Note to readers: Dino is on vacation this week. Brady Dennis, a Washington Post national affairs correspondent focused on the environment, science and public health wrote today's Lightbulb. Follow him here.
A sprawling report published last week, as thousands of researchers gathered for a scientific conference in New Orleans, stretched more than 150 pages but its title carried a clear message: “Explaining Extreme Events in 2016 from a Climate Perspective.”
In chapter after chapter, the report details how events such as heat waves in Alaska and intense droughts in parts of Africa probably would not have happened — or certainly wouldn't have been as severe — without the human activity fueling the warming of the planet. Numerous authors behind the report work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That same week, NASA's social media feed was busy as usual, tweeting out an animated series about the consequences of climate change and highlighting data showing that last month “was the third-warmest November in the 137 years of modern record-keeping.”
The first 10 months of the Trump administration have not exactly seen a warm embrace of climate scientists. At the Environmental Protection Agency, officials have forbidden agency scientists from presenting about climate change at a conference, removed climate science information from the website and repeatedly floated the idea of a “red team, blue team” exercise to relitigate what most of the scientific world considers a consensus about the role humans play in fueling the globe's warming.
At the Interior Department, the inspector general has said the agency should be paying more attention to the “crosscutting, complex” problems posed by climate change. This year, the agency took offline an ecological assessment of the impacts of climate change in the Southwest.
Meanwhile, in an odd bit of cognitive dissonance, scientists at NASA and NOAA have been able to carry on with their climate research — and to talk about it freely and publicly, even on government social media accounts.
“Nobody has tried to interfere with anything we’re doing. Nobody has made any comments on it,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and a prolific tweeter about climate change. “Nobody has told us to stop doing it, so we’re just going to continue on doing the best science we can ... and communicate those results to as wide an audience of interested people as we can.”
NASA employs more than 18,000 people across its nine centers and seven test and research facilities. NOAA employs another 12,000, more than half of whom are scientists and engineers “studying and monitoring our evolving planet,” according to the agency.
GISTEMP 2017 annual mean will almost certainly (>98%) be the second warmest on record. pic.twitter.com/BcSNtiPT2F— Gavin Schmidt (@ClimateOfGavin) December 18, 2017
So, why the difference across agencies?
One potential explanation is that unlike at EPA or Interior, both NASA and NOAA continue to operate without confirmed leaders in place.
Barry Myers, chief executive of the private forecasting firm AccuWeather, is President Trump's choice to head NOAA. But he has drawn sharp criticism from past agency leaders over potential conflicts of interest. Trump's pick to head NASA, former pilot and conservative Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), has expressed doubts on the House floor about the extent to which humans contribute to climate change. Both have said that they will not interfere in the work of agency scientists, but the Senate has yet to confirm either nominee.
Aside from leadership, there's another reason NASA and NOAA have experienced relatively little political meddling this year: They are not policymaking agencies. Environmental rules and regulations emanate largely from the EPA and the Interior Department, and the Trump administration has focused its energy there in an effort to scale back Obama-era efforts to regulate climate change and reduce drilling on public lands.
The White House might not care for some of the scientific conclusions coming out of NASA and NOAA, but it appears to have made few attempts to censor those findings. It even signed off last month on a dire government report calling human activity the dominant driver of global warming.
Even so, says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Trump administration is attacking science on a broader scale.
“NOAA and NASA scientists’ work does not happen in a vacuum,” he said in an email. “Scientists work on projects across agencies, so political interference in scientific work at the Department of Energy has a ripple effect at NASA and NOAA. At NOAA and NASA, targeted budget cuts and staffing reductions would further imperil the federal research enterprise. If the money and people aren’t there to do the research and collect the data, there’s no science to censor or spin.”
He added that the Trump administration's proposals to slash scientific budgets could have far-reaching consequences, making researchers “less likely to propose ambitious projects, or to pose innovative research questions, when they feel that their entire field of research is about to get hacked to pieces.”
For now, the Trump administration's mixed reactions to climate science and the effects of climate change continue.
Last week, Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, the acting administrator of NOAA, said the findings in a new report from federal scientists about unprecedented warming in the Arctic were important for reasons that “directly relate to the priorities of this administration” — namely, its implications for national and economic security.
On Monday, however, Trump unveiled his national security strategy. In a notable break from the past, climate change was no longer listed as a serious threat.
This former foreign policy adviser to then-President Obama responded this way:
The problem with removal of climate as a national security threat is that it willfully ignores the fact of extreme weather events, migration flows and conflict that are significantly exacerbated by a changing climate. Not to mention cost to US leadership in abandoning Paris https://t.co/PjsPlW8ACR— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) December 18, 2017
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--EPA starts process of replacing CPP: The Trump administration formally announced that it's considering replacing the Clean Power Plan -- a landmark effort by the Obama administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
In an "advanced notice of proposed rule-making," which is the first step in the lengthy process of issuing new policy, EPA requested public comment for 60 days "on the proper and respective roles of the state and federal governments" in establishing limits on greenhouse gases, reported Inside Climate Wire. Before the notice, it was unclear whether EPA would simply seek to repeal the plan without trying to replacement (always the trickier part, politically speaking). Read the notice here via E&E News.
