I remember it distinctly and as if the world were about to change. President Obama had taken office – the excitement was palpable – and I was about to teach my first semester as a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in their wonderful Environmental Law Clinic. On the same day that I turned 30, Lisa P. Jackson was confirmed as the President’s first U.S. EPA Administrator. Her message to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was simple and impactful: “If I am confirmed, I will administer with science as my guide.”
There was something about that idea, using science as the way to move forward on agency decision-making, that left me both in awe and quite fearful. When thinking about environmental decision-making, as I now teach in my Environmental Science, Ethics & Public Policy class at Pitt, the governmental actor is often met with scientific evidence that is woefully incomplete, unclear, or even equally persuasive on all sides of an issue. While environmental law is rife with standards that rely on scientific judgments, we are often left with questions about what should be done under the circumstances and why, which are typically housed in the realm of law, policy, or ethics.
Using science, alone, to make an argument means that we rely on the most persuasive scientist to make our decisions. That's scary not just because our environmental laws are rich with language that allow our decision makers to do things for reasons other than what the most compelling science (or scientist) says, but also because accessibility to the decision-making process depends on the use and understanding of scientific standards and opinions that drive a certain result. Ideally, for example, a person in Flint, Michigan or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania stands up at a public meeting and says: “something is wrong, my water doesn’t look right,” then that person’s concern should be given the same amount of weight as the industry expert who just submitted an application for and received a permit to change the source water or change the treatment process at the drinking water treatment plant. But what Administrator Jackson was proposing sounded like the opposite of that ideal approach: I’ll rely on what the credible scientists tell me and that’s it.
Science seems like the most objective decision-making tool available until you have a community or an individual who cannot afford to build scientific evidence that supports their concerns. And even when each interested party has their own experts, the objectivity of scientific evidence becomes unclear.
Fast forward to the year 2017 with a new federal administration and an EPA Administrator whose opening statement to the Senate in his confirmation hearing contains no mention of science. Instead, Administrator Pruitt’s statement emphasizes cooperation, economic success and competitiveness, and overregulation. And then, on June 1, 2017, President Trump announced his determination on what is, perhaps, the most high-profile scientific case in the world: whether the U.S. will participate in worldwide efforts to reduce ever-rising global temperatures.
Advocates for a reduction in our contribution to the release of carbon dioxide and methane that are driving global temperatures upwards have always, like Lisa Jackson, led with science. It makes sense to do so. It’s a very strong argument. The scientific case that greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere and driving global temperatures upward at alarming rates is hard to dispute. In fact, when I hear attempts to dispute it, people focus on the question of whether human endeavors caused it or not rather than whether the cause and effect of greater greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leads to higher global temperatures. The problem in leading with science in the climate context is the same problem as using science as your guide for any other environmental decision: it’s not accessible.
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ask the advocate and author Naomi Klein a question about why she continues to lead her climate advocacy with a scientific argument. The question went something like this: “I find your argument about systematic abandonment by government of its people so compelling, but in almost every recent talk that I’ve heard you give, you seem to start first with the science of climate, which clearly offers compelling evidence, but also, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, tends to prove its hypothesis of environmental destruction by actually realizing the environmental devastation first and recovery second. So, why start with science?”
Long question, I know, but it felt important to ask since I know firsthand that the people who feel abandoned by their government in relationship to environmental impacts, which is a great many non-treehugging folks, are not looking to be lectured on science. They want someone to stand up for them. They want to feel protected by their surrounding community. They want to be able to use their water and breathe their air and not live in a dump. They want to be treated like they have significance no matter what the science says. Too often, the climate debate sounds like a war between those who declare themselves “educated” and those who are perceived as “uneducated.” We need to re-focus the debate on how we protect and support each other as a community.
So, Naomi Klein’s surprising response to my long-winded question? “I don’t know, what do you think I should start with?” I was admittedly stunned, but I ended up saying to her toward the end of the program: “the dispossessed. You should start with the dispossessed.”