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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. Last November, she gave a speech calling for the Fed “to study the implications of climate change for the economy and the financial system and to adapt our work accordingly.” But, in April, 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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What Miami’s freezing lizards tell us about climate change

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New research digs into what a cold snap in Miami that led to lizards falling out of trees can tell us about how animals can withstand climate change.

It was raining iguanas on a sunny morning.

Biologist James Stroud’s phone started buzzing early on January 22. A friend who was bicycling to work past the white sands and palm tree edges of Key Biscayne, an island town south of Miami, sent Stroud a picture of a 2-foot-long lizard splayed out on its back. With its feet in the air, the iguana took up most of the sidewalk.

The previous night was south Florida’s coldest in 10 years, at just under 40 degrees Fahrenheit. While most people reached for an extra blanket or a pair of socks, Stroud, a postdoctoral research associate at Washington University in St. Louis, frantically texted a collaborator:

“Today’s the day to drop everything, go catch some lizards.”

Stroud holds a bag with the lizard in it
Stroud inspects an Anolis lizard he just caught. (Credit: Day’s Edge Productions)

When temperatures go below a critical limit, sleeping lizards lose their grip and fall out of trees. From previous research, Stroud and his colleagues had learned that different types of lizards in Miami can tolerate different low temperatures, ranging from about 46 to 52 degrees Fahrenheit, before they are stunned by cold.

This cold snap provided a unique opportunity to understand how extreme climate events affect them.

But when the researchers collected the scaled survivors of that coldest night, they discovered that the lizard community responded in an unexpected way: all of them could tolerate cold temperatures down to about 42 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of their species’ previous ability to withstand cold. The findings appear in the journal Biology Letters.

“Prior to this, and for a different study, we had measured the lowest temperatures that six lizard species in south Florida could tolerate,” Stroud says. “We realized after the 2020 cold event that these data were now extremely valuable—we had the opportunity to re-measure the same lizard populations to observe if their physiological limits had changed; in other words, could these species now tolerate lower temperatures?”

Collecting lizards to study climate change

In the days that followed the January cold snap, researchers collected representatives of as many different kinds of lizards as they could find in the local area, rounding up small and large lizards and those that are active during the day and at night. Then the researchers tested their response to cold.

“A major unexpected result of this study was that all species converged on the same new, lower level of thermal tolerance,” Stroud says. “While there was great variation in temperature tolerance before the cold event—some, like the large-bodied brown basilisk, were very intolerant of low temperatures, while others like the Puerto Rican crested anole were more robust—we observed that all species could now tolerate, on average, the same lowest temperature.

“Given great variation in body size, ecology, and physiology, this was unexpected,” he says.

Only one of the species in the study is native to the area; the rest have been introduced to Florida over the past century, researchers note.

A lizard walks down a tree trunk
Puerto Rican crested anole (Anolis cristatellus). (Credit: Day’s Edge Productions)

The results provide evidence that tropical, cold-blooded creatures—often characterized as unable to withstand rapid changes in climatic conditions—can sometimes endure conditions that exceed their established physiological limits.

“The shifts to tolerate significantly lower temperatures that we observed were so large that we found it unclear whether natural selection was responsible,” Stroud says. “And so in our paper we discuss other alternative processes which may also have led to this pattern.”

“The results of this study are surprising and unexpected. Who would have thought that tropical lizards from places like Puerto Rico and Central America could withstand temperatures near freezing?” says Jonathan Losos, professor of biology and director of the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University.

“What we now need to find out is how this was accomplished,” Losos says. “Is this evidence of natural selection, with those lizards that just happened to have a lower cold tolerance surviving and others freezing to death, or was it an example of physiological adjustment—termed ‘acclimation’—in which exposure to lower temperatures changes a lizard’s physiology so that it is capable of withstanding lower temperatures?”

Standing up to changing temperatures

Regardless of the underlying mechanism, the new study provides a critically important piece of information for understanding the impacts of climate change.

Scientists expect that air temperatures will gradually become warmer under climate change, but also that temperatures will become more chaotic.

Events that spike temperature to extremes—both exceptionally hot and exceptionally cold episodes—will increase in frequency and magnitude. As such, it is important to understand both the effects of gradual, long-term increases in air temperatures as well as the consequences of abrupt, short-term extreme events.

