David Friedman is a senior analyst with the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS educates and works with the public to advocate for environmental solutions based on the best scientific understanding. The Clean Vehicles Program develops and promote strategies to reduce the adverse impacts of the U.S. transportation system.
Monday, 8 Oct 2001
NEW YORK, N.Y.
On a normal Monday, I wake up in Oakland, Calif., go to my office in Berkeley, start up my computer and sift through any emails I missed the previous week. But today is a holiday and I woke up in New York City after coming here for the long weekend. My work brought me to the East Coast, but I came to New York for myself, because I felt the need to make the events of Sept. 11 more real to me. I live and mainly work in California, and those 3,000 miles have felt like a million this past month. I had hoped that going to New York would give me an opportunity to close that gap and somehow better understand what took place. Before you think otherwise, the answer is no: I did not get what I was looking for. I don’t feel that I closed the gap or am better able to come to grips with what happened. What I did get, however, were some glimpses of the tragedy, and of the lives of some of those who were most directly affected by it.
Some of what I saw represented the contrast between life moving on and life standing still. Broadway, Times Square, and Rockefeller Center were abuzz with life. Some people stopped and stared at the news tickers wrapping the buildings, announcing that we had just begun bombing Afghanistan. But most chatted and walked, continuing on with what looked like, to an outsider, the typical hustle and bustle of New York. My cab trip to the World Trade center site, however, provided a stark contrast. The closer we got, the fewer cars we saw, until finally there were nothing but police cars and empty streets. The cab driver let me off about eight or 10 blocks north of the site and pointed to the empty space above the rooftops. The towers used to be there, he said, twice as high as any of the other buildings in the area. Now there was simply nothing but open blue sky.
Near the site, crowds formed. They were not the large, noisy crowds of Times Square, but smaller clusters, hemmed in by scaffolding and police barriers. The people were subdued, moving slowly, looking at the gray dust that still coated windows and awnings. All around us, storefronts were closed and dark, the internal lights shut off and much of the sunlight blocked by dust on the windows. One store in particular struck me. It was a shoe store, perhaps two blocks from the site. The floor was still covered with dust and all of the shoes and chairs had a thin coating of debris. Life had come to a halt here instantly, and in the corner lay a pocket book, dust-covered as well. Perhaps it had just fallen off a shelf, but I could not shake the feeling that somebody heard the explosion, or saw the tower falling, and simply dropped her bag and ran.
The next sight is difficult to describe. It was the wreckage itself. In most respects it looks like what you see on TV, and seeing it only two blocks away did not make it any more real. At first glance, it looked like a construction site, or perhaps a movie set for the latest Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Looking closer I could see broken windows in the buildings surrounding the site, some turned a dark blue by the heat of the flames. Steel twisted in and amongst the shattered concrete, the charred skeleton of one of the remaining buildings, and finally the one piece of the World Trade Towers that is still standing. It was hard to shake the sense that this was a movie set. I suppose that in a way, that shows how lucky I am; I’ve never seen such horror up close, just the intangible images on a flickering movie screen. To be honest, I hope I never have to see such things for real (and wish that others didn’t have to either).
As I walked from the wreckage, I began to notice the chill that had settled in the air. It felt like a classic northeastern fall evening: the sun going down, the wind picking up. I walked by a corner coffee shop, and decided a warm drink sounded too good to pass up. The cashier described digging the store out of the dust when shop-owners were first allowed to return to the site. She likened the effort to an archeological dig, discovering in the dirt pots and pans, cups and utensils — relics from what felt like an ancient time, before things changed so drastically for this country. She also described the many people that came to the shop and offered help. The place was cleaned up and opened within a few days, thanks to complete strangers who just could not sit at home and do nothing, and were determined to make sure that life went on.
My last stop before returning to the hotel was one of the local fire stations, which had posted a list of the firefighters fallen in the tragedy and was accepting donations. Strung up on one wall were a few dozen white T-shirts that children had decorated and sent to the firehouse. There were some pictures of the fallen from nearby stations, and a guest book to sign your name and leave your thoughts. What struck me the most was a white board, sectioned off to show the coming week. Under each day were the names of those whose memorial services would be held. While I watched, one of the firemen came out with a piece of paper in his hand and began adding names. Life does move on — but it will have to stop many times during the coming days to bid a sad farewell to all who died.
Tuesday, 9 Oct 2001
This morning’s task is to write a thank-you letter to the National Academy of Sciences for the opportunity to speak at a meeting held last week. The U.S. Congress created the National Academy of Sciences over 130 years ago to advise the government in scientific and technical matters. This summer, the NAS released a report evaluating the cost and efficacy of fuel economy standards that have been in place since the oil crisis of the 1970s. Last week, I flew to Washington, D.C., to present the perspective of the Union of Concerned Scientists on the automobile industry’s response to that report.
