The United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC. Photo by Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images

Column: Silencing the EPA will make America unhealthy again


The United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC. Photo by Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images

In June 2003, a former lobbyist for the petroleum industry edited climate change out of a report on the environment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Philip Cooney, who served as chief of staff of George W. Bush's Council on Environmental Quality after serving as a lawyer for the American Petroleum Institute, removed items such as a temperature record for the last 1,000 years showing global warming, mention of a report from the National Academy of Sciences affirming the reality of climate change, and any mention that such changes have "global consequences for human health."

In fact, Cooney's edits watered down the report so much that the EPA decided to cut any mention of climate change whatsoever, so as not to have to be forced to deny the science behind global warming. That's just one example of many anti-environmental and anti-science steps taken by the Bush administration during its tenure.

We appear to be headed back to those days of suppressing inconvenient facts under the new Trump administration. The EPA is reviewing its communications with the public, and staff were ordered to cease such communications until the review was complete. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pulled out sponsorship for a meeting on climate change and health for February, perhaps a dim echo of Cooney's edits more than a decade ago.

Solid waste is dumped into trenches at this sanitary landfill in Fort Smith, Arkansas (April 1972). Picture was taken as part of the EPA's DOCUMERICA Project. Photo by Jim Olive

But climate change should not be a partisan issue. After all, the basic physics of greenhouse gases trapping heat have been known for nearly two centuries. Fossil fuel burning, clearing forests, agriculture and a host of other activities put more greenhouse gases in the air and, as a result, global average temperatures rise. These are facts, not subject to debate, though it is debatable what ought to be done to address global warming, one of a host of environmental challenges still facing the U.S. in the 21st century.

Yet, troublingly, the Trump administration may also take the unprecedented step of removing climate change data — like that 1,000 year temperature record — from EPA websites. Monitoring of air and water quality — like the Keeling Curve that has recorded the steady march upward of carbon dioxide concentrations in the air — may fall by the wayside. The inevitable and perhaps desired outcome of such missing data and monitoring is a decline in enforcement of clean air and clean water.

Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. Pollution in the river has fueled fires, one of which in 1969 led to the creation of the Clean Water Act. Photo by © Ted Spiegel/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In fact, Trump's conception of making America great again may include making America unhealthy for people again. After all, it was unconstrained coal burning that made for the killer smog that struck Donora, Penn.—killing 20 and sickening thousands—in 1948. And it was an unregulated oil industry that helped make the Cuyahoga River burn in 1969.

In the end, physics trumps politics. A molecule of carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels does not care what anyone believes about climate change, it will trap heat for as long as it lingers in the air, which may be up to thousands of years. That extra heat spawns weird weather and rising seas, among other impacts. The soot and smog that come along with burning fossil fuels shorten lives and kill people. No amount of hot air around climate change can obscure those facts.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post stated Philip Cooney was "chair" of George W. Bush's Council on Environmental Quality. The official position is "chief of staff."

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