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Science 101 for Administrator Pruitt

April 21, 2017

Tomorrow the Earth Day March for Science will happen on the National Mall in DC, and over 500 satellite marches will take place in other locations around the world.  Like most of those marching, we never thought we would need to make the case for integrity in environmental science. It used to be that everyone was entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.  Sadly, since January 20, things have changed.

Government in general, and U.S. EPA in particular, must to be guided by rigorous, peer-reviewed science.  No one imagines that airlines would dispatch planes without proper instrumentation or accurate weather information.  In the same way, public health and environmental safeguards must be guided by the best science. Why? Because if we get it wrong, people die, children are poisoned, natural resources are destroyed, and the money we do spend to safeguard them may be squandered.

EPA relies on health science when it monitors air pollution levels and issues smog alerts warning people to limit outdoor activities to avoid harming their health.  It uses science to oversee rigorous monitoring of the toxic mercury contamination in fish that threatens children’s brains, and to calculate the risk of damages from climate change.  We can’t just wave these issues away by saying “I’m not a scientist” and ignoring known risks. If we do, we will miss everything from human impacts on our climate to the lead poisoning of children from pipes in Flint, Michigan.

That is why a number of the recent statements by the Administrator of EPA are so discouraging and damaging.  Not only has he claimed that carbon dioxide is not the primary driver of climate change, going against the vast and long-standing body of scientific knowledge, he has also suggested that we don’t know how much carbon dioxide comes from human activity.  This simply isn’t true.  The global scientific community has a very sound understanding of the sources and extent of carbon dioxide pollution.

That is the point of science – it is not built on one person’s opinion, but on the combined knowledge of the global scientific community.  And, in this case is certainly sound enough to recommend sensible policy decisions to deal with carbon dioxide emissions.

Moreover, although elevating willful scientific ignorance to the level of public discourse may be new, it isn’t the only threat to scientific integrity that we face. Polluting industries are funding millions of dollars of so-called “research” to debunk good environmental science.  Why? They spend this money because they believe the cost of their effort will be less than the cost of changing their business practices. Research carried out by and funded by the government is needed to provide an impartial counterbalance to this “research.” And beyond the government there is no other institution in our society with sufficient resources to compete with self-serving, industry-funded science.

And yet, in its 2018 budget request, the Administration has called for zeroing out any government research on climate change, and would cancel future NASA and NOAA spacecraft that would  observe real time changes in climate, such as loss of Arctic Sea ice.  Suffice it to say these proposed budget measures contradict the Administrator’s remark on CNBC that we need to “continue the review and analysis” before proposing any actions.

The election did not repeal any scientific laws.  The Administration can choose to ignore what objective data are telling us about increasing damage to the environment.  But Nature will keep a comprehensive tab and, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the bill will have to be paid.

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