While much attention has been paid to the Trump administration’s unraveling of Obama-era climate change policies, their attack on basic environmental protections has progresses relatively under the radar. While it may lack the global, apocalyptic imagery of the climate change threat, rolling back decades-old pollution protections represents a grave public health threat for Americans.
As much as Trump’s climate change policies are scientifically impossible to justify, when viewed through a political lens, they are not terribly shocking. Despite the scientific consensus, Americans themselves are not on the same page when it comes to climate change. According to a new Yale survey, just 54 percent of Americans believe that climate change is caused primarily by humans.
The Republican party has never been on board with the scientific consensus, either. To say the least, the party has consistently dragged its feet on the issue. The last Republican administration, that of George W. Bush, was hardly better than the current administration when it comes to cutting carbon emissions, refusing to join the Kyoto Protocol, which was ratified by 140 other countries.
But when it comes the more basic issue of pollution, Trump and the Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt represent more of a break with history, although one that has been brewing on the right for at least two decades. Fairly recently, there was little partisan debate over whether regulations are necessary to preserve clean air and water.
In 1970, the landmark Clean Air Act passed the Senate without a single vote against it, with President Nixon citing “a goal of clean air, clean water, and open spaces for the future generations of America.”
In 1972, broad, bipartisan support in congress overrode a veto by Nixon to pass the landmark Clean Water Act.
Later in the 70s, a group of 5 Republican Senators, including James Buckley, encouraged other Republicans to take the Clean Air Act even further, to prevent industrial pollution in national parks. The act saw yet another expansion under George H.W. Bush – the senate passed this expansion 89 to 11. Even as recently as 1997, many Republicans supported EPA efforts to improve air quality standards.
But since the Reagan era, larger segments of the Republican party began to paint basic environmental protection as an increasingly partisan issue. The new party line contended that anyone who prioritizes environmental protection was out of touch with the economic realities that average Americans contend with.
By the 2012 election, several Republican Presidential candidates ran on a platform that involved abolishing the EPA, which was established under Nixon. The messages from GOP leaders seem to have worked their way down to the rank and file – a 2014 Pew survey showed that 46 percent of Republicans and those leaning Republican did not believe there was any evidence that the planet was warming.
Now, the Trump administration has wasted no time catering to this skepticism among misinformed rank and file Republicans, and to industry complaints over pesky environmental regulations. In the roughly ten months since Trump took office, environmental regulations have been slashed at nearly every opportunity.
One study showed that the EPA had filed fewer enforcement lawsuits in the first six months of the Trump administration than during the first months of previous administrations, and collected only 12 million in civil penalties, compared with 36 and 30 million during the first six months of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations respectively. Former EPA civil enforcement director Eric Schaeffer said “This is the weakest start any of us has seen in at least 24 years.”
The administration has suspended studies of the health effects on residents near mountaintop removal coal mine sites. The interior department has relaxed certain wildlife protections. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ended a rule protecting whales and endangered sea turtles from fishing nets. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget cut funds for the EPA by 31 percent. Another Trump order expanded offshore drilling in the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans.
But perhaps most alarming has been administration’s attacks on rules protecting clean air and water, causes that had, not so long ago, enjoyed bipartisan support. The administration has axed dozens of regulations on the basis that they have stifled economic growth, often without substantiating those claims or even addressing the public health concerns. Trump called the stream protection rule, which prevented mining companies depositing waste into streams, a “terrible job-killing rule,” ending it under the Congressional Review Act. In February, Trump’s EPA rewrote the ‘waters of the United States’ rule, which safeguarded the water supply for 117 million Americans under the Clean Water Act. In April, the EPA paused a regulation preventing toxic metals like arsenic and mercury from being dumped into public waterways, with Scott Pruitt saying the rule would have killed jobs. Trump’s budget proposals slashing the EPA budget would also prevent the agency from enforcing many existing clean air and water regulations as well.
Air and water pollution regulations, ushered in with bipartisan support in the seventies, gradually improved a dire situation throughout the US. Before the Clean Water Act, only a third of US water was safe for fishing and swimming, a figure that has now risen to 65 percent. In 2010, the EPA estimated that the Clean Air Act prevented 160,000 early deaths, 130,000 heart attacks, and millions of cases of respiratory disease, in that year alone. Let’s not allow the Trump administration to undo decades of progress.