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EPA Veterans Eyed As Potential Picks To Lead The Agency If Biden Wins

Few federal agencies experienced more upheaval under President Donald Trump than the Environmental Protection Agency, which saw staffers flee in droves and dozens of regulations gutted at polluters’ behest. 

If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election, Democrats are looking at EPA veterans and state regulators from the fire-ravaged West Coast to take the reins of a federal agency that Trump spent the past four years bending to the GOP’s political agenda. 

Among the top names under discussion is Carol Browner, who is on Biden’s climate advisory council and previously served as President Bill Clinton’s EPA administrator and President Barack Obama’s climate policy director. But some progressives, including the influential Sunrise Movement climate group, are angling for agency veterans who would be new to the top job ― such as Mustafa Santiago Ali, an environmental justice activist who worked at the agency for 24 years before stepping down in 2017, or Heather McTeer Toney, a former southeast regional administrator under Obama who now leads the nonprofit Moms Clean Air Force. 

“You need people who’ve done it before, who know how the thing is baseline supposed to work, because there’s a lot of rollbacks that are going to have to be undone,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president of strategy at the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress. “But there are more things that are going to need to get built and significantly updated.” (NoiseCat is a former HuffPost fellow.) 

Data for Progress also highlighted two potential agency chiefs from states on the climate vanguard in terms of both effects and policy response: Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board who went head-to-head with the Trump EPA over its rollback of tailpipe emissions standards for vehicles, and Maia Bellon, who until recently headed Washington state’s Department of Ecology and shaped Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate agenda. Bellon would, notably, be the EPA’s first Native American administrator. 

Carol Browner, who is advising Democratic nominee Joe Biden on climate, is the country's longest-serving EPA administrator, h



Carol Browner, who is advising Democratic nominee Joe Biden on climate, is the country’s longest-serving EPA administrator, having held the position during President Bill Clinton’s two terms.

Other names circulated in Democratic policy circles are Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the firebrand behind the Green New Deal movement in Congress, and Inslee, who last year made an unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination with a climate-focused campaign. 

The Biden campaign, which recently sought to tamp down public speculation on potential nominees, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Reversing An ‘Insidious’ Record

Whoever it is will have their work cut out for them. 

Soon after taking office, Trump put Scott Pruitt, the climate change-denying Oklahoma attorney general who led state lawsuits against the EPA’s power plant regulations, in charge of the agency. When Pruitt resigned in disgrace amid mounting scandals in July 2018, Trump tapped Andrew Wheeler, who had until recently served as a lobbyist for a major coal baron and funder of climate misinformation groups, to replace him. 

The Trump administration, by The New York Times’ tally, has finished weakening or rescinding 72 environmental regulations as of this month, and has started the process of rolling back another 27.

Some of the administration’s highest-profile changes to rules on water pollution, tailpipe emissions and what research regulators can consider proved so controversial and scientifically dubious that the president’s own hand-picked science advisers publicly criticized the agency’s “significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis” and “neglect” of “established science.” 

“It’s insidious,” Browner, who is the country’s longest-serving EPA administrator, told HuffPost. “Prior Republican administrations did some good things. They moved slowly, and they were less ambitious than we were. It was benign neglect. That’s not what’s going on here.” 

To rebuild the agency, a Biden administration should set a target for 25,000 permanent staffers, a roughly 80% increase of 2019 levels that would be commensurate with the growth of the U.S. economy over the past decade, according to a proposal from Yevgeny Shrago, a visiting fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project.

Adding $2.2 billion to the federal budget for hiring at the EPA could help achieve that goal. 

“This is a tiny sum of the $2 trillion that the Biden administration plans to allocate to climate, and without a well-funded EPA, other initiatives will lack maximal impact as polluters continue to operate with limited oversight,” Shrago wrote in the The American Prospect last month. “Such an investment will pay dividends that even the most blinkered advocates of cost-benefit analysis have to acknowledge.”

Mustafa Santiago Ali, a 24-year EPA veteran who resigned in 2017, is considered a top choice among progressives for the admin



Mustafa Santiago Ali, a 24-year EPA veteran who resigned in 2017, is considered a top choice among progressives for the administrator job if Biden wins. 

That could be difficult to get through Congress if Republicans control either chamber. But EPA officials from past Republican administrations could be a help. 

Nixon- and Reagan-era EPA chief William Ruckelshaus, who called the Trump administration’s climate contrarianism a “threat to the country” in a 2018 interview with HuffPost, died last year. But Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator during President George W. Bush’s first term, has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s tenure over the agency. 

She warned that it could take years to recover from the exodus of agency talent. Selecting a nominee who can restore integrity to the agency’s research should be a top priority. 

“Whoever it is is going to have to make every effort to make sure it’s not looked on as a politicized agency,” Whitman said. “You have to put someone in charge to begin with who people will trust and [who] believes in the mission of the agency.” 

Browner declined to comment on potential nominations. McTeer Toney declined an interview request. Neither Santiago Ali nor Nichols responded to requests for comment. 

But Bellon, who now leads a private environmental firm called Cascadia Law Group, said she was “humbled” to see her name on a list that included “incredible women leaders who’d be excellent candidates for a Biden-Harris administration.” 

“If I was called upon by President Biden or Vice President Harris to consider such an appointment, I would absolutely consider it,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase and embed national environmental equity and support our disproportionately and overburdened communities.” 

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Science

Trump’s USGS Chief Violated Whistleblower Protection Law, Inspector General Says

The head of the U.S. Geological Survey violated the federal whistleblower protection law when he retaliated against an agency employee who had filed a complaint about his conduct, according to a new report from the Interior Department’s internal watchdog.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that USGS Director James Reilly had the employee reassigned after learning of the individual’s complaint regarding Reilly’s conduct ― though the report does not detail the content of that initial complaint.

The scathing report, posted Thursday afternoon, comes two days after Trump’s Interior Department publicly boasted of its efforts to hire additional ethics staff in order to “remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration.” The agency has repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for its ethical shortfalls.

As Thursday’s report details, Reilly tried to convince investigators that the reassignment was due to the employee’s inability to work with another staff member and “negative influence” on the office ― claims that that agency staff directly contradicted.

“A witness also told us that Reilly had described the complainant as ‘evil’ without explaining why he believed this, and Reilly ultimately acknowledged that he said in front of others that the complainant had an ‘evil streak,’ or words to that effect, which he admitted ‘was a very poor choice of words,’” the report states.

