The People’s EPA: Some Thoughts

The Burdensome Brand (full post)

I wrote that in March 2017, two months after the inauguration. Yet as clear the signs were, it was impossible to comprehend that so much lasting damage could be done so quickly. I was sure saner heads would prevail, or at least put a brake on the carnage.

No such luck. The policies of the Trump administration are even worse than imagined, both in scale and insidious detail. Who would have thought that the first “Trumpvilles” (“Trump Hotels”?) would turn out to be concentration camps for the children of asylum-seekers? Or that the first “Trump Coffins” would be for the estimated 5,000 people who died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria? As for “Trump Superstorms,” watch the Evening News for the latest (see Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Texas …and we’re only halfway through the year).

Meanwhile, the transformation of the Environmental Protection Agency into the Environmental Threat Agency is nearly complete. Rules have been changed so that the unarguably dangerous can be legally acceptable. Penalties have been waived so streams can be polluted with coal waste and air fouled by smog— changes that will cause or exacerbate chronic conditions for tens of millions of Americans (conditions that will rendered uninsurable as pre-existing).

Public wilderness areas have been opened up for private logging, mining and drilling. The Endangered Species Act is endangered.

Ongoing research has been unceremoniously cancelled and crippling funding cuts proposed. “The best science available” — a favorite fallback phrase of anti-science ideologues — soon won’t be very good at all, just the best available.

Instead of tracking pollutants, Trump’s EPA has shown much more interest in muzzling scientists whose findings don’t fit within the party line and bullying reporters who dare to do their job.

The mere mention of climate change is now verboten. So overriding is the mission to reverse course and push for the increased use of fossil fuels that even the specter of billions of dollars in real estate losses due to sea level rise isn’t enough to generate a scintilla of Trumpian concern. Instead fuel efficiency standards are to be rolled back and under the singularly ironic guise of national security, money-losing coal and nuclear power plants saved by a rate-payer-funded bailout. The effectiveness of dozens of US military installations all over the world may indeed be threatened by a combination of sea level rise and extreme weather events linked to a rapidly warming planet, but that’s just one more inconvenient truth.

Climate predictions made 30 years ago have proved frighteningly accurate, with levels of atmospheric carbon now hovering at 410 ppm, spiking to 412 ppm. The “safe” level of 350 ppm was last seen in 1990, the same year as Trump’s first bankruptcy.

Meanwhile the administration’s immigration policies have put a chill on international scientific collaboration. Foreign scientists are less inclined to travel to the US for conferences. They also face new obstacles to work here. Important international conferences have started to boycott the US both as a protest and as a practical accommodation for non-American attendees. This adds travel costs for American researchers whose budgets are already stretched.

New rules requiring Chinese students to renew visas on an annual basis instead of every five years could also have far-ranging, insidious implications. College administrators are concerned that foreign students in general will begin to consider options outside the US. Given that foreign students generally pay full tuition, universities have come to depend on them for their institutions’ fiscal well-being.

The future of the future is at stake, so what are we going to do about it?

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THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION CONSORTIUM

For the last couple of years I have asked scientists, technologists and policymakers what a “People’s EPA” might look like. Invariably “citizen science” comes up. Although enlisting the general public to gather data can be a powerful tool (see Galaxy Zoo and Wildbook), it is not the answer. It can help raise public awareness and get kids interested in science, which is great, but it barely makes a dent in the many issues involved in protecting the environment.

The question was poorly phrased. What is needed isn’t so much a “People’s EPA” but an alternate EPA that serves the people, one with the same depth, breadth and public profile as the original. Size and critical mass are essential to ensure that the general public—as well as scientists — recognize it as a serious resource.

In the hope of sparking a more meaningful conversation, I have sketched out some rough opening thoughts on what an Environmental Protection Consortium (EPC) might look like:

Guiding Principals: With a nod to Isaac Asimov, there are three and they dovetail:

  1. Health (people, planet)
  2. Resilience
  3. Long-term Economic Prosperity (e.g., Renewables and efficiency are essential for growing a modern economy, with far-ranging economic impacts. Also see social cost of carbon)

Mission:

  1. To preserve, develop, synthesize, analyze and share data
  2. To create a platform for research, discovery and collaboration
  3. To develop tools such as AI to make it easier to discover patterns in the data (which can include data on environmental lawsuits)

Structure:

To start, 30 institutions and organizations will form the core of the EPC. These can that include universities, independent research labs, libraries, consultancies, reinsurance companies and NGOs. They will be selected for their strength in one of three areas: air, water, earth (these include the plants and animals who call those habitats home). As the EPC develops, there can be further divisions such as mobility / transportation, urban planning and buildings.

The core will determine the logistics of how data will be stored and shared, along with metrics for determining the affiliation of other institutions and organizations and a code of ethics.

The EPC will eventually function on four levels: local, regional, national, global.

Archives & Publications:

  1. A series of open source journals (perhaps developed using the low-cost Scholastic platform) with a common set of standards. For example, studies would be marked to indicate whether they had been peer-reviewed, etc.
  2. EPC members who publish in subscription journal required to submit abstracts along with short, jargon-free descriptions and a list of key authors and contacts, which will be published in an open source journal. This will make it easier for other researchers to learn about the work.
  3. A database of lawsuits
  4. A database of relevant articles from non-science publications and reports
  5. A database of datasets

Tools: Data are only as useful as they are searchable, so developing user-friendly tools for search and analysis will be vital.

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An independent EPC won’t have EPA’s regulatory authority, but as the threat of another Dark Ages closes in, an EPC could play a vital role safeguarding knowledge, fostering collaboration and empowering us all to protect our shared environment.

What we don’t know can and will hurt us, so there is nothing to lose.

Let’s get started.

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