The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. This blog is on on independent science and practical solutions taken on such environmental problems like Global warming, climatic change etc.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Figure 1: The Arctic zone is warming more than twice the global average temperature. Source: NASA GISS
A warmer arctic is part of a trend since 1990 that scientists refer to as “Arctic Amplification.” This refers to the amplified regional response to global warming. The red colors in the NASA GISS plot for zonal average temperature change over time, indicate that the Arctic zone has warmed more than twice the rate of the global average temperature rise (see Figure 1). Two new studies add to the mounting evidence regarding correlations with Arctic Amplification and changing severity of weather patterns in North America and Eurasia. Time to check in on the implications of these studies as we’re witnessing the extraordinary string of Nor’easters pounding New England this winter season.
Warmer Arctic correlated with more frequent cold outbreaks elsewhere in winter
The Arctic used to be so cold during the winter it was as if a fence surrounded it, keeping the coldest air trapped within the North pole region. A weak spot in the fence could, on rare occasions in the past, lead to cold outbreaks southward into the continental U.S. or Eurasia–these spots are becoming more frequent. The fence can break the other way, causing the warmer air from the south to also penetrate further north. Hence the many records mentioned above are being broken across the Arctic this winter while parts of the continental U.S. and Eurasia log colder than expected temperatures. This “fence” in the high atmosphere is called the stratospheric polar vortex. Unlike a fence that takes time to be repaired and designates a fixed boundary, the stratospheric polar vortex is dynamic. Therefore, the boundary position changes over time and interacts with other dynamic parts of the atmosphere and ocean.
Science suggests the behavior of the polar vortex is changing with a warming climate, which is starting to tip the scales, but in both directions. During any given winter, parts of mid-latitude North America and Eurasia experience periods of cold and warm weather, but in recent years the differences between them are typically greater – the colds are colder and the warm periods are warmer.
Building upon many studies over recent years, Kretschmer and colleagues correlated when the stratospheric polar vortex was weak (when the fence breaks), northern Eurasia and Canada were colder than normal. A strong stratospheric polar vortex (when the fence holds) was associated with warmer temperatures in northern Eurasia and the eastern United States and colder temperatures over Alaska and Greenland. Their study published in January advances our understanding of a winter (January through February) pattern observed from 1990 through 2015. Furthermore, the researchers suggest that seasonal forecasts could be greatly improved by paying attention to the conditions that are observed before a weakened polar vortex event occurs in the winter.
What does this mean for the 2018 Nor’easter season?
Figure 2: Strong 2017/2018 winter and spring Nor’easter season for New England (i.e. colder than normal eastern U.S. surface temperatures and warmer than normal ocean waters off the U.S. east coast).
A recent study by Cohen, Pfeiffer and Francis found that the time of Arctic Amplification (1990-2015) correlates with increased occurrence of heavy snowfall in the northeastern US, but decreased occurrence in the western US, compared with the time period before (1950-1989). Research is ongoing to better understand the physical mechanisms for these observations. For now, we can examine the wacky weather that helped create ideal conditions for the ‘Nor’easter’ storms happening in rapid succession over New England this season.
Figure 3: Alaska is warming up. Alaska Climate Research Center UAF
Families in New England and Alaska Bearing the Costs of this Winter Season
Perhaps the residents confronting a string of Nor’easters have more in common with Alaska residents than at first glance. Some have compared these Arctic cold outbreaks to a freezer door being left open for a period – frigid air escapes and chills the kitchen and simultaneously the warm air from the room fills the freezer. More than two million in 13 states in the northeast have suffered power loss after just one nor’easter this season; in Massachusetts, three times in two weeks a storm has resulted in hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses being left without power.
Families suffering multiple days without power may have to throw out an entire freezer and refrigerator-load of food and may seek warm shelter. Alaska residents who don’t want to risk travelling on ice highways with dangerous holes may not reach traditional hunting grounds to feed their families and their communities. Families in both Alaska and Eastern U.S. regions are now bearing the costs of the disruptions to activities that used to be sufficiently adapted to the seasons of the past. Now ice highways can have dangerous holes and the infrastructure supplying power to homes may not be up to the task of withstanding a string of intense storms.
More and more communities are taking note, discussion tradeoffs, and finding creative solutions for more resilient communities. For the sake of our families, friends and neighbors.
Alaska Climate Research Center, Geophysical Institute – University of Alaska Fairbanks
Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) states that as Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology he seeks facts about climate change, and that his Committee follows “the scientific method.” These are welcome and vitally important positions for a powerful Congressman to take on a topic of such vital national interest. It is essential that scientific evidence be the foundation for legislative action about climate change.
