A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists lays out in shocking detail the scale and depth of the Trump administration’s assault on science and scientists.
It describes how the Interior Department has single-mindedly pursued an agenda of handing over the public lands it manages to oil and gas and other polluting and extractive industries, brushing aside concerns raised by its own scientists about climate change and other ecosystem impacts.
Leadership at Interior has disbanded scientific advisory committees, attempted to alter the content of reports that mention climate change, and placed a political appointee with no scientific degree as gatekeeper for all science grants of over $50,000. They’ve ended research projects on the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining and on safety inspections of offshore drilling, without convincing explanations.
They’ve pushed regulatory changes to weaken endangered species protections with utter disregard for scientific evidence. They’ve retaliated against agency scientists who’ve blown the whistle on these attacks. And in one particularly egregious instance, Secretary Ryan Zinke personally berated the superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park for tweeting about climate change.
In the ashes of California
The report comes following catastrophic wildfires in California. On top of the 88 known deaths from the recent Camp Fire, many are still missing, and almost 14,000 homes have been destroyed. California was also devastated by fire last year, and so was the Pacific Northwest more recently.
The fires are becoming more severe and frequent. Since California started keeping wildfire records in 1932, five of the 20 largest wildfires (measured in acres affected), five of the 20 deadliest (in terms of fatalities), and nine of the 20 most destructive (in terms of property damage) have occurred just over the last five years. The Camp Fire is number one on two of those lists.
Human suffering on this scale is not unavoidable. And contrary to President Trump’s insistence, it has nothing to do with rakes.
While individual fires can have natural causes, large-scale human activity has a profound influence on the frequency and destructiveness of fires. The main human influences are climate change and reckless overdevelopment.
As human emissions of greenhouse gases warm the planet, vegetation is dried out and becomes likelier to burn. Increased water scarcity, also attributable to climate change, magnifies this effect — after all, it’s much harder to burn wetter, soggier wood.
With lax regulation of land use and the resulting sprawl, more people are living, working or traveling through areas in close proximity to expanses of wilderness that are at high risk from wildfires. In the words of climate scientist Daniel Swain, the impacts of climate change and overdevelopment “are happening simultaneously and amplifying each other’s effects.”
A government-wide epidemic
In keeping with the anti-science zealotry on display at the Interior Department, President Trump lied about forest mismanagement being the prime cause of wildfires. And his Secretary Zinke himself has dismissed legitimate questions about underlying causes as attempts to “point fingers.”
These deflections are anything but crude — in fact, they fit into a well-planned agenda of censoring science and silencing scientists.
And it’s not only at the Interior Department. Trump says he doesn’t “believe” a painstakingly researched recent report by his own government’s scientists documenting the devastating impact of climate change on the United States. And his EPA director, a former coal lobbyist, implicitly threatens to meddle with future governmental climate science assessments by casting doubt on “the assumptions” that produced prior climate assessments.
This disregard for science shows up in real policy proposals, not just press statements.
The EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are proposing a rollback of automobile fuel economy standards, based on analysis that a recent scientific paper characterizes as “misleading,” “at odds with basic economic theory and empirical studies,” and rife with “fundamental flaws and inconsistencies.”
By freezing fuel economy improvements between 2020 and 2025, the proposal will directly lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, dirtier air and more adverse health impacts. And Americans will pay more at the pump.
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — the very agency that is tasked with responding to the disasters that are becoming the new normal in our climate-changed world — has deleted the words “climate change” from its strategic plan.
Across many agencies, in fact, climate science is being censored from government websites. The problem is government-wide.
Follow the money
This is like a return of the Inquisition. But unlike the Inquisition in the time of Galileo, the U.S. government’s politically motivated attack on science is not (or at least, not solely) motivated by ideological antipathy to science. Rather, it’s intended to serve the material interests of polluters.
That fact was made plain by a recent New York Times report on the extensive campaign by oil companies like Marathon and the Koch network to roll back those automobile fuel efficiency standards. The administration’s proposed cuts ended up being so severe that they surprised even the automakers who had requested more flexibility in implementing the standards. They’re designed to Make Oil Barons Rich Again at the expense of just about everyone else, and the planet we live on.
But there was ample evidence even earlier. In one particularly plain case, coal baron Robert Murray contributed to the president’s inauguration — and handed Energy Secretary Rick Perry a policy agenda, which the administration is following to a T, or at least trying to.
At the highest levels of government, deep-pocketed polluters have friends ready to implement their agendas. The attack on science must be seen in this context.
Without scientific data, it’s harder to document and measure the damage that fossil fuel use and other polluting activities are doing to people and the planet — and harder to justify strict regulation of polluters. Censoring science on harmful environmental impacts of polluting industries directly helps these industries make more money.
And that’s precisely why the federal government is attacking science.
Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies.