Christine Todd Whitman headed the Environmental Protection Agency under the George W. Bush Administration, known as one of the most anti-environment Administrations in memory. While Whitman’s faults were many (including, notably, altering reports about the air quality in Lower Manhattan in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks), according to all accounts she took her responsibilities seriously, and when compared to Scott Pruitt, the current director of the Agency, her tenure at EPA seems almost benign.
Whitman has reacted with alarm at the dismantling of the EPA under Pruitt’s and Trump’s direction, warning that the Agency is systematically and deliberately being nullified and rendered ineffective in furtherance of climate change denial ideology. As a result, the EPA’s entire purpose—to protect Americans’ health and preserve the environment—is being intentionally undermined:
The past few months have confirmed my fears. The agency created by a Republican president 47 years ago to protect the environment and public health may end up doing neither under Mr. Pruitt’s direction.
Whitman specifically cites the Agency’s recent act of appointing a political commissar (a banal Trump campaign aide with no environmental background) to review the distribution of all grants for protection of our land, seas and waterways, to ensure that nothing is provided to address “climate change:”
In this role, John Konkus reviews every award the agency gives out, along with every grant solicitation before it is issued. According to both career and political employees, Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for “the double C-word” — climate change — and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations.
This type of behavior by someone handed responsibility for something as important as the health and well-being of the American population is not simply an exercise in pointless ideological spite, but carries real dangers and ramifications. Acknowledgement of the reality of climate change is now inseparable from environmental protection. When the floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey unexpectedly inundated seven poisonous Superfund sites around Houston, threatening the surrounding groundwater, soil and vegetation around those areas with toxic chemicals, advance planning for the impact of rising seas on such sites may have made a difference, both in gaining access to them and containing their damage. In Miami, the sewer system was expected to be overwhelmed had Hurricane Irma followed her original path, leaving the city floating in raw sewage.
What these crises show is that planning for climate-related catastrophes is now fundamental to environmental protection. In this brave new world, the political “choice” of adherence to right-wing ideology collides head on with the health interests of the American people. In the coming days Hurricane Irma is bound to reveal other frightening consequences to this myopic approach to science.
But the EPA under Pruitt is now transforming itself from an agency designed to help Americans instead into a propaganda mill for the far-right and fossil fuel industry. As she sees the agency she led being perverted for these purposes, Whitman is understandably stunned:
All of that is bad enough. But Mr. Pruitt recently unveiled a plan that amounts to a slow-rolling catastrophe in the making: the creation of an antagonistic “red team” of dissenting scientists to challenge the conclusions reached by thousands of scientists over decades of research on climate change. It will serve only to confuse the public and sets a deeply troubling precedent for policy-making at the E.P.A.
The science of man-made greenhouse gases and their impact on the climate is as clear as the link between smoking and cancer. Pruitt’s attempt to create a cadre of climate denialists to influence the decisions of the agency is not only a repudiation of science but a grotesque misuse of taxpayer dollars. As Whitman observes, Americans do not deserve to be misinformed at their own expense:
Certainly, there are disputes in science. But on the question of climate change, the divide is stark. On one side is the overwhelming consensus of thousands of scientists at universities, research centers and the government who publish in peer-reviewed literature, are cited regularly by fellow scientists and are certain that humans are contributing to climate change.
On the other side is a tiny minority of contrarians who publish very little by comparison, are rarely cited in the scientific literature and are often funded by fossil fuel interests, and whose books are published, most often, by special interest groups. That Mr. Pruitt seeks to use the power of the E.P.A. to elevate those who have already lost the argument is shameful, and the only outcome will be that the public will know less about the science of climate change than before.
The fact that Trump’s Cabinet-level appointments are, for the most part, made up of individuals who bear a striking antagonism and hostility towards the agencies they are supposed to be leading is well-known. Pruitt’s appointment may be the most egregious in that his actions can wind up killing people in the long run. And while Christine Todd Whitman, a “moderate” and former governor of New Jersey, bears little resemblance to those who inhabit the modern Republican Party, her words of warning about the danger of Trump’s heedless disregard for the environment will apply to all Americans as these hazards become more and more apparent:
The E.P.A. is too important to treat like a reality TV show. People’s lives and our country’s resources are at stake.... If this project goes forward, it should be treated for what it is: a shameful attempt to confuse the public into accepting the false premise that there is no need to regulate fossil fuels.