Unfortunately, in his article Mr. Smith does not seek facts or apply the scientific method. Instead, he makes claims that are contrary to established facts, and provides no evidence or analysis to support his assertions as the scientific method requires.
For example, Smith claims “United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has affirmed that they have “low confidence” in climate change contributing to extreme weather.” Actually, the IPCC stated that “a changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”
Smith notes that “U.S. wildland fires are decreasing in frequency,” which is a trend under investigation using the scientific method of proposing and testing alternate hypotheses. For example, the decrease could represent an impact of a change in climate, but it could easily be the result of successful fire prevention strategies. But Mr. Smith does not consider alternate hypotheses as the scientific method requires. Instead, he concludes that reduced fire frequency proves climate change does not increase the frequency of such extreme events.
Meanwhile, Mr. Smith completely ignores the data demonstrating the total acres burned in wildfires is going up, which is the fact that constitutes the major threat to people around the world. The most recent assessment for the US states, “The incidence of large forest fires in the western United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s and is projected to further increase in those regions as the climate changes, with profound changes to regional ecosystems.” Ignoring data is a luxury that only politicians can indulge in, as any scientist who does won’t get manuscripts through peer review.
This is reminiscent of when Mr. Smith accused NOAA scientists of “altering the data,” calling their published scientific analyses of atmospheric temperatures “skewed and biased,” a claim made with no accompanying analysis or evidence. In fact, NOAA scientists were using the scientific method to identify the bias that exists in temperature measuring instruments and making their data more accurate by taking this bias into account. We all apply this same process when we compare the results of different bathroom scales, time pieces, meat thermometers, or fuel gauges in cars. This is an example of Mr. Smith practicing intimidation, not science, as noted by the American Meteorological Society.
Smith claims in his article that he is called a “climate denier” because he “questions assertions,” which again demonstrates a misunderstanding of the scientific method. The reason Mr. Smith is called a “climate denier” is because he questions scientific conclusions without providing an alternate explanation for existing observations. A true skeptic would propose an alternative, testable hypothesis for observations.
For example, our release of greenhouse gases has raised the average temperature of the ocean by a little over half a degree Fahrenheit, which represents an amount of energy (1023 joules) that is 10 billion times the amount of energy (1013 joules) released by the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
A true skeptic of global warming must propose an alternative explanation for how all of this energy has accumulated if greenhouse gases are not responsible. Skeptics have suggested changes in the sun’s energy output as an alternate explanation, but it is now well established that the sun’s energy output has actually been declining over the last few decades. In fact, the brightness of the Sun is at a record low right now. True skeptics would also propose an explanation for why greenhouse gases are not causing the earth to heat up, given that we know these gases trap heat.
Mr. Smith cannot offer such explanations because they do not exist. Instead, as we see from the examples above, he attempts to misrepresent or ignore existing evidence. This is deeply unfortunate given Mr. Smith’s position in Congress. Those who seek nonpartisan, evidence-based policies to address the impacts of climate change must demand that their representatives based their positions on facts supported by the scientific method.
While Smith states that “climate alarmists just won’t let the facts get in the way of their science fiction,” analyzing his own claims demonstrate that the fiction is being propagated by Mr. Smith.
Andrew Gunther is executive director of the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, and a board member at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He has published research in the field of ecotoxicology and has extensive experience in applying science to the development of air, water, and endangered species policy. Dr. Gunther served as the assistant chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Program from 1991 to 2002, and is currently the executive coordinator of the Bay Area Ecosystems Climate Change Consortium.
That shiny new truck could have a 15-year-old engine that doesn’t meet today’s standards, and you might never know…except for the plumes of pollution behind it, if it’s a glider vehicle. Photo: Jeremy Rempel. CC-BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)
The newest twists and turns in the glider vehicle saga
Glider vehicles have gone from being a niche issue to a major conversation piece both here in DC and now also in Tennessee. The villains are still Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, Fitzgerald Glider Kits, and Congresswoman Diane Black. The new heroes are the Tennessee Tech University (TTU) faculty and students.
First a quick recap of the issue: Glider vehicles are new truck bodies that have old, polluting engines in them. As noted in my colleague Dave Cooke’s previousblogs, the particulate matter (PM) emissions alone from these vehicles will cause an additional 1600 premature deaths annually (assuming they make 10,000 vehicles a year). And the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions are 10x that of the emissions from the Volkswagen diesel cars that were outfitted with defeat devices for every year this loophole remains open.
These dirty polluting trucks are terrible for the environment, our health (particularly the health of people who live along trucking corridors, predominantly people of color, which was acknowledged in an early draft of the proposal to roll back the rule), and for companies and dealers that sell new trucks that actually meet the current PM and NOx emissions standards.
