Approximately 210,000 gallons of crude oil leaked out of a 16-inch pipeline just south of Staples, MN, in Dec. 2009. MN Pollution Control Agency / CC BY-NC 2.0
By Tara Lohan
The New York Times keeps a running list of all the environmental regulations that the Trump administration has worked to trash since taking office more than three years ago.
It's at nearly 100.
That's just the start. The administration's anti-environmental agenda has also involved undermining and unraveling key government agencies, most especially the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
There it's been death by a thousand cuts, with EPA staff facing untenable contracts, positions left unfilled and budget cuts across the board — not mention an appointed leadership that's opposed to the agency's own mission.
As bad as all this sounds, there's some important historical context to remember: It's been bad for a while, according to a new book, The War on the EPA: America's Endangered Environmental Protections, which tracks the "systematic propaganda campaign to discredit science" that began decades ago.
The book comes from the keyboards of husband-and-wife writing team William and Rosemary Alley, also the authors of two other environmental books on nuclear waste and groundwater.
"We wanted to write a good, readable book giving people more understanding of why this agency is important, what they do, and the difficulties involved in doing their job," says Rosemary.
They realized that in order to save the EPA, people need to know what it does — and a lot of people don't.
"We are trying to get people to understand how this matters to them in their daily lives," says William, who is also the director of science and technology for the National Ground Water Association and headed the office of groundwater for the U.S. Geological Survey for nearly two decades. "There's a lot that EPA does, like when we drink water from the tap, we're dependent on EPA."
Unfortunately, when people do talk about the EPA, it's usually misguided complaints.
"There's been a long demonizing of the EPA for over-regulating things, but the reality is that it's extremely difficult for EPA to regulate anything," Rosemary says.
Case in point: Despite a slew of new chemicals in our daily lives, it's been two decades since a new regulation addressed a drinking-water contaminant.
The Alleys also write about the complicated and time-consuming processes behind lots of other regulations — tracking how they were first established and what happened afterward. In many cases environmental regulations were loosened to accommodate industry after political pushback or legal challenges.
This plays out time and time again throughout the Alleys' book. Among the cases they cover: why feedlots continue to pollute waterways; what went wrong in Flint, Michigan; the long battle to remove lead from gasoline and continuing efforts to make cars cleaner; the continuing fight over what constitutes "waters of the United States"; President Obama's work to reduce mercury from coal plants and methane emissions from oil and gas operations — and Trump's push to undo those and many other regulations.
It's clear from the book that enacting protections to safeguard human health and the environment has always been an uphill battle — and that narrative runs alongside the agency's own successful creation story, as the Alleys also explain.
The 1970s saw the establishment of the EPA with bipartisan support from Congress (after a veto by Nixon) and the creation of bedrock environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
And for the first 10 years things went pretty well.
Part of the early success of the EPA came from strong public involvement, the Alleys say. In those days many environmental problems were incredibly visible — gray clouds of smog and trash dumped along riverbanks — and there was public pushback to fix them.
But in 1981 President Ronald Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch to lead the agency, and she threw down every speed bump and roadblock she could to impede the agency's work. Budgets were slashed, positions were cut and industry leaders were put in charge of environmental programs.
It's nearly identical to the tactics the Trump administration has used in recent years.
Things improved slightly after William Ruckelshaus, the agency's first administrator, was brought back in 1983. But when Newt Gingrich took control of the House of Representatives a decade later, the anti-science work began again and has continued ever since.
With Trump's election it kicked into high gear.
"We could have just as easily titled the book The War on Science, because science is just the absolute critical underpinnings of everything the EPA does, and that of course has been just tremendously damaged under the current administration," says Rosemary. "The war on science, of course, didn't start with Trump, but it's been exacerbated tremendously."
After detailing how this anti-science agenda influences making and enforcing environmental regulations, the Alleys' book ends with a look at why it will be critical to rebuild the EPA and the importance of scientific integrity.
"A lot of talent has been lost from the agency and that will be impossible to turn around overnight," says William. "If we have four more years of this, I have no idea how we'll get past that. [The Trump administration] is still rushing to try to get as much as they possibly can done. Or undone, as it seems."
Rosemary says she hopes that their book will provide an important jumpstart to conversations about the critical role of the EPA and efforts to fortify it.
"If you don't see what the agency does, it's hard to communicate the risk when it's damaged," she says. "We want people to understand why we need a strong EPA as much today as we did 50 years ago."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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