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28 July 2017: Not a normal day.

In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Steve Milloy concocted a spectacular — and fictitious — tale of corruption within the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr. Milloy accused the EPA of stacking the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC, with scientists that were friendly to the agency’s position on the health risks from small particulate matter so that it could implement a series of unnecessary and restrictive policies under the guise of protecting human health.

How did the EPA do this? Milloy argues that the agency conspired against the government and the American people by engaging in what could best be characterized as a years-long racketeering scheme. According to Mr. Milloy’s conspiracy theory, the agency recognized during the 1990s that it was not getting support for its policies on particulates from its independent science advisors. So, the agency felt the need to stack the scientific deck in its favor.

Following Milloy’s theory through to its logical conclusion, the EPA would have initiated what could best be described as a complicated long-con. It would have begun with the awarding of research grants to independent scientists who were studying health risks associated with particulate matter.

Years later, with these grateful scientists in the agency’s pocket, EPA Administrators appointed successively by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, would have started to offer them seats on CASAC so they could offer recommendations that were more in line with the agency’s unnecessarily restrictive stance on the chronic health risks associated with exposure to fine particulates.

Going further with Milloy’s theory, the agency operating under the administration of Barack Obama, would have heaped even more money on the CASAC scientists to seal their cooperation in the conspiracy.

There are several errors and obfuscations in Mr. Milloy’s theory.

One is the suggestion that CASAC and the Science Advisory Board (SAB)—which Mr. Milloy also lumps into his conspiracy theory—can directly influence EPA policy making. Neither can. Yes, it is true that both boards are charged with reviewing the scientific basis of some potential EPA rules. However, these boards don’t review the rules themselves, and they have no discretion to select the cases that are placed before them; both of those jobs fall to the Administrator. So, if an Administrator appointed by Bill Clinton in the 1990s didn’t want to receive a conflicting opinion about particulates, the solution would have been simple: Don’t ask EPAs independent science advisors for a review.

But, let’s say for a minute that an EPA Administrator did ask for a review. Accepting, or indeed rejecting, input from the EPA’s advisory boards is also at the Administrator’s discretion. So, any EPA Administrator who wanted to exclude external scientific peer review from the agency’s rule making could do it much more easily than by engaging in a multi-year and, importantly, illegal conspiracy.

Milloy serves up his conspiracy theory to justify the recent dismissal of many of the EPA’s independent science advisors, and he uses it to call for EPA reforms aimed at reducing bias and restoring the agency’s integrity. Milloy argues that the only way to do this is through a combination of congressional action and steely-eyed administrative resolve from Scott Pruitt. In Milloy’s words, the problem is that the EPA is rife with conflict-of-interest, which could have been eradicated years ago were it not for the threat of a Senate filibuster or Obama veto.

Here again, Milloy fails to point out that all of the EPA’s independent science advisors—whether they are from industry or the academy—since both groups are already represented on the agency’s advisory boards—must undergo rigorous ethics and conflict-of-interest reviews. Indeed, EPA science advisors undergo the same set of reviews as other special federal government employees appointed under the administration of Donald Trump. If a conflict is found to exist, these advisors must either be disqualified from weighing in on matters where they are conflicted, or they must be disqualified from service on the advisory boards altogether.

Milloy also neglects to mention that it is the EPA Administrator who has the final say, after the ethics and conflict-of-interest reviews have been completed, on the membership of the agency’s scientific advisory boards. So, if an Administrator wanted more—or less—of a certain kind of advisor, he or she could simply make that decision both unilaterally and discretely. There’d be no need for making a lot of headline-grabbing and potentially counterproductive noise; that is, unless, it was what you were intending to do all along.

Finally, Milloy also fails to understand the two-way nature of conflict-of-interest. Even if one were to believe that the federal conflict-of-interest rules were flawed, tipping them in favor of academic scientists beholden to a corrupt agency, it takes an enormous leap of faith to believe that EPA science advisors from a regulated company or industry would magically be inoculated against the very same accusations of bias.

But, Mr. Milloy’s most egregious act of misdirection is the one that is at the very heart of his conspiracy theory. Though it is entirely befitting of the man who created the widely-ridiculed and easily debunked website junkscience.com, it is irresponsible to suggest that small particulates from smokestacks and tailpipes don’t pose a risk to human health.

Just ask the thousands of people who live with, or are at risk of contracting lung cancer because of their chronic exposure to small particulates. Or, ask physicians and scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That is unless Mr. Milloy also suggests that these independent patients, doctors, and scientists are all accomplices in the EPA’s grand conspiracy.

