Climate in the Courts: The good, not-so-good, and the ugly

It’s past time for a roundup of US legal issues related to climate change. With apologies to Sergio Leone, a look at climate in the courts is organized here as the Good, the Not-So-Good, and the Ugly.

The Good

The Good category includes setbacks for two high-profile oil pipelines, Keystone XL and Dakota Access. The pipelines share a number of key characteristics and have had their political fortunes fall (and rise again) nearly in tandem. Now, both have suffered losses in the courtroom within weeks of one another.

The Keystone XL Pipeline, if completed, would bring hundreds of thousands of barrels of carbon-intensive tar sands oil each day from Alberta, Canada, south to refineries in Illinois and Texas. The pipeline was originally proposed in 2008, but in 2015, after a lengthy, complex permitting history, the Obama Administration rejected the request to build a section across the international border. On the campaign trail, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump repeatedly declared his intention to approve the pipeline, and his administration made that a reality soon after he took office.

The basic outline of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s story is strikingly similar. It was designed to transport hundreds of thousands of barrels of carbon-intensive fracked oil each day from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation south to refineries in Illinois. After the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe initiated a massive, sustained protest over a portion of the pipeline adjacent to the tribe’s reservation, the Obama Administration rejected the permitting for that segment in late 2016. But once again, the Trump Administration reversed the decision at its first opportunity.

Recently, courts issued two rulings in quick succession that complicate the pipelines’ future prospects. In late March of this year, a DC federal court found that the Corps had failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act when it granted permits for the disputed portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Although that section was built and is now in use, the court is considering whether to halt the flow of oil while the Corps reconsiders its decision.  Weeks later, on April 15, a Montana federal court invalidated a key Clean Water Act permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers needed to complete the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Neither ruling fully resolves these controversies. The administration’s enthusiasm for seeing the pipelines go forward has been clear ever since two of President Trump’s earliest executive orders urged the relevant agencies to expedite the approvals. The administration will likely appeal these losses, and even without any appeals, the Corps could try to simply paper over the legal flaws and re-issue the permits.

If the courts do ultimately force the Corps to reassess its permitting, the agency will not issue a decision for either project until 2021. And, as we all know by now, elections have consequences.

The Not-So-Good

The Not-So-Good category includes the fate of two climate initiatives from Cascadia’s Washington: the Department of Ecology’s 2016 Clean Air Rule aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the legislature’s more recent effort to address the danger of oil trains crossing the state by enacting “vapor pressure” limits.

A slightly modified version of a cap and trade program, the Clean Air Rule required major sources of greenhouse gases to either reduce their own emissions each year or purchase “emission reduction units” based on verified reductions occurring elsewhere. The rule covered not only those sources that directly emit into the atmosphere but also “indirect” sources, such as companies importing petroleum for others to then use.

In January, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the portion of the rule regulating the indirect emitters, finding that it exceeded the Department of Ecology’s statutory authority. The indirect sources represented more than 70 percent of the emissions originally covered by the rule, and it remains unclear whether the Department of Ecology will be able to go forward with what’s left.

Washington’s vapor pressure limits are a response to the threat of what are sometimes referred to as “bomb trains”—so named because tanker cars carrying oil have repeatedly derailed, caught fire, and, in some cases, catastrophically exploded, with tragic results. The law requires that oil transported to Washington refineries by rail meet a reduced vapor pressure threshold, the measure of a liquid’s volatility.

North Dakota has been vocal in opposing the new law. Its Bakken crude frequently exceeds the established limit, and the state’s oil industry relies heavily on Washington’s refineries as a market. North Dakota officials first threatened to sue Washington, claiming that the law violates the Dormant Commerce Clause. Instead of pursuing that argument, North Dakota, joined by Montana, took another constitutional tack, arguing to the little known US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that the state law is “preempted” by federal law.

Under the US Constitution, federal law—along with treaties and the Constitution itself—is considered the “supreme law of the land.” In this case, the federal Hazardous Material Transportation Act spells out not only that state laws cannot present an “obstacle” to its purposes and goals but also that any non-federal requirements must be “substantively the same” as the federal requirements. Earlier this month, PHMSA found that the vapor pressure law failed on both counts.

Why then should these two results be considered “Not-So-Good” rather than simply “Bad”?

The vapor pressure legislation may yet survive. PHMSA cannot directly invalidate Washington’s law; the agency is just essentially offering its opinion on the matter. Washington can still challenge PHMSA’s conclusion in court or a judge may review its validity were a refinery to use the finding as a defense against enforcement.

In any case, the law has a relatively modest reach, applying only to new refineries and refineries that increase their output by 10 percent in a calendar year compared to a 2018 baseline. Although one of Washington’s five refineries evidently triggered the law based on 2019 numbers, it seems unlikely that any more will do so in the near future, given the impact of the global economic downturn on oil markets.

And the Clean Air Rule, while a step in the right direction, was also undoubtedly not up to the scale of the task ahead. The legislature has since enacted a suitably ambitious green energy law, and Governor Jay Inslee is still pursuing his climate agenda, both in the legislature and using his authority with the Department of Ecology.

The Ugly

Finally—and only briefly—the Ugly. The Trump Administration continues roll back critically needed climate policies, eliminating the Obama Administration’s fuel economy standards for cars; dismantling its innovative program to decrease the amount of coal in our energy supply; and weakening limits on methane leaks from the oil and gas sector.

We may see more reversals in the coming months, as President Trump seems intent on exploiting the current crisis to further his anti-environmental agenda. All this reaffirms, if there was any doubt, that the administration’s love affair with the fossil fuel industry remains firmly in place.

Yet even here there is a silver lining: the Trump Administration’s success rate when defending its policies in court is by some measures a dismal 6 percent. Climate advocates should keep in mind that the fight is never over—whether in the courtroom, at the polls, or in the streets—and that is certainly true at this pivotal moment in history.

Relief Buoys BC’s Affordable Housing Providers—So Far

The people who manage co-op and nonprofit housing in British Columbia braced themselves for the worst on April 1. It seemed likely that BC’s affordable housing providers would be hit hard as the pandemic cut a swath through BC jobs and people weren’t able to pay their rent .

Government-assisted housing is home to many in BC who work at low- or modest-paying jobs—first in line for furloughs, reduced hours, and layoffs. Co-ops and nonprofits account for the vast majority of the estimated 113,000 subsidized households in the province. (Both types of providers serve a mix of incomes and not all units are subsidized.)

Lock downs and safety precautions added extra costs for nonprofit and co-op housing providers as well: more cleaning, more units empty because people couldn’t move in. But things have worked out surprisingly well, say those who lead the umbrella associations of nonprofit and co-op housing in BC. 

Providers of subsidized homes are staying afloat in large part because the BC government stepped up.

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Providers of subsidized homes are staying afloat in large part because the BC government stepped up with support, from bending the usual rules so that more people could access rent-relief programs to providing extra money for subsidies, cleaning equipment, and more.

“The provincial government has been very proactive,” said Thom Armstrong, the CEO of the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC, which represents the interests of the almost 16,000 BC households who live in co-ops (0.9 percent of BC’s total households).

On the non-profit side, which accounts for 65,000 units in the province, operators are assured that BC Housing, the provincial agency that oversees directly subsidized homes, will provide subsidies to compensate for tenants’ plummeting incomes.

“I’m confident the government will be there. We just don’t know what shape it will take,” said Jill Atkey, the CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.

1990s-era social housing (foreground) in Vancouver, BC. Photo by Frances Bula, used with permission.

BC’s social-housing system is big—and complicated

BC Housing, which spent $1.25 billion in its most recent fiscal year, provides subsidies for housing through a variety of mechanisms. There are direct subsidies, based on a rent-geared-to-income practice, in the 5,500 units of old-style public housing that it still owns and manages. Independent non-profit providers get subsidies based on their income mix, along with a lot of supervision of their budgets and operations. And the agency provides rent “supplements” to another 34,200 households in the private market. 

The agency also manages the development of new home creation projects that are part of the NDP government’s aggressive building plan (it funded 4,000 new units in its most recent fiscal year), housing that is typically turned over to nonprofits. 

