UPDATE (June 24, 2016): On June 17, UCS received a second request letter from Chairman Smith seeking the same documents. We will respond in a timely manner. Meanwhile, House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson just released a letter calling on Chairman Smith to “immediately cease this abuse of authority.” The letter details how Chairman Smith has wholly misrepresented the purpose of the attorneys’ general investigation and calls into question the constitutionality of the chairman’s actions.
On Wednesday, I received a letter signed by thirteen members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. In my thirty years as an attorney, public official, and now UCS President, I have never seen anything quite like it. The letter states that the House Science Committee is “conducting oversight of a coordinated attempt to deprive companies, non-profit organizations and scientists of their First Amendment rights.” This sounds like an oversight effort UCS could support—but for what follows.
The representatives are requesting “all documents and communications” between UCS and state attorneys general and between UCS and other NGOs related to our work to hold oil and gas companies accountable for deception. Apparently, these elected representatives believe that UCS and others have infringed on the free speech rights of fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil.
How? By sharing information with these attorneys general about whether ExxonMobil and others misled the public about the dangers of climate change, and by explaining how climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is harming people and places in their states.
You know what else this tells me? The campaign to hold companies accountable is working.
Let’s start with the premise of the letter—that the free speech rights of companies such as ExxonMobil are violated by an investigation. This is nonsense. No company has a First Amendment right to knowingly provide misinformation about the harm associated with its product (in this case the emissions of heat trapping gases from the combustion of fossil fuels). And attorneys general have every right to investigate whether the companies’ actions amounted to an actionable fraud.
In fact, the letter itself compromises the First Amendment rights of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the other recipients of this letter.
The First Amendment protects the rights of all citizens to “petition for a governmental redress of grievances.” This right is the foundation of our democracy and is exercised daily by millions of Americans when they:
That is precisely what the Union of Concerned Scientists does, and has done, for its nearly 50-year history. And this is the right of every citizen of the United States. Of course we provided information to state attorneys general and our allies that is relevant to investigations into the deceptive practices of fossil fuel companies in regard to climate science and policy. Members of Congress, of all people, should hold the right to petition government in the highest regard, and not attempt to chill this right through heavy-handed action.
A second irony is that the letter suggests that we are secretly “colluding” with the AGs by meeting with them to provide advice, yet seeks information about activity which is already detailed publicly on our website. We published and posted the “Climate Deception Dossiers,” which details how major fossil fuel companies have participated in a campaign to sow doubt about climate change as a way to block sensible reforms. We have spoken publicly about our work at many gatherings in the United States and elsewhere and shared our information with anyone who wants to learn about it.
In contrast, the actions of fossil fuel companies are often hidden in the shadows of dark money, trade associations, and groups with anodyne names that obscure their actual purpose.
Perhaps we see momentum today because of the calls for accountability that we and others have made. Since we published the Climate Deception Dossiers, numerous reporters have unearthed important internal documents from leading fossil fuel companies with stunning information that their scientist had linked their products to harmful climate change as early as the 1960s, yet spent decades questioning climate science and delaying action. Now, four attorneys general offices have commenced investigations, and numerous elected representatives have called for a federal investigation. Some fossil fuel companies and their allies are no doubt feeling pressure, and they are pushing back.
I would hate to think that the House Science Committee is using its governmental powers in aid of this effort. But whatever the motive for the letter, UCS will not be intimidated. We will continue to provide assistance to any government official that wants to conduct genuine and meaningful oversight over the actions of fossil fuel companies.
UPDATE, 5/23/2016: For more on ExxonMobil’s claims around First Amendment rights and its climate deception, check out my colleague Gretchen Goldman’s blog here.]]>
As a resident and former state official, the state’s choices matter a lot to me. But they should matter to you too, even if you don’t live here, because the nation as a whole benefits when states like Massachusetts demonstrate the benefits of clean energy.
That’s why the decision now before the Massachusetts legislature over a comprehensive energy bill is so consequential.
In essence, the legislature must choose between two energy paths. One is to build extensive new gas pipelines and gas-fired power plants (some of it with electricity customer money). It’s a strategy that seems easy in the short run and one we are already close to pursuing. But if we continue down this path, the state will become dangerously dependent on a single fuel source.