Another witness told investigators about a meeting in which Reilly said the complainant had “weaponized the IG process” against him. And USGS employees reported that Reilly sought information about any other employee complaints against him so that he could “move them.”

Asked if he had any issues with the whistleblower, Reilly told investigators, “Well, there’s one very large one that’s sitting in this room. It’s this investigation, to be perfectly honest.”

The report does not name the whistleblower or any other USGS staffers interviewed as part of the probe.

“While the [Department of the Interior] provided some evidence of other motivations that may have played a role in its personnel decision, it failed to disentangle those motivations from the evidence of impermissible, retaliatory motive found during our investigation,” investigators wrote.

The Democratic chairs of the House oversight and natural resources committees responded to Thursday’s report by calling for Reilly’s immediate resignation or removal from office.

“Whistleblower retaliation does not get more clear cut than this,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said in a joint statement. “Director Reilly made it a practice to seek out whistleblowers and target them for transfer. Anyone who uses official power to retaliate against whistleblowers — who help uncover waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement — is not fit to hold government office.”

In an emailed statement, Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin dismissed the report as “wrong in its legal and factual conclusions” and said it “attempts to turn the USGS human resources department’s reassignment of an administrative employee into a prohibited personnel practice.” He noted that the employee did not receive a reduction in pay or grade status.

USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 



USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 

This isn’t Reilly’s first controversy since he was confirmed as USGS director in April 2018. Recent press reports have uncovered how he intervened to halt, alter or delay research on critical scientific topics, including climate change, endangered species, and COVID-19. Reilly was also involved in manipulating agency data to promote logging. And in interviews with Wired, some employees at the USGS described his tenure there as hostile.

Under Trump, the Interior Department has been plagued by scandals. Former Interior chief Ryan Zinke resigned amid numerous investigations into his conduct, and several other high-ranking officials have been found to have violated federal ethics rules. Several IG probes are ongoing.

If past violations are any indication, Interior is unlikely to take action against Reilly.

The IG’s office released two scathing reports on Assistant Interior Secretary Douglas Domenech in the past year, finding that he used his office to benefit family members as well as his former employer, a Koch-linked think tank. Despite the seriousness of the findings, Domenech remains in his position atop the agency’s insular and international affairs office. Domenech is a top lieutenant and close personal friend of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

“For the DOI generally, I would be shocked if they do anything about this report” on Reilly, said Kevin Bell, senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group that advocates for whistleblowers. “If anything,” he added, “Reilly’s retaliation against whistleblowers only solidifies his Trumpian credentials.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told HuffPost via email that the report “shows that the risk of being a whistleblower has never been higher than during the Trump administration.”

The administration, he added, “has used every trick in the book, from demotions to presidential tweets, to bully whistleblowers into silence.”

Additional IG reports on the misdeeds of top Interior Department officials, including one who used his office to promote the policy priorities of the National Rifle Association, are expected in the near future. 

As HuffPost previously reported, Trump and his team have led a slow strangling of IGs across the federal government since taking office. That has ramped up earlier this year: Trump removed five inspectors general from their posts over a three-month period..

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Science

Climate Progressives Eye Treasury As Key Post If Biden Wins

The Treasury Department is emerging as a high-priority for climate progressives seeking to influence a Joe Biden administration, should he win the 2020 election.  

Two names top the climate activists’ lists: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Federal Reserve governor who served as the deputy Treasury secretary in President Barack Obama’s second term. 

It’s not hard to see why advocates are looking beyond who would run the Environmental Protection Agency under a President Biden. Transitioning the global economy away from fossil fuels at the speed needed to keep warming in a relatively safe range requires unprecedented changes to the flows of private and public capital. Forecasters have long warned that warming-fueled disasters and risky bets on fossil fuels’ long-term use could crash the economy. 

Shifts are already underway in the insurance sector. Banks and financiers, facing mounting pressure from activists and record numbers of billion-dollar climate disasters, also are starting to take the risk seriously. Advocates hope the defeat of President Donald Trump, who rejects the reality and seriousness of climate change, could pave the way to potentially reverse his administration’s wanton handouts to fossil fuel companies and reform the financial system before climate change sparks another chaotic market crash. 

“There is a real recognition that climate risk is a structural risk for the U.S. economy and the global economy, and you can’t escape that,” said Bracken Hendricks, a climate policy expert and former senior adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-focused bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The West Coast is on fire, you’ve got a hurricane hitting New Orleans. These are real economic impacts on real businesses.”

Warren, whose years of stumping for financial reform fueled her rise as one of Biden’s foremost primary rivals, ran for president on a sweeping climate platform that included new Wall Street regulations to curb polluting investments and require increased disclosure of risky fossil fuel bets. 

But taking her out of the Senate would allow Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to fill her spot, at least until a special election could take place (which Bay State law requires within 145 to 160 days for such a vacancy). Choosing her would be seen as fiercely antagonistic to Wall Street, a position Biden seems reluctant to take. 

Raskin, 59, captured the climate world’s attention in March when she testified before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and outlined what many see as potential first steps she’d take to address global warming if selected as the nation’s top financial regulator. 

Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury s



Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury secretary if Joe Biden wins the presidency.

She called for rules requiring investors to disclose the risk climate change poses to assets and said regulators should begin carrying out climate stress tests like those implemented by the Bank of England and the European Central Bank to assess how different disasters could destabilize financial institutions. In May, she criticized the Federal Reserve for propping up fossil fuel companies amid the coronavirus pandemic in a New York Times op-ed that called for public investments to “build toward a stronger economy with more jobs in innovative industries — not prop up and enrich dying ones.” 

Raskin declined an interview request. But her approach made her an apparent favorite of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, which ― having seen the presidential nomination go to a  centrist standard-bearer ― aims to stack a Biden administration with Cabinet officials willing to challenge corporate power and take aggressive steps to slash emissions. 

“We’d definitely support her,” Evan Weber, the political director of the Sunrise Movement, said of Raskin. “To the extent that Warren is an option, we’d support that, too.”

The Biden campaign, which has sought to tamp down speculation about appointments ahead of the election, did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Treasury Is Kind of A Big Deal

Much of the insurgent climate movement that emerged over the past few years grew out of campus-led efforts demanding financial institutions ― often university endowments ― divest of fossil fuel holdings. By the start of the Trump administration, those calls went mainstream, with governments as big as New York City vowing to start the process of pulling its $5 billion pension funds out of the oil, gas and coal business. Over the past year, that movement ramped up into a new campaign to pressure on banks and big investors to severely limit investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure. 

