Trump hates science, and the Department of the Interior hates transparency.
Slashing Funding for Science, Yet Again
President Trump released his budget for fiscal year 2020 on Monday. Here’s a game: Whenever a president proposes a budget, count how many members of Congress declare it “dead on arrival.” (To get you started: Representatives Tim Ryan [D-OH], Gerald Connolly [D-VA], and Eliot Engel [D-NY], along with Senator Chris Murphy [D-CT], all deemed it so this week.) “Dead on arrival” is one of Washington’s most enduring and least endearing clichés. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) adds his own little twists, calling this year’s budget “dead on arrival and divorced from reality.” In 2017, Leahy said of Trump’s proposal, “More than being dead on arrival, this budget is truly odious on arrival.”
One day, maybe a president with a sense of humor will deliver the budget to Capitol Hill via a jazz funeral. At least it would make this meaningless budget ritual interesting again.
In any event, let’s hope the Trump budget is indeed DOA and not just mostly dead, because it’s a disaster for the environment. Take, for example, the proposal to cut funding to restore the Great Lakes by 90 percent. The program, which began in 2010, has cleaned up toxic sediment from harbors and rivers in the region, restored wetlands, fought invasive species, and lessened the nutrient runoff that contributes to aquatic dead zones.
Trump officials argue that states should pay for those initiatives, but we tried that approach in the 1950s and it led to rivers catching on fire. Our natural environments cross state borders, which is why the federal government manages the lion’s share of conserving them. Even Republican members of Congress, like Michigan’s Bill Huizenga, have attacked Trump’s proposal to retreat from restoration of the Great Lakes, which account for 84 percent of the fresh water on our continent’s surface.
More broadly, Trump’s budget proposes to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent. The cut is similar to the one he proposed last year, and presumably Congress will respond similarly by ignoring the president. The EPA budget for 2019 was almost identical to its prior-year budget.
Environmentalists shouldn’t feel singled out—Trump seems to hate almost all scientific fields. He has proposed massive cuts to the National Institutes of Health (the country’s main medical research agency) and the National Science Foundation (a key source of federal backing for many scientific fields and a support for science education at all levels). And if it were up to him, a cutting-edge research program in the Department of Energy—which helps fund renewable energy innovations—wouldn’t even exist.
Freedom to FOIA
The Freedom of Information Act—which guarantees public access to the vast majority of executive branch documents—is indisputably one of the most important laws of the past century. Its primary champion in the Senate viewed it as a bulwark against dictatorship and a protector of national security. For President Trump, it’s an inconvenience at the best of times and a threat most of the time.
The Trump administration has been doing its best to undermine and ignore FOIA. Among the chief offenders is the Department of the Interior. News emerged this week that Interior has failed to release 18 memos, drafted by government scientists, that describe the risks of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite FOIA requests that should have compelled their disclosure. The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility obtained the leaked memos.
The documents present twin problems for the administration. First, the concerns their authors raise could significantly set back President Trump’s push to drill in the Arctic refuge. The administration is required by law to conduct a thorough environmental assessment of that plan, and it appears that Interior’s draft assessment excluded the content of these memos. A court will be concerned by that omission.
Then there is the broader issue of secrecy. Before the latest scandal, DOI had moved to clamp down on FOIA requests. The agency proposed a rule that would allow it to determine on its own initiative whether a FOIA request was too burdensome, as well as place limits on the volume of requests that a single individual or nongovernmental organization could make. Those changes are clearly aimed at watchdog groups that have repeatedly embarrassed the administration with revelations about financial and ethical abuses, particularly at Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Last week a bipartisan group of senators wrote to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to condemn the department’s move to resist FOIA requests. “The American people have the right to access information from DOI,” the senators wrote, “and the proposed rule needlessly encroaches on that right.”
In light of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge revelation, it’s clear that Interior’s aversion to releasing agency records has nothing to do with paperwork or administrative burdens, and everything to do with silencing dissent. This is exactly what the Freedom of Information Act was designed to prevent.
Too Much Is Never Enough
President Trump tweeted about climate change again this week. This time he quoted Patrick Moore, a climate change denier with long-severed ties to Greenpeace.
This tweet, like all of Trump’s climate comments, is chock-full of nonsense. But let’s focus on one of the more absurd insinuations—that high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cannot be dangerous, because carbon dioxide is an important chemical for life on Earth.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the illogic of this, but here’s a hypothetical scenario to help put it in perspective. Imagine that a toddler is crawling along the edge of a swimming pool. Just before you rush over to prevent the child from toppling into the deep end, President Trump calls out from his lounge chair, “Don’t bother! In fact, water is the main building block of all life!” If you find that argument convincing, I strongly recommend that you avoid babysitting.
It’s not just water and carbon dioxide; many chemicals that are essential to life are dangerous in high concentrations and in certain contexts. Excessive oxygen is toxic. High levels of potassium in the body is a potentially dangerous medical condition called hyperkalemia. Any package of salt will tell you that iodine is a necessary nutrient for human health, but too much is poisonous.
People who argue that carbon dioxide can’t be harmful shouldn’t be setting climate policy.
Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.