Management of these homes is in keeping with the philosophy throughout Canada since the 1980s to serve communities better by shifting away from projects dominated by low-income households requiring a subsidy, and toward mixed-income buildings, run by nonprofits or co-ops, that charge rent on a sliding scale. Typical rents in a single building can range from a minimum of $375 (the shelter amount of a welfare check) to a maximum that is pegged to the low end of what is available in the private market in that neighborhood.  

And those projects can take many different shapes because of the way government-supported housing works in Canada—a far more complex and multi-layered system than what exists in the American part of Cascadia.

The US federal government’s main tool for creating subsidized housing doesn’t exist in Canada: the low-income housing tax credit. Created in 1986, it provides a stream of investment money, with rules about what the projects are supposed to achieve. These tax credits have flowed into more than three million units since the start.

But Canada’s federal government withdrew from any kind of tax benefit programs to incentivize rental housing by the early 1980s and ended its direct support for new social housing in 1994. Since then, it has been left mainly to the provinces to fund new subsidized housing projects and to manage those left over from the federal system. 

BC remained a leader among Canadian provinces, continuing to provide money for new developments, except for a few years after the BC Liberals were elected in 2001. Some BC cities have stepped up in recent years by providing free or nearly free land and density bonuses to help with construction of new social, but it’s the province that pays all the bills for operating subsidies.

Government-supported housing in the province operates under myriad rules, many of which can be rigid. Non-profits have their budgets carefully scrutinized by BC Housing, can’t always retain surpluses, must adhere to complicated rent level requirements, and have to fill out forms every time a household’s income changes.

“In the States, it’s run a bit more like a system. And the tax-credit program gives the operator so much more flexibility,” says Atkey. “Here it’s prescriptive. And, among the 65,000 units of non-profit housing, there are at least 30 different programs.”

That’s just among the non-profits. Co-op housing is a whole other system—one that’s almost unknown in the United States. Unlike co-ops in the US, which tend to be more of the private-equity kind, famous in New York for their rigorous screening of prospective tenants, Canadian co-ops are collective non-profits that don’t allow for sales of individual units. 

Instead, people accepted as members in Canadian co-ops pay a small share to join and the co-op as a whole remains the property of the legal association running it. They became popular in the 1980s, originally supported with federal subsidies to cover part of the cost of their mortgages. Co-ops are managed by boards of their residents, who decide on the mix of income levels and subsidies the group can sustain.

The constraints imposed by the high level of government control have been balanced by an upside during a cataclysmic event like the pandemic: the close link has meant more immediate lines of communication between the province and BC’s affordable housing providers—and tenants—and more efficient  government support. That’s a contrast to the American side of Cascadia, where non-profits have been struggling through the pandemic with little backstopping from governments. 


Playing Monopoly; or, How Utilities Make Money

To achieve our climate goals in the Northwest (or any other region in North America), we’ll need to clean up the power grid while also shifting whole sectors of the economy from dirty fuels to electricity. That two-pronged approach is central to every serious study of decarbonization, even in places like Cascadia where we already boast relatively low-carbon power systems. A starting place is utilities. To decarbonize, policymakers will need to  fundamentally change how utilities make money. Today, utilities are primarily incentivized to build new infrastructure—more pipes and wires—rather than boost efficiency, make repairs, or invest in operations. And, utilities may see third-party-owned climate-friendly energy systems like solar panels and batteries as a threat to their business model. Understanding how we can realign utility profit incentives is key to decarbonizing the Northwest.

The utility business is not like most other businesses. Utilities inhabit a world of special accounting rules and pre-established investment returns, where ordinary business incentives often do not matter, and where changing course is exceedingly hard. 

Utilities’ profit doesn’t come from the natural gas or water or electricity they provide to customers. That’s right, utilities do not earn profits on the products they sell—gas, water, and power are provided “at cost” to consumers—but rather from the investment in the assets (the pipes, substations, transmission lines, etc.) that are used to provide the service. In short, the more infrastructure that a utility builds, the higher the profits it can generate. 

Utilities do not operate in a normal free market system where prices and profits are determined by the willingness of consumers to pay. Instead, they are “regulated monopolies” in which public officials guarantee the companies a monetary return on their investments while also fixing prices for consumers. In practice, that means before a utility can earn money, it needs to convince regulators how much it should make. In public proceedings called “rate cases,” utilities appear before a dedicated state agency known as a utility commission (it’s the Utilities and Transportation Commission in Washington and the Public Utility Commission in Oregon) and lay out their argument for how much money they need to bring in to run their business and make a reasonable profit, namely the “revenue requirement.” 

This is the basic formula that governs how a utility makes money:

Revenue Requirement = (Rate of Return on Equity)*(Value of Assets After Depreciation) + Expenses 


Let’s take a closer look at the parts of this formula. 

Revenue requirement—a disincentive to innovate

The revenue requirement is the key outcome of a rate case. It determines how much utility customers will have to pay and how much profit the utility will make, but it is designed in a way that discourages innovation.

What’s a rate case? That’s when utility officials present the state utility commission with reams of documents that spell out its need to earn a specific amount of money to pay for salaries, equipment, and the like and on top of that, to earn a 9.5 percent profit. The commission is supposed to thoroughly examine the request and weigh the prudence of each part, rejecting costs that are not necessary or not allowed. Ultimately, in negotiation with the utility, the commission will decide on the amount of money that the utility can collect, known as the revenue requirement. Once determined, the revenue requirement is then divided up—by the number of customers and the amount of commodity they are expected to use—to determine the rates that customers pay. 

It’s easier for utilities to play it safe, plodding ahead with business as usual that can reliably turn a profit rather than try to innovate or design new systems for a changing energy environment.

It’s easier for utilities to play it safe, plodding ahead with business as usual that can reliably turn a profit rather than try to innovate or design new systems for a changing energy environment.

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Rate of return on equity—a disincentive to reduce waste and boost performance

Like many other businesses, utilities must find investors willing to loan and invest money that the utility will spend to grow, operate, and maintain its business. The utility seeks both debt (borrowed money) and equity investments (money invested by shareholders), all subject to meeting regulators’ requirements for maintaining a specific ratio of debt to equity for the utility. However, unlike other businesses, the shareholder return is pre-established by regulators. This predictability means that utilities can pay above-average dividends to their investors while offering a much lower-than-average risk investment. 

If you buy a share of Tesla or Boeing stock, there is a much higher risk that the stock will not return the profits you expect due to uncertainties like the company’s profit potential and customer growth. But when you buy a share of utility stock, you have a pretty good idea of what you will get in return. Utilities don’t lead the stock market, but they do offer low-risk, steady returns.  

The utility commission determines a maximum allowable profit margin or “rate of return on equity” for utilities. The 2019 authorized return on equity for the utilities in the Northwest was:

  • PSE: 9.5 percent
  • Avista: 9.4 percent
  • Northwest Natural: 9.4 percent
  • Idaho Power: 9.5 percent
  • Portland General Electric: 9.5 percent

These profit margins are not guaranteed to investors though; utilities bear some of the risk of actual costs exceeding forecasted costs and must effectively manage their business to achieve this rate of return on equity. If the utility generates a larger return—i.e. makes more profit—than allowed by regulators, it typically returns the excess money to its customers in the form of reduced rates in future years. That’s good because it protects the public interest, but it has a downside too: capping the financial benefits for a utilities’s shareholders discourages the utility from pushing too hard to reduce waste and improve performance.

Capping the financial benefits for a utilities’s shareholders discourages the utility from pushing too hard to reduce waste and improve performance.

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Value of assets after depreciation—an incentive to add new pipelines rather than repairing old ones

Asset value is at the root of the utility profit margin because a utility only earns a return on its investment in physical assets. And utilities own heaps of assets, not by accident. In fact, utilities are motivated to build more infrastructure because every year they recoup the cost of their investment in those assets plus an additional percentage of those costs (that’s the rate of return on equity) which is their profit. 

Consider all of the power poles, power generation plants, substations, pipes, regulators, meters, and other equipment that is part of the system that delivers electricity and gas. Each of these assets has an initial value (its installed cost) and a depreciation schedule (e.g. 30 years of straight-line depreciation means it loses 1/30th of its value every year until the 30th year when it is worth nothing). 

For example, if a utility were to spend $5 million building a new pipeline it would pass along the cost of the project to its ratepayers. Then the utility would also earn a guaranteed annual rate return on its investment in the pipeline. So if the rate of return were set at 10 percent, the utility would earn $500,000 in the first year ($5 million x 10 percent) and then slightly less in each subsequent year as the value of the pipeline depreciates over time. Understanding these guaranteed profits is key to understanding why a utility might be eager to pursue questionable new infrastructure projects like new pipelines or LNG facilities.

