Can Genetic Engineering Save Disappearing Forests

Ash tree killed by the invasive emerald ash borer. Photo: K Steve Cope.

by Jason Delborne
CSTPR Faculty Affiliate and Associate Professor of Science, Policy, and Society in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University

Originally published in The Conversation

Compared to gene-edited babies in China and ambitious projects to rescue woolly mammoths from extinction, biotech trees might sound pretty tame.

But releasing genetically engineered trees into forests to counter threats to forest health represents a new frontier in biotechnology. Even as the techniques of molecular biology have advanced, humans have not yet released a genetically engineered plant that is intended to spread and persist in an unmanaged environment. Biotech trees – genetically engineered or gene-edited – offer just that possibility.

One thing is clear: The threats facing our forests are many, and the health of these ecosystems is getting worse. A 2012 assessment by the U.S. Forest Service estimated that nearly 7 percent of forests nationwide are in danger of losing at least a quarter of their tree vegetation by 2027. This estimate may not sound too worrisome, but it is 40 percent higher than the previous estimate made just six years earlier.

In 2018, at the request of several U.S. federal agencies and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed a committee to “examine the potential use of biotechnology to mitigate threats to forest tree health.” Experts, including me, a social scientist focused on emerging biotechnologies, were asked to “identify the ecological, ethical, and social implications of deploying biotechnology in forests, and develop a research agenda to address knowledge gaps.”

Our committee members came from universities, federal agencies and NGOs and represented a range of disciplines: molecular biology, economics, forest ecology, law, tree breeding, ethics, population genetics and sociology. All of these perspectives were important for considering the many aspects and challenges of using biotechnology to improve forest health.

More than 80 million acres are at risk of losing at least 25 percent of tree vegetation between 2013 and 2027 due to insects and diseases. Credit: Krist et al. (2014), CC BY-SA.

A crisis in US forests
Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg. Forests face higher temperatures and droughts and more pests. As goods and people move around the globe, even more insects and pathogens hitchhike into our forests.

We focused on four case studies to illustrate the breadth of forest threats. The emerald ash borer arrived from Asia and causes severe mortality in five species of ash trees. First detected on U.S. soil in 2002, it had spread to 31 states as of May 2018. Whitebark pine, a keystone and foundational species in high elevations of the U.S. and Canada, is under attack by the native mountain pine beetle and an introduced fungus. Over half of whitebark pine in the northern U.S. and Canada have died.

The emerald ash borer is destroying ash trees in 31 states. Photo: Herman Wong HM/Shutterstock.
The emerald ash borer feeds on ash trees, damaging and eventually killing them. Photo: K Steve Cope/Shutterstock.

Poplar trees are important to riparian ecosystems as well as for the forest products industry. A native fungal pathogen, Septoria musiva, has begun moving west, attacking natural populations of black cottonwood in Pacific Northwest forests and intensively cultivated hybrid poplar in Ontario. And the infamous chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia to North America in the late 1800s, wiped out billions of American chestnut trees.

Can biotech come to the rescue? Should it?

It’s complicated
Although there are many potential applications of biotechnology in forests, such as genetically engineering insect pests to suppress their populations, we focused specifically on biotech trees that could resist pests and pathogens. Through genetic engineering, for example, researchers could insert genes, from a similar or unrelated species, that help a tree tolerate or fight an insect or fungus.

It’s tempting to assume that the buzz and enthusiasm for gene editing will guarantee quick, easy and cheap solutions to these problems. But making a biotech tree will not be easy. Trees are large and long-lived, which means that research to test the durability and stability of an introduced trait will be expensive and take decades or longer. We also don’t know nearly as much about the complex and enormous genomes of trees, compared to lab favorites such as fruit flies and the mustard plant, Arabidopsis.

In addition, because trees need to survive over time and adapt to changing environments, it is essential to preserve and incorporate their existing genetic diversity into any “new” tree. Through evolutionary processes, tree populations already have many important adaptations to varied threats, and losing those could be disastrous. So even the fanciest biotech tree will ultimately depend on a thoughtful and deliberate breeding program to ensure long-term survival. For these reasons, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee recommends increasing investment not just in biotechnology research, but also in tree breeding, forest ecology and population genetics. Read more …

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It’s Time to Talk About Ecological Grief

Undark Magazine
by Michaela Cavanagh

As climate change marches forward, it will exact a mounting, tangible toll on our collective mental health and productivity.

WHEN I CALLED COURTNEY HOWARD, one of the authors of the recent Lancet Countdown 2018 Report on health and climate change, she was Christmas shopping during a pit stop in London on her way to the 24th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland.

As she picked out ballet shoes for one of her young daughters, we discussed her work on the mental health impacts of climate change. She recounted to me the moment in her own life when climate change’s bottom line really sunk in. She was at home with her daughter doing some mental math: Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, where she lives, was already 2.5 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in the 1940s, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had recently reported that average global temperatures were on pace to warm another half degree or more by 2052. The warming would be irreversible in little more than a decade — well within the lifetime of her children. She wound up on the floor, wrapped around her daughter in the fetal position.

The impact of climate change on our physical world has by now been made clear and manifest to anyone paying attention: Rising sea levels and increasing temperatures have begotten wildfires, drought, tsunamis and heat waves, which have wrought unprecedented devastation. The impact of climate change on our internal worlds, though, has gone relatively unstudied. But a growing body of evidence demonstrates that climate change and its effects are linked to elevated rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress, and a host of negative emotions including anger, hopelessness, despair, and a feeling of loss. Researchers have dubbed these feelings “ecological grief.”

In a briefing for Canadian policymakers released in conjunction with the Lancet Countdown, Howard and her colleagues honed in on ecological grief, eco-anxiety, and something called solastalgia — a form of homesickness one experiences while still at home. Grief and mourning are natural responses to the scale of ecological loss we’re living through. Research shows that the sixth mass extinction is underway, and the World Health Organization named climate change the single greatest threat to global health this century.

Ecological grief is the grief that’s felt in response to experienced or anticipated ecological loss. It may arise due to acute environmental disasters. For example, one in six survivors of Hurricane Katrina met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, and crop-damaging heat waves have been shown to lead to increased suicide rates in India. But grief can also stem from stress and anxiety associated with slow, creeping changes in one’s environment — feelings that many of us are experiencing as the winters become uncannily warmer and extreme weather events become more frequent.

Communities whose livelihoods and ways of living are inextricable from their natural environments, though, are on the frontlines of the crisis. In the Inuit communities of Nunatsiavut, located in the north of Canada’s most easterly province, Newfoundland and Labrador, temperatures are warming twice as fast as in the rest of the world. That has led to diminishing ice cover, shorter winters, and unpredictable weather. Like other public health challenges, the burden of climate change’s mental health impacts falls primarily on groups that are already vulnerable. The losses these communities suffer extend to every corner of their lives, and they’re unending, says Ashlee Cunsolo, the director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University and another contributor to the recent Lancet report. The land — or ice — is literally shifting beneath their feet and before their eyes. The attendant grief these communities experience is similarly amorphous and ubiquitous.

The changing landscape brings food insecurity, post-traumatic stress disorder, population displacement, and trauma. There are no roads in or out of Nunatsiavut’s Rigolet, the southernmost Inuit community in Canada. The town is accessible by ice road, by plane, or — during the summer months — by ferry. In recent years, the ice has started to form a month later and melt a month earlier, says Derrick Pottle, a hunter and commercial trapper. And when there is no ice, community members have nowhere to go. Without the ice road, “you’re trapped — even if you wanted to get out you couldn’t.” For Pottle and the rest of the community, the sea and the land are “our highways, how we move around, how we get out to harvest, and how we connect to the land.” Read more …

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Analysis: The Climate Papers Most Featured in the Media in 2018

Max Boykoff’s MeCCO work for Lancet Report (#23 most featured in the media) highlighted in Carbon Brief

Carbon Brief, January 9, 2019

In a year dominated by events such as Brexit, royal weddings, the Salisbury poisonings, US Supreme Court nominations and the World Cup, there was still space in the news media in 2018 for reporting on new climate research.

These new journal papers were reported around the world in news articles and blogs and shared on social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Reddit. Tracking all these “mentions” was Altmetric, an organisation that scores and ranks papers according to the attention they receive. (Full details of how the Altmetric scoring system works can be found in an earlier article.)

Using Altmetric data for 2018, Carbon Brief has compiled its annual list of the 25 most talked-about climate change-related papers of the year. Read more …

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MeCCO 2018 Year End Retrospective

2018 saw media attention to climate change and global warming ebb and flow, amid competing interests in other political, social, environmental, economic, and cultural issues around the globe. In the context of media attention paid to issues from Australian national elections to Yemeni conflict, climate change and global warming garnered coverage through stories manifesting through primary, yet often intersecting, political economicscientificcultural and ecological/meteorological themes.

At the global level, October was the high water mark for coverage of climate change or global warming among the sources tracked by our Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO) team. This trend of highest levels of coverage in October was also the case at the national level in Australia, Canada, Spain, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) in 2018. This coverage was attributed primarily to attention paid to the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on impacts of 1.5oC warming. It was also bolstered by media coverage of continued impacts and reverberations from Hurricane Michael (coming on land in the US Florida panhandle) and Typhoon Yutu (tearing through the US Northern Marianas Islands) in October along with continued cleanup efforts from September’s Typhoon Mangkhut (damaging the Philippines) and Hurricane Florence (making landfall in the Carolinas).

Figure 1 shows media coverage of climate change or global warming month to month over the last 180 months – organized into seven geographical regions around the world – from January through December 2018.

In January 2018, we at MeCCO expanded coverage to sixty-two newspaper sources, six radio sources and six television sources. These now span across thirty-eight countries, monitoring segments and articles in English, Spanish, German and Portuguese. In addition to English-language searches of ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’, we began additional searches of Spanish-language sources through the terms ‘cambio climático’ or ‘calentamiento global’, and commenced with searches of German-language sources through the terms ‘klimawandel’ or ‘globale erwärmung’ as well as Portuguese-language sources through the terms ‘mudanças climáticas’ or ‘aquecimento global’.

In the aggregate across the newspaper sources, coverage was down 26% in 2018 compared to 2017. However, at the country level, coverage increased most notably in the UK (up 22%), New Zealand (up 22%) and US (up 20%) in 2018. Meanwhile, coverage held relatively steady in Australia (up 1%), Canada (down 2%), Germany (down 1%), India (up 2%) and Spain (down 1%). As such, the overall decrease in coverage was detected through sources outside these key countries. By comparison, coverage in Central American and South American sources monitored by MeCCO were down 23%. This may be a warning sign of possible limited capacity to cover climate change in global sources that do not generally have the comparable resources of these other country’s outlets.

Our broadened monitoring involved the expansion into regional monitoring of Latin American newspaper coverage, beginning in January 2005. This also included new monitoring of climate change or global warming in US television coverage – ABCCBSCNNFox News NetworkMSNBC, and NBC – from January 2000 through the present. And our 2018 monitoring expanded to representative radio coverage in six main sources – American Public Media (US), National Public Radio (NPR) (US), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (UK), SW Radio Africa (Zimbabwe), Radio Balad (Jordan), and Radio France Internationale (RFI) (France) – also from January 2000 through the present.

In the aggregate across US television sources, coverage in 2018 went down 30% compared to 2017. Across global radio sources we at MeCCO have monitored, coverage in 2018 was down 8% from 2017.

At the US country level, Figure 2 illustrates these trends month to month in US press accounts across five newspaper publications in 2018 – The Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesUSA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Figure 3 shows trends across US television news – ABCCBSCNNFox News NetworkMSNBC, and NBC.

Throughout the year (as in 2017) there has been continued prominence of news from US outlets on climate change or global warming associated with Donald J. Trump. We at MeCCO have referred to this as a ‘Trump Dump’, where media attention that would have focused on other climate-related events and issues instead was placed on Trump-related actions, leaving many other stories untold. Throughout the year 2018, in terms of the frequency of words in US news articles, ‘Trump’ was invoked 22,942 times through 5,106 stories in The Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesUSA Today, and the Los Angeles Times in 2018. In fact, ‘Trump’ was mentioned more than twice as frequently as ‘science’, ‘scientific’, ‘scientists’ and ‘scientist’ combined (a ratio of 2.2 times more frequent). These abundant mentions of Trump were a remarkable ratio of nearly 4.5 times per article on average. However, this is down slightly from a ratio of nearly 4.7 times per article on average in 2017.

Meanwhile, ‘Trump’ was invoked 41,172 times through 980 stories on US network television news outlets ABCCBSCNNFox News NetworkMSNBC, and NBC in 2018 (a ratio of approximately 42 times per segment on average). Even though the NBC Meet the Press December 30 special report on climate change was seen to be an encouraging new media approach, the show nonetheless mentioned or quoted Trump fourteen times during the hour-long program (see December section and conclusion for more).

This was illustrated in a number of ways throughout the year. For example, media copiously covered comments about “beautiful and clean coal” as the President set carbon-based industry preferences in his January State of the Union address and throughout the year, factual challenges and all. As a second instance, Trump reactions to the November release of the Fourth US National Climate Assessment (NCA 4) generated media attention where journalists like Rebecca Ballhaus from the Wall Street Journal reported, “President Trump said Monday that he doesn’t believe the central finding of a report released last week by his administration … Mr. Trump said of the report, “I’ve seen it. I’ve read some of it. And it’s fine”.  Further elaborations and additional examples can be found in the month-to-month accounts that follow in this 2018 retrospective.

Among others analyzing media representational practices, Lisa Hymas from Media Matters picked up on this in 2018. She astutely commented, “The media should be chasing down stories on climate science, the people being affected by climate change, responses and solutions to the problem. Instead, even when they report on climate change, they’re still chasing Trump”.

Figure 4 depicts word frequencies in US newspaper accounts across the calendar year 2018.

This report is an aggregation and reprise of monthly summaries that our MeCCO team has compiled and posted each month on our website. It is our second annual review of coverage. The project is currently based in the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) in the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder. However, contributions are made through collaborations and partnerships with MeCCO members at the University of New England (USA), Babson College (USA), Universidad de Sevilla (Spain) and the National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES) in Japan.

As 2019 begins, it is a time for important reflection on how the past year 2018 shapes the one to come. It is also a critical time to ponder how our histories up to the present shape those that will follow. Australian drought, Sub-Saharan African human displacements, Central and South American biodiversity losses, Asian commercial fishing woes, Brazilian presidential elections, IPCC and NCA reports, US federal (in)action mixed with rollbacks and wildfires across North America and Scandinavia punctuated more general trends across the 2018 media and climate change landscape. Consequently, the month-to-month summaries (below) highlight key events, stories and developments through politicalscientificcultural and ecological/meteorological themes. Read more …

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MeCCO Monthly Summary: Duly ‘noted’, but not duly ‘welcomed’

Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO)
December 2018 Summary

December media attention to climate change and global warming was up nearly 8% throughout the world from the previous month of November 2018, and up about 54% from December last year. Increase were detected in Asia (up 28%), Central/South America (up 19%), the Middle East (up 7%), North America (up 10%), Oceania (up 37%) and Europe (up 8%), while going down only in Africa (down 25%) this month compared to the previous month of November. Figure 1 shows increases and decreases in newspaper media coverage at the global scale – organized into seven geographical regions around the world – over the past 180 months (from January 2004 through December 2018).

Moving to considerations of content within these searches, Figure 2 shows word frequency data in the dynamic spaces of Australian and New Zealand newspaper media coverage in December 2018.

In December, considerable attention was paid to political and economic content of coverage. Prominently, the 24th Conference of Parties meeting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) took place in Katowice, Poland. Driven by a journalistic penchant for conflict, media attention was paid to COP24 debates regarding whether to ‘welcome’ or ‘note’ the October United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on impacts of 1.5oC warming. For example, an Associated Press article entitled ‘U.S., Russia, Kuwait and Saudis block key climate study at COP24’ described that “almost all 200 countries present in Katowice, Poland, had wanted to “welcome” the IPCC report, making it the benchmark for future action. But the U.S. and three other delegations objected…Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also called for the study to be ‘noted’ but not ‘welcomed’”. In addition, media stories covered efforts to agree on a Paris Agreement rulebook, and discussions regarding how to establish and sustain financial support from countries of the ‘global north’ to countries of the ‘global south’. For example, journalist Megan Rowling from Reuters reported, “More than 190 countries are meeting in the coal-mining town of Katowice through Dec. 14 to hammer out rules that will enable the Paris accord to be put into practice from 2020, and spur countries to strengthen their current climate action plans. Current pledges to cut emissions would lead to global warming of about 3 degrees Celsius this century … under the Paris deal, governments have pledged to hold temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees C above pre-industrial times, and ideally to 1.5 degrees C. The world has already warmed about 1 degree C”.

In concert with these talks, in a strongly worded letter, hundreds of investors with approximately $32 trillion in assets-under-management demanded that world governments increase their ambition on climate change through policy interventions that assist with progress along decarbonization pathways. They recommended putting a price on carbon and a phasing out of coal power in order to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement. This generated media attention. For examples, journalist Simon Jessop from Reuters reported, “A total of 415 investors from across the world including UBS Asset Management and Aberdeen Standard Investments signed the 2018 Global Investor Statement to Governments on Climate Change demanding urgent action”. Journalist Damian Carrington from The Guardian noted, “The investors include some of the world’s biggest pension funds, insurers and asset managers and marks the largest such intervention to date. They say fossil fuel subsidies must end and substantial taxes on carbon be introduced”.

Many sub-global issues also percolated in media accounts. For example, on the domestic US front in December, the Andrew Wheeler-led Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rolled out a plan to reduce restrictions on coal production. Journalist Stephanie Ebbs from ABC News reported “The Trump administration wants to make it easier for energy companies to open new coal-fired power plants, even as government data shows the U.S. is at the lowest level of coal use in decades”. Meanwhile By Nicole Gaouette and Rene Marsh from CNN noted, “The Trump administration will reverse an Obama-era coal emissions rule as part of its effort to loosen restrictions on the coal industry, just days after a US government report warned that aggressive action is needed to curb greenhouse gases and ease the impact of global warming. The reversal won’t lead to the immediate construction of new coal-fired power plants, but it does send an immediate political signal that the Trump administration is intent on shoring up the coal industry and other energy interests”. Read more …

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2019 AAAS “CASE” Workshop Student Competition

Student competition to attend the AAAS “Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering” workshop in Washington, DC to learn about Congress, the federal budget process, and effective science communication. Students will have an opportunity to meet with their Members of Congress or congressional staff.

Application Deadline: January 25, 2019

Click here for more information or to apply

Due to the success of the program to date, we have secured additional funding to expand this program to four Fellows for the 2019 CASE workshop!

