By Genna Reed
Right now, the Trump administration is taking a backdoor approach to putting politics over science. There is a full-on assault afoot to strip away the independence of advisory committees at several government agencies. The reason? A renewed interest in shaping policies to fit particular political positions rather than having a basis in strong science.
On Friday, Scott Pruitt's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to renew nine members on the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), the advisory committee that reviews the work of scientists within the EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD) on everything from chemical safety to air pollution to fracking. Despite being told that their positions were being renewed, an EPA spokesman has confirmed that the academics may instead be replaced with industry experts who better "understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community."
EPA Fires Scientists https://t.co/luHMR0GXP9 @TheScienceGuy @ScienceNewsOrg— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1494280828.0
Typically BOSC members serve two three-year terms. Four members had finished their second term and were set to leave the committee, but half of the 18 BOSC members were set to begin their second term this month; instead the agency chose not to renew their terms. One of the first non-renewed members to go public, Robert Richardson, told the Washington Post, "I've never heard of any circumstance where someone didn't serve two consecutive terms," he said, adding that the dismissals gave him "great concern that objective science is being marginalized in this administration."
Promoting conflicts of interest?
Science advice to agencies should be independent. This helps federal agencies make science-based decisions that keep us safe and healthy. But often this advice from scientists, which is based on objective reviews of the best available science, often doesn't provide corporations with their ideal policy prescriptions.
Since this administration has illustrated time and time again its willingness to do industry's bidding, political appointees at agencies are delaying and disrupting the way that these committees are supposed to work: independently and transparently with the public's best interests at the heart of all evaluations.
To be clear, committee members are selected based on scientific merit, not political positions. According to a 2013 solicitation for committee members, the way that nominees are evaluated is based on the following:
(a) Scientific and/or technical expertise, knowledge, and experience;
(b) availability to serve and willingness to commit time to the committee (approximately one to three meetings per year including both face-to-face meetings and teleconferences);
(c) absence of financial conflicts of interest;
(d) absence of an appearance of a lack of impartiality;
(e) skills working on committees and advisory panels; and
(f) background and experiences that would contribute to the diversity of viewpoints on the committee/subcommittees, e.g., workforce sector; geographical location; social, cultural, and educational backgrounds; and professional affiliations.
Note that members of the committee must have an "absence" of conflicts of interest, not just a minimization of them. This language will be important to watch as the EPA puts out a call for nominations in the coming months to fill the 13 slots now sitting empty on the committee. Independent science advice must be free from undue political or financial pressure. While the advice coming from scientific advisory committees are not the only consideration for policy makers, the relied-upon science must be objective and independent in order to advance the government policies that best protect our health and safety.
EPA spokesperson J.P. Freire told the Washington Post that, "the agency may consider industry experts to serve on the board as long as these appointments do not pose a conflict of interest."
I know a great way to avoid industry conflicts of interest: Hire independent academic scientists instead. Or maybe just keep the hardworking, well-respected scientists that were already planning on filling those positions for another three years.
Perhaps there's another reason that administrator Pruitt is looking for fresh committee members. According to the Washington Post, "Pruitt has been meeting with academics to talk about the matter and putting thought into which areas of investigation warrant attention from the agency's scientific advisers." Essentially, the EPA is taking a hard look at where industry experts could be a good fit.
The head of the BOSC's Air, Climate, and Energy subcommittee, Viney Aneja, is one of the committee members who has not been renewed. What does that mean for this committee whose focus it is to review the work of the EPA ORD's Air, Climate, and Energy research program? This is likely an area of special concern to administrator Scott Pruitt, given that he does not acknowledge that climate change is due to human-generated emissions and therefore will be looking for ways to interfere with research efforts that support policies that take action on climate change. This same kind of influence would be troubling for the EPA ORD's five other research programs: chemical safety for sustainability, human health risk assessment, homeland security research program, safe and sustainable water resources, and sustainable and healthy communities.
EPA spokesperson J.P Freire also said that "We're not going to rubber-stamp the last administration's appointees. Instead, they should participate in the same open competitive process as the rest of the applicant pool." He continued, "This approach is what was always intended for the board, and we're making a clean break with the last administration's approach."
But if this was always the intent for the board, why is it only being instituted now, more than 20 years after the committee was established? Why, if these scientists still have expertise that fits the needs of the committee would they need to make this change to the process?
An assault on independent science advice
This current assault on the way that our government seeks science advice from outside experts is not unique to the EPA. The Interior Department is now "reviewing the charter and charge" of more than 200 advisory committees according to agency officials. Administrator Ryan Zinke has postponed the work of these committees in the meantime, including the Bureau of Land Management's 30 resource advisory committees, the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science, and issue-specific panels that take on issues like invasive species and wildlife trafficking.
