Week 114: Trump’s EPA Questions if Air Pollution Really Kills (It Does), and the Interior Department Sells Out Nearly 1,400 Endangered Species

Interior’s Bernhardt helped bury a damning pesticide report, the Clean Air Committee goes soft on soot, and Trump nominates a climate change denier to the Fed board.

March 29, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (Running kit fox photo: Robert Bieber via Flickr)

The Chemical Brothers

The Trump administration’s friendly dealings with the fossil fuel industry usually take center stage, but its chummy relationship with the chemical industry is currently under the spotlight. As acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt sat through his confirmation hearings in the Senate this week, the New York Times reported that in late 2017, as deputy secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt helped block the release of a study from scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service. The research found that three pesticides—chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion—threaten the survival of close to 1,400 endangered species.

I think we can safely assume that the objections held by Bernhardt, who appears to have no background in science, have very little to do with the researchers’ methodology. Of far more influence, presumably, was the heavy industry lobbying against the report and the possibility of tighter restrictions on their products.

In the United States alone, Dow AgroSciences sells five million pounds of chlorpyrifos each year, and Dow Chemical Co., the parent company of Dow AgroSciences, is obviously keen to protect its right to sell the profitable pesticide. Cozying up to the president has been one of its chief strategies. The company gave $1 million for Trump’s inauguration and has spent more than $25 million on lobbying since President Trump took office. The chairman of the Dow board, Andrew Liveris, served on one of the president’s business councils and earned Trump’s praise for helping identify regulations to roll back. FMC Corp., a manufacturer of one of the other pesticides, malathion, has also spent millions on lobbying.

In the Trump administration, money talks unusually loudly. Representatives of chemical companies like Dow have been in regular contact with appointed officials from both the Interior Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in an effort to rescue their pesticides from the scrutiny of career scientists who are uncovering the impacts these products have on biodiversity and human health.

Usually, corrupt politicians would at least attempt to scuff the dots that lead from industry donations to industry-friendly policies. The Trump administration does no such thing—Dow donates money, meets with political appointees, and suddenly, scientific reports years in the making are fed into a shredder with little to no explanation or justification.

Fortunately, the courts could have a say in this particular matter. A lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity to force the completion of the censored report is currently pending.

Is Air Pollution Really That Bad?

Two members of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee said at a hearing Thursday that they don’t believe particulate matter (the small particles found in soot, smoke, car exhaust, etc.) can cause premature death from heart and lung disease.

Twenty years ago, this position would have been contrarian. In 2019, it’s flatly absurd.

Epidemiological data linking particulate matter to deaths began accumulating more than a half century ago. Public health researchers observed that, during weather patterns that trap tiny bits of combusted coal and other particles over large cities, death rates surge significantly above baseline levels.

Although the pattern has been observed repeatedly in many parts of the world, such correlations are always open to questioning. But we’re no longer limited to correlation data. Medical researchers have recently documented the precise chain of events that lead from the inhalation of particulate matter to death.

Particles small enough to pass through the filters in our mouths, noses, and throats settle onto the delicate tissue of our lungs. The immune system then attacks the invaders, causing inflammation in the respiratory system. That can trigger or worsen many disorders, such as asthma and emphysema.

The smallest particles (PM 2.5, which are less than 2.5 microns in diameter) proceed into the bloodstream, where they land on the plaque that accumulates on artery walls. Again, the immune system attacks. People with arteries already narrowed by years of plaque accumulation can suffer heart attacks, as the resulting inflammation renders their blood vessels impassable and chokes off blood supply to the heart.

That’s why mortality linked to particulate matter is often called premature death. The people who are most vulnerable are those with preexisting conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart disease. Those disorders are already likely to eventually kill them, but air pollution accelerates the time line.

Regardless of how you describe these deaths, air pollution kills people. Rejecting that fact is to deny a huge amount of epidemiology and laboratory research—and to put many millions of people in harm’s way.

Fire Free? Don’t Bank on It.

News has emerged that Trump intends to nominate Heritage Foundation economist Stephen Moore to the Federal Reserve Board. Such a move would be worrisome on several levels. The stock market pays close attention to the utterances of members of the Fed, and Moore has a habit of cramming his foot into his mouth. For instance, Moore predicted rapid inflation following the 2008–2009 stimulus package, a suggestion that proved to be wildly off the mark. More recently, he called for the resignation of the current Fed chair after the board decided to increase interest rates and later said he regretted his remarks.

But Moore’s comments on climate change are the most unsettling. “No one hires a fireman if there are no fires,” Moore once wrote. “No one hires a climate scientist . . . if there is no catastrophic change in the weather.”

Whaa?

Imagine that you’re on the city council of a town with no fire department. Recognizing this as a major risk, you propose that the town hire a couple of firefighters. Horrified by your alarmist tendencies, Mayor Stephen Moore waves his arms wildly and exclaims, “Why would we need a firefighter? Nothing here is on fire!”

This isn’t a potshot—Moore’s absurd comparison illustrates the illogic of much climate change denial. When a risk is clear, you don’t wait for catastrophes to start piling up before you take action. You shouldn’t wait for a towering inferno before hiring a firefighter. You shouldn’t wait until you get hit by a car to buy health insurance. And you shouldn’t wait for lower Manhattan (and Miami, and the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and the Maldives, and . . .) to slip beneath the waves before taking steps to mitigate climate change. Duh.

There’s also, of course, the fact that there has been a catastrophic change in the weather, whether or not Moore wishes to acknowledge it.

Moore’s fireman metaphor is just one of his nutty climate comments. He bizarrely called an Obama administration climate report “Stalinistic” for failing to engage with the tiny minority of scientists who reject mainstream climate science. (Is Moore suggesting that Obama sent the outlier scientists to the gulag?) And he has argued that getting us off fossil fuels would be like giving up agriculture.

If Stephen Moore’s economic reasoning bears any resemblance to his thoughts on climate change, his appointment to the Fed should cause us all to reconsider our asset allocations.

Stop David Bernhardt

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


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.

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