The Planetary News Radio – Episode 16: EPA Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rollback and Global Forestry Management

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 16. The last time I talked about scientific suppression, well more specifically about a specific example of suppression, which was the removal of the TOXMAP database. The TOXMAP database was a collection of environmental databases that allowed scientists and regulators to track, find, and identify places where environmental contamination has occurred on United States soil. These are or sites where the EPA has investigated and officially declared that a contamination event has occurred, and those sites could go back to the seventies [in terms of when the first contamination event occurred]. 

So these could be historical sites where dumping of pesticides had happened before the regulations, and the pesticides are still there. So these areas were tracked. And then these could also be new sites because there could be new spills, new accidents. So, in other words, the TOXMAP database was a way to track accidental contamination of the environment, and that has been removed by the Trump administration. And so while the core databases that went into the TOXMAP database still exist, the the single map system/database [that allowed users] to easily see where these contamination events occur has been removed, and that’s part of something I’ve been talking about in these podcasts – a broader scope of scientific suppression. 

And so, you see, on the climate the Columbia, Columbia Climate Law Tracker, I think they have over 380 instances of recorded scientific suppression. They’re up to 402 now. In February, we have a new series of suppression events that look like they’re mostly around the EPA budget, National Science Foundation budget, NASA, NOAA, Department of the Interior. All of the [federal] budgets that are coming up have in them little pieces taking away science in some ways. So maybe you say, you know, NASA’s budget has increased overall, but they’ve taken away science in some areas. And I haven’t looked at those [new, specific examples,] yet. I’m just giving the number. 

So 402 instances of scientific suppression registered by Columbia Law. Then for Harvard Law, they have what they’ve called the regulatory rollback tracker. That’s just rollbacks in regulation and so Harvard’s Environmental and Energy Law program has about 76 instances where environmental rules have been rolled back. So between the two, this is quite a bit there. Sure, there’s some overlap. Harvard is specifically looking at regulatory rollbacks, whereas Columbia Law is looking at scientific suppression, that could be new science being held back. So there’s gonna be a lot more of that between the two of them. [Overall,] that’s a significant amount of a reduction in scientific expression, scientific freedom or in the use of science in policy. 

So we’re looking at this shift away from the use of science in government policy in the United States, which is concerning to me as a scientist. And that’s why I started all of this. So I’m going to talk about two articles today, and so this is a factcheck on one part, because I want to promote these articles and the news sources that they’re from. And so to do that confidently, I have to be able to have done a factcheck, [at least occasionally – I might not always analyze articles to this level of detail]. So I’ve done a fact check on two articles and then expanded on the research in those articles. So I call it a “drill-down”. I’m drilling down to the core topic. I’m checking it, and then I’m expanding on it. The way that I found these articles is from my TruthScore algorithm that I’m using to sort and rank science news articles. I’m looking at hundreds of thousands of RSS feeds and pulling what [should be] some of the best written articles. And so that’s why I’ve chosen these topics, it’s sort of an unbiased way. In other words, I didn’t pick pollution or forestry, I didn’t go in looking for pollution articles and or looking for a forest article. This is just what came to the top [after sorting by TruthScore].

I think my analysis of them will show that these are really well written articles. So if you want to learn more about, that side of this project, the TruthScore algorithm, the the sorting and the ranking side, you can listen to Episode 14 of this podcast where I describe and more detail that TruthScore that I’m calling it, and so you can learn more about that there. But for now, um I will take a look at the first article, and I thought about how to [structure this episode]. I’m pretty much just going to go through my notes, so it might be a little dry, but we’ll try it and see how it goes. 

The first article is in from The Guardian, and the title of the article is the Trump administration strips pollution safeguards from drinking water sources. And so this event is a rollback of protections for ephemeral streams and wetlands. An ephemeral stream is a temporary stream. And a wetland in this sense are either wetlands that are themselves temporary or wetlands that are fed by ephemeral streams. So this ends up being quite a bit of streams in the United States. In general, we have a very ephemeral stream system. I’m from the West Coast, [so I’m used to seeing ephemeral streams.] Or in other words, where I’m from, we don’t have rivers year round. I’m from Los Angeles County. You know, if I saw a river, I [would have been] amazed, I’m in Oregon now. Here I live next to a river that’s always there, but growing up in Southern California. We knew that if it rained, we might see rivers. After the snowmelt, we might see streams and waterfalls. Those were rare events, but we knew that they were there once a year, I knew, “Look, this area there’s gonna be a stream here. That’s a riverbed.” So I learned growing up how to spot, a riverbed, because I know what a riverbed looks like when it’s too dry, which turned out to be useful in college, when I had to find riverbeds when I had to find streams and collect samples.

So to me, I know what it’s ephemeral streams or a temporary stream, I suppose, growing up on the East Coast maybe that people might not know what that is. Streams and rivers run year ‘round there. So maybe, you know, I could understand how there’s a lack of education or a lack of knowledge here just because of the different geography of the United States. And so I could see how this [loss of designated streams and wetlands] might not really immediately jump out to someone as being really bad. But to me, this jumps out as really bad because as a kid, I knew innately that there are temporary streams, temporary rivers. I didn’t know how important those were until I went to college. I didn’t know there’s thousands of species of insects that live in those streams, and you know, that stream might only be active for two or three months. But all that wildlife uses those streams for those three months. So if you lose the stream, you lose the wildlife.

And so that’s why in 2015 when the Barack Obama administration had enacted an expansion of the original Clean Water Act (1972), and expanded the federal protections for these temporary streams, [it was] because of their ecological importance. And I think it’s true that, scientifically, we really only learned about the ecological importance of those streams recently. So I think the fact that this expansion happened in 2015 yeah, it’s part of Barack Obama’s overall shift towards expanding environmental protections. But it also is a reflection of our science and how our science has progressed. And it would have been a new scientific discovery in 2015 that we need to protect these streams, [at least in terms of policy implementation]. And that would have been under the recommendations of the U. S Geological Survey and working [in conjuction] with the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers. 

The Clean Water Act in 1972 gave the power for defining waters, [specifically] “navigable waters” in the United States, or [other types of] protected waters in the United States. It gave that power to the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers, so it’s a joint power there., but the problem there is, now, which it is clear to me, is that these are still both executive branch entities, the EPA and the Army. So in terms of policy, the executive branch decision could change any of those policies in a heartbeat – from one day the next day. Now, this has been debated for a long time, since 2015, so that the Obama administration made the rule change in 2015, but it didn’t just end there. You have the U. S. Geological [Survey], collecting data through 2017 and, um, what they had found is that this expansion had accounted for 18% of streams nationally, streams and rivers and 51% of wetlands nationally. 

So if we had 100 rivers in the United States, 18 of them were now under this protection. So we got 18 more streams, and if we had 100 wetlands, 51 of them were protected under this rule. The Trump administration’s response to this expansion was basically that this is a “very destructive, destructive and horrible rule”. That’s a quote from Donald Trump. The idea is that because of this expansion, because you said, well, “this temporary stream is now federally protected”, all that means is you have to have a permit to operate by it. So now, [the argument from the Trump administration is that], because these streams and wetlands required permits, it has damaged the industry, farmers and things like that. Anything that might pollute into water, which could be farm agricultural runoff [would have caused a slow-down of development. It could be power plants. Any type of industry that has some type of run off potential into a stream would have been affected by this. 

