The Trump Administration’s War On Science Is Worse Than the Inquisition

The White House’s crude deflections on science aren’t simply ignorant — they’re calculated to serve the fossil fuel industry at the entire planet’s expense.

Basav SenDecember 17, 2018

President Donald Trump (R) and U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke (C) attend the 96th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting at The Ellipse in President’s Park on November 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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 is the cli­mate jus­tice project direc­tor at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies (IPS) and writes on the inter­sec­tions of cli­mate change and social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. Pri­or to join­ing IPS, Basav worked for 11 years as a cam­paign researcher for the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Workers.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH