Alan Kolok

Alan Kolok is Isaacson Professor of Research, Director of the Center for Environmental Health and Toxicology in the UNMC College of Public Health, and Director of the Nebraska Watershed Network at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is Editor of the journal, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

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Environmentalist's Survival Guide to the Trump Administration

The environment is facing tough times in a Trump presidency. Within an hour of his inaguration, all mentions of...

The environment is facing tough times in a Trump presidency. Within an hour of his inaguration, all mentions of climate change were removed from the White House website. Since then, key environmental regulations have been slashed, and a bill has been introduced calling for the abolishment of the EPA. So what's an environmentalist to do? Below, Island Press authors share their advice for agitating for action on climate change and continuing to push an environmental agenda forward in the face of an unsupportive administration. 

Don't freak out. OK, maybe freaking out is in order. But do it judiciously. There are many gaps between administration pronouncements and actual policy. Do not react to every executive order, press release, or tweet. Find the connections between administration statements and real policies. For whatever issue you care about, there's a group - environmental, immigrants rights, etc. - that's been working on it for years. Find them, look to them for guidance, volunteer or give them money. Get involved.
-John Fleck, Water is for Fighting Over...and Other Myths about Water in the West

The threats facing big cats and their landscapes remain unchanged in light of the recent U.S. presidential election, but the urgency with which we need to protect them remains. There are many meaningful ways to take action on this front, whether it’s by supporting nonprofits like Panthera or purchasing goods from companies committed to using resources sustainably.  Everyone should follow organizations whose missions speak to them and whose actions are in sync with their words.  Share their work and start conversations about why and how animals and their landscapes are so important to the health of our planet and ultimately ourselves as well.
-Alan Rabinowitz, An Indomitable Beast and CEO of Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization

9-21 People's Climate March--6
People's Climate March Rally in New York City, September 2014, via Wikimedia Commons

In my book, I describe how food waste contributes dramatically to climate change, noting that food waste is the world’s third-leading contributor of atmospheric greenhouse gases, which trails only two whole countries—China and the United States—in that category. I also describe how government regulations promote food waste and, hence, climate change. The USDA's National School Lunch Program and food-grading standards both promote massive amounts of food waste, and should be overhauled and/or eliminated. Even if our unhinged president does nothing about either of these issues, regular people can vote with their forks by, for example, purchasing ungraded produce at farmers markets and packing a school lunch for their child (and a second lunch for a student in need).
-Baylen Linnekin, Biting the Hands that Feed Us

One would think the great coniferous forests of the Northwest could withstand just about anything nature had to throw at them. In truth, however, these forests have been drastically changed by human activities.  Increasingly unusual temperature and rainfall patterns are ratcheting up the threat level. A person would surely be excused for thinking that a one degree Celsius rise in average temperature would have no effect on these magnificent trees and the animals they harbor, but consider that such a small temperature increase would raise the lower edge of the snowpack by about 500 feet. That’s a lot of water no longer contributing to spring and summer runoff when plants and animals are most thirsty. Such a temperature increase would also cause the vegetation to transpire a lot more water, drying out the soils and shrinking the creeks and waterways. Forests that have dried out too much are more susceptible to widespread pest and disease infestations as well as to fire.

All is not lost, however; there are ways to deal with climate effects. Probably the most straightforward of these is to maintain a diverse forest with a variety of tree species, tree ages, and vegetation layers. Openings in the forest canopy can help to support a healthy shrub layer. Vegetation around streams helps to cool them so they can support cold-water fish, such as salmon. Forest restoration efforts following fires or other disturbances can help. Planting diverse native species and perhaps using seed or stock from an area where temperatures are more similar to those predicted over next several decades can help these forests to be resilient to climate change and other disturbances that come with changing climate. Replacing small culverts with larger ones that are carefully set can accommodate spring floods while helping fish to navigate upstream when water flows are reduced.   

People concerned about the future of these forests can get involved in local forest planning. Speaking up for the forests, and providing a voice for their future and that of the communities that rely on them, is a great way to roll up your sleeves and make a difference.
-Bea Van HornePeople, Forests, and Change

1.) Get involved locally.  There are environment, climate change issues that are impacting your community. Get involved on the local, grassroots level.
2.) Don’t get discouraged.  Get informed, know the facts (and yes, there is such a thing as factual information) and don’t lose your resolve. 
-Alan KolokModern Poisons

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
"Speaking up for the a great way to roll up your sleeves and make a difference." Photo Credit: Shutterstock

There are ample opportunities for everyone to get involved with local planning to address climate change. Tools you can use to make your communities or natural areas more resilient and resistant to climate change include: 1) retaining and restoring moist areas – such as by keeping downed wood and ephemeral wetlands, installing riparian buffer zones, and paying attention to shading including hill-shading which naturally increases moisture potential; and 2) a mixed approach to natural-area management can increase both habitat heterogeneity at larger spatial scales and consequently species diversity, and then think about linking those habitats together across larger areas with corridors to reduce fragmentation.
-Dede OlsonPeople, Forests and Change

As the federal government proceeds to put its head further into the sand on climate change, the action will increasingly shift to local policy.  Cities can’t solve the problem through regulation—their jurisdictions are too limited.  But they can help through purchasing policies, utility pricing and transportation planning. Think globally/act locally suddenly takes on more significance than ever.
-Grady Gammage,  The Future of the Suburban City

You can’t stop human-caused climate change on your own, but you can slow it down a bit. And you can do it with a president in the White House who’s working to uncork new gushers of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Slowing climate change begins with personal behavior, since all human beings contribute heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. For those thinking about having children, it’s worth pondering that managing greenhouse gas emissions will be a challenge for as long as we’re on the planet. That’s a good argument for having a small family—or foregoing childbearing if ambivalent about becoming a parent. A smaller world population will have an easier time keeping emissions low and adapting to the massive changes on the way. In our own lives, without withdrawing from the world, we can walk our talk in eschewing emissions-intensive actions that are inefficient, frivolous, or do little or nothing for anyone’s joy or quality of life.

Without major policy change, behavior change falls way short of game change, and it’s game changing that the world desperately needs. For that, nothing short of expressing our views as often as we can manage—in letters to legislators and newspapers, in petition signatures, in responses to pollsters, in marching in protests, even in organizing communities—is likely to make enough difference to notice. A rising tax on carbon is essential, and while we can differ on the details of how to do that (ideally returning most or all revenue generated to citizens), nothing we attempt will turn the corner on climate change until the price of fossil fuels rises.

We can think about connections, too—climate change relates to the food we eat, the appliances we use, the electricity and water we pay for. Policies that are local and statewide as well as national can make a difference with these.

Finally, we can support women’s reproductive rights—the theme of the marches that went global on the second day of Trump’s presidency. Unintended pregnancy undermines women’s capacity to contribute productively to society, including to slowing climate change, and it takes us further from a future of sustainable human populations more likely to manage emissions and climate change safely.
-Robert Engelman, More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want

Scanning the cliffs near Logan Pass for mountain goats (Citizen Science) (4427399123)
Scanning the cliffs for mountain goats as part of the high country citizen science project, via Wikimedia Commons

What can we do to ensure that sound science continues to inform how we address climate change? We can urge the president to hire a national science advisor and other scientists with appropriate credentials in ecology and engineering to fill key posts in his administration. As members of a democratic society, we can support freedom of scientific inquiry and diversity in science. Specifically, we can comment publicly on proposed policies that affect the environment and vote accordingly. On a personal level, we can get directly involved in supporting science that informs climate policy by participating in science via citizen science. A variety of organizations enable public participation in science such as Earthwatch Institute. Whatever our approach, putting science into action represents our best hope to address climate change.
-Cristina EisenbergThe Carnivore Way

