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Science Earmarks

On the face of it, science has gotten a huge boost the past few weeks with the passage in the Senate of the Endless Frontiers Act (Senate bill 3832). This envisions a massive increase in money going to the National Science Foundation, although a lot of that money is destined for a new directorate for technology. Ironically, this could be pretty damaging to the scientific enterprise as envisioned when NSF was created.

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Risk and Responsibility

Awhile back, GG speculated that the closest historical analog to the present situation in regards to global warming was what transpired in the Sierra Nevada in the last half of the nineteenth century. As a reminder, hydraulic mining in the Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra was flooding downstream properties, and for many years the farmers losing their fields to floods of mud and debris felt powerless. The farmers took all the risk, though they felt the miners were responsible. And then a court case got some traction, and the entire hydraulic mining business was shut down in the Sawyer decision that found the mines responsible for all the debris covering fields. In doing this, the court effectively stranded millions of dollars of assets owned by the mines.

The question has been, if (and when) something similar might come through in regards to climate change. And this past week has seen a lot of legal action suggesting that global legal and economic balances are shifting against the oil and gas titans. Between a Netherlands court case demanding that Shell accelerate its shift into a carbon-neutral company, a skeptical hedge fund group getting a couple of people on Exxon’s board, and a host of smaller actions around the globe, the perception is growing that the days of “drill, baby, drill” are about over. And something similar had happened in the Sierra in the run up to the Sawyer decision. Miners working at the hydraulic mines, seeing the writing on the wall as things progressed, stopped contributing to the mines’ legal funds and started to move on to other places or other careers well before the Sawyer decision was handed down.

After roughly a half century of dismissal of climate change in the halls of government and corporate board rooms, it seems that tables are turning. And probably the most encouraging part of this is those economic forces coming into play: investors, including large institutional investors, are feeling that their money is threatened by a head-in-the-sand approach to climate change. Investors had already forced companies to downgrade the value of their known reserves under the logic that those reserves might remain in the ground. How fast might the turnaround in oil and gas occur? While inertia of the massive infrastructure society is built on guarantee these companies a few more good years, when the economics turn south, change is in the wind.

We are still a long, long way from turning the corner and having a sustainable energy mix. But the prospects are improving, from the low price for new solar and wind power to a massive shift in the auto industry to electric cars. It can’t come fast enough, as residents of the Arctic are witnessing, but come it will.

Shoot the Messenger?

One of the peculiarities of American politics is the disconnect between views on specific policies and how people vote. For a long time, Obamacare polled lower than the Affordable Care Act, despite the two being one and the same. While political scientists will point to how much political identification has become a core part of folks’ personalities, GG suspects there is a bit more at play. Namely that the Democrats are perversely capable of taking popular policies and then applying a label that causes a knee-jerk reaction against that policy.

Take gun laws, which most Americans think should be tightened, with increased background checks being at the top of the list, but even banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons earns majority approval. So then Beto O’Rourke comes along and boldly says “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47”. Which, you know, doesn’t poll quite as well, and which are pretty clearly fighting words. The net result? In part, it helped end Beto’s longshot Presidential campaign, but it did ignite another, more successful campaign, that of Lauren Boebert, whose appearance at a O’Rourke rally to tell him that he was not going to take her guns helped put her in Congress.

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Was the “War on Science” essential to Trumpism?

GG encountered an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that science education was a means of combating the “fake news” dismissal of unpleasant facts that we have seen in the past few years. While this seems a bit of a stretch to GG (there are scientists who have advocated some pretty dubious interpretations of reality–Robert Millikan’s embrace of eugenics, for instance, is causing his name to be removed from the Caltech campus after practically being a campus saint for decades), it does suggest a question: was science itself viewed as a threat to the exercise of power by Trump and his appointees? It feels like the answer is yes.

Over the years there have been plenty of times when administrations did something that scientists argued was unwise. In general, federally employed scientists would provide their insights, and usually (but not always) would be allowed to testify to Congress about what their scientific research says about particular policy questions. Policy makers might decide against scientific advice, but that advice was on the table.

