Lorie Shaull/Flickr

Week 25: EPA Chief Wants to Host His Own Un-Reality Show on Climate

The military's battle against climate change is victorious in the House, and Pebble Mine is back (and just as terrible).

July 14, 2017

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

A protestor cites chemist Svante Arrhenius at the March for Science, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2017

Lorie Shaull/Flickr

Not Ready for Prime Time

Climate change denier and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is planning a televised debate on climate change. He told Reuters he will bring scientists together for “a robust discussion for all the world to see.”

Pruitt’s idea reveals how little he understands about science (or good TV). Scientists have been discussing and debating climate change since at least 1896, when Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide on the earth’s temperature. But they’ve been doing so in scientific journals, not on television.

There are many reasons why scientific debate happens in writing. First, the big questions tend to be data driven, and it’s unreasonable to expect scientists to explain reams of measurements in real time. Second, peer review—the process by which scientists verify one another’s work—can’t be done on live television. Third, the topic is simply too complex for the general public (no offense). A lay audience can understand the greenhouse effect in the abstract, but it’s unreasonable to expect nonscientists to develop, in one hour—with or without commercial breaks―educated opinions on the interplay of the physical and chemical systems heating the planet. We don’t have televised debates about the Higgs boson or emerging leukemia therapies for the same reason.

What’s happening here is that climate change deniers have already lost the scientific debate, so Pruitt is looking for a new forum. Live TV would level the playing field between experts and charlatans because in real time, the audience would be unable to distinguish scientific fact from made-up nonsense. Donald Trump and his administration thrive in a fact-free world.

It’s also worth noting that Pruitt did not say how he would select the participating scientists. But if he insists on going through with this charade, I suggest he take John Oliver’s suggestion: have the debating teams reflect the scientific consensus—97 scientists versus three deniers.

Pruitt says, “There are lots of questions that have not been asked and answered” about climate change, and he’s right. But the remaining questions have to do with technical details and the best approach to fighting climate change. The big questions were asked and answered decades ago. Humans are warming the planet, and our current trajectory is dangerous. Now, a word from our sponsors.

Salmon RUN!

Bristol Bay is back in peril. The EPA on Tuesday proposed to withdraw its 2014 decision to bar a large-scale mine in the region, opening the possibility that the Canadian firm Northern Dynasty Minerals could one day dig a hole 2,000 feet deep and two miles wide in one of Alaska’s most ecologically sensitive areas.

After years of research and scientific analysis, the Obama administration determined that the proposed Pebble Mine would threaten the world’s most productive salmon run, where tens of millions of fish spawn each summer. Indigenous tribes, fishermen, and many local businesses publicly opposed the project. Despite those findings and objections, the EPA will again entertain Northern Dynasty’s permit applications.

Pebble Mine’s environmental footprint would be nearly unfathomable. It would generate 10 billion tons of tailings, or mining leftovers. In order to contain that volume of waste, the company wants to build a dam reaching 740 feet into the Alaska sky. And that wall had better be pretty dam solid, because, if it were to fail, that 10 billion tons of waste would destroy more than 5,000 acres of wetlands and 94 miles of streams.

The EPA’s decision to reconsider the mine proposal is terrible news for Alaska. But there is one small, fairly amusing element to the story. EPA Administrator Pruitt—the same man who, as Oklahoma attorney general, sued the agency more than a dozen times—says that opening the door to Pebble Mine will stave off “costly and time-consuming litigation.” You can stop digging, boys. I believe we’ve struck irony.

An Inconvenient Public

Speaking of avoiding litigation, the House of Representatives is trying to cut federal courts, and you, out of the regulatory process. The pending funding bill for the EPA would permit the agency to withdraw the Clean Water Rule “without regard to any provision of statute or regulation that establishes a requirement for such withdrawal.”

In other words, if this provision becomes law, Pruitt could invalidate the rule without following the normal procedures for repealing regulations. That would mean he’d have no need to justify the revocation and no need to collect or respond to public comment. And there would be very little a court could do to stop it.

This approach should worry everyone, even those who oppose the Clean Water Rule. For 71 years, the Administrative Procedures Act has governed the adoption and repeal of regulations by the executive branch. It ensures that presidents and their appointees make considered decisions based on sound science. The law also gives ordinary citizens a voice in government, because it forces the president to consult with the people before making decisions that affect their lives. Every attempt to weaken or bypass this process undermines our democracy.

Mission Possible

Now for some good news. Congress shot down another terrible idea buried in a funding bill that would have barred the U.S. Department of Defense from implementing climate change and green energy policies.

Defense Secretary James Mattis

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Flickr

Defense Secretary James Mattis has consistently argued that climate change represents a threat to global security that the Pentagon must prepare for. In his confirmation hearings, Mattis told the Senate, “Climate change can be a driver of instability, and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.”

The general apparently commanded the attention of the House of Representatives, which voted 185–234 on Thursday against the anti-climate amendment. Included in the “no's” were 46 Republicans. After the vote, Democrat Ted Deutch of Florida, the chairman of the Climate Solutions Caucus,  said, “I hope my House colleagues were watching closely; denying climate change is no longer a winning strategy.” 

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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