President Trump’s Decision to Withdraw from Paris Climate Agreement

President Trump’s Decision to Withdraw from Paris Climate Agreement

Below is a statement from Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen on President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement:

“Pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement jeopardizes our role in the world as leaders on climate action. Global problems demand global solutions — and we cannot go it alone. Climate change is real, and it is a health issue that we cannot simply ignore.

“In Alabama this is especially perilous. We have no comprehensive plans in place to mitigate climate risks, nor have we implemented any adaptation strategies. We barely fund state agencies like ADEM — the lowest funding level per capita in the entire nation. As a result, climate solutions in Alabama are virtually non-existent.

“We lag behind other states in clean energy jobs despite ample land and abundant free fuel (namely, the sun). We rank at the bottom in energy efficiency, resulting in the highest utility bills in the country as a portion of income, which impacts poor and fixed-income households the hardest. Alabama lacks adequate water management policies in the event of droughts. Our infrastructure is not ready to handle extreme weather events, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise.

“Former Attorney General Luther Strange literally sued the EPA over climate regulations. That is what we’re up against in Alabama. We are woefully unprepared to deal with the health and environmental impacts of climate change. It is now on us to demand better policies from the our elected officials and agencies.

“Call your mayor and city council and ask them to pass 100% renewable energy standards. Call the PSC and tell them to rescind the regressive solar ‘tax. Call your state legislators and demand responsible action on climate change. There is no Planet B, so we must take action and fight for change.”

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Guest Post: Science Education as a Civil Right

Guest Post: Science Education as a Civil Right

Below is the text of a speech given by Kathryn Drago at the “Shelby, show up for science” march April 21. Ms. Drago is a science educator and curriculum developer. She has all but defended her Ph.D. in Science Education from University of Michigan and has M.A. in Research Methods from University of Michigan, an M.S. in Cancer Biology from Stanford University and a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


 

Central High School Falcons, University of Alabama Tide, citizens of West Alabama, look around you. At this Rally for Science, we have students and teachers; citizen scientists and research scientists, beginners and experts. And we’ve all come together today.

No matter how you identify, I have an important message for you. Every single person in this crowd deserves a high quality science education– that is a solid base of science understanding upon which we can build our careers, support our communities, and enjoy our lives. Exceptional science education is guaranteed to us because it is a civil right. It is no less important than the right to free speech or assembly.

I draw my inspiration for this idea from Bob Moses, the great civil rights activist. In the 1960’s, he registered Mississippi sharecroppers to vote. Later, in the 1980’s, he saw that students in his daughter’s school were not provided with the math instruction in eighth grade that they needed to qualify for honors level math in high school.

Bob Moses asked himself the question: Why do students need to study Algebra? The answer was that mathematical literacy set students up for entrance into college, higher paying jobs, and personal success. And so the Algebra Project was born. Its mission was to grow the math abilities of students who had traditionally been underserved and overlooked. Algebra Project alumni had more possibilities open to them. In that way, access to vote is no different from access to math.

The same is true for science education. It is a civil right, yet it is being denied for far too many youth. Let’s take Tuscaloosa for example. In 2016, 15% of 10th graders scored proficient on the standardized science exam. This statistic shows that we are squandering the talents of untold youth. But even worse, this number is an average. The hard truth is that 42% of White 10th graders scored proficient while only 6% of Black 10th graders did so. These numbers are shocking. But what is even more shocking is the cause of these disparities–segregation in schools, unequal distribution of resources, and uneven support for Black students taking advanced classes have caused this. Systemic racism has caused this.

Like Bob Moses did, we ask ourselves the question: Why do students require science education? The answer is that every student deserves access to the highest paying jobs in America. Black and brown students should grow up to be laboratory managers, computer scientists, and doctors making six figures. They are also the ones whose communities are hardest hit by lead in the drinking water, cement dust in the air, and severe storms brought on by climate change. They must be able to raise the alarm and devise the solutions to these human-made problems. And they too should be able to experience the wonder and joy that learning about and participating in science can bring.

