Politics of Poverty

Trump’s pick to lead the EPA is a threat to poor and vulnerable communities

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Village residents fetch water from a communal pump in Faloumbou, Senegal (Photo: Rebecca Blackwell / Oxfam)

The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should be someone who uses robust science to uphold and enforce environmental safeguards on behalf of all Americans. President-elect Trump’s nominee for the position has made a career of doing the exact opposite.

Hearings begin today for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, nominated by President-elect Trump to be the next Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. When announced in December, the selection was immediately condemned by progressive organizations as Mr. Pruitt has made a career of fronting for the fossil fuel industry and challenging EPA rules that would limit the amount of pollutants like smog-forming ozone and mercury in our air and water.

In addition, Mr. Pruitt has regularly denied climate change as the planetary problem it is. For example, Mr. Pruitt has previously stated that the science of global warming is “far from settled;” that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” This kind of rhetoric may score points with political allies, but it’s inaccurate and potentially dangerous to the lives and livelihoods of poor and vulnerable communities in the US and around the world.

We are seeing the effects of a changing climate today

For the millions whose livelihoods depend directly on predictable weather patterns or who have limited resources, the ‘shocks’ of a changing climate can be particularly devastating and even life-threatening. Oxfam sees these impacts every day as we work with communities around the world. From Guatemala to Ethiopia, rising temperatures are leading to more frequent droughts, while more erratic rainfall patterns are causing flooding: both impacts are decimating crops for farmers and exacerbating food scarcity. Without quick action globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, projections suggest the impacts of climate change will make addressing global poverty much more difficult, and may bring unprecedented future refugee and humanitarian crises.

The US is not immune to a changing climate either. 2016 saw multiple instances of record flooding in the Midwest (Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) and the South, a one-in-a-thousand year level of rainfall in the mid-Atlantic, persistent drought in California, as well as heatwaves and forest fires in the Southwest. Together, these events are consistent with a warming world—one in which 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred during the 21st century, with 2016 being the hottest year on record.

And just as in other parts of the world, in the US, it’s poorer people and livelihoods that suffer the most during these disasters as they are less equipped to cope with the financial costs of impacts, putting even more economic strain on vulnerable communities and families, and exacerbating an inequality gap that is often overlooked.

Climate inaction is a risk to us all

The EPA  Administrator has a huge responsibility to protect our air, water, and public health. Any future EPA Administrator who takes this job seriously should realize that climate change issues are also air quality and water issues. For example, methane emissions from leaky oil and gas operations are contributing to climate change while also increasing the amount of smog in the air, which can lead to numerous health impacts, particularly in children and the elderly. Increased flooding and sea-level rise can damage water infrastructure and lead to greater risk of drinking water pollution. So for the EPA to perform its duty as our nation’s environmental watch dog, it must also play a leading role in addressing climate change.

Mr. Pruitt’s and the Trump administration’s rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and the imperative to do something about it puts us all at risk, and particularly those in vulnerable communities. That’s why many US leaders have already made public calls to oppose inaction and denialism. For example, over 125 organizations—faith-based groups, communities of color and low-income communities, anti-poverty organizations (including Oxfam), healthcare professionals, parent groups, environmental advocates, youth, and labor unions—signed onto a solidarity statement late last year urging action on climate change “for climate justice, for the environment, for better jobs, for clean and healthy communities, and for human rights.” You can stand with these organizations by adding your name to the list.

For an equitable, inclusive economy requires a healthy environment, and we must all vigilantly protect it.

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