Shifting Stories: How EPA Scandals, Politicians, and Runaway Media Destroy the Global Climate Change Message

Author Note: This paper was prepared for the Global Climate Change class, taught by Professors Wieskel, Moomaw, and Zevitas, at Harvard University Extension School. 


            Environmental scientists have been shouting anthropogenic effects on global climate change from the rooftops, for decades. Through multiple venues including the International Panel on Climate Change, they have provided clear evidence that carbon emissions, methane gas, and other human caused factors, are rapidly speeding up the rate of climate change. The resulting effects are extreme weather patterns and sea level rise, among other things, that are not only detrimental to the ecology, but some scientists say, could bring on a mass extinction of all species (Finnegan).

However, despite the dire warning of these well-researched experts, the United States has yet to gain political or public consensus on the matter, nor enact policies that address mitigating the crisis. Promoting the dichotomous dialogue in our country are the purposed pundits that serve to mislead and confuse an otherwise naïve population. Additionally, corrupt parties within the EPA, FEMA, and other government entities, through failed policies and deceitful wrong-doings (Hastings) are disorienting the public and creating mistrust between the people and their government. Meanwhile, industry giants continue to fight carbon standards and a large segment of the population remains in denial over whether or not human actions are contributing to global climate change, or whether it is happening from natural forces…and some, according to the Pew Research Center, are even uncertain that climate change is occurring (Pew).

The reasons for the failed communications are multi-faceted, with the fault lying on both sides of the political aisle, but the solution seems clear and is quite simple…bring scientists into the public theatre of policy and leadership.

The Climate Change Confusion:

Despite scientific consensus of the anthropogenic effects on climate change, as indicated by the IPCC and other scientific groups, the information is being mitigated and confused by opposing forces that include corrupt agents of government, leaders of powerful multi-national corporations, and a complicit media. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has issued a report confirming that global sea-level rise is projected to increase the flood-hazard area in our nation’s coastal floodplain by 55 percent by 2100 (Polefka), and will further have a severely detrimental effect on state, national, and global economies, potentially harming and dislocate large numbers of peoples. Yet, the clear conveyance of the message of global climate change is being overshadowed by politics and reported corruption throughout the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), FEMA, and other authoritative bodies. The challenges with obtaining the support of many people lies in the powerful pockets of the industry giants financially supporting the denial campaign, which a Drexel University Researcher shows is not only the Koch Brothers, but various high-profile corporations and individuals. See chart below showing the funding by various groups (Finnegan).

Figure 1

Beyond this, the problems with the climate change message are the corruptions of the EPA administrators, and the scare tactics used in national and local media reporting. The solution, is to separate the science from politics and to put expert scientists directly into the public leadership sphere.

EPA Corruption and Inefficiency:

Causing further damage to the climate change message are the public corruption and inefficiencies of the EPA. The corruption of the EPA over the past decade serves not only to alienate the public, but provide fuel for industry opponents against EPA rulings and their enforcement. Moreover, the widespread media reporting on the EPA mishaps and failed policies, such as the Environmental Protection Act (1969) and the recent well-publicized San Joaquin Delta Smelt water diversion debacle, has exacerbated the public scrutiny of the global climate change debate as promoted by political conservatives and industry giants (EPAABUSE).

While multi-national corporations like Exxon, General Motors, and others, work to dismantle the global climate change science and its impact on our nations policies, the EPA has been accused of unethical behavior including colluding with industry colleagues in unhealthy alliances to promote and engage upon false litigations, costing taxpayers many millions of dollars. Repeated lawsuits have been filed, says industry experts Todd Young and Jenny Kefauver, from the Southeastern Legal Foundation. Suits are filed against the EPA by environmental groups that otherwise remain friendly with EPA staffers, and then are settled behind closed doors between parties for many millions of dollars. These also include exorbitant legal fees to be paid to attorneys on both sides funded by the taxpayer. Meanwhile, there is no third-party oversight to these settlements and they are only uncovered if there is a congressional investigation or a lawsuit. When these investigations have been launched, the EPA has demonstrated blatant disregard for court orders to produce valid documents. In fact, says the SLF report of the aforementioned case, “What was produced by the EPA was essentially worthless…” The official report noted that the EPA had in fact, redacted 96% of the information on the reports, as presented to the court (SLF).

This has been no easy burden on the taxpayers, who foot the bill on EPA settlements. According to the 2011 GAO report (USPW), friendly lawsuits that have been filed between the years of 1995 and 2010, by groups in the “Big Three” environmental clubs like the Sierra Club, Earth Justice, and the National Resource Defense Counsel, had resulted in payouts of more than $6 billion (Bell). In addition to this, the EPA paid out $43 million (between 1998 and 2010) to its own attorney fees that were not billed out by the hour, as it fails to maintain records of attorney performance on a per case basis (EPA). Several U.S. Senators have prompted investigations into these “Sue and Settle” lawsuits, including Louisiana Senator David Vitter (R-LA) (Bell). Vitter requested his state Attorney General, along with 13 other AG’s to join together in a court filing against the EPA for all email correspondence between their group and environmental groups, under the Freedom of Information Act.

After eight months of EPA stonewalling, the group petitioned the courts to force the EPA’s hand and provide the information. The emails that have been turned over have produced insider information and links to aliases being used by EPA members making side agreements and other incriminating propositions, according to Senator Vitter (Forbes). Also uncovered, was that EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, was conducting agency business under an alias of “Richard Windsor” (Horner). Jackson resigned soon after the hearing took place.

 Media Influence and Public Perception:

Adding more insult to injury, news organizations picked up the ball and ran with corruption stories. Bell, in his Forbes article, “The EPA’s Secret and Costly ‘Sue and Settle’ Collusion With Environmental Organizations,” makes a strong statement of this situation, claiming it is not only about “her”, the colluding administrator, but about a larger scale culture of hiding extreme agenda’s from the American people that cannot be discovered if kept out of public debate (Forbes).” Considering that other federal oversight groups, aside from the EPA, have been shown by the news media to be corrupt and non-compliant with the FOIA during hearings (think, IRS email scandal (CNN) and Attorney General Eric Holder’s having been cited in contempt of Congress for withholding communications on “Fast and Furious” (Redstate), it should be no surprise that the news and other media helped promote massive public distrust of the EPA and its policies.

Moreover, the corporate-backed conservative opposition to the EPA rulings and climate change data has had much to say about President Obama having run on the premise of being the most transparent administration in United States history. Jenny Kefauver, editor of the Southeastern Legal Foundation reports that the Obama administration plays “hide the ball” and is “the least transparent in history (SLF).” And, regarding its policy implementation and enforcement, while the EPA’s published mission is to “promote human health and the environment” (EPA), many believe that EPA policies work to protect certain species far beyond that of human health and welfare, for its own gain. The matter of rerouting water to protect the San Joaquin Valley Delta Smelt, is one of those hotly debated cases.


The Delta Smelt Debacle:

In December of 2008, responding to a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resource Defense Fund and other groups citing the Environmental Protection Act in 1969 as a basis for the claim, a California court –backed by the Bush administration- ruled that farmers in Firebaugh and the Central Valley of California were to be shut off from the stream of water that naturally flowed to them and irrigated more than one million acres of farms. The call was to redirect more than 150 billion gallons of water per year to the San Joaquin Delta. The reason, said the plaintiff’s, was that the Delta Smelt, listed in the associated Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a protected species, were getting caught up in the irrigation lines on the farms. The court, having reviewed the congressional document that protected this species along with 129 others, ruled that in absence of congressional action, the group must be supported to stop the extinction of this fish (Hastings).

Where the impact initially affected a small group of farmers, due to the simultaneous drought conditions (that would follow for the next several years) and the economic recession, it has contributed to effectively dry up more than 750,000 acres of farmland, including ¼ of the nation’s fruits and vegetables and 90% of the nation’s almond supply. Economically, the impact surpassed $1billion and the unemployment exceeded 40% in these areas. Some of the opponents to the ruling (and also challenging the original bill) were economists, and financial experts, such as Rob Rivett, president of the Pacific Legal Foundation. Rivett argued, “Instead of stimulating jobs, federal environmental officials are turning recession into depression, and stimulating economic hardship for business, farms, and families (Washington Times).” This was a tough pill for the farmers and the residents of California to swallow, and an issue that many U.S. citizens could not understand.

However, backlash hit the Congressional doors when farmers and citizens stormed congressional offices. An oversight hearing was soon held on December 06, 2011 to review the effectiveness of the act and hear testimony regarding the proposed criminal offenses. To the embarrassment of the EPA, The Honorable Doc Hastings (R-WA) Chairman of the committee, made the opening statement and offered among other things that the current law was “failing, and failing badly” as it produced little to no protection of the very species it was designed to protect. Further, he admonished, that it has cost workers their jobs, taxpayers their money, and American’s their food. Chairman Hastings also alerted the group that for all the resources allocated and the monies spent on litigations, only some twenty species on the protected list are considered recovered (Report), and highlighted the rampant abuse of litigation with stating at the time of the hearing there were 180 pending ESA related lawsuits. This was very bad press for the EPA and further tarnished their image, but to environmentalists, equally as important is their loss of credibility and how that impacts the global climate change message.

Katrina and Other FEMA Disasters:

Similarly, the disaster of Katrina made FEMA a right-wing conservative joke in dealing with climate change issues. After FEMA’s poor coordination and logistics made it impossible to deliver water, provide medical treatment, and find refuge for thousands, the media was merciless in its attacks against the administration. Calling it, the “Many Failures of FEMA”, the television media widely covered people stranded for days on New Orleans’ rooftops without food or water, patients dying for lack of medical supplies, and other hideous sites across television screens (USAToday). Newspapers spent the following months exposing the restructuring of FEMA under the Bush administration and then its absorption into the Department of Homeland Security, bringing speculation into the entire organizations ethics and abilities. Adding fuel to the public image fire was that FEMA recalled more than $22 million of federal funds it had paid out to Katrina disaster victims, many of which are still without housing. Huffington Post wrote a scathing article about FEMA and its dysfunction and criticized the group for demanding its money back from victims and filing suits where necessary, to get those funds from some whom still had no permanent homes (Huffpost).

Insurance Strikes Back on Climate Change:

And of lawsuits, there will be more…says Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, but this time from the insurance industry giants. After being hit hard by flood damage claims by hurricanes Katrina and Sandy that exhausted the National Flood Insurance Program Funds, and then required a subsequent bailout to the tune of $28 billion, Insurance companies are at the fore-front of forcing government hands at preparing for damage (Polefka). The insurance companies are going after cities by filing lawsuits claiming they should have been better prepared for floods, and they are rightly concerned. The Geneva Report, a risk-assessment for the insurance industry, shows “increased loss potential due to the warming of the oceans” and the “drivers of change…are sea level rise, an intensified hydrological cycle (Niehorster). According to a study by FEMA (2010), sea level rise is projected to increase in coastal flood hazard zones by 55 percent, by the year 2100. Insurance experts predict that if adaptation measures fail to be implemented, the number of coastal flood claims will increase more than 130 percent during that time (NOAA).

As a wakeup call, Farmers Insurance Company filed nine-class action lawsuits against 200 local governments in the Chicago area, claiming that they failed to prepare for massive floods that based on their 2008 climate change report, they should have anticipated. In another force of hand, Lloyd’s of London, the world oldest insurance market, recently called on all insurers to incorporate climate change into their future prediction models, as expenditures for coastal flood plains have risen from $50 billion in the 1980’s to more than $200 billion in the last decade (CSM). Traditional insurance models focused on historical data, and repeatedly fail in today’s environment. Becoming more important are the scientific reports and projected models by climate change experts, and as a Christian Science Monitor environmental report states that “a paradigm shift from historic to predictive risk assessment methods is necessary (CSM). Although, the thought of lawsuits for failure to act might ring harsh to citizens bearing the tax burden of increased funding for their locales, these demands made by insurance industry giants may just be the counter weight needed to force the global climate change preparedness issue by hitting the taxpayers where it counts.

Risks of Coastal Living:

As part of the risk mitigation practices as recommended by the insurance assessors, the government has adhered to the recommendations of buying out flood zone properties where possible (FEMA), and the process is rapidly quickening. Between 1993 and 2011, FEMA spent more than $2 billion to buy more than 37,000 properties in flood zone areas. As of 2012, FEMA and the NFIP had written checks for more than $24 billion in coastal floodplains. With more than 50% of the United States households listed in coastal areas or along flood plains (NOAA) this is an area of large concern, not only for FEMA and disaster recovery, but also for the insurance industry and the effects of insurance costs on the American economy.

infographic2 (2)

Figure 2 NOAA Coastal Residential Report


The Media Scare Tactics:

Yet, instead of reporting on the necessity of mitigating risk to property and people, the media has capitalized upon these actions to instill fear of a government seeking authoritarian power, turning the FEMA agenda into something much more vile and sinister. Terms like “corporate takeover”, “authoritarian rule”, “illuminati control”, and “end times”, have been used to label the White House new land use and resource agendas (Jones). As is the typical result of fear based tactics, the public becomes paralyzed. Any changes in policy that even hint at the area they are hyper-alerted to, becomes null and the opposition’s victory is easily achieved through shifting of the dialogue.

To achieve this end, such stories have been promulgated by far right-wing and libertarian groups, like Alex Jones’ Infowars, the Red Flag News, and many other national syndications, as well as local newspapers in coastal regions. The Inside Louisiana News wrote a piece called “The Great FEMA Land Rush” when discussing the dealings between FEMA and the Mayor over whether or not to rezone a community as a flood plain (ILN). More scary articles have been written and shared widely on social media, with titles such as “Retaliation: Feds Launch New Land Grab Targeting Bundy Family” and “Feds Back Down From Bundy Siege After Infowars Expose of Chinese Land Grab” (Jones). But, the reporting is one-sided.

Although it is true that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were attempting to oust the Bundy’s from land that was contracted to the Chinese for solar fields, the right-wing media reports downplayed the facts that the Bundy’s had also been illegally squatting on this land for many decades and had also failed to pay any taxes (USDI). These fear-mongering exposés are made with the intent to rile up an unsuspecting patriotic crowd with fear of an antagonistic government and overriding sinister agenda. Thanks to this type of unfettered ratings-driven, media-hype, information of critical importance is being clouded, confused, and lost in the frenzy of information given to an overly and greatly misinformed public. This is done with purposed intent by the corporate- backed conservatives, as GOP consultant Frank Lutz contends, “Voters believe there is no consensus about global warming…should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate (Lappé).”

Messages Lost:

As a result of the aforementioned corruption, debacles, and publicly debated failed policies, combined with the purposed intent of industry giants and conservative political groups to confuse the public, the climate change message remains muddied. Instead of participating in dialogue of change, the general public recoils from the conversation as they perceive a poorly run, and worse yet, thieving group claiming necessity for unnecessary sweeping industry regulations. Additionally, they fear global climate change conjecture is yet another opportunity for corrupt bureaucrats to shift the people’s tax money into their own private pockets and possibly to change their own personal rights to land and its use. The end result, is the proverbial baby being thrown out with the bath water, and the truth of anthropogenic effects of global warming along with the necessary implementation of policies, going down the drain.

The Solution: Bringing Scientists to the Public Theatre

That said, the solution to this problem is to make a clear and public separation of the science of global climate change from any political group or agenda, including the EPA. Due to image problems and lack of public support, the EPA may require a complete overhaul or dismantling altogether. The information given to the people of the United States- and to the world- must come from an apolitical scientific-based group that is clear from any financial ties to industry giants or other interest in the outcome of policy, other than the betterment of the earth and mankind. The enforcement of the policies -can and should- come from policy makers and/or the executive branch of the governments.

Further, the perception of this group must be maintained as one of true altruism, based in nearly infallible science and openly discussed research. This noble group must also have direct and free (granted by networks to alleviate bias) access to mass media and a professional lobbying team to work effectively with policymakers on the domestic and international front. Only when the scientific community is able to present a unified front will a significant segment of the population trust not only the message, but also the messenger. In this manner, we will achieve the paradigm shift that global climate change experts agree, is desperately needed.

Word count: 3032 + Abstract/Bibliography


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