State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Distracted, Dysfunctional Presidential Transition and the EPA

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

Watching the presidential transition from what I hope is a safe distance, I continue to find the process to be the strangest I have ever seen. Despite Russian hacks, FBI interference, and a three million vote loss in the popular vote, Trump won the Electoral College and that makes him president. While his birther nonsense was designed to question the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency and the attacks on Trump’s legitimacy are a little ironic, the attacks on legitimacy miss the point. Trump will soon be the president, and that is a simple fact.

The odd part is that I suspect he knew that the legitimacy of President Obama’s election was established. He knew Obama was born in the U.S.A. These are distractions and deceptions. His tweets are not random and it’s time that we learn the strategy behind his messages. His misguided and ill-informed attack on Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis on the eve of the King Holiday is the kind of head fake we should be getting used to from our soon-to-be president. When the political attacks on him are starting to hit home, he always manages to pull the media away from substance, to some absurd symbolic fire, ignited by his latest tweet. The media can’t resist covering a train wreck, so Trump just attacks an icon: John McCain, John Lewis, the family of a deceased veteran—whoever’s handy. The page is changed, the station flipped, the agenda moves on.

Last week the Republicans in Congress began the process of dismantling the Affordable Care Act, with no discussion of how they would ensure that parents could continue to keep their 26-year-old kids insured, or how they would guarantee that insurance companies couldn’t drop coverage for people with “preexisting conditions.” Forget about how the 20 million newly insured will maintain coverage, let’s focus the media’s attention on an unverified report about the president-elect’s alleged personal misconduct. Trump attacks the CIA and hopes to draw attention away from health care policy. Obamacare is far from perfect, but this circus in Washington is incapable of fixing it.

As the confirmation process for the Trump cabinet gains momentum, I expect more disinformation and distraction, all of which adds to the sense of unreality about the process. In my own field of environmental policy and sustainability management, I feel like I am watching EPA enter an alternative reality that bears little resemblance to the America I think I know. In my America, families pay attention to the air, water and food their children ingest, and environmental protection is seen as a basic policing function of government.

I agree that some environmental regulators are incompetent bureaucrats, and sometimes the government can be too aggressive. But then we have companies like VW that will lie and cheat on compliance until they finally get caught. We need to strike a balance between assertive policing of environmental compliance and reasonable accommodation to businesses trying to adjust to new conditions and rules. But the fact is, we need the rule of environmental law or we will end up with air like China or India.

So, who is the president-elect proposing to run the U.S. EPA? Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has a habit of suing the U.S. EPA. He’s not alone; many states sue EPA, often to get the federal government to more aggressively enforce federal environmental laws. Not Mr. Pruitt. Pruitt wants the rules on local companies lifted. In fact, according to a recent report by Eric Lipton and Coral Davenport of the New York Times:

“In total, Mr. Pruitt filed 14 lawsuits challenging federal environmental regulations. In 13 of those cases, the co-parties included companies that had contributed money to Mr. Pruitt or to Pruitt-affiliated political campaign committees.”

I don’t know what they call it in Oklahoma, but in New York and New Jersey we call that pay for play. The piece notes that Mr. Pruitt and his supporters believe that the best place to make and enforce environmental rules is at the state and local level and that the best way to assure a clean environment is to work with companies to achieve compliance. I agree, and that is actually how most environmental rules are administered. The exceptions include companies whose pollution crosses state lines making it difficult for the affected state to regulate pollution caused in other places; or when we are trying to influence companies like VW, whose sophisticated methods of noncompliance require the resources of the national government.

The best analogy is law enforcement. In my home town, the NYPD takes care of nearly all the crime we endure. But some cases require the FBI or Homeland Security. In New York, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) or New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are often all we need. But sometimes we need EPA.

Removing the possibility of national enforcement of environmental rules is a very bad idea. Suing EPA in response to the wishes of campaign donors is an even worse idea. It is astonishing that a 21st century American president would trust this man with formulating and enforcing national environmental law.

What is truly strange about this approach to policy and to the environment is that it is decades out of date. Modern, sophisticated management these days includes sustainability factors in routine operations. Competent manufacturers, retailers, nonprofits, real estate developers and investors are asking these questions about companies they run and about the organizations within their supply chain:

  • Do they use energy, water and other raw materials as efficiently as possible?
  • Do they manage their waste flow to ensure low potential environmental damage and minimal risk of costly environmental liability?
  • Do they recycle and reuse materials they produce or consume?
  • Are they working with customers to ensure that products at the end of their life cycle are recovered?
  • Does sustainability make or cost money?
  • Does the organization have a reputation for environmental stewardship—of increasing importance in the marketplace—especially to millennials?

Companies that pollute and then pay elected officials to lobby for them remind me of that Gary Larson cartoon, “Why Dinosaurs Became Extinct”…the one that shows dinosaurs lighting up and puffing away. It’s true that cigarettes came after the dinosaurs, but you get the point: Well-managed companies can and should comply with environmental rules.

It’s weird when companies think that pollution is acceptable. We are way past the point that Americans actually believe we have to tolerate pollution to grow economically. The president-elect is a real estate developer; he certainly understands that you can’t sell apartments if people can’t see the view they paid for, they can’t breathe the air without getting sick, and their tap water is unfiltered sludge.

Appointing Scott Pruitt to run EPA is like making a pacifist the head of the Department of Defense. It makes no sense and it will not work. While one can hope the process of congressional advice and consent will stop this appointment, there is no assurance that the next nominee will be any better. The problem is this outmoded idea that environmental protection is a luxury and that we have too many cumbersome, bureaucratic rules holding back economic growth in order to protect the environment. If anything, we need to do more to develop advanced technologies that allow us to enjoy the benefits of modern life, without damaging the planet’s ecosystems. Environmental protection is not the enemy of economic growth; it is a prerequisite for that growth.

When we develop our economy, and ignore environmental impacts, eventually we pay the costs of that damage. Clean-up is always more expensive than prevention. And that is before we pay the cost of health care, lost productivity and the emotional damage suffered when our children get sick or, god forbid, die from the wanton poisoning of the planet. The individual who runs EPA needs to understand this fundamental fact of modern life. They need to understand it deeply and be able to communicate it to the president.

The transition process will continue to contain distractions, disinformation and dysfunction. I see no prospect of that changing. My hope is that the people running our national government remember that humans are biological, living creatures. We need clean air, water and food to live. Government’s fundamental function is ensuring our security and health. Environmental rules must be enforced for that function to be performed.



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