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Science

Janet Yellen, Biden’s Treasury Pick, Could Be Key To Confronting Climate

On July 17, 1997, a day when thermometers in the nation’s capital broke 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers delivered a speech to the Senate about an issue of mounting concern. 

“Although a great many scientists believe that global climate change is already underway, the more serious potential damages associated with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are not predicted to occur for decades,” said Janet Yellen, then a 51-year-old economist who’d previously served on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors. “This means that the benefits of climate protection are very difficult to quantify.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, fires are scorching the American West, dozens of powerful storms have threatened coastal cities, and flooding regularly inundates once-dry neighborhoods in cities from Miami to Boston even on days when the sun is shining. And Yellen, now President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Treasury, will likely soon find herself tasked with quantifying and addressing just how dire that crisis has become.

Biden made climate a cornerstone of his campaign this year, and it was the issue on which voters perceived him to contrast most sharply with President Donald Trump. His campaign promised a “whole of government approach” to slashing planet-heating emissions and adapting to a hotter world, one where climate policy is not siloed off at the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The Treasury post could prove one of the most active in that new approach. If the Senate confirms her nomination, Yellen, 74, would become the nation’s chief financial regulator amid a period of new upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic. And if Congress approves new stimulus funding, she would be in charge of distributing it.

If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation's first female Treasury secretary.



If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation’s first female Treasury secretary.

Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who last January 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, directed billions to struggling fossil fuel companies as the pandemic sent oil prices tumbling this year. Yellen could target that funding at industries and programs the U.S. needs to prop up to hit its climate goals, including clean energy sectors and grants to weatherize low-income homes. 

“There’s been tremendous job loss for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and they need targeted relief,” 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. “We’ve seen in the Trump administration Mnuchin playing a central role in structuring a strategy for economic relief and recovery. We’d expect a similar role for a Secretary Yellen.” 

Yellen’s climate work could go far beyond green stimulus. She’s a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, a coalition of economists, bipartisan politicians and corporations pushing for a carbon tax to gradually incentivize the shift away from fossil fuels. Last year, she publicly called for a carbon tax, and said in October that Biden could implement one with support from Republicans. 

“There really is a new kind of recognition that you’ve got a society where capitalism is beginning to run amok and needs to be readjusted in order to make sure that what we’re doing is sustainable and the benefits of growth are widely shared in ways they haven’t been,” Yellen told Reuters. “What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.”

Carbon pricing is widely favored by economists and businesspeople as the most straightforward and predictable way to reduce emissions in a market economy. But scientists say a market tweak alone cannot cut greenhouse gas output at the rate required to keep warming in a safe range. Increasing prices can also be a political quagmire. The French government sparked fiery protests in late 2018 against a slight increase in gas prices, meant to help fund climate efforts. In Canada, right-wing populist Doug Ford won the premiership of Ontario, the country’s largest province, by vowing to repeal the federal government’s carbon tax.

But a carbon price works best as part of a suite of climate policies such as clean-energy standards and direct investments, said Noah Kaufman, an economist and research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

“A lot of times, the carbon pricing conversation turns into this debate over other policy tools versus a carbon price by itself,” Kaufman said. “My sense is that someone like Janet Yellen isn’t suggesting anything like that. Like most economists, she probably sees pricing as a really important policy tool to reduce emissions cost effectively.”

In October, Yellen and former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney backed a plan to set up central bank-like councils to manage decarbonization efforts without political interference from governments. 

What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.
Janet Yellen

A technocratic body insulated from politics may sound appealing after decades of meddling by the fossil fuel industry. But such an entity would also skirt communities who have borne the brunt of pollution.

“As the former Chair of the Federal Reserve, Yellen was not responsive to grassroots organizers who know the needs of the people,” Vasudha Desikan, political director of the activist group Action Center on Race and the Economy, said in a statement. “We are expecting Yellen as the Treasury Secretary to partner with us to center communities of color in fiscal policymaking, and continue keeping Wall Street’s money out of politics.”

Unlike in the past, the climate movement has ramped up its campaign over the past year to target financiers of fossil fuels, and 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 promised to start measuring firms by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment in October.

It’s not hard to see why. Fossil fuel investments often take decades to yield profits. To avert climate catastrophe, most of those fuels will need to stay in the ground, meaning the money still flowing to companies promising to turn a profit on oil and coal in the middle of the century is inflating a multi-trillion-dollar bubble. When the so-called carbon bubble bursts, the effects could be more calamitous to the financial system than the mortgage-backed securities collapse of 2007.

Yellen has defended the 2011 Dodd-Frank law that reformed financial markets in the Great Recession’s wake. She could soon use it to stave off a carbon contagion in the market. She could now use the Financial Stability Oversight Council the law established to coordinate other financial regulations and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash. She could also pressure the World Bank, of which the Treasury is the largest shareholder, to halt new investments in fossil fuels, a sector to which it contributed $12 billion since the 2015 Paris Agreement was struck, the German environmental group Urgewald estimated last month.

Yellen wasn’t the Treasury secretary climate advocates initially wanted. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ran against Biden in the presidential primary on a sweeping Green New Deal plan that included new Wall Street regulations, was one top choice. The other was Sarah Bloom Raskin, an Obama-era deputy Treasury secretary who vowed to make climate a top priority as the nation’s chief financial regulator. 

“One of the reasons climate activists haven’t been singing Yellen’s praises is she’s said very little about climate change thus far, and the things she has said haven’t been nearly as ambitious as we know is needed for the scale of the crisis,” said Moira Birss, the climate and finance director at the nonprofit Amazon Watch. “But there’s also a lot to be optimistic and hopeful about from a Yellen in the Treasury Department.” 

Conservatives see her the same way. John Hart, the co-founder of the Republican climate group C3 Solutions, said Yellen’s past statements of concern over federal debt make him “hopeful” she will “challenge President Biden and members of Congress to set smart priorities in what will be a perilous post-COVID recovery period.” 

“The federal budget contains vast amounts of waste in every area that can be recycled to invest in things like R&D while reducing spending overall,” he said. “If the Biden administration really believes climate change is an existential crisis they can prove it by making hard fiscal choices.”

