10 October 2020
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is turning its oversight of a number of environmental issues on tribal lands over to the state of Oklahoma.
Mandy Gunasekara, who previously led the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, tweeted a picture of herself being sworn in as Administrator Andrew Wheeler's chief of staff. "Officially back in action!" she wrote.
Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who is now acting administrator of the EPA, was a "driving force" behind the agenda of Sen. James Inhofe, who called climate change a "hoax," according to people familiar with Wheeler's work for the senator.
When I lived in Washington DC in the early 1980's, I'd occasionally stroll down to the Mall to see the then-new Vietnam War Memorial.
Tourists and grieving families would peruse the V-shaped wall to find names of loved ones, or just ponder America's most tragic war.
Another fixture at the Memorial were Vietnam vets, then mostly in their forties and wearing tattered, genuine combat fatigues, pressing the case that some of their buddies were still being held in tiger cages in Hanoi.
When I returned to work in DC in 2010, I was astonished to see many of the same vets still there, now in their seventies but still convinced that buddies were alive and imprisoned nearly a half century later. Not a whiff of evidence had surfaced in the intervening decades to support their beliefs, but they persist.
It's no different than the uniquely American battle over guns, where this country's consistent, tragic mass shooting events can't sway tens of millions of us that there may be a problem. Or the multiple theories about President Obama as a Kenyan-born, madrasa educated closet Muslim/Nazi/Communist. Or the anti-vaccine movement, birthed on a retracted paper published by a thoroughly discredited researcher.
Moral of the story: Rigid beliefs die hard, or not at all.
Over those same decades, there has been a persistent and logical belief that climate denial would be crushed by the weight of science, on-the-ground evidence, and simple common sense. While denial may have withered a bit – its most prominent advocates don't get booked on network TV any more, except for Fox News – it's here to stay.
Echoing a persistently wrong theme, the web publication Business Green ran a year-end op-ed in December declaring 2017 to be "The Year That Climate Denial Died."
I don't think so.
Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Credit: NASA
In the contentious 2018 midterm elections, while the Democrats could make some gains and possibly monkey-wrench Trump's rollbacks by reclaiming majorities in Congress, climate isn't a factor.
General revulsion to Trump's policies and personality is hardening America into a sharply divided land of Trump haters and Trump zealots. But those policies and personality are holding him relatively steady at about 40 percent support among Americans, and nearly 90 percent support among Republicans. Few GOP representatives or Senators seem poised to challenge him.
A few key Congressional deniers are retiring at the end of the year, notably Lamar Smith, who has used his chairmanship of the House Science Committee as a blunt instrument against science; and "Smoky Joe" Barton, a fellow Texan who in 2010 apologized to BP for alleged rough treatment by the Obama Administration after the largest offshore oil spill ever.
But many, many more are staying. Jim Inhofe, a spry 83 years old, hasn't yet said whether he'll run again in 2020. If he does, there's no reason to believe that the king of Senate climate denial won't reprise his 40 percentage point victory in 2014.
John Barrasso's seat is just as safe. The gentleman from the Wyoming coalfields won his second term by a three-to-one margin, and is running for his third in November. Unless the Democrats stun the political world by wresting control of the Senate, Barrasso will likely continue as Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Inhofe and Barrasso have dozens of ideological soulmates in the House and Senate. John Shimkus, who is given to citing the Book of Genesis as proof that climate change is impossible, won by three to one in 2014 and ran unopposed two years later. He has a longshot opponent this year.
On the non-government side, the Heartland Institute staff — infamous for their billboard linking climate scientists or activists to the Unabomber and Osama bin Laden—now must remove their tinfoil hats while passing through White House metal detectors to advise the Administration.
Former Inhofe aide Marc Morano has seen his media profile shrink, but he still leads a cadre of deniers who accuse climate scientists of only being in it for the money. According to recent IRS filings, Morano's employer pays him a base salary of $188,000.
So the moral of this story is that climate denial may not be growing, but it's a fool's errand to think that it will vanish any time soon. Climate change is showing us its real costs every day and clean energy is finally taking off, but denial lives in the highest levels of American government .
And denial will continue to thwart, or at least slow, progress.
Environmental Protection Agency interim chief Andrew Wheeler faces his first congressional test Wednesday when he testifies at his first hearing since taking over for scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt.
Facebook is still struggling to contain its fake news problem.
It is said that things come in threes. In the case of Senator James Inhofe, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and newly-confirmed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, it may be true of people, too.
All three cut their political teeth in the city of Tulsa. Now, with Inhofe four decades into a national anti-environmental career for the ages; Pruitt trying to outdo him in little more than a year, and Bridenstine quitting Congress to oversee NASA's space and earth science, a less-than-grateful environmental community says, "Thanks, Tulsa."
"Tulsa used to be a vibrant, progressive city," laments lifelong Tulsan Barbara Vanhanken, who represents Eastern Oklahoma in the state's 4,300-member Sierra Club chapter. But she acknowledges that Tulsa's 400,000 residents have always been loyal to the oil and gas industry, as the name of its minor league baseball team, the Drillers, suggests.
The state's Sierra Club Director, Johnson Bridgwater, goes a bit farther, saying the state's politics are the province of "oil and gas billionaires." He credits Pruitt's and Bridenstine's recent emergences in Washington – and Inhofe's longevity – to the state's petro-patrons.
No one in Oklahoma's seven-member congressional delegation, all Republicans, managed better than a 9 percent on the 2017 scorecard of the League of Conservation Voters (Bridenstine was at 3 percent, and Inhofe drew a zero).
