Monthly Newsletter – December 2016

Monthly Newsletter of WHRC


Dr. Philip DuffyIt begins badly

Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director

With the nomination of a fossil-fuel executive to head the State Department—the agency that manages US participation in the United Nations climate process—and climate change deniers to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DoE), and with the call for names of DoE employees involved in international climate negotiations, it seems safe to conclude that any hope we might have had for progressive climate policies under Trump was misplaced.

Since the election, Trump has made relatively conciliatory statements about climate change, backing away from earlier characterizations of the problem as a “hoax,” but these nominations speak volumes about his true intentions.

Both Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry seem fundamentally hostile to the missions of the organizations they have been nominated to lead. Perry wanted to eliminate the DoE and two other agencies when he ran for President in 2011, but infamously could remember only the other two during a presidential debate. The DoE is responsible for difficult technical issues involving not just energy but also nuclear weapons (to which 60% of its budget is devoted). In terms of ability to grasp such matters, Perry does not stand tall in comparison to Obama’s energy secretaries, Steve Chu and Ernie Moniz, both physicists, one a Nobel Prize winner and the other a professor at MIT.

Speaking of Moniz, DoE’s refusal to hand over the names of staff involved in specific climate change activities—which Moniz must have approved—is a principled response to a disturbing request. But what will happen when Trump’s nominee takes over at DoE? If Trump really wants the names, I guess he will get them. Then what?

Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee for EPA, seems to be trying to stall climate action by encouraging “debate” about climate science:

“Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” Actually, there’s about as much debate in the scientific community about whether human activities cause climate change as there is in the medical community about whether tobacco causes cancer. If you doubt that, here’s a list of 197 scientific societies from around the world that “hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action.” Pruitt goes on to say, “That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime.” This is interesting, because the only climate-related threat of prosecution I know of was directed at a climate scientist (Michael Mann, who inconveniently pointed out the human role in climate change) by another Republican attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia.

The debate we should be having is about climate policy, what are the best solutions to climate change that have the most economic benefits to Americans?

Pruitt does not seem to be on board with one key part of the Trump narrative, however: the story that the decline of coal has been driven by EPA regulation. Given that Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma produces natural gas but not coal, it is perhaps not surprising that he once told a House subcommittee that recent reductions in coal’s market share are “market-driven” (specifically, driven by the low price of natural gas, which is right) and likely to continue (also correct). This does not jibe with statements Trump has made, and it will be interesting to see if Pruitt changes his tune.

On its face the appointment of a fossil fuel executive to head the agency that manages US involvement in the United Nations climate process seems inauspicious. Nonetheless, it’s just possible that Rex Tillerson will surprise us. People who know him seem to think that he has competence and integrity. (It’s shocking that this should be noteworthy.) Under Tillerson’s leadership ExxonMobil has acknowledged the reality of human-caused climate change, which he calls “serious,” publicly supported the Paris climate agreement, and called for a national carbon tax. If this last seems particularly surprising, it may be because the company at least used to regard some sort of climate policy as inevitable, and saw a revenue neutral carbon tax as the least unpalatable option: “Of the policy options being considered by governments, we believe a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the best,” an ExxonMobil spokesperson said recently (but before the election). Still, these positions are at odds with Trump’s, and it will be interesting to see if Tillerson now abandons them.

All of these nominees have close ties to the fossil fuel industry, which reflects Trump’s tendency to look backwards rather than forwards. The nominations of Pruitt and Perry display a disdain for not only science but any kind of subject-matter expertise. These nominees promise to push policies that fly in the face of science and further enrich the industries that are degrading our environment.

It will be up to organizations like WHRC, and our supporters, not only to speak out against the arriving tidal wave of denialism and willful ignorance, but also to maintain progress in controlling climate change. We will do that by continuing to implement the Paris agreement, to work with local, regional, international, and (where possible) national policymakers, and to provide the critical scientific understanding that should and will again some day underpin climate policy.

We all have work to do, and here at WHRC we are more committed than ever to implementing science-based solutions to climate change. Thank you for standing with us.

Brazilian government gives WHRC research station national status

The Brazilian government recently named Tanguro Ranch – the site of much of WHRC’s Amazon research – a long-term ecological research site (the Portuguese acronym is PELD).

For the past decade, Tanguro has been the primary site of Amazon climate change and land use change research both for WHRC, as well as for our sister institution, Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). The new status recognizes the importance of the research that has emerged from Tanguro and comes with funding that will help scientists advance their studies on the impact of forest degradation and deforestation for large-scale agriculture and the local ecosystem.

The PELD network of sites was created in 1996 by the Brazilian National Council of Scientific and Technological Development to enable information sharing between research groups and locations. Like other long-term research sites around the world, Tanguro Ranch takes on new significance as a site for vital ecological research.

“Tropical forests face a long and ever-changing list of threats, from global climate change to growing demand for agricultural land and changing fire dynamics. These interacting threats will affect the future of tropical forests for decades to come,” said WHRC scientist Paulo Brando, who led the successful proposal. “Establishing a long-term research site gives us the opportunity to understand those impacts as they occur, which is a key step in finding practical solutions.”

This month the WHRC Amazon team, led by Michael Coe, received an award from the Climate and Land Use Alliance and the government of Norway to conduct a pilot project that will compensate landowners – whose forest surplus can be legally deforested according to the Brazilian Forest Code – to avoid legal deforestation.

The project brings together the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), the Environmental Defense Fund and WHRC. For the first time these three institutions, all with a long history in supporting conservation and sustainable development in the Amazon, will work together on one project to conserve the rainforest.

The project will commence at an important juncture for forest conservation in Brazil. After several years of progress, last month the Brazilian government released data on deforestation showing that 8000km2 were deforested in 2016, nearly double the rate in recent years. The total amount of forest lost in the Amazon and Cerrado regions is greater than the combined area of France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and Portugal combined. Much of this is illegal deforestation, but a significant portion is legal. The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso has set a goal of ending illegal deforestation by 2020, but there is no plan in place to address legal deforestation, and there are over 1.5 million ha of land in Mato Grosso that can be legally deforested.

A unique result of our pilot project will be the determination of the precise value of the costs associated with conserving a unit area of forestland, compared with conversion to agriculture. According to Dr. Coe, this approach will “assure that efforts to build a payment for ecosystem services approach to ending deforestation will have much higher probability of success.”

Biomass energy legislation dies in congress

Federal biomass legislation–that could have increased deforestation and worsened climate change–was abandoned this month.

The biomass language was included as an amendment to a comprehensive energy bill. The legislation ultimately died in conference committee (where the Senate and House of Representatives reconcile their versions of the bills).

Earlier this year, WHRC took a lead role in opposing the legislation that would have forced federal agencies to consider woody biomass energy to be carbon neutral. While the bill was the first major federal energy legislation in nearly a decade, experts feared that the biomass amendment would increase deforestation with federal subsidies and tax incentives.

“Forest bioenergy certainly is not carbon neutral,” WHRC President Phil Duffy wrote in the Bangor Daily News in June. “The carbon footprint of bioenergy should be measured scientifically on a case-by-case basis rather than broadly specified by legislation.”

Accolades for Senior Scientist Rich Birdsey

This month, WHRC’s Rich Birdsey was honored with two awards for his forest carbon research.

Dr. Birdsey, who is retired from a distinguished career with the US Forest Service, was recognized by that agency for “Applying Knowledge Globally.” The award was given to a team of scientists for their work that allowed National Forest System “managers to understand the climate change mitigation benefit provided by their forestland, as well as factors threatening that benefit.” Forests mitigate climate change by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turning it into wood. Until recently, most national forests lacked the capacity to assess carbon. The carbon team designed a national approach based in part on existing
science and in part on innovations developed by the team itself. That approach has yielded nationally consistent information about both the amount of carbon stored in each national forest’s ecosystems and the degree to which management, natural disturbance, and climatic factors have influenced how much carbon each forest keeps out of the atmosphere.

The State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry awarded Dr. Birdsey the 2016 Graduate of Distinction – Lifetime Achievement award based on his work on forest carbon assessments. The award noted that “throughout his career, Dr. Birdsey received numerous honors from the US government, but most notably, in 2007 he received a share of a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for his contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

“Dr. Birdsey’s research team developed the concept of using forests to help mitigate climate change through sustainable management,” read the award, “and pioneered the methodology for monitoring and reporting changes in forest carbon based on national forest inventories, an approach now globally recognized as the best way for nations to report their forest greenhouse gas emissions.”

“We are exceedingly proud of Rich’s achievements,” said WHRC President Phil Duffy, “and fortunate to have him on our staff.”

IPCC nominates R.A. Houghton to help plan special report

WHRC’s Richard Houghton has been named to a panel of experts that will plan the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. This scoping meeting of international experts will be held in Dublin in February to propose the structure of the special report and its various chapters for consideration by the 45th Session of the IPCC in April. In 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the IPCC and to former US Vice President Al Gore. Dr. Houghton was one of the authors of the IPCC scientific reports recognized by the Nobel Committee.

National Academy of Sciences names Phil Duffy to review committee

The National Academies of Sciences named WHRC President Phil Duffy to a committee that will review a “Climate Science Special Report” (CSSR) which is slated to be issued by the White House in February 2017.

Helen Spaulding, 1928 – 2016

Helen Spaulding, a long-time member of the WHRC Board of Directors and then an Honorary Director, died last month. WHRC founder and former director George M. Woodwell remembered Ms. Spaulding as “a great, talented and often blunt but supportive, friend of all our activities in science and conservation over more than four decades. She and her sister, Aileen, married to Russ Train [the late Russell E. Train, founder of World Wildlife Fund and one-time EPA administrator], were magnificently inspirational supporters of the Conservation Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, and WHRC in our early years. We loved her and sought her advice on many key issues, including entrées to foundations and people in New England, and always found her generous, insightful, and constructive. We were proud to be able to enjoy the reliable interest and friendship of this widely respected, distinguished public citizen whose interest brought us pleasure and helped to build institutional resources and a Board of Directors to be envied by all.”

WHRC panel on post-election climate landscape

On December 19 WHRC is hosting a panel that will explore the future of climate policy and climate action after the 2016 presidential election and COP22 climate talks.

“What’s Next for Climate Change,” which begins at 5:30 pm, is already sold out but the event will be live streamed on the WHRC YouTube channel. It will also be available for viewing after the event.

What can we expect from the federal government? What is the future of the Paris Agreement? Our panel examines the landscape for climate science and policy from an international, federal, state, and business perspective.

The panel includes: Phil Duffy, President of the Woods Hole Research Center; Dylan Fernandes, MA State Representative-elect for Falmouth, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Gosnold; Anne Kelly, Senior Program Director at Ceres; Bill Moomaw, Professor Emeritus of the Center for International Environmental and Resource Policy at Tufts University; and Deborah Warner, Rector of the Church of the Messiah (Woods Hole, MA).

WHRC in the news

The op-ed “International climate change progress continues” by WHRC President Philip Duffy appeared in The Cape Cod Times. 21 November.

A recent Nature paper on soil and carbon emissions generated interest from The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, University Herald, and PBS NewsHour, which sought comments from WHRC scientist Jon Sanderman. Inside Science quoted WHRC’s Susan Natali about the same article.

Top scientists: Amazon’s Tapajós Dam Complex “a crisis in the making” ran in Mongabay and quoted WHRC scientists Marcia Macedo and Michael Coe and Board member Thomas Lovejoy on the ecological impacts of planned dam building in the Amazon. 28 November.

Over 2,000 scientists urge Trump to respect ‘scientific integrity and independence.’ The Washington Post reported on the open letter signed by more than 2,300 scientists, including WHRC President Phil Duffy and Founder George M. Woodwell, to President-elect Donald Trump and the 115th Congress, urging them to “adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence in responding to current and emerging public health and environmental health threats.” The letter states that the “scientific community is fully prepared to constructively engage with and closely monitor the actions of the Trump administration and Congress. We will continue to champion efforts that strengthen the role of science in policy making and stand ready to hold accountable any who might seek to undermine it.” 30 November.

Trump’s pick to run EPA sets off alarms featured WHRC President Phil Duffy in The Cape Cod Times’ story about the election’s impact on climate change policy and the nomination of Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator. 8 December.

Eye On Weather: Students Travel To Alaska For Climate Change Research ran on Boston’s CBS station, WBZ-TV. The program featured WHRC’s Susan Natali’s studies of permafrost in Alaska and the high-school students and their teacher who traveled to her research site last summer. 10 December.

WHRC’s recent and past videos are always available on our YouTube channel.

Help by making your voice heard

Since the election, many of our supporters have asked how they can help expand the community of people who support WHRC and climate research.

There is no source of information more trusted than the people we know. If you recommend us to your friends or family, we can grow this movement.

You can use the text below as a starting point. Customize it and send it along to people who care about climate change.

Dear …

After last month’s election, I think many of us asked ourselves “what can we do now”? Personally, I feel strongly that we must take a stand for the issues that we care about, and support the people and organizations who have the ability to advance these causes. For me, finding solutions to climate change is critical, which is why I am involved with the Woods Hole Research Center, a non-profit research and policy institute.

WHRC has been ranked the world’s #1 climate change think tank for three years running because they are developing truly cutting edge approaches to reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They work on the front lines of climate change – conducting scientific research to inform sound climate policies. They’re involved in climate progress from the local scale (for instance, in the developing world) to the international scale (such as the United Nations process).

You can read more about WHRC’s work here, and their strategy for making progress on climate change in the Trump era. I’m sure you’ve noticed that many environmental and advocacy organizations are aggressively fundraising in the wake of the election. For me, there are three main reasons that I choose to support WHRC:

1) They primarily work internationally, where the best opportunities now lie to make progress on climate change. They are also focused on making the Paris Agreement successful. So even if the US pulls out of this important agreement, as Trump has threatened to do, WHRC is still “in.”

2) Contributions to WHRC go a very long way. From a donor’s perspective, my gifts have an out-sized impact because WHRC is small and efficient, but is internationally respected and positioned at the highest levels of climate policy.

3) A lot of their pioneering climate research is supported by the federal government. If Trump is successful in cutting back funding for climate science, I want WHRC to be able to continue their important work.

If you are looking for ways to help fight climate change, I hope you will consider joining this wonderful community.

(Your Name)

WHRCtreeWoods Hole Research Center is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the world.