But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt doesn’t seem to care about any of that. There are several different layers of malfeasance happening here, many of them come directly out of my colleagues’ Disinformation Playbook. I’ll start with the science interference.
The newest twist in this story is about the “study” that TTU performed and Fitzgerald included in their request that the agency repeal the rule that limits the production of super polluting glider vehicles. I will admit, here at UCS, we were incredulous about the brevity of the “data” and lack of methodology included in the “study” – it’s basically a table with almost no information – it includes carbon monoxide (CO) emissions, which have been under control in transportation for some time, an acknowledgement that all trucks they tested have higher NOx emissions than allowed, and said that the PM emissions were “below the threshold detection point” (because they didn’t measure it! check out Dave’s blog on this point – it’s gold). Because we are a bunch of science nerds, we wondered who would have signed off on this testing? What was the level of scientific rigor? Did no one at the university notice that the study was designed, bought, and paid for by Fitzgerald?
Tennessee Tech University faculty fight back
Unknown to us, there was a giant debate happening among the faculty at Tennessee Tech University about this very “study.” It turns out that this “study” really is just a politically-driven hack job and the faculty at Tennessee Tech University aren’t having it.
The Faculty Senate business meeting minutes are amazing and downright enjoyable to read. They appear to have first talked about it on January 29th and the Faculty Senators just ripped into Tom Brewer (more on him later), asking all of the questions you would expect – who conducted this research? Did you actually not measure PM? Do you not realize this looks like a conflict of interest? etc. The very next day, they approved a resolution that starts by saying that their reputation has been damaged by this “study” and demands an external investigation of the person who led it (Tom Brewer), that TTU President Oldham withdraw university support for the “study,” that all research and associations with Fitzgerald are suspended, and that there is an immediate internal investigation of the “study.”
It took until February 19th, but TTU President Oldham sent a letter to the EPA asking them to disregard the “study,” as they were going to submit it for peer-review. A win for science!!
I promised more information about Tom Brewer, the person who apparently oversaw the “research” for the “study.” Brewer has a BA in business administration and previously worked in product administration at GM, was the president of the Board of the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association, and was brought to TTU to be “an industry liaison.” This is the “expert” that ran the study. Fitzgerald apparently has “no engineers experts on staff” nor any of the appropriate equipment to conduct the testing.
There is a political story that underlies all of this – namely that Fitzgerald, the largest glider vehicle manufacturer, happens to be located in Congresswoman Diane Black’s district (she’s running for Governor of Tennessee this year, if you want to keep tabs on her). Representative Black has long sought to ensure that these zombie trucks continue to be sold in high numbers – she has repeatedly introduced (unsuccessful) appropriations riders to stop glider vehicles from being regulated. She is also the person that TTU sent their “study” to and it was that letter that got forwarded on and included in the Fitzgerald request to roll back any regulations for glider vehicles.
The uproar at Tennessee Tech University, the blatant political motivations that have been in the mainstream press here, here, and here, Congressional scrutiny, and common decency aren’t likely enough to keep this loophole you could drive a truck through closed. I think it’s incredibly likely that Administrator Pruitt goes ahead with his proposal to allow unregulated glider vehicle sales. It’s up to all of us to let him know that that’s not ok. Please take this action to speak out against this and we’ll keep you updated on the next steps.
A major front in the climate change debate has moved to the courtroom, as I’ve previously discussed. Last week, plaintiffs in two separate cases won significant procedural victories—one against major fossil fuel companies, and a second against the Trump administration. Here are the latest developments and their implications.
Bay Area vs. Big Oil
In this suit, The People of the State of California v. BP et al., the cities of San Francisco and Oakland sued five major oil companies (BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Conoco Phillips and Shell), charging that these companies created a public nuisance by extracting and selling oil, coal, and gas while misleading the public about the harms that these products cause.
The two cities filed in state court and under state law. This was an important strategic choice, as the US Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers California) had dismissed prior cases brought in federal court, holding that congress enacted the Clean Air Act to comprehensively address the emission of greenhouse gases, and that therefore there was no role for federal lawsuits of this kind.
Citing the precedent of these earlier rulings, the defendant oil companies transferred the cities’ cases to federal court, and argued that the cities’ claims were preempted by federal law. In response, the cities claimed that they had a right to file in state court and that their claims under state law were not preempted by federal law, and they asked the judge to send the cases back to state court.
A federal district court judge issued a decision that neither side argued for. The court decided in the oil companies’ favor that the case was properly in federal court, reasoning—with some logic—that global warming is an international problem, that state courts might apply inconsistent standards if allowed to adjudicate these cases, and that only the federal court could apply a uniform standard.
But, the court went on to find that the two earlier cases which had dismissed federal court suits did not apply to this case. The court found that while the Clean Air Act addresses the emissions from fossil fuel combustion, the San Francisco/Oakland case was not about emissions of pollutants, but rather an alleged scheme to sell a product through deception. The court reasoned—again with some logic—that the Clean Air Act offered no remedy for that conduct, and therefore did not preempt this lawsuit.
This part of the ruling was a major win for the plaintiffs, as it seems to take away the key defense of preemption that the oil companies seemed to be counting on.
On top of this, the court also ordered the parties to participate in a five-hour “climate science” tutorial for the court, to be held on March 21. The judge ordered the parties to “trace the history of scientific study of climate change, beginning with scientific inquiry into the formation and melting of the ice ages, periods of historic cooling and warming, smog, ozone, nuclear winter, volcanoes and global warming.” And further, to inform the court of “the best science now available on global warming, glacier melt, sea rise and coastal flooding.”
This is fascinating and highly unusual. As anyone who has seen a trial on television or in the movies knows, courts don’t conduct tutorials; they oversee trials, in which lawyers present the testimony of witnesses under oath and each side gets to examine and cross examine. The sheer novelty of this procedure is a good sign for the plaintiffs. Why would the judge invest time and energy to learn about climate science unless he thought the plaintiffs’ legal claims might rest on a durable foundation? Also, the fact that the court asked for a climate science timeline suggests the court is honing in on some key questions: what did the fossil fuel companies know about climate change, when did they know it, and how did their public statements square with the scientific consensus at the time?
All eyes will be on this climate science tutorial, which will presumably be open to the public. To my knowledge, this is the first time climate science will be presented to a court in this fashion, and it offers an excellent opportunity to highlight the longstanding and well-supported scientific consensus.
It is too early to confidently predict what lies ahead but, on the basis of the judge’s initial opinion, one can say this: the courtroom door is open now on these issues as it never has been before.
Kids sue to protect themselves and future generations
In this case, Juliana v. the United States, a group of kids are suing the Trump administration for failing to protect them against the harms of climate change. I wrote about the novelty of this case last fall, and its early success when a federal district court judge in Oregon ordered the case to trial, rejecting all the Trump administration’s procedural defenses.
Since that time, the Trump administration asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal to dismiss the case. This was an unusual move because, ordinarily, a party to a lawsuit cannot appeal until the trial court has issued a final judgment. In this case, however, the district court had not done so. Predictably, the court of appeals ruled that the appeal was therefore premature, and sent the case back to the district court.
(Full disclosure: UCS joined a friend of the court brief on this issue, ably authored by EarthJustice attorneys).
The case was originally set for trial in February, 2018, but the Trump administration’s appeal delayed that. Presumably, the next step will be for the court to set another trial date.
This is not good news for the Trump administration. At a minimum, a trial on this will be a public relations nightmare in which an appealing group of kids, represented by experienced attorneys, will have the opportunity to question Trump administration officials in open court. They will no doubt ask questions that the administration will find extremely difficult to answer, such as: Why has the Trump administration sought to withdraw from the Paris agreement, rolled back regulations to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and promoted subsidies for coal? Does the Trump administration not accept climate science? Does it not care about the harm of runaway climate change?
Further down the line, if the plaintiffs are successful in district court and if the court of appeals or the supreme court affirms the ruling (all very big “ifs,” of course), the Trump administration faces the prospect of being forced under court order to develop and implement a plan to address climate change.
Chickens coming home to roost
These lawsuits and the apparent judicial receptiveness to them—at least so far—are not accidental. Courts are heavily influenced by historic context, and judges are no doubt well aware of the pressing urgency of climate change and the failure of the federal government to address it. With no solution in sight, it is not surprising that courts are increasingly willing to hear cases urging a strong judicial role.
Is it ideal that courts, rather than our elected representatives, would decide these issues? Of course not. Maybe it is time for those who have opposed having our elected leaders take action on climate to consider this question–would they prefer the courts to do that job?
I think it is safe to say that no other part of our government inspires as much excitement among the American public as NASA does. Kids across the country dress up as NASA astronauts each Halloween and families plan vacations to visit NASA space flight centers. We all look in awe at the images NASA satellites generate of our own home, Planet Earth.
That said, most of us don’t get quite as excited by NASA’s budget. I’m going to dedicate the next few moments to exploring why NASA’s budget is super cool and super important. In particular, I’m going to focus on the important work that NASA is doing to make our life here on Earth safer and more prosperous, and review what the Trump administration has in store for NASA’s Earth Science work.
The bottom line is, despite the fact that Congress recently passed a bill to increase NASA’s spending levels, NASA’s Earth Science Division is still facing cuts.
NASA’s not just for rocket scientists
NASA’s Earth Science Division provides decision makers, our armed forces, the private sector, and citizens with critical information on how our Earth works and the state of our planet—information that can be used to assess risks, protect American lives and infrastructure, and identify opportunities for our nation. For example:
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, over the last decade extreme weather events and wildfires cost the federal government more than $350 billion. More importantly, these kinds of events have led to enormous losses of life across the country. In an effort to help the nation avoid the losses and costs associated with these kinds of events, scientists in NASA’s Earth Science Division are currently working to improve wildfire forecasts as well as our understanding of how hurricanes form.
NASA Earth scientists also produce weekly indicators of groundwater and soil moisture drought that are fed into the National Drought Monitor. These scientists produce the drought indicators using a combination of land-based water storage data collected by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, other observations, and computer models.
Landsat—a joint program between NASA’s Earth Science Division and USGS—provides the longest-running record of Earth’s land from space to date. The sensor provides information that is used by a wide variety of sectors—from forest management to public health to water resource management.
NASA’s 2019 Earth Science portfolio by the numbers
Hopefully by now it is clear that NASA’s Earth Science work is really important for Americans. Unfortunately, for the 2019 fiscal year (FY19), the president has proposed cutting NASA’s Earth Science Division budget by 6.5% relative to 2017 enacted levels (Table 3). The proposal seeks to reduce funds available for Earth science research, missions, and technology.
Stepping back for a moment, the administration has actually proposed increasing NASA’s overall budget in FY19. In light of the above-mentioned bill that increases NASA’s spending cap, the administration added $300 million to their initial proposal of $19.9 billion for NASA’s FY19 budget. This is an increase from FY17’s operational budget of $19.7 billion. The administration proposed that these additional funds be largely directed to the their space Exploration campaign, as well as to NASA facilities and aeronautics basic research.
None of the additional funds would be used to restore NASA’s Earth Science budget to at least its current level in the president’s proposal.
Table 1. NASA’s Earth Science Division budget figures (in millions of US Dollars) for Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17), the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19), and the percent change (%).
What would get cut?
Following the President’s FY18 budget, the administration has again proposed terminating four Earth Science missions: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity (CLARREO) Pathfinder mission. (For more information on these missions, please visit my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel’s excellent review.)
The president has also proposed terminating the Carbon Monitoring System, the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), and the following measures:
The proposal recommends a reduction to NASA’s Earth Science Technology program. This program develops and funds a wide range of new technologies that push the envelope in terms of how we can observe and measure our Earth. For example, the Earth Science Technology Office is using cube satellites as a lower cost/lower risk way to test technologies in space that can then be scaled up.
NASA’s Earth Science Research program is advancing our understanding of how the Earth works—from improving predictions of extreme events to furthering understanding of how our home planet responds to human and natural changes. The program also analyzes data collected by NASA’s satellites and other airborne missions. For example, NASA’s Earth Science Research program is working to develop new methods to diagnose severe storms in real time using the Lightning Mapper Sensor.
Given the increased risks we are facing here on Earth as a result of human-caused changes in our planet, and the opportunities available to our public and private sector from Earth monitoring data, this is not the moment to reduce spending levels in NASA’s Earth Science Division.
The Earth observations and innovations that come out of NASA’s Earth Science Division lead to better forecasts and predictions of extreme weather, information on land use that is vital for resource managers and public health officials, and more. These new technologies and insights are then operationalized at NOAA, which makes this information matter for people’s daily lives (NOAA’s own budget is facing dramatic reductions).
Instead, NASA’s Earth Science Division should be equipped with the funds it needs to carry out this critical work so that our nation can remain at the cutting edge and thrive.
NOAA Ocean Explorer: NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer: INDEX 2012 ÒGul
First the good news: Through recent continuing appropriations (Public Law No. 115-124 on 2/9/2018), the federal government funding has been sustained near FY17 enacted levels in FY18. The kickoff for the FY19 budget began when the President’s proposed budget was released two weeks ago.
Now the concerning news: Deep cuts to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research capabilities loom in the FY19 proposed budget (Figure 1). Including complete elimination of federal funding for the following in the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) and the National Ocean Service (NOS):
NOS: Coastal Science Competitive Research
Figure 1. Proposed NOAA FY19 budget cuts to the office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS), National Ocean Service (NOS), and National Weather Service (NWS). Data Source: NOAA blue book 2019.
NOS: Coastal Management Grants
NOS: National Estuarine Research Reserve System
OAR: Climate Competitive Research
OAR: Joint Technology Transfer Initiative
OAR: National Sea Grant College Program
OAR: Research Transition Acceleration Program
Research forms the foundation for advances in NOAA core missions, including weather predictions that ensure public safety, protect economic assets and activities, and support for navigation by military, commercial and private vessels.
NOAA budget in context
Research and development (R&D) underpins NOAA’s core missions and their importance to people living in the U.S. and beyond. It may come as a surprise to many who inspect this illuminating AAAS graph that the NOAA R&D budget is tiny (~0.01% of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1976, declining to <0.01% of 2016 GDP) compared to most other agencies with R&D programs (e.g. NIH, DOD, DOE, NASA). We really get a lot of bang for our buck at NOAA – an economic analysis revealed that NOAA products and services affect more than a third of U.S. GDP. It is therefore striking to see large cuts proposed for FY19 (Figure 1).
NOAA-funded flood research in Houston in advance of Hurricane Harvey: Were lives saved?
Figure 2. Before and After Hurricane Harvey pictures of Houston Texas. Image source: NOAA
Did involving local planners and other key stakeholders in this research increase preparedness for the next flood? We may never know if being involved in this study changed how any of the stakeholders made decisions or shared information during the Hurricane Harvey disaster response. It’s hard to judge the societal benefits of just one research grant, but when we consider the number of competitive grants NOAA provides, the benefits can be significant.
We see this by expanding on our Houston example. The Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP), within NOAA’s Climate and Societal Interactions (CSI) program, funds similar studies on issues of extreme event preparedness, planning, and adaptation in the water sector and the drought sector.
CSI is one of the major areas of focus for competitive research grants from the OAR Climate Program Office (CPO). Others include ocean observing and monitoring and earth system modeling. For example, the CPO 2018 call for research proposals includes grants that would advance NOAA’s sub-seasonal to seasonal predictions of weather patterns. Cities planning to buy large stores of salt and sand for snow, businesses planning for shipments during times of flooding, and farmers deciding which type of crop seed to buy all benefit from such research informing operational advances in the National Weather Service’s (NWS) seasonal weather predictions.
Here is the kicker. The President’s FY19 budget proposal cuts more than a third (37%) from the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) program including a request to completely eliminatecompetitive research grants in NOAA’s Climate Program Office.
NOAA’s Climate Program Office also funds many laboratories and cooperative institutes and regional climate data and information services, which the President’s budget requests a 22% increase and 32% decrease, respectively, with respect to the FY17 spend budget level. Other budget changes include this jaw dropping request:
“…terminate Arctic research focused on improvements to sea ice modeling and predictions that support fishermen, commercial shippers, cruise ships, and local communities. NOAA will also terminate modeling of ecosystem and fisheries vulnerabilities.”
Figure 3. John N. Cobb in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Photo source: NOAA
Some good news (and some concerning news) for satellites in FY19
NOAA has top tier expertise and capacity incorporating satellite information to support services across the government such as weather forecasts and safe navigation for military, commercial and private vessels. Yet the FY19 budget requests cutting a quarter of the FY17 spend levels for the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) (Figure 1).
This sizable cut includes over $230 million from the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), NOAA’s polar weather satellites program. According to NOAA:
“The primary purpose of the JPSS series is to provide global meteorological observations to enable short-term (0-3 days), and mid-range (3-7 days) warnings of severe weather events critical for emergency managers and communities to make timely decisions to protect life and property”
At the AAAS 2018 annual meeting, I heard U.S. Navy Commander Lane, who is the director of the U.S. National Ice Center, say that sub-seasonal and seasonal forecasts improve voyage planning for naval operations in regions with ice hazards for navigation. Close coordination between NOAA, Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and their Canadian counterparts keeps U.S. sailors safe and helps advance plans for commercial shipping on the Great Lakes and other ice-strewn waters near U.S. ports. It would be prudent to take a closer look at this budget cut to ensure that what remains is sufficient for follow-on satellites and research in support of early and accurate warnings of ice-laden waters, which are increasingly variable in when and where they occur.
Figure 4: GOES-East and GOES-West satellite coverage of the western hemisphere. Image source: NOAA
The good news is continuity for the GOES-R satellite program through 2036. These satellites provide greatly enhanced information for weather forecasts that directly affect public safety. Yesterday (March 1) the GOES-S satellite successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Florida. Once operational, it will be known as GOES West, and will complement GOES East satellite, which launched last year. According to many presentations I saw at the American Meteorological Society’s 2018 annual meeting, the GOES East satellite (also called GOES-16) provided greater lead times and more accurate information for planners during the devastating 2017 hurricane season. There is a planned decrease of nearly $335 million for the GOES-R program, but that’s expected after new satellites are launched. Still, it is prudent to make sure operational costs are sufficient and include research that tests and validates sensors on the new operational satellites.
