Union of Concerned ScientistsScience and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Thu, 15 Nov 2018 15:04:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Science and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 As Congress Revives its Oversight Responsibilities, Science Should Be on the Agenda https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/as-congress-revives-its-oversight-responsibilities-science-should-be-on-the-agenda https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/as-congress-revives-its-oversight-responsibilities-science-should-be-on-the-agenda#respond Thu, 15 Nov 2018 14:59:16 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62693

The midterms brought checks and balances to Washington, complete with new opportunities for accountability and oversight, and some members of Congress have already signaled that science will be on the agenda. Today, a diverse set of environmental, public health, and good government organizations released a report outlining what Congress can do to address recent actions that sideline science from policymaking. Contributing and endorsing organizations are listed below.

Truth and science cartoon

Accountability for political interference in science can come through congressional oversight. It’s now up to Congress to choose what topics are most ripe.

We know that oversight works. Political appointees during the George W. Bush presidency rewrote scientific reports, compromised science advisory committees, and threatened scientists across a wide variety of issues. As a result of oversight, appointees resigned and scientific analysis was made right. To support this process, it was tremendously useful for civil society to come together to identify patterns and build public awareness about the public harm caused by attacks on science.

The report “describes new and ongoing threats to the communication of science and its use in public health and environmental decisions,” and recommends steps Congress can take in response, from exposing abuses of scientific integrity to holding appointees accountable to passing good government laws. Issues addressed include:

  • Politicization of science within agencies
  • Threats to scientific advisory committees and science advice
  • Unqualified and conflicted government leaders
  • Constraints on the communication of science
  • Whistleblowing and scientific integrity
  • Low-information approaches to enforcement of existing public health and environmental laws

I’m thrilled to see so many respected organizations coming together around common themes: scientific advice is essential to public health and wellbeing; attacks on science and scientists decrease faith in the institutions that are designed to keep us safe; and the sidelining of scientists and science advice deserves to be scrutinized and reversed.

It’s so impressive that all of these organizations with desperate interests have come together because they recognize the harm Trump administration actions have had on topics as diverse as workplace injuries, reproductive health, the Census, chemical contamination, tipped workers, endangered species, climate change, and air pollution.

The report recognizes that political interference in science is a constant temptation for policymakers—and that recently, that interference has become more sustained and pervasive. This highlights the need for better systems and protections that strengthen the role of science in policymaking.

The recommendations are intentionally broad so that any public interest organization can use them as a guide when they talk with congressional offices about more specific oversight recommendations that are relevant to their areas of expertise. I hope others who see value in the role of science in policymaking will use this report to inform their work to protect public health and the environment.

Jurisdiction over the federal scientific enterprise falls to several House committees, including The House Energy and Commerce Committee, House Natural Resources Committee, and the Committee on Space, Science, and Technology. The ball is now in their court to conduct fair oversight of the federal scientific enterprise and slow down the most egregious attempts to make evidence-free public health and environmental policy.

The findings and recommendations in this report have been endorsed by the following organizations. Contributors to the report are identified with an asterisk.

  • Climate Science Legal Defense Fund*
  • Defenders of Wildlife
  • Democracy Forward*
  • Environmental Integrity Project*
  • Environmental Protection Network*
  • Government Accountability Project*
  • Greenpeace*
  • Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health*
  • National Center for Health Research
  • National Federation of Federal Employees*
  • National LGBTQ Task Force
  • National Partnership for Women & Families*
  • National Women’s Health Network
  • Power to Decide*
  • Project on Government Oversight*
  • Union of Concerned Scientists*
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A Stealth Move to Undermine Science at the US Department of Agriculture https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/a-stealth-move-to-undermine-science-at-the-us-department-of-agriculture https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/a-stealth-move-to-undermine-science-at-the-us-department-of-agriculture#respond Wed, 14 Nov 2018 21:54:25 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62672
A team of scientists gathers data for a NIFA research project. Photo: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

In its latest scheme to undermine science, the Trump administration is brazenly trying to—pun intended—farm out to the hinterlands the most important research arms of the Department of Agriculture.

When Secretary Sonny Perdue recently boasted that 136 entities in 35 states are vying for the relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), his press release claimed that the move would place scientists closer to many “stakeholders” who live and work far from Washington, DC, would give “significant savings on employment costs,” and would “improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture.”

It sounds benign enough, but the rhetoric of moving these divisions closer to farming “stakeholders” purposely masks the likely damage to the far bigger world of stakeholders—the American people. The truth is, the move by Perdue and the Trump administration will further disconnect the perspective and expertise of USDA scientists from direct contact with policymaking on Capitol Hill.

Key data and research agencies

The 57-year-old ERS is no household acronym, but it is the principal agency that scours data on the impact of agricultural practices on the environment. It studies nutrition, food safety and food access for the poor, employment in rural economies, and the pros and cons of international agricultural trade proposals and regulations.

NIFA, created in the 2008 Farm Bill, funds research and programs that guide policymakers on improving nutrition and food safety, promoting sustainable agriculture, and keeping American agriculture competitive at a global level.

The data collected and questions explored by these agencies cross-pollinate in Washington, DC with research from the 12 other federal statistical agencies to help Americans understand economic trends and realities in our nation’s urban, suburban, and rural populations. Here’s the rub: these agencies’ collaborative and impartial search for facts is often at odds with the skewed and sometimes false narratives of lobbyists and politicians, such as in pleas for farm subsidies and stereotypes about how low-income mothers abuse food assistance benefits.

Widespread opposition

The Trump administration wants to break up this science-based collaboration, which runs parallel to its more highly publicized efforts to defang science in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Not only that, but the move by Perdue follows an effort earlier this year to cut the ERS budget in half—a request Congress rightfully dismissed. And this latest attempt to hamstring both ERS and NIFA has similarly drawn the ire of leading scientists around the nation. More than 1,100 of them signed a letter, coordinated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, urging key Senate and House agriculture committee members to block the move of the ERS and NIFA.

“The world class research carried out through NIFA and ERS comprises part of the science-based bedrock of our food and farm system,” that letter explains. “It empowers producers, businesses, and decisionmakers across the country with the accurate, unbiased data they rely on every day.”

In a stunning display of how seriously this professional community takes the proposed move, 56 former senior administration officials and heads of statistical agencies wrote a similar letter to congressional leaders. The signatories include Susan Offutt, who ran ERS from 1996 to 2006, under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations; her successor Katherine Smith Evans; and former leaders from the Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, the Internal Revenue Service, the Energy Information Administration, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Health Statistics. They say the move “jeopardizes” the independence of federal data gathering by increasing “the potential for interference in the direction, design, analysis and release of studies and reports.”

Fears of political interference

Interference should be inconceivable when public health is at stake, as with food safety. For instance, ERS studies whether salmonella testing programs on poultry are effective. A report last year concluded, based on the evidence, that tougher and more clear federal regulations reduced salmonella contamination.