Expenses—passing off costs to customers discourages efficiency and upkeep

Expenses are those costs that utilities pass through directly to their customers with no markup for profits. Maintenance costs (e.g. repairing natural gas leaks) and the cost of fuel (e.g. natural gas, coal) are examples of expenses that the utility cannot mark up. That is, a utility must charge its customers the same cost that it pays. Selling natural gas to consumers does not return a profit to the utilitiy’s shareholders and neither does maintaining the natural gas pipeline. Since efficiency and upkeep don’t make money for the utility, there’s little financial incentive to do more than the bare minimum.

Since efficiency and upkeep don’t make money for the utility, there’s little financial incentive to do more than the bare minimum.

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Instead, profitability is driven primarily by the value of the assets. So while a utility has little incentive to spend money on upkeep, it does have a built-in incentive to buy new assets—the more infrastructure it builds, the more profits it can generate. As a result, it is common to see utilities prioritize replacement of an asset over repair. For example, utilities have been replacing sensors when the batteries die, rather than simply replacing the battery. The replacement of the whole sensor can earn profit for the utility while upkeep on a battery is a pass-through cost. We don’t replace our phones when the batteries need to be charged, but too often that is exactly the kind of tradeoff utilities make to juice their earnings.

It follows that  utilities have little motivation to find efficiencies in the pass-through categories of costs. For example, gas leaks waste fuel, but since the cost of the gas is passed through to customers, the expense of fixing gas leaks is likely not an attractive investment—especially if the repair does not result in a new physical asset that can earn a profit. Similarly, energy efficiency programs administered by utilities do not earn a profit, which may disincentivize a utility from going the extra mile to help their customers save energy. For example, local utilities have been very slow to implement voltage management on their distribution lines, a method of conservation that dwarfs all of the energy efficiency rebate programs, because the costs to implement this method cannot earn a profit.

Home solar panels.

How utilities make money: Home solar hikes prices and low-income customers bear the brunt. Photo: @tami.s.kelly via Twenty20.

Using less energy can raise rates and penalize low-income consumers

In the last decade, two trends in energy have emerged that affect both how utilities make money and the price that consumers pay for energy: energy efficiency and net metering (in which utility customers sell the power they generate from rooftop solar back to the utility). Both of these trends drive down the volume of energy sold by utilities, but they come with complications.

In the Northwest and in many other states, a utility’s revenues are “decoupled” from profits. That means the money-making formula is adjusted annually with a balancing account to allow utilities to collect enough revenue each year, independent of how much energy customers use. If the weather in one year drives customers to use more energy, the balancing account will refund to customers the extra revenue collected. Conversely, if customers focus on conservation and use less energy, the balancing account will allow the utility to collect a little extra revenue from customers to make up for the loss (by charging a slightly higher rate). This makes sense from the perspective of stabilizing utility finances, but there’s a downside. 

Using less energy can raise rates and penalize low-income consumers.

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Both energy efficiency and net metering reduce how much energy customers want to buy, which means, the utility sells less energy on a per-customer basis. In this case, the balancing account will allow rates to adjust upward to make up the difference so that the utility is able to collect the revenue it expected. Hence consumers ultimately pay more for less. What’s more, the consumers who opt-in to net metering and energy efficiency, and who therefore are buying fewer units of energy, are likely the wealthier consumers who can afford solar panels or new high-efficiency appliances. So, while the wealthiest consumers may send a smaller payment to the utility, lower-income consumers who make no changes to their energy consumption (often because they are tenants) may bear the brunt of the increased rates. Yet the utility comes out ahead because it collects its required revenue, regardless of the economic inequities that its consumers face.

How to align utility profits with community values and climate goals

The business model for utilities based on cost-of-service regulation was built for a time when safe and reliable power were the principle public interest. Nowadays, there are other priorities too: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving system resiliency, promoting consumer equity, customer choices, and offering a degree of local control. Having infrastructure owned by utilities infrastructure may not be the best way to achieve these priorities. 

Instead, investment in grid operations and third-party-owned distributed resources (e.g. batteries, demand response, solar panels) may be better for energy customers. As a result, many public utility commissions are starting to look at a new strategy called performance-based regulation (PBR) that may better align utility performance with the public interest. PBR can support new business models by tying utility profits to achieving desired outcomes like reducing greenhouse gas emissions or making bigger investments in decarbonization. 

In 2017, the Oregon legislature passed a bill that opened an investigation into utility regulation. The law required the state utility commission to review industry trends, technologies, and policy drivers  in consideration of changes to the regulated utility business model. Though the final report was published in 2018, Oregon has not yet moved forward on the recommendation for PBR. Similarly, the Washington legislature has empowered the state utility commission to use PBR to help reduce carbon emissions as part of the 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act. Other Northwest states have made no efforts in this direction. 

In the coming years, the Northwest, like other regions, will begin to rebuild its economy from the disruption of early 2020. It is possible that states will even receive federal stimulus investments that can speed transformation of the energy sector. So, as we begin the process of reconstruction, it is an ideal time to consider whether the regulatory models that now govern our utilities—and how utilities make money—are designed to best meet the needs we’ll have in the decades ahead for resilience, innovation, climate stability, and fairness.

The Macroproblem of Microplastics

Right up until the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Northwest was near the forefront of the global movement against plastics. Scores of cities in the region had banned various single-use products, and in March, the Washington State Legislature banned plastic grocery bags statewide, effective January 2021. The laws in Cascadia were part of a wave of bans on disposable consumer plastic products—especially straws and bags—that swept across North America and Latin America. This wave has even extended to China, the world’s biggest consumer of single-use plastics.

Now many of those laws are in jeopardy or have been temporarily suspended, with grocery stores and restaurants offering takeout and eschewing reusable products in favor of single-use plastics that are believed to be more hygienic. This response may be understandable as a short-term public health measure, but it carries a serious long-term risk. With 335 million tons of plastic produced annually—and 9 million tons of it ending up in the ocean—plastic is widely recognized as a major threat to the climate, wildlife, and oceans. Scientific studies have found plastic fibers almost everywhere—in the stomachs of whales, in tap water, and even in table salt. And recent research shows that solar radiation degrades plastic, causing it to emit climate-warming methane.

Bans on plastic use are one of the few ways to reduce the manufacturing of plastic in the first place. The world’s plastic problem is not only a problem of proper waste management (a serious issue in a few countries) but also one of the very existence of plastic. Before plastics become products (lawn chairs, thin grocery sacks, or hundreds of other items), they often start as nurdles. Designed for ease of transport and versatility in manufacturing, these tiny pellets are the intermediate stage between raw petrochemicals like ethane and finished consumer goods. Roughly the size of a lentil, nurdles are considered microplastics—diminutive in stature but huge in its potential threat to the ecosystem. Researchers estimate that each year approximately 230,000 tons of nurdles end up in the environment, accidentally spilled or otherwise released by the plastics industry.

Researchers estimate that each year approximately 230,000 tons of #nurdles end up in the environment, accidentally spilled or otherwise released by the plastics industry.

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Given that a single nurdle weighs only about 20 milligrams, this means that more than 10 trillion tiny plastic pellets are entering the world’s rivers and oceans every year. Birds and sea creatures often mistake nurdles for food, and their ingestion can lead to poisoning (in part because the pellets can absorb toxic chemicals like DDT) or starvation, as nurdles cannot be digested and can fill up an animal’s stomach over time.

The full effects of these harmful bits of plastic (which can break down into even smaller microplastics) are still unknown, but laboratory evidence indicates that they are toxic to phytoplankton, the foundation of the ocean’s food chain. Through photosynthesis, this microscopic marine alga absorbs nearly half of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Microplastic disrupts phytoplankton’s feeding, reproduction, and metabolism. It also disrupts the vital role of zooplankton, which feed on phytoplankton, in transporting carbon to the ocean floor in the form of fecal pellets.

Nurdles are too small to be effectively cleaned up once they escape into the environment, yet they would not exist in the vast quantity they do without the global demand for plastic products. Petrochemical companies ship billions upon billions of nurdles from production sites to factories all over the world that transform them into the finished products we use and often quickly dispose of. Because nurdles are so small and inexpensive to produce—and because their escape is so lightly regulated—the industry appears willing to accept a certain level of loss as the cost of doing business.

