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Ignorance and Greed: Trump’s War on the Environment

Under Donald Trump, the environment has been the hardest hit of any sector of society, carried out by executive actions, the overturning of Obama-era regulations, and the enactment of new rules via cabinet review. This assault is occurring just as NASA reports that we’ve just had another near-record year of global warming. It’s insanity, and a classic example of willful ignorance. Trump, EPA director Scott Pruitt, and other officials simply choose not to inform themselves lest their position on climate change, which is based entirely on self-interest, be undermined.  Since these people only know what Fox News and the fossil fuel industry tell them, they probably are unfazed about portents such as the three-year drought that has brought Cape Town, South Africa, to “Day Zero” when the water pipes will be shut off and water strictly rationed.

Behind the rules changes lies a telling fact: Trump does not have a science adviser—a director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House.  But since he has no interest in science, he evidently sees no reason to learn from or defer to anyone who does. The president’s science adviser typically advises on everything from outbreaks of disease to global warming and nuclear weapons.  By leaving empty a position all previous presidents have filled, Trump is sending a message that he is not merely a climate-change denier but also a science denier.  Only one person sits in the OSTP office: a Silicon Valley financier.

As has been widely reported, the resignations, retirements, and constraints placed upon government scientists crimp the executive branch’s preparedness for what is to come.  As just one example, geologists in the interior department are being systematically constrained from presenting their research at major conferences.  Many more such reports make it apparent that blocking scientists from engaging with colleagues around the country and the world is not, as the EPA and interior department leaderships would have it, motivated by the need to save money. Not when those leaders have no problem spending lavishly on their own travel and office furniture.

The Latest Damage Report

It is almost beyond belief that at the very moment national and international action to combat climate change is most urgent, the Trump administration is not just backing away but actively contributing to the problem. Take oceans, for example:

We’re familiar with rising sea waters, but now there is a new finding: the volume of the oceans is expanding as glaciers and ice sheets melt. The extra load on oceans is pushing the bed down.  What this means is that assessments of sea rise need to take account of both rising at the top and rising at the bottom.

Climate change, along with dumping of fertilizer and waste, are depriving oceans of oxygen, creating a deepening crisis for the creatures that dwell in them. As an analysis in Science reports, “Ocean dead zones with zero oxygen have quadrupled in size since 1950, . . . while the number of very low oxygen sites near coasts have multiplied tenfold [in all, from 50 to 500 dead zones]. Most sea creatures cannot survive in these zones and current trends would lead to mass extinction in the long run, risking dire consequences for the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the sea.”

Denise Breitburg at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the US, who led the analysis, said: “Under the current trajectory that is where we would be headed. But the consequences to humans of staying on that trajectory are so dire that it is hard to imagine we would go quite that far down that path.”

Such problems are irrelevant to the oil and gas industries. The Trump administration announced in January 2018 that virtually all offshore waters protected from drilling by an Obama executive order—about 100 million acres on both coasts, including 77 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico—would be opened to exploitation. “A new plan for energy dominance,” the interior secretary chortled.

The department’s secret strategic plan, leaked to The Nation, calls for speeding up approval of drilling applications and permits. “Burdensome” offshore drilling safety regulations that were imposed following the Deepwater Horizon disaster are being eliminated. The document makes no mention of climate change or renewable energy.  Science is virtually out of the picture. The interior department has killed a half-million dollar study that was underway to make drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico safer.  It has also eliminated the Oil Spill Compensation Fund, a half-billion dollar insurance program for victims of oil spills.

Some regulatory rollbacks that profit industry are barely reported but have enormous consequences for environmental and human health. In defiance of scientific conclusions, the EPA is removing restrictions on a particular type of neonicotinoids, a powerful class of insecticides, that would harm the already badly depleted bee population. The move would specifically benefit Syngenta, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of agricultural chemicals.  In a similar move, the EPA has loosened regulations on storage of toxic coal ash waste.  The waste is from coal-fired plants that generate electricity.

The new regulations allow companies to essentially make their own rules—it’s called “flexibility”—rather than give priority to the public health consequences.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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