Tag Archives: climate change

Save the data, save the world

datarescueDC brought together 200 librarians, scientists, coders, and concerned citizens to archive at risk EPA data and websites. https://datarefuge.github.io/datarescue-dc/

Data Rescue DC brought together 200 librarians, scientists, coders, and concerned citizens to archive at-risk EPA data and websites. https://datarefuge.github.io/datarescue-dc/

In the first four weeks of the Trump administration, headlines have been dominated by the most dramatic events: travel bans, border wall plans, coziness with Russia, claims of “fake news,” and record-breaking protests. While many Americans have been in a constant state of whiplash, a group of activists has focused proactively on addressing another possible threat: the security of federal data infrastructure. To address this, researchers at the UPenn program in the Environmental Humanities started Data Refuge – an initiative to archive at-risk federal data. This effort has quickly grown into a nation-wide network of librarians, scientists, programmers, and other concerned citizens. Many events have sprung up – including the Data Rescue DC event this President’s Day weekend at Georgetown University. Events provide participants with tools and collaborative space to archive government websites and effectively “bag and tag” data for repository into the Data Refuge archive. To date, events have focused on archiving the most critical websites and data at risk: environment and climate-relevant information from agencies like EPA and NOAA.

get all the data

Maybe we can’t get ALL the data, but we can start with data that we think is most at risk.

The Data Rescue DC event occurred within an urgent context; the appointment of a climate change denier to lead the EPA, the silencing of civil servants on certain topics, and attempts to restrict data collection on racial disparities in affordable housing, among other news, served as backdrop.  For me, participation in Data Rescue DC felt like the most important near-term contribution that I could make as a scientist. Federal data writ large is absolutely critical – not only for climate science research, but also for countless local applications. As part of a panel on Saturday, Denise Ross of New America reminded participants about the importance of accurate housing data following Hurricane Katrina to inform response efforts and literally save lives. Reviewing and backing up countless EPA websites reminded me that the EPA collects and maintains decades of data on toxic wastes, pesticides, radiation, and lots of other critical information. These data were collected over many years using American taxpayer dollars. Federal data also has the advantage of being consistently collected and without biases inherent in private-sector data; for instance, Ms. Ross shared that Google Street View could not be used to assess certain low income neighborhoods in New Orleans as the camera-equipped cars had failed to include them.

So how does one save the data to save the world?  At the event, participants divided into groups: seeders and sorters, researchers and harvesters, checkers and baggers, describers, and storytellers. Each group contributed to a piece of the data archiving process. I seeded and sorted for the day, clicking through and archiving EPA websites methodically and marking appropriate pages as uncrawlable (like databases or interactive maps). Researchers and harvesters dug deeper into the sites marked as uncrawlable and worked to capture these data. Checkers and baggers provided layers of quality control for the harvested data while describers wrote comprehensive metadata. Storytellers visited each group to capture participants’ stories and experiences – through tweets, videos, blogs, and other media. Organizers were attuned to the sensitive nature of the event; participants who wished to remain anonymous wore white name tags. Signs posted around the room reminded us not to share pictures of people on social media without permission.

In addition to technical data sets, I also discovered some fun things on the EPA website.

At Data Rescue DC, more than 200 participants sorted and seeded 4776 URLs, harvested 20 GB of data, bagged 15 datasets, and described 40 datasets. This contributed about 40% of the datasets that are currently in the Data Refuge archive! Data Rescue DC and similar efforts begin to address the issue of at-risk federal data infrastructure by archiving data. But of course, this is not enough. It may be impossible to archive all of the data that are at risk. And more challenging: there is no guarantee that these data will continue to be collected in the future. Quiet activism like data archiving in concert with continued vocal political pressure to support data collection efforts (e.g. maintain or increase agency funding) will be instrumental. As suggested by Bethany Wiggin of UPenn (one of Data Refuge’s founders), data users can play a role from the bottom up by talking about data that we use and amplifying its importance. This can help “humanize” these data and emphasize their value to society.

I hope that public access to federal data remains open. In the meantime, activists will continue archiving – just in case.

Interested in getting involved to rescue data? Learn more on the UPenn Program in the Environmental Humanities page here

Republican vs. Democratic Platforms on the Environment

Here is a point by point comparison of the Republican and Democratic parties’ platforms on environmental issues for 2016.* Read the rest of the platforms here: Republican Democratic

Republicans

 

Democrats

Cornerstone of platform: “we remain committed to expanding trade opportunities and opening new markets for agriculture.”

“…ranching on public lands must be fostered, developed, and encouraged.”

Agriculture

“we believe that in order to be effective in keeping our air and water clean and combating climate change, we must enlist farmers as partners in promoting conservation and stewardship.”
“Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.”