Some nurdle pollution results from shipping spills. In 2017 a hurricane at the Port of Durban in South Africa caused two container ships to collide, sending 49 metric tons of nurdles into the ocean. The translucent beads quickly spread along more than 1,200 miles of coastline, with some landing on the beaches and some making it as far as Western Australia over the following year. Months after the spill, South African authorities had retrieved only about 23 percent of the spilled nurdles, with the rest likely never to be recovered.

Other times, nurdle pollution results from the manufacturing process. A peer-reviewed study on the southwest coast of Sweden found that a polyethylene producer in the industrial town of Stenungsund releases millions of pellets annually. It’s the same story in Scotland, where a large petrochemical manufacturing site outside Edinburgh yields a heavy concentration of nurdle pollution in the Firth of Forth, a nearby coastal estuary. So heavy is the nurdle pollution there that during a beach cleanup, volunteers collected more than 450,000 pellets in just over two hours.

In the most troubling cases, plastics manufacturers may dump nurdles into the environment. This is what appears to have happened on the US Gulf Coast, where the petrochemical giant Formosa Plastics was forced to pay a $50 million settlement after losing a lawsuit alleging that the company had illegally dumped nurdles and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay in Texas. The suit was bolstered by the work of citizen scientists with the Nurdle Patrol, a project of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, who carefully gathered data about the extent of the problem.

A group of citizen scientists based in Scotland started the Great Nurdle Hunt to find the minute plastic beads on 84 percent of the beaches they surveyed, including beaches in Abu Dhabi, Ecuador, and South Africa. Their research suggests that once in the marine environment, nurdles travel practically everywhere and that even the world’s most protected sanctuaries are not immune. In March 2019, for example, 11 volunteers collected more than 1,000 nurdles on the Galapagos Islands in less than two hours.

There are some industry-sponsored efforts to self-regulate nurdle pollution, but these appear to be milquetoast at best. Most notable is Operation Clean Sweep, a voluntary program that provides information to participating companies on best practices for reducing nurdle spillage, but there is no government follow-up or monitoring system to measure success. And membership is no guarantee of good behavior, as Formosa Plastics’ membership has shown.

In a world demanding more and more plastic, preventing nurdle pollution is not easy. In the United States, one logical step would be to enforce laws already on the books, like the Clean Water Act, which requires companies to obtain permission from regulators before they discharge pollutants into bodies of water. By defining nurdles as a pollutant, as California did in 2008, states could regulate and, in theory, prevent nurdle pollution at manufacturing sites.

But in an interconnected world of plastics manufacturing and shipping, the most effective solution to plastic pollution may be simple: use less.


Author’s update 5/26/2020: Newly published research in the journals Environmental Pollution and Global Change Biology indicate that the environmental impacts of microplastic are worse than previously understood. First, by using much finer nets to collect plastic (100 micrometers compared to the typical 500 micrometers), researchers recorded a 2.5-fold increase in the amount of microplastics in surface water, which implies that yet more plastic would be identified if even finer nets were used to collect data. Second, researchers found that Eurasion dippers, a predatory river bird species, ingested plastic first consumed by their prey and that the plastic transferred from adult dippers to their young during feeding. In other words, plastic ingested at the bottom of the food chain can travel up to predators.

Zane Gustafson is a freelance researcher who holds a Master’s in Public Affairs with a focus in climate policy from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He also studies foreign affairs, political rhetoric, and American history.

Will Clear Roads and Clean Skies Outlast the Pandemic?

The demands of social distancing have caused an unprecedented substitution of virtual interactions for physical travel. Surveys by MIT and Data for Progress found that by the end of March, more than a third of US workers had switched to working remotely. In addition, half of physicians have adopted telehealth to deliver patient care. Many employers expect these changes to endure even after distancing guidelines relax, which—if the region makes the right moves—could wrest from this crisis some lasting progress for Cascadia’s roads and skies.

The scale and speed of the shift to telework is staggering. Zoom, a digital conferencing services provider (whose name has become a buzzword of the lockdowns), saw its active users jump from 10 million to 200 million. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, reported a sixtyfold increase in the use of Microsoft Teams, the company’s online collaboration tool. Amid the public health crisis and economic devastation, technology has allowed parts of social and economic life to carry on.

But many aspects of economic life can’t go online, as evidenced by the breathtaking loss of at least 30 million US jobs in just five weeks—a scale of unemployment matched only by the Great Depression. Collectively, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington have lost more than 1 million jobs in that same period—losses that disproportionately affect Cascadia’s most vulnerable people. The coronavirus has amplified the already cruel inequalities in our society.

The Data for Progress survey from the end of March shows unequal adoption rates for work-from-home by income and education. Among high-income workers, 56 percent moved online while just 25 percent of low-income workers were able to make the switch. Because more high-income workers could work remotely, they were less likely to lose their jobs. While the official unemployment rate for April was an alarming 15 percent, nearly 40 percent of households earning less than $40,000 per year had lost a job according to the Federal Reserve.

There are no silver linings for people suffering from illness, death, loss of income, and the gnawing uncertainty of what will happen next. And yet forward-looking responses to the immediate public health and economic crisis could lay the foundation for a more equitable and environmentally sustainable economy in the next decade. A durable shift to remote work could help enable a more sustainable future if organizations make productive use of telepresence technologies part of the new normal.

Let’s look at what’s happened to work in technology and medicine in response to COVID-19 and, with those examples in mind, consider how a more permanent substitution of telepresence for many face-to-face meetings could alter future travel demand.

Big tech (mostly) working from home

Cascadia’s technology companies were among the first in North America to recommend and then require their employees to work from home. Amazon, Microsoft, T-Mobile, and the Pacific Northwest outposts of Facebook and Google all initiated work-from-home policies at the beginning of March. Since then, these enterprises have sustained and even expanded their businesses while most of their employees work from home.

In the midst of the pandemic, T-Mobile completed its acquisition of Sprint on April 1 and kicked off plans to invest $40 billion in wireless communication infrastructure over the next three years. Remote workers at Microsoft supported massive growth in the use of its cloud software platforms; the company now plans for all of its major events in 2020 to happen online. Amazon has supported a flood of new demand for its e-commerce services and started hiring an additional 100,000 workers. Even with a drastic reduction in face-to-face meetings, big tech companies have functioned at a high level, serving a new demand that’s helped raise their stock prices.

It’s not only high-income workers making the shift. By the end of March, T-Mobile had transitioned nearly 15,000 domestic and international customer service workers from densely packed call centers to their homes. By early April, all 17 of T-Mobile’s internal call centers had transitioned to home-based work.

Amazon’s hiring binge for additional warehouse workers makes clear that key aspects of the technology economy must occur outside the home, in conditions that can threaten worker safety. Indeed, the pandemic compounds existing inequities between white collar workers and those with jobs deemed “essential”—that can’t be done from home. But, concern over Amazon’s corporate behavior have prompted new alliances among workers to advocate for improved warehouse conditions and a reduction in Amazon’s environmental footprint. And whether it is labor organizing, delivering cell service, or building capacity to host more video conferences, people in tech now accomplish far more of their work remotely.

The rapid embrace of remote work and virtual medicine offers some hope that post-pandemic, Cascadia could see a reduced demand for road space from autos and corresponding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

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By early May, Amazon and Microsoft had extended their work-from-home policy to at least October. Some tech companies, like Twitter, are going a step further and making work-from-home permanent. Across the country, employers now look to extend telework into the foreseeable future. In New York City the three largest commercial office tenants in Manhattan plan to reduce their leased office space as they adopt long-term work-from-home policies.  A survey of 400 downtown Seattle businesses shows that a majority plan to delay a full return to work, stagger shifts or permanently adopt work-from-home.

A close-to-my-heart example: my niece leads a Seattle start-up company building cloud-based software solutions for the real estate industry. Following the example of Seattle’s tech giants, her company went fully remote in the beginning of March. After four weeks, she polled her staff and discovered a large majority preferred working at home. She plans to slash her office expenses and find lower cost venues for face-to-face meetings in the future when they are required for the business and allowed by public health authorities. One month of remote work proved they could be as or more productive as a virtual company, reduce overhead, and save her staff the stress, time, and expense of daily commuting. 


