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What Biden will and won’t be able to achieve on climate change

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Though the counts aren’t finished and the legal challenges could drag on for weeks, Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election is looking increasingly likely. If he does triumph, it will also be a win for action on climate change. But his ability to push through any sweeping legislation will be seriously constrained if, as appears likely, Republicans retain control of the Senate.

This outcome is far from the landslide repudiation of President Donald Trump’s assaults on environmental policy, science, and pluralism that climate activists had fervently hoped for. Climate change did appear to be a motivating issue in certain regions and races, and a concern for a solid majority of voters. But polling found that the economy, health care, and the coronavirus outbreak were far more important issues to voters than climate change, where they remain sharply divided along partisan lines.

“The potential for Biden to do something big on climate feels, to me, pretty small,” says David Keith, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “The reality is there will be a lot of other priorities for an early Biden administration … and you’re sitting on a pretty weak mandate.”

Republicans and Democrats each held 48 seats in the Senate as of Friday afternoon, but Senator Susan Collins’ win in Maine has tilted the odds toward the Republicans hanging onto control of the chamber. To split the Senate evenly, Democratic contenders now need to win two contentious races in the swing state of Georgia, both of which could end up in runoff contests in January. (A 50-50 Senate split would give the edge to Democrats if Biden wins, as his vice president, Kamala Harris, would be called upon to break tied votes.)

Many observers never believed Biden had high odds of passing every part of his proposal to pour nearly $2 trillion of federal funds into climate efforts, an ambitious policy package clearly shaped by progressive support for the Green New Deal. But without Democratic control of the Senate, it will be difficult to pass any major climate laws. And the sorts of bold steps necessary to get the nation on track to eliminate emissions from the power sector by 2035 and achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050, the central goals of Biden’s proposals, may well be out of reach.

A Biden administration could still make some progress on climate change. Much of it, however, would have to occur through executive actions and within federal agencies, as was largely the case under President Barack Obama. These moves would have a harder time surviving legal challenges under a Supreme Court that’s just become more conservative, with Amy Coney Barrett replacing the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Biden has pledged to sign a series of executive orders on his first day in office, including measures that would impose methane pollution limits on oil and gas operations; push through higher vehicle fuel economy standards under the Clean Air Act; and spend hundreds of billions of federal government dollars on zero-emissions vehicles and clean energy resources.

He could also work to reverse Trump’s dozens of efforts to roll back previous climate and environmental policies by asking courts to halt pending litigation or by rescinding and replacing the administration’s rules, as Jody Freedman, a Harvard law professor and counselor on climate issues in the Obama White House, explained in a Twitter thread.

Restoring—or ending legal challenges against—regulations like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Power Plan, and the ability of states like California to set their own vehicle emissions standards could prevent the release of billions of tons of greenhouse gases, according to previous estimates of the impact of Trump’s policies.

Executive actions are “not necessarily the most durable form of policy, as we learned under the Trump administration,” says Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor of energy and environmental policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “But for sure it works.”

A Biden administration would also be likely to quickly remove the roster of climate deniers, fossil-fuel lobbyists, and oil executives that Trump placed in positions of power throughout federal agencies; end the suppression of scientific reports; and restore the federal government’s reliance on scientists and other experts to make critical decisions on climate change (and other crucial issues like the covid-19 pandemic).

But there could still be opportunities to make some longer-lasting progress on climate by passing new laws, observers say.

Notably, there’s broad support for an economic stimulus package amid the pandemic-driven downturn. Such a bill could include significant research and development funding for areas like next-generation nuclear power and carbon capture, removal, and storage technologies, says Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC. It could also include job training programs for renewables and other clean energy sectors. The Obama administration used economic stimulus in the wake of the 2008-09 recession to direct some $90 billion of federal investment into green industries.

There’s also bipartisan appetite for an infrastructure bill, which could include investments in electricity transmission lines, offshore wind farms, shoreline protections, and other climate adaptation measures.

But Freed says just how much climate-related spending can be packed into these measures will depend on the level of cooperation from Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican senator who won his reelection bid on Tuesday and who will likely remain majority leader. There’s also pressure to enact at least a first round of stimulus before the end of the year, under Trump, which would be unlikely to include significant climate funding.

Finally, on the international front, Biden committed to rejoining the Paris climate agreement, which the US officially exited on Wednesday. Stepping back into the international fold wouldn’t in itself create any new domestic climate policy. But it would require the US to submit a new set of commitments to cut emissions before the next UN Climate Change Conference in 2021, as well as a plan for slashing climate pollution by midcentury, Gallagher says.

Just as importantly, the US’s return to the Paris accord would strengthen the global alliance around climate issues and put more pressure on other nations to keep to or step up their commitments. But after Trump’s “America First” reign, during which he routinely upended critical trade and military alliances, it also may simply take time to restore some of the nation’s credibility.

“It may be that the US will need to play less of an agenda-setting role than it has in the past until it’s accumulated enough trust,” Gallagher says.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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AutoX becomes China’s first to remove safety drivers from robotaxis

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Residents of Shenzhen will see truly driverless cars on the road starting Thursday. AutoX, a four-year-old startup backed by Alibaba, MediaTek and Shanghai Motors, is deploying a fleet of 25 unmanned vehicles in downtown Shenzhen, marking the first time any autonomous driving car in China tests without safety drivers or remote operators on public roads.

