My new freelance writings: climate costs, light pollution, binary stars

I set out as a freelance science writer this month, and here’s a few excerpts from my latest pieces in Slate, New Scientist, and Inside Science. (See links below for the full articles.) As usual, thanks go to my insightful editors, Susan Matthews, Lisa Grossman, and Chris Gorski, and thanks to Abigail Malate, who provided illustrations for the light pollution article.


Here’s One Way Trump’s Team Could Manipulate Government Data

It has plans to recalculate the social cost of carbon, which has been called “the most important number you’ve never heard of.”



…Would Trump try to meddle with the government’s data-collection process? His transition team is interested in doing exactly that. One of the first things that might be under attack? A number known as the “social cost of carbon.”

Since 2008, the final year of the Bush administration, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Department of Transportation have been required to take the social cost of carbon into account when assessing and enacting regulations. Everything from refrigerators to cars and trucks to power plants emits carbon, which then goes on to hurt our health, our lands, our long-term viability on this planet, etc. The social cost of carbon allows more than 70 federal regulations, and even some local and state ones, to meaningfully and uniformly account for these costs while regulating. It’s sort of like a carbon tax that only applies to government decisions and is never actually paid but still incentivizes long-term good behavior over short-term economic gains.

“It’s the most important number you’ve never heard of,” says Michael Greenstone, a University of Chicago economist.

It exists thanks to a 2007 federal court case that forced the Bush administration to account for the social cost of carbon when regulating the fuel economy of trucks and SUVs. The suit argued, among other things, that the Energy Policy and Conservation Act’s “calculation of the costs and benefits of alternative fuel economy standards assigns zero value to the benefit of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reduction” and that these benefits should be included. This was achieved by calculating and accounting for the social cost of carbon. Another court finding upheld and reinforced that decision just last year: A trade association of refrigerator companies had tried to argue that the cost of carbon estimate was just a guess and that the government didn’t have the authority to consider it. The court disagreed, upholding that the calculation “is supported by substantial evidence and is neither arbitrary nor capricious”…

[Read the entire story in Slate, published on 26 January 2017.]


Astronomers Encourage Cities to Shield Outdoor Lighting

Access to a dark night sky is a universal human right, says the American Astronomical Society.

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way — that iconic stream of stars coursing across the night sky — cannot be seen by one-third of humanity and 80 percent of Americans. As the artificial glow from towns and cities increases every year, and starry nights become unfamiliar to many, astronomers and dark-sky advocates are pushing to reduce light pollution — starting with changes to outdoor lighting.

The American Astronomical Society passed a resolution at their annual meeting in Grapevine, Texas this month, “affirming that access to a dark night sky is a universal human right, making quality outdoor lighting a worldwide imperative.”

The organization also endorsed a set of recommendations for outdoor lighting. In short, “shield the light, dim it, and use redder, warmer colors,” said Lori Allen, director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

Light pollution from street lights, lit billboards and other outdoor light fixtures affects many people and wildlife species, nocturnal and diurnal alike. “It has huge effects on public health, the environment and certainly for astronomy,” said James Lowenthal, an astronomer at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Astronomers at observatories can see the effects of light glow from a city hundreds of miles away, to their dismay…

[Read the entire story in Inside Science, published on 30 January 2017.]


Binary stars shred up and shove off their newborn planets

For planets, two stars are not better than one. A potential planet orbiting two suns has to overcome so many obstacles that most such systems host no planets at all, suggesting we should keep the search for habitable worlds focused on solo stars.

A survey conducted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope showed that most single stars of the same type as our sun have plenty of planets. But the majority of these stars come in pairs – and it seems they’re not so planet-friendly. Only one-third of binary stars within 50 times the Earth-sun distance of each other host planets, says Adam Kraus at the University of Texas in Austin at the American Astronomical Society meeting on 5 January…

[Read the entire story in New Scientist, published on 13 January 2017.]

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