The Environment and the role of the EPA (3/20/2019)
Q: What specific EPA regulations would you like to see adopted in Mississippi?
A: First of all, the EPA is a federal regulator, so its rules take precedence over state law. What Mississippi dumps into the Mississippi river has consequences for Arkansas and Louisiana. That’s why regulation has to be at the federal level. So Mississippi doesn’t necessarily need to adopt any EPA protections, because those are already the law.
What Mississippi can do is adopt protections that are more strict than those of the EPA. States like California and Hawaii do this regularly. I think moving toward implementing the CO2 reduction efforts that were part of the Paris Climate Accord would be a huge step for the state. Mississippi is one of many southern states that are going to bear the brunt of the results of climate change (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/06/global-warming-american-south/532200/). Ignoring climate change is ignoring the future of the state.
Q: What are the long-term effects of dismantling the EPA such as that with the current actions of Trump administration?
A: On June 22nd, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire—for the thirteenth time. National outrage over the pollution of the river led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The protections created by the EPA have cleaned up the waterways of America so that no such fire should ever happen again. The air has been cleaned as well; one only needs to look at photos of Los Angeles or New York City from the 1960s-1970s to see the difference. EPA protections are important in Mississippi too. Despite EPA protections, the dumping of the carcinogen trichloroethylene onto the ground and into the waters in Grenada, MS and Water Valley, MS have created an environmental crisis in our state. Without EPA protections, the crisis would have been even more widespread and far worse.
As a professional chemist for 27 years, the first thing I teach students is safe handling of chemicals. I teach them how to protect themselves and the environment from the things they are working with. The recent firing of scientists from the EPA advisory board by the Trump administration and their replacement with corporate employees—many who work in the very industries the do the worst polluting—does not bode well for the rivers, lakes, forests, and ocean that are so important to Mississippi’s culture and economy. The runoff from pesticide use, for example is very detrimental to fish populations in the rivers and lakes in the state. I grew up fishing with my dad, and the idea that future generations of Mississippians won’t get to do that makes me both sad and angry.
Q: Is there an example in another country or region that you think Mississippi or the United States as a whole should adopt?
A: I mentioned California and Hawaii already, but Germany is really the country we should be looking to for environmental leadership. Their goal is to have 65% of the country’s energy provided by renewables by 2030.
That is bold for a country that has been heavily dependent on coal. Coal is the worst of the fossil fuels for the environment. I remember going to Dresden, Germany back in 1990 and being astonished that every building in that city was covered with black soot from coal. People were breathing that air! I was happy to see Mississippi’s Kemper County power plant abandon lignite (a very dirty version of coal), and switch to burning natural gas. Not the ultimate energy solution, but a better one. Mississippi could do a lot with renewables. We have the agricultural infrastructure to make biofuels. We get a lot of sun. There should be solar panels on every home and building in Mississippi. The jobs created from solar and other aspects of the Green New Deal have an astounding potential to boost Mississippi’s economy. Unfortunately, too many of our elected officials can’t think beyond the 19th Century, so we tend to get left behind the other 49 states.
Q: In your opinion, do you think the lack of urgency to protect the environment stems from a lack of understanding of the subject? a): if yes, how can we educate people on the topic without dismissing their beliefs?
A: It is a mixture of both a lack of understanding and outright lies by climate change denialists. There are celebrity denialists who are making money by whispering in the ears of those who don’t understand the process that more than 97% of climate scientists on earth do understand. I teach about climate change—particularly what’s happening with CO2 increase in the atmosphere and how it affects the temperature of the planet. Anyone can understand it if you’ve ever been in a greenhouse.
Step one: look at a periodic table of the elements, and note that silicon is directly under carbon. That means silicon dioxide (SiO2) and CO2 have very similar chemical properties. Glass is made from SiO2. Step two: go into a greenhouse when it’s cold outside. Note that it is warm inside, which is indeed its purpose.
When climate denialists say rising CO2 levels aren’t leading to warming of the planet, my question to them is “how can it not be?” There is no mechanism by which heat trapped by either SiO2 or CO2 can be dissipated without warming the atmosphere of the greenhouse or of the earth, respectively. It’s a disingenuous, silly argument, but often the denialists are the Wormtongues of the world, telling powerful people what they want to hear. In 2015, Mississippi’s senior Senator, Roger Wicker, was the only senator to vote that climate change is not real. In 2017, Senator Wicker urged President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. I know Senator Wicker. He knows my family. He worked with my dad for years on economic development in Tishomingo County. Senator Wicker is a smart man, but somebody is whispering lies in his ear.
I don’t think you can ever educate someone without dismissing certain beliefs. Climate change is manmade. Vaccines are safe and do not cause autism. GMO foods are safe to eat. As a scientist, it is my duty to stand up and say these things…because I can. Because those letters after my name mean I have been granted by society a certain level of authority on these matters, and I have a duty to use that authority wisely. Because I have a knowledge and experience that most people in the world do not. Because I have an understanding of certain fundamental truths at a level that very few people in the world are privileged to hold. Because those fundamental truths are critical to the underpinnings of science, the health of the planet, and the future of Mississippi. Because there are a lot of Wormtongues out there, and somebody has to tell them that what they are saying shall not pass.