So from a deregulation standpoint, which is the focus of the Trump administration, [the existence of this rule] has been seen as a big problem. And so they’ve been talking about changing this rule since 2017 when the US geological Survey pulled those numbers they created. They identify that 18% in the streams and 51% count of wetlands. But now, today, the EPA says they I don’t know how many streams there are. So again, I see a suppression element there. “You can see that we had done the science and now we’re saying we didn’t do it or we can’t”, so basically the EPA is saying they can’t count streams. Well, I see that as a problem, because your job is to protect the streams, so you should be able to count the streams. So anyways, I’ll keep going down my notes. The other interesting thing about this, which goes back to my introduction of the topic, is that this disproportionately affects the Arid West, along the West Coast, which includes parts of Nevada, Arizona, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Wyoming, in Washington. So that’s [at least] 9 states on the West Coast are disproportionately affected by this And so if you look just within those states, this expansion actually accounted for 35% of the streams in those states. 

So you’ve lost [federal] protection there for a big chunk of the states. And again, where those areas are where streams were temporary [are typically in] mountains, mountainous areas, in dry areas, [basically] in areas where water is already lacking. So in the driest parts of Southern California, this is in the most sensitive areas. So again, like I said, the current administration claims there is no data or they’re incapable of estimating the number of streams and wetlands affected by the rollback. Nationally, we have the data from USGS. 

The idea is that this new rule makes it easier for farmers and other types of industry industrial entities to develop, [but what is the overall ecological impact?]. The economic report that has been put out by Donald Trump says that the rollback is claiming to be the “most economically significant deregulatory action for energy”. This is expected to create a boom in terms of [industrial] development. Specifically, this weakens rules for regulation of mercury contamination. If you previously had to get a federal permit because your power plant has a process that creates some level of mercury and run-off, whatever that level was before, you don’t have to report it or there’s no federal regulation anymore, [because the stream isn’t even registered as a “stream”]. So now it’s a state rule, and maybe at the state level, they might not even have a rule on the books.

And so that brings me to the next big point here is that historically, this type of regulation has been done by the EPA and done by the US Army Corps of Engineers at a federal level, so half of the states in the country don’t have a system for this in place right now. This kicks the regulatory process to the state level, which isn’t necessarily inherently bad. But again, we’re looking at administrations that are refusing to use science to make state policy decisions. And so, if you say at the federal level, we have to use science to make a policy decision, then you get that benefit throughout the whole country. What if you say it’s up to the States? Well, you could have states, say Kentucky, Virginia, who have a history of refusing science, [or passing anti-science legislation], and you could have those states interpret the law differently and say, “Well, we don’t believe this data on mercury contamination,” and end up with a much more relaxed law in one state. And then maybe in California, who historically uses more science, California, New York, and Massachusetts, these states who have historically used more science in their policy decisions, they might have more stringent rules. So it creates a landscape in the country’s differential pollution landscape. [To summarize, states that are already environmentally responsible, will likely remain so. For states that aren’t environmentally responsible, this takes off even more pressure for them to enforce clean water regulations, and increase development.]

It also hurts the mitigation industry. So again, one of the things that’s been reported by environmentalists, and it’s not necessarily a Democratic perspective. We’ll just say its from an environmentalist perspective. There could be a capitalism element in the ability to trade mitigation credits for developing in an area in a sensitive area. [For example,] “Yeah, you can build a power plant here, but you have to buy this land here, and you’ll be able to sell that or get a loan from the bank to do that at a reduced interest rate.” It turns this mitigation industry into a trade and sell industry to offset environmental damage, and that’s a $9 billion industry. But because [the rule change] removes [the protections from] those streams and rivers at a federal level for that federal designation, now that land is no longer eligible for mitigation credits. 

So it hurts that industry, which from a deregulation standpoint, is the goal of the Trump administration. So again, it’s the strike at this blossoming industry and $9 billion is not something to ignore, but again, in terms of other industries, that is small, so maybe this [change has] just hamstrung the mitigation industry. And why? What is the reasoning for this again? They say deregulation, but also they say that they want to make it easier for farmers and such to develop in terms of permitting. But again, now you have a situation where you have a very vague, ambiguous federal law, and then you’re also going to have a state interpretation of that law. And so now you’re dealing with two interpretations of the law, which means that, for people who don’t have lawyers just sitting around on hand, ready to work for them, this could be a problem. So for a very small farmer, this might actually be worse than before because before you had a very clearly defined single federal rule across the board. Then you were working with the EPA with the Army Corps of Engineers. But now you’re working with three entities. You’re working with the state as well.

So now there’s more ambiguity in the laws. And so this actually might make it more difficult to get a permit, which could be good or bad. It might mean people will just stop trying to get permits and in terms of EPA enforcement, with a relaxed enforcement regime, maybe they won’t [need to get permits]. Maybe, you know, nobody will care. So we might just see people forget about the rule [and say], “this is too complicated” or “I don’t feel like I need a permit”. And so, overall, we’re probably looking at an increase in pollution in these streams. There’s another component to this as well, not just mercury contamination. Mercury contamination is always one of the most present contaminants for fresh water. There’s another type of chemical called a non-stick chemical, which is used in non-stick cookware. 

I’ll try to say the word here – polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. The interesting thing is that the EPA has adopted a recommendation for these substances that says that 70 parts per trillion is safe, which is about 10 times higher than the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is a branch of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. So the EPA is adopting a more relaxed policy on these PFAS chemicals, which can cause birth defects, cancer, affect immune function, and disrupt thyroid function. The EPA is adopting a more relaxed enforcement policy on these toxins than the US Federal Department of Health. And that’s concerning to me because it’s demonstrating another example where you have multiple federal agencies at odds with each other. The end result here is that you have the EPA kind of at odds with both the US Geological Survey and the Human Health Service. So that’s that’s kind of concerning. And so I won’t say more about that right now because that, you know, could just be part of a bigger pattern that hasn’t really manifested yet. But it’s definitely clearly there in an early stage. And so that was kind of my big climate, um, regulation story, 

And then I’ll just talk about one more story as well. This article is from Wired magazine, which again is one of my consistently highly ranked science news articles. The title of this article is “We might not be planting the right kinds of forests”. This is interesting because the collaboration between Wired.com and Undark.org, which I don’t know much about. But I do know that the author of this article, Isabella Kaminsky, is a freelance environmental writer, and I really love this article, so I recommend reading it. It’s one of the best popular science articles I have ever read. To start my notes, So what’s the problem [with global reforestation efforts]? We might not be planting the right kinds of forests. It’s an interesting question because we look at forests as a way to offset carbon. We want to extract carbon from the atmosphere, and we want to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it somewhere. We could store it in a box [(using advanced technology that isn’t routine yet)]. We could store it in a tree. We could store it in algae or [fast growing switchgrass]. Those are all different types of carbon sinks.

You think of forests as really good natural carbon sinks because they already exist, they grow on their own, they have animals in them. They have lots of plants in them. In terms of carbon sinks, in a global perspective, forest growth is really kind of the best thing we could hope for. And it’s one of the biggest things we’ve lost, right? That’s why we have so much carbon in the atmosphere now, it’s because of deforestation [and other burning of fossil fuels]. I think going back again to the last 30 or 40 years, people started to realise climate change is going to happen, and that we need to have a plan to try and mitigate the carbon shift. Plant trees anywhere you can just, you know, planting as many pine trees as possible, whatever. [They had this kind of attitude like,] “Just, you know, we just got to get trees back”. And a lot of that comes from kind of a naive understanding of ecology. And again, which goes back to the first article learning more about science. We learned about the importance of ephemeral streams, temporary streams and wetlands. And maybe now we’re learning about the importance of a naturally regenerated forest.

So a major problem that we’ve seen is well, we kind of see in some places, we see total forest cover. So the total area of land covered by forests might see that increasing in some areas on the planet. However, the question is, what’s the quality of those forests? We think that a natural forest might function 40 times better as a carbon sink than a plantation or a timber farm. A plantation in this sense is basically a managed timber farm where the company of person and entity has gone out and planted hundreds thousands of trees, but they’re all the same species. It’s not really a forest because there’s no biodiversity, so that’s part of the problem. In a plantation scenario, you have a single timber type. It might be a non-native species or misplaced ecologically, because again, if you’re if you’re in a plantation, the purpose of growing a plantation is to eventually [harvest the timber]. [Typically] plantations will have 10 or 20 year plans, and you have different sections of it being sold a lot of different times. So overall you are maintaining the carbon sink, but the end goal is to sell some of that timber off or use the timber for something economically, so it might not be a native species.

