NASA Satellite Data May Provide A Glimpse into the Future

Posted on May 12, 2020 by Todd E. Palmer

NASA's Earth Observing System Project gathers data from a fleet of satellites orbiting the planet.  This system of satellites is playing an increasingly important role in measuring air pollution and informing regulatory policy on a global scale. Dr. Tracey Halloway at the University of Wisconsin – Madison leads the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQST) which is doing extensive research in this area.   HAQST is staffed by air quality and public health scientists from government offices and universities across the country. Their wide-ranging projects include measuring and tracking global pollution levels, climate change indicators, and regional haze.  HAQST has created a website summarizing available satellite resources which can be accessed by stakeholders and the general public for making better informed air pollution policy decisions. I encourage those of you with an interest in this area to explore the research being undertaken by this group.

Most recently, NASA released satellite data documenting the dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions measured in the United States since shelter-in-place orders went into effect to quell the COVID-19 pandemic.  This data was collected from instruments on NASA's Aura and the European Space Agency's Sentinel-5 satellites. NASA has compared the average levels of ambient NO2 experienced in the United States between March 2015 through 2019 with those experienced in March 2020.  The comparison is striking:

These reductions, ranging from 30% to 50%, correlate with the significant decline in the combustion of fossil fuels during the pandemic, primary in mobile sources. Similar reductions where observed in China when it cracked down on combustion sources in advance of the 2008 Olympics.  This data provides a glimpse into what might be achieved if the United States were to adopt more aggressive policies encouraging alternative fueled vehicles and expanded renewable energy generation. However, the dire financial impacts associated with these reductions must also be considered as we contemplate the implications of the emission data gathered during this unusual situation. 

What Judges Are Saying About Climate Science

Posted on May 4, 2020 by Scott Fulton

It’s amazing how quickly humanity’s concern can shift when circumstanc­es demand it, and the coronavirus pandemic has riveted our attention. In this hour, talking about anything else risks seeming detached or indifferent to the enormous suffering, disruption, and dislocation that the COVID-19 vi­rus has unleashed on the world. But I need to alert you to a new ELI report analyzing the other major challenge that will be waiting for us on the other side of our current crisis, one that, like the pandemic, is deeply informed by science.

Climate Science in the Courts: A Review of U.S. and International Ju­dicial Pronouncements” looks at the question of judges’ treatment of the basics of climate science. We had noticed that even in cases like the 9th Circuit’s recent decision in Juliana, where the court tossed the case out on standing grounds, essentially defer­ring to Congress to solve the climate problem, the judges expressed rather grave concerns about the climate phe­nomenon.

Similarly, in the City of Oakland case, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, while dismissing the case on political-question grounds, likewise reflected deep concern about the implications of inaction in the face of climate science. This led us to wonder whether judicial concern about climate change had become a consistent thread in case dispositions, whether this reflected broader embrace of the basic science at issue, and, if so, whether judicial acceptance of the science should be more influential in the public debate.

With material and moral support from the ELI Board, we commissioned a review that considered these ques­tions. “Climate Science in the Courts” answers the two questions posed above rather definitively. With remark­able consistency, in the time since the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Mas­sachusetts v. EPA, federal courts in the United States — and for that matter foreign courts — have been treating as valid and authoritative the science that says that the climate is warming and that human activity is driving the observed and anticipated change.

According to the report, despite the fact that advocates and courts have had the opportunity to entertain or advance skeptics’ views challenging these climate science basics, there have been very few instances in which skeptics’ arguments have been made in court and not a single instance in this time horizon in which a court has given credence to such arguments. Rather, the judicial pronouncements since Massachusetts have consistently treated basic climate science as being beyond reasonable dispute.

This judicial acceptance of basic climate science has not necessar­ily translated into intervention by the courts. Indeed, at least in the United States, particularly at the appellate level, the judiciary has been reticent, largely deferring to the representative branches of government to bring for­ward solutions.

But should judicial views on climate science be more influential in the pub­lic conversation? This report posits that the answer to this question should be “yes.” The courts remain among the most respected of public institutions and operate in a setting that demands fidelity to facts and truth, and where there is meaningful accountability for veracity. If, in this setting, conclusions about climate science are being ren­dered, this should be important to the public debate for two main reasons.

First, ideas that have secured no traction in court should presumably be less deserving of credit in the public realm; conversely, conclusions consis­tently derived by the part of our institu­tional structure charged to crunch truth should be deserving of considerable weight. Indeed, greater understand­ing of judicial treatment of climate science might move public thought to align more fully with considered judicial views.

