Enthusiasm over the environment is down — we must stay vigilant

Enthusiasm over the environment is down — we must stay vigilant
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As the presidential primaries began, a February Pew Research poll found that for the first time concern for environmental protection among two-thirds of Americans nearly equaled their concern for the economy. Concern over climate climbed to equal concern about jobs for half of Americans. 

Then came COVID-19, followed by the protests over police brutality and systemic racism.  

With over 140,000 Americans dead and with racism searing our consciousness in a way not seen since the 1960s, climate and the environment are — for now — behind even the back burner. As for what is the most pressing problem right now, Gallup and Monmouth University found that climate and the environment registered at 1 percent. 

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As hard as this moment is, we must find a way to stay vigilant about the environment. A massive reason is this very moment, in which we are being dominated by a pandemic. The same White House that did not prepare for what has become a national killing field for COVID-19 — whose incompetence has enabled the virus to become out of control in the Sun Belt — has also used the pandemic as a cover to accelerate its systematic gutting of environmental regulations. 

In March, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency relieved companies of reporting water pollution during the pandemic. The Hill reported last week that more than over 350 facilities, including coal mines and oil and gas companies, have so far exploited that free pass. And before that, last month, President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE signed an executive order to waive environmental reviews for infrastructure projects during the coronavirus crisis, supposedly to get the millions of unemployed Americans back to work.

That is on top of the ongoing rollback of 100 environmental rules, which is part of the Republican Party’s partisan dismissal and defunding of science and public health. As part of the process, Trump has short-circuited civil service protections and attacked whistleblowers, while using tax dollars to line his and his donors’ pockets. 

Polls show that Americans place far higher trust in scientists to act in the best interest of the public than politicians. But the partisan politics, which include Trump’s slashing of EPA staff to 1980s levels and banishing two scientific offices of the Department of Agriculture out to Kansas City, have taken a toll on the federal workforce.

A survey of federal workers, commissioned by Government Executive magazine, reveals that while a majority of federal employees take pride in their work, they have low levels of trust in agency leadership (38 percent) and most (55 percent) lack confidence that their organization aligns with their agency’s stated core values. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,000 employees have signed a letter blasting the agency's treatment of Black employees.

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This is taking place as scientists have uncovered environmental justice links between pollution and COVID-19. The virus has disproportionately killed people of color, who also disproportionately live closest to toxic industrial facilities. Even before COVID-19, researchers found that air pollution kills more than 100,000 Americans a year.

As climate change accelerates, the morale of employees is at its lowest when we need it to be at its highest. This year is set to be Earth’s hottest year on record, with places like Siberia experiencing record 100-degree heat and massive forest fires. In the U.S., a new report says 14.6 million homes are at-risk of climate change-driven flooding, nearly 6 million more than anticipated under FEMA’s flood maps.  

Biodiversity loss and species extinction are also occurring faster than at any time in human history, with the unprecedented loss of terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats, such as the wetlands of Louisiana, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Amazon rainforests in Brazil. Pollinators and other insects and spiders are being wiped out due to industrial agriculture, pesticides and climate change.

These interrelated crises need an interconnected workforce of public servants, unified in the mission by leadership making climate policy that is based on sound science and environmental law, on behalf of people suffering from pollution instead of the polluters. That likely has to come with a new administration and a reshaped Congress, dedicated to rooting out corruption and conflicts of interest, reducing corporate influence and strengthening whistleblower protections. 

That is a lot to ask with COVID-19 and racial tensions raging. But we must answer that challenge. As depressing as this moment can be, it will be even more so if we can get past the pandemic and make progress on dismantling systemic racism, only to return to a warming landscape, dirty water and air piercing our lungs with pollution. 

Tim Whitehouse is the executive director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and environmental protection non-profit organization. Follow PEER on Twitter @PEERorg.