May 25, 2018
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Scott Pruitt and the problem of environmental distrust

Alex Brandon | AP
Alex Brandon | AP
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt removes his glasses as he testifies at a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee for the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on Capitol Hil in Washington, April 26, 2018.
By John Copeland Nagle, Chicago Tribune

Embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to prevent his agency from using “secret science” to justify environmental regulation. A worthy goal, his critics say, but they don’t trust him or the way he wants to achieve it. Which is ironic, for Pruitt’s plan isn’t really about science. It’s about trust.

In environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act, Congress has instructed the EPA to develop regulations that prevent a variety of harms to public health and the natural environment. It is then up to the EPA to determine, for example, how much of a particular pollutant can be released into the environment without causing harm. That is not always easy to know. We know that breathing air containing lots of lead will kill us while breathing air with exceedingly tiny amounts won’t hurt us at all. But exactly how many micrograms of lead are safe?

It is the EPA’s responsibility to review the scientific evidence and then make such judgments. Not surprisingly, partisans tend to see the scientific evidence from their own perspective. Industry believes more pollution is tolerable; public health advocates insist that we suffer from lower levels.

Pruitt, like many supporters of President Donald Trump, doesn’t trust many of the scientific conclusions reached by his predecessors at the EPA. His new proposal is intended to “help ensure that EPA is pursuing its mission of protecting public health and the environment in a manner that the public can trust and understand.”

Pruitt’s critics see a different motivation. They believe that his real goal is to gut environmental regulation. If that is true, then the entire project should be scrapped. And Pruitt’s ongoing ethics scandals involving his relationships with industry officials lend support to their view.

But the critics miss the point. Whatever Pruitt’s personal policy preferences, the agency he heads has a legal obligation to develop regulations based on the best science, and the courts will be quick to correct the EPA if it does something else. Pruitt’s claim isn’t that the EPA should pursue a different goal. Rather, he is responding to the widespread perception that the EPA’s scientific conclusions cannot be trusted.

Widespread, that is, among Trump supporters. They point to the fact that even before Trump’s candidacy, only 6 percent of scientists identified as Republicans. They worry that the scientists who advise the EPA are the same scientists who depend on EPA grants for their research. At the same time, supporters of more stringent environmental regulations distrust scientific studies funded by regulated businesses, as attested by the cottage industry of books bearing titles such as “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.”

Trust is essential to holding society together, but increasingly we only trust people like us. We make our judgments about what is true based on our affinity with those who say it. As President Barack Obama warned in his farewell speech, we “retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. … [W]e become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”

There is no single answer to solving our crisis of trust. And Pruitt’s proposals face legitimate concerns about how to reconcile the competing demands of transparency and privacy. The biggest mistake, though, would be to pretend that the selective distrust of environmental science will simply disappear. Our trust problem will persist far longer than Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA.

John Copeland Nagle is a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

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