Top critics of the relocation proposal see it as a form of interference. Smith Evans, who ran ERS from 2007 to 2011, under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, told me that her former agency “will be decimated. It will not be able to hire the best and the brightest and compete for skilled people if it is relocated in an isolated area.”

Those fears are gaining political traction on Capitol Hill as the USDA Inspector General is now reviewing the proposed move at the request of Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) and Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland). Equally concerning is the fact that Perdue has also proposed to reorganize ERS out from under the Office of Research, Education and Economics and into the Office of the USDA’s Chief Economist. Since the chief economist reports directly to Perdue, many worry the shift will further compromise the agency’s independence.

Steve Gliessman, an emeritus professor and founding director of agroecology at the University of California Santa Cruz, is one of many scientists concerned about the proposal. From 2004 to 2008, Gliessman used a NIFA grant to improve the technique for growing strawberries organically. His research demonstrated that strawberries could be grown without pesticides by rotating cover crops that did not play host to diseases that bedevil the berries. Such techniques helped increase acreage for organic strawberries from 134 acres two decades ago to 4,000 today.

Gliessman says he fears that moving NIFA to a more rural state gives big producers more opportunity to influence the direction of research while their lobbyists remain in DC to work over the politicians. Between the two, he worries that advocates for more sustainable, diversified and safer food production will be drowned out.

“I see this resulting as a return to a focus on production and profit rather than a deep understanding of the ecological and social impacts of that mode,” he said. “We’ve seen more than enough of the unsustainable nature of the industrial food model. We really should be moving toward an ecological model.”

A wealth of research and data at stake

The fact is, ERS data and NIFA research have shown why the nation should be moving toward an ecological model of agriculture and a more nutritious food system. ERS has shown that conservation compliance programs, which tie more sustainable agricultural practices to eligibility for federal price supports and relief, work to reduce erosion. It has shown that programs that pay farmers a rental fee to take millions of acres a year out of production work to reduce erosion, pollution, restore wildlife and diversify rural economies through recreation.

Analysts at the Union of Concerned Scientists built upon ERS research to show that measures to reduce fertilizer pollution in the Corn Belt could save taxpayers, farmers and businesses $850 million a year, instead of costing the nation $157 billion in lost tourism, fishing, health care costs and water treatment. UCS has also found that sophisticated three-crop and four-crop rotations that preserve soil can lead to higher yields than two-crop rotations.

Among its other contributions, ERS developed the definition for US food deserts and a national atlas of low food access areas, giving the federal government and states specific geographic areas to target with programs, data that helped inform Obama-era healthy food initiatives and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program. An ERS report last year found that the percentage of low-income census tracts with large grocery stores or supercenters nearly doubled, mirroring the growth for moderate- and high-income census tracts. Another ERS report showed how the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program helps low-income individuals and families alleviate food insecurity while pointing out a myriad of social and educational challenges to securing the best nutrition.

Those successes are a reminder that you cannot have progress unless you have data as a reference point. “People should understand that it takes decades to assemble the data on issues like this,” Offutt says. “You just don’t go out and instantly collect data on grocery stores or how food is cooked and processed. Home waste is different than waste in restaurants. Food choices change. There’s no single university or institute that can put together the intellectual firepower necessary to get the entire picture as can the federal government.”

As Smith Evans put it, “ERS never says USDA must do this or that. We say: ‘Let’s lay out the facts, and the facts will inform without prescribing. That’s so hard for other institutions to do. It would seem we need that more than ever.”

Offutt added, “My philosophy at ERS and government research in general is that you want to look over the horizon and ask questions two, five, six, 10 years down the road. That’s an important function for a public agency. With this proposed move, I’m really concerned that longer-term view will be lost. If your biggest public agency isn’t doing this work, who will?”

Put another way, if your biggest public agency isn’t doing this long-term work, who is there to protect your food, your health and the environment? If Perdue is allowed to move ERS and NIFA out of the mainstream of federal data gathering, the answer from the USDA will likely be: no one.

Photo: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
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Forensics, Justice, and the Case for Science-Based Decision Making https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/forensics-justice-and-the-case-for-science-based-decision-making https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/forensics-justice-and-the-case-for-science-based-decision-making#respond Wed, 14 Nov 2018 15:01:30 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62616
Photo: Lonpicman/Wikimedia Commons

Forensic science—and the language forensic scientists use to talk about their findings–has real-world impacts, sometimes life-or-death impacts, for real people. If the criminal justice system is going to really serve the cause of justice, it needs to be informed by the best available science. Unfortunately, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is ignoring scientific best practices, reversing progress toward improving forensic science in the U.S.

At the end of July 2018, the DOJ announced the release of eight new Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting documents (ULTRs) at the annual meeting of the International Association for Identification. An ULTR is a document meant to ensure that all forensic practitioners from the same discipline in DOJ forensic science laboratories use the same language in reporting the results of their analyses to police, lawyers, judges, and juries. While an ULTR is only binding on DOJ laboratories, state and local laboratories often follow DOJ’s lead.

The Deputy Attorney General said at the meeting that these documents “meet the highest scientific and ethical standards.” But do they?
All nine of the ULTRs use what is sometimes described as a “categorical” reporting framework. This framework sorts all reports into a small number of categories. For example, the categorical framework for firearms evidence is:

  1. Source identification (i.e., identified)
  2. Source exclusion (i.e., excluded)
  3. Inconclusive

Categorical reporting has long been widely criticized because the artificial boundaries between the categories render the system prone to perverse cliff effects. A better way would be what might be called “continuous” reporting, in which the weight of the evidence is reported as it is, rather than by reference to its place in a relatively crude three-category framework.

Another criticism of categorical reporting is that it implies certainty, as for example in the firearm example above in which the analyst would tell the jury “that two toolmarks originated from the same source.” Science doesn’t deal in certainties, and these ULTRs violate basic probabilistic reasoning. They are neither logical, nor scientific. That very point was made in the public comments on the draft ULTRs by several commentators and in a recent report on latent print analysis by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

A discouraging omen

In April 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions shut down the National Commission on Forensic Science, a roughly 30-member advisory panel of scientists, forensic and non-forensic, and legal and law enforcement professionals. The Commission had been launched in 2013 after a 2009 report by the National Research Council, the official science advisor to the US Congress, found “serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system” and called “for major reforms.” With the closing of the Commission, the DOJ turned its forensic reform effort over to the Forensic Science Working Group, the current publisher of the ULTRs.

Given that the ULTRs are the first official documents produced by the Forensic Science Working Group as part of its “plans to advance forensic science,” these documents are a discouraging sign for a future in which forensic reform is driven by the DOJ. Since the ULTRs were supposed to “serve as a model for demonstrating” the DOJ’s “commitment to strengthening forensic science, now and in the future,” their flaws don’t portend well.

