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The Resistance: In the President’s Relentless War on Climate Science, They Fought Back

Scientists' efforts were often unseen and sometimes unsuccessful. But over four years, they mounted a guerilla defense that kept pressure on the Trump Administration.

By Marianne Lavelle

December 27, 2020

Every time the word “climate” was deleted from the name of his program at the Environmental Protection Agency, Dan Costa stuck it back in.

Chris Frey fought back in the unlikely setting of a hotel conference room, where he and 20 other members of an EPA science review panel dismissed by the Trump administration met to do their job anyway, later publishing their views in a prestigious medical journal.

And as Jeff Alson was walking out the door of the EPA in frustration after a 40-year career at the agency, he gave pep talks to the younger engineers about why they had to stay on.

“I told them what I’m going to do for you is go out and tell the truth, so that the public knows that this rollback is not being done by EPA staff, it is being done by other people in the government,” Alson said. 

These are snapshots of the resistance. Although their names are little known and their efforts often went unseen, they defied the relentless campaign President Donald Trump and his administration waged against mainstream science during the four years of his presidency—particularly the scientific consensus on climate change.The outcome of this war is yet to be written. Trump has rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations, loosening restrictions on fossil fuel development when the science points ever more urgently to the need to stop the reliance on energy sources that produce greenhouse gas emissions. In California earlier this year, the president summarized his administration’s attitude toward scientific expertise: “I don’t think the science knows,” he said, as the state’s worst wildfire season on record raged all around him.

But the Trump administration’s drive to dismiss and deny climate science has made only partial headway. In what may be a sign of the robustness of both the science and the U.S. institutions that support it, scientists inside and outside the federal agencies fought back.

When Trump and his team sidelined or silenced government experts, the scientists spoke out. When the administration eliminated or radically reshaped panels of outside advisers, scientists made sure their advice got on the record anyway. Fringe theories were relegated to footnotes or ignored, despite the administration’s efforts to elevate them. Mainstream views—including that greenhouse gases pose a danger to human health and the environment—largely prevailed.

It is unclear whether continued distrust in science will prove to be Trump’s lasting legacy, a hindrance to President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to put the nation on course to net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. 

In the final weeks of 2020, as it became clear (though perhaps not to the president himself) that Trump’s tenure was drawing to a close, his administration was attempting to lock disdain for science into federal decision-making, installing climate contrarians in influential positions and finalizing rules to hamper environmental protection for years to come.

But the scientists who stood their ground on climate say they see hope in Biden’s victory, and in a president-elect whose campaign included the most ambitious climate platform ever advanced by a major party’s presidential nominee, and was waged amid the worst public health crisis in a century.

“There’s a recognition in the American public that the nation didn’t pay attention to the science, and we are paying the price for it now,” said Chris Zarba, one of hundreds of EPA scientists who resigned or retired early in the Trump administration. “As a result, there may be an opportunity for a renewed appreciation for science by the American public, and the pandemic and the Biden administration may be able to make that point very powerfully.”

If so, the ground troops that paved the way for that resurgence included Zarba and other EPA staffers, alumni, and advisers—and even some of the Trump administration’s own appointees—who engaged in a four-year, multi-front guerilla defense of environmental science.

Small Protests Kept the Pressure On

In his 2016 campaign, Trump derided climate science as an expensive “hoax” and promised to reduce the EPA “to little tidbits.” Based on such pronouncements, his presidency was seen as a threat in the science community from early on. Yet few foresaw how complete the administration’s rollback of climate policy would be, or the devastation that would result from its sidelining of federal scientists and embrace of fringe theories about the coronavirus pandemic.

“No previous administration in the modern era has so willfully, brazenly, and comprehensively based its decision-making on ignorance,” said Geoffrey Supran, a science history fellow at Harvard University. 

Lab-coated demonstrators registered their objections in March 2017, in a nationwide March for Science that Supran helped organize. Yet the most important protests during the Trump administration took place not in the streets but behind the scenes, in hearing rooms, in paper trails, in quietly placed phone calls. 

Dan Costa did not set out to be part of this underground resistance against the Trump administration. Director of the Air, Climate and Energy Research Program at EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, when Trump was elected, Costa put together briefing material for the incoming administration, just as he had done in the four previous presidential turnovers he had witnessed in his 34 years at the agency. “Every administration brings in a different philosophy, not just a political philosophy, but also a kind of modus operandi—how they get things done,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of these transitions before. I thought we’d figure it out.”

But when the day came for the Trump transition team to arrive at the agency (“when people bring out the coffee and cookies,” as Costa put it), no one showed up.

What seemed at first like disregard soon looked more like outright hostility. In June 2017, The New England Journal of Medicine published groundbreaking air pollution research—one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted—funded in part by Costa’s program. In an analysis of the health records of 60 million Medicare recipients, the Harvard researchers showed that tens of thousands of premature deaths were linked to exposure to fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, the pollution from combustion, even at levels that met the national standard.

The study had great significance for climate, because it underscored the risks of fossil fuels, and great significance for the EPA, because the agency was in the midst of a legally required review of the adequacy of the PM 2.5 standard.