US House to Vote on Rent Relief, Eviction Bans, and Cash Payments

5/15 UPDATE: The House passed the stimulus bill despite opposition from some progressive Democrats who believed the bill didn’t go far enough to protect workers and some moderates who criticized the lack of bipartisan support. 

On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) announced a $3 trillion stimulus package—including key worker and renter protections like rent relief, eviction bans, and cash payments—to soften the economic blow of the COVID-19 shutdowns on American workers and businesses. Over a month has passed since Congress approved the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the first major stimulus package. Since mid-March, over 36 million workers have filed for unemployment while more than 1 in 5  households reported experiencing food insecurity in the past month. Among households making less than $40,000 annually, 40 percent lost jobs in March. 

The ambitious Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act includes a range of Democrat priorities such as providing nearly $1 trillion to mitigate budget losses for state, local, and tribal governments; $25 billion to support the US Postal Service; extending emergency family and sick leave through 2021, and more

To help stabilize renters and workers, the new bill includes:

  • $100 billion in rental and utility assistance and $500 million for supportive housing; 
  • A moratorium on evictions based on nonpayment of rent for all tenants;
  • One-time direct cash payments of $1,200 to individuals making below $75,000 annually as well as $1,200 for each child (up to three).

The House plans to vote on the proposal Friday, and with Democrats in the majority the bill will pass if the party rallies behind leadership’s proposal. But there are no plans for a vote in the Senate, where Republicans have resisted calls for another relief package. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) described the bill as “dead on arrival,” while Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) criticized Democrat priorities and seemed to defer to the White House for direction

The path to Senate passage of the bill is unclear, especially without major concessions to Senate Republicans—such concessions led to nearly $500 billion in corporate bailouts in the CARES Act. Democrats face a tough road ahead to prioritize federal support for workers and renters over corporate handouts. 

Package would build on Democrats’ recent proposals

Rental assistance
The HEROES Act incorporates a recent rent relief proposal from Washington Representative Denny Heck, who partnered with Representative Maxine Waters (D-California) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to secure $100 billion in tenant assistance.

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The HEROES Act incorporates a recent rent relief proposal from Washington Representative Denny Heck, who partnered with Representative Maxine Waters (D-California) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to secure $100 billion in tenant assistance. Low- and middle-income renters struggling to pay rent and utility bills would access these funds through state and local programs. 

HUD would develop formulas to specify funding amounts for each state, city, and county, with guaranteed allotments of two percent to tribes and 0.3 percent to territories (excluding Puerto Rico). Anyone making up to 80 percent of area median income (AMI), and unable to pay housing costs due to financial hardships, could apply to their state, county, or local government for assistance. The law would require prioritization of funding for renters making less than 50 percent of AMI. HUD would start dispersing funds within a month and grantees would have another month to make payments directly to housing providers.

The bill would also allocate $500 million in supplemental FY2020 funding for Section 8 project-based assistance as well as supportive housing programs for the elderly, people with disabilities, and people with HIV/AIDS. 

Homeowners could also qualify for substantial benefits from the HEROES Act, even though on average they tend to be more economically secure than renters. It would provide $75 billion to fund mortgage, utility, and property tax and insurance relief. 

Eviction moratorium

Building on the eviction moratorium put in place by the CARES Act, the new relief proposal would enact a year-long ban on eviction filings over nonpayment of rent for all residential tenants, a bold and unprecedented move for the US. The previous national eviction ban only applied to renters in homes with federally-backed mortgages. Otherwise, currently only a patchwork of individual state and local moratoriums stand in the way of eviction, leaving tenants to slip through the cracks as some landlords have pursued eviction filings even in the midst of the national public health emergency. 

For those who own rather than rent, the bill expands to all homeowners the CARES Act foreclosure moratorium which originally applied only to homes with federally-backed mortgages. It also offers mortgage forbearance for up to a year, after which loan servicers must offer payment plans that either tack on missed mortgage payments to the end of the period or extend the payment period (as some banks already offered to do), ensuring that mortgage payments stay at the same rates as before the crisis. Loan servicers could also reduce payments, if the owner can’t pay pre-crisis level payments, though the bill doesn’t mandate this. 

The bill doesn’t provide analogous payback flexibility for renters, who could be forced to come up with the full amount of back rent they owe within 30 days of the state of emergency ending or face eviction, unless protected by local or state ordinances. For example, Seattle’s City Council passed legislation this week creating a “default payment plan” for tenants to pay back overdue rent in three to six monthly installments, depending on the amount owed. This builds on a directive from Washington’s governor that landlords must pursue tenant payment plans before considering eviction at the end of the moratorium. Los Angeles and other localities like Beaverton, Multnomah County, and Portland, OR, have all enacted similar measures

Cash assistance

Mirroring the one-time cash assistance payments in the CARES Act, the new bill would provide $1,200 for each taxpayer making less than $75,000 annually (or less than $150,000 for couples). It raises the CARES Act’s $500 per child benefit to $1,200 per child for up to three children. That adds up to a maximum of $6,000 for families of five or more

Because the economic crisis will far outlast one-time payments, Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), Ro Khanna (D-California), and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), and Senators Kamala Harris (D-California), Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) had proposed ongoing monthly cash assistance. But House leadership opted against trying to include that more comprehensive (and costly) type of longer-term relief. Without such support, laid-off, furloughed, and other unemployed people will struggle to pay basic living costs as the crisis persists. As my Sightline colleagues Michael Anderson and Margaret Morales have argued, ongoing cash benefits are a good way to provide a social safety net even during normal times.  


Tune In: A Conversation About the Power of Cash Benefits

Sightline researchers Michael Andersen and Margaret Morales recently joined Oregon Public Broadcasting host Dave Miller on the program Think Out Loud for a conversation about the power of cash benefits to keep people strong and resilient through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. 

As the pandemic hit, Sightline’s housing and urbanism research team turned their attention to cash assistance as one way to keep people safe immediately and to build economic security over the long-haul. (See recent Sightline research on cash support, here, here, and here). Speaking on OPB, Michael and Margaret point out that American safety net programs are narrow by design: SNAP benefits (food stamps) can only be spent on certain foods in the grocery store, section 8 vouchers are for housing only. But people’s particular life circumstances don’t always conform to this one-size-fits-all approach. A benefit doesn’t help you if it’s not the benefit you need. 

Cash payments give families freedom and flexibility to attend to their particular needs. The idea, Margaret explains, “is that we should give people cash, stop restricting how they can use a benefit, and give them flexibility and the option to be creative to find solutions that work in their specific situations.“ As Michael puts it, “whether it’s a massive crisis like this one, or the constant private crises that we live through at different points in our lives, cash lets you customize that benefit.” 

“Whether it’s a massive crisis like this one, or the constant private crises that we live through at different points in our lives, cash lets you customize that benefit.”

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Michael and Margaret also dig into evidence that cash works, including studies from programs from Alaska to North Carolina demonstrating positive outcomes ranging from reduced childhood obesity to higher educational attainment, reduced crime, and greater ability to meet daily household needs like grocery and utility bills.

With a broad swath of Americans finding themselves thrown into a financial crisis that they couldn’t have anticipated, a federal one-time support check already distributed, and talk of more assistance, the coronavirus has propelled the idea of cash benefits to the mainstream in the US. As Margaret and Michael discuss, Canada along with most other prosperous countries around the world already had cash payment systems in place, systems that sped vital emergency support during the pandemic. They make a strong case that the US should catch up. 

Find their full Think Out Loud interview here.

States Lead to Rid Food Crops of the Neurotoxin Chlorpyrifos

Editor’s note 5/15/20: A previous version of this article stated that the Washington legislature passed Senate Bill 6518 in its 2020 session, requiring additional in-state regulations on Chlorpyrifos application. While the bill did pass the legislature, Governor Inslee vetoed it due to budget concerns related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The article has been updated to reflect this.

In early February, Corteva Agriscience, the largest manufacturer of the neurotoxic pesticide Chlorpyrifos, announced it would discontinue production of the chemical. It was probably no coincidence that the statement came the same day California banned in-state sales of the chemical. California’s decision was, in part, the result of more than a decade of pressure from farmworker and environmental organizations for the state to make up for federal government inaction.

