By Elena Saxonhouse, Sierra Club
On the eve of the People’s Climate March, which drew many thousands of people to Washington, D.C., to demand stronger action on climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was “updating” web pages that had formerly explained the causes of global warming to “reflect the approach of new leadership.”
The Sierra Club had pointed to these very web pages in its March 2017 request for an investigation into whether EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had violated the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy when he stated on international television that he did not agree carbon dioxide was a primary contributor to global warming. The EPA’s own website, at the time, explained that carbon dioxide is indeed a key cause of climate change, citing mountains of research that had undergone robust peer review. Pointing to Pruitt’s close ties with fossil fuel companies opposing regulation of carbon pollution, we asked the EPA Inspector General to enforce the letter and the spirit of the Scientific Integrity Policy. The Policy advises that to “operate an effective science and regulatory agency like the EPA, it is . . . essential that political or other officials not suppress or alter scientific findings” or “exaggerate, or downplay areas of scientific uncertainty associated with policy decisions.”
The removal of the agency’s webpages describing the causes of climate change is an alarming development. It suggests that instead of correcting Administrator Pruitt’s false version of the state of climate science, the agency is conforming its website to reflect the Administrator’s “alternative facts.” With several petitions currently pending before the agency to withdraw the agency’s formal finding that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, the move is especially disturbing. On Friday, we supplemented our request, adding the new steps EPA political appointees are taking to make climate change denial the official policy of the United States.
As we told the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Official, who is reviewing the request upon referral from the Inspector General, scientific facts cannot be erased or revised to “reflect the approach” of new political appointees. The Agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy is clear on this point:
- The Policy “is intended to outline the Agency’s expectations for developing and communicating scientific information to the public, to the scientific community, to Congress, and to the news media by further providing for and protecting the EPA’s longstanding commitment to the timely and unfiltered dissemination of its scientific information – uncompromised by political or other interference.”;
- “The Agency’s scientists and managers are expected to: Represent Agency scientific activities clearly, accurately, honestly, objectively, thoroughly, without political or other interference”;
- “Under no circumstances should the public affairs staff attempt to alter or change scientific findings or results. The role of the public affairs officer is to ensure that the science is plainly and clearly communicated for the intended audience in a timely fashion.”
The move to revise portions of the agency’s website that are merely reporting facts,not policy, violates these principles. It is the next step in the erosion of scientific integrity at the agency that began with Pruitt’s misinformation on the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming. EPA staff told the Washington Post, “[W]e can’t have information [on the website] which contradicts the actions we have taken in the last two months.” This attempt to bend facts to political will cannot be normalized. It is unacceptable behavior for the leadership of any administrative agency –- and especially for one that prides itself on science-based decisionmaking.
We are urging the Scientific Integrity Official to use her oversight authority to stem the loss of scientific integrity at the agency. Rather than suppressing the scientific data that has been hosted on the EPA’s website for decades, the agency should maintain this public resource. That it clearly contradicts Pruitt’s statements on carbon dioxide should lead him to correct himself, not to order his staff to take down the website.
The Pruitt EPA has now gone beyond threatening our air, water, and health, to attack the basic tenet of American democracy that policy decisions should be based on fact. Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program will continue to use every avenue available, from the courts to internal agency procedures, to make sure each of these attacks fail. Pruitt can change a website but he can’t change our resolve to protect our planet, our communities, and our democracy.