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Climate Change and the Independent Voter

Political Science at the EPA

by ALAN FARAGO

Global warming emerges as a very important issue for undecided voters despite the fact environmental issues have been held underwater this election cycle by a right wing tidal wave of campaign cash. According to a recent poll by Climate Change Communication, 61% of Undecideds “say it will be one of several important issues determining their vote for President. Only 32% of likely Romney voters say it will be one of the “important issues” determining their vote.”

The federal regulator most responsible for this area of public policy is the US Environmental Protection Agency. Voters who care about global warming need to pay attention to the record of Republican leaders in Congress and the White House with respect to the EPA. Past performance predicts future results.

The assault by GOP elected leaders against environmental regulations has taken many forms. The atmosphere of conflict and gridlock in Washington has substantially hobbled the performance of federal agencies like the EPA.

Under Republican administrations, political appointments within environmental agencies like the EPA have sharply tilted regulation and enforcement to the states. In the late 1980′s, George W. Bush was securing his public visibility — eventually leading to the governship of Texas, first, and later to the presidency — through partial ownership of a professional baseball team, the Texas Rangers. A key player in Bush’s success — who delivered taxpayer financing of the stadium that eventually resulted in a $15 million windfall to Bush — was the former mayor of Arlington, Texas: Richard Greene. At nearly the same time, Greene was involved in a major financial debacle — $2 billion of losses in a savings and loan bank in Arlington — yet he was not only given a virtual free pass, President George Herbert Walker Bush — Dubya’s dad — appointed Greene to be the EPA regional administrator in Texas.

When George W. Bush was president, he appointed political ideologues and former industry lobbyists to the EPA who suppressed science as a general matter and policy related to global warming in specific.

Voters who care about the governmental response to global warming should pay careful attention: big money interests behind the GOP Tea Party — like the Koch Brothers and other polluters — eye appointments to federal environmental agencies as their reward. Given the hostility of the GOP leadership in Congress to the environment, the EPA would inevitably be reduced, again, to rubble.

In 2007, the Southeast region including Florida, came under sharp protest by the non-partisan Union of Concerned Scientists. Its report, ”Science and Politics at the US EPA, Region IV“, the UCS described the results of its survey of scientists in the agency: the EPA was in crisis, and in particular in Florida — during the terms of the “education” governor, Jeb! Bush. “Based on information gathered from nearly 1,600 EPA scientists, including 45 scientists from Region 4, USC has found that hundreds of scientists reported political interference in their work, significant barriers to free communication of scientific results, and concerns about the agency’s effictivemenss.” In Region 4, 23 scientists personally experienced at least one type of political interference during the last five years. 20 scientists knew of “many or some” cases in which political appointees were inappropriately involved in scientific decisions, and 25 scientists disagreed or stronly disagreed with the statement, “EPA policies allow scientists to speak freely to news media about their research findings.”

I can speak from personal experience on this point; my requests as a writer to engage federal government scientists in the early 2000′s were often routed through agency lawyers. In the case of a prominent scientist working for the EPA on sea level rise, I was not allowed to interview the scientist alone, unless a public information officer and staff attorney attended.

In early 2007, the top EPA official for the Everglades, Richard Harvey, was removed from his position after expressing concerns about a plan to use Biscayne Bay to dump pollution from Lake Okeechobee. Harvey, who remains at the EPA, is still unable to use his expertise on Everglades-related issues before the agency.

The EPA Region IV director and Bush appointee at the time was Jimmy Palmer. During the terms of Jeb Bush as governor, the state of Florida– through the state environmental agency– had launched serial attacks against federal protections of the Everglades, The Bush changes to the Everglades Forever Act in 2003 have yet to be corrected by the Republican majority legislature in Tallahassee, despite a federal judge ruling the Bush measures to be illegal.

In 2005 Jimmy Palmer, the top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official for the Southeastern U.S., testified against his own agency in a criminal trial on behalf of a former developer client. Palmer was selected by President Bush to oversee EPA operations in the eight-state Southeastern Region in October 2001 and was sworn in following Senate confirmation the following January. The PEER report notes, ”At the time of his selection, Palmer was the lawyer for a Mississippi developer named Robert Lucas who sought Palmer’s help in subdividing land and installing septic tanks in a 2600-acre development called Big Hills Acres. In March 2005, after a jury trial, Lucas was convicted for misrepresenting the habitability of the lots and installing septic systems in saturated wetland soils at Big Hill Acres, despite warnings from the state Department of Health that doing so created a public health threat. Lucas also ignored numerous warnings, as well as cease and desist orders, from both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA because the deteriorating systems threatened to contaminate the local drinking water aquifer. At the trial, Lucas called Palmer as a defense witness. Palmer, testifying on his own time under subpoena, confirmed his role in advising Lucas in how to sell lots for development despite official cease and desist orders. Palmer also admitted that he regarded EPA staff as “unethical” and overzealous in enforcing the Clean Water Act and aggressively resisted earlier enforcement efforts.

Palmer was EPA Region IV administrator from 2002 until early 2009. In an interview after his resignation, Palmer said, “Being a hands-on person, I involved myself very heavily in not just the policy aspects of environmental law and the many EPA programs, but also many of the highly technical issues that emerged in rulemakings, permit reviews and enforcement cases.”

It is a subtle, important point: the politicization of federal environmental agencies has not just created a climate of upset and fear among federal agency staff. It has reduced the federal government to a weak, crippled partner of the states. The constant threat of political interference by Congress and the White House, depending on the virulence of medieval theologies and anti-science zealtory demanded by big polluters, has created its own form of Darwinian evolution: survivalism based on who can best navigate within the creases, folds, and tiny spaces to influence federal regulations and enforcement. The result is a form of survivalism that accepts failure by design: a system that constantly re-boots without fixing what caused the problem in the first place; an underlying code of conduct that adheres to bad logic laid bare by science at every turn only if the political appointees and their patrons paid attention. In the case of the GOP, they have the Tea Party to make sure they don’t.

The Climate Change Communication poll reports, “80% of undecided voters believe that global warming is happening, while only 3% believe it is not happening — which is very ssimilar to likely Obama voters (86% and 4% respectively). By contrast, 45% of likely Romney voters believe global warming is happening. In fact, one out of three likely Romney voters believes it is not happening.”

Independent voters who care about global warming need to do the math, but it comes out something like this.

If Romney supporters are right, the race for president is even at this moment, then the poll results indicate less than half of likely-to-vote Romney voters even believe in the fact of global warming. That is 25% of the likely-to-vote general electorate. Extrapolating the results of Climate Change Communication, then an even smaller number of voters, less than one in six — under 17% — believe global warming in NOT happening. This position, though, dominates GOP-led agency action on the environment. It is certainly the view of the GOP leader James Inhofe, now minority leader of the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Antagonism against the US EPA in the House of Representatives is standard GOP operating procedure.

The numbers worsen for independents depending on the voter turnout in November. But if only a quarter of the general electorate exercise their right to vote, that means 4% of American voters — otherwise described as right wing extremists, against science and against environmental protection — will seize the ship of state. It will happen in a Romney White House the same way it did under President George W. Bush: science will be put on ice. Given the hundreds of millions invested in Romney by polluters, it could not turn out any other way.

ALAN FARAGO, conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades, lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net