Summer 2017 Letter from the Director

Photo: John R. Balmes, COEH Director
John R. Balmes, COEH Director

While the last few months have been challenging on many levels, what perhaps has most disturbed me is the attack on science. And while as a scientist, the attack feels personal, it is the impact on our society that most concerns me. We confront many real problems that I don’t think can be solved if “alternative facts” are the basis of political leadership positions. One can say climate change is “a Chinese hoax” on the campaign trail, but climate change is happening and we must work both to mitigate it and adapt to it. Denying it will not make it go away.

The attack on science is really more like a war because it is occurring on many fronts. In the first days of the new administration, websites of governmental agencies, including both the US Department of Energy and the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), were altered to remove any language on climate change. A press release from the US Geological Survey about a publication its scientists had written also had information about climate change removed. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conference on the impact of climate change on public health was cancelled. The President’s proposed budgets for both fiscal year 2017 and 2018 included deep cuts for research by the US EPA, National Institutes for Health, CDC, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, earth science projects), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In May 2017 the administration failed to renew the terms of half of the members of the US EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, including our own Gina Solomon, in an apparent effort to reduce the independence of this advisory board. The US Department of the Interior suspended 200 advisory boards, such as one dealing with the threat of invasive species and one assessing the potential impact of oil drilling on Alaska’s North Slope. After four months in office, President Trump still has not appointed a science advisor or director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Perhaps most unwise was an executive order issued by President Trump that requires federal agencies to rescind two existing regulations for each new one they promulgate.

Some members of Congress have joined this attack through the introduction of several bills to reform “science” at the EPA. The “EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act” is designed to give industry greater influence on and slow down the process of “science” advice. This bill would not disqualify paid employees of industry from being on the SAB, but it would discourage academic scientists from applying because it includes restrictions on receiving EPA research funding if one serves on the board. A parallel bill entitled the “Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act)” would prevent the EPA from using data that were not completely publically available even if privacy concerns prevented release of identifier information. The sponsor of the HONEST Act, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) stated earlier in the year that, “The EPA routinely stacks this board with friendly scientists who receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government…The conflict of interest here is clear.” The conflict of interest may be in the eye of the beholder. Rep. Smith appears to be interested in providing the opportunity for industry to pay consultants to sow doubt about the scientific evidence that the EPA relies on when promulgating regulations. Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) told CNN that, "We are going to take all this stuff that comes out of the EPA that is brainwashing our kids, that is propaganda, things that aren't true, allegations."

The Congressional Review Act (CRA) enacted in 1996 gives lawmakers 60 legislative days to repeal by a simple majority regulations approved in the last 6 months of the previous administration. Prior to last year’s federal election, the CRA had been used only once when Congress voted and President George W. Bush signed a bill in 2001 to rescind a Clinton administration Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation that required reporting of ergonomics-related injuries. To date since President Trump’s inauguration, 13 regulations promulgated during the last 6 months of the Obama administration have been rescinded, including an Interior Department rule that prevented mountaintop removal coal operations from dumping mining waste into streams. Fortunately, a bill that would have rescinded an Obama Administration rule that restricted methane emissions from the oil and natural gas extraction industry failed because even a few Republicans voted against it.

What perhaps is most disturbing is not denial of scientific knowledge but lying about it. Scott Pruitt, the new EPA Administrator said in March about CO2, “I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” As former Attorney General of Oklahoma, I believe that Mr. Pruitt is sufficiently well-educated that he knows there is a robust scientific consensus that increasing atmospheric CO2 is the primary driver of global warming. By either willful ignorance or lying about this fact, Mr. Pruitt undermines the public’s perception of science in a fundamental way. If the head of the EPA can deny scientific evidence that the agency’s own staff reviewed and used to formulate regulation, then what should people believe? The science on climate change is not the only area where Mr. Pruitt has chosen to ignore evidence.

In late March of this year, he denied a petition that sought to ban chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide, overturning the previous administration’s decision based on new epidemiological evidence of harm from a Columbia University study of children’s cognitive development. Mr. Pruitt stated, “By reversing the previous Administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making—rather than predetermined results.”

What should concerned scientists and citizens do to counter these broad attacks? I believe that for the benefit of society, we must stand-up for science and evidence-based policies in whatever public forum is most appropriate. As an example, Lisa Jackson, former EPA administrator under President Obama and now Vice-President of Apple for Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives said in response to Mr. Pruitt’s CO2 lie, “So now if we're going to question science, I think it has an impact on more than just some federal rules, or some law, it has a huge impact on human health, the environment, and our economy."

There should be no debate on whether climate change is occurring due to human activities. However, there should be reasoned debate over liberal (government regulation) versus conservative (market–based) approaches to mitigating climate change. To end on as upbeat of a note as possible, I take heart in an initiative led by some rational conservatives, the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), for a revenue-neutral carbon tax starting at $40 per ton. The CLC is led by former Secretary of State James Baker and includes former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and Martin Feldstein, former Chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. If these prominent Republican leaders can put scientific evidence before politics, then perhaps there is hope for the future.

back to top