2017: Standing Up for Science—and Chalking Up Some Wins

December 20, 2017 | 11:00 am
James Finch
Seth Shulman
Editorial Director

In 2017, UCS’s efforts to build a healthier, safer, more sustainable world faced some of the toughest obstacles we’ve ever encountered. With its circus-like atmosphere continually showcasing the politics of greed and grievance, the Trump administration has attempted to sideline science across the board and block progress on key UCS issues from renewable energy to sustainable agriculture.

But here’s the rub: “alternative facts” can take you only so far; reality has a way of reasserting itself. As Neil deGrasse Tyson has famously put it, science “is true whether or not you believe in it.” So, the Trump administration can try to deny climate science, but it can’t hide the effects of climate change already upon us, such as the devastation from one of the worst hurricane seasons in memory. Or the fact that wildfires in California are continuing to rage in December, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres and displacing tens of thousands of residents.

Little wonder, then, that 2017 was the year one million people around the world took to the streets in marches extolling the importance of science. With a surge of newly energized scientists and activists across the country, it’s also no accident that UCS membership is now larger than ever before—with more than a half-million supporters swelling our ranks.

So, despite President Trump’s boasts about all the “winning” his administration was going to usher in, here are some fact-based reasons to take heart as 2017 draws to a close:

We’re defending hard-won gains

Early on in the Trump administration, UCS successfully resisted gag orders on scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and we have managed—so far at least—to block the passage of bills in Congress that seek to restrict the role of science in setting public safeguards. We’ve even played a key role in helping to block the nominations of particularly unsuitable candidates for key oversight roles in areas such as agricultural science and chemical safety. After the Trump administration’s tragically misguided decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord, UCS even helped pressure enough Republican senators to break ranks to fully sustain US funding for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—the body responsible for the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

We’re continuing to make solid progress in many states and cities

For all the Trump administration’s talk about a resurgence of the coal industry, the facts on the ground tell a very different—and more heartening—story about the progress states around the country are making to lower global warming emissions and foster the growth of clean energy. Not only did California approve an expansion of its landmark law limiting global warming emissions, Illinois passed one of the nation’s most comprehensive energy bills, including expanded access to clean energy for low-income households. And Michigan raised its bar for clean energy and energy efficiency to 35 percent of electricity sales by 2025, among many other gains. In collaboration with partners, we even persuaded the city of Los Angeles to electrify its entire bus fleet by 2030.

We’re increasing pressure on fossil fuel companies

We also saw substantive progress over the past year in our campaign to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their decades-long role in spurring global warming through the sale of their products while misleading the public about established climate science. In May, UCS earned a key victory when shareholders at ExxonMobil’s annual meeting voted for the first time ever to require the company to make regular reports about how its bottom line is affected by climate change. Since then, we published a groundbreaking scientific article in the respected, peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change  in which a team led by UCS scientists was the first to link changes in global temperature and sea level rise to emissions specifically attributable to individual fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil. With several court cases already underway and plaintiffs eager to draw on this powerful new scientific evidence, the pressure is on these fossil fuel giants to end their underhanded campaigns of deception and their ongoing efforts to block the policies we need to combat global warming.

We’re standing up for science and getting stronger

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that it has been a trying year for everyone who values the role of science in developing policies to protect public health and safety. And we know that much more trouble lies ahead. Many hard-won policies—from sensible fuel economy standards for cars and trucks to the Clean Power Plan—continue to face an all-out, sustained assault in which the voices for the role of science, analysis, and smart policies remain badly outnumbered on Capitol Hill.

But standing up for science has arguably never been more necessary and we’re up to the task. With rapid-response teams meeting virtually every day, UCS has raised frequent, loud alarms in response to the Trump administration’s attacks on science. We chronicled their cumulative effects in a July report titled Sidelining Science from Day One and we are actively continuing to  publicize these attacks as they happen.

Best of all, we’ve found that, shaken out of its complacency, a broader public than ever before is joining our efforts and we’re moving rapidly to enlist more help from our energized supporters. Early this year, we called on scientists across the country to help us watchdog administration activities especially in their areas of expertise; hundreds have volunteered. More recently, we launched a “Science Champions” campaign, offering a variety of effective ways for nonscientists to stand up for science in their communities. In August, we launched the Science Protection Project to connect government whistleblowers with legal assistance. And, through our new Science for Public Good fund, we are offering UCS Science Network members grants to implement innovative strategies to promote science-based decisionmaking.

We’re grateful for all the help from our members and supporters and we’re gearing up for some major battles in 2018. When it comes to protecting people’s health and safety, we’re in no mood to compromise. And, with science on our side, we’re just hitting our stride.

About the author

More from Seth

Seth Shulman is editorial director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Prior to joining UCS in 2012, he had a long and varied career as a science journalist, columnist, and author, writing six books and hundreds of articles for magazines including The Atlantic, Discover, Nature, Parade, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Technology Review, and Time.