So Costa was stunned to read an attack on the study by an EPA staffer in a story in The Washington Times.  An unnamed Trump administration spokesman from EPA’s public affairs office was quoted as saying that the conclusions of the research were not “supported by direct evidence.” The spokesman said, falsely, that the study had failed to take into account risk factors such as smoking, obesity and income, or the possibility that people had died in car crashes—all of which had been addressed by researchers, both in the study design, which factored out more than 100 confounding variables, and in multiple quality checks, called sensitivity analyses.

Most disturbing of all to Costa, the spokesman suggested that the Harvard researchers were hiding something. “The authors should release the data to better inform the public of the merits of its conclusions,” the spokesman said. But the data was already publicly available from Medicare, the EPA, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It was just completely bogus,” Costa said of the Trump administration’s response. Knowing he was nearing retirement, Costa told his supervisor he was willing “to take the bullet” and speak out in the study’s defense, contradicting the administration’s party line. But his boss advised him not to rock the boat, and Costa agreed, not wanting to make life harder for his colleagues.

He hung on at the agency until the end of Trump’s first year, getting his group started on research into the pulmonary effects of wildfire, a topic he felt would not draw the ire of Trump’s political team, since the link to favored industries like coal was indirect. He watched his colleagues hunker down, too.

“All during this period, particularly on the climate side, there was a growing sort of self-censorship,” Costa said. “You change the words. You don’t have ‘climate’ up front. You talk about ‘environmental changes,’ or ‘evolving environmental concerns.'” 

None of the Trump administration political appointees said anything to Costa directly, but when they sent him budget documents for review, they removed the word “climate” from his program’s name. He reinserted it, doing so again and again until he retired from the agency in January 2018. The administration promptly renamed the program the “Air and Energy Research Program.”

Although the Trump administration won the naming battle, once Costa left the agency, he began speaking out. He joined a newly-formed group of EPA alumni, the Environmental Protection Network, who came together to share their inside knowledge with the press, with health and environmental advocacy organizations, and with politicians on Capitol Hill. Costa began working with the American Thoracic Society on a proposal for increased funding for research into the health effects of wildfire. And he testified before Congress on the public health effects of climate change, and his view that the Trump administration was derailing the mission that had guided EPA since it was established 50 years ago. 

“I knew I could speak out freely once out, and did so,” Costa said. “I felt I had a unique perspective, coming from hard science and being part of the science leadership with daily policy interactions.”

Trump EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has dismissed the criticisms of “that politically active group of former EPA staffers that just attack everything.” 

But Costa said he thinks the activist network, which now numbers 500 EPA alumni, “kept the pressure on EPA, brought some critical things into the open, and set the stage for a rebuild, perhaps rebirth, of EPA as it enters the next 50 years of its existence.”

Costa was one of more than 1,600 federal scientists who left the federal government in the first two years of the Trump administration, according to calculations The Washington Post made earlier this year—a 1.5 percent drop compared with an 8 percent increase in the number of government scientists under President Barack Obama. 

The pressure on climate scientists was not just at EPA, it was across the federal government. At the Interior Department, scientific studies on the health effects of mountaintop removal mining and the safety of offshore drilling were canceled, and scientists in the U.S. Geological Survey’s Climate and Land Use Change Research Program were dispersed. At the Agriculture Department, dozens of studies on climate change were buried and offices relocated, prompting top agency climate scientists to quit. At the Energy Department, more than 40 studies on the benefits of renewable energy were blocked from publication by agency officials. 

But at no agency was the strain more severe than at the EPA, under Trump’s first administrator, Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who had sued the agency more than a dozen times, and then his successor, Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist. Although Congress never went along with the massive budget cuts Trump proposed for the agency, staffing at EPA fell by nearly 10 percent in a single year, to about 14,200, its lowest level in 33 years.

“These are people who had spent their lives establishing the scientific foundations for those regulations, or had worked to craft sensible regulations and put them in place,” said John Holdren, co-director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at Harvard, who served as Obama’s top science adviser. “They were then forced to watch it all destroyed, pell-mell.”

Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who served as President George W. Bush’s first EPA Administrator, had experience in clashing with the White House over climate change. But she said there was nothing like the Trump administration’s effort to manipulate how science was conducted. “There were certainly people who questioned science within the Bush administration,” she said. “But there wasn’t a war on science. This has been an outright war on the EPA, a physical effort to strangle the agency.”

‘They Basically Cooked the Books’ 

Jeff Alson, a senior engineer with EPA’s vehicles lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan, knew something was wrong soon after Trump took office, when the fuel economy group at the Department of Transportation stopped talking to his team. 

The two agency teams had worked hand-in-hand on the nation’s first greenhouse gas standards for automobiles under Obama. “We had worked together every month, most of the time every week, and sometimes every day when we had deadlines coming up,” Alson recalled recently. “We knew the names of their spouses and how many kids they had and where they went on vacation.” Now, the fuel economy group wouldn’t return the phone calls of EPA’s engineers.

The Transportation Department analysts finally unveiled their work to Alson’s dumbstruck team at EPA via a video conference call in January 2018. The cost-benefit analysis they had previously worked on together was replaced with new numbers that shrunk the benefits of reducing carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, and added new costs, like increased car crashes, noise and congestion. Instead of the government’s previous conclusion that the clean car standards would bring $100 billion in net benefits to the economy, the new analysis concluded they would result in $200 billion in net costs. 

 

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