As a scientist, I have long been troubled by the way the mainstream media covers science in general and the environment in particular. Long before “global warming” became a watchword and Al Gore started burning tens of thousands of gallons in aviation fuel to lecture people around the world about their profligate energy use, journalists routinely butchered scientifically-focused stories so badly that it would make a high school physics teacher cringe. While many people have been shocked to learn how close the ties between leading global warming alarmists and some environmental reporters are, the only surprise for many of us in the scientific community is that it has taken this long to reveal those connections. For the truth is that global warming coverage in the mainstream media is merely a symptom of a larger disease.
The latest boil to burst forth upon the body of environmental journalism began to fester on Thursday, January 7, when the USEPA announced that it was proposing the latest, greatest and most-badly- needed-ever smog standard. (Officially the pollutant is “ground-level ozone”, but we’ll stick with “smog” for convenience). Mainstream media outlets everywhere fell over themselves to heap praise on the EPA for imposing a standard that administrator Lisa Jackson described as “long overdue.” This lead, from the Chicago Tribune’s lead environmental reporter/head Sierra Club cheerleader Michael Hawthorne’s January 8 story, was typical:
“Chicago and other urban areas across the U.S. would need to clamp down harder on air pollution under tough smog limits proposed Thursday by the Obama administration, which scrapped a George W. Bush-era rule that ignored the latest scientific advice.”
“Latest scientific advice” is, of course, code for “scientific consensus”, a phrase that has become all the rage. A funny thing this “consensus”; when it comes to global warming, or the new smog standard, or a host of other environmental topics, consensus: a) doesn’t matter, and b) doesn’t exist.
Jackson’s EPA wants to lower the smog standard for the fourth time since the agency was created. The original Clean Air Act set a standard of 120 parts per billion. It was lowered under the Clinton administration to 80 parts per billion and again, under President Bush, to 75 parts per billion. These Clinton and Bush reductions share a couple of common characteristics: EPA did not pick the lowest proposed number in either case, and the costs associated with each of these new standards played a role in the agency’s final decision. Where these two actions differed was in the reaction of the mainstream media. The Clinton-era reduction was hailed as an environmental triumph. The Bush-era reduction, notwithstanding the fact that it was more stringent than the Clinton-era standard, was decried as an environmental disaster.
The EPA’s sin under President Bush is that the agency did not pick an even lower number, like 70 or even 65 parts per billion. That’s the kind of number that the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) wanted to see, and it’s CASAC that provides the media’s basis for claiming that George W. Bush “ignored the latest scientific advice.” In a January 7 press release, USEPA cited CASAC prominently. So you might be wondering: what is CASAC, this purportedly “independent” advisory panel that speaks with the voice of “consensus”? Who are the scientists on this committee?
There are seven scientists on CASAC, four of whom have absolutely no qualifications, by either education or experience, to opine on the potential health effects of smog. The other three have spent their lives in academia, performing research – much of it publicly funded – designed to discover new and ever more horrendous ways that minute amounts of air pollutants can cause illness and death.
The three CASAC members who sport public health credentials are: Dr. Jonathan Samet, who has spent most of his career doing research, much of it publicly-funded, about second-hand smoke and who is an advisor to the American Lung Association, which, in turn is one of the biggest organizations to lobby for – no surprise – tighter smog standards; Dr. Helen Suh MacIntosh, whose credentials include a stint on the web as the answer lady at treehugger.com; and Dr. Joseph Brain, a Harvard professor who has spent his professional career studying the effects of minute amounts of things that we breathe and why they are bad for you.
Given the make-up of CASAC it is hardly surprising that they would recommend using the lowest proposed number. Had someone thrown out 50 parts per billion, or 20 parts per billion, there’s no doubt that such a number would have become the “latest scientific advice” instead. The reason CASAC didn’t pick 50 or 20 or some lower number is that EPA hasn’t proposed such a number – yet. Eventually, they will. The definition of “clean air” is an always moving, ever-shrinking target. This is known within the EPA as “job security”.
According to the EPA, the “scientific community, industry, public interest groups, the general public and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee” all get to play a role whenever the agency sets new standards. This is the way EPA approached the issue under President Bush, President Clinton and every president before them. But now, under President Obama, the agency has effectively handed that authority over to a group of seven scientists, four of whom know nothing about public health and three of whom have spent their careers wearing the kind of academic blinders that leave them unable to perform any sort of reasonable risk vs. reward analysis. It’s every bit as remarkable, and outrageous, as it would have been if President Bush had turned the process over to the American Petroleum Institute.
One of the biggest reasons that CASAC and groups like the American Lung Association want the new standard involves asthma. Many believe that alarming increases in childhood and other forms of asthma over the last thirty years are related to increasing rate of smog formation in big cities. Hang on. Did I say “increasing rates” of smog formation? Seems I had this darn graph flipped upside down. According to USEPA monitoring data, smog has been reduced by an average of twenty five per cent in big cities over the last thirty years. If we really want to help kids breathe better, perhaps the best solution is to raise the standard, not lower it.
And the consequences of all of this nonsense? It will be expensive, and you and your kids will pay the price down the road, long after Obama has left office. Which is, in a way, what makes this move so devilishly brilliant. The president has written yet another I.O.U., one that helps restore his “green” credibility (which was so damaged after the “Hopenhagen” fiasco), and the bill for implementing this utopian vision won’t come due until long after he returns to community organizing.