Second, U.S. courts, while alarmed by what the science is saying, have largely been deferential to the rep­resentative branches of government for purposes of fashioning solutions. Greater understanding of how the courts are evaluating climate facts might help break political logjams and overcome misconceptions or misrepre­sentations that impede the sense of ur­gency needed for the very political solu­tions for which the courts are waiting.

Science is of course playing a major role in the sorting of the issue most immediately before us — the coronavi­rus pandemic. And we are seeing broad societal acceptance of fairly dramatic changes based on what the data are telling us about the COVID-19 threat. It will be interesting to see whether this experience will leave society any better able to come together around climate science. The courts are already there it seems.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: How the COVID-19 Crisis Highlights Our Misuse of Data

Posted on April 17, 2020 by Jonathan Ettinger

As I was reading the latest statistics regarding the spread of COVID-19, I became frustrated.  My frustration stemmed not just from the fact that we are unprepared despite repeated warnings, but also from the way our elected officials and their teams present (and the media reports) the data.  Having practiced environmental law for over thirty years and observed countless instances of data misuse and misinterpretation, I am not surprised, but I am disappointed.

I am not talking about the inherent unreliability of the data due to selective and inconsistent testing or the fact that we cannot count infected but asymptomatic people.  For a good discussion of that, see Nate Silver’s recent article.  Rather, I am talking about something much simpler: how many people are getting infected and at what ages.  During the early stages of the pandemic, the media were reporting that the virus was unusual because it appeared to afflict not the young or the elderly but the middle-aged.  Then, of course, it became apparent that the elderly were dying at a much higher rate than others (and at a higher rate than those infected with an ordinary flu). 

I then had a discussion with someone who said “Yeah, but it turns out young adults are being infected at a high rate; they are vulnerable, too!”  It was this simple assertion I wished to validate (or invalidate).

But, that was not easy.  Nearly every article on the topic (and most government updates, too) focused on percentages – but the wrong percentages.  It is easy to find statements like the following: “A USA TODAY analysis of data reported by 19 states shows that Americans of all ages seem to be equally susceptible to a coronavirus infection. States are reporting cases in every age range, though people in their 50s have slightly more confirmed cases on average.”  Here is the graph that accompanied it. 

It afflicts everyone roughly equally, right?  Those in their 30s and 40s are as likely to be infected as those in their 70s, right?  WRONG!  These are percentages of total coronavirus cases, not percentages of the population.  There is a fundamental difference between saying 15% of the population between the ages of 30 and 40 are infected and 15% of the total infections are of people in their 30s. 

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2016 there were roughly 323 million people in the United States – 43 million (13.3%) in their 30s and 20 million (6.2%) in their 70s.  If those percentages remain valid today, the graph above shows that those in their 70s are more than twice as likely to become infected as those in their 30s.  Regardless of whether that figure is accurate, it certainly means that one cannot say that “Americans of all ages seem to be equally susceptible to a coronavirus infection.”

How the data are reported makes a big difference.  Let’s get it right.

If You Thought That COVID-19 Was Bad, Try It Mixed With Some PM2.5!

Posted on April 9, 2020 by Seth Jaffe

Last week, I discussed the Administration’s guidance concerning the exercise of its enforcement discretion during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now comes evidence that the guidance may actually be self-defeating.  While the administration is – understandably – trying to cut regulated industries some slack while they are trying to deal with COVID-19, it turns out that exposure to PM2.5 has a significant impact on the COVID-19 death rate.

study released earlier this week by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health concludes that an increase in the ambient PM2.5 concentration of just 1 ug/m3 causes an increase of 15% in the death rate from COVID-19.  And lest you think that the results stem from other factors unique to New York City and other places particularly hard-hit by the virus, the authors took into account all of the obvious confounding factors, including:

"population density, percent of the population ≥65, percent living in poverty, median household income, percent black, percent Hispanic, percent of the adult population with less than a high school education, median house value, percent of owner-occupied housing, population mean BMI (an indicator of obesity), percent ever-smokers, [and] number of hospital beds."

A 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate for a 1 ug/m3 increase in PM2.5 is an extraordinary result.  At some level, we knew it already, but let me summarize very simply.  PM2.5 is really, really, bad for you.

And so we come back to this administration.  I’ll pass over the enforcement discretion memorandum and focus instead on EPA’s apparent decision not to change the current national ambient air quality standard for PM2.5.  Of course, the current chair of the SAB doesn’t believe in basing NAAQS on epidemiological studies, but for those of us who still believe in science, this study certainly only strengthens the case for reduction in the PM2.5 NAAQS.

Nothing But Blue Skies?

