Union of Concerned ScientistsUnion of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Wed, 18 Jul 2018 21:06:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 Watching Wheeler: 9 Critical Actions the New EPA Chief Should Take https://blog.ucsusa.org/kathleen-rest/watching-wheeler-9-critical-actions-the-new-epa-chief-should-take https://blog.ucsusa.org/kathleen-rest/watching-wheeler-9-critical-actions-the-new-epa-chief-should-take#respond Wed, 18 Jul 2018 21:06:24 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59862
EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Photo: Alamy

The people’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a new leader. Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler took the helm of the agency on July 9 following the resignation of Scott Pruitt. And now Wheeler has the opportunity to move past his predecessor’s scandals and return the agency to its science-based mission of protecting human health and the environment.

Like many other Trump administration department and agency heads, Mr. Wheeler is there to implement President Trump’s anti-regulatory, industry-first agenda—and he has clearly indicated his intention to do so. Yet in his address last week to a whipsawed and often demoralized EPA staff, he also acknowledged the agency’s “collective goal of protecting public health and the environment on behalf of the American people.”

If Wheeler is truly sincere about returning the EPA to its core mission, here are nine critical actions he will need to take to achieve that goal.

1. Abandon efforts to restrict the agency from using the best available science to protect public health

Former Administrator Pruitt pushed forward a dangerous proposal that would effectively restrict the types of science that can be used in policymaking. Under this proposal to restrict science, the EPA would be unable to use a range of public health research that relies on personal medical records and other information that must be kept confidential to protect individual and patient privacy rights.

Developed by political appointees with no input from scientific organizations, the proposal is a key part of the administration’s real goal: weaken air pollution rules that protect the quality of the air we breathe.

There is not a single mainstream scientific organization that supports the proposalPublic health organizations and experts have expressed significant concern about it. Dozens of scientists and advocates testified against the proposal at a public hearing in Washington, D.C. on July 17.

If the new acting administrator is serious about listening to science and scientists and to protecting public health, he will immediately withdraw the proposal to restrict science at the EPA.

2. Halt rollbacks of vehicle standards and close the “glider” truck loophole

The evidence is clear. Efficiency and emissions standards for vehicles are working, across the country, to cut emissions that impact our health, while saving families money at the pump. But former Administrator Pruitt willfully ignored the evidence, disavowing years of work by his own agency, and declared his intention to roll back these standards and effectively end the progress we’ve made on delivering cleaner cars of every size.

The administration has not yet issued a new proposed rule, which gives Wheeler the opportunity to listen to the evidence and change course. A growing number of states support strong standards, and we have the technology to continue to improve efficiency and cut emissions in a cost-effective way. Wheeler should halt efforts to roll back these successful standards.

In addition, Scott Pruitt’s final action in office was to announce that the agency would not enforce pollution rules for “glider” trucks, which often use higher-polluting older engines. The EPA’s own research shows that closing the loophole that allowed glider trucks to use old engines would save 1,600 lives every year by cutting dangerous pollution. The choice is clear: Mr. Wheeler must keep enforcing rules that keep high-pollution “glider” trucks from endangering hundreds of lives every year.

3. Improve transparency

In his address to EPA staff last week, Wheeler vowed to be more transparent about his actions than his predecessor. But to greatly improve transparency at the agency, he will need to go beyond ditching Scott Pruitt’s soundproof booth, unlocking access to the administrator’s office area, and making his public calendar actually public (some of which is now online). It will mean allowing reporters full and unfettered access to EPA scientists; affirming the rights of scientists to communicate the science publicly without first asking for permission; and fully complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

It also means fully detailing how the many political appointees with current or former financial ties to industries that the EPA regulates—including Wheeler himself—will recuse themselves from decisions that affect their former employers and clients.

4. Support the facts on climate change

Unlike his predecessor, Wheeler acknowledged the facts on climate change in a recent interview, saying that “I do believe climate change is real. I do believe that people have an impact on the climate.”

That is encouraging to hear. But Wheeler should show leadership by more clearly and frequently articulating the urgent need to cut carbon emissions to limit the harmful effects of climate change, as well as highlighting the key role his agency must play in that effort.

To address the growing threat of climate change, the EPA can and should set strong standards to cut heat-trapping emissions from the power sector, the transportation sector, and from industrial sources.  To support those efforts, it is also essential that Wheeler restores science to its rightful place at the EPA and removes all implicit or explicit barriers for staff working on issues related to climate change.

Last week, Wheeler noted the importance of communicating risks and related information to communities and the public, including the need to improve risk communication to lower income communities that are often most impacted by environmental threats. It is critical that his clearly articulated priority on risk communication also extends to the science, the risks, and the impacts of climate change to public health and the environment.  An easy first step would be restoring the web pages on climate change that were taken down or buried on the EPA website under his predecessor.

5. Stop efforts to weaken and delay the Clean Power Plan

Under Pruitt, the EPA began efforts to dismantle the Clean Power Plan—the nation’s first-ever standards to limit power plant carbon emissions—and replace it with a substantially weaker standard.  

It makes no sense to turn back the clock on the nation’s transition to clean energy, especially when the nation is facing worsening climate impacts—including flooding, heat waves, and wildfires—and the renewable energy industry is providing one of the fastest-growing sources of employment. What’s more, cutting carbon emissions from power plants will also decrease air and water pollution, which will bring significant public health benefits to communities around the country. 

Mr. Wheeler must know that, despite the administration’s claims, undoing the Clean Power Plan will not bring back coal. Indeed, a recent analysis shows that many operating coal units in the country are increasingly uneconomic relative to cleaner generation sources. If the administration truly cared about coal miners and coal communities, it would work with Congress to pass legislation to help with transition assistance, worker training, and the creation of new economic opportunities in these communities. 

Wheeler knows that the EPA is legally bound to act to limit carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act because they are a threat to public health. Rather than looking for ways to limit EPA’s role in addressing climate change, as he has indicated in recent interviews, he needs to make good on the agency’s legal obligations and deliver a strong power plant carbon standard without delay.  

6. Acknowledge and account for the health benefits of improved air and water quality

The EPA recently issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking signaling its plan to substantially change the way the agency accounts for the benefits of pollution standards that improve public health.

The proposed rule would essentially use a deceptive approach that reduces or eliminates the way these substantial health benefits are accounted for in formulating new policies. And then use that as a back-door way to weaken rules that protect air and water quality. For example, the EPA’s 2017 proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan used this type of crooked math to artificially lower the benefits of the pollution reductions that the standard would have brought. In particular, the EPA failed to account for the fact that actions to cut carbon emissions also pay large dividends by reducing other forms of harmful pollution like soot and smog.

If implemented, this proposed rule would have far-reaching consequences for the public’s health and well-being. Wheeler should halt this blatant attempt to fudge the numbers at the expense of the public’s health.

7. Require chemical companies to tell communities and first responders about the potential risks they face

 In early 2017, the EPA finalized changes to the Risk Management Program that would have provided the public and our nation’s first responders with more information about hazardous chemicals at industrial facilities in their neighborhoods. Beyond supporting and advancing the agency’s community-right-to-know responsibilities, providing this information is just plain common sense for planning and preparing.