Not making sense

After stating that the forensic experts should report that they know the source of a forensic trace, the ULTRs go on to make a number of statements that sound more uncertain. It might seem like the ULTRs are trying to tone down their claims of certainty, but the result is that the ULTRs try to support reports of certainty with statements of uncertainty. That doesn’t make any sense.

It also seems like the ULTRs are suggesting that small probabilities can be rounded down to zero for the “consumer” of the evidence. But it is unclear why that would be a scientific, or a just, thing to do.

It is helpful that the ULTRs contain lists of statements that should not be said, such as “zero error rate” and “100% certain.” These statements were made for years, including by DOJ forensic analysts, and they have now been largely discredited. However, a lot of the “banned” statements are what I call “false concessions.” It appears that the DOJ is conceding something important, but in fact they are conceding little or nothing because analysts are still permitted to make statements that are logically equivalent to the banned statements.

Scientists, not just forensic scientists, can weigh in to protect the role of evidence

In recent years, some progress has been made toward recognizing the inherently probabilistic nature of all scientific evidence and seeking ways of communicating those probabilities to lay audiences. The ULTRs signal that the DOJ is not yet ready to join that effort. This is unfortunate, given the DOJ’s power and influence.

Scientists don’t need to know anything about forensic science to understand that categorical statements of certainty are not plausible. Any scientist can help by letting the DOJ know that their statements are not scientifically credible and that the opinions of individual scientists and scientific institutions should be taken seriously by the nation’s most important purveyor of justice.

Overstating the certainty of forensic evidence has been implicated in many miscarriages of justice. And it is scientifically wrong. The people who are the ultimate consumers of forensic evidence deserve better.


Simon A. Cole is a Professor at University of California, Irvine’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society. 

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.

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The Voters have Spoken: Time for Checks and Balances to Make a Comeback https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/the-voters-have-spoken-time-for-checks-and-balances-to-make-a-comeback https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/the-voters-have-spoken-time-for-checks-and-balances-to-make-a-comeback#respond Tue, 13 Nov 2018 20:31:02 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62569
Photo: PeopleImages/iStockphoto

The election is all but over, and the result is a divided Congress.

Take a deep breath, scientists, and remember that divided government in these United States is what our Constitution was designed for.  A guiding principle was one of checks and balances – a check on dominance of one point of view and balance in the resulting policies for the people.  Something that, in my view, has been sorely missing for the last two years because adherence to party has superseded service to constituents and country.

So now what?  In Washington-speak, there will be an increased appetite for serious “oversight” of the Executive branch by the House of Representatives.  That means that Congress is likely to focus on how the Trump Administration is implementing the laws and mandates put in place to serve the public’s interest.  This is literally one of the “checks and balances” the framers of the Constitution created.

How does that happen?  Congress can hold hearings to question agency officials as well as solicit views from the affected public, experts, and other stakeholders about impacts of agency actions.  Also, as appropriators of federal dollars, Congress determines funding levels for each agency and can set the terms of use for those funds.  And Congress can demand information in writing, investigate problems through the Government Accountability Office (GAO) or Inspectors General’s (IG) offices in each federal agency, and hold agency officials accountable both in the court of public opinion, along with referring cases to the courts as needed.   These are powerful tools that have been semi-dormant for a couple of years.  Time for a change.

I like to think of Congressional efforts toward checks and balances coming from three sources:

  1. Pursuing specific constituent concerns
  2. Ensuring the intent of Congress is carried out
  3. Highlighting controversial issues

Constituent services

Every member of Congress is elected to serve both their constituents and the Nation as a whole.  And every member is attentive to issues raised by their constituents, whose welfare (and votes) matter to them.  When a member of Congress hears similar concerns from multiple constituents, he/she can and should see what can be done to address the issue writ large from DC.  Your calls, your letters, your visits to local state or district offices matter.  Every scientist is also a constituent; communicating with your elected representatives can often be more important and effective than the voice of a famous expert speaking broadly from elsewhere about a policy.  So, scientist/constituents can be the impetus for congressional oversight.

Let’s consider a few ways this could happen right away.  Without notifying the public, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this past year made a legal interpretation that the rules for industrial facilities that emit hazardous air pollutants will change — with the potential to dramatically increase emissions of these toxic and sometimes cancer-causing substances.  Suppose one of those facilities is in your neighborhood (and we have mapped them all by congressional district)?  You and your neighbors could ask your member of Congress to demand more information from the EPA or even to call for reconsideration of that policy change.  Tell your elected representative you expect them to hold the EPA accountable for public health impacts in your community.

Or perhaps you live near a military base, and your water supply has been contaminated by toxic per- or polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), endangering the health of your family and your neighbors.  We mapped many of these sites too.  The EPA has taken little to no action to clean up these hazardous pollutants despite overwhelming scientific evidence, and the Department of Defense (DoD) is moving slowly.  Your elected officials need to know that this isn’t acceptable.  It’s up to you to tell your member of Congress that you want them to hold the EPA and DoD to account for cleaning up the pollution.  That’s their job – to serve the public interest, not the interest of companies like Dow, Dupont, or 3M that made these compounds and are pushing back on improving the safety standards.  Your members of Congress can insist on better information, a timeline for cleanup, funds to make the water safe, and clear commitments to action by the agencies and the Administration, if they think it matters to you.

Intent of Congress

Another important part of oversight is to monitor and constantly question whether agency actions are meeting congressional intent.  In other words, ensuring that the agencies are doing their jobs on behalf of the public. Every law passed and perhaps periodically reauthorized and updated by Congress has specific goals in mind.  The Clean Water Act aims to make the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable.  The Clean Air Act seeks to ensure that the existing and future sources of air pollution are curtailed to protect public health and welfare.  The Endangered Species Act is designed to prevent the extinction of species.

Executive branch agencies implement those laws through policies and regulations specifically designed to meet the intent of Congress as written in the statute and interpreted by the courts.

Again, consider some examples.  Congress intended the Clean Air Act to clean up the air and to use the best available science to determine threats to public health and safety and then enact safeguards to protect the public against them.  Recently, the EPA has taken actions that fly in the face of this statutory mandate.  They intend to restrict the science that EPA can consider in implementing public health and safety regulations; they have dismissed the expert panels to advise on the scientific evidence for major air pollutants; and they have reshaped the agency’s science advisory boards to give industry and states a greater role than independent academic scientists.  Is this what Congress intended when it told the agency to use the best available science?  We should ask our elected officials to question these actions and demand justification from the agency. Scientist/constituents can call on Congress to withhold such that they can not be used to implement agency policies that sideline science.  And, of course, we can advocate for stronger laws that the agency can’t easily wriggle out of that ensure the use of science.

