Perspective: It’s Not a War on Science

Issues in Science and Technology Volume XXXIII Issue 3, Spring 2017

…Science is, for today’s conservatives, an instrument of federal power. They attack science’s forms of truth-making, its databases, and its budgets not out of a rejection of either science or truth, but as part of a coherent strategy to weaken the power of the federal agencies that rely on them….Over the course of the twentieth century, the prominence of experts in legitimizing federal government power have persisted and deepened. ..

…Given this history, it should hardly surprise us that the major environmental controversy of the past quarter-century has largely played out as a battle over science. Climate change is a phenomenon knowable only through science…

…It is not an accident that “experts” have become the enemy of those who feel left behind in the United States and Europe. The twentieth century’s most powerful forms of government have been built on the backs of experts. When that trend began, experts provided a powerful service for democratic publics, helping to create new government agencies that could balance the power of the massive new business organizations created by industrialization. Science and expertise created the appearance of taking issues out of the realms of politics and onto more neutral terrain. The recognition that this was largely illusion—and that politics remained central to the exercise of science-based government—took a while to register. Today is a different world. Authorized and powered by science, data, and expertise, the US federal government is now arguably the most powerful institution on the planet….

…Science, business, and government have together made the modern world what it is. All three must step up to ensure that future societies are worth inhabiting—and they must do so in concert with global publics. None of the three can any longer pretend that they stand outside politics. Democracy depends on it. So does the future our children will inherit.



Will The Third Industrial Revolution Create An Economic Boom That Saves The Planet?

Jeremy Rifkin’s thinking about how to build a clean-energy powered, automation-filled future is inspiring major infrastructure plans in Europe and China…

By Jeff Beer

First, the bad news: GDP is slowing all over the world because productivity has been in decline for two decades. The result has been higher unemployment (especially among young people) and economists talking about 20 more years of slow growth. According to new numbers from Oxfam, just eight people are as rich as half the globe. In addition to this unprecedented inequality, we face climate change that’s taken us into the sixth extinction wave in the history of the planet, and the last time that happened was 65 million years ago.

To turn things around before it’s too late, we need a plan that’s both compelling and doable. Economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin thinks he has just that plan: creating what he calls the third industrial revolution, which will be sparked by harnessing renewable energy and enabling automation and the internet of things to result in a prosperous new economy powered by clean energy.

The good news is that people are listening. On February 7, the European Union unveiled its “Smart Europe” plan influenced by Rifkin’s work, which outlines how the 350 regions of Europe will start building out the road maps to transition into a new infrastructure of 5G internet, renewable energy, and automated driverless transport internet, all riding on top of an internet of things platform. Regions in the north of France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands have already begun their transition over the last few years. There’s a similar plan taking place in China: After Premier Li Keqiang read Rifkin’s seminal book, The Third Industrial Revolution, he made Rifkin’s strategies core to the country’s 13th Five-Year plan that was announced last March, and includes billions in renewable energy investment by 2020….

…There have been, according to Rifkin, at least seven major economic paradigm shifts in history, and they all share a common denominator–at a moment in time, three defining technologies emerge and then converge to create an infrastructure that fundamentally changes how we manage, power, and move economic activity across the value chains.

  • First, new communication technology more efficiently manages economic activity.
  • Second, new sources of energy more efficiently power economic activity.
  • And third, new transportation and logistics more efficiently move economic activity….

Cormorant Colony Adrift as Old Bay Bridge Comes Down

The Old Bay Bridge Is Coming Down, Leaving a 40-Year-Old Cormorant Colony Adrift

by Mark J. Rauzon on March 28, 2017  BayNature

….Back in the late 1800s before bridges spanned the Bay, several thousand double-crested cormorants nested on Lands End near Seal Rocks off the coast of San Francisco and on the Farallon Islands. The great ornithologist of the era, Robert Ridgway, described the Pacific Coast bird as a subspecies of the double-crested cormorant found throughout North America and he gave them their own moniker—the Farallon cormorant (P. a. albociliatus)….They were first documented nesting on the Bay and Richmond-San Rafael bridges in 1984, though bridge workers reportedly saw them 20 years earlier on the latter….

I began studying those double-crested cormorants under the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge with Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO, now Point Blue Conservation Science) in 1988….

….All this changed on October 17, 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake cracked the Bay Bridge right above the colony (not the birds’ fault!). Although it took years of political wrangling to settle on a new bridge design that was acceptable to all parties, the resulting plan included an agreement to provide habitat replacement for the cormorants on the new bridge.

….Losing the unique cormorant bridge colony in the central Bay is the end of an era. Our urban cormorants are at a crossroads. …. Double-crested cormorants have colonized urban habitats and benefited from human manipulation of San Francisco Bay. Where many species are failing to survive, the cormorant is thriving. They deserve respect for their adaptive qualities and commiseration for their commuting lifestyle.  The next time you’re stuck on the bridge, watch for cormorants flying by; understandably, you might wish you could join them.

Mark Rauzon is a seabird biologist with extensive experience in restoration programs, detailed in his latest book Isles of Amnesia. He also teaches geography at Laney College, is a founding member of Friends of Sausal Creek, and is a Point Blue research associate

Reforestation to help Mexico restore watersheds, reduce floods and other benefits

Coke and Pepsi, gardening together in Mexican mountains to preserve urban water

April 26 2017  PRI

The semiarid Mexican city of Monterrey has two major challenges with water: either there is not enough of it, or there’s far too much. Improving and fixing the area’s infrastructure could cost billions. But a US environmental organization [The Nature Conservancy] has a far cheaper solution, and it’s getting rival corporations — like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo — to come together to pay for it….

….The government has a few choices. It could do nothing, take its chances. It could erect a bunch more barriers — that’s expensive. Or, it could try the cheaper approach that the Nature Conservancy is helping to develop: replant trees.

Dams still play a vital role, but …with more trees, you don’t need so many barriers. Trees retain water in the soil, and in their roots and branches. And unlike a dam, a healthy forest serves other functions, too. “It will also be improving air quality, and capturing, sequestering carbon as well,” Herron says. That helps to fight climate change, which is contributing to more intense storms.

Trees also help filter water and replenish the aquafers in a dry area with a growing population… The Nature Conservancy has raised a few million dollars from corporate sponsors in Monterrey. Ultimately, they need close to $50 million to plant perhaps 100 million trees in deforested areas, spanning more than 500 square miles.

corporate seed money is allowing them to fund pilot projects to show the government that this is a wise investment.

The Nature Conservancy is setting up similar “water funds” for troubled watersheds in 25 locations throughout Latin America and the US. It’s ultimately offering local governments this: a bargain. They’re using nature, and not huge infrastructure projects, to replenish groundwater, minimize flood risks, and fight climate change — for a fraction of the cost.

California among 33 states that reduced CO2 while growing its economy

December 8 2016 KPCC Emily Guerin

A new report from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program has found that 33 states and Washington D.C. have managed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions while simultaneously growing their economies….Lead author Devashree Saha said her findings challenge assertions that efforts to fight global warming will necessarily hurt the economy

…Decoupled just means any time states have de-linked their economic growth, measured in terms of real GDP, from carbon emissions. Basically your carbon emissions are decreasing and your GDP is increasing…

Natural gas prices have been low enough to prompt many power plant operators to make the switch from coal, which is twice as carbon intensive as natural gas.

That’s happening in many parts of the country, and it has been a very important driver in the ability of several states to decouple their emissions from their economic growth.

Our research surprisingly found that nuclear has been playing a very important role in the ability of states to decouple and decarbonize their economy.  States like Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, they have all managed double-digit economic growth and double-digit reduction in CO2 emissions. A lot of that has to do with the role played by nuclear in these states. Georgia sources more than a quarter of its electricity from nuclear, Tennessee almost a third….

America’s rapidly growing wind industry now employs more than 100,000 people

April 19 2017  Samantha Page

More than 100,000 Americans now work in the wind industry, which is adding jobs much more rapidly than the economy as a whole
according to new data released Wednesday.

“We are hiring at a nine times faster rate than the average industry in the country,” Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a trade group, said at a press conference for the release of the group’s Annual Market Report. Kiernan attributed the strong growth to wind’s increasing efficiency, decreasing costs, and reliability, but also to the extension of the production tax credit, a federal program that was extended at the end of 2015, offering what Kiernan called “clarity and certainty” to the wind market.

Kiernan announced the findings in Minnesota, which has 20 factories for wind turbines and parts. Overall, the Midwest has driven a historic investment in wind energy: Kiernan noted that there has been $28 billion invested in wind in the upper Midwest, where 26 percent of the electricity comes from wind.

The renewable energy sector as a whole is booming, with both wind and solar showing impressive gains over the past few years. From 2015 to 2016, solar nearly doubled the amount of capacity installed, and there are now more people working in renewable energy than in fossil fuels in nearly every state in the country….

High severity fire likely to increasingly limit conifer forest recovery in Klamath region

Study finds that wildfire in a warming climate could relegate portions of forested landscapes to shrubland

April 27 2017

The ability of some Western conifer forests to recover after severe fire may become increasingly limited as the climate continues to warm, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and Harvard Forest found in a new study published in Global Change Biology. Although most of these cone-bearing evergreen trees are well adapted to fire, the study examines whether two likely facets of climate change — hotter, drier conditions and larger, more frequent and severe wildfires — could potentially transform landscapes from forested to shrub-dominated systems.

“The Klamath ecosystem is an important transition zone separating the shrubs of the California chaparral from the Pacific Northwest’s temperate rainforest,” says Jonathan Thompson, a Senior Ecologist at Harvard Forest and co-author on the study. “Our work suggests climate change will push the chaparral north at the expense of the Klamath’s existing conifer forests...

…”Our study helps to identify the places that are at greatest risk of forest loss, where managers could either target management to promote post-fire forest recovery, or accept that we’re going to see some degree of landscape transformation in the coming decades and learn to meet ecological objectives under the new climate and disturbance regimes,” says Alan Tepley, a forest ecologist with SCBI and the study’s lead author.

Alan J. Tepley, Jonathan R. Thompson, Howard E. Epstein, Kristina J. Anderson-Teixeira. Vulnerability to forest loss through altered postfire recovery dynamics in a warming climate in the Klamath Mountains. Global Change Biology, 2017; DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13704

Wind and rain play bigger role than temperature in breeding timing of tree swallows

Wind, rain play key role in breeding patterns of migratory tree swallows

April 27 2017 ScienceDaily  CU Boulder

Wind and precipitation play a crucial role in advancing or delaying the breeding cycles of North American tree swallows… [the study] underscores the importance of considering factors beyond temperature when examining how climate change might affect species’ biological niche.

…when…researchers tested how swallow nesting data from two different Alaskan sites corresponded with both daily and seasonal climate indicators like the number of windy days, days with measureable precipitation and average daily temperature, they found that windiness (or lack thereof) had the most consistent correlation with swallow breeding patterns over time…

…The results showed that a long-term decline in windiness (and to a more variable extent, rain) in central Alaska over the past decade-plus correlated with the birds’ earlier breeding much more strongly than temperature, indicating that wet, windy spring weather that may have delayed egg laying in the past is now less of an impediment for the swallows.

Rachel D. Irons, April Harding Scurr, Alexandra P. Rose, Julie C. Hagelin, Tricia Blake, Daniel F. Doak. Wind and rain are the primary climate factors driving changing phenology of an aerial insectivore. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2017; 284 (1853): 20170412 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0412

Coal decline due mostly to cheaper natural gas, less electricity demand and renewables

Environmental Rules Played Minor Role in Coal’s Decline

Environmental and climate regulations that cut pollution from coal-fired power plants have played only a minor role in the decline of the coal industry, which has been hurt mainly by expanding use of natural gas and less demand for electricity, according to a Columbia University report published this week.

