Monday, February 20, 2017

Will science go rogue against Donald Trump?

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By Chris Williams

Scientists' anger and outrage at Donald Trump's climate-change denial and more is bubbling up in many forms, ranging from guerilla tweets to the call for a March for Science on Earth Day. Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, makes the case that scientists must grapple with politics and resist political reaction in order to be more effective.
"Please let us remember that to investigate the constitution of the universe is one of the greatest and noblest problems in nature, and it becomes still grander when directed toward another discovery."
Climate scientists stand up outside the American Geophysical Union meeting in San FranciscoClimate scientists stand up outside the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco
IN THE age of Trump, the person writing those words has much to teach us about the impending scientific struggles of our own time.
So spoke Salviati on day two of his debate with Sagredo and Simplicio in a hypothetical discussion imagined by the great scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, for his book Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632.
In the Dialogue, Galileo puts forward his heretical view that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun in opposition to the Catholic Church-sanctioned Ptolemaic system in which everything in the universe revolves around the Earth.
Galileo hoped that by adopting a conversational style for his argument, it would allow him to continue his argument about the true nature of the universe and evade the attentions of the Inquisition, which enforced Church doctrine with the force of bans, imprisonment and execution.
However, Galileo's friend, Pope Urban VIII, who had personally authorized Galileo to write the Dialogue, didn't allow sentimentality to obstruct power. Galileo was convicted of heresy and spent the rest of his days under house arrest--the Dialogue was banned by the Inquisition, along with any other book Galileo had written or might write.
Typically portrayed as the quintessential clash between religion and science, Galileo's conflict with the Papacy was, in fact, just as rooted in material considerations of political power as it was with ideas about the nature of the solar system and our place within it.
Amid parallels to today's conflict between Donald Trump and the scientific community over funding, research, unimpeded freedom of speech and the kind of international collaboration required for effective scientific endeavor, neither situation exists solely in the realm of ideas.
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GALILEO'S CONTROVERSIAL and extended trial on charges of heresy coincided with the political and military problems faced by Pope Urban VIII.
Under pressure from what came to be known as the Thirty Years' War raging across central Europe between Catholic and Protestant armies, Urban was attempting to shore up and re-establish the might of Rome through the Inquisition, racking up massive Papal debt from increased military spending, while promoting rampant nepotism and corruption.
The analogy with the U.S. of 2017 and the political and economic situation is quite striking, as today's right wing seeks to assert its authority and impel the country politically and socially backward by launching attacks on immigrants, Native Americans, women and reproductive health, unions, and the gains of the LGBTQ, environmental and civil rights movements. These attacks have been extended across a broad swathe of society, encompassing both the arts and sciences.
After reports emerged in the first days of the Trump administration that he intended to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities--responsible for 0.01 percent of the federal budget--Suzanne Nossel, writing in Foreign Policy, called this "an assault on the Enlightenment."
Meanwhile, with the election of Trump and his comments on climate change, scientists in charge of the Doomsday Clock moved it another 30 seconds closer to midnight. This is the closest it's been to midnight since 1953, at the height of the Cold War and following the decision by the U.S. to upgrade its nuclear arsenal with thermonuclear weaponry.
"The Trump administration needs to state clearly and unequivocally that it accepts that climate change is caused by human activity," theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss said at a press conference announcing the Doomsday Clock time change. "Policy that is sensible requires facts that are facts."
Unfortunately, fact-checking website Politifact has shown that 71 percent of Trump's public statements range from "mostly false" to "pants on fire" levels of absurdity.
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WITHIN HOURS of Trump's inauguration, rumors began to circulate that government agencies such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had been ordered to scrub references to climate change from their websites. There were other reports of gag orders on the Department of Agriculture and a freeze on EPA grants.
NASA climate scientist James Hansen was famously gagged during the presidency of George W. Bush, along with hundreds of others at seven different federal agencies who were ordered against using the term "global warming."
However, scientists at the EPA say Trump's mandate that any data collected by them--including information that is of direct consequence to people's health and that of the planet--must first undergo political vetting before being release to the public takes things much further down the road to outright censorship.
As far as gutting the EPA entirely, it's certainly not beyond possibility, considering that a key adviser to Trump and his head of transition for the EPA, Myron Ebell, called environmentalists "the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world."
One wonders if he had in mind an editorial in Nature, one of the world's leading science journals, which, under the headline "Scientists Must Fight for the Facts," described Trump's energy plan as "a product of cynicism and greed" for its adherence to talking points taken directly from the fossil-fuel industry.