Posted on March 31, 2020 by Robert Uram

As a result of the measures put in place to flatten the curve for the coronavirus pandemic, California is experiencing an unprecedented improvement in air quality. The combination of work from home, layoffs and reduced automobile travel by people sheltering in place has reduced vehicle miles traveled by as much as 70 percent.  Nearly everyone in California is now experiencing good air quality. Nearly everyone in California will wake up to bluer skies and cleaner air so long as the pandemic restrictions remain in place.

Californians have not seen this high level of air quality since before World War II. Even this brief improvement in air quality will help those who suffer from asthma, bronchitis, lung irritation and heart disease. As an added benefit, congestion has been reduced and there will likely be a significant decline in deaths and injuries from accidents. The reduced emissions are also a down payment on emission reductions desperately needed to address climate change.

In medicine, randomized studies are the gold standard for determining the efficacy of a new drug or device. In the air pollution arena, the California Air Resources Board can’t do randomized studies. It can’t order people not to drive so the Board can measure the effects of reduced vehicles miles traveled or substituting electric vehicles for fossil fuel vehicles. Instead, it does computer modeling to estimate these effects. But computer models are meaningless to most people. They can’t read a computer model and see how their lives will be better if they have bluer skies and healthier air. It’s too abstract. The crisis is not only giving the Board valuable information on the actual effects of less vehicle pollution, it is giving millions of people first hand experience of seeing and understanding how much better of their lives will be with less pollution clouding their sky.

What to do? How do we assure that Californians will see blue skies sooner rather than later once the crisis has abated? How do we assure that Californians will step up in the battle against climate change? And, how do we assure California will leap ahead and create jobs to ameliorate the devastating economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

California has roughly 24 million cars. California’s current goal is to have 1.5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2025. My hope is that the millions of Californians who are now experiencing better air quality will push the state to far exceed the current goal. California should place a moratorium on new fossil fuel powered vehicles as soon as possible and provide the regulatory climate and financial support conditions to build millions of electric vehicles here in California without delay. We all should enjoy blue skies and a better economy as soon as possible.

Surprising Solutions for COVID-19 Resource Challenges

Posted on March 30, 2020 by Mary Ellen Ternes

While we are adapting to work at home, zooming happy hours, and learning to live with other virtual interfaces, many of us are wondering what else we can do to help our communities. Currently health care professionals are screaming for personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. You might help connect means with need.width=

For PPE, Forbes reported last week that a network of 3D printers have been engaged to print PPE including the N95 Mask and DIY Face Mask. See, “Calling All Makers with 3D Printers: Join Critical Mission to Make Face Masks and Shields for 2020 Healthcare Workers,” (Tuesday, March 24, 2020). Hewlett Packard (HP) has posted resources providing software “.STL” 3D printing design files for critical parts to help COVID-19 critical containment efforts (the “.STL” is the file extension created by the computer-aided design (CAD) program used in the 3D modeling process). These 3D “.STL” design files include the 3D printed FDA approved nasal swabs, 3D Printable Face Shield, Budmen Face Shield, Hands-Free 3D-Printed Door Opener and a Mask Adjuster Field Respirator. HP’s website even has a link to help find an HP 3D corporate printing partner. But there are other resources as well. Universities, particularly universities with engineering schools, should have 3D printers these days. These 3D printers should be up to the task of printing N95 masks meeting hospital specifications.

Also, as another example of creative problem solving, Vanderbilt University’s Mechanical Engineering Department and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center teamed up to design an open-source ventilator that can be assembled from locally available materials. This is clever, reliable, but simple technology, with the prototype assembled in three hours, allowing production of 100 ventilators in a single week. That’s 100 ventilators from locally available materials without having to first modify a GM assembly plant. Vanderbilt Mechanical Engineer Kevin Galloway says the goal is to “make the design publicly available so that anyone can replicate it.”  Thanks to the FDA for its March 24, 2020 guidance on FDA’s emergency authority to approve this type of equipment!

The Vanderbilt open-source ventilator design may be ready and publicly available soon, but 3D printers should be available now, particularly in urban areas and universities. While 3D printing resources are likely available, healthcare professionals may not be aware of them. Even if there is some general level of awareness, medical professionals are pretty busy and may need help accessing these resources. If your local healthcare professionals need help, consider reaching out and connecting them with your local university’s 3D printing resources, so the university can begin printing the N95 masks the medical professionals need. It may be enough to simply offer the suggestion.

After you’ve helped source your healthcare professionals with PPE, you could try to keep people from flushing wipes. Not only do wipes shut down wastewater treatment plants. Apparently, once people have used up their wipes, they begin flushing t-shirts. This will be a marathon folks.