President-elect Obama Delivers Strong Statement on Climate Change

As we prepare to move past President Bush’s disastrous environmental policies, I’ve been interested to see what President-elect Obama plans to do for the environment. The economy has garnered the most attention, and in the short term, is more important. But continued neglect of the environment will, in the long-term, lead to crises both in the economy and in other sectors.

President-elect Obama addressed the attendees of the Governor’s Global Climate Summit in a four-minute video (high-resolution version is available at change.gov; full text of speech at the end of this post).

He thanked the governors for their work (Governor Schwarzenegger of California along with governors of other U. S. states are hosting the Governor’s Global Climate Summit; leaders of key nations around the world are attending) and also thanked businesses for their efforts, going on to remark “But too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office. My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process.”

President-elect Obama went on to deliver more specific goals: “That will start with a federal cap-and-trade system. We’ll establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80 percent by 2050. Further, we’ll invest $15 billion each year to catalyze private sector efforts to build a clean energy future”, indicating plans to invest in renewable resources as well as nuclear power and clean coal technology. He intends for this to help the economy as well, creating jobs and helping industry.

Mr. Obama also indicated a change in the way the U. S. has participated on the international stage, stating that the U. S. would work with and depend on other nations: “And once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.”

Perhaps the most significant statement is the strong importance Mr. Obama still places on environmental problems, despite the problems with the economy. As John Broder writes in the New York Times, “State officials and environmental advocates were cheered that Mr. Obama choose to address climate change as only the second major policy area [after the economy] he has discussed as president-elect.” Reaction from environmental groups appears quite favorable.

The CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) praised President-elect Obama’s remarks: “Today President-elect Obama gave us his first official statements on climate and without a doubt he nailed it. He sees clearly the huge risk that climate change poses to our economy and our future, and he understands that solving climate change is a foundation for a global economic recovery.

Writing in the Sierra Club blog, Heather Moyer called the speech “very enjoyable”. And Peter Miller, in the National Resources Defense Council blog, wrote “Looking very presidential, Obama enunciated an unambiguous commitment to enacting a federal cap and trade program with tight annual caps leading to an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.  The contrast with President Bush’s stance on climate change was abundantly evident to everyone.  It was the first time I’ve ever seen a standing ovation for a video.”

I look forward to more. Below is a transcript of the speech, taken from Grist with slight editing.

Let me begin by thanking the bipartisan group of U.S. governors who convened this meeting.

Few challenges facing America — and the world — are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We’ve seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.

Climate change and our dependence on foreign oil, if left unaddressed, will continue to weaken our economy and threaten our national security.

I know many of you are working to confront this challenge. In particular, I want to commend Governor Sebelius, Governor Doyle, Governor Crist, Governor Blagojevich and your host, Governor Schwarzenegger — all of you have shown true leadership in the fight to combat global warming. And we’ve also seen a number of businesses doing their part by investing in clean energy technologies. But too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office. My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process.

That will start with a federal cap-and-trade system. We’ll establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80 percent by 2050. Further, we’ll invest $15 billion each year to catalyze private sector efforts to build a clean energy future. We’ll invest in solar power, wind power, and next generation biofuels. We’ll tap nuclear power, while making sure it’s safe. And we will develop clean coal technologies.

This investment will not only help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, making the United States more secure. And it will not only help us bring about a clean energy future, saving the planet. It will also help us transform our industries and steer our country out of this economic crisis by generating five million new green jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.

But the truth is, the United States can’t meet this challenge alone. Solving this problem will require all of us working together. I understand that your meeting is being attended by government officials from over a dozen countries, including the U.K., Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Chile, Poland and Australia, India and Indonesia. And I look forward to working with all nations to meet this challenge in the coming years.

Let me also say a special word to the delegates from around the world who will gather at Poland next month: your work is vital to the planet. While I won’t be president at the time of your meeting and while the United States has only one president at a time, I’ve asked members of Congress who are attending the conference as observers to report back to me on what they learn there.

And once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change. Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.

Stopping climate change won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But I promise you this: When I am president, any governor who’s willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America. Thank you.

