The Trump administration is limiting the EPA’s resources

The Environment Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. (credit: Courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, via Flickr) The Environment Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. (credit: Courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, via Flickr)

This week, Pugwash discussed President Donald Trump and his effect on the future of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Trump’s budget violently slashes the EPA by 31 percent, eliminating things such as climate change research and other scientific endeavors housed in the department.

Similar to other discussions we’ve had this year, Pugwash’s aim was to figure out what could be done to build the bridges between the EPA and parts of the population who have come to see it as emblematic of the Washington swamp.

Many in the coal industry blame former President Barack Obama’s regulations for the rapid decline of coal. This blame is misplaced, as it is natural gas that has undercut the market for coal. Furthermore, workers have been largely replaced by automation, making it harder for lifelong coal miners to find work. Many people in coal country who lost their jobs over the last eight years turned to Trump in an effort to hit back at Washington elites and revitalize the industry. This endangers the scientific research being done in an agency like the EPA that has been used to enforce the regulations. Since the energy and agriculture sectors, the industries most often associated with climate change, are such large employers in the United States, this turns vast swaths of the population against the EPA. Political polarization in the United States has led people to turn against the very existence of the EPA, not just the regulations that affect them.

One Pugwash member posited that this problem is made worse by the amount of money in industries associated with climate change. They spend much money on lobbying and campaign donations, so politicians oppose scientific research to keep their seats.

It’s difficult to convince the public that something like the EPA is important. Its mission can seem removed from a lot of people’s lives, and the major political lightning rod associated with the EPA, climate change, is seen by many people as a distant, abstract notion despite the real damage it has already caused.

People prefer to hear about things that will affect them immediately, like the economy. Arguments about scientific consensus have little persuasive power. Trying to convince people with facts often has the opposite effect. This makes defending issues based on science a difficult proposition.

Trump’s budget almost certainly will not pass in its current form, but the hit to the EPA, along with the gag orders, poses a significant threat to scientific research and its communication. With little ability to change people’s minds through fact finding and increasingly hostile representation in government, scientists have found themselves in the political cross-hairs. This problem could represent a danger to the future of science in the United States.