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Public Lab Research note


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Back to Basics, or a Departure from Environmental Protections? History lends perspective.

by mlamadrid |

Article by Leif Fredrickson, Environmental Data and Governance Initiative for Community Science Forum: Changing Environmental Governance Landscape

For good reason, much of the discussion about the new environmental governance landscape ushered in by President Trump has revolved around science: Top administrators equivocate on established climate change science, agencies shed scientific advisors, and public access to information about climate change and other issues has been lost through government web page changes.

But it is also worth considering the Trump administration's approach to the environment from the angle of history. For one thing, Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, has justified his entire "back-to-basics" approach to the agency via history. Pruitt's slogan aligns with Trump's vague, history-summoning rallying cry "Make America Great Again," but his "EPA originalism" does not have a basis in historical facts. Pruitt falsely suggests that the EPA originally balanced environmental protection with economic development, had a limited scope, and focused primarily on "cleaning up

the environment," and has since strayed into wide-ranging regulation. President Nixon created the EPA in 1970 as a "strong, independent agency" with a "broad mandate." The designers of the new agency deliberately separated it from agencies concerned with resource development, such as the Department of Interior, so that there would not be conflicts of interest between economic development and environmental protection. Also, for its first ten years, the EPA focused and only in 1980, with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund), was cleanup added to its duties. Even then, the idea was that the EPA would use money from liable parties and corporate taxes on polluting industries to clean up toxic waste sites, not fund that cleanup with taxpayer money, as it now does. In short, Pruitt's justification for his approach to the EPA is built on a faulty premise.

History is also important to put the Trump administration's environmental governance in perspective. There's a general impression that the Trump administration is unique, but pundits also draw parallels between Trump and previous political leaders, such as Richard Nixon. Trump does have many similarities to Nixon: he is vindictive and paranoid. But Nixon created the EPA while Trump intends to pulverize it. In terms of environmental policy, the Trump administration is much closer to the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. Reagan was hostile to the EPA, seeking to undermine it through budget and staff cuts; George W. Bush was more subtle, obstructing environmental protection by undermining the use of good science and scientists. The Trump administration looks like a combination of the two, drawing on Reagan's frontal attack on regulatory agencies and Bush's undermining of science. In that sense, environmental governance under Trump is unique. Many other contextual factors have changed as well, including rising corporate influence on politics and increasing polarization and partisanship on environmental issues.

I and other historians working with the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) have been working to bring history to bear on the Trump administration. We hope that doing so will not only reveal how past administrations undermined environmental protection, but also how people resisted attacks on the environment. Among other things, we've shown the critical role that career staff and public sector unions played in bringing to light corruption and subterfuge in agencies like the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Using editorials, we have tried to inform the broader public about these insights, as well as Pruitt's dubious historical justification for a radical approach to the EPA.

The threats to environmental protection brought by the new administration have energized historians. But it is important to note that the humanities, which history is a part of, is under attack, just like science. For years, colleges have devalued the humanities. The new administration, meanwhile, has proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities. The humanities are crucial to understanding the new environmental governance regime. And in a broader sense, they are crucial to achieving environmental justice, for the latter is not solely a question of science. To fight for a better future, we need to build solidarity across the humanities and science, and across academia and the public.

Photo: Members of the Africatown Connections Blueway planning team explore the Mobile County Training School Museum after a goal setting workshop.



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