Our current administration has been plagued by leaks; this past week there was a leak equivalent to the size of the runoff stream in the Greenland glacier. The New York Times made the unofficial release of the latest National Climate Assessment Report. As a bit of background, this is a series of reports that were congressionally mandated. It was the 1990 Global Change Research Act, which George H. W. Bush signed into law in November of 1990, back when Congress cared, and we had a president that was willing to acknowledge the issue of climate change. Every four years, thirteen government agencies have to prepare a comprehensive report on the impacts that climate change will have on the United States. This particular “leaked” report was originally posted on one of the internet archive sites, and the NYT later published a draft of this report. According to the NYT, the average temperature of the United States has risen rapidly and drastically since the 1980s. Recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1500 years, and there is no evidence that this is caused by anything other than the burning of fossil fuels. This will have a significant impact on the United States. The Boston Globe reports that it will have a very critical impact on the Northeast in particular and now there is a sort of “countdown” because the officials have to sign off on the report by August 18th. Reports such as this have been suppressed, most notably by the George W. Bush administration. David Roberts from Vox wrote that the “report’s conclusion is about as certain as anything gets in the physical sciences.” Roberts went on to say, “But this report is not going make Trump or the GOP do anything.”

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Here in Massachusetts we consider ourselves leaders in the climate change movement. Notable among our many efforts on clean energy is the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), started in 2008. One of the items in the GWSA is a mandate to get to a certain amount of clean energy by the year 2020. As part of that effort to get to the mandated amount of clean energy that we use in MA, an idea has come up to burn biomass—essentially wood—and put it into the “clean energy” category. According to an article in the Boston Globe, the Baker Administration is considering designating biomass for renewable energy and making biomass eligible for clean energy incentives, which is very controversial as you might imagine. The Baker Administration is saying that biomass is part of the so-called “combo platter” of energy that the state needs to rely on and that over time it should not increase carbon emissions. Climate hawks protest because burning biomass will create more pollution in the form of soot and also reduce the trees that are needed to absorb carbon dioxide. As D.R. says, looking at it from a 35,000 foot perspective, branding biomass to be renewable energy as though it is the equivalent of wind and solar reminds him of the famous Reagan initiative to brand ketchup as a vegetable. This is an opportunity to play semantics with what is considered “renewable” and “clean energy.”

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Amidst the environmental turmoil of the current administration, the Washington Post tells us we have three years left to act on climate before it is too late; in the meantime, the Supreme Judicial Court prepares to hear Exxon/Mobil’s appeal against Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Massachusetts utilities try to move us backward while Vermont moves forward on renewables. Tune in for more.

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In a scathing article in Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell writes, “While the rest of the Trump administration has been mired in scandal or incompetence (or both)….Pruitt has been quietly tearing down decades of environmental progress.” There is no regulation that seems safe from Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. We think that a more appropriate title for him would be administrator of Commerce and Fossil Fuels, as his main interests lie squarely in the pro-fossil fuel and pro-chemical corner. We are crossing our fingers (and toes) that Pruitt goes in the same direction as Anne Gorsuch. But Pruitt seems to be using his position to pivot toward a greater political office—perhaps governor or senator of Oklahoma. If there is an environmental disaster along the lines of BP that reveals Pruitt’s incompetence—that could force him out. Al Franken opposed Pruitt’s confirmation and said that “having a guy like Pruitt in charge of the EPA is evidence of the dangerous, bizarro world we now live in.”
The EPA’s “so-called” scientific integrity committee gave Scott Pruitt the clearance to lie. In a panel convened by the committee, they decided that Pruitt did not violate any scientific integrity policy with his claim that there is no connection between CO2 emissions and climate change. The committee’s decision was that, “the freedom to express one’s opinion is fundamental to EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, even (and especially) when that point of view might be controversial.” In an article for ThinkProgress, Joe Romm noted that this committee misinterpreted the statutes of EPA. The committee cherry-picked sentences from the statutes and used a section of the policy that was intended to apply to internal disagreements; furthermore, the “opinions” expressed needed to be backed up by rationale submitted internally, preferably in writing. If the opinion is expressed externally, the scientists and managers of the EPA must clarify that they are presenting personal views and not the views of the EPA. A plain reading of the EPA statutes makes it clear that Pruitt violated EPA policy when he denied the factual connection between CO2 and climate. Apparently, scientific integrity is another entity that has been corrupted by the Trump Administration.
Understandably, many dedicated EPA officials are leaving the EPA. Notably, Elizabeth Southerland resigned today, citing Trump and Pruitt as problematic. Elizabeth worked at the EPA for 30 years and was Director for the Office of Science and Technology for the Agency’s Water Office when she submitted her resignation. Her farewell letter is posted publicly by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). It is a stirring letter, but the sad element of the resignation is that all of these veteran EPA officials who have the knowledge, passion, and commitment to the EPA’s mission are essentially being chased out by the Trump administration. In her letter, Elizabeth writes, “Today the environmental field is suffering from the temporary triumph of myth over truth…The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man’s activities.” She mentioned that the current repeal two regulations for every new regulation implemented creates a kind of “Sophie’s Choice” situation. Should the EPA repeal the laws protecting infants from neurotoxins so that a new rule designed to protect adults from a newly discovered liver toxin can be put in place? Who health matters more? Southerland paints a stark picture for future generations, suggesting that they will have to pay polluters bills via increased taxes, or worse, they will have to live with a degraded environment and increased public health and safety risks.

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Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Exxon/Mobil receive the brunt of our climate ire this week, while Al Gore’s indefatigable optimism and his new movie An Inconvenient Sequel bring us hope.

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Our focus today was the HONEST act (a.k.a the disHONEST act) and Scott Pruitt – the invisible leader of the EPA. Guest host Regina McIntyre guided us through the climate news this week. Listen in!

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Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior rides to the head of the climate denialist’s fog machine by manipulating Mark Zukerberg’s tour of Glacier National Park, and sending a climate scientist to the accounting department (not that there is anything wrong with accountants!) Plus we wonder about the wisdom of glass building in a green Boston’s future. Listen in!

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California passes an extension to its landmark Cap and Trade policy, cementing the states leadership role in setting climate policy in the post-truth era. On top of that individual areas of the state have sued oil companies for damages. We discuss the implications, and wonder if our court system is already compromised by the partisanship of our times.

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This week we have three main topics: the CDP Worldwide (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) report that twenty-five fossil fuel companies are responsible for over half of the carbon pollution in the air since 1988; the actions that utilities are taking against renewable energy; and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau.

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This week we focus on a story in New York Magazine about the extremes of climate change and the media backlash to the article. Ironically, the story came out the same week as an ice sheet the size of Delaware calved off of Antarctica—a topic for another week!

On July 9, 2017, David Wallace-Wells penned a controversial article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” for the New York Magazine. “The Uninhabitable Earth,” is a horror story of what terrors climate change will bring to us. The piece sums up Al Gore’s line about “a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.” Wallis-Wells based his article on the direst predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the 8C rise in temperatures—presenting the bleakest possible scenario for global warming outcomes. A scan of Wallace-Wells headings provides the flavor of the article—Doomsday: Peering Beyond Scientific Reticence, Heat-Death: the Bahraining of New York, The End of Food: Paying for cornfields in the tundra, Climate Plagues: What happens when the bubonic ice melts?, and Perpetual War: The violence baked into heat. The theme and the tone of the piece suggest that Wallis-Wise believes that human destruction is the direction that we are going. It leaves little room for hope, which sent the cyber-world into a flurry of criticism. Across the board, the critiques of the article say that it is well-written, but inaccurate and works against the cause of climate action. Michael Mann, Professor of Meteorology and one of the scientists behind the hockey stick graph depicting the sharp temperature rise in recent decades, provided the most poignant eviscerations of the article. According to Mann, some specific areas of concern in the article are the exaggeration of the methane feedback loops (melting creates more methane that leads to more melting, which releases more methane and so forth), the misinterpretation of a dataset that was corrected and showed “data showing the globe warming…more than twice as fast as scientists had thought” when, in fact, the dataset had initially shown lower warming and the correction put it in line with all of the other datasets; and the extraordinary claims with little supporting evidence.
An article such as “The Uninhabitable Earth” places into the hand of climate deniers the perfect foil to scientists’ carefully researched and documented writings. It is only a matter of time before Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and similar media forces grab it and say look how alarmist and hysterical these tree-huggers are. We have to keep in mind the asymmetry of the media, particularly how certain sources will cherry-pick the inaccuracies in “The Uninhabitable Earth” to depict an alarmist agenda based on incorrect facts. Wallace-Wells’ article plays directly into that rhetoric due to poorly sourced data, lack of citations, hyperbolic claims, and sloppy research; these mistakes overshadow his discussion of key and actual effects that he presents.
An additional problem with the article is that when you suggest that we are past the point of no return, you spiral the human brain into despair. Fear may be a strong motivator in the immediate term, but it is a lousy long-term motivator. Responding to a threat that is insurmountable, as Wallace-Wells puts forth on climate change, may put people in an intellectual paralysis, believing that there is nothing they can do to stop the train. So they will keep polluting and curtail efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. People need to rage, rage against the dying light. The piece doesn’t hammer away at the fact that there are things we can do and technologies we have in our grasp that can keep us far away from this bleak vision of what the future is. This article focuses on the business-as-usual, do nothing scenario. We can still mitigate things and that is important to have in line with the presentation of alarm.
There is an upside to David Wallace-Wells article—it has engendered a flurry of discussion surrounding climate change again, such as we saw when Trump disavowed the United States participation in the Paris Climate Agreement; prior to these two occasions, climate change did not make the regular hot topic of the nightly news list. And perhaps this article will serve as a glass of ice water on the face to wake up folks who aren’t inclined to confront the ultimate grim consequences of climate change. We give Wallace-Wells credit for sparking this conversation and creating some teachable moments.
July 12th marked the fifth anniversary of Bill McKibben’s article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” featured in Rolling Stone Magazine. That was a piece that inspired the first People’s Climate March in New York. Wallace-Wells article attempted to do something similar. He was trying to say that climate action needs to be number one on the list of issues we care about—what Scott Pruitt is doing to the planet is far more dangerous than what Vladimir Putin is doing. But we can’t help but contrast Wallace-Wells’ messaging approach with Al Gore’s. Have you ever heard Gore present anything that could be construed as despair? Never. Because the moment that you start implying it is a hopeless situation, the bad guys win.
So please read the article but don’t give into the unintentional promotion of despair. Use it as a motivator for what we don’t want to happen to our world and raise your voice. Take Bob Marley’s advice, Get Up, Stand Up, Stand up for your rights…and don’t give up the fight!

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