The effort has managed to score some early victories. In January, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wrote in its annual letter to CEOs that it would be “increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures.” In July, Citigroup vowed to start measuring companies by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment earlier this month. 

That lays the groundwork for significant changes at the Treasury. The Trump administration had disbanded the department’s Office of Environment and Energy and backtracked on efforts to limit financing for new coal projects. Last January, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin clashed with European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde over whether it was worth it to even try to predict the risks climate change posed to the financial sector. 

Increasing investments in research and building new, complex models should be a top priority for a Biden Treasury, according to a blog post this month by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, which also called for implementing climate stress tests as a critical first step. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pic



Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pick should the former vice president triumph in the Nov. 3 election.

A climate-focused Treasury secretary could lean heavily on the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that overhauled financial regulation in the wake of the Great Recession. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, established under the law to rally other financial regulators and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash, could become a key venue to analyze the potential economic upheaval of climate change and create safeguards requiring investors and insurance companies to integrate that risk into their portfolios. 

“The Treasury secretary plays a very important coordinating role,” said Marcus Stanley, the policy director at the nonprofit Americans for Financial Reform. 

Taxing carbon dioxide emissions has become controversial, with economists and oil companies on one side saying it’s the most efficient way to reduce pollution and advocates and some policy experts on the other warning it would be politically unpopular and distract from more urgent government action required to keep warming within a safe range. But if the Biden administration priced carbon at some level, that policy would largely fall under the purview of the Treasury, Stanley said. 

The department could also, as the largest shareholder of the World Bank, pressure the institution to veer away from fossil fuels, a sector in which it has invested $12 billion since the 2015 Paris climate agreement was struck, according to estimates the German environmental group Urgewald released this month. Doing so could be part of a broader international mandate on climate. A report published Tuesday by the Democratic climate policy group Evergreen Action, which Raskin advised, called for the U.S. to join the Network on Greening the Financial System, a 69-member coalition of central banks, as part of an effort to “prevent a climate crash.” 

“Almost everything Treasury does carries enormous climate implications,” said Jeff Hauser, the Revolving Door Project’s executive director and co-author of the blog post. “Sarah Bloom Raskin gets that. You need somebody like Sarah Bloom Raskin in that job.” 

Other Candidates

Sunrise Movement has also floated Bill Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich, economist and former Columbia University Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz as possible picks for Treasury. 

Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden's Treasury s



Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden’s Treasury secretary. 

Another name touted in stories on Bloomberg and CNBC as a top contender is Lael Brainard, a governor at the Federal Reserve and former undersecretary at the Treasury during Obama’s first term.

Unlike Raskin or Warren, Brainard has been relatively quiet on climate. She voted in favor of allowing the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program to expand its criteria and make it easier to provide loans to fossil fuel companies struggling as oil prices plummeted this year. 

Moreover, Hauser said, Brainard carries political risks for Biden. She struggled to rein in Chinese currency manipulation during the Obama administration, opening the door to a soft-on-China critique from Republicans, and did little to halt corporate mergers that allowed companies to evade taxes by moving their headquarters overseas. 

Plus, Hauser noted, her husband is Kurt Campbell, the chairman and chief executive of the Asia Group, a multinational investor consultancy. 

“That’s a huge conflict of interest,” Hauser said. “He could divest, but I don’t know if he would do what he’d need to do.” 

Rather than run the Treasury, Brainard’s record of pushing liberal monetary policy that focuses on the risk of unemployment rather than inflation could make her a strong candidate for Fed chair. 

“Since unemployment rates over the past decade have been very real and the inflation fears have been fictitious, that’s a very real achievement,” Hauser said. “A lot of people have jobs today because of [her] leadership.”

Brainard declined HuffPost’s request for comment, and Campbell did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about whether he’d divest of Asia Group if his wife was nominated to a Cabinet post.

Hendricks, who has not taken a position on any potential nominees, said the Treasury job isn’t just about averting a climate-fueled financial disaster. 

“The Treasury secretary straddles both the management of the dangers of systemic risk and also the opportunity to activate positive job creation,” he said. “This is an incredibly important position.”

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Science

Common fabrics can make effective masks against the viral particles, but they’re harder to breathe through

Face masks made from layered common fabric can help filter ultrafine particles and provide some protection when commercial face masks are unavailable, according to a new study. The researchers hope the results will help inform makers when choosing which fabric to use for masks.

Credit Flickr Baker County

The pandemic has left many countries without sufficient quantities of face masks for the protection of medical staff, let alone for the general population. However, policies requiring individuals to wear face masks when they leave their homes have been implemented in most countries.

This has made home-sewn face masks a necessity for many, either as an affordable option or to meet the excess demand. Although widespread online resources are available to help home sewers and makers create masks, scientific guidance on the most suitable materials is currently limited.

Although not as effective as surgical masks, home-made face masks have been shown to provide benefit in filtering viral and bacterial particles, according to previous studies. Their main purpose is to limit the spread of viral particles from respiratory activity, rather than blocking the inhalation of any contagious particles.

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and Northwestern University tested the effectiveness of different fabrics at filtering particles the size of most viruses such as COVID-19. They did so at high speeds, comparable to coughing or heavy breathing. They also tested N95 and surgical masks.

“Fabric masks have become a new necessity for many of us since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said first author Eugenia O’Kelly. “In the early stages, when N95 masks were in extremely short supply, many sewers and makers started making their own fabric masks, meeting the demands that couldn’t be met by supply chains.”

For the study, the researchers built a device consisting of sections of tubing, with a fabric sample in the middle. Aerosolised particles were generated at one end of the apparatus, and their levels were measured before and after they passed through the fabric sample at a speed similar to coughing. They also consulted with online sewing communities to find out what types of fabric they were using to make masks. Due to the severe shortage of N95 masks at the time, several of the sewers reported that they were experimenting with inserting vacuum bags with HEPA filters into masks.

The findings showed that most of the fabrics commonly used for non-clinical face masks are effective at filtering ultrafine particles. N95 masks were highly effective, although a reusable HEPA vacuum bag actually exceeded the N95 performance in some respects.

Homemade masks made of multiple layers of fabric were more effective, while those that also incorporated interfacing, normally used to stiffen collars, showed a significant improvement in performance. Nevertheless, this improvement in performance also made them more difficult to breathe through than an N95 mask.

