Catalyst Winter 2016

UCS Fights for the Rights of Government Scientists

Texas Representative Lamar Smith's demand for the email correspondence of climate scientists has met with resistance from NOAA Director Dr. Kathryn Sullivan—and sparked a strong response from the scientific community, including UCS.
Photos: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani (left); NASA/Bill Ingalls (right)

Since October, when House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith subpoenaed seven years’ worth of internal communications from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate researchers, the Union of Concerned Scientists has been pushing back against this attack on independent science.

At issue is a peer-reviewed climate paper NOAA researchers published in the journal Science last June. The paper concluded that global temperatures have continued to rise unabated since 1998. This study, along with several others, refuted claims by climate science contrarians, including Smith, that the rate of global warming had slowed over the past two decades.

After the paper was published, Smith questioned NOAA about its conclusions. The agency pointed out that the study’s data and methodology were already publicly available, and provided several briefings for Science Committee staff. Unsatisfied, Smith issued his subpoena and alleged, without evidence, that agency scientists “altered data to get politically correct results.”

UCS quickly jumped into action, raising the alarm about the chilling effect on scientific research Smith’s investigation was creating. “We want to protect the creative process of scientific discovery and analysis,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “Turning over correspondence between scientists, lab notes, and peer review comments turns a scientific process into a legal proceeding.”

NOAA, seeking to protect its researchers’ ability to have candid conversations about scientific work in progress, declined to release the scientists’ emails and other internal documents. Smith escalated the situation by threatening NOAA and the Commerce Department with contempt-of-Congress proceedings.

Seven major U.S. science organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society, responded by sending a letter to Smith upbraiding him for harassing NOAA scientists. With the broader scientific community now speaking out, Smith softened his request to focus on “all documents and communications by NOAA officials, with the exception of scientists acting in their official capacity.”

UCS has not only aggressively criticized the subpoena in the media and on our blog, The Equation, but also helped organize two scientist letters supporting NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan for “standing up for scientific integrity.” One was signed by nearly 600 members of the UCS Science Network; the other was signed by two dozen former NOAA scientists including Rosenberg.

Is Your State Betting Too Much on Natural Gas?

Two-thirds of U.S. states may be putting utility consumers at financial risk by relying too heavily on natural gas to generate electricity, according to a recent UCS analysis. Some utilities are shutting down aging nuclear plants that are no longer cost-competitive with cheap natural gas. In addition, as states prepare to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan, they are phasing out many coal-fired power plants. But instead of replacing these facilities with clean, renewable solar and wind power, many states are opting to build new natural gas capacity instead. The well-known price volatility of natural gas, along with the global warming emissions it creates, put these states’ electricity customers at greater risk.

The UCS study, presented in a graphical, online format (along with a supporting technical document), rates U.S. states on their risk of overreliance on natural gas by a series of different measures. Among the findings: in 2017, natural gas is projected to account for 72 percent of all power plant capacity in Louisiana and 61 percent in Florida.

Targeting roughly 250 key state and federal policy makers, experts, and advocates, the analysis encourages states to prioritize renewable energy and energy efficiency rather than relying on a wholesale shift to natural gas in order to achieve Clean Power Plan compliance. After the study was released, UCS supporters generated nearly 10,000 emails to governors around the country urging them to avoid an overreliance on natural gas.

How does your state stack up? Find out and take action.

Alaska Gathering Addresses Arctic Climate Impacts

President Barack Obama addresses attendees at the GLACIER Arctic climate conference in late August.
Photo: The White House

To support the United States as it leads the international Arctic Council from 2015 to 2017, UCS cohosted a well-attended event in Anchorage, Alaska, on the eve of the U.S. State Department’s GLACIER conference last year.

A diverse group of more than 90 high-level local, state, and federal government officials, civic and tribal leaders, and scientists attended the UCS event, discussing climate change and other challenges and opportunities related to the Arctic. Prominent participants included Admiral Robert J. Papp, the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic; Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz; Bert Frost, the National Park Service regional director for Alaska; and Elaine Abraham, chair of the Alaska Native Science Commission. In her opening remarks, Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, complimented the work of UCS, especially noting the organization’s instrumental role since 2004 in supporting scientific integrity in government.

Announcing the 2015 UCS Got Science? Champs

When science is under attack, it desperately needs defenders like these. UCS proudly presents four inspiring individuals who stood up for science in 2015.

