UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Fighting for a Diverse and Equitable STEM Workforce in Colorado

Women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory pose for a photo in mission control in honor of Women in Science Day. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the state of Colorado, there are just over two million women, making up 53% of the enrolled undergraduate population and 50% of the workforce. However, women account for only 33% of those graduating with degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and hold only 26% of STEM jobs in the state. Colorado is not unique – this disparity in STEM education and employment is a nation-wide trend. This disparity begins early, with difference in male and female student interest in STEM showing up as early as middle school, by some estimates, and female students being more likely to self-describe themselves as “bad at math” as early as second grade. These differences in encouragement and interest have broad-reaching, profound, and lifelong implications for women’s economic security, career advancement, and workforce readiness compared to their male counterparts.

It is up to each and every one of us to change this reality. My name is Marian Hamilton, and I hold a PhD in Biological Anthropology and am an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNCO). As a participant in the Union of Concerned Scientist’s (UCS) Science Network Mentor Program, I had the pleasure of learning the basics of advocacy and community organizing from some of the nation’s most passionate, creative, and qualified scientists over the past 10 months. Armed with these tools, I am forming a Women in STEM group for interested undergraduate students at UNCO with three major objectives: first, to build a community that encourages, supports, and empowers women, particularly from minority or underrepresented groups, to choose majors and careers in STEM fields; second, to facilitate mentor partnerships at the K-12, college, and professional level; and third, to advocate for policies that will improve STEM education across Colorado and the nation, such as universal pre-K. Today, I want to share with you some of the key lessons I’ll be taking with me into this project:

Lesson 1: It starts early

Girls begin losing interest in STEM – or being told that they are “not good at” STEM fields – tragically early. For example, male high school students are more likely to enroll in engineering and computer science classes than their female classmates, and more likely to enroll in AP computer science classes, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. The gap between white and non-white students in such high school classes is even starker: black and Latinx students were significantly less likely to enroll in advanced science courses than their white classmates.

To change the societal biases that drive such disparities, we must start young, with universal access to pre-K programs that include a STEM component. Ballot measures like Initiative 93 in Colorado, on the ballot in November, would support all-day Kindergarten; withdrawn measures such as Initiative 98 would have provided full day pre-K to Colorado citizens and need to be revisited in upcoming election cycles. This Women in STEM group will support and advocate for such measures to appear on future ballots because fully funding early childhood education helps all students achieve in future STEM classes. Beyond this, such measures also help to close the achievement gap between wealthy and non-wealthy students, such that one’s readiness for the K-12 classroom – and the STEM classes therein – is not dependent on that child’s zip code.

Lesson 2: It takes a village

Changing a system is not something that happens in a vacuum. In fact, research suggests that one of the most effective ways to keep girls in STEM is through mentorship, such as bringing in current college students as mentors to K-12 classrooms. We will implement such a program through the Women in Science group, partnering with public schools across northern Colorado.

As part of the Science Network Mentor Program, we learned about the importance of ‘democratizing’ science, and employing our skill sets as scientists to be tools for the community to employ, rather than trying to engineer solutions from the outside. For us, this means not assuming that this gap in STEM enrollment originates from the same place for all schools, or even all individuals. We need to begin conversations with teachers, with students, and with families about what opportunities they crave, what barriers they face, and what skills and tools would be the most useful. Furthermore, this work is necessarily intersectional; building gender diversity in STEM is only one of the facets by which we must work to diversify our STEM workforce. The Women in STEM group will collaborate closely with other cultural centers across campus, ensuring that we are diverse across all identities.

Lesson 3: We are all in this together

Study after study demonstrates that one of the most effective, efficient, and powerful ways to change perspectives and encourage diversity in STEM is through mentorship. Women in engineering paired with a female mentor, for example, experienced more of a sense of belonging, motivation, and confidence in their work, as well as greater aspiration to remain in the field. Through this Women in STEM club at UNCO, we will work to tie mentors and mentees together through all levels of education, putting college students with high school and middle school students and bringing in professionals in STEM fields to mentor the college students in turn.

Beyond this, we must work to change the entire ecosystem within which women in STEM fields work. For example, we will strongly advocate for family-friendly policies at the state and local level, including paid family leave. At the local level, we will lobby for the maintenance and expansion of university policies such as sabbaticals which facilitate continued engagement with STEM research, particularly for women and minority faculty who historically take on disproportionate service and teaching loads during typical semesters. Through this three-pronged approach of building community, facilitating mentorship, and advocating for education- and research-friendly policies at all levels of government, it is my truest hope and expectation that we can make the STEM workforce in Colorado a reflection of the powerful diversity of people that call this state home.


