Energy, Environment, and Conservation

  • This week at the United Nations global warming conference, the US will argue that fossil fuels and nuclear energy will play an important role in mitigating climate change (New York Times). Three of the scheduled speakers are from coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy companies. Other participants seem to have accepted that the US will no longer be a key player in climate change policy (Washington Post).
  • The GOP draft tax bill targets electric vehicles and renewable energy by reducing tax credits  for projects that invest in renewable energy sources, such as solar, geothermal, and wind (Union of Concerned Scientists Press Release).
  • A new species of orangutan has been discovered, but with only 800 individuals left they are already threatened with extinction from habitat fragmentation due to infrastructure (Science News).
  • Representative Peter Visclosky’s (D-IN) proposed bill (H.R.1488) to convert the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to the Indiana Dunes National Park passed in the House (CBO).
  • Environmentalists at EarthJustice are suing the US government over accusations that they failed to release information regarding the future of national monuments through requests via the Freedom of Information Act (Washington Post). Scientists worry that the agreements to shrink national monuments have been brokered for the benefit of industry and will have direct negative consequences for wildlife (New York Times). Supporters of shrinking the monuments state the monuments compromise food security and curtail economic growth (Reuters).

Congressional Committees

  • Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology committee, will not seek re-election. Smith’s district includes parts of Austin (The Hill, Texas Tribune, AAAS).
  • The Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), has approved four bills (H.R.717, H.R.1274, H.R.3131, H.R.424) that aim to dismantle the Endangered Species Act for official review (Washington Post). Some Democrats claim that testimony at the bills’ hearings was heavily biased and that US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists were forbidden from consulting with opponents on the committee. Republicans argue that the law gives the federal government too much control over the land and that it hasn’t proved effective for species rehabilitation.

Higher Education

  • The proposed tax reform bill was poorly received by higher education groups: graduate students would be taxed on their tuition as if it were income (Chronicle of Higher Education). Although standard deductions would also double (Fox News), the proposed changes in tax code would make it much more difficult for economically disadvantaged students, especially single parents, to pursue graduate education.
  • Graduate students at the University of Chicago unionized this week (The Scientist). The University worries that it will have a detrimental impact on the mentoring and teaching provided by graduate students. The graduate students want to bring attention to their value at the university and improve their working conditions.
  • The Center for Public Policy Priorities released a report on the consequences of underfunding public schools in Texas: low income students lose out on high-quality teachers and have to deal with larger class size and lack of extracurricular programs like art and music (Better Texas Blog)

Federal Agencies

  • Director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, removed scientists who have received research funding from the EPA from serving on the EPA’s science advisory board as he feels they have a conflict of interest. Scientists argue there are existing rules for avoiding conflict of interest and that disqualifying scientists for receiving EPA grants allows Pruitt to rebuild the board to better support his agenda (Science Mag). The new policy does not exempt individuals with financial ties to special interest groups, but does exempt anyone who currently has an EPA grant or is in position to benefit from one (Associated Press, Washington Post).
  • Pruitt has now appointed 66 new members to the EPA advisory board, including Robert Phalen, the former director of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at the University of California Irvine, who believes the air is too clean for optimum human health (The Independent) as well as Michael Honeycutt, a Texas toxicologist who thinks the EPA overstates the dangers of mercury and arsenic and shouldn’t worry about ozone because people spend most of their time indoors (Texas Observer).
  • At the request of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the Government Accountability Office will investigate federal agencies’ implementation of safeguards to protect scientific integrity and determine whether agencies are in violation of these policies, as incidents have occurred at the Department of Interior, Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency (American Institute of Physics).
  • US Forest Service fire experts were recently prevented from attending a scientific conference by the Department of Agriculture, citing lack of financial resources (Scientific American).
  • The National Academies’ Gulf Research Program announced it will award up to $2 million to help scientific research related to enhancing human health, environmental resources, and offshore energy safety in the Gulf of Mexico to help researchers recover from the impacts of hurricanes Harvey and Irma (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine).

Public Health

  • On January 1, 2018, Texas will become the eighth state to mandate insurance coverage for 3-D mammograms; 3-D mammograms especially benefit young women who typically have dense breast tissue making it difficult to detect cancer with traditional mammograms (Texas Tribune).
  • The Food and Drug Administration approved a new shingles vaccine, Shingrix, for people over 50. The vaccine has had better success rates in trials than the current vaccine Zostavax and is expected to have a longer term effect. The vaccine’s stronger effect is thought to come from its adjuvant, the added element that boost the immune response it stimulates, but this may also come with stronger side effects (WBUR).
  • A PNAS study detected an increase in C-Section rate due to the narrowness of the birth canal. The paper ties this phenomenon to ongoing evolution (Vice).
  • The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, released a report explaining how climate change is bad for your health (New York Times). Specifically, the journal recognizes heat waves have promoted the spread of disease and have caused premature deaths from heat stroke. Moreover, the consequences of increased temperatures are more severe for the elderly, sick, and impoverished.

City of Austin

  • The University of Texas at Austin has a goal to divert 90% of it’s waste away from landfills by 2020. Over the past five years, the campus-wide initiative has raised the diversion rate from 35% to between 50-60% (The Daily Texan). Failure of students to recycle correctly is complicating these goals (The Daily Texan).

Climate Change

  • A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO)  estimates that the US has spent over $350 billion in the last 10 years on climate change-caused disasters and insurance claims. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) requested the report and hopes we will “…take a harder look at the economic consequences of inaction…” (CBS News).
  • The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) was released this week by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, lead by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and legally required by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (USGCRP). These findings clearly oppose what the Trump Administration has stated about the role of humans in causing climate change (NPR). The report has been sent to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which currently has no director.
  • Just months after Harvey, developments are being planned in the floodplain of Houston (Houston Chronicle).
  • 2016 saw a record increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, according the the UN World Meteorological Organization (Scientific American, BBC) in their annual Emissions Gap Report (UN). The report states “there is an urgent need for accelerated short-term action and enhanced longer-term national ambition, if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to remain achievable — and that practical and cost-effective options are available to make this possible”.
  • A back-up satellite meant to track changes in arctic sea ice was ordered to be dismantled to save money on its storage (The Guardian).

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