Climate change

Cornerstone of platform: “Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.”

“The best science tells us that without ambitious, immediate action across our economy to cut carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases, all of these impacts will be far worse in the future.”

“We oppose any carbon tax.”

Carbon tax

“Democrats believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities, and to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy and help meet our climate goals.”
“We will do away with it altogether.”

Clean Power Plan

“Democrats are committed to defending, implementing, and extending smart pollution and efficiency standards, including the Clean Power Plan, fuel 28 economy standards for automobiles and heavy-duty vehicles, building codes and appliance standards.”
No explicit mention

Corporate Accountability

“All corporations owe it to their shareholders to fully analyze and disclose the risks they face, including climate risk. Democrats also respectfully request the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies accused of misleading shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change.”
“The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution. Its unreliability is reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy.”

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

No explicit mention
“We demand an immediate halt to U.S. funding for the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in accordance with the 1994 Foreign Relations Authorization Act.”

United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

No explicit mention
“We reject the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, which represent only the personal commitments of their signatories; no such agreement can be binding upon the United States until it is submitted to and ratified by the Senate.”

Paris agreement

“Democrats share a deep commitment to … meeting the pledge President Obama put forward in the landmark Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperature increases to “well below” two degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
“We propose to shift responsibility for environmental regulation from the federal bureaucracy to the states and to transform the EPA into an independent bipartisan commission, similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with structural safeguards against politicized science.”

The EPA

No explicit mention
all-of-the-above energy strategy”

“We support the enactment of policies to increase domestic energy production, including production on public lands, to counter market manipulation by OPEC and other nationally owned oil companies.”

Energy

“We believe America must be running entirely on clean energy by mid-century. We will take bold steps to slash carbon pollution and protect clean air at home, lead the fight against climate change around the world, ensure no Americans are left out or left behind as we accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy”
“We encourage the cost-effective development of renewable energy sources — wind, solar, biomass, biofuel, geothermal, and tidal energy — by private capital.”

Renewable Energy

“We will streamline federal permitting to accelerate the construction of new transmission lines to get low-cost renewable energy to market, and incentivize wind, solar, and other renewable energy over the development of new natural gas power plants.”
“we will end the Administration’s disregard of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act with respect to the long-term storage of nuclear waste”

“We support lifting restrictions to allow responsible development of nuclear energy, including research into alternative processes like thorium nuclear energy”

Nuclear energy

No explicit mention
“We respect the states’ proven ability to regulate the use of hydraulic fracturing, methane emissions, and horizontal drilling..”

Fracking

“Democrats are committed to closing the Halliburton loophole that stripped the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its ability to regulate hydraulic fracturing, and ensuring tough safeguards are in place, including Safe Drinking Water Act provisions, to protect local water supplies. We believe hydraulic fracturing should not take place where states and local communities oppose it.”
“We support expediting the permitting process for mineral production on public lands.”

Mining

“We will also oppose threats to the public health of these communities from harmful and dangerous extraction practices, like mountaintop removal mining operations.”
“coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource”

Coal

No explicit mention
“We intend to finish that pipeline and others as part of our commitment to North American energy security.”

Keystone XL

“We support President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.”
No explicit mention

Pebble Mine

“we support efforts by the EPA under the Clean Water Act to establish proactively science-based restrictions on discharges of dredged or fill material associated with a potential Pebble mine and urge that such restrictions must apply to potential mines at other metallic sulfide deposits in those drainages.”
“support the opening of public lands and the outer continental shelf to exploration and responsible production”

Arctic and Atlantic offshore drilling

“We oppose drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast”
“That is why we support the opening of public lands and the outer continental shelf to exploration and responsible production, even if these resources will not be immediately developed. ”

“We support the enactment of policies to increase domestic energy production, including production on public lands”

Fossil fuel production on public lands

“We will phase down extraction of fossil fuels from our public lands, 30 starting with the most polluting sources, while making our public lands and waters engines of the clean energy economy and creating jobs across the country. Democrats will work to expand the amount of renewable energy production on federal lands and waters, from wind in Wyoming to solar in Nevada.”
“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.”

Public Lands

“we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public
“We believe in promoting active, sustainable management of our forests and that states can best manage our forests to improve forest health and keep communities safe.”

Forest Service Lands

No explicit mention
“We support amending the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish Congress’ right to approve the designation of national monuments and to further require the approval of the state where a national monument is designated or a national park is proposed.”

Antiquities Act

No explicit mention
“…the ESA has stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects, burdened landowners, and has been used to pursue policy goals inconsistent with the ESA — all with little to no success in the actual recovery of species. For example, we oppose the listing of the lesser prairie chicken and the potential listing of the sage grouse.”

