Union of Concerned ScientistsUnion of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Fri, 23 Mar 2018 18:23:55 +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 How Did Climate and Clean Energy Programs Fare in the 2018 Federal Budget? https://blog.ucsusa.org/rob-cowin/how-did-climate-and-clean-energy-programs-fare-in-the-2018-federal-budget https://blog.ucsusa.org/rob-cowin/how-did-climate-and-clean-energy-programs-fare-in-the-2018-federal-budget#respond Fri, 23 Mar 2018 18:17:13 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57606

Late last night the Senate passed the fy18 omnibus spending package to keep the federal government running through September. The bill is a complete repudiation of President Trump’s budget priorities, especially on climate change and clean energy.

In fact, I’d argue that the “art of the deal” approach the administration took in negotiating with Congress over the budget numbers (pushing overly draconian cuts in the hope that Congress would move slightly closer in their direction) proved to have the opposite effect. It galvanized Congress in opposition to the president’s budget priorities and solidified bipartisan coalitions in support of specific programs and agencies, proving once again that bullying Congress on funding is not an effective strategy for the executive branch to take.

The administration’s interests would have been better served working in partnership with Congress—a lesson this president clearly has not learned given his fy19 budget request.

Here’s how some important Climate and Clean Energy Programs fared in the fy18 omnibus:

What does this tell us?

  • Clean energy R&D (and energy efficiency) still matter to both Republicans and Democrats. It’s not so much a climate thing as it is a local thing, an energy security thing, and a “pro-growth” strategy.
  • Climate change (climate science) has become so politicized on the hill that Congress doesn’t want to touch it and instead defaults to continued funding without increases or cuts. While some may see level funding as a victory (especially in this political environment), we know climate change is a growing and serious threat to our economy and national security, and therefore climate science should truly necessitate increased priority and federal support.
  • People are feeling the impacts of a changing climate (especially extreme weather). Both Democrats and Republicans see the logic in investing up-front to be more prepared and save cost and heartache on the back end.

The president signed the bill shortly after a brief veto threat. The budget reflects the fact that science advocacy matters, but it’s also a reminder that we need to be vigilant in our work to depoliticize the issue of climate change and continue to work in strong bipartisan fashion to advance shared goals around clean energy deployment and innovation, as well as community resilience to extreme weather and other climate impacts.

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The New Government Omnibus Spending Bill Shows that Science Advocacy Matters https://blog.ucsusa.org/yogin-kothari/the-new-government-omnibus-spending-bill-shows-that-science-advocacy-matters https://blog.ucsusa.org/yogin-kothari/the-new-government-omnibus-spending-bill-shows-that-science-advocacy-matters#comments Thu, 22 Mar 2018 18:43:27 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57566

After a long wait, late last night, Congress posted a spending agreement for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year. For the most part, we achieved significant victories, especially given the challenging political environment, in repelling proposals that would have directly undermined the role of science in public health and environmental policymaking.

Among the highlights:

Proposed Actual
Eliminate the Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical accidents and issues recommendations to protect the public Chemical Safety Board is fully funded
Prohibit science-based Endangered Species Act protections for the lesser prairie chicken and wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region No new prohibitions were included
Legislatively weaken the most recent science-based ground-level ozone pollution standard The ozone standard was left intact
Exempt clean water protections from scientific, public, and legal scrutiny The EPA will be required to follow the normal process as it works to withdraw the Clean Water Rule.
Eliminate EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) which evaluates the health impacts of toxic chemicals and produces vital scientific assessments for federal, state, international, and community groups to help assess risks due to exposure IRIS remains fully funded and a part of EPA’s research division, the Office of Research and Development
Slash EPA’s budget up to 30%, including significant reductions for EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, Office of Research and Development, and enforcement programs None of these programs received any cuts
Significantly cut other science agency budgets, including NASA, NOAA, USDA, and the Department of Energy None of the agencies received reduced overall funding, and some agencies saw modest, and in some cases significant, increases.

You made this possible

UCS, along with our coalition partners, has been working for the better part of the last year to ensure that the final spending agreement protects the budgets of federal science agencies and excludes any anti-science “poison pill” riders, or policy provisions that have no business being in spending bills. But we are only a few people.

We needed the support of Science Network members, Science watchdogs, and Science Champions across the country to make this possible by bringing home the local impacts of the harmful proposals. Together, we were able to thwart all the harmful policies, cuts, and program eliminations listed above.

We even made some small strides forward. For example, Congress clarified that CDC scientists can conduct gun violence research—something they have effectively been prohibited from doing for more than 20 years. Separately, Congress will now be required to post Congressional Research Service reports (reports on policy issues that are completed by Congress’s research arm) on the Internet. This will mean better public access to nonpartisan, taxpayer-funded research and ensure transparency, something UCS has long been advocating for.

With support from UCS, scientists and science advocates explained to their elected officials and local press how these dangerous cuts and anti-science riders would negatively impact their state through sign-on letters and a steady drumbeat of meetings and conversations with local staff. Furthermore, they worked hand in hand to ensure their representatives in Congress understood that science-based public protections are a priority in the federal budget. Supporters took action more than 47,500 times through emails, letters, social media, meetings, op-eds, and phone calls expressing their strong opposition to any final spending deal that cut federal funding of science agencies and/or included harmful anti-science poison pill riders.

In the current environment, we don’t often get great news from Washington. We have frequently seen the EPA and other science agencies roll back or weaken science-based safeguards, or Congress try their best to weaken evidence-based decision-making. Last night, however, our allies in Congress protected the federal science budget, fought off some of the worst anti-science proposals that were on the table, and made additional policy improvements because you persuaded them that these issues should be top priorities.