As bad as our air, water and soil is today, we know before the EPA's creation under Richard Nixon in response to a wave of gigantic pro-environment marches in the 1960s and '70s, things were much worse.
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IN RESPONSE to these attacks--and the resulting increase in stress and anxiety over job security--scientists have called a March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, in Washington, D.C. Like the giant Women's March on Washington the day after Trump's inauguration, the science march has already spawned calls for solidarity protests in other cities across the country.
One-fifth of scientists in the U.S. are immigrants, meaning the lives of thousands of scientists and science students have already been affected by the travel ban, leaving people traumatized, but also mobilizing for the protests. A petition drawn up by academics against the anti-Muslim immigration ban, Academics Against Immigration Executive Order has garnered more than 20,000 signatures, including over 50 Nobel Laureates.
The head of the largest professional science organization in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, physicist Rush Holt described the change under Trump as taking long-standing attacks against science in the U.S. to another level: "In my relatively long career I have not seen this level of concern about science...This immigration ban has serious humanitarian issues, but I bet it never occurred to them that it also has scientific implications."
But resistance from scientists is emerging from all quarters. As Republicans tried to pass a bill to sell off more public land to corporations and fossil-fuel interests, workers at the National Park Service went rogue around the country, setting up their own social media sites to combat disinformation and let the public know what was happening.
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PREDICTABLY, THE March for Science has drawn controversy for "politicizing" science, even though scientists have signed a range of open letters calling for stronger action to combat climate change, and climate scientists have already held a rally in San Francisco in December last year protesting Trump's election victory and his anti-science rhetoric.
By selecting Earth Day, the march is clearly connected to Trump's specific and highly political attacks on government bodies and scientists associated with climate change research and other environmental concerns.
Despite this, renowned Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker tweeted: "Scientists' March on Washington plan compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric"--apparently because the website included information about the importance of diversity and intersectionality.
Meanwhile, science writer Dr. Alex Berezow, who penned a blatantly political book about the supposed anti-science proclivities of the left, tells us he won't be on the march because it doesn't mention white men, Christians or privately-funded science research.
More seriously, Robert Young, one of the co-authors of a report on rising sea level and its impact on the coastline of North Carolina--which drew the ire of the real estate lobby and conservative politicians, along with scathing humor from Stephen Colbert--argued in the New York Times that the march is a bad idea:
A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars, and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.
On the other side of the debate, biologist Christina Agapakis tweeted, "Is it going to be a fuck yeah science facts march or a science is political and made by humans march?"
Agapakis importantly went on to argue that not having political demands doesn't make any sense nor help achieve the goals of the scientists: "If 300 years of scientists pretending to be apolitical wasn't enough to convince someone that climate change isn't a hoax, then erasing political issues from the march isn't going to change anyone's mind either."
As far as the substance of this discussion is concerned, one immediate and obvious question would be to ask who is "politicizing" science?
Given Trump's rejection of climate change, his attacks on science, his appointment of the former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and his intended appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA--a federal department which Pruitt spent his tenure as attorney general of Oklahoma suing over a dozen times--if anyone is "politicizing" science, surely it's already being done by the president.
Indeed, when the editors of the thoroughly mainstream USA Today issue a statement calling for Pruitt's rejection as head of the EPA because Trump "couldn't have nominated someone more opposed to the agency's mission," you know you're involved in politics.
Although Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith might disagree. The inveterate climate denier and anti-science champion--but nevertheless somehow chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology--has said that listening to President Donald Trump, as opposed to the media or scientists, was likely "the only way to get the unvarnished truth."
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TO TALK of a supposedly apolitical science is wrongheaded to begin with. Science has been political since its modern inception with the Scientific Revolution, which began in part with Galileo's experiments on projectile motion for the highly political purpose of launching more accurate cannonballs.
Science is as much a cultural artifact of society as art, music or fashion. Of course, science is about investigating the natural world through rationalism and empirically verified investigation, but the questions asked by scientists, what they obtain funding to investigate, and the methodology they use are all contoured and distorted by the society within which they are embedded.
We can see that contradiction with climate change research itself.
The reason we know so much about the atmosphere and climate is because climate research grew out of the military's need in the 1950s to track wind currents so it could predict where radioactive fallout would be most severe following nuclear war (which scientists working on the Manhattan Project had made possible in the first place).