I am on Twitter at @DecisionLab.

14 July 2017: Not a normal day.

If there’s one group that’s basking in the long shadow cast by Donald Trump’s ill-fated decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, it’s business. In story after story, reporters and pundits are hailing businesses – large and small – as the would-be saviours of much needed progress in the efforts to curb the risks associated with climate change.

Shortly after Mr. Trump announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, a host of multinational companies – Apple, Disney, General Electric, Tesla, Mars, among others – moved to cement their positions on the reality of climate change by committing to the Paris accord with or without support for the deal from the White House.

It’s true that many corporations have been walking the talk on climate change for a while now. For instance, many companies now find themselves in a position to power their manufacturing facilities and shops with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar; others are creatively combining on-site renewables with purchased offsets to meet their 100-per-cent renewable energy targets. Not to be outdone, utilities around the world – including DTE in Michigan and Appalachian Power in West Virginia coal country – are either reducing their reliance on coal as an energy source, or are phasing it out altogether.

But here’s the thing: It’s relatively easy and painless for businesses to pledge their allegiance to the Paris climate accord. For one thing, the agreement is non-binding, and has no enforcement mechanism, so talk can be sold on the cheap. We also live in a time when it makes decreasing economic sense for companies, especially utilities, to rely on greenhouse gas-intense fuel sources such as coal when more climate-friendly options – such as natural gas and renewables – are cheaper.

As we assess the business response to Donald Trump’s decision, it’s also important to recognize that pro-Paris pledges have more to do with following through on their long-gestating corporate strategies – and drawing benefits from sunk cost – than they do with new strategic shifts in the direction of acting more aggressively to address climate-change risks. Success in any business is built upon companies taking the long view when it comes to their investments. As it became increasingly apparent more than a decade ago that both customer expectations and the regulatory landscape were tilting in the direction of climate action, businesses around the world responded by planning and investing accordingly. Thus, the position of many businesses when it comes to the Paris Agreement today reflects past investments more than it does future commitments.

More telling about the stand taken by many businesses on the Paris climate accord in light of the “we are still in” rhetoric is what they were doing in the weeks and months before Mr. Trump’s decision.

Take for example the recent lobbying efforts by many of the United States’ wealthiest and most influential corporations, which are aimed at rolling back pledges they made to address their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. You may recall that it was barely two weeks into Mr. Trump’s tenure in the White House before chief executives from the United States’ automobile manufacturers lamented to him personally that the requirement to comply with today’s fuel efficiency regulations – which were developed with companies’ co-operation as part of the deal to save them from bankruptcy barely a decade ago – was cutting too deeply into their already mighty profits. Similarly, oil and gas companies have – since Mr. Trump’s election – placed on hold plans to install new equipment, and to retrofit existing infrastructure, which would be aimed at preventing emissions of the most potent greenhouse gases.

At the end of the day, I am an optimist. I couldn’t, in good conscience, do my job if I weren’t. From this perspective, I do believe it is still possible – indeed, necessary– to leverage the influence of business to address the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges; the indisputable reality of human-caused climate change is one of them.

But in my role, I’m also required to be an honest broker. From this perspective, the private sector still has much work to do if it is to lead on the climate change file. Investors will need to be more assertive in terms of how they allocate capital toward climate progressives, and away from climate Luddites. The same is true of consumers who must exert their own influence by voting with their wallets. Companies themselves will need to work more aggressively to divest their operations from fossil fuels. Most important, business will need to be more proactive in the voluntary search for more innovative climate solutions. In the absence of regulation, real leadership from business on climate will require new strategies and investments that push them to be truly sustainable, and not merely less unsustainable.

5 June 2017: Not a normal day.

Violence perpetrated against innocent people for political effect is neither acceptable nor normal.

Full stop.

It’s true that cross-border grievances, incubated in countries far from the democracies in which we live and frequently visit, are hatched and exported to places like London, Manchester, and New York.

The plotters and perpetrators of these attacks, hiding out in in far away places, must be stamped out just as we would stamp out a flickering ember in a parched landscape.

But it’s also true that many of the grievances that are playing themselves out as terrorist attacks are hatched and carried out by citizens of the very countries they are targeting.

These people aren’t working with an international band of plotters, scheming about building a web of interrelated and international attacks in the name of jihad.

Instead, they are frustrated people who feel disenfranchised and marginalized.