Controversial issues

There has seldom been lack of controversy in how our governments decides to deal with particular issues, but lately concerns about climate change, for example, have reached fever pitch.  These will continue, as different stakeholders have different priorities, preferences, and even values.  But our policies will not get better under any circumstances by ignoring the scientific evidence.  At the Department of Interior there have been across the board actions to remove consideration of climate change from agency planning and actions.  That includes virtually hiding reports that describe global warming impacts.

In addition, there are controversies related to conflicts of interest of political appointees and the culture of corruption in agencies and to advisory committees, as well as clear indications of political interference in agency science.

This is not just politics as usual; there are serious challenges we face as a nation.  Questions Congress could and should address in hearings, investigations and demands for information include:  Is our government and our governmental agencies putting the public’s interest first and foremost when it acts?    How should we be using public resources?  When are we going to get serious about addressing climate change — one of the greatest challenges we face globally and as a nation?

Our role as constituent scientists

There are many issues of concern that are a combination of sidelining of scientific evidence and impacts on people in our communities directly.  So, lets speak about the science, but also local impacts when contacting our representatives and asking them to pursue a strong oversight agenda.  Let’s bring the facts forward, demand information and look for solutions.  These are not esoteric or theoretical problems.  We need to speak as both scientists and constituents.

The checks and balances of Congressional oversight that I am talking about are often motivated by constituent concern, when it is voiced directly, clearly and productively.  As scientists, we are constituents but with a particular knowledge set and training on how we approach problems that is particularly valuable in shaping the oversight discussion.  As community members, we have a strong role to play in ensuring these health and safety issues get the attention they deserve, and responsible action from our federal government.

Voting in the midterms was incredibly important.  Now we need to follow up on the opportunity created by a new Congress by speaking truth to power, calling on our representatives to do the crucial job we gave them of checking and balancing the Trump Administration.  Let us know if you want to join us, and we’ll be in touch!



Photo: PeopleImages/iStockphoto
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Can the EPA Protect Us from Ozone and Particulate Pollution Without Its Experts? What to Watch https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/can-the-epa-protect-us-from-ozone-and-particulate-pollution-without-its-experts-what-to-watch https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/can-the-epa-protect-us-from-ozone-and-particulate-pollution-without-its-experts-what-to-watch#respond Fri, 09 Nov 2018 14:00:46 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62555

This week, the EPA announced that its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) alone would be reviewing upcoming ozone and particulate matter reviews. On October 10, the EPA nixed its ozone and particulate matter review panels—breaking with EPA’s use of expert science advisers for ambient air quality decisions since the 1970s and consistent with this administration’s trend of abandoning science advice. That same day, the EPA replaced the independent scientists on CASAC, leaving a committee of mostly state and local regulators. On December 12, the EPA will bring together the new CASAC for the first time in person to discuss the state of the science on particulate pollution. Will the EPA be able to assess the science and make science-based decisions to protect public health? Here’s what to watch for.

A history of independent science advice

Using science to set ambient air pollution standards has worked remarkably well in the US. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, our nation has been able to follow a science-based process to set air pollution standards that protect public health. Not to say there has never been political interference (see examples under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama), but the process by which EPA gets science advice on pollution standards has remained intact, even under tremendous pressure from industries and political actors to compromise the process.

Here’s how it works (at least up until now):

For major ambient air pollutants, the EPA assesses the state of the science on a pollutant and its health effects every five years or so, gathering all relevant peer-reviewed science into what’s called the Integrated Science Assessment (ISA). The exhaustively comprehensive ISA looks at all the relevant scientific literature that sheds light on the relationship between a pollutant and human health and welfare. (Fun Fact: The current particulate matter ISA includes extensive discussion of my own academic research on air pollution measurement and exposure error.)

The scientific teeth of the ISA are found in its causality findings—these summarize the weight of the evidence for linkages between the pollutant and different health effects. They range from “not causal” to “inadequate evidence” to “likely causal” to “causal.” It is important to note there is tremendous scientific backing behind each of these statements. A finding that the association between particulate matter exposure and mortality is causal, for example, is backed by science from multiple lines of evidence—epidemiologic studies, toxicology studies, controlled human exposure studies, and biological plausibility knowledge. The robust causal determination framework used by EPA has been vetted and endorsed broadly by experts in the scientific community. These causal findings inform EPA decisionmakers on how to best protect people from harmful pollutants.

To ensure that EPA scientists get the science right, they get help from the independent scientists on CASAC. In addition, since the 1970s the agency has relied on pollutant review panels to get input from experts on specific pollutants. CASAC, too of course, is comprised of air pollution experts, but it is only seven people. It is not possible for this small committee to capture the breadth and depth of the ISA and properly assess all aspects of the science. For example, to assess particulate pollution’s health impact, you’d want experts in epidemiology, toxicology, exposure assessment, instrumentation, modeling, and a host of other specialties. As a result, the EPA has always relied on larger groups of experts like the particulate matter review panel to peer-review its ISA and ensure it gets the science right.

An ill-equipped EPA

But now, EPA is going through the PM and ozone review processes with far less scientific expertise. The Trump administration dismissed the particulate matter review panel entirely, failed to constitute an ozone panel, and removed the independent scientists serving on CASAC. Now the agency is left with a seven-member committee of mostly air pollution regulators. This leaves very little subject matter expertise on air pollutant science and health.

In one striking example, our scientific understanding of particulate matter’s health effects is based in no small part on epidemiologic studies. And yet, not a single epidemiologist will be at the table when EPA assesses the ISA. (The EPA even admits this glaring omission in its recent announcement.) To say that the EPA is ill-equipped to have a scientific discussion on particulate matter in December is an understatement.

This lack of preparedness is exacerbated by the remarkable speed at which EPA is moving. The agency plans to set new ozone and PM standards by 2020—markedly faster than reviews have typically happened given the necessary steps required to gather scientific information, incorporate reviews from CASAC and the pollutant review panels, solicit public impact, analyze policy implications before making a policy decision. To meet this arbitrary deadline, EPA intends to streamline the process, combining analyses that used to be separate documents and likely cutting down on the number of meetings and draft documents. Such measures are almost certain to mean less public input and less scientific assessment feeding into the process.

How should we protect people from particulate matter?

So how should the administration protect people from the harms of particulate matter? The science suggests the EPA should be doing more. The draft ISA finds causal links between PM2.5 (that is, particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers) and premature death and cardiovascular disease, and likely causal relationships between particulate matter and respiratory and nervous system effects and cancer. The scientific assessment also finds a likely causal link between ultrafine particles (PM less than 0.1 micrometers) and nervous system effects. This is the draft—prior to scientific review and public input—so the linkages are subject to change. But if these scientific findings hold, we should expect EPA to take action, in order to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety—as the Clean Air Act requires. Historically, when a pollutant is linked to a serious health impact, a standard is set to curb pollution. These linkages to health impacts suggest that EPA could consider tightening the PM2.5 standard in order to protect public health and that the agency could potentially propose a new standard for ultrafine particles. Historically, these are the kinds of considerations that CASAC and the PM review panel would vigorously debate at public meetings and calls, with opportunities for public input. But it is difficult now to see how the agency could do the same this time.