“Today’s move ensures adequate and early opportunity for public comment from all stakeholders about next steps the Agency might take to limit greenhouse gases from stationary sources, in a way that properly stays within the law, and the bounds of the authority provided to EPA by Congress,” EPA head Scott Pruitt said Monday.
The notice's "main effect may be to leave the Obama rule in limbo," writes Georgina Gustin. "The Clean Power Plan was put on hold by the Supreme Court pending litigation that was under way before Donald Trump took office on a promise to undo it.
Pruitt has said he wants to repeal the Obama plan, but it's clear the agency is also weighing replacement options—options that would weaken regulations. The [CPP] allows states to design their own strategies for cutting emissions, but Monday's notice signals that the Trump EPA believes states have 'considerable flexibility' in implementing emissions-cutting plans and, in some cases, can make them less stringent."
The EPA is required to regulate emissions in some fashion after a 2009 "endangerment finding" by the Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide is a threat to human health.
This a high-stakes process with strong advocates and detractors on both sides.
Here's how it’s playing:
- David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the move “just another ‘repeal and replace’ scam.”
- Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen said the EPA is “stubbornly marching backwards” and warned the notice suggests Pruitt “may not put anything at all in the Plan's place — or may delay for years and issue a do-nothing substitute that won't make meaningful cuts in the carbon pollution that's driving dangerous climate change.”
- From the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association's Jim Matheson: “We are pleased that EPA has taken this necessary step to replace the Clean Power Plan. America’s electric cooperatives support the development of a common-sense, durable policy that is focused on improvements that are specific to each electric-generating unit."
Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber’s Global Energy Institute said the move would start “the process of developing a better way to approach greenhouse gas regulations than the Clean Power Plan.”
Some colorful tweets were also making the rounds:
Ouch, from the Sierra Club:
From the group founded by Al Gore:
-- Anybody there? Meanwhile, Pruitt reportedly had his office swept for listening devices, reports The Hill. "The EPA paid $3,000 in March to Edwin Steinmetz Associates to do a “sweep for covert/illegal surveillance devices” documents provided to the publication show, reports Timothy Cama. "The EPA source who provided the documents on the condition of anonymity said the sweep, which came weeks after Pruitt’s arrival at the agency, did not uncover any bugs ... Like other security measures, the EPA defended the surveillance sweep as a response to unprecedented threats against Pruitt, whose aggressive deregulatory agenda has angered environmentalists and many others.
'Administrator Pruitt has received an unprecedented amount of threats against him and security decisions are made by EPA’s Protective Service Detail,' EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said, noting Obama EPA head Lisa Jackson also conducted a similar security sweep.
-- Climate change, omitted: In a speech yesterday focused on U.S. global economic dominance, and an “America First,” strategy, President Trump dropped climate change and global warming from his new national security strategy. The move signaled a departure from the Obama administration, which in 2015 listed climate change as an "urgent and growing threat to our national security," the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, Trump boasted of his intention to withdraw from the “very expensive and unfair Paris climate accord,” report The Post’s Anne Gearan and Steven Mufson.
Gearan and Mufson note that “supporters of the accord say it is a small step toward slowing global warming that could prove catastrophic economically as well as from a climate view. And Obama repeatedly argued that denial of climate science would undercut renewable energy technologies that the U.S. economy needs to remain competitive in the future.”
The AP notes that Trump's new strategy does reference the environment in some parts, pointing out the document "recognizes the importance of environmental stewardship" and says "climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system."
Read more about the speech from The Post here
--Movement on hurricane relief aid: House lawmakers last night released a massive a $81 billion disaster aid package, Politico reported, noting it would be the largest single funding request in response to natural disasters in the nation’s history. The package, if passed by, would bring the total aid approved by lawmakers to more than $130 billion in response to this year’s hurricanes and wildfires, exceeding the amount of funding that was passed following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, Politico reported.
The package also far exceeds the $44 billion in relief funding the White House requested last month.
It’s not clear, Politico’s Sarah Ferris and John Bresnahan report, whether lawmakers will be able to pass the package before leaving Washington at the end of the week. Ferris reported last week that Texas and Florida lawmakers were anxious about the possibility of relief aid being delayed until next year. (Congress just has a few other small items on its to-do list like passing its tax overhaul and a bill to keep the government open).
-- Meanwhile, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has ordered a review of the deaths caused by Hurricane Maria, warning that the government’s official count may be drastically underestimating storm fatalities. It's been 90 days since the storm touched down on the island, and the official toll has remained at 64. But several news organizations, including the New York Times, CNN and Vox.com, have reported that the number of storm-related deaths could be more than 1,000 people.
“This is about more than numbers, these are lives: real people, leaving behind loved ones and families,” Rosselló said in a statement, the Times reported early Monday.