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Sarah Palin’s Anti-Science and Anti-Environment Policies Are Worrisome

Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, just announced Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. She was a surprise pick and is relatively unknown, but what I’ve found so far is somewhat disturbing. While I haven’t made my final electoral decision, what I do know is that I don’t want another George W. Bush.

Wired Science, part of the Wired blog network, discusses her views on teaching creationism in public school science classes. (Merriam-Webster defines “creationism” as “a doctrine or theory holding that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by God out of nothing and usually in the way described in Genesis [the first book of the Judeo-Christian Bible].”) They refer to an article in the Anchorage Daily News covering a 2006 Alaska gubernatorial debate:

The volatile issue of teaching creation science in public schools popped up in the Alaska governor’s race this week when Republican Sarah Palin said she thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the state’s public classrooms.

Palin was answering a question from the moderator near the conclusion of Wednesday night’s televised debate on KAKM Channel 7 when she said, “Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.”

The article goes on to point out:

The Republican Party of Alaska platform says, in its section on education: “We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory.”

This stance alone is a significant strike against her. However, her anti-environment policies are also troubling. For instance, she told NewsMax, “I’m not one though who would attribute [global warming] to being man-made.” As I discussed in a previous post, all major scientific societies concur that humans are responsible for climate change. Senator McCain, as well as Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama and his running mate Senator Joe Biden, all agree that climate change is a real threat and have proposed plans to combat it.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that her policies appear to show general disregard for the environment, especially with regards to her strong advocacy for oil drilling. For instance, she stated, “I beg to disagree with any candidate who would say we can’t drill our way out of our problem…”, as quoted in Investor’s Business Daily (IBD) and “When I look every day, the big oil company’s building is right out there next to me, and it’s quite a reminder that we should have mutually beneficial relationships with the oil industry” as quoted in Roll Call. She supports opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR, commonly pronounced “AN-war”) for drilling, a move generally opposed by environmentalists as well as Congress. Expressing her frustation, she stated to IBD, “But these lands [ANWR] are locked up by Congress, and we are not allowed to drill to the degree America needs the development…”; to Lawrence Kudlow on CNBC, “Very, very disappointed in Congress though [for not voting on drilling in ANWR]”; and so on. Both Senators Obama and McCain opposing drilling in ANWR, and she has attacked Senator McCain for this stance: “I have not talked him into ANWR yet…I think we need McCain in that White House despite, still, the close-mindedness on ANWR” (Lawrence Kudlow, CNBC).

Nor has Alaska, under Mrs. Palin’s governorship, promoted environmental issues. In Massachussets v. Environmental Protection Agency, when twelve states as well as several cities and environmental organizations sued the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, Alaska argued against them. (In a split decision, the Supreme Court largely agreed with Massachussets et al; see my previous post.)

Earlier this year, the Interior Department listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Somewhat bizzarrely, Governor Palin claims that polar bears are not threatened (“In fact, the number of polar bears has risen dramatically over the past 30 years” she states). She opposed the ESA listing and Alaska now plans to sue the Interior Department. Similarly, Governor Palin is opposing plans to list beluga whales as endangered, as it could damage Alaska’s economy.

Eight years of disregard for science and for the environment is enough; I don’t think I want to see someone like this in high office, certainly not in a position where she could become president. If anyone has any examples of Governor Palin promoting science or the environment, please let me know.

ACTION NEEDED: Senate Rejects Civil Liberties Checks, Grants Telecoms Immunity

It’s shocking that it’s come to this, but the United States Senate has just passed S. 2248, giving telecommunications companies immunity from lawsuits despite their illegal provision of call information and content (that is, cooperating with warrantless eavesdropping). The only barrier now is the House of Representatives, and President Bush is placing considerable pressure on them to accede, stating he will not agree to extending the current surveillance law (which expires Saturday). Please read the New York Times piece by Eric Lichtblau for more information:

President Bush strongly urged the House of Representatives on Wednesday to quickly approve a surveillance bill passed by the Senate Tuesday evening, saying he would not agree to a further extension of the current eavesdropping law. The president effectively gave the House a deadline to act, since the current authority to intercept telephone conversations or electronic communications expires at midnight on Saturday.…

The president’s remarks came the morning after the Senate handed the White House a major victory by voting to broaden the government’s spy powers and to give legal protection to phone companies that cooperated in President Bush’s program of eavesdropping without warrants. The immunity for the phone companies is the key difference between the Senate bill and the one passed by the House last year. The president said that without that protection, American telecommunications companies would face lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars. Without the protection, he said, “they won’t participate, they won’t help us.”…

(read full article)

This is a bad thing, and continues along a very dangerous path where our civil liberties are increasingly restricted. Why is this bad? The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects us against unreasonable search and seizure and provides that warrants should be issued based on probable cause. The rule of law is supremely important; granting retroactive immunity to people who have willfully broken the law undermines the rule of law. And placing the President or governmental organizations above the rule of law allows for unchecked power.

Please contact your representative and urge him or her not to approve retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies. It’s easy to do. You can contact your respresentative through the House of Representatives web site. If you are unsure who represents you, it’s still easy: Look up your ZIP+4 code at the United States Postal Service web site. Then, enter it at the House of Representatives web site and you will be taken to the web site of your representative. For an even easier approach, you may send a message through the ACLU’s web site (if you use this option, please modify the text as the Senate has now passed the bill in question.)

For more information about why this is bad and for arguments you can use, please see the some points from the ACLU and The Daily Awesome. Also, if you would like to see if your two senators voted for or against this disturbingly broad bill, please see the roll call at the Senate’s web site.

When are we going to draw the line? At what point do we replace fear of foreign enemies with fear of our own government?

Minnesota Joins Sixteen States to Sue the EPA

I was pleased to read Minnesota Public Radio’s report that Minnesota will join the sixteen-state coalition suing the Environmental Protection Agency.

Background: Despite its role to protect the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency had previously refused to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles, stating among other reasons that they did not have the authority. (See my previous post.) Twelve states and thirteen environmental groups sued, and the Supreme Court ruled that yes, the states had the right to sue the EPA; yes, the EPA does have the authority to regulate these emission; and perhaps the EPA can decide not to regulate them, but must reconsider. Meanwhile, California had requested a waiver to set more strict tailpipe emissions standards than those of the federal government. In December 2007, the EPA denied this request. This has prompted the now seventeen states suing the EPA.

It is incredible that the EPA has resisted taking action and now is actively impeding attempts to combat climate change. As Ansel Adams said, “It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment” (attributed). But at least our state governments are taking action, even as the Bush administration does its best to stymie progress.

Military Deaths in Iraq, 2007

portion of graphic showing troop deaths in Iraq
A small portion of the graphic featured in the New York Times opinion piece, “A Year in Iraq”.

I enjoy seeing different methods used to present and visualize data, and so I found “A Year in Iraq”, an opinion piece in the New York Times by Adriana Lins de Albuquerque and Alicia Cheng to be quite interesting. “The chart … gives information on the type and location of each attack responsible for the 2,592 recorded deaths among American and other coalition troops, Iraqi security forces and members of the peshmerga militias controlled by the Kurdish government.” See the article (free registration required) for the whole graphic and story.

Australia to Ratify Kyoto Protocol; United States Remains Apart

Hours after taking office, Australia’s new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, initiated the process of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases to help fight climate change. (See, for instance, the Sydney Morning Herald or the BBC). 174 countries have ratified the agreement; the United States is notably absent, especially now that Australia is joining their ranks.

Map of countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol
Map of countries and their position towards the Kyoto Protocol. Green countries have signed and ratified the treaty; yellow countries have signed but not yet ratified it. Red countries have signed but have no intention of ratifying. Gray countries have not taken a position. See full-sized version. Source: Wikipedia.

Just Who Takes Global Warming Seriously, Anyway?

From time to time, a politician or scientist makes the news for disputing some of the facts about human-induced climate change (global warming). These remarks can often be exaggerated or taken out of context, as in the recent example of climate scientist John Christy (who apparently agrees that humans are causing global warming but takes exception to the “catastrophism” that often accompanies climate change discussions). I thought it would be useful to collect positions from various scientific organizations. This list focuses  on United States institutions, since that is where I live and also because there seems to be more confusion here than in much of the world.

The clear authority, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Established by the World Meterological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme in 1988, the IPCC’s reports are considered authoritative by governments and scientists worldwide. I’d actually like to cover this report in more detail in a future post, but below is abstracted from the Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (PDF):

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level. Observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases…Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid–20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations. It is likely there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent (except Antarctica)…Anthropogenic warming over the last three decades has likely had a discernible influence at the global scale on observed changes in many physical and biological systems…

The joint national science academies of the G8+5 nations (including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) published a combined statement. Backed also by the Academia Brasileira de Ciéncias (Brazil), Académie des Sciences (France), Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Italy), Russian Academy of Sciences (Russia), Royal Society of Canada (Canada), Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany), Science Council of Japan (Japan), Academy of Science of South Africa (South Africa), Chinese Academy of Sciences (China), Indian National Science Academy (India), Academia Mexicana de Ciencias (Mexico), and the Royal Society (United Kingdom), the statement (PDF) included the following:

It is unequivocal that the climate is changing, and it is very likely that this is predominantly caused by the increasing human interference with the atmosphere. These changes will transform the environmental conditions on Earth unless counter-measures are taken.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the organization that publishes the prestigious journal Science, takes the following position (PDF):

The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.

The United States National Research Council states:

Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century.

The American Meterological Society states:

…Despite the uncertainties noted above, there is adequate evidence from observations and interpretations of climate simulations to conclude that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, on ecosystems, and on wildlife through the 21st century and beyond. Focusing on the next 30 years, convergence among emission scenarios and model results suggest strongly that increasing air temperatures will reduce snowpack, shift snowmelt timing, reduce crop production and rangeland fertility, and cause continued melting of the ice caps and sea level rise. Important goals for future work include the need to understand the relation of climate at the state and regional level to the patterns of global climate and to reverse the decline in observational networks that are so critical to accurate climate monitoring and prediction.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency states:

According to NOAA and NASA data, the Earth’s average surface temperature has increased by about 1.2 to 1.4ºF in the last 100 years. Eleven of the last twelve years rank among the 12 warmest years on record (since 1850), with the warmest two years being 1998 and 2005. Most of the warming in recent decades is very likely the result of human activities. Other aspects of the climate are also changing such as rainfall patterns, snow and ice cover, and sea level. If greenhouse gases continue to increase, climate models predict that the average temperature at the Earth’s surface could increase from 3.2 to 7.2ºF above 1990 levels by the end of this century. Scientists are certain that human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere, and that increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases will change the planet’s climate. But they are not sure by how much it will change, at what rate it will change, or what the exact effects will be.

The American Geophysical Union states:

Human activities are increasingly altering the Earth’s climate. These effects add to natural influences that have been present over Earth’s history. Scientific evidence strongly indicates that natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures observed during the second half of the 20th century.

Human impacts on the climate system include increasing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and their substitutes, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.), air pollution, increasing concentrations of airborne particles, and land alteration. A particular concern is that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide may be rising faster than at any time in Earth’s history, except possibly following rare events like impacts from large extraterrestrial objects.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have increased since the mid-1700s through fossil fuel burning and changes in land use, with more than 80% of this increase occurring since 1900. Moreover, research indicates that increased levels of carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years. It is virtually certain that increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will cause global surface climate to be warmer.

The American Astronomical Society agrees with the American Geophysical Union, saying:

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) notes that human impacts on the climate system include increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which is significantly contributing to the warming of the global climate. The climate system is complex, however, making it difficult to predict detailed outcomes of human-induced change: there is as yet no definitive theory for translating greenhouse gas emissions into forecasts of regional weather, hydrology, or response of the biosphere. As the AGU points out, our ability to predict global climate change, and to forecast its regional impacts, depends directly on improved models and observations.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) joins the AGU in calling for peer-reviewed climate research to inform climate-related policy decisions, and, as well, to provide a basis for mitigating the harmful effects of global change and to help communities adapt and become resilient to extreme climatic events.