We need to keep pushing

While this funding agreement is a good first step, the battle continues. It is still unconscionable that Congress was unable to include protections for Dreamers but include some funding for a border wall. And there were some other anti-science poison pill riders that snuck through, including continuing a prohibition on protecting the imperiled sage grouse and continuing to legislate science by declaring that biomass is inherently carbon-neutral (it isn’t).

But we have another opportunity to fight just around the corner. Congress will soon begin work on funding for the 2019 fiscal year, and you can be sure many of these same issues will find their way into negotiations.

We know that politicians want to go down the road of least pain. When constituents speak up for science, lawmakers do listen. The squeaky wheel does get the grease.

That’s why it’s critical to make your voice heard and keep a steady drumbeat going. Lawmakers will return to their districts next week to begin a two-week in-district work period. Take that opportunity to engage with your representatives and senators and tell them what you liked about this spending agreement and what you want to see continue, or improved upon, in the next funding deal. Let’s keep the momentum going by continuing to call, email, write letters, and tweet your elected officials!

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How Do Big Oil Companies Talk about Climate Science? Four Takeaways from a Day in Court https://blog.ucsusa.org/kristy-dahl/big-oil-companies-and-climate-science-four-takeaways-from-a-day-in-court https://blog.ucsusa.org/kristy-dahl/big-oil-companies-and-climate-science-four-takeaways-from-a-day-in-court#respond Thu, 22 Mar 2018 18:09:57 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57538
Photo: WClarke/Wikimedia Commons

In front of a standing room only courtroom audience, the case of The People of California vs. B.P. P.L.C. et al. took an important step forward yesterday. In this case, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, CA, are aiming to hold five major fossil fuel companies responsible for climate damages, particularly with respect to sea level rise. In a federal court in San Francisco, the presiding Judge William Alsup had specifically asked both sides to present a “tutorial on climate science” and to address eight questions he had posed. So how did the big oil company defendants present their version of climate science? And how did it compare to the scientific consensus? Together with my UCS colleague Deborah Moore, Western States Senior Campaign Manager, I was lucky enough to get a seat in the courtroom. Here are four of our takeaways from the day:

1. Judge Alsup was highly engaged with the presenters from each side

The plaintiffs had three renowned scientists present their tutorial: Dr. Myles Allen of Oxford University, Dr. Gary Griggs of the University of California at Santa Cruz, and Dr. Don Wuebbles of the University of Illinois. The defendants had one representative–Chevron lawyer Theodore Boutrous–presenting. Alsup interrupted each presenter many, many times to get clarification, to dissect a chart or graph, or to ask additional questions. I came away with the sense that Alsup truly wanted to understand the causes and consequences of climate change, and it is great to see such engagement.

2. The Fifth Assessment Report done by the IPCC no longer fully reflects the most current scientific consensus on climate change

For the defendants’ presentation, Mr. Boutrous relied almost entirely on results from the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. He opened his portion by stating that Chevron accepts the scientific consensus on climate change represented in the IPCC report, including that humans are the primary cause of observed warming in recent decades. This, he said, has been the company’s position for about ten years. He then walked Judge Alsup through a series of slides highlighting conclusions, as well as uncertainties, from the IPCC report. By relying so exclusively on the IPCC report, he bolstered his claim that Chevron’s views are in line with mainstream science, but also exposed just how much climate science has progressed since the report was released in 2013.Among the many major scientific developments of the last five years are:

  • A greater understanding of the potential contribution of the Antarctic Ice Sheet to sea level rise this century;  and
  • The ability to rigorously attribute virtually all observed warming since the mid-1900’s to human activity, and a portion of the observed warming and sea level rise to the products of specific fossil fuel producers. As Mr. Boutrous went through his presentation, I was struck by how much the consensus view has sharpened in the last five years. A few minutes later, Dr. Wuebbles began his presentation, the final one for the plaintiffs, by explaining, from the perspective of a lead author for both the 2013 IPCC Fifth Assessment and the US Fourth National Climate Assessment issued in 2017, that “science didn’t stop in 2012.” He then proceeded to highlight results from the 2017 report, which is the latest and most comprehensive assessment of the state of climate science for the U.S.

In UCS’s 2016 Climate Accountability Scorecard, Chevron scored “poor” on acknowledging climate science. So it was a big step for Chevron to state, on the record, that it accepts the scientific consensus on climate change. But since the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, the trends have become clearer and our ability to attribute climate change to human activity has progressed. So accepting the consensus view as of five years ago is simply not sufficient.

Lawyers, reporters, scientists, and others lined up at 7 am to get into the courtroom for Judge Alsup’s climate science tutorial

3. Chevron continues to highlight uncertainties and cherry-pick information

While Mr. Boutrous did rely almost entirely on information and graphics from the 2013 IPCC report, many of those graphics were chosen carefully to highlight uncertainty or sow seeds of doubt about the reliability of the underlying scientific studies and the severity of the predicted impacts.

For instance, Mr. Boutrous showed projections for future warming from a suite of climate models and highlighted that some models are overly sensitive to changes in carbon dioxide concentrations and likely overestimate future warming. Later, when showing sea level rise trends globally, Mr. Boutrous highlighted a roughly decade-long period when sea level in the San Francisco area was relatively unchanging, which deliberately ignores the consistent long-term rise here and around the globe.

In addition to this questionable presentation of the data, Chevron repeatedly tried to downplay the role the fossil fuel industry plays in exacerbating climate change—by pointing to language in the IPCC report that states that population and economic growth are the drivers of increasing carbon emissions. Yes, as the world’s population grows, emissions rise because fossil fuel use increases.

