EPA changes impede environmental justice research
Friday, November 15, 2019
The independent media show, “Democracy Now!” recently hosted the first Presidential Candidates’ Forum on Environmental Justice, spearheaded by South Carolina state legislator Gilda Cobb-Hunter and attended by Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and four other candidates who weighed in on the social-ecological paradigm shaping the term “environmental justice.”
Decades ago, this style of environmental awareness was nascent, which indicates current progress as popular power builds in communities most impacted by our deteriorating environment.
Environmental justice emphasizes the impacts of environmental deterioration on social groups and the communities on the front lines of climate change. As the concept mainstreams, it clashes with a possible new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policy that undermines public health links to industrial pollutants, adverse weather events like hurricanes and wildfires, and other climate change factors.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has begun official proceedings to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and a new medical report warns of sustained public health problems due to increased temperatures and other climate-related challenges.
The paradigm shift to environmental justice in the national conversation threatens nothing short of wealth redistribution, which is why it is a central tenet of Green New Deal politics, green-collar jobs, sustainable energy initiatives, and public ownership of energy grids.
Some human groups (including wealthier nations) use more natural resources than others. The U.S. is only 5% of the world’s population, but uses anywhere from 19 to 33% of the world’s natural resources.
Wealthier people have a greater carbon footprint; this applies between nations and within a nation as well. Environmental justice requires targeting human institutions that allocate financial and infrastructural resources as well as those institutions using the most natural resources.
Communities most affected by environmental damage — poor people, single female-led households, and people of color — can be resource recipients of environmental justice initiatives as victims. They can also frame political demands within organizational contexts.
Public health is the bridge linking environmental degradation to social issues. Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, illustrates this point.
Cancer Alley houses 100 petrochemical plants that produce some of the most toxic air in America. This results in cancer rates 50 times the national average. Mostly non-white residents populate the area, placing not only social issues but racial and gender justice for predominantly female-led households at the forefront here.
As the environmental justice view is popularized, impartial scientific research is being restrained by the deregulation-happy Trump administration.
The latest news in the scientific evidence war comes from the EPA, which may require private “raw” medical data in order for research to affect federal protections. If academic studies do not disclose usually protected information, they cannot impact environmental rules. HIPAA privacy protections require researchers to follow guidelines, and now the EPA is considering guidelines it calls “science transparency.”
It might be obvious now, but connections between pollution and public health had to be established, such as smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. People can get sick or even die when they breathe in foreign toxins.
Tireless grassroots activists first witness this, academia has to prove this, policy writers have to respect this, and politicians and courts have to enforce this. And activists have to endlessly watch all sides, intervening where they can.
Scientific approaches revealing cause-and-effect relations are central to environmental justice. One example of the type of scientific correlations EPA research transparency guidelines will undermine is Harvard University’s Six Cities study on fine particulate air matter and public health. 22,000 people provided researchers confidential data linking pollution to premature death — leading to clean air protections.
This kind of foundational research could be inadmissible for establishing causality because the data is not considered openly transparent.
These proposed EPA changes parallel release of a new study in The Lancet on climate change’s international impacts on children’s health. The study reveals globally disconcerting information, even the Paris Agreement goal of “keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius” is met.
The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has commenced amidst much popular focus on climate change and public health, and consciousness can scarcely be avoided. Although China and India report some of the worst air pollution, most recently due to wildfires and coal burning, as The Lancet study shows, the Western U.S. also suffers under increased levels of airborne fine particulate matter, leaving nowhere to run but towards environmental justice.
The Lancet study also indicates the financial bottom line involved in recognizing climate and public health science: “In 2018, 45 billion additional potential work hours were lost due to rising temperatures, compared with the year 2000.”
Labor joins affordable housing, sustainable energy, healthcare, clean air, food and water, and public transportation as environmental justice access issues. It’s not simply corporations that lose when temperatures rise. People, displaced temporarily or permanently, miss paychecks and lose jobs and housing due to climate events and ongoing impacts on weather-sensitive industries (like oil extraction, fishing, or tourism).
Lost work is lost pay impacting healthcare spending — another link between climate change and public health — including the more elusive mental health category.
As if there weren’t enough challenges already, the new EPA science transparency idea impedes climate science and public health research that will impact mainstream political debates and our children’s futures.
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