Eric Schneiderman: Investigating decades of climate deception. New York’s attorney general took a bold step toward holding a fossil fuel company legally accountable for funding campaigns that deny the reality of climate change. In 2015, Schneiderman’s office subpoenaed ExxonMobil, launching an investigation into whether the company deceived shareholders (on risks to their investments) and the public (by financing climate change–denying lobbying groups).

Katie Gibbs: Spotlighting science in Canadian democracy. Biologist Gibbs founded Evidence for Democracy to combat the previous Canadian administration’s efforts to muzzle government scientists. During last year's election, Gibbs and her team helped make science a talking point among candidates, and Canadians elected a new administration that immediately restored its scientists’ right to free speech.

Richard Pan: Protecting children's health. California State Senator Pan, a pediatrician by training, responded to a preventable measles outbreak in 2015 by sponsoring a bill—signed into law last summer—requiring all schoolchildren in the state to be vaccinated. The bill closes the religious and "personal belief" exemption loophole that many parents in the state had leaned on to avoid vaccinations.

Irma Muñoz: Bringing science to the people. As founder and president of Mujeres de la Tierra, a Los Angeles-based environmental activist group, Muñoz helps empower residents of low-income communities to advocate for their health and safety through scientific fluency. She partnered with UCS in 2015 to connect residents of communities facing unconventional oil and gas development (specifically, “fracking”) with scientists who helped them communicate their concerns to officials.

This year, UCS also lauded the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for standing up for scientific independence under attack by the House Science Committee. (For more on that topic, see "UCS Fights for the Rights of Government Scientists" at the top of this page.)

Congratulations to each of our 2015 Got Science? champs.

Tax Tip: IRA Giving Simplified

At the end of last year, President Obama signed into law an act that makes permanent a handy, tax-wise giving feature. The provision, called the IRA Charitable Rollover, enables those holders of an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) who are age 70 1/2 or older to transfer up to $100,000 per year from their IRA to a designated charitable organization. The transfer satisfies required mandatory distributions but will not be counted as taxable income.

This means it is now simpler than ever for those who qualify to transfer funds to UCS by simply instructing their IRA administrator where to transfer the funds. If you have any questions or wish additional information on how to utilize this tax-free giving approach, please contact Director of Planned Giving Tracy Donahoe at (617) 301-8014 or

UCS Briefs NPR on Climate Science

Last fall, UCS scientists were among a handful of experts National Public Radio (NPR) invited to educate the top energy and environment reporters from its more than 900 member stations about the latest climate science.

UCS Senior Climate Scientists Brenda Ekwurzel and Jason Funk played a prominent role at this inaugural meeting of NPR’s new Energy and Environment team, hosted by the Joyce Foundation. Ekwurzel gave the keynote presentation that opened the two-day training workshop, and Funk fielded journalists’ questions and participated in discussions.

Although NPR had dissolved its climate team in 2014, a backlash against the decision coupled with growing interest in climate and energy issues led the company to create a new team. UCS was honored by NPR’s invitation and welcomed the opportunity to help shape its coverage of climate and energy issues.

The briefings were well received. “Everybody was buzzing about your presentation,” NPR science correspondent Chris Joyce noted in a follow-up email to Ekwurzel, adding that it was “very informative and comprehensive and delivered with brio.”

Photo: © Fathead Graphics

The Force Is with UCS

A short time ago, in a galaxy not far away . . . UCS was given an amazing opportunity by actor Oscar Isaac, also known as ace X-wing pilot Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As part of a promotion called Star Wars: Force for Change, fans of the movie franchise were offered a chance to win a trip to the premiere of the new film in Los Angeles or London and meet the cast by donating money to one of 15 nonprofit organizations.

The movie’s director, producer, and stars were all asked to select their favorite charities to benefit from the promotion. Isaac chose UCS—and thanks to him we received more than $80,000. We’re honored by the selection and grateful to the many Star Wars fans who contributed.

Video Ad Targets Candidates

UCS launched an ad campaign in New Hampshire in January pressuring presidential candidates to address sea level rise as they approach the state’s primary. The ad, running in various community newspapers and the Manchester airport, depicts the Republican and Democratic candidates currently leading in state polls standing behind podiums with the tide rising to their waists. At our January 18 press conference unveiling the ad, UCS was joined by two state senators and Dr. Cameron Wake, a research professor in climatology and glaciology at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the UCS Science Network.