US Environmental Reforms Undermine and Censor Scientific Research

opinion

Trump, EPA, environmental, scientific
EPA Head Office. Source: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Last week, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who was appointed by Trump, dismissed 12 scientists from the EPA Board of Scientific Counsellors (BOSC). The board members were approaching the end of their first three-year term, and preparations for extending their contract had already been set in motion before Pruitt accepted his position as EPA Administrator. Apparently, it rarely occurs that board members of the BOSC don’t serve a second term. Yet aside from the fact that these scientists are not getting the acknowledgement they deserve for their hard work and efforts, the real problem lies in Pruitt’s choice of their replacements. Instead of academics in the field of environmental sciences, the seats will be filled with industry-aligned businessmen.

Filling what is supposed to be a scientific advisory board with business representatives threatens to increase industry influence at the expense of scientific expertise.

Alongside the budget cuts proposed by the GOP, the restrains on funding of scientific research and the de-regulations of industries, the Trump administration is severely undermining the aims of the EPA and magnifying great risks for the public health. Furthermore, the Trump administration is making headway in subverting the scientific community, and once again is seeming to choose party over country.

People’s Climate March. Source: Mike Theiler/Reuters

The controversy surrounding Scott Pruitt

At this point, Pruitt’s actions are not surprising. Trump’s choice of Pruitt as new head of the EPA was extremely controversial to begin with. For starters, Pruitt has openly voiced that he does not believe that human action is the main cause of climate change, a statement that 97% of scientists do agree on. Still, Pruitt is convinced that this is not enough to speak of a scientific consensus and additionally questions the precision with whom scientists can determine the influence of human activity on the environment.

Furthermore, Pruitt has strong and questionable ties to the fossil fuel industry, providing compelling reasons for doubting his objectiveness when it comes to regulating and transforming the American energy-system to a more ecological and sustainable scheme. Actually, Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 times for implementing regulations that harmed his financial interests, including protocols dealing with carbon emissions, smog, mercury pollution’s and other attempts by the agency to safeguard clean water and air.

During Pruitt’s confirmation hearing regarding his appointment as EPA Administrator, Bernie Sanders justly expressed his concerns regarding Pruitt taking on the task of leading the EPA, since he has repeatedly questioned the impact of emissions of carbon dioxide [due to human activity] on the climate. When asked what Pruitt’s opinion was on the cause of climate change, he responded: My personal opinion is immaterial to the job I’ll be carrying out. I don’t have to point out why scepticism regarding climate change is indeed a very relevant factor when this scepticism is expressed by the very person who is chosen to lead the government organisation designed to protect the environment and reduce climate change.

EPA Mission Statement

The EPA is meant to supervise and enforce regulations that aim to preserve our natural resources and reduce climate change and global warming. Environmental issues are of incredible importance to all of us. Public health depends on access to clean (hence; safe) air and water supplies. These are basic needs to ensure a reasonable standard and quality of life, and the EPA is supposed to uphold the human rights to these basic needs.

There exists substantial and excessive evidence that climate change is occurring. The fact that the EPA administrator questions these researchers and treats them as if they are irrelevant to shaping environmental policy, is very troublesome. The scaling down of regulations will undo a vast amount of the hard work this organisation has achieved in its efforts to promote a more ecological sustainable industry and a cleaner environment.

To demonstrate my concerns, let’s look at some of the implications of Pruitt’s decision to replace scientists with business representatives.

Industry-friendly over climate-preserving

J.P. Freire, the EPA spokesman, described the discharging of the board members as part of a “clean break with the last administration’s approach”. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” Freiri told the New York Times. It sounds fair enough, but once you realise what the board was meant to, it becomes clear that this ‘new approach’ represents a departure from the EPA’s mission statement.

The BOSC is a body that provides “advice, information, and recommendations to EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) on technical and management issues of its research programs.” In other words: the panel was established to review whether proposed EPA regulations have a sound scientific basis. So why let businessmen take on the task evaluating scientific data? Replacing academics specialising in environmental sciences and policy with industry representatives goes directly against the purpose of this board. When people from inside the community that is being regulated start to supervise their own conduct, it becomes considerably unlikely that their advice will be impartial. Most likely, this reform of the BOSC will lead to more industry-friendly ‘environmental’ regulations, which could increase water and air pollution and exploitation of natural resources.