Nearly 40 years ago, toxicology studies showed that Chlorpyrifos exposure can interfere with brain development, particularly in infants and children. Since then, evidence of the pesticide’s harmful effects on human health has steadily accumulated. Exposure is linked with neurological and respiratory complications in children, reduced fertility, and Parkinson’s disease.

These findings are especially troubling given that Chlorpyrifos is widely used to control food crop pests. Cascadia’s farmers commonly spray it on regional staples including apples, pears, cherries, Christmas trees, lentils, and wheat.

Cascadia’s farmers commonly spray Chlorpyrifos on regional staples including apples, pears, cherries, Christmas trees, lentils, and wheat.

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Foresters also apply Chlorpyrifos  to control bark beetles or other boring insects.

So far, no Cascadian government has banned the pesticide. Oregon and Washington lawmakers have each considered legislation to reduce exposure risks, but neither state has taken decisive action. In both 2019 and 2020, Oregon lawmakers considered bills to ban Chlorpyrifos within the state, but in each chaotic session the legislature adjourned before voting on the proposals. Washington’s legislature passed a bill this year requiring the state’s Department of Agriculture to further regulate application of the pesticide, but Governor Inslee vetoed the bill due to budget concerns related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

British Columbia has also failed to act, though the chemical is already much less common in the province than in Pacific Northwest states. In 2015, BC residents bought fewer than 5,000 pounds of Chlorpyrifos, equivalent to less than four percent the amount sprayed on Washington apples that year alone.

Despite the lack of Cascadian action, California’s leadership on Chlorpyrifos may improve the safety of the food system in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Chlorpyrifos and its more acutely toxic oxon metabolite, the latter formed in the body and during drinking water treatments.

Chlorpyrifos and its more acutely toxic oxon metabolite, the latter formed in the body and during drinking water treatments. Source: National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University (public domain).

Four decades of federal inaction despite mounting evidence of harm

In 1965, the United States approved application of Chrlorpyrifos in agriculture and for residential use. Within two decades, studies began rolling in linking exposure to the pesticide with adverse health outcomes, including delayed motor function and brain development in children. Though Congress tightened national pesticide regulations in the mid-1990s, high rates of childhood exposure to the potent neurotoxin continued.

Finally, in 2000, responding to mounting evidence of harm, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) negotiated a voluntary agreement with Chlorpyrifos manufacturers to end application in locations where children are mostly likely to be directly exposed—homes, schools, and daycare centers. But food crop application continued.

Unsatisfied with the voluntary agreement, the Natural Resource Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network continued to urge the federal government to ban the chemical outright. The request fell on deaf ears until five years ago, when EPA staff at last recommended ending Chlorpyrifos application on food crops. A year later, in 2016, the EPA reiterated the guidance, adding that food exposures to all age groups exceed safe levels. Children under the age of three face exposure 140 times “acceptable” levels. Farmworker families and their neighbors also bear high risk of acute exposure.

Despite the staff’s strong recommendation, president Donald Trump’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, refused to ban the chemical in 2017, and the US federal government has not taken action since.

Health Canada recommended a near total ban on Chlorpyrifos across Canada last year. As of this writing, the Canadian federal government has yet to act.

Chlorpyrifos Use Map and Chart for 2016 (most recent year available), from US Geological Survey (public domain).

Chlorpyrifos Use Map and Chart for 2016 (most recent year available), from US Geological Survey (public domain).

States step in

In the absence of federal action to ban Chlorpyrifos, state governments are stepping up. Attorneys general in multiple US states, including Oregon and Washington, have filed an administrative challenge against the EPA, calling on the Agency to cancel agricultural uses of the neurotoxin.

State legislators around the US are also taking action within their borders. In January, 2019, Hawaii became the first state to ban Chlorpyrifos application within its borders. California followed suit last fall, announcing that it would ban in-state sales of the pesticide by February 2020. In December 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also announced a state-wide ban, set to take effect July, 2021.

California is the largest US state by both population and agricultural sales, giving its pesticide regulations exceptional influence on the industry. Unsurprisingly, Corteva’s February announcement that it will terminate its Chlorpyrifos production followed on the heels of the Golden State’s ban.

Looking ahead

As the largest manufacturer of Chlorpyrifos, Corteva’s decision could radically slash use of the chemical across North America. Still, at least four other companies manufacture the pesticide: Cheminova, Makteshim-Agan, Gharda and Platte Chemical. None of these companies have yet announced plans to discontinue production.

California Governor Gavin Newson’s 2019 budget committed $5.7 million to look for alternative insecticides to replace Chlorpyrifos. Many of the options present risks of their own; for example, Imidacloprid and Clothianidin are neonicotinoids, a pesticide class linked with the decline in bee populations.

As the US federal government fails to act, and Canada’s lawmakers proceed with their review process, Cascadian governments could follow California’s lead and implement state- or province-wide bans. Though Oregon and Washington legislators failed to take decisive action on Chlorpyrifos in this year’s legislative sessions, they’ll have another chance next January.


John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant who occasionally contributes to Sightline articles. He recently served as in-house support contractor to EPA in Seattle, until he resigned in September 2019 in protest of the Trump administration’s efforts to damage the Agency’s mission to protect children and other living things.

The Plague Brought the Renaissance. What Could COVID-19 Bring?

In spring 1986, as a wet-behind-the-ears research assistant at a Washington, DC, think tank, I spent my first year after college studying the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

The catastrophe’s consequences were immediate: death, displacement, downwind irradiation for hundreds of miles, and an unprecedented quasi-military cleanup that cost more than $100 billion. I assembled and summarized for my supervisor piles of news reports and research papers, and I knew what the experts said the Chernobyl disaster would mean for the world, one being a huge downshift in commercial nuclear power for a generation.

But no one studying the accident then anticipated that the disaster might serve as the final straw that would break the back of the country’s Communist rule. Yet looking back in April 2006, the final Communist head of state Mikhail Gorbachev wrote, “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl . . . was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.” The disaster, with its continent-spanning fallout of invisible death-dealing particles, semi-random hotspots and safe zones, and weeks of government cover-ups and minimization, evaporated what little trust Soviet residents still had in their leaders. Gorbachev’s attempts at transparency (glasnost) and reform (perestroika) were doomed. Chernobyl proved to a critical mass of Soviet people that the entire system was a cruel farce.

Three hypotheses

Fast-forward to spring 2020. The coronavirus pandemic is all too obvious in its consequences: death, economic collapse and recession, and an unprecedented global health crisis. But what will be the long-term effects? What consequences are still to come? What will we see when we look back 20 years from now, like when Gorbachev reflected on Chernobyl?

In 1986 no one could foresee the end of Soviet communism. And I do not mean to imply that this pandemic will topple any particular regime, though such outcomes are certainly possible. My point is that the reach of disastrous events is long and unpredictable, both for better and for worse. The bubonic plague, according to historian Barbara Tuchman, hastened the Renaissance. The Great Depression gave birth to both the social safety net in the West and to fascism in Europe.

So we can assume that the pandemic will bring changes—possibly big ones—that we’re probably not thinking about right now. I will hazard some guesses (more hypotheses than predictions) of what’s to come.

Theories proliferate in the absence of data, so there’s danger in this exercise; I may just be projecting my preconceptions onto the future. To guard against that, I’ve challenged myself to think through these questions: How might fear and isolation rewire our brains? What feels safer or less safe than before? Who are the disaster’s heroes and villains? How does this crisis change how we think about ourselves and other people?

My three hypotheses (and my hope) is that the long-term effect of the coronavirus pandemic will be to strengthen the importance (at least in North America) of competence, science, and solidarity.

My three hypotheses (and my hope) is that the long-term effect of the coronavirus pandemic will be to strengthen the importance (at least in North America) of competence, science, and solidarity.

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Darker hypotheses are defensible, too—a dystopia of blame, “othering,” survivalist individualism, bio-surveillance, and ascendant authoritarianism. Rather than reaching out to each other, we may defensively pull inward, which is what happened in some plagues of old. There’s academic support for the notion that infectious diseases bring out the worst in us. Still, my reading of events to date suggests a more-hopeful course.

1: Competence

We are living through a planet-wide live-streamed natural experiment: the same virus is attacking people in every country, and the results are rolling across our screens in a news ticker of unfathomable firsts and mosts—of deaths, job losses, economic collapse, and instability. Beyond the horror of it all, what stands out at this still-early point in the saga is that some places seem to be passing the test while others are not.