U.S. coal use fell by about 30 percent between 2011 and 2016. The paper attributes about half of that decline to low natural gas prices, 26 percent to falling demand for electricity and 18 percent to growth in renewable energy such as wind and solar. Only 3.5 percent of the coal industry’s decline is due to environmental and climate regulations that took effect prior to 2016…

…“The idea that environmental regulations are killing the coal industry is wrong on many levels,” Koomey said. “If the administration promotes natural gas and fracking, the consequent low gas prices will make it increasingly difficult for coal to compete.”

Cheap natural gas, along with quickly-dropping prices of wind and solar power and a decline in global demand for coal, means that coal is being edged out of the market, he said. “Coal is not coming back, and the sooner we move on to cleaner electricity generation technologies, the better it will be for the U.S. and the world,” Koomey said.

REPORT:  Trevor Houser et al Can Coal Make A Comeback? April 2017 Columbia University

California- new state update on sea-level rise science

Up to 10 ft of sea level rise possible; ice loss from West Antarctica directly impacts California

April 26 2017  California Ocean Protection Council Full report here

Key Findings

1 Scientific understanding of sea-level rise is advancing at a rapid pace. Projections of future sea-level rise, especially under high emissions scenarios, have increased substantially over the last few years, primarily due to new and improved understanding of mass loss from continental ice sheets. These sea-level rise projections will continue to change as scientific understanding increases and as the impacts of local, state, national and global policy choices become manifest. New processes that allow for rapid incorporation of new scientific data and results into policy will enable state and local agencies to proactively prepare.


2 The direction of sea level change is clear. Coastal California is already experiencing the early impacts of a rising sea level, including more extensive coastal flooding during storms, periodic tidal flooding, and increased coastal erosion.


3 The rate of ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets is increasing. These ice sheets will soon become the primary contributor to global sea-level rise, overtaking the contributions from ocean thermal expansion and melting mountain glaciers and ice caps. Ice loss from Antarctica, and especially from West Antarctica, causes higher sea-level rise in California than the global average: for example, if the loss of West Antarctic ice were to cause global sea-level to rise by 1 foot, the associated sea-level rise in California would be about 1.25 feet…


4 New scientific evidence has highlighted the potential for extreme sea-level rise. If greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, key glaciological processes could cross thresholds that lead to rapidly accelerating and effectively irreversible ice loss. Aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions may substantially reduce but do not eliminate the risk to California of extreme sea-level rise from Antarctic ice loss.


5 Probabilities of specific sea-level increases can inform decisions. A probabilistic approach to sea-level rise projections, combined with a clear articulation of the implications of uncertainty and the decision-support needs of affected stakeholders, is the most appropriate approach for use in a policy setting….. These projections may underestimate the likelihood of extreme sea-level rise, particularly under high emissions scenarios, so this report also includes an extreme scenario called the H++ scenario. The probability of this scenario is currently unknown, but its consideration is important, particularly for high-stakes, long-term decisions.


6 Current policy decisions are shaping our coastal future. Before 2050, differences in sea-level rise projections under different emissions scenarios are minor but they diverge significantly past mid-century. After 2050, sea-level rise projections increasingly depend on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, under the extreme H++ scenario rapid ice sheet loss on Antarctica could drive rates of sea-level rise in California above 50mm/year (2 inches/year) by the end of the century, leading to potential sea-level rise exceeding 10 feet. This rate of sea-level rise would be about 30-40 times faster than the sea-level rise experienced over the last century.


7 Waiting for scientific certainty is neither a safe nor prudent option. High confidence in projections of sea-level rise over the next three decades can inform preparedness efforts, adaptation actions and hazard mitigation undertaken today, and prevent much greater losses than will occur if action is not taken. Consideration of high and even extreme sea levels in decisions with implications past 2050 is needed to safeguard the people and resources of coastal California.