1) Do that which only you can do and at least some of what everyone must do. 
2) Don’t compete: Discern ways that your actions complement others’ actions toward the goods of health and justice.
3) Resist tyranny. Speak out, especially when someone tells you not to.
4) Have each others’ backs.
5) Recognize that not all hopes are equally worthy, and that skillful love requires intimate knowledge.
-Julianne WarrenAldo Leopold's Odyssey, Tenth Anniversary Edition

Photo credit: Supreme Court Pediment by user Kevin Harber

Election 2016: If Island Press Authors Advised the President

In honor of the first presidential debate tonight beteween Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we asked Island Press authors: "If you were advisor to the president, what would your top priority be and why?" Check out their answers, in their own...

In honor of the first presidential debate tonight beteween Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we asked Island Press authors: "If you were advisor to the president, what would your top priority be and why?" Check out their answers, in their own words, below. 

I'd urge the President to act on every possible opportunity to reduce the influence of money in the political process, because until that happens it will be increasingly difficult to make progress on anything else. 
-Dan Fagin, Toms River

Maintaining and extending the collaborative relationship with the Republic of Mexico over the shared waters of the Colorado River should be a sustained priority. The 2012 agreement known as "Minute 319", signed in 2012, included important water sharing provisions and for the first time allowed water to be returned to the desiccated Colorado River for the environment and the communities of Mexico. The deal was an important milestone, but it was only a temporary agreement. We need permanent solutions to the overuse of the Colorado River, and sustaining our partnership with Mexico is a critical piece.
-John Fleck, Water is for Fighting Over

Photo Credit: Karen Neoh | Flickr
The White House. Photo Credit: Karen Neoh via Flickr

1) Ending farm subsidies and other protection/promotion of food crops.
2) Embracing GMO neutrality. 
3) Ending federal support for state unpasteurized (raw) milk bans.
4) Reining in the FDA.
5) Ending the federal ban on sales of locally slaughtered meat. 
6) Ending federal policies that promote food waste. 
7) Improving food safety and choice by requiring good outcomes, rather than mandating specific processes.
8) Ending the federal ban on distilling spirits at home.
9) Deregulating the cultivation of hemp.
-Baylen Linnekin, Biting the Hands that Feed Us
For more elaboration on these bullets, see Linnekin’s full article on Reason.

My advice to a presidential candidate would be to recall the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science is that its true whether or not you believe in it.” Natural forces are at work that will have adverse consequences, many of which are diametrically opposed to our national interests. Global climate change, the spread of vector borne diseases, and the rampant overuse of nonrenewable and renewable resources are just three such forces currently in play. The decisions that you make during your tenure will be pivotal relative to the health and well-being of our citizens, as well as the citizens of the world.  Recognize the fact that you are governing, just as Lincoln did, during a period of history that will resonate for centuries to come. Make wise environmental decisions even if they are not necessarily politically advantageous. Our futures depend upon it.   
-Alan Kolok, Modern Poisons

“I would urge the President to take strong action to pass climate change legislation in Congress. The form that climate change legislation would take would depend on the politics, but it is imperative that the U.S. begins to lead the world to action on climate change. Climate change isn’t even my own professional issue of focus (I would love to talk to the President about how to make our cities more resilient, green, and livable), but it seems to me clearly the crisis issue. Every major scientific study that is coming out is pointing toward serious consequences of climate change, happening now. Rather than thinking about climate change that will impact my kids’ lives, I am realizing it will deeply impact my own as well.”
-Rob McDonald, Conservation for Cities

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

If I had a chance to sit face-to-face with the winning candidate, my advice would be something like: Think about the welfare of our grandchildren when you make decisions on energy and environmental issues. Consider not just the short-term impacts but the long-term consequences of sea-level rise, extreme weather events, droughts, and loss of agricultural land. Set an example for reducing carbon emissions based on energy efficiency and renewable energy that can serve as a model for developing countries. Listen to our climate scientists and heed their warnings. Trust their advice on global warming in the same way you trust the advice of your physician with regard to your personal health.  
Charles Eley, Design Professional’s Guide to Zero Net Energy Buildings

I would push for the next President to try again (yes, again!) to work on bipartisan climate action, perhaps with a revenue-neutral carbon tax like the Initiative 732 campaign that I’m a part of in Washington State. We’re proud to have endorsements from three Republicans in the state legislature as well as from a bunch of Democrats. The short-sighted opposition from some left-wing groups (including some mainstream “environmental” groups) highlights the risk of making climate change a partisan wedge issue for electing Democrats instead of an existential issue for all Americans. We need to try harder to build a big tent for lasting climate action, and that’s one one reason I’m so fond of the quote at the end of this NYT story (about the failed attempt by enviros to win control of the Washington State legislature for the Democrats in Nov 2014): “The most important thing is to normalize this issue [climate change] with Republicans,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. “Anything that makes it more partisan makes it less likely that there will be legislation, until such time as Democrats take over the world. Which according to my watch, will not be happening anytime soon.” 
-Yoram Bauman, Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change

I would urge the President to reassert cross-departmental efforts such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to further empower local governments and constituents to meet ongoing challenges of urban development, because those challenges of land use, transportation, affordability will not be entirely met by private market solutions. I would also advise that the new administration investigate further centralizing resources relevant to urban areas, and evaluate (as was once proposed by Richard Florida) a new cabinet-level position focused on cities and rapidly urbanizing areas. Finally, I would suggest to the President that the federal government should lead by example by illustrating methods to elevate civic dialogue, including program development and funding to encourage individuals to obtain firsthand knowledge of the cities around them through careful observation and input into urban political and regulatory processes.
-Charles Wolfe, Seeing the Better City

Obama Oval Office
President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Sept. 18, 2015. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons

Challenging as this will be even to try, much less accomplish, the next President should work to return a spirit of compromise and cooperation to the American political conversation. On the current course, no real progress toward environmental or social sustainability is possible. The impacts of climate change and demographic pressure are now becoming obvious to people of all political persuasions. Growing awareness may eventually offer room for fresh policy ideas: a carbon tax with proceeds turned into dividends and a universal basic income for all citizens, access for all to comprehensive sexuality education and reproductive health services, and humane and sustainable migration law.
-Robert Engelman, More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want

As much as climate change will affect the United States, we likely have the capacity to adapt more effectively than most other countries—at least in terms of human welfare. At the same time, US demand for foreign goods and services is not going away; I, for one, don’t care what you say about the damn environment—I’m having my morning cup of tea or coffee come hell or high water (the latter an increasingly distinct possibility). If my personal recalcitrance is at all reflective of our national attitude, we nonetheless ought to be striving for a broadly-defined international stance that fully and coherently accounts for climate change. Specifically, in a world where the actions of our friends and our enemies will be increasingly defined by surging resource constraints (as well as “releases”—think Arctic oil…), our next President should focus on integrating foreign aid, fair trade, free trade, and military/security policy in a way that anticipates the incoming tsunami of threats—and opportunities—posed by climate chaos. 
-Charles Chester, Climate and Conservation

In general terms, I believe the wealth of the nation lies in two areas: natural resources and human resources. As a matter of national defense priority, these areas require policy attention at the national level. Attending to these issues requires commitment and collaboration among all political, ethnic, religious and socio-economic affiliations—it is time for the adults to take charge. In particular, it will be necessary to harness their combined strengths in a public and private partnership initiative. An outline of my top priorities topics includes the following:

Seal of the President of the United States

Natural Resources/Climate Change:

  • Clean energy and carbon reduction
  • Ecosystem and land management
  • Coastal and interior infrastructure protection
  • Water resources
  • Agriculture

Human Resources:

  • Science and technology
  • Public primary and secondary education

Public health

  • Immigration reform
  • Terrorism
  • Social equity and income equality

-Michael Murphy, Landscape Architecture Theory, Second Edition

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read Glenn Beck’s recent commentary in the New York Times.  “The only way for our society to work is for each of us to respect the views of others, and even try to understand and empathize with one another,” he wrote. He took the words right out of my mouth. And so, Glenn and I urge the next President to do exactly that, reach across the aisle, connect with the great diversity of people and views in this country, and with respect and empathy seek to understand.
-Lucy Moore, Common Ground on Hostile Turf

Given the evident impact of rampant development pressures and climate change on our nation’s wildlife populations and diverse ecosystems, I urge the next President to endorse and promote a strong federal leadership role in collaborative landscape-scale planning efforts among federal, state, tribal, and private landowners in order to ensure our natural heritage is conserved for present and future generations.
-Robert Keiter, To Conserve Unimpaired

Dear Future POTUS,
The U.S. must be consumed with the urgent goal of retooling the energy infrastructure of our country and the world. Cooperatively mobilizing with other nations, our government—we, the people—must immediately, using all just and complementary means at our disposal—e.g., directives, incentives, and disincentives—close down fossil fuel operations and facilitate replacing coal, oil, and gas dependencies with cradle-to-cradle manufacture and ecologically and socially sensitive installation of ready, climate-responsible technologies, including locally scaled wind turbines, geothermal plants, and solar panels.

No less urgently, as a globally-responsible facilitator, the U.S.—members of all administrative branches together with the citizenry who have chosen them—must, with forthright honesty and transparency, support a matured narrative of progress that is alluring across political spectrums. This story must redefine power to integrate economic prosperity with other commonly held values—such as equality, justice, democratic liberty, and skillful love for land that interpenetrates with human health and flourishing. It must recall people to ourselves and each other not as mere individual consumers, but as diverse, empowered, capably caring members—across generations—of families, neighborhoods, and of the whole ecosphere of interdependencies—bedrock to sunlight—the source of Earth’s life.
Julianne Lutz Warren, Plain member of the U.S. and Earth, and author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, Tenth Anniversary Edition

Revising the Toxic Substances Control Act: Tightening the chemical safety net

Alan Kolok, author of Modern Poisons, breaks down the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Alan Kolok, author of Modern Poisons: A Brief Introduction to Contemporary Toxicology, breaks down the Toxic Substances Control Act. 

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the nation’s primary chemical management law, was in need of a makeover.  Fortunately, on June 22, 2016, President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, amending the TSCA, and by doing so, strengthening the regulation of potentially toxic chemical substances.   

The regulation of potentially toxic chemicals is not one size fits all, but rather is nuanced, as different chemicals are covered by different pieces of legislation. There are specific Acts that regulate pesticides, foods and food additives, drugs, cosmetics, tobacco and tobacco products, nuclear materials and munitions, and for that reason none of those chemicals are covered by the TSCA. Rather, the TSCA regulates chemical substances that are of commercial value to industry, whether they are natural or man-made synthetics.

Given that the TSCA does not cover a wide range of important chemicals designed for personal use or consumption, you might think that the number of regulated chemicals that fall under its domain would be small. However, that is not the case, and the sheer chemical bulk, in both numbers and mass, which are controlled by the Act is impressive.  The Act covers no fewer than 83,000 substances, and the overall annual production or import of these chemicals by the United States exceeds 15 trillion (yes, that is trillion with a “t”) pounds. 

One of the charges outlined by the original TSCA, first passed in 1976, was the creation of a chemical list, the Chemical Substances Control Inventory.  Basically, the Inventory is one long list of chemicals covered by the Act. The Inventory includes a wide variety of chemicals, both organic and inorganic chemicals, as well as polymers and chemical substances of unknown or variable composition. The TSCA allowed the government to do more than put together a list, as the Act also allows the federal government to regulate a chemical’s use and to enforce that chemical companies conduct research on the chemicals to verify environmental safety and the lack of adverse impacts to human health. 

So far, so good.

But as well minded as the original TSCA was, it was plagued by many of the same problems that other pieces of safety legislation have wrestled with.  One such issue relates to legacy chemicals and grandfathering. Of the 83,000 chemicals covered by the Act, no less than 62,000 were in use prior to 1976, meaning that they were legacy chemicals existing well before the TSCA was inked.  As a group, these chemicals were  ‘grandfathered in’ and considered compliant without any retroactive testing to assure that they were safe.  This meant that nearly three quarters of the chemical substances listed on TSCA’s Inventory were not tested relative to their adverse environmental or human impacts unless there was a specific reason to do so. For these chemicals to be tested, the EPA had to demonstrate that they posed serious health or environmental concerns. Without that indictment, the chemicals were simply considered innocent until proven guilty, shifting the burden of proof regarding the adverse impacts squarely onto the EPA.

A second issue with the original TSCA was that it weighed economic benefit against environmental or human health concerns, creating a very uncomfortable cost-benefit analysis that had to be taken into consideration when a chemical substance was being taken off the market. But just how much economic benefit overweighs environmental or health concerns? Rather than innocent until proven guilty, the cost-benefit analysis was more of an ‘innocent if wealthy enough’ clause, no matter how toxic the substance was. 

U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and other politicians speak at a news conference in the Senate Radio & TV Gallery after the Senate's decision to send the Toxic Substances Control Act to the president the previous night. Photo credit: Senate Democrats via Flickr.

The Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was written to allay some of these concerns. The new Act increases the dollar value of the fines that the EPA can impose upon a chemical company that breaks the law by releasing toxic substances onto the market or into the environment.  Furthermore, the Act also gives the EPA more authority to stop the production of a new chemical if the EPA determines that it would not meet safety regulations.  In addition, the Act does away with the mandatory cost-benefit analysis between adverse impact and economic benefit of using the chemical. As a result, chemicals won’t necessarily be saved from banning or phase-out solely due to economic returns.  

While the new Act may indeed be increasing the degree to which the federal chemical safety net prevents toxic chemicals from reaching the marketplace, problems remain.  For one, while the Act may facilitate the route toward an outright ban of asbestos, it in itself does not do so. Linda Reinstien, president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization has voiced her displeasure with the Lautenberg Act stating that, “Any bill that does not ban asbestos isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

A second limitation associated with the Act is in its implementation. There are as many as 1,000 chemicals currently within the Inventory that are in need of safety reviews, but the new legislation does not supply the funds to support such a massive testing effort. Rather, the Act mandates that within the next five years the US Environmental Protection Agency only has to list 25 high priority and 25 low priority compounds to be reviewed.   This does not mean that these compounds (which represent less than 3 percent of all compounds that should be tested) will be tested, but only that they will be listed as needing testing. 

Do you feel safer now?

Modern Poisons by Alan S. Kolok | An Island Press book
For more of Kolok's accessible writing on chemical issues, check out Modern Poisons

The only real safety net that prevents toxic chemicals from entering our food, our drugs and our personal care products is comprised of a series of legislative Acts. On a federal level, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 really started it all off. Since that time, other legislation, as well as the amendments to the original 1938 act, have helped to tighten the safety net, safeguarding the quality of our food supply, our pharmaceuticals, and our personal care products. The TSCA, along with the Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, are designed to provide an assurance that chemical substances used by industry to synthesize many products within our manmade environments are safe. While not perfect, the Lautenberg Act definitely modifies the TSCA, and by doing so improves upon it.

The history of all of these pieces of legislation reveal that they adapt by changing in fits and starts, rather than being ironclad right out of the box.  Unfortunately, the enactment of these pieces of legislation has often been preceded by a tragic event, elucidating the inadequacies within the current legislation.  Historical tragedies associated with elixir sulfanilamide, thalidomide and with diethylstilbestrol clearly bear all prompted legislative action to tighten the overall chemical safety net. While the creation of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was not precipitated by tragedy, its creation does, nonetheless, follow the classic trajectory of chemical safety legislation in general. While not perfect, its enactment into law represents an incremental increase in the overall safe use of the chemicals under its authority.  In that way, it is a positive, albeit small, step forward.