My Turn: The attack on science for political expediency

For the Monitor
Published: 11/20/2019 6:30:13 AM

With the focus on Ukraine and Turkey in recent weeks, it may have been easy to miss the news story about the Environmental Protection Agency release of “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” This proposal would limit the research that is necessary to understand the impacts of pollution on public health.

Normally, I would consider such a stance out of step for the EPA’s mission “to protect human health and the environment.” Unfortunately, I am not surprised. Just this year, the EPA, as well as a number of other executive branch agencies, have quietly been taking actions and promulgating administrative orders that are rescinding air and water emission standards. This regression goes deeper. There is a systematic dismantling of monitoring and data collection, and overt actions to silence or discount the scientific findings that are necessary to inform future policy creation.

The administration’s strategy reflects the promises by President Trump to both disengage with the Paris agreement and walking back regulations that the he claims are imposing undue costs on Americans and stifling economic development. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that since Trump took office, the EPA, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and other executive branch agencies have rolled back 85 regulations.

Since the beginning of 2017, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, at Columbia Law School, has been tracking any deregulatory-related activity related to climate change. The center has documented more than 150 such actions that directly, or tangentially, challenge or attempt to silence the science behind the policies.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has been more focused about the administration’s attack on science and the ramifications on our nation’s ability to meet current and future public health and environmental challenges. This concerted effort has been multi-faceted, ranging from burying peer-reviewed scientific reports, appointing non-scientists to head up scientific advisory committees or even disbanding such committees to leaving scientific political-appointee positions vacant, reducing the voice of agency professional scientific staff and removing entire governmental websites where scientifically grounded information had been presented.

This executive branch strategy seems to be working. The one bright light still shining has been the court decisions to counter actions by the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture and the EPA to cut back on emission standards or freeze regulations.

And there are proactive stances being taken at the state level to ameliorate some of the actions occurring on the national stage. California is leading a group of 21 states challenging the administration’s rollback on tailpipe standards. There is also the United States Climate Alliance, initiated by the governors of California, New York and Washington state just after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. This coalition now has bipartisan support from 25 state governments, whose initiatives are being informed both by science and economics.

One last point should be made about the administration’s current strategy. As a former high school science teacher, I worry what such an outright effort to discount the voice of science to inform the nation’s environmental and health policies signals to the next generation of would-be scientists.

(Michael Simpson is on the faculty of the Environmental Studies Department at Antioch University New England and co-director of the Center for Climate Preparedness and Community Resilience.)

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