Earlier in the year, members of Congress introduced the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act, which seeks to change the requirements for the EPA SAB so as to give industry greater influence while adding extra burdens that make it harder for the committee to meet its charge of providing science advice. I wrote about the potential harms of this bill here.
Following the playbook on political interference in science
This is not the first time that scientific advisory panels have been targeted for political interference in the United States. During the G.W. Bush administration, agency officials subjected nominees to political litmus tests that had no bearing on their expertise and appointed members to committees with serious conflicts of interest. For example, 19 of 26 candidates for an advisory board at the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center were rejected, three of which because of their views on abortion or because of their public criticism of the president. Three qualified experts were dismissed from a peer review panel at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for supporting a health standard opposed by the administration. In 2002, HHS placed several individuals with known ties to the paint industry on a lead-poisoning advisory panel, while rejecting highly qualified candidates nominated by HHS scientists. Ultimately the panel did not support lowering the lead-poisoning threshold, despite strong scientific evidence that even very low lead levels harm children.
Some panels have been disbanded altogether because members' research findings were inconvenient for the administration. In 2003, for example, White House officials abolished a highly distinguished expert committee that advised the National Nuclear Security Administration because its members had published papers on the ineffectiveness of "bunker buster" nuclear weapons, which the administration planned to develop. This type of behavior is antithetical to the way in which science should be used in policy making.
Undermining science, aiding industry
Representative Lamar Smith said of the EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) earlier in the year that, "The EPA routinely stacks this board with friendly scientists who receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government … The conflict of interest here is clear." Smith and several other Republicans misunderstand what a conflict of interest is and what independent science advice should be.
A scientific advisory committee should be composed of scientists who are experts in their fields and who are qualified to evaluate scientific research to help agencies meet their missions to protect public health and the environment. Period. One thing advisory committees are not, and should never be, are venues for industry to insert junk science and spread misinformation about science that protects our public health and safety.
This isn't 1984. You can't just throw scientific conclusions into the metaphorical memory hole. Likewise, you can't just discard independent scientists and halt the work of important scientific bodies under the radar without public backlash. We are watching this administration and will stand up for science whenever we see that it is being sidelined in the name of political or industry interests. You can follow along as we document attacks on science by the Trump administration and Congress and look for ways to push back.
Genna Reed is a science and policy analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Independence Day weekend is a busy time for coastal communities as people flock to the beaches to soak up the sun during the summer holiday. This year is different. Some of the country's most popular beach destinations in Florida and California have decided to close their beaches to stop the surge in coronavirus cases.
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For some combat veterans, the Fourth of July is not a time to celebrate the independence of the country they love. Instead, the holiday is a terrifying ordeal. That's because the noise of fireworks – loud, sudden, and reminiscent of war – rocks their nervous system. Daily fireworks in many U.S. cities in recent weeks have no doubt been interfering with the sleep and peace of mind of thousands of veterans.
What Is PTSD?<p><a href="https://theconversation.com/veterans-refugees-and-victims-of-war-crimes-are-all-vulnerable-to-ptsd-130144" target="_blank">PTSD</a> can occur when someone is exposed to extreme exposure traumatic experience. Typically, the trauma involves a threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Along with war veterans, it happens to refugees; to victims of gun violence, rape and other physical assaults; and to survivors of car accidents and natural disasters like earthquakes or tornadoes.</p><p>PTSD can also happen by witnessing trauma or its aftermath, often the case with <a href="https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd" target="_blank">first responders</a> and <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-many-faces-anxiety-and-trauma/202006/invisible-wounds-the-frontline-heroes" target="_blank">front-line workers</a>.</p><p>All this adds up to tens of millions of Americans. Up to 30% of combat veterans and first responders, and 8% of civilians, <a href="https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/essentials/epidemiology.asp" target="_blank">fulfill the diagnostic criteria for PTSD</a>. And that criteria is not easily met: symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive trauma memories, difficulty sleeping, avoidance of reminders of trauma, negative emotions, and what we call "hyperarousal symptoms."</p>
