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Harvard Study Says Exxon Knew

Posted by NYPIRG on August 28, 2017 at 12:23 pm
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A standard page out of the American Business playbook is that if there is a serious problem emerging down the road, corporate chieftains ramp up a massive disinformation and lobbying campaign to undermine the threat.

The tobacco industry used it to great effect for decades.  It was in the mid-1960s that the U.S. Surgeon General first issued the warning that smoking cigarettes can cause cancer, but it took decades of battling the industry’s fake news, public relations consultants and corrupt researchers before public health advocates were able to make significant headway in protecting the public.

Apparently, that playbook was also used by the oil, gas and coal industries to undermine climate science.  Last week, two researchers from Harvard University published a study that reviewed internal and public records of oil industry giant ExxonMobil to see whether the company knew about the dangers of climate change, yet misled the public and investors about the dangers their own research had found.

Essentially the researchers found that Exxon knew about the dangers and engaged in a campaign that made “explicit factual misrepresentations” in newspaper ads it purchased to convey its views on the oil industry and climate science.

Over the past few years there has been a significant, and growing, number of media reports that have shown that Exxon — along with other fossil fuel companies — has known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels was a key contributor to global warming.

The Harvard researchers went a step further by demonstrating that Exxon acknowledged the reality of climate change in academic papers and internal documents while promoting doubt in public-facing communications.

The researchers said they examined 187 Exxon documents, including internal memos, peer-reviewed papers by Exxon scientists and New York Times “advertorials” that Exxon paid to have published in the style of opinion pieces.  The researchers said they used a social science analysis method to turn statements in the documents into data points that could be counted and compared.

The authors wrote: “Accounting for expressions of reasonable doubt, 83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12% of advertorials do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt. We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science — by way of its scientists’ academic publications — but promoted doubt about it in advertorials.”

The Harvard researchers wrote that their analysis of the documents makes the answer to that question clear.  “Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public,” they said.

The researchers also stated that the Exxon scientists acknowledged that burning fossil fuels was adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and causing global temperatures to rise as early as 1979. But the company’s position in newspaper ads consistently asserted doubt about climate science.

ExxonMobil angrily disputed the researchers’ claims, stating that the company’s “statements have been consistent with our understanding of climate science.”

What is without doubt is that the industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fund organizations and research to undermine the growing body of independent research showing the connections between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change resulting from global warming.  Those efforts were so successful that their allies now control the public health and science policies of the federal government – which is eviscerating public health protections and steps that had been taken to combat runaway global warming.

And while this latest volley between researchers and ExxonMobil may not completely resolve the dispute, what is clear is that the issue will eventually be resolved in court.

New York State Attorney General Schneiderman two years ago launched an investigation into Exxon’s behaviors and whether its actions constitute fraud.  It is reasonable to expect to see some action on that investigation soon.  Exxon will get its day in court and the public may finally know for sure what the company knew about climate change and the steps it took to protect – or threaten – the environment.

Colleges Open Up

Posted by NYPIRG on August 21, 2017 at 8:27 am
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All across New York State, colleges and universities are opening up for the Fall 2017 academic semester.  This annual rite of passage is life-changing for the students and deeply impactful for the families.  One key way that college can impact is the cost.

Attending college can add significant economic stress on the families of college students.  Rapidly increasing costs can lead families to go into debt to pay the tuition, housing, books and fees of attending college.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York collects data on student loan debt in the state.  It reported that as of 2015, the average college debt in New York is $32,200, higher than the national average of $29,700.

Moreover, the debt steadily increased for a decade. According to a report from the State Comptroller’s office, the average student debt load in New York State increased by more than 47 percent between 2005 and 2015.

Yet, for most people, getting a college degree is more important than ever.

By nearly any measure, college graduates outperform their peers who have only completed their high school degree.  For example, the average graduate is 24 percent more likely to be employed and average earnings among graduates are $32,000 higher annually and $1 million higher over a lifetime.  And 75 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree vote in presidential election years, compared with about 52 percent of high school graduates.