After the fuel economy report was released this summer, two automobile companies went behind closed doors at the NAS and claimed that the results of the report violated the laws of thermodynamics. This is no small allegation; the laws of thermodynamics are fundamental scientific principles that are universally accepted as unbreakable — not because it would be wrong to do so, but because it is simply impossible to do so. In the end, the automakers backed off of their claims and I believe most people at the meeting saw that the issues raised by the automobile industry were matters of judgment and opinion, rather than scientific errors that needed to be corrected.
This event illustrates one of the challenges of working at the intersection of science and policy, as the Union of Concerned Scientists does every day. UCS was founded on the principle that sound science should play a key role in the decisions made by government at all levels. Our goal is to gather the best scientific knowledge and insights on any given issue and then bring that information to policymakers, so that they can make the best possible decisions with the best possible information.
However, science can also be used to distort the political process. In the case of the NAS study on fuel economy, some automakers were unhappy with results that indicated that within 10 to 15 years, it would be possible and cost-effective to make cars and trucks that averaged 40 miles per gallon. Since the auto industry disagreed with the results of th
e study, they tried to undermine the science behind the findings — an age-old tactic. I would characterize this as “bad” science, using incorrect or misleading statements about the facts and methods behind a study to discredit it for political reasons.
In this case, the tactic may fail. My presentation and that of a colleague pointed to problems in the arguments put forth by the automobile industry. We also drew attention to technologies identified in a recent UCS report, “Drilling in Detroit“, that could help get a fleet of cars and trucks averaging 40 mpg or more on the road in the near future.
I am still waiting to hear how the NAS will respond to the issues raised at last Friday’s meeting. My hope is that they summarize the concerns and note that their findings on fuel economy are sound. The report produced by the NAS committee will still be subject to public discussion and debate, but that is how things should work. Many of the issues in the report revolve around judgement as much as science, and both are at their best and are most useful to the policy process when left open to public scrutiny.
Wednesday, 10 Oct 2001
Meetings, meetings, meetings. Today was all about meetings. First, I talked with colleagues in the environmental community, then it was off to visit the staff of a U.S. senator.
My work last week with the National Academy of Sciences and their fuel economy study was about trying to get the science right; today it was about trying to get the policy right. The best science in the world does no good unless enough people can come together and agree on a clear message that distills the results for policy makers. And the best message does no good if it is not communicated effectively to those same policy makers.
One of the ways UCS works to get the message right is through coalitions with other environmentally-oriented groups. Today’s coalition meeting was focused on following up on the NAS meeting by encouraging Capitol Hill to substantially increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks. To do so, we have to answer questions such as, what does the science say is possible, what is the mood in the government, what policies are politically feasible, and who is interested in pursuing them? Within the coalition there is a diverse set of views and experiences; this diversity helps make sure our message is not only correct, but also effective. Without such coalitions, too many inconsistencies appear among the various groups’ positions, making it more difficult for policymakers to sift through it all and decide on the best course. Most importantly, coalitions help strengthen and deepen the information we bring to policymakers by drawing on the combined experiences of many different individuals and organizations.
My next meeting was with a staff member of a U.S. senator. It was the first step in developing a relationship with senator and staff alike and sharing the information we have put together on fuel economy. One of the things I really like about the time we spend with staff members and elected officials is that I feel like I am participating in a vital part of the democratic process. The opportunity to share our information on a subject and discuss our perspectives helps make sure that the many voices on a particular subject are heard. The key is to make sure that we do this effectively. The staff members we meet with talk to between 20 and 30 people each day on issues ranging from air conditioners to fuel economy, and the majority of those people represent the polluting industries that we oppose. We need to communicate our information efficiently, providing accurate and focused material. We also need to make sure to listen to staff members’ feedback and perspectives so that we know how we can be most helpful to them in their deliberations. With a lot of work and a little luck, this kind of communication will help make some changes for the better.
Today felt like a pretty successful day. After spending the last few months analyzing and distilling information and thinking about policy directions, it was good to communicate our thoughts and findings both to our colleagues and to the people who will make key decisions about the environment.
Thursday, 11 Oct 2001
It’s late in the afternoon and I just got into the office after spending most of the day flying back to California from D.C. The trip was uneventful, although during a stopover in Denver I had time to return a phone call to a colleague who is working to secure state tax credits for people who purchase cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. I was interested in comparing notes with him because the Union of Concerned Scientists is working to pass similar tax credits at the federal level.
