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Trump’s EPA Is Changing Its Math to Make Clean Power Plan Rollback Seem Less Deadly

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Trump’s EPA Is Changing Its Math to Make Clean Power Plan Rollback Seem Less Deadly
Foto-Rabe / Pixabay

When Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan in August 2018, its own estimates said the reduced regulations could lead to 1,400 early deaths a year from air pollution by 2030.

Now, the EPA wants to change the way it calculates the risks posed by particulate matter pollution, using a model that would lower the death toll from the new plan, The New York Times reported Monday. Five current or former EPA officials familiar with the plan told The Times that the new method would assume there is no significant health gain by lowering air pollution levels below the legal limit. However, many public health experts say that there is no safe level of particulate matter exposure, which has long been linked to heart and lung disease.


"Using fake math to hide the death toll from dirty air at the behest of the coal industry is sadly consistent with the Trump administration's complete disregard for public health," Environmental Working Group (EWG) Senior Science Advisor for Children's Environmental Health Dr. Olga Naidenko said in response to the plan. "This sleight of hand means that more adults may die early and more children may become victims of asthma."

New York University environmental law expert Richard L. Revesz called the proposed change a "monumental departure" from how the agency has calculated air pollution risk under past administrations from both parties.

"Particulate matter is extremely harmful and it leads to a large number of premature deaths," Revesz said.

The new method will be used in the EPA's final version of the Clean Power Plan replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, due to be released in June. The new rule would improve the efficiency of coal plants slightly while also allowing older plants to remain in operation longer, leading both to more climate-change causing emissions and more particulate matter pollution.

When asked if the new method would appear in the final plan, former chemical and fossil fuel lobbyist and current EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation William L. Wehrum said the final draft would include multiple approaches and that the agency had not officially changed its methodology.

However, Wehrum also called the focus on the 1,400 number "unfortunate" and said the agency was considering a number of alternative calculations that would lead to lower death tolls. He said the lower figure would be included to show that different assumptions could lead to different results, but said that any new method would be peer-reviewed before being used as the EPA's leading means of assessing air pollution risk.

EPA spokesman James Hewitt echoed that message in a statement to CNN.

"No change to this scientific method will be made unless and until the new approach has been peer reviewed," he said.

The EPA is considering the new method as part of its regular review of air quality standards, which it aims to complete by 2020, CNN reported.

In recent years, studies have shown a growing number of health risks associated with particulate matter exposure, including dementia. Colorado School of Public Health Dean Dr. Jonathan M. Samet told The New York Times that most new studies showed risks at levels of exposure below the EPA's legal limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter on average per year.

"It's not a hard stop where we can say 'below that, air is safe.' That would not be supported by the scientific evidence," Samet said. "It would be very nice for public health if things worked that way, but they don't seem to."

Revesz worried the new method would be used to roll back other environmental regulations as well.

"It could be an enormously significant impact," he told The New York Times.


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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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