Times reporter Patricia Mazzei noted that until now, Puerto Rico’s local government has defended its death count:
The governor acknowledged the death toll “may be higher than the official count certified to date.” His administration has spent months stubbornly defending its counting method, which has pegged the official death toll at 64. https://t.co/iEcIKf9BYN— Patricia Mazzei (@PatriciaMazzei) December 18, 2017
But Rosselló called for the Demographic Registry and Public Safety Department to reexamine all the deaths since the storm.
The Times noted that the methodology for storm death tolls can differ by state and locality -- some locations may only include direct deaths, such as drowning in storm floodst. In Puerto Rico, the report adds, some indirect deaths such as suicide are also included.
-- Two members of President Trump's administration, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, will visit the island on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
-- FEMA pushes back on relief criticism: A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency is dismissing a report from Refugees International that criticized the hurricane response in Puerto Rico. The Associated Press reported over the weekend that Refugees International had found sub-par relief efforts were to blame for the residents still in urgent need of housing and other resources. But agency spokesman Daniel Llargues defended the federal response, noting that FEMA approved $1 billion in assistance, and had delivered more than 120,000 tarps, 920 generators, 56 million liters of water and 49 million meals, per the AP.
-- “Why does this story sound so darned familiar?:” Mother Jones’s Rebecca Leber and AJ Vicens flash back to the 2009 "Climategate" scandal, during which emails from climate scientists were hacked and shared online in an effort to discredit the scientists who wrote them. That year, Donald Trump called into Fox News to mock the hacked emails and dismiss climate change, Leber and Vicens write.
“In hindsight, the Climategate hack, clearly timed to disrupt the Copenhagen negotiations, looks like a precursor to the hack that helped shape the outcome of the 2016 election,” they continue. “The parallels go beyond the hacks themselves… At the time, some observers openly wondered whether Russia might have orchestrated the Climategate hack. Investigators and other experts haven’t found much to support that hypothesis—the true culprit remains a mystery. [Penn state professor Michael] Mann himself has pointed to the incident’s “curious connections” to Russia and WikiLeaks, but he, too, notes there’s no specific evidence that Moscow was to blame. Still, Mann sees other ways in which the episode was similar to what Hillary Clinton experienced in 2016. Both hacks, he notes, were “intended to impact the global political scene in a significant manner.”
Here's what Mann tweeted last June, days after President Trump announced he planned to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, as stories poured in about Russia’s meddling in the presidential election:
-- California is still burning: The Thomas Fire, which has raged across Southern California for two weeks, was halfway contained on Monday. Calmer winds allowed fire crews to make progress on the blaze, which still remains on track to become the largest wildfire in the state’s modern history, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Cal Fire officials said the fire had burned through 271,000 acres:
#ThomasFire [update] north of Santa Paula (Ventura and Santa Barbara County) is now 271,00 acres & 50% contained. Unified Command: CAL FIRE, @VCFD_PIO, @LosPadresNF, @VenturaCityFD, and Santa Barbara County Fire (@EliasonMike). https://t.co/E53h65FpCi pic.twitter.com/HDbRIvcHgA— CAL FIRE (@CAL_FIRE) December 19, 2017
The National Weather Service warned of stronger winds starting on Wednesday:
Gusty N winds expected in the wake of a trough crossing the area Wed. Sundowner winds Wed night into Thu morning may create critical fire conditions for southern Santa Barbara Co. and the #ThomasFire. #CAwx #CAfire pic.twitter.com/ExHxu6oB9s— NWS Los Angeles (@NWSLosAngeles) December 19, 2017
Here’s an image of the fire from the NOAA’s satellites:
#Wildifre update: The #ThomasFire has been burning for 15 days now and is currently the 3rd largest fire in the history of #California at over 270,00 acres with 45% containment. Suomi NPP satellite captured the expansion this morning. More imagery: https://t.co/eRJpPpx698 pic.twitter.com/wu6yRg60cr— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) December 18, 2017
Cal Fire officials said Monday that they are not expecting the fire to be fully contained until Jan. 7.
--The latest in Atlanta: Georgia Power said Monday that the major power outage at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was the result of failed switchgear that caused a fire to spread to cables coming in from two substations, per the Associated Press. The switchgear helps manage the flow of electricity.
The Washington Post’s Dana Hedgpeth reported the Department of Homeland Security said it didn't think the outage was the result of an “attack or other nefarious act.”
But it did lead to another 400 canceled flights after more than 1,000 flights were grounded Sunday.
Georgia Power said the utility’s backup equipment was damaged in the fire, with a spokesman saying the company was working to “make sure this never happens again,” per The Post’s Lori Aratani.
Local WSB-TV reporter Aaron Diamant shared a video from Georgia Power as crews made repairs:
- The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy holds a U.S. Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium Informational Webinar on Wednesday.
- The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation & Infrastructure will hold a hearing on freight movement on Wednesday.
Donors lined up Monday to give blood to the Amtrak derailment victims in Washington state:
Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said there is a “criminal cabal” in the FBI and the Justice Department:
Thousands participated in a Christmas-themed charity race to buy presents for children of low-income families in Mexico:
Trevor Noah reflects on the first year of the Trump administration: