Climate science, Political science

This Tuesday Americans will vote for the presidential candidate whose propositions best represent their views and interests. During this election cycle, the candidates’ views have been exposed and scrutinized by the press and we have seen them debate on issues of immigration, national defense, labor law reform, social issues of race and gender, health coverage, and the welfare system. However, there is one certain obvious truth that has been surprisingly neglected this election—it starts with a “C” and ends with “limate change”.

Being a global phenomenon, climate change is an important topic not only for America but for the entire world. According to a 2015 survey of 40 nations by the Pew Research Center, the majority of the world thinks climate change is a serious problem, and around half the people surveyed think it is a very serious problem.[1]

Climate change is in the same group of topics as evolution. It is backed by science, and in its general formulation, it is a fact. The physics behind climate change are well understood and climate models are well founded. There is little doubt about the theoretical mechanisms behind climate change. The greenhouse effect certainly exists and is exacerbated by man-made CO2 emissions. The planet is going to get warmer, average temperatures are going to increase, and seal levels will rise.

Of course, data problems, computer technology limitations, and human biases justify skepticism towards specific predictions rendered by climate models. There is little consensus about the ways that climate change may manifest itself, but the general idea that climate change is real and that its impacts are weighted toward unfavorable outcomes is undeniable.

Climate change is real and climate change is in large part caused by human activity. The world will experience climate change differently, with some regions seeing positive impacts. However, the consensus is that the negative outcomes will have disastrous consequences that will vastly overwhelm the positive ones.  To get an idea of the scale of the negative impact, think of the millions, if not billions, of people living in large urban centers along the coast that will be affected by sea level rise. Also, think of the millions of farmers in developing countries located in the tropics that rely heavily on rainfall for their livelihoods.

That’s what science says. However, whether you agree with it or not may have to do more with political loyalties than with reason and experience. Americans seem to be especially good at ignoring or denying the existence of climate change. As an international student of environmental sciences I was disturbed to find that Americans are among the least concerned about climate change and its potential impacts. In fact, according to a recent poll from Monmouth University, 30 percent of Americans do not actually believe in climate change, and of the believers, only 27 percent of respondents agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is the main cause of climate change.[2]

In a university context we’d like to think that science and politics are different realms with different objectives and different rules. However, in a larger social scale, it seems that politics can tell us more about climate science than is appropriate. In fact, surveys and polls consistently find that Americans’ views about climate change issues divide sharply along partisan lines. Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to consider climate change a very serious problem, believe its effects are being felt now, think it will harm them personally, and support US participation in an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emission.[3]

Accordingly, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stain and Gary Johnson all have very different stances on energy and environmental policy and their approach to address climate change varies wildly.[4] That they have different positions and opinions is not really the issue—that’s perfectly consistent with the premises of representative democracy. What is truly freaky is that not only do they differ on the extent to which the government should regulate domestic industries or on the role of the US as a global leader; they also differ on their support of the very basic science that proves its existence and its human cause.[5]

It troubles me that a topic that is so important globally did not received proper attention in this election. Equally worrisome are the actual views and positions that were left unexposed—especially when blasphemous statements were being made left and right by the potential president of the most powerful country in the world.

I am not the only one who thinks this way. Although majorities of Americans appear skeptical of climate science, there is a group of Americans who are more pragmatic than ideological and who are deeply concerned about climate issues, regardless of their partisan orientation: The Millenials (here).

A USA TODAY/ Rock the Vote Millenial Poll found that the under 35 generation places climate and energy policy among their top political priorities, together with the labor market, welfare programs and gun control (here). As a participant in the poll put it, “If we don’t have a place to live then, it doesn’t really make sense to worry about anything else”.

Both the environment and the economy will suffer from the impacts of climate change. According to an analysis by the think tank demos and liberal advocacy group NextGen, if policymakers do nothing to deal with climate change, the Millenials generation is set to lose $8.8 trillion in income over their lifetime–for reference, compare this to the projected $1 trillion lifetime income loss induced from the student-debt crisis (here).

Yet, despite being disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change, the recent elections does not even come close to representing the views of Millenials on climate and energy policy. When will the aging voters yield power to young people to start acting on the mess they have handed to us?

In future elections, I expect citizens of this country and of the world to demand their representatives to take responsibility and propose solutions to all issues that matter to them. It seems clear that students, academics, and researchers concerned with the environment and the livelihoods of those most vulnerable to its changes must stop hiding behind their science and must take their voice to the public domain. After all, in the US, climate science is the ultimate political science. Students, researchers and professors must speak up their science so that in four years our world is not ignored by our leaders again.







Get your crap together NC: the deal with hog poop in NC

The Hurricane Mathew experience brought back some memories of 1999 when floodings from Hurricane Floyd near hog farms led to a widespread environmental and health failure in the state.[1] The question of what to do about industrial quantities of swine poop had gone silent for months, yet, after Matthew and the coincidental release of a new map showing worrisome trends in the distribution and scale of the state’s chicken and hog farms, concerns about hog waste lagoons seem to be back in the political surface.

As in anything political, there are opposing narratives and the media shows inconsistencies between what state regulators announce and what local communities and interest groups report.

In the aftermath of Matthew, the NC Department of Environmental Quality announced that it had not confirmed any reports of breached or overtopped lagoons and state environmental regulators said they were optimistic that hog waste lagoons in NC were intact.[2] However, local news coverages focused on the struggles and challenging experiences that local folk who live on land neighboring hog farms underwent in dealing with the type of lagoon flooding that occurred during Hurricane Matthew.

This is what Elsie Herring in Duplin County, the first largest hog and pig producing county in the US, had to say of her experience “One facility sprays hog manure on a field less than a dozen feet from my front door. My family and I can’t dry our clothes on a clothesline anymore, because they would be covered with manure. We can’t garden or hold cookouts with family and friends, because the smell and particles in the air burn our eyes and make us gag. We can’t fish or swim in the rivers and streams near us because they’re polluted with hog manure, and we can’t drink or wash with water from our shallow wells.” [3]

Obviously, “intact” seems to be an overstatement by the NC DEQ.

In NC, the hog and pig industry has exploded in recent years to surpass tobacco as the state’s top agricultural money-maker.[4] The pork industry accounts for 6 percent of total agricultural sales in the US, and although hog farming takes place in all states across the country, it is heavily concentrated in certain regions. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, North Carolina ranks as the second largest hog farming state and is home to more than 2,100 permitted industrial swine operations which house nearly 9 million animals. [5] The waste generated by these farms is stored in more than 4,100 lagoons that are heavily concentrated in the eastern side of the state. According to the president of Waterkeeper Alliance, together, these lagoons are the equivalent of 15,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.[6]

Environmentalists and social advocacy groups say large-scale animal farms in NC pose a threat of polluted streams and air. They argue that state regulators issued too many permits in the 1990’s and have not been aggressive enough in finding violators.[7] The DEQ denies such allegations.

From an outsider’s point of view, NC environmental regulators seem to be far from negligent in this regard. On the contrary, they seem to be leading the way in the search for environmentally friendly ways of managing waste from industrial agriculture.[8]

Originally, waste from hog farming was allowed to be stored in lagoons and would then be sprayed onto fields that contained crops. But in 2007 NC put a moratorium on the construction of new hog farms,[9] and since 2012, NC is the only state in the country mandating utility companies to generate a portion of their power from swine waste and poultry droppings through a process called anaerobic digestion (AD). But don’t be too quick to applaud the leaders. Although this progressive and socially beneficial initiative looks great in paper, in practice it has been a great disappointment.

Since the establishment of the mandate, NC has never met its goal for converting hog waste into an energy fuel.[10] This should be of no surprise as it turns out that generating electricity out of manure residues from livestock via AD is not exactly a realistic option for private operators.

A recent analysis by the Agricultural Economic Research Institute of the economic performance of anaerobic digestion in biogas plants concluded that adopting and implementing AD is a prohibitly costly investment in the absence of stable subsidy programs.[11]

The broad dilemma of managing industrial and toxic waste is not new to North Carolinians (remember Coal Ash?). What is less known to local folk are the particular circumstances of time and place that dictate how hog waste should disposed and managed.

What to do about the hog waste lagoons? The state already has a moratorium on opening new facilities, but another way in which it could intervene is to start closing down existing lagoons or to start subsidizing AD adopters.

The idea of establishing a government fund to run a subsidy program for adopters of AD and other environmentally friendly technologies that transform hog poop into commercial products like energy, fertilizer or even adhesive is probably socially beneficial, but is it politically palatable?

About 80 percent of hog and pig operations in NC are owned by a single multi-national corporation, Smithfield Foods, of which the Chinese meat processing company, Shuanghui Group, owns an important share.[12] I doubt North Carolinians will feel conformable transferring their tax dollars to a powerful company whose identity hardly reflects or represents interests and views of local folk. However, I think they would be in favor of promoting the adoption of renewable energy technologies and of protecting local communities from potential threats to their environment and their health.

The answer is certainly not simple nor obvious. As with the coal ash debate, the key questions remain the extent to which the government should intervene and through which feasible and fair mechanism. Feasible is a key concept that can be answered with insights from engineering, economics and science. But there is another important aspect to this dilemma, the idea of fairness which is subjective and must therefore be addressed with more than facts.


New developments on this issue: “EPA faults N.C. over health of minority communities near hog farms” in :












[11] “Economic analysis of anaerobic digestion—A case of Green power biogas plant in The Netherlands.” Solomie A. Gebrezgabhera,∗, Miranda P.M. Meuwissena, Bram A.M. Prinsb, Alfons G.J.M. Oude Lansinka.