preparedness updates. At his hearing on Wednesday, Senators should ask Wright for one reason to trust that he would be looking after the public interest in his role at OLEM, because advocates in favor of the RMP amendments who spoke at last week’s public comment hearing certainly don’t see a 20-year run at Dow Chemical as supporting evidence. Perhaps Savannah Georgia community organizer Mildred McClain characterized the current situation best when she told the EPA, “If industries were authentic in their pursuit of justice for the communities, they would listen to the voices of the residents…The companies will just keep saying ‘I’m meeting the EPA standard’ while the community members are saying, ‘but we’re sick, we still smell stuff and we still don’t have a concrete plan as to what we’d do if there was a major disaster.”

While we wait to see how Mr. Wright responds to Senate questioning this week, there is still plenty of time to comment on the EPA’s proposed rule which is open until June 29th. You can join us in urging Pruitt to consider worker and community health over industry costs by submitting a comment today. For assistance developing a strong comment, check out this RMP public comment guide.

Flickr/Roy Luck

Massachusetts Senate Unanimously Endorses a Bold Vision for Clean Transportation

Photo: Eric Kilby/Flickr

The Massachusetts Senate yesterday unanimously passed an energy bill that promises to dramatically reshape the vehicles and fuels that power our transportation system.

If enacted, this legislation would make Massachusetts a national and even global leader in the deployment of electric vehicle technology. It would dramatically reduce our consumption of oil, and the pollution that comes from petroleum. It would save lives by significantly improving air quality, especially in urban areas. It would produce a stronger and more resilient modern grid that will provide ratepayers with greater efficiency and reliability. And it would produce long-term cost savings for Massachusetts drivers and transit agencies.

And I’m just talking about the provisions related to transportation. (See here for more about the provisions related to renewable energy and storage, en espanol aqui.)  But even a focus on just the implications for the transportation sector is meaty enough. Here’s why this bill is taking on transportation emissions and what the bill would do.

Transportation and climate goals

Let me start with a little background on transportation and Massachusetts climate policy.

Under Massachusetts climate law (the Global Warming Solutions Act or “GWSA”), the state is required to achieve significant reductions in economy-wide global warming emissions. When it comes to emissions from electricity, we’re making remarkable progress: over the past decade Massachusetts has cut our emissions from electricity impressively, thanks in part to a strong set of policies, including our investments in energy efficiency and our participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (or “RGGI”).

But when it comes to transportation, things have been more difficult. Improving vehicle efficiency standards have helped reduce emissions some since 2008, but the gains in efficiency have been partially offset by increases in total driving and increasing purchases of SUVs and light trucks. Electric vehicles are a technology with extraordinary promise but still represent only about 2 percent of new vehicle sales. The state has committed to putting 300,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025, but we have a ways to go to achieve that goal.

Overall, transportation emissions are about the same as they were in 1990, and transportation now represents the largest source of pollution in Massachusetts, including over 40% of global warming emissions.

What would this bill do?

The Senate bill would accelerate the rapid electrification of our transportation system, while taking steps to ensure that all residents of Massachusetts benefit from electric vehicle technology.

To start with, the Senate bill envisions the end of diesel fuel in our public transportation system. Heavy duty diesel engines are some of the dirtiest vehicles on the road, contributing significantly to urban air pollution that causes asthma and other respiratory problems. Existing technologies such as electric buses have zero tail pipe emissions and can reduce global warming emissions from diesel equivalents nearly 80 percent on today’s grid. The bill would require the Department of Transportation to replace all diesel engines with zero-emission vehicles in its bus, commuter rail, and marine fleet. This would build on recent announcements in California and New York City to electrify their vehicle fleets.

The bill would also require the Department of Transportation to enact policies that would ensure that 25% of all vehicles on the road are electric by 2026. This would represent a major increase from current levels, as electric vehicles are currently about 2 percent of new vehicles sold in Massachusetts. Achieving sales at those rates will require policies that are strong enough to make electric vehicles affordable for low- and moderate-income residents, in addition to building the infrastructure necessary to keep EVs charged.

As we build out our electric vehicle infrastructure, it’s going to be important for us to also think about the impact of EV charging on our electric grid.  Another important provision of this legislation would require utilities to offer rates that reward electric vehicle drivers for charging their vehicles at night, when electricity use is low. These “time of use” rates can lead to big savings not only for electric vehicle drivers, but for all ratepayers.

The critical role of market-based programs

The Senate bill not only sets out big goals, it also identifies a way to pay for the investments that we need in clean transportation: by requiring the state to establish a market-based program to reduce emissions from transportation fuels (as well as heating fuels).

Under RGGI, Massachusetts and the other states of the Northeast have placed a limit on emissions from power plants. This limit is enforced by a requirement that power plant operators purchase allowances that are sold in regional auctions. By limiting the number of allowances available, RGGI ensures overall emission reductions. Meanwhile, the sale of allowances raises money that is invested in efficiency and renewable energy.

This “cap and invest” model has proven effective in reducing emissions from electricity—and beyond. While RGGI only applies to electricity, other jurisdictions, including California, Ontario and Quebec, have expanded this model into heating and transportation fuels and the result has been billions in new investments in clean transportation. California alone is projected to spend over $2 billion on clean transportation investments this year – money that is going to expanded electric vehicle incentives, electric buses, improved transit services, and more affordable housing near transit.

