Banner
    Should The EPA Be The Most Powerful Federal Agency In Science?
    By Hank Campbell | March 9th 2011 10:34 AM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    It is impossible today to get a 'treaty' ratified that would cause America to obey CO2 limits set by any outside body, for a number of reasons.  So Democrats in Congress have been trying to make CO2 the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA), which gives it sweeping authority to regulate and penalize businesses.

    Republicans, more skeptical than not on a CO2 basis for global warming, want that authority removed completely and have been trying to get the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 passed, which keeps the EPA from being able to unilaterally regulate American industry.     So Democrats held a hearing to try and slow it down.

    As predicted, both sides claimed to care about science first.    The Democrats produced experts who showed evidence that CO2 was the primary culprit in climate change, though thankfully for science overall they did not try and endorse any particular public policy.  The Republicans produced experts who noted that the planet is warming but...the reasons are unclear, which is obviously less convincing.   Still, both sides agree on climate change these days, so we are making progress.

    Unclear or not, we have to grant that hurting the American economy even more (what little industry is left in America) if we aren't sure of cause and effect (and incurring even more unintended consequences) is a bad idea.  One of the experts rightly noted that the populist movement to ban DDT had nothing at all to do with science but instead was activism and the unintended consequences have been millions of dead kids per year and replacement pesticides far worse than DDT.    A fair point, though it's unlikely less CO2 will cause millions of children to die - but there are unintended consequences and they need to have a valid impact analysis, which hasn't been done yet inside the EPA, which basically exists to stop business.

    As data continues to accrue, the arguments will  continue to be refined.   Christopher Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology and Professor of Biology and Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford University, spoke of research on the effects of rising temperatures on agriculture, showing crop yields dropped sharply above certain temperatures. With corn, he said, even one day at 104 degrees can cause a 7% yield loss.   At 104, according to one study, photosynthesis stops entirely (Mohan K. Wali et al., “Assessing Terrestrial Ecosystem Sustainability,” Nature&Resources, vol. 35, part 4 October–December 1999, pp. 21–33.)

    “Major food crops and cotton show little sensitivity to rising temperatures until you reach a threshold. That’s why people are generally not aware of these sensitivities,”  he said.  Which is a terrific point.    Because we haven't yet reached the panic threshold is no reason to deny it exists or do nothing to prevent getting there.   Both parties have to care about agriculture because food is a strategic resource and both groups claim to care about farmers.

    No hype, no exaggeration about mass extinctions or 30 foot sea rises, just real data that shows warming can have a short-term effect that practical people need to be concerned about.   Does that mean the EPA is the appropriate agency to deal with this?   No, something as important as the environment and the economy will not be served by a group that only exists to stop industry and it was a mercenary tactic in the first place - a policy issue this important needs to be accountable at the very top, with taxpayers and elected officials and not appointed bureaucrats.

    The subcommittee is expected to approve the bill later this week.

    Comments

    Wow, so much misinformation in such a small space. The negative economic consequences of doing nothing about climate change are far greater than those of taking prompt action to curtail it. And the DDT clap trap that Don Roberts perjured himself with has been debunked innumerable times. In fact, the same day he was lying to congress, his most recent "scientific" paper was being torn apart here: http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2011/03/donald_roberts_scientific_frau.php . And let's just stop and think for a second: even if the EPA's ban on DDT was truly unjustified and unscientific, how did it lead to "millions of dead kids per year" from malaria, when malaria hasn't been an issue in the US for 60+ years? The people dying of malaria (and you've greatly exaggerated the numbers of them by the way) all live(d) outside of the US in places where the EPA has no jurisdiction. The EPA can't ban and didn't ban the use of DDT in Africa or Latin America or Asia, and in fact DDT isn't banned by any authority in most of the places where malaria continues to kill people.

    Hank
    The negative economic consequences of doing nothing about climate change are far greater than those of taking prompt action to curtail it.
    You are arguing a different point.   None of the experts argued nothing should be done about climate change (nor did I) and you don't discuss the EPA and instead went on a rant about how awesome banning DDT was, despite the fact the the foremost epidemiologists in the world disagree with you.  But if some blogger says otherwise, that's all you need to read.    Maybe you just read "Silent Spring" or something.   Note: that wasn't a science book.
    Um you know not what you are talking about. The foremost entomologists in the world do not think DDT use against malaria should be increased. Don Roberts might, but calling him a leading entomologist is like calling Lord Monckton a leading climatologist. And you've conveniently sidestepped my point about the impossibility of EPA banning DDT outside the US.