Clearly, public policies should be focused on making a college education more accessible, while ensuring that families don’t need massive debts to pay for it.

In New York, there have been some innovative steps to address those problems.

Two years ago, Governor Cuomo advanced a plan to help curtail some of the debts facing students.  The “Get On Your Feet” program offers up to two years of federal student loan debt relief to recent college graduates living in the state.

The program supplements the federal Pay As You Earn loan repayment program and by allowing eligible college graduates living in New York State to pay nothing on their student loans for the first two years out of school.

In addition to offering students some debt relief, earlier this year the governor advanced a plan to lower the cost of tuition for those attending public colleges.  The state’s Excelsior Scholarship program supplements current financial aid programs and allows for free tuition to waive the cost of two- and four-year public colleges and universities for families earning less than $125,000 per year.

Access to the Excelsior Scholarship will be widened over time, with a household income limit of $100,000 this year, $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019. However, the scholarship also includes restrictions. It requires students to average 30 credits per year, for example, and finish their degrees on time.

While there has been innovation, both the loan forgiveness program and the “free tuition” program have limits and the numbers of students benefiting is relatively small.  Of course, for the students benefiting, the programs are tremendously important and the programs should expand to meet financial needs in the future.

Yet, the state hasn’t kept up when it comes to providing support for public colleges.  As part of this year’s budget deal, the state agreed to a “maintenance of effort” promise.  Essentially, the state promised not to cut its support for SUNY and CUNY and that the new revenues generated by the tuition hikes would go toward enhancing college programs, not filling in budget cuts.

But the maintenance of effort pledge does not include inflationary costs or salary increases, which means that millions of dollars for those increases had to come from somewhere, likely students’ tuition.  As a result, both the State University and City University systems will be scrambling to cover state budget shortfalls unless the state provides some relief.

Before the end of session, legislation was passed that fills the state gap.  Given the extraordinary increase in state revenues over recent years, it makes sense that the state should be enhancing its support for public higher education, instead of hitting up college students and their families.

Innovative programs to help students attend college are important improvements, but unless the state ponies up more of its share, students will end up paying more anyway or services will shrink.

The new semester offers new promise to college students. Let’s hope that the state adds more support to help make those promises realities.

The State of the Climate

Posted by NYPIRG on August 14, 2017 at 10:06 am
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Last week the nation’s top science agencies released a report on the planet’s deteriorating climate.  The report, State of the Climate 2016, by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made it official: 2016 was the warmest year in recorded history.  And it was the third year in a row that the record was set.

According to the scientists, the planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with 16 of the 17 warmest years on record occurring since 2001. Not only was 2016 the warmest year on record, but eight of the 12 months that make up the year were the warmest on record for those respective months.

The report also found that

  • Global land surface temperatures last year were highest in 137 years of record keeping.
  • Sea surface temperatures were also at their highest.
  • Sea levels were at record highs in the 24 years that satellite record keeping has been used.

The peer-reviewed report stated that with a global annual average CO2 concentration of 402.9 parts per million, 2016’s greenhouse gas concentrations are the highest on record—and the first year in more than 800,000 years in which CO2 levels exceeded 400 parts per million.

From a climate perspective, the news is all bad.

The increasingly dire situation underscores the need for more aggressive responses: greater investments in alternative energy sources and a halt to the expansion of new fossil fuel investments.

It makes no sense to invest in new infrastructure to transport fossil fuels with the planet now increasingly destabilized by the burning of fossil fuels.  In order for such investments to pay off, they must be used for years – years that the planet simply does not have.

It is precisely for that reason, that Governor Cuomo should do all in his power to block new such projects in New York.  He has his one such opportunity with his decision on whether to allow the operation of a new natural gas plant, the Competitive Power Ventures project in the Hudson Valley.

The project would import and burn large quantities of natural gas.

And in order for it to succeed financially, it would have to do it for quite some time.  Time, which when it comes to climate change, that the world does not have.