I can’t think of any good examples other than eucalyptus trees from California. In Southern California, you see eucalyptus trees, [which are native to Australia], everywhere, but ecologically, they’re useless. They create these really dense eucalyptus forests that have no other type of tree because the leaves fall and grow in a way that prevents other plants from sprouting up. Oak trees do something similar, but the oak tree has a multifaceted ecological niche of its own, with acorns and the leaves and [parts of the tree/bark itself]. So an oak tree might dominate a forest patch, but again has its own little ecosystem. Squirrels and birds and things like back and live in the oak forest, [which increases the overall biodiversity]. Whereas a eucalyptus forest might be kind of devoid of life, maybe only some types of birds can eat the eucalyptus seeds. 

[In general], plantations are going to have low biodiversity. Additionally, the soil quality is going to be determined by biodiversity of what’s going into that soil. If only one type of plant is going in, you’re not going to have a lot of nutrients in that soil. Now, a natural forest is going to have multiple timber plant types, multiple native species, high overall biodiversity, and high quality soil. That’s why the function of a natural forest as a carbon sink is 40 times [better than a timber plantation]. It’s not just the trees, it’s the whole ecosystem that the forest is creating. One of the big points about this article, and [that was why] I wanted to fact check it, was that they made the claim the amount of carbon absorption historically estimated by forests has been overestimated, which is bad because in our climate models, if we say “Well, look, if we if we create forests at this rate [“Rate A”] then we can reduce carbon in the atmosphere at this rate [“Rate B”] and we can curb climate change. But if you overestimate how useful a forest is [(in terms of its carbon absorption rate and capacity)], it’s going to throw off your climate model, and it might actually make us think that we’re better off than we are. That’s kind of what these studies were saying now is that we overestimated the current way, [or at least, the way that has been historically used in scientific studies]. We’ve been doing [mostly single-timber, plantation] forests, and so the forest we have right now that we’re currently making might not be as useful as we thought they would be at curbing climate change.

So here’s a study from the University of Birmingham, and the title of the study is “The role of forest regrowth in global carbon sink dynamics”. Here’s some main points from the article. 1. Estimates of carbon uptake vary widely. 2. The geographical distribution of where carbon uptake is uncertain. 3. The primary source of uptake is a shift in pioneer species following demographic change. What does that mean? So in the forest we see right now, the primary source of carbon uptake is this shift from old growth forest, right, cause you go in, you clear an old growth forest. That old growth forest has been saturated in terms of carbon. Think for maybe 100 years. Clear it. And what grows there are really fast growing species, [and those] could be fast growing trees. It could be fresh going grass, plants, shrubs. The point is, pioneer species are really fast growing. So you clear that land. It goes in, boom. You get this big carbon sink, but those plants don’t live for long. They might only live for six months. They might die during the summer, so you might get a burst of carbon absorption that then immediately is lost. You might have a slow transition to different types of trees. Again, pioneer trees, as opposed to like old growth types of trees like pines and oaks. I should apologize too, I’m not an expert at forestry. I’m just using my best examples from California Coastal Sage Scrub, which again is not a really great forest example. 

But the point is, you still see this idea of pioneer species [in Coastal Sage Scrub], and also in regrowth stands in [“regular”] forests. The stand is “a contiguous community of trees, sufficiently uniform and composition, structure, age, size, class distribution, spatial arrangement, site, quality condition or location to distinguish it from adjacent communities” – (Wikipedia.org). For a stand, that’s just a unique group of trees, a segment of a forest, and so regrowth stands benefit more from increased CO2 levels, which is called CO2 fertilization more than old growth stands because the old growth stands are already saturated. So you have a clearing event and then you get a bunch of pioneer species. And those pioneering species love the really high carbon dioxide levels that we see right now because we’re in you know what, over 400 parts per million (ppm) in terms of carbon dioxide and so these pioneering species go in, they love it, they absorb all this CO2, and then they die and they release it again. And so you didn’t get a good carbon sink

[But it’s potentially] worse than that. Let’s say you have a medium regrowth forest. But it might be subject to other types of degradation effects again, like I’ve seen they die because, probably the biggest one is an edge effect. So edge effects are, imagine a patch of forest with open space in between them. Those edges [surrounding the forest with open space], they’re not protected from, either wildlife [(grazing, wildlife paths)], or other types of ecological phenomenon. So instead of growing outwards, you actually lose forest in, other words, [edge effects might cause a regrowth stand to] keep losing habitat. [If a regrowth stand can overcome the degrading effects of edge effects,] those regrowth forests will shift towards old growth forest. But then you have a second problem, because even though the CO2 in the atmosphere is saturated, you’re lacking soil nutrients. So in these areas, they’re going to have a hard time becoming full old growth forests, which are permanent carbon sinks.

There’s one more point, and that is that CO2 saturation isn’t necessarily a good thing. So having all this excess CO2 to gain in a regrowth forest, or even an old growth forest, it causes plants to move through their lifecycle quicker. Imagine having access to food all the time. You’re just eating all the time and you’re growing all the time. There’s no rest period. So the trees are never resting, never stopping growing, just grow, grow, grow as fast as they can. And then boom, they die. Maybe they lose their canopy structure. Something like that. 

So, overall, forestry mediation is still a great way to create a carbon sink, but we have to think about how we are doing this. And again, the methods that have been used to estimate how these forests uphold carbon have probably been wrong. So we need to shift to a more stochastic model approach, which this paper has done. And future estimates might be reversed revised further down. So as we get better estimating the carbon sink of a forest, the actual amount of carbon that’s been absorbed might continue to go down. Let’s talk about what’s going on in terms of mediation globally. The United Nations has sought to implement this system of reforestation in the REDD program, which is Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. 

This creates a financial value to reduce emissions and for developing countries this creates an incentive for them to invest in carbon solutions to sustainable development. Going back to that mitigation economy, [the REDD program is] trying to create this mitigation economy, trading carbon credits and things like that in order to incentivize people financially to engage in these sustainable activities. Its primary focus is on reducing deforestation and forest degradation. But it also seeks to financially reward conservation efforts, the implementation of sustainable management practices, and generally enhancing carbon stocks in any way. The REDD program was adopted as a [mitigation] method in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which the United States has withdrawn from, and another global effort, called the Bonn Challenge was launched in 2011 by Germany. It was a global challenge to restore 150 million hectares, which is 1.5 million square kilometres of deforested and degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030, but unfortunately, most of the land, about half the land that was dedicated to this Bonn challenge is this plantation, timber [forested land]. So I think that’s bad. 

Just looking forward, how can we make better carbon sinks [as a part of these global restoration programs]? This brings in the idea of a naturally regenerating forest. The problem that we saw is that about close to half the forest pledged under the Bonn challenge will be planned timber plantations. And not just in the Bonn challenge, but in general, we’ve seen a global shift towards these plantations. So what can we do? The idea of a managed natural regeneration technique. So probably one of the biggest things that goes into [developing a naturally regenerating forest], is that we need to understand the native environment [(in terms of plant and tree species)], and the native soil environment as well. So humans and sustainability managers can go in and we could modify the environment [so its more suitable to regrowth stands]. We could help the environment [based on our ecological knowledge], but we want to do that in the context of what that environment should be. In other words, I don’t want to create an oak forest where there used to be a peat bog. That wouldn’t make any sense. So you want to match the soil type with what should be there and think about the biodiversity that should be there. 