They are looking for a cause, any cause, that gives them hope, and that their lives meaning.  In many ways, they are not different from the citizens who are prime targets for populist rallying cries about making America, or France, or The Netherlands great again.

If we are truly committed to curbing terrorism at home and abroad then, yes, we must tactically—and sometimes tactfully—eliminate with force the threats we face.

But, at the same time, we must ensure that we continue to strive for—and build—civil and welcoming societies that do not discriminate based on skin color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or one’s choice of headwear.

More than military might, or any immigration ban, civility and inclusivity will be the difference makers in the fight against terrorism.

It’s the 5th of June, 2017.

You can reach me on Twitter at @DecisionLab.

A Great and Terrible and Abnormal Day

It was 26 years ago that the movie City Slickers with Billy Crystal and the late Jack Palance was released. So why am I remembering it today?

When reflecting upon yesterday’s news from the sustainability desk, I thought back to a pivotal moment in the film when Crystal’s character Mitch and his pals Phil and Ed, are on horseback discussing their best and their worst days.

When Ed, played by Bruno Kirby, is asked to recall his best day, he talks about his philandering dad:

“So I told him; I said ‘You’re bad to us. We don’t love you. I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you anymore.’ And he made like he was gonna’ hit me, but I didn’t budge. And he turned around and he left. He never bothered us again. Well, I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.”

When asked about his worst day, Ed paused and said:

“Same day.”

If you care about climate change you probably had had a similar experience on Wednesday.

First, the news that made May 31st, 2017 a great day:

In a historic and surprising vote by a clear majority—more than 62%—of its shareholders, the global petrochemical giant ExxonMobil was pushed in the direction of being more transparent and more specific about the impacts of climate change on—and from—its oil and gas business. Last year, the same resolution garnered support from a measly 38% of the company’s shareholders.

Though the resolution is non-binding, it sends a strong message to the company’s board and officers. When asked to explain the implications of the vote, Edward Mason, head of responsible investment at Church Commissioners, said “climate change is a material financial risk and shareholders want to know how companies will manage the change to a low carbon economy.” Mason added, “we believe Exxon’s board can and should support our reasonable disclosure request.”

The vote by ExxonMobil’s shareholders is firmly in line with common sense in the United States about the risks associated with climate change. Indeed, the opinion of ExxonMobil’s shareholders is in lockstep with the opinion of most Americans. In each of our country’s 50 states, for example, a majority of adults believe that climate change is real; a majority of adults believes that carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant; a majority of adults believe the United States should set strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants; and a majority of adults worry that climate change will harm future generations.

Beyond common sense, the vote by ExxonMobil’s shareholders also makes good business sense. To understand why, think about all of the expensive coastal infrastructure that would be at risk from more extreme weather and sea level rise. Likewise, imagine ExxonMobil’s vast network of gobal operations that could be halted or disrupted as a result of a wide range of climate-induced natural hazards, not to mention climate-related civil unrest.

The vote also makes good business sense because it helps to insure the company against shocks from changes in consumer demand, as well as regulatory reform. Consider what is happening in Canada’s oil sands. Increased regulatory pressure, along with changes to oil’s global economic standing, have dealt a body blow to their oil industry.

While oil production in the United States is not currently in the same dire straits as in Canada, it’s no longer inconceivable that increased regulatory pressure—or climate-focused trade restrictions imposed from abroad as other countries focus on reducing their own carbon dioxide emissions—could cut deeply into the viability of America’s petroleum business.

Now for the bad news. At the same time as ExxonMobil’s shareholders were making history, Donald Trump’s White House was poised to make history of its own. Multiple media outlets were reporting throughout the day that Trump would order the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

Not only would Trump’s decision place the United States in dubious company—joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only three countries to not take part in the Paris Agreement—it would represent a slap in the face to in the face of a clear majority of Americans, and near-majority of Trump’s own voters, who believe that their country should continue to participate.

In light of these numbers, it should be made clear that any decision by Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord is exactly that: his decision. To characterize this impending decision, which is based on a Republican anti-science ideology, as America’s withdrawal from the agreement is both misleading and disingenuous.

This would be a decision by Trump and by the Republican Party, and it would disregard the will of the American people. In stark contrast to the vote by ExxonMobil’s shareholders, a decision by Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement would place at risk the profitability of scores of American businesses.