Marian Hamilton holds a PhD in Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of New Mexico. She is a former middle school science teacher and currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado, where she researches human evolution and paleoenvironments. Dr. Hamilton is wild about women in STEM, educational equity, wildlife and habitat conservation, and her dog, Gedi. 

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.

November Elections and the Art of Voter Suppression

Source: Michael Latner/UCS

Voting rights violations are emerging across several states with less than a month before the conclusion of midterm elections in the United States. As a result of discriminatory election laws and procedures, representation and policy making power could be distorted in favor of powerful, entrenched interests, against the will of a majority of the electorate. The threat of such democratic dysfunction illustrates the need for meaningful electoral reform and the protection of voting rights for all citizens.

Early voting is underway in seventeen states, including at least two states where voting rights have already become a flashpoint in pivotal elections.

In North Dakota, Senator Heidi Heitkamp and challenger Kevin Cramer is in a race that Cook Political Report rates as a “toss up.” The election could determine control over the US Senate—but the Supreme Court of the United States just refused to block the state’s discriminatory practice of requiring voter identification from a residential street address.

Because the US Postal Service does not provide delivery to rural reservations in North Dakota, most Native American tribal members use P.O. Boxes, which is listed on their identification. The state’s voter identification law specifically requires a street address for valid identification. Earlier this year a district found that nearly 5,000 members of North Dakota tribes lack valid identification, and many of them also lack supplementary documentation that allow them to cast a provisional ballot. Senator Heitkamp won her last election by fewer than 3,000 votes.

In an even more egregious smear on democracy, Georgia gubernatorial candidate and current Secretary of State Brian Kemp has frozen over 50,000 registration applications, most of them from African-American voters, according to an AP analysis. Kemp claims “voter roll maintenance” is necessary to preserve the integrity of elections and ensure that only legal citizens are voting. However, previous scientific and legal challenges have shown that voter impersonation is nearly non-existent.

Moreover, Kemp’s “exact match” tactic used to remove unvalidated voters from the state registration file was already prohibited as a violation of voting equality in a previous lawsuit, but the law was reinstated by the state legislature to allow for a “curing” of unmatched voters records within, wait for it, 26 months. Kemp has chosen to keep using this method despite scientific studies that show there are far superior methods for record matching.

Even though he knows about the disproportionate, discriminatory impact these laws have on African-American voters in Georgia, Kemp maintains that he is a defender of electoral integrity. His opponent Stacy Abrams, who would become the first African-American woman elected governor in the United States if she won, has a different title for Kemp: a “remarkable architect of voter suppression.”

Earlier this year, a Brennan Center analysis estimated that the purging of registered voters from state files has increased by approximately four million people since 2008. Much of the increase is attributed to states that were previously covered under the 1965 Voting Rights Act preclearance provisions.

The Mississippi governor’s race in 2019 may similarly turn on Jim Crow era electoral restrictions. Popular Attorney General Jim Hood has an opportunity to be the state’s first Democratic governor in nearly two decades. However, the state constitution requires that the governor win not just a majority of the popular vote, but a majority of state House seats, which are heavily gerrymandered in favor of the incumbent party.

These and other restrictive election laws are distorting the representation of voters across the country, weakening the ability of already under-represented groups to protect their own health and safety. This is just one of many reasons why it is so important that citizens exercise their voting rights and mobilize communities to elect candidates that will advance effective electoral reforms before 2020.

Be sure to check your voter registration status at https://866ourvote.org/

If you or anyone you know believe that their voting rights are being denied, you can call the following numbers for legal assistance:

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Election Protection Hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE

American Civil Liberties Union Voter Protection Hotline: 877-523-2792

Bringing Energy Storage to Energy Markets

Excitement over storing electricity, and expectations for new market rules in the US, promise great changes in energy. Instead of hype and speculation, this blog offers a preview of those market changes. For those who are waiting for FERC Order 841 to sort things out, ISO-New England has published something you might want to see.

Anticipation has been building since mid-February, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Order 841 required the organized electricity markets in the US (i.e. RTOs and ISOs) to make changes to facilitate the use of energy storage. At the time, New England hinted that work was already begun to sort out the changes that would make the market software and rules consistent for charging and discharging large-scale batteries. Now, two months ahead of the deadline set of the market operators to file, ISO-NE has revealed what this is all about.

Energy storage is only kind of new

Dedication of a new battery plant to increase use of renewable energy. Credit: M. Jacobs

Energy storage is new—and it’s not new. Colonial-era scientist and political leader Benjamin Franklin ran experiments with the storage devices of his time, and was the first person to use the terms charging and discharging while describing the transfer of electricity. Utilities built pumped water storage facilities, what we call pumped hydro plants, in the 1890’s in Europe and the 1930’s in the United States.

There was a boom in 1970’s for these kind of plants to help manage the inflexible additions of nuclear power. This experience provides a starting place for grid operators making changes for new storage technology.

New England has significant pumped hydro, as well as activity on new storage technology. New proposals made in last couple of years to build battery storage projects in New England now total over 800 MWs, and there are approximately 170 MWs of battery storage proposals co-located with wind and solar projects.

Beginning in 2016, ISO-New England began working on the changes that would enable batteries and other similar technologies to participate more fully in the wholesale markets. Many people anticipate these changes will unleash a new technology because of the constraints contained in the present market software and rules. There certainly is evidence that battery storage can replace conventional power plants, and that the obstacles addressed by these regulatory and software changes will bring us closer to the routine adoption of storage plants instead of new fuel-burning capacity.

Details, details

Part of this change reveals how grid operators have multiple layers for understanding an energy source. As ISO-NE makes clear, storage plants aren’t single-purpose; they have a range of functions that need to be understood and modeled for. For example, pumped storage hydro may register and be modeled as a Generator Asset and, if it also has the capability to consume, a Load Asset. But not just any load asset: a “Dispatchable Asset Related Demand,” or DARD.

In fact, the market rules that get written out and filed at FERC will have new definitions, including: Electric Storage Facility, Binary Storage Facility, Continuous Storage Facility, Continuous Storage Generator Asset, Continuous Storage DARD, and Continuous Storage ATRR.  The market rules in New England already have 35 pages of definitions.

The existing  market software makes decisions for pumped hydro more slowly than desirable for batteries. The large pumped hydro equipment can stop and reverse direction in minutes, so the decision to switch from a load to a generator is not made in the same run of the software: they are made in sequential runs. Batteries with their power electronics can change direction much more quickly (i.e. milliseconds, which offers additional benefits if used for contingencies). (Let’s not even get into how the transmission system folks model the physical battery.)

Headed in the right direction

The goal with the rule changes for ISO-NE and its governing body NEPOOL was to provide a means for batteries (and other storage technologies capable of continuously and rapidly transitioning between charging and discharging) to participate simultaneously in the energy, reserves, and regulation markets. The design goals included the following:

  • Storage facilities should be dispatched to generate and consume based on economics;
  • Storage facilities should not be dispatched to generate when empty, nor dispatched to charge when full;
  • Storage facilities should be able to set real-time Locational Marginal Prices when generating or consuming;
  • Storage facilities should be able to provide regulation while maintaining their state of charge, allowing simultaneous regulation market and energy market participation;
  • Storage facilities should be designated for reserves (even when regulating);
  • Storage facilities should be able to save energy for a future interval;
  • Storage facilities should receive compensation if dispatched out-of-place from its economics; and
  • The ISO control room should be able to direct storage facilities to increase storage, or save available energy, for a future hour.

I could give you more detail on how all this is done, but remember you are reading a blog. If you are excited to get a look at how Order 841 reforms are going to work, take a look at the ISO-NE filing. You might be able to see if there are truly gold bars buried in these changes. Certainly, you should see the start of the future grid, and how storage is going to be a lot more important than it has been.

Why Andrew Wheeler’s Social Media Actions Matter

Photo: Alamy

Andrew Wheeler took over as acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency when former administrator Scott Pruitt resigned amid a flurry of ethics scandals. It is no less of a scandal that Mr. Wheeler has been engaging with racist content and conspiracy theorists on social media. Whether he remembers it, or claims it was a mistake or not, Mr. Wheeler’s actions disrespect people of color and demonstrate an affinity for theories that have no scientific backing.

Like all Americans, Mr. Wheeler is free to express his personal political views. But when a public official espouses views or, through his actions, legitimizes fringe voices who propagate dangerous race or conspiracy rhetoric—he has crossed a line that should give Americans across the political spectrum pause.

Mr. Wheeler’s position is to protect public health and safety from the impacts of pollution. And those people most impacted by that pollution, most in need of a high-level effective and committed voice in government, are the poor and communities of color. There is overwhelming evidence that these communities suffer more from pollution and have long been denied public health and safety protections.

The Environmental Protection Agency—and indeed all our government agencies—are mandated to use empirical evidence to advance the public interest.  Yes, they do so imperfectly. But, conspiracy theorists and racial baiting are the antithesis of any rational, fact-based approach.

As we saw with Pruitt, ideologies, values, and biases of public officials shine through in their governance. When biases flow unchecked from federal agency leaders, it reflects in their agency’s policies and actions and has lasting consequences. Racial bias is no exception.

This cannot be the norm. This administration has a long way to go to show the country that they care about all of us, not just their friends in industry, or in wealthy white communities. Mr. Wheeler has made that road even longer. Yes, he should apologize. But more importantly, he must show us all by his actions that he knows his job is to enact policies that actively protect those most impacted by pollution across the nation. Show us now.

Scientists Cut Out of EPA’s Particulate Pollution Standard Setting

Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

In the latest of several moves targeting EPA air pollution protections, the Trump administration appears to have cut scientists out of a process for reviewing particulate pollution standards.  The move breaks with a longstanding process for how the agency gets independent scientific review into its decisionmaking on air pollution protections. Without such expertise involved, EPA won’t have the best available scientific input to keep people safe from air pollution, as the law requires.

What the heck is PM2.5?

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is responsible for thousands of deaths in the US annually. The Trump administration is undermining the science-based air pollution controls that have reduced particulate pollution for decades.

Particulate pollution or particulate matter (PM) is a kind of air pollution comprised of tiny solid particles (as opposed to gaseous air pollutants like ozone and carbon monoxide).  These particles—especially ones smaller than 2.5 micrometers—are especially harmful because they can reach deep into human lungs, causing pulmonary and respiratory issues.  In fact, particulate pollution kills more people in the US than any other form of air pollution, with tens of thousands of premature deaths per year attributed.

The good news is that PM pollution has gone down over the past few decades.  Most of the country now meets the current annual PM standard. Cities and industrial sources have invested significantly in technology and other strategies to keep their particulate emissions down.

NAAQS: A Science-based Process

Our nation has had success in reducing PM because of our strong science-based standards. Under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), every five years the EPA must revisit the science of particulate matter pollution and health. After a thorough review of all science available and extensive input from PM experts, the EPA administrator will set a standard based on what level of pollution protects public health with an adequate margin of safety.  This process has worked remarkably well, at least until now.

The EPA relies on the air pollution and health expertise of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and pollutant review panels. CASAC (as I’ve written about before) provides the EPA with a recommendation for the standard based on its understanding of the science.  Both the EPA and CASAC rely on help from pollutant review panels to ensure they are using and interpreting correctly the best available science.

These review panels are comprised of experts on the pollutant under review specifically, allowing the agency to benefit from subject matter expertise. For example, CASAC will include folks with air pollution modeling or monitoring expertise and epidemiologists, but the PM review panel might include experts on the toxicology of particulates or an expert on particulate measurement error. This is especially important because CASAC is small (seven people). No matter how expert, it would not be possible for this group to have working expertise of all elements of the relationship between a pollutant and health AND have that knowledge for all six criteria pollutants under CASAC’s purview. As a result, EPA decisions on pollution standards can benefit from scientific expertise on all facets of the science on particulates and health.

Think of it this way: You could create a team of seven doctors from different disciplines to oversee your general health but if you developed a brain tumor you’d probably want the advice of a specialist who had experience in brain surgery.  Likewise, EPA needs the help of specialists to fully assess the state of the science on individual pollutants.

Nixing the PM (and Ozone) Review Panels?

Yesterday, the EPA issued a statement noting that CASAC would be leading the review of the science for PM and ozone standard updates, with no mention of the PM and ozone review panels that have always been convened to inform the scientific assessments.  This is a break with how the agency has always done things.  By nixing these panels, the EPA would be cutting off the vital expertise it needs to get the science right on the health effects of air pollutants.

The administration might claim to be making this move in the name of streamlining but there are much bigger consequences to eliminating science from the process.  Sure, it will be a faster process to update the PM standard without a review panel, but we’ll also have a less science-based process. Review panels effectively serve as a public peer-review of the EPA’s integrated science assessments, which detail the state of the science on pollutants.  Without a PM review panel, there is far less expert input informing the PM standard.

But perhaps this is precisely the point. The administration has made clear that they are interested in fast-tracking the PM and ozone reviews in order to set new standards before the end of the administration.  This is an aggressive timeline, considering that the EPA is only required to update the standards every five years, and usually needs more time to conduct the careful, science-based process of characterizing the state of the science on a pollutant’s health effects and working with scientific experts to issue a standard that is protective of public health. If you can eliminate this careful scientific assessment, you can speed up the process, but at the expense of public health.