Competition Details
The CIRES Center for Science and Technology Policy Research is hosting a competition to send FOUR CU Boulder students to Washington, DC to attend the AAAS “Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering” workshop. The competition is open to any full-time CU Boulder graduate student or upper class undergraduate in one of the following fields: Biological, physical, or earth sciences; Computational sciences and mathematics; Engineering disciplines; Medical and health sciences; and Social and behavioral sciences.

The evaluation committee will select four students from those who apply. The competition is supported by the CU Graduate School and the Center for STEM Learning. Competition winners will be asked to submit a brief report about their workshop experience and participate in a panel discussion.

Please submit a one-page statement explaining the importance of the workshop to your career development and a one-page resume to by January 25, 2019.

The evaluation committee will select four students from those who apply. The competition is supported by the CU Graduate School and the Center for STEM Learning. Competition winners will be asked to submit a brief report about their workshop experience and participate in a panel discussion.

Workshop Overview
Making our CASE: Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering
March 24-27, 2019

An exciting opportunity for upper-class undergraduate and graduate students in science, mathematics, and engineering disciplines to learn about science policy and advocacy. #MakingOurCASE

This entry-level program is organized to educate STEM students who are interested in learning about the role of science in policy-making, to introduce them to the federal policy-making process, and to empower them with ways to become a voice for basic research throughout their careers.  The workshop is designed for students in science, technology, engineering, and math fields, with limited experience and knowledge of science policy and advocacy who want to learn more about science policy.

Students will participate in a three-and-a-half day program in Washington, DC. Participants will learn about the structure and organization of Congress, the federal budget and appropriations processes, and tools for effective science communication and civic engagement.  In addition, students will participate in interactive seminars about policy-making and communication.

On the last day of the program, students will have the option to form teams and conduct meetings with their elected Members of Congress and congressional staff. More workshop Information.

Founding Organizations: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Institute of Physics, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Research!America, and University of Colorado Boulder

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Inside the Greenhouse Newsletter, Issue 12

Issue 12 | December 2018
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Inside the Greenhouse (ITG) has continued to build momentum this fall, with many ongoing pursuits to ‘re-tell climate change stories’ in compelling and resonant ways. Our fall semester activities included a number of great events along with new research outputs. Also, this fall we have been working to revamp the searchable database of projects on our website – featuring students’ compositions as well as past events and interviews – in order to make our work more accessible and useful for others looking to integrate creative works into their ongoing climate communications.

In addition, we’re very pleased to announce that Professor Phaedra C. Pezzullo has joined us in our ongoing efforts. Phaedra is an associate professor in the Department of Communication here at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder. She has collaborated with us over the past years on workshops in communications skills, curriculum planning, and more as she has increasingly focused on climate science communication and just transition policy. She is committed to public engagement, as she has consulted with cities and NGOs on just transitions for climate change and environmental justice organizing, participated in the International Environmental Communication Association’s Climate Negotiations Working Group at COP21 in Paris, and provides trainings in climate science communication. Her background in communication and environmental justice provides key touchstones for our group. Among her many research contributions to date, Phaedra authored the award-winning book Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Travel, Pollution and Environmental Justice in 2007. She also co-edited Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement  in 2007 and edited Cultural Studies and the Environment, Revisited in 2010. In addition, she has co-edited two editions of the award-winning textbook Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere in 2016 and 2018 (with three-time Sierra Club president Robert Cox). For more information about Phaedra’s ongoing work, check out her professional website. As a new co-director, Phaedra significantly strengthens our capacity going forward.

As we continue with our work, your support is critical. Please visit the Inside the Greenhouse Gift Fund to provide a tax-deductible gift before the new year arrives. Any amount helps us as we continue to work to communicate about the critical importance of climate engagement. Read more …

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Toward an Equitable Coal Transition

by Suzanne Tegen (CSTPR Visiting Scholar) and Alison Anson
Center for the New Energy Economy, Colorado State University

Photos above: A community once focused on coal is now a regional hub for recreational motorcycling. Credit: Back of the Dragon.

