Prior to this week, chances are you had never heard of the State of Narragansett Bay and Watershed Workshop. As important as the workshop is within the world of New England watershed management, the event—tied to an annual report detailing the health of Narragansett Bay, a crucially important waterway for Massachusetts and Rhode Island—is a pretty low-key affair.
So what could have prompted the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, New York magazine, and other news outlets to thrust a small, two-hour conference into the limelight? Was it the attendance of special panelists whose presence was in some way controversial, or who could make a discussion of regional water issues resonate nationally?
Actually, it wasn’t the presence of any panelists. It was their absence. Three scientists affiliated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—two employees and one contractor—had been scheduled to speak on the impact of climate change on Narragansett Bay and its estuaries. Then, on Sunday, the day before the workshop, an EPA spokesperson confirmed that the trio had been pulled from the program. While still free to attend, none of them would be speaking about climate change. Not with the blessing of the EPA, at least.
In the Bizarro World alternative universe that we’re now all forced to occupy, the EPA is headed by a climate denier who is openly contemptuous of environmental groups and who unabashedly sides with industrial polluters over the public he ostensibly serves. By ordering his scientists not to speak about climate change, administrator Scott Pruitt was probably trying to please his actual constituency, the oil and gas industry. The same logic has led to the rewriting of EPA web pages—documents intended for the public, informational and educational in nature—so that they no longer mention climate change: its causes, effects, and long-term ramifications for the planet and its people. The EPA also neglected to mention climate change anywhere in its five-year strategic plan. (This anti-science infection has spread throughout the administration: Earlier this week, a leaked draft revealed that the Interior Department has similarly scrubbed any mentions of climate change from its own strategic plan.)
Ironically, Pruitt’s attempts to silence scientists and alter his agency’s language on climate change have brought more, not less, attention to the topic. While he has formalized the administration’s policy of climate denial, he hasn’t yet succeeded at normalizing it, his ultimate goal. Journalists, activists, and advocates—not to mention tens of millions of passionately engaged citizens—aren’t letting him get away with it. Pruitt’s penchant for secrecy and mounting paranoia notwithstanding, his EPA might just be the most scrutinized agency within the Trump administration and the most scrutinized EPA in the agency’s nearly 50-year history.
Other agency heads and cabinet members at least pay lip service to the idea of the commonweal, pretending they’re acting on behalf of the American people even as they quietly work to roll back protections and make life more difficult for average citizens. But Pruitt has no use for such political niceties. “Science should not be something that’s just thrown about to try to dictate policy in Washington, D.C.,” he told a radio interviewer in August. Instead, presumably, federal environmental policy should be dictated by the deregulatory desires of oil and gas lobbyists. Back in 2014, when Pruitt was Oklahoma’s attorney general, the chief of lobbying for Devon Energy drafted a hostile letter to President Obama’s EPA and hand-delivered it to Pruitt. According to a report in the New York Times, “the attorney general’s staff had taken Devon’s draft, copied it onto state government stationery with only a few word changes, and sent it to Washington with the attorney general’s signature.”
Pruitt’s EPA is brazenly anti-science, blatantly anti-protection, and—as we’re learning—bitterly anti-transparency. Under Pruitt, the EPA’s press office, once a model of professionalism and neutrality, has now taken to personally attacking reporters for having the temerity to even ask questions of the agency.
Throughout its reign, the Soviet Union’s power structure sought to remove certain ideas, and even certain people, from the public consciousness. Party leaders routinely ordered censors to excise from photographs individuals whom they had come to regard as political enemies, an attempt to make these figures disappear from the historical record. An entire department of the Kremlin was dedicated to obfuscating truth and promoting propaganda in the Russian mass media. Information that contradicted Soviet orthodoxy wasn’t simply rebutted or refuted by the state. It was erased by the state, before it ever had a chance to enter the public discourse.
It took more than half a century, but eventually the leaders of the Soviet Union learned that the truth can’t be suppressed indefinitely. Muzzling the truth-tellers doesn’t actually silence them; it merely redirects their voices and may even end up amplifying them. Doctoring official communications and distorting the historical record don’t deflect attention; they invite it. Eventually the people get fed up. They take to the streets, shouting back at you the very truths you tried so hard to keep from them. Walls come down. False idols are toppled.
Someday, perhaps not too long from now, historians may look back on the modest, two-hour State of Narragansett Bay and Watershed Workshop and cite it as an unlikely turning point: the beginning of the end for Pruitt and his shameful tenure as EPA administrator. But for that to happen, we need to do more than roll our eyes and shake our heads in disgust. We need to tell him, his boss in the White House, and our elected officials—at all levels, and in no uncertain terms—that we know climate change is happening, that we know why it’s happening, and that we won’t tolerate a public policy built on lies, cynicism, and intimidation.
The tide won’t turn on its own. We have to turn it.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.