Climate 411

Hansen was right: Marking an anniversary by misleading the public

Dr. James Hansen testifying before Congress in 1988

With the thirtieth anniversary of former NASA scientist Jim Hansen’s landmark testimony to Congress on the urgent need to address climate change, numerous articles marked the occasion by demonstrating that his 1988 predictions have proven to be accurate.

Inevitably, some writers seized the opportunity to revive long-debunked arguments in an attempt to cast doubt and confusion on the threat.

Perhaps the most misleading – and certainly the highest profile – was a June 21st op-ed in the Wall Street Journal written by Pat Michaels and Ryan Maue. Michaels is director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute, a think tank financially linked to the fossil fuel industry. And Michaels has been found to have previously misled Congress by presenting a doctored graph of Hansen’s projections during public testimony before the House Small Business Committee.

Four decades of climate model projections have fared well

Their latest effort implies that U.S. climate policy is based on Hansen’s forecasts in 1988, and therefore we must “reconsider environmental policy” according to an evaluation of “how well his forecasts have done.”

In reality, climate policy is based on hundreds of years of collective research and an overwhelming amount of observational evidence gathered from all over the world.

Climate model development began as early as the 1950s, and projections from 1973 to 2013 (including Hansen’s 1988 paper) have been compared to observed temperatures by multiple institutions. All showed reasonably accurate surface temperature increases between 1970 and 2016, Hansen’s 1988 study included.

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Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Science / Comments are closed

The Real Danger to Our Health from Scott Pruitt’s Scandals

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been swamped by scandal, from taking first class flights at taxpayer expense to living in a lobbyist’s condo.

Pruitt’s behavior is unethical but, even more importantly, his actions will lead to greater health risks from pollution in our air, water, and land.

We can’t ignore the public health crisis created, in part, by Pruitt’s ethical crisis.

SCANDAL: PRUITT HIRES OKLAHOMA BANKING FRIEND

IMPACT: WILL TOXIC WASTE SITES BE CLEANED UP PROPERLY?

Pruitt hired close friend and disgraced former banker Albert “Kell” Kelly to oversee the Superfund program, which is responsible for the cleanup of toxic waste sites.

As head of his family’s bank in Oklahoma, Kelly lent Pruitt — then a $38,000 a year state legislator — money for a large house and part ownership in a minor league baseball team.

Since then, the FDIC has banned Kelly from the financial services industry for life. But Pruitt gave Kelly a job “streamlining” Superfund despite no previous environmental or public health experience.

Kelly owns stock in companies responsible for contaminating some Superfund sites.

There are serious questions about whether this “streamlining” is code for doing quick, incomplete cleanup of toxic sites in order to show progress for public relations purposes. That would let polluters off the hook while saddling Americans with greater risks of illness.

SCANDAL: PRUITT GETS SWEETHEART CONDO DEAL FROM LOBBYIST

IMPACT: OIL LOBBYISTS GAIN ACCESS, CARS AND TRUCKS WILL GET DIRTIER

Pruitt received a below-market-value housing arrangement from the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist whose clients stood to potentially gain from actions taken by the Administrator.

Pruitt’s favoritism for industry led to announcements like the weakening of America’s clean cars standards – a move that will cause more pollution, smog, and asthma attacks.

Pruitt also met with executives from Fitzgerald Truck Sales and created a loophole for their high polluting trucks, which will cost thousands of lives a year from health problems due to dirtier air.

The condo deal was likely not an actual quid pro quo, but Pruitt’s coziness with industry and willingness to accept their favors creates unhealthy, unethical influence and accesses.

SCANDAL: PRUITT HIRES SENIOR OFFICIAL FROM CHEMICAL INDUSTRY LOBBYING ARM

IMPACT: UNDERMINING OF NEW CHEMICAL SAFETY LAW, ALLOWING DANGEROUS CHEMICALS ON THE MARKET

Using an obscure provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act, Pruitt hired Nancy Beck directly from the American Chemistry Council – the main trade group for the chemical industry. Because she was hired that way, she did not have to sign the Administration’s ethics pledge, which would have limited her actions on issues related to her former industry.

Beck now effectively runs the EPA office that oversees her old industry, and is charged with implementing the framework rules for the 2016 chemical safety law.

