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Trump Nominee Kathleen Hartnett White Ignores Climate Change In Her Own Backyard

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Trump Nominee Kathleen Hartnett White Ignores Climate Change In Her Own Backyard

By Elliott Negin

Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump's pick to chair the White House's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), testified at her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday and, like many Trump nominees to date, showed herself to be an unqualified, polluter-friendly ideologue who rejects mainstream climate science.

"Your positions are so far out of the mainstream, they are not just outliers, they are outrageous," Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey exclaimed at one point in clear exasperation. "You have a fringe voice that denies science, economics and reality."


What Markey failed to note, however, is that White has personally experienced climate change-related extreme weather events in her home state of Texas, and scientists say they are only going to get worse.

Unqualified from the Start

White, who Trump previously considered for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, is a cattle rancher and dog breeder who chaired the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)—the Lone Star State's version of the EPA—from 2001 to 2007 and was a member of the Environmental Flows Study Commission, the Texas Water Development Board and the Texas Wildlife Association board.

Her qualifications for those positions? None.

White earned her bachelor's and master's degree in Humanities and Religion at Stanford, attended Princeton's comparative religion doctoral program, and completed a year of law school at Texas Tech. It's not quite the background one would expect for someone serving on environmentally related boards, let alone running the TCEQ. But in Texas, as in Florida and Wisconsin, ideology trumps science credentials, and White holds a politically correct pro-fossil fuels viewpoint.

That bias serves her well in her current job with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded by what Texans for Public Justice characterized as a "Who's Who of Texas polluters, giant utilities and big insurance companies." Among TPPF's benefactors are Chevron, Devon Energy and ExxonMobil; Koch Industries and its family foundations; and Luminant, the largest electric utility in Texas. White, who joined TPPF in January 2008, runs the nonprofit's energy and environment program and co-heads its Fueling Freedom Project, whose mission is to "push back against the EPA's onerous regulatory agenda that threatens America's economy, prosperity and well-being."

Climate Paranoia Strikes Deep

Recent media coverage of White's nomination for the CEQ post has shined a light on her lack of scientific understanding—and her paranoia about the rationale for addressing climate change. She falsely claims that climate science is "highly uncertain," characterizes it as the "dark side of a kind of paganism, the secular elite's religion," and argues that the "climate crusade," if unchecked, would essentially destroy democracy. That's right. White believes the United Nations and climate scientists are bent on establishing a "one-world state ruled by planetary managers." Further, she routinely trumpets the benefits of carbon emissions, insisting that carbon dioxide "has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that could harm human health." Carbon is a good thing, she said, because "the increased atmospheric concentration of man-made CO2 has enhanced plant growth and thus the world's food supply." Never mind that farmers and ranchers in her own state have been whipsawed in recent years by devastating heat waves, drought and floods, all linked to climate change.

At her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, White cited reducing ground-level ozone in Houston and Galveston when she chaired the TCEQ as her greatest accomplishment. But according to a recent editorial in the Dallas Morning News, she pushed for weaker ozone standards while she was at the helm of the agency.

"Her record is abominable," the Oct. 17 editorial stated. "White consistently sided with business interests at the expense of public health as chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. She lobbied for lax ozone standards and, at a time when all but the most ardent fossil fuel apologists understood that coal isn't the nation's future, White signed a permit for a lignite-fired power plant, ignoring evidence that emissions from the lignite plant could thwart North Texas' efforts to meet air quality standards."

Predictably, White also disparages renewable energy. "In spite of the billions of dollars in subsidies, retail prices for renewables are still far higher than prices for fossil fuels," she wrote in her 2014 tract, Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case. "At any cost, renewable energy from wind, solar, and biomass remains diffuse, unreliable, and parasitic…." In fact, fossil fuels have received significantly more in federal tax breaks and subsidies for a much longer time than renewables; new wind power is now cheaper than coal, nuclear and natural gas; and the Department of Energy projects that renewable technologies available today have the potential to meet 80 percent of U.S. electricity demand by 2050.

Ignoring the Evidence

Most of Trump's nominees for other key science-based positions—notably EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt—agree with White's twisted take on climate science and renewables. What sets her apart, besides her penchant for calling advocates for combating climate change "pagans," "Marxists" and "communists," is her up-close-and-personal experience with climate change-related extreme weather events.

White and her husband, Beau Brite White, live in Bastrop County, an outlying Austin bedroom community, and own a vast cattle ranch of 118,567 acres—more than 185 square miles—in Presidio County, which sits on the state's southwest border with Mexico.

Bastrop and Presidio counties are both struggling with drought due to low precipitation and high temperatures and, like the rest of Texas, suffered from an especially extreme drought in 2011. Part of a prolonged period of drought stretching from 2010 to 2015, the one in 2011 was the hottest and driest on record, and climate change likely played a significant role. A 2012 study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that the high temperatures that contribute to droughts such the one that struck Texas in 2011 are 20 times more probable now than they were 40 to 50 years ago due to human-caused climate change.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment report, released on Nov. 3, agreed. "The absence of moisture during the 2011 Texas/Oklahoma drought and heat wave was found to be an event whose likelihood was enhanced by the La Niña state of the ocean," the report, authored by scientists at 13 federal agencies, concluded, "but the human interference in the climate system still doubled the chances of reaching such high temperatures [emphasis added]."

The 2011 heat wave was particularly intense in Presidio County. According to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, a meteorology professor at Texas A&M University, the county "achieved the triple-triple: at least 100 days reaching at least 100 degrees."

Bastrop County, meanwhile, has become a tinderbox. Wildfires are happening there with greater frequency and intensity for a variety of reasons, including rising temperatures and worsening drought as well as population growth and development. In 2011, the county experienced the worst wildfire in Texas history, which destroyed more than 1,600 homes and caused $325 million in damage. Two years ago, in October 2015, the Hidden Pines Fire torched 7 square miles in the county and burned down 64 buildings.

White's Neighbors Know Better

White may refuse to acknowledge what is happening in her own back yard, but most of her neighbors realize that human-caused climate change is indeed a problem, according to polling data released last March by the Yale Program on Climate Communication. The survey, conducted in 2016 in every county nationwide, found that a majority of residents in Bastrop and Presidio counties—67 percent and 78 percent respectively—understand that global warming is happening, while more than half of the respondents in both counties (52 percent in Bastrop and 62 percent in Presidio) know it is mainly caused by human activity.

Majorities in both counties also want something done about it. More than 70 percent want carbon dioxide regulated as a pollutant and at least 65 percent in both counties want states to require utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewables.

Given their responses, White's neighbors in Bastrop and Presidio counties make it clear that if they were polled on whether she should become the next chair of a little-known but powerful White House office that oversees federal environmental and energy policies, a majority would likely say no—and with good reason: Unlike White, for them, seeing is believing.

Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Research assistance was provided by Chanelle Kacy-Dunlap.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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