Endangered Species Act

“Democrats oppose efforts to undermine the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act to protect threatened and endangered species.”
“We will enforce the original intent of the Clean Water Act, not it’s distortion by EPA regulations.”

Clean Water Act

No explicit mention
“We will…modernize the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act so it can no longer invite frivolous lawsuits, thwart sorely needed projects, kill jobs, and strangle growth.”

NEPA

No explicit mention
“We will likewise forbid the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, something never envisioned when Congress passed the Clean Air Act. We will restore to Congress the authority to set the National Ambient Air Quality Standards…”

Clean Air Act

No explicit mention
No explicit mention

Lead poisoning

“Democrats believe we must make it a national priority to eradicate lead poisoning, which disproportionately impacts low-income children and children of color and can lead to lifelong health and educational challenges.”
No explicit mention

Environmental Justice

“…as we saw in Flint, Michigan, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately home to environmental justice “hot spots,” where air pollution, water pollution, and toxic hazards like lead increase health and economic hardship. The impacts of climate change will also disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities, tribal nations, and Alaska 29 Native villages—all of which suffer the worst losses during extreme weather and have the fewest resources to prepare. Simply put, this is environmental racism.”

*This post does not constitute an endorsement of either party.

On “island hopping” and emphasizing the unknown in science communication

Photo: BOSTON ATLANTIC PHOTOGRAPHY

This year’s final plenary at the AAAS Meeting in DC featured Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad. Abumrad served up sage advice and challenged the status quo model of science communication. 

How does the communication of science to the mainstream public work today? First, scientists do their science and then (eventually) publish a paper featuring new results in a scientific journal. If the paper is published in a top-tier journal and/or has broad implications for the public, it may receive some press coverage and reach the eyes of non-scientists. The results will have been translated by the journalist writing the piece in an attempt to make the jargon more accessible. As Abumrad nicely stated, journalists writing about science have to “hop” between “islands” or various linguistic spheres. Each scientific field and subfield has its own island featuring unique terminology. The ability to “island hop,” Abumrad argues, should not be restricted to journalists. Each scientist should be to talk “across the table” and explain his or her research to any non-expert. Metaphors, anthropomorphism, and relatable terminology are the most helpful tools here. For instance, Abumrad featured research describing different genes which regulate processes in the cell. Instead of using the technical acronyms for the genes, Abumrad gave them whimsical names (the “grim reaper” and “fountain of youth” genes) based on their functions. He also paired these names with memorable gene “voices” to anthropomorphize them and make them relatable for the audience. Any scientist can use this example and work to “island hop” – translating the results of their own research in a creative way.

After describing “island hopping,” Abumrad offered a provocative suggestion to scientists: instead of emphasizing results and “what we know,” focus on the unknown. This way, the public will become more interested in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and science as a process of discovery. This emphasis may also drive the public to support funding for science and the consideration of science in policy. However, there are several challenges inherent in this suggestion. First of all, it is the antithesis of the status quo. Scientists publish a paper presenting new results and focus on “what is known” now as a result of the research. This process occurs within a context of the scientific culture; competition for publications in top journals, large federal grants, and other milestones incentivize scientists to attempt to stand out from the crowd. How to stand out? By presenting the newest and most cutting edge results in academic journals which speak primarily to scientific peers. News coverage and outreach to the public is often seen as secondary (read: less important) communication. The system incentives a results-driven approach. Abumrad’s suggestion that scientists emphasize more of the questions and unknowns directly challenges this model.

Although the suggestion to emphasize unknowns may draw in new and curious audiences, there are several possible drawbacks. First, a shift in this direction may provide an unfortunate inlay for science deniers and skeptics to intervene in the discourse. We already see this today: as climate scientists rightfully communicate that models contain elements of uncertainty (which more precisely means that there are large confidence intervals in the results rather than blatant unknowns), deniers snatch this up and argue that the models and science are useless. The over-emphasis of questions and gaps in science (on climate change, evolution, or any controversial topic) allows a clear opportunity for deniers to reach a broader audience and incite doubt. In addition, a focus on unknowns may leave the public feeling unsatisfied by the lack of clear and packaged results, ultimately eroding the public’s excitement for science. Finally, an effort to emphasize questions and unknowns would be especially challenging for younger and less established scientists. Thriving in the competitive scientific environment requires that young scientists abide by the established conventions as they compete in the job market.

Given the challenges inherent in altering the status quo model of science communication, I would suggest that a healthy balance between the presentation of scientific results and the questions that these results generate offers the best way forward. It is up to both journalists and scientists to ask the right questions and provide a fair proportion of both novel results and exciting questions. This way, science may be appreciated for what it is –  a process of discovery – rather than simply a large body of facts.

