President Trump continues to dismantle environmental regulations and diminish the role of scientific integrity at the Environmental Protection Agency — despite the world’s top scientists warning that unprecedented changes are needed to avert disasters.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said his party would do more to hold the EPA accountable if it wins control of Congress.
After a month of international conferences, the United Nations issued its most harrowing assessment of the climate crisis to date: Global warming needs to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels to reduce the severity of future flooding and give coastal communities time to adapt. That’s a more ambitious goal than the 2C target agreed upon in the Paris Agreement, which experts say we won’t even reach without extraordinary effort.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said during a telephone press conference Thursday that the U.N. report underscores the importance of not only complying with but accelerating the country’s commitments in Paris. Cardin led the Senate delegation to the Paris COP21 (21st session of the Conference of the Parties) in December 2015 and was lead author of a Senate resolution supporting American leadership for climate action.
During the press call, Yahoo News asked what role the EPA should have in answering the U.N.’s call to confront the climate crisis and how he feels about what’s happening at the agency under acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s stewardship.
“Mr. Wheeler has not been in the news as much as [his predecessor] Scott Pruitt, but the policies are the same. There’s a really chilling effect on scientists and the work they are doing at the EPA. The language of course is different, [but] there’s been an absence of leadership from the EPA in dealing with the climate issues,” Cardin responded.
Cardin said the EPA, in implementing Trump’s agenda, has failed to protect the climate. He said the EPA is “missing in action in international leadership” and that recent policies, including water and air, clearly backtrack on America’s commitment to the environment.
Cardin said Democrats would hold EPA leadership accountable for protecting the environment and taking climate change seriously if they win back Congress.
“When we have the gavel it’s a huge difference,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to conduct oversight. It gives us the opportunity to put a spotlight on [what] America needs to do in leadership. It’s a huge difference, and right now the leadership at EPA is just not doing that.”
A landmark Oct. 8 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the Earth is on a path to exceed 1.5C of warming above preindustrial levels as early as 2030, giving governments just 12 years to fundamentally overhaul energy policy. Beyond that level, even slight increases could cause extinctions, dangerous rises in sea level and even more extreme weather. The report warns that without immediate action the world could be facing a global crisis of wildfires, heatwaves and flooding causing billions in damages as early as 2040.
Andrew A. Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said the EPA has been sidelining the agency’s scientists and professional staff.
“They’re the people who have the training and experience in the field to deal with these issues. The political appointees are over them at the top and given political directions, but the fundamental work needs to be done by the professionals,” Rosenberg told Yahoo News.
The EPA is perhaps the nation’s leading public health and safety agency, but without trust and cooperation between the administration and staff this could be jeopardized, according to Rosenberg.
“If you shut [the professional staff] out, it not only means the public’s health won’t be as well understood and addressed, but also that you’re not making use of the highly trained people in the workforce. You’re just making wholly political decisions without the facts at hand,” he said.
David Dunlap, the former director of environmental regulatory affairs at Koch Industries, an energy company that supports conservative causes, took a new job as head of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development earlier this month — a move that was alarming, although not unexpected, to environmentalists.
On Sept. 25, the EPA placed Ruth Etzel, director of the Office of Children’s Health Protection, on administrative leave, without explanation. Etzel, a renowned pediatrician and specialist in preventive medicine, has worked to protect children’s health at national and international levels for 30 years. It’s unclear what the status of that office will be. Kathleen Rest, the executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, released a statement calling on Wheeler to explain why he dismissed Etzel and said the move follows a disturbing pattern of ignoring science and “boxing out the expertise of career staff.”
“Without strong and expert leadership, the Office of Children’s Health Protection will be hard-pressed to carry out its vital work,” Rest said. “This office provides information on issues like lead exposure and cancer risks, and children’s health providers across the country depend on its research and data.”
The New York Times reported on Sept. 27 that the EPA plans to dissolve the Office of the Scientific Advisor, a top position tasked with reporting the latest scientific research to the administrator and making sure it is incorporated into decision-making throughout the agency.
None of this is new. Mustafa Ali, the head of the Office of Environmental Justice, which focuses on protecting vulnerable populations, resigned in March 2017 — early in the Trump administration — because he felt he couldn’t do the job properly under Pruitt.
The UCS conducted an illuminating survey of federal scientists on the state of science earlier this year. It found that most feel their work has been hindered by political interference, workforce reductions and censorship. It was sent to 63,000 federal workers across 16 agencies and offices.
Jacob Carter, the UCS research scientist who led the survey, said the grievances among the EPA’s workforce stood out from other agencies. Over 60 percent of respondents at the EPA reported that the effectiveness of their office or division has decreased over the past year — by far the highest percentage for any agency. The EPA scientists reported lower morale and job satisfaction.
“In comparison with the other agencies, it looks like scientists are really unhappy with what’s happened to science-based policy at the EPA,” Carter told Yahoo News. “It’s also the place where scientists feel most strongly that political appointees and senior leaders coming from regulated industries have been inappropriately influencing science-based decisions at the agency.”
Eighty-two percent of EPA respondents agreed that the level of consideration for political interests has been hampering their ability to make science-based decisions. Carter said “reorganizing” the Office of the Science Advisor so it’s wrapped into the Office of Research and Development is an example of what these scientists are talking about.
An anonymous survey respondent said, “The current administration sees protecting industry as part of the agency’s mission and does not want to consider information that would encourage taking action that might reduce industry profit, even if it’s based on sound science. We are not fulfilling our mission to protect human health and the environment as a result.”
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