Again, I say top notch science education is a civil right, and as such, the government guarantees each of us that right. Algebra Project founder Bob Moses said that it’s time for us to take responsibility for our government. Not that we are asking the government to do something for us, but that in the end, we are the government. And if we do not take responsibility for the government, it will take us to places we don’t want to go.

This administration is taking science education where none of us want to go. Here’s an example: the White House’s budget cut funding to NASA’s Office of Education from $115 million dollars to zero dollars. And what does that cut save? A half of a percent of NASA’s budget.

But what does this cut cost us? Space camp, curricula for teachers, and scholarships for young scientists. In particular, the Minority University Research and Education Project, which helps fund students seeking STEM degrees at historically black colleges and universities, will be eliminated. So, we have a local system that has not provided equitable science learning opportunities, and our federal government has taken away some of the few precious programs that tried to equalize the playing field. This is a disgrace and a shame.

In the absence of elected leadership, let us be our own government. We will take science education where we want it to go. I’m going to challenge us to achieve three goals to that end.

First, let’s educate ourselves about science education. Investigate your area schools. Don’t be satisfied by averages–dig deep into the disparities. Then, give your time, talent, or treasure. If you have time, volunteer. If you have scientific talent, offer your expertise. If you have treasure, improve the school’s material resources.

Second, fight science education injustice whenever you find it. As a student, demand that you be placed in advanced classes, and then ask for the help you need to succeed there. Adults, stand with teachers in receiving the salary they deserve. Reject legislation that increases funding and zoning inequalities in schools.

Third, never give up on science learning. Don’t pay attention to what anyone has told you that you should do. Go to events you wouldn’t normally attend. Stop by a science demonstration at a tailgate. Watch a Nature TV show. Be curious, try things out, take risks. You can be your own science educator. Science education is your civil right, and you deserve it. Thank you all.


 

The “Shelby, Show Up for Science!” march in Tuscaloosa was organized by the Kudzu Coalition of West Alabama. They describe themselves as “a collection of progressive voices committed to transforming our community through collaborative, direct action.” Check them out on Facebook.

Guest Post: The Importance of Science

Guest Post: The Importance of Science

Below is the text of a speech given by Dr. Patrick R. LeClair at the “Shelby, show up for science” march April 21. Dr. LeClair is a professor of physics at the University of Alabama. He has a B.S. in Materials Science from MIT and a Ph.D. in Physics from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

 


 

I first want to say that Senator Shelby has been very good for science at UA. You can see that from the beautiful science and engineering quad you marched from, right in front of Shelby Hall. And we are grateful. But right now, science is in trouble, and we need Shelby to stand up for us.

As soon as I say the words “science” or “scientist”, you already have an image in your head. Most likely that image involves a lab coat. What I want to convey to you is that science is far more than what happens in a lab, or what scientists do. And it is even more important than the fact that science has driven our remarkable technological development, and is therefore has some intrinsic value. Those aren’t bad arguments, but they are small arguments, and they undersell science. As important as technological progress has been, it is a minor side effect of science. What I want to convey to you is that science is a process, a way of looking at the world, one that is more valuable than the widgets it produces (as valuable as those widgets are).

The primary importance of science, as I see it, is in constructing an appropriate view of the world, one that is fair and based on evidence. The idea behind science is that we try to explain our observations of the world in the simplest way possible, and we try to be totally objective about it. Our observations must be dispassionate and impartial, scientists don’t play favorites. To do otherwise? You’re not objective!

Science requires an open mind, and, crucially, the ability to change your mind. If your ideology does not allow this, you are against science, and against all of the amazing advances science has provided. This leads to the problem we have with attempts to politicize science, for example, climate change. As soon you tie your beliefs about science to your political beliefs, you’re not really doing science anymore, because you’ve ceased to be objective about the outcome. Taking a side before the evidence is in is antithetical to science. It then goes without saying that, no, science cannot be politicized. As soon as you politicize it, it ceases to be science.

Science is an essential honesty about how you approach the world. It is a contract you make with yourself, which says that you will compare your beliefs with empirical evidence whenever possible. If you have solid evidence that repeatedly contradicts your beliefs, the contract says that you have to reconsider your beliefs. Observations of reality outweigh what you want to be true. And reality is harsh. Think about that for a second: when is the last time you changed one of your core beliefs? It is hard! And that’s what we’re asking ourselves to do all the time. More to the point: what common popular beliefs are at this point thoroughly discredited? Climate change is real. Vaccines do not cause autism. These are facts, and they are true whether you believe them or not. Full stop.

I should say that this is not just about science funding, though of course that is bleak at the moment. The attempted travel ban had real and chilling consequences on science programs. I had to tell some of our brightest and most productive students they cannot go home to see their families, because the might not be allowed back. Why would any new students from these countries want to come now?

As for science funding, these are dark and uncertain times. When you hear the president wants to cut the DOE budget severely, you’re probably thinking this is about de-regulating fossil fuel production or something. Well, DOE provides an enormous amount of research funding. They supply a huge fraction of our department’s research funding. That’s just one example, all the other science agencies are in similar trouble. The broad agency cuts are being made by people who only dimly understand what those agencies do, let alone what the scientists they fund do. I think Shelby does know what these agencies do very well, and we need him to show up and stand up for us. As Matt Taibbi from Rolling stone put it, “The Republicans understand this axiom: No politician in the Trump era is going to dive in a foxhole to save scientific research.” Well, unfortunately that’s where we are: someone is going to have to dive into a foxhole if the US wants to continue being a world leader in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And this costs money.

It costs money, but we need to keep in mind science is not a business any more than the government is. Return on investment is hard to define let alone measure. Microwave ovens came about as an accidental discovery during RADAR research. The sensor in your hard disk is the result of esoteric low temperature physics research. No one paying for that research had any idea that’s what they would get out of it, and no one at the time had any inkling to look for those outcomes in the first place. Of course there should be scrutiny, and scientific proposals should have a stated objective and outcome, but there has to be room for the unexpected. That’s the whole point: we do science because we seek to understand something, and I can tell you that 90% of our initial ideas are wrong. But it works because of the essential honesty of science, that even when our beliefs are wrong, we follow where the evidence takes us. Even when our beliefs are wrong, by seeking the truth we learn something. It is big risk, big reward in many ways. We lose more often than we win, but when we win, we can win big. And in Tuscaloosa, we are accustom to winning.


 

The “Shelby, Show Up for Science!” march in Tuscaloosa was organized by the Kudzu Coalition of West Alabama. They describe themselves as “a collection of progressive voices committed to transforming our community through collaborative, direct action.” Check them out on Facebook.

 

Do Air Pollution Protections Kill Jobs? Not Exactly.

Do Air Pollution Protections Kill Jobs? Not Exactly.

If you’re like me, you try to stay as informed as possible about current events, trends, and research. I think it’s important to know what’s going on and why so I can contribute positively to my community.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about rolling back regulations. This isn’t new, by any means. But there has been an increase in this rhetoric (and legislation) in the past couple of years.)

President Trump recently signed an executive order creating a task force to identify so-called “job-killing regulations” to get rid of under the pretense of bolstering the economy. The Environmental Protection Agency seems to be the prime target for regulatory rollback.

Reports are changing daily, but based on most recent headlines the White House appears poised to call for slashing the EPA’s budget by over 31 percent — which would require dismantling environmental regulations and laying off staff. As a clean air advocacy organization, we’re keenly aware of what’s going on in Washington and how it may affect Alabama.

The Clean Air Act is widely regarded one of the greatest policy success stories of all time. It prevents hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year. Emissions have plummeted since the 1960s. And yet the U.S. economy has grown rapidly since then, too. So what’s the truth?

In the land of partisan politics, the “job-killing regulations” talking point is simply accepted at face value. But is it true?

The Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU released a policy brief last month asking this very question. Their answer: “Regulations have little effect on aggregate employment or unemployment rates.” Others have come to the exact same conclusion for a while.

Drilling down further, they found that regulations, at worst, move jobs from one sector to another. An example of this might be coal jobs. It’s been widely reported that the coal sector has struggled for the past decade. This has happened for a number of reasons: the proliferation of cheap natural gas, tighter air standards, and competition from the renewable energy sector chief among them. In other words, where mining or air emissions regulations may stunt growth in the coal sector, the net effect is a shift to other, more viable sectors (e.g., clean energy jobs like solar manufacturing and installation.)

Additionally, the authors of the brief pointed out one key factor that we cannot overlook when evaluating policy: public health benefits. “The health benefits of an environmental rule, such as avoiding early mortality, are normally much larger than either the costs for industries to comply with the rule or the potential job impacts.”

Regulations are designed to improve our society. One way they can do that is by targeting activities that harm public health. Pollution harms public health. That is a scientific fact. There may be better ways of enforcing standards, and those are worth discussing and implementing if they’re viable. I’m all ears and willing to work with anyone. But it is simply untrue that regulations like the Clean Air Act are hurting our economy.

Unraveling environmental protections without at least considering alternatives is not about jobs. It’s about politics and profits. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

State of the Air Report Shows Citizen Advocacy and Common-Sense Policies Work

State of the Air Report Shows Citizen Advocacy and Common-Sense Policies Work

The American Lung Association released its annual “State of the Air” report today and it showed that Birmingham has made significant improvements in air quality over recent years. The Birmingham metro area ranked 53rd most polluted for ozone, 22nd most polluted for year-round particles — the region’s best rankings ever. Ozone and particle pollution are criteria air pollutants regulated by the U.S. EPA.

In light of this report, Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen released this statement:

“Birmingham’s air quality has come a long way since the Clean Air Act was adopted in 1970. The Magic City continues to improve its rankings for both ozone and particle pollution, thanks to a combination of strong citizen advocacy and common-sense policy. Exposure to ozone and particle pollution threatens the health of hundreds of thousands of Alabamians.”

“According to extensive scientific research, exposure to these harmful pollutants is linked to serious health outcomes including premature death, worsened asthma, inflammation of the lungs, heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure, low birth weight, and preterm birth. Researchers have even found correlations between hospitalizations related to autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases and long-term exposure to pollution.”

“While I welcome both our improved rankings and our improved overall air quality, I must reiterate that better is not good enough. There is no safe level of exposure to air pollution. Children, teens, seniors, pregnant women, people who work outside, people with lung or heart diseases — hundreds of thousands of Alabamians are vulnerable to the damage air pollution wreaks on our bodies.”

“In particular, low-income families and minorities are disproportionately impacted by air pollution. Gasp receives calls from folks who live near pollution ‘hotspots,’ where soot covers their homes and property, and unpleasant odors fill the air. Reducing exposure to air pollution is not just a matter of sound public policy, but also of environmental and health justice.”

“Finally, it’s important to remember that better is merely a comparison to the past, not a health standard. We’re on the right track: our air quality is objectively better than it was before. But Birmingham still has a ways to go before it can consider ourselves a healthy community for everyone who wishes to live, work and play here.”

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Alabama Still Threatened by Dirty Energy

Alabama Still Threatened by Dirty Energy

Almost exactly 17 years ago today, I wrote an essay entitled “Fitzgerald’s Fools: Corruption in The Great Gatsby.” The thesis of that paper was that naivete, greed, and fragile masculinity are the toxic cocktail that destroys the American Dream. Daisy Buchanan’s snobbery, Tom Buchanan’s brutishness, and Jay Gatsby’s foolishness are destructive forces that, when combined, ruin lives and crush hope. This is hardly groundbreaking literary analysis, but I couldn’t help but reflect on the novel and that essay when I read this Terry Jarrett op-ed about what the so-called “war on coal” means for Alabama.

According to the Jarrett’s rhetorical emissions, coal is still king. An attorney and former utility regulator from Missouri, Jarrett has made a name for himself in the media — euphemistically identified as an “energy consultant” — penning opinion pieces in news outlets all across the United States. In fact, he has represented coal industry groups and utility companies.