However, if the policy objective is to make facts irrelevant (in essence, to gaslight the nation), then the less access scientists have to governmental information, the less they are present within the government to give advice, the easier it is to claim that outside scientists don’t have all the information and make claims that decisions are being based on science when they are not. In this instance, it isn’t any particular science or any special issue that demands the sidelining of science, it is the essence of what science is that is a threat to the government. Viewed through the prism, the rather widespread actions taken to remove outside scientists from government and political pressure put on scientific groups in the government makes sense. The “war on science” was really an assault on knowing things, which is kind of the direction science takes.

What does this mean going forward? If the GOP has decided that a core tenet of the party will be dismissal of facts, then science will be politicized whether practitioners agree with it or not. This is a major departure from the past and portends of dangerous times ahead for science and scientists, not to mention for wise governance of the country. Some describe Trump’s rise as one of a populist nature; it isn’t clear that populism per se would crowd out science. Demagoguery, on the other hand, can find misinformation useful. Is this what the Republican party really wants?

It is important to note that through the Trump years, requests for gutting the budgets of scientific agencies made by the Trump administration were generally ignored by Congress. Whether it was pressure from constituents, from industries, or just a need to bring home the bacon, Congress wasn’t interested in crippling science in this country the way the administration was (even when the GOP held both houses of Congress). So hopefully the trends that existed within the Trump administration do not characterize the GOP as a whole.

War on Science: Victory?

What a difference a week makes. Whereas Trump took a couple of years to name a science advisor, Biden not only had such a person named before taking the presidential oath, he wanted that person to sit in his cabinet. After years of pushing out science and scientists from government, the return invitation was more than a return to an ante-Trump normal, it appears to be quite the promotion.

On the face of it, this make sense. Two of the main priorities of the Biden administration are COVID-19 and climate change, both of which demand competent scientific advice. So making the wisdom of scientists more prominent at high levels is long overdue.

There are risks. Scientists are not generally the best at determining policy. Eager to shoot holes in hypotheses, the same behavior when considering policy options can result in total gridlock. “Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough” might well be a scientific motto. Additionally, “failure is not an option” is anathema to scientists, where failing a theory is where glory lies. So the reward structure of science might be a little screwy in appearance to non-scientists. Thus the policy choices scientists might make could reflect a very different balance than most people would want. Sure, there are exceptions, but you might not want to count on always identifying the exceptions.

And in this case, after a brutal and divisive time, elevating scientists so prominently can make them the object of political attacks. This does not serve the country or science well, but with widespread attacks on public health officials over all manner of guidelines fully based on science, it is quite plausible that science as a whole could become viewed as partisan. If we descend to a point where one political party denies the reality measured by scientists, we will be in a world of pain, ping-ponging from one set of behaviors to another. The hope is that the Trump administration will prove to have been an anomaly in that regard.

GG’s hope is that having scientific advice at the highest levels will become standard behavior in the U.S. and that it not become a political football. GG would also hope that while scientists’ concerns and findings be heard and understood by those setting policy, that policy-setting stay in others’ hands. Scientists are members of a very elitist group; their experiences and concerns are likely out of step with many citizens. Many scientists (especially those reaching levels like this) are cocky and overconfident in their abilities outside their home fields. There are times when it can be amazing just how certain a scientist might be about something that, realistically, they barely comprehend (see some non-earth scientists’ screeds about climate change for examples). We absolutely need scientific findings to be available and considered in the rooms where decisions are being made; we do not need to have a scientific oligarchy controlling American lives, for the good of both Americans and scientists.

But you know, it’s nice to see that we are wanted again.

War on Science: “Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out” Edition

Honestly, you’d think with just over a week left to the Trump administration, and with a few other distractions in the air, that the years of denying science might have already ended. No such luck.

Perhaps the most desperate move was to take a number of climate-denier essays and plop them on official letterhead of a part of the government that didn’t actually review these documents. These weren’t even posted on a government site. Ars Technica has more details, which includes that the postings might be illegal and that it is unlikely that they can be considered official government documents. Terms like “laughable” and “fifth-grade-level” show the kind of respect these documents are attracting.

