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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Rejecting Environmental Lies
distributed 7/12/19 - ©2019

Definitions matter.

That became very clear at the start of this week when, as AP reported, "President Donald Trump declared himself a champion of the environment Monday ... despite having launched some of the most sweeping rollbacks in air, water and other protections in decades."

The Sierra Club said that the event at the White House "sounds like an April Fool's joke or the quip of a lazy headline writer at The Onion." It is extremely dangerous, though, to laugh off this distortion of reality.

The event on Monday was part of a very strategic effort to redefine environmental concern so that a profoundly anti-environmental administration can run for re-election -- especially among "low information voters" -- with a superficial veneer of green talking points. That strategy is affirmed by the launch, on Wednesday, of a "conservation caucus" among Republican members of the House and Senate, with similar goals.

Definitions matter. What clear standards can we demand before a politician can claim an "environmental" label?

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There's a quick and easy (and sarcastic) answer to who is an environmental leader: that would be anyone who agrees with me on the big issues that I consider most important. That's hardly an objective standard, though.

The more public variation of my self-centered criteria would be the "environmental scorecards" produced annually by groups like the League of Conservation Voters. They come up with a precise numerical score for each legislator, based on a fairly small set of votes that demonstrate stands for or against their organizational agenda. Those scorecards can be helpful, but they're rooted in a partisan framing of issues.

I've discovered this week that it is challenging to come up with a list of markers that allow objective measurement and constructive conversation about environmental policies. Today, I'll name four key factors that seem especially appropriate in light of this week's political initiatives. I invite your comments, suggestions and feedback as I work to refine this list.

(1) Address the commonly accepted environmental issues.
NPR reported on Trump's touting of "America's Environmental Leadership," which, they said, "felt mostly like a campaign rally." They noted that:

The president made no mention of climate change, which scientists say threatens catastrophic impacts unless global greenhouse gas emissions -- including from fossil fuels -- are dramatically reduced in the next decade or so. Trump did note that since he took office the U.S. has become the world's leading producer of oil and gas.

Right off the top, I'd say that no one can claim to be an environmentalist if they refuse to even acknowledge the climate crisis, or widespread species extinction, or other crises which are well-documented and prominent in national and international environmental initiatives. You don't get to redefine the environmental agenda unilaterally to mesh with your own preferences.

(2) Trust and support honest science.
Any environmental agenda needs to be grounded in reputable science, and needs to support continued research into the human impacts on ecological systems. That's true of climate research, ocean fisheries, the health impacts of fossil fuel production, water quality, the use of herbicides and pesticides, and countless other issues.

A few weeks ago, US Vice-President Mike Pence, in a CNN interview, "declined repeated invitations to say the human-induced climate crisis is a threat to US national security." The VP asserted, "we will always follow the science on that in this administration." The interviewer pushed back repeatedly about climate science, including from agencies of the US government which "all say it is a threat," and Pence refused to answer direct questions, instead deflecting to other messages, like "we're not going to raise utility rates."

Anyone who claims to be an environmental leader has to acknowledge (at the very least) or affirm the clear findings of the scientific community.

(3) Align the stated goals and the real impact of environmental policies.
Here's where I see a reasonably objective way to evaluate policies and stances. It isn't just, "do you line up well with my favorite list," but rather, "do you walk your own talk?"

In relation to Monday's self-congratulatory event at the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency put out a statement that "Highlights America's Environmental Progress." The heading states, "Every American should know that our nation is cleaner, safer, and stronger today thanks to the leadership of President Trump. Today, we have the cleanest air on record, and we are a global leader for access to clean drinking water."

Their own statement says that clean air and water are important, and through four pages details very specific measurements about (for example) improved air quality -- almost all of which show improvement across a span of decades, not the two years of this administration. Huffington Post comments that "they spotlighted a 74% reduction in air pollution since 1970, skirting the latest federal data that show a 15% increase in days with unhealthy air in 2017 and 2018, compared to 2013 through 2016."

An NBC News fact check of the Monday event noted many contradictions between the claimed improvements and current policies, for example, "his speech, in which he touted his commitment to clean drinking water, omitted his administration's efforts to relax water safety regulations elsewhere."

The fact sheet from the EPA names objective standards for what environmental progress looks like with ground-level air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, the release of toxic chemicals, quality standards for drinking water, the cleanup of Superfund sites, and enforcement of environmental laws. Those are specific measures that can determine whether laws and policies are actually pro-environmental. Apparently, Trump and the EPA do label achievement of those standards as "environmental progress." But the Sierra Club cites a tracker from the New York Times, and says that "the Trump administration has sought to roll back 83 environmental and public health rules since coming into office. Nearly a quarter of those -- 22 -- have to do with air quality or carbon emissions; seven are related to water quality."

You don't get to call yourself an environmental leader if your own policies are actively contradicting your own list of what environmental progress should look like.

(4) Consider future generations.
Briefly, I'll insist that anyone who claims to be an environmental leader must be very specific in showing how future generations will benefit from current policies. "Environmental progress" does not exist when the world in 10, 50 or 100 years will be worse off than it is now.

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This week, the Republican Party has pushed an aggressive plan to re-brand themselves as environmental leaders. In response, a spokesperson from the Center for Biological Diversity commented, "Do they really think ... that they can just say they're green and people will believe them? ... I think it's a desperate political green masquerade."

It is tempting to laugh at the Orwellian twist of language that calls planet-destroying policies "environmental leadership," but we need to reject this lie. And, it is too simple to just contrast dangerous policies with our preferred list, and call them wrong. (Sometimes, you know, deregulation might be a legitimate action!)

Fortunately, there are objective ways to look at the policies and perspectives of those who are claiming to be environmental leaders. Do they address the big issues? Do they ground themselves in science? Do their stated goals mesh with their actual policies? Do they show care for future generations?

On all four of those criteria, Mr. Trump and the Republican Party fail to qualify as environmental leaders. Their failure on those objective standards needs to be named publically and often.

By the way, for my church-based readers, Jesus dealt with the problem of folk who claimed to be on one side, but behaved differently. He said, "you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Matthew 7:20-21)

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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