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By Brian Palmer
"Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions," said Richard Nixon, the founder of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in his 1970 State of the Union speech.
If only. While there was clearly a time when support for environmental regulations transcended politics, the GOP's broad support for EPA antagonist and Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the agency he so maligns tells us that day has passed.
A collective memory lapse seems to have descended on lawmakers who seek to dismantle an agency that has transformed American life for the better. Since the EPA's founding in 1970, concentrations of common air pollutants, like sulfur dioxide, have dropped as much as 67 percent. The EPA helped mitigate catastrophes like acid rain, leaded gasoline and DDT. The agency bravely classified secondhand smoke as a known carcinogen in 1993, paving the way for successful litigation against the tobacco industry and an incredible reduction in U.S. smoking rates.
Perhaps the EPA has been too successful for its own good. In the same way that vaccines have given parents the luxury of forgetting what measles and whooping cough were like, the EPA has nearly wiped out the national memory of the contaminated environment of the 1960s. But things were so bad then that support for creating the agency and our major environmental statutes was virtually unanimous—nearly everyone recognized the need for an environmental regulator.
"There were debates about the best approach to deal with the problem, but opposition to the EPA was pretty minimal in the beginning," remembers A. James Barnes, who was with the agency at its founding and served as deputy administrator from 1985 to 1988. "Most legislators got themselves personally involved in how to improve the environment."
As we embark on a terrifying new period at the EPA, under a president who called the agency "a disgrace" and promised to abolish it, it's worth looking back at the way we were before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to our rescue.
Disasters Were the Norm
If you ask people of a certain age about the environmental problems of the 1960s, many describe a series of discrete disasters: the Cuyahoga River fire, the New York City Thanksgiving smog, the Santa Barbara oil spill. Those incidents were shocking indeed, but they weren't one-offs. In most cases they were merely the most salient in a series of increasingly grave problems of the same kind.
Take the New York City smog. "The smog" is New York shorthand for the choking, three-day air pollution event that smothered the city over Thanksgiving 1966. That weekend, the city experienced a heat inversion—a stationary layer of warm air that prevented the normal upward circulation of warm air from the ground. As a result, low-lying pollution simply hung over the city.
New York City veiled in smog in 1973.National Archives
"I was a student at Columbia Law School during the 1966 episode," said Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney David Hawkins. "It was frightening, but while that is the best-known event, heavy pollution was an everyday fact of life those days. It was one of the things that motivated me to get a job at NRDC soon after I graduated."
As Hawkins points out, "the smog" wasn't really new. Thirteen years earlier, for six terrible days, a similar heat inversion spiked the sulfur dioxide content of New York's air from a tolerable 40 parts per billion to 860 parts per billion. (The current legal limit is 75 parts per billion.) At the time, American city dwellers hadn't yet settled on the term smog to describe the dark curtain of polluted air that was beginning to descend on them. Many newspapers referred to the disaster as "the smaze" and every day it accelerated the death of 25 to 30 people. Yet another multi-day smog event blanketed Gotham in 1963.
I coined the term "Serengeti Strategy" in my 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. It's meant to describe how industry special interests and their patrons in power single out individual researchers or teams of scientists for attack, in much the same way lions of the Serengeti single out an individual zebra from the herd. In numbers, after all, there is strength, while individuals and small groups are far more vulnerable—and the purpose is two-fold: to undermine the credibility of wider scientific consensus and to discourage other researchers from sticking out their necks and participating in the public discourse over matters of policy-relevant science.
When it comes to attacks on climate scientists specifically, this strategy follows a familiar script. On the eve of a critical Congressional vote, hearing or climate policy summit, a late-breaking "scandal" suddenly erupts. Individual scientists are typically charged with claims of misconduct, fraud or data manipulation and soon enough, right-wing blogs, climate-denying websites and the conservative establishment media are trumpeting the accusations. In time, more objective media outlets are forced to cover the uproar, lending it credibility and oxygen, even as it is responsibly dissected.
With the public conversation hijacked, meaningful progress on climate policy is blunted and the vested interests seeking to maintain our current addition to fossil fuels prevail.
The latest example of this strategy began unfolding earlier this month when David Rose, an opinion writer for the British tabloid The Daily Mail—known for misrepresentations of climate change and serial attacks on climate scientists—published a commentary attacking Tom Karl, the recently retired director of the National Centers for Environmental Information at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a scientist for whom I have deep respect. Rose accused Karl and his co-authors of having "manipulated global warming data" in a 2015 study published in the journal Science. These charges were built entirely on an interview with a single disgruntled former NOAA employee, John Bates.
