The past week was not a good one for the cause of science as it relates to environmental issues and may foreshadow what might be described as an Age of Un-enlightenment.
The initial focus was on climate change. On the one hand, President Trump issued an Executive Order seeking to undo much of the Obama Administration’s actions related to climate change. (March 28 Executive Order). This occurred even as the Chairman of the House Science Committee, and the Administrator of EPA acknowledged that the climate is changing and that humans play a role in that change. (House Hearing on Climate Science and Pruitt Acknowledges Warming Trend but What Can We Do ). Nonetheless, these were grudging acknowledgments. Committee Chairman Lamar Smith stated on the one hand that the climate is changing and that humans play a role, but on the other hand, he believes there are “significant questions” as to the extent of the role of human activity. A slightly different take came from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. He went so far as to acknowledge that the role of human activity is probably a significant factor, but he then asked: “What can we do about it?”
Searching for something encouraging, these statements do reflect some modification of the historic position that many in Congress and elsewhere have taken regarding climate change. There is much less outright denial of any evidence of climate change and an evolving acknowledgement that the earth is warming. The ‘debate’ now seems to have shifted to a question of the extent that human activity affects this change. Some conservatives in Congress have pushed for a position acknowledging climate change and the human role. (Anticipating Continued GOP Evolution). However, others remain unmoved. Indeed, even the limited scope of Administrator Pruitt’s remarks brought the ire of some who worry that he is actually becoming “soft on climate science.” (Conservatives Fear).
Even as there is increasing acknowledgment that scientists may have it right on climate change, there is a broad reaching effort by both the Administration and Congress to limit the role of science in future matters of public policy. The House passed two pieces of legislation, the HONEST Act, which stipulates that EPA cannot make any assessment or analysis based on science that it not openly accessible to the public, and the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act which seeks to impose limitations on individuals who participate in EPA’s Science Advisory Board primarily by preventing the scientists on the Board from receiving any federal research funds for three (3) years after they leave the Board. (Restricting EPA’s Use of Science). Separately, Administrator Pruitt rejected the advice of a scientific panel and decided not to ban the insecticide Chlorpyrifos (trade name Lorsban), which has already been banned for household use, but which continues to be used on a number of different crops ranging from almonds to apples. (No Ban on Lorsban). Outside of EPA, the Administration is simply leaving science jobs vacant. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been all but eliminated. (Trump Leaves Science Jobs Vacant).
Is it possible that, while quieting some of the denial about climate change, science has inadvertently limited its role in future policy decisions by raising the issue in the first place? The unfortunate reality is that the role of science is increasingly controversial. We are happy when it serves us by solving problems, but much less so when it raises issues or concerns that are costly or not easily resolved. Nevertheless, while scientific understanding evolves and is not always correct the first time, it seems that ignoring it is always wrong.