Anno Horribilis: Trump, The E.P.A., And The Divided States Of America

Most Americans have no idea what the E.P.A. does.

I’m not even sure Donald Trump, president-elect, understands what the US Environmental Protection Agency does, but I am sure that he has just appointed someone to head the E.P.A., the attorney general of Oklahoma Scott Pruitt, whose work has been to undermine its mission.

It is never a good sign when your steward is a wrecking ball.

One of the features of the Trump ascent was knocking down government regulation. Many Americans equate the Environmental Protection Agency with job-inhibiting regulation because it is one of those generic canards repeated so often as to acquire the patina of truth.

Like rules governing power plants that emit heat-trapping atmospheric gases. Like rules establishing protections for wetlands. But even that level of detail escapes most Americans who hear from the ecosystem of disinformation: environmental rules = bad.

I have spent the better part of thirty years as a volunteer advocate for the environment, committed to restoring the damage done by polluters and government in places like Florida’s Everglades. In the early 2000’s, the organization I now represent, Friends of the Everglades, found a way to hold the federal government accountable for breaking a law protecting water quality in the Everglades that the state of Florida would not protect.

We sued the E.P.A. That litigation settled in our favor but winning a battle against a federal agency is not like accounting responsibility for a traffic accident.

What the litigation did, in fact, was force the E.P.A. to hold the state accountable to the law. The federal agency had been unwilling to do so because of political pressure by the state. The state of Florida and the polluter, Big Sugar, continue to argue that a federal judge overstepped boundaries when he sided with Friends and its co-plaintiff, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians.

Notwithstanding the federal court record, proactive protection of the environment by the EPA has ALWAYS been aspirational. You set a rule and hope it works. If it doesn’t, you hope to make it stronger. The record is clear on Trump’s appointees: they want the EPA to be weaker, not stronger.

Just visit EPA headquarters in Washington DC and you have all you need to know.

The agency is dismally old ― it looks like a stage set from a 1940’s movie, antiquated, technologically impoverished and surrounded by barriers and extreme security. Its employees ― many absolutely dedicated to its mission ― are hostage to a hostile political culture that just became, if even possible, more hostile.

With his appointment of Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma — a state that produced the nation’s fiercest global warming denier, US Senator James Inhofe — Donald Trump has removed hope that there will be any strong federal authority to protect the environment in the foreseeable future. (For more, read Jane Mayer’s excellent piece in this week’s New Yorker Magazine, “Scott Pruitt, Trump’s Industry pick for the E.P.A.”)Before setting foot in office, Donald Trump has removed hope for our nation’s air and water and a leadership role for the U.S. in solving the planetary crisis of climate change.

This comes at an extraordinarily dangerous time, as logarithmic impacts of global warming become visible in our day-to-day life. Miami, for example, is setting record temperatures for December now and temperature anomalies in the Arctic winter are frightening. (Read, “Arctic Air Temperatures are Set to Hit 35 to 55 F Above Average by Thursday — Out of Season Sea Ice Melt Possible, Again”, Robert Scribbler Blog.)

What Trump has decided — with no evidence beyond a predetermined, impulsive conclusion — is that states can deal with environmental problems one by one. What Friends has learned is that it is always easier for environmental rules to be weakened by the state.

Trump is playing right into the hands of big polluters/ campaign contributors like the Koch Brothers who already dominate state legislatures and state executive offices, preventing environmental rules from taking hold when those rules impact their profits. Not speculation. Fact.

Friends of the Everglades sued the federal government in the early 2000’s because the state would not hold Big Sugar accountable for its pollution of the dying River of Grass. All Friends had was the federal Clean Water Act that specifically delineated the responsibilities of the E.P.A. to protect the national interest — the interest of all taxpayers. Not Florida. Not Oklahoma. Not Texas.

The aspirational goals of the E.P.A. are under assault, today, by a president-elect and his appointees — including the designated attorney general of the United States, Sen. Jeff Sessions — of Oklahoma.

One of the observations imprinted from these three decades of E.P.A. failures is the metastatic growth of a lobbyist culture built around protecting corporate profits by hobbling the intent of laws like the Clean Water Act. The agency has been so hacked that its enforcement powers are designed to fail.

Yet, in its science and informational, data-gathering missions the E.P.A. and other federal scientific agencies are suppliers of essential tools for taxpayers and voters if we will only understand them.

What Donald Trump said to his supporters was that he will “drain the swamp”. Before even setting a foot in the White House, his appointments already demonstrate that science and fact will be BIG losers in the United States while he is president.

Republican clamoring, for example, to cut the staff and budgets of NASA’s climate data gathering mission will now have a champion in a Trump White House. The GOP argues bureaucratic redundancy and mission creep, but that is another lie. They claim that another federal agency ― NOAA, under a Commerce secretary billionaire who made his fortune scavenging assets ― will do that work. No it won’t.

Trump will be president of a dessicated federal landscape dotted with leadership by corporate brands like his own. While president, he and his family will continue to profit from his brand. (The Republican National Committee just announced its annual meeting will be held in a Trump DC hotel.)

Diversification of species and environmental safeguards will drift away, left to states controlled by legislatures captured by the contributions from big polluters; exactly the case of Florida, its opportunistic Gov. Rick Scott and his designated successor, Adam Putnam, now state secretary of agriculture whose family farm was purchased by the state ― before he sought elected office ― at five times its appraised value.

Perhaps there are enough Republicans in the US Senate to join Democrats in ferociously opposing Trump appointees who require confirmation. If they haven’t already, the American people need a wake-up call.

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