Republican attacks on the environment are nothing new. Ronald Reagan famously claimed, “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do" while running for president in 1980. His first EPA chief, Anne Gorsuch, slashed the agency's budget by a quarter, and its workforce by 20. (Yes, her son Neil is now a Supreme Court justice.) She claimed that states could do a better job protecting the environment even as she botched high-profile Superfund cleanups, as Cally Carswell of High Country News reminded us a year ago.
“The debate surrounding the EPA’s future is strikingly similar today as Scott Pruitt assumes command,” Carswell wrote. There were similarities as well between Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, and Ryan Zinke today.
In the George W. Bush administration, science was manipulated and distorted across a broad range of issues (at the same time the nation was misled into the Iraq war), with wide-ranging impacts, many of them environmental, especially global warming.
Yet there's a much greater ferocity this time around, which may be related to Trump's bombastic style. The subversion of science is more intense, and there are so many policy attacks on so many fronts it's impossible for the public to keep track. The threat of worsening climate change looms over them all, making the stakes higher than ever before.
We're hurtling toward a hotter and more disordered future. Longtime right-wing hostility has hardened into outright denial, which is used to blot out a range of economic and public-health benefits that would come from actual action to address climate change. The more indisputable the facts become, the more necessary it is to bury them. Nothing buries facts more effectively than narratives that construct a worldview where they just don't fit. Trump and his team excel at creating those.
Facts alone are powerless in such a situation. They require a framework of counter-narratives that can help make sense of the onslaught on science and the environment. Even conventional media narratives, presumed to be even-handed or “objective,” often serve to reinforce or protect the reality-denying narratives Trump and his team have deployed.
Consider Pruitt's long list of scandals, for example. For a long time they were mostly downplayed or ignored, at best reported in isolation. Now they've become a big story in themselves, but still treated as if they were disconnected from substance of Pruitt's destructive policies. On her April 5 MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow broke free of this narrative frame. She drew connections between Pruitt's $40,000 off-mission trip to Morocco to promote natural-gas sales and the financial interests of Trump's longtime crony Carl Icahn, a shareholder in the only U.S. exporter of liquefied natural gas -- and the man who vetted Pruitt for his job in the Trump administration.
But the connections Maddow drew weren't exceptional, as noted in a blog post by Keith Gaby, communications director for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Pruitt’s behavior is unethical but, even more importantly, his actions will lead to greater health risks from pollution in our air, water, and land,” Gaby wrote. “We can’t ignore the public health crisis created, in part, by Pruitt’s ethical crisis.” But that's precisely what the dominant media narratives do. Trump claimed he would “drain the swamp,” but Pruitt's cozy industry relations are exactly the opposite. An accurate counter-narrative would make that vividly clear — and sink much more than just Pruitt's leaky little boat.
Seeing Gorsuch and Watts as precursors to Pruitt and Zinke is the seed of another important counter-narrative: It helps make sense of what's happening now in terms of past clashes between conservative ideology and corporate power on the one hand, and science, good government, public health and environmental protection on the other.
But one counter-narrative will never be enough. It can only capture a small slice of what's going on, and there's truth to be found in seemingly contradictory counter-narratives as well. As Carswell noted, the Reagan-Gorsuch regulatory rollback agenda of the '80s “ran up against a moderate Republican Senate and a House controlled by Democrats, which worked doggedly to expose industry favoritism at EPA and keep accusations about mismanagement in the public eye.” Once Gorsuch resigned in disgrace, Reagan shifted gears, appointing William Ruckelshaus, “a moderate known for his integrity” who “helped restore the agency’s credibility” and set the tone for subsequent EPA heads, even under Republican presidents -- until now.
More broadly, a profound political transformation was underway that affected much more than environmental policy. It included the creation of a vast right-wing propaganda network of think tanks and media outlets, all devoted to pushing deregulation and attacking science.
Carswell quotes Yale environmental historian Paul Sabin arguing that a "major shift" in conservative politics arrived with the "Gingrich revolution" of 1994, when Republicans won a surprisingly large congressional majority and shifted sharply to the right. “That’s when the [Republican] party gets more purified in its hostility toward environmental regulation,” Sabin said.
Newt Gingrich, like Trump, was a narcissist, scam artist and conspiracy theorist, who also touted himself as an environmentalist, albeit one with crony capitalist ideas. If the former House speaker is best described as pseudo-intellectual, Trump is anti-intellectual. Gingrich did a great deal to help create today's GOP, with its anti-environmental animus. But Trump boiled things down to just two core narrative messages: First, global warming isn't real, and is perhaps a "Chinese hoax," thereby embedding it within his conspiratorial, xenophobic worldview. Second, he himself is an award-winning environmentalist, and therefore an authority whose word trumps any and all facts or any experts who disagree.
