State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Pruitt’s Relentless Attack on Climate Science and Environmental Regulation

During the Cold War, Americans built fallout shelters, developed a powerful and diverse array of nuclear weapons and created what President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to call the “military-industrial complex”. All this effort and preparation was based on the probability, not the certainty, that Soviet Russia and the United Sates might someday go to war. That threat has receded and returned periodically since the 1950s, but the threat was real enough that reasonable people considered preparations to be a wise investment. For the past several decades environmental scientists have warned decision makers about the probability of global climate change and its potential impact on our way of life. Sea level rise and extreme weather events are beginning to become evident and the potential impact of those changes on water, food and urban infrastructure is increasing in probability. The thought that it might be prudent to adapt to climate change and mitigate its impact has occurred to nearly all of the world’s leaders. However, in this country, our President and EPA Administrator are still not convinced there is a climate crisis.

Over the past several months, Scott Pruitt, the worst EPA Administrator in the agency’s nearly half-century history, has been calling for an “open public debate” on the validity of climate change science. It’s a little like Vladimir Putin calling for an open discussion on the virtues of democracy. In last week’s New York Times, Lisa Friedman and Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported that:

“John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, has killed an effort by the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to stage public debates challenging climate change science, according to three people familiar with the deliberations, thwarting a plan that had intrigued President Trump even as it set off alarm bells among his top advisers. The idea of publicly critiquing climate change on the national stage has been a notable theme for Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the E.P.A. For nearly a year he has championed the notion of holding military-style exercises known as red team, blue team debates, possibly to be broadcast live, to question the validity of climate change.”

There was a time when a high-profile government-sponsored debate about climate science might well have been a valuable exercise.  There have been scores of lower key, science-dominated climate meetings over the past several decades. The widespread scientific consensus about human-driven climate change emerged from this dialogue. We still need an open exchange about the facts and projections we have developed for understanding climate change. Debate, analysis and discussion are how scientists learn, exchange results, and communicate. But central to this dialogue is an openness to considering new evidence and data. Pruitt has demonstrated his unwillingness to consider facts and is a completely illegitimate convener of a discussion about climate science. In fact, his plan for a debate was limited to EPA scientists reporting to him and did not include climate scientists from NOAA or NASA or outside experts. Even John Kelly, Trump’s beleaguered Chief of Staff, was able to see the absurdity and indeed the danger of Pruitt’s debate proposal.

One problem for the White House about the phony debate seemed to be that the media spectacle proposed by Pruitt would focus the public’s attention on the effort to quietly deregulate the nation’s environmental protection. Kelly would do well to keep Pruitt under wraps. In the long run this “quiet effort” will become more visible if local communities start to see dirtier air, water or land in their daily life. Trump and Pruitt mistakenly believe that environmental regulation is only supported by coastal elites. Wait until the groundwater becomes undrinkable in rural Indiana, and they’ll come to learn the tremendous grassroots support for clean environment. The Trump Administration, like the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s is underestimating public support for a clean environment. In 1983, Reagan learned this lesson and brought back EPA’s founding Administrator, William Ruckelshaus, to head the agency. Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan, but if American environmental regulation falls apart, he will learn the political necessity of rebuilding it.

Despite the Trump-Pruitt myth of EPA as a regulatory agency that has run amok, there is a fragile but very real balancing act responsible for nearly four decades of American environmental progress. Businesses and state and local governments are given plenty of time to comply with regulatory mandates, but if they do not demonstrate good faith efforts to improve performance, they know they will find themselves in court. In many cases compliance schedules last a decade. Regulation typically creates jobs and even creates new industries (think airbags, seat belts and catalytic converters in cars). Occasionally, a company is so badly managed, or a facility is so badly out of date, that a new regulation becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and the business shuts down. That closing and the plight of the factory’s workers becomes a media story that everyone sees and convinces people that regulation costs jobs.  However, if the threat of enforcement is removed from this complex compliance dance, then companies will feel free to violate regulatory agreements and no new ones will be developed. A decade from now the air will look like Beijing’s and the water will be undrinkable.

Policy differences on environmental issues are a normal part of the political process. There are always honest disagreements over both ends and means. But distorting science and pretending facts do not exist seem to be the federal government’s new normal. Removing the phrase “climate change” from a federal web site doesn’t make it go away. Pruitt seems to be taking a page from the history of tobacco regulation, when agricultural interests in tobacco-growing states and cigarette companies tried to deny the connection between smoking and health. That effort by tobacco interests to lie about scientific fact eventually failed, as will the effort by fossil fuel companies to deny climate science.

Prudent business people are already making real estate development decisions based on climate science. Just as prudence led to military spending during the cold war, real estate developers are constructing buildings that can absorb climate impacts. They are moving utility rooms with boilers and other critical building equipment from basements to higher floors, sacrificing sellable or rentable space in return for a stronger building. Electric utilities are working to protect generating plants and transmission lines from the impact of extreme weather events and sea level rise. Governments outside the United States are investing public resources in efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Only the pathetic crew in Washington seem to resist the reality of climate change. The attack on climate science has been relentless, as has the effort to deregulate environmental protection. Pruitt’s political ambition, business travel spending habits and security paranoia may undermine him with his like-minded boss, but we have no reason to believe that his departure would result in a better replacement.

It is good that John Kelly halted the show debate proposed by Mr. Pruitt, given our need to educate more students in science, technology, engineering and math. A government-sponsored phony show trial of climate science could not help but discourage the teaching and learning of science. This is a government that shows very little capacity for shame and an amazing capacity for self-destruction. At least for now, one shameful, self-destructive act has been averted.

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Jim Steele
6 years ago

There is great uncertainty about the causes of sea level change, so Pruitt’s challenge to the “official” attribution for sea level change will most likely improve our understanding. During the Triassic when there were no ice caps to melt, sea level still fluctuated greatly. The missing factor in our understanding is groundwater and water vapor transport. There is enough groundwater to raise sea level by 200 feet and it is not in equilibrium with sea level.

read “Will Advances in Groundwater Science Force a Paradigm Shift in Sea Level Rise Attribution”