National Ocean Service FY19 budget cuts research supporting coastal communities
With our nation’s roads, railways, water systems, and other public resources in a shameful state of disrepair, major new federal investment in infrastructure is long overdue. President Trump’s recently proposed infrastructure plan is deeply flawed, but it does draw congressional and public attention to this important issue.
In a recent post, I critiqued the president’s State of the Union address for failing when viewed through the lens of three core values: kindness and decency, respect for facts and expertise, and concern for future generations. Those same values can help us evaluate the Trump infrastructure plan, and envision the plan our nation really needs.
Photo: Des Moines Water Works
Just and equitable infrastructure priorities
A starting point for discussion is this: when public dollars are spent to update our infrastructure, they should be used to maximize social and economic return for the public.
The best returns are likely to come when targeting those communities most in need of infrastructure improvements—communities that are not able to pay for them through private funding or via their cash-starved local governments.
Unfortunately, the Trump plan heads in the opposite direction. In the plan’s proposed scoring system to rank competing projects, 70 percent of the score hinges on whether a project can leverage private or state/local funding, while only five percent is based on the economic and social returns on investment. This means, as a recent New York Times story highlights, that an access road to a luxury condominium development would score high, as a developer would invest in a project that raises the value of his property, but repairs of an existing roadway serving a static population would likely score low. As one professor observed, “instead of the public sector deciding on public needs and priorities, the projects that are most attractive to private investors will go to the head of the line.”
Allowing the private tail to wag the public dog should be an absolute non-starter. But what would an infrastructure plan look like if it were rooted in the public values of kindness and decency?
Such a plan would recognize that many communities today lack adequate modern necessities: clean water, sewer systems, public transportation, parks, sidewalks, storm drains, streetlights, schools, and libraries. Moreover, if the horror story of Flint, Michigan taught us anything, it is that disregard for the quality of infrastructure that serves the most vulnerable communities can have catastrophic consequences, such as lead levels in kids that may severely harm and limit them throughout their lives.
A truly public-spirited infrastructure plan would identify other similar disasters waiting to happen—and fix them before they do. It would also supply more of what many communities need most—affordable housing near public transit in urban areas, and modern amenities such as fast internet capabilities in rural areas, for example.
While the president’s priorities as stated in his plan are way off the mark, Congress can align the plan with the values of kindness, decency, and equity by passing a bill requiring that special weight be given to infrastructure projects that deliver basic necessities to underserved communities. Prioritizing such investments creates a moral underpinning to an overall infrastructure plan that can lend it both urgency and broad support.
As we look toward the future, we need to promote infrastructure improvements that are built to last and informed by climate-smart principles. Photo: US Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi/Wikimedia
Infrastructure informed by science and public input
We make our best personal long-term spending decisions when we gather facts carefully and listen to people we trust, including experts; this is true for government infrastructure investment decisions as well.
Unfortunately, rather than encouraging robust fact gathering, public input, and consideration of alternatives, the Trump infrastructure plan calls for a radical streamlining of the environmental review process that has been in place since 1970 under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The law requires that when federal agencies fund or issue permits for major projects, they consider the environmental impacts of the project and assess whether alternative options might better protect the environment, public health, and safety. NEPA mandates the preparation and issuance of an environmental impact statement, with opportunities for the public to weigh in at various stages of the decision-making process. And when agencies disregard this law, citizens have the right to take them to court.
While the NEPA process is often derided, it has a long history of success. In one of scores of well-documented examples, scientific and public input through the NEPA process helped protect the drinking water supply for millions of residents from Phoenix to Los Angeles by preventing a mining company’s highly contaminated uranium tailings from being left near the banks of the Colorado River, requiring instead that they be transported to a secure site. In this example, the NEPA process changed the agency’s mind—without it, it is likely that these contaminants would have been capped and left in place, as this was the agency’s initial “preferred alternative.”
Opponents of the federal environmental review process often discount successes such as this one, claiming that lengthy federal reviews hold up worthy projects. They have a point—in my own experience in state government, I saw the nation’s first proposed offshore wind farm die in part because federal agencies took too long to weigh in, while opponents used the judicial system to delay construction. But there are many ways to coordinate and improve permitting that don’t sacrifice the obvious benefits of environmental review. Here, as in many other instances, President Trump proposes to use a wrecking ball when a scalpel would do.
Rather than eviscerate an open and thoughtful review process, a wise infrastructure plan would encourage our best scientists and experts to weigh in early so that the best decisions are made.
A particularly important area for scientific input is to make sure that new federal infrastructure investments will be able to withstand the future effects of climate change. It is simply imprudent to spend dollars now on projects that will be obsolete in the future, like building a new ramp for a bridge that will routinely flood due to sea level rise, or a roadway that will not be able to withstand anticipated heat waves, or water pipes that won’t carry enough water due to drought conditions. As several of my colleagues at UCS have explained, we need to promote infrastructure improvements that are built to last, and informed by climate-smart principles embedded up front in project selection and review. But that kind of careful debate and analysis can’t be accomplished if the Trump administration succeeds in eviscerating the environmental and public review process.