If Massachusetts adopted a program similar to the California-Ontario-Quebec model, it could raise over $450 million per year in investments in clean transportation. That would be enough to not only make a major new investment in electric vehicles, but also to address critical issues facing our Commonwealth such as public transportation and affordable housing.

The path ahead

With the Senate promising bold action to accelerate the electrification of transportation, the action now turns towards the House of Representatives. The House has shown interest in promoting electric vehicles this session, including a good bill from Rep. Tom Golden, chair of the energy committee, that would encourage car dealers to sell electric vehicles.

One big question is whether legislators in both chambers agree on a sustainable and dedicated source of funding for investments in clean transportation. Too often, the policies we use to promote electric vehicles are based on one-time infusions of funds, such as the $12 million that Gov. Charlie Baker committed to the state’s main electric vehicle incentive in December 2016. The problem with one-time cash infusions is that they expire: the state is now running out of funds and may have to cut back on their rebate program.

The senate’s proposals in that regard—and the many other good transportation provisions in last night’s bill—are welcome indeed.

Eric Kilby

Hey California, Let’s Spare the Air and Turn Down the Gas

The Glenarm natural gas plant in Pasadena, California. Source: Wikimedia

On March 4, California set a new record by supplying nearly half of the state’s electricity needs from renewables. That’s just the latest payoff of the state’s admirable clean energy investments, thanks to plentiful solar power and strong policies like the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS).

But California still relies on fossil fuels, via natural gas power plants, to provide nearly 40 percent of annual electricity needs. In fact, in-state natural gas generation comprises about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions statewide. Reaching our long-term energy and climate goals means ramping up renewables and at the same time turning down our gas.

In many cases, gas plants will be turned off during the day, when renewable generation is most abundant. However, as the sun sets, solar generation decreases and natural gas plants must be turned on—or, if they’re already operating, they must ramp up generation to meet the evening demand spike.

The solution to this evening ramp problem is to:

  • Build cleaner alternatives than gas that can produce power in the evening,
  • Build more energy storage,
  • Use load shifting and increased energy efficiency to reduce evening electricity demand.

Many of the state’s natural gas power plants were constructed to provide baseload power, meaning they were designed to stay on all day, nearly every day. Most of California’s natural gas plants were not designed to be turned on and off daily, nor was their frequent cycling anticipated in their original air quality permits. A natural gas plant starting up can produce as much as 30 times more nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions than it will after it has been running for few hours.

Nitrogen oxides are the particles visible in smog. They irritate lung tissue, exacerbate asthma, and make people more susceptible to chronic respiratory diseases like pneumonia and influenza. Starting up gas plants more often could increase air pollution concentrations and should be considered in their air permits.

To make sure California’s clean energy transition also reduces criteria air pollution from natural gas plants, UCS is proudly co-sponsoring legislation—Senate Bill 64 by Senator Bob Wieckowski—with the California Environmental Justice Alliance and the Clean Power Campaign. The legislation aims to do three things:

  • Require generators to provide data on the hourly change in emissions, startups, shutdowns, and cycling. Many plants are required to report hourly emissions data to the US EPA, but the data is not in a user-friendly format and it’s difficult to ascertain how power plant operations are changing over time without some complex analysis. More accessible information about how power plants are actually operating, as opposed to how they were predicted to operate when they were first permitted, is an essential first step to better decisions about how dispatch of natural gas power plants are impacting local air quality.
  • Require local air districts to analyze, using this data, how power plants are currently operating and likely to operate in the future, to ensure air quality protections are included in applicable permits. SB 64 would also require air districts to limit generation from the dirtiest power plants on days with poor air quality as long as the needs of the grid can be met with other resources. Since the worst air quality days are often the hottest days with the highest electricity need, limits on power plant dispatch must not jeopardize grid reliability.
  • Require the state to plan for how it will reduce natural gas generation and accelerate the eventual retirement of gas plants, placing a priority on reducing natural gas generation in communities most impacted by air pollution.

Because natural gas–fired power plants supply a substantial portion of California’s current electricity demand and support grid reliability, natural gas generation will continue to play a role on California’s electricity grid for some time.

California is charting new territory for other states and countries in terms of level of renewables on the grid, and making a dramatic shift away from natural gas generation will not happen overnight. But, Californians are already starting to feel the impacts of climate change, and communities in California breathe some of the unhealthiest air in the country.

For these reasons, it’s critical that the state shift to cleaner sources for all of its energy needs including electricity. The state needs better tools to understand how changing natural gas plant operations may impact air quality, and an explicit mechanism in law for air districts to coordinate with grid operators to reduce the dispatch of natural gas power plants on the worst air quality days. SB 64 would ensure that California’s ramp-up in clean generation does not lead to the unintended consequence of frequently cycling natural gas power plants in a way that leads to increased air pollution.

Contents Under Pressure: Speak Out Against EPA Proposed Chemical Facility Safety Rollbacks That Put Communities at Risk

The Chevron Richmond refinery fire, August 6, 2012. Photo: Greg Kunit/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Over the last year, we have written extensively on the actions that Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken to eliminate or weaken critical science-based protections, particularly on chemical facility safety. From the outset, Pruitt was determined to delay the implementation of updates to the Risk Management Plan(RMP) that called for the assessment of safer technologies, more accessible and quality information for communities near facilities, and improved emergency response coordination. Now with a new proposed rule, the saga continues as the EPA under Pruitt moves one step closer to eliminating hard-fought improvements to the RMP.

Tomorrow, the EPA will hold a public hearing in Washington, D.C. for comments on the proposed changes to the RMP amendments. This is the only hearing being held on the proposed rule, which means that, just like last year, the frontline communities affected by these decisions will likely not have an opportunity to speak out against it. I will be testifying on behalf of UCS, in hopes of amplifying the concerns of the communities that are unable to be present. You can see my prepared comments below.

The agency is currently taking written comments on the proposed rule, open until June 29, 2018. UCS has created an RMP public comment guide for tips on writing a strong comment for this particular rule, which can be found here. Please join us in telling Administrator Pruitt that the health and safety of frontline communities, workers, and first responders will not be best served by favoring industry.

***

Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the proposed amendments to the Risk Management Plan.

My name is Charise Johnson. I am here on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists. With more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country, we are a nonpartisan, non-profit group, dedicated to improving public policy through rigorous and independent science. This proposed rule rolls back many of the critical public safeguards implemented in the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule. Just last year, I was in this building along with many other partners and fence-line community groups asking EPA to end its dangerous delay of the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule. Those updates to the original RMP were hard fought and deliberated by various stakeholders including multiple agencies and took several years to finalize. Now I am here today to ask the EPA to rescind these dangerous rollbacks.

This rule is particularly important to the health and safety of fence-line communities, first responders, and workers in the facilities. The Husky Energy Oil Refinery explosion in Wisconsin, the Valero Refinery explosion and fire in Texas, and the Chevron Richmond Refinery flaring of at least 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide in California are a few examples just in the past two months of how chemical facilities need to better coordinate with first responders, offer more direct access to information to communities to plan for evacuation, and assessment of safer practices that could make workers and surrounding communities safer in case of an accident. And with the strengthening of severe weather events such as intense hurricane seasons in the Gulf region, the frequency of chemical disasters like the Arkema explosion will become more commonplace for neighboring communities. 

The modest, commonsense requirements that the EPA is aiming to rollback include:

  • A requirement that industrial facilities presenting the highest risks undertake a safer technology alternatives assessment (STAA). Safer technology alternatives assessment is a business best practice, industry should be looking at ways to make their practices and technology safer for their facility, workers, and for the surrounding communities.
  • A requirement that an “incident analysis” include determining the “root cause” of the incident to avoid such incidents in the future. Root cause analyses are necessary to determine what the cause of an incident or a near miss is, so the facility can fix the problem and prevent a future disaster.
  • A requirement that qualified, independent third-party audits be conducted when a facility has an incident to ensure the cause of the incident is addressed. In the case of the highest risk facilities and extreme incidents a third-party audit of the facility should be necessary to gain an objective view and assessment of the safety of the facility.
  • A requirement that facilities provide the public with information critical to the surrounding communities’ understanding of the potential risks from these facilities, including how to protect themselves should a release occur and what potential health risks they might face from a recent release incident. Information sharing should be a basic tenet of this rule. The EPA requires individuals travel to their respective state’s federal reading room to acquire information on facilities, yet not every state has a reading room, and some must travel great distances. Communities and first responders deserve to have better access to basic information about facilities in their community such as 5-year accident history, safety data sheets, planned emergency exercises, and evacuation information. These provide basic access to information that the public has a right to know and hampers the ability of affected communities to know and prepare for chemical risks.
  • A requirement that facilities provide emergency planners and first responders with additional information needed for responding to a chemical release. The proposal would return to the status quo, where companies have more leeway to refuse to share relevant safety information with first responders.

EPA’s own rulemaking states that the proposed changes to this rule would impact low-income communities and communities of color the hardest. We are here in solidarity with our environmental justice community partners, including the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) and Texas Environmental Advocacy Services (TEJAS), among countless others who among the few community voices able to make it all the way to DC to make sure the EPA considers vulnerable communities over industry profits.

Since the delay of the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule, there have been at least 45 known incidents at chemical facilities. That is at least 45 incidents too many. The 2017 finalized amendments are commonsense protections that could have helped prevent and mitigate the harm of those chemical disasters and protect us from future ones. EPA needs to put the health and safety of the public first, and not move forward with this proposed rule.

 

New Evidence Shows Just How Bad the Trump Administration is at Governing

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

President Trump likes to brag about how many regulations his administration is removing. The President’s “2 for 1” order requires federal agencies to revoke two regulations for every new rule they want to issue. This order is aimed at getting “rid of the redundancy and duplication that wastes your time and money.” Call me crazy, but I’d like to keep the regulations on the books that protect consumers, safeguard clean air and water, and keep our kids safe. Forcing agencies to dump two rules for every new one requires agencies to take a sledgehammer to any imperfect rule (and its friend) when a scalpel would suffice.

Regardless of what the Trump Administration boasts, a dive into the data shows just how ineffective the President has been at both enacting and removing regulations. The Executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reviews every rule that a federal agency wants to enact and has been counting how many rules have come through its doors. I took a look at the OMB database to find out how many rules – including repeals of existing rules and new rules – the Trump Administration has sent to OMB during its first 18 months compared to how many rules the Obama Administration sent to OMB during its first 18 months.

