Led by Donald Trump, the GOP could roll back decades of environmental progress. Is there any hope?
By Bob Berwyn
Donald Trump and Mike Pence arrive at an airport in Indianapolis, Indiana, on December 1st, 2016. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Things aren’t exactly looking sunny on the climate front.
Donald Trump’s campaign threats to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, ramp up coal mining, roll back wetlands protection, and cut the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Earth observation program amount to an all-out attack on the environment- and science-based policy. His intentions echo similar moves made by previous GOP administrations and it all goes to show that, when ideology replaces science, it results in schizophrenic and unsustainable national environmental policies that can shift 180 degrees after a presidential election.
In response to Trump’s threats, more than 2,300 scientists from all 50 states, including 22 Nobel Prize recipients, this week released a public letter to the president-elect and Congress, urging them to set a high bar for scientific integrity, transparency, and independence for government agencies under the incoming administration.
The letter explains that science has “played a critical role in making the United States a powerful and prosperous nation and improving the health and well-being of Americans and people across the world.” According to the letter, scientists should be able to:
- Conduct their work without political or private-sector interference.
- Candidly communicate their findings to Congress, the public, and their scientific peers.
- Publish their work and participate meaningfully in the scientific community.
- Disclose misrepresentation, censorship, and other abuses of science.
- Ensure that scientific and technical information coming from the government is accurate.
The letter drive was organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit group that has long been watch-dogging environmental policy and government science. And the current worries about the Trump administration’s direction are justified based on past experience, according to Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy.
“We had seen such a rampant abuse of science under George W. Bush,” Halpern says, singling out Bush’s efforts to sidestep endangered species protections to benefit fossil fuel development. Some of Trump’s campaign statements suggest he would charge in the same direction in overdrive, and Halpern says the scientific community as a whole must be ready to step up and hold the incoming government accountable.
“I can guarantee the science community will be watching to make sure there’s no effort to cut programs that gather data on climate change,” he says. “In recent years, Congress has been moving a number of bills that would gut laws like the Clean Air Act by weakening their scientific basis.” That legislation never progressed because of Barack Obama’s looming veto pen, but the political equation has changed.
The scientific community needs to set expectations and Congress must feel the pressure to resist,” and journalists and whistleblowers also play a critical role in watchdogging governments, he says. “That role becomes more important when an administration is filled with people who have close ties to industries they are supposed to regulate.”
It doesn’t take a full frontal assault to undermine science-based policy. Subtle moves that don’t draw much public attention can do more harm. Budgeting decisions, behind-the-scenes manipulation of science and demoralization of agency staffers can be much more effective than loud presidential proclamations, according to watchdog groups and environmental policy experts.
President Bill Clinton’s push to reinvent government, for example, resulted in shrinking budgets for Forest Service science programs and the subsequent privatization of environmental reviews done by industry friendly consulting firms. Looking at how past political shifts affected environmental policy may be the best way to try and assess what might be in store under Trump.
Since Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, every GOP ascendancy has brought attacks on environmental protection, including political pressure on government scientists that resulted in weakening of environmental laws, and in policies favoring development and industry over preservation of clean air, water, and wildlife. Under Reagan, the EPA cut back drastically on enforcement and weakened limits on leaded gasoline. And, with George W. Bush in office, fossil fuel companies gained access to vast tracts of public lands for oil and gas development as government scientists were pressured into changing their reports by agency leaders who were being influenced by extractive industries.
“We’ve been to this rodeo before, but with different cowboys,” says Jeff Ruch, longtime head of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a whistleblower protection group that helped daylight numerous anti-environmental moves by federal agencies — and not just under GOP administrations. Even under Obama, PEER and other groups had to fight tooth and nail to prevent more oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean, which, to most scientists, seems like madness given what we now know about climate change.
“The worst-case scenario is that, working with both houses of Congress, Trump can systematically defund the agencies responsible for environmental protection, where a particular arm, like EPA enforcement, would just be lopped of,” he says. “So with less resources, do they reprioritize their missions or just cut across the board? In a Trump world, assuming congressional cooperation, reducing the overall workforce may be a done deal. If they do it correctly, there’s no recourse.”
Under Bush, there were repeated efforts to roll back environmental protections, often made via regulatory channels that are difficult to track publicly, especially given the lack of resources in the mainstream media for pursuing in-depth, investigative environmental and science reporting. In the early days of his administration, he reversed a campaign promise to regulate CO2 from power plants, moved to open up old-growth forests to logging and tried to reverse the National Forest Service’s Roadless Rule, which protected watersheds and wildlife habitat across millions of acres.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Union of Concerned Scientists showed how a sub-cabinet level political appointee “systematically distorted, manipulated, and misused the scientific process prescribed by the Endangered Species Act,” in some cases changing scientifically based decisions to list species to negative findings.
EPA Battles Loom
For the most part, the EPA has been able to avoid partisan politics and focus on its core mission of protecting public health and the environment, says EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, speaking mid-November at a National Press Club luncheon. There has always been some degree of bipartisan consensus for protecting clean water and air, she claimed, even if there are disagreements on how exactly we should go about doing that.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
There’s less such consensus now than ever before. That means there will be battles between Trump and the EPA, and they probably won’t be pretty, according to scientist Gene Reetz, who worked for the agency through multiple transitions between Democratic and Republican administrations before retiring in 2008.
“From my perspective, the most painful was Reagan,” he says, recalling that the arch-conservative pursued an anti-environmental agenda nearly as stark as Trump’s. Reagan’s first EPA administrator was Anne Gorsuch Burford, a Wyoming native who, like many Westerners, resisted federal regulations out of Washington. “She was the most anti-environmental, the most anti-federal regulation,” Reetz says.
Based on Reagan’s goal of cutting back government, Gorsuch Buford slashed the EPA budget 22 percent in less than two years, cut back on enforcement actions against polluters, relaxed clean air regulations, eased the way for use of restricted pesticides and hired industry insiders as regulators. In 1982, with Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives, she was charged with mismanagement of the EPA’s $1.6 billion Superfund program and ultimately was held in contempt of Congress, resigning from the EPA and leaving the agency caught in the political crossfire between executive privilege and congressional oversight.
Reetz says one of the big differences between the Reagan and Trump eras is that Democrats controlled Congress in the early 1980s.
“During that era, we worked with elected officials and reporters to let them know what was going on and to get the word out. That’s very different to what we have now, with Republicans in charge of Congress and a mainstream media that isn’t covering, for the most part, the environment,” he says. In the early part of the Reagan era, oversight hearings led by Democrats helped check some policy excesses.
Aside from direct hostility to environmental protection, Reetz says the EPA’s experts also had to deal with the reality that political appointees at the regional level were seemingly ignorant of how the country’s most basic environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act, work.
During a briefing on wetlands issues early in the Reagan years, according to Reetz, a newly appointed regional administrator said federal rules banning pollution of wetlands couldn’t possibly apply to private property. After staffers explained that the rules, in fact, do apply, the administrator stormed out of the meeting in disbelief.
“We were kind of assuming that he would calm down and come back, but he never did,” Reetz says. That was the beginning of the relationship. He had a closed mind and was never willing to listen.”
During the Bush era, the changes were more subtle, but still had an effect. Dick Cheney and Karl Rove led the push to disempower the EPA, changing the mentality and the regulations in ways that didn’t get the attention of the public but filtered down through the ranks.
“My perception was that, on paper, not a lot changed, but attitudes changed away from bolder advocacy of environmental protection. Management became more timid. When we would want to take a tough stand on an environmental issue, there was no support from leadership,” he says. “I think we’re in for some challenging times.”
Reetz encouraged current EPA employees to speak out publicly when they can, or privately through whistleblower channels, if necessary, acknowledging that courage is needed in the face of Trump’s proclaimed threats to environmental policies like the Clean Power Plan and other recent advances in environmental protection.
“Going public is incredibly intimidating as a staff person at any agency, with their income and career potentially at risk,” he says.
His own proclivity to speak out during his years at the EPA was partially shaped by his background, which he says is a useful reference point for the current political climate.
“My parents are both German and were both very active in the resistance against the Nazis,” he says. “They impressed on me: You have to speak out. The Nazis took power in Germany because folks would not speak out when things were happening. Democracy is very fragile.”
Some other scientists currently working for the EPA were willing to voice concerns anonymously, taking issue with Trump’s assertions that EPA regulations are inhibiting economic growth, and threats to do away with the EPA altogether.
“There was tremendous anxiety over those comments the day after the election. It strikes at the core values. Everybody is there because of the mission of the agency, and that’s all at risk in those statements. It’s everybody’s livelihood,” says a regional program manager, who wishes to remain anonymous.
“I’m really curious to see whether the political influence calls ramp up again, whether governors, senators … other people with strong economic interests, feel like they have an ear with the administration to fight in favor of economic interests at the expense of environmental protection,” he says.
McCarthy, for her part, says she’s confident that the EPA’s core mission will continue to enjoy public support and that the agency will survive the political storm.
“My folks are doing fine. Most of them have been through transitions before, so they’re hunkering down and do their jobs, confident that the EPA mission is good,” she says. “To the people who have dedicated their lives, we need you, we still need you, and we will always need you.”