Finally, to all but the most scientifically illiterate—and morally bankrupt—there is no denying that a decision by Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord would markedly increase the levels of climate-induced risk and vulnerability faced by American communities, American citizens, and America’s natural resources.

So, what has been the best day for the global fight against climate change since last year’s presidential election?

Wednesday.

And what has been the worst day?

Same day.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: A version of article first appeared on Policy Options.

America First ≠ Environment Last

Donald Trump’s “America first” budget cuts about one-third or 31% of the funding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) receives, even though Defense Secretary James Mattis believes climate change is a national security threat.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s administrator from 2013 to 2017, notes correctly that the president’s budget, and the strategy being imposed by the Scott Pruitt’s EPA, would potentially put millions of Americans at risk.

“This budget is literally and figuratively a scorched-earth budget,” McCarthy said. “It really represents an all out assault on clean air, water, and land. You just can’t put America first when you put the health of its people and its country last, and that’s what this budget really represents.”

Making matters worse, Pruitt is the midst of imposing draconian cuts to the agency’s internal machinery for independent science advice. These cuts will degrade the quality of the science being considered by the EPA when it makes regulations, and run the risk of breaking the agency’s moral and ethical compass.

Taken together, backsliding on the EPA’s budget, and on its science, will make the United States more vulnerable to near-term environmental hazards, and long-term environmental change.

None of this is normal behavior by an agency, and an administration, that espouses to “make America great again.”

The long-term health of the natural environment is vital to our national and social security, and for a prosperous and burgeoning economy.

Only a fool doesn’t recognize this.

WNYC‘s The Takeaway devoted an entire program to changes, for the worse, at the EPA. During the program, I discussed cuts at the EPA, and their implications for the environment, and for the country.

You can listen to the program here.

It’s the 31st of May, 2017. It’s not a normal day.

Follow me on Twitter at @DecisionLab.

11 May 2017: Not a normal day.

I heard from my friend Robby last weekend that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Administrator, Scott Pruitt, was following through on promises by representatives in congress to “reform” the agency’s two scientific advisory boards: The Chartered Science Advisory Board (SAB), which provides advice to the administrator, and the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), which provides advice to the agency’s Office of Research and Development. Robby had just been informed that his tenure on BOSC would not be renewed despite recent assurances from the EPA to the contrary.

It didn’t take long after hearing about this that my mobile phone and email sprung to life with calls and questions from colleagues and reporters. Had I been fired yet? Would I resign first?

The questions didn’t come as much of a surprise to me since I serve as a member of the SAB, and have done so since 2011; I also served as a consultant to the SAB’s staff office between 2003 and 2009.

Likewise, I wasn’t surprised by the questions since the SAB has been the target of criticism from congress for nearly as long as I can remember. These critiques culminated this past March with the passing of H.R. 1431, also known as the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act. Beneath the political jargon and rhetoric, the intent of H.R. 1431 is to give business and industry greater influence over EPA rulemaking.

As a professor at a prominent business school, and as the director of an academic institute that sits at the nexus between business and the environment, this weekend’s action by Mr. Pruitt, as well as H.R. 1431, are misguided.

Long-term success in business and industry depends every bit as much on credibility as it does on regulatory relief. Even the perception that business is interfering with EPA rulemaking such that it places environmental and human health at risk would be met with resistance from consumers and shareholders alike.

At the same time, the actions of Mr. Pruitt and H.R. 1431 both reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of what the SAB does, and who the SAB is.  In reading conservative coverage, it’s easy to imagine the SAB as a scientific star chamber; a group of scientists in powdered wigs with authority over business and political elites, up to and including the administrator and the EPA itself.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Regarding the SAB’s role, it is to review—in an open and public forum—the scientific basis upon which some EPA rules and plans—selected by the Office of the Administrator—are based; it is not to review the rules themselves. Likewise, it’s important to understand that the Office of the Administrator calls the SAB with questions; we don’t cold call the Administrator with unsolicited opinions. Finally, input to the Administrator from the SAB is advisory, not compulsory. It’s entirely up to the Administrator if he or she adopts—or chooses to reject—input from the SAB.  (For the record, I’ve seen plenty of examples of the latter since I started working with colleagues at the EPA in 2003.)

In terms of membership on the SAB, or on the many ad hoc and standing committees, it’s not all bleeding-heart liberals and tree-huggers. In my different SAB roles, I’ve served alongside scientists from the oil and gas industry, chemical companies, pharmaceutical giants, agribusiness, local and state governments, Native American tribes, and countless others. It’s rare to see membership on committees assembled by the private or public sectors that reflect as much attention to diversity—including a diversity of thought—as is the case with the SAB.

