8 Times Your Voice Has Been Silenced by the Trump Administration
By Anita Desikan
The Trump administration is routinely undermining your ability — and mine, and everyone else's in this country — to exercise our democratic rights to provide input on the administration's proposed actions through the public comment process. Public comments are just what they sound like: an opportunity for anyone in the public, both individuals and organizations, to submit a comment on a proposed rule that federal agencies are required by law to read and take into account. Public comments can raise the profile of an issue, can help amplify the voices of affected communities, and can show policymakers whether a proposal has broad support or is wildly unpopular.
It should be noted that public comments aren't necessarily a reflection of public opinion as a whole. Whether or not people have an opportunity to comment depends on many factors, such as how long the public comment period was open, how accessible the language of the rule was, and whether interested parties raised awareness. But the amount of comments is a useful data point in assessing the degree of support a federal action is receiving or not.
As my colleagues and I have investigated the Trump administration's continued attacks on science, we have noticed an insidious pattern. The administration has, time and again, approved rules for which the public overwhelmingly voiced opposition. Allow me to present eight times where the Trump administration not only ignored science, but potentially disregarded the will of the American people as indicated by the public comments.
1. Gutting the Endangered Species Act
A recent rule from the Department of the Interior (DOI) substantially dismantled the science-based protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Instead of allowing the best available science to guide decisions on the listing of endangered and threatened species, the new rule is forcing federal agencies to consider economics in the listing process, to ignore the impacts of climate change on habitats, and to allow the hunting, fishing, or unintentional killing of threatened species.
More than 800,000 public comments were submitted opposing the changes under the ESA.
2. Targeting Legal Immigrants Who Receive Public Assistance
Informally known as the "public charge" rule, this dangerous rule from the Department of Homeland Security gives the administration broad latitude to deny visas or green cards to immigrants who have ever — or might ever — receive public assistance, including food, medical, and housing assistance. As a result, participation in important safety net programs including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps), and public housing programs, is likely to fall among immigrant families. The science suggests that this will undermine public health broadly and will put the health and well-being of immigrant children, in particular, at risk.
3. Approving “Cyanide Bombs” That Kill Wildlife
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reauthorized the use of sodium cyanide in devices that are designed to kill natural predators such as coyotes, foxes, and wild dogs. But in reality, these "cyanide bombs" can hurt, maim or kill any type of wildlife that is unlucky enough to encounter them, including children and pets.
According to an analysis of public comments by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Environmental Law Center, the vast majority opposed the measure. Of the 22,400 public comments received, only 10 submissions indicated support for this rule.
4. Harmful Emissions From Industrial Farms Are No Longer Recorded
Large industrial farms — especially CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), which generate vast quantities of animal waste — can release hazardous air emissions that endanger people's health. The EPA used to collect data on two hazardous gases emitted from farms, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, but they recently passed a rule to stop this valuable data collection to local authorities. Previous attempts by community groups to try and compile the same data at the state level have been largely unsuccessful, meaning that without the EPA's data, there is no mechanism in place to collect these data.
Of the 87,473 public comments received, 99 percent were in opposition to the new rule.
5. Rolling Back Nutritional Standards for School Meals
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a rule which weakened the nutritional standards of lunches/breakfasts served at school and benefited the food industry at the expense of children's health. The rule makes it easier for schools to obtain waivers to bypass whole grain requirements and serve less-nutritious white bread instead. In addition, the rule delays lower sodium limits until after 2020, and allows children to opt for sugary, flavored milk again. This may have been a pet issue for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, as he signaled wanting to carry out this action just weeks after coming into office.
Of the 85,000 public comments submitted for the rule, the vast majority favored keeping intact the original nutrition standards for sodium (96 percent) and whole grains (97 percent).
6. Rolling Back Safety Protections for Offshore Oil Workers
Remember the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which killed 11 workers, injured 17 other workers, and was the largest environmental disaster in US history? A number of evidence-based measures were put into place afterwards to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring. These included better/more frequent safety inspections and more testing of the blowout preventor, which is the last line of defense to stop an uncontrolled oil spill. And yet under the Trump administration, a DOI sub-agency has issued a rule rolling back these protections and claiming, without evidence, that it would provide the same level of worker safety.