Wall Street had been vying for Lael Brainard, a governor on the Federal Reserve board, to get the nomination. In Yellen, climate progressives see “a candidate who has shown pretty consistently that she is willing to stand up to Wall Street, that she believes in full employment, and that she … understands there are clear links between the financial sector and the climate crisis,” said Evan Weber, the political director of the Green New Deal campaign group Sunrise Movement. 

“We didn’t get one of our dream candidates, necessarily,” he said. “But she’s shown she responds to pressure and she’s willing to move on climate issues. So we can consider this a win.”

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Science

Hayabusa 2’s Sample is Landing on Earth December 6th

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is nearly back home, with precious cargo aboard! The sample-return mission departed asteroid Ryugu (162173 Ryugu) a little over a year ago, with soil samples and data that could provide clues to the early days of our Solar System. On December 6, 2020, the sample return container is set to land in the Australian outback.

“Organic materials are origins of life on Earth, but we still don’t know where they came from,” said Makoto Yoshikawa, Hayabusa 2 project mission manager, at a press briefing.  “We are hoping to find clues to the origin of life on Earth by analyzing details of the organic materials brought back by Hayabusa 2.”

JAXA, the Japanese space agency, said the capsule containing the samples should land in the Woomera Prohibited Area in Australia, a restricted military test site about 122,000 square kilometers in size, located approximately 450 km northwest of Adelaide. JAXA’s YouTube will have livestreams of the event.

Details of Hayabusa 2 capsule separation & re-entry. Credit: JAXA.

On November 25, the Hayabusa 2 team received permission from Australia to transition to the re-entry orbit. They conducted a trajectory correction maneuver on November 26 to put the spacecraft into the correct entry corridor.

The spacecraft will drop the capsule containing the samples from a distance of about 220,000 km (136,700 miles) from Earth. The capsule is quite small, only about 40 cm (15 inches) in diameter. A heat shield will protect the capsule during its fiery plunge through our atmosphere. When the capsule reaches an altitude of about six miles above the ground, a parachute will open to allow for a – hopefully – soft landing. A beacon will activate to transmit the location of the capsule, and multiple receivers have been set up around the target area to retrieve those signals. Radar, drones, and helicopters will be at the ready to assist in the search and retrieval.

Without those measures, a search for the small capsule “would be an extremely difficult,” Yoshikawa said.

Below is the timeline of events, as of 11/30/20. Japan Standard Time (JST) is UTC +9. If you happen to live in Australia, here’s information about how you may be able to see the capsule drop.

Hayabusa 2 launched in December 2014, and arrived at Ryugu in mid-2018. A German-built MASCOT lander collected samples from Ryugu in February and July 2019, storing each sample in separate chambers. The mission team said they believe at least 300 milligrams of material was collected, and likely more.

For the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, it’s not the end of the mission. After dropping the capsule, it will head to another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26, with the journey slated to take 10 years.

Artist’s impression of the Hayabusa2 taking samples from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

Additional info:
JAXA
Press materials from 11/30/20 briefing
PhysOrg

Scientists will compare the chemical composition of the samples with Earth and Moon rocks, seeking to understand factors about Earth’s origin, such as whether asteroids played a role in bringing water to Earth.

Artist’s impression of the Hayabusa2 taking samples from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

Meanwhile, the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will speed past Earth and continue on to a new mission. It will head to another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years.

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Science

13 STEM Gifts You'll Feel Good about Giving

Inspire a love of STEM with science kits and books! These 12 STEM ideas make great gifts for hours of STEM fun, learning, and discovery. What will the kids in your life explore, make, create, and innovate?

Images of bluebot robot, decorated crystal radio, and a series of Science Buddies STEM books, 3 of 10 gift ideas highlighted for STEM giving fun

Are you already thinking about holiday gift ideas for the young people on your gift list? Science and engineering kits and books make great gifts at any time of the year. With quality STEM kits and books, kids of all ages can explore, invent, experiment, and make discoveries! Plus, they will be learning and building important 21st-century skills at the same time.

Many of our STEM kits are great for school projects and science fairs and also perfect for fun, at-home, curiosity-driven learning and exploration. Whether you are buying for your children, family, or friends, a gift of STEM is one you can feel good about.

13 STEM Gifts You’ll Feel Good about Giving

The 13 STEM gift ideas highlighted below offer hours and hours of exciting science and engineering exploration, perfect for kids to do independently at home:

The BlueBot 4-in-1 Robotics Kit is one of our top picks for kids who like to build. The BlueBot robot has a good-sized chassis and rugged wheels, and there are four different robot models kids can assemble using guided directions at Science Buddies. Each robot has a different sensor-based behavior: Motion-Activated Guard Robot, Speedy Light-Tracking Robot, Zippy Line-following Robot, and Obstacle-Avoiding Robot. The BlueBot kit offers room to grow, too! For advanced students looking to integrate computer programming with their robots, these projects offer inspiration for next-level exploration using Arduino. (Learn more about the four BlueBot kit projects.)

With the Raspberry Pi Projects kit, kids build their own Raspberry Pi computer and then explore computer programming with a series of eight activities that blend coding and electronics. They’ll use Scratch, a drag-and-drop coding environment, to write programs for interactive games and toys, including a drum set, a musical keyboard, a carnival-style game, light-up art, and more! The kit works with Python, so after kids do the eight guided activities, they can continue to use their Raspberry Pi kit for new coding adventures. (Note: if you already own a Raspberry Pi, a Circuit Building Kit for Raspberry Pi is available.) For some extra inspiration, see how this student used the Raspberry Pi kit to create a light-up star.

With the Crystal Radio Kit, kids build their own AM radio and then experiment to see how many stations they can pick up. This radio doesn’t use a regular battery or plug, which makes the crystal radio a fascinating science project! After building the crystal radio, kids can decorate it to personalize it and make it their own. The crystal radio is something kids can continue to use for years!

Crystal radio made from the Crystal Radio kit and decorated to personalize it

The Electronics Sensors kit features electronics components and sensors that can be used with more than 10 different science and engineering projects at Science Buddies. Outside of school, this kit provides lots of open-ended fun for kids interested in electronics. After exploring how sensors work with projects like Green Technology: Build an Electronic Soil Moisture Sensor to Conserve Water, Avoid the Shock of Shocks! Build Your Own Super-sensitive Electric Field Detector, and Is It Ripe Yet? Build a Circuit to Detect Ripe Produce, students can use what they learn to design and build their own sensor-based solutions for real-world use. The reindeer tree ornament shown below is an example of the kind of creative project kids can do using the kit and their own ingenuity. This reindeer was designed as a light-up water sensor for a tree!

