On Wednesday Senate Democrats will have the opportunity to cross-examine Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and expose how profoundly wrong for the job he is. There are so many things they can point to – his outsized support from the oil-and-gas industry, his plotting with that industry to disempower the agency he would head through litigation, his apparent opposition to the basic idea of environmental protection. But here is one oft-overlooked thing that members of the Environment and Public Works Committee should be sure to zero in on: Climate change is a public health disaster waiting to happen. Protecting public health is the core mission of EPA. Thus, Pruitt’s avowed mission to undo regulations designed to address climate change would fail the American people and the agency he would lead. Importantly, it will also fail in court.
Climate change affects the health and safety of residents in every state, city and county nationwide. But Pruitt is a dyed-in-wool climate change denier, and suggests we have no way of knowing whether or how this is true. He’s wrong. Scientists based in the private sector, in universities and in our federal, state, and local governments all know that climate change poses extraordinary public health risks.
Extreme heat kills people. Salt from rising sea levels is leaching into drinking water in coastal communities, which are also unprepared for flooding from increasingly powerful storm surges. Wildfires, made more frequent and intense by prolonged drought, spew smoke and ash into the air, causing respiratory distress. Dangerous super storms, fueled by the warming atmosphere and oceans, can overwhelm our emergency response systems and infrastructure. Rising temperatures and irregular rainfall can lengthen and intensify allergy season and expand the range of illnesses transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks. What’s more, to the extent these threats already exist, climate change amplifies them, especially for vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly, poor families, and some communities of color.
Peer-reviewed studies conducted by the EPA found that reducing emissions to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Farenheit) — as the world has committed to doing in the Paris Agreement — could have significant public health benefits. For example, it could prevent 57,000 deaths per year from poor air quality in the U.S., and prevent 12,000 deaths per year from extreme heat in America’s major cities. It could also save the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars each year on avoided infrastructure adaptation costs and avoided damages from water shortages, blackouts, and lost production in forestry and agriculture.
President Obama and his EPA administrators did their jobs. They built an unimpeachable case for taking action on climate change in order to save lives, protect public health and welfare, and ensure a sustainable future. They enacted key regulations — including the Clean Power Plan for existing power plants, emissions standards for new power plants, and the methane rule for oil-and-gas operations, among others — with the full participation of industry, states and local governments, and civil society, taking into account the extraordinary complexities involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from critical sectors of the economy.
The agency did this with an eye toward judicial review, knowing lawsuits would follow. Courts reviewing federal environmental regulations must defer to the scientific and technical expertise of the agency, so long as the agency applies its expertise in a way that is reasonable. That is, so long as the agency is not using science in a way that is arbitrary and capricious, or unsupported by evidence. The scientific foundation on which the Obama Administration EPA based its climate change policies is globally accepted, enshrined in international agreements going back 25 years, and, in short, irrefutable. The Supreme Court has consistently affirmed EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld EPA’s determination that these pollutants endanger public health and welfare.
Pruitt’s climate change denial is increasingly unpopular with Americans, disingenuous as a political tactic, and dangerous as a worldview. As the basis of executive action by an EPA administrator, Pruitt’s climate change denial would be a dereliction of his duty to head an agency designed to protect Americans. While courts may eventually uphold some alterations to the existing slate of climate regulations, they will not countenance the total abandonment of executive responsibility Pruitt espouses. There is no rational basis for it. Wilful ignorance does not equate with knowledge.
Democratic Senators must press Pruitt to ascertain whether he understands any of this. The mandates set forth in the Clean Air Act and other environmental and public health laws he would be charged with administering require decisions be made based on science that can withstand scrutiny – by scientists, the public and, ultimately, courts of law.
Pruitt’s anti-regulatory agenda would provide an immediate payoff for the fossil fuel industry, at great cost to everyone else. The pause in federal climate action, even if only temporary, would harm American families for generations. We are already beyond the tipping point, where every additional greenhouse gas emission puts us further into an unacceptably dangerous scenario. Environmental advocacy groups and forward-looking states and cities are gearing up to fight the dismantling of climate protections expected under the Trump Administration. But we cannot afford to wait for new initiatives to lose in court, or for a new EPA administrator to take the reins.
Pruitt can deny the facts but he cannot change them. A governing strategy built on a false reality is ultimately a losing strategy both legally and for Americans’ health.