“It is widely thought that tropical and subtropical species are going to be especially vulnerable to changes in temperature—particularly extreme spikes of heat or cold—as tropical areas do not typically have strong seasons,” Stroud says. “Unlike temperate species, which are adapted to summer highs and winter lows, tropical species have typically evolved in very thermally stable environments.

“While there is no doubt that climate change represents a major threat to species and ecosystems around the world, and deserves as much research attention as possible, this study provides fascinating insight and a glimpse of hope,” he says. “Perhaps tropical and subtropical species can withstand more extreme climatic conditions than we expect.”

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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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.” 

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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.&nbsp;



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..

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. Last November, she gave a speech calling for the Fed “to study the implications of climate change for the economy and the financial system and to adapt our work accordingly.” But, in April, 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.”

Categories
Science

Something other than just gravity is contributing to the shape of dark matter halos

It now seems clear that dark matter interacts more than just gravitationally. Earlier studies have hinted at this, and a new study supports the idea even further. What’s interesting about this latest work is that it studies dark matter interactions through entropy.

Entropy is a subtle and powerful concept in physics. It was first introduced as a property in thermodynamics, but it plays a role in everything from black holes to the flow of time. It’s also rather difficult to define without relying on mathematics.

This is what entropy really is. Credit: Brian Koberlein

Entropy is often described as a measure of the disorder of a system. Ice, for example, with its water molecules arranged into symmetrical crystals has lower entropy than water, with its chaotic dance of water molecules. Since warmer things tend to be more disordered, entropy is also related to the temperature of an object. Hence, the second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a system can’t decrease, which also means that heat flows from warm objects to cold ones.

For this latest work, entropy is better described in terms of how likely an object is to be in a particular state. Imagine lighting a scented candle in the corner of a room. While it is statistically for the scent of the candle to hover around the candle, the motion of the air in the room will most likely spread the scent throughout the room. An evenly spread scent is the most likely outcome because it is the state with the maximum entropy. It’s a state also known as thermodynamic equilibrium.

There are more ways to scramble an egg than unscramble one. Credit: Brian Koberlein

In this new study, the team used computer models to calculate the state of maximum entropy for dark matter in dwarf galaxies. The distribution of dark matter determines how strongly light will gravitationally lens. When the team looked at theoretical lensing by galactic dark matter in maximum entropy, they found it agreed with observed lensing around dwarf galaxies. Thus, dark matter seems to be in a state of maximum entropy.

This means dark matter must interact in some way. The scent in a room reaches maximum entropy because the aroma molecules interact strongly with molecules of air. All those interactions work to increase the entropy of the room. Dark matter doesn’t interact strongly with regular matter, so this study suggests it strongly interacts with itself.

Without knowing exactly what dark matter is, we don’t know how it can interact. But this study and others further confirm the reality of dark matter.

Reference: Brinckmann, Thejs, et al. “The structure and assembly history of cluster-sized haloes in self-interacting dark matter.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 474.1 (2018): 746-759.

Reference: Almeida, Jorge Sánchez, Ignacio Trujillo, and Angel Ricardo Plastino. “The principle of maximum entropy explains the cores observed in the mass distribution of dwarf galaxies.” Astronomy & Astrophysics 642 (2020): L14.

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Science

Hospital floors are full of bacteria, posing a risk to patients’ health

While they might be cleaned regularly, floors in hospital rooms can (and frequently do) quickly get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This process happens mere hours after patient admission, according to a new study. This creates a route through which patients can be exposed to potentially dangerous organisms.

Credit SIM Flickr

Floors aren’t often given the same care as surfaces that patients or health care workers regularly touch, such as bed rails and various buttons. In many cases, floors aren’t cleaned when new patients are admitted to hospital rooms unless they’re visibly dirty or soiled. This can create health problems across the hospital, previous studies have found.

“If bacteria stayed on floors this wouldn’t matter, but we’re seeing clear evidence that these organisms are transferred to patients, despite our current control efforts,” said Curtis Donskey, co-author of the study. “Hand hygiene is critical, but we need to develop practical approaches to reduce underappreciated sources of pathogens.”

A team of researchers from the Northeast Ohio VA Healthcare System tracked contamination levels in 17 hospital rooms with newly-admitted patients to study how and how fast these could transfer to the patients. Before testing, the rooms were cleaned and sanitized, with all patients screened for healthcare-associated bacteria (and found negative).

For the study, the researchers looked at the interactions between patients and healthcare workers and portable equipment. They collected samples one to three times per day from patients, their socks, beds, and other often-touched surfaces, as well as key sections of the floor that could have been contaminated.

Almost half the rooms tested positive for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the first 24 hours. At the same time, vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) pathogens were identified in 58% of patient rooms within four days of admission. The contamination spread from the floors to other surfaces, the findings showed.

“While we’re showing that these scary-sounding bugs can make their way into a patient’s room and near them, not everyone who encounters a pathogen will get an infection,” said Sarah Redmond, lead author of the study. “With that in mind, are there simple ways to address these areas of exposure without placing too much emphasis on the risk?”

The researchers had reported similar findings in a previous study in August, explaining that SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid (genetic material) was frequently identified on floors and on the shoes of personnel on a COVID-19 ward. Still, they said further research is needed to clarify the role of floor contamination in the transmission of both bacterial and viral pathogens and to identify ways to address contamination.

The study does however have a set of limitations. This included a small sample size and variables in characteristics among patients and healthcare personnel that may affect how applicable the study findings are to other hospitals, among others

The study was published in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

Categories
Science

Night of the Living Algae: To Survive Asteroid Impact, Algae Learned to Hunt

Algal Plankton Developed a Spooky Ability to Survive

K/Pg, or Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, refers to the aftermath of the asteroid hitting Earth 66 million years ago. Credit: Odysseus Archontikis/University of Oxford

Tiny, seemingly harmless ocean plants survived the darkness of the asteroid strike that killed the dinosaurs by learning a ghoulish behavior — eating other living creatures.

Vast amounts of debris, soot, and aerosols shot into the atmosphere when an asteroid slammed into Earth 66 million years ago, plunging the planet into darkness, cooling the climate, and acidifying the oceans. Along with the dinosaurs on the land and giant reptiles in the ocean, the dominant species of marine algae were instantly wiped out — except for one rare type.

A team of scientists, including researchers at UC Riverside, wanted to understand how these algae managed to thrive while the mass extinction rippled throughout the rest of the global food chain.

“This event came closest to wiping out all multicellular life on this planet, at least in the ocean,” said UCR geologist and study co-author Andrew Ridgwell. “If you remove algae, which form the base of the food chain, everything else should die. We wanted to know how Earth’s oceans avoided that fate, and how our modern marine ecosystem re-evolved after such a catastrophe.”

To answer their questions, the team examined well-preserved fossils of the surviving algae and created detailed computer models to simulate the likely evolution of the algae’s feeding habits over time. Their findings were published today (October 30, 2020) in the journal Science Advances.

SEM of Fossil Cell Coverings

High-resolution scanning electron microscope images of fossil cell coverings of nannoplankton highlighting holes that would have allowed flagella and haptonema to emerge from the cell and draw in food particles. Credit: Paul Brown/University College London

According to Ridgwell, scientists were a bit lucky to find the nano-sized fossils in the first place. They were located in fast accumulating and high-clay-content sediments, which helped preserved them in the same way the La Brea tar pits provide a special environment to help preserve mammoths.

Most of the fossils had shields made of calcium carbonate, as well as holes in their shields. The holes indicate the presence of flagella — thin, tail-like structures that allow tiny organisms to swim.

“The only reason you need to move is to get your prey,” Ridgwell explained.

Modern relatives of the ancient algae also have chloroplasts, which enable them to use sunlight to make food from carbon dioxide and water. This ability to survive both by feeding on other organisms and through photosynthesis is called mixotrophy. Examples of the few land plants with this ability include Venus flytraps and sundews.

Researchers found that once the post-asteroid darkness cleared, these mixotrophic algae expanded from coastal shelf areas into the open ocean where they became a dominant life form for the next million years, helping to quickly rebuild the food chain. It also helped that larger creatures who would normally feed on these algae were initially absent in the post-extinction oceans.

“The results illustrate both the extreme adaptability of ocean plankton and their capacity to rapidly evolve, yet also, for plants with a generation time of just a single day, that you are always only a year of darkness away from extinction,” Ridgwell said.

Only much later did the algae evolve, losing the ability to eat other creatures and re-establishing themselves to become one of the dominant species of algae in today’s ocean.

“Mixotrophy was both the means of initial survival and then an advantage after the post-asteroid darkness lifted because of the abundant small pretty cells, likely survivor cyanobacteria,” Ridgwell said. “It is the ultimate Halloween story — when the lights go out, everyone starts eating each other.”

Reference: 30 October 2020, Science Advances.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc9123