A Year of Resistance—and Why I’m Hopeful for 2018
Union of Concerned Scientists / Audrey Eyring
By Rachel Cleetus
What a year it's been. The destructive antics of the Trump administration and Congress and a political discourse increasingly polluted by "alternative facts" have frequently made many of us angry, sad and sometimes just plain crazy.
Through it all, it's been inspiring to see a resistance movement gather strength and show its muscle. I've been awed by the work of racial justice activists, scientists, grassroots groups, immigrant rights groups, youth groups and many many others. Here's a snapshot of what a year in the resistance looked like for me.
The Women's March (one of the largest protest marches ever, coordinated across the nation and globally), held a day after President's Trump's inauguration (with its less-than-record attendance), showed where the true power of the people lies.
Like many of you, I joined the march with my family. Watching my kids (in their pink hats, of course) experience the crowds, point out their favorite signs, raise their voices in call-and-response chants—all of it gave me a thrill to think that a new generation was beginning to understand the power of peaceful protest in a democracy.
In courts across the nation, including in Hawaii, Washington, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Maryland, there were immediate challenges filed to President Trump's terrible "Muslim Ban" executive order issued at the end of January.
As an immigrant myself, it was especially moving to join a large and diverse crowd of people marching in protest in Boston, and to see similar protests nationwide. At many major airports teams of lawyers also flocked in to offer pro bono assistance to travelers affected by the ban. (The Supreme Court has since allowed a modified version of the ban to go ahead but this is by no means the last word since it is still being litigated).
We called out Scott Pruitt's lies on climate change, held the administration accountable on its rollback of protective health standards including an all-out attack on climate policies, and we urged Congress to resist harmful cuts to the EPA budget (and succeeded in fending off some of the most damaging cuts).
The March for Science March and the Peoples Climate March were the highlights of April. It was magnificent to join the throngs of people marching for climate, jobs and justice on that sweltering hot day in Washington DC. More importantly, we are building a movement that is about more than just that one day.
President Trump's destructive first budget proposal was shown up to be all bark and no bite since Congress actually controls the purse strings. We campaigned against the many awful elements of the Trump budget proposal, including cuts that would harm our nation's ability to prepare for climate and extreme weather disasters and cuts that would gut the EPA. (Harmful budget cuts are an ongoing threat. It's critical for constituents to continue to urge their policymakers to resist deep cuts to agency budgets that jeopardize the health and well-being of Americans).
"We are still in!" declared states, cities, counties, tribes, businesses, investors, faith groups, colleges and universities, in prompt response to President Trump's shameful announcement that he intended to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement.
One of the most satisfying ways to resist the madness wrought by this administration is to just carry on doing good science. In July, my colleagues and I released a new report, When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of U.S. Coastal Communities. The report highlights the threat of chronic coastal inundation exacerbated by sea level rise, and is accompanied by a fantastic online mapping tool.
Its findings challenge us to work toward solutions at the national, state and local level. Frontline communities facing these risks need help—and this should not be a partisan issue.
The nightmare hurricane season of 2017 unfolded in August and September, bringing Harvey, Irma and Maria. Houston, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands suffered particularly devastating impacts. Groups like Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, an Environmental Justice organization in Houston, rallied to call attention to urgent needs.
My colleagues and I wrote about the flood threats in Houston, especially the risks from toxic pollution and the need to keep environmental justice front and center in the recovery process. We also laid out the science of hurricanes and climate change, and called on Congress to take action to help devastated communities.
And, yes, we also pointed out the irony of the Trump administration's rollback of the federal flood risk management standard just a week before Harvey hit. And the how damaging the administration's proposed budget cuts to FEMA and HUD, key agencies for our nation's disaster response, would be.
Market trends, state policies and federal tax incentives continued to drive a historic transition away from coal to cleaner forms of energy, despite the EPA's announcement that it would repeal the Clean Power Plan, the nation's first-ever limits on power plant carbon emissions. We called out Administrator Pruitt's cynical move to pander to fossil fuel interests while blatantly ignoring the EPA's mission to protect human health and the environment.
Terrible wildfires raged across Northern California, killing 44 people and causing billions of dollars of damage. Sadly, another example of how climate change is exacerbating risks to people and property.
I was in Bonn, Germany for COP23, the annual UN climate talks, where the Trump administration was rendered largely irrelevant and isolated in its stance on the Paris agreement. Every other nation is steadfastly committed to the agreement, and the "We Are Still In" coalition of U.S. sub-national actors was there in full force to reiterate that the nation's clean energy and carbon-cutting progress will continue despite the retrograde actions of the Trump administration.
As we close out the year with the passage of a deeply unjust and harmful tax reform bill and a sober reckoning of this year's record-breaking disasters, including wildfires and hurricanes, there are lots of reasons to be very concerned.
Yet, there are some bits of good news too. The terribly destructive Thomas Fire in California is finally under control, for one. I also see signs all around that the resistance is alive and well–and gathering steam.
Just a few examples of positive developments:
- We've seen a number of unqualified nominees proposed by the administration forced to withdraw recently because of public pressure;
- Our nation's transition away from coal to cleaner power sources continues unabated, lowering power sector carbon emissions;
- Many states continue to enhance the ambition of their clean energy policies;
- Many people stood up to defend science (here's UCS' list of 2017 Science Defenders, example);
- Congress roundly rejected many of the extreme budget cuts proposed by the administration;
- The Alabama election demonstrated the power of African American voters (women especially), a historically disenfranchised segment of the population;
- The National Defense Authorization Act recently signed by President Trump explicitly acknowledges that climate change is a direct threat to U.S. national security. (Of course we had to then call him out for flip-flopping a week later when the administration released a National Security Strategy that doesn't even mention climate change!)
Hope for 2018
What gives me hope for 2018 is that Americans from all walks of life are now awake to the threats this administration poses to our democracy, our health, our climate and basic human rights—and we're fighting back! Our movement is strongest when we work together, connecting our work to people's daily lives and concerns, and specifically aiming for solutions that are just.
The wins may not come easily and there's a lot of work ahead. This administration's attacks on science and our core values will very likely continue. But they are helping to forge our resistance and build its power. (Not to mention inspiring reams of incredibly biting, funny, incisive political satire–humor is sometimes the only way to handle the farcical extremes we've experienced this year!)
I hope you'll share your moments of resistance in the comments section. A peaceful new year to all.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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