Catalyst Winter 2018

Keep Calm and Science On

UCS staff members look at the big picture and find reasons for hope amid the current turmoil.

By Pamela Worth

We all know 2017 was a harrowing year politically. But UCS scientists, analysts, and campaign staff work hard to focus on making progress wherever they can. And they see plenty of bright spots for 2018 and beyond.

Six UCS staff members who work on a range of issues look back at the wins they’ve savored, and ahead to the potential victories that keep them coming to work every day. We hope their perspectives on the fight for our health, safety, and environment help renew your spirit in a time when the news too often seems grim.

Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS
Optimistic About: Participatory Democracy

Photo: Richard Howard

I am heartened that despite all the problems with our political system, constituency still matters. UCS has encouraged our networks—scientists, activists, and so on—to speak out as constituents. That’s been fairly effective, because it matters if you speak out as a voter to the person who's supposed to be representing you, even in the most partisan and difficult of political times. Has it stopped terrible things from happening entirely? Of course not. But it's been the counterweight to a lot of bad stuff.

I also feel deeply connected to the rest of the UCS staff and to our supporters who want to fight. These are issues that I've cared about my whole life. So, I'm not willing to give up and allow somebody to wave a Nazi flag. I'm not willing to let somebody spout nonsense about poor communities having illnesses because they have too many barbecues. And I'm not willing to listen to somebody say, "Well, what we really need is to take environmental protections back to the 1960s.” It's my motivation as well as my obligation to try to help shape this fight.

Paula Garcia, Energy Analyst
Optimistic About: Market-Driven Clean Technology

Photo: Audrey Eyring

I remember the first time I saw an electric car, in college. I told a professor that it was the next step for the industry. He laughed at me and said it would never happen. I had a similar conversation with a friend about renewable energy; he said it was for dreamers.

Today in the United States, we have more than 600,000 electric vehicles on the roads. And the number of charging stations in the world increased by more than 60 percent in the past year. The solar power installed last year in the United States is enough to power 2 million homes. And we have now built the first offshore wind farm, off the coast of Rhode Island, with more to come. Just seeing the magnitude of this project is inspiring—how tiny you are in comparison to these wind turbines, and all the power they provide. The costs of clean technology and renewable energy have decreased so drastically that there are places where the market itself is driving the implementation of wind and solar projects. My optimism is not based on being a dreamer, but on facts.

Eleanor Fort, Vehicles Campaign Manager
Optimistic About: Clean and Equitable Transportation

Photo: Audrey Eyring/UCS

Transportation is the largest contributor of carbon emissions in the United States. We know there's inaction at the federal level—which means states have to step up. Seven Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, plus Washington, DC, recently announced that they’re going to develop a market-based plan to reduce transportation emissions. What's awesome is that they’re starting by engaging stakeholders and the public. That’s the way to go when creating a big program like this: listen to the people.

This new Transportation and Climate Initiative will set strict limits for emissions. It will make polluters pay for the true cost of the pollution that their products emit. And it will raise funds that states can then use to invest in new, clean, equitable, accessible, affordable transportation solutions. Those funds will benefit communities that have been disproportionately affected by transportation emissions. Science can help determine how this program should be designed to achieve maximum benefits. That’s part of why UCS is so well positioned to work on this issue. We're hoping that by 2020, we'll have established a new carbon market for transportation.

Astrid Caldas, Senior Climate Scientist
Optimistic About: Widespread Acknowledgment of Climate Change

Photo: Ja-Rei Wang/UCS

There are positive signs everywhere that things are moving—even if slowly. On the federal level, the Government Accountability Office recently released a report on how much climate change will likely cost the United States, and it is advising, on the record, that the government act before the problem becomes too expensive to deal with. President Trump’s nominated administrator for NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] testified that climate change is real and human-caused. The National Defense Authorization Act, signed by President Trump, has a provision declaring that global warming is a national security issue, which means the Department of Defense is required to assess which bases are most threatened by climate change.

Locally, in my own experience, I’ve been interacting with people in communities affected by sea level rise. They know what’s happening, because they see it every day: they drive their old “saltwater car” during tidal flooding instead of their good car, and parents have a phone chain to alert each other when the water is too high for the school bus to come. What UCS does is give them information they can use to take action and to help make better plans. Developments like these may look small by themselves, but they are especially positive signs when taken together.

Adrienne Alvord, Western States Director
Optimistic About: Regional Alliances to Act on Climate Change

Photo: Brian Smeets

For a long time now, action on climate change has been happening at the local, state, and regional levels. The Under2 Coalition started with just California and the German state of Baden-Württemberg, which committed to limit their global warming emissions to between 80 and 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Today, 43 countries—representing 1.3 billion people and almost 40 percent of the global economy—have signed on. On a smaller level, British Columbia, California, Oregon, and Washington are collaborating on clean infrastructure and reducing emissions. And California has set its own goal of reducing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, which is a legally binding target. We’re ahead of schedule in some areas.

Another thing to feel optimistic about is that clean technologies are now mature; they’re no longer “alternative” or fringe. More and more people are recognizing that the economics of renewable energy and clean transportation make sense. We’re in the middle of an energy and transportation revolution, and UCS has been at the forefront. There’s reason for concern, but not reason to lose hope. And the concern should spur us on to greater action.

Shreya Durvasula, Senior Campaign Coordinator
Optimistic About: The Collective Power of Fired-up Scientists

Photo: Audrey Eyring/UCS

My role at UCS is to manage the growth of our Science Network, and to help Science Network members develop their leadership skills. What gives me hope is that there’s been a dramatic shift in the culture of science advocacy: scientists are realizing that their voices are needed. The Science Network has grown tremendously, including a surge of early-career scientists. They’re bringing so much energy—they’re fired up.

This has given our team the opportunity to try different leadership development and scientist engagement projects. For example, working on the Science for Public Good Fund [a small-grant program] has been incredible. One of my favorite projects we funded brought labor organizers and graduate students together to learn how to submit public comments to regulatory agencies. This process is esoteric but important, so now more people will know how to do it. We’re working to build long-term infrastructure for scientist-advocates to stay involved. I think the pendulum has shifted in a way that they’re not going to retreat into their labs after this administration. And I appreciate that we’re thinking beyond this administration. We all need to.