Under Pruitt, the EPA delayed implementation of these changes and then proposed a new rule that would roll back these improvements. In his speech to agency staff, Wheeler said that he wanted to improve risk communication, especially for low-income communities and communities of color. Reversing course on this rollback will demonstrate his sincerity, his leadership, and his willingness to put public health and safety ahead of chemical industry pushback.

8. Work with independent stakeholders

To ensure the EPA is upholding its fundamental mission to protect human health and the environment, the agency must be informed by the best available science and ensure that the well-being of communities affected by pollution are prioritized.

Wheeler’s predecessor, however, focused almost exclusively on engaging with business interests. He failed to engage with other stakeholders, including scientists and affected communities. Regulated industries are important stakeholders as well, but is it in the best interests of public health and the health of our economy for the EPA’s decisions to be informed almost exclusively by this narrow perspective? I don’t think so.

To ensure a broader airing of perspectives, issues, and concerns, Wheeler should commit to engaging with a wider set of stakeholders. This includes scientists with relevant expertise, environmental justice and other community groups, and public health professionals. Wheeler must elevate the mission of the agency above the interests of the regulated of industry groups. It also means rescinding a ban on science advice from the very scientists whose work the EPA has found most promising.

Wheeler must also provide adequate opportunities for public hearings and comments—and clearly demonstrate his commitment to serving the American public first and foremost.

9. Fight to protect and increase the budget of the EPA so it has the resources needed to do its job

President Trump and former Administrator Pruitt repeatedly proposed sweeping budget cuts to the EPA, threatening the ability of the agency to carry out its mission. In 2017, President Trump and then-Administrator Pruitt proposed cutting the spending by nearly a third, which would have taken the agency to the lowest level in 40 years. The administration followed up in 2018 with proposed budget cuts of over 25%.

These proposed cuts—which Congress ultimately rejected—would have had severe implications for the health and safety of the American public. As just one example, as I’ve written about before, such budget cuts would have gutted EPA clean air programs that allow EPA staff to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, and provide tools and guidance to states that help ensure that Americans can breathe clean air.

The EPA needs a leader who sees the critical value of the work and the staff of the agency and will fight to protect—and actually increase—its budget so that the agency can carry out its mission and protect the health and safety of the American public. It makes no sense to hobble the agency’s ability to deal with current threats, let alone anticipate and plan for the future risks which are sure to come.

Waiting…and watching

Over the coming weeks and months, we will be watching how Wheeler lives into his new role. Will he take the steps needed to put human health and the environment first and foremost in agency policy and decision-making? Will he stand up and ensure that the agency is guided by independent, unconflicted science in what it does and what it says? Will he restore agency morale—and integrity, trust, and credibility in the eyes of the public he is duty-bound to protect?

While the Trump administration’s track record gives us ample reason to be skeptical, Wheeler now has the opportunity to put duty to the public and to the country first.

There will be ample opportunities to encourage and insist that he do so in the months ahead. And we will be there with you to hold him accountable for his actions.

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Science Citizenship: Making Science Actionable https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/science-citizenship-making-science-actionable https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/science-citizenship-making-science-actionable#respond Wed, 18 Jul 2018 19:29:37 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59642
Photo: InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

I decided to pursue a career in science in part because my high school chemistry teacher believed in me and sent me on a glacier expedition. My research as a Masters and PhD candidate brought me to remote corners of the earth, exploring glaciers at all latitudes. At otherworldly sites, I sampled the chemistry of snow and glacier melt. Most of my work was based in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, earth’s analogue to Mars. It was just 100 years after the first explorers set foot on these lands and numerous programs funded scientific research in extreme ecosystems, such as the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research Program, which enabled scientists to study and understand trends through time.

During my 2006 field season, a helicopter of twelve national political leaders descended on our camp to learn about polar science. I spent ten minutes talking to Senator John McCain, who had recently tried to pass legislation on global warming with Senator Joe Lieberman. After the policymakers flew off, I returned to the field, energized by science and optimistic that climate policy was on its way.

Connecting students to local issues

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

In 2011, I began my career at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. In Springfield, one in four elementary school children needs food assistance. Water quality is threatened by combined sewage overflow, which is amplified by aging infrastructure and climate inaction. While there were nominal resources to address these issues, the community response and rallying around this issue highlighted to me how important social capital is to problem-solving. Access to food and water for Springfield residents was at stake.

My experiences in Springfield and dismay at the lack of national climate policy impressed upon me that my students needed to learn about more than how earth and environmental systems work; they needed to know how their work connected to community and political decisions. Millennials are the largest block of voting aged citizens, but are the least likely to vote. They are inundated by partisan media but are able to quickly search for information for everyday decision making. As a whole, our recent graduates have discussed the big issues we face as a society, but have not reflected on how those issues manifest in their communities. Helping students see and realize their personal and local power is central to justice.

Each of my classes focuses on addressing major justice issues in our community. I see my introductory courses as science citizenship classes where students gain skills in evaluating the science they read and gain insight into the perspectives involved in local issue decision making. Our program features partnerships and working on community solutions-centered projects. Students evaluate carbon sequestration opportunities in vacant lots, soil health improvement strategies in places suffering from housing blight and soil lead contamination, and water quality solutions. Key to this work is having students reflect on their individual roles and what they have learned from community perspectives that informs next action steps.

Small changes in curricula can have a big impact

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

During my sabbatical I’ve reflected deeply, reviewed resources on teaching to support democracy, and created and compiled teaching resources that help science faculty interested in designing their courses and activities to support democracy. These include design prompts for identifying civic activities that fit the current roles and interests of faculty and resources to design courses around local issues and build student civic agency, or consider how you, as an invited speaker or host of a seminar series might help students think about their future roles as scientists or constituents.

Are you helping your students understand how to form a science supported-opinion? Are you teaching your students how to evaluate and communicate using science? Are you showing them the complexity of scientific problem-solving and the views incorporated or missed in political decision-making? Some teaching activities that help build these skills appear here. While some of the specific examples relate to teaching geology and environmental science, these strategies apply to any science faculty interested in making connections between their discipline and positive societal transformation.

I encourage other faculty to join me in building science literacy, agency, and designing curriculum to support informed, equitable, and just decisions. If you are just getting started, start by making one change, such as including an example of local or student-relevant science in your class, or including an op-ed writing or social media assignment. If you want to learn more about your community, consider inviting local experts as guest speakers, or exploring locally-relevant data. This may be especially important in small towns that sometimes lack fact sheets on climate change, water, or other resource trends. Finally, you might directly show your students how to take action by hosting a science literacy or advocacy event in your class through campus programming. Faculty play an important role in making science actionable.

 

Sarah Fortner, Ph.D., (@erthsarah) serves as the Geological Society of America Scholar in Residence for the American Geosciences Institute. She is an Associate Professor of Geology and Environmental Science at Wittenberg University. Both programs are recognized for civic excellence by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

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 Midwest’s Food System is Failing. Here’s Why. https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/the-midwests-food-system-is-failing-heres-why https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/the-midwests-food-system-is-failing-heres-why#comments Tue, 17 Jul 2018 14:21:18 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59818
Photo: dvs/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

If you’ve perused the new UCS 50-State Food System Scorecard, you’ve probably noticed a seeming contradiction. As shown on the map below, the heavily agricultural states in the middle of the country aren’t exactly knocking it out of the park when it comes to the overall health and sustainability of their food and farming systems. On the contrary, most of the leading farm states of the Midwest reside in the basement of our overall ranking.