What separates success from failure, to the extent that it’s not pure luck, has had little to do with leaders’ ideologies and everything to do with their competence. New Zealand’s liberal leader Jacinda Ardern locked down her country so promptly that the virus had barely begun to spread there. “We must go hard and we must go early,” she declared. Now she and her conservative counterpart in Australia are both well on the way to eliminating the virus from their shores—an accomplishment so unthinkable elsewhere that it sounds like deliverance to the promised land.

Others have taken different paths better suited to their circumstances but still gobsmackingly impressive. Conservative Singapore and liberal South Korea have both taken the crisis in stride in these early months, closing borders, conducting massive testing, and deploying armies of contact tracers. The western US states—both red and blue ones—have excelled while the East Coast has struggled. Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, and neighboring Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, have both handled the crisis deftly so far.

Citizens have rewarded competence with levels of trust rarely seen in modern politics. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who uses her TV time to explain epidemiology, exudes so much palpable competence that she has won approval of close to 80 percent of Germans on one measure. Australia’s previously unpopular prime minister, Scott Morrison, has increased his approval rating by 25 points with decisive, coordinated action. If the times choose the leaders, these times seem to have little patience for temporizers, demagogues or carnival barkers.

The first instinct that the pandemic may be imprinting on our psyches is that competence can help keep us safe, while incompetence is an imminent threat to our lives and livelihoods. More voters may soon act on this instinct, as they did by overwhelming margins in South Korea last month.

2: Science

Every disaster has its heroes, and their stories often encode the lessons we retain. “Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” Winston Churchill famously said of the Royal Air Force pilots who fended off the Luftwaffe over London in the Battle of Britain. The “few” in the pandemic are the thousands of health care workers in our hospitals—the most obvious heroes of 2020. We cheer them from our porches and balconies every evening, raising a clamor to the heavens in tribute to their service.

What will post-pandemic life look like? Photo: @alinabuzunova via Twenty20

But the heroes in this time extend beyond the medical workers to science itself. Science is behind medical workers’ superpowers. Science is why Amy Acton, Director of Health for the Ohio Department of Health, and Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer for the Province of British Columbia, have vaulted from obscurity to become local folk heroes. They are certifiable experts, and they tell us, calmly and honestly, what is true and what is not. Science is what we crave from epidemiologists as we grapple with the unknown and yearn for a timeline for returning to simple pleasures like dinner with friends or the seventh-inning stretch. Science is why the stock market jumps with each rumor of medical researchers racing to test treatments and vaccines. Indeed, all our hopes for the future seem to begin with the phrase, “Once there’s a vaccine . . . ”

If anything can end the pandemic, it’s science, and many of those we will ultimately pin medals on will be scientists. Taming the virus will enhance science’s standing—perhaps dramatically—and I expect that we will then invest more in scientific research. Institutions like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once the most respected public health research institution in the world, may come roaring back. Science denialism, meanwhile, could become peripheral; more people may see both its anti-vaxxer and its climate change variants for what they are: the stuff of tin-foil hats.

Science denialism, meanwhile, could become peripheral; more people may see both its anti-vaxxer and its climate change variants for what they are: the stuff of tin-foil hats.

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And if this happens, the enhanced respect for science will give us at least a modestly better chance of addressing the scarier global threat that continues to loom even during this crisis: the climate emergency.

3: Solidarity

The other heroes of the pandemic are the grocery clerks, bus drivers, cleaning crews—those who maintain the supply line of essentials such as food and water and those who sanitize critical places, from polling stations to assisted living facilities. Awareness is more widespread that the better-off often do nonessential work, while the worse-off do work that allows us all to survive.

The pandemic is acting on society like one of the contrast dyes radiologists use to study our organs in X-rays. It is making visible the abject dependence of white-collar workers on their blue-collar compatriots. It is making plain that, outside of the health care sector, the best-paid people—most of them now working comfortably from their homes—have the least risk of infection, while the worst-paid workers have the most, and those risks have now generated gaping disparities in COVID-19 infection by race. The disease is making visible economic inequality as well: unemployment, now surging to Great Depression levels, falls mostly on those who are already low on the income ladder.

If there has ever been a time for people to feel in their guts that we’re all in this together, that we’re not self-sufficient individuals but thoroughly interdependent members of a community, this is that time. Psychologically, we tend to bond with others when we face adversity together, particularly when adversity comes from an external threat.

And if awareness and psychology aren’t enough to strengthen fellow feeling, self-interest might be. The control of infection itself is inescapably a collective problem. Literally everyone depends on literally everyone else to help stop the virus’s spread. I cannot be safe unless you keep yourself safe, and you cannot be safe unless I keep myself safe. Urban homeless encampments, crowded prisons, shoulder-to-shoulder meatpacking lines, understaffed nursing homes, and entire impoverished nations were already moral dilemmas that deserved everyone’s attention, not just that of those directly involved, but they were not threats to the survival of the not-involved. Now that it is painfully clear that we all float in the same global germ pool, those threats have, in the words of a psychotherapist I know, “broken through to our most private thoughts.”

For these reasons, the pandemic could elevate solidarity, even in the individualistic cultures of North America. If it does, this change could be even more transformative than the elevation of competence and science. It could facilitate a stronger social safety net in the United States with, for example, paid sick leave for all, more-ample assistance to low-income renters, and conceivably even a universal basic income.

Not going to the beach

This trio of hypotheses—ascendant competence, science, and solidarity—is not an all-or-nothing matter. I do not expect the rise of these values to be anything close to universal. It would be turning up the dial, not flipping a switch. Still, in events like close-fought elections, a turned dial could make all the difference. For example, in a hyperpolarized American electorate that interprets even coronavirus news through a partisan lens, shifting the least polarized 5 percent of the public (swing voters) to a fuller embrace of science and a stronger sense of solidarity could entrain a fundamental political realignment.

The most promising sign that the pandemic could ultimately lead to such a welcome outcome is simply the degree to which people are complying with stay-home orders and social distancing. Compliance is exceptionally high even among people in low-risk groups such as young adults and in places with low infection rates. Almost everyone, almost everywhere in the world—often at enormous cost to themselves (possibly losing their jobs, their businesses, and/or their homes)—is doing what public health officials are asking of them. Violators of the new norms get a lot of media attention, but they are vanishingly rare. A slim fraction of 1 percent of people go to the beach and end up on the news; the tens of millions who stay home do not.

Our species has never experienced anything like this. All at once, united by a common purpose, we have completely changed our behavior. Perhaps in time, we will change our world, too.

Three Big COVID-19 Stimulus Ideas to Help Renters and Workers

5/12 Update: House Democrats included the proposal for $100 billion of rental assistance funds to the next stimulus bill. The House will vote on the bill on Friday, May 15th. 

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed and deepened cracks in America’s social safety nets, with over 33 million workers filing for unemployment in the past seven weeks. In response, Congress will consider a comprehensive CARES 2.0 stimulus package to follow last month’s $2.2 trillion CARES Act. Democrats have proposed numerous solutions; among them are six bills that could influence protections for renters and workers in the next stimulus package.

The proposals fall into three categories: 

  • Rental assistance
  • Paycheck protection
  • A federal basic income

Such far-reaching concepts would have had no traction 10 years ago in the fallout of the last economic crash, but they are now front and center, highlighting the strong progressive presence in the House that’s pushing the Democratic Party to consider bold ideas that prioritize workers, low-income people, renters, and other vulnerable groups.  

Solution One: Rental Assistance 

Expand rental assistance

Representative Denny Heck (D-Washington) has partnered with Maxine Waters (D-California) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to propose $100 billion toward the Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) program to support renters experiencing or at risk of homelessness. This funding would be a massive expansion of the program, which received only $280 million in 2019. 

The Emergency Rental Assistance and Rental Market Stabilization Act would expand the definition of people at risk of homelessness to include those earning up to 80 percent of the area median income (AMI), from the current 30 percent cutoff. But to make sure most funds go to those most in need, states and local governments must use 40 percent of funds to support renters at 30 percent of AMI or below, and at least 70 percent to support those at 50 percent of AMI or below.

Assistance would last for up to two years, including up to six months of back rent and late fees, and would be capped at 120 percent of Fair Market Rent. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would have a week to allocate at least half of the funds, and 45 days to allocate the rest. State and local governments would then have a month to disburse payments, which would go directly to housing providers. 

