Week 142: President Trump Honors Science Denial. Again.

And sticks it to California. Again.

October 11, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (Trump photo: Gage Skidmore)

The Science Denial Is So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

One of the few comforts we can take during the current renaissance of science denial is that history will judge climate change deniers harshly. But this week, some doubt seeped into that assumption, as President Trump bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Edwin Meese III. Meese is the Reagan-era attorney general who denied science behind the most urgent environmental crisis of the 1980s, the expanding hole in the ozone layer.

The story began in the mid 1970s, when chemists F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina warned the world of a grave threat: Chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the atmosphere’s ozone layer, which provides critical protection against harmful solar energy. If we continued to use CFCs in hair spray, perfume, and refrigerants, they said, the ozone layer would eventually disappear. Sunburn would become the norm, and rates of skin cancer would skyrocket. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the ozone layer makes life as we know it possible.

Rowland and Molina’s bombshell split the Reagan administration in two. Reagan’s more clearheaded advisers, like Secretary of State George Shultz, advocated for an immediate phasedown of CFCs. The other camp, represented aggressively by Attorney General Meese, questioned the underlying science and worried that phasing out CFC production and use would hurt the economy.

Sound familiar? (Cough, cough . . . climate change . . . cough.) Then you can probably guess what happened next. The chemicals industry formed its own group to churn out dubious science. They created phony grassroots groups to oppose regulation. (Among the gullible Americans who bought into the ozone denial campaign was the current acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, William Perry Pendley, who as late as 1992 was claiming there was no credible evidence of a hole in the ozone layer. Donald Trump himself has also argued that his hair spray chemicals can’t damage the ozone layer because his apartment is “sealed.”)

The chemicals industry eventually enlisted the secretary of energy at the time, Donald Hodel, to plead its case to the public. That turned out to be a mistake. In an ill-advised phone call—that’s putting it gently—Hodel suggested to reporters that, rather than phase down CFCs, Americans should just wear hats, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Hodel later tried to walk back his words, but the damage was done. Even his fellow Republicans in the Senate called the proposal “absurd.”

Legal action eventually cornered Reagan, Hodel, and Meese. NRDC (onEarth’s publisher) sued the administration in 1984 to force its hand on CFC regulations. The lawsuit changed the state of play. If U.S. companies were forced to phase out CFCs, they would be at a competitive disadvantage as foreign companies continued to use the chemicals. Recognizing that the case was unwinnable—because CFCs really were a danger—Reagan changed course. The administration settled the lawsuit and moved forward on an international agreement to phase down CFCs, leveling the playing field around the world. That laid the groundwork for the Montreal Protocol, which has dramatically reduced CFC usage and helped patch up the ozone layer.

Rowland and Molina had the last laugh. They won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for their work, which saved too many lives to count. And Hodel will probably never live down his hat and sunglasses solution. But Hodel’s colleague Meese was also on the wrong side of science and history, and decades later he still received the nation’s highest civilian honor. The travesty is a depressing reminder that the annals of history aren’t as rational as we expect them to be.

Frack You, Cali

President Trump and the state of California have never gotten along well. Trump has blamed state leaders for wildfires on federal land, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is involved in at least 60 lawsuits against the administration. But tensions have been escalating ever since the Golden State struck a deal with carmakers on auto emissions standards, thus undermining the administration’s attempts to roll back progress on fuel efficiency. Now Trump seems to be doing everything in his power to harass, annoy, and provoke Californians.

At the heart of the matter, he is trying to revoke California’s right to set its own air quality standards, which is written into federal law and has endured since 1970 through presidents of both parties. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Andrew Wheeler, has sent a series of letters accusing the state of failing to meet federal environmental standards—making California perhaps the only entity that Trump’s EPA is actually bothering to regulate. To boot, Trump has tweeted some truly bizarre accusations about hypodermic needles traveling through the sewers into the San Francisco Bay.

Late last week, the feud continued when the Bureau of Land Management officially ended a five-year moratorium on oil and gas lease sales along California’s Central Coast. If the order takes effect, 725,000 acres of federal land would be up for grabs, and 32 wells might be drilled in the territory.

The move is an especially obnoxious finger in California’s eye because many of the affected counties have already passed local ordinances banning fracking. Peer-reviewed research demonstrates special fracking risks in California due to water concerns. Much of the fracking occurs in dry areas, and the withdrawal of large amounts of freshwater for oil and gas extraction exacerbates shortages. California’s fracked wells are also unusually shallow and are adjacent to drinking water sources.

Perhaps Trump’s hoping some fracking-fueled earthquakes will send California into the ocean once and for all.

Block the Trump Agenda

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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