Bush's pollution of science threatens our future

April 21, 2006|By EDWARD J. MARKEY

WASHINGTON -- When we talk about pollution on the celebration of Earth Day tomorrow, we usually mean smokestacks fouling our air or waste tainting our water. This year it's worth considering a different kind of pollution: the scientific pollution spilling out of the White House.

The federal government spends billions of dollars each year on science. At our national labs, federal agencies, universities and elsewhere, we call on some of the world's best scientists to help us protect our health, economy and security. We expect that their work will be conducted honestly and will undergo vigorous review, so that we make decisions based on the best information available. That's mostly how it works.

But when it comes to some issues, the Bush administration takes a different and very dangerous approach. Again and again, evidence has emerged of political tampering with what was meant to be independent, trustworthy scientific research. This has been especially true when it comes to environmental science