In the U.S., that research gave rise to the building of the interstate highway system to facilitate military transportation and the evacuation of population centers--which in turn generated the phenomenon of the suburbs and the growth of a culture centered around the automobile and fossil fuels.
There is a difference and a contradiction between the philosophy and method of science based in empirical evidence and rationalism and how it is practiced in a class-stratified society, by people just as subject to social prejudices and norms as anyone else.
Though some individual scientists may profess and even believe they are disinterestedly studying the way the universe works merely for the sake of it, science is part of class society. As such, it is faced with the same contradictions as any other facet of an unequal and exploitative social system.
However, because scientific explanation for the way the natural world works needs to correspond to objectively observable and experimentally verified facts and rationality, the contradictions inherent to it and the field's intrinsically political nature are often more clearly expressed than other areas of human culture.
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AS HAS been repeatedly shown through history, science can be used to bolster the political status quo or help tear it down.
Famed American sociologist of science Robert K. Merton argued in the 1940s that science was a collective endeavor for the civic good, in which sharing of ideas within the scientific community and the wider public was a paramount consideration.
"The communism of the scientific ethos is incompatible with the definition of technology as 'private property' in a capitalistic society," Merton wrote. "Patents proclaim exclusive rights of use, and often, nonuse." According to Merton, science would come into conflict with rulers whenever efforts were made to enforce "the centralization of institutional control."
One of the most infamous stories in the history of science is scientists' role in justifying the characterization of racial superiority of the so-called "white race" with the rise of scientific racism in the 19th century--a precursor to Hitler's anti-Semitic policies of the 1930s.
Another example of science justifying the status quo: Social Darwinism is rooted in the idea that we are genetically predisposed to behave in greedy and selfish ways--these human attributes are naturalized in modes that just happen to coincide with the values necessary for capitalism to survive.
And of course, it was scientists and engineers who developed atomic weapons, nerve gas, pesticides and fracking.
Conversely, a better understanding of the natural world through science also gives us wondrous things: birth control, modern medicine and vaccinations, to list only a tiny fraction of the vast contribution to socially useful knowledge and technologies we have obtained through scientific experiments and theoretical development. We are going to need to apply this knowledge and technology to avoid dangerous, human-induced climate change.
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THESE EXAMPLES illustrate what really irks Trump about science--and why the March for Science in Washington is such a crucial development.
Here it's important to be clear about what Trump isn't doing. He's not saying corporations or private funding for science should be cut, only government funding of science--particularly climate science, while carefully exempting the military. The question Trump is ultimately posing--and what scientists and everyone else need to understand--is this: Should there be any science in the public good?
Trump is not telling businesses to stop doing science. He wants the federal government to stop doing science in the public interest. He wants an end to fact-based discourse wherever the facts run counter to right-wing ideology.
Understanding his assault on science in this manner connects it to the wider Republican and corporate attacks on public education and health care. It is the logical endpoint of capitalism in its most unrestricted form.
As such, it is an intensely political attack that can only be successfully repelled by a similarly political response.
We want and need more funding for all branches of science in the public good and an increase in research into areas of climate change, agro-ecology, renewable energy technologies, medical research and so on. We can only justify these on the grounds of our values, values that emerge from our political orientation and desire for just social outcomes with regard to health, clean air, and unpolluted soil and water.
This is really what scientists who are genuinely opposing the "politicizing" of science--as opposed to those with conservative politics using the complaint to oppose protest--mean: science can furnish us with facts about the way the physical world works, but it doesn't tell us anything about what to do with those facts once we have established them.
For example, science and technology have furnished humans with the ability to hunt down and drive whales to extinction. But it tells us nothing about whether we should or not. Which is to say, science tells us nothing about what is right or wrong--that comes down to our values and is therefore an ethical and political question.
But most people would decry such a rigid attempt at fence-sitting, particularly when people's lives and the health of the biosphere are at stake. And especially when one considers the already highly political nature of scientific research, grants and so on under capitalism. As radical educator Paolo Freire commented, "To sit on the fence in the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor means to take the side of the oppressor, not to be neutral."
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THOUGH TRUMP is clearly attempting something even more extreme, we can learn much about state repression of publicly funded scientific knowledge, research and communication from the behavior of the conservative administration of Canada's former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Under Harper, Canadian scientists were followed, threatened and censored, while libraries were closed and science research programs cut.
Noting that 24 percent of Canadian scientists reported being required to exclude or alter scientific information for non-science-based reasons, Robert MacDonald, a Canadian federal government scientist for three decades, commented:
That's something you would expect to hear in the 1950s from eastern Europe, not something you expect to hear from a democracy like Canada in 2013...And I think, by all indication, that's what our sisters and brothers are going to be faced with down in the United States.
The attacks, cuts and muzzling of scientists by the Harper government, particularly in any field even remotely connected to climate change, were extensive and systematic, undermining any claim to a democratic, truth-oriented administration.
Highlighting the purpose of the censorship, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations explained in the run-up to Canadian demonstrations by scientists in 2013:
In the absence of rigorous, scientific information--and an informed public--decision-making becomes an exercise in upholding the preferences of those in power.
In Canada today, as in most of the developed world, power has become increasingly concentrated in fewer hands-- hands which are inevitably attached to the bodies of big business and the state. And in light of Prime Minister Harper's agenda to rebrand Canada as the next energy superpower, it would seem that both the corporate interests and the state are focused on the expansion of the resource extraction industry in Canada.
In the federal capital of Ottawa, hundreds of scientists clad in lab coats carried a coffin in a funeral procession to mark the "death of scientific evidence." This and dozens of smaller marches elsewhere had an observable impact on people's perception of the Harper government.
In a lesson U.S.-based scientists should take to heart, the decline in popularity of the Harper government--and the subsequent electoral victory of Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party, signaling a more positive, less hostile approach to science, if not a break with big business, including the energy industry--can be traced in part to the 2013 marches by scientists.
Hence, for all the naysayers in the scientific community who want empirical evidence about the efficacy of a political protest, look no further than the Canadian experience. According to one of the organizers with the group behind the protests, Evidence for Democracy--which is advising U.S. scientists on their march--commented, Trump's attack on science:
absolutely echoes what we saw under George Bush in the States and what we saw under Harper, except it's so much swifter and more brazen than what we saw under Harper...But at the same time there's been a huge resistance coming out of the scientific community and that's been really heartening to see.
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MICHAEL MANN, one of the world's leading climate scientists, has written that "scientists are, in general, a reticent lot who would much rather spend our time in the lab, out in the field, teaching and doing research." Nevertheless, Mann went on to call for a "rebellion" against Trump, due to the severity of Trump's assault.
As Dr. Prescod-Weinsten, a cosmologist and particle physicist at the University of Washington, commented: "What history has taught us is that...[w]hen we work with extremist, racist, Islamophobic or nationalist governments, it doesn't work for science." Nor one could add, for humanity.
The assault on science must be recast and seen as entirely political. It is being made in order to further the interests of fossil fuel-based corporations. Beyond that, it is part and parcel of a larger political project to drive society back and call into question all forms of publically funded scientific, fact-based research, data gathering and dissemination in the interests of ordinary people and the public good.
Which brings us back to Galileo and what should be the purpose of scientific endeavor.
One of the other things that so angered the Inquisition was that Galileo chose to write his treatise not in Latin, the language of academia and the well to do, but in the language of common people. Galileo quite deliberately wrote his book in Italian so that it would be widely read--before being banned, it was a best seller--and discussed.
Galileo was doing science for the common good--presenting a fact-based, better understanding of the world to more clearly inform people of how their world worked. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in his essay on "Writing the Truth," "The truth must be spoken with a view to the results it will produce in the sphere of action."
Scientists must be political in order to be more effective scientists, not less effective. The struggle is really about the question and need to further democratize science. That means scientists seeing themselves as "citizen scientists"--in the mold of Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould.
For Commoner, scientists are obligated to rebel to fulfill their mission of science in the public interest and for social good. He wrote:
The scholar's duty is toward the development of socially significant truth, which requires freedom to test the meaning of all relevant observations and views in open discussion, and openly to express concern with the goals of our society. The scholar has an obligation--which he owes to the society that supports him--toward such open discourse. And when, under some constraint, scholars are called upon to support a single view, then the obligation to discourse necessarily becomes an obligation to dissent. In a situation of conformity, dissent is the scholars duty to society.
If science is all about taking a critical eye toward the investigation of natural phenomenon for the betterment of humanity, then rather than seeing protest and public involvement as somehow detrimental to that project, these should be seen as at the heart of the process.
We must pose the question: What are the goals we want for society? How can we help society realize those goals? To effectively answer those questions, scientists must necessarily dissent from those in power who seek to stifle empirical research and do so by informing and involving laypeople to aid their cause.
Making the March for Science on Earth Day big and political as possible is the best way to help further that process, push back Trump's right-wing agenda and enlist more people to support science in the public good."

Chemical Plant Boom Spurred by Fracking Will Bring Smog, Plastic Glut, and Risks to Workers' Health, New Report Warns

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By Sharon Kelly

On the heels of the shale gas rush that's swept the U.S. for the past decade, another wave of fossil fuel-based projects is coming — a plastic and petrochemical manufacturing rush that environmentalists warn could make smog worse in communities already breathing air pollution from fracking, sicken workers, and expand the plastic trash gyres in the world's oceans.
“Thanks to abundant supplies of natural gas, the U.S. chemical industry is investing in new facilities and expanded production capacity, which tends to attract downstream industries that rely on petrochemical products,” the American Chemistry Council's President and CEO, Cal Dooley, said in a January press release. “As of this month, 281 chemical industry projects valued at $170 billion have been announced, about half of which are completed or under construction.”
A new Food and Water Watch reportHow Fracking Supports the Plastic Industry, calls attention to the dark side of those plans, warning of air and water pollution and the risk to people's health, especially for those taking jobs in the plastics industry.

The Pollution and Health Risks of Petrochemical Plants

“The petrochemical boom does more than generate plastic that is overfilling our landfills and spilling into the oceans; the manufacturing process itself releases numerous pollutants into our air, water and land,” the report finds. “On top of that, many of the proposed new ethane cracker projects are co-located with fracking and drilling operations, potentially compounding the pollution problems that residents already endure.”
Converting ethane, a by-product of shale gas drilling, to plastic requires ethane “crackers” — massive plants that use heat or steam to “crack” the ethane gas into ethylene, which is then converted to polyethylene, generally sold in plastic pellets.
Shell plans to start construction of one of the nation's largest ethane crackers this year in Pennsylvania, home to the Marcellus shale drilling rush. “It is the first new facility of its type to be constructed outside of the Gulf Coast in two decades,” the report points out.
“Although the cracker plant will bring pollution to the region, the industry, its supporters and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf all tout that it will bring jobs,” the report adds. “What they fail to mention is that these jobs are potentially dangerous and hazardous to health.”
Petrochemical plant workers suffer from higher rates of brain cancer than workers in other industry, the report says, noting that workers are exposed to known carcinogens and neurotoxins like benzene, toluene, and xylene and may have an elevated risk of liver disease and other ailments.
Emissions from petrochemical plants have also been linked to elevated levels of toxins in the blood of people living nearby. Allen LeBlanc, a resident of Mossville, Louisiana, with high levels of dioxin in his blood — which researchers traced to nearby petrochemical plants and refineries — described his disabling health problems to the Intercept in 2015.
“Living here has messed me up,” he said. “If I could have another life, I’d take it.”
In Louisiana, the Food and Water Watch report notes, 13 petrochemical plants released 4.9 million pounds of toxic materials into the environment in 2015, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records. But that's nothing compared to Texas, where the state's 28 petrochemical plants reported over 13.8 million pounds of toxic releases the same year to the EPA.
The air pollution from the plants can make breathing more difficult for people living nearby, the report adds, and increase their chances of developing cancer. “Several studies have demonstrated that people’s exposure to petrochemical facility pollutants is associated with heightened cancer risks, acute irritative symptoms (such as nausea and eye and throat irritation) and respiratory-related illnesses, especially for children,” the report says.

From Fracking Boom to Cracking Boom 

The shale gas targeted by drillers is mostly made of methane gas — the fuel purchased by power plants and used for home heating and cooking, which is also a powerful greenhouse gas. However, what comes out of a gas well isn't pure methane, but a blend that also includes chemicals like butane, propane, and ethane — and ethane is a key building block for plastics.
Since the shale rush began, U.S. ethane production numbers have soared, with the Energy Information Administration now projecting production of over 1.7 million barrels of ethane a day in 2018, up from less than a million barrels a day just five years earlier. North Dakota's Bakken shale formation is so ethane-rich that leaks and venting from drilling and fracking there was responsible for a spike in ethane levels in the Earth's atmosphere, researchers concluded last year.
Twenty new or expanded ethane cracker projects have been proposed since the shale rush started, the new Food and Water Watch report says.
“The proposed cracker projects could conceivably boost polyethylene production by as much as 50 percent, taking it to more than 42 billion pounds a year,” On Earth reported in 2014 — when just 10 new plants had been proposed. “That’s fully six pounds of this one particular form of plastic for every man, woman, and child on earth.”

The Glut of Cheap Plastic to Come

Cheap new plastic discourages recycling — which means more trash winds up in landfills or contaminating the seas. For years, scientists have warned that the world's oceans are becoming a plastic soup, with ocean gyres where plastic and other debris build up (also known as “garbage patches”) covering a quarter of the earth's surface. By 2050, the world's oceans are predicted to contain more plastic than fish (by weight), an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report concluded last year.
“The fracking-driven industry expansion will likely generate even more ocean plastics as more ethane crackers come online and produce more plastic resins,” the Food and Water Watch report concludes.
Making all that plastic also creates enormous amounts of smog, the report points out. “In 1999, when Houston’s ozone levels were the highest in the nation, the state of Texas conducted several studies that found large industrial leaks,” the report notes. “The worst originated from cracker plants producing ethylene and propylene.”
“In addition to asthma, long-term exposure to smog has been connected to premature deaths in adults and to low birth weight in babies,” it adds.
That's a particular problem in states that already suffer from smog problems. Shell's ethane cracker will be built about 30 miles outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It's projected to emit 522 tons of volatile organic compounds [VOCs] — precursors to smog — which would mean that it would be western Pennsylvania's largest source of VOCs.
Nonetheless, Shell's ethane cracker was granted multiple tax breaks — including the largest tax break in state history, worth $1.65 billion over 25 years — by state officials who argue that the economic benefits to the region make it all worthwhile. Shell predicts that the plant will employ 600 workers — a powerful message in a swing state where a thirst for job creation is often cited as a key reason that Donald Trump won Pennsylvania's 20 electoral college votes in November.
For its part, Food and Water Watch argues that fracking has already harmed the state's drinking water, air quality, and increased the speed of climate change. “The last thing that Pennsylvanians need is another way for the oil and gas industry to capitalize on shale at the expense of their health and well-being,” the report concludes.