Rose's charges and Bates' allegations have since withered under scrutiny by journalists—and by the wider scientific community, which quickly noted that the findings of the 2015 Science paper have been independently and repeatedly, verified by other researchers. Bates' secondary claims that data from the Science paper had not been properly archived and that it was "rushed" to publication, have also fallen apart.
Still, the mission of this latest disinformation campaign has been accomplished and with its mooring in technical details too remote for casual news consumers to fully investigate, the headlines will nonetheless create additional drag on any well-meaning efforts to address climate change.
As a climate scientist, I should know. I've found myself at the center of such episodes more than once, as a result of what's become known as the iconic "hockey stick" diagram that my co-authors and I had published in the late 1990s—a graphic display of the data that made plain the unprecedented rate of global warming. While the hockey stick is hardly the basis of the case for human-caused climate change, the visually compelling character of the graphic has made it—and indeed me—a target of climate change deniers for years.
A version of the so-called hockey-stick diagram, made famous by the author—and attacked by his critics.
In the fall of 2003, just days before a critical U.S. Senate resolution to acknowledge the threat of human-caused climate change, an article in the journal Energy & Environment—regarded by many as a haven for climate skeptics —engaged in unsubstantiated attacks of the hockey stick. A group with ties to the fossil fuel industry published an op-ed trumpeting those criticisms in USA Today on the morning of the Senate vote. Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has described climate change as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," gleefully read the article aloud during the Senate floor debate. While the critique on the hockey stick would soon be summarily dismissed, it served the short-term purpose of hijacking the discussion and the bill did not pass.
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By Scott Weaver
As a climate scientist I've been trained to base my conclusions strictly on scientific evidence and not on politics. This is why I find it so troubling that President Trump's pick for the top job at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) openly misrepresented scientific data during his confirmation process.
1. There is no "hiatus." The Earth is consistently getting warmer.
Pruitt wrote in response to a question from Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon that he was "aware of a diverse range of conclusions regarding global temperatures, including that over the past two decades satellite data indicates there has been a leveling off of warming, which some scientists refer to as the 'hiatus.'"
In reality, his idea of a hiatus, and of a potential discrepancy between satellite and surface-based data, has been under intense objective scrutiny by the scientific community for some time—and the results are clear.
NOAA scientists recently published a peer reviewed article in the Journal Science that clearly shows the "hiatus" never existed. A follow-up study undertaken by a separate group of researchers as an objective check on the NOAA result confirmed that the global warming hiatus never happened.
The alleged satellite discrepancy has also been debunked. Stated plainly, raw satellite observations from space are not as accurate as those taken in the actual location, so these raw observations must be quality-controlled for scientific accuracy.
Bottom line is: All data today point in the same direction.
2. Urbanization has not created a fictitious warming trend.
But Pruitt continued to use the idea of a discrepancy between satellite-based and urban land-based data to build his narrative. He now attempted to blame it for the increasing temperature trend—which he just argued did not exist.
Pruitt wrote that he was "aware" that this so-called discrepancy "can be attributed to expansive urbanization within our country where artificial substances such as asphalt can interfere with the accuracy of land-based temperature stations."
Agencies charged with keeping the data, he alleged further, "do not accurately account for this type of interference." Well, he was wrong again.
The impact from urbanization and so-called "heat islands" has long shown to be minimal at best, especially when applied to the massive geographic expanse of the world relative to the lesser change in the geographic extent of cities.
Again, Pruitt ignored scientific facts.
3. Trend is clear: 2016 was the hottest year on record
Pruitt went on to quibble with the fact that 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded—by overemphasizing the role of negligible differences in how various scientific agencies around the world calculate the globally averaged temperature.
Except, the diversity of approaches is a scientific strength because it provides a balanced view of the data, much like one seeks a second opinion on a medical diagnosis. These minimal temperature differences don't matter in the end; the overall trend has remained the same over the last several decades.
Despite the trivial differences in methodology Pruitt emphasized, the three long-running analyses by NASA, NOAA, and Great Britain's UK Met Office all showed 2016 to be the hottest year on record, following the two previous record-setting years.
You can't quibble with that fact.Pruitt hopes to run the agency responsible for protecting the lives and health of Americans from environmental threats, a mission that includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. And as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, the EPA has the authority to address greenhouse gases.
This is why the man chosen to lead this agency needs to manage science responsibly so it can do its job. That means listening to scientists and accepting facts, plain and simple.