Catalyst Summer 2015


UCS Hits the Road to Connect with Coastal Communities

Flood in North Carolina

This year, members of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate team packed their bags and traveled over the course of three months to cities and towns along the East and Gulf Coasts to discuss the growing threats of sea level rise and tidal flooding—with some of the people most affected. “We visited communities where tidal flooding is just starting to happen now, and some where it’s starting to happen much more frequently,” says Senior Analyst Erika Spanger-Siegfried. “We especially wanted to go to the most vulnerable communities.”

From New Hampshire to Louisiana, the team met with city planners, chamber of commerce members, Native American leaders, local politicians, members of the Gullah-Geechee Nation (who have lived for generations on the coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina), and students from historically black colleges and universities attending a climate change conference in New Orleans. Everywhere the team traveled, they discussed the local significance of the findings in Encroaching Tides, a 2014 UCS report that highlights the risks 52 East and Gulf Coast communities face from tidal flooding and sea level rise in the coming years.

Half of the communities studied in the report will experience at least 24 tidal floods annually within just 15 years. And some cities, such as Annapolis, Maryland, and Washington, DC, can expect more than 150 tidal floods each year by 2045—or a flood nearly every other day.

Spanger-Siegfried says the UCS team found receptive audiences in each community, eager to plan the steps they should take to deal with rising tides. Even a group in Delaware that was highly skeptical about climate change wound up asking thoughtful questions about adaptation strategies by the end of the UCS presentation.

“We found we really connected with people by meeting them in their own communities,” Spanger-Siegfried says, “and had a real chance to amplify our impact.”

What’s Eating the School Nutrition Association?

School lunch room

UCS has been working to prevent Congress from rolling back its requirements for healthful, nutritious school lunches, and calling for renewal of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010. Our Lessons from the Lunchroom report (February 2015) underscored the benefits of including real fruits and vegetables in school lunches—especially for kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

But an unlikely opponent has emerged: the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a national organization representing the more than 55,000 men and women who prepare and serve food in U.S. schools. The SNA has aligned itself with lobbyists attempting to make HHFKA standards optional.

Though it is ostensibly dedicated to nourishing kids, the SNA has powerful financial backers that have a stake in rolling back progress on healthier school meals. Among the most prominent of its sponsors: processed-food giants Domino’s, General Mills, and PepsiCo. These wealthy corporations want Congress to believe that schools can’t meet the current guidelines, and are seeking exceptions via the SNA.

While some school districts are finding compliance more challenging than others, the evidence (including the findings of Lessons from the Lunchroom) shows that the standards are helping kids eat healthier. UCS is therefore pushing Congress to not let struggling schools opt out but rather to provide better support and resources for them.

Thousands of UCS members and supporters have emailed the SNA, urging it to support healthful school lunches rather than the interests of big processed-food companies, but the organization has yet to respond. Help keep the pressure on the SNA.

UCS Divests from Fossil Fuels

UCS is proud to announce that the organization has essentially divested from fossil fuel companies—our stock holdings are now more than 98 percent fossil fuel–free.

While UCS has never directly invested in such companies, the board of directors learned in 2013 that some index funds and even some of the organization’s so-called sustainability funds included small but not insignificant holdings in fossil fuel companies. With some research and expert assistance, the board’s investment committee worked over the past 18 months to come up with a solution that allowed UCS to divest while continuing to use low-cost index funds that manage risk through diversification.

Our experience demonstrates clearly that even a midsize organization like ours with a conservative investment strategy can divest from fossil fuel companies with no material change in risk or return objectives. Our hope is that sharing our experience will encourage other organizations to do the same.

UCS Confronts Attacks on Science

Ben Franklin on U.S. curency

UCS is sounding the alarm about a multi-pronged legislative effort to undermine the use of science in protecting public health, safety, and the environment. No fewer than five bills now wending their way through Congress would, in various ways, make it harder to pass laws and regulations based on the best scientific evidence available.

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, led the writing of a recent article in the journal Science that issues a call to arms for scientists. “The scientific community needs to push back,” the article contends, adding that “the strength of our democracy” is at stake. Rosenberg’s highly respected coauthors on the article include Neal Lane, former science advisor to President Bill Clinton; Lewis Branscomb, a science advisor to four U.S. administrations; and James McCarthy, UCS board chair and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The bills in question employ a variety of approaches but all guarantee a common outcome: weakening the ability of science to inform federal policies. For instance, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act would take important regulatory decision making out of the hands of the relevant agencies (which currently base their approval on scientific evidence) and instead require joint congressional approval. If either chamber failed to act, an agency would not be able move forward with a new rule until the next legislative session. Given the current polarization in Congress, the resulting gridlock would forestall the enactment of rules intended to protect public health and safety or the environment.

Another bill, the Secret Science Reform Act, would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from issuing regulations unless all the data, models, methods, and other information in the scientific studies used to develop the rule are made publicly available. While intended to sound like an effort to increase transparency, the bill contains a dangerous Catch-22: EPA data often come from studies based on confidential health records, business information, or intellectual property that the agency is legally prohibited from disclosing. The agency would therefore be effectively unable to issue new rules on power plant mercury emissions and a host of other toxic substances.

Three of these five bills have now passed in the House of Representatives and four of them already have sponsors in the Senate, making it more likely for them to find their way to President Obama’s desk.

UCS is fighting hard to stop these harmful bills in their tracks, and we’ll be enlisting the help of our allies in the scientific community as well as our members and supporters. Stay tuned.

Victory on Low-Carbon Fuels

The stage: Oregon. A governor resigns amid scandal, and the low-carbon fuel standard he supported—due to expire this year—hangs in the balance. The Union of Concerned Scientists and its members make a strong case for the standard. Would state legislators and the new governor, Kate Brown, renew it?

Low-carbon fuel standards are designed to reduce the transportation sector’s global warming emissions by limiting fuels’ carbon “intensity” and promoting cleaner alternatives to oil such as biofuels and electricity. Oregon enacted a low-carbon fuel standard in 2009, but it was set to expire without its carbon reduction requirements ever being fully implemented.

Fortunately for Oregon, UCS was able to help persuade state lawmakers and Governor Brown to renew the low-carbon fuel standard this spring, requiring fuel distributors to reduce the carbon intensity of fuels sold in Oregon by 10 percent over the next 10 years. UCS Senior Scientist Jeremy Martin reviewed the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s analysis of the standard and flew to Salem to testify in favor of it at a key public hearing.

Equally impressive was the work of UCS members who flexed their muscles in a truly inspiring fashion. Of the 750 public comments the legislature received in support of the standard, 650 were from UCS supporters in Oregon.

Next up? Pushing for the adoption of a similar standard in Washington State.

CNN Improves Climate Coverage

The April 2014 UCS report Science or Spin? found that 30 percent of the climate change segments airing on the television news network CNN included misleading representations of science. The major culprit was debates about climate change that often included skeptics with a history of receiving funding from the fossil fuel industry. The report’s recommendation? That CNN stop hosting such debates.

Putting our analysis into action, UCS issued an alert that mobilized some 27,000 members and supporters, including more than 1,000 members of the UCS Science Network, to call for change at the network. They urged CNN’s head of standards and practices to improve the network’s climate coverage and stop debating the “reality” of well-established science.

One year later, these efforts have paid off. CNN has now gone a full year with no misleading debates about climate change. Of course, as Science or Spin? coauthor Aaron Huertas notes, there’s more to good climate coverage than simply avoiding misleading debates. Still, thanks to the help of UCS members and supporters, this is a welcome step in the right direction.

California Renewables Lead the Way

  Solar panels

This spring, California Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order that requires the state to achieve an aggressive new global warming emissions target: reducing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. These steep reductions serve as an important model of what’s achievable, for both the nation and the world. It’s also a particularly welcome development because UCS advocated for just such a plan last year, with a letter signed by 164 of the state’s scientists.

Considering that California is the world's eighth-largest economy, its actions have implications far beyond its borders. Virtually all the evidence to date shows that California has profited mightily from its green energy economy: the state now has the largest advanced energy industry in the United States, with some 500,000 workers across 40,000 companies, and California’s clean technology companies have attracted an estimated $27 billion of venture capital into the state since 2006. This experience can be replicated elsewhere, and UCS is actively working to help states around the country follow California’s lead.