But multiple investigations have uncovered evidence showing that the fossil fuel industry funded a decades-long climate science disinformation campaign to block policies that would reduce carbon emissions, and actively promoted its products to ensure fossil fuels would remain central to global energy production. Chevron continues to dismiss and deny climate risks and fund trade associations and other industry groups that still spread climate disinformation or block sensible climate policies.

When questioned by Judge Alsup on the finer points of the graphics he was showing, Mr. Boutrous was often forced to admit that his scientific understanding of the issue was limited and that he could not answer. It was striking that the oil companies chose a lawyer to present their scientific narrative, and the choice contrasted sharply with the deep scientific knowledge that the plaintiffs brought to the table.

4. Science has a key role to play in public nuisance cases, and scientists are stepping up to the plate

As graduate students, many of us climate scientists were told to be wary of wading too close to the politics of climate change, that we’d best stick to the science. Yesterday, three very prominent scientists stuck to the science, but used scientific information to establish that fossil fuel burning has already and will increasingly harm public well-being. Rather than putting “climate science on trial,” Judge Alsup’s climate science tutorial provided the case with a strong scientific underpinning that can help support making a determination, based on a set of legal standards and precedents, about the liability and responsibility of big oil companies.

Deborah Moore, Western States Senior Campaign Manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, contributed significantly to this post.

Deborah Moore
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This One Policy Would Provide Billions to Protect Massachusetts from Climate Change https://blog.ucsusa.org/daniel-gatti/one-policy-billions-protect-massachusetts-climate-change https://blog.ucsusa.org/daniel-gatti/one-policy-billions-protect-massachusetts-climate-change#comments Thu, 22 Mar 2018 16:53:24 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57542

As Massachusetts residents dig themselves out of the fourth Nor’easter in the past three weeks, policy leaders on Beacon Hill are beginning to dig in to some of the critical questions that will determine the future of the Commonwealth in an era of climate change.

Questions like:

  • How do we protect ourselves from the impacts of more intense storms, sea level rise, and increasing flooding from storm surges that are certain to continue to plague our state over the coming decades?
  • How do we build a transportation system that is clean, resilient to the impacts of climate change, fiscally and ecologically sustainable, equitable, and capable of handling the exploding growth in the Boston metro area?
  • And bottom line: how are we going to finance the kind of investments in infrastructure and technology that will be necessary to protect our state and achieve the requirements of Massachusetts climate law?

The good news is that there is a bill in the Massachusetts legislature that has a lot of great ideas for how to move the Commonwealth forward. Many of these ideas have already been covered well by others, including our own John Rogers, as well as David Ismay at Conservation Law Foundation and Ben Hellerstein at Environment Massachusetts.

In this post, I want to talk about one of these ideas, a policy that if enacted could represent one of the most profound changes in Massachusetts climate policy in a decade. That is the requirement that the state enact “market-based compliance mechanisms” to address climate change.

If you’re like most people, you are probably asking yourself: what the heck does that mean?

It means cap and invest. And this provision could unleash over $750 million per year in funding to address some of the state’s critical transportation, energy, and infrastructure needs.

A brief overview of the GWSA

Let me explain.

In 2008, the Massachusetts legislature unanimously passed a law called the Global Warming Solutions Act (“GWSA”). This law requires the state to reduce emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. It also required the state to set a limit for 2020: in 2009 the state set a limit of 25% from 1990 levels by 2020.

The GWSA, which clocks in at about six pages, does not specify exactly what policies should be enacted to reach these limits. Instead, the GWSA requires executive agencies to figure it out. This strategy, known as cap-and-delegate, is a common approach to addressing climate change. It allows executive agencies to take advantage of their superior technical knowledge and expertise in crafting energy policy. Indeed, Massachusetts’ GWSA is very similar to California’s cap-and-delegate statute, also entitled the Global Warming Solutions Act, although California’s law is more commonly referred to by it’s Assembly Bill number, AB 32.

One obvious question that has dogged the GWSA from the beginning is: what happens if our plan isn’t good enough, and we fail to achieve our limits? This question is particularly vexing because given the speed at which this information becomes available, we will not know whether we made the 2020 limit until 2023. And it’s important to address, because as we look to 2030 we are going to need to make progress in areas such as transportation and heating that have proven challenging thus far.

Market-based compliance mechanisms

The GWSA provides one tool that could help ensure compliance with the statute: the state could enact market-based compliance mechanisms. That means doing three things:

  • Establishing a limit on pollution;
  • Requiring companies that pollute to purchase allowances from a limited pool made available by the state; and
  • Investing the money we generate from these auction sales in efficiency and clean energy.

This is the strategy that the GWSA calls “market-based compliance mechanisms”, the world calls “cap-and-trade” and we call, most accurately, cap-and-invest. It represents a simple, elegant solution to the challenge of reducing aggregate emissions from across broad sectors of our society. It has been used all around the world by countries, states, and provinces looking to reduce emissions and raise money for climate solutions.

We have a cap-and-invest program in Massachusetts. It’s called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. It’s the funding source for many of our most popular and important climate programs, such as MassSave and the Green Communities Act. It has helped save consumers $600 million on their energy bills, produced over $1 billion in health benefits for our state, and created over 2,000 jobs.

But RGGI only applies to power plants. Today, the largest source of emissions in the state is transportation, with heating homes and businesses close behind. Other jurisdictions, including California, Ontario, and Quebec, have expanded this cap-and-invest model economy-wide, and the result has been billions in new funding for clean transportation and energy projects. It’s time for Massachusetts to do the same.