The EPA should serve as a counter-balance against the political influence of big corporations and industrial capital. Due to these replacements and reforming bills put forward by the Trump administration, this balance is shifting in favour of big [fossil fuel] industries. Consequently, the proposals are disadvantageous towards scientific research and technological developments that help us reduce climate change and promote public health.

Trump, EPA, environmental, scientific

Subverting the scientific community

Trump has been outspoken about his attitude towards the EPA as well as the Paris Climate Agreement. He has called climate change a Chinese hoax”, and has expressed his discontent regarding environmental regulations because they hurt business. If he is making headway on one of his campaign promises, it is to limit impact of environmental regulations. The GOP spending plan burdened the EPA with a 31% budget cut. The organisation no longer receives funding for various environmental programs such as the Great Lakes Restoration and the Climate Protecting Program. These budget cuts, as well as some changes in research funding and policy requirements, are also harmful to the scientific community at large.

In March, the House of Representatives has passed a bill reforming the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB), which advises the agency on prominent and potential research areas and reviews research integrity. The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act prohibits members of the board to apply for research funding until three years after their last term ends. Consistently, scientists who are making use of research-grants are prohibited from becoming a member of the board (see Sec.2.H. ). It does at first sight seem fair to split financial from scientific interest. However, this bill is discouraging prominent researchers, who are an asset in the fight against climate change, from taking part in the SAB (since they would deprive themselves of possible research funding).

Censorship

We have to seriously question the course the Trump administration takes when it comes to environmental matters. The science is there, but when the facts don’t work in their favour, the administrators choose to ignore it or cover it up entirely. Earlier this year, a media blackout was instituted at the EPA. Additionally, the Trump administration has reviewed the content of the site, and imposed what you could describe as questionable censorship: the Trump administration has instructed the EPA to remove the informative page on climate change from their site.On the archived version, you can see the information Pruitt doesn’t want out there.  The page clearly states  that climate change is happening, that the human activity is it’s main cause, and that reducing carbon emissions is essential for tackling climate change. Even though several well respected scientists have stated that the data on the EPA Climate Change page was accurate, the page is still ‘under review’ and not accessible through the online site.

Under the illusory term of ‘transparency’, the house also passed a bill called the Honest Act. This bill prevents the EPA from citing scientific research that is not open to the public (see Sec.2.C). On first sight, this seems in line with the popular ideal of open access for everyone to scientific knowledge. However, in reality, a lot of scientific research (most of it, actually) is being ‘hidden’ behind paywalls of peer-reviewed journals, which the Honest Act does not change. Ultimately, this bill prevents the EPA from putting valid and sound scientific discoveries to use in order to protect the environment and public health. The Honest Act is a restrain on the EPA’s abilities to enforce regulations on polluting industries – and guess who profits from that implication?

Trump, EPA, environmental, scientific
Much persecuted for his scientific perspective, Galileo may well recognise the signs of oppression of rationality today.

What all this boils down to is a suppression of information. Science is fuelled by the search for true knowledge. Scientific research (if conducted according to correct methodology and in line with ethical guidelines) and the conclusions drawn from it are therefore impartial and objective, in contrast to what the Trump administration tries to make us believe.  Ignoring the facts because the outcome doesn’t suit the agenda and preventing the public from hearing it goes against the right to freedom of information. It does not serve the people in any way. Promoting these actions as ‘honest’ and ‘transparent’ is just laughable.

Promote counter balance

Even though these developments might appear somewhat frightening, we must not despair just yet. There are a lot of obstacles the Trump administration has to overcome before they can completely tear apart the environmental rules that were implemented under the Obama presidency. Plus, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act as well as the Honest Act both have to go through the Senate before they become law. Furthermore, Trump doesn’t have the power to [immediately] redraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. However he is very capable of ignoring it, and it seems he is doing just that.

The changes made regarding the EPA display some disturbing insights into the priorities of the Trump administration; party over country, and industry over climate. And whilst Trump nor the GOP is almighty, we must be aware of the problematic implications of their policy proposals and encourage counter actions. If we want to promote progress, it is of magnificence importance that the legitimacy of scientific research be recognised.  Equally important is to make sure that the original mission of the EPA remains prominent in the shaping of policies.

 

 

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About Carline Klijnman 9 Articles
Carline is a Dutch student in Humanistic Studies, specializing in ethics and political philosophy.

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