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Trump Admin Devalues Climate Crisis Costs to Justify Deregulation, GAO Finds

Politics
Trump Admin Devalues Climate Crisis Costs to Justify Deregulation, GAO Finds
Trump introduces EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler during an event to announce changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. The changes would make it easier for federal agencies to approve infrastructure projects without considering climate change. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

A report scheduled for release later Tuesday by Congress' non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that the Trump administration undervalues the costs of the climate crisis in order to push deregulation and rollbacks of environmental protections, according to The New York Times.


In one example, the administration estimated the cost of global heating for future generations seven times lower than previous federal estimates. By drastically lowering that number, which is known as the "social cost of the carbon," the administration could manipulate its cost-benefit analyses for deregulating carbon emissions, as The New York Times reported.

Every ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere imposes a cost on the economy, since it increases the likelihood from damage to infrastructure from sea level rise, heat waves or storms. Or, it imposes a health care cost as increased pollution harms public health. However, calculating the cost of those effects is both politically contentious and economically challenging, according to The New York Times.

Under estimates from the Obama administration, the social cost of carbon would be approximately $82 per ton of carbon by the year 2050, according to the forthcoming report. The Trump administration, upon entering office in 2017, quickly undid those numbers and changed the math of how the social cost of carbon was calculated. Under their revised system, the damages by 2050 are estimated to cost around $11 per ton of carbon.

One of the ways the math changed was keeping in line with Trump's narrow worldview. The report found that the administration brought the cost of carbon down by only looking at the effects on the U.S. rather than the global cost.

Another way it brought down the cost of carbon was by using something called the discount rate, which, according to The New York Times, assumes society should not pay much now to prevent harm from climate change to future generations.

"As a result, the current federal estimates, based on domestic climate damages, are about seven times lower than the prior federal estimates that were based on global damages," the report found.

The economic costs were supposed to be revised by the National Academy of Sciences, but the White House disbanded the working group and has no intention of restarting them or revising the economic calculation, as The New York Times reported.

That refusal to update their calculations means future incarnations of the federal government "may not be well positioned to ensure agencies' future regulatory analyses are using the best available science," according to the GAO report.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island and one of eight senators who requested the review, said, "Climate change is a massive threat to our economy. That threat will only grow in years to come, even if we take the action necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change," as The New York Times reported.

Michael Greenstone, an economist at the University of Chicago, said the Trump administration's calculations were not done in good faith.

"It was entirely a political act. I don't think anyone pretended that those moves were justified," he said.

Others see similarities between the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus and its approach to the climate crisis: deny its reality and then leave the country unprepared for its effects.

"This really parallels the mismanagement of coronavirus," said Michael K. Dorsey, a limited partner with IberSun, a renewable energy company, and a climate expert, to The New York Times. "There's this belief that by doing this you will have some effect of helping the fossil fuel industry. The only thing it does, unfortunately, is undermine the ability of the government to make prudent decisions about moving critical resources to communities that are experiencing the unfolding climate crisis."

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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