U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy today struck back at EPA critics in a forceful address to scientists that defended agency actions on climate change, air quality issues and safe drinking water.
"With science as our North Star, EPA has steered America away from health risks and toward healthier communities and a higher overall quality of life," she told the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. "That's why it's worrisome that our science seems to be under constant assault by a small -- but vocal -- group of critics."
She denounced critics for "playing a dangerous game by discrediting the sound science" that EPA relies on.
In February, some Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee proposed a bill that would ban EPA from relying on "secret science." Committee members have said independent scientists are not able to properly duplicate EPA's reasoning for rules and last year issued a subpoena of data from confidential health studies that form the backbone of many of the agency's air regulations -- including cohort studies by the American Cancer Society and Harvard Six Cities (Greenwire, Aug. 7, 2013).
In her speech, McCarthy accused agency critics of hypocrisy.
"I bet when those same critics get sick, they run to doctors and hospitals that rely on science from -- guess who -- Harvard University and the American Cancer Society," she said. "I bet they check air quality forecasts from EPA and the National Weather Service to see if the air is healthy enough for their asthmatic child to play outside that day. I bet they buy dishwashers with Energy Star labels, and take FDA-approved medicine, and eat USDA-approved meats. ... People and businesses around the world look to EPA and other federal agencies because our science is reliable, and our scientists are credible."
Michael Mann, a well-known meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University, is one of the climate scientists who have come under attack, with critics charging that his "hockey-stick" climate graph was based on faulty data.
"Administrator McCarthy hits the nail on the head," he told Greenwire by email. "What is such a shame is that we could be having a worthwhile and important dialogue about how to deal with the risk to our planet of escalating greenhouse gas emissions. But instead, fossil fuel interests and, in particular, the Koch Brothers, have spent tens of millions of dollars on bad faith attacks on the science and scientists. ... That has to stop."
McCarthy also specifically defended EPA's testing of human subjects to see how they biologically responded to air pollutants. In early April, the agency's inspector general said the studies had inconsistently represented risks to human study subjects and failed to represent long-term cancer risks to those exposed to air pollution (E&ENews PM, April 2).
But McCarthy said the studies involved levels of pollution that are already found on the street in some cities across the United States and that agency scientists had followed and gone beyond the safety protocols. She added that the studies helped inform air quality standards by helping scientists "connect the dots in risk and exposure studies."
She slammed critics for publicly vilifying the scientists conducting the studies, who she noted have had their lives threatened and their property damaged just for "doing their jobs as scientists."
Polls show that significant swaths of the American public distrust climate science, even though scientists have been warning about the risks of climate change for several decades.
McCarthy said critics are "looking to cloud the science with uncertainty to keep EPA from doing the very job that Congress gave us to do."
One focal point of GOP politicians' attacks on EPA has been the economic costs of regulations that the lawmakers argue would cost thousands of jobs, lead to higher energy bills and imperil economic growth.
McCarthy tried to refute that argument by pointing out that the Clean Air Act has cut pollution by 70 percent in the decades it's been in effect, while the U.S. economy more than doubled during that time. She said U.S. pollution control technologies account for more than 1.5 million jobs and $44 billion in exports in 2008.
She said the country's top environmental and science challenge these days is climate change. But a host of Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tanks have led the efforts to delegitimize climate science and raise questions about the effectiveness of proposed solutions like a carbon cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax (ClimateWire, March 5).
"Climate change is not the product of conspiracies or political agendas," McCarthy said. She added later that EPA "without fail ... will deliver on our pieces of" President Obama's Climate Action Plan.
But Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, criticized McCarthy's speech in a statement accusing her of "doubling down" on secret science.
“EPA’s leadership is willfully ignoring the big picture and defending EPA’s practices of using science that is, in fact, secret due to the refusal of the Agency to share the underlying data with Congress and the American public,” Vitter said. “We’re not asking, and we’ve never asked, for personal health information, and it is inexcusable for EPA to justify billions of dollars of economically significant regulations on science that is kept hidden from independent reanalysis and congressional oversight.”
McCarthy received a standing ovation at the end of the speech, and scientists afterward praised it as providing some much-needed support to the scientific community.
Robert Field, a physical scientist studying laser spectroscopy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he hasn't experienced attacks on his work directly.
"What I do is curiosity-based research, I do nothing [immediately] useful, and this is under attack," he said, later adding that many technologies that have tremendous economic value, like the Internet, genome sequencing, lasers and 3D printers come from basic, curiosity-driven research.
"But that seems expensive, because there's no identifiable products. ... Almost everything came out of people trying to do something that was hard because it was hard and because it seemed rich" with potential.
Marvin Cohen, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies nanoscience and materials, said that while his work may take some time to become useful, research in his field has led to developments in semiconductors that power computers and helped advance solar power.
"I have a colleague, Charles Townes, who invented the laser and is down the hall from me, and I say, 'Charlie, did you envision any of these applications, like reattaching retinas and industrial things?' and he said, 'Absolutely not.'"
"When you look at all the professions, I think ours is really very dedicated and really care about humanity and public service," Cohen said. "Of course, we're driven by trying to figure out the secrets of nature."