'Science Under Siege' From Trump Admin: New Report Warns We Have Reached 'Crisis Point'
By Jessica Corbett
The Trump administration's attacks on science have reached a "crisis point," according to policy experts and ex-government officials who published a report on Thursday that "highlights how our government research and data are being increasingly manipulated for political gain."
Proposals for Reform Volume II is the second report from the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, a nonpartisan group housed at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. The first Proposals for Reform report, which features recommendations to strengthen the rule of law and ethical conduct in government, came out last year.
The new report details the dangers of President Donald Trump's war on science and calls for various congressional actions to combat "the growing politicization of government science and research and the breakdown of processes for filling key government positions."
SCIENCE UNDER SIEGE: We are at a crisis point. A new report by our nonpartisan Task Force on the Rule of Law and Democracy highlights how our government research and data are being increasingly manipulated for political gain. https://t.co/FH2FSWxWhp— Brennan Center (@BrennanCenter) October 3, 2019
"Let's face it, without credible science the fundamental responsibilities of our government are threatened," Thomas Burke, who was a senior official in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) office of research and development during the Obama administration, told The Guardian. "I fear the public has lost faith in our agencies, and our best and brightest are being discouraged and blocked from federal service."
"As a former federal scientist and veteran of the appointment process I often ask, 'Why would anyone want to serve at the highest levels of our science-based agencies in this time of science denial?'" Burke said. "We have to protect our scientists and the integrity of their work."
Concerns about politically motivated interference in government science take on added weight given the current state of the earth. Atmospheric and ocean temperatures are climbing because of human activities like burning fossil fuels that spew planet-heating emissions. Last year, a landmark U.N. analysis warned that the international community has about 12 years to limit climate catastrophe, underscoring the need for "rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented" reforms on a global scale.
The task force's report points out that "federally funded climate science has led to government action to improve air and water quality, prevent property damage due to severe weather, protect wildlife, and reduce the spread of diseases that have become more prevalent because of climate change."
However, the report says, now climate science is "under siege" from political appointees of the Trump administration at multiple agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the departments of State, Defense, Energy, Commerce, and Health and Human Services — with serious consequences for the United States and the world.
"Without access to objective government-sponsored climate research," the report warns, "healthcare professionals and urban planners lack the tools necessary to prevent and respond to diverse issues such as asthma, mosquito-borne illnesses, and flooding. Insurers and property owners cannot make informed decisions about where and how to invest in durable construction. The absence of climate policy based on federal science creates chaos for manufacturers that have committed to reducing carbon emissions."
The report includes 11 key proposals for federal lawmakers split into two sections.
To ensure that government research and data is unbiased and accessible, Congress should:
- pass legislation that establishes scientific integrity standards for the executive branch and requires agencies to create policies that guarantee those standards.
- pass legislation requiring agencies that perform scientific research to articulate clear standards for, and report on, how political officials interact with career researchers.
- pass legislation to define and prohibit politically motivated manipulation and suppression of government research and data in the executive branch. It should also prohibit discrimination and retaliation against government researchers on the basis of their scientific conclusions.
- pass legislation to ensure the proper functioning of science advisory committees.
- enact legislation requiring proactive disclosure of government research and data.
- enact legislation requiring disclosure of the nonpolitical expert regulatory analysis that underlies agency rulemaking.
To overhaul the appointments process for senior roles in the administration, Congress should:
- fix the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to prevent presidents from cutting the Senate out of the appointments process.
- take concrete steps to streamline the nomination and confirmation process.
- amend the federal anti-nepotism law to make clear that it applies to presidential appointments in the White House.
- adopt additional statutory qualifications for certain senior executive branch positions.
- reform the White House security clearance process.
"The Trump presidency has highlighted pressure points in American democracy where rules and norms are not strong enough to stop abuses of power," former U.S. attorney and current task force co-chair Preet Bharara said in a statement. "It's long past due for Congress to take action to reinforce these rules and prevent these abuses going forward."
Congress needs to act now to protect the integrity of our government research, and ensure that our policies are based on objective data. https://t.co/seHwS1PVTI— Brennan Center (@BrennanCenter) October 3, 2019
The task force's other co-chair, Christine Todd Whitman, is the former Republican governor of New Jersey. She also served as EPA administrator under former President George W. Bush.
In the task force statement Thursday, Whitman pointed to a controversial incident in September when Trump appeared in the Oval Office with a government-generated map of Hurricane Dorian's potential path. The map was doctored with a marker to include Alabama, which generated confusion over where the storm was headed and renewed concerns about the lengths to which the president will go to serve his own interests.
"SharpieGate is just one of many examples of recent presidential administrations distorting the work of scientists," said Whitman. "When executive branch officials alter or suppress government data and research, it can jeopardize the public's safety and impede our nation's economic progress. Scientific research by the federal government has led to safer road and air travel, life-saving drugs, and so much more. We must protect its independence and integrity."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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