Massachusetts is now one of only eight states that generate more than half of their electricity from natural gas, and if gas were to replace all of the electricity from the Pilgrim nuclear plant, the state would become 77 percent dependent on one fuel.
Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket!
Becoming overly dependent on natural gas exposes consumers to unpredictable price hikes when natural gas prices soar (as they have done before). The strategy also prevents the state from meeting the ambitious goals set by Governor Baker to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and it continues to drain state energy dollars out of the region.
Another path is to invest in clean and renewable energy. A lot of it.
Hydropower from Canada, onshore wind from upper New England, and offshore wind from the vast wind resource right at our doorstep in the Atlantic Ocean. Plus generating much more solar energy across the state.
UCS has just completed a detailed economic analysis of this latter path. We sought to answer this question: how much would it cost the average consumer if we were to cut our natural gas risk and make significant progress on reducing carbon emissions by procuring about half of the state’s energy needs from hydropower, wind, and solar?
The answer: about $3.00 per month for the average household that now spend more than $100 per month on electricity. Approximately the cost of a doughnut and coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Is this worth it? Of course it is. Just as a sensible family planning for retirement diversifies its portfolio, this strategy would ensure that state energy portfolio comes from multiple sources. Hydropower, solar, and wind are particularly helpful in mitigating risk because they can be purchased via long-term contracts that have stable and predictable prices, unlike the often-dramatically fluctuating price of natural gas.
The investment in clean energy would also help Massachusetts meet the ambitious goal of reducing emissions 35-45 percent by 2030 that Governor Baker put forth last year with his fellow New England Governors and Canadian premiers. Our modeling shows that this strategy alone gets the state about one-third of the additional reductions it needs to meet this goal.
And rather than shipping our dollars out of the region to pay pipeline owners and oil and gas companies, Massachusetts would keep more of its energy dollars in the region by employing workers to build turbines on land and offshore and to install solar panels. In fact, one especially attractive part of the package is the chance for Massachusetts to jumpstart jobs and careers in a whole new area—offshore wind—by establishing the state as a national leader.
Add to that the global and regional public health benefits of fossil-fuel free energy, and you end up with a very appealing package.
So how do we accomplish this? It’s not as hard as you might think. The Massachusetts legislature is expected to vote in the next several months on a comprehensive energy bill. There is strong public support for provisions that would allow utilities to enter into long-term contracts for clean energy sources, subject to competitive bidding and review by the Department of Public Utilities to ensure that consumers are protected.
Our analysis shows that we can do this, we can afford it, and we get more benefits if we do it on a large scale.
So, no excuses. It’s time for the Massachusetts legislature to act and show the country how a responsible and forward-thinking state replaces its coal fleet, finds a balanced role for natural gas, and transitions to clean energy. It’s an important chance for the state to “think big” and serve as national model, as it has done so ably in the past.]]>
While disappointing, the ruling is not as crippling a blow as some might suggest. Here are three key things to keep in mind about this latest development:
1) The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case, and it is a mistake to try to read too much into the court’s one-paragraph decision. At this point, the most prudent interpretation is: The Clean Power Plan presents states with some early deadlines, the legal arguments on both sides are complex, and the court wanted to make sure that no states or private companies were forced into making rash decisions while litigation was pending. One reason the court might have held this concern is because of its recent experience with Environmental Protection Agency’s rule limiting toxic pollution from power plants. In that case, the court ultimately found a legal defect in the rule but, by the time the court ruled, most power plants had already installed pollution controls to comply.
2) The court also did not prevent states from moving forward on clean energy. The Clean Power Plan sets carbon pollution reduction targets for states and requires states to submit plans to meet those targets. While that requirement is now on hold for the time being, nothing prevents states from continuing to work on those plans, using the legal authority that they already have under their own state laws, such as renewable energy standards, efficiency programs, cap-and-trade programs in California and the Northeast, and others. In other words, while the Clean Power Plan is a good driver, particularly for states that have been lagging, it is mostly a reinforcement of the good work that many states are already doing and can continue to do. In fact, a recent Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysis showed that existing clean energy commitments already place 31 states on track to be more than halfway toward their near-term Clean Power Plan emission reduction requirements, with 21 state set to surpass them. This list even includes states that are challenging the rule in court! There is no reason whatsoever for these states to reverse course now.
As UCS analysts and many others have demonstrated, cutting carbon pollution from power plants and transitioning to clean energy has multiple benefits—cleaner air and improved public health, economic leadership in one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, and a more economical and varied fuel supply.
3) The high court’s ruling does nothing to change the underlying economics: Our nation’s aging and polluting coal fleet is facing increasing competition from cleaner, lower-cost energy sources. Renewable energy sources are growing rapidly, fueled by technology innovation that has dramatically lowered the costs to the point where renewables are approaching parity with fossil fuel sources. This progress will continue no matter what happens in the courtroom.
While many working for climate action are understandably concerned about the implications of this ruling, it’s a mistake to conclude that all is lost. The most important thing now is for states to commit to continue to make progress notwithstanding this ruling, and for all of us to make sure state governors hear from us urging them to do so.
TAKE ACTION NOW: Tell your governor to power ahead on the Clean Power Plan and accelerate the transition to renewable energy. >]]>
While some of you threw up your hands and said you couldn’t possibly choose among our strong slate of candidates—Katie Gibbs, Richard Pan, Irma Muñoz, Eric Schneiderman, and NOAA—there was a clear winner: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
You were thrilled that his office is taking steps to investigate ExxonMobil, to determine whether the company knowingly deceived its shareholders and the American public by financing climate change-denying lobbying groups, while being aware of the risks to investors—and the planet—posed by their products. So are we.
Plus, the vote came even before today’s report that California Attorney General Kamala Harris is now following suit, opening another state investigation into ExxonMobil’s deception about climate science to the public and its shareholders—and whether the company’s actions could amount to a violation of law.
NOAA’s brave stand against anti-science bulling, Katie Gibbs’ role in restoring freedom of speech for scientists in Canada, California State Senator Richard Pan’s move to protect children from preventable diseases, and Irma Muñoz’s grassroots activism in low-income communities were also inspiring to many.
We encouraged you as well to send in your favorite science champion of 2015 who wasn’t among our nominees, and we received scores of write-in candidates. Topping that list were:
I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to send in your choices and comments. All of us at UCS relish the opportunities we have to recognize and support the public defense of science. All courageous individuals and institutions providing education, access, and information are our partners in science. It’s our hope that someday, while the findings of individual scientists will continue to be scrutinized and challenged (as they should be), the importance of independent science will be universally accepted.
Congratulations to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and to each of this year’s Got Science? Champions.]]>
I have often wondered whether my generation would ever have a comparable opportunity to define itself. What great cause would we be able to tell our children about? What would we accomplish that historians would look back upon as a turning point?
With the climate agreement in Paris, we may now have an answer. If we make good on its promise, we will have changed the course of history and demonstrated, for the first time ever, the power of an entire world united in a common cause.
The agreement is the culmination of years of work by so many. Scientists who amassed data to prove to a skeptical world that that the burning of fossil fuels causes grave harm to the planet. Faith leaders and activists who decried the immorality of leaving an overheated world behind for the next generations. Businesses that developed low-cost alternatives to fossil fuel energy. State and local leaders who experimented with policies like cap-and-trade and renewable energy standards, and proved that they work. And, I am proud to say, groups like UCS, which has persuasively warned of global warming’s impending danger for many years, and successfully pushed for policies like the doubling of fuel economy standards in cars and trucks and limits on carbon pollution from power plants that put the United States in a position to lead in the negotiation.
Sadly, also propelling an agreement is the never-ending march of grim events that gives us glimpses of a future of runaway warming. In the past year or so, we saw heat waves in India and Pakistan, record-breaking typhoons in Asia and Mexico, droughts and fires in Africa, Australia, and the American west, and flooding in many cities even when the sun is shining.
All of this brought the world’s leaders to Paris, where they set aside hardened positions to focus on the common goal of preventing catastrophic climate change. As an American, I am particularly heartened that President Obama and Secretary Kerry played critical roles in helping to lead a so-called “high ambition coalition” that secured many key elements of the deal.
The agreement has many of the essential components for success. It establishes an ambitious long-term goal to limit temperature increases by phasing out fossil fuels over time. To make a “down payment” on that goal, it compiles pledges by 195 countries (itself a historic first) to cut global emissions within the next 10 to 15 years. Because these cuts get us only part of the way, the agreement requires countries to review their pledges every five years and raise their ambition level. The agreement also calls for a common set of monitoring, verification, and reporting procedures. Countries that don’t meet their pledges can therefore be “named and shamed” – giving some teeth to what is otherwise essentially a voluntary agreement. Finally, wealthier countries that have benefitted the most from burning fossil fuels are importuned to provide funds and technology to help poorer countries lower their emissions and adapt to what is to come.
But, as important as it is, this agreement matters only if it truly spurs change at a scale we have never seen.
The Union of Concerned Scientists will continue to play its vital role in making history, as we have for over forty years. Knowing that ongoing U.S. leadership remains critical, we will push for the next level of policies that will raise our ambition level, like putting a price on carbon, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and doubling our investment in clean energy research and development at the federal level, while encouraging many new states to welcome cleanly generated electricity and vehicles that run on it. We will put our scientists to work to devise better policies to preserve and enhance forests and farms and their ability to absorb the carbon we emit. And we will demand change from those who stand in the way of progress, like large oil companies that cling to their fossil fuel reserves.
I heard many stirring speeches at the Paris negotiations. The best one was by Al Gore; as he ended, he quoted these lines from a poem by Wallace Stevens:
After the final no there comes a yes,
And on that yes the future of the world depends.
In Paris this week, the world finally said “yes.” May that yes define our times.
Feature photo by Joe deSousa.]]>
At the summit, world leaders will try to hash out a global agreement to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases that can give our kids—and their kids—a chance to live in a world that is not overcome with heat waves, droughts, floods, and other ravages of climate change. If we succeed, we make a meaningful down payment on our obligation to future generations. If we fail, future generations will suffer from our lack of will to rise to the challenge. It is that simple.
How will we know if the Paris climate negotiations are successful? Here are the key outcomes to look for:
Universality. In the run up to this summit, about 150 countries—whose global warming emissions account for almost 90 percent of the world’s total—have already made pledges (called Intended Nationally Determined Commitments, or “INDCs”) to reduce emissions and take other positive actions such as preserving the ability of forests to sequester carbon. This is the first time since climate negotiations started two decades ago that virtually all the world’s nations have committed to being part of the solution. By comparison, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol included pledges for reductions by just 37 countries and comprising well under half of global emissions. The broad participation this time around means that we can fairly say that Paris is already a partial success.
Monitoring, reporting, and verification. The Paris agreement is not expected to bind countries to meet their pledges, nor provide for a sanction if they do not. This is of course disappointing, but there seems to be no way around it. For one thing, were the reduction targets to be legally binding, the U.S. Senate would likely need to ratify the agreement with a 2/3 vote—an impossible hurdle to surmount at this time. So, instead of direct enforcement mechanisms, the agreement will rely upon “naming and shaming” countries that don’t meet their pledges. In order for this strategy to work, there must be a reliable and common protocol for each country to monitor, report, and verify their progress, so we can know who is and who is not abiding by their pledges. The particulars of that protocol are certainly something to watch for.
Raising the ambition level over time. We know that the reductions countries have proposed, while an important step forward, will not collectively achieve the goal of holding global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the threshold scientists have set to stave off the worst effects of global warming. Analysis done so far suggests that the aggregate reductions could get us to a world warming by 2.7-3.7 degrees Celsius. This is surely a lot better than business-as-usual estimates of 4-6 degrees Celsius warming, but it is not enough. So, to be a success, the agreement must require countries to revisit their pledges in the years to come, raising the level of ambition to take into account advances in technology and economies of scale that make cutting emissions easier or less expensive. A good outcome would be a commitment to revise pledges every five years after the agreement begins in 2020. This is especially important because the pledges of China and the European Union call for reductions by 2030. But given the so-called “ambition gap,” we can’t afford to wait until 2030 to revisit this.
Long-term goal. Another important element to watch for in the negotiations is a long-term, agreed-upon goal that is easy to understand and can spur action. A long-term goal should tell countries what to shoot for as they raise their level of ambition over time. It could also send an unmistakable signal that the age of fossil fuels is coming to a close, steering financiers, inventors, and many others away from extracting oil, gas and coal and toward clean energy technology development.