A reindeer ornament with a sensor-based circuit

The Bristlebot Robotics Kit is an introductory robotics kit that is perfect for kids ready to build their first robots. With this kit (and craft materials you provide), kids can build three different kinds of wiggling, wobbling robots. Step-by-step directions are available for the ArtBot, Brushbot, and Bristlebot robots. Or, kids can design and build their own unique Junkbot robots using recycled materials. (The kit contains electronics components to make four robots, two Bristlebots and two of the other robot styles.)

With the Electric Play Dough Kit, kids combine the fun of classic dough building with introductory circuits. Using homemade conductive and insulating dough, kids experiment to light up “squishy circuit” creations with colorful LEDs. Once kids master simple electric play dough circuits, they can move on to more challenging 3D structures like the frog shown below! Multiple resources at Science Buddies help students learn more about circuits using electric play dough. (See our winter-themed examples for extra inspiration!)

Butterfly, frog, and other light-up examples made with electric play dough kit

The Candy Chromatography Kit is excellent for a budding young chemist. With the materials needed to learn about and use paper chromatography, kids can experiment to see what color dyes or pigments make up the colors of hard-shell candies, markers, leaves, flowers, and more!

Beaker with two strips of chromatography paper showing colors in candies

With the Microbial Fuel Cell Kit, kids explore what it takes to turn mud into electricity. There are multiple alternative energy science projects kids can do using the microbial fuel cells (MFCs) in this kit, but the Turn Mud into Energy With a Microbial Fuel Cell project can be a good first project. (Note: after setting up the two fuel cells, it will take a number of days for the power to build. Tracking this change each day and watching for the blinking LED is part of the fun!)

With the Spherification Kit, kids use molecular gastronomy to turn liquids into jiggly spheres that pop in the mouth. With this kit, kids can make their own custom-flavored juice balls, similar to popping boba, for fun treats and be learning about food science and chemistry at the same time! Along the way to mastering the spherification of juice balls, kids will probably make some wiggly, stringy, juicy worms, too! That’s part of the fun! (For a closer look at the steps involved in making juice balls with the Spherification Kit, see Boba Spherification: The Science of Juice-filled Caviar.)

Sperification solution being dropped from a syringe and then a hand holding a single juice ball

With the Gauss Rifle Kit, kids can experiment with magnets and magnetic fields as they use ball bearings and magnets to build a multi-stage Gauss rifle. (Note: this is not a weapon. The Gauss rifle is an experiment about magnetism and momentum.)

With the Bath Bomb Science Kit, kids can explore the science behind making fizzy bath bombs as they explore different recipe options to see how different ingredients and quantities change the fizz factor. The quest to make the fizziest bath bombs is on!

Bathbombs in a shell shape

The Advanced Bristlebots Kit is perfect for kids who have already built simple robots, or for older kids who love following a set of build directions from start to finish. The Advanced Bristlebots kit has specialty parts to create either a light-tracking bristlebot or a solar-powered bristlebot. (After building one of these robots, kids can recycle the parts to build the other.)

Two advanced bristlebot robots, one that follows a beam of light and one that can use solar power

13. Science Buddies Hands-on STEM Books

You can’t go wrong with a collection of fun STEM books filled with projects for hours of fun at home. Each book in our series of STEM books contains directions for simple science and engineering activities kids can do in a short amount of time and with readily-available materials. (These STEM titles make great gifts for classroom libraries, too!)

For additional suggestions for giving books with STEM themes or storylines, see this list.

You Might Also Enjoy These Related Posts:

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Science

Changing the Game for Space Exploration: New Tech Can Get Oxygen, Fuel From Mars’s Salty Water

By

Electrolysis Concept

An electrolysis system that doesn’t need pure water may change the game when it comes to exploration.

When it comes to water and Mars, there’s good news and not-so-good news. The good news: there’s water on Mars! The not-so-good news?

There’s water on Mars.

The Red Planet is very cold; water that isn’t frozen is almost certainly full of salt from the Martian soil, which lowers its freezing temperature.

You can’t drink salty water, and the usual method using electricity (electrolysis) to break it down into oxygen (to breathe) and hydrogen (for fuel) requires removing the salt; a cumbersome, costly endeavor in a harsh, dangerous environment.

If oxygen and hydrogen could be directly coerced out of briny water, however, that brine electrolysis process would be much less complicated — and less expensive.

Engineers at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis have developed a system that does just that. Their research was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The research team, led by Vijay Ramani, the Roma B. and Raymond H. Wittcoff Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, didn’t simply validate its brine electrolysis system under typical terrestrial conditions; the system was examined in a simulated Martian atmosphere at -33ºF (-36ºC).

“Our Martian brine electrolyzer radically changes the logistical calculus of missions to Mars and beyond” said Ramani. “This technology is equally useful on Earth where it opens up the oceans as a viable oxygen and fuel source”

In the summer of 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander “touched and tasted” Martian water, vapors from melted ice dug up by the lander. Since then, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express has discovered several underground ponds of water that remain in a liquid state thanks to the presence of magnesium perchlorate — salt.

In order to live — even temporarily — on Mars, not to mention to return to Earth, astronauts will need to manufacture some of the necessities, including water and fuel, on the Red Planet. NASA’s Perseverance rover is en-route to Mars now, carrying instruments that will use high-temperature electrolysis. However, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will be producing oxygen only, from the carbon dioxide in the air.

The system developed in Ramani’s lab can produce 25 times more oxygen than MOXIE using the same amount of power. It also produces hydrogen, which could be used to fuel astronauts’ trip home.

“Our novel brine electrolyzer incorporates a lead ruthenate pyrochlore anode developed by our team in conjunction with a platinum on carbon cathode” Ramani said. “These carefully designed components coupled with the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles has yielded this high performance.”

The careful design and unique anode allow the system to function without the need for heating or purifying the water source.

“Paradoxically, the dissolved perchlorate in the water, so-called impurities, actually help in an environment like that of Mars,” said Shrihari Sankarasubramanian, a research scientist in Ramani’s group and joint first author of the paper.

“They prevent the water from freezing,” he said, “and also improve the performance of the electrolyzer system by lowering the electrical resistance.”

Typically, water electrolyzers use highly purified, deionized water, which adds to the cost of the system. A system that can work with “sub-optimal” or salty water, such as the technology demonstrated by Ramani’s team, can significantly enhance the economic value proposition of water electrolyzers everywhere — even right here on planet Earth.

“Having demonstrated these electrolyzers under demanding Martian conditions, we intend to also deploy them under much milder conditions on Earth to utilize brackish or salt water feeds to produce hydrogen and oxygen, for example through seawater electrolysis,” said Pralay Gayen, a postdoctoral research associate in Ramani’s group and also a joint first author on this study.

Such applications could be useful in the defense realm, creating oxygen on demand in submarines, for example. It could also provide oxygen as we explore uncharted environments closer to home, in the deep sea.

The underlying technologies enabling the brine electrolyzer system are the subject of patent filing through the Office of Technology Management and are available for licensing from the university.

Reference: 30 November 2020, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Science

Janet Yellen, Biden’s Treasury Pick, Could Be Key To Confronting Climate

On July 17, 1997, a day when thermometers in the nation’s capital broke 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers delivered a speech to the Senate about an issue of mounting concern. 

“Although a great many scientists believe that global climate change is already underway, the more serious potential damages associated with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are not predicted to occur for decades,” said Janet Yellen, then a 51-year-old economist who’d previously served on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors. “This means that the benefits of climate protection are very difficult to quantify.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, fires are scorching the American West, dozens of powerful storms have threatened coastal cities, and flooding regularly inundates once-dry neighborhoods in cities from Miami to Boston even on days when the sun is shining. And Yellen, now President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Treasury, will likely soon find herself tasked with quantifying and addressing just how dire that crisis has become.

Biden made climate a cornerstone of his campaign this year, and it was the issue on which voters perceived him to contrast most sharply with President Donald Trump. His campaign promised a “whole of government approach” to slashing planet-heating emissions and adapting to a hotter world, one where climate policy is not siloed off at the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The Treasury post could prove one of the most active in that new approach. If the Senate confirms her nomination, Yellen, 74, would become the nation’s chief financial regulator amid a period of new upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic. And if Congress approves new stimulus funding, she would be in charge of distributing it.

If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation's first female Treasury secretary.



If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation’s first female Treasury secretary.

Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who last January 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, directed billions to struggling fossil fuel companies as the pandemic sent oil prices tumbling this year. Yellen could target that funding at industries and programs the U.S. needs to prop up to hit its climate goals, including clean energy sectors and grants to weatherize low-income homes. 

“There’s been tremendous job loss for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and they need targeted relief,” 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. “We’ve seen in the Trump administration Mnuchin playing a central role in structuring a strategy for economic relief and recovery. We’d expect a similar role for a Secretary Yellen.” 

Yellen’s climate work could go far beyond green stimulus. She’s a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, a coalition of economists, bipartisan politicians and corporations pushing for a carbon tax to gradually incentivize the shift away from fossil fuels. Last year, she publicly called for a carbon tax, and said in October that Biden could implement one with support from Republicans. 

“There really is a new kind of recognition that you’ve got a society where capitalism is beginning to run amok and needs to be readjusted in order to make sure that what we’re doing is sustainable and the benefits of growth are widely shared in ways they haven’t been,” Yellen told Reuters. “What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.”

Carbon pricing is widely favored by economists and businesspeople as the most straightforward and predictable way to reduce emissions in a market economy. But scientists say a market tweak alone cannot cut greenhouse gas output at the rate required to keep warming in a safe range. Increasing prices can also be a political quagmire. The French government sparked fiery protests in late 2018 against a slight increase in gas prices, meant to help fund climate efforts. In Canada, right-wing populist Doug Ford won the premiership of Ontario, the country’s largest province, by vowing to repeal the federal government’s carbon tax.

But a carbon price works best as part of a suite of climate policies such as clean-energy standards and direct investments, said Noah Kaufman, an economist and research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

“A lot of times, the carbon pricing conversation turns into this debate over other policy tools versus a carbon price by itself,” Kaufman said. “My sense is that someone like Janet Yellen isn’t suggesting anything like that. Like most economists, she probably sees pricing as a really important policy tool to reduce emissions cost effectively.”

In October, Yellen and former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney backed a plan to set up central bank-like councils to manage decarbonization efforts without political interference from governments. 

What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.
Janet Yellen

A technocratic body insulated from politics may sound appealing after decades of meddling by the fossil fuel industry. But such an entity would also skirt communities who have borne the brunt of pollution.

“As the former Chair of the Federal Reserve, Yellen was not responsive to grassroots organizers who know the needs of the people,” Vasudha Desikan, political director of the activist group Action Center on Race and the Economy, said in a statement. “We are expecting Yellen as the Treasury Secretary to partner with us to center communities of color in fiscal policymaking, and continue keeping Wall Street’s money out of politics.”

Unlike in the past, the climate movement has ramped up its campaign over the past year to target financiers of fossil fuels, and 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 promised to start measuring firms by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment in October.

It’s not hard to see why. Fossil fuel investments often take decades to yield profits. To avert climate catastrophe, most of those fuels will need to stay in the ground, meaning the money still flowing to companies promising to turn a profit on oil and coal in the middle of the century is inflating a multi-trillion-dollar bubble. When the so-called carbon bubble bursts, the effects could be more calamitous to the financial system than the mortgage-backed securities collapse of 2007.

Yellen has defended the 2011 Dodd-Frank law that reformed financial markets in the Great Recession’s wake. She could soon use it to stave off a carbon contagion in the market. She could now use the Financial Stability Oversight Council the law established to coordinate other financial regulations and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash. She could also pressure the World Bank, of which the Treasury is the largest shareholder, to halt new investments in fossil fuels, a sector to which it contributed $12 billion since the 2015 Paris Agreement was struck, the German environmental group Urgewald estimated last month.

