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Science under siege

5 October 2018

Donald Trump has launched an all-fronts attack on science and environmental protection

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Presidential polluter: Donald Trump boarding Air Force One for a trip to a fundraiser in Minnesota earlier this month. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Presidential polluter: Donald Trump boarding Air Force One for a trip to a fundraiser in Minnesota earlier this month. Evan Vucci/AP Photo


While the news from Washington has been dominated by Brett Kavanaugh’s candidacy for the Supreme Court and how it will help cement Donald Trump’s legacy, the administration has been intensifying its attack on science and redoubling its efforts to dismantle regulations designed to protect health and the environment and tackle global warming. The legacy of that campaign could be much more toxic and longer-lasting than the outcome of the Kavanaugh hearings, and not just for the United States.

In the past two weeks alone, reports reveal fresh attacks on independent sources of advice. The Office of the Science Advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency seems set to be dissolved. This senior post offers advice to the EPA and its administrator on science underpinning health and environmental policies, regulations and decisions. The head of the EPA Office of Children’s Health, a respected paediatric epidemiologist, has been placed on unexplained administrative leave following reports that the incumbent has repeatedly clashed with administration officials bent on loosening pollution regulations. The disputes are reported to centre on the planned weakening of mercury emission rules, announced on 30 September, the administration’s failure to act on a recommendation by EPA scientists that the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos be banned, and the proposal to dismantle programs that protect children from lead poisoning.

There are no surprises here. During the presidential campaign, Trump’s tweets linked autism to vaccinations and light bulbs to cancer. He has described global warming as a Chinese hoax designed to make American manufacturing uncompetitive, and has also claimed that it is based on faulty science and manipulated data. He has cited freezing temperatures as evidence that global warming doesn’t exist. He pledged during his presidential campaign to revive the coal industry and bring back miners’ jobs, foreshadowed sweeping deregulation of natural gas, oil and coal production as part of an “America First” energy plan, and promised to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord.

Senior political appointees dispute that human activity is the leading cause of climate change; the administration interferes in science policy processes and restricts federal researchers and their work; executive orders and regulations are used to bypass congressional debate. Thousands of government web pages relating to climate change have been taken down, buried or scrubbed of references to climate change and carbon. No part of the federal bureaucracy is immune.

It starts at the top. The White House Science Advisor was not nominated until July 2018 (ending the longest vacancy in the forty-two-year history of the post) and has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Those concerned about climate change are relieved that the nominee is a well-respected meteorologist, but history shows that the effectiveness of science advisers is determined not by their expertise but by how closely they are in step with the political priorities of the administration they serve.

Trump headed off to major negotiations on denuclearisation with North Korea without any expertise in this area on his team. There is no chief scientist at the State Department, despite the fact that science is central to such issues as cyber security, global warming and monitoring nuclear capabilities, nor at the Department of Agriculture, which is redefining its core mission from the scientific monitoring of food production and safety to the promotion of farm exports. The Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have both disbanded their climate science advisory committees, and the Food and Drug Administration no longer has a Food Advisory Committee to provide guidance on food safety. As the New York Times headlined, “Science is unwelcome. So is advice.”

Among these actions, Trump’s June 2017 announcement of the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord is perhaps the least meaningful, a victory of symbolism and bombast over reality. The earliest the United States can legally withdraw is November 2020, which means it will be an issue in the next presidential campaign. Meanwhile, many states are continuing their efforts to tackle climate change and are on pace to meet their share of the Obama administration’s pledge under the Paris accord. But the fact that the United States has ceded its leadership in this area and now stands as a rogue outsider has global implications.


The real damage is being done elsewhere, largely following a sixteen-point agenda delivered to the administration by coal baron Robert Murray, a major supporter of Trump’s election campaign. The wish list of regulatory overhauls includes ending regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and ozone and mine safety, cutting the staff of the EPA, and overhauling the office of mine safety at the Department of Labor. Cabinet secretaries have eager carried out these, egged on by the president, who claims “The never-ending growth of red tape in America has come to a sudden, screeching and beautiful halt.”