An EPA hostile to clean air

The announcement is especially concerning in light of the other changes that the Trump administration is making to air pollution policy and science advice at the EPA.

  • Ongoingly the administration has been gutting science advisory committees at the EPA, replacing independent scientists with conflicted and unqualified individuals. Yesterday’s announcement continued this pattern, by removing four independent experts on CASAC and replacing mostly with individuals that work for state agencies. Only one academic scientist remains on CASAC, a committee historically dominated by academic scientists with extensive publication records on air pollution and health research.  The administration is treating advisory committee positions like political appointments. In reality, the science advisory committee are intended to capture the breadth of scientific understanding—not to have specific policy views, and not to get stakeholder input.
  • Last April a Presidential Memorandum outlined other changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards process, including restricting the kinds of science that EPA can use to inform the standards for PM and other pollutants. Implementation of these changes will limit the science EPA looks at in determining the relationship between air pollutants and health, i.e. the science that determines the health-based air pollution standards.
  • PM has also been the primary target of the EPA’s proposed rule to restrict the science that EPA can use in decisionmaking broadly. Chronic exposure to particulates is linked to premature deaths. As a result, reducing PM pollution has a huge bang per buck, saving many lives with every improvement in air quality. This fact is inconvenient for industries that want to continue to emit particulate pollution, making PM science a long-time target by ideological and financial interests that don’t want the tighter PM standards that save lives. The proposed rule to restrict EPA’s use of science is the latest assault to undermine the use of the science on PM’s health impacts.
Less Science, More Soot

These changes to the air pollution standard setting process will make it easier for the administration to weaken air quality standards for particulate matter and ozone.  With less science and fewer scientists to inform decisionmakers, challenge assumptions, and verify scientific assertions, we are on a path toward political decisions cloaked in science.  The administration might be able speed up the process by removing the crucial steps where the science is assessed, and experts weigh in, but this will come at the expense of our health.  Can the EPA protect public health if it doesn’t take the time to determine what level of pollution is unsafe?

If the PM standard is weakened, public health will undoubtedly suffer. Pollution sources would be able ease controls on their pollution and potentially build new polluting facilities in more places. And the health burdens won’t fall equally. Low-income communities and communities of color that are already disproportionately burdened by air pollution from industrial and traffic sources are likely to be harder hit.  Vulnerable populations like the children, the elderly and those with lung diseases are more likely to face health effects of increased soot in the air.  In near literal terms, by removing the science, we remove the air from our lungs.

Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

Sidelining Science Hurts Children

Photo: CMRF Crumlin/Flickr

That week, her mother chose groceries over her daughter’s asthma inhaler. Food for your children over medicine for your children; for a parent, there is not a more tortuous game of Russian Roulette than this. That week, this mother lost that gamble. Her daughter had an asthma attack. There was no inhaler. She died gasping for air in their living room.

These are the words of Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus as he describes the disproportionate impact climate change has on black communities, particularly children. In this case it was a 14-year-old girl who lived in Southeast Washington, DC. The reverend explains here that 1 in 6 African-American children in the US have asthma, and 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a power plant.

The Reverend Yearwood’s story is one that I cannot shake ever since I heard it in-person when he spoke to the Union of Concerned Scientists nearly one year ago. It is a powerful story that illustrates that when science-based issues are poorly addressed, the results can be deadly, particularly for children and our country’s most disenfranchised people.

Yet, the Trump administration has made it easier for these power plants to release toxic air pollutants known to cause asthma and other disease. This administration  is literally deleting scientific evidence that climate change disproportionately affects the health of children. And then last week, they abruptly placed the director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, which has the authority to weigh in on decisions around power plant emissions and many other public health threats, on leave. These decisions paint a worrisome picture for the future of the safety of children as UCS Executive Director Kathleen Rest detailed here.

When science is sidelined, there is often an underlying story of the people who are hurt by these decisions and it is often children.

Impairing children’s brain development

When the EPA reversed course and decided not to ban the harmful insecticide chlorpyrifos, many families worried about their children and their health. Fidelia Morales notices chemicals float onto her children’s jungle gym in their very own backyard in California. Her children have had learning issues, and have suffered from bronchitis, asthma and other chronic illnesses. Morales fears the pesticides are the reason for these illnesses. There is a good chance that she is correct given that the swath of research showing chlorpyrifos affects the brain development, IQ, and health of developing and young children.

