State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Post-Pruitt EPA

It seemed inevitable that Scott Pruitt’s arrogance, greed, and lack of ethics would lead to his departure. He was by far the worst administrator the Environmental Protection Agency has endured since its creation in 1970. Andrew Wheeler, his acting successor, shares his ideology, but not his lack of personal rectitude. Professionalism and a focus on the real issues involved in environmental regulation would be a welcome change. Wheeler’s professional history includes time with climate science denier Senator Jim Inhofe and work as a coal industry lobbyist, but it also includes service in EPA’s toxics office under President George H. W. Bush. Last week, Timothy Puko and Heidi Vogt reported in the Wall Street Journal that:

“Mr. Wheeler spent his initial weeks at the agency going to meet career staff in headquarters and at regional offices in part to emphasize how the agency can get better at core Trump administrative initiatives, namely more clarity of permitting and enforcement and better communications with the public. Mr. Wheeler also said he would like to ratchet down the political rhetoric surrounding the EPA. “You might see a shift in terms of how I talk about some things,” he said. “I have thought for years environmental issues need to be depoliticized. In 1991 when I came to town they were not as politicized as they are today. And I would love to return to that.”

The growing ideological, political, and symbolic content of environmental politics in Washington has been characteristic of decision making in almost every area of national policymaking. Health care, immigration, education, and pretty much anything on our federal government’s agenda has been poisoned by dysfunction and a search for wedge issues instead of areas of possible compromise. What is noteworthy about environmental policy is that while a stalemate has long governed federal environmental policy, state, and local governments, cities and corporations have been under constant pressure to reduce environmental pollution and focus on environmental sustainability. Many local governments deal with NIMBY (not in my backyard politics) and community-based politics that oppose virtually all forms of environmental pollution. The impact of climate change, air and water pollution, and toxics are facts of local life not subject to ideological discussion. Lead in water is poison. Floods, droughts and forest fires damage homes and must be dealt with. It doesn’t really matter to a mayor what caused the flood; the streets must still be drained.

Wheeler’s desire for clarifying rules and communication is an important goal. The people operating local governments and companies have found it difficult to comply with federal rules that were often overly complex and difficult to understand. On the other hand, while some businesses understand and are willing to comply with environmental rules, others hide their unwillingness to reduce pollution behind phony anti-regulatory rhetoric.

Pro- and anti-environmental lobbying has become a predictable, profitable, and counter-productive business. Environmentalists are condemned as ideological zealots, and corporations are painted as evil and greedy. Everyone has their beliefs reinforced and the battle continues, uninformed by information or dialogue. A modern, technological economy requires that we trade off some degree of environmental and health risk for economic benefits. Even the most stringent pollution control regulations allow some pollution. The issue is, how much? What are the risks and benefits of one level of pollution compared to another? The measurement and projection of risk is critical, and the science by which we measure and assess environmental damage is central to understanding the actual level of risk. If we are to truly depoliticize environmental policy, we need to reinvigorate those scientific institutions we count on to measure and project risk.

Wheeler’s rejection of climate science does not inspire confidence that he would be interested in or capable of building the scientific capacity required for an intelligent discussion of risk. I hope I’m proven wrong on this, because the continued abdication of environmental policy initiative by the federal government is not good for America. The technology of production has changed radically since 1990, but the structure of U.S. federal environmental policy has been frozen in dysfunction since then. Regulations like the Clean Power Plan have been used to retrofit 20th century environmental law to 21st century threats such as climate change, but EPA can only implement the laws that we have. The regulations may be suboptimal, but they simply reflect the laws they are based on.

While EPA operates with outdated laws, inadequate resources, and misguided leadership, America’s demand for a clean environment has required states, localities, and companies to step into the vacuum. New York State bans fracking, pushes energy efficiency and renewable energy, while New York City invests billions in the infrastructure needed for climate resiliency. California provides national leadership in nearly every aspect of environmental policy. Many cities have adopted sustainability plans, while conservation non-profits purchase and protect critical environmental habitats. Walmart and Apple require their suppliers to reduce their carbon and environmental impacts. The pace of non-federal environmental leadership increased during Pruitt’s reign. This will continue under Acting Administrator Wheeler.

Ultimately, the problem with EPA is not Scott Pruitt or Andrew Wheeler, but the scientific illiteracy and ideological blindness of President Donald Trump. Given his self-professed germaphobia, you’d think he would be more interested in reducing the toxicity of America’s air, water and land. Instead, he is doing whatever he can to eliminate environmental regulation and enforcement. His aversion to reading and study make it impossible for him to understand the complexity of modern technology, our biosphere, or pretty much anything that doesn’t fit into the neat boxes that define his reality.

The post-Pruitt EPA will hopefully be more competent and probably more quietly managed than Pruitt’s EPA. Wheeler will more carefully deconstruct environmental rules, and the effort to deregulate environmental protection will mainly be battled in the courts. Even though our environmental laws are outdated, they are often quite clear in intent and difficult to destroy through weakened regulation. Many states have laws that mirror federal laws and a great deal of environmental enforcement is conducted by state governments. The difficulty will be in states with weak environmental agencies, pollution that originates in one state and migrates into another, and in areas requiring participation in global environmental efforts such as climate change. The post-Pruitt EPA will not help address those difficulties. We will see more of the same. If the Democrats capture any part of the legislative branch this November, we will see enhanced substantive oversight of EPA and the effort to deregulate the environment will slow down.

While it is possible to predict the most probable form the post-Pruitt EPA will take, we should strive for something better. Writing back in 2011, my friend and Columbia colleague Peter Coleman wrote about the state of mistrust of environmental science and identified a possible path to dialogue. According to Professor Coleman, we should:

“… try to begin to introduce more nuance into the conversation. In a study I and colleagues conducted on moral conflicts (over such issues as abortion, affirmative action, climate change and mandatory penalties for pedophiles), we found that when participants were given both pro and con information on an issue, and then engaged in a discussion with someone who held an opinion opposite to their own, they typically ended up stuck in their original position, angry and fed up. However, when we presented a different group of participants with the same information, but presented it in terms of multiple aspects and perspectives on the issue, they were much more open and able to learn during the conversation, felt more mixed emotions (both good and bad), and were able to reach a more sophisticated shared understanding of the issue. This is an effect of framing the information in less simplistic (pro-con) and more nuanced or complex ways.”

The Fox News and MSNBC, Huffington Post, and Drudge Report media echo chambers need to be supplemented by a new form of news that provides the type of information that Professor Coleman and I believe we need. As long as we only talk to ourselves, political stalemate and dysfunction will continue at the federal policy level. In local communities, the reality of garbage removal, environmental damage, school finance, hunger, homelessness, and the full range of local issues enable us to cut through the media fog through direct observation. Our decentralized, federal system will force states and localities to respond to local environmental damage without help from Washington. That is what we will continue to count on while the federal government drifts away. EPA, NOAA, NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and all the federal agencies we once relied on will continue to remain unreliable. Scott Pruitt was just a bit player in that larger drama.

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