Rhetoric

Defending Trump’s science policies is an exercise in absurdity

Inane pronouncements and outright denial are all his appointees have.

Rhetoric

Rhetoric

Defending Trump’s science policies is an exercise in absurdity

Inane pronouncements and outright denial are all his appointees have.

If you happened to spend your October 12 live-streaming a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Energy Department oversight, you would have heard Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York, interrogate Energy Secretary and former Dancing With the Stars contestant Rick Perry about the costs of a proposal put forth by Perry’s DOE that amounts to a massive subsidy for coal and nuclear power plants.

Tonko: Did you measure costs to the consumer?

Perry: I think you take cost into account, but when it comes to — you know, what’s the cost of freedom? What does it cost to build a system to keep America free?

This is the situation that a few of President Trump’s appointees routinely find themselves in: Representing the most profoundly unscientific administration the country has ever seen requires some of the more convoluted mental and verbal gymnastics imaginable. When confronted with a simple question on why this rule upending the energy market should exist, Perry had no answer beyond a stale call to the base: the emotional but meaningless argument that “freedom” is somehow imperiled by an increasing number of solar panels and wind turbines.

Macallan Rare Cask

Perry’s transparent failure to spin a scientifically and economically indefensible policy into a referendum on capital-F Freedom is a distillation of the problem faced by officials in science-centric departments of the Trump administration. The only options are misdirection, lies, and more lies.

The proposal in question would effectively offset all electricity and fixed costs for power plants that keep at least 90 days of fuel on site. Supposedly, this proposal would prevent blackouts by incentivizing emergency preparedness — but in reality, it’s simply a new subsidy for coal, nuclear, and some hydropower plants, since sources that don’t rely on a tangible fuel source, such as solar and wind, would not benefit. As David Roberts wrote at Vox, the new rule would mean that “profits are guaranteed” for coal and nuclear regardless of whether or not the product is competitively priced.

Essentially, this would forestall the retirement of aging power plants because of an imagined threat to grid reliability. Experts at Columbia University wrote that this proposal is “a solution in search of a problem” aimed at undermining the country’s progress toward renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. “[I]t will unarguably increase costs to consumers,” they wrote. A former chair of FERC, the independent agency that would actually implement Perry’s rule if it comes to pass, said it would “blow the market up.” He added: “It’s gonna be as expensive as hell.”

When there is simply no angle from which to defend a policy proposal, what is a loyal Cabinet Secretary to do?

Obviously, it also ignores the entirety of the world’s climate scientists when it comes to the need to dramatically reduce emissions. Yes, an operating nuclear power plant offers no carbon dioxide emissions, but skyrocketing costs have taken the shine off that power source in recent years as well; the industry, and its friends in Congress and the White House, apparently does not mind aligning with coal on this particular issue. When there is simply no angle from which to defend a policy proposal, what is a loyal Cabinet Secretary to do?

Perry is a longtime friend to gaffes and idiotic pronouncements — he once said George W. Bush did “an incredible job… defending us from freedom,” just to pick one out of a hat. In this case, he fell back on a talking point often used to avoid the uncomfortable details: threats to Freedom, however nebulous, are of constant concern to a certain set of voters and members of Congress. For years, Republicans have kept simmering the idea that the Obama administration was propping up solar and wind power through regulatory action, and any move in the opposite direction can be sold as a removal of government interference — a return to “freedom.” In fact, the opposite is true: Perry’s department wants to introduce a proposal that would cause more government interference in the market by artificially increasing coal profits.

We can find these sorts of mangled defenses virtually any time a flat-earth proposal gets sent forth from the Trump administration. For example, in March, Pruitt reversed an Obama-era decision to ban the insecticide chlorpyrifos, an obvious giveaway to Dow Chemical and the rest of the chemical industry. “By reversing the previous administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results,” Pruitt said. Only a year earlier, the EPA itself, after extensive study, determined that chlorpyrifos could not meet important safety standards, because it may cause memory and learning declines in farm workers and young children. In a single short statement, Pruitt blamed Obama, dog-whistled to industry by citing the agent’s widespread use, made existing research disappear, and invoked the unimpeachable but unsupported idea of “sound science.” This sort of thorough obfuscation may satisfy Pruitt’s industry handlers, but it won’t stop the damage to kids’ brains.

Occasionally, when really put on the spot, Trump’s mad scientists will send us all back to the 19th century. Both Perry and Pruitt have, in interviews when asked to defend some climate change-denying policy positions, claimed that carbon dioxide is not the “primary control knob” for the climate. “No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in,” Perry said. The “control knob” language has been used by actual climate scientists in describing CO2, and here it served to make the absurd sound reasonable. The argument about oceans and “this environment” is a cousin to a common denier talking point that the world is a big place and the climate changes all the time. The research first making the case that CO2 can indeed change the globe’s temperature dates to 1824, or 1896 if we’re being generous.

In general, the defenses of scientific policies crumble at even the slightest bit of scrutiny -- they beg us to look elsewhere, at “freedom,” at an imagined lack of evidence, at anything other than the facts. Trump has no science advisor, has failed to offer nominees for a variety of scientific positions throughout government, and when he does nominate someone they’re more likely to be a science-denying birther than they are an actual scientist. Pruitt, a lawyer, spent his pre-administration career trying to sue the EPA into oblivion. Perry was a governor with no scientific training who forgot that he wanted to abolish the agency he now runs, a post that was previously the domain of nuclear physicists and Nobel laureates. The rest of Trump’s administration doesn’t look any less absurd: Interior Ryan Zinke, who infamously rode a horse to work, has invoked “What’s the cost of freedom?”-style rhetoric in his attacks against his own staff. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” he said according to the Washington Post. It’s so strange how often loyalty to the flag is at odds with science these days.

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Dave Levitan is a journalist, and author of the recent book “Not A Scientist: How politicians mistake, misrepresent, and utterly mangle science.”