Children are losing parents

In 2017, President Trump rolled back President Obama’s Executive Order 13690 that would have increased protection from future extreme floods. Such floods are expected to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change, science that Obama’s Executive Order embraced, but that President Trump refuses to acknowledge. Ten days after Trump’s rescission of this executive order, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas with historic rainfall causing unprecedented flooding. The floods left an estimated 30,000 people in need of shelter.

One mother made the ultimate sacrifice saving her child during the floods of Harvey. A woman and her 3-year old child were swept out of a parking lot by the flood waters of hurricane Harvey. Two police officers spotted a child clinging to their mother in a canal. When the police arrived at the scene, the mother was unresponsive and pronounced dead shortly after arriving at an ambulance, whereas the child suffered from hypothermia but was cared for and released to family members in stable condition. What if we recognized the threats of climate change and prepared for them? Maybe this child could grow up knowing their mother.

Children lose when vaccines are lost

President Trump has on many occasions misrepresented overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe. In 2015, when asked about getting the flu vaccine during an interview, Trump said, “I’ve never had one… Thus far I’ve never had the flu. I don’t like the idea of injecting bad stuff into [my] body, which is basically what they do.” Such statements have bolstered the movement of people who refuse to vaccinate their kids, causing real harm to their and other children.

Flu season is upon us. Last winter, the flu took 172 children with it – the largest death toll in nearly a decade. One of those children was 6-year old Eden Murray, whose family thought that maybe she was just tired from school when she stayed in bed all day. Most families don’t think they are going to lose their child to the flu – this also was the case for the family of 6-year old Emily Muth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that most children that die from the flu (around 85%) are not vaccinated.

President Trump is wrong to lambast vaccines for children. Make sure your children and you are safe this season, go get your flu vaccine.

How many more children must suffer?

The Trump administration’s chlorpyrifos decision was reversed by courts this year – one strategy that has worked in favor of public health. These successes are great, but there are still major issues to be addressed. Extreme flooding is continuing this year. The floodwaters of hurricane Florence have been attributed to 35 deaths thus far. The Trump administration also is attacking air pollution standards on many fronts, even though there are a number of studies that provide evidence that increased air pollution is linked to decline in human health and life expectancy.

How many more teenage girls have to gasp for air? How many more children must grow up without knowing a parent? How many more mothers must worry about their children playing outside?

I never thought that I would be writing a blog to advocate for children’s health – it is seriously mind-boggling for me. And while this all may seem alarmist, these stories are real. Let’s acknowledge these stories, the lives, and faces of those affected by the sidelining of science – we must learn from them to protect children now and in the future.

Photo: CMRF Crumlin/Flickr

With The Farm Bill Expired, Will Science Stall?

Photo: IIP Photo Archive/Flickr

We’re well into October, and there’s still no farm bill in sight. My colleagues have written about some of the 39 programs that are left unfunded—including programs that improve nutrition for low-income consumers and help local food systems thrive. All the stranded programs together account for only $2.8 billion of the nearly $1 trillion farm bill. But they provide significant value, and none less than the research and education programs now in budgetary limbo.

In this post, I’ll focus on the three such programs: Organic Agriculture Research and Extension, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Depending on how long Congress leaves these programs hanging before passing a new farm bill, important agricultural research and extension, and the field of agroecology, could suffer.

Three essential programs, three reasons to protect them

The farm bill is the foundation for dozens of critical research, extension and education programs, many of which I’ve written about before.  I’m focusing on just three in this post, however, because these are the only ones in the bill’s Research Title that do not have a “budget baseline”, causing trouble when the farm bill expires. Without action, these programs won’t be able to fund new projects, leaving a substantial gap.  Let’s take a closer look at why it would be a mistake to put any of these three critical programs at risk, one program at a time.

1. Beginning farmers and ranchers need a steady stream of support.

By now you’ve probably heard that the average age of the US farmer is 58, and has been on the rise. Meanwhile, the number of farmers has been in decline, dwindling to fewer than 2.1 million in 2017. And, at a time when we need beginning farmers, challenges such as low prices, trade wars, and climate change are standing in the way.

The USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) is one of the programs left stranded by the sidetracked farm bill process. Among other things, this crucial program supports beginning farmers (including veterans, as shown here) with much-needed technical assistance.