A need for science advice

Will this EPA take the further actions required to protect people from these health impacts? One thing is for sure, they are likely to get less science-based input on the decision. With a weakened CASAC and no pollutant review panels, EPA won’t get the direct and robust feedback it needs from the scientific community. Without that scientific input, it is easier for the administration to make a decision that’s politically convenient rather than scientifically backed.

To compensate for the lack of science advice formally being provided to the EPA, it will be especially important that the EPA hear from scientific experts at the December meeting on PM and the November 29 CASAC call to discuss the ozone review process. It is also crucial for the EPA to hear from the public at these meetings because the compressed timeline will mean fewer meetings and thus fewer opportunities for the public to provide comment. Both air pollution experts and members of the public can (and should!) provide comment for the ozone call (November 29) and PM in-person meeting (comments in writing by December 11) and in person (sign up by Dec 5) at the meeting in Washington DC December 12-13. Join me there. I’ll be asking the EPA to listen to the scientists and you can too.

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After Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks, Will New Congress Push for Gun Safety Research? https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/will-new-congress-push-for-gun-safety-research https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/will-new-congress-push-for-gun-safety-research#comments Thu, 08 Nov 2018 18:52:46 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62560
Photo: M&R Glasgow/Flickr

The night after mid-term elections, our nation suffered another gruesome tragedy at the hands of an armed gunman, and I’m still ready for Congress to demand a science-based conversation on gun violence. Last night in Thousand Oaks, California, 12 people- including the gunman and an officer- were left dead and at least 10 others injured at a popular college bar. It is believed that several survivors of last year’s mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival were present.

Between the antisemitic attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27th where 11 people were killed and last night’s shooting in Thousand Oaks that left 12 people dead…there have been 11 other mass shooting incidents resulting in 10 deaths and 46 injuries. That is less than two weeks’ time.

My colleagues and I have written extensively in the past on gun violence and need to remove barriers for federal research (find them here). We have seen some progress, with Congress clarifying this past spring that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may pursue research on gun violence prevention. Previously, legislative language in spending bills (known as the Dickey Amendment) had effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence since 1996. Gun violence is a public health issue, and as with all public health issues, it requires scientific evidence to build the most effective policies to protect people. But is that research actually happening now? We need to ensure that it is.

Just yesterday afternoon, the National Rifle Association (NRA) railed against the medical community for its peer-reviewed firearms studies. Shockingly, the NRA questioned whether doctors should weigh in on gun violence prevention, focusing their ire on a position paper written by the American College of Physicians (ACP) that was recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Ironically, the NRA itself steps out of its lane, weighing in on the details of a scientific paper by medical professionals.

Congress can change this. Legislators should provide researchers specific funding and explicit instructions to study gun violence. Perhaps, then our nation can rely on even more conclusive evidence on the causes of gun violence and develop solutions to prevent it—instead of relying on a powerful gun lobby to sway the decision-making with their dollars and nonsense.

We have a new Congress. The new leadership in the House must prioritize oversight of gun violence research at the CDC and take this opportunity to appropriate more dollars to help solve this crisis.

Thousands of people in America lose their lives to gun violence every year. Just this year, there have been 12,477 firearm casualties. It is unfair to the people who have lost their lives to gun violence that we care only after a mass shooting, and that’s only while it’s in the news’s short issue-attention cycle. It is unfair and unacceptable that, despite the tireless work of advocates and activists, the nation has made little progress on gun violence reform.

Photo: M&R Glasgow
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The Elections, and What They Mean for Climate, Energy, and Science https://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/2018-election-results-climate-energy-science https://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/2018-election-results-climate-energy-science#respond Wed, 07 Nov 2018 18:59:49 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62520

If you are like me, you arrived a bit blurry-eyed to the office this morning after staying up watching election results last night. You’ve undoubtedly already heard and read commentary on what this election means for the country, but may be wondering what the outcome means for climate, security, energy, and science policy. I sat down with my colleague, Alden Meyer, UCS Director of Strategy and Policy, and put our usual water-cooler deconstruction on paper.

Alden: So the Democrats have taken control of the House, but the Republicans expanded their control of the Senate. What’s your take on the overall meaning of the election results? Did environmental issues have any resonance in this election?

Ken: Rahm Emanuel’s prediction of about a week ago seems to have been true—a blue wave, with an equally-strong red undertow. The blue wave is the new majority in the House and several new governors, many in swing states; the red undertow is the gains Republicans made in the Senate.

That being said, a clear overall message is that voters want to see checks and balances. One-party rule has had a corrosive effect on democracy. Major pieces of legislation (e.g., the $1.7 trillion tax cut and Affordable Care Act repeal proposal) have been crafted in backrooms, with very limited public input and opportunities for the opposing party to offer their ideas, and then enacted with little debate or even knowledge of what our representatives were voting for. That’s a problem. The voters are saying no to this, and as an organization that promotes public decision-making based on science, facts, and the competition of ideas, from my perspective at UCS, this is very positive.

I also must add, though, that the President’s fear-mongering in the final days may have worked to energize his base in some of the states with close Senate and Governors’ races; if so, this is not a healthy sign for our democracy and for government based on reason.

I also think that environmental issues, long considered second tier ones, played a role in this election. In several of the Rust Belt states, for example, water quality in both urban and rural areas was a major issue, and in the state of Nevada, voters championed clean energy ballot initiatives. Perhaps most impressively, voters elected new governors in Nevada, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and New Mexico who acknowledged the need to address climate change and showed interest in making their states clean energy champions.

One major disappointment was the defeat of the carbon fee ballot initiative in Washington state. Unfortunately, the big oil companies, many of whom claim they support carbon pricing as a climate solution, spent about $30 million to defeat this initiative, arguing cynically that the initiative did not go far enough. This hypocrisy needs to be strongly called out.

Alden: Indeed. It’s also notable that climate change was raised as an issue in a number of Senate debates. In 2016, we had to work intensively with the Republican mayor of Miami and others to get a single question asked on climate change in the Republican presidential candidate debate in Florida. This year, questions on climate change—many of them citing the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the devastating impacts of further increases in global temperature—were asked by moderators in at least seven Senate candidate debates (in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, and Texas). The increased prominence of the issue, especially in so many red states, demonstrates that increasing voter awareness and concern about the costly impacts of climate-related extreme weather events is making it more difficult for politicians to say that climate change isn’t a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

Ken: Looking out over the next two years, I think the election gives us three important new opportunities. Congressional oversight, or even the threat of it, is a key way to keep the executive branch operating within the bounds of law and reason; it has been sorely lacking in the last two years. UCS will work with new leadership in key House committees to ensure that there is oversight and accountability, particularly in the many instances in which science has been suppressed, maligned, or ignored.

