EPA Boss Scott Pruitt: When The Fox Guards The Chicken Coop [Opinion]

Scott Pruitt speaks in lead contaminated East Chicago.

Scott Pruitt’s EPA was caught up in yet another controversy this week, when rumors began to spread that Pruitt intended to dismantle the EPA’s open data website, ending public access to facts about dangerous chemicals polluting the air, soil, and water. EPA spokesman J.P. Freire claimed that the rumors were just a “hoax,” according to the Los Angeles Times (echoing Trump’s frequent complaints about “fake news”), but it was unclear whether the rumors were really false or whether the EPA had simply reversed course in response to the immediate outrage from scientific researchers and the general public. More on that aspect in a moment.

Whether the rumors about the open data site were true or not, there can be little doubt that Trump’s decision to put Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA was a perfect example of the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop. Pruitt has publicly stated that he does not believe carbon dioxide emissions are a major cause of climate change, as reported by Newsweek. No matter how widespread this opinion is, it is contrary to fact. Anyone claiming to hold this opinion is either choosing to ignore the evidence or is being deliberately dishonest.

The EPA’s budget will be cut by 30 percent if President Trump has his way, and Trump has already signed an executive order overturning the Clean Power Plan, the Los Angeles Times reports. Trump and Pruitt want to sell these changes as a long-overdue cure for job-killing over-regulation of the energy industry, but the fact is that the U.S. will not be able to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Accords under these circumstances. If the United States fails to do its part to lower greenhouse emissions as required by these accords, the consequences to future generations could be catastrophic.

Scientists are not usually prone to making sweeping pronouncements of doom and destruction, but a recent Esquire article about the private opinions of climate scientists was titled “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job.” Journalistic hyperbole? We should be so lucky.

As reported by the Guardian, a recent NASA-sponsored study suggests that a global collapse of civilization could be precipitated within the next century by a combination of environmental recklessness and the destabilizing effects of income inequality. Scott Pruitt may see himself as a protector of jobs (or corporate profits) in the short term, but with such potentially dire consequences in the slightly longer term, this position verges on the incomprehensible.

Why would Scott Pruitt, the head of an agency in charge of protecting the environment, take a position that potentially endangers our entire environmental future? His long record of fighting the agency he now heads up suggest that ideology may be part of it, but a letter to Pruitt from Dow Chemical suggests another explanation. Dow was unhappy that scientists employed by the federal government had declared several of its pesticide products to be dangerous for about 1,800 different endangered or threatened species, and wanted Pruitt to ignore their conclusions in favor of its own research, as reported by Vanity Fair. Of course, Dow Chemical wants us to believe that the $1 million they donated to Donald Trump’s inauguration festivities were not expected to be a factor in this decision. The reality is that the same companies that threaten to poison our air and water and cook our planet until it becomes unlivable are also some of the biggest donors and lobbyists buying influence over our politicians, and that didn’t begin under the Trump administration or with Pruitt’s appointment to head the EPA.

Dow Chemical's letter to EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

Scott Pruitt’s EPA may be especially egregious, but let’s get serious here. Our scientists are using phrases like “the collapse of civilization” and we’re debating whether we should do nothing (like Pruitt and Trump) or too little (like the Paris agreement, which leading climate researcher James Hansen described as “just worthless words,” according to New Scientist).

Even if the United States and every other nation followed the Paris agreement to the letter, that might not be enough to stop the unprecedented disaster we are currently sleepwalking toward — as Hansen points out, most nations will continue to burn fossil fuels as long as there are fossil fuels left to burn. Democrats who focus all their rage on Scott Pruitt’s evisceration of the EPA are engaging in self-deception on a scale only slightly less extreme than that of Pruitt and Trump. If we don’t make radical changes to the way we run our entire society, it may soon no longer matter that Pruitt was a terrible choice to head the EPA.

Protesters march against lead poisoning, demand action from EPA's Scott Pruitt.

In the United States, the political debate is too often boiled down to a simplistic Big Government vs. Small Government dichotomy. Liberals emphasize what government can do for us, such as regulating the big companies so they don’t poison our air and water. They are absolutely right — corporate interests have shown over and over again that they will happily do anything they are allowed to get away with, no matter how many people have to suffer for the profits of a few. Pruitt’s EPA seems poised to throw this basic level of protection away completely, leaving us at the mercy of the predators. Still, the EPA was always far less of an ally than we would like to believe, and even under the most liberal administration, it would not have dared to grapple with the real scale of the problem. Philosopher William Godwin addressed the dangers of relying on any government more than 200 years ago.

“Government, as it was forced upon mankind by their vices, so has it commonly been the creature of their ignorance and mistake. Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it.”

Scott Pruitt is not the man to resist those “occasions and temptations,” but then again, who is? When the rumors began that Pruitt’s EPA intended to axe the open data website, there was an instant and fierce public outcry from scientists and others. The reaction was intense, and the EPA almost immediately declared the rumors a hoax. Were they really a hoax, or was Pruitt surprised by the backlash and intimidated into backing off?

Whatever the truth of this particular story, any environmental protections we have now are the result of protest campaigns, civil disobedience and direct action by past generations of environmentalists. When the public refuses to back down, the government and the corporations back down instead. If any good can come out of Scott Pruitt’s EPA, it may be in this reminder — our government and corporate power are tightly entwined. Neither one is our friend, and they never were. They will listen only when we make them listen and they will change only when we give them no other choice. On this point, Scott Pruitt’s EPA is not so different from any other.

[Featured Image by Teresa Crawford/AP Images]