Under the terms of these tax credits, if you went out and bought a Toyota Prius or some other hybrid electric vehicle, you would be able to take a deduction on the taxes you pay to the federal government at the end of the year. The size of the deduction would depend on the relative fuel efficiency of your car, as well as what kinds of advanced technology it used. Also, the vehicle would have to emit below-average quantities of smog-forming pollutants.
The goal of the federal tax credit bill, the CLEAR ACT, is to help build a market for clean and fuel-efficient vehicles. As demand for these vehicles increases, prices will drop and it will become easier for automakers to meet higher fuel economy standards. Tax credits help jumpstart the market by encouraging purchase of clean, efficient vehicles, and reward the people who buy such vehicles. These people benefit twice: once from the tax credits themselves, which mitigate the higher prices of greener cars, and again because they pay for far less gasoline.
The tax credit bill, which was introduced into the Senate as Senate Bill 760 and may be included in the Senate energy bill, was created by a unique coalition that included three automakers (Ford, Honda, and Toyota), multiple trade organizations, several environmental groups (including UCS), and some key senators from both parties. It took a lot of bargaining to get the bill into a form that all these stakeholders could accept, but the end result is a strong bill that carries a lot of political weight.
My work on the CLEAR ACT initially involved participating in technical discussions on how to define a hybrid electric vehicle and how the money should be apportioned to hybrids with different characteristics. Now our main task is to make sure that special interests do not dilute or gut the bill; we do not want to see taxpayers’ money wasted on vehicles that do not meaningfully reduce fuel consumption and air pollution.
Some states already have a version of tax credits for battery electric vehicles or hybrid electric vehicles or both. Consumers in these states can take advantage of these tax credits by purchasing one of the two hybrid vehicles that are available today, the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius. Next year, Honda will introduce a hybrid version of their Civic, and Ford will market a hybrid version of their Escape SUV, so if we succeed in our efforts to get the CLEAR ACT passed, conscientious consumers will have more options for how to benefit.
Friday, 12 Oct 2001
When I can squeeze time away on Fridays, I head up to the University of California at Davis, where I am still employed part-time. I did my graduate work at UC-Davis, and I’ve stayed on to help organize three conferences over the next few months. The conferences will be held in Davis, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C., and will focus on educating people in government, the
private sector, and environmental communities about fuel-cell vehicles.
I have been working on fuel-cell vehicles and the issues surrounding them for at least eight years now. The vehicles promise to reduce the impact of driving on our environment — plus, as an engineer, I find them to be a fascinating technology. In the future, we could have a transportation system that produces almost none of the emissions that cause global warming. This system would rely on sunlight to produce electricity, which would then be used in a device called an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen would be transported to filling stations that would work much like the kind we’re all familiar with. Once in your car, the hydrogen would be combined with air to produce electricity, which in turn would power an electric motor to carry you on your way. The only thing that would be emitted would be water vapor — no smog-forming pollution, no toxics, and no global warming gases. Every major automaker that sells cars in the U.S. is developing a fuel-cell vehicle, and fuel-cell developers, like Ballard, are working to perfect the fuel-cell systems themselves. While fuel-cell vehicles will not eliminate of all of the impact of driving on the environment, they would go a long way toward a sustainable transportation system.
The goal of the conferences we are putting together is to first help people get a better handle on exactly what fuel-cell vehicles are and what are the differences in the various types of systems that can be built up from a fuel cell for use in automobiles. We are also trying to give some perspective on where the technology stands today. Fuel cell vehicles hold a lot of promise, but they are not there yet. There are still some complications that keep fuel-cell vehicles from being ready to hit the roads in large numbers in the immediate future. There are also other variations of fuel cell vehicles that are being considered: ones that use other fuels besides hydrogen, such as methanol or some sort of gasoline-like fuel. The conferences will look at the barriers fuel-cell vehicles are facing, as well as how to overcome them and take advantage of the many good things they have to offer.
The conferences themselves are being put on by the UC-Davis Institute for Transportation Studies and fits in quite well with UCS’s goal of getting good technical information in the hands of policymakers and environmental groups. Already, fuel-cell vehicles are at a stage where government help can accelerate the progress towards a cleaner transportation system. The U.S. Department of Energy has been providing some funding for many years to develop fuel-cell vehicles, and, in California, a partnership has been formed among automakers, oil companies, fuel-cell developers, and governmental agencies to help get fuel-cell vehicles on the road over the next few years. But if we want to cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions and have cleaner air as soon as possible, these activities need greater support from all levels of government. We are hoping that the knowledge transferred through our conferences will help policymakers decide on the best course of action to make fuel-cell vehicles a reality. We are also hoping that we can provide a realistic view on the technology, both so that people do not expect too much too soon, but also so that the government support that is provided can be in the forms that are most helpful.