Second, there are opportunities for bi-partisan progress on issues we care about, and we can and will try to cobble together majorities for centrist legislation that can move the country forward.

Third, we can help craft and push in the House more ambitious legislation that can lay the groundwork for a healthy debate in the 2020 election and potentially get enacted thereafter.

Alden: Congressional oversight is really important. We’ve been working closely with quite a few House members who care deeply about facts and evidence over the last two years to shine a spotlight on the Trump administration’s attacks on science-based safeguards across a wide range of federal agencies. While this has helped to raise the visibility of these abuses in the media and has provided grist for activists to use in their interactions with their members of Congress in town hall meetings and other venues, it has not produced a meaningful change in the administration’s behavior.

But with control of the House, these pro-science legislators will have a lot more tools at their disposal to address Trump administration officials’ blatant conflicts of interest, their lack of enforcement of laws and regulations to protect public health and worker safety, or their efforts to undermine the independent science advisory process, restrict the use of scientific research in policymaking, and to sharply cut back the scientific staff capacity of their agencies to carry out their missions. Through a combination of information requests, staff investigations, and hearings, House committees and subcommittees can shine a spotlight on policies and activities they believe are against the public interest or that fail to execute laws according to the intent of Congress.

They can compel testimony and response to follow-up questions from Cabinet and sub-cabinet officials, can request agency Inspector General investigations where appropriate, and can draw on analysis by the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accountability Office. They can also use a combination of expert witnesses and everyday citizens to put a human face on the impacts of executive branch actions, such as the rollback of regulations to protect public health and safety.

Ken: Great point. Our staff has been working with these incoming committee chairs and their staff on their oversight strategies for next year, on issues ranging from scientific integrity in policymaking to ineffective and destabilizing missile defense programs and new nuclear weapons systems, from political interference in climate and energy technology research to harmful changes in federal dietary guidelines for all Americans. Needless to say, it’s a target-rich environment!

Alden: As far as new legislative opportunities, there are a few areas where it may be possible to garner bipartisan support for legislative action in the next Congress: targeted incentives for electric vehicles, energy storage, and other clean energy technologies, or the limited but still useful energy bill introduced by Senators Murkowski (R-AK) and Cantwell (D-WA) that would boost energy efficiency in buildings, increase energy system cybersecurity, spur investments in power grid modernization, among other things. House Democrats have made clear that a federal infrastructure bill addressing not just investments in transportation, but in the water, electricity, natural gas distribution system, and other sectors as well, will be among their top priorities; it seems unlikely that Senate Republicans and the White House would be willing to reach an acceptable deal on such a bill, but it’s not out of the question.

There are a much broader set of issues where we expect House Democrats to move positive legislation forward to floor passage, despite low prospects that it would be approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Trump; the goal would be to raise public awareness and support and to help shape the debate going into the 2020 elections. We will be working to promote the scientific integrity legislation that Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) introduced in the House and that has 156 cosponsors, as well as opportunities to support science-based safeguards and public health protections. We will also work with Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee, to move forward his bill establishing a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.

Climate change and energy will also be a priority for several incoming committee chairs, such as Frank Pallone (D-NJ) of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) of the Natural Resources Committee, and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) of the Science Committee. It is also a priority for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who just last week indicated her interest in creating a select committee on climate change, modeled on the one chaired by now-Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) from 2007 to 2010. We are discussing legislative options with these and other House Democrats, as well as with our allies in the environmental, clean energy, labor, and climate justice communities, ranging from comprehensive climate policy to more targeted bills focusing on the electricity or transportation sector, or on ramping up assistance to local communities that are struggling to cope with the mounting impacts of climate change.

But yesterday’s elections also resulted in a number of new governors. What do you see as the opportunities for progress at the state and regional level?

Ken: I’m particularly excited about the new governors in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. UCS and others have been working for years on a project to modernize the electric grid in the heartland of the country to fully unleash the power of clean and cheap wind and solar, and we believe that many of these new governors can help champion this transformation.

UCS is also busy working in the Northeast on a regional plan to reduce transportation emissions. Key governors who are supportive of the idea (Cuomo in New York, Baker in Massachusetts) won their races, and some promising newcomers, such as Governor-elect Mills in Maine and Lamont in Connecticut, can add to the critical mass.

In Illinois, with governor-elect Pritzker in office, we will now have increased opportunities for passage of comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation; while in Michigan, with governor-elect Whitmer in office, we will now have new opportunities to advance modern grid policies that can deliver greater quantities of clean electricity to communities, support electric vehicles, and increase the resilience of the electricity grid to the impacts of climate change. In addition, we have new governors in Kansas, New Mexico, and Nevada, and we will look to help these states become clean energy champions.

I know you warned me last week that the 2020 election kicks off today (ugh!). So I’m curious what you think last night’s results might mean for the 2020 elections.

Alden: I think the new governors who ran on a clean energy platform and won their elections will add a lot to the national conversation over the next two years. Not only will they work to push through strong policies, but they will be strong messengers on how these solutions are good for their states’ economies and job creation, bring strong public health benefits by cutting conventional pollutants, and reduce their energy consumers’ vulnerability to fossil fuel supply disruptions and price shocks. Their advocacy and visibility on clean energy and the need to address the mounting impacts of climate change will help make clear that these are priorities for states in the heartland, not just on the coasts.

Put these new governors together with the active agenda we expect to see in the House on climate and clean energy issues next year, as well as the growing public support for climate action that’s demonstrated in recent opinion polls, and it’s safe to say that these issues will be front and center going into the 2020 elections. Of course, health care, immigration, the economy, national security, and terrorism will continue to be top-tier issues, but it will be more difficult than ever for candidates for federal office to deny the reality of climate change.

And, as long as we’re talking about 2020, can you say a little about the work we’re doing with other groups to lay the groundwork for ambitious climate action in 2021?

Ken: Absolutely. UCS, along with many other partners, such as labor, science groups, environmental advocates and so many others are already focusing our sights on a prize—comprehensive, federal climate change legislation by 2021. We can’t let another opportunity slip, we need to get ready for it, and that means starting now. Among other things, we have to learn a key lesson from the Obama era—relying exclusively on regulations doesn’t work, as a successor administration or a hostile court can undo them. We need to lay the groundwork for a durable solution that is set in law, and that means bringing in Republicans to offer their best ideas and ensuring that they too have skin in this all-important game. This is also true for our work on nuclear weapons and sustainable and healthy farms—we need to set our sights on bi-partisan legislation and get to work on it now.