Yellen wasn’t the Treasury secretary climate advocates initially wanted. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ran against Biden in the presidential primary on a sweeping Green New Deal plan that included new Wall Street regulations, was one top choice. The other was Sarah Bloom Raskin, an Obama-era deputy Treasury secretary who vowed to make climate a top priority as the nation’s chief financial regulator. 

“One of the reasons climate activists haven’t been singing Yellen’s praises is she’s said very little about climate change thus far, and the things she has said haven’t been nearly as ambitious as we know is needed for the scale of the crisis,” said Moira Birss, the climate and finance director at the nonprofit Amazon Watch. “But there’s also a lot to be optimistic and hopeful about from a Yellen in the Treasury Department.” 

Conservatives see her the same way. John Hart, the co-founder of the Republican climate group C3 Solutions, said Yellen’s past statements of concern over federal debt make him “hopeful” she will “challenge President Biden and members of Congress to set smart priorities in what will be a perilous post-COVID recovery period.” 

“The federal budget contains vast amounts of waste in every area that can be recycled to invest in things like R&D while reducing spending overall,” he said. “If the Biden administration really believes climate change is an existential crisis they can prove it by making hard fiscal choices.”

Wall Street had been vying for Lael Brainard, a governor on the Federal Reserve board, to get the nomination. In Yellen, climate progressives see “a candidate who has shown pretty consistently that she is willing to stand up to Wall Street, that she believes in full employment, and that she … understands there are clear links between the financial sector and the climate crisis,” said Evan Weber, the political director of the Green New Deal campaign group Sunrise Movement. 

“We didn’t get one of our dream candidates, necessarily,” he said. “But she’s shown she responds to pressure and she’s willing to move on climate issues. So we can consider this a win.”

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Science

13 STEM Gifts You'll Feel Good about Giving

Inspire a love of STEM with science kits and books! These 12 STEM ideas make great gifts for hours of STEM fun, learning, and discovery. What will the kids in your life explore, make, create, and innovate?

Images of bluebot robot, decorated crystal radio, and a series of Science Buddies STEM books, 3 of 10 gift ideas highlighted for STEM giving fun

Are you already thinking about holiday gift ideas for the young people on your gift list? Science and engineering kits and books make great gifts at any time of the year. With quality STEM kits and books, kids of all ages can explore, invent, experiment, and make discoveries! Plus, they will be learning and building important 21st-century skills at the same time.

Many of our STEM kits are great for school projects and science fairs and also perfect for fun, at-home, curiosity-driven learning and exploration. Whether you are buying for your children, family, or friends, a gift of STEM is one you can feel good about.

13 STEM Gifts You’ll Feel Good about Giving

The 13 STEM gift ideas highlighted below offer hours and hours of exciting science and engineering exploration, perfect for kids to do independently at home:

The BlueBot 4-in-1 Robotics Kit is one of our top picks for kids who like to build. The BlueBot robot has a good-sized chassis and rugged wheels, and there are four different robot models kids can assemble using guided directions at Science Buddies. Each robot has a different sensor-based behavior: Motion-Activated Guard Robot, Speedy Light-Tracking Robot, Zippy Line-following Robot, and Obstacle-Avoiding Robot. The BlueBot kit offers room to grow, too! For advanced students looking to integrate computer programming with their robots, these projects offer inspiration for next-level exploration using Arduino. (Learn more about the four BlueBot kit projects.)

With the Raspberry Pi Projects kit, kids build their own Raspberry Pi computer and then explore computer programming with a series of eight activities that blend coding and electronics. They’ll use Scratch, a drag-and-drop coding environment, to write programs for interactive games and toys, including a drum set, a musical keyboard, a carnival-style game, light-up art, and more! The kit works with Python, so after kids do the eight guided activities, they can continue to use their Raspberry Pi kit for new coding adventures. (Note: if you already own a Raspberry Pi, a Circuit Building Kit for Raspberry Pi is available.) For some extra inspiration, see how this student used the Raspberry Pi kit to create a light-up star.

With the Crystal Radio Kit, kids build their own AM radio and then experiment to see how many stations they can pick up. This radio doesn’t use a regular battery or plug, which makes the crystal radio a fascinating science project! After building the crystal radio, kids can decorate it to personalize it and make it their own. The crystal radio is something kids can continue to use for years!

Crystal radio made from the Crystal Radio kit and decorated to personalize it

The Electronics Sensors kit features electronics components and sensors that can be used with more than 10 different science and engineering projects at Science Buddies. Outside of school, this kit provides lots of open-ended fun for kids interested in electronics. After exploring how sensors work with projects like Green Technology: Build an Electronic Soil Moisture Sensor to Conserve Water, Avoid the Shock of Shocks! Build Your Own Super-sensitive Electric Field Detector, and Is It Ripe Yet? Build a Circuit to Detect Ripe Produce, students can use what they learn to design and build their own sensor-based solutions for real-world use. The reindeer tree ornament shown below is an example of the kind of creative project kids can do using the kit and their own ingenuity. This reindeer was designed as a light-up water sensor for a tree!

A reindeer ornament with a sensor-based circuit

The Bristlebot Robotics Kit is an introductory robotics kit that is perfect for kids ready to build their first robots. With this kit (and craft materials you provide), kids can build three different kinds of wiggling, wobbling robots. Step-by-step directions are available for the ArtBot, Brushbot, and Bristlebot robots. Or, kids can design and build their own unique Junkbot robots using recycled materials. (The kit contains electronics components to make four robots, two Bristlebots and two of the other robot styles.)

With the Electric Play Dough Kit, kids combine the fun of classic dough building with introductory circuits. Using homemade conductive and insulating dough, kids experiment to light up “squishy circuit” creations with colorful LEDs. Once kids master simple electric play dough circuits, they can move on to more challenging 3D structures like the frog shown below! Multiple resources at Science Buddies help students learn more about circuits using electric play dough. (See our winter-themed examples for extra inspiration!)

Butterfly, frog, and other light-up examples made with electric play dough kit

The Candy Chromatography Kit is excellent for a budding young chemist. With the materials needed to learn about and use paper chromatography, kids can experiment to see what color dyes or pigments make up the colors of hard-shell candies, markers, leaves, flowers, and more!

