Environmental Protection: An inconvenient truth

By Jessica Kirby, Senior Editor of TheGreenGazette –

There are countless examples throughout our social history where information has been altered or destroyed, usually to fit the political or religious theme of the day. In contemporary terms, heightened environmental awareness sheds light on various ways sustainability and economic development as we traditionally know them don’t always work together, and while this often leads to evolution, it sometimes leads to knowledge suppression.

Former prime minister of Canada Stephen Harper will go down in history for being at the helm of one of the country’s least progressive environmental records. Triumphing a platform of balanced budget and fiscal responsibility, the federal Conservatives kept Canadian eyes on the bank account, a convenient distraction, while policies took care of business in the environmental protection and scientific arenas.

During its reign, the Harper government weakened just about every environmental law in the country—the Fisheries Act stopped protecting fish, the country rejected Kyoto, and the federal Environmental Assessment Act was repealed to get natural resource projects into action much quicker and with fewer hoops to navigate.

In 2012, the Canadian Feds made changes to the Navigable Waters Act that weakened regulations on navigating most of Canada’s lakes and rivers—changes that opened the door for less sustainable practices and reduced enforcement.

Rally to oppose EPA nominee Scott Pruitt. Photo: Lorie Shaull/www.flickr.com/number7cloud

Rally to oppose EPA nominee Scott Pruitt.
Photo: Lorie Shaull/www.flickr.com/number7cloud

In 2015, Canada’s new environmental policy focused primarily on improving hunting, fishing, and snowmobiling in the Canadian wilderness, while Canadians who rely on harvesting from the wild were restricted by polluted forests and waterways.

The government’s “war on science” saw the decimation of scientific work and jobs across the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), closing seven of eleven DFO libraries in what one commentator called a “knowledge massacre.”

Former fisheries minister Tom Siddon called the closures “Orwellian, because some might suspect that it’s driven by a notion to exterminate all unpopular scientific findings that interfere with the government’s economic objectives.”

Climate change research jobs also went under the knife, along with programs like the Environmental Emergency Response Program, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, the Smokestacks Emissions Monitoring Team, the Canadian Environmental Network, the Action Plan on Clean Water, the Canadian Centre for Inland Waters, and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

The trend carries on south of the border. Since taking over the US presidency in November 2016, Donald Trump has remained on a firm trajectory to disenfranchise, if not dismantle, the Environmental Protection Agency. His decision to hire Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA was a dangerous foreboding, given Pruitt has sued the EPA more than 12 times on behalf of industry.

America got a real sense of Pruitt’s environmental direction when he spoke to Joe Kernen, host of Squawk Box, CNBC’s morning news program, about the role CO2 plays in climate change.

“Do you believe that it’s been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob on climate?” asked Kernen.

“No,” said Pruitt. “I believe that measuring, with precision, human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So, no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.

“We need to continue the review and analysis,” he added.

Pruitt’s analysis speaks either to his ignorance of the facts, or to the direction the importance of opinion and rhetoric now play in the government’s day-to-day functioning. The scientific community, world governments including that of the US, and even the oil and gas industry speak freely and with confidence about the need to control CO2 emissions to stay on top of climate change.

That doesn’t mean his comments are not powerful, however. Author for The Atlantic Robinson Meyer points out that although the science supporting humans’ effect on climate change has not changed, Pruitt’s comments are enough to stir doubt.

“Many Americans will hear Pruitt’s comments at the same time they hear the scientific community’s response,” said Meyer in an article from earlier this year. “They will assume that both groups mean well — that their new public servant isn’t lying to them — and they will grasp for a false truth somewhere between the two statements. These Americans will come to assume that there is some debate about climate change, some moderate position between those who say the world is warming and those who say otherwise.”

Trump’s current proposal to cut 31 per cent of the EPA’s funding would see thousands laid off, the dismissal of entire programs, and bring deep cuts to the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD)—all of which would deprive the country and the world of important information and research about climate change and strong environmental policy.

“I think a deep cut would be devastating to the nation’s capacity to do environmental health and ecosystem research,” Jonathan Samet, former chair of the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, told The Washington Post.

“Evidence-based decision making on the environment should not be abandoned,” wrote Samet and two other scientists in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Scientific evidence does not change when the administration changes.”

Cuts to the EPA would also weaken or eliminate the scientific infrastructure necessary for dealing with environmental crises such as the Flint, Michigan or Deepwater Horizon disasters, said Samet. In these crises “that demand research and environmental surveillance and quickly trying to assess the toxicity of agents, the nation needs the capacity that ORD has.”

The proposal cuts funding to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions and eliminates $100 million in research funding for international programs on combating climate change.

According to Reuters, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, told reporters climate change programs are a waste of tax payers’ money. “I think the president is fairly straightforward,” he said. “We’re not spending money on that.”

At the end of March, Trump signed an executive order to roll back former president Barak Obama’s Climate Care Plan and boost the production and use of fossil fuel energy in the US. As part of his plan to put an end to the “war on coal” and “job-killing regulations,” the Energy Independence Executive Order rolls back “rules for power plants, limits on methane leaks, a memorandum on federal coal leasing, and the use of the social cost of carbon to guide government actions,” said Brad Plumer’s article on Vox.com.

Trump signed the order in a press shoot surrounded by coal miners, which brings a human element to the decision—opposing the order means opposing these hard-working individuals and their drive for work.

“I am taking historic steps to lift restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” said Trump as he signed the executive order at the EPA headquarters, while Democratic Senators called the order “a declaration of war” and an “abdication of American leadership in the battle against climate change.”

Remaining on the table are the legal foundation of the Clean Power Plan, which Sierra Club member Michael Brune said is strong and would be difficult to disrupt, and the US’s position in the Paris Climate Deal. Though the executive originally included language to address the agreement, the reference was removed and White House spokesperson Sean Spicer told the press the matter is “still under discussion.”

Considered the starting point for years of struggle and debate about how the US will approach climate change policy, the executive order signifies a pitting of environmentalists, government, and the courts against the symbiosis achieved by the previous administration.

“Trump can’t reverse our clean energy and climate progress with the stroke of a pen,” Brune told Voice of America, “and we’ll fight Trump in the courts, in the streets, and at the state and local level across America to protect the health of every community.”

In an op-ed for The New York Times, William D. Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator and administrator under former president Ronald Reagan said cuts to the EPA could lead to public outcry on both sides of the political spectrum and drive the reinstatement of support. Ruckelshaus was called back to the EPA in the early 80s to reinstate order after public backlash in response to cuts under the Reagan administration, and it was chemical company executives who were seeking a fair, independent agency.

“A strong and credible regulatory regime is essential to the smooth functioning of our economy,” said Ruckelshaus. “Unless people believe their health and environment are being safeguarded, they will withdraw their permission for companies to do business.

“To me the EPA represents one of the clearest examples of our political system listening and responding to the American people,” he said. “The public will tolerate changes that allow the agency to meet its mandated goals more efficiently and effectively. They will not tolerate changes that threaten their health or the precious environment.”

In Canada, once the dust settled on Harper’s changes, most of Canada was at least aware of them and ready to fight for the integrity of our waterways and natural spaces. The light was shed that Canada’s federal regulations were indeed outdated and whatever phoenix rises from Harper’s ashes will indeed have to be stronger because the people will insist on it.

Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, said it best in his Toronto Star editorial from 2014:

“Of course it’s true that the obvious environmental impact of the Harper years will be measured in increased levels of pollution and real damage to precious land and waters,” he said. “The less obvious and possibly longer lasting impact will be the creation of a country energized to decisively break with the failed environmental policies of the past in favour of a better future for us all.”

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