Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

EPA Shakeup Risks Sidelining Science, Environmentalists Say

Politics
EPA Shakeup Risks Sidelining Science, Environmentalists Say
Irma Omerhodzic

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reshuffling its science offices, the agency confirmed to The Hill Thursday, in a move that environmental advocates and career staffers fear will minimize the impact of science on policy.


The shifts are occurring within the EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD), and involve combining the Office of Science Policy and the Office of the Science Advisor into a single Office of Science Integration and Policy.

The move is a defacto demotion for the agency's top scientist, who will now report to the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science instead of directly to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, The New York Times reported.

The change was announced to the ORD staff on Wednesday, The Hill reported, a day after the EPA placed Office of Children's Health Protection leader Dr. Ruth Etzel on unexplained administrative leave.

"Clearly, this is an attempt to silence voices whether it's in the agency's Office of Children's Health or the Office of the Science Advisor to kill career civil servants' input and scientific perspectives on rule-making," Michael Mikulka, who leads a union representing around 900 EPA staffers, told The New York Times.

Current Science Advisor Dr. Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta said in a statement emailed to The New York Times that the changes were an attempt to "combine offices with similar functions" and "eliminate redundancies."

The shakeup will also include reorganizing administrative ORD activities under an Office of Resource Management, The Hill reported.

Further, the National Center for Environmental Research (NCER), which tests the impacts of chemicals on adults and children, will disband and "relevant functions" will be divided between the two new offices.

Deputy Director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists Michael Halpern said the shake-up was bad news for science at the agency.

"Everything from research on chemicals and health, to peer-review testing to data analysis would inevitably suffer," he told The New York Times.

The EPA under the Trump administration has previously been criticized for sidelining science.

Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced plans before he resigned to restrict the types of studies the EPA could use to make decisions, limiting the agency to studies whose results were publicly available.

The current demotion of the science advisor position comes as Pruitt's acting replacement, former coal lobbyist Wheeler. Is leading a reorganizational effort at the agency, The New York Times reported.

Halpern warned The Hill that there was precedent at Trump's EPA for diminishing the role of important offices.

"We've seen what happens when an office gets de-prioritized, they become less visible. The office of environmental justice, which is a shell of what it was before, the Office of Children Health Protection would be equally vulnerable. It's the more cross cutting programs that tend to be the most vulnerable to politicization," he told The Hill.

The EPA told The Hill that full time staff would not be reduced as part of the changes.

Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds, like this inland silverside fish, can pass on health problems to future generations. Bill Stagnaro / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 3.0

By Brian Bienkowski

Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declares victory during the Labor Party Election Night Function at Auckland Town Hall on Oct. 17, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. Hannah Peters / Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister who has emerged as a leader on the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, has won a second term in office.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?

Read More Show Less
A woman holds a handful of vitamin C. VO IMAGES / Getty Images

By Laura Beil

Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."

Read More Show Less
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

Support Ecowatch