    Hank
    I wasn't sidestepping it, you have chosen only to frame history through your beliefs and not science.   The US absolutely did lead the culture war that caused the UN to stop using it - the US has the money and third world countries do not so when the US said to use synthetic substitutes, they did.  And it was a huge failure.   Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute is absolutely the world's leading expert on malaria and he cites the discontinuation of DDT as the biggest reason malaria continues to plague children.

    "One of the experts rightly noted that the populist movement to ban DDT had nothing at all to do with science"

    Careful with the hyperbole. The 'ban' was very much based on science. Findings that DDT was a net negative for human health may now be hotly debated (though far from the settled case you claim)... however only the most extreme kooks and shills argue against the scientific evidence of its harmful environmental impacts.

    None of which changes the fact that it is completely irrelevant to the issue of EPA enforcement of the clean air act.

    You argue in the article that regulation of CO2 must be left to 'elected officials' rather than 'EPA bureaucrats'... but it was those elected officials who passed the legislation requiring the EPA to control atmospheric emissions which were found to pose a risk to the environment and/or human health and the Supreme Court which ruled that the EPA could not choose to ignore those requirements in the case of CO2.

    In short, the elected officials HAVE addressed this issue... by delegating it to the EPA. They can change that, but they will need to pass new legislation to do so.

    Hank
    Careful with the hyperbole. The 'ban' was very much based on science. Findings that DDT was a net negative for human health may now be hotly debated (though far from the settled case you claim).
    No, Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' book - which had no science - caught the attention of the public and policymakers responded to their constituents.   It was flawed policy but at least understandable, since that is what voters wanted.   The Science review when it came out noted the lack of any science but called it well-written and passionate, if misguided in the belief that pesticides were evil and there was ever a period where man did not battle insects - instead, they termed it a “prosecuting attorney’s impassioned plea for action.”

    The book today is extolled by people who never read it because someone read it 45 years ago so it must be good - instant cancer from DDT??  "Elixirs of death"?  Rubbish.

    For elected officials to shuffle action off to people with no knowledge and no accountability is not just irresponsible, it is cowardly.  If the issue is important they need to take a stand.
    Wow. I can only conclude that YOU are one of those people who have never read 'Silent Spring', or much at all about it save pure propaganda, because your characterizations above bear no resemblance to reality.

    Carson was a respected biologist and Silent Spring included scientific analysis of DDT's effects on birds and the environment. It did NOT argue for a ban on DDT or pesticides in general, but rather noted that widescale spraying of these chemicals both impacted many other parts of the environment AND led to the targeted insects developing immunity... as indeed has been observed in areas where large area DDT spraying continued.

    Are you aware that those who demonize Carson now argue not for the sort of wide area spraying that was used at the time, but rather that DDT use should be limited to spraying on the walls inside people's homes? This allows a highly concentrated dose to be applied and maximal protection... since mosquitoes are most active at night, when most people are in their homes. Decrease the frequency of multiple humans being stung by the same mosquito and you limit the spread of the disease.

    Ironically, this sort of targeted spraying is precisely what Silent Spring suggested DECADES ago;
    "No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story—the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting. ... Malaria programmes are threatened by resistance among mosquitoes. ... Practical advice should be 'Spray as little as you possibly can' rather than 'Spray to the limit of your capacity'."

    Carson's call to ban aerial and other forms of large scale spraying was the CORRECT path... for the environment, human health, AND disease control efforts. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply ignorant. However, her position has been misrepresented as a ban on any and all use of pesticides... which the quotation above shows is simply a lie.

    BTW, the primary obstacle to the sort of localized spraying of DDT described above? It isn't the fictional 'ban'... but rather simply the fact that it isn't very cost effective to go door to door and many people refuse to allow the spraying in their homes. Oh, and the review in Science? It was, "a fairly thorough-going vindication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring thesis"... and recommended phasing out DDT and other toxic pesticides. Apparently we are dwelling in alternate realities where the same journal article reached exactly opposite conclusions.

    Silent Spring responsible for millions of deaths from malaria? Pure fiction.

    And STILL completely irrelevant to EPA regulations. Heck, the EPA didn't even EXIST at the time.