Reader View: U.S. must retain scientific leadership

March 5, 2017 GMT

The upheaval in Washington, D.C., includes one surprising objective — the discrediting of scientists. The assertion that climate change is a Chinese hoax was bad enough. Now the administration has made a climate denier the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, taken down web pages that inform the public about agency work and threatened to slash funding at EPA. The threat comes from Congress as well; 114 representatives have signed on to legislation that would overturn EPA’s finding that carbon dioxide and methane are pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The reason for this House bill is clear enough — it would eviscerate almost all climate regulation by EPA. The Bureau of Land Management’s methane regulations also are under attack. Methane is a pollutant that is far more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.

I was around when the environmental protection movement started in the United States. My parents had Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and I remember their horror when my Girl Scout camp sprayed DDT on our tents to get rid of mosquitoes. When I was in college, President Richard Nixon signed major environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. By the time I left law school, the new field of environmental law had been created. In my first days in New Mexico, I worked with Los Alamos scientists and citizen activists to protect our national forests and to close dirty power plants. I have continued environmental work and research in my adult career, and have been proud to be part of what I thought was an upward arc toward a sustainable world.

The United States created an international paradigm for environmental law, one that has been incorporated into the law of other nations and into international agreements. Our institutions, such as the Food and Drug Administration, the National Academies of Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency, to name but a few, are respected internationally. And our universities are closely linked to federal agencies, training scientists for future careers and receiving significant funding for research.

U.S. leadership on climate, while belated, is one of the reasons that we now have the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, which commits all of the signatories to significant reductions in greenhouse gases and to assisting those nations that will be most affected by rising sea levels, loss of croplands and other effects of climate change.

There is palpable fear in federal agencies about how science will fare now. Scientists have responded to the threats to science with calls for a nationwide march on Washington (www.marchforscience.com), and federal employees quickly created unofficial Twitter accounts where agency personnel could speak freely. Democratic U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich just co-sponsored Senate Bill 338, the Scientific Integrity Act, which would require federal agencies to allow scientists to share data and ensure the integrity of scientific processes within agencies.

Most scientists have avoided the public forum, motivated both as part of professional mores as well as a personal inclination to remain above the fray or under the radar. I urge people to reconsider; everyone’s voices are needed now whether one is a scientist, engineer, teacher, city official or a retiree. There are both private and public ways to be effective. Talk to our elected officials, participate in elections, attend town halls, write letters to the editor, but please don’t remain silent.

Denise D. Fort is professor emerita at The University of New Mexico School of Law and former director of the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division.