To make a long story short, the composition and level of influence which appear to be desired by Mr. Pruitt and congress for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board are already in place, and have been for a very long time.

Why go ahead, then, with public dismissals of science advisors and bills like H.R. 1431?

The answer is simple: appearance over substance.

Through these moves, Mr. Pruitt, environmental hardliners in congress, and the president himself are pandering to their bases.  The realities of what the SAB does, and who its members are, aren’t as important to these individuals as alternative facts—about a group of ‘liberal obstructionists’—created for little more than political effect.

You can find me on Twitter at @DecisionLab.

Thanks, Paul.

Dear Paul,

It’s strange to me, the twists and turns our lives take.

I had the very good fortune of meeting you in the spring of 1995.  I had just completed my UBC undergraduate degree, which was a mighty struggle for me.  I was an unremarkable student for the first 2.5 years of my time at UBC, but managed to turn things around (a bit, anyway) when I started taking classes in oceanography.  My thought at the time I met you was to turn my bachelors into some sort of laboratory position with a provincial or federal agency.

The truth is, I hadn’t taken a class from you while I was an undergraduate.  However, I heard from another professor that you were looking for a summer research assistant to work on measuring secondary productivity on Roberts Bank.

Some lab experience, I thought: That’s just what I’d need to get a real-life lab job!

I remember walking down to your office in April of 1995, no appointment necessary, in the bowels of the Biology Building, right next to the tunnel leading into the central courtyard.  I also remember explaining my circumstances to you, complete with my confession of being a lackluster student. I promised that, if you hired me, I wouldn’t let you down.

Much to my surprise, you gave me the job. Right there on the spot. I couldn’t quite believe it and, come to think of it, I still sorta’ can’t.  I remember walking away from the “interview” thinking, surely, there’s some sort of trick.

No trick.

I started working for you that week.  The routine was simple. Three or four times per month, usually in the middle of the night, on a Coast Guard hovercraft collecting samples on Roberts Bank. And then, as many days per week as it took counting and weighing amphipods and bivalves from the hundreds of kilos of mud brought back to a wet lab upstairs.

It was the coolest job ever!  I felt like a real-life scientist. I felt like I had arrived!

Later that summer, around July maybe, I heard from a friend that he was going to give you some bad news; he was going to turn down your offer to work on his Masters degree in your lab. I remember thinking to myself, maybe I could join your lab as a grad student in his place!

I’ll confess that I didn’t really know much about grad school.  But someone told me that it would be easier to get that laboratory job with a provincial or federal agency if I had a Masters instead of a Bachelors. That information in hand, down I marched to your basement office once again.

When I asked about joining your lab as a Masters student, you told me you’d think about it.  A few anxious days later, you agreed to take me on.

As neat as my tiny bit of bench space was in the wet lab, your main lab in the basement was amazing.  It was always teeming with students, all of whom were helping one another.  I still remember the faces in that lab like I was just there yesterday: Allen, Deb, Lauren, Robert, Anthony, Tony, Diana, Kedong, Ming, Nelson, Catriona, Mike, Philip, David, Joe (not me; a different one), Natalie.  Shoot, people that weren’t even working with you seemed to just hang out in your lab.

Morale and camaraderie were always in abundance in your shop, thanks to the culture that you worked to cultivate.  Your lab made such an impression on me, that I’ve tried to replicate the feeling I had between 1995 and 1997 in every lab I’ve run ever since.

Believe it or not, I’m a professor myself now. Had you told me when we met that it’s what I’d be doing today, I’d have thought you were crazy.

It’s still strange to me, the twists and turns that our lives take.

I know now, what I had no way of knowing then:  My two years working with you, one of the most delightful and wise men I knew, and one who was willing to take a chance on an academic loser, changed my life.

In my two years working with you, you taught me everything I needed to know to build what has turned into a successful and fun career:

You taught me to let my questions guide my work.

You taught me to trust my instincts, and to trust my colleagues.

You taught me that no mistake in the lab, or in the field, was worth losing sleep over.

You taught me that the really good advisors have their students’ backs.

And, you taught me that science was secular, and that it could light the way.

When heard from your daughter that you passed away, I got up from my desk here at the University of Michigan, shut my office door, and quietly cried.

I wasn’t ready for the news, and I’m still not.

Paul, you changed my life.

And. I will never be able to thank you enough.

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