Coal plants are closing across the United States. The IEEFA expects 44 coal units will close in 2018, and 73 additional units are already scheduled to close by 2024. According to EIA reports, coal production peaked in 2008, and consumption in 2018 will drop below 1979’s record low and continue to decline. Electricity from coal now has a higher levelized cost of energy than natural gas combined cycle, wind, and utility-scale solar. Because of this, even with the EPA’s recent rollback of emissions regulations, utilities are unlikely to invest in new coal. Recent analyses[1],[2] reveal that continuing to operate some existing coal plants is now uneconomical, even without including social and environmental costs.

This map of the 2016 fleet of operating units is color coded to show announced retirements and conversions and units that are uneconomic compared to existing NGCC units. The bar graph show the total number of units by state. Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists 2017: A Dwindling Role for Coal.

Coal mining is an industry around which whole communities are built. As coal becomes increasingly uneconomical, and as coal mines and plants close down, miners, power plant employees, and their communities must find ways to transition.[3] The term “just transition” has been used to describe an equitable shift for coal workers and communities.[4],[5]

According to a study funded by the European Climate Foundation, “there is no recipe for implementing a just transition because mono-industrial regions are very different from each other and are defined by unique social, political, economic or cultural factors.”

Policy solutions for coal transitions typically focus on workers or utilities’ return on investments. Coal communities can be mono-industrial, where industry is associated with identity and attachment to place. Providing alternative jobs and workforce development funding may not be sufficient to help the entire community deal with the shift away from a coal-based identity and livelihood.

Those responsible for successful transitions include policy-makers (including regulators), utilities (including plant owners), and community stakeholders (including workers). There are several current examples of successful coal community transitions. In Colstrip, Montana, policy-makers and others are providing new jobs in reclamation and clean-up. In Pueblo, Colorado, Xcel Energy will offer workers alternative jobs; and the community of Tazewell West Virginia has shifted focus from coal to tourism and natural resources.[6]

The solutions associated with transitioning coal communities should include a discussion of local justice and equity. Understanding and replicating successful transitions will require collaborative evaluation of the context-specific strategies developed by policy-makers, utilities, and communities. Socio-economic, cultural, and contextual perspectives will be integral to implementing these solutions.

[1] See RMI’s “Managing the Coal Capital Transition” for fiscal and capital impacts.
[2] The Carbon Tracker Initiative found that “42% of global coal capacity is already unprofitable.”
[3] Due to technological advances and automation, occupations such as farming and transportation may also require transitional solutions.
[4] Early use of the term “just transition” is attributed to Tony Mazzocchi around the late 1970s.
[5] Alexandru Mustata, 2017.
[6] See also

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David Oonk Presents at the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting

by David Oonk, PhD Candidate
ATLAS Institute and Center for Science and Technology Policy Research
University of Colorado Boulder

The research that I presented provided some background and highlighted academic climate scientists varying concerns and perspectives on advocacy. The majority of conversations at my poster were with geo-scientists eager to learn more about how and when they should engage in advocacy for their science and its policy implications. One individual expressed optimism that their colleagues’ views on advocacy are shifting and their community is now more engaged and involved. Another individual said that the 2016 election really changed their view on scientists advocating and motivated them to get involved.

The work that I presented and the conversations I had at the poster session aligned with larger general impressions I had at the 2018 AGU Meeting. I found that many of the presentations and posters engaged deeply with the societal relevance and policy implications of their work. Being in DC, many of the sessions were centered on the science policy nexus and how geo-scientist can get involved. These were just examples of a undercurrent at the conference, one where scientists were critically questioning their role in decision-making and policy-making as they faced a horizon where they must engage directly in solving society’s most pressing problems.

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Ogmius, Issue 51 is Now Out

Issue #51, Fall/Winter 2018

Ogmius Exchange

Faculty Affiliate Forum

Student Highlight

Local Highlight

Center News

Center Publications

Multimedia Highlight

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