Fortunately, initiatives have cropped up to support beginning farmers and ranchers, among the most important of which is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).  This competitive grant program received $100 million in the now-lapsed 2014 farm bill and, over 9 years, has funded 291 collaborative education, extension, outreach, and technical assistance projects across nearly all states.  BFRDP also sets aside grants each year to support socially and financially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, as well as military veterans, who are going into agriculture, ensuring that 5 percent of total program resources reach each of these groups.  Delaying funding for BFRDP, which was specifically developed to ease barriers for new farmers, could unnecessarily create a new set of hurdles instead.

2. Organic research and extension are already dwarfed by swelling demand

Research specific to organic farming systems is sorely needed to enable farmers and the industry to respond to the demand for organic products, which continues to grow.  Furthermore, such research has proven helpful for agroecology and sustainable agriculture more broadly.  These research areas have received relatively limited investment, thus organic research programs can be instrumental in filling key gaps.

In this vein, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension program, which received $100 million in the 2014 farm bill, has played an important role in US public agricultural research funding over the past decade. For example, over nearly a decade, the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) has supported 111 research, education, and extension grants for highly competitive research distributed among 37 states. But, if the program’s hands are tied while a farm bill battle drags on, this high-demand, urgent research will remain on ice.

3. Why wait to stretch dollars and spur innovation?

Limited agricultural research support is particularly pronounced in some areas, such as for beginning farmers and for organic systems, but it is also generally the case that US public agricultural research funding has been in decline. With funding in short supply, making each dollar go further is of the utmost importance.

It was in this context that the 2014 farm bill established the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), with a budget of $200 million and a mission to match those funds with equal or greater non-federal funds. Through this public-private partnership model, FFAR has been leveraging these research dollars to fund innovation in cutting edge areas, including healthy soils, sustainability, urban food systems, and more. In the case of these partnerships, a delay in additional public funding threatens to leave not just public dollars on the table, but private dollars as well.  Why risk it?

Delaying public research in some of our nation’s most important agricultural research programs would be a very unfortunate side-effect of the sidetracked farm bill process. But this outcome is fully preventable.

The whole issue could be avoided by passing a new farm bill as soon as possible, ideally one that prevents these important programs from being stranded in the future (side note: the Senate bill makes funding for BFRDP and OREI permanent, resolving this problem for the long run, while renewing support and securing an additional $200 million in funding for FFAR).  But in the meantime, an extension of these high value programs could also do the trick.

Regardless of the path that’s taken, keeping these programs funded in the short-term should be a priority. Tell Congress that farmers and ranchers are counting on them.

Photo: IIP Photo Archive/Flickr Photo: USDA/Flickr

Three Reasons Bernard McNamee is a Horrible Choice for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

President Trump’s nomination of Bernard McNamee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) may not grab a lot of headlines but make no mistake – it’s a blatant (and oft repeated) move by the Trump administration to pollute an independent regulatory body with political operatives intent on carrying out his crony capitalism. A hearing to consider McNamee’s nomination is already set for Tuesday, October 16th – a clear sign that Trump’s political allies are trying to ram through his appointment without thoughtful consideration. But here’s three reasons McNamee is a horrible choice to be a FERC commissioner and why his potential confirmation should worry all of us.

But first, what is “FERC”?

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – or “FERC” – is an independent federal regulatory body that is organized as part of the Department of Energy and that oversees much of our modern energy infrastructure. From pipelines, to hydroelectric dams, to our interstate transmission system and wholesale electricity markets, FERC is tasked with ensuring “reliable, efficient and sustainable energy services at a reasonable cost”. To put it simply: FERC’s decisions impact our wallets, our environment, and our climate.

Now that we understand why it’s important who our next FERC commissioner is, here are three reasons why Bernard McNamee is the wrong man for the job:

1. McNamee has serious conflicts of interest.

Bernard McNamee has been a key player in the Trump Administration’s unsuccessful attempts to bailout the coal industry. Now McNamee’s been nominated to join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission despite a lack of qualifications and clear conflicts of interest.

President Trump and the Department of Energy led by Rick Perry have been trying to bailout their buddies in the coal industry since they got to D.C. In his positions with the DOE, McNamee helped craft a previous proposal to provide subsidies to uneconomic coal plants. That proposal was unanimously rejected by FERC in January. We also know that DOE is still working to find the legal authority to order subsidies – with cost estimates of $34 billion or more – be paid to these same plants.

McNamee almost certainly had a role in crafting this latest proposal that is opposed by nearly everyone except the coal industry. To date he has not divulged exactly what role he’s played, who he’s worked with, or what communications he’s had with FERC about the upcoming proposal. Working to craft a bailout proposal for the coal industry would create a serious conflict of interest if he were to then be appointed to FERC that would ultimately vote on the proposal.