Scott Pruitt (a climate change denier who made a career of filing lawsuits to block EPA regulations) was an early cabinet appointment to head the EPA where he notoriously pandered to the interests of the very industries overseen by the agency. When he was forced to resign over ethical violations in July, his deputy Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who had previously worked for Murray, the man with the to-do list, stepped in as acting administrator. Small wonder that Trump, even as he accepted Pruitt’s resignation, was moved to tweet, “I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda. We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!”

The agenda Wheeler inherited includes the proposed repeal or weakening of more than thirty environmental protections. Key among these is the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, based on the Clean Air Act 1970 (as amended in 1990) — the centrepiece of the Obama Administration’s efforts to tackle climate change and meet the emission reduction goals pledged under the Paris agreement — and its replacement with a new rule. This would see power plants required to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by around 1 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 (the equivalent of taking 2.5–5.3 million cars off the road), a dramatic weakening of the Obama rule (which required a 32 per cent reduction below 2005 levels, equivalent to taking seventy-five million cars off the road). The EPA’s own analysis reveals that this change will result in up to 1400 additional premature deaths, 48,000 new cases of asthma and consequently 21,000 additional missed days of school every year.

Efforts to cap greenhouse gas emissions are also undermined by a proposed rule that would reverse by 2020 the requirement that manufacturers make cars more fuel efficient. This plan also includes language forbidding states like California from imposing stricter standards. Shockingly, in an environmental impact statement issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to justify this, government scientists make the admission that global temperatures will warm by 7°F (about 4°C) by the end of the century: this dire forecast is offered as a justification that changing tail-pipe standards is irrelevant — the planet’s fate is already sealed.

The Trump Administration can’t scrap the Clean Air Act outright. A 2007 Supreme Court decision enabled the EPA to declare that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act because it causes global warming and this endangers human health. Overturning that decision would require the Trump administration to disprove the science of climate change, a legal battle it is not willing to undertake. Instead, it has devalued a metric known as the social cost of carbon, which calculates damage to property, human health, agriculture and economic growth from carbon dioxide pollution and is used to offset the costs of compliance. The administration argues that each ton of carbon dioxide emitted by a car or a coal plant in 2020 would only cause between $1 and $7 in economic damages, far lower than the Obama administration’s estimate of $50.

The EPA is also proposing to rescind the provisions of the Clean Water Act that prohibit industries from dumping pollutants into streams and wetlands. Just this month it was revealed that the agency is pursuing rule changes that would overturn the current, decades-old guidance that says any exposure to harmful radiation is a cancer risk. This change, based on the claims of outlier scientists that a little radiation is good for you, could lead to higher levels of exposure for workers at nuclear installations and in some medical settings.

Under these proposals, even the dirtiest forms of pollution are getting a reprieve, despite acknowledged harms to human health. The heaviest burdens will fall on the poorest and most marginalised Americans, many of whom are black. Indeed, there is a kind of systemic racism at the heart of the environmental devastation that Trump’s policies promulgate.

As William Ruckelshaus, administrator of EPA under president Ronald Reagan, said when Pruitt was still in the job, “My principal concern is that Pruitt and the people he has hired to work with him don’t fundamentally agree with the mission of the agency. They are more concerned about costs associated with regulation.”

Pruitt acted early to restrict academic researchers from joining the agency’s scientific panels, instead appointing scientists who work for the industries the EPA regulates. He required the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (which is mandated by law to prioritise the health effects of pollution) to also consider the potential economic and energy consequences of emission control measures — even though the Supreme Court unanimously declared in 2001 that the Clean Air Act “unambiguously bars cost considerations from the [standard-]setting process.” And he has proposed limiting the types of scientific research EPA officials can take into account when writing new policies.