The results are striking.

The Trump Administration has sent about half the number of economically significant* rules and about a third of all rules sent to OMB for review compared to the Obama Administration over the same timeframe.

 

OBAMA

(1/20/09 – 06/01/10) TRUMP

(1/20/17 – 06/01/18) % DIFFERENCE Economically significant* rules sent to OMB 173 90 (75 concluded + 15 pending) -48% All rules sent to OMB 889 338 (273 concluded + 65 pending) -62%

*As defined in Executive Order 12866, a rulemaking action that will have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or will adversely affect in a material way the economy, a sector of the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health, or safety, or State, local or tribal governments or communities.

 

This evidence further supports claims that the White House and our federal agencies have been hollowed out by the Trump Administration, which has ostracized longstanding public servants, failed to fill key roles, and created a working environment no one wants to join. In 2017 alone, nearly 400 workers left the EPA, and the agency’s staffing has reached its lowest point in almost 30 years. If every EPA employee eligible to retire by 2021 does so, the EPA would have about less than 8,000 employees by the end of President Trump’s term – a cut of nearly half.

Overall, this weakening of the federal government’s ability to enact and update rules is having a negative effect on public health and our environment. EPA has fewer staff to push back against an attempt by EPA Administrator Pruitt to delay rules designed to prevent chemical disasters. The Department of Interior is accepting early retirements and has less staff to manage our public lands and push back against industry petitions for oil and gas drilling permits. And, the White House itself seems unable to present a coordinated approach to policy, both foreign and domestic.

But fear not! The good news is that UCS is helping mobilize people across the country to #StandUpForScience, and is helping organize events to promote the use of science in sound rulemaking. UCS is also working to stop the rollback of rules designed to protect public health and fighting the Trump Administration’s efforts to stymie the effectiveness of the federal government. You can join these efforts too! All it takes is signing up for some emails and devoting some time to help make a difference. See you there!

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Acceso equitativo a la energía solar en Massachusetts, en manos del Senado

Las instalaciones solares compartidas se han convertido en una alternativa para brindar acceso a la energía solar para todos permitiendo sacar ventaja de las economías de gran escala. (Fuente: Wikimedia)

ACTUALIZACIÓN: El Senado está votando una Ley sobre energía limpia hoy. Si vive en Massachusetts contacte su Senador/a y haga oir su voz. Puede enviarle un email (en inglés acá) o aún mejor, llamarle (números telefónicos acá).

La energía solaren Massachusetts ha ayudado a que las familias que tienen acceso a ésta disminuyan sus facturas de electricidad, a que el aire que respiramos en el estado sea más saludable, a generar más de 11.000 empleos y a que quienes quieren contribuir con sus acciones en la lucha contra el cambio climático tengan un aliado en los páneles solares para generar electricidad.

Desafortunadamente, debido a que cerca del 40% de la población de Massachusetts vive en arriendo, esto hace que más de 2 millones de personas no puedan instalar páneles solares en los techos de sus viviendas al no ser propietarios del techo de las mismas. Este número es aún mayor si pensamos en quienes viven en edificios con múltiples propietarios o áreas con techos reducidos, con deficiente orientación o en condiciones no óptimas para la instalación de páneles solares.

Las instalaciones solares compartidas en Massachusetts

Una alternativa para que quienes no pueden instalar páneles solares en los techos de sus casas son las instalaciones solares compartidas (community shared solaren inglés). La instalación solar compartida consiste en un proyecto solar desarrollado por una organización o empresa que instala una mayor cantidad de páneles en un lugar apropiado. Los subscriptores invierten en el proyecto, compran su electricidad o reciben otros beneficios específicos como créditos para pagar menos en la factura eléctrica.

A pesar de la gran oportunidad de acceso que estas instalaciones representan, en el año 2016 la legislación solar de Massachusetts cambió impactando gravemente las instalaciones compartidas. En este momento, quienes tienen páneles solares instalados en los techos de sus casas pueden ser son compensados en totalidad por la electricidad que sus páneles producen y que no es usada en sus hogares. En cambio, a quienes cuentan con instalaciones solares compartidas se les reconoce tan solo el 60% del valor de la electricidad que los páneles producen.

Esto claramente impacta negativamente las finanzas de quienes quieren beneficiarse de la energía solar mas no cuentan con el techo apropiado para tener acceso a la misma. Es casi como si la legislación del 2016 penalizara el no ser propietario de un techo propio al cambiar las condiciones en que los residentes son compensados dependiendo del poder adquisitivo de los consumidores. Y por ende, este cambio impacta también desproporcionadamente a las personas de bajos recursos y pertenecientes a grupos minoritarios étnicos y raciales, quienes son los que usualmente viven en arriendo o en viviendas multifamiliares.