What would economy-wide cap-and-invest do for Massachusetts?

The bill in the legislature would allow the administration to consider a couple of different approaches to expanding cap-and-invest to transportation and heating.

One possibility, suggested in a recent op-ed by Senator Stan Rosenberg, would be to create a “state-based, market-driven approach to the use of carbon.” Another possibility is that the state could join with the other RGGI states in launching new cap and invest programs modeled after RGGI covering transportation and heating fuels. A third possibility would be for Massachusetts to join with California, Ontario, and Quebec’s program covering transportation and heating fuels.

But either way, cap and invest could be a funding source for climate solutions on a scale that we have never seen before in Massachusetts.

For example, if Massachusetts were to take the California-Ontario-Quebec path, at current auction values it would raise over $750 million that we could invest to reduce emissions and protect the state from climate change. Over $450 million of that would be from transportation fuels, which we could use to fund projects that improve public transportation, encourage electric vehicles, and make our transportation infrastructure more resilient. $300 million would be from heating fuels and other industrial uses, which could be invested in efficiency and new technologies such as heat pumps.

By the way, we could do this without legislation

The proposal in the legislature would require the administration to enact an economy-wide cap and invest program. But if executive agencies want to move forward with market-based solutions to climate change, there is no reason to wait for new legislation: the GWSA already provides the authority for the administration to implement market-based solutions, either on our own or in partnership with our partners in RGGI states and Canadian provinces.

Achieving the limits of the GWSA means ending an era where fossil fuel companies can produce unlimited quantities of pollution for free. Bringing all pollution sources under a market-based cap is a critical next frontier of climate policy in Massachusetts. With the state increasingly focused on how we can make investments in infrastructure to support our transportation system and protect our state from climate impacts, now is the time to take this step and protect the Commonwealth from climate change.

Photo: MBTA
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Scott Pruitt Will Restrict the EPA’s Use of Legitimate Science https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/scott-pruitt-will-restrict-the-epas-use-of-legitimate-science https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/scott-pruitt-will-restrict-the-epas-use-of-legitimate-science#respond Thu, 22 Mar 2018 15:01:07 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57524

The EPA is reportedly on the verge of restricting the science that EPA can use in decision-making and I’m livid.

This is a move that serves no purpose other than to prevent the EPA from carrying out its mission of protecting public health and the environment. If Pruitt’s proposal looks anything like House Science Committee Chairman’s HONEST Act or its predecessor the Secret Science Act, we know it will be nonsensical and dangerous for our nation’s ability to use science to protect people. Those bills required that all raw data, models, code, and other materials from scientific studies be made available to the public before the EPA could use it and it had sweeping scope over EPA actions, covering “risk, exposure, or hazard assessment, criteria document, standard, limitation, regulation, regulatory impact analysis, or guidance.”

Here are the top ways EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Trojan horse “transparency” proposal is fundamentally flawed:

It fundamentally misrepresents how science works

You might not need a refresher on how science works, but it’s clear that Administrator Pruitt does. Here’s a quick run-down: In order to be published in a scientific journal, research must pass through peer-review where two or three experts familiar with that field will critique the scientific merits of the study. When a study has passed peer review, we know it has met a standard set by scientists in that field. Federal agencies like the EPA then use that peer-reviewed science in order to issue science-based rules.

Nowhere in this process do decisionmakers need to see raw data that went into studies in order to trust scientific evidence. Scientists conducting the peer review don’t even typically see the raw data of studies. They do not need to. They can look at the methods, design, and results in order to assess the quality of the science. The peer review process—conducted by those with scientific expertise—provides the necessary scrutiny here; the scrutiny of Congress would insert politics into what should be a scientific discussion.

It solves a problem that doesn’t exist

Let’s be clear. The decision-making process at the EPA is already exhaustingly transparent. There are thousands of pages of documents and hours of phone calls and meetings of scientific experts discussing technical details of those documents—and the public has full access to these discussions! I know. I’ve listened to hours and hours of meetings and read hundreds of pages of documents. I would never say that a problem at the EPA is a lack of access to the details of agency decision-making.

For example, the EPA claims that “EPA has primarily relied on two 1990s studies linking fine particulate pollution to premature death. Neither studies have made their data public, but EPA used their findings to justify sweeping air quality regulations.”

This is ludicrous. On the contrary, the latest Integrated Science Assessment for particulate matter (i.e. the summary of the scientific basis for the latest air pollution protections from soot), cites more than 800 studies—including the two studies referenced, which were peer-reviewed and have since been re-assessed to further confirm their scientific validity.

Further, the EPA already painstakingly collects scientific data and other details from the studies that it relies on to make policy decisions. I know because they asked me for it. The EPA’s 2015 decision on a revised ambient ozone standard relied on many studies of ozone pollution and its relationship with health outcomes, including work that I did as a doctoral student at Georgia Tech looking at exposure measurement in ambient air pollutants.

Even though I had conducted the study several years earlier as a graduate student, EPA scientists tracked me down and got me to dig through my files and find the original data that supported the figures and conclusions of my study so I could share it with the agency. If that isn’t dedication to scientific integrity in science-based policy, I don’t know what is.

It wastes taxpayer dollars and adds red tape

Ironically, the bill is directly at odds with the Trump administration’s stated desire to create a more efficient government. It adds unnecessary and burdensome redundancy to the process of keeping clean our air, water, and land. Pruitt is adding red tape to the federal government, not reducing it.