That law was a major upgrade, fixing a badly broken system that allowed tens of thousands of potentially hazardous chemicals to remain on or enter the market — and Beck’s rules are on their way to breaking it all over again.

One example: Pruitt’s EPA shelved plans to ban paint strippers that use methylene chloride, which is proven to be dangerous and has led to dozens of deaths.

SCANDAL: SECRET SCHEDULE, SECRET PHONE BOOTH

IMPACT: UNKNOWN IMPACT OF LOBBYISTS ON POLICY

Pruitt keeps much of his schedule hidden, and sometimes doesn’t allow note taking in meetings, so it’s hard to tell who he talks to about what.

He’s also being investigated by the Inspector General for spending $43,000 on a secure phone facility next to his office – even though the EPA building already has one.

But based on the information that has come out, we know he spends a great deal of time listening to corporate lobbyists.

The result is an agenda that not only leans against health and anti-pollution rules, but one marked by favors to key industries with ties to Pruitt, such as attempts to ease methane pollution rules for natural gas companies.

As William Ruckelshaus, EPA administrator under Presidents Nixon and Reagan said, Pruitt is:

“taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and environment and then hiding it.”

Some of Pruitt’s scandals are purely cases of behavior that is unethical, like his use of first class flights. Those are serious and, because they have happened repeatedly, suggest he’s unfit for his public trust.

But we shouldn’t forget the far more dangerous impact of many of his scandals: our children will inherit a less clean, less healthy world.

Also posted in Health, News, Policy / Read 3 Responses

Natural disasters are no longer purely natural

You may have heard the alarming news that weather and climate disasters in the U.S. killed 362 people in 2017 and caused a record $306 billion in damages.

But also alarming is the fact that many news outlets are still referring to these events as “natural disasters.”

Southeast Texas after Hurricane Harvey – a not-purely-natural disaster. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

With recent advances in science, researchers have found that human-caused climate change plays a major role in making certain events occur and/or making them worse. That means that many “natural disasters” are no longer purely “natural.”

Here is a look at some not-so-natural disasters:

  • Hurricane Harvey 2017: human-caused climate change made record rainfall over Houston around three times more likely and 15 percent more intense
  • European Extreme Heat 2017: human-caused climate change made intensity and frequency of such extreme heat at least 10 times as likely in Portugal and Spain
  • Australian Extreme Heat 2017: maximum summer temperatures like those seen during 2016-2017 are now at least 10 times more likely with human-caused climate change
  • Louisiana Downpours 2016: human-caused climate change made events like this 40 percent more likely and increased rainfall intensity by around 10 percent
  • European Rainstorms 2016: human-caused climate change made probability of three-day extreme rainfall this season at least 40 percent more likely in France
  • UK Storm Desmond 2015: human-caused climate change made extreme regional rainfall roughly 60 percent more likely
  • Argentinian Heat Wave 2013/2014: human-caused climate change made the event around five times more likely

By employing the term “natural disasters,” news outlets and others are inadvertently implying that all of these events are just misfortunate incidences – rather than consequences of our actions.

This seemingly innocuous phrase supports the idea that dangerous weather is out of our control.

But, we do have some control over their frequency and intensity, and that control is through our emissions of heat-trapping gases.

We need to act on climate, and we need to do it now. Pointing out that we worsen and may even cause these weather disasters may help convince people to do what needs to be done.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, News, Science / Read 1 Response

Pruitt takes steps to remove science from decisions affecting the health of American families

Today EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced additions to the Agency’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). Taken in conjunction with the drastic policy shift also announced today, Pruitt is set to fundamentally undercut the role science in driving EPA decisions that directly affect the health and safety of American families and communities.

The new policy would exclude any scientist receiving an EPA grant from serving on any of the agency’s advisory panels. This creates a profound hypocrisy: under the policy scientists who take money from ExxonMobil or even Russia—since funding from other governments wouldn’t be disqualifying—Pruitt would regard as trusted to offer impartial advice. Meanwhile, those who have grants from the US environmental agency – whose research program was praised by the National Academy of Sciences in a report just this past summer – cannot.

In Pruitt’s Alice-in-Wonderland world, the EPA advisory panels intended to ensure the agency is making use of the best and latest science should be populated overwhelmingly by industry-affiliated scientists, at the expense of independent academic scientists.