El brillo de la solar:en las manos del Senado

Las flores están brotando. Ahora es tiempo de que nuevas leyes también lo hagan. (Crédito: J. Rogers)

Afortunadamente, un número de propuestas lideradas por senadores como Sonia Chang-Diaz  y Jamie Eldridge, así como organizaciones como Boston Community Capital están siendo evaluadas para garantizar que el Senado ayude a corregir los problemas de equidad incluidos en la legislación del 2016. Por ejemplo, las propuestas incluyen que se requiera que al menos un porcentaje mínimo de los incentivos en materia solar sean destinados a hogares de bajos recursos y comunidades urbanas y de justicia ambiental. La idea es garantizar que los beneficios económicos y ambientales de estos incentivos se distribuyan de manera equitativa. También se propone que los sistemas solares compartidos sean compensados por el 100% de la electricidad que producen, y la creación de programas para proveer acceso a la energía solar a comunidades para quienes el inglés no es su lengua nativa.

El Senado de Massachusetts tiene entonces en sus manos la posibilidad de apoyar las propuestas de Ley necesarias para que quienes no poseen un techo (o cuentan con uno pero sin condiciones adecuadas) puedan acceder a los mismos beneficios de acceso a la energía solar de quienes si lo poseen. Ésta es una oportunidad de oro (por su valor para la sociedad, la economía y el medio ambiente) que esperamos no se escurra entre sus dedos.

Massachusetts’s Clean Energy Economy: What the Legislature Needs to Do Now

The Massachusetts legislature is in the final weeks of its two-year legislative session, and there’s finally some movement in both houses on our clean energy future. Here are four things that need to happen to get to the legislative finish line, and why.

But first: some context.

Where the state is coming from

Flowers are blooming on Beacon Hill. Now we need legislation to blossom. (Credit: J. Rogers)

Many of the issues we talked about on this platform a few months ago—what the key issues for next steps on clean energy in Massachusetts were—are still the issues of the day. What’s different now is that we’ve had a project selected by the state and our utilities for sizeable amounts of low-carbon power (Canadian hydro, in this case). And we’ve just selected the first tranche of Massachusetts offshore wind power.

Both of those advances were courtesy of the legislature’s strong action in 2016, when it passed the Energy Diversity Act. What we need now is to fill in the gaps left in that package.

What got left undone

In the lead-up to what became the 2016 law, UCS published an analysis about the risks of natural gas overreliance and the possibility of bringing new and stronger strategies to bear on the problem. That analysis focused on both natural gas risks and carbon pollution, and the prospects for cutting both.

The analysis showed that combining the large-scale renewables procurement, a hefty offshore wind commitment, and a strengthening of the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) could do the trick nicely, and at low cost.

The RPS has been a major driver of renewable energy in and for Massachusetts, and keeping it out ahead of the market—think of it as a carrot in front of the (non-partisan) donkey of energy progress—is what keeps things humming and growing.

Alas, strengthening the RPS was one big piece that wasn’t included in the final version of the Energy Diversity Act. But leaders in both the house and senate pledged to rectify that this session, given that the offshore wind coming will eat up basically all the demand that the growth in the RPS over the next dozen years would otherwise supply. And we need the RPS to drive more than that.

Also needed, but lacking, was a long-term solution to let solar—rooftop, large-scale, or other—keep doing what we need it to do: diversify our electricity mix, increase our energy resilience, and create jobs, jobs, and more jobs.

So, what needs to happen?

1. The house needs to pass strong energy bills

Last month the really important energy committee of the House of Representatives “reported out” a suite of bills that can serve as the basis for strong action by the whole chamber:

  • RPS – Increases our requirement for new renewable energy to 35% new renewable energy by 2030—a nice round(ish) number, though not as strong as what other states have done (50×30; see below), or even our neighbor Connecticut (40×30)
  • Solar – Raises the “net-metering” caps that keep many solar projects from connecting and keep disrupting the growth of our solar economy (though our strong solar economy and interest in investing in solar mean that we’ll hit even those new caps soon)
  • Energy storage – Aims to strengthen our power sector’s resilience with targeted deployments of batteries or other technologies
  • Electric vehicles – Drives EVs with rebates and other policies

There’s also an important bill to take our nation-leading energy efficiency efforts to the next level.

Several of the bills are now in front of the House Ways & Means Committee, so it’s up to that committee to strengthen them and get them to the full house, and quickly. And then it’s up to the full membership to strengthen and pass the lot of them.

2. The senate needs to pass its strong, multi-part bill.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state house… The Massachusetts Senate Ways & Means Committee passed a solid bill last week. The “Act to Promote a Clean Energy Future” (Senate Bill 2545) includes a range of important provisions to drive progress in the electricity sector and more. A taste:

  • RPS – Increases our requirement for new renewable energy to 50% by 2030—on par with requirements in New York, New Jersey, California, and other states
  • Solar – Removes the net-metering caps, and addresses some other barriers that have been thrown up in utility proceedings
  • Climate progress – Lays out a process for setting targets for cutting our carbon pollution by 2030 and 2040, and makes sure the administration has the tools to address carbon emissions from our transportation sector, and in the commercial and industrial sectors
  • Energy storage – Has the state get a lot more serious about driving innovation in energy storage
  • Plus – More offshore wind, more clean energy procurements, more…

The bill deliberations will also present some opportunities for getting it even more right. On solar, for example, a key issue is making the technology more accessible to a broader swath of our society, in particular with programs aimed at low-income households.

All in all, and particularly with strengthening amendments, a solid foundation for clean energy progress. And the full senate will be taking up the bill any day now. (Watch this space for more info.)