The more dangerous move was the establishment of a rule essentially codifying the HONEST act of Lamar Smith from several years ago. While some earlier rules put forth made it harder to prove that certain chemicals were harming humans, this rule actually can prevent the use of more direct scientific evidence simply because there are privacy issues that prevent satisfying the terms of the rule. While this particular rule might well be rescinded by Congress, saving the Biden administration from formal efforts to repeal it, other rules will continue to be challenged in court or require new administrative efforts to change the rules. The New York Times compiled a list of climate and environment related rules the Trump administration made that will bedevil the new administration for some time. While many of these are more political footballs than science policy issues, there are several that reflect both a willingness to ignore settled science and a desire to prevent scientific research from influencing policy decisions.

So as we bid adieu to an administration that arguably was more at war with science than almost any other part of American society, we can expect that repairing the damage will take some time. What is less obvious is the longterm impact of the Trump administrations approach for future GOP administrations: will they adopt “science as enemy” or return to a more mainstream approach when they return to power?

Climate v COVID: Personal Choice?

Previously GG pointed out how it seems that the closer coronavirus gets to a community, the more they are willing to double down on dangerous behavior. And this behavior suggests that fighting climate change may well run into the same mindset, where a shifting perception of “normal” combined with partisan messaging would lead the U.S. to stall out on any climate mitigation. While GG feels there is some merit to this pessimistic view, there is another side to this that might just make a fight against climate change easier.

There are two parts: economics and the role of personal behavior. Let’s take the second first. In a pandemic, if you decide you are going to go out, get sick, and spread the disease, you yourself might not pay much of a price, but your actions extend the pandemic farther forward. At this point in the U.S., slowing the virus is entirely on the backs of individual Americans.

In contrast, personal choice has far less of an impact on climate change mitigation. You really have very little choice in where your electricity comes from; if a state has mandated that some fraction will be from renewables, you can’t exactly opt out. If auto fuel efficiency standards are tightened, your new car might get better mileage even if you’d rather it didn’t. Sure, you can find some old beater car or refuse to put solar panels on your roof, but derailing the entire country isn’t really possible. This is, ironically, the flip side of how powerless individuals are in stopping climate change.

The second side is economics. There is little doubt that a lot of the avoidance of complying with public health rules is driven by fear of economic disaster. Even as many economists argue that we really need to shut down the pandemic to have a healthy economy, the immediate threat to a personal business has created political pressure that results is ridiculous rules contrary to evidence-based regulations. For instance, the most dangerous place in this pandemic is indoors in a restaurant. The very first thing that should be shut down are restaurants and bars, yet they are often staying open even as less dangerous targets like schools shut down. Politically driven demands to reopen the economy reached receptive ears of those being hurt financially.

But for climate change, at least at this point in the battle, economics is increasingly on the side of shedding carbon-based businesses. This is most obvious in the electrical power industry, where renewables are now as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuel power sources. Utilities are finding that becoming more nimble in storing power and using distributed power sources makes their bottom line look better. And when the government puts in place incentives for electric cars or carbon-storing farming practices, lots of folks will change their behavior; the laggards won’t prevent progress.

The top-down nature of the energy economy makes it more likely to overcome minority resistance to change; this is different than the pandemic, where the bottom-up nature of transmission empowers individuals to scuttle progress made by a majority. Of course, if a majority decides to prevent progress, then indeed progress will be difficult–but we’ve already seen an attempt to bring back coal as a source for electrical power, and it failed to gain any traction.

If the coronavirus pandemic does, in the end, increase trust in scientific evaluation of risks, and this in turn strengthens the majority that favors addressing climate change, then failures in keeping people alive and free of infection won’t necessarily doom us to an ice-free and drowned coastal future.

What We Really Lost…

The New York Times has run a Sunday section entitled “What We Lost” with pieces written by their columnists ranging from Conservatism to Innocence with lots of stops in between. GG would humbly suggest they all missed the main mark. We have lost reality itself.

An aphorism from former Senator Patrick Moynihan has been widely quoted these past few years: “Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” The sad truth is that alternate universes have been created in parts of the political spectrum, universes that rely on observationally refutable assertions. The falsehoods range from the trivial to the critical. Global warming is false, vaccines cause autism, this rally or that crowd was the biggest ever, child abduction rings are in pizza parlors, windmills [sic] cause cancer, and so on. America has long had its fringe elements believing everything from the Second Coming occurring, well, some date that keeps changing to UFO-driving aliens are among us to believing Elvis is alive somewhere. What is different this go round is that the people in charge of the national government subscribe to a lot of this garbage.

