Tag Archives: EPA

Reality Doesn’t Care Whether You Believe It (Part II)

One of the defining features of our time is increasing complexity; the rapid growth and sophistication of technology, the globalization of economics, science and even governance, in short, the accelerating production of vast amounts of knowledge that no one person can hope to master (or even identify).

This complexity requires informed and thoughtful policymaking, an understanding of how the various aspects of our shared environment interact, if we are to avoid unintended and very harmful consequences.

Unfortunately, we have elected a President and numerous lawmakers who are not up to the task, to put it as delicately as possible. They are supported by voters who dismiss people who do have expertise, people who actually know things, as “elitist.”

A couple of examples: a while back, the New York Times ran an article about automation, addressing a number of likely consequences of new AI (Artificial Intelligence) technologies:

A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better. They are only tools, not a competing form of intelligence. But they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.

It is imperative that we turn our attention to these imminent challenges.

What is artificial intelligence today? Roughly speaking, it’s technology that takes in huge amounts of information from a specific domain (say, loan repayment histories) and uses it to make a decision in a specific case (whether to give an individual a loan) in the service of a specified goal (maximizing profits for the lender). Think of a spreadsheet on steroids, trained on big data. These tools can outperform human beings at a given task.

I have posted previously about the potential consequences of AI and automation generally for job creation. The number of jobs lost to automation already dwarfs those lost to outsourcing and trade–and yet, activists on both the Right and Left continue to focus only on trade policy.

This kind of A.I. is spreading to thousands of domains (not just loans), and as it does, it will eliminate many jobs. Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists will gradually be replaced by such software. Over time this technology will come to control semiautonomous and autonomous hardware like self-driving cars and robots, displacing factory workers, construction workers, drivers, delivery workers and many others.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.

If Donald Trump has ever addressed this issue, or suggested that he is even aware of it, it has escaped my notice.

Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life is, if anything, more relevant today than when it was written. What Hofstadter and others who have addressed this particular element of American culture failed to foresee, however, was a time in which the federal government (together with a good number of state governments–Texas comes immediately to mind) would be controlled by people who neither understand the world they live in nor know what they don’t know.

Science Magazine  recently reported on the EPA’s dismissal of 38 science advisors.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to clean house at a key advisory committee, signaling plans to drop several dozen current members of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), according to an email yesterday from a senior agency official.

Unlike most of Trump’s cabinet, Pruitt is proving to be effective. Unfortunately, he is proving effective in his efforts to destroy the EPA–not just by denying the reality of climate change science, but by rolling back regulations that protect air and water quality. He appears to be operating on a theory common to this administration: if a reality is uncongenial, ignore it or deny its existence. If evidence contradicts your worldview, dismiss it.

Yesterday, in a reference to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I observed that science and reality are true whether or not you believe them.

The worst thing about giving simple and/or corrupt people the power to run a government they do not understand is that complicated realities continue to be realities, and the longer we fail to engage those realities, the worse the consequences.

Reality Doesn’t Care Whether You Believe It (Part I)

La La Land isn’t just the title of a movie. Increasingly, it’s where our government officials live.

The Trump administration is debating whether to launch a governmentwide effort to question the science of climate change, an effort that critics say is an attempt to undermine the long-established consensus human activity is fueling the Earth’s rising temperatures.

This effort is being pushed by Scott Pruitt, the truly dangerous Secretary of the EPA, but other administration troglodytes are also involved.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who once described the science behind human-caused climate change as a “contrived phony mess,” also is involved in the effort, two officials said.

At a White House briefing this week, Perry said, “The people who say the science is settled, it’s done — if you don’t believe that you’re a skeptic, a Luddite. I don’t buy that. I don’t think there is — I mean, this is America. Have a conversation. Let’s come out of the shadows of hiding behind your political statements and let’s talk about it. What’s wrong with that? And I’m full well — I can be convinced, but let’s talk about it.”…

Other agencies could include the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA, according to the official, all of which conduct climate research in some capacity.

And then there’s Florida. As CNN reports,

A new Florida law would let anyone in the state challenge, and possibly change, what kids are learning in school.

Any Florida resident can raise concerns about teaching material they find unfit for public school classrooms, according to legislation that went into effect Saturday. The bill was introduced in February by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, and was signed into law last week after passing with bipartisan support…

Supporters of the law have disputed material presenting global warming and evolution as “reality.” Others found certain reading material to be “pornographic.” And for some, US and world history textbooks seem biased and anti-American.

Impetus for the measure came from a conservative group called “The Florida Citizens’ Alliance.”  That organization  gathered testimony from “at least 25 people” (!) in favor of the legislation, and their reasoning (I use the term loosely) was predictable.

One woman took issue with evolution being taught as a “fact,” arguing that the “vast majority of Americans believe that the world and the beings living on it were created by God as revealed in the Bible.” Another person complained that history classes were making students “subservient” by teaching them about the president’s ability to issue executive orders.

Shades of Trump’s go-to response when his “facts” are challenged:  “a lot of people agree with me.” A lot of people still believe the earth is flat and that aliens landed and are buried in Roswell, New Mexico.

What’s that great Neil DeGrasse Tyson quote? Reality doesn’t care whether you believe it or not…

About That Fox and That Henhouse…

And the hits keep coming…

Major media outlets are reporting on the Administration’s most recent assault on science and the environment. According to the New York Times, 

The Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed at least five members of a major scientific review board, the latest signal of what critics call a campaign by the Trump administration to shrink the agency’s regulatory reach by reducing the role of academic research.

A spokesman for the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, said he would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to regulate, as part of the wide net it plans to cast. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” said the spokesman, J. P. Freire.

The dismissals on Friday came about six weeks after the House passed a bill aimed at changing the composition of another E.P.A. scientific review board to include more representation from the corporate world.

The Washington Post reports that the Interior Department is overhauling the more than 200 advisory panels that inform how their agencies assess the science underpinning departmental policies, “the first step in a broader effort by Republicans to change the way the federal government evaluates the scientific basis for its regulations.”

Gee–maybe Jeff Sessions can emulate Scott Pruitt, and allow offenders to rewrite criminal law and incarceration practices–after all, who knows more about crime and punishment than those most immediately affected?

Trump has previously instructed Pruitt to shave 40 percent of the agency’s science budget and to eliminate or severely roll back the most important Obama-era regulations on climate change and clean water protection. Last week, when I was checking some clean water information, I found that the EPA had removed a significant amount of data on climate change from its websites.

Of course, anyone who cares about the environment–or scientific integrity–expected much of this;  Pruitt is a climate-change denier. Like most of Trump’s cabinet, he appears to have been chosen in order to dismantle the agency he heads. Betsy DeVos is an enemy of public education, Jeff Sessions has already moved to erode enforcement of civil rights laws.. the list goes on.

The administration has also announced plans to fill federal court vacancies with judges likely to do their bidding.

The only people who will benefit from the policies of this Administration are the rich and the large corporations chafing under “inconvenient” regulations–like the rules against dumping toxic materials  into nearby rivers and polluting the drinking water.

Public administration scholars have long been concerned with the problem of “capture”–the process by which regulatory agencies get “cozy” with representatives of the industries they regulate. Some of that is inevitable; especially when you are dealing with complex issues that are salient only to the industry being regulated, it’s understandable that the regulators and those subject to regulation will develop a relationship. That relationship doesn’t necessarily undermine the regulatory process, and it is important to listen to the voices of those being regulated–the voices of those with the most intimate knowledge of the effect of rules being promulgated.

Listening, however, is one thing. Letting the industry write the rules–or rewrite the science justifying the rules–is something else entirely.

In the Trump Administration, the fox apparently lives in the henhouse.

Environmentalism is About More than Climate Change

If  Saturday’s March for Science did just one thing, I hope it underlined the message that protecting the environment is about much more than climate change, critical as that issue is.

Do the climate change deniers at least believe that children in Flint, Michigan,  and East Chicago, Indiana should have lead-free water to drink? What about the rest of us? Should Americans continue to have routine access to safe, potable water? Breathable air? Toxin-free fruits and vegetables?

How do Republicans justify Trump’s reversal of an Obama-era regulation to protect U.S. waterways from coal mining operations? (I don’t know about you, but to me, “Let them drink coal ash” sounds even worse than “let them eat cake.”) What about the elimination of information on methane emissions, removal of the word “science” from the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology mission statement, and the promised roll back of auto pollution standards?

Huffington Post has published a list of Trump’s anti-environment measures in just the first 90 days of his administration.

I’d be interested in hearing Todd (don’t confuse me with the facts) Rokita’s justification for the administration’s refusal to ban an insecticide that, as extensive research has demonstrated, harms the developing brains of fetuses and children who eat food from plants treated with the compound.

Much of the EPA’s own research outlines chlorpyrifos’s adverse health effects. In 2016 the EPA reported“sufficient evidence” that low levels affect brain development and concluded that some American 1- to 2-year-old children are receiving up to 140 times what are considered safe levels in their food. The EPA has also reported elevated levels in water supplies and established that the compound adversely affects 1,778 out of 1,835 studied species of wild animals.

I’ve noticed that all those pious “pro life” Republicans lose their zealous commitment to the well-being of the fetus when the threat to the unborn must be balanced against the health of corporate bottom lines, rather than the health of the mother.

Trump has issued Executive Orders that would undo both the Clean Power Act and the Clean Water Act.  According to those much-maligned scientists, reducing the scope of the Clean Water Act as called for in the Executive Order risks seriously degrading waters used for swimming, fishing or drinking.

Speaking of Republicans, incomprehensible as it may seem today, it was a Republican President–Richard Nixon– who established the EPA that is under such relentless attack from today’s GOP.  As Nixon stated in his 1970 State of the Union address to Congress,

“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. … Clean air, clean water, open spaces – these should once again be the birthright of every American.”

Well, times (and the GOP) have certainly changed. As U.S. News recently reported,

Currently, there is a systematic attempt to undermine this legacy. President Donald Trump proposes to slash the EPA’s budget by 31 percent and reduce its workforce by 3,200 employees – the harshest cuts in the agency’s history. But the environmental problems for which the agency is responsible have not shrunk or even stayed constant; instead they’ve grown significantly since the 1970s. The U.S. population has grown by over 100 million, economic activity has quadrupled, electricity use has tripled and the inventory of toxic substances has grown to over 85,000 compounds.

Every elected official who supports this assault on the EPA is supporting the presence of particulates, smog and greenhouse gases in the air we breathe, lead and coal ash in the water we drink, and toxic pesticides in the food we eat.

We need to challenge them to deny that.

A Good Question–And Some Dispiriting Answers

A recent article in the New Yorker raised a troubling question: How is it that an Administration as disorganized as Donald Trump’s has been so methodical when it comes to attacking the environment?

Next week, millions of Americans will celebrate Earth Day, even though, three months into Donald Trump’s Presidency, there sure isn’t much to celebrate. A White House characterized by flaming incompetence has nevertheless managed to do one thing effectively: it has trashed years’ worth of work to protect the planet. As David Horsey put it recently, in the Los Angeles Times, “Donald Trump’s foreign policy and legislative agenda may be a confused mess,” but “his administration’s attack on the environment is operating with the focus and zeal of the Spanish Inquisition.”

The list of steps that the Trump Administration has already taken to make America polluted again is so long that fully cataloguing them in this space would be impossible.

The author did follow that disclaimer with a long list of actions that were increasingly depressing as I read them. And she pointed out that the Administration’s horrendous budget proposal would  slash the E.P.A.’s budget by thirty-one per cent–more than it proposes reducing the State Department’s budget (twenty-nine per cent) or the Labor Department’s (twenty-one per cent).

The proposed cuts would entail firing a quarter of the agency’s workforce and eliminating many programs entirely, including the radiation-protection program, which does what its name suggests, and the Energy Star program, which establishes voluntary efficiency standards for electronics and appliances.

These initiatives are, of course, insane. But so much of Trump and his Keystone Kop Administration is insane. What is particularly worrisome is that in this one area, the Administration appears to be moving effectively to accomplish its goals. (I’ve been counting on the disarray and incompetence of the Trump White House to blunt the effect of his actions.)

How is it that a group as disorganized as the Trump Administration has been so methodical when it comes to the (anti) environment? The simplest answer is that money focusses the mind. Lots of corporations stand to profit from Trump’s regulatory rollback, even as American consumers suffer. …

But, while money is clearly key, it doesn’t seem entirely sufficient as an explanation. There’s arguably more money, in the long run, to be made from imposing the regulations—from investing in solar and wind power, for example, and updating the country’s electrical grid. Writing recently in the Washington Post, Amanda Erickson proposed an alternative, or at least complementary, explanation. Combatting a global environmental problem like climate change would seem to require global coöperation. If you don’t believe in global coöperation because “America comes first,” then you’re faced with a dilemma. You can either come up with an alternative approach—tough to do—or simply pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.

We evidently live in a world where significant numbers of people would rather make the planet unlivable for their children and grandchildren than face unpleasant realities or co-operate with Others.

I find this incomprehensible. And deeply worrisome.