It is also wasting taxpayer dollars. Last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would cost the EPA an additional $250 million per year to comply with Chairman Smith’s HONEST Act. But the administration wasn’t even honest about that.  It was revealed that EPA leadership claimed the move would pose no additional burden, burying the comments of EPA staff, who asserted the tremendous cost of implementation and also noted that the bill would threaten EPA expertise, jeopardize personal and confidential business information, and “significantly impede EPA’s ability to protect the health and the environment of Americans.” The greater scientific community backed up this assertion. A letter signed by 23 scientific societies and academic institutions also raised concerns the bill would “constrain the EPA from making a proposal based on the best available science.”

Pruitt is taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook

This was never an honest proposal. Pruitt’s move is just another tactic dreamed up to attack science behind public health protections. In fact, it was first noted in internal documents from the tobacco industry. In a 1996 memo out of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, industry consultant (and later part of the Trump administration’s landing team at EPA), Chris Horner, laid out the “secret science” strategy as a way to fend off tobacco regulations as the science increasingly showed the harms of secondhand smoke.  The goal, he wrote, was “to construct explicit procedural hurdles the agency must follow in issuing scientific reports.” This has never been about transparency in science-based decision-making.

It’s dangerous

Administrator Pruitt claims to be worried about “secret science” at EPA, but in reality, he’s squashing the science that protects Americans from air, water, and land pollution. When the EPA can’t rely on scientific evidence to make decisions about public health protections, we are all left in the dark.

This post originally appeared in Scientific American.

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Pseudoscience on Trial: The Spectacular Fall of President Trump’s Voter Fraud Thesis https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/pseudoscience-on-trial-the-spectacular-fall-of-president-trumps-voter-fraud-thesis https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/pseudoscience-on-trial-the-spectacular-fall-of-president-trumps-voter-fraud-thesis#respond Wed, 21 Mar 2018 20:01:44 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57490

On January 3, 2017, President Trump claimed that there was “substantial evidence” of voter fraud in the 2016 election, enough to have denied him a popular vote victory. The substance of this now infamous claim, that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud, was examined closely in the just-concluded trial of Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, current gubernatorial candidate, and co-chair of the Electoral “Integrity” Commission that the president established, then abruptly dissolved when it faced legal accountability.

The Kansas trial that just concluded concerned a 2013 law initiated by Kobach that required prospective voters to provide proof-of-citizenship documents. Over the course of the two-week trial, Kobach presented all available evidence of the extent of voter fraud in an effort to justify the law, which has prevented as many as 33,000 eligible Kansas residents from registering to vote.

The voter fraud thesis fell apart in truly spectacular fashion under examination, and could very well result in the overturning of the law, the denial of one witness as an “expert” in future testimony, and even a finding that Mr. Kobach be held in contempt of court. To understand how things could have possibly gone so badly for Mr. Kobach, consider some the highlights of the trial, wherein the “science” used to claim that voter fraud is rampant dissolves before our eyes, much like the Kobach Commission:

  1. Hans Von Spakovsky, a fellow member of the Kobach Commission, had to acknowledge early on that his research on voter fraud has not been subjected to peer review, and further acknowledged that all of his inferences about voter fraud in Kansas were based on a spreadsheet provided by Mr. Kobach.
  2. Regarding the frequent comment that known accounts of voter fraud are “just the tip of the iceberg,” lead counsel for plaintiffs Dale Ho asked “You don’t have any estimate of the size of the iceberg, is that right Mr. Von Spakovsky?” Von Spakovsky: “That’s correct.”
  3. Cross-examination also revealed that Von Spakovsky’s submitted court report contained incomplete information that made it possible for him to inflate estimates of non-citizen registration. Subsequently, plaintiffs asked Judge Julie Robinson to make a finding that Von Spakovsky is not an objective expert, having offered incomplete and misleading testimony.
  4. Professor Jesse Richman, who did co-author a peer-reviewed publication in Electoral Studies on non-citizen voting, took the stand and stated that “Trump and others have been misreading our research and exaggerating our results to make claims we don’t think our research supports.” (Note: Subsequent analyses of the Richman et. al. research has shown that response error accounts for nearly all of their estimated frequency of non-citizen voting. That’s how peer-review and science works.)
  5. During Richman’s testimony that up to 18,000 non-citizens have registered or tried to register to vote in Kansas, he acknowledged that one of the methods he used was to flag “foreign-sounding” names. When asked if he would flag the name “Carlos Murguia” Richman said yes. When informed of the fact that Carlos Murguia is a Kansas-born federal judge who sits in that courthouse, Richman said that he was not aware.
  6. It gets better. Pat McFerron, a “pollster” hired by Kobach to survey public opinion about the difficulty of meeting the law’s requirements and support for the law, had to acknowledge under cross-examination that claiming that the law was based on “evidence of non-citizens registering to vote” introduced bias to survey respondents.
  7. Further, when asked to rate the difficulty of getting necessary documents to register, respondents were told that this was required by law. When Richman was then asked if he understood the effects of social desirability bias in question wording, he could not provide an answer. Remember, this is the survey expert.
  8. Actual pollster and professor of political science Matthew Barreto summarized many of the other problems associated with McFerron’s methodology to Judge Robinson, including the fact that if you want to know how hard it is for unregistered people to register, you need a representative sample of people who are not already registered.
  9. On cross-examination, Barreto also explained to the defense that you should not use the number of registered voters from one year and the eligible population from another year if you want to accurately estimate registration rates. The judge, referring to Kobach’s estimates, explained “I can tell you if that’s the methodology, I’m giving that number absolutely no weight. That’s ridiculous.”
  10. In the end, Kobach could only show that his analysis of Sedgwick County revealed 18 non-citizens who had registered to vote, five of whom had voted, over a 20-year period.