Imagine if you were accused of a crime and, once the prosecutor had made his closing arguments, he was appointed to be the judge in your case. That is akin to what we’re now facing with McNamee’s potential appointment to FERC. Free and fair electricity markets, low-cost electricity, and our clean energy future are at stake.

 2. He’s horribly unqualified.

Bernard McNamee has no experience in the utility or natural gas utility industries and has no experience as a regulator of these industries. He was appointed to the Department of Energy (DOE) by President Trump, and before that worked for a conservative think tank in Texas and was an advisor to Senator Ted Cruz and the Texas Attorney General.

3. He would destroy FERC’s standing as an independent regulatory body.

FERC was specifically designed to be independent from political interference. BY nominating Bernard McNamee to join FERC, the Trump Administration is trying to pollute that longstanding independence.

FERC has a long history of steering clear of the political fray, particularly in its responsibility to protect free and fair energy markets. In fact, FERC is specifically designed to be independent from political influence so that it can remain objective. To protect against undue influence at the Commission, no more than three of the five commissioners can be from the same political party, FERC is not funded by taxpayer dollars (and therefore not subject to appropriations battles), and FERC decisions are not reviewed in advance by the President or Congress.

This independence has already been thrown into question by FERC’s chief of staff, Anthony Pugliese – another unqualified political operative inserted at FERC by President Trump. The appointment of McNamee to be a FERC commissioner would double down on Trump’s efforts to make FERC a pawn to his political agenda. Everyone should be concerned about the erosion of independent decision making and the precedent that would set.

Before any hearing is scheduled on his nomination, a full accounting of his activities since joining the DOE, including his communications with the coal industry and his role in the ongoing effort to bailout uneconomic coal plants, should be made public. Then it’s up to the Senate to ask serious questions about how he plans to fulfill his duties at FERC given his lack of qualification and his apparent conflicts of interest. If we can’t get acceptable answers to these questions, then it’s painfully clear that McNamee has no place at FERC.

Photo: Ryan McKnight Photo: Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

Five policies to move the region forward

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

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

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

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

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

1. Accelerate vehicle emission standards

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

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

2. Make electric vehicles work for everybody

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

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

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

3. Enact a clean fuel standard

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

4. Create a clean transportation investment fund.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last chance for coral reefs

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

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

Many ecosystems are at greater climate risk than we realized

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

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

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

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

What a difference half a degree makes!

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

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

Tipping points revealed

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

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

Credit: USFWS

Hurricane Michael Threatens Gulf Coast Homes and Military Bases

Photo: NASA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no rest for the weary.

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

The IPCC Gets Real about the 1.5°C Target

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

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

Why this report, now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fierce urgency of now

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

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

We are far from that goal today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is time to step it up.

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

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

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

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

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

The White Earth Food Recovery Project

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

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

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

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

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

What Must “Science” Now Do?

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

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

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

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

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

View of Denali. Credit: NPS Photo / Ken Conger

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

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

Why is the carbon budget so important?

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

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

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

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

IPCC AR5 WG1 Technical Summary TFE.8-1

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

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

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

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

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

IPCC AR5 WG1 Technical Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Some context

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

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

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

The Talanoa Dialogue

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

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

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

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


The UN Secretary-General’s Climate Leaders Summit

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

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

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

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

The 2020 moment

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

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

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

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

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

Heat Extremes at 1.5°C and 2°C Warming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: IPCC SR5 2014 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Carolina National Guard

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

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

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

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

#1 The origins and purpose of the report.

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

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

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

#3 Will there be surprises in the report?

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

#4 Is 1.5°C feasible?

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

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

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

#6 Sustainable development and climate action are inextricably linked.

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

damage from Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban City, Philippines.

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

#7 How does the report inform policy?

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

Policy implications of the IPCC 1.5C report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our choices (still) matter

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

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

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

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

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

State Department photo

The Most Energy-Efficient States: 2018 Rankings

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

When autumn leaves begin to fall

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

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

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

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

Head of the pack

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

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

Source: ACEEE 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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


Western states (Source: ACEEE 2018)

Midwest states (Source: ACEEE 2018)

Southwest states (Source: ACEEE 2018)

Southern states (Source: ACEEE 2018)

Don’t stop now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children are not little adults

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

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

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

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

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

OHCP: Not just another cog in a bureaucratic machine

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking out and what worries me most

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t let this happen

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

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

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

Photo: Runar Pedersen Holkestad/Flickr