The researchers also looked at the performance of different fabrics when damp, and after they had gone through a normal washing and drying cycle. They found that the fabrics worked well while damp and worked sufficiently after one laundry cycle. However, they caution masks shouldn’t be used indefinitely.

“We’ve shown that in an emergency situation where N95 masks are not available, such as in the early days of this pandemic, fabric masks are surprisingly effective at filtering particles which may contain viruses, even at high speeds,” said O’Kelly in a statement, hopeful over the implications of the study.

The study was published in the journal BMJ.

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Science

NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Spots Signs That “Sprites” or “Elves” Frolic in Jupiter’s Atmosphere

Jovian Sprite Cover

The lightning phenomenon known as a sprite depicted at Jupiter in this illustration. Jupiter’s hydrogen-rich atmosphere would likely make them appear blue. In Earth’s upper atmosphere, the presence of nitrogen gives them a reddish color. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

An instrument on the spacecraft may have detected transient luminous events — bright flashes of light in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere.

New results from NASA’s Juno mission at Jupiter suggest that either “sprites” or “elves” could be dancing in the upper atmosphere of the solar system’s largest planet. It is the first time these bright, unpredictable and extremely brief flashes of light — formally known as transient luminous events, or TLE’s — have been observed on another world. The findings were published on October 27, 2020, in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

Scientists predicted these bright, superfast flashes of light should also be present in Jupiter’s immense roiling atmosphere, but their existence remained theoretical. Then, in the summer of 2019, researchers working with data from Juno’s ultraviolet spectrograph instrument (UVS) discovered something unexpected: a bright, narrow streak of ultraviolet emission that disappeared in a flash.

Possible Jupiter Sprite

The south pole of Jupiter and a potential transient luminous event — a bright, unpredictable, and extremely brief flash of light — is seen in this annotated image of data acquired on April 10, 2020, from Juno’s UVS instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

“UVS was designed to characterize Jupiter’s beautiful northern and southern lights,” said Giles, a Juno scientist and the lead author of the paper. “But we discovered UVS images that not only showed Jovian aurora, but also a bright flash of UV light over in the corner where it wasn’t supposed to be. The more our team looked into it, the more we realized Juno may have detected a TLE on Jupiter.”

Brief and Brilliant

Named after a mischievous, quick-witted character in English folklore, sprites are transient luminous events triggered by lightning discharges from thunderstorms far below. On Earth, they occur up to 60 miles (97 kilometers) above intense, towering thunderstorms and brighten a region of the sky tens of miles across, yet last only a few milliseconds (a fraction of the time it takes you to blink an eye).

Almost resembling a jellyfish, sprites feature a central blob of light (on Earth, it’s 15 to 30 miles, or 24 to 48 kilometers, across), with long tendrils extending both down toward the ground and upward. Elves (short for Emission of Light and Very Low Frequency perturbations due to Electromagnetic Pulse Sources) appear as a flattened disk glowing in Earth’s upper atmosphere. They, too, brighten the sky for mere milliseconds but can grow larger than sprites — up to 200 miles (320 kilometers) across on Earth.

Their colors are distinctive as well. “On Earth, sprites and elves appear reddish in color due to their interaction with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere,” said Giles. “But on Jupiter, the upper atmosphere mostly consists of hydrogen, so they would likely appear either blue or pink.”

With three giant blades stretching out some 66 feet (20 meters) from its cylindrical, six-sided body, the Juno spacecraft is a dynamic engineering marvel, spinning to keep itself stable as it makes oval-shaped orbits around Jupiter. View the full interactive experience at Eyes on the Solar System.

Location, Location, Location

The occurrence of sprites and elves at Jupiter was predicted by several previously published studies. Synching with these predictions, the 11 large-scale bright events Juno’s UVS instrument has detected occurred in a region where lightning thunderstorms are known to form. Juno scientists could also rule out that these were simply mega-bolts of lightning because they were found about 186 miles (300 kilometers) above the altitude where the majority of Jupiter’s lightning forms — its water-cloud layer. And UVS recorded that the spectra of the bright flashes were dominated by hydrogen emissions.

A rotating, solar-powered spacecraft, Juno, arrived at Jupiter in 2016 after making a five-year journey. Since then, it has made 29 science flybys of the gas giant, each orbit taking 53 days.

“We’re continuing to look for more telltale signs of elves and sprites every time Juno does a science pass,” said Giles. “Now that we know what we are looking for, it will be easier to find them at Jupiter and on other planets. And comparing sprites and elves from Jupiter with those here on Earth will help us better understand electrical activity in planetary atmospheres.”

Reference: “Possible Transient Luminous Events observed in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere” by Rohini S. Giles, Thomas K. Greathouse, Bertrand Bonfond, G. Randall Gladstone, Joshua A. Kammer, Vincent Hue, Denis C. Grodent, Jean‐Claude Gérard, Maarten H. Versteeg, Michael H. Wong, Scott J. Bolton, John E. P. Connerney and Steven M. Levin, 27 October 2020, Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
DOI: 10.1029/2020JE006659

More About the Mission

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built and operates the spacecraft.

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EPA Veterans Eyed As Potential Picks To Lead The Agency If Biden Wins

Few federal agencies experienced more upheaval under President Donald Trump than the Environmental Protection Agency, which saw staffers flee in droves and dozens of regulations gutted at polluters’ behest. 

If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election, Democrats are looking at EPA veterans and state regulators from the fire-ravaged West Coast to take the reins of a federal agency that Trump spent the past four years bending to the GOP’s political agenda. 

Among the top names under discussion is Carol Browner, who is on Biden’s climate advisory council and previously served as President Bill Clinton’s EPA administrator and President Barack Obama’s climate policy director. But some progressives, including the influential Sunrise Movement climate group, are angling for agency veterans who would be new to the top job ― such as Mustafa Santiago Ali, an environmental justice activist who worked at the agency for 24 years before stepping down in 2017, or Heather McTeer Toney, a former southeast regional administrator under Obama who now leads the nonprofit Moms Clean Air Force. 

“You need people who’ve done it before, who know how the thing is baseline supposed to work, because there’s a lot of rollbacks that are going to have to be undone,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president of strategy at the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress. “But there are more things that are going to need to get built and significantly updated.” (NoiseCat is a former HuffPost fellow.) 