3. The two chambers need to agree on a final version.

Unless one chamber passes verbatim the bill(s) that the other one has approved, whatever comes out of these processes will need to go to a conference committee—basically, a small group appointed by each chamber to hammer out something that will satisfy members of both bodies.

That means the house and senate need to get close enough so that they have something that qualifies for conference. What we can’t have happen is ending up with a suite of bills on one hand and a multi-part bill on the other, and no way to connect the two. That should be an important consideration for the leadership of each chamber.

Once the bills get into conference, and the conference committee does its thing, then the membership of each needs to say, “Aye.”

4. The governor needs to sign.

One last step: The governor. Gov. Charlie Baker has contributed a few pieces to the energy-future discussion, so whatever results from the legislative process is likely to reflect some of his priorities, and likely to earn his signature.

And then?

And then… we make it happen. There will be regulatory proceedings to go through—basically, the process of filling in the blanks, putting meat on the bones of the new statutes, so that people know the rules of the game for implementation.

None of this procedural stuff, on the legislative or regulatory fronts, is entirely easy. But it’s not particularly hard, either. And we know that the technologies are there and ready, and that so are the entrepreneurs, the businesses, and the customers.

So what we need from our legislature, and now, is the framework for progress. Not further reflection. Not studies. Action. That’s what leadership is about.

And that’s what we’re looking for over the next few weeks, as citizens and constituents, residents and ratepayers.

We Ranked All 50 States from Farm to Fork. Why We Bothered—and a Taste of Our Takeaways

Photo: Preston Keres, USDA

Recently, some fellow data geeks and I spent (quite a lot of) time ranking all 50 states on the health and sustainability of their food systems, from soil to spoon.

We went through the trouble for a few reasons. First, as you may have heard in bits and pieces, the state of our farms, our food supply, and our dietary health is not good—globally, nationally, regionally, and likely even in your neighborhood. As all these things are interrelated, we wanted to dig into the data to better understand what’s going on. Second, when it comes to food systems, we believe that the United States can do better. And, since innovative solutions are already popping up across the country, highlighting these as models may be key to building a healthy, sustainable, and just world. Finally—call us crazy—but we just love data and (yes) food systems.

What’s the fuss about the food system?

Before explaining what we did, let me refresh your memory about some of the most worrisome food system trends. Globally, you likely know that with population growth, climate change, and 11 percent of the world facing hunger, pressures on food supplies and natural resources are intense. And although there’s growing dialogue around transformative solutions to these intertwined challenges, the United States isn’t exactly leading the way.

In the past year, we as a country fell squarely in the “also ran” category in a Food Sustainability Index; the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that our public agricultural R&D funding has been losing ground; and we withdrew from the Paris Agreement, which addresses the growing threat of climate change (with serious implications for agriculture, and maybe also the nutritional quality of our food).

But you don’t have to look beyond our borders to see signs of trouble. US farms are disappearing, rural communities are struggling, policy debates are putting farmers and eaters under stress, the food system includes some of the worst employers in the country, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone continues to be huge, and so on. Clearly, we need to seek solutions, but where to begin?

The not-so-secret ingredients in our scorecard

With an eye toward opportunities, we set off to capture and crunch the numbers to provide a snapshot of the US food system. To this end, we delved into data dealing with different pieces of the problem, including farming practices, labor conditions, water quality, public health, and more. We explored data sources such as the USDA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Census Bureau.

While we can’t possibly claim to have uncovered everything, we searched until we felt we had a critical mass of information representing food systems from coast to coast. With data for 68 indicators, we looked for patterns and potential (read more about our methods). We aimed to standardize data to compare states with both similarities and differences (natural resources, geographies, histories, cultures, populations, etc.). Finally, we grouped data into categories representing core aspects of the food system, and we synthesized these to get a sense of which states are leading the way.

The report? A mixed bag 

All in all, our analysis revealed both strengths and weakness of US food systems, distributed all across the country. To learn more and see where your state falls in the rankings—with maps, charts, and stories—you should check out our interactive scorecard. Here, I’ll just offer a flavor for our findings:

  • Action abounds: On the plus side, we found that different states rank better on different aspects of food systems, meaning that all states have a role to play in leading the way to a better future. From Alaska (with a smaller ecosystem footprint from its farms) to Wyoming (with farm production supporting relatively healthy diets), and California (boasting stronger farmer-to-eater infrastructure) to Maryland (a role model for conservation agriculture), states from sea to sea show strengths.
  • Bright spots: In more good news, we discovered brilliant bright spots, even in states ranking lower in some aspects of our food system scorecard. For example, the Chillinois Young Farmers Coalition is devoted to improving the outlook of farming in Illinois, and Practical Farmers of Iowa has had a big hand in the recent surge of cover crop adoption—and associated conservation benefits—throughout that state.
  • Costly consequences: While our focus was on opportunities, our analysis also exposed some of the dangerous consequences of our current conditions, from climate change contributions to water quality challenges to health outcomes and inequities. It’s also important to note that we ranked states against one another, not against some hypothetical ideal, so even top-ranking states have lots of room for improvement.
  • Data limitations: In several cases, the ideal data we were seeking wasn’t available, because it either simply didn’t exist, or was difficult to access at the scales we needed. To really get a holistic understanding of the food system—one that measures needs and progress—we need more public, accessible, and transparent data.
Fighting for food systems that fare better

If we want a food system that we can all be proud of—one that is healthy and equitable for farmers, laborers, eaters, and the environment—we have a ways to go. Fortunately, however, our new analysis revealed a lot of bright spots worth building on.