Viewing Trump's Extreme Climate Denial From a Small Island Nation in Peril

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By Dahr Jamail

Babeldaob Island, Palau -- The Gaia principle, formulated by chemist James Lovelock, proposes that Earth is essentially a synergistic self-regulating complex system that actively perpetuates the conditions for life on the planet.
The Republic of Palau, a small island nation of roughly 22,000 people in Micronesia, in the far Western Pacific, is what I would refer to as an altar of Gaia. Here, diving into the waters, which contain in excess of 700 species of fish and more than 1,000 species of hard and soft corals, one's senses can barely keep pace with the kaleidoscope of life swimming/growing/floating/being in front of one's eyes.
I'm now writing from the northern coast of the Babeldaob Island in the archipelago, an area not too many humans on the planet will ever see, simply due to the amount of effort it takes to get there.
I stand atop a hill looking north. The Pacific Ocean is to the east and the Philippine Sea to the west, and I feel truly on the edge. Solitude, quiet, birdsong, a steady warm tropical wind, lush vegetation -- away from human civilization, I feel the pull of the crystal blue turquoise waters and want to dive in and remain enveloped within them as long as possible. The place is so beautiful it is difficult to bear.
Truthfully, part of me wants to submerge into these waters and never come up for air again, to remain away from what is happening above their surface.
Even in the midst of deep beauty, the reality of a human-caused global crisis is all too clear. I'm here doing research for articles, and a book. Although I'm here during the "dry" season, it is raining buckets outside, and has been doing so the majority of the time I've been here.
While I'm interviewing plenty of scientists about what is happening here, anecdotal evidence abounds. In December 2012 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather reports called Super Typhoon Bopha "a one in a million typhoon" that hit Palau. With 35-foot waves, it devastated many reefs in this UNESCO World Heritage site that is world-renowned for its rich marine habitat in the scuba world.
Only three typhoons had threatened the Palauan archipelago with serious damage over the previous 60 years. However, less than one year after Super Typhoon Bopha hit,  Typhoon Haiyan devastated the island of Kayangel in Palau's north.
"Normally we only have a typhoon, on average, every 20 years," Jeffrey Nestor, a local boat captain in Palau told Truthout. "But we just had these two major typhoons. Not only that, we're seeing major changes in our weather patterns."
As rain poured down around us while we spoke, Nestor laughed and pointed to it, adding, "We are in our dry season now, but now our wet season is becoming our dry season."
He went on to tell me that the strategies Palauans have long used to track and adapt their lives to the weather "no longer work," and that "everything is flipping around," as far as the weather goes.
Remote, exquisite Palau is on the front lines of the impacts of runaway anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).
During the last month, NASA released data confirming that globally, 2016 was the hottest year on record -- the third consecutive year this record has been broken. Even more disturbing, in the last three years alone global temperatures rose 0.4°C: an extreme acceleration of planetary warming that has been unmatched in 136 years of record keeping.
Planetary warming continues to make itself the most obvious in the polar regions.
In Antarctica, a British research station located on an ice shelf is being shut down over the upcoming southern hemisphere winter due to fears of it floating off on an iceberg.
Simultaneously, the Arctic is clearly in crisis as ACD impacts there are leaving scientists in a state of bleak amazement. Ice pack growth has been brought to a halt, and at times reversed. In the last six weeks, parts of the Arctic have seen temperatures reaching nearly 50°F above normal, even nearing the melting point near the North Pole itself during December.
Scientists have said that 2016 in the Arctic was "beyond even the extreme" as ACD is literally remaking the region. Sea ice was at a record low maximum last winter for the second year in a row, and recorded the second-lowest minimum extent last fall.
January showed the Arctic was up to 35°F above normal in some locations, and in Greenland, the ice sheet is melting away rapidly and pushing up sea levels in the process.
A study in the journal Science, released in January, showed that sea-level rise could be far greater than expected, with levels increasing by 20 feet over the course of centuries, even if governments somehow succeeded in putting a cap on ACD. The study is based on clues from an ancient warming period, 125,000 years ago, when conditions were, according to the study, "indistinguishable" from today.
report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the last day of the Obama administration showed that sea-level rise could reach eight feet by 2100, a level far higher than even the worst-case prediction by the International Panel on Climate Change. As usual, in many cases, the trend of each new scientific study showing dramatically increased impacts when compared to the previous study continues.
Such is life on Earth now, as ACD advances amid a climate of extreme denial within the US government. This, paired with global capitalism, will keep us lurching full steam ahead down the path of fossil-fuel oblivion, unless we change course soon.
The Earth's flora and fauna continue to bear the impact of runaway ACD.