Equity and finance. A final outcome to watch for is how the negotiations handle the issue of fairness for poorer countries that have contributed little to climate change, are particularly vulnerable to its effects, and have the fewest resources to cut their own emissions and prepare for what is coming. In 2009, developed countries promised to mobilize $100 billion in public and private financing to assist developing countries. It is not clear where those funds will come from, but many countries are counting on it. A number of these nations, such as India, have made “conditional pledges”—meaning, commitments to cut emissions that are conditioned upon funds and technology from developed countries to help them grow in a low-carbon, sustainable way. For the Paris agreement to work, developed countries will need to make clear commitments about how they plan to help developing countries both mitigate and adapt to climate change.
It remains to be seen whether, based on these criteria, we will be able to call the Paris agreement a success. With just a few weeks to go, many fundamental issues remain unresolved and, on some of them, many countries still seem far apart. We must hope that, given this rare and solemn opportunity, and the devastating cost of failure, world leaders will set aside their differences to reach a global agreement that inspires pride and confidence.
I am heading to Paris shortly with a team from UCS. Look for more from us in the coming weeks on how we are doing.
Featured photo by Adrian Scottow.]]>
That is what seems be to happening right now with a simple, but powerful idea: that, for decades, the world’s largest fossil fuel companies knew all about the harm their products posed to the planet, yet many chose to deceive the public about climate science and block meaningful reform. Now that this information has been so forcefully brought out, momentum is building fast to hold these companies accountable.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ pathbreaking report The Climate Deception Dossiers, augmented by subsequent investigative reporting by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, have set off a whirlwind of activity, including calls for investigation by three presidential candidates, statements by a former tobacco prosecutor noting the parallel between the tobacco companies and fossil fuel industry, and op-eds in various national newspapers decrying this conduct. Even the Dallas Morning News, the hometown paper of Exxon Mobil, has jumped in to the fray with an editorial critical of the company’s behavior.
In the latest development, the New York state Attorney General has now begun an investigation into whether one company—Exxon Mobil–deceived its shareholders and the public. This is a very significant step. The New York Attorney General has subpoena power, meaning he has the ability to require Exxon Mobil to turn over documents even without a lawsuit pending. And, because the investigation centers on deception (broadly defined as the disparity between what Exxon Mobil knew and what it told its shareholders and the public), the scope of the document requests are likely to cover a wide range of conduct spanning many decades.
It seems quite likely that this investigation will unearth new information that goes well beyond what is currently known, and this new information may, in turn, fuel shareholder resolutions, divestment, and litigation. It should be remembered that the tide turned on tobacco companies when state attorneys general banded together and through the legal discovery process, obtained previously confidential documents that starkly exposed tobacco companies’ intentional deception on the dangers of smoking.
It also seems probable that New York will not stand alone in this effort. Just as the tobacco litigation was ultimately brought by many state attorneys general, I would anticipate that a number of other states will follow suit in this matter as well. A sufficient number would also likely impel a federal investigation.
Why does all of this matter?
All companies, including fossil fuel companies, operate with a social license. That social license makes it possible for companies to sell their products to consumers who trust them, and gives them the ability to advertise and otherwise operate in the public sphere, even influence public affairs. But once that social license is lost, consumers may abandon such companies (provided there are alternatives), and their power to shape policy can either erode or be curtailed.
The New York state AG investigation threatens to expose many new details about Exxon Mobil’s apparent efforts to mislead the public about climate science and climate policy and may expand to other companies as well. We will have to wait and see how this develops, but it seems increasingly likely that this investigation, at a minimum, will finally force fossil fuel companies to halt further deceptive acts while this gets sorted out. In the longer term—and this is likely a ways off—it may encourage some companies to really put their muscle behind needed reforms, such as carbon pricing. Some companies have already called for this, but have not spent political capital to achieve it, because up to now there has been no incentive to do so.
The air is remarkably fresh and clear on the precipice of a tipping point.
Feature photo by Pete Markham.]]>
Cap and trade is an ingenious solution to a problem economists refer to as “the tragedy of the commons,” in which no individual has an incentive to improve a shared resource (such as the earth’s atmosphere), even though everyone benefits collectively from the resource’s improved health. Cap and trade solves the problem because it gives those who pollute a stake in lowering pollution: not only can they reduce the number of allowances they need by polluting less, but they can even sell those they don’t need to others. Well-designed cap and trade programs combine what government does best (setting collective goals) with what the private sector does best (finding the most cost-effective means to reach those goals).
No wonder the idea has spread. The United States has used it to cut the pollutants that cause acid rain and, since then, 28 countries within the European Union, nine eastern U.S. states, California, Quebec, and South Korea have all established cap and trade programs to cut global warming gases. Ontario and Washington state are actively exploring cap and trade programs as well.
Still, no one has tried such a system on the scale China proposes. While I am no expert on China, I chaired the nine eastern state cap and trade program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). And, with an appropriate degree of humility about the potential of applying lessons from the RGGI experience to China, here are the challenges I foresee for China in implementing this program:
Cultural. China’s economy is a hybrid of heavy government mandates and private markets, and the concept of a “market” for the right to pollute may need time to take hold. In fact, when I chaired RGGI, a Chinese delegation visited to learn more about the RGGI program, and they seemed surprised that, under RGGI, the government did not tell individual power plants how many allowances to purchase. It seems likely that a major public education effort will be needed despite the fact that China has already undertaken smaller pilot cap and trade programs in several Chinese provinces and cities.
Establishing the Initial Cap. Setting the initial cap of allowances is very difficult, and other cap and trade programs have gotten this key element wrong. If too many allowances are offered, the price for allowances drops to a level that is too low to incentivize lower carbon alternatives like renewable energy. If too few allowances are offered, it can cause price shocks and disruptions that might engender a backlash against the program. China should seek to start out with an initial cap that roughly corresponds to the current emissions from the covered sectors, but this may involve a great deal of guesswork as China has repeatedly stated that they do not have an up-to-date inventory on emissions.
Auctioning and Transparency. Closed and secretive processes don’t work for cap and trade. The key to a successful cap and trade program is a transparent process for the auctioning of allowances to the highest bidders. This prevents so-called sweetheart deals in which politically connected actors get allowances on a preferential basis. It also ensures that the public reaps the benefit of the allowances because the funds are held by government, not private parties. Similarly, China will need to develop rules to make sure that no single company (or a small number of companies) holds an excessive number of allowances and can use monopoly power to re-sell allowances at an inflated price.
Mechanisms for Flexibility. One of the lessons learned from cap and trade programs so far is that it is impossible to predict the future of energy markets. In the United States, for example, few predicted the shale gas revolution and the plunging price of natural gas which had profound unforeseen effects on the RGGI program. Similarly, the European Union failed to predict the effect of the global recession on its trading program. The lesson here is that, as China designs its cap and trade program, it will want to put in place mechanisms that allow it to rapidly make changes (such as to the number of allowances to be provided) if reality does not match the program’s initial predictions.
All of us who care about addressing global warming should be strongly rooting for the success of China’s program as a key means to cutting emissions from the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases. We should also offer whatever help we can. Those of us in the United States, and elsewhere, who have designed and implemented successful cap and trade programs should stand ready and willing to offer China the benefit of our experience.
Good ideas are like seeds dispersed by the wind. You can never tell where they will lodge and take root. Cap and trade is a great idea developed and first implemented in the market economies of the West. It is exciting to watch it now find fertile ground in the largest economy in the East.]]>
William Borucki has served as the principal investigator for NASA’s Kepler Mission, which has discovered more than 1,000 confirmed planets.
“I’ve spent a large portion of my career searching for other worlds,” Borucki told us. “What we’ve found has underscored how important it is to protect this one. While we can detect other worlds, we cannot go to them. Our future is here on Earth and we must do much more to ensure that our planet’s climate remains hospitable.”
Dr. Borucki will share a portion of the funds he is receiving from the Shaw Prize in Astronomy – often considered the “Nobel Prize of the East” – with UCS to support its work on climate change.
We’re deeply touched and Dr. Borucki’s gift will allow us to do even more to educate the public and policymakers about climate risks. At the same time, Dr. Borucki’s own work speaks deeply to just how important it is to preserve and protect our own climate.
Carl Sagan called astronomy a “humbling and character-building experience” in his famous passage about the “pale blue dot” picture of Earth Voyager 1 took in 1990.
That image from the edge of our own solar system is indeed humbling and the findings from the Kepler Mission may be even more so. By checking for the tell-tall dimming of stars as planets pass over them in their orbits, scientists have discovered gas giants like Jupiter and smaller, rocky worlds like our own. Only a few of those Earth-like planets are in the so-called habitable zone, where their distance from their home star would allow for liquid water on the planet’s surface.
