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War on Education?

We’ve already seen disturbing signs that science is being sidelined in parts of the current administration, but the latest tax bills in Congress seem to carry this to a broader extreme.  Now GG does recognize that any tax bill that actually shuts down deductions will get attacked by those who stand to pay more, but this feels a bit more specific in the overall intent.  If so, it is quite worrying, for the U.S. used to believe that it was in the national interest to have an educated populace.

As can be seen in an AAU statement on the House and on the Senate bills, and a statement from the CU Chancellor, several different provisions of this legislation hurt higher education.  Some of these are a big deal (making support of graduate students taxable, or taxing endowments of private universities) and some are rather petty (ending a tax break for purchasing season tickets).  But it is somewhat striking that an opinion columnist’s view of the tax plans as a whole has a large portion devoted to the impacts on higher education. Yes, the big ticket items are in ending deductions for state and local taxes and in cutting the mortgage interest deduction, but it seems a lot of attention has been paid to crimping Americans’ ability to get a college education or a higher degree. Even here, though some provisions can hurt higher ed, such as removing the deduction for state taxes, which contribute to supporting state colleges.

So, is this a war on education? It certainly feels like it.

Update 11/16.  Some more discussion of the potential damage of these tax plans: A New York Times On Campus piece written by a graduate student, a Washington Post perspective on this, a story about how a threatened tuition benefit for a janitor let his five children go to college.  A more local angle is in an opinion piece in the Boulder Daily Camera. 

War on Science, EPA edition

UPDATE: Science has a piece fully explaining this latest expulsion of academic science from the EPA. And Ars Technica discusses this with a bit of different context.

Some time ago, GG suggested that what many were taking as a “war on science” was more a war on particular parts of science, that the offenders were in fact exploiting science where it was financially remunerative and opposing it where it wasn’t. But actions at the Environmental Protection Agency really look like outright war on science, period.

Consider these actions:

It is hard to look at these actions and see them as anything other than ostrich-like in trying to avoid hearing things some don’t want to hear.  These kind of blanket rules seem designed to stifle scientific participation in any aspect of the EPA’s work.

Fingers in Dikes

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Montreal protocol that started to phase out chemicals destroying the stratospheric ozone layer. This is widely and justifiably hailed as a major international success, as concentrations of these chemicals in the atmosphere have declined and ozone levels have stopped decreasing. A side benefit is that the CFCs and related compounds that have been discontinued are strong greenhouse gases, so Montreal is in a sense the first treaty to combat climate change. Of course, what everybody would like to see is a rebound in the ozone layer.

That such a rebound isn’t obvious is the subject of a review in Nature from about a week ago. While measuring the concentration of the destructive chemicals is straightforward as is the total amount of ozone in the atmosphere, what is less clear is what else is going on and how that is affecting the changes we’re seeing.  Recovery of the ozone layer is expected to be slow in any case, and natural variability both spatially and temporally complicates any signal, especially in whole atmosphere ozone measurements. There are indications that stratospheric ozone is starting to increase, but the signal is still noisy. The review’s authors explore possibilities using constraints from observations and different modeling approaches to try to untangle things.  While this shows a clear and strong success from Montreal’s restrictions, other elements are creeping into the equation. Basically, the changing climate is also impacting ozone, with its role gradually increasing relative to that of the destructive chlorine compounds. Warming of the troposphere and increased carbon dioxide and methane emissions leads to cooling of the stratosphere, which is good for ozone. But increased N2O emissions work the other way. And then the changes in the strength of atmospheric circulation mean that the recovery won’t be uniform–in fact, the authors suggest that the tropics could see a decrease in overall ozone even as global ozone levels rise, which would increase UV levels over a significant part of the inhabited globe.

What all this means is that something as heavily studied as the ozone layer is a product of complex interactions between relatively unfamiliar chemistry, appearances and disappearances of chemical species both from human and natural events, and the evolution of the atmospheric circulation.  Montreal wasn’t the solution; it was a finger in the dike holding back a flood of consequences from using the atmosphere as a dumping ground. Dramatic ozone loss from CFCs was unanticipated because the peculiar chemistry in stratospheric clouds was unexpected. Fortunately that oversight was caught. What we need to recognize is that this part of earth’s atmosphere needs to be monitored closely as a changing level of greenhouse gases could introduce yet another unexpected surprise.  Unfortunately, such ongoing research seems to be a target of the current U.S. administration. We might not be done plugging holes in this dike…it might be good to know where to next stick our finger in.

Whose Fault?

Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at MIT who is perhaps best known for arguing that in a warming climate, hurricanes will be stronger, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post basically saying that it is high time to recognize that disasters are not entirely natural.  Well, he was bit stronger than that:

We must first recognize the phrase “natural disaster” for what it is: a sham we hide behind to avoid our own culpability. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires are part of nature, and the natural world has long ago adapted to them. Disasters occur when we move to risky places and build inadequate infrastructure.

So there are no natural disasters? Op-eds like this are to challenge the reader and try to get that reader to come to grips with uncomfortable facts.  Reading the comments online suggests it didn’t really do that…. But here we can parse things more finely. There is both truth and exaggeration in Emanuel’s piece.

Read More…

Gagging Science

A couple of recent pieces, one an editorial in the New York Times and another at Vox, argue there is a “war on science” (to use the Times’s hackneyed phrase). First, let’s drop the “war” stuff.  Ever since Fox News went on the “War on Christmas” path, that terminology is meaningless short of armed soldiers killing scientists.

But what we are seeing is incredible. From the disbanding of scientific review panels to the placement of political appointees in the grants cycle to the gagging of scientists employed by the government to the cessation of collections of scientific data to the elevation of a contrarian rear-guard to equal or greater levels of influence with overwhelming scientific consensus in making regulatory decisions, it is abundantly clear that the Trump administration, rather than simply ignoring science, intends to silence science. This is not bulldozing partisan opposition; this is overlooking reality. Given their outlook, we might expect DDT to return to store shelves next to leaded paint.

This is ignorant bullshit. But before all the conservatives get hot under the collar and the liberals give each other high-fives, keep in mind that this game is not being played solely by the right.

Here in Boulder there is a vast expanse of cropland under the control of the county.  The purpose was to retain open space and maintain a rural barrier between Boulder and neighboring towns. Because the land is owned by the county, it can make rules about what happens when it leases the land to farmers. And one of those rules they’ve decided to implement–over the objections of the farmers working those lands–is to remove GMOs from county farmlands. As a five-part series of op-eds in the Daily Camera points out, this decision flies in the face of established science. One can spend hours reading the various letters to the editor, the position papers submitted to the Board of Supervisors, the various blog posts, etc. And it is almost as enlightening as the corners of the internet dedicated to showing that climate change isn’t real; GG earlier termed many of these kinds of arguments policy proxies: you use them as cudgels against actions you dislike (for instance, some GMO opponents seem to hate Monsanto as a corporate monstrosity; some GMO supporters point out that Whole Foods is a far bigger concern directly invested in the “organic = good” mindset; neither argument bears on the safety or efficacy of GMOs in agriculture). About the closest non-crop scientists can get to the science without going nuts might be the National Academy’s report from 2016.  Which really doesn’t support wholesale dismissal of GMOs.

Now the county can do whatever it wants in this regard; there is no law saying that land management has to be scientifically defensible. It is less clear that such an argument can defend the EPA’s removal of scientific review panels, but the mindset that science is a tool to be employed as a partisan weapon seems to be growing more common.  Instead of using scientific inquiry to resolve disputes that are grounded in reality, science is being selectively harvested to support one’s preexisting views.

Science is ideally a tool we use to avoid fooling ourselves.  We have to be open to discovering we are wrong, which is one of the hardest things for many of us to admit. But those who would overturn scientific consensus have to recognize that you don’t overturn such consensus on the basis of a small amount of information. For instance, evolution is observationally confirmed by thousands up thousands of studies of faunal successions in rock strata. Finding a T-Rex tooth in a 10,000 year old human campfire isn’t going to overturn evolution. Anthropogenic climate change at this point is supported by so many observations in so many ways that the possibility that it is an artifact of some other misunderstanding is vanishingly small.  GMO safety is well supported (but not to the degree climate change is; note this is not considering the economics of GMOs). There are many things we can act on now with a pretty solid assurance we won’t be mistaken; on other aspects, we should fund the science.

When making policy these days, it is incumbent on government to at least hear the scientific consensus and know where the edge of that consensus lies. For instance, global warming is caused by burning fossil fuels. Ice sheets will retreat, oceans are much warmer and more acidic, storms can be far wetter, droughts can be much drier, heat waves will be hotter are all so directly supported by simple physics, observation, and numerical simulation that all these can be acted upon without further inquiry. More difficult and unclear are things like the net precipitation budget over years-long time frames in regions of the U.S., the intensity of winter storms, or changes in the frequency of tornados; many such topics deserve continued inquiry.

But what we cannot do is simply pooh-pooh the science we don’t like. Or pretend it doesn’t exist.

Three Current Views on Warming

View number one: The combatant.  This is An Inconvenient Sequel. Increasingly angry man argues and cajoles and negotiates to reduce the magnitude of global warming.

View number two: The angry survivor. This is a narrator in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. The oceans have risen in two massive bursts caused by rapid ungrounding of major Antarctic glaciers, leaving New York a bizarre mesh of Venice and, well, New York.  There is anger in how the elites survive as capital flies from the drowned coasts.  Thomas Piketty and Al Gore meet together in a century to decry this future world.

View number three: The ostrich. “Now is not the time to discuss climate change” says our current EPA administrator. There is disaster on the move; let’s not discuss the cause or any means we have of reducing future disasters.  Then there is disaster to survive, disaster to recover from, all preventing discussion of disasters to avoid. Somehow one doubts that the EPA is entirely focused on hurricane preparation; there is room for discussion.  There is need for discussion.  There is no need for dismissal and obfuscation, particularly from the head of the agency most directly charged with considering this problem.

And yet, look at what we have.

UPDATE 9/11.  That view number three has caught the attention of a lot of commentators, for instance here at the New York Times, with the apropos statement “For scientists, drawing links between warming global temperatures and the ferocity of hurricanes is about as controversial as talking about geology after an earthquake.” And political cartoonists:



Geologists have for a long, long time been telling people not to build things in certain places.  Barrier islands? They move and evolve, which means property comes and goes. Not good.  Floodplains? They, um, get flooded.  Landslides? Only if you want a mobile home with a mobile yard. Sometimes we get heard, but usually we don’t. And the more subtle stuff, like recognizing how paving large areas can make floods worse? Lots of luck there. Doesn’t matter if the communities are rich or poor, building in bad places seems a national habit.

Maybe that is changing.

Even as the national media seems to just be noting that flood insurance is encouraging building in vulnerable spots, Politico has a big story on Louisiana’s program to consider how some communities will be forced to move and how to prepare to absorb that exodus as it occurs. For the Grumpy Geophysicist, this is a moment of actual hope, a ray of sunshine in the currently clouded over world of using science to guide public policy. [If you want more darkness, consider that politicians are rewarded for disaster relief and not disaster preparedness.]

The basic point is that people don’t like getting hammered by really bad weather (you know, like floods).  And so they leave–and this isn’t typically a slow migration but instead a real wave of refugees from hurricanes or floods or other such unpleasantries. They don’t often go really far away, so neighboring communities suddenly are flooded with people. There are two main forks to preparing for this: one is to try and get the vulnerable communities to start to think about how they will evolve in the face of the next storm, and the other is for those neighboring communities to prepare for the eventual migration of their neighbors. The state is actively trying to do this kind of work.

While there are uncertainties in our future, there are a few things that will happen.  There will be sea level rise.  There will be bigger rainfall events. These are both so clearly tied to the basic physics of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere that there really is no avoiding them; the best we can do now on that side of the ledger is to try and keep the magnitudes lower than they might otherwise be (and some areas also see land subsidence, which is unrelated to global warming but also causes problems). So we need to prepare, which means surrendering land we cannot defend and defending land we dare not surrender.

That Louisiana is starting to consider this landscape triage may just mean we’ve moved off the “we will rebuild it” mantra of the past century. As the article makes clear, this won’t be easy–but it should be much better than letting the chaos of the next disaster drive change.