Managing Expectations for the Paris Climate Conference and Beyond

This article was originally posted here on New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

COP

The focus of the global community on the outcomes of the Paris Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December is unprecedented. The world awaits, anticipating the details of an international and legally-binding agreement to address climate change. [Video Here]

The prospect of a successful outcome is certainly a source of optimism and excitement. “[T]he eyes of the world will be on Paris…all indications seem to point toward success,” said Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UNFCC, in a video made specifically for the ongoing “Managing Our Planet” series. The road to Paris has been enabled by many other negotiations – from Kyoto to Copenhagen to Durban. These talks have set the precedent for a deal to come soon. However, despite this optimism and vision of an effective and comprehensive climate strategy, it is important to look beyond Paris.

To set the Paris deal in motion, the global community must ensure effective implementation, deliver adequate financing, and encourage transparency and accountability. Without these critical components, the negotiations will not stop temperatures from rising to dangerous levels. After the post-Paris celebrations calm down, the global community must keep up the momentum or risk another failed attempt at addressing climate change.

The Structure of the Negotiations 

The Paris negotiations will culminate in the Paris Alliance – a visionary and comprehensive plan to address global climate change. The Paris Alliance includes four pillars: a legally-binding international deal; a national plan from each country; financing of at least $100 billion annually; and formal recognition of non-state actions focused on alleviating climate change. This is an all-hands-on-deck, all-of-the-above approach; it will be implemented by all countries worldwide and utilize a variety of tools. Both mitigation and adaptation will be addressed, harnessing interventions ranging from higher fuel efficiency standards to renewable energy development to forest conservation.

Furthermore, the Paris negotiations are structured in a unique way. Historically, the UNFCCC has relied upon the premise of differentiation – developed and developing countries were expected to contribute to solutions in different ways. For instance, in the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries (polluters of the past) were responsible for meeting legally binding emissions targets, while developing countries were not. Although this is rooted in the polluter-pays principle, developed countries, including the United States, were not keen on it.

At the Wilson Center on October 14, Lisa Friedman, deputy editor of ClimateWire, emphasized the role of differentiation in the climate agreements, noting that “this fight has been going on for a long time…and the U.S. rejected [Kyoto] because of that.”

The deal in Paris, however, is quite different. Each nation must submit an Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) document detailing what commitments it will make. This voluntary, bottom-up approach ensures that each nation feels a sense of ownership. The national plans will hopefully eventually “add up” to carbon emissions reductions that prevent a rise in global temperatures of more than two degrees Celsius.

Expectations vs. Reality

As of today, at least 126 nations have submitted INDCs. The submission of so many plans months before the conference is a positive sign that negotiators will avoid last-minute uncertainty. Carbon accounting and transparency, along with innovative technological solutions, are integrated into many plans. However, as of now, the INDCs do not add up to match the two degrees Celsius target to which the global community aspires.

Commitments so far do not add up to match the 2° C target

Many hard commitments are not yet in place. Exact targets for mitigation and commitments for financing, for example, are lacking. The plans to compensate those most affected by climate change are not yet agreed upon. Furthermore, the strategies to follow up on and upgrade these commitments are missing.

The details of the mitigation targets, financing, compensation for loss and damage, and other components will ultimately be determined by politics. The final outcome is unpredictable at this point, said Yamide Dagnet, a senior associate with the World Resources Institute’s Collective Climate Action Objective. She emphasized that the negotiations are likely to involve “asks and gives” between nations negotiating until “the final hour.”

Looking Beyond

When the dust settles this fall, the Paris COP is likely to produce the first binding, comprehensive international agreement to address climate change. After the celebrations die down, however, it is critical that the global community push for effective implementation of the Paris Alliance.

Nations must strive to reach their goals in a timely manner, deploying their resources and reporting on their progress to ensure transparency and accountability. Further, governments will need to begin investigating ways to avoid unintended consequences of their strategies and consider tradeoffs between goals (e.g., between renewable energy development and habitat connectivity in a biodiverse region).

Here in the United States, the 2016 presidential election is likely to play a key role in successful implementation of the deal. If the United States is not on board, Paris threatens to be another Kyoto.

If all goes well, and every nation successfully implements their INDCs, then the success of Paris will still have only just begun. Implementation will not be simple nor will benefits be immediate. Momentum may fade. “It’s very important that we don’t backtrack,” said Dagnet. “We need to keep the momentum way after Paris.” In order for the deal to truly be successful, there must be enough institutional and political will to carry this deal forward for decades into the future.

Sources: World Resources Institute.

Photo Credit: Bonn session of the UNFCCC Subsidiary Body for Implementation and Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, October 2014, courtesy of the UNFCCC.