In the chart above, you can see that Venus and Mars are on the edge of our solar system’s habitable zone. Mars may once have held liquid water. And Venus, as many climate scientists will tell you, is the victim of a runaway greenhouse effect, and its surface is more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Our own planet is in the “Goldilocks” zone and our civilization has sprouted up amid a relatively stable climate. But the introduction of heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and destroying tropical forests is making our planet hotter. Thankfully, it will not turn into Venus. But as scientists have documented, higher temperatures can make regions of our planet functionally uninhabitable. Other researchers, including ones at NASA, have also warned that the long-term loss of major glaciers is inevitable and that resulting sea-level rise is a question of when not if.
We are getting a taste of that climate future already and it’s not pretty. Heat waves like the one that killed thousands in Europe in 2003 are 10 times more likely to occur than they used to be because of planetary warming. And cities around the world, including on the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts, are finding that flooding which used to be occasional is now constant as sea-levels rise.
Of course, we know that reducing emissions and switching to cleaner energy sources would dramatically reduce these risks. Speedily transitioning off fossil fuels and ending deforestation may sound daunting, but Dr. Borucki is right to remind us that there is no alternative.
Dr. Borucki has an outstanding track record of public service science, having spent 53 years in the civil service at NASA. Early in his career, he worked on the Apollo program, studying problems related to atmospheric reentry. He is indeed one of the few scientists whose career touched both the Space Age as well as the Anthropocene, in which the human mark on planet Earth has become unmistakable. And, Dr. Borucki is said to have pitched the idea for Kepler five times before getting the green light. As with so many endeavors in science, persistence paid off.
I’m grateful for Dr. Borucki’s work in much the same way I’m grateful for the work of climate scientists: their discoveries challenge us to take a broader perspective on our world and on its future.
I’m doubly grateful for Dr. Borucki’s gift. We’ll do our best to honor his trust and his passion for science.]]>
But here is something everyone should be able to agree on: scientists played a highly prominent role in this agreement, befitting the complex, technical nature of the subject. At its heart, the agreement is about making sure Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, does not use its nuclear power program to build nuclear weapons. It’s an extremely complex and technical issue. We were all well served by having scientists identifying the specific risks, devising solutions, resolving myriad technical issues, and explaining the pros and cons to the American public and Congress during the debate.
The critical role for scientists is perhaps best illustrated by the engaged participation of Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz. As an MIT physics professor and expert on nuclear technology, Secretary Moniz has intimate knowledge of the pathways towards a nuclear bomb, making him an ideal point person in the negotiations and the public debate. As Secretary Moniz stated, “we’ve always said that the science underpinning [the agreement] is the origin of the confidence that many of us should have.”
The fingerprints of trained scientists are found everywhere in this agreement. The expertise of scientists enabled the agreement’s negotiators to understand the current level of Iran’s enrichment technology and capability, develop a set of restrictions that would significantly increase the time needed for Iran to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon, and establish the broad network of inspections and monitoring of the entire supply chain of Iran’s nuclear program to verify that Iran is abiding by the restrictions in the agreement.
When the agreement was first reached, sparking debate across the country, scientists played a major role in the public discussion of the issue. For example, Richard Garwin, a nuclear physicist who helped build the first hydrogen bomb (and a UCS Board member) co-authored a letter explaining the benefits of the deal that was signed by 32 other top scientists, including Nobel laureates and former White House science advisers, and the co-directors of UCS’s Global Security Program. That letter highlighted the innovative nature of the proposed verification measures and bolstered the confidence of many decision makers about the deal’s strength. The letter also warned that, in the absence of the agreement, these experts believed Iran could acquire nuclear weapons capability within a matter of weeks.
It shouldn’t be remarkable when science plays a major role influencing public policy, but it happens less than it should. All too often, it feels as though we live in an era of anti-intellectualism, “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,’” as Isaac Asimov once put it.
That’s what makes this case worth highlighting. Here, scientists were listened to and valued, and their expertise was integral to both shaping the agreement and informing the policy debate. What’s more, the public seems to have appreciated their essential role. During the debate over the deal, UCS arranged an “Ask me Anything” event on Reddit, hosted by two prominent scientists that drew the participation of some 30,000 people.
One can only hope this embrace of science-based input spreads to other important matters of public policy.
Could climate policy be next?]]>