Beaker with two strips of chromatography paper showing colors in candies

With the Microbial Fuel Cell Kit, kids explore what it takes to turn mud into electricity. There are multiple alternative energy science projects kids can do using the microbial fuel cells (MFCs) in this kit, but the Turn Mud into Energy With a Microbial Fuel Cell project can be a good first project. (Note: after setting up the two fuel cells, it will take a number of days for the power to build. Tracking this change each day and watching for the blinking LED is part of the fun!)

With the Spherification Kit, kids use molecular gastronomy to turn liquids into jiggly spheres that pop in the mouth. With this kit, kids can make their own custom-flavored juice balls, similar to popping boba, for fun treats and be learning about food science and chemistry at the same time! Along the way to mastering the spherification of juice balls, kids will probably make some wiggly, stringy, juicy worms, too! That’s part of the fun! (For a closer look at the steps involved in making juice balls with the Spherification Kit, see Boba Spherification: The Science of Juice-filled Caviar.)

Sperification solution being dropped from a syringe and then a hand holding a single juice ball

With the Gauss Rifle Kit, kids can experiment with magnets and magnetic fields as they use ball bearings and magnets to build a multi-stage Gauss rifle. (Note: this is not a weapon. The Gauss rifle is an experiment about magnetism and momentum.)

With the Bath Bomb Science Kit, kids can explore the science behind making fizzy bath bombs as they explore different recipe options to see how different ingredients and quantities change the fizz factor. The quest to make the fizziest bath bombs is on!

Bathbombs in a shell shape

The Advanced Bristlebots Kit is perfect for kids who have already built simple robots, or for older kids who love following a set of build directions from start to finish. The Advanced Bristlebots kit has specialty parts to create either a light-tracking bristlebot or a solar-powered bristlebot. (After building one of these robots, kids can recycle the parts to build the other.)

Two advanced bristlebot robots, one that follows a beam of light and one that can use solar power

13. Science Buddies Hands-on STEM Books

You can’t go wrong with a collection of fun STEM books filled with projects for hours of fun at home. Each book in our series of STEM books contains directions for simple science and engineering activities kids can do in a short amount of time and with readily-available materials. (These STEM titles make great gifts for classroom libraries, too!)

For additional suggestions for giving books with STEM themes or storylines, see this list.

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Science

Researchers discover huge freshwater reservoir hidden beneath Hawai’i

Hawai’s’s beautiful geology is both its blessing and its curse. The islands lie on a geological hotspot: an area of hot magma plume rising straight from the mantle, which is also responsible for its volcanic eruptions and stunning landscapes. This is why Hawai’i lies so isolated in the middle of the ocean, far from any other major geological structure.

Nowadays, as tourism is the largest single source of income for Hawai’i’s economy, this is undoubtedly an advantage for inhabitants of the islands. But it’s also a threat, since the islands are so isolated — not just from other cities, but also from other resources, like fresh water.

Most of Hawai’i’s fresh water comes from onshore aquifers, layers of rock and soil that collect rainfall underground. Now, a new team of researchers using geophysical methods has found a new reservoir that could alleviate Hawai’i’s thirst, as well enable geologists to better understand volcanic islands in general.

The team at work. Image credits: University of Hawai’i.

A cache of unusual water

The study started when researchers analyzed the amount of water collected in the known aquifers. According to their models, there was a big difference between what they expected to see and what was actually visible: the aquifers had 40% less water than expected, or about a trillion gallons. So where could this missing water be?

Geologists typically assume that freshwater resources on volcanic islands are composed of a shallow layer of fresh water floating on seawater. This assumption is generally valid, but it overlooks more peculiar geological structures that could store water. For instance, geological heterogeneities could produce confining layers offshore, which could also store water. So in their search for the missing freshwater, that’s where the researchers thought they should look.

If you’re looking for underwater water — that is, fresh water under the ocean water — you don’t need a shovel or any digging equipment; you only need physics.

Specifically, the researchers used a 40-meter-long antenna towed by a boat. The antenna produced an electromagnetic field, which sent out an electric current through the seawater. Seawater is an excellent conductor of electricity because of all the dissolved salts in it — but freshwater isn’t that good of a conductor, which enables researchers to distinguish between the two, a bit like an MRI.

An example of what the survey data looks like. Vertical profiles showcase the electrical resistivity of the subsurface: bluer areas are more resistive, and are therefore likely to contain freshwater. Image credits: Attias et al (2020).

The surveys suggest a rich abundance of freshwater just offshore of the Island of Hawai’i, flowing like underwater rivers beneath the surface. There are actually two levels of freshwater under the surface, the researchers suspect, hidden in porous basaltic layers.

Here’s a depiction of the structures the researchers propose:

An artistic interpretation of the data above. Image credits: Attias et al (2020).

For Hawai’i, this could be godsent. Like many islands, Hawai’i is struggling with water scarcity, which is already becoming worse due to climate change. But the researchers say that the findings could be important for other volcanic islands as well.

“We propose that this newly found transport mechanism of fresh groundwater may be the governing mechanism in other volcanic islands. In such a scenario, volcanic islands worldwide can use these renewable offshore reservoirs, considered more resilient to climate change-driven droughts, as new water resources.”

The idea is compelling, but also requires some validation. Researchers will need to drill through the island to confirm what they’re seeing. If it is confirmed, it could be a way to source freshwater to the island in a relatively easy and ecologically sound way.

The study has been published in Science Advances.

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Science

AI Analyzes Content of Nightmares, Finds COVID-19 Infects Majority of Bad Dreams

COVID Nightmare

Study applies artificial intelligence to analyze content of nightmares using crowdsourced data from more than 800 people during pandemic lockdown in Finland.

COVID-19 has turned 2020 into a nightmare for many people, as they struggle with health problems, economic uncertainty and other challenges. Now a team of researchers in Finland has evidence that the pandemic really is a bad dream. In a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, scientists used artificial intelligence to help analyze the dream content of close to a thousand people and found that the novel coronavirus had infected more than half of the distressed dreams reported.

The researchers crowdsourced sleep and stress data from more than 4,000 people during the sixth week of the COVID-19 lockdown in Finland. About 800 respondents also contributed information about their dreams during that time — many of which revealed a shared anxiety about the pandemic.