Given the dire circumstances, the state has begun to act.  Other new fossil fuel projects have been scrapped but others, like the Competitive Power Ventures project, are still under consideration.

Earlier this month, energy scientist Amory Lovins laid out a plan for focusing state resources on efficiency and renewables as the best path toward responding to the climate crisis.  His analysis argues that investing resources in efficiency programs reduces energy demand and is so much cheaper per kWh that it could replace much of the power generated by current energy plants.

The longer the world waits in seriously tackling the climate crisis, the more difficult the options.  Blocking the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, as well as curtailing the billions that the governor is using to prop up inefficient, aging nuclear power plants, and instead using those resources to boost efficiency and the use of renewables, are the best options now. New York shouldn’t wait.

Good News and Bad News in NY’s Cancer Fighting Efforts

Posted by NYPIRG on August 7, 2017 at 9:13 am
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Every year, the American Cancer Society reviews each of the 50 states’ cancer-fighting programs.  The report, How Do You Measure Up, was released last week and identified some good news and bad for New Yorkers.

As we all know, cancer is a classification of many types of diseases.  According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is “the name given to a collection of related diseases.  There are about 100 different types of cancer.  In all types of cancer, some of the body’s cells begin to divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues.”  As those cells spread, they can damage other parts of the body and may form growths called tumors.

Virtually all New Yorkers have had an experience with cancer.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cancer is the second leading cause of death in America.  Outside of the relatively benign skin cancers, there are five cancers that constitute roughly half of all cancer cases in New York and that also constitute half of all of the cancer deaths.  Those are cancers of the prostate, female breast, lung, pancreas, and colon.

Breast cancer is the leading form of cancer affecting women and the second biggest killer.  Yet, it is not the leading cause of cancer deaths for women.  Prostate cancer is a leading cause of cancer in men, but it is not the leading cause of cancer deaths in men.  That terrible distinction belongs to lung cancer.  Nearly one quarter of all cancer deaths result from lung cancer.

The American Cancer Society’s report reviewed how the state combats cancer using the best practices that are available.  In some areas, like colon cancer screening, the programs show strong positive results.  While there are always risks to undergoing any more invasive screenings, generally the risks are far outweighed by the benefits of identifying and treating colon cancer.

When it comes to lung cancer, the screening programs’ successes are more limited.  Yet we know how best to avoid lung cancer: by reducing the use of tobacco products.

The leading cause of lung cancer is tobacco use. Today nearly 9 out of 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking cigarettes.  Not only are smokers at risk, but even non-smokers can be afflicted by exposure to tobacco smoke.  In the U.S., more than 7,300 nonsmoking lung cancer patients die each year from exposure to secondhand smoke alone.

The American Cancer Society report reviewed the state’s tobacco control efforts and essentially gave it a failing grade.  It’s not that the program doesn’t follow the best practices, it’s because the program is starved for funds – funds which are readily available.

And that’s where New York State policy comes in.

The federal government has offered blueprints to the states on how to design their tobacco control programs to have the most beneficial impact.  And here is where the wheels start to come off in New York.

The experts at the federal government’s U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that New York State spend roughly $200 million on its tobacco control program.  But New York never has.

What is most inexplicable is that the state has the money for the program.  It collects over $1 billion in tobacco taxes and still receives hundreds of millions from the Master Settlement Agreement.  The Master Settlement Agreement was a deal between the tobacco companies and the states to compensate taxpayers for the health care claims that resulted from tobacco use.

Instead of investing some of these tobacco revenues into programs to help reduce the health care carnage caused by smoking, the state’s program has suffered from devastating cuts during the Cuomo Administration, and has lost more than half of its funding.

So despite receiving well over a billion dollars from tobacco companies – who take it from their addicted customers – the Cuomo Administration has slashed funding for programs to keep kids from starting and to help smokers to quit.  They’ve spent the money elsewhere.

The American Cancer Society’s report should be a wake-up call to the Administration and to all New Yorkers – invest tobacco revenues into health prevention; if that is done many lives will be saved.