So the example that was given in this article is that in the United Kingdom there might only be in total 20 different tree species on the whole island. Whereas in Tanzania, there might be 20 tree species in a single acre, and that’s all going to go into the soil and the area management success. So in the UK, maybe a timber plantation actually isn’t that bad of an idea, because that’s all that you would have [there in terms of biodiversity]. In other words, you’re matching the natural habitat that used to be there. But in Tanzania, that might be a really bad idea, because that ecosystem, [if it were identical to the one designed in the UK using UK native species], might collapse after 10 or 20 years because of the lack of biodiversity. 

[In order to trigger natural regeneration of a forest, the idea is to] help a forest, so you want to find a forest that already exists and expand it. You want to clear land next to that forest and then maybe help plant trees, but in a way that’s diverse. So understanding that diversity means that you’re going to have to engage the locals. You can’t just come in and say, “Oh, you know, I’m forest manager. This is Tanzania. I don’t know anything about Tanzania. I’m going to start planting pine trees everywhere.” Well, that’s not a good idea. You have to go in and understand the native species that should be there and develop a plan to expand those species. Maybe that just involves planting seeds and seeing what grows naturally. [That would be an example of a natural management technique.] One of the examples of that is in Myanmar where sustainability managers have started using drones to disperse seeds, and then the seeds can naturally take their course. So you go out, you drop a diversity of seeds and whatever grows, it grows. You’re not spending a whole lot of time transplanting trees that shouldn’t be there. In other words, it might take longer to regenerate, but it’s going to be a more natural regeneration process. 

Overall, you’re going to have a better carbon sink, or a more long term carbon sink, [from a naturally regenerating forest]. It’s going to be less likely to be transient, and you will have the local population will be more engaged because you’re using that local knowledge to create a diverse forest that ultimately should be seen as an economic benefit for the local population. And that’s the way. That’s the only way that this will be sustainable, if you engage local populations, because then they see the forest as a benefit is the economic benefit. And so they’re going to be more likely to help with the restoration efforts. And that’s Bryan White with the Planetary News Radio signing off.

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Trump administration strips pollution safeguards from drinking water sources

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/23/trump-clean-water-protections-rule-rollback

  • Trump administration rolls back protections for ephemeral (temporary) streams and wetlands.
  • DJT called the 2015 expansion of the Clean Water Act (1972), which made it illegal to pollute “navigable waters”, “a very destructive and horrible rule”.
  • U.S. Geologic Survey has estimated this expansion to include ephemeral streams & wetlands had accounted for 18%% of streams and rivers, and 51% of wetlands, nationally.
  • In the Arid West, the percent of ephemeral streams and rivers accounts for closer to 35% of total streams, meaning that these states will be disproportionately affected by the rollback.
  • Arid West region includes:  Nevada and Arizona, and parts of California, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Wyoming and Washington
  • Current EPA administrator claims no data, or they are incapable of estimating the number of streams and wetlands affected by the rollback nationally (USGS data is from 2017 during initial discussions of the rule change, prepared by the former administration).
  • In the 2019 Economic Report by Donald Trump, the rollback is claimed to be “the most economically significant deregulatory action for energy”.
  • Specifically, weakens rules for regulation of mercury contamination.
  • Kicks the regulatory process to the state level, where many states have inadequate resources, for example, only 10 states have funding in place for this. Most with less than 20 employees.
  • Guts the mitigation industry ($9 billion industry) by removing eligible lands that could have been traded for carbon/environmental credits with banks.
  • Does not simplify or grant clarity to the rule (DJT reasoning for the rollback), makes it more complicated, and more ambiguous, meaning low-income farmers will need to hrie consultants to interpret the rule.
  • Additionally, further deregulation of non-stick chemicals, AKA. polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), is at odds with health department recommendations.
  • EPA recommends 70 parts per trillion as safe, which is 10 times higher than the recommendation by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
  • Side effects of PFAS toxicity include low birth weight (affecting pregnant women), negatively affects immune function, cancer (some types of PFAS), disrupts thyroid function (some types of PFAS).
  • Finally, Upcoming budget cuts $410 million for projects protecting waters of the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, Great Lakes

Sources:

EPA head says clean-water access is ‘biggest environmental threat’ — despite regulation rollbacks

https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/20/politics/epa-andrew-wheeler-clean-water-speech/index.html

Debunking the Trump Administration’s New Water Rule

EPA falsely claims ‘no data’ on waters in WOTUS rule

https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060109323

EPA head says clean-water access is ‘biggest environmental threat’ — despite regulation rollbacks

https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/20/politics/epa-andrew-wheeler-clean-water-speech/index.html

Basic Information on PFAS

https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas

The Latest: EPA bars AP, CNN from summit on contaminants

https://apnews.com/d799f4e096cc42cf99ae01b02d1e0688

We Might Not Be Planting the Right Kinds of Forests

https://www.wired.com/story/we-might-not-be-planting-the-right-kinds-of-forests

Author: Isabella Kaminski is a London-based freelance environmental writer specializing in climate justice, environmental policy, and nature. 

  • Major problem is a shift from natural forests towards plantations, in addition to overall forest loss and degradation (Question/Problem: are we rebuilding the right forests?)
  • Natural forest functions 40 times better as a carbon sink than a plantation/timber farm
    • Plantation: Single timber type, could be non-native species or misplaced ecologically, low biodiversity, low soil quality
    • Natural Forest: Multiple timber/plant types, multiple native species, high overall biodiversity, high quality soil
  • Historically, the amount of carbon absorption estimated to be filled by forests has been overestimated, but to what degree is still uncertain. Why?
    • From a study out of the University of Birmingham and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States
    • Title: Role of forest regrowth in global carbon sink dynamics
    • Estimates of carbon uptake vary widely.
    • Geographical distribution of where carbon uptake is uncertain.
    • Primary source of uptake is a shift in pioneer species following demographic change (e.g., immediately following deforestation, the first wave of new growth is fast-growing, transient species – big carbon-absorption burst that might disapear).
    • Regrowth stands 
    • What is a forest stand? “A forest stand is a contiguous community of trees sufficiently uniform in composition, structure, age, size, class, distribution, spatial arrangement, site quality, condition, or location to distinguish it from adjacent communities.” – Wikipedia.org
    • Regrowth stands benefit more from increased CO2 levels (“CO2 fertilization”) than old growth stands – they are already saturated.
    • Regrowth forests might also be subject to additional degradation effects (e.g., edge effects) that might further reduce long term CO2 absorption efficiency.
    • Even though atmospheric CO2 is saturated (excess CO2 in the air), the limiting factor will still be soil nutrients.
    • CO2 saturation isn’t necessarily a good (or neutral) thing, causes plants to move through their life cycle quicker, increasing biomass turnover and decreasing long term sink potential.
    • Overall, forest remediation can act as a major carbon sink and help mitigate climate change, but ultimately this source (excluding naturally regenerating forests) is largely transient in nature.
    • Overall, current estimated CO2 uptake is substantial but less than previously thought -> due to a shift from “bookkeeping estimation” methods towards a stochastic modeling approach.
    • Future estimates might be revised further down.
  • United Nations sought to implement this system of reforestation in the REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation)
    • Creates a financial value to reduce emissions in developing countries and invest in low-carbon solutions to sustainable development.
    • Primary focus is on reducing deforestation and forest degradation, but also seeks to financially reward conservation efforts, the implementation of sustainable management practices, and generally enhancing carbon stocks in any way.
    • 2015 Paris Climate Agreement formally recognizes the utility of the REDD method in the form of the UN-REDD programme.
    • Additionally, the Bonn Challenge, launched in 2011 by Germany, is a global challenge to restore 150 million hectares (1.5 M km^2) of deforested and degraded land by 2020, and 350 million hectares (3.5 M km^2) by 2030.
  • In some cases, even the private sector has noted the benefit of forest restoration as a carbon sink/carbon offset, with Shell pledging $300 million in forest restoration project funding (although not in the U.S., the projects are located in the Netherlands and Spain).
  • But the important question is: Are these global efforts producing the right kind of forests?
  • Problem: Close to half the forests pledged under the Bonn challenge are due to planned timber plantations.
  • More problems: The global shift towards plantations is problematic, but so is an overly aggressive aforestation strategy (new forest development where there was never previously a forest, as opposed to reforestation, the restoration of previous forests)
    • Aforestation in unsuitable habitats might actually cause lower carbon sink production than other types of natural habitats, including wetlands, grasslands, peatlands, and bogs.
    • These habitats might have specific nutrient requirements (e.g., bogs have a diverse array of species adapted to low-nutrient environments such as carnivorous plants and mycorrhizal fungi.
  • Reforestation efforts might be stalled by a lack, or loss of, local knowledge of what types of species should have been living there. For example, the entire UK might only have less than 20 native tree species, whereas Tanzania might have that much tree diversity in a single acre.
  • In some cases the soil might be so degraded that it is no longer capable of hosting a forest.
  • This suggests a managed natural regeneration technique is the best option. For example, mangrove trees have been planted in Myanmar using drones to disperse seeds – the seeds can naturally take course (if they land in a place where soil/swamp is valid).
  • Ultimately the forest economy should be designed to benefit the local population, which will make it more likely for local residents to stay engaged in the development of the forest.