OVERALL STATE FOOD SYSTEM RANKINGS

So what’s that about? A couple of reasons stand out to me.

First, much of what the Midwest grows today isn’t really food (much less healthy food).

It’s funny. But not really.

It’s true. While we often hear that the region’s farmers are feeding America and the world, in fact much of the Midwest’s farm output today is comprised of just two crops: corn and soybeans. There are various reasons for that, including some problematic food and farm polices, but that’s the reality.

Take the state of Indiana, for example. When I arrived there in 1992 for graduate school (go Hoosiers!), I bought the postcard at right. That year, Indiana farmers had planted 6.1 million acres of corn, followed by 4.55 million acres of soybeans. Together, the two crops covered more than two-thirds of the state’s total farm acres that year.

The situation remains much the same today, except that the crops have switched places: this year, Indiana farmers planted 6.2 million acres of soybeans and “just” 5.1 million acres of corn. Nationwide, soybean acreage will top corn in 2018 for the first time in 35 years.

Regardless of whether corn or soy reigns supreme, the fact is that most of it isn’t destined for our plates. Today, much of the corn goes into our gas tanks. The chart below shows how total US corn production tracked the commodity’s use for ethanol from 1986 to 2016:

Reprinted from the US Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, https://www.afdc.energy.gov/data/10339.

The two dominant Midwest crops also feed livestock to produce meat in industrial feedlots, and they become ingredients for heavily processed foods. A 2013 Scientific American essay summarized the problem with corn:

Although U.S. corn is a highly productive crop, with typical yields between 140 and 160 bushels per acre, the resulting delivery of food by the corn system is far lower. Today’s corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens). Much of the rest is exported.  Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.

All this is a big part of why, when UCS assessed the extent to which each US state is producing food that can contribute to healthy diets—using measures including percentage of cropland in fruits and vegetables, percentage of cropland in the top three crops (where a higher number means lower diversity), percentage of principal crop acres used for major animal feed and fuel crops, and meat production and large feeding operations per farm acres—we arrived at this map:

RANKINGS BY FOOD PRODUCED

As you can see, the bottom of our scorecard’s “food produced” ranking is dominated by Midwestern states. This includes the nation’s top corn-producing states—Iowa (#50) and Illinois (#48), which together account for about one-third of the entire US crop. It also includes my one-time home, Indiana (#49), where just 0.2 percent of the state’s 14.7 million farm acres was dedicated to vegetables, fruits/nuts, and berries in 2012.

Now let’s switch gears to look at another reason the Midwest performs so poorly overall in our scorecard.

Today’s Midwest agriculture tends to work against nature, not with it.

In addition to the fact that the Midwest currently produces primarily non-food and processed food crops, there’s also a big problem with the way it typically produces those commodities. Again, for a number of reasons—including the shape of federal farm subsidies—the agricultural landscape in states such as Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana is dominated by monoculture (a single crop planted year after year) or a slightly better two-crop rotation (you guessed it, corn and soybeans). These oversimplified farm ecosystems, combined with the common practice of plowing (aka tilling) the soil before each planting, degrade the soil and require large applications of fertilizer, much of which runs off farm fields to pollute lakes and streams. Lack of crop diversity also leads to more insect pests, increasing the need for pesticides. Moreover, as corn is increasingly grown in dry pockets of the Midwest such as Kansas and Nebraska, it requires ever-larger quantities of irrigation water. Finally, the whole system relies heavily on fossil fuels to run tilling, planting, spraying, and harvesting equipment.

No wonder that whether we look at resource reliance (including use of commercial fertilizers and chemical pesticides, irrigation, and fuel use) or, conversely, implementation of more sustainable practices (reduced tillage, cover crops, and organic practices, among others), most Midwest states once again lag.

                RANKINGS BY RESOURCE RELIANCE

 

RANKINGS BY USE OF CONSERVATION PRACTICES

 

 

But Midwestern farmers want to change the map.

To sum up: in general, the Midwest is using up a variety of limited resources and farming in ways that degrade its soil and water, while falling far short of producing the variety of foods we need for healthy diets. Not a great system. But there are hopeful signs that the region may be starting to change course.

For example, in Iowa, more and more farmers are expanding their crop rotations to add oats or other small grains, which research has shown aids in regenerating soils, improving soil health, and delivering clean water, while also increasing productivity and maintaining profits. Diversifying crops in the field can also help to diversify our food supply and improve nutrition.

Back in my alma mater state of Indiana, farmers planted 970,000 acres of cover crops in 2017—making these soil protectors the third-most planted crop in the state. And in a surprising turn of events just last week, Ohio’s Republican governor signed an executive order that will require farmers in eight Northwest Ohio watersheds to take steps to curb runoff that contributes to a recurring problem of toxic algae in Lake Erie that hurts recreation and poisons Toledo’s drinking water.

A recent UCS poll provides additional evidence that farmers across the region are looking for change. Earlier this year, we asked more than 2,800 farmers across the partisan divide in seven states (Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) about federal farm policies that today incentivize the Midwest agricultural status quo. Nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated they are looking for a farm bill that prioritizes soil and water conservation, while 69 percent supported policies (like farm-to-school supports) that help farmers grow more real food for local consumption. More than 70 percent even said they’d be more likely to back a candidate for public office who favors such priorities.

Speaking of the farm bill, things are coming to a head in Congress this summer over that $1 trillion legislative package that affects all aspects of our food system. As the clock ticks toward a September 30 deadline, the shape of the next farm bill is in question, with drastically different proposals passed by the House and the Senate. Critically important programs—including investments that could help farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere produce more healthy food and farm more sustainably—are at risk.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

Leaders from the House and Senate need to come together to hash out their differences and agree on a compromise before the current farm bill expires. As they negotiate behind closed doors this summer, urge them to prioritize proven, science-based policies and programs that will alleviate hunger, improve nutrition, sustain our land, soil, and water, and help farmers prosper. Add your name to our petition to farm bill negotiators today!

 

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The Endangered Species Act is Itself Endangered https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/the-endangered-species-act-is-itself-endangered https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/the-endangered-species-act-is-itself-endangered#comments Mon, 16 Jul 2018 18:30:38 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59813
The endangered margay. Photo: Proyecto Asis/Flickr

In the last two weeks, both the Senate and House have introduced bills proposing damaging amendments to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the leading piece of science-based legislation used to protect and recover biodiversity in the United States. Notably, Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) and long-time critic of the Act, released a discussion draft of the bill he’s been working on entitled, “the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 2018.” The changes to the Act would introduce more routes for political interference under the guise of increased transparency, while relegating science to an afterthought instead of the basis upon which Endangered Species Act decisions are made. An EPW hearing is scheduled for tomorrow morning, where representatives from Wyoming, Colorado, and Virginia will testify before the committee on the proposed changes to the Act.