Along with the policy, Pruitt’s new appointments to the SAB and CASAC (see a selection of the reported additions below) include longtime fossil fuel and chemical industry advocates, who have consistently played down or outright dismissed concerns about the risks of pollution or toxic chemical exposures based on discredited and outrageous scientific claims. Although the SAB is supposed to “provide independent advice and peer review on the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues to the EPA's Administrator,” these additions cannot be relied upon to faithfully uphold the Board’s mission.

Meanwhile, Pruitt is also reportedly taking the unprecedented step of not renewing any appointments for members whose terms expire this year. This allows Pruitt to reshape the panel in his own image more quickly.

All told, the goal is as clear as it is concerning: to create a rubber-stamp set of scientific advisers that can distort the science while still lending an aura of credibility to Pruitt’s destructive actions at the Agency.

The real losers are not the researchers, but rather American families who depend on having an agency that actually works to protect their health.

Meet some of Mr. Pruitt’s new science advisers

Texas official with a long record of downplaying health concerns about pollutants and toxic chemicals ranging from ozone to benzene. Honeycutt argued against stronger ozone standards by noting most people spend their days indoors. He also claimed that “some studies even suggest that PM [particulate matter] makes you live longer.”

Denver-based consultant with long track record of conducting research that disputes the public health benefits of reducing air pollution. Cox has stated that there is “no evidence that reductions in air pollution levels have caused any reductions in mortality rates.”

Record of disputing the benefits of clean air and air pollution limits; said that “Modern air … is a little too clean for optimum health.”

Professor at NC State affiliated with the climate-denying Heartland Institute, who claims that the “evidence is overwhelming” that if temperatures do increase, it will be “better for humans.”

Former Secretary of North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), who questions the well-established scientific consensus of climate change and, had a controversial tenure at the agency, notably over health advisories to well owners whose water might have been contaminated by coal ash.

Smith is a Managing Director of NERA Economic Consulting and co-head of its environmental practice. In work funded by the fossil fuel industry trade group the American Petroleum Institute, Smith argued that EPA data on lung response to ozone is imprecise, roundly debunked by policy experts and independent fact-checkers.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Health, Science / Comments are closed

The fight for transparency and accountability at EPA

This blog was co-authored by Surbhi Sarang, EDF Legal Fellow.

Since taking the helm at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt has attempted to hide his activities from scrutiny by limiting the public’s access to information.

He has ended the decades-long, bipartisan practice of releasing the daily schedules of top agency leadership, removed EPA webpages, and announced harmful policies close in time with private meetings with lobbyists from affected industries.

EDF has been at the forefront of efforts to promote transparency and accountability at EPA. That’s why we just filed a lawsuit to compel EPA to comply with its legal duty to release public records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Scott Pruitt’s record of secrecy and ethical conflicts

Scott Pruitt’s opaqueness and secrecy have sharply contrasted with basic principles of good government.

Under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the Office of Government Ethics issued regulations for executive branch employees:

To ensure that every citizen can have complete confidence in the integrity of the Federal Government.

Among other requirements:

Employees shall act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual” and “shall endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or . . . ethical standards.

The Office of Government Ethics titled this regulation the “basic obligation of public service.”

Pruitt and his senior leadership have raised serious questions as to whether they are abiding by these principles.

In just one example, earlier this summer thirteen state Attorneys General formally objected to a guidance letter in which Pruitt expressed his flawed, misleading opinion about a crucial issue in litigation over the Clean Power Plan — America’s only nationwide limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants.

The Attorneys General wrote that Pruitt’s conduct was “inconsistent with his agreement not to participate in the litigation,” given that he repeatedly sued EPA over the Clean Power Plan when he served as Attorney General of Oklahoma.

Pruitt also discontinued the practice of releasing his schedule, along with the schedules of senior leadership.

The bipartisan practice of releasing schedules stretches back decades and was initiated expressly:

In order to make the public fully aware of [the Administrator’s] contacts with interested persons.

Following months of public pressure and more than 60 FOIA requests, Pruitt finally released a partial public account of his schedule. But that account provides only a minimal level of detail of how and with whom Pruitt spends his time.

Pruitt later released a more detailed appointments calendar, but it covered a limited date range and included many redactions worthy of additional scrutiny. And neither of those releases provides any transparency for other EPA senior officials.

To obtain any more information about how EPA leadership spends its time, EDF’s only recourse has been to demand the release of these public records under FOIA.

EDF’s efforts to promote transparency and accountability

EDF is taking action to protect important standards of transparency and accountability at EPA — and to keep the public informed about policymaking that directly impacts the health and environment of all Americans.

Our lawsuit concerns three FOIA requests that directly address the integrity of EPA’s operations. For each request, EPA’s legally mandated deadline for providing a response is several months overdue, despite EDF’s extensive outreach to EPA over many months in an effort to elicit the requested records.

The first request seeks records related to the ethics agreement that Pruitt signed shortly after his nomination to lead EPA, in which he outlined:

[S]teps that [he] will take to avoid any actual or apparent conflict of interest.

We submitted this FOIA request in January 2017 – more than nine months ago.

Pruitt’s ethics agreement diverged from the standard language used by the Office of Government Ethics – even though Pruitt’s longstanding and very public opposition to a litany of EPA’s public health and environmental safeguards calls into question his ability to be impartial, particularly on matters in which he represented Oklahoma and long ago took fixed positions. Since taking the oath of office as Administrator, Pruitt has actively tried to undermine public health and environmental protections — like the Clean Power Plan — and has proposed to repeal protections that he had long attacked while Attorney General of Oklahoma.

Our FOIA request seeks records pertaining to the evaluation of Pruitt’s actual or potential conflicts of interest, including any analysis that informed his ethics agreement.

The second request is for records related to Pruitt’s and his senior managers’ schedules.

The most complete information we’ve received so far on Pruitt’s activities is only a select snapshot released through a FOIA request. That snapshot contains more than 100 redacted calendar appointments, and only runs through mid-May.

Even this limited information reveals the special access granted to polluter lobbyists — many of whom come from industries that have supported Pruitt’s political career for years. A more comprehensive release, including the calendars of senior EPA managers, would provide a fuller picture of the constituency that Pruitt and his political staff are serving.

The third request is for public documents related to threats to scientific integrity at EPA.

EDF requested these records in light of the Trump Transition Team’s efforts to single out civil servants at the Department of Energy who worked on climate science and policy. Since we submitted this FOIA request more than seven months ago, subsequent events — including the removal of EPA’s Climate Science website, scientific distortions that accompanied the proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, threatened efforts that would compromise the integrity of EPA advisory boards, and the muzzling of EPA scientists who were scheduled to deliver public presentations on climate change — have only increased the urgency of providing public access to records about the treatment of scientific integrity at EPA.

EDF will continue working to protect transparency and accountability at EPA by supporting Americans’ ability to access information about health and environmental policies, and by shining a light on the Trump Administration’s attacks on vital safeguards for families and communities across America.

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, EPA litgation, Policy / Comments are closed

Trump Administration misleads Americans about the cost of climate pollution

The Trump Administration is attempting to justify the rollback of crucial environmental and health protections by vastly undervaluing the costs of climate change.

The latest safeguards under attack are the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, and the Bureau of Land Management’s vital standards to reduce wasted natural gas from oil and gas facilities on public and tribal lands. They would have health, environmental, and economic benefits worth an estimated billions of dollars annually. But you wouldn’t know it from reading the Administration’s recently revised documents – because of a series of deceptive accounting tricks, including efforts aimed at obscuring the benefits of reducing carbon pollution.

The Trump Administration has used discredited methods to eviscerate the social cost of carbon — an estimate of the costs that carbon pollution inflicts on the public, represented as the dollar value of the total damages from emitting one ton of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere.

The social cost of carbon is a tool that helps ensure that policymakers consider the health, environmental and economic benefits of avoiding extreme weather, rising temperatures and intensifying smog when they make decisions that affect climate pollution.

Climate change harms businesses, families, governments and taxpayers through rising health care costs, destruction of property, increased food prices and more — so it’s common sense that we should properly account for the value of avoiding these harmful outcomes. But the Trump Administration has systematically undermined and attacked the well-established science of climate change – including the social cost of carbon, which has had a target on its back for a while now.

The most up-to-date estimates of the social costs of carbon were developed by an Interagency Working Group (IWG) of experts from a dozen federal agencies. They were developed through a transparent and rigorous process based on the latest peer-reviewed science and economics, and with input from the public and the National Academy of Sciences.

But in March, President Trump cast aside the results of this thorough and consultative process. He issued an executive order aimed at discrediting the IWG estimates, withdrawing them as government policy, and directing federal agencies to pick their own metric.

The executive order leaves federal agencies to fend for themselves without specific guidance, opens the door to extensive legal challenges, and effectively sets up agencies to cook the books to serve the Administration’s goals.

That’s exactly what EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke just did – releasing benefit-cost analyses that massively undervalue the costs of carbon pollution, radically reducing the estimates by up to 97 percent.

The Trump Administration would have us believe that the costs of carbon pollution are near zero. The Administration’s new estimates are only a couple dollars per ton of carbon dioxide – about as much as a cup of coffee or a bus ticket.

Sadly, communities around the country are already seeing just how wrong that is. From longer wildfire seasons to more intense hurricanes, the American public is already bearing the enormous costs of climate change.

Even the IWG estimates – roughly $50 per ton of carbon dioxide based on year 2020 emissions – are almost certainly a conservative lower bound since they do not yet reflect many different types of climate impacts.

A closer look at the Administration’s deceptive math 

There are two major flaws in the Administration’s drastically reduced estimates, both of which fly in the face of established science and economic principles in service of obscuring the very real benefits of climate action.

First, the reduced estimates ignore that carbon emissions are a global pollutant, so they omit important categories of climate change impacts on the United States.

Second, they shortchange the harm to our children and future generations from climate change.

The so-called “domestic-only” estimate

Since the impacts of carbon pollution are felt globally regardless of where the emissions come from, leading researchers and the IWG have appropriately focused on accounting for that full global impact.

In contrast, the Administration’s revised estimates claim to consider “domestic-only” impacts to the United States. But that title is a misnomer – the Administration’s flawed approach ignores important categories of impacts that affect the American public. Climate impacts beyond our borders have costly repercussions for U.S. citizens in the form of changing global migration patterns, economic and political destabilization, and other “spillover” effects.

The National Academy of Sciences specifically rejected the approach the Administration is taking in a report released earlier this year, concluding that:

[C]limate damages to the United States cannot be accurately characterized without accounting for consequences outside U.S. borders.

Economist Richard Newell – president of the think tank Resources for the Future, which is leading an effort to implement the Nation Academy of Sciences’ recommendations to update the social cost of carbon estimates – has criticized the Administration’s approach, saying that considering only direct domestic impacts is:

[U]nnecessarily constrained and unwise for addressing inherently global pollutants like greenhouse gases.

The use of a “domestic-only” number also harms Americans because it undervalues the cost of climate pollution and encourages other countries to similarly undervalue – and over-emit – this pollution.

More than half a dozen leading experts argue:

[The] United States benefits tremendously if other countries set policy based on global rather than local effects.

They also point out that the use of a global estimate can encourage reciprocal climate action elsewhere. For instance, the Canadian government incorporated the U.S. IWG value in its own policy analysis.

Undervaluing the impacts on children and future generations

The Administration’s estimates also use a sharply lower value for the benefits that today’s carbon reductions provide to children and future generations. Again, this is in direct conflict with the weight of expert opinion that supports valuing these impacts even more than we did before the Trump Administration.

The Administration’s estimates “discount” future impacts at 7 percent – a rate significantly higher than the 3 percent central rate of the IWG, and one that is wholly unsupported by the economics literature when it comes to the long-lived intergenerational effects of carbon pollution.

A growing consensus among leading economists supports lower or declining discount rates, as does the Council of Economic Advisors.

As Richard Newell of Resources for the Future points out:

Practically speaking, the use of such a high discount rate means that the effects of our actions on future generations are largely unaccounted for in the new analysis.

In other words, the Administration’s estimates reveal just how little they value protecting American children and generations to come.

The social cost of carbon has profound influence on our policy process and embodies the very real costs of climate change that communities around the country are already feeling.

The Administration’s distortion of these values is illustrative of a frequent strategy of theirs – twisting the facts to validate their desired outcome, and in the process sowing doubt around the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

Unfortunately, while the math the Administration is using is warped, the costs of climate change are still very real – and the American public is footing the bill.

Also posted in Clean Power Plan, Economics, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy / Comments are closed