Alden: As we’ve discussed, there are some opportunities to make progress on our issues at the federal level over the next two years, and even more opportunities at the state and regional level. But let’s be honest, we still face tremendous challenges, central among them a president who has no respect for science, makes up his own facts, and continues to take a wrecking ball to the capability of the EPA and other federal agencies to protect public health and the environment. As you rightly note, solutions to all the issues UCS works on need to be worked out on a bipartisan basis to be durable. The good news is that more and more Republicans privately acknowledge the need for action on climate change and other issues; the bad news is that their willingness to stand up to President Trump remains extremely limited. Creating incentives for them to do so—in coordination with allies in the business, faith, security, and conservation communities—is one of the key challenges we need to meet to be successful.

Ken: It is good to remember that politics in America resemble a pendulum. The pendulum swung far in one direction in 2016. The election of a new majority in the House, new governors in key swing states and many young, diverse and exciting new leaders shows that the pendulum is starting to swing back. Our job, as I see it, is to help push the pendulum back in favor of leaders from both parties that support science-based policies. And to be ready when the pendulum swings back far enough to make progress again.

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Climate Changes Health: The Backstory is the Front Story https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/climate-changes-health-the-backstory-is-the-front-story https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/climate-changes-health-the-backstory-is-the-front-story#respond Wed, 07 Nov 2018 18:59:26 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62266
Photo: FEMA

12 years. That’s how long scientists say we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially to heed off the global catastrophic effects of climate change.  As such, climate change is arguably the greatest public health threat of our times as it already contributes to increased trauma, morbidity, and mortality from extreme weather events and displacement.

Climate justice is intersectional

Often missing from this conversation is a dialogue on climate justice. The term climate justice draws heavily on the environmental justice (EJ) movement and affirms that climate change is a scientific, political, and human rights issue. It defines climate change as a great multiplier, exacerbating existing health inequities among socially, economically, and politically vulnerable populations. And, per the Bali Principles of Climate Justice, the term also recognizes “the rights of communities dependent on natural resources for their livelihood and cultures to own and manage the same in a sustainable manner and is opposed to the commodification of nature and its resources.” Policies that overlook disproportionate impacts on low-income communities and communities of color—as well as inaction—are perpetuating climate injustice globally.

As Dr. P. Qasimah Boston at the Department of Children and Families in Tallahassee, Florida explains with regards to climate change, “The backstory is the FRONT story.” In other words, the stories of communities experiencing climate injustice cannot be the “backstory,” but must be recognized in mainstream conversations around climate change and health.

Coming together around solutions

In attempts to shift the narrative within public health and make climate justice the front story, over 115 EJ and scientific experts came together for a pre-conference summit at the 2017 American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting— Climate Changes Health: Ensuring Environmental Justice Underlies Public Health’s Climate Change Work.

While many scientists and public health professionals understand climate change’s disproportionate threats to health, this summit was meant to help prepare them to actually address climate justice in their research and practice in partnerships with communities and climate justice leaders already doing the work.

This report was compiled from thematic analysis of rich conversations between leaders in the room and reflects the combined insights of the group. Written for diverse audiences, it shares important recommendations and resources to advance public health’s capacity to address climate justice related to policy, youth involvement, the role of funders, and comprehensive suggestions for the field of public health.

What you can do

Review the recommendations in Climate Changes Health: Ensuring Environmental Justice Underlies Public Health’s Climate Change Work.

Scientists and public health and technical experts – use your position as a researcher, a member of an educational institution, a member of your community, and as a constituent to push forward climate justice by:

  • Working with communities to learn and offer your expertise where appropriate. UCS has a guide and several resources to help you think through how to do this in a meaningful way.
  • Talking to colleagues and people in your institution to bring diverse voices, including those from impacted communities, into the conversations and work around climate change.
  • Engaging with policymakers, offer your expertise, and voice your support for climate justice work that is centered in communities that are most affected.
  • Elevating the issues in the media to make climate justice a focal part of the climate change conversation

 Concerned members of the public – leverage your standing as a voter and concerned community member to work towards climate justice by connecting with a local justice-based community group and engaging with elected officials and the media.

This takes an all hands-on deck approach. It means centering our work in equity and supporting justice organizations and leaders. It means supporting the work of leaders of color. It means showing up and taking action.


As a community-engaged researcher, Natalie Sampson brings interdisciplinary evidence to climate change, land use, and infrastructure planning and policy efforts in Metro Detroit to address environmental health inequities. As an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn, she teaches courses in public health, health promotion, environmental health, and community organizing. Dr. Sampson co-chairs the American Public Health Association (APHA)’s Environmental Justice Committee with Charles Lee.

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.

Photo: FEMO
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Your Guide to Tuesday’s Transformation of Democracy https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/election-night-your-guide-to-the-end-of-democracy-as-we-know-it https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/election-night-your-guide-to-the-end-of-democracy-as-we-know-it#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 14:46:28 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62398

Update 11/5: The post has been updated to change the title.

Democracy in America will be transformed Tuesday night, for better or worse. Or both. In the worst-case scenario, numerous voting rights and electoral reforms will go down in flames across the country, new barriers to voting will be erected, and despite winning millions of more votes, the more popular political party will fall short of winning governing control over the House of Representatives, designed to represent “the People alone,” as James Madison put it. Popular Sovereignty is but a quaint memory, the pillars of democracy crumble, and we submit to our oligarchic overlords.

In the best-case scenario, majority rule operates as designed, several states upgrade their deficient electoral systems, and a series of innovative upgrades to improve participation and representation are passed by broad coalitions of citizens. November 7th is a new day in America, with a higher quality of democracy and improved institutional performance to look forward to in 2020.

In the most likely scenario, there will be victories and defeats. To help the inquisitive keep track of what kind of democracy we will be waking up to, I’ve prepared a Democracy Scoreboard for easy download that I will be updating from Twitter into the night, but hopefully not into the morning. I’m focusing on three areas of performance: Congressional elections, state redistricting and voting rights initiatives, and local electoral system reforms.

In order to provide a manageable list of indicators, I’ve chosen ten of the more competitive Congressional races in the Eastern time zone, according to latest updates from Cook Political Report, Fivethirtyeight and The Economist. These include Maine’s 2nd district, where the outcome may depend on the state’s new ranked choice voting system. The four-candidate race looks to be a dead heat between GOP incumbent Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden, but independents Tiffany Bond or Will Hoar could get enough 1st place votes to necessitate the transfer of 2nd place votes.

Other Congressional races to watch include New York’s 19th and 22nd districts, New Jersey’s 3rd, Pennsylvania’s (newly redistricted) 1st, Virginia’s 2nd, North Carolina’s 9th (the most Republican leaning), Kentucky’s 6th, and Florida’s 15th and 26th districts. If the Democratic Party takes these seats with margins of 2-3 points, they are poised to win a House majority along with the popular vote. While Democrats are up approximately 8 points in the generic partisan ballot, there is still a 10-15% chance that the Democratic Party wins more votes but fewer than 218 seats, due to gerrymandering and the geographic concentration of voters.