Sources

Role of forest regrowth in global carbon sink dynamics

https://www.pnas.org/content/116/10/4382

UN REDD+

https://www.unredd.net/about/what-is-redd-plus.html

Achieving the Paris Agreement through REDD+ and FLR

https://www.un-redd.org/post/2018/09/03/achieving-the-paris-agreement-through-redd-and-flr

Bonn Challenge

https://www.bonnchallenge.org/

The Planetary News Radio – Episode 15: Scientific Suppression Case Study: TOXMAP

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio, Episode number 15 with your host Bryan White and I’m here today outside in Corvallis and it is raining out. It’s very dark, and in order to avoid the rain, I’m actually under a bridge. So there’s some background noise from cars. That’s just the setting that I’m in. I had a [complaint, well I don’t want to call it a complaint], but a criticism recently that I’ll respond to about the show. What was mentioned is that the show is recorded outside. And yes, the show’s recorded outside in different settings. Sometimes it’s hiking, which might be a quiet setting, and sometimes it’s in the city, and I think that’s that’s part of the show, because it’s dynamic. And so I want to be true to the art of presenting science, and the setting is part of that. So occasionally there are times when there will be background noise. I won’t say too much more about that. And my goal is not to respond to all criticism, but just to give listeners, you know, some insight into why I’m doing [the show this way]. Yes, I could record in a quiet studio, but then it wouldn’t be the “planetary news”, it would be the “indoor quiet studio news”. 

Continuing on, the topic for today is about suppression in science, scientific suppression. And this has always been a problem. Historically, the United States has a major history of scientific suppression, going back into the sixties and the seventies with pollution and climate science. And now we’re finding out things like ExxonMobil knew for 40 years what oil use could do to the environment, and covered that up, similar to the way that tobacco companies initially tried to hide what could happen from tobacco use and nicotine use. And so we see, that same thing persisted in America and now we’re at this strange dichotomy where the science is overwhelming [in favor of anthropogenic climate change]. ExxonMobil can’t deny that they know that climate change is real. In other words, they can’t conduct and do all the science that they do in their industry, because oil extraction is an extremely scientific industry that makes use of geology and hydrogeology. And so they can’t claim to be scientifically extracting oil from the Earth and know all this geoscience, and also then deny that climate change is happening and that it’s caused by carbon emissions from humans.

So now we’re at this rare transition period where you might see British Petroleum (BP) or ExxonMobil actually accepting that climate change is real and doing things to mitigate carbon emissions [because the scientific evidence is overwhelming]. But how did we get to this point? How did we get to the point where, our greatest minds as scientists were able to create all these oil extraction technologies, while on the political side, the implications of [burning fossil fuels] were hidden? And that’s why understanding scientific suppression is important. Recently, the Trump administration [has been] overtly doing this for the first time [in a way that can be recorded]. So it’s always been a kind of a hidden thing that we knew was going on in America, but we couldn’t really put our finger on it. But now with the Trump administration silencing civilian science, social media accounts, and basically putting a gag order on [scientists] in 2017 when his administration started taking over the EPA, Department of the Interior, and all the [federal] government organizations related to science and national parks, we saw this huge, almost national gag order put out. 

In response to that, Columbia University began what they call a “Silencing Science Tracker” and the website for this is http://www.climate.law.columbia.com, [which is a part of] the Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (https://www.csldf.org/). And so, the silencing science tracker is tracking overt (provable/documentable) instances where science has been suppressed in or by the United States government. And to this day, which is January 4th 2020, there have been 385 instances of over scientific silencing tracked and logged in the Columbia Science silence in silence structure.

A couple of examples here that they have the most recent one is, something called the TOXMAP database. TOXMAP (https://healthdata.gov/dataset/toxmap%C2%AE-environmental-health-maps) was a database run by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) that integrated 12 scientific data sets into one data set in order to view the tracking of known hazardous materials on U.S. soil. The function of the TOXMAP was to list [the location of sites contaminated by] chemical contaminants on the National Priorities list. And so the National Priorities list (https://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-national-priorities-list-npl) is a list of sites that have been investigated by the EPA and declared either potential sources of hazardous chemicals or places where there already are hazardous chemicals released in the environment, and which could have been [reported] as an environmental violation. Or it could have been something historically, maybe a site from the 80’s before there were environmental regulations. But now the contaminant exists, and it’s still there in the environment. And there’s 1335 of these sites that are tracked. 

The goal of this [integrated] tracking system was to obviously track the mitigation of these sites and to see how contamination is being removed and cleaned or expanded. Are there new sites popping up? Was there a new spill somewhere? And now that place is logged as a site. And so, having all this integrated data on an area [on one map], it could help scientists make decisions because pollution is a complex event. It’s not always as simple [as an oil spill over here] or we spilled Mercury here. What [is the plan to] clean it up? What [are the immediate environmental effects?]. We don’t know what the downstream ([longterm]) effects could be. One pollutant might not be as harmful in one area as another area. Spilling mercury in the ground in the middle of the Arizona desert might not be as bad as spilling mercury into a river in the middle of the Mississippi. So having integrated data sets [like TOXMAP] is really important for environmental scientists to make decisions. So I see this as a really powerful tool that I never even knew about now is gone. And so I wish I’d known about it before, because then I could have seen what was available. Environmental science and pollution tracking isn’t my specialty, so it’s something that I missed. But I regret having missed it. 

Now that I’m reading about it, so what are these NPL sites [that were in TOXMAP], The National Priorities list? So these are sites that have been reported to the EPA where a pollution contamination event has occurred, and then the EPA has conducted an investigation and given them a hazard ranking score. And so this is a hazard ranking called the Hazard Ranking System a system that ranks the relative risk of site’s adverse effects on human health. So it’s basically a relative risk in the spectrum of all of the sites where contamination has occurred. [The score answers the question,] “How bad is this one?” 