The public clearly doesn't believe that. Here's what it says in the text of the final rule: "A large majority of the approximately 118,000 comments that BSEE [Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement] received voiced significant concerns about the proposed changes."
7. Downplaying Environmental Concerns for Oil/Gas Drilling in the Arctic
Back in December 2018, another DOI sub-agency released a draft of an environmental impact statement to examine the impact of oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. This is normally an intense review that takes a few years to complete. However, the Trump administration completed this one in just five months, and it has been widely criticized for ignoring the science, particularly for downplaying and underestimating the impact on polar bears, caribous, and other wildlife. Additionally, DOI leadership sidelined federal scientists at various stages, first in a different but related review of how polar bear populations would be affected by seismic surveys, and in 18 different memos where scientists identified significant gaps in the data used for the environmental impact statement.
The Center for American Progress conducted an analysis of the 1 million public comments that were submitted on the draft environmental impact statement; 99 percent of them raised serious concerns about it and about drilling in the region.
8. Dismissing Evidence Showing the Benefits of Preserving National Monuments
There are a lot of reasons to praise national monuments. They are rich sources of paleontological finds (including dinosaur fossils), they encompass ancient Native American sites, and they provide boosts to the local economy. But that didn't stop the DOI from proposing to shrink ten national monuments. Documents received through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request offered an opportunity to see "behind-the-curtain" and learn how the agency considered the public comments. And the news isn't good.
Senior DOI officials downplayed, ignored or dismissed evidence highlighted in the public comments that justified the continued protections of the monuments. They also boosted any evidence of benefits to shrinking the monuments (which primarily revolved around industry concerns). They seemed to have made up their minds before going into the process, with one official saying "barring a surprise, there is no new information that's going to be submitted" in the public comments.
The Public’s Voice Should Not Be Silenced
The Trump administration really ought to be considering public comments. While the public comment process definitely could use some improvements, it provides a critical mechanism for the public to have a say in the decisions our government is making. Often, public comments are the only opportunity for the public to weigh in on proposed rules. And the process provides a way for federal agencies to consider the perspectives of people with diverse knowledge and skills.
But although the Trump administration has trampled this democratic process, we shouldn't grow apathetic or disheartened. There is still real value in providing your voice in the form of thoughtful, well-written comments with scientific evidence – comments that are more likely to sway government officials. Your public comments will enter the administrative record and they are often used as evidence in court when judges are deliberating whether agency rules or rollbacks are necessary or appropriate. If the public largely opposes a rule or rollback, the judge will consider that when deliberating whether the rule should stand. This is likely one of the reasons that the Trump administration has lost more than 90 percent of the court cases on deregulatory actions.
So don't let the Trump administration off the hook — we need your voice in this fight more than ever. You can take action on the administration's current efforts to rollback SNAP, an effective, evidence-based program that helps put food on dinner tables of millions of low-income families across the country. Keep speaking up, keep fighting the good fight, and keep exercising your democratic right to comment.
Anita Desikan is a research analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Coronavirus Shines Light on Zoos as Danger Zones for Deadly Disease Transmission Between Humans and Animals
By Marilyn Kroplick
The term "zoonotic disease" wasn't a hot topic of conversation before the novel coronavirus started spreading across the globe and upending lives. Now, people are discovering how devastating viruses that transfer from animals to humans can be. But the threat can go both ways — animals can also get sick from humans. There is no better time to reconsider the repercussions of keeping animals captive at zoos, for the sake of everyone's health.
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By Kate Whiting
Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a335b5dffdd806bd6bb4debea90c2045"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dxsb9c4HMn0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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Deforestation coupled with the rampant destruction of natural resources will soon have devastating effects on the future of society as we know it, according to two theoretical physicists who study complex systems and have concluded that greed has put us on a path to irreversible collapse within the next two to four decades, as VICE reported.
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By Kristen Pope
Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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