State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


A Changing Regulatory Landscape Hurts the Environment

This is a photo of the Maine coastline at sunrise, with a pink band of sky, taken at Acadia National park
Coastlines, like this part of Acadia National Park, are being threatened by climate change. Photo: Dale Willman

There’s an old saw that parents sometimes use with their kids: ‘Do what I say, not what I do.’ For journalists who cover politicians, perhaps the corollary they should remember is, ‘Watch what I do, not what I say.’

That may be particularly true for the Trump Administration. As I write this in the final days before the 2020 election, President Trump is on the campaign trail making his last appeals for votes. And among those efforts are attempts to burnish his environmental credentials. In Florida he has called himself ‘the no. 1 environmental president.’ “Who would have thought Trump is the great environmentalist?” he asked a crowd at a recent campaign rally. “I am. I am. I believe strongly in it.” During the last debate he proclaimed, “I do love the environment.”

Those are his words. But his actions show something very different. This week, his administration posted a notice that could strip protections from Alaska’s Tongass National Forest — one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests. He is attempting to alter the National Environmental Policy Act, to limit public review of federal infrastructure projects. Over the past four years, his administration has attempted to remove more than 100 major environmental protections. And this is just some of what his administration has done to alter environmental protections, often for the worse.

One area where Trump has been particularly aggressive is when it comes to climate change. Once in office, his administration quickly limited the use of the phrase ‘climate change’ in public documents. His appointees have worked to silence government voices talking about climate change. And he has hired several people from the fossil fuel industry, responsible for much of the nation’s CO2 emissions, to key roles in his administration.

“The administration has really pandered to the fossil fuel industry,” says Romany Webb. She’s a senior fellow and associate research scholar with the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School. She says Trump even directed the EPA at one point to work on actions that had been proposed or supported by the fossil fuel industry. “And unsurprisingly, many of those actions involved weakening or eliminating protections.”

The Sabin Center has developed a tool for journalists and the public that they can use to see how policy has been altered under the Trump Administration. The Climate Deregulation Tracker currently has 163 entries, “and that reflects 163 steps taken by the Trump administration to dismantle climate regulations,” she said.

Webb and others discussed the Trump environmental record during a recent webinar hosted by the Resilience Media Project at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

One area of concern, not just for the environment but for the role of sound science in policymaking, has been the silencing of government scientists. Maria Caffrey worked for the National Park Service under a contract with a university. She had produced a report looking at the impact of sea level rise and storm surge on every coastal national park. While on maternity leave, a colleague called to tell her a senior-level official was editing the report to remove any reference of human-caused climate change. “This wasn’t a report that was intended to be political in any way,” said Caffrey. “It’s a 70-something page report. And it mentions in about five places that humans are the cause of climate change because that’s an essential part of our methods.” All credible climate science agrees that humans are a major cause of climate change, so the alterations to the paper concerned her.

Caffrey fought the changes, with the help of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, and eventually most of the changes were reversed. The National Park Service then ruled that because the changes did not end up in the final document, there was no ethical violation. And in the end, Maria lost her job. “My supervisor had actually recommended me for a promotion. I had glowing reviews,” she said. But a week before her contract was up, the National Park Service told her the contract would not be renewed. She has been out of work since then.

A blue heron feeding in quiet waters of the Everglades, with a mangrove forest in the background
Mangroves, such as those found in Everglades National Park, are at risk because of rising seas caused by climate change. Photo: Dale Willman

Lauren Kurtz is the executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which offers help to scientists who are threatened, harassed or attacked because of their work. She says what happened to Maria, and dozens of other scientists over the past four years, shows why legislation protecting them and their work is needed. “I believe that we should have scientific integrity policies that are robust and evenly enforced, no matter who is in charge. We should have a policy that prevents censorship, manipulation. We should be treating scientists evenly, equally, regardless of what political party is in power.”

You can hear much more about this topic by listening to our webinar, and look for additional resources below.

One of the priorities of the Earth Institute’s new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is improving the interface between journalists, scientific expertise and vulnerable communities. This is the latest webinar in a series I’m developing on covering factors that either boost or impede community and ecological resilience in the face of the landscape of hazards in this era of rapid change. More videos can be found on the Resilience Media Project page.


The Sabin Center’s Climate Deregulation Tracker

The Sabin Center’s Silencing Science Tracker

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and energy industry lobbyist, may have been in violation of the Hatch Act when he recently tweeted a video talking about President Trump’s environmental record. The Hatch Act was designed to prevent members of the executive branch of government from engaging in most political activities.


Trump Administration moves to strip environmental protections from Tongass National Forest in Alaska

Climate scientists under attack have joined together with lawyers to fight back

EPA dismisses all the members of a major scientific review board

An interview with Maria Caffrey, former scientist for the National Park Service

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