Fireworks Can Trigger Flashbacks<p>Hyperarousal, a core component of PTSD, occurs when a person is hyper-alert to any sign of threat – constantly on edge, easily startled and continuously screening the environment.</p><p>Imagine, for instance, stepping down the stairs in the dark after hearing a noise; you're worried an intruder might be downstairs. Then a totally unpredictable loud sound explodes right outside your window.</p><p>For people with PTSD, that sound – reminiscent of gunfire, a thunderstorm or a car crash – <a href="https://theconversation.com/veterans-refugees-and-victims-of-war-crimes-are-all-vulnerable-to-ptsd-130144" target="_blank">can cause</a> a panic attack or trigger flashbacks, a sensory experience that makes it seem as if the old trauma is happening here and now. Flashbacks can be so severe that combat veterans may suddenly drop to the ground, the same way they would when an explosion took place in combat. Later, the experience can trigger nightmares, insomnia or worsening of other PTSD symptoms.</p><p>Those of us who set off fireworks need to ask ourselves: Are those few minutes of fun worth the hours, days, or weeks of torment that will begin for some of our friends and neighbors – including many who put their lives on the line to protect us?</p>
Who Else Is Affected?<p>Millions of others, though not diagnosed with PTSD, may similarly be affected by fireworks. <a href="https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics" target="_blank">One in five Americans</a> have an anxiety disorder, many with symptoms of hyperarousal. Also impacted are those with autism or developmental disabilities; they find it difficult to cope with the noise, or just the drastic change from life routines. Then there are people who have to work, holiday or not: nurses, physicians and first responders, who have to be up at 4 a.m. for a 30-hour shift.</p><h3>How to Reduce the Negative Impact</h3><p>There are ways to reduce how fireworks affect others:</p><ul><li>For those with PTSD, the unexpected nature of fireworks is probably the worst part. So at least make it as predictable as possible. Do it in designated areas during designated times. Don't explode one, for instance, two hours after the designated time window. And avoid setting them off <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/04/fireworks-ptsd-fourth-of-july-veterans-shooting-survivors" target="_blank">on the 3rd</a>. People are less prepared then.</li><li>If you're aware that a veteran or trauma survivor lives in the neighborhood, move the noise as far as possible from their home and give them prior warning. Consider putting a sign in your front yard noting the time you'll set the fireworks.</li><li>Remember, it doesn't have to be super loud to make it fun. Consider using <a href="https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/504964-its-time-for-silent-fireworks" target="_blank">silent fireworks</a>. And you don't have to be the one who lights the fireworks. Simply enjoy watching while your city or township does it safely.</li></ul>
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By Jeff Berardelli
For the past year, some of the most up-to-date computer models from the world's top climate modeling groups have been "running hot" – projecting that global warming may be even more extreme than earlier thought. Data from some of the model runs has been confounding scientists because it challenges decades of consistent projections.
International Effort to Evaluate Climate Models<p>For the past 25 years the international community has been evaluating and comparing the world's most sophisticated climate models produced by various teams at universities, research centers, and government agencies. The effort is organized by the World Climate Research Programme under the United Nations World Meteorological Organization.</p><p>Climate models are complicated computer programs composed of millions of lines of code that calculate the physical properties and interactions between the main climate forces like the atmosphere, oceans, and solar input. But models also go a lot further, incorporating other systems like ice sheets, forests, and the biosphere, to name a few. The models are then used to simulate the real-world climate system and project how certain changes, like added pollution or land-use changes, will alter the climate.</p><p>Every few years there is a new comprehensive international evaluation called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). In the sixth such effort, known as CMIP6 and now under way, experts are reviewing about 100 models.</p><p>Information gleaned from this effort will act as a scientific foundation for the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) next major assessment report, scheduled for release in 2021. The goal of the report – the sixth in 30 years – is to inform the international community about how much the climate has changed, and, importantly, how much change can be expected in coming decades.</p>
A Conundrum Emerges<p>Over the past year, the CMIP6 collection of models being reviewed threw researchers an unexpected curveball: a significant number of the climate model runs showed substantially more global warming than previous model versions had projected. If accurate, the international climate goals would be nearly impossible to achieve, and there would be significantly more extreme impacts worldwide.</p><p>A foundational experiment in every report addresses "sensitivity": If you double levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) that were in the air before the Industrial Revolution, how much warming do the models show? This doubling is not expected for a few more decades, but it is a quick way to communicate the critical role of greenhouse gases in changing the climate.</p><p>The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 35% since the 1800s because of the burning of fossil fuels. As a result, global temperatures have already increased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit.</p><p>In the first IPCC assessment report, published in 1990, the answer to that question about the impact of doubling carbon dioxide gave a fairly wide range of results – between 2.7-8 degrees F of global warming. Since then, four more assessments issued six to seven years apart reached nearly the exact same conclusion on sensitivity.</p><p>But that sensitivity may, for the first time, change significantly in next year's assessment. Why? Because starting last year, numerous models in the CMIP6 collection displayed even bigger spikes in temperature upon doubling of CO2 concentrations. We're in serious trouble if the climate sensitivity falls in the mid or upper range of the previous assessments. But if the new, higher estimates are correct, the impacts on civilization would be catastrophic.</p>
In the above CarbonBrief interactive visualization, the bars offer a comparison in the range of sensitivity in the CMIP5 models (gray) and CMIP6 models (blue).