Upon introduction, 133 representatives and 24 Senators pledged to cosponsor the bill. A slew of affordable housing and homeless advocates back this proposal, including the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, an alliance of over 850 organizations led by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. Groups such as the Council for Affordable and Rural Housing, National Affordable Housing Management Association, National Apartment Association, National Association of Home Builders, National Association of Realtors, National Multifamily Housing Council, and many more signed onto a letter demanding that Congress pass emergency rental relief. 

The $100 billion figure aligns with NLIHC’s estimates of the need ($76 billion to $99.5 billion per year) as well as Sightline’s estimates. But since the complete economic consequences of the crisis are not yet known, these estimates may not fully reflect future needs. 

What is known is that the federal government has far more resources to support people than do states. To illustrate, Washington State recently expanded its Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program to cover $1,000 in rent and $500 in energy assistance to people at 125 percent of the poverty line and below, serving approximately 5,000 families—in a state with 7.8 million residents.

Cancel rents and mortgages

The Emergency Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, a proposal by Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), would cancel rent and mortgage payments for primary homes, including payments made in April, until one month after the national emergency ends. 

In effect, though, this amounts to another form of rent and mortgage assistance, because it would also provide financial support to landlords and lenders to cover missed payments. The onus to seek government relief would be on landlords and lenders, who are typically more financially stable, rather than on renters, who tend to be far less wealthy

The legislation enjoys widespread support among national progressive groups, including Action Center on Race and the Economy, People’s Action, PolicyLink, as well as local organizations like Washington Community Action Network. Pramila Jayapal, the Seattle area’s congressional representative, joined Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) in sponsoring Omar’s legislation. 

The bill would set up two funds under HUD from which landlords and mortgage lenders can apply for support. HUD would give priority to nonprofits and other landlords with few assets.

To qualify, landlords must adhere to fair housing practices for five years, including common ones such as pursuing only just-cause eviction and banning discrimination based on source of income, criminal history, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. They must also pursue more far-reaching policies like banning rent increases and agreeing to rent vacant dwellings to households that qualify for tenant-based rental assistance programs like Section 8 vouchers.  

For lenders, the bill requires annual reporting to HUD on the race, age, ethnicity, credit scores, and zip codes of borrowers as well as interest rates and other loan pricing features. They must also report their outreach and referral practices. These measures would give the federal government national data on who can currently access mortgages and shed light on how lender outreach may neglect communities of color and low-income people. 

Omar’s bill also lays the foundation for a program to increase subsidized housing and give tenants democratic control over management. It introduces a fund to help nonprofits, public housing authorities, community land trusts (CLTs), cooperatives, and state and local governments acquire private rental properties and gives them a first right to purchase for 60 days. Buyer acquisition assistance would come in exchange for ensuring fair housing requirements and establishing democratic control of the units by the tenants. If funded thoroughly over time, the bill could move thousands of market-rate units into America’s affordable housing stock and help dramatically scale up the community-owned, democratically-controlled, permanently affordable CLT housing model 

These two rental assistance proposals would help cover or eliminate rent, stabilizing vulnerable tenants during a time of economic upheaval. But how will tenants who lost income pay other living costs? That takes us to the next set of proposals.

Solution Two: Paycheck Protection

A paycheck protection program grants employers money to keep paying their employees. It goes a step beyond covering rent or other specific living costs by ensuring that employers can retain or rehire workers. People continue receiving paychecks and benefits, and they have jobs to go back to after the shutdown lifts. Further, since a vast majority of Americans receive health insurance through their employers, they likely keep their insurance and aren’t discouraged from seeking medical care, which can be deadly in the current pandemic. 

How can the next coronavirus stimulus protect renters and workers? Photo: @Cheggy via Twenty20.

The CARES Act provided $350 billion for paycheck protection to small businesses that lost revenue due to COVID-19 shutdowns. The initial funding, via forgivable loans through the Small Business Administration (SBA), ran out within two weeks; Congress approved another $380 billion.

Two bills would further expand paycheck protection. 

Universal Paycheck Guarantee

In the House, Representative Jayapal introduced the Paycheck Guarantee Act, under which the federal government would cover salaries of up to $100,000 for three months. Aid would be retroactive to the beginning of the crisis and renew monthly until consumer demand recovers to pre-crisis levels. The bill also includes aid to help “essential” businesses cover rent and other expenses.

In exchange, employers must adhere to exemplary labor practices throughout the relief period and for three years afterward, including:

  • preserving collective bargaining agreements;
  • maintaining full employment through the national emergency;
  • prohibiting share repurchases, dividend increases, and executive bonuses.

For companies with revenues exceeding $500 million, the board of directors must also include one worker representative. 

Paycheck Security for Laid-off Workers

On the Senate side, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Doug Jones (D-Alabama), Mark Warner (D-Virginia), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) introduced the Paycheck Security Act, which would cover for six months up to $90,000 of salaries for each laid-off and furloughed worker with employers who have lost at least 20 percent of their revenue. 

It would also provide 20 percent of normal revenue to cover fixed operating costs such as rent, utilities, insurance, and maintenance. Only employers with less than 18 months of payroll in cash would qualify. In exchange, employers must agree to:

  • maintain pay and benefits;
  • offer to rehire laid-off workers for the same compensation;
  • maintain collective bargaining agreements;
  • limit CEO pay to 50 times the median wage for employees;
  • cease stock buybacks and payment of dividends and management fees.

Solution Three: Federal Basic Income 

One in five American workers filed for unemployment over the past seven weeks. One in five low-income renters report not having at least $400 in emergency savings. And low-income renters are also more likely to hold the service jobs that have evaporated during the crisis. A federal basic income would give low-income people, as well as many others, a safety net of monthly cash assistance to help weather financial storms. 

A federal basic income would give low-income people, as well as many others, a safety net of monthly cash assistance to help weather financial storms.

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A Means-Tested Basic Income 

Prior to the CARES Act, Representative Maxine Waters shared a comprehensive relief package proposal, which included granting every American (making less than $75,000 annually) $2,000 a month plus $1,000 for each child. Building on this proposal, Representatives Ro Khanna (D-California) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) introduced the Emergency Money for the People Act, which would provide $2,000 a month to those age 16 and older making less than $130,000 a year, plus $500 each for up to three children. It would allow people to apply using their current income level if it is lower than what they reported for 2019. For those with annual incomes exceeding $130,000, the assistance would drop by five percentage points for every $1,000 over that threshold. 

Aid would last for at least six months, after which it would end if the ratio of employment to population exceeds 60 percent; otherwise, it would end after a year. The bill goes further than the CARES Act’s one-time cash assistance check, not only by granting ongoing monthly payments, but also by expanding eligibility to legal residents as well as non-citizens who have been in the country since the emergency began.

Universal Basic Income

Representatives Tlaib and Jayapal introduced a similar basic income proposal, the Automatic Boost to Communities (ABC) Act, which would give $2,000 a month to every person until a year after the government declares the national emergency over (or the unemployment rate falls to two percentage points above the average rate between December 2019 and February 2020, or the three-month average unemployment rate falls for two months), and then another $1,000 a month for a year after that. 

Unlike the proposal from Khanna and Ryan, the ABC Act is a universal basic income program, so it wouldn’t cut off eligibility at a certain income level, and every American would receive the benefit. It would disburse funds through a prepaid debit card, so those without bank accounts could receive help as well. 

What will Congress do with these proposals?

To meet the needs of Americans during this unprecedented economic crisis, Democrats have presented a range of innovative ideas to ease burdens on renters and mortgage borrowers, protect workers, increase subsidized housing, and redistribute some wealth toward low- and middle-income Americans.

While Democratic leadership hasn’t formally endorsed any of these proposals, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) recently spoke favorably of a guaranteed basic income. Meanwhile, a powerful coalition of nationwide housing organizations backs the rental assistance bill by Brown, Heck, and Waters. The Democrats’ vocal and burgeoning progressive wing is coalescing around Omar’s rent cancellation legislation. And Jayapal, in the House, and Blumenthal, Jones, Sanders, and Warner, in the Senate, are working together on their paycheck protection proposals. But with the Senate and the White House still Republican-controlled, it’s unclear whether Americans will see the fruits of these proposals anytime soon—or, at least, before 2021.