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What happens if there's an outright denial of climate science from the White House?

Nov 22, 2016

This year is likely to be the hottest on record. Scientists with the World Meteorological Organization announced that recently, as world leaders met in Morocco to talk about limiting the impacts of climate change.

President-elect Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax, and he’s said he’ll withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Andy Hoffman is a professor with the Ross School of Business and education director for the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.

He says we don’t really know what the president-elect’s climate policy will look like.

“We have to watch who he puts in place. That’s the key, because he will be surrounded by people that will start to guide his agenda,” says Hoffman.

Hoffman also says that there’s some historical precedent when it comes to the challenges a president can face when dealing with environmental policy.

“I would recall the experience we had with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and ‘81 that relates to this story, where Reagan came in with an agenda to roll back the EPA.”

As Hoffman wrote in this article for The Conversation:

In his first term as president, Reagan set his sights on defederalization, or giving states more power, and in particular, rolling back environmental regulation. He appointed Ann Burford Gorsuch as EPA administrator, James Watt to head the Department of the Interior and Rita Lavelle was put in charge of Superfund, the program for cleaning up the country’s most polluted sites. They were later to be known as the “gang of three.”

In the words of Gorsuch, “There is no riper pasture for regulatory reform than EPA.” After her appointment, Gorsuch slowed agency activity and Lavelle brought Superfund activity to a stop. This was at first a welcome sign to those who sought an era of regulatory relief.

However, closed meetings soon created an air of favoritism and secret deals. And Gorsuch’s slashing of the EPA’s budget and staff created a critical backlash within the public and government.

In 1983, the gang of three was hastily removed from office, and in 1984 voters elected a Democratic Congress that stopped anti-environment initiatives. Lavelle was fired in February 1983, Gorsuch resigned in March and Watt resigned in October. In December, Lavelle was sentenced to serve six months in jail and pay a US$10,000 fine for perjury for lying to Congress in a case involving disposal of toxic wastes. To restore credibility to the beleaguered agency, Reagan reinstated William Ruckelshaus as EPA administrator.

Hoffman says the environment is a "latent concern" for many Americans, a concern that can awaken when it's threatened.

He also points out many businesses are already taking steps to mitigate climate change.

“Many are moving in a direction to try to reduce their emissions, trying to capitalize on new markets - for example, renewable energy and others,” says Hoffman. “So they’re not going to turn on a dime. They’re watching this situation play out, trying to figure out what their best path forward is.”

You can listen to the interview with Andy Hoffman above.