What are some of the factors that went into scoring these sites? This is from EPA.gov. Number one, the likelihood that a site has released or has the potential to release hazardous substances into the environment. Number two, the characteristics of the waste with toxicity and quantity. Number three, [the presence of] people or sensitive environmental targets affected by the release. So is this something that happened in the middle of a community, or happened in the middle of nowhere? [Did the spill occur in an environmentally sensitive area, e.g. nature preserve?] That’s all going to go into the hazard ranking score. Further into that part of the score, what are the pathways of the contamination? From EPA.gov: Number one, a groundwater migration, which would be drinking water or surface water migration. [This could be direct release] into human drinking water, food chain, or other sensitive environments like lakes, streams and rivers or the ocean. Is that soil exposure or sub-service intrusion? So again, that could affect resident or nearby populations, sensitive environments, or regularly occupied structures. Let’s say something in liquid form leaks into soil [and then] just sits there but doesn’t spread into the drinking water supplies ([e.g., a soil trap]). Well, now, if you have construction [in that area], and say your construction workers go out to dig a hole and they dig through that contamination, now you’ve exposed construction workers to this pollution – [and this could happen years after the initial contamination event]. 

[Another pathway is] air migration. [Was the pollutant] a gas? And again, that’s going to be dependent on proximity to human or other environments. The scoring system has a nice mathematical property, so if [the site] scores really high on one of one of these [areas (e.g., human proximity)], and really low on everything else, it could still be a high risk site. So let’s say you have a low low amount of mercury that was spilled directly into a stream that people fish from, so that could be an extremely sensitive event. And you need to immediately close down the stream because people are immediately going to be exposed to mercury. So this is [why shutting down TOXMAP] is an example of scientific suppression. But it’s tricky because what the Trump Administration has done is they disabled the TOXMAP database, which is the linking together of 12 data sources. But those other 12 data sources still exist independently. So, really, what they’ve done is they’ve slowed down the scientific community ability to track, rank, and understand pollution sites in America. 

So I have a statement here from a Newsweek article from the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI). “The dismantling of such a usable public platform connecting health and environmental data certainly accords with the EPA’s own declared strategies, of seeking to exclude so many environmental health studies from policy-making and to neglect or defund on-going environmental health investigations.” 

And so that is what the EPA under the Donald Trump administration is seeking. They have openly declared that they will purposely exclude scientific studies in policy making decisions. [We can see] the end result of that in the TOXMAP, and that’s just one example I [looked at]. If I go through this, I might find other examples [worth talking about], but I just wanted to get this out really quick since it happened recently. I hope everybody had a good holiday season and, on communications and things like that website, there’s a website up for this. It’s iiress.com. That’s the Institute for Integrative Research in Earth and Space Science, which is going to be the overarching, structure for which the Planetary News is operating within, which is the media arm of the research organization, and so we’ll have more on that. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News Radio signing off.

The Planetary News Radio – Episode 13: The Planetary Digest

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 13. It’s been a while since I recorded because I’ve been finishing up another project for The Planetary News, which is the print version of this news media project. It’s called the Planetary News Digest. The Digest is a [series of] short snippets of science in the news, and the interesting or unique thing about this is that it’s all been ranked by a truth score or a quality score algorithm that I’ve been developing over the last two years. And so I’ll just talk real quick about the algorithm, which does two things. One is it uses some information theory metrics to measure the quality of text and grammar. So, on one hand, it’s saying that this article is well written, or it uses a diverse amount of grammatical structures. So maybe that article has a higher reading level, which is something you want in science. And so this is really geared towards a science ranking algorithm, and then the other half of it is matching against a database of known deceptive statements, which includes positive and negative reviews like Amazon product reviews and hotel reviews. In some cases, the review the reviewer might have been purposely lying, and in other cases, the reviewer has been purposely truthful. So there’s some matching of grammar against known deceptive statements. 

So and the point of that is not to say that someone’s lying or anything like that. But in science, you want to have very clear grammar. And so you want to be able to tell if someone’s mis-stating a fact. And in order to do that, you need to have all of the information in the sentence, and so really grammatically in the English language and writing what deception worked out to be tends to be [the act of] hiding information, and this an be realated to a “truth score”]. But really, it’s  a willingness to write in a way that contains all the information, because then if you say something wrong, it could be fact-checked, and that’s good. And so this ranking isn’t necessarily saying whether an article or a statement is objectively true or false, because that’s almost impossible. That would take an advanced artificial intelligence. But what it’s saying is that this article contains the information and it’s written in a way that it could be fact-checked, and that’s all I could ask for. 

As a scientist, I can’t ask people to agree with my opinion or to always go the way I want to go. All right. All I can ask people to do is provide an objective assessment of what their viewpoint is [so that it can be criticized, critiqued, and fact-checked]. And so that’s what this score is. So I don’t want people to think that I am, you know, calling people liars or things like that. But the reality is there are different writing styles and different sources of news have different levels of this “Truth” score, and a lot of that has to do with the target audience. 

So if you have a very non-technical audience, maybe it’s okay to leave out a lot of facts. People are really just looking for just the gist of something. And maybe most of the articles are just quotes of someone interesting who is being interviewed, and that’s fine for their target audience. But again, for my target audience, I’m going to promote things that contain facts that could be checked and so we can build a better understanding in the community of science.

So [to demonstrate this algorithm], I’ll flip through some of the articles here that I included in this edition. So this is issue number one, July 2019 of the Planetary News Digest. Let’s look, one of the interesting things I didn’t know about was that sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, nest in Georgia and South Carolina. I didn’t I didn’t think about that. But in good news, they had record nesting levels. If you combine Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, it looks like there’s over 12,000 nests in that part of the country. That’s interesting. I didn’t know there was that density of sea turtle turtles on the east coast of United States. 

There’s been flooding in Nepal, India and Bangladesh, which is causing deaths. That’s not good. 

Here’s something from the environment section. Apparently the EPA is rolling back, a rule that would have allowed communities to appeal pollution permits. So if let’s say, a coal factory was granted a permit to produce coal in an area, then the community can no longer go in and appeal that decision with the EPA and try to overturn it. That’s a little scary, because you you think that the final check on something like a coal plant or any industrial plant that produces pollution into the community. You would think that the final decision, it would be the community, the people who live there. And so this is, I think this is a strike against the EPA, [or at least] the traditional role of the EPA. 

So another environmental article. And so the last one is from the Hill, and this article is from the Guardian. And so the interesting thing is you’ll see a lot of British news sources in this in the Digest because it turns out that the BBC and the Guardian use really good or really well-written articles, and they’re very thorough. And so the title of this article is US. “Rollback of protected areas risks emboldening others, scientists warn.” So what you see in the United States is an increase in the rollback of protected areas and us been escalated from Donald Trump’s presidency beginning in 2000. [The protected land reductions began escalating in 2000]. And then it’s continued escalating more recently under Trump. And so the big thing. There was the Bears Ears in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments being reduced, which is the largest reduction of [protected lands] in the history of the United States. And so the concern now is you have other developing countries who, maybe like China or India, who may be have been trying to track the United States in terms of claim it commitments and things like that. And now you say, Well, if the United States is just throwing conservation out the door, well, maybe China is more likely to do that as well, because now the international impact is not as severe because they could just say, “Well, look, the United States is reducing conservation areas. You can’t really criticize us anymore.” And so that’s what this kind of statement here of emboldening others is. Which is why I think you want to have an administration that will take a stance on protected areas, and I believe hopefully these areas are restored immediately as soon as the Trump administration is ended. 

Here’s an article on microplastics, which is probably going to be popping up continually. [Scientists] are finding now with microplastics is that they’ve permeated all the way to the deep ocean, which means that they’ve permeated probably the entire oceanic ecosystem. This is concerning for a couple of reasons. One, you have the bio accumulation problem. So the human exposure of fish becomes a problem there. It’s micro plastics have permeated the entire ecosystem. The higher level, higher traffic levels where we actually eat the fish. We’ll have higher concentrations of microplastics. Um, and then other concern are, if we actually stopped using plastic, how long would it take this to clear out of the ecosystem? So this is going to be a problem that’s going to affect us for probably decades. Even if we come up with a good system for reducing plastic, this is going to be our new reality for the future: dealing with microplastics as a pollutant. 