Against this background, there was a heavy irony in Pruitt pushing back on an article published by two Harvard scientists in the Journal of the American Medical Association that estimated the administration’s proposed changes to environmental policies would conservatively lead to an extra 80,000 deaths every decade. According to Pruitt, these results are “not scientific.”


There is a saving grace to this nasty, widespread agenda: most of these changes are yet to take effect. They have been stymied by lawsuits, court challenges and even the concerns of the affected workers and industries. Automobile manufacturers now say that “climate change is real and we have a continuing role in reducing greenhouse gases and improving fuel efficiency” and are concerned that their investments in innovation will be lost. Miners worry they are not sufficiently protected from black lung disease.

Trump may have ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to halt the shutdown of coal and nuclear power plants, and is considering ways to force the purchase of coal-fired electricity, but ultimately market forces will drive the dirtiest, oldest power plants out of business. The numbers show that not much has changed for the faltering coal industry since Trump took office. Employment and production are up, but coal consumption is down and coal prices are lower now than they were when he took office. The industry is more affected by cheap natural gas prices than by burdensome regulations.

Moreover, the regulatory certainty these regulatory changes will deliver is ephemeral. They will ignite legal challenges that could last years. It is worthwhile pointing out here that the Obama Clean Air Rule never went into effect as it was stayed by a Supreme Court decision in February 2016. That hasn’t stopped Trump and his cohorts endlessly promoting the perception that the EPA has repealed Obama’s environmental legacy, encouraged new jobs, and made life easier (and more profitable) for big business.

Trump’s push to see Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court is partly about ensuring that these legal roadblocks are dissipated. In his twelve years as a federal judge, Kavanaugh has heard twenty-six cases involving the EPA. He is on record with an opinion, concurrence, or dissent in eighteen of those cases, and only twice has he sided against industry. In a 2012 opinion he adopted an “environmental originalism” approach, writing that the EPA “went well beyond what Congress authorised” in crafting a greenhouse gas permit program. In 2016 oral arguments, Kavanaugh said that the Clean Air Act is “a thin statute, it wasn’t designed with [greenhouse gases and climate change] specifically in mind.” He believes that it is up to the Congress to act on such issues. Environmental groups are concerned about what Kavanaugh’s appointment would mean for future Supreme Court rulings on environmental cases.


Will American voters recognise and act on this attack on science-based health and environmental protections? The science of issues like climate change is complex, and that can facilitate efforts to mislead and manipulate the public. And polling shows that voters’ views on the subject — like their views on nearly all issues these days — are increasingly politically polarised.

A March 2018 Gallup poll found that 87 per cent of Democrats believe global warming is caused by human activity, compared to only 40 per cent of Republicans. Scepticism among Republicans is increasing, with 69 per cent saying that the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated, compared to 66 per cent in 2017; only 4 per cent of Democrats see the threat as exaggerated. There are significant differences in Republicans’ opinions on environmental and energy issues based on age, with millennials much more likely to believe that the global warming is mostly due to human activity and that climate change is affecting their communities. About half of all Americans don’t think climate change will affect them.

In the same polling, a majority of Americans say protection of the environment should be a priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. Proposals to reduce emissions, enforce environmental regulations, regulate fracking, spend government money on alternative energy sources and pass a carbon tax all had majority approval.

There is little recent polling to show how concerns about climate change play out for minority voters, but what is available suggests that people of colour care about environmental issues. A 2017 poll found 91 per cent of African Americans and 90 per cent of Latinos are concerned about climate change, compared to 68 per cent of whites.

How political leaders communicate about climate change influences public perceptions about this issue and public willingness to support needed actions. In this age of fake news, it is too easy for leaders like Trump to sway public opinion by being selective about the scientific facts and data relating to such a complicated issue, surrounded by so many uncertainties. But a recent summary of public opinion suggests that climate change will be a wedge issue in the 2018 midterm elections, especially for younger and minority voters. •

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Dazzling: Anita Hegh and Jack Finsterer in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Harp in the South. Daniel Boud

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