“We were thrilled to observe repeating dream content associations across individuals that reflected the apocalyptic ambience of COVID-19 lockdown,” said lead author Dr. Anu-Katriina Pesonen, head of the Sleep & Mind Research Group at the University of Helsinki. “The results allowed us to speculate that dreaming in extreme circumstances reveal shared visual imagery and memory traces, and in this way, dreams can indicate some form of shared mindscape across individuals.”

“The idea of a shared imagery reflected in dreams is intriguing,” she added.

Pesonen and her team transcribed the content of the dreams from Finnish into English word lists and fed the data into an AI algorithm, which scanned for frequently appearing word associations. The computer built what the researchers called dream clusters from the “smaller dream particles” rather than entire dreams.

Eventually, 33 dream clusters or themes emerged. Twenty of the dream clusters were classified as bad dreams, and 55 percent of those had pandemic-specific content. Themes such as failures in social distancing, coronavirus contagion, personal protective equipment, dystopia, and apocalypse were rated as pandemic specific.

For example, word pairs in a dream cluster labeled “Disregard of Distancing” included mistake-hug, hug-handshake, handshake-restriction, handshake-distancing, distancing-disregard, distancing-crowd, crowd-restriction, and crowd-party.

“The computational linguistics-based, AI-assisted analytics that we used is really a novel approach in dream research,” Pesonen said. “We hope to see more AI-assisted dream research in future. We hope that our study opened the development towards that direction.”

The study also offered some insights into the sleep patterns and stress levels of people during the pandemic lockdown. For instance, more than half of respondents reported sleeping more than before the period of self-quarantine, though 10 percent had a harder time falling asleep and more than a quarter reported more frequent nightmares.

Not surprisingly, more than half of study participants reported increases in stress levels, which were more closely linked to patterns like fitful sleep and bad dreams. Those most stressed-out also had more pandemic-specific dreams. The research could provide valuable insights for medical experts who are already assessing the toll the coronavirus is having on mental health. Sleep is a central factor in all mental health issues, according to Pesonen.

“Repeated, intense nightmares may refer to post-traumatic stress,” she explained. “The content of dreams is not entirely random, but can be an important key to understanding what is the essence in the experience of stress, trauma and anxiety.”

Reference: “Pandemic Dreams: Network Analysis of Dream Content During the COVID-19 Lockdown” by Anu-Katriina Pesonen, Jari Lipsanen, Risto Halonen, Marko Elovainio, Nils Sandman, Juha-Matti Mäkelä, Minea Antila, Deni Béchard, Hanna M. Ollila and Liisa Kuula, 1 October 20, Frontiers in Psychology.
DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.573961

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Science

Dream Reports During the COVID-19 Pandemic Reflect Mental Suffering and Fear of Contagion

COVID-19 Pandemic Dream Reports

Artwork from the volunteers (inspired by their dreams during the pandemic). Credit: Natália Mota

Dreams during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown reflect mental suffering (anger, sadness) and fear of contagion, according to a new Brazilian study.

COVID-19 Dream Reports

Are dream reports from the Covid-19 pandemic period different from dream reports prior to the pandemic?. (A) Data collection timeline (audio recordings of dreams reported via smartphone application), and illustrative examples of two translated dream reports by the same participant, one before and one after the Covid-19 pandemic. Words in red type are linked to emotions and words in blue type are semantically associated with the terms “contamination” and “cleanness”. (B) Flowchart showing group composition. (C) Representative examples of computational analysis of dream reports by the same participants before and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Credit: Mota et al, 2020 (PLOS ONE, CC BY 4.0)

Dreaming during the Covid-19 pandemic: Computational assessment of dream reports reveals mental suffering related to fear of contagion.

The current global threat brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has led to widespread social isolation, posing new challenges in dealing with metal suffering related to social distancing, and in quickly learning new social habits intended to prevent contagion. Neuroscience and psychology agree that dreaming helps people to cope with negative emotions and to learn from experience, but can dreaming effectively reveal mental suffering and changes in social behavior?

To address this question, we applied natural language processing tools to study 239 dream reports by 67 individuals, made either before the Covid-19 outbreak or during the months of March and April, 2020, when lockdown was imposed in Brazil following the WHO’s declaration of the pandemic. Pandemic dreams showed a higher proportion of anger and sadness words, and higher average semantic similarities to the terms “contamination” and “cleanness.”

These features seem to be associated with mental suffering linked to social isolation, as they explained 40% of the variance in the PANSS negative subscale related to socialization (p = 0.0088). These results corroborate the hypothesis that pandemic dreams reflect mental suffering, fear of contagion, and important changes in daily habits that directly impact socialization.

Reference: 30 November 2020, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0242903

Funding:

  • NBM, MC and SR received financial support from Boehringer-Ingelheim (grants FADE/UFPE 270,906 and 270,561);
  • SR, MC and CR received financial support from Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq; CNPq.br) PVE grant 401518/2014-0, Universal grants 480053/2013-8, 408145/2016-1, 439434/2018-1, 425329/2018-6 and Research Productivity grants 308775/2015-5, 306659/2019-0, 301744/2018-1 and 310712/2014-9;
  • SR and MC received financial support from Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES; capes.gov.br) Projects OBEDUC-ACERTA 0898/2013, PROEX 534/2018 and STIC AmSud 062/2015;
  • MC received financial support from Fundação de Amparo à Ciência e Tecnologia do Estado de Pernambuco (FACEPE) grant APQ–0642–1.05/18;
  • SR and MC received financial support from Center for Neuromathematics of the São Paulo Research Foundation FAPESP (grant 2013/07699-0).

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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Science

Janet Yellen, Biden’s Treasury Pick, Could Be Key To Confronting Climate

On July 17, 1997, a day when thermometers in the nation’s capital broke 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers delivered a speech to the Senate about an issue of mounting concern. 

“Although a great many scientists believe that global climate change is already underway, the more serious potential damages associated with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are not predicted to occur for decades,” said Janet Yellen, then a 51-year-old economist who’d previously served on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors. “This means that the benefits of climate protection are very difficult to quantify.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, fires are scorching the American West, dozens of powerful storms have threatened coastal cities, and flooding regularly inundates once-dry neighborhoods in cities from Miami to Boston even on days when the sun is shining. And Yellen, now President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Treasury, will likely soon find herself tasked with quantifying and addressing just how dire that crisis has become.