The last day of the trial addressed one question, whether Mr. Kobach failed to comply with a 2016 order issued by Judge Robinson to fully register thousands of voters who had registered through the DMV but not provided proof of citizenship. When Judge Robinson discovered that Kobach had failed to ensure that these voters received the same postcard about their registration status, her frustration was clear: “I honored and trusted what you told me, Mr. Kobach. If you tell me you’ve done something, I trust that. That’s why lawyers are licensed.”

Mr. Kobach may try to keep the voter fraud myth alive through appeal, but the pseudo-scientific claims that voter fraud is rampant have been thoroughly discredited.



Photo: Erik (HASH) Hersman/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
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WIN: Congress Cracks Open Door for Gun Violence Research to Resume https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/win-congress-cracks-open-door-for-gun-violence-research-to-resume https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/win-congress-cracks-open-door-for-gun-violence-research-to-resume#respond Wed, 21 Mar 2018 19:12:27 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57506

Just three days before the March for Our Lives, Congress has opened the door for federal research into gun violence to resume. In a spending bill to provide funding for the federal government through the rest of the fiscal year, Congress has clarified that the CDC is able to pursue research to help stop gun violence.

Legislative language in place since 1996 has effectively prevented CDC and NIH researchers from exploring questions that would help us make more informed decisions about ways to reduce gun-related suicides, domestic abuse, and yes, mass murder (see the National Academies’ list of research priorities here). CDC scientists and public health advocates have been pleading for years for the ban to be lifted. The original sponsor of the amendment, the late Republican Congressman Jay Dickey, also fought the ban in recent years.

After the Parkland killings, both Republicans and Democrats publicly recognized the need to lift the research ban. In particular, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said the department will be “proactive” on gun violence research.

He will need to be. After the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama directed the CDC and NIH to resume research through an executive order. Yet with the Dickey Amendment still in place, nothing happened.

Although the Dickey Amendment will remain in place, we are now a step closer to lifting the federal ban on gun research as lawmakers have acknowledged that federal scientists can and should investigate this public health crisis. Congress’ next move is to provide dedicated funding for this research. In the meantime, Secretary Azar should ensure that the next CDC director commits fully and expediently to developing and implementing a research agenda that helps our country address gun violence.

Setting everything aside—the failure to provide a solution for Dreamers, the fact that most members of Congress won’t have time to read the bill before voting on it, and the inclusion of a select few anti-science poison pill riders—at least there’s something to celebrate.

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What to Look For in Tomorrow’s DOE Budget Hearing https://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-richardson/what-to-look-for-in-tomorrows-doe-budget-hearing https://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-richardson/what-to-look-for-in-tomorrows-doe-budget-hearing#respond Wed, 21 Mar 2018 14:24:07 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57488

On Thursday morning, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies (within the Committee on Appropriations) will hold a hearing on applied energy funding for the FY 2019 budget. (The FY 2018 budget, which goes until the end of September, is being finalized this week in order to avoid a government shutdown on Friday.) We’ll see a parade of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of the applied energy technology offices within the Department of Energy (DOE)—all of whom are political appointees—attempt to justify their boss’s proposal seeking to gut R&D funding for clean energy and low carbon technologies.

The President’s budget takes aim at applied energy programs

It’s pretty clear that the president’s proposed budget, similar to last year, seeks to drastically reduce funding for applied energy research, development, and demonstration (R&D). And the cuts extend beyond the nearly 2/3 reduction in R&D funding for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy—the budget slashes funding by 26 percent for advanced fossil technology like CCS and 26% for advanced nuclear R&D. The Office of Electricity Delivery is hit hard, with its program on Energy Storage facing a 74 percent reduction to its already paltry budget.

For the second year in a row, the administration is proposing to ax ARPA-E, something even Secretary Perry opposes. ARPA-E enjoys strong bipartisan support because the agency is advancing transformational energy projects that can potentially and radically improve U.S. economic strength, national security, and environmental outcomes. And finally, the president’s budget eliminates the Loan Guarantee Program, even though the program has generated more than $1.79 billion in interest repaid to the US Treasury.

Program FY 2017 Enacted FY 2018 Senate Proposal FY 2018 House Proposal FY 2018 President’s Request FY 2019 President’s Request Proposed FY18 cut Proposed FY19 cut
Basic Energy Sciences $1,872 $1,980 $1,872 $1,555 $1,850 -16.9% -1.1%
EERE $2,035 $1,937 $1,104 $636 $696 -68.7% -65.8%
Office of Electricity $150 $213 $219 $120 $61 -20.2% -59.2%
Energy Storage Program $31 $31 $31 $8 $8 -74.2% -74.2%
ARPA-E $305 $330 $- $20 $- -93.4% -100.0%
Fossil R&D $682 $573 $635 $335 $502 -50.9% -26.4%
Nuclear Energy $1,016 $917 $969 $703 $757 -30.8% -25.5%
All Dollars in Millions.

The table above shows the current funding levels (FY 2017 Enacted refers to the final numbers passed by Congress through continuing resolutions); the House and Senate committee reports for FY 2018 (likely to be out of date by the end of the week); and the president’s requests for both FY 2018 and FY 2019.

Grid scale energy storage has the potential to change the way the grid functions—with positive benefits for society. But the technologies aren’t quite commercial scale, yet. Most of DOE’s funding for energy storage RD&D comes through the Energy Storage program within the Office of Electricity, various programs and cross programmatic initiatives within EERE, and ARPA-E. And yet, the president is proposing a 74 percent reduction in the Energy Storage program, complete elimination of ARPA-E, and a 66 percent cut to EERE.