Photo: Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons
Infrastructure with an eye to the future
Wayne Gretsky is famous, not just for his prodigious hockey skills, but for his oft-quoted line “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” This applies not just to sports, but to infrastructure as well.
President Trump’s plan mainly shores up the infrastructure of the past, largely ignoring the investments we need to meet the most pressing challenge of our time—accelerating the transition to clean energy to prevent runaway climate change.
An infrastructure plan for the needs of tomorrow must include and prioritize: transmission lines that connect the country’s plentiful wind and solar energy to the population centers where it’s needed; a modern electric grid that is highly efficient and can accommodate more renewable energy; energy storage demonstration projects to jump-start this promising technology; and electric vehicle charging infrastructure that allows drivers of electric cars, trucks, and buses to more easily travel long distances.
Just as we need a massive federal investment to mitigate climate change, we also need infrastructure to protect us against the harms that will occur due to the climate change that is already locked in by global warming emissions that continue to linger in the atmosphere. A key lesson here is that preventative measures cost far less than rescues and cleanups when disasters hit. The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that every dollar invested through federal grants to protect against storm surge and floods, fires, earthquakes and wind yields six dollars’ worth of benefits.
A forward-thinking plan should therefore prioritize items such as stormwater management and green infrastructure to minimize flood damage; urban tree planting programs to cope with heat waves; and the fortification of vulnerable national priorities such as water infrastructure, military installations, nuclear power plants, and electric utility lines.
We should welcome a national debate about our infrastructure needs. The president’s plan falls far short but, in this debate, we need to say what we stand for, not just what we oppose. Supporting a plan that is just and equitable, that encourages the input of scientists and the public, and that looks ahead to benefit future generations is a very good start.
Vivimos momentos de mucha incertidumbre entre nuestra comunidad. Nuestro mundo se ve amenazado por la intolerancia y el odio a los inmigrantes, el desmantelamiento de las protecciones federales a nuestra salud y del ambiente, la negación de la realidad del cambio climático, y más recientemente, por el triste fracaso de nuestros líderes en tomar acción para frenar la epidemia de violencia con armas de fuego que afecta al país.
El vínculo entre el bienestar humano y la democracia
La prosperidad económica en los Estados Unidos ha sido el resultado, en parte, del fuerte apego histórico del país con un quehacer científico rigoroso e independiente, o sea, libre de influencias político-partidistas o que busquen el interés personal por encima del bienestar social.
Por supuesto, dicha prosperidad no está ni ha estado repartida por igual entre la población: sabemos, por ejemplo, que las personas de color y con bajo ingreso viven más cerca de fuentes de contaminación industrial que otras poblaciones, y que muchas desigualdades en la concentración de contaminantes atmosféricos y en nivel socio-económico contribuyen a que muchas comunidades de origen latinoamericano se vean más afectadas por la contaminación del aire. La ciencia también nos dice que las poblaciones más vulnerables al cambio climático—en EE.UU. y alrededor del mundo—son personas de bajo ingreso y usualmente de color.
El derecho a condiciones de vida saludable como un medio ambiente limpio y sano está reconocido como fundamental para el pleno ejercicio de los derechos democráticos en los que está basada, en principio, una sociedad como la de los EE.UU. Pero durante las últimas décadas hemos visto cambios muy preocupantes en el uso de la ciencia para la toma de decisiones y la implementación de políticas gubernamentales que garanticen un ambiente sano para todos.
Todo esto ocurre en momentos en que la humanidad se enfrenta a graves problemas ambientales, económicos, de salud y seguridad en su historia. Union of Concerned Scientists, muy consciente de los retos, ostenta una larga trayectoria en utilizar la ciencia para solucionar los problemas sociales y ecológicos más apremiantes. Pero no lo podemos hacer nosotros solos. Necesitamos de su voz como miembro de la comunidad latina en los EE.UU para poder avanzar hacia un futuro sano, seguro, y sostenible.
La devastación tras desastres recientes como el huracán María en Puerto Rico y Harvey en Texas evidencian el impacto desproporcionado al cambio climático que sufren los latinos y otras comunidades de color. La manera más efectiva de proteger a nuestras comunidades es garantizando que las políticas públicas sean diseñadas teniendo en cuenta la evidencia científica y con el objetivo de beneficiar a todas las personas y no sólo a unos pocos. Alce su voz y ayúdenos a exigir a nuestros líderes que busquen soluciones justas a la crisis ambiental y climática.
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