In endorsing the “Human Impacts on Climate” statement, the AAS recognizes the collective expertise of the AGU in scientific subfields central to assessing and understanding global change, and acknowledges the strength of agreement among our AGU colleagues that the global climate is changing and human activities are contributing to that change.

The American Institute of Physics also endorses the American Geophysical Union’s position, saying:

The Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics has endorsed a position statement on climate change adopted by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Council in December 2003.

The Geological Society of America states [link appears to be broken]:

The Geological Society of America (GSA) supports the scientific conclusions that Earth’s climate is changing; the climate changes are due in part to human activities; and the probable consequences of the climate changes will be significant and blind to geopolitical boundaries. Furthermore, the potential implications of global climate change and the time scale over which such changes will likely occur require active, effective, long-term planning.

The American Chemical Society states (PDF):

Accumulating evidence clearly shows that our environment and the global climate system are changing. Global average temperatures, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, sea levels, and extreme weather events are on the rise. In order to place these changes in the context of environmental policy, it is necessary to recognize that the climate is a dynamic system. The geochemical record demonstrates that large, and sometimes rapid, climate changes have occurred in the past without the influences of modern development. There is now general agreement among scientific experts that the recent warming trend is real (and particularly strong within the past 20 years), that most of the observed warming is likely due to increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and that climate change could have serious adverse effects by the end of this century.

And not a scientific society, but relevant nonetheless, the Norwegian Nobel Committee issued the following statement as part of its Nobel Peace Prize announcement:

Indications of changes in the earth’s future climate must be treated with the utmost seriousness, and with the precautionary principle uppermost in our minds. Extensive climate changes may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind. They may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth’s resources. Such changes will place particularly heavy burdens on the world’s most vulnerable countries. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states.

Through the scientific reports it has issued over the past two decades, the IPCC has created an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming. Thousands of scientists and officials from over one hundred countries have collaborated to achieve greater certainty as to the scale of the warming. Whereas in the 1980s global warming seemed to be merely an interesting hypothesis, the 1990s produced firmer evidence in its support. In the last few years, the connections have become even clearer and the consequences still more apparent.

I could not find any major scientific organization disagreeing with the scientific view as expressed by the IPCC. The American Association of State Climatologists is noncommittal (PDF).

World leaders are taking an active role. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been an active proponent of action. See, for example, his recent briefing to the General Assembly:

We look to Governments to agree on a road map for negotiations that will ensure a new climate change agreement by 2009. This date is important not only to ensure continuity after 2012, when the existing regime expires — but equally, to address the desperate urgency of the situation itself, as underscored by the IPCC…

And U.S. President George Bush has emphasized the importance of fighting climate change, though progress has been underwhelming.

Energy security and climate change are two of the great challenges of our time. The United States takes these challenges seriously. The world’s response will help shape the future of the global economy and the condition of our environment for future generations.

Finally, the American public agrees that global warming is a major problem (see my previous post, as well). A recent BBC poll (PDF) states:

…Seven in 10 Americans (71%) say that human activity is “a significant cause of climate change.” By a margin of 59 percent to 33 percent, Americans say it is necessary to take “major steps starting very soon” rather than “modest steps over the coming years.” Only 6 percent say “it is not necessary to take any steps.”…

And a LiveScience article summarized several recent polls:

Nearly three-quarters of Americans are willing to pay more taxes to support local government efforts aimed at mitigating global warming…Americans were willing to pay more money in property taxes, home costs and utility fees to support initiatives that would encourage people to use less energy and get that energy from alternative sources…concern for the environment is growing among Americans and bolder action is desired…Americans are pessimistic about the current state of the environment and disapprove of how the government has been handling environmental issues…a majority of Americans believe that society must take action to reduce the effects of global warming, partly by enacting a new national treaty that would require much more drastic reductions in carbon dioxide than those required by the Kyoto Protocol (which the United States never ratified)…

“Nearly half of Americans now believe that global warming is either already having dangerous impacts on people around the world or will in the next 10 years—a 20 percentage-point increase since 2004. These results indicate a sea change in public opinion,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale Project on Climate Change, in response to the findings of the earlier poll.

The science has been well-established. The urgency has been well-established. The time for serious action is long overdue.