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War on Science: Under the Radar Edition

With the nation’s focus on early voting, voter suppression, the Supreme Court, not to mention “COVID, COVID, COVID”, some recent actions of the Trump administration are not getting the airing they deserve.

First up is best summarized by the lead in a NY Times article:

The Trump administration has recently removed the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s premier scientific agency, installed new political staff who have questioned accepted facts about climate change and imposed stricter controls on communications at the agency.

New York Times, Oct. 28, 2020

Diving down, we find that the administration has a political minder censoring emails within NOAA; any communication from the NOAA administrator could be blocked on purely political grounds. While we have seen from time to time administrations try to block public statements from agency personnel, this level of intervention appears to be unprecedented.

But wait, there’s more! Apparently feeling that there are too many people not sufficiently under the thumb of the Trump administration, a new executive order seeks to gut a fair part of the civil service. It is worth recalling that the civil service was created in response to the corruption of government associated with political spoils. While prior to the civil service being created the goal of politicians was to have plum jobs they could offer to their supporters, in this case it appears that the idea is that competence at a job be second to loyalty to the party line of the chief executive. Why does this matter? Let’s listen in to recently resigned chairman of the Federal Salary Council and lifelong Republican Ron Sanders:

It’s absolutely critical because of the complexity of that world — the laws, the rules, the regulations, the scientific theories, all of the things that go into public policy. Somebody has to understand that. You can’t look at the CliffsNotes and get it. You need people with deep technical expertise who are there regardless of party who provide neutral competence to whoever is in power.

NPR story, 31 October 2020

With any luck at all, maybe this can be the last “War on Science” post. Maybe all of us have learned that science can help to prevent awful outcomes like we are seeing today from the novel coronavirus.

Oil wells that end well

We crossed a major divide last night. An American Presidential candidate with a substantial lead in the polls finally spoke the truth that none had dared to say out loud. The fossil fuel industry will have to go away. This from a politician who pointedly does not look to end fracking (which is in a real sense more a means of limiting or ending oil and gas production than of adjusting oil and gas development practices). Whether it will hurt him in the polls remains to be seen, but the emergence of climate change as a significant issue instead of a niche item is most welcome to the earth science community at large, a community that started making noise about this more than 30 years ago.

[Of course, immediately after the debate Biden walked back his statement, claiming we’ll have fossil fuels for a long time–we’d better not!–and that he is just talking about ending subsidies for the industry. So they have decided this was not a wise statement. Too bad; would have been interesting to see it embraced.]

Social media has been awash in statements like “how can you not believe in climate change” in the myriad threads including “fire” in the hashtag. Communities that used to simply say “we will rebuild” are modifying the pledge, adding “smarter” or even “elsewhere” as the long-term impacts of rising sea level and stronger storms become more evident. Skiers encounter programs asking visitors to help “save our winter” as slopes in some places are staying bare further into the winter season.

Really, there shouldn’t be anything controversial about Biden’s statement. Shareholders have pressed oil companies into downgrading the value of their assets, arguing that of course some of these will be stranded as the global economy tries to reduce carbon emissions. Some of those companies are acquiring green energy assets in an attempt to remain relevant as the global power mix changes. The writing has been on the wall for awhile; the only possible way to continue to burn oil and gas long term would be if carbon sequestration at an unprecedented level emerged now. And while we will certainly need carbon sequestration to get to where we want to be, it isn’t ready for prime time yet. Wind and solar? Well yes, they are ready, they are economic, and the necessary storage and distribution changes needed to make these the dominant sources of energy are increasingly feasible.

Of course the proof will be in the doing–and that depends on the election coming up rapidly. Few recall that the House actually passed a climate action bill back in 2009 that died in the Senate. Even now, Democrats from oil and gas districts are running away from Biden’s statement even though Biden tried to emphasize this would happen “over time”. So concrete action may still recede into the future.

Yesterday too President Trump noted that we are “learning to live with” coronavirus; one suspects he’d also allow that we are learning to live with climate change. Whether we feel we are living with climate change or, as Biden responded to Trump, tired of dying with it will determine whether the U.S. can meet this challenge or simply submit to it.