Here are some of the most concerning pieces of the misguided Barrasso proposal and what you need to know:

Section 109: State feedback regarding United States Fish and Wildlife Service employees

This section requires State agencies working with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on species conservation, management, and recovery or other interactions relating to implementation of the ESA, to provide annual performance feedback to the FWS Director regarding the responsiveness and effectiveness of the individual FWS employee(s) to state and local authorities and various other stakeholders.  This is nothing more than an intimidation tactic that could lead to scientists either being punished for saying things others don’t want to hear, or self-censoring for fear of putting their jobs in jeopardy. It opens the possibility for states hostile to conservation work to give negative feedback unfairly, or to simply bring allegations against employees to undermine their work, with no mechanism to refute or respond on behalf of the federal public servants. Ultimately, this limits the ability of FWS scientists to independently assess the science and make evidence-based recommendations to protect imperiled species, therefore rendering the Endangered Species Act less effective.

Section 301: Policy relating to best scientific and commercial data available

This section gives a green light to the politicization of the science-based determination of whether a species needs protections. It establishes a policy where the Secretary of the Interior, not a scientific expert, could assign greater weight to some data. The goal of this section is to automatically give State, Tribal, and local information greater weight regardless of its scope or quality.  Of course, such data is currently considered, but it should not be given undue consideration. In the event the Secretary finds the State, Tribal, or local data inconsistent with the “best scientific and commercial data available”, he or she will be required to provide a written explanation to the State, Tribal, or local government as well as Congress, and include it in the administrative record. This could discourage the agency from saying that the information is weak because of the political cost of doing so.

Section 302: Transparency of information

In an effort to slow the species listing process, this section would require all raw data be released on the listing. Furthermore, any state or local information used for listing decisions must be approved by said state or local government before publishing.  Again, this would lead to FWS or the states censoring the scientific information used to determine if a species needs protections.  And it would increase the procedural requirements for assembling the scientific information, slowing the process.

This section is a deliberate misinterpretation of the process we have now and will succeed only in making the Endangered Species Act process more difficult. It has been drafted under the false premise that FWS does not already heavily involve or communicate with all stakeholders, including state, local, and tribal governments.  And it implies with no justification that the federal agencies are “hiding something,” which further politicizes the process.

The Endangered Species Act has prevented 99% of species listed under the law from going extinct. The decisions on whether species need protection are based solely on the best available science. Giving greater authority to states that often lack the resources, political will, and national perspective to protect species is, to put it simply, a bad idea. Statutes like the Endangered Species Act are in place to set a national commitment, in this case for saving endangered or threatened wildlife from extinction by focusing first on science. But the changes proposed by Senator Barrasso would politicize the process and add undue procedural burdens, putting wildlife at risk for short-term political gains.

As both the House and Senate try to rush through changes to the Endangered Species Act, call your member of Congress to tell them that a law meant to protect our precious wildlife resources and habitats should not be politicized.  These endangered species and all of our natural resources depend upon stopping species extinctions.

Photo: Proyecto Asis
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The EPA Should Not Restrict The Science They Use To Protect Us https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/the-epa-should-not-restrict-the-science-they-use-to-protect-us https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/the-epa-should-not-restrict-the-science-they-use-to-protect-us#comments Mon, 16 Jul 2018 14:09:34 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59805

On Tuesday morning, the Environmental Protection Agency is holding their only hearing on their proposed rule that would restrict the science that the agency is allowed to consider in developing health and safety protections. My colleagues and I have written extensively about this proposal. On Tuesday, I will have the opportunity to speak directly to the agency about this proposal. I will have five minutes. Here is what I intend to say:

“Good morning. I am Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. We advocate for the role of science in public policy. I am here today to ask that you rescind this proposed rule because it would only restrict EPA’s ability to use the best available science to fulfill its mission of protecting public health and the environment, while doing nothing to improve transparency in decision-making.

First and foremost, this proposal is fatally flawed because it provides almost no justification or analysis of the impacts of the proposed change in policy. There is no cost benefit analysis of the rule with respect to the agency and external researchers, nor how it would affect EPA’s mission-critical work. Additionally, the proposal would effectively prevent the EPA from using many kinds of scientific studies vital to its decision-making. This includes, but is not limited to, studies that rely on personal health data, confidential business information, intellectual property, or older studies where the authors or data sources may not be accessible. Without the ability to use this scientific information, EPA would be unable to meet its mission and statutory obligations. This proposal would make it significantly harder for EPA to use the best available science to protect the public, including from:

  • Harmful emissions of hazardous air pollutants, particulate matter and ozone
  • Exposure to dangerous chemicals in commerce
  • Drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals such as PFAS or lead

Further, CBO has calculated that such restrictions would substantially increase costs and burdens to an agency that is already experiencing budget cuts, reorganizations, and understaffing, thus undermining the ability of EPA to make decisions based on science.

The proposed rule could also prevent the agency from addressing the impacts of dangerous chemicals at low concentrations where direct measurements are very difficult. This would have the effect of leaving Americans unprotected even when there was clear indication of harms to human health.

I have over 30 years of experience in government service, academia, and non-profit leadership. I have authored or reviewed 100s of peer reviewed scientific papers. As part of my government service, I worked as a scientist and in a policy position at a regulatory agency. In universities as a faculty member and dean. I understand how agencies use science in policymaking, how research at universities is conducted, and how these entities incorporate best practices of transparency into their scientific work. As a frequent peer reviewer I do not review the raw data for studies, since that would tell me little. I review the research questions, the methods, the summarized data, the results and conclusions in order to assess the quality of the work. EPA’s proposed rule would do nothing to improve transparency for scientists, policy-makers or the public. Crafting the rule without consulting with the scientific community is a fatal error for this proposal. Even the agency’s own Science Advisory Board has noted the need to consult with scientists in any further development of this proposal.

A further fatal flaw is that the proposed rule would replace scientific evidence with political judgement. The rule would grant the EPA administrator broad authority to exclude individual studies or entire decisions from being subject to its provisions. Decisions on what science to rely on should be made by the agency’s scientific experts based on established criteria for best available science.

Five minutes is not enough time to cover all of the problems with this proposal. At best, this proposed rule is a misguided attempt at transparency. At worst, it is a backdoor attempt to prevent EPA from protecting public health.

UCS supports real transparency reforms. We support scientific integrity policies that prevent political interference in scientific analyses and reporting. We do not believe researchers should be put in the absurd position of choosing between protecting study participant privacy or informing the EPA ‘s efforts to protect public health and safety.

On behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists and our 500,000 supporters I urge the EPA not to move forward with this rulemaking and to continue to allow the agency’s scientists and policy analysts to use the best science available to inform their work.”

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House of Representatives Boosts Massachusetts Clean Energy; What’s Next? https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/house-of-representatives-boosts-massachusetts-clean-energy-whats-next https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/house-of-representatives-boosts-massachusetts-clean-energy-whats-next#comments Fri, 13 Jul 2018 17:24:32 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59792
Photo: John Rogers

The Massachusetts House of Representatives is moving on clean energy, and that’s really important. Here’s what’s noteworthy about yesterday’s votes, and what should happen next.

The house speaks

Yesterday the house took up a pack of legislative bills that have the potential to move clean energy forward for Massachusetts and the region.

  1. Renewable energy – The house unanimously approved an increase to the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS), to boost it from its current requirement on utilities of 25% renewables by 2030 to 35% by 2030, and drive clean energy for Massachusetts households and businesses. An amendment from the one of the state’s most vocal offshore wind champions, Rep. Patricia Haddad, would have the state look at upping its offshore wind requirement, passed in 2016 and producing important results, from 1,600 megawatts by 2030 to 3,200 megawatts by 2035.
  2. Energy efficiency – The house also passed bills that would help the #1-in-the-nation Bay State up its energy efficiency game even further. One bill would deepen efficiency efforts in general, and another would update appliance efficiency standards to keep driving innovation and cutting pollution—and save Massachusetts consumers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
  3. Energy storage – Another bill passed by the house aims to “improve [electricity] grid resiliency through energy storage,” boosting the state’s investment in storage innovation, and requiring Massachusetts utilities to assess and improve their electricity transmission and distribution systems, including through consideration of “non wires alternatives” like energy storage.

These actions are important. In our bicameral system, nothing happens in the legislature unless both the house and senate agree on it, so the house boost is welcome.

This wouldn’t have happened without the house leadership, and we owe credit, too, to a sign-on letter led by long-time house climate champion Rep. Frank Smizik, which garnered support from more than half of the representatives.

And we’re not done.

More clean energy, closer now (Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS)

What’s next: Solar, senate, soon

In terms of next steps, the nearest term to-do on clean energy for the house is to pass something on solar, as called for in the Smizik letter. And not just anything, but a bill that removes the barriers that are standing in the way of solar development in various parts of the state, clarifies the legislative intent on fixed charges that the state’s utilities seem to have misunderstood, and boosts solar opportunities for low-income households.

Then we need the house and senate, which passed its own clean energy package last month, to hammer things out between the different bills.

The final package should include a strong RPS increase; removal of barriers to solar for low-income customers, customers as a whole, and our solar industry; energy efficiency’s next act; a push for energy storage; and, given carbon pollution, a boost for transportation electrification.

This all can happen before the legislative session ends on July 31, and it needs to. To get Massachusetts as quickly as possible to its clean energy future, for our clean energy economy and clean energy jobs, for cutting pollution and addressing climate change, we need leadership from our representatives and their counterparts in the senate. Yesterday was an important next step.

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS
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Intimidation, Disinformation, the Formula Industry and the Next Dietary Guidelines https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/intimidation-disinformation-the-formula-industry-and-the-next-dietary-guidelines https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/intimidation-disinformation-the-formula-industry-and-the-next-dietary-guidelines#respond Thu, 12 Jul 2018 14:04:05 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59781
Photo: Bradley Gordon/Flickr

It’s nearly time for the federal government to update its Dietary Guidelines for the public, and this time around the recommendations will include legally mandated dietary guidance for pregnant women, infants, and toddlers (from birth to age 24 months). With that in mind, my colleagues and I were troubled to read of a dust-up over infant formula that occurred at the World Health Organization this past spring.

According to attendees of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, the United States advocated for industry positions as it negotiated a draft resolution on infant and young child feeding, threatening countries with trade retaliation if they introduced the resolution as written. This led to Ecuador who had originally drafted the resolution to pull out from introducing it. Fortunately, Russia stepped in to reintroduce it and member countries worked together to ensure the passage of a version with strong language in support of breastfeeding over breast milk substitute therein, however the final version was missing some important provisions, including one that would give member countries the ability to ask the WHO director general for support in “implementation, mobilization of financial resources, monitoring and assessment” and legal and regulatory enforcement of the code and those countries seeking to halt “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and children.”

This type of inappropriate interference from the infant formula industry and the willingness of the US to aggressively push for its positions by employing threats of trade restrictions does not bode well for the what lies ahead for the Dietary Guidelines, the process for which kicked off this year. Like with all science-based processes in federal policymaking, there is an opportunity for undue influence to occur to obscure the facts in order to achieve outcomes that maintain the status quo. And undue industry influence is not a stranger to this process. For example, in the 2015 guidelines, the final recommendations failed to incorporate all of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s  (DGAC’s) evidence-based recommendations that food system sustainability be incorporated into the guidelines, after the big food industry players, most notably the meat industry, opposed the scientific conclusion. Already, the Infant Nutrition Council of America has been actively engaged in the start of the Dietary Guidelines 2020 process, and has lobbied the USDA and HHS on the issue this year. While it makes sense that they’re weighing in on this process, there is no room for inappropriate influence and false characterization of the science.

The formula industry’s long, sordid history spreading misinformation

Three companies dominate the infant formula market: Nestle, Abbott Laboratories, and Mead Johnson. They are members of the Infant Nutrition Council of America, the trade association representing the infant formula industry. There’s a long history of the infant formula and baby food manufacturers pushing back against science-based policies that would limit their ability to make health claims on or sell their products to limited demographics. As a result, we’ve seen delays to evidence-based added sugar labels, missed opportunities to tighten the language on health claims in children’s foods, and even the language in government breastfeeding campaigns toned down.

The infant formula industry used this same disinformation playbook tactic as in the recent WHO proceedings decades ago. In 1977, there was a massive boycott of major formula maker Nestle that urged participants not to buy Nestle products until the company stopped misleading advertising that favored bottle-feeding over breastfeeding. The company then ardently fought against a WHO/UNICEF Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes which, once passed in 1981, prevented formula companies from targeting mothers and health care providers with promotions and health claims on packaging. When it passed, 118 countries voted to approve. The United States was absent from that list of countries, presumably because of industry sway.

Breaking down the science on breastfeeding

Leading scientific authorities on maternal and children’s health at The American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Public Health Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life as the preferred method of infant feeding due to the health benefits for both mother and child. The literature on breastfeeding has revealed its association with a variety of beneficial health outcomes including decreased risk of asthma, obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and respiratory tract infections for the infant and decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and breast and ovarian cancers for the mother. Not only is it healthful, but it is cost-effective. A 2013 Lancet series on maternal and child nutrition estimates that universal breastfeeding would prevent the deaths of over 800,000 children and 20,000 mothers, saving $300 billion globally each year. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, in the United States alone, if 90% of families breastfed exclusively for 6 months, it would save $13 billion per year in healthcare costs and prevent 911 deaths.

It’s imperative that moms are supported in breastfeeding as an option, some moms are unable to for a variety of reasons and formula is the best alternative. Having breast milk substitutes as alternatives is crucial, but spreading misleading information about the benefits of formula over breastfeeding and marketing accordingly to certain demographic groups is completely irresponsible.

Despite what President Trump and others might argue about the need for infant formula for poor women in developing countries, the data has shown that it may actually be more feasible for women to produce healthy breast milk than to have access to clean water to mix with powdered infant formula to feed their infants. A 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research study found that the availability of formula actually increased infant mortality by 9.4 per 1,000 births and estimated that, as a result, 66,000 infants died in low- and middle-income countries just in 1981.

The 2020 Dietary Guidelines must preserve scientific integrity

UCS submitted comments to HHS and USDA in April on the Dietary Guidelines process urging the agencies to “maintain a high degree of integrity, autonomy, and transparency to ensure that the guidelines represent the best available science and avoid any bias that could work against the interests of public health.” In other words, the US government cannot allow the makers of infant formula to pressure them into weaker dietary guidelines that go against the best available science. Ultimately, we need access to accurate information so that we can make dietary decisions that help us achieve optimal health through nutrition, and we are counting on our government to rely on evidence, not industry talking points on matters of our children’s health. We will continue to monitor this process as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is formed in the coming months to ensure that scientific integrity at the agencies is upheld.

 

Photo: Bradley Gordon
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Congress Must Extend and Reform the National Flood Insurance Program https://blog.ucsusa.org/rachel-cleetus/congress-must-extend-and-reform-the-national-flood-insurance-program https://blog.ucsusa.org/rachel-cleetus/congress-must-extend-and-reform-the-national-flood-insurance-program#respond Wed, 11 Jul 2018 20:44:14 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59764

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is up for re-authorization by the end of July. As flood risks grow around the nation, it’s time for Congress to reform and update this vital 50-year old program to better protect people and property. Without appropriate action, a warming climate coupled with rapid development in floodplains will raise the human and economic toll of flood disasters while taxpayer dollars are squandered on risky, business-as-usual investments.

Why the NFIP is so important

Last year’s devastating hurricane season brought unprecedented flooding to Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. This year, we’ve already seen terrible floods across the nation, in the Midwest, in Ellicott City, MD, in California and many more places. The NFIP is critical to getting people back on their feet after these types of disasters. And now Congress must pass reforms to the program also help ensure that it works to limit harms going forward.

In previous blog posts here and here, I’ve explained how the NFIP is more than just an insurance program, it’s intended to be a floodplain management and flood risk mitigation program. And today, with just over 5 million flood insurance policies in force, it’s the single largest source of flood insurance for homeowners and small businesses—making it vital for the economic well-being of communities.

Why reforms to the NFIP are essential

Unfortunately, over the years, Congress has failed to make adequate investments in accurate flood risk maps. That means that many Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood risk maps are seriously outdated and even the updated ones don’t reflect future conditions such as projections of sea level rise. It has also underfunded and failed to incentivize measures to encourage homeowners and communities to reduce their flood risks.

Outdated maps, subsidized flood insurance premiums and repeated payouts for business-as-usual rebuilding in floodplains after disasters have masked communities’ awareness of their flood risks and blunted incentives to reduce those risks and limit development in areas prone to flooding.

The NFIP was originally conceived as a program that would help homeowners access affordable flood insurance coverage (at a time when the private sector was increasingly unable to provide this service) and reduce future flood risks by incentivizing risk-mitigation measures and discouraging development in floodplains.  It was never designed to cope with the types of extreme flood disasters the nation has experienced recently, relying as it does on affordable insurance premiums and modest Congressional appropriations for its budget.

A series of major storms—including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria—have had a dire effect on the program’s finances, forcing it to borrow ever-increasing amounts from the US Treasury. Last year, $16 billion of the NFIP’s debt to the Treasury was forgiven, the first time this has happened. The program’s debt stands at about $20.5 billion now, although claims from last year’s hurricane season are still not fully resolved.

Meanwhile flood risks are growing in many places around the nation. A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that, in just the next 30 years, hundreds of thousands of coastal homes and commercial properties worth billions of dollars are at risk from chronic flooding worsened by sea level rise. In many inland areas, heavy rainfall events are also on the rise due to climate change, contributing to growing flood risks in non-coastal communities.

Another recent study found that the total US population exposed to serious flooding is significantly higher than previously estimated. According to the study: “Nearly 41 million Americans live within the 1% annual exceedance probability floodplain (compared to only 13 million when calculated using FEMA flood maps).”

Both along the coasts and in inland floodplains, growing development in flood-prone areas is exacerbating exposure to flood risk by putting more people and property in harm’s way and reducing the ability of our landscapes to naturally absorb water.

All these challenges together are threatening the viability of the NFIP in its current form. But with the right reforms, the NFIP can play a vital role in making our nation more flood-resilient. What’s more, Congress can ensure that taxpayer dollars invested through the program are spent wisely to limit the costs of future disasters.

How Congress can fix the NFIP

These five reforms to the NFIP would go a long way to making the program more effective, equitable and science-based, while ensuring taxpayer dollars are well spent:

  • Updating flood risk maps nationwide using the latest technology and to reflect the latest science, consistent with the recommendations of the Technical Mapping Advisory Council. Congress will also need to appropriate sufficient funds to make this possible.
  • Phasing in risk-based insurance premiums and expanding the number of people carrying insurance to ensure adequate coverage for the growing numbers of homes exposed to flood risk, and to put the program on a more financially and actuarially-sound footing.
  • Addressing affordability considerations for low- and moderate-income households through targeted vouchers, rebates, grants and low-interest loans for flood mitigation measures. FEMA’s recently-issued affordability framework provides some useful guidance, as do reports from the National Research Council.
  • Providing more resources for homeowners and communities to invest in reducing their flood risks ahead of disasters, including expanding funding for voluntary home buyout programs especially in places that flood repeatedly. Budgets for FEMA’s pre-disaster mitigation program and flood mitigation assistance programs should also be expanded.
  • Ensuring that a well-regulated private sector flood insurance market complements the NFIP without undermining it, including mandating that private insurers contribute to flood mapping fees and provide coverage at least as broad as NFIP policies.

Bills before Congress

There are several bills under congressional consideration currently, including three in the Senate—the Cassidy-Gillibrand bill (S.1313 – Flood Insurance Affordability and Sustainability Act of 2017), the Sustainable, Affordable, Fair and Efficient National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (SAFE NFIP) 2017 co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators, and the Crapo-Brown bill (The National Flood Insurance Reauthorization Act of 2107)—and the House (the 21st Century Flood Reform Act).

More details on the bills’ provisions are here.

None of these bills on their own deliver the full set of reforms needed and there are clearly deep differences in the House and the Senate versions.

Of particular concern are attempts in the House bill to promote private flood insurance at the expense of weakening the NFIP, rather than ensuring that the private insurance market and the NFIP work side-by-side to increase the number of people with robust insurance coverage.

Efforts to move toward risk-based insurance premiums must be accompanied by strong affordability provisions for low and fixed income households, as well as enhanced resources for flood mitigation measures. Without these provisions, those who can least cope with the impacts of flooding will be unable to afford insurance or unable to take steps to reduce their risks. There is bipartisan support for better flood risk maps, but Congress must commit to adequate budgets for FEMA to carry out this important work.

Reasonable people on both sides of the aisle should recognize that communities need help coping with growing flood risks, and a robust, reformed NFIP must be an important part of the solution.

Legislation requiring the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the issue of voluntary home buyouts is also pending and should be passed.

Time to stop punting on much-needed reforms

Since the end of the last fiscal year in September 2017, the NFIP has had six short-term re-authorizations—the latest of which ends on July 31. Each time, Congress has failed to wrestle with much-needed reforms. The version of the Farm Bill that recently passed the Senate included a provision for  “straight re-authorization” to extend the NFIP for six months without any reforms. It is unclear as of now if the House will adopt a similar proposal.

Congress must stop punting on much-needed reforms to the NFIP so that the program can serve the nation well in the decades ahead. Communities on the frontlines of worsening flood risks need help now and they don’t have unlimited time to wait as Congress dithers.

 

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Monsanto Drags IARC Into the Depths of Its Disinformation Campaign on Glyphosate https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/monsanto-drags-iarc-into-the-depths-of-its-disinformation-campaign-on-glyphosate https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/monsanto-drags-iarc-into-the-depths-of-its-disinformation-campaign-on-glyphosate#comments Wed, 11 Jul 2018 19:43:59 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59721

Industry lobbyists have learned that a tried and true way to delay or block unwanted policy proposals is to attack the science supporting those policies and the integrity of the institutions that have conducted the science. We’ve seen this time and time again as plays in the disinformation playbook.

Language from the House of Representatives’ draft HHS fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill.

One of these examples is continuing to play out right now. Monsanto and the American Chemistry Council have launched a full-throttle attack on the international scientific body, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), after it issued a review of the scientific literature in 2015 that concluded that the herbicide, glyphosate, is a probable carcinogen. The latest development in this years-long effort? A rider on the House version of the HHS appropriations bill that would prevent the National Institutes of Health from lending any financial support to IARC unless it agrees to push for reforms at IARC that have been called for by Lamar Smith and the House Science Committee at the bequest of the chemical industry.

So why all the fuss about IARC and its glyphosate review?

IARC is an arm of the World Health Organization and funded by 24 governments, and predominantly by the NIH National Cancer Institute. It has been reviewing the evidence on potentially carcinogenic agents for over four decades and has been continually improving its process to maintain rigor, objectivity, and transparency.

Enter glyphosate. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s best-selling weedkiller, Roundup, and is used on the majority of commodity crops in the United States because it is effective at controlling a variety of weed types. Any change in the safety determination of this chemical would shake up the messaging that the company has used for years. Monsanto got to work quickly using several plays in the disinformation playbook to control the science and the narrative.

Monsanto’s campaign to tarnish IARC’s credibility

IARC’s monograph volume 112 evaluated glyphosate and four other herbicides by reviewing the published, peer-reviewed scientific literature available and classifying it as a “probable carcinogen.” It was published in March 2015.  A complex campaign to challenge the IARC study and IARC itself had also begun from Monsanto even before the monograph came out since they were tipped off by a former EPA employee on the document’s conclusions months beforehand. Documents released in 2017 revealed that as a part of their plan, they would attempt to get a former IARC member to publish a paper on IARC that would discuss “how it was formed, how it works, hasn’t evolved over time, they are archaic and not needed now.” They would try to form “crop protection advisory groups,” conduct scientific papers on animal carcinogenicity for which “majority of writing can be done by Monsanto” to keep costs down. Monsanto even ghostwrote at least one opinion piece about IARC that was published in Forbes.

In early 2017, the American Chemistry Council (of which Monsanto is a member) started an organization called the Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research aimed at setting the record straight on cancer determinations for certain items, including glyphosate, red meat, and cell phones by promoting “credible, unbiased, and transparent science as the basis for public policy decisions.” On its website, there are several pieces that attack IARC’s process. This appeared to be almost directly a response to the IARC’s 2015 classification as glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

Not only was an assault launched on the institution, but the scientists at the helm of IARC and those who composed the glyphosate workgroup have been harassed and their integrity challenged. The conservative advocacy group and known FOIA abusers, Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E and E Legal) filed a series of open record requests to IARC panelists asking for deliberative documents about the glyphosate monograph, to which IARC has told scientists not to release the documents because IARC is the owner of those materials, seeking to defend panelists’ right to debate evidence openly and critically which does not need to be subject to public scrutiny.

The House of Representatives Science Committee, led by the fossil fuel and chemical industry’s favorite champion Lamar Smith, has sent multiple letters to IARC Director, Christopher Wild, questioning the integrity of glyphosate workgroup to which he has responded (in November 2017 and January 2018) and defended both the participating scientists and the institution and its process as upholding the “highest principles of transparency, independence, and scientific integrity.”

This whole campaign is eerily similar to the Sugar Association’s effort to derail a World Health Organization (WHO) report that recommended a 10 percent limit on calorie intake from added sugars back in 2003. The report, produced by the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in consultation with 30 health experts, reviewed the scientific literature and concluded that added sugars “threaten the nutritional quality of diets” and that limiting sugar intake would be “likely to contribute to reducing the risk of unhealthy weight gain.” In a letter to the WHO, the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Sugar Association demanded that the report be removed from WHO websites, arguing that “taxpayer dollars should not be used to support misguided, non-science-based reports.” The letter also threatened the suspension of U.S. funding to the WHO, warning, “We will exercise every avenue available to expose the dubious nature of [the report] including asking Congressional appropriators to challenge future funding” to the WHO. In addition to attacking the WHO directly, the Sugar Association, along with six other industry trade associations wrote a letter to the secretary of HHS Tommy Thompson asking for his “personal intervention” in removing the WHO/FAO report from the WHO website and challenging the report’s recommended sugar intake limit. Unfortunately, this effort was effective in limiting the report’s influence on health policy. The World Health Assembly—the WHO’s decisionmaking body and the world’s highest health-policy-setting entity—issued a global health strategy on diet and health the following year, and the strategy contained no reference to the comprehensive WHO/FAO report.

IARC must be protected

We need more independent bodies conducting scientific reviews of the chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis, not fewer. And we certainly need to hang on to the institutions that currently provide us with this much-needed service. Over one hundred scientists and health professionals from US and international institutions published a paper in 2015 evaluating IARC’s role over the course of the past 40 years, outlining its role in identifying carcinogenic substances and informing important public health policy decisions.  They push back against recent criticisms, writing, “We are concerned…that the criticisms expressed by a vocal minority regarding the evaluations of a few agents may promote the denigration of a process that has served the public and public health well for many decades for reasons that are not supported by data.” They further write, “disagreement with the conclusions in an IARC Monograph for an individual agent is not evidence for a failed or biased approach.” Indeed, Monsanto doesn’t have grounds to question the integrity of an entire institution just because its findings are inconvenient.

This most recent attempt to use the appropriations process to cut funding to this scientific body is a glaring example of the way in which the disinformation playbook is employed in sometimes more subtle ways that can have dramatic impacts. Funding of our agencies should not be bogged down by ideological and political riders that can have dramatic impacts on science-based policymaking and the future of international science institutions. The language requiring NIH to restrict IARC funding if certain terms aren’t met should be stripped from the HHS funding bill and IARC should continue to receive US funding to help support all of its important work reviewing the cancer risk of environmental contaminants to inform safety thresholds across the globe.


NOTE: This post has been edited to remove the name of the former IARC staffer that Monsanto suggested they would contact about publishing a paper on IARC, since he did not write such a paper.

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VW Settlement: A Needed Jolt for Electric Trucks and Buses, But More Is Needed https://blog.ucsusa.org/jimmy-odea/vw-settlement-a-needed-jolt-for-electric-trucks-and-buses-but-more-is-needed https://blog.ucsusa.org/jimmy-odea/vw-settlement-a-needed-jolt-for-electric-trucks-and-buses-but-more-is-needed#respond Wed, 11 Jul 2018 18:18:41 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59728
Photo: 運転太郎/Wikimedia Commons

It has been nearly three years since the Volkswagen diesel scandal first broke. Since then, a handful of settlements have been reached, one of which provides states funding to offset the extra pollution emitted by defective Volkswagens.

A dozen states have recently finalized such funding plans and others are taking public comment on draft plans. These plans offset a majority of the pollution by providing financial incentives for the purchase of clean trucks and buses.

And rightfully so. Trucks and buses make up a small fraction of vehicles on the road (7 percent), but a disproportionately large fraction of emissions. In fifteen states, heavy-duty vehicles make up the largest source of NOx emissions from the transportation sector, despite being significantly outnumbered by cars.

For many states, the Volkswagen settlement likely represents their largest single investment in clean technologies for heavy-duty vehicles. Combined with the allure of a scandal, there’s a deserved buzz about these spending plans.

As news around the Volkswagen settlements continues, there’s two important things to keep in mind: (1) this settlement is only a fraction of the incentive funding we need to spur the deployment of electric trucks and buses, and (2) if history is our guide, incentives are only part of the equation. Solutions to global warming and air pollution ultimately rest on large scale market shifts in response to plans, commitments, and standards, such as vehicle fuel efficiency standards and renewable electricity standards.

Righting the wrongs of the Volkswagen diesel scandal

If you haven’t followed the Volkswagen diesel scandal, here’s a quick recap: In 2015, Volkswagen (and its subsidiary Audi) admitted to intentionally cheating on emissions tests affecting 580,000 diesel cars sold in the United States since 2009. The cars’ emissions of nitrogen oxides (“NOx,” a precursor to ground level ozone, aka smog) are a head-shaking 10 to 40 times higher than what’s allowed under law.

Settlements were reached between the California Air Resources Board (which led the investigation against Volkswagen), the US EPA, and Volkswagen requiring the company to (1) buy back or fix the polluting vehicles (estimated at $10 billion); (2) invest in charging infrastructure and consumer education for electric vehicles ($2 billion); and (3) provide funding to states and tribes to offset the extra pollution emitted by the cars ($2.9 billion).*

States are taking public comment on plans to offset pollution from Volkswagens

Actions eligible to offset pollution include replacing old trucks, buses, and freight equipment. Up to 15 percent of a state’s plan can also be used for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and hydrogen fueling stations.

States have discretion as to which types of vehicles and equipment to invest in, whether zero-emission battery and fuel cell technologies or combustion technologies. Importantly, plans must consider how the investments can benefit communities that bear a disproportionate share of air pollution.

A dozen states have already approved Volkswagen mitigation plans

Plans from Wyoming, Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maine, Utah, and Wisconsin remain broad, with many types of trucks and buses eligible for funding. In these cases, important decisions will come as the funding is awarded to specific applicants.

Other states’ plans have provided more details. Georgia’s focuses exclusively on electric shuttle buses at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and new buses for the XpressGA commuter service. Minnesota’s plan uses a phased approach, evaluating its funding priorities over time. Arizona’s plan focuses exclusively on public fleet vehicles, with most funding going towards school buses. Oregon’s plan only allows funding for school buses but, unfortunately, caps funding at $50,000 per vehicle. This amount is likely not enough to encourage school districts to buy electric buses, which are the best option for children’s health.

California recently approved the largest Volkswagen mitigation plan

As the state with the largest number of defective Volkswagens, California will receive the largest amount of funding to offset the vehicles’ pollution ($423 million). California’s recently approved plan provides the strongest signal amongst states’ plans for electrification, directing $300 million towards zero-emission buses, trucks, and equipment. More than 50 percent of California’s plan will benefit low-income or disadvantaged communities.

California’s plan strikes an appropriate balance, with significant funding going towards the cleanest (zero-emission) technologies and a more measured amount ($60 million) for combustion vehicles and equipment in categories where zero-emission technology is less developed. This combination of investments is expected to more than offset the Volkswagen pollution. UCS joined many other groups across the state in supporting California’s plan.

Table showing allocations of investments in California's Volkswagen environmental mitigation funding plan.

A summary of California’s plan for offsetting Volkswagens’ illegal emissions.

Putting the Volkswagen settlement into perspective

As large of a windfall as the $2.9 billion Volkswagen settlement is, it won’t be enough to meet our clean air and climate goals. In fact, its primary intention is to offset just the emissions from Volkswagen cars that were above the legal limit. But to meet our air quality and climate goals, we have to reduce a lot more pollution than from 580,000 Volkswagens.

State budgets: less flashy, but equally important investments

Last week, an even larger commitment to clean vehicles continued with passage of California’s annual budget and allocation of the state’s cap and trade revenues. State budgets don’t have the same intrigue or news hook of an emissions scandal, but represent opportunities for the sustained investments needed to achieve our climate and air quality goals.

While the recently approved budget for low carbon transportation ($467 million) is lower than the current year’s funding ($560 million), California has quietly invested $1.2 billion in clean vehicles over the last five years. These investments are much larger than the state’s share of the Volkswagen environmental mitigation settlement ($423 million), which will be spread out over the next few years.

California’s funding for low carbon transportation has supported everything from electric car rebates (on top of the federal tax credit) to vouchers for electric trucks and buses. Demand for the incentive funding has often exceeded the supply, indicating consumers and fleet owners are more than ready to adopt clean vehicles.

Electric truck and bus support is limited beyond California

While fourteen states provide purchase incentives for electric cars, only New York offers incentives comparable to California’s for electric trucks and buses, but from a smaller overall pot of funding ($19 million in New York vs. $180 million in California this year).

Utah and Colorado offer a tax credit for heavy-duty electric vehicles, but the credits are capped at $20,000, which doesn’t offset much of the additional cost of an electric truck. Georgia used to have a similar tax credit, but it expired.

For comparison, California and New York’s rebates are roughly $100,000 per truck or bus, depending on the size and type of the vehicle. And the rebate structure is much better for fleets, allowing the savings to be had upfront, rather than waiting for a tax credit several months later.

Federal support for heavy-duty electric vehicles has also been limited to a relatively small amount of funding for transit buses and airport shuttle buses. This is in contrast to the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric cars, which has been critical to uptake of these vehicles. Electric trucks and buses need similar incentives to spur widespread adoption.

The Volkswagen settlement could be a catalyst

While investments from the Volkswagen settlement are only a start in reaching the number of electric trucks and buses we need on the roads, they may prove critical in demonstrating the market readiness and benefits of these vehicles to justify additional investments. The availability of electric trucks and buses is increasing rapidly and public policy must keep up with these advances.

* Two other settlements – for $4.3 billion – addressed Volkswagen’s criminal and civil penalties for cheating on emissions tests and lying about cheating.

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