Week 127: Even Rice Is Getting Worse Under Trump. (And He’s Trying to Keep a Lid on It.)

The Trump administration buries more climate change research, Ivanka rents from a mining magnate, and another ethics fail at the EPA.

June 28, 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 (Trump photo: Gage Skidmore)

Carbon Fried Rice

An international team of scientists published a groundbreaking study last year showing that rice grown in high-CO2 environments contains lower levels of key nutrients, such as riboflavin and folate. The research has important implications for public health: More than half of the people suffering from chronic hunger worldwide live in areas where rice is the dominant food source. If climate change makes rice less nutritious, those people will sink deeper into hunger.

But there was something odd about the study’s announcement: Although scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) participated in the research, their names were omitted from the University of Washington’s press release introducing it. And the USDA never bothered to issue its own press release.

This week we found out why. According to Politico, the USDA under Trump has repeatedly refused to promote its own research that reveals the dangers of climate change.

Just days before the publication of the rice study,the agency’s communications office contacted the public relations team at the University of Washington to urge them not to promote the study. According to UW communications officer Jeff Hodson, the USDA claimed that “there was not enough data to be able to say what the paper is saying, and that others may question the science.”

That is, to use an agricultural term, bullshit. The study was the product of years of work by a multinational team of scientists. It had already undergone both the external peer review mandated by the journal Science Advances and an internal USDA review. Moreover, previous studies have shown that increased levels of atmospheric CO2 affect the nutrient content of crops. The research was solid.

This was not a one-off move by the USDA’s press office to gloss over the fossil fuel industry’s impacts on global food productivity and health. The Politico report lays out a series of other climate studies that the USDA has downplayed: Research that climate change would exacerbate aquatic dead zones. A study showing that climate change could diminish the nutritional quality of prairie grasses on which cattle feed. A finding that climate change may already be increasing pollen counts, worsening allergy season in the Northern Hemisphere. In total, Trump’s USDA has chosen to ignore 45 of its own climate change–related studies, and counting.

The USDA’s systematic downplaying of climate change is unprecedented. How do we know that? Because even officials from the George W. Bush administration (who previously set the high-water mark for climate change negligence) told Politico they wouldn’t have done what the Trump administration is doing. “The agencies were unfettered in their own decisions about publicizing their own science,” noted Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and director of the White House Office of Environmental Policy under President Bush.

I knew life was getting worse under Trump. I kind of thought rice was beyond his reach. But by denying climate change in defense of the pollution status quo, he seems bent on ruining everything.

Haven’t These People Heard of Zillow?

If you scroll through the scandal files on former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, you might recall that he was renting a room in Washington, D.C., from the family of a lobbyist who had business before the EPA. It provided much hilarity, as we all got to laugh at Pruitt’s naivete, bad housekeeping habits, and naked corruption. Washington is a town full of transients. Whenever an administration turns over, a wealth of housing comes onto the rental market. There is no reason to rent from someone with business before the administration. It’s a rookie mistake.

But Pruitt isn’t the only one. As the New York Times explained in detail this week, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner rent their Washington home from a Chilean billionaire whose company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for permission to open a copper mine near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, a network of federally protected lakes and streams.

Regular readers of this column may remember this proposed mine. The issue came up in May, after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt responded to a request for information on the mine by sending 66,000 pages of redactions and gibberish to Congress. We now have a better sense of why the Trump administration doesn’t want to talk about the controversial mine—it’s raising a lot of questions about the Trumps’ ethically shady practices.

Oh, and there’s also the fact that the mine would be an environmental disaster. The Boundary Waters provide critical habitat for lynx, moose, bear, and countless species of fish. And Antofagasta, the Chilean conglomerate that wants to do the digging, has a poor environmental record, according to environmental groups that claim to have documented several toxic spills in the company’s South American mines. Significantly, a former head of the U.S. Forest Service said the proposed mine’s inherent risks to the Minnesota wilderness are unacceptable.

Of course, that guy wasn’t renting a sweet mansion from the mine operator. That might make the risks seem a little more acceptable.

Buh-bye, Bill

Speaking of the Trump administration’s ethical challenges, controversial EPA official Bill Wehrum stepped down this week amid an intensifying inquiry into whether he violated federal ethics rules.

When he joined the agency, Wehrum, an attorney, signed an ethics pledge requiring him to recuse himself from matters involving former employers and clients for two years. Whenever Wehrum met with former clients, he was supposed to bring at least four other people who did not work for the client. This was always going to be a challenge for Wehrum, who has represented a long list of polluters.

Within a month of joining the administration, Wehrum met with two former clients without the proper chaperones, despite warnings from ethics officials that he shouldn’t hold such meetings. Soon after, he participated in a decision that could benefit a Detroit-based energy company that Wehrum used to work for. Oops!

Wehrum leaves behind an embarrassing record of environmental degradation at the EPA. He was one of the primary advocates for Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule, a sham program that will fail to rein in carbon emissions from our aging power plant fleet. He has also worked to freeze automotive fuel efficiency standards, a move so nonsensical that even automakers have begged President Trump to reverse course.

Wehrum was last seen passing through a revolving door on his way out of the EPA offices. I wonder where he was headed.

Tell Congress to tackle the climate crisis before it’s too late

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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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