Here’s an interesting claim that I wouldn’t have thought about regarding used cooking oil. Some types of used cooking oil can be used to produce diesel fuel, specifically palm oil, which means now there’s an incentive to convert palm oil, previously used for cooking, into bio-diesel. So now you have an incentive to cut down palm trees [beyond the current rate needed for food-production only], and so this would contribute to deforestation. It’s interesting because on the one hand, you would think bio-diesel is better than maybe traditional fossil fuels. And so it’s a reduction of a of a greenhouse gas. But then the other hand, to make that bio-diesel, you would have to contribute to deforestation, which has a lot of chain reactions. Other than just the removal of the plant itself [which acts as a carbon sink], you’re also permanently changing the landscape in a way that reduces that area’s ability to act as a carbon reservoir.

Hong Kong protests. One of the things probably overlooked is the stress and trauma of the people living in Hong Kong. Mental health issues in Hong Kong are going to be a real problem. There’s already a stigma against mental health in Chinese culture and in Hong Kong as well. There’s already not a large capacity for dealing with mental health issues, nd now, with the ongoing protests, people having a fear of being arrested and possibly extradited to China is causing a huge amount of stress on all of these people. Most of them are young people, students, who already are under a lot of stress. And so now you have a breaking point [in terms of mental health]. For example, a 50 minute session with a psychologist costs between 800 and 3000 Hong Kong dollars, which is about 100-300 United States dollars, which is pretty much out of range for most of the population. So Hong Kong sounds like it’s setting itself up for some serious long term problems.

And I do want to make a statement here about my algorithm in the ranking system. And so, in terms of science, what you’ll find is, um, Fox News tends to rank lower and again. Like I said in the beginning, this isn’t necessarily because of, um, you know, the articles are bad and just be lacking information, and that’s just part of that target audience is there. It’s not necessarily looking for an in-depth article, and that’s fine. That’s their audience. On the plus side, in Fox News’ favor, again I’m not excluding Fox News, if I do find a high-rank article, I will report it. And so there’s an article here from Fox News about Venezuela, which is continually under turmoil. And so I looked at this article and it scored really high, so I’d actually go and look at it. And, you know, this is really sad, situation [in Venezuela] because of the childcare and healthcare problems. And that’s really sad. 

And so when I looked up this article I said, “Okay, maybe you know who wrote this article?” And so [I found out] the author is Holly McKay, and I went and I just read her bio briefly. And so this is a good example of where you know it doesn’t necessarily matter who the publisher is or who the editor is. If you have a good reporter, a good journalist, and a good article, I’ll promote it. And so this person (Holly McKay) has reported from war zones including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Burma and Latin America. So Holly has been around and she’s been doing this type of reporting for a while, so I have no reason to question the ability of this article [just because it’s from Fox News]. To me, clearly she’s an expert. And so I also I’ve included this article, even though on average, Fox News ranks low, but this is a high-quality aticle from Fox News, and it passes my checks. So I’ve supported it, and so then on that note, I won’t say any more [on the news]. 

If you like to look at all of these articles that I’ve put out or really just the summaries in the score, I would ask that you go over to my patreon and subscribe. I’m going to put out a digital version and a print version, and the digital version is going to be DRM-free. In other words, you’ll be able to read it however you want. It’s not going to be locked into an e-reader or anything like that. You have the pdf forever. You can print it out. Obviously, I ask that you don’t resell it without permission. But, the more people that read this the better. So if someone wants to print a copy of this and give it away to people for free, I’m fine with that. Hopefully, I’ll always be fine with that. 

This is Bryan White with The Planetary News Radio signing out. Thanks for listening.

Join the discussion on Discord at: https://discord.gg/5HQj8eC.

Support on Patreon at: https://www.patreon.com/planetarynews.

The Planetary News Radio – Episode 5: Fear and Censorship in Scientific Communication

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode. The date is May 30th. It’s a cloudy day in Corvallis, but not raining. Enjoying the temperature. [Let’s talk today about] popular science and censorship. So a great example of censorship in science recently has been climate science. And this is it’s kind of scary how well accepted it is that the censorship is occurring. Strange things like purging the word climate from government documents put out by environmental agencies. So it’s very strange to experience, a blatant, systematic censorship like that by the government, well, specifically by the Trump administration. Attempts to quantify that [censorship] and paint a picture of how widespread that actually is are even more disturbing. I’m looking at an article here that counts the number of times that federal departments and agencies were involved in an act of censorship and sense put out by a group, Columbia Climate Law. So I don’t know if that’s associated with Columbia University or what that is. I haven’t really researched it. I’m just looking at a Scientific American article here, but before I talk about those numbers, let’s talk about my own personal experience with censorship [link to Columbia Climate Law Silencing Science Tracker].

When I was a graduate student, I worked in environmental genetics and the agencies that were interested in environmental genetics were sanitation departments and water districts, at least for the ones that I worked for. More broadly, the U.S. Geological Survey was interested in environmental DNA (eDNA) as a way to track fish or aquatic mammals or other vertebrates. And so I spent a lot of time working on informatics methods to identify species using genetics. And this was really one of those projects in science, which happens quite a bit where we all think we have a really good idea of what is going on. We have a hypothesis. We can test a hypothesis, but maybe it’s something that we’ve already known for years. And so when we went in to test the hypothesis that using genetics to identify species improves are our ability to identify a pollution in a stream, we were reasonably confident that this would be the case, and so it wasn’t really expected it not to be better. It was more of the question, “Could we do it?” And so a lot of what we did were methods studies, and so really, it was developing a method to apply this theory that we already thought would be good.

Some publications had represented data that would suggest using genetics to identify impacted streams. I shouldn’t just say polluted streams, [but streams] that were impacted by either human modification or by pollution or something like that, and it did make sense that genetics would improve our ability to do that because the way that we identify those streams, the way that was historically done was to identify species by looking at them visually. And so we know that some percentages species, especially insects, cannot be identified visually. So we knew there are more species out there. And so the idea was that if we’ve confined more species, then we’ll have a more sensitive tool. So it wasn’t really a question of, well, this will be better. It was more of a question of “How much does it cost? And can we do it? Is it practical?” And so we set out to answer those questions at the group that I was working for, and so I spent about three years working on that project. But every time we found a example where we would find more species or find specific species at different sites, this was always ignored. And so we thought that we had done a good job developing a tool that could improve our ability to detect human impact in the environment, but this was ignored by the supporting agencies of our group.

Not really ignored [outright], but ridiculously high standards were put on us, much higher than other studies. So everything was scrutinized. Money, sensitivity. Any mistake was highlighted. And so it’s overall if you add up everything. This was an act of censorship, and so individually the acts were not censorship. In other words, nobody ever said, “Oh, you can’t publish that result”. All right. Nobody has ever told me you cannot publish that result, however, I have had results that were scrutinized not because not for their scientific validity but for their philosophical impact. So we had many empirically correct results that suggested this would be a better method, and those results were ignored for philosophical questions. So I have experienced censorship and it was government censorship, and that was during the Obama administration. But this is not unusual in biology. Biology is one of the most censored scientific fields in modern times because of the philosophical component, because of the way that it makes people feel uncomfortable about their [world view].

It was not surprising to me that that study did not take off or that those methods were not implemented. And as far as my knowledge, those methods that we were developing are still not implemented by the United States government routinely. Now, there is one thing that has been implemented, and that is the use of eDNA. In that case, the cost of benefit argument worked in favor of the science.The ability to go out and collect a sample of water from a stream and be able to know what species of fish are in that stream based on the DNA and the water is a very powerful analysis because it can be done relatively inexpensively. Now the question is, well, why do you want to know what species are in the stream? And the second question is, Do you need to know how many? Because there’s a very specific limitation of the technology in genomic sequencing. And so the same technology that’s used to sequence a genome is the one that will be used to sequence water to identify DNA in that water sample.

