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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Politics Trumps Science at the Environmental Protection Agency

Summary.  The Environmental Protection Agency cancelled presentations by three EPA scientists at a conference about the effects of climate change on Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.  Their work focused on the effects of climate change on the ecology of the Bay.  EPA gave no reason.  It has been supporting this research for decades, but in its draft budget for the coming year the agency has zeroed out support for all 28 of its estuary projects.

Administrator Pruitt has publicly rejected the role of humans in causing climate change, suggesting there remains some disagreement over the issue.  In fact, 99.99% of climate scientists affirm the reality that humans cause global warming.  Scientists the world over agree fossil fuel use emits excess carbon dioxide which retains extra heat in the earth system, leading to warming and its harmful consequences.

Politicization of science harms the public because political considerations supersede scientific reality in developing policy.  Here EPA suppressed research findings characterizing effects of worsening climate change.  A professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island considers the muffling of his colleagues a deliberate act of scientific censorship.  We must all resist further efforts at stifling research.  We must reinstate bona fide science as the guide for our policies.

EPA Scientists Prevented from Speaking.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) abruptly cancelled the speaking presentations of three EPA scientists at a conference about the effects of climate change on Narragansett Bay, in Rhode Island, held on Oct. 23, 2017.   One of them, a research ecologist at the EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory Atlantic Ecology Division in Rhode Island was to give the keynote address.  The other two, a postdoctoral researcher at the same EPA facility and a scientific contractor for EPA, were to be on a panel addressing the topic “The Present and Future Biological Implications of Climate Change.”  EPA’s decision was relayed to the meeting organizers just one business day before the conference.  No substantive reason was provided for the prohibition. 

The NBE Program was the host for the conference.  It issued a 500-page Technical Report, entitled “The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed”, on the day of the conference.  Of three effects stressing the condition of the bay, climate change was identified as one.  This in turn was broken down to effects of temperature change, precipitation intensity and frequency, and sea level rise.

The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program (NBE Program), long supported by EPA, has been studying the ecological health of the bay since 1985.  The NBE was recognized as an “estuary of national significance” by the EPA’s National Estuary Program in 1988.  For reasons such as these colleagues were surprised at the EPA’s prohibition.

Research support of US$26 million for all the 28 Estuary Programs, including the NBE Program, has been dropped from EPA’s proposed budget for 2018. 

Politicization of science harms the public because political considerations supersede scientific reality in developing policy.  Here EPA suppressed research findings characterizing effects of worsening climate change.  EPA’s interference with its NBE Program employees stifles scientific study related to climate change. “It’s definitely a blatant example of the scientific censorship we all suspected was going to start being enforced at EPA,” said John King, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, the head of the science advisory committee of the NBE Program. He continued “[t]hey don’t believe in climate change, so I think what they’re trying to do is stifle discussions of the impacts of climate change.”

Adminstrator Pruitt rejects human-caused climate change.  The NBE Program case is but one of the agency’s many political actions.  In March 2017 the Administrator, Scott Pruitt, said “…there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact [of ‘human activity on the climate’], so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see”.  Pruitt’s assertion conflicts directly with EPA’s own statement, reported by The Guardian on March 9, 2017, “carbon dioxide is the ‘primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change’”. (This statement could not be accessed on Oct. 26, 2017 using the Guardian’s link to the EPA page.)   Pruitt’s statement is also contradicted by James Lawrence Powell’s journal article (Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 1–4, 2016; DOI:10.1177/0270467616634958).  He found that during 2013 and 2014 only 4 of 69,406 (0.0058%) authors of peer-reviewed journal articles dealing with climate change rejected the reality of man-made global warming.  That is, there is no disagreement on impact of human activity on the climate.

EPA is cleansing its sites of references to climate change.  EPA has purged most content dealing with climate change from its web pages related to helping state and local governments deal with climate change.  The site, previously called “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments” is now titled “Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments,” dropping the lead word “Climate”.  The original 375 web pages now are reduced to 175, with changes in content that an outside group terms “substantial”.  Looking to the future, a draft outline of EPA’s plans for the next four years omits mention of climate change.

EPA is undertaking a review of automobile Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that were intended to increase efficiency and reduce fuel use by about half by 2025, the Portland Press Herald reports.  “Administrator Scott Pruitt is intent on subverting that agency’s mission. At the behest of automakers, he is now reconsidering vehicular emission standards that help protect public health, save consumers money, and guard against further climate disruption”, the newspaper writes.  It reports that William D. Ruckelshaus, former EPA director under two Republican presidents, says that Pruitt’s approach appears more like “taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and the environment and then hiding [the ax].” 

EPA recently announced a draft rule overturning the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the Obama administration’s detailed program to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from large electric generating plants.  While Scott Pruitt was Attorney General of Oklahoma he helped lead more than 24 states in suing to overturn the CPP.  Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator under President Obama, said the proposal “is a wholesale retreat from EPA’s legal, scientific and moral obligation to address the threats of climate change.”


Carbon dioxide was identified as a greenhouse gas in the middle of the nineteenth century.  A warning that the gas would contribute to warming of the atmosphere was first made in 1896.  More recently the work of hundreds of climate scientists from countries all around the world have been researching this field for decades.  As noted above, essentially all agree: Man-made emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, and other greenhouse gases, are warming the earth system at geologically unprecedented speed.  The effects of fossil fuel use lead to weather extremes, wildfires, sea level rise and changing habitats of pests and disease carriers.  Toxins released from fossil fuels cause illnesses among the public.  The costs of future mitigation of, and adaptation to, global warming keep rising, as the threats become more severe. 

The United States is the only country of the more than 190 nations that joined the Paris Agreement to withdraw from it.  Of the other nations, only Syria never acceded to the Agreement.  (In October 2017 the only other holdout, Nicaragua, joined the Agreement.)  It is unconscionable that a nation as respected as the United States has consistently refused to join the other nations of the world in recognizing the irrefutable scientific evidence, and acted accordingly.  The present U. S. administration, instead of mitigating emission rates of greenhouse gases, is consciously reversing previously enacted policies.  The result can only be accelerated emissions of greenhouse gases, with the consequent worsening of all the effects of warming.  This will be a legacy for all our children and further progeny, one our leaders cannot be proud of.

For these reasons we here in the U.S. must act to restrain Pruitt’s EPA policies and the framework envisioned by the Trump administration.  We must reinstate bona fide science as the guide for our actions.
© 2017 Henry Auer

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