Data for Progress also highlighted two potential agency chiefs from states on the climate vanguard in terms of both effects and policy response: Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board who went head-to-head with the Trump EPA over its rollback of tailpipe emissions standards for vehicles, and Maia Bellon, who until recently headed Washington state’s Department of Ecology and shaped Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate agenda. Bellon would, notably, be the EPA’s first Native American administrator. 

Carol Browner, who is advising Democratic nominee Joe Biden on climate, is the country's longest-serving EPA administrator, h



Carol Browner, who is advising Democratic nominee Joe Biden on climate, is the country’s longest-serving EPA administrator, having held the position during President Bill Clinton’s two terms.

Other names circulated in Democratic policy circles are Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the firebrand behind the Green New Deal movement in Congress, and Inslee, who last year made an unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination with a climate-focused campaign. 

The Biden campaign, which recently sought to tamp down public speculation on potential nominees, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Reversing An ‘Insidious’ Record

Whoever it is will have their work cut out for them. 

Soon after taking office, Trump put Scott Pruitt, the climate change-denying Oklahoma attorney general who led state lawsuits against the EPA’s power plant regulations, in charge of the agency. When Pruitt resigned in disgrace amid mounting scandals in July 2018, Trump tapped Andrew Wheeler, who had until recently served as a lobbyist for a major coal baron and funder of climate misinformation groups, to replace him. 

The Trump administration, by The New York Times’ tally, has finished weakening or rescinding 72 environmental regulations as of this month, and has started the process of rolling back another 27.

Some of the administration’s highest-profile changes to rules on water pollution, tailpipe emissions and what research regulators can consider proved so controversial and scientifically dubious that the president’s own hand-picked science advisers publicly criticized the agency’s “significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis” and “neglect” of “established science.” 

“It’s insidious,” Browner, who is the country’s longest-serving EPA administrator, told HuffPost. “Prior Republican administrations did some good things. They moved slowly, and they were less ambitious than we were. It was benign neglect. That’s not what’s going on here.” 

To rebuild the agency, a Biden administration should set a target for 25,000 permanent staffers, a roughly 80% increase of 2019 levels that would be commensurate with the growth of the U.S. economy over the past decade, according to a proposal from Yevgeny Shrago, a visiting fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project.

Adding $2.2 billion to the federal budget for hiring at the EPA could help achieve that goal. 

“This is a tiny sum of the $2 trillion that the Biden administration plans to allocate to climate, and without a well-funded EPA, other initiatives will lack maximal impact as polluters continue to operate with limited oversight,” Shrago wrote in the The American Prospect last month. “Such an investment will pay dividends that even the most blinkered advocates of cost-benefit analysis have to acknowledge.”

Mustafa Santiago Ali, a 24-year EPA veteran who resigned in 2017, is considered a top choice among progressives for the admin



Mustafa Santiago Ali, a 24-year EPA veteran who resigned in 2017, is considered a top choice among progressives for the administrator job if Biden wins. 

That could be difficult to get through Congress if Republicans control either chamber. But EPA officials from past Republican administrations could be a help. 

Nixon- and Reagan-era EPA chief William Ruckelshaus, who called the Trump administration’s climate contrarianism a “threat to the country” in a 2018 interview with HuffPost, died last year. But Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator during President George W. Bush’s first term, has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s tenure over the agency. 

She warned that it could take years to recover from the exodus of agency talent. Selecting a nominee who can restore integrity to the agency’s research should be a top priority. 

“Whoever it is is going to have to make every effort to make sure it’s not looked on as a politicized agency,” Whitman said. “You have to put someone in charge to begin with who people will trust and [who] believes in the mission of the agency.” 

Browner declined to comment on potential nominations. McTeer Toney declined an interview request. Neither Santiago Ali nor Nichols responded to requests for comment. 

But Bellon, who now leads a private environmental firm called Cascadia Law Group, said she was “humbled” to see her name on a list that included “incredible women leaders who’d be excellent candidates for a Biden-Harris administration.” 

“If I was called upon by President Biden or Vice President Harris to consider such an appointment, I would absolutely consider it,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase and embed national environmental equity and support our disproportionately and overburdened communities.” 

Categories
Science

Trump’s USGS Chief Violated Whistleblower Protection Law, Inspector General Says

The head of the U.S. Geological Survey violated the federal whistleblower protection law when he retaliated against an agency employee who had filed a complaint about his conduct, according to a new report from the Interior Department’s internal watchdog.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that USGS Director James Reilly had the employee reassigned after learning of the individual’s complaint regarding Reilly’s conduct ― though the report does not detail the content of that initial complaint.

The scathing report, posted Thursday afternoon, comes two days after Trump’s Interior Department publicly boasted of its efforts to hire additional ethics staff in order to “remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration.” The agency has repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for its ethical shortfalls.

As Thursday’s report details, Reilly tried to convince investigators that the reassignment was due to the employee’s inability to work with another staff member and “negative influence” on the office ― claims that that agency staff directly contradicted.

“A witness also told us that Reilly had described the complainant as ‘evil’ without explaining why he believed this, and Reilly ultimately acknowledged that he said in front of others that the complainant had an ‘evil streak,’ or words to that effect, which he admitted ‘was a very poor choice of words,’” the report states.

Another witness told investigators about a meeting in which Reilly said the complainant had “weaponized the IG process” against him. And USGS employees reported that Reilly sought information about any other employee complaints against him so that he could “move them.”

Asked if he had any issues with the whistleblower, Reilly told investigators, “Well, there’s one very large one that’s sitting in this room. It’s this investigation, to be perfectly honest.”

The report does not name the whistleblower or any other USGS staffers interviewed as part of the probe.

“While the [Department of the Interior] provided some evidence of other motivations that may have played a role in its personnel decision, it failed to disentangle those motivations from the evidence of impermissible, retaliatory motive found during our investigation,” investigators wrote.

The Democratic chairs of the House oversight and natural resources committees responded to Thursday’s report by calling for Reilly’s immediate resignation or removal from office.

“Whistleblower retaliation does not get more clear cut than this,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said in a joint statement. “Director Reilly made it a practice to seek out whistleblowers and target them for transfer. Anyone who uses official power to retaliate against whistleblowers — who help uncover waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement — is not fit to hold government office.”

In an emailed statement, Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin dismissed the report as “wrong in its legal and factual conclusions” and said it “attempts to turn the USGS human resources department’s reassignment of an administrative employee into a prohibited personnel practice.” He noted that the employee did not receive a reduction in pay or grade status.

USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 



USGS Director James Reilly is a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist. 

This isn’t Reilly’s first controversy since he was confirmed as USGS director in April 2018. Recent press reports have uncovered how he intervened to halt, alter or delay research on critical scientific topics, including climate change, endangered species, and COVID-19. Reilly was also involved in manipulating agency data to promote logging. And in interviews with Wired, some employees at the USGS described his tenure there as hostile.

Under Trump, the Interior Department has been plagued by scandals. Former Interior chief Ryan Zinke resigned amid numerous investigations into his conduct, and several other high-ranking officials have been found to have violated federal ethics rules. Several IG probes are ongoing.

If past violations are any indication, Interior is unlikely to take action against Reilly.

The IG’s office released two scathing reports on Assistant Interior Secretary Douglas Domenech in the past year, finding that he used his office to benefit family members as well as his former employer, a Koch-linked think tank. Despite the seriousness of the findings, Domenech remains in his position atop the agency’s insular and international affairs office. Domenech is a top lieutenant and close personal friend of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

“For the DOI generally, I would be shocked if they do anything about this report” on Reilly, said Kevin Bell, senior counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group that advocates for whistleblowers. “If anything,” he added, “Reilly’s retaliation against whistleblowers only solidifies his Trumpian credentials.”

Additional IG reports on the misdeeds of top Interior Department officials, including one who used his office to promote the policy priorities of the National Rifle Association, are expected in the near future. 

As HuffPost previously reported, Trump and his team have led a slow strangling of IGs across the federal government since taking office. That has ramped up earlier this year: Trump removed five inspectors general from their posts over a three-month period..

Categories
Science

Climate Progressives Eye Treasury As Key Post If Biden Wins

The Treasury Department is emerging as a high-priority for climate progressives seeking to influence a Joe Biden administration, should he win the 2020 election.  

Two names top the climate activists’ lists: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Federal Reserve governor who served as the deputy Treasury secretary in President Barack Obama’s second term. 

It’s not hard to see why advocates are looking beyond who would run the Environmental Protection Agency under a President Biden. Transitioning the global economy away from fossil fuels at the speed needed to keep warming in a relatively safe range requires unprecedented changes to the flows of private and public capital. Forecasters have long warned that warming-fueled disasters and risky bets on fossil fuels’ long-term use could crash the economy. 

Shifts are already underway in the insurance sector. Banks and financiers, facing mounting pressure from activists and record numbers of billion-dollar climate disasters, also are starting to take the risk seriously. Advocates hope the defeat of President Donald Trump, who rejects the reality and seriousness of climate change, could pave the way to potentially reverse his administration’s wanton handouts to fossil fuel companies and reform the financial system before climate change sparks another chaotic market crash. 

“There is a real recognition that climate risk is a structural risk for the U.S. economy and the global economy, and you can’t escape that,” said Bracken Hendricks, a climate policy expert and former senior adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-focused bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The West Coast is on fire, you’ve got a hurricane hitting New Orleans. These are real economic impacts on real businesses.”

Warren, whose years of stumping for financial reform fueled her rise as one of Biden’s foremost primary rivals, ran for president on a sweeping climate platform that included new Wall Street regulations to curb polluting investments and require increased disclosure of risky fossil fuel bets. 

But taking her out of the Senate would allow Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to fill her spot, at least until a special election could take place (which Bay State law requires within 145 to 160 days for such a vacancy). Choosing her would be seen as fiercely antagonistic to Wall Street, a position Biden seems reluctant to take. 

Raskin, 59, captured the climate world’s attention in March when she testified before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and outlined what many see as potential first steps she’d take to address global warming if selected as the nation’s top financial regulator. 

Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury s



Sarah Bloom Raskin, now a fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, is being floated as a possible pick for the Treasury secretary if Joe Biden wins the presidency.

She called for rules requiring investors to disclose the risk climate change poses to assets and said regulators should begin carrying out climate stress tests like those implemented by the Bank of England and the European Central Bank to assess how different disasters could destabilize financial institutions. In May, she criticized the Federal Reserve for propping up fossil fuel companies amid the coronavirus pandemic in a New York Times op-ed that called for public investments to “build toward a stronger economy with more jobs in innovative industries — not prop up and enrich dying ones.” 

Raskin declined an interview request. But her approach made her an apparent favorite of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, which ― having seen the presidential nomination go to a  centrist standard-bearer ― aims to stack a Biden administration with Cabinet officials willing to challenge corporate power and take aggressive steps to slash emissions. 

“We’d definitely support her,” Evan Weber, the political director of the Sunrise Movement, said of Raskin. “To the extent that Warren is an option, we’d support that, too.”

The Biden campaign, which has sought to tamp down speculation about appointments ahead of the election, did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Treasury Is Kind of A Big Deal

Much of the insurgent climate movement that emerged over the past few years grew out of campus-led efforts demanding financial institutions ― often university endowments ― divest of fossil fuel holdings. By the start of the Trump administration, those calls went mainstream, with governments as big as New York City vowing to start the process of pulling its $5 billion pension funds out of the oil, gas and coal business. Over the past year, that movement ramped up into a new campaign to pressure on banks and big investors to severely limit investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure. 

The effort has managed to score some early victories. In January, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, wrote in its annual letter to CEOs that it would be “increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures.” In July, Citigroup vowed to start measuring companies by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment earlier this month. 

That lays the groundwork for significant changes at the Treasury. The Trump administration had disbanded the department’s Office of Environment and Energy and backtracked on efforts to limit financing for new coal projects. Last January, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin clashed with European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde over whether it was worth it to even try to predict the risks climate change posed to the financial sector. 

Increasing investments in research and building new, complex models should be a top priority for a Biden Treasury, according to a blog post this month by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, which also called for implementing climate stress tests as a critical first step. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pic



Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), seen here stumping for Biden in Manchester, New Hampshire, is another potential Treasury pick should the former vice president triumph in the Nov. 3 election.

A climate-focused Treasury secretary could lean heavily on the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that overhauled financial regulation in the wake of the Great Recession. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, established under the law to rally other financial regulators and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash, could become a key venue to analyze the potential economic upheaval of climate change and create safeguards requiring investors and insurance companies to integrate that risk into their portfolios. 

“The Treasury secretary plays a very important coordinating role,” said Marcus Stanley, the policy director at the nonprofit Americans for Financial Reform. 

Taxing carbon dioxide emissions has become controversial, with economists and oil companies on one side saying it’s the most efficient way to reduce pollution and advocates and some policy experts on the other warning it would be politically unpopular and distract from more urgent government action required to keep warming within a safe range. But if the Biden administration priced carbon at some level, that policy would largely fall under the purview of the Treasury, Stanley said. 

The department could also, as the largest shareholder of the World Bank, pressure the institution to veer away from fossil fuels, a sector in which it has invested $12 billion since the 2015 Paris climate agreement was struck, according to estimates the German environmental group Urgewald released this month. Doing so could be part of a broader international mandate on climate. A report published Tuesday by the Democratic climate policy group Evergreen Action, which Raskin advised, called for the U.S. to join the Network on Greening the Financial System, a 69-member coalition of central banks, as part of an effort to “prevent a climate crash.” 

“Almost everything Treasury does carries enormous climate implications,” said Jeff Hauser, the Revolving Door Project’s executive director and co-author of the blog post. “Sarah Bloom Raskin gets that. You need somebody like Sarah Bloom Raskin in that job.” 

Other Candidates

Sunrise Movement has also floated Bill Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich, economist and former Columbia University Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz as possible picks for Treasury. 

Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden's Treasury s



Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is being touted in the financial press as a top contender for Biden’s Treasury secretary. 

Another name touted in stories on Bloomberg and CNBC as a top contender is Lael Brainard, a governor at the Federal Reserve and former undersecretary at the Treasury during Obama’s first term.

Unlike Raskin or Warren, Brainard has been relatively quiet on climate. She voted in favor of allowing the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program to expand its criteria and make it easier to provide loans to fossil fuel companies struggling as oil prices plummeted this year. 

Moreover, Hauser said, Brainard carries political risks for Biden. She struggled to rein in Chinese currency manipulation during the Obama administration, opening the door to a soft-on-China critique from Republicans, and did little to halt corporate mergers that allowed companies to evade taxes by moving their headquarters overseas. 

Plus, Hauser noted, her husband is Kurt Campbell, the chairman and chief executive of the Asia Group, a multinational investor consultancy. 

“That’s a huge conflict of interest,” Hauser said. “He could divest, but I don’t know if he would do what he’d need to do.” 

Rather than run the Treasury, Brainard’s record of pushing liberal monetary policy that focuses on the risk of unemployment rather than inflation could make her a strong candidate for Fed chair. 

“Since unemployment rates over the past decade have been very real and the inflation fears have been fictitious, that’s a very real achievement,” Hauser said. “A lot of people have jobs today because of [her] leadership.”

Brainard declined HuffPost’s request for comment, and Campbell did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about whether he’d divest of Asia Group if his wife was nominated to a Cabinet post.

Hendricks, who has not taken a position on any potential nominees, said the Treasury job isn’t just about averting a climate-fueled financial disaster. 

“The Treasury secretary straddles both the management of the dangers of systemic risk and also the opportunity to activate positive job creation,” he said. “This is an incredibly important position.”

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Science

Searching for the Chemistry of Life: Possible New Way to Create DNA Base Pairs Discovered

Artist's Concept of Meteors Impacting Ancient Earth

Artist’s impression of young Earth. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

In the search for the chemical origins of life, researchers have found a possible alternative path for the emergence of the characteristic DNA pattern: According to the experiments, the characteristic DNA base pairs can form by dry heating, without water or other solvents. The team led by Ivan Halasz from the Ruđer Bošković Institute and Ernest Meštrović from the pharmaceutical company Xellia presents its observations from DESY’s X-ray source PETRA III in the journal Chemical Communications.

“One of the most intriguing questions in the search for the origin of life is how the chemical selection occurred and how the first biomolecules formed,” says Tomislav Stolar from the Ruđer Bošković Institute in Zagreb, the first author on the paper. While living cells control the production of biomolecules with their sophisticated machinery, the first molecular and supramolecular building blocks of life were likely created by pure chemistry and without enzyme catalysis. For their study, the scientists investigated the formation of nucleobase pairs that act as molecular recognition units in the Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA).

Mixture of All Four Nucleobases

From the mixture of all four nucleobases, A:T pairs emerged at about 100 degrees Celsius and G:C pairs formed at 200 degrees Celsius. Credit: Ruđer Bošković Institute, Ivan Halasz

Our genetic code is stored in the DNA as a specific sequence spelled by the nucleobases adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). The code is arranged in two long, complementary strands wound in a double-helix structure. In the strands, each nucleobase pairs with a complementary partner in the other strand: adenine with thymine and cytosine with guanine.

“Only specific pairing combinations occur in the DNA, but when nucleobases are isolated they do not like to bind to each other at all. So why did nature choose these base pairs?” says Stolar. Investigations of pairing of nucleobases surged after the discovery of the DNA double helix structure by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. However, it was quite surprising that there has been little success in achieving specific nucleobase pairing in conditions that could be considered as prebiotically plausible.

Nucleobase Powder and Steel Balls

Nucleobase powder and steel balls in a milling jar. Credit: Ruđer-Bošković-Institut, Tomislav Stolar

“We have explored a different path,” reports co-author Martin Etter from DESY. “We have tried to find out whether the base pairs can be generated by mechanical energy or simply by heating.” To this end, the team studied methylated nucleobases. Having a methyl group (-CH3) attached to the respective nucleobases in principle allows them to form hydrogen bonds at the Watson-Crick side of the molecule. Methylated nucleobases occur naturally in many living organisms where they fulfil a variety of biological functions.

In the lab, the scientists tried to produce nucleobase pairs by grinding. Powders of two nucleobases were loaded into a milling jar along with steel balls, which served as the grinding media, while the jars were shaken in a controlled manner. The experiment produced A:T pairs which had also been observed by other scientists before. Grinding however, could not achieve formation of G:C pairs.

In a second step, the researchers heated the ground cytosine and guanine powders. “At about 200 degrees Celsius, we could indeed observe the formation of cytosine-guanine pairs,” reports Stolar. In order to test whether the bases only form the known pairs under thermal conditions, the team repeated the experiments with mixtures of three and four nucleobases at the P02.1 measuring station of DESY’s X-ray source PETRA III. Here, the detailed crystal structure of the mixtures could be monitored during heating and formation of new phases could be observed.