The cars, meant as robotaxis, are not yet open to the public, an AutoX spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The milestone came just five months after AutoX landed a permit from California to start driverless tests, following in the footsteps of Waymo and Nuro.

It also indicates that China wants to bring its smart driving industry on par with the U.S. Cities from Shenzhen to Shanghai are competing to attract autonomous driving upstarts by clearing regulatory hurdles, touting subsidies and putting up 5G infrastructure.

As a result, each city ends up with its own poster child in the space: AutoX and Deeproute.ai in Shenzhen, Pony.ai and WeRide in Guangzhou, Momenta in Suzhou, Baidu’s Apollo fleet in Beijing, to name a few. The autonomous driving companies, in turn, work closely with traditional carmakers to make their vehicles smarter and more suitable for future transportation.

“We have obtained support from the local government. Shenzhen is making a lot of rapid progress on legislation for self-driving cars,” said the AutoX representative.

The decision to remove drivers from the front and operators from a remote center appears a bold move in one of China’s most populated cities. AutoX equips its vehicles with its proprietary vehicle control unit called XCU, which it claims has faster processing speed and more computational capability to handle the complex road scenarios in China’s cities.

“[The XCU] provides multiple layers of redundancy to handle this kind of situation,” said AutoX when asked how its vehicles will respond should the machines ever go rogue.

The company also stressed the experience it learned from “millions of miles” driven in China’s densest city centers through its 100 robotaxis in the past few years. Its rivals are also aggressively accumulating mileage to train their self-driving algorithms while banking sizable investments to fund R&D and pilot tests. AutoX itself, for instance, has raised more than $160 million to date.

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Google faces complaint from NLRB alleging surveillance of employees and other labor violations

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The National Labor Relations Board today issued a complaint against Google after investigating the firing of several employees last November. The complaint alleges Google violated parts of the National Labor Relations Act by surveilling employees, and generally interfered with, restrained and coerced employees in the exercise of their rights guaranteed by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB also alleges Google discouraged “its employees from forming, joining, assisting a union or engaging in other protected, concerted activities,” the complaint states.

“This complaint makes clear that workers have the right to speak to issues of ethical business and the composition of management,” Laurence Berland, one of the fired Google employees, said in a statement. “This is a significant finding at a time when we’re seeing the power of a handful of tech billionaires consolidate control over our lives and our society. Workers have the right to speak out about and organize, as the NLRB is affirming, but we also know that we should not, and cannot, cleave off ethical concerns about the role management wants to play in that society.”

Ex-Googlers Berland and Kathryn Spiers previously filed a federal complaint with the NLRB arguing Google fired them for organizing, which is a protected activity. They had organized around a variety of topics, including Google’s treatment of its temporary, vendor and contractor workers, Google’s alleged retaliation against employees who organized, the company’s work with Customs and Border Protection and more.

Additionally, in November 2019, Google put Rebecca Rivers and Berland on leave for allegedly violating company policies. At the time, Google said one had searched for and shared confidential documents that were not pertinent to their job, and one had looked at the individual calendars of some staffers. Following a protest in support of the two, Rivers, Berland, Duke and Waldman were fired.

“Google has always worked to support a culture of internal discussion, and we place immense trust in our employees,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “Of course employees have protected labor rights that we strongly support, but we have always taken information security very seriously. We’re confident in our decision and legal position. Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”

This comes shortly after the NLRB issued a formal complaint against Google contractor HCL, alleging the company repeatedly violated the rights of unionized workers. Moving forward, Berland and Spiers are hoping the NLRB prosecutes the case against Google and seeks reinstatement and damages for them. But the next step is for the complaint to head to the desk of an administrative judge.

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Neuroglee gets $2.3 million to develop digital therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases

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There are now about 50 million people with dementia globally, a number the World Health Organization expects to triple by 2050. Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia and caregivers are often overwhelmed, without enough support.

Neuroglee, a Singapore-based health tech startup, wants to help with a digital therapeutic platform created to treat patients in the early stages of the disease. Founded this year to focus on neurodegenerative diseases, Neuroglee announced today it has raised $2.3 million in pre-seed funding.

The round was led by Eisai Co., one of Japan’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and Kuldeep Singh Rajput, the founder and chief executive officer of predictive healthcare startup Biofourmis.

Neuroglee’s prescription digital therapy software for Alzheimer’s, called NG-001, is its main product. The company plans to start clinical trials next year. NG-001 is meant to complement medication and other treatments, and once it is prescribed by a clinician, patients can access its cognitive exercises and tasks through a tablet.

Neuroglee founder and CEO Aniket Singh Rajput (brother of Kuldeep) told TechCrunch that its first target markets for NG-001 are the United States and Singapore, followed by Japan. NG-001 needs to gain regulatory approval in each country, and it will start by seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance.

Once it launches, clinicians will have two ways to prescribe NG-001, through their healthcare provider platform or an electronic prescription tool. A platform called Neuroglee Connect will give clinicians, caregivers and patients access to support and features for reimbursement and coverage.

The software tracks patients’ progress, such as the speed of their fingers and the time it takes to complete an exercise, and delivers personalized treatment programs. It also has features to address the mental health of patients, including one that shows images that can bring up positive memories, which in turn can help alleviate depression and anxiety when used in tandem with other cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

For caregivers and clinicians, NG-001 helps them track patient progress and their compliance with other treatments, like medications. This means that healthcare providers can work closely with patients even remotely, which is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

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