Why such steep cuts for all these applied technology programs? As I’ve written previously, the administration continues to drive an ideological wedge between basic and applied research, based on the false premise that the private sector can pick up these technologies and move them to commercialization.

Is there any evidence that the private sector will pick up the slack?

In a word, no.

Funding for energy RD&D is a wise investment for the federal government—to maintain (or regain) US competitiveness in innovation, and to ensure that new technologies are able to reach the market instead of withering on the vine. This piece explains why; in a nutshell:

  • Venture capital is not flowing into energy projects (only 2 percent of venture capital went to energy projects in 2016) partly because these projects often require larger up-front costs;
  • Established energy institutions are risk averse, and in the case of regulated utilities, have a guaranteed rate of return—utilities, for example, generally spend only 0.1% of revenue on R&D.

By investing in energy RD&D (both basic and applied), the federal government unlocks private funding, creating a healthy innovation ecosystem for energy technologies. From solar power, to wind power manufacturing, to the shale gas revolution, and more—DOE has been an “indispensable partner in American energy innovation.”

The President cedes leadership to China

Let’s take our federal investments in energy storage as an example. As the president backs away from RD&D for energy storage, other countries are stepping up. China, India, Germany, the UK, Canada, and Australia have dedicated policies and strategies to advancing energy storage. Elsewhere around the world, policymakers see the value of energy storage and want to be part of a global market that is set to double six times by 2030.

China, for example, is making enormous government investments in storage. Chinese officials see these investments as strategic, and the country is poised to be the clean energy leader of the next decade and beyond. Last fall China published a national plan on the development of the storage industry. Chinese companies already control global markets for key battery components, and China is set to be a global superpower in storage technologies in the 2020s.

The president is proposing that the U.S. simply fold—and the stakes are high: nothing less than who will hold the jobs of the future.

The Administration’s budget will hurt our National Laboratories

Our system of 17 national laboratories “have served as the leading institutions for scientific innovation in the United States for more than seventy years,” according to the DOE’s website. They also serve as anchor institutions that are critical to local economic development—and simultaneously training the next generation of scientists and engineers. Secretary Perry said in January, “DOE’s 17 laboratories are the crown jewels of American science.” For all these reasons, people across the ideological spectrum agree that our nation’s National Labs are critical to innovation and to our nation’s competitiveness.

The thing is, the national labs are funded by government agencies—primarily DOE, to include both Basic Energy Sciences in the Office of Science as well as the applied technology offices in the Office of Energy. This means that federal budget cuts can translate into cuts—and job losses—at national labs.

In Colorado, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) receives about three-quarters of its funding from EERE, according to a report last year on the State of the DOE National Laboratories. The uncertainty created by the administration’s proposed budget is leaving NREL’s 1,700 employees, plus hundreds of contractors, interns, and visiting researchers, in limbo about their future.

In Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory eliminated 350 jobs in 2017, although it’s unclear how much of that had to do with proposed budget cuts.


Any appropriator will tell you that a president’s budget is basically meaningless, because Congress holds the purse strings. Let’s hope these appropriators continue to recognize the value of applied energy technology and hold the administration’s feet to the fire.

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Energy Storage is the Policy Epicenter of Energy Innovation https://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-jacobs/energy-storage-policy-innovation https://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-jacobs/energy-storage-policy-innovation#comments Wed, 21 Mar 2018 14:23:45 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57480
A darkened Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy of David Shankbone.

Right now, the reliability and economics of the electric power grid is changing. A major player in this change might be energy storage. Utilities have always known that storing electricity is valuable, but other than building dams to hold water, it wasn’t a real option. But battery advances—some from government-funded R&D for vehicles, some from laptops and cellphones—have opened a door.

How will utilities and regulators know what to do with battery energy storage?

When the utility industry has gradually seen enough research, testing, safety standards and performance assurances, then they will have the confidence to adopt this new technology. The common experiences with batteries for storing energy are not perfect. Think about your cellphone’s battery. But where a national interest is made into policies or funding, the needed gaps are getting attention.

Where is this happening?

China, India, Germany, Japan, UK, Canada and Australia all have dedicated policies and strategies to bring on the reliability and efficiencies of grid energy storage.

And in the US?

The US Department of Energy has run a small and effective R&D program that leverages the funding of states (Alaska, California, New York and Washington in particular), utilities, and private companies relying on the expertise and staff of national labs in Idaho, New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington. For a look at the budget of this effort, see my colleague’s blog.

Our national interest in security, quality of life and economy based on electricity, and the growth from technology innovation will all benefit from success in energy storage. However, federal funding has lagged far behind that of other countries, and our own needs.

Policy decisions supporting energy storage of many kinds, in many states. Courtesy Energy Storage Association.

To give just one example: the US has not funded the 2014 DOE recommendations for an Energy Storage Safety Strategic Plan.

Meanwhile, the states push policies

Through initial regulatory approvals or bigger plans, states actively supporting adoption of energy storage include Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, and Virginaa. (There may be more, given the widespread interest in grabbing this opportunity.)

So how far have we come?

Batteries for the grid are still exceedingly rare. The first time a utility company in the US added a battery to its grid was in the late 1980’s. Two demonstrations were built in 1987. One was built by the co-operative electric company based in Statesville, North Carolina, which accepted a test battery from Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey. The other, much larger, was installed by Southern California Edison east of Los Angeles.

For comparison, the first nuclear power plant for a utility company started running in 1957, 30 years earlier.  That plant was built from a core that was intended for a Navy ship, a reminder of the national security interest in energy technology innovation.