“At about 100 degrees Celsius, we were able to observe the formation of the adenine-thymine pairs, and at about 200 degrees Celsius the formation of Watson-Crick pairs of guanine and cytosine,” says Etter, head of the measuring station. “Any other base pair did not form even when heated further until melting.” This proves that the thermal reaction of nucleobase pairing has the same selectivity as in the DNA.

“Our results show a possible alternative route as to how the molecular recognition patterns that we observe in the DNA could have been formed,” adds Stolar. “The conditions of the experiment are plausible for the young Earth that was a hot, seething cauldron with volcanoes, earthquakes, meteorite impacts and all sorts of other events. Our results open up many new paths in the search for the chemical origins of life.” The team plans to investigate this route further with follow-up experiments at P02.1.

Reference: ” DNA-specific selectivity in pairing of model nucleobases in the solid state” by Tomislav Stolar, Stipe Lukin, Martin Etter, Maša Rajić Linarić, Krunoslav Užarević, Ernest Meštrović and Ivan Halasz, 9 September 2020, Chemical Communications.
DOI: 10.1039/D0CC03491F

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Science

EPA Veterans Eyed As Potential Picks To Lead The Agency If Biden Wins

Few federal agencies experienced more upheaval under President Donald Trump than the Environmental Protection Agency, which saw staffers flee in droves and dozens of regulations gutted at polluters’ behest. 

If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election, Democrats are looking at EPA veterans and state regulators from the fire-ravaged West Coast to take the reins of a federal agency that Trump spent the past four years bending to the GOP’s political agenda. 

Among the top names under discussion is Carol Browner, who is on Biden’s climate advisory council and previously served as President Bill Clinton’s EPA administrator and President Barack Obama’s climate policy director. But some progressives, including the influential Sunrise Movement climate group, are angling for agency veterans who would be new to the top job ― such as Mustafa Santiago Ali, an environmental justice activist who worked at the agency for 24 years before stepping down in 2017, or Heather McTeer Toney, a former southeast regional administrator under Obama who now leads the nonprofit Moms Clean Air Force. 

“You need people who’ve done it before, who know how the thing is baseline supposed to work, because there’s a lot of rollbacks that are going to have to be undone,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president of strategy at the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress. “But there are more things that are going to need to get built and significantly updated.” (NoiseCat is a former HuffPost fellow.) 

Data for Progress also highlighted two potential agency chiefs from states on the climate vanguard in terms of both effects and policy response: Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board who went head-to-head with the Trump EPA over its rollback of tailpipe emissions standards for vehicles, and Maia Bellon, who until recently headed Washington state’s Department of Ecology and shaped Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate agenda. Bellon would, notably, be the EPA’s first Native American administrator. 

Carol Browner, who is advising Democratic nominee Joe Biden on climate, is the country's longest-serving EPA administrator, h



Carol Browner, who is advising Democratic nominee Joe Biden on climate, is the country’s longest-serving EPA administrator, having held the position during President Bill Clinton’s two terms.

Other names circulated in Democratic policy circles are Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the firebrand behind the Green New Deal movement in Congress, and Inslee, who last year made an unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination with a climate-focused campaign. 

The Biden campaign, which recently sought to tamp down public speculation on potential nominees, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Reversing An ‘Insidious’ Record

Whoever it is will have their work cut out for them. 

Soon after taking office, Trump put Scott Pruitt, the climate change-denying Oklahoma attorney general who led state lawsuits against the EPA’s power plant regulations, in charge of the agency. When Pruitt resigned in disgrace amid mounting scandals in July 2018, Trump tapped Andrew Wheeler, who had until recently served as a lobbyist for a major coal baron and funder of climate misinformation groups, to replace him. 

The Trump administration, by The New York Times’ tally, has finished weakening or rescinding 72 environmental regulations as of this month, and has started the process of rolling back another 27.

Some of the administration’s highest-profile changes to rules on water pollution, tailpipe emissions and what research regulators can consider proved so controversial and scientifically dubious that the president’s own hand-picked science advisers publicly criticized the agency’s “significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis” and “neglect” of “established science.” 

“It’s insidious,” Browner, who is the country’s longest-serving EPA administrator, told HuffPost. “Prior Republican administrations did some good things. They moved slowly, and they were less ambitious than we were. It was benign neglect. That’s not what’s going on here.” 

To rebuild the agency, a Biden administration should set a target for 25,000 permanent staffers, a roughly 80% increase of 2019 levels that would be commensurate with the growth of the U.S. economy over the past decade, according to a proposal from Yevgeny Shrago, a visiting fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project.

Adding $2.2 billion to the federal budget for hiring at the EPA could help achieve that goal. 

“This is a tiny sum of the $2 trillion that the Biden administration plans to allocate to climate, and without a well-funded EPA, other initiatives will lack maximal impact as polluters continue to operate with limited oversight,” Shrago wrote in the The American Prospect last month. “Such an investment will pay dividends that even the most blinkered advocates of cost-benefit analysis have to acknowledge.”

Mustafa Santiago Ali, a 24-year EPA veteran who resigned in 2017, is considered a top choice among progressives for the admin



Mustafa Santiago Ali, a 24-year EPA veteran who resigned in 2017, is considered a top choice among progressives for the administrator job if Biden wins. 

That could be difficult to get through Congress if Republicans control either chamber. But EPA officials from past Republican administrations could be a help. 

Nixon- and Reagan-era EPA chief William Ruckelshaus, who called the Trump administration’s climate contrarianism a “threat to the country” in a 2018 interview with HuffPost, died last year. But Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator during President George W. Bush’s first term, has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s tenure over the agency. 

She warned that it could take years to recover from the exodus of agency talent. Selecting a nominee who can restore integrity to the agency’s research should be a top priority. 

“Whoever it is is going to have to make every effort to make sure it’s not looked on as a politicized agency,” Whitman said. “You have to put someone in charge to begin with who people will trust and [who] believes in the mission of the agency.” 

Browner declined to comment on potential nominations. McTeer Toney declined an interview request. Neither Santiago Ali nor Nichols responded to requests for comment. 

But Bellon, who now leads a private environmental firm called Cascadia Law Group, said she was “humbled” to see her name on a list that included “incredible women leaders who’d be excellent candidates for a Biden-Harris administration.” 

“If I was called upon by President Biden or Vice President Harris to consider such an appointment, I would absolutely consider it,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase and embed national environmental equity and support our disproportionately and overburdened communities.”