Biden made climate a cornerstone of his campaign this year, and it was the issue on which voters perceived him to contrast most sharply with President Donald Trump. His campaign promised a “whole of government approach” to slashing planet-heating emissions and adapting to a hotter world, one where climate policy is not siloed off at the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The Treasury post could prove one of the most active in that new approach. If the Senate confirms her nomination, Yellen, 74, would become the nation’s chief financial regulator amid a period of new upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic. And if Congress approves new stimulus funding, she would be in charge of distributing it.

If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation's first female Treasury secretary.



If confirmed by the Senate, Janet Yellen, 74, will be the nation’s first female Treasury secretary.

Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who last January 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, directed billions to struggling fossil fuel companies as the pandemic sent oil prices tumbling this year. Yellen could target that funding at industries and programs the U.S. needs to prop up to hit its climate goals, including clean energy sectors and grants to weatherize low-income homes. 

“There’s been tremendous job loss for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and they need targeted relief,” 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. “We’ve seen in the Trump administration Mnuchin playing a central role in structuring a strategy for economic relief and recovery. We’d expect a similar role for a Secretary Yellen.” 

Yellen’s climate work could go far beyond green stimulus. She’s a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, a coalition of economists, bipartisan politicians and corporations pushing for a carbon tax to gradually incentivize the shift away from fossil fuels. Last year, she publicly called for a carbon tax, and said in October that Biden could implement one with support from Republicans. 

“There really is a new kind of recognition that you’ve got a society where capitalism is beginning to run amok and needs to be readjusted in order to make sure that what we’re doing is sustainable and the benefits of growth are widely shared in ways they haven’t been,” Yellen told Reuters. “What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.”

Carbon pricing is widely favored by economists and businesspeople as the most straightforward and predictable way to reduce emissions in a market economy. But scientists say a market tweak alone cannot cut greenhouse gas output at the rate required to keep warming in a safe range. Increasing prices can also be a political quagmire. The French government sparked fiery protests in late 2018 against a slight increase in gas prices, meant to help fund climate efforts. In Canada, right-wing populist Doug Ford won the premiership of Ontario, the country’s largest province, by vowing to repeal the federal government’s carbon tax.

But a carbon price works best as part of a suite of climate policies such as clean-energy standards and direct investments, said Noah Kaufman, an economist and research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

“A lot of times, the carbon pricing conversation turns into this debate over other policy tools versus a carbon price by itself,” Kaufman said. “My sense is that someone like Janet Yellen isn’t suggesting anything like that. Like most economists, she probably sees pricing as a really important policy tool to reduce emissions cost effectively.”

In October, Yellen and former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney backed a plan to set up central bank-like councils to manage decarbonization efforts without political interference from governments. 

What I see is a growing recognition on both sides of the aisle that climate change is a very serious concern and that action needs to occur.
Janet Yellen

A technocratic body insulated from politics may sound appealing after decades of meddling by the fossil fuel industry. But such an entity would also skirt communities who have borne the brunt of pollution.

“As the former Chair of the Federal Reserve, Yellen was not responsive to grassroots organizers who know the needs of the people,” Vasudha Desikan, political director of the activist group Action Center on Race and the Economy, said in a statement. “We are expecting Yellen as the Treasury Secretary to partner with us to center communities of color in fiscal policymaking, and continue keeping Wall Street’s money out of politics.”

Unlike in the past, the climate movement has ramped up its campaign over the past year to target financiers of fossil fuels, and 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 promised to start measuring firms by their compatibility with the warming scenario outlined in the Paris climate accords. JPMorgan Chase made a similar commitment in October.

It’s not hard to see why. Fossil fuel investments often take decades to yield profits. To avert climate catastrophe, most of those fuels will need to stay in the ground, meaning the money still flowing to companies promising to turn a profit on oil and coal in the middle of the century is inflating a multi-trillion-dollar bubble. When the so-called carbon bubble bursts, the effects could be more calamitous to the financial system than the mortgage-backed securities collapse of 2007.

Yellen has defended the 2011 Dodd-Frank law that reformed financial markets in the Great Recession’s wake. She could soon use it to stave off a carbon contagion in the market. She could now use the Financial Stability Oversight Council the law established to coordinate other financial regulations and synchronize rule changes to protect against the domino-effect of a market crash. She could also pressure the World Bank, of which the Treasury is the largest shareholder, to halt new investments in fossil fuels, a sector to which it contributed $12 billion since the 2015 Paris Agreement was struck, the German environmental group Urgewald estimated last month.

Yellen wasn’t the Treasury secretary climate advocates initially wanted. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ran against Biden in the presidential primary on a sweeping Green New Deal plan that included new Wall Street regulations, was one top choice. The other was Sarah Bloom Raskin, an Obama-era deputy Treasury secretary who vowed to make climate a top priority as the nation’s chief financial regulator. 

“One of the reasons climate activists haven’t been singing Yellen’s praises is she’s said very little about climate change thus far, and the things she has said haven’t been nearly as ambitious as we know is needed for the scale of the crisis,” said Moira Birss, the climate and finance director at the nonprofit Amazon Watch. “But there’s also a lot to be optimistic and hopeful about from a Yellen in the Treasury Department.” 

Conservatives see her the same way. John Hart, the co-founder of the Republican climate group C3 Solutions, said Yellen’s past statements of concern over federal debt make him “hopeful” she will “challenge President Biden and members of Congress to set smart priorities in what will be a perilous post-COVID recovery period.” 

“The federal budget contains vast amounts of waste in every area that can be recycled to invest in things like R&D while reducing spending overall,” he said. “If the Biden administration really believes climate change is an existential crisis they can prove it by making hard fiscal choices.”

Wall Street had been vying for Lael Brainard, a governor on the Federal Reserve board, to get the nomination. In Yellen, climate progressives see “a candidate who has shown pretty consistently that she is willing to stand up to Wall Street, that she believes in full employment, and that she … understands there are clear links between the financial sector and the climate crisis,” said Evan Weber, the political director of the Green New Deal campaign group Sunrise Movement. 

“We didn’t get one of our dream candidates, necessarily,” he said. “But she’s shown she responds to pressure and she’s willing to move on climate issues. So we can consider this a win.”