In the UK, bird species are vanishing due to warming temperatures and habitat loss, according to a recent report. While some species are shifting their habitats to different regions, other species have already vanished entirely.
Meanwhile, forests continue to fare badly.
recent report revealed that during the 2015-16 El Niño, the Amazon rainforest experienced record-breaking high temperatures and severe drought. As in past severe droughts in the Amazon, tree mortality has increased, while growth of trees decreased, which has dire implications for the global carbon cycle. The severe drought reduces the capacity of the Amazon rainforest to store CO2, and over time, this could result in the Amazon shifting away from being a carbon sink that pulls CO2 from the atmosphere to being a carbon source, which would contribute greatly to atmospheric warming.
recent and disturbing report has revealed that, at current rates of deforestation around the globe, rainforests will vanish altogether within a century. Scientists emphasize that any real efforts geared towards mitigating the impacts of ACD, without the rainforests to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, would be utterly futile.
Meanwhile, the planet has lost 7 percent of its intact forests in just the last 16 years, according to another recent study. This shocking statistic demonstrates the dramatic implications of ACD on biodiversity.
recent US Fish and Wildlife Service report warned that polar bears are not likely to survive without dramatic and "decisive" interventions on a global level.
Finally in this section, when we consider the impacts of ACD on humans, we must remember that Indigenous peoples are often the ones experiencing its impacts first and most deeply.
In Canada, Indigenous peoples on Lennox Island have lost more than 400 acres to rising seas in just a few generations. "That bay has claimed a lot of people," one of the elders there told The Guardian. "Now it's claiming land." And now, this First Nations community is unsure if it will have a future.
Despite Alaska having a colder winter than last year (which saw record-setting warm winter temperatures), the famous Iditarod sled dog race has again had to move its starting point to Fairbanks, rather than its traditional starting point of Anchorage, due to lack of adequate snow cover on the trail.
At the recent Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage, plenty of bad news came from scientists studying how warming ocean waters off Alaska's coast are bringing widespread ecological changes, with more to come, the vast majority of which are bad. Arctic Cod are suffering from the heating waters, the Bering Sea is warming faster than previously expected, and toxic algae blooms that have been blamed for huge bird die-offs are expected to continue and possibly increase.
Another obvious sign of warming in the North comes in the form of recent data that show that January's Arctic Sea Ice volume is the lowest it has ever been in recorded history, by a wide margin. We have never seen a winter when the sea ice in the north was as weakened and reduced as it is right now.
Waters are warming in the Antarctic as well. A recently published study in the journal Science Advances showed that over the last decade, an accelerated freshening of deep Antarctic waters [overabundance of fresh water being added] could alter ocean circulation and contribute further to sea level rise. "If you change the circulation, you change everything in the ocean," the study's lead author Viviane Menezes of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) said on the WHOI website.
As global ocean waters warm, coral bleaching events continue to wipe out reefs.
Recently released data from Japan's Environment Ministry revealed that coral bleaching has killed 70.1 percent of that nation's largest coral reef, off the coast of Okinawa, as of the end of 2016. That is up from 56.7 percent, merely a few months earlier.
As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture, so extreme flooding is becoming the norm across the globe.
According to the reinsurance giant Munich Re, the US had more floods in 2016 than any year in recorded history with 19 different floods swamping the nation.
Meanwhile, sea level rise continues.
In Louisiana, as seas rise the coastline is rapidly disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico, and as it does, it is taking ancient Native American historic sites with it.
In Florida, the city of Miami Beach is about to break ground (so to speak) on its most ambitious anti-flooding project to date: a $100 million flood prevention project aimed at raising streets in an attempt to stay ahead of rising seas.
Across the Atlantic in Denmark, "once-in-a-century" flooding events are already becoming far, far more frequent than that. "The historically abnormal weather we see today following one low-pressure system after another low-pressure system, which can result in flooding, is a reminder that climate change is in full vigor," Jens Hesselbjerg, a climate professor at the University of Copenhagen, told the Metroxpress newspaper.
"We can't rule out that climate change's effect on flooding is accelerating even more swiftly than we had anticipated."
And speaking of flooding in Europe, another recent report from the aforementioned Munich Re has shown that devastating flood disasters across that continent have more than doubled in the last 35 years.
Lastly in this section, here's a very sobering view of what Earth looks like when all the land ice melts.
recent mega-drought in Chile that has now lasted more than a decade has led to "an unprecedented drought," according to the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, fueling more than 85 wildfires that have consumed over 750 square miles of land there. It is the worst fire disaster in the history of that country.
"We have never seen something of this size, never in Chile's history," Chilean President Michelle Bachelet told Reuters.
The drought that has led to the fires has now surpassed historic low records of precipitation and stream flow reconstruction. In fact, scientists estimate that -- beyond the historical record -- precipitation has not been this low in Chile in at least the last 1,000 years.
And Chile is not alone. Huge swaths of the rest of South America, according to NOAA, are also experiencing severe drying which, of course, leads to escalated wildfire risk.
2016 marked the first time in several million years that global atmospheric CO2 concentrations passed 400 parts per million (ppm). The last time there was this much CO2 in Earth's atmosphere, the world was several degrees hotter and melted ice found sea levels tens of meters higher than they are today. "We're in a new era," Ralph Keeling, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's CO2 Program, told Yale 360. "And it's going fast. We're going to touch up against 410 pretty soon."
At the current rate of growth, CO2 levels will reach 500 ppm less than five decades from now.
new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has documented patterns of "thermal expansion," a process in which greenhouse gases cause atmospheric temperatures to increase, which then causes the oceans to warm, and their warmed waters expand in volume. In this way, greenhouse gases are leaving a lasting impact deep within the planet's oceans.
Meanwhile, atmospheric temperature records continue to be broken.
Recent data showed that 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded for the entire state of Alaska, by a very wide margin. The average temperature for the entire state was a jaw-dropping 5.9°F above the long-term average.
In the Northeast, climate scientists with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst recently showed that their region will experience significantly accelerated warming compared to much of the rest of the planet over the next decade, as well as beyond. Second only to Alaska, New England is warming faster than anywhere else in the US, and the study showed that temperatures there will increase 3.6°F above preindustrial baseline levels by the year 2025.
Lastly in this section, a recent heat wave gripped Eastern Australia, leading to fire bans across vast swaths of the country which were sweltering amidst their hottest January ever recorded.
Denial and Reality
With Donald Trump and his cabinet of jackals now mostly in place, the levels of ACD denial have ventured into record territory. Less than a week after being sworn in as president, Trump ordered all references to ACD to be deleted from the White House website, and they were.
The Trump administration went on to tell the EPA to cut the climate page from its website. Shortly after that, the EPA moved forward with removing all of the Obama-era information from its website.
Furthermore, the Trump administration is looking into shutting down the EPA's enforcement office, while a GOP crony in Florida has even gone as far as proposing a bill titled, literally, "Terminate the Environmental Protection Agency."
Many state leaders now fear that Trump and his GOP-dominated Congress could also begin working to put a halt to state actions geared towards mitigating ACD impacts.
In fact, in Wisconsin, state agencies are already deleting any mention of ACD from state websites.
Meanwhile, as a response to the instantaneous and draconian measures of denial taken by the Trump administration, large numbers of government scientists from the EPA, NASA and at least 10 other government agencies went rogue on Twitter, demanding the president get real about the facts and issuing other calls to action.
Additionally, a website established and run by the Columbia Law School now sends out an alert anytime Trump or Congress acts to change a rule involving ACD or energy policy.
Also on the reality front: A top NASA scientist recently debunked the idea that ACD has "paused" by pointing to the record-setting warm temperatures over the last three years, and noting that he expects the rate of increase in global heating to accelerate even further.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the GOP on the whole continues to deny the reality of ACD, the US military is pushing ahead with plans to protect its bases and assets across the globe from sea-level rise and other ACD-related impacts.
Trump's buddy Vladimir Putin even has Russia beginning to work on a national ACD adaptation strategy, and various governmental ministries and regional officials are already working to assess the risks of adverse impacts and produce adaptation measures.
Lastly, one week after Trump was inaugurated, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced they had moved the "Doomsday Clock" 30 seconds closer to midnight. The membership of the Bulletin, which includes 15 Nobel laureates, decided to move the clock closer to midnight because of concerns about "a rise in strident nationalism worldwide, President Donald Trump's comments on nuclear arms and climate issues, a darkening global security landscape that is colored by increasingly sophisticated technology, and a growing disregard for scientific expertise."
The clock, which is now set at two and a half minutes to midnight, is the closest it has been to midnight since 1953, when it was two minutes before midnight.
Meanwhile, here in Palau, 3,500-year-old taro fields on the coast are being overrun by rising seas, and local environmental conservation groups are working with residents to assist in adapting to the growing impacts of ACD.