There’s a limitation of that [genomic sequencing] technology that makes it very difficult to determine the abundance, the original abundance of the animals that created the DNA, and so the challenge of the eDNA work was to be able to determine abundance from the sample, and that has been worked on four years for five years now. eDNA is being implemented by the U.S. Geological Service in the United States. And so that’s a federal government agency acknowledging the usefulness of genetics for environmental monitoring. Now, as I read the article that I just read, the conclusion of the article is that developing this on a wide scale would be cost prohibitive. So again, is that an act of censorship? By saying that this technology that allows you two very quickly and rapidly assess the community structure of a stream using genetics is to cost prohibitive? Maybe, Maybe not. I don’t think so. I don’t believe that that is true [that it is more expensive]. The sequencing technology, the cost of DNA sequencing is almost negligible for the amount of sequencing [needed to conduct a routine stream sample]. So really the cost here it would be the labor to conduct the analysis. And so then the question is, what is the labor cost to conduct a genomic analysis versus the labor cost to conduct a visual analysis? And so when someone says that is to cost prohibitive to conduct genetic analysis, you’re saying that it costs more for someone to go out and collect a bottle of water from a stream and put it in their car and drive back to the lab or collect 10 bottles of water and put him in there in a in a cooler and drive those back to the lab later in the day, that it cost more to do that than it does to send a team of 20 people out to count fish visually in a stream. And not only that, but that the extra information gained by doing the genetic analysis is not useful at all has no monetary value.

So that’s what the federal state governments will say, is that genetic testing is to cost prohibitive. And so, let’s see. Let’s look at numbers here that have been published by this group. 51 Instances of Censorship in the Environmental Protection Agency, 35 by The Department of Interior, 25 of the White House, 17 by Health and Human Services, 16 by The Energy Department, 6 at NASA. [The reason] for these [censorship acts] could be science is told they can’t talk publicly, studies discounted in policy making budget cuts for scientific research programs, removing scientists visit from positions limiting the teaching of theories, self censorship, the research hindrance. So the censorship that I experienced would be classified under was self censorship by the scientists that I was working with because they all knew what not to say to avoid budget cuts. [Ultimately, that] research program was defunded.

[Listing types of censorship from the article]

We could not get funding, to research genetics. Some forced personnel changes were experienced that might have been considered censorship. [I didn’t see any] overt interference with education. That’s something you would expect to happen, [for example], at the EPA. [If I wanted to] put out a pamphlet or informational document on environmental DNA and [some authority in the] government said, “Well, you can’t put that out” or if I wanted to put out something on climate change and the government said, “No, you can’t do that”. Well, [we were never specifically told not put out educational materials]. So we tried, and spent a lot of time trying to educate people about [environmental] genetic testing. And so then it became apparent, though it didn’t matter how much people understood they were. Still, there was still a fear of the technology. And so in some cases you didn’t need to censor it because the people who would be making the decisions about money we’re so already inherently biased, and were already afraid of the implications, or just didn’t know just didn’t understand the implications [of adopting the technology], even if we tell them “Look, these are good implications for science, the scientific method will let us improve our current systems”. It didn’t matter. They’re afraid. And so fear is a big driver of censorship, and fear is a human is part of humanity.

We always have a tendency to fear the unknown, and that is part of what being a scientist is: Knowing that the unknown is scary. Particle physics is potentially scary. Genomics is scary. All of these things have impacts that we don’t understand. We don’t know how CRISPr gene modification is going to affect humanity in the next 10 years. We hope that it’s used for good, but it could be used for bad. We don’t know how particle physics is going to affect us in the next 10 years. If we discover a new particle that could modify gravity, that would be amazing. It could be terrifying. We don’t know. We don’t know enough about subatomic physics to conjecture what will happen with the development of new technologies. So does that mean we shouldn’t do it? Should we not investigate neutrinos because we might develop anti-gravity technology? No. I and so that’s why being a scientist is being an adventurer because it’s an adventure. We don’t know where genomics is going to bring us, but we should explore it.

So while fears a big part of, human nature, so is exploration. And so when you have a government entity, the highest levels of the government, continually systematically censoring good science, that’s a problem. And really, this is hindering not just the United States but the entire planet. All of humanity is going to suffer because of the censorship, the anti-science climate in America, because we are the greatest, well, we’re the largest producer of scientific research still, to this day, out of all the countries that produce science. We have a responsibility to conduct the scientific method in a way that is open and fair. And so again, I’ll link back to how I’ve talked about moral consistency. It’s difficult for us to criticize China for its government, censoring its citizens, controlling its science, when we’re now doing the same thing here. So I don’t view the Trump administration as taking a different stance then the ruling administration in China in terms of science censorship. Now, sure, China’s more ingrained. They have the great firewall. They have control over Google in that country. But arguably the United States has a very be strong control of the entire Internet.

While the censorship isn’t [exactly] the same [between the US and China], It’s potentially as effective. So if you have a scientist in the United States who’s the top researcher in climate, and they are barred from speaking at a international scientific conference, then you have effectively stopped the transmission of that idea. And that’s the same thing that China is doing, stopping the transmission of ideas, or at least controlling the transmission. I’m sure that within China ideas are shared freely, and so the scientific research that is being done there is probably very advanced [regarding what’s] known within the country, and what’s published outside of the country is probably much more [limited/controlled]. These are different types of censorship, but, I imagine, that in some ways a scientist working for the government in China almost has more freedom. They’ve given up their ability to transmit ideas internationally, but China is very well aware of the fact that they have a climate problem. And so I imagine that the ruling class in China is very concerned about pollution and, I can imagine that a scientist working on pollution in China is potentially very highly regarded. Their work, if successful, might not be published broadly, at least not initially, because they’re very competitive and they want to use that within the country to promote the ruling class [first].

Whereas in America you see something almost worse, because now you’re telling a scientist you cannot tell anyone about your work. You cannot even tell your friends, and to me, that’s scary. If I can’t tell my friends about genetic testing, that is scary. If I can’t talk about but something that I believe is an empirical fact on climate, that’s scary. And so the regime that is in charge of the greatest scientific producer of scientific work in the history of the Earth is conducting a scary level of censorship. And I’m not trying to scare people by saying that, I’m using an emotive term, and what I mean is that we should be aware that that’s what’s going on. While I have never been barred from a scientific conference, I can imagine what it would feel like to be barred from a conference. I have been questioned for ideas that are well accepted in the scientific community. But again, I’ve never been personally barred from a conference. And so the conclusion here is censorship in the United States. It’s disturbing. I don’t know if I would use the word scary. I suppose I could, it depends on how you you feel about the year 2050. If you plan on being alive in the next 30 or so years, I would say that climate change could be scary. It should be. You should have a healthy, fearful respect for what could happen to the Earth in 30 years.

I think that think the presence of censorship is scary. So I think we should allow ourselves a little bit of fear and use that as motivation. And so maybe that’s the conclusion here is censorship should motivate us, and that’s what motivates me. So this project, aside from all the other things that I’ve talked about, this is a project about censorship as well, and so hopefully I will not be censored. Hopefully, my ideas are relevant, valid, and not censored, but maybe, hopefully my ideas are worth being censored because someone has to take a stance, and a lot of government employed scientists are not in that position. So that’s also kind of where I see is my position is, that since I’m not employed by the government, I can’t really be censored. It would be difficult for the government to censor me. In other words, I’m not going to lose my job over this podcast. This podcast is my job. So that’s my goal. To say what I think scientists can’t say in America. I want to be the voice of people that are being censored. So, if what I’m saying is something that’s worthy of being censored, that would make me proud.

[On that note,] I will sign off for the day. This is Bryan White with The Planetary News Radio, and I hope you enjoy this podcast. Thanks for listening.

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