Column: Attacking science for political expediency

For the Valley News
Published: 11/16/2019 10:30:10 PM
Modified: 11/16/2019 10:30:07 PM

With the focus on Ukraine and Turkey last week, it may have been easy to miss the news story about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s release of a proposed rule, called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” This proposal would limit the research necessary to understand the impacts of pollution on public health.

Normally, I would consider such a stance out of step for the EPA’s mission “to protect human health and the environment.” Unfortunately, I am not surprised. Just this year, the EPA, as well as a number of other executive branch agencies, have quietly been taking actions that rescind air and water quality standards. Worse, there seems to be systematic dismantling of monitoring and data collection and overt actions to silence or discount the scientific findings that are necessary to inform policy creation.

The administration’s strategy reflects the promises by President Donald Trump to both disengage with the Paris climate accord and walk back regulations that he claims are imposing undue costs on Americans and stifling economic development. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that since Trump took office, the EPA, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and other executive branch agencies have rolled back 85 environmental rules and regulations.

Since the beginning of 2017, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School has been tracking deregulatory activity related to climate change. The center has documented more than 150 such actions that challenge or attempt to silence the science behind the policies. The Union of Concern Scientists has been more focused on the administration’s attack on science and the ramifications on our nation’s ability to meet public health and environmental challenges.

This concerted effort has been multifaceted, ranging from burying peer-reviewed scientific reports to appointing nonscientists to head scientific advisory committees (or even disbanding such committees) to leaving scientific positions vacant and reducing the voice of professional scientists on staff.

This strategy seems to be working. The one bright spot has been court decisions to counter actions by the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture and the EPA to cut back emissions standards or freeze regulations.

And there are steps being taken at the state level to ameliorate some of the actions occurring on the national stage. California is leading a group of 21 states in challenging the administration’s rollback of tailpipe standards. There is also the United States Climate Alliance, initiated by the governors of California, New York and Washington just after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. This coalition now has bipartisan support from 25 state governments, whose initiatives are being informed both by science and economics.

One last point: As a former high school science teacher, I worry that this effort to discount the value of science in informing the nation’s environmental and health policies sends a bad signal to the next generation of scientists.

Michael Simpson, of Norwich, is on the faculty of the Environmental Studies Department at Antioch University New England and is co-director of the Center for Climate Preparedness and Community Resilience in Keene, N.H.

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