To shorten power blackouts, strengthen our military bases, reduce our electric bills, and reduce pollution from power plants, we need federal government program commitments that are up to the opportunity and the challenge posed by our international rivals.

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Spate of Nor’easters Rips Down Wires, Sparks Calls to Do Better https://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/noreaster-power-grid https://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/noreaster-power-grid#comments Tue, 20 Mar 2018 14:11:11 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57450
Photo: Western Area Power/CC BY (Flickr)

Over the first two weeks of March, three separate storms raged their way through my home state of Massachusetts. Each triggered life-threatening emergencies and what are certain to be costly, long-lasting cleanups.

They also resulted in massive and widespread power outages.

Thundering wind, crashing trees, and roiling floodwaters led to a significant number of homes and businesses getting thrust into the cold and dark; all told, each storm resulted in the loss of power for hundreds of thousands of customers across the state.

Two weeks, and three jarring reminders of just how dependent we are on the grid—and how vulnerable that grid is to failure.

And now, another storm is barreling on down the Pike.

Let’s make sure these aren’t suffered in vain.

Grid’s year in review

Our electricity grid is at once an incredible modern marvel and a staggeringly vulnerable piece of critical infrastructure.

And it’s not just been Nor’easters reminding us of that.

Indeed, this past year has been something of a master class in highlighting all the many ways the natural world can yank our electricity system to its knees, from flooding, to hurricanes, to wildfires, and more.

And it’s not just weather. Last week, the US government released an alert regarding Russian government cyber activity relating to energy and other critical infrastructure. Cyber threats are real, and growing.

At the same time, our society is rapidly tipping toward wholesale dependence on an interconnected world, one entirely reliant upon uninterrupted power. Which means that as incredible as these advances have been, it’s also increasingly true that everything stops when the power goes out.

So how do we make sure the lights stay on?

Complex problem, complex solu…zzzzzz

The challenges facing the grid are many, and there’s no one clean fix to solve them all. Worse, there’s no way that we’ll ever stop all power outages from occurring. Which all too often means that lawmakers and regulators find it’s easier to simply leave the problem alone.

But as the hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across Massachusetts that lost power can attest, willful ignorance in the face of complex problems is an entirely unacceptable solution.

Here, a quick consideration of the multiple parallel vulnerabilities that exist along each part of the power system—vulnerabilities that must be overcome to make the grid more reliable and resilient throughout:

  • Generation. There’s no electricity without a power source, which means that ensuring our power plants can keep on generating is of first-order importance when trying to maintain our power supply. Threats facing generators are many and varied, though rarely result in customer outages: rising seas overtaking coastal sites, warming waters and droughts decreasing the reliability of thermal generators like coal and nuclear plants, an onslaught of cyber attacks looming over complex generator controls, and dependence on a system that’s predominantly reliant upon large central generators as opposed to a multitude of decentralized sources.
  • Transmission. To get electricity from power plants to end users, our system relies upon the transmission grid, a complex network of high-voltage wires that help convey electricity long distances. If these lines go down—whether from trees, fires, extreme weather, or mismanaged operational controls—large disruptions can result.
  • Distribution. Transmission lines bring electricity the majority of the way, but it’s the distribution system that actually delivers power to the end user. And here’s where so often the outages occur. From falling branches to floodwaters to squirrels and more, threats to the distribution network are many and varied.
  • Operations. Improving operations is perhaps most important of all, as it’s a near certainty that the power will go out. If utilities don’t have a plan to return power to the system as expeditiously as possible—while minding the particular and compounded threats facing vulnerable populations and critical services—power failures can quickly cascade into far worse disasters. An operations plan that is centered on system resilience enables rapid bounce-back in the face of inevitable blackouts.

One of the things that makes boosting grid resilience and reliability so challenging is that different areas of vulnerability require different solutions. Many, though, are rooted in the fundamental principle that strength flows through diversity, from generator sizes and types to network pathways and redundancies.

Some solutions are straight forward, like tree-trimming to keep snow-laden branches off power lines, and flood planning to keep critical assets out of the water. Others are more complex, like developing renewables-based microgrids to ensure critical services and vulnerable populations are powered up even if the broader grid goes down.

But the two things all solutions absolutely must have? A commitment to forward-looking perspectives, where climate impacts are considered over the full lifetime of infrastructure investments, and sustained diligence to see the solutions to a complex problem through.

Embracing the slog of incremental solutions

Slowly, we’re seeing the power of painful repetition to eventually, eventually activate the search for solutions.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Massachusetts developed a $40 million initiative to bolster community electricity resilience projects served by clean energy technologies, alongside a series of additional resilience-supportive programs. Utilities have also been improving operations response plans reflecting learning from storms past. And finally, the state is also working to drive down its carbon emissions, staving off the worst of climate impacts, through clean energy commitments large and small.

And now, with shovels still scraping away at the mess of the last storm, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has filed legislation that would authorize over $1.4 billion in investments to make the Commonwealth more resilient in the face of climate impacts.

It would be another critical step in the right direction. But still, it cannot be the last step.

We need to make sure not only that such a conversation keeps progressing in Massachusetts, but also that it takes place all across the country. As these Nor’easters have shown, there’s work to do to meet the challenges of today, let alone the rapidly evolving threats of tomorrow.

For long-lived infrastructure upon which we all so heavily rely, we need a system ready and able to face conditions now and in the future. And what’s more, we need leaders who are ready, willing, and able to do the hard work of steadily chipping away at solving a complex problem.

Photo: Western Area Power/CC BY (Flickr)
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