Both narratives are utterly false, of course: Trump takes global warming quite seriously when it threatens his own golf course, as Politico noted in 2016, and Golf Digest fact-checked his award-winning claims in a 2014 interview with filmmaker Anthony Baxter, who has done two documentaries about Trump's golf misadventures. “Donald Trump's environmental record when it comes to golf could hardly be worse," Baxter told them. None of that matters, certainly not to Trump's supporters and fellow travelers. To the contrary: The less relationship to reality his narratives possess, the more freedom he has to invent. Falsehood is a feature, not a bug.
These two narratives came together seamlessly in a "Fox & Friends" interview with Trump in early 2016 (described by PolitiFact here), after Bernie Sanders attacked his “Chinese hoax” claim. Trump showed himself to be a bullshitter par excellence, first saying it was a joke, for which he couldn't be held accountable, then doubling down on the substance of the claim, without a scintilla of evidence. Instead, he asserted his own claim to speak as an authority, to buttress his disavowed-but-not-disavowed “Chinese hoax” allegation:
I think the climate change is just a very, very expensive form of tax. A lot of people are making a lot of money. I know much about climate change. I'd be — received environmental awards. And I often joke that this is done for the benefit of China. Obviously, I joke. But this is done for the benefit of China, because China does not do anything to help climate change.
A decade or more ago, Trump's charge against China might have rung true — its air was far dirtier than ours, thanks to its fossil fuel dependence, with as many as 750,000 premature deaths annually. Now, China has become a leading developer of renewable energy technology, as noted by David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The U.S. seems to be abrogating our opportunity to lead the world markets in clean energy and electric vehicles and just hand that leadership to the Chinese for nothing,” Pettit told me. “I'm sure the Chinese are happy and incredulous about it, but that's what I see happening.
"I was just there about a month or so ago, and [the Chinese are] making astonishing progress in installation of solar and wind,” Pettit continued. “They have lots of electric vehicles in Shanghai, where all electric charging stations talk to each other, so you can find out in real time where you can go to recharge your car.” The benefits are huge, and not just for individual drivers. If a city has, for example, 10,000 electric cars, "that's a huge battery, and that can be used to balance out the electric grid,” Pettit explained. “We're talking about that in places in California, but they're doing it in China. In my view, that's an area that we should lead on. The Trump administration is throwing that away in favor of the dying fossil fuel industries."
These are the real-world workings of addressing climate change and building a sustainable 21st-century economy. It's precisely the sort of discussion we ought to be having, not just about the environment, but about economic restructuring, innovation and global leadership. But the world in which such discussions might take place is walled off dismissively by Trump and the much larger worldview he represents.
Scott Pruitt may actually exceed Trump, cranking the environmental gaslighting up to 11. As attorney general of Oklahoma he sued the EPA 14 times and, as Carswell notes, he “declined to name a single EPA regulation he supports during his confirmation hearing.” Given those facts, Pruitt's hostility to the EPA and its mission could not be clearer. On the other hand, he claims to be “refocusing the Agency back to its core mission” as the first of three key objectives in his self-declared “back-to-basics” agenda — a narrative so at odds with the above facts that it deserves comparison with Trump's claim that “Hillary Clinton started birtherism and I ended it,” or, “No one is tougher on Russia than I am.”
Pruitt's narrative claims that EPA has lost focus on its basic responsibilities, and that he plans to set things rights. The facts suggest otherwise. A six-month review of the Trump administration's record by the Environmental Integrity Project found that enforcement levels had plummeted far below previous levels, using three different measures.
To absolutely no one's surprise, Trump’s Justice Department has lodged fewer civil cases regarding violations of environmental laws than either the Obama or Bush administrations did in their first six months. Even more strikingly, the EPA under Pruitt has required far lower levels of "injunctive relief" -- meaning the money industries must spend to correct their flaws -- and by its own estimates, its anti-pollution interventions have prevented far fewer premature deaths.
In early February, the EPA released its results of enforcement actions for fiscal year 2017, and as NBC noted, one had to be careful making sense of it. That fiscal year covered portions of both the Obama and Trump administrations, but still showed a 20 percent drop in civil cases against polluters and a 30 percent drop in criminal cases, while the EPA's focus on the large amount of fines it secured was wildly misleading:
For example, of the $2.98 billion in total criminal fines in fiscal year 2017, $2.8 billion came from Volkswagen’s penalties for cheating on emissions tests, which the company agreed to shortly before Trump took office.
“Enforcement actions have dropped significantly, since Pruitt came on board,” Pettit told me. “It's hard to say you really care about cleaning up Superfund sites and clean air and clean water, when you're not in the field doing what needs to be done to find those sites and clean them up.”
Three major Trump-Pruitt initiatives would have devastating impacts on EPA's core mission. Withdrawing the Clean Power Plan was primarily meant as a slap-back against Obama's climate change agenda, but the plan had significant other benefits as well, squarely in the middle of EPA's “core mission.” According to an Obama-era fact sheet, those benefits included reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants by 9o percent and nitrous oxide by 72 percent, meaning that "we will avoid thousands of premature deaths" and will have "thousands fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations in 2030 and every year beyond."
Similar results can be observed in another EPA "reform," Pruitt's recent rollback of mileage standards for light-duty vehicles for model years 2022-2025. Those mileage standards were set in 2012, primarily focused on greenhouse gases, with a midterm review for potential fine-tuning. This review, finalized just before Trump took office, found that the costs of vehicle compliance would be substantially less than initially projected, while benefits remained far larger. “The benefits exceed the costs without considering any fuel savings, and likewise fuel savings exceed the costs even without considering any other benefits.” New cars would save owners nearly $4,000 compared to current models, and the air would be cleaner as well.
A third Pruitt action suspended the Obama-era Clean Water Rule (aka “ Waters of the United States”) for two years, in order to repeal and replace it with a much looser, industry-friendly version that will inevitably do much less to protect clean water. The rationale was that there was “regulatory uncertainty” because of ongoing litigation — which Pruitt himself had helped to start. So the uncertainty he wants to cure is partly of his own making. In this and other cases the cure is worse than the disease, as Environmental Defense Fund senior vice president David Festa explained last September:
If any agency action could be withdrawn solely due to pending or potential litigation and "regulatory uncertainty" -- a catch phrase of this administration -- our nation’s regulatory structures would be in constant flux, lack rigor and lose factual and scientific basis.
The underlying problem, Pettit told me, is that “U.S. Supreme Court cases on the jurisdictional limits of the Clean Water Act are all over the map.” So litigation will continue no matter what. All that will change is the degree to which the agency acts in the public interest, with a solid scientific foundation.
If Pruitt's narrative of "refocusing the EPA back to its core mission" is bogus, that's not the only problem with his "back-to-basics" agenda, which has two other stated objectives: “Restoring power to the states through cooperative federalism,” and “adhering to the rule of law and improving Agency processes.”
These are bogus narratives too. Any suggestion that Pruitt wants to return power to the states is laughable on its face. Under the Clean Air Act, for example, California has historically had the power to set its own fuel-economy standards, which other states can also adopt. As part of his rollback of the midterm review, discussed above, Pruitt wants to end that, because California is likely to sue to avoid complying with his rollback. The inconsistency is glaring, Pettit notes. “As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt filed a number of cases against the EPA, and the theory behind a lot of them was that the states had the power to do something that that's weaker than what EPA wanted them to do,” Pettit said. “Now his position is, well, the states don't have the power to do anything stronger than what EPA wants.”
There's nothing new in this conservative inconsistency. “States' rights” was the supposed driving rationale of the Southern states leading up to the Civil War — except when it came to the Fugitive Slave Act. In that case, Southern states happily recruited the federal government to trample the rights of Northern states, which (in many cases) recognized escaped slaves as free citizens.
There's another way in which this narrative is bogus: the implication that Democrats or liberals don't care about state governments or their legitimate concerns. The Clean Power Plan, mentioned above, was tailored to set different targets for different states based on their situations, including historic reliance on different forms of fossil fuels. It gave states tremendous leeway in determining how they would meet its targets. The federal government exercised just enough power to ensure that a vital national goal would be met, while giving states the power to meet their share of reaching that goal. By throwing all that away, Pruitt showed how little he actually cared for the supposed ideals behind his guiding principles.
Finally, Pruitt's narrative about “adhering to the rule of law and improving Agency processes” is especially laughable. At the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pettit's organization, "the count is up to 58 lawsuits against the Trump administration over rollbacks,” he told me. “Eight have gone to judgment and we won all of them.”
In some cases, Pruitt's EPA has “done some really dumb things, legally,” he explained, such as ignoring the procedures required by the Federal Administrative Procedure Act. “Pruitt came in and said, well, we're going to put these methane rules on hold, we're going to stop doing the ozone designations. Without any process! He just wrote it down on a piece of paper.” So it was no surprise when NRDC and others sued and won.
As for the litany of Pruitt scandals, which seems to grow longer every day -- how well do those square with “adhering to the rule of law”? Or, for that matter, with Trump's pledge to "drain the swamp"? Just how long can this administration and its enablers go on pretending that genuine scientists are "swamp dwellers" and high-priced lobbyists for the fossil-fuel industries are swamp-drainers? That's the big question this Earth Day. Perhaps the answer is that these false narratives will keep on working until journalists stop giving them a pass, and until environmental activists understand that narratives matter more than facts.