It wasn't always the case with Oklahoma leaders. Carl Albert was a Congressional icon who championed Medicare and other programs that are now part of a bitter ideological struggle. His six years as Speaker of the House spanned the fall of South Vietnam and the downfall of Richard Nixon. An iconoclastic liberal Oklahoma Senator, Fred Harris, launched a quixotic 1972 presidential run with the slogan "No More Bull Shit" (really).
Mike Synar, an eight-term Congressman from Muskogee, made pesticide safety his signature issue, championing efforts to forbid pesticides banned for use in the U.S. from being exported for use in other countries.
Synar was voted out in 1994, shortly before dying of a brain tumor.
More affable than angry in his style, Inhofe is a vigorous octogenarian who, if he chooses, is up for re-election in 2020. He would turn 86 less than two weeks after election day.
His family left Iowa for Tulsa when Inhofe was young. He attended Tulsa schools, spent two years in the Army, and returned home to launch a 30 year career in real estate and insurance, concurrently serving as a state representative, senator, and ultimately three-term mayor of Tulsa. He quit the private sector and was elected to the first of four terms as Tulsa's Congressman in 1987.
Inhofe rose to the U.S. Senate via a special election in 1994 and quickly became a standard-bearer for conservative causes – fighting against marriage equality, gun control, entitlement programs, and most famously of all, climate science. He called climate change the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." James Mountain Inhofe is the undisputed alpha dog of climate denial in the U.S. government.
Inhofe ran the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for six years. Aided by staffer Marc Morano, Inhofe became a virtuoso in climate snark. Morano left the Senate staff in 2009 for a private sector career as the P.T. Barnum of climate denial. Inhofe built an igloo on the Capitol grounds in 2010 and tossed a snowball at the Senate's presiding officer in 2014.
On more than one occasion, Inhofe has referred to Scott Pruitt as one of his best friends in politics. Other observers see Inhofe as Pruitt's mentor and political sponsor.
Pruitt left his native Kentucky to attend law school at the University of Tulsa, and stayed on after passing the bar. For five years, his private practice specialized in defending religious freedom. Pruitt traced Inhofe's steps through the Oklahoma State Senate, representing the Tulsa area for eight years starting at age 30 in 1998.
Pruitt waged unsuccessful runs for Congress and Lieutenant Governor, but in 2010, he won the race for state Attorney General, quickly establishing a reputation as the federal EPA's most aggressive foe. He also led a curious investigation of the Humane Society of the United States after the animal protection group focused on conditions on factory farms and ranches in the state. Pruitt's AG office quietly dropped the investigation two years later when HSUS sued the state, alleging harassment.
Narrowly approved by the U.S. Senate in February, 2017, Pruitt pressed ahead on parallel paths of science denial, clear-cutting EPA rules and enforcement actions, and apparently lavish spending on travel, security, and perks. Even Inhofe expressed concern about Pruitt's seeming lack of ethical boundaries.
Enter Jim Bridenstine. He endured a rough confirmation vote earlier this month. His across-the-board opposition to environmental regulation may not come into frequent play as NASA Administrator, but his stone-cold embrace of climate denial surely could. He has opined that "there is no credible scientific evidence that greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations, including carbon dioxide, affect global climate." As a Congressman, he is on the record as favoring NASA's exit from its central role in climate and other Earth science research.
While he's an accomplished pilot, Bridenstine has no science or space credentials. Managing NASA's $19 billion budget will also be a novel experience for him. His leadership of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum ended in a swirl of controversy in 2010, with accusations of mismanagement and conflict of interest.
The Sierra Club's Bridgwater holds out hope that bright-red Oklahoma could produce another Mike Synar. While 4,300 members in a state of four million hardly makes the Sierra Club a political dynamo, he says it represents 36 percent growth since 2016.
Stranger things have happened.
Like Oklahoma becoming the nation's earthquake leader.
Our friends at FERN suggest a possible solution to foodborne e. coli outbreaks.
"The damn thing melted." A changing Arctic changes global security. (New Security Beat).
Coal ash is raising health concerns at Puerto Rico's only coal-burning power plant. (PBS NewsHour)
Jason Mark's cover story for Sierra Magazine: The case for climate reparations.
For the first quarter of 2018, Big Oil has returned to raking in billions. (Houston Chronicle)
From The Revelator: The imperiled fossil record in the Bears Ears National Monument may hold valuable climate lessons.
On Public Radio International's Living On Earth, EHN's Peter Dykstra and Steve Curwood discuss NASA's newly-approved, climate-denying Administrator and more.
Scott Pruitt said a deputy did a "great job" in St. Louis. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls BS.
San Francisco Chronicle editorial: "Scott Pruitt, swamp thing."
From Evan Halper at the LA Times: The Trump Administration and California are poised to collide over fuel efficiency standards.
Nice summary from Politico of EPA's Scott Pruitt in congressional testimony this week.
But wait, there's more! The EPA Inspector General opens new investigations into Pruitt's conduct. (Huff Post)
D'oh! Why it matters that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wore his National Park ranger hat backwards in a photo op.
The company scraps planned Pennsylvania investments and will instead shut down three polluting batteries in 2023. The announcement comes a week after a study shows lower lung function in people living near its Pittsburgh-region facility.
EHN.org scientific investigation finds western Pennsylvania families near fracking are exposed to harmful chemicals, and regulations fail to protect communities' mental, physical, and social health.