Earth Day at 50

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Science  17 Apr 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6488, pp. 215
DOI: 10.1126/science.abc1967

The spring of 2020 will be remembered for the coronavirus pandemic. But at this moment, it is worth remembering that 50 years ago, the United States confronted a very different crisis. That April, millions of Americans participated in Earth Day “teach-ins” across the nation. These events galvanized Democrats and Republicans into action: President Nixon and Congress worked together to pass a blitz of science-based policies that aimed to protect public health and the environment—including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act—with large bipartisan majorities.

These laws elevated science above economics or special-interest politics to inform public policy. They specified the role of science in evaluating environmental impacts, setting air pollution standards, and deciding when a species needed protection. Political scientist Roger Pielke has called this “tornado politics,” because like people heeding meteorologists' advice to take shelter during a tornado, in the face of the mounting environmental crisis, Americans looked to science to guide policies that would protect the environment and public health.

A half-century of investment in those laws has paid tremendous dividends. Although inequities persist in environmental exposures and new environmental challenges have arisen, Americans have witnessed dramatic improvements in environmental quality since the 1970s. By the early 1980s, the Clean Air Act had extended the life of the average American by 1 year. In 2010, the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments were estimated to prevent 3.2 million lost school days, 13 million lost workdays, and 160,000 premature deaths. The Clean Water Act is responsible for substantial declines in most major water pollutants. Scientists estimate that the Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of 291 species and helped 39 species to a full recovery.

The U.S. government's uneven response to the coronavirus pandemic shows how much has changed since the early 1970s. Although millions of Americans have followed the advice of infectious disease experts this spring—sheltering at home and practicing social distancing—President Donald Trump often eschewed tornado politics, especially in the early weeks of the crisis, questioning the advice of scientific experts. Instead, he followed his hunches and went with his gut—an approach that contributed to the nation's slow response to the pandemic and the scale of the outbreak.

Although it may be tempting to chalk up Trump's disregard for science to his mercurial leadership, his uneasy relationship to scientific expertise has deep roots in conservative politics. The shift away from science-based policy-making began during the 1980 presidential campaign, when Ronald Reagan not only endorsed the idea of teaching creationism in public schools, but cheerfully mocked environmental laws and projected a blithe nonchalance toward environmental problems. In the years after Reagan's presidency, conservative leaders have often elevated values above science when it comes to environmental policy and public health.

What are these values? On the environment, conservatives have consistently turned to three themes: a belief in American exceptionalism; an unwavering faith in the market and an abundance of natural resources; and a deep skepticism of science. When the United States withdrew from the Paris climate accord in June 2017, Trump and his then Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt, emphasized what they saw as the agreement's unfair demands on the United States and the ability of American business to solve the climate challenge without government intervention. Neither mentioned climate science, because conservatives had been characterizing climate change as a “hoax” for decades.

In the half-century since Earth Day, anti-scientism has metastasized as conservatives have successfully wedded it to core conservative values: Science is dismissed as the province of liberal elites, anti-religious in its secularism and anti-capitalist in its support for science-based regulation. What today's coronavirus pandemic makes clear is the grave cost of delay and inaction in the face of urgent scientific warnings. In January 1970, Richard Nixon explained that it was “now or never” for the environment. That warning is even more true today. Meeting challenges like the coronavirus and climate change will require policy actions that match the scale and scientific-based rigor of those from the 1970s.

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