We Need an Environmental Dr. Fauci

Much of environmental law is about protecting public health. But the Trump Administration won’t listen.

During the coronavirus crisis, Dr. Anthony Fauci has become the voice of reason. Much of the public turns to him for critical information about public health, while even Trump finds it necessary to listen. In the Trump era, no one plays that role in the environmental area. The result is a mindless campaign of deregulation that imperils public health and safety.

We can’t clone Dr. Fauci or duplicate the unique circumstances that have made his voice so powerful.  However, we can do several things that would make it harder for Administrations to ignore science:

  • Congress needs to greatly strengthen laws protecting whistleblowers, which currently are much weaker than most people realize.
  • Congress also needs to codify into law the existing rules protecting scientific integrity within administrative agencies. Currently there are merely internal regulations that agencies can ignore.
  • Either Congress or the courts need to block another proposed EPA initiative. That initiative uses “scientific transparency” as an excuse for telling EPA to ignore important research on public health.
  • We need to have evaluations of the public health effects of environmental regulation from a source that the public trusts. The best way to do so is to give the job to the CDC.

Two recent deregulatory moves illustrate the problem we’re facing.  Both show a willingness to ignore experts, ignore regulatory benefits, and sacrifice the public interest.  One of these deregulatory moves involves toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. The other involves fuel efficiency standards from cars, which reduce pollution by cutting the amount of gasoline cars burn. These recent initiatives illustrate problems that have been typical of the Trump Administration’s deregulatory push since early on.

The Trump Administration initiative involving power plant emissions is particularly blatant.  Cutting the emissions of toxics, like mercury, from burning coal will also cut emissions of fine particulates, thereby saving many lives.  At this point, the Trump Administration is engaged in a weird maneuver to eliminate the legal basis for the existing regulation, while leaving the regulation itself in effect. But, if successful, the result will be to block tighter future regulations that could save more lives.   How does the Trump Administration justify this move?  The answer is simple: It says that those thousands of deaths don’t count, because those people will be dying from the wrong cause (particulates rather than mercury).

As a recent article in the flagship scientific journal Science by a team of Harvard and Berkeley economists explains, this makes no sense from a policy perspective and violates the standard methodology for cost-benefit analysis used by the federal government.  Moreover, they point out, the Administration is also using stale data from 2011, which we now know underestimates the health impact of mercury emissions and badly overestimates the current costs of maintaining the regulation. They found “no defensible, economic basis” for the action. In fact, the Administration’s action makes so little sense that it was sharply criticized by EPA’s scientific advisory board, even though the board’s members were handpicked by the Trump Administration.

The other recent Trump Administration initiative involves a rollback of fuel efficiency standards for cars.  The rollback will cost the public money in the form of higher gasoline costs; it injures public health by increasing air pollution; and it accelerates climate change through higher carbon emissions.  Independent experts have been aghast since the early stages of this deregulatory effort. A recent analysis by economists at the highly respected environmental economics think tank, Resources for the Future, concludes that the existing Obama-era regulation is fully justified. Their findings “strongly suggest that these fuel economy standards have substantially benefited society on balance.”   Again, even EPA’s handpicked scientific advisory board was sharply critical of the Trump Administration initiative.

These issues may seem far removed from the coronavirus, but they’re not.  They involve the same blindness to science and indifference to public health that Trump showed until mid-March about the epidemic.  There’s another possible connection: evidence that people living in places with higher air pollution are more at risk from the coronavirus.

The public deserves to know the truth about the ways in which regulating pollution and toxic chemicals protects public health.  People aren’t getting the  information they need about public health and pollution from the Trump Administration.  We need to fix that problem going forward.



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Reader Comments

5 Replies to “We Need an Environmental Dr. Fauci”

  1. EXCELLENT recommendation Dan.

    A 2007 Edge Question in the WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT issue had a response by Corey S. Powell, executive Editor of Discover, “Corrective Goggles for our Conceptual Myopia” where he concluded:

    Above all, science needs a face, a representative (or representatives) as charismatic as Pope John Paul II or, say, Carl Sagan.

  2. Prof. Farber, I have discussed your good and not so good efforts ad nauseam, and nothing seems to work to motivate academics to take actions to motivate the public to fight for our Democracy, our quality of life, our equality and social, political and economic survival.

    Two of the biggest failures that academics commit continuously are your failures to meet the challenges of change and your failures to learn from and act upon the lessons of history, such as those documented most famously by the Durants, Richard Hofstadter and E.O. Wilson. Instead, you act somewhat like Trump, congressional politicians and SCOTUS judges of his kind when you continuously fail to lead by producing and participating in implementing solutions while counting “views” and pointing fingers at others when you can’t produce solutions to increasingly destructive threats to the human race today.

    So here we are today, running out of time to save our civilization, with global warming and the newest pandemic destroying any hope for producing and perpetuating an acceptable future for our newest generations, proving that both our political and intellectual leaders today can’t save our civilization any more than your counterparts who failed to protect and perpetuate so many civilizations that have crashed and burned in the past.

    Once again, as Churchill taught us with a proclamation that helped win WWII, all I can do is “Never Give Up” and continue to implore intellectual leaders like you to make the right things happen.

    You must make the right things happen with the greatest sense of urgency, using your self-proclaimed preeminent academic expertise, before time runs out one again, just like you teach us to do.

  3. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
    Pogo poster on Earth Day 1970.

    Today, 50 years later, species loss, coronavirus, wildfires, drought, flooding, glacial melt, sea level rise and other environmental disasters are totally out of control.

    50 years later, “We” are still the enemy because our political and intellectual leaders are still failing to meet the challenges of change and time has run out on our civilization.

  4. I just watched to most inspiring documentary in my life:

    Jane Goodall: The Hope, National Geographic Earth Day documentary.

    Please delete every comment I have ever posted on Legal Planet. They were the product of my extreme level of anxiety due to our increasingly deadly failures to protect and perpetuate our civilization and planet. Up until today I had truly come to believe that global warming plus pandemics are the consequences of our failures to produce any solutions that we could implement with the required sense of urgency.

    We need for 1000s of students and academics to do around the world what Jane Goodall has been dedicated to doing her whole life, the way she has been doing it.

    Jane Goodall is our greatest Reason For Hope today, enabling us to pass on an acceptable quality of life for our newest and all future generations at last.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more