New and Encouraging Evidence Is Emerging<p>At first, scientists were uncertain whether the new model runs were on to something, so the international modeling community dug in to produce multiple studies. The results are not yet conclusive, but a gradual collective sigh of relief seems to be materializing.</p><p>"Evidence is emerging from multiple directions that the models which show the greatest warming in the CMIP6 ensemble are likely too warm," explains Dr. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.</p><p>For example, <a href="https://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/esd-2020-23/" target="_blank">a study</a> released April 28 evaluated the past performance of the models making up the CMIP6 ensemble. The team assigned weights to each model based upon historical performance of their warming projections, weighing the poorer performing models less. By doing so, both the mean warming and the range of warming scenarios in the CMIP6 ensemble decreased, meaning the warmest models were the ones with weaker historical performance. This result supports a finding that a subset of the models are too warm.</p><p>That conclusion is supported by another new study evaluating one particular model – the Community Earth System Model (CESM2) – that showed greater warming. Using that model, the researchers simulated the climate in the early Eocene era, about 50 million years ago, when rainforests thrived in the Arctic and Antarctic. The CESM2 simulated a historical climate that seems way too warm compared with what is known about that era from geological data, indicating that the model is likely also too warm in its future projections.</p><p>Two other recent studies of the CMIP6 models being evaluated use clever analysis methods to <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/esd-2019-86/&sa=D&ust=1589209938203000&usg=AFQjCNHYwFB-1KqndGfJ4sXdrrm9DpbLaQ" target="_blank">narrow the range</a> of future warming projections and also <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/12/eaaz9549&sa=D&ust=1589209938203000&usg=AFQjCNEhKY1YZ19qgjSZ_hJM14JmzqXOXw" target="_blank">reduce the projected warming</a> of the CMIP6 models by 10 to 15%.</p><p>Through the intensive research spurred by the CMIP6 climate-sensitivity curveball, scientists have been able to turn a confounding challenge into a confidence builder, providing even greater certainty than they had before in both the abilities of the climate science community and in the computer models used. Moreover, the experience has helped unearth uncertainties remaining in the modeling process.</p><p>Experts conclude much of this uncertainty probably lies in the complexity of clouds. "We have been looking as a community at why the models with greater warming are doing what they are doing – and it's tied to cloud feedbacks in the southern mid-latitudes mostly," explains Schmidt.</p><p>In fact, <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/26/eaba1981" target="_blank">a new study</a> addressing the increased sensitivity was published in Science Advances stating, "Cloud feedbacks and cloud-aerosol interactions are the most likely contributors to the high values and increased range of ECS [sensitivity] in CMIP6."</p>
Understanding the Complexity of Clouds<p>It's long been known in climate modeling circles that cloud processes and interactions are a potential weak link for climate modeling. That reality has been brought front and center by the urgent challenges posed during this CMIP6 evaluation period, but the current evaluation of models also provides an opportunity for discovery and improvement.</p><p>Cloud complexity comes from the reality that clouds have a multitude of sizes, altitudes, and textures. Some clouds cool Earth by providing shade, reflecting sunlight back into space. Others act like a blanket, trapping heat and warming the world.</p><p>Given that about <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/icesat_light.html" target="_blank">70% of the globe</a> is covered by clouds at any given time, it's no surprise that they play an integral role in regulating the climate. The challenge is to figure out which types of clouds will increase, which will decrease, and what the net effect will be on cooling or warming as the climate changes.</p><p><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0310-1" target="_blank">One study</a> last year reached an alarming conclusion: Left unchecked, the release of CO2 into the atmosphere may lead to a tipping point where shallow low clouds disappear – leading to runaway, catastrophic warming of nearly 15 degrees F. While scientists see that outcome as only a remote possibility, it drives home the urgent need to better understand clouds.</p><p>"We have a saying at NOAA: It isn't rocket science – it's much, much harder than that," quips Dr. Chris Fairall, ATOMIC's lead investigator. "One of the major problems for modeling is there is not clean separation of scales." The photo below is one that Fairall took from the NOAA P-3 aircraft.</p>
Investigating the Secrets of Clouds<p>To address the urgent question about the dynamics and role of clouds in a warming world, NOAA and European partners launched their ongoing research effort unprecedented in scale. The U.S. contribution, ATOMIC – short for Atlantic Tradewind Ocean-Atmosphere Mesoscale Interaction Campaign – is an international science mission that was featured recently on "<a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/video/study-aims-to-examine-links-between-climate-change-and-clouds/" target="_blank">CBS This Morning: Saturday</a>."</p>
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