The Trump-Pruitt war on science and the environment

The Trump administration’s anti-science campaign is a threat to us all.

US Donald Trump with Scott Pruitt in the White House Rose Garden on 1 June, announcing the Paris Agreement withdrawal. PHOTO: Bloomberg

US Donald Trump with Scott Pruitt in the White House Rose Garden on 1 June, announcing the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. PHOTO: Bloomberg


We love America and we hate America, which is another way of saying we can’t ignore it. For better or worse, the United States determines much of what happens in Australia.

Now we are forced to watch Donald Trump’s administration at war with his own country, savagely cutting public school resources, eviscerating the US diplomatic corps, rolling back civil rights and trying to repeal laws controlling health care costs.

It has also taken aim at science. In a war in which we are all victims, the main agent is the man appointed by Trump to lead the country’s Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

With a strong scientific complement and a cabinet-rank administrator, the EPA has evolved over 47 years into a powerful protective shield for natural America against the excesses of modern life.

Except in George W. Bush’s second term and under Barak Obama, EPA leaders have lacked specialist knowledge, but that has not prevented them from heeding scientific advice and supporting strong action to protect natural values.

Until Pruitt. Like all his predecessors except the most recent ones he is a lawyer by training, but unlike them he is sticking to predetermined views and taking advice from no-one.

In March, for instance, for reasons of “regulatory certainty”, Pruitt repudiated an EPA scientific finding that a pesticide and neurotoxin called chlorpyrifos should be banned. The main beneficiary of that decision is Dow Chemical, whose CEO Andrew Liveris is a Trump advisor.

A fortnight ago, Pruitt announced the rescinding of rules identifying waterways subject to the Clean Water Act, which had effectively protected the drinking water of a third of Americans. It was done, said Pruitt, to “provide regulatory certainty to the nation’s farmers and businesses.”

But the Pruitt decisions that have really pressed buttons among scientists and educators have been the shelving of the agency’s climate change website and his dismissal of EPA specialists.

In April it was announced that the world’s most visited climate educational website, set up and operated for 20 years by the EPA, was to be archived and “updated” to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt”.

Late last month, on top of news that more than 1000 EPA employees were to be sacked, the Washington Post reported that Pruitt had terminated the employment contracts of 47 EPA scientists and cancelled meetings of the agency’s Board of Scientific Counsellors.

Pruitt is fond of litigation. During Obama’s presidency he used his position as Oklahoma attorney-general to launch multiple lawsuits – all unsuccessful – against EPA climate measures.

Soon after taking over as EPA leader, Pruitt told a television interviewer that there was “tremendous disagreement” about the degree to which humans affected climate, and that in his view carbon dioxide was not a primary contributor to global warming.

As the EPA website would have affirmed, those statements flew in the face of two centuries of greenhouse science. Among practising climate scientists there is now no disagreement that rising carbon dioxide levels come from human activities and are the main cause of warming.

Far from heeding that science, Pruitt seeks to undermine it with his lawyer’s argument that climate scientists are left-wing extremists hell-bent on destroying everything we hold dear.

It was Pruitt who pushed Trump to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement to cut emissions, and at last week’s G20 summit in Hamburg Trump stood alone, against all the other 19 leaders, in refusing to support the agreement.

Incidentally, Malcolm Turnbull was one of those affirming leaders, but his position was undermined by last week’s reluctantly-released official data showing Australian emissions rising by 1.4 per cent in 2016.

It’s reassuring to see G20 leaders repudiating Donald Trump’s denial of science, but we should bear in mind that two of those pro-Paris G20 countries – Turkey and Saudi Arabia – prohibit the teaching of evolutionary science in schools. The battle for science has a long way to go.

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