June 15 2018

June 15 2018

sidelining science in government decisions, nuclear power’s challenging future, the drying Salton Sea, the promise of energy efficiency

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has emerged as the most greedy and corrupt member of the Trump administration, with multiple investigations pending into his office expenditures, cozy relationships with lobbyists and misuse of EPA staff among other items (Pruitt now has a “defense fund” for which he is soliciting money; critics are calling it his “tip jar”). While egregious, these scandals are mere sideshows to the most dangerous problem with Pruitt’s EPA: the attempt to sideline the use of scientific evidence in matters affecting public health. Examples include the proposal to require release of confidential health information behind key studies (to ensure studies will thus not be used), rejecting scientific advice to limit the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos and biasing public hearings regarding climate science.

And now, the Los Angeles Times reports on yet another attempt by Pruitt to ignore public health impacts and reverse an Obama administration regulation on the sale of “glider trucks” (new truck chassis/cab put on old polluting truck engines). This sordid tale includes ignoring the EPA’s own findings on these vehicles, and relying exclusively on a study purportedly from Tennessee Technical University but actually funded by and conducted at the glider truck manufacturer (who is a major donor to the Trump campaign [surprise!]). The good news is that Tennessee Tech, the rest of the trucking industry (who have invested heavily in new, cleaner engines), past EPA Administrators and even Republicans in Congress are fighting this latest effort by Pruitt to disregard science and deliver for his cronies and campaign contributors.

The New York Times notes that Trump and Pruitt are responsible for “regulatory carnage.” The Times reports that these attacks on using scientific evidence in decision making are occurring across the entire government. Inside Climate News notes that a recent essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association uses the Environmental Protection Agency’s own numbers to calculate that 80,000 more lives will be lost per decade if the Trump administration implements its plans to roll back clean air and water protections.

Politico has published an excellent and detailed article about recovery from Hurricane Harvey in Houston. The article focuses on low-income communities in flood zones where residents found affordable housing but could not afford flood insurance (in Texas, the median income of families with flood insurance is $82,184, while it is just $36,056 for families without insurance). Those seeking help can get lost in a maze of programs, charitable efforts, and scams that appear legitimate. These communities are not “recovering” or “being rebuilt;” the Federal Flood Insurance Program is essentially bankrupt, and a relatively powerful 2018 storm season is looming.

Bloomberg looks at the efforts of Sydney, New York, to respond to repeated flooding of the Susquehanna river by “managed retreat,” a planned effort to relocate a flood-prone neighborhood. The effort, initiated after the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee flooded the community, has not been successful, and “its failure so far illustrates how unprepared the U.S. is politically, financially, and emotionally to re-create even a single community away from rising waters in an organized way.” CitiLab has a first-hand account of the recent major flood in Ellicott City, MD, which had just recovered from a major flood in 2016. The weariness and trauma in the community is evident, and this situation will become more and more common around the world as the frequency of major downpours continues to increase.

The Atlantic has an article about ecosystem restoration in San Francisco Bay as a sea level rise mitigation strategy. WBUR reports that a recent feasibility study has concluded that building barriers across Boston Harbor to protect the City from flooding is not prudent, and that shore-based protection systems are a better option.

The New York Times reports on a reforestation project in China, where the government is planting trees in an area the size of Ireland as part of making China an “ecological civilization.” The Chinese political system certainly allows it to move on policy in a way the U.S. cannot: 60,000 workers have been deployed in this effort, and land has been seized from local farmers for the tree planting.

An excellent op-ed in the New York Times reviews the economic challenges facing our nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants as they near the end of their design lifetimes. The cost of electricity from these facilities is high, as is the projected cost for cleaning up the radioactive mess created by their operation (the General Accounting Office reports that 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel from commercial reactors is stockpiled at 80 interim storage sites in 35 states). The MIT Technology Review examines the rate at which renewables are replacing fossil fuels for electricity generation (spoiler: way too slowly to address climate change).

Inside Climate News describes the expected migration of fish populations north as the ocean warms, and how this migration will impact coastal fishing communities. The Verge reports on the drying of the Salton Sea in southern California, and the public health implications of toxic dust from the exposed lake bed.

Carbon Brief reports on a new study that finds the world could meet the ambitious target to limit global warming to 1.5°C target through energy efficiency without the need for “negative carbon-emission” technologies. The improvements in energy efficiency are largely driven by technological and social innovations, such as the spread of digital services in the global south and the rise of vehicle-sharing in the global north, and the study assumes total demand for services will continue to rise.

While I do not subscribe to the concept that our technological prowess can solve the climate crisis, it is important to remember that breakthrough technological advancements (such as “software-defined electricity”) could make the transition from fossil fuels easier than we might otherwise think. In a future political climate where people finally realize we just have to transition away from fossil fuels, we could aggressively implement such technologies (at a level similar to our mobilization during WWII) and deal with the worst of the climate problem.