It’s no wonder, then, that a simple Google search reveals that Jarrett has authored dozens of essays in local newspapers and online news outlets in March alone decrying the “war on coal” and celebrating the Supreme Court’s stay of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. His Alabama piece mentions coal 17 times. It’s worth noting that not once did he utter the words “health,” “jobs,” “climate change,” or “clean energy.”

Speaking of health, Physicians for Social Responsibility has said, “The time has come for our nation to establish a health-driven energy policy that replaces our dependence on coal with clean, safe alternatives.  Business as usual is extracting a deadly price on our health. Coal is no longer an option.” PSR published a report titled “Coal’s Assault on Human Health” that noted the health consequences of burning coal, including respiratory effects, cardiovascular effects, nervous system effects, and climate change.

According to recent estimates, Alabama Power generates 55 percent of its energy from coal, well above the national average. It generates 17 percent from oil and  gas. Combined, that means at least 70 percent of the electricity produced by Alabama Power comes from fossil fuels.

stripmine.Locust.ashpond.Miller

Miller Steam Plant in north western Jefferson County outside of Birmingham is one of the top carbon emitters in the United States

Fossil fuels are like the Buchanans: wealthy and powerful, and ultimately toxic. It’s no secret that oil, gas and coal companies wield enormous influence in the halls of Washington, D.C. and in state capitals across the country. It’s why people like Twinkle Cavanaugh, elected to literally serve the public, hold press conferences to “pray away the EPA.” The money and clout dirty energy still offers is no doubt intoxicating. Folks like Terry Jarrett remind me of Jay Gatsby’s naivete, romanticizing fossil fuel as the one, true source of reliable and affordable energy, blinded by love to the lethal consequences of their obsession.

Jarrett celebrates the stay of the CPP as a “huge sigh of relief.” He complains about the EPA “imposing regulations without regard for expense.” Utility companies across the United States benefit from cost-recovery mechanisms whereby they recuperate fuel costs by adding them to consumers’ bills. There’s nothing wrong with that — that’s how business works, after all.

But let’s also talk about the hidden costs of coal that the American people pay. Health costs caused by air pollution. Black lung. Water pollution. Land degradation. Climate change. To put it another way, when do we get to recuperate the cost of our kids’ asthma attacks on high ozone days? The short answer is: we don’t.

The more complex answer is that there are mechanisms we can employ to incentivize energy efficiency programs and clean, renewable energy like wind and solar that together will reduce the burden of pollution and potentially limit the impact of climate change on future generations. These solutions will pay dividends that won’t be realized for years, but such is the nature of the best investments.

The Clean Power Plan, while an important step in fending off global climate change, is almost beside the point. It’s merely a means to an end. Burning fossil fuels continues to be a threat to our health and our environment. Reducing carbon emissions is the responsible thing to do.

Gaston Plant in Wilsonville, Ala.

Gaston Plant in Wilsonville, Ala.

The bottom line is that the market is driving the downward spiral of coal, not EPA overreach or environmental activism. People are waking up to the reality that continuing to burn fossil fuels threatens the future of their kids and grandkids, and the planet itself. The market is driving demand for clean, renewable energy. Businesses and residential consumers alike are insisting that their electricity be generated from sustainable fuels that don’t pollute the air, water and land.

According to The Solar Foundation, the solar installation sector “employs 77% more people than the domestic coal mining industry.” And for all the talk of the American gas and oil boom, the TSF also says that solar installation “has created more jobs than oil and gas pipeline construction and crude petroleum and natural gas extraction combined” since 2014. Alabama ranks a dismal 45th in the nation in solar jobs. If anything, Alabama’s health, economy and environment all stand to gain immensely from pro-clean energy policies.

The times aren’t changing. They’ve changed. The sooner folks like Terry Jarrett and his fossil fuel cronies snap out of it, the better. It’s time to move on from fossil fuels and marketing slogans like “clean coal.”

And yet they beat on…

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