Therefore, the more of these seats the GOP picks up, the more likely we are to see a popular vote/seat majority split due to gerrymandering and/or restrictive election laws. There is less than a 1% chance that the Republican Party wins the popular vote but fails to win a majority of seats. If the Republican Party picks up the majority of these seats, it is an indication that it will be a better night for their voters than forecasting models have predicted.

For the statewide initiatives, I’ve chosen the five state redistricting propositions designed to eliminate gerrymandering (Colorado has two, plus Michigan, Missouri and Utah), Florida’s felon enfranchisement initiative (which needs 60% support to pass), as well as Maryland, Michigan’s and Nevada’s attempts to reduce registration barriers. In South Dakota, voters are being asked to amend their constitution to reinstate previous campaign finance and ethics reforms that the legislature killed.

Conversely, a number of states are trying to restrict ballot and voting access, which will count against democratic performance: Arkansas (voter ID), Montana (restrictions on who can turn in ballots), North Carolina (voter ID and legislative control over state election board) and South Dakota (proof of citizenship requirement). A full list of statewide and local election related initiatives can be found here at Daily Kos.

Locally, a number of initiatives to improve democratic representation are being considered. Baltimore, Denver, New York and Portland, Oregon are giving voters the opportunity to improve campaign finance. Fargo, North Dakota is considering the adoption of approval voting, a single-winner system where voters mark all candidates they support, and the most popular candidate wins. Lane County, Oregon may adopt the “STAR” voting system, a form of instant-runoff preferential voting. Conversely, reformers in Memphis, Tennessee are trying to repel the establishment’s efforts to repeal ranked choice voting there, even though strong evidence suggests that RCV would increase participation and representation for the city’s less affluent voters.

Keep an eye out for regular election night updates at @mlatner soon after 8pm on the East Coast. And remember, no matter how the night goes, we are looking at a historic level of voter turnout for a midterm election already. We won’t know final turnout estimates for a while after the election, but this itself is a good sign about the health of  democracy. It is a prerequisite. Now get out there and VOTE!

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Washington’s I-1631: A Chance to Choose Hope, Not Fear https://blog.ucsusa.org/adrienne-alvord/i-1631-choose-hope-not-fear https://blog.ucsusa.org/adrienne-alvord/i-1631-choose-hope-not-fear#respond Fri, 02 Nov 2018 17:21:08 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=62348

It has been a tense and tragic time in the runup to the midterm election next week, and voters nationwide have reasons to feel fear about what may happen next, but we need to remember that there are also opportunities for great hope in the election next Tuesday.

For example, few issues have generated as much excitement for climate action as the Washington State carbon pricing initiative, I-1631.   This initiative, developed after a painstaking and highly inclusive planning process that has  garnered enthusiastic support from a large, diverse coalition of constituencies, would create a groundbreaking carbon fee on polluters that would be reinvested in Washington’s communities, businesses, and clean energy industries.  (UCS describes the initiative and how it would work in detail here.)  At a time when Washington DC is in retrograde motion on climate change, even after a summer when extreme heat, storms, and wildfires made more devastating by climate change have pummeled the nation and the world, the chance for state and regional progress on climate change in this election is not only a reason for hope but a possible harbinger of greater state and regional action to come.

And Washington carbon reductions matter.  Washington is already warming up, and is experiencing impacts associated with climate change including increasingly destructive wildfires, decreased water runoff from snowpack, and rising sea levels, all resulting in devastating impacts to people and property.   While opponents to I-1631, mostly out-of-state oil companies, claim that Washington can’t afford to price and reduce carbon emissions, the fact is that individuals, businesses, and taxpayers are already footing a very large bill for the damage done by global warming pollution and the price tag will continue to grow unless emissions can be dramatically reduced.

Big oil’s campaign of disinformation

The opposition has made I-1631 the most expensive initiative campaign in Washington history.  The six out-of-state oil companies that are financing 99% of the more than $30 million pouring into the state to defeat the measure have also mounted one of the most cynical disinformation campaigns I’ve ever seen, saying the measure unfairly “exempts” polluters!

The oil industry’s desperate tactic of campaigning against “polluters” is absurd on its face and gives an indication–along with their eye-popping electoral investment–of how desperate the industry is to not let this initiative happen.  The No campaign has been characterized by exaggerations and disinformation, including listing Latino business owners as opponents to the measure who actually support it. We’ve seen lies and disinformation from the western states oil industry many times before, as UCS has documented.

One issue that Big Oil is hammering on is the idea that the I-1631 polluter fee will cause gas prices to go way up.  The initiative will definitely cost the oil industry money, but whether drivers feels those increases at the pump is another matter, as California learned in 2015 when it put a carbon price on oil.  Big Oil promised in a huge PR campaign that the carbon price would cause California gasoline prices to spike, but instead prices actually decreased.  This was an important lesson–that because oil is a global commodity, local fees and taxes are limited in terms of influencing what you pay at the pump.  Far more important is what is happening to global supply and demand for oil (and by the way we can’t pump our way out of that situation domestically because the price of oil is set as a global commodity.)  Significant oil price spikes are often the result of events we can’t control, like global conflicts in oil producing regions, supply chain disruptions- sometimes caused by climate change-influenced extreme weather- and refinery shutdowns or accidents.

One way to protect ourselves from oil price increases that we can have some control over is reducing our demand for gasoline, using low-carbon and carbon-free transportation fuels and alternatives that reduce our need for petroleum-derived and other carbon-intensive fuel sources.  The kinds of measures that will help reduce carbon fuel demand are exactly the types of investments that can be funded by the polluter fees under I-1631–yet another reason that oil money is flowing to stop this measure.

Believe scientists, not oil companies

If it passes, Washington will be the second west coast state after California to put a price on carbon. In 2019 Oregon could become the third.  The combined carbon reduction influence of these three economic powerhouse states is enormous.  The three states combined are in the top five largest economies globally, so to claim, as opponents of I-1631 have, that Washington’s contribution to carbon emissions reductions under the initiative wouldn’t make a difference are not looking at the bigger picture.

Scientists have led the way on climate action for decades while the oil industry has stood in their way and drowned out their warnings. More than 200 of Washington’s scientists are asking us to vote yes on 1631. We must accept the facts about climate change and listen to their warnings, not the lies of the fossil fuel companies, or the myths they are promulgating about I-1631.

Scientists understand that Washington’s actions alone won’t prevent global warming but will contribute to both desperately needed emissions reductions in the United States and to momentum to the global movement to dramatically reduce emissions if we are to have a positive future. UCS urges Washington voters not to succumb to the negative and misleading propaganda of the oil industry, but to believe the science, choose hope over fear, and support I-1631.

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