With farm bill season in full force, there’s no better time to protect and build up the programs and investments that help make positive change possible. The draft House farm bill, which failed to pass last month, likely would have had a negative impact on food systems across the country due to its utter failure to invest in healthy food access. However, just last week, Senate leaders released their proposal for a bipartisan farm bill, which defends and even boosts many critical initiatives, such as those that support nutrition, regional economies, beginning farmers, and sustainable agriculture research. While it’s clear there’s a lot of work ahead, investments like these can give us confidence that we’re heading in the right direction—so raise your voice and urge your senators to pass a farm bill that brings us one step closer to a food system, from farm to fork, that we can be proud of.

ExxonMobil Refuses to Give Scientists the Floor: Reflections from a Corporate Shareholders’ Meeting

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

It was with great anticipation that I attended the ExxonMobil Shareholders Meeting last month at the invitation of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). My attendance was facilitated via proxy from Mercy Investment Services. In doing so, I joined a multitude of interested parties—some of whom had traveled great distances—to engage ExxonMobil’s CEO Darren Woods in discussions concerning a wide array of topics including, but certainly not limited to, climate change. Alas, none of us (representatives of the Union of Concerned Scientists or others who had come prepared with questions about climate change or environmental issues) were called upon. We were, in fact, studiously avoided.

Thus, sadly, I must admit that when it was all said and done: I walked away from the experience with my skepticism of the petro-chemical industry giant’s sincerity in addressing climate change in any meaningful way intact. Simply stated, what I heard from Mr. Woods—though masterfully cloaked in symbolic-laden rhetoric—came down to one very clear point: ExxonMobil is committed to business as usual.

Yes, Mr. Woods did indeed address the company’s efforts in advancing lubricants for expanding wind facilities; yes, he addressed efforts to advance cutting-edge technologies in carbon sequestration; yes, he addressed lowering emissions from natural gas production; and finally yes, he also addressed furthering the company’s commitment to developing algae-based biofuels of the future. Historically, total projected investment capital for these projects amounts to roughly $8 billion.

Nevertheless, all of this spending was offset (and not in the good way) with a promise of low-cost/high-return investment in oil and gas mega-projects: (1) Offshore oil reserves of Guyana and Brazil, (2) Liquefied natural gas reserves in Mozambique and Papua New Guinea, and (3) Unconventional shale reserves in the Permian Basin of Texas. Total projected investment capital for these projects is roughly $30 billion.

This “dilemma of rhetorical disconnect” was further exemplified throughout the course of Mr. Woods’ remarks to company shareholders and other interested parties.

In specific terms, Mr. Woods began his remarks by stating, “We’re… committed to be a part of the solution in addressing the risk of climate change and other pressing societal challenges.” He continued, “Society has aspirations for economic growth, reliable and affordable energy and environmental protection. We see our role as helping close the gap between what people want and what can be responsibly done. This is what I believe sustainability is all about and frankly, is what we’re all about.”

Mr. Woods then expressed confidence in projections of steady markets for oil and gas through 2040, and the belief that “… meeting the world’s energy need will require trillions of dollars in new investments, even in a two-degree scenario.” At the close of his remarks, Mr. Woods restated ExxonMobil’s commitment, “…to help close the gap between what society wants and what is economically available, using advantaged investments and promising technology. As society’s need [sic] continue to evolve, we’ll continue to respond.”

All of which leads me to the question I would’ve asked Mr. Woods had I been given the opportunity:

In a recently published article with my colleague, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, we note that should the known fossil fuel-based energy reserves within and around the Arctic Circle be developed, the probability of achieving the Paris Climate Agreement’s stated goal of limiting global temperature at or below 2C will be highly unlikely, if not impossible.

As a scientist, and a citizen, I worry that ExxonMobil’s conclusion, as stated in the company’s recent “Energy & Carbon Summary Report,” that its upstream recoverable reserves poses “little risk” is a false conclusion given the scientific-basis for the heightened risks posed to human society, including our health, our natural resources, and even our national security should those reserves in the Arctic be developed and then utilized as a primary source for generating energy.

In order to resolve this problematic finding, Exxon/Mobil should seriously consider shifting the lion’s share of its capital investment resources away from exceedingly difficult and expensive endeavors like that of developing Arctic-based fossil fuel resources and instead toward— what by all free-market indicators suggest is taking hold across the globe—meeting/addressing the public’s increasing demand for alternative and renewable energy resources.

So, given that scenario as well as Exxon/Mobil’s existing investment portfolio my question then, is this:

(1) Why is Exxon/Mobil so risk averse to shifting away from an upstream fossil fuel-based investment paradigm and toward an upstream alternative/renewable-based investment paradigm?

(1a) Why not redirect those monies into the clean energy of the future to better sustain Exxon/Mobil’s business model as a global energy leader for future generations of stockholders?

(1b) Wouldn’t that resolve the problematic finding in your “Energy & Carbon Summary Report” that the emissions trajectory of Exxon/Mobil’s “Outlook for Energy” will far exceed the Paris Climate Agreement goal of keeping global temperature increase well below 2C?

The questions I raised are based on two fundamentally important components that drive any shift in energy policy. First, policy research finds that three conditions are required for energy policy to shift: (1) energy markets, (2) energy technology, and (3) political willpower. Second, that same research also finds that there is an inverse relationship between the advancement of energy production technology used to develop exceedingly difficult upstream fossil fuel resources and the rapid deterioration in the environmental quality of our collective natural resources.

Any closing of Mr. Woods’ so-called “gap(s),” then, requires that energy markets, technology, and political willpower align themselves in such a manner that the well- below two degrees Celsius (2°C) objective of the Paris Climate Agreement is attainable.

If ExxonMobil is serious about addressing climate change, then I would suggest that Mr. Woods abandon the rhetoric of seeking change and provide greater detail to his vision of a sustainable future. (Note to Mr. Woods: your definition of “… what sustainability is all about” is not even close to being correct). I would also suggest to Mr. Woods, or any other member of ExxonMobil’s Board of Directors, that the only condition left unmet for fully realizing a historic shift in how America powers its economy is that of political willpower.

Or perhaps, what’s missing is dynamic leadership from the private sector, from an industry leader in innovation, that’s willing to take the risk to sustain its business model and the environment for future generations. Clearly, while Mr. Woods suggests that ExxonMobil is articulating some notion of what it views as being responsive to the public’s demand for action on climate change, its actions remain cloaked in rhetorical subterfuge.

Taking risk to address the pressing societal problems of climate change requires bold and dynamic leadership. What are you waiting for, Mr. Woods?

 

Dr. Robert E. Forbis Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Research Associate with the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University (CSC-TTU). He is a former Research Affiliate with the Center for Advanced Energy Studies at the Idaho National Laboratory (CAES-INL). His research interests primarily concern the policy nexus of environmental protection and energy development. He teaches courses on Public Lands and Resource Management, Climate and Sustainability, Energy and Environmental Policy, Environmental Theory, and Environmental Justice. Dr. Forbis is a recipient of the “Professing Excellence” Award (2014) and “Phi Beta Kappa Honored Professor” (2018) from Texas Tech University.

Supreme Court Ignores Science, Enables Voter Purging, But Data May Have Final Say

The Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, has upheld a restrictive Ohio election law that initiates a process to purge eligible voters from its voter list if they fail to vote in a single election. A number of other states and localities have also implemented voter list purging tactics, and it is expected that this decision will result in additional states adopting more restrictive voter list purges.

The central question is whether or not the law, which relies on failure to vote as a trigger to remove voters from the voter registration list, violates the prohibition in the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) that voters can be removed from a list based solely on a failure to vote.

Writing for the majority, Justice Alito interpreted the law’s request to confirm residence as additional criteria, enough that this “supplemental process” complies with basic requirements of the NVRA. In dissent, Justice Breyer held that the law is in violation of the NVRA, which includes a “broad prohibition on removing registrants because of their failure to vote.” He continues:

Ohio’s system adds to its non-voting based identification system a factor that has no tendency to reveal accurately whether the registered voter has changed residences. Nothing plus one is still one.

The factor Breyer refers to is the notification requiring targeted voters to prove their residency. Indeed, voter data analysis revealed that the Ohio system would have disenfranchised over 7,000 eligible voters in 2016. Plaintiffs found that most people throw the verification requests in the trash, such that the method is not a reliable indicator of voter eligibility.

Moreover, I have previously noted that there are far more effective methods for verifying voter eligibility through database matching algorithms, but Alito’s opinion effectively ignored all of the science available on the topic, in addition to ignoring the possibility of implementing voter list maintenance procedures that are less invasive of voting rights.

However, the data may still get its day in court, as suggested in Justice Sotomayor’s individual dissent. Sotomayor criticized the majority for “distorting the statutory text to arrive at a conclusion that…contradicts the essential purposes of the statute, ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against.”

As Richard Hasen notes at Slate, Justice Sotomayor also laid out a path to directly challenge these discriminatory laws under the Voting Rights Act, and through the ballot box, as more conservative states inevitably adopt similar laws.

Justice Sotomayor focused her dissent on the requirement that any removal program “be uniform, nondiscriminatory, and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act” and illustrated the disparate impact of voter purging on minority, disabled, veterans, and low-income voters. Specifically, she described the inequalities in removals between downtown, African-American communities in Cincinnati (10%) and the more affluent, white suburbs of Hamilton County (4%).

Empirical demonstrations of the discriminatory impact of voter purging laws can be used in future litigation to have them thrown out in violation of the Voting Rights Act, even though the impact of such laws was barely considered in the Court’s ruling.

In addition, voters themselves can fight back at the ballot box. By supporting reforms such as Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), which provides greater security over voter lists and improves political participation, voters can ensure that they are protected. Over a dozen states have already adopted AVR, and many more are following. The crucial difference between standard voter registration procedures and AVR is that eligible citizens are automatically registered through interaction with a state agency (typically the department of motor vehicles), and must “opt-out” rather than being required to “opt-in.”

Finally, voters have the opportunity, this November, to support meaningful, effective reforms that protect and strengthen the right to vote. That will require that we help to make sure that people are registered, that they have adequate ballot access, and that they are mobilized. Effective participation in the 2018 elections could very well determine the impact of this divisive, divided decision that the Supreme Court has given us.

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