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EPA Updates Plans to Limit Use of Science in Decision-Making

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EPA Updates Plans to Limit Use of Science in Decision-Making
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at a press conference to discuss the agency's Superfund program at EPA's New York City office on March 4, 2019. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used the cover of Super Tuesday to put out an update to its plans to limit scientific research in its decision-making on Tuesday evening, as the mass media world had its eyes focused on the election results trickling in.


The proposal, called Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, is part of the agency's ongoing push to rewrite "the foundation on which public health and environmental rules are crafted," as E&E News reported.

As Common Dreams reported, the timing of the release was curious. In a tweet, Rebecca Leber from Mother Jones wrote, "an incredible news dump by EPA this evening. After delays, EPA just moved forward its most controversial proposal of the Trump administration, limiting science and medical data that can be used by the agency. Still far from a final rule but inching closer."

Experts say the move, which would restrict the type of research that can be considered in public health and environmental regulations, is one of the government's most far-reaching restrictions on science, according to The New York Times.

The proposal, which was first put forth in April 2018 by former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, looked to exclude research where all the underlying data was not publicly available, even if that meant data was not shared because it would have violated medical privacy laws. The so-called "secret science" proposal received more than 600,000 comments during the public comment period. Most of them were critical of a proposal that would stop the agency from considering landmark public health research, according to The Hill. For example, under the proposal, the EPA would downplay studies that "definitively linked air pollution to premature deaths but relied on the personal health information of thousands of study subjects who had been guaranteed confidentiality," according to The New York Times.

"They're putting in nonscientific criteria to decide what science the agency can use," said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, as The New York Times reported. "Now the most important thing is whether the data is public, not the strength of the scientific evidence."

The new proposal makes a slight alteration. It would not flatly reject studies without publicly available information. Instead, it would create a tiered-system and give lower priority to studies where some of the data, even sensitive medical data, is not made public, according to The New York Times.

"In the midst of a public health crisis, Americans deserve a government that relies on the best available science to protect everyone against harm. This proposal does the opposite," said Gina McCarthy, former EPA administrator and now president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement.

"Now is not the time to play games with critical medical research that underpins every rule designed to protect us from harmful pollution in our air and in our water," McCarthy added. "This move is even more egregious than the last proposal, which the administration's own hand-picked scientists criticized."

The proposal seems to be in lockstep with the administration's systematic efforts to dismantle environmental regulations and to finalize the rollbacks before this year's election. The effort to dilute scientific-research is particularly beneficial to the fossil fuel industry, which is often hampered by studies about the climate crisis, air pollution or the safety of drinking water, as The New York Times reported.

"These additions and clarifications to the proposed rule will ensure that the science supporting the agency's decisions is transparent and available for independent validation while still maintaining protection of confidential and personally identifiable information," said Andrew Wheeler, the EPA's administrator, as E&E News reported.

However, observers have a much different take on the intent of the rule.

"It's increasing the damage of the proposed rule," said Betsy Southerland, former director of EPA's Office of Science and Technology and a member of the Environmental Protection Network, as E&E News reported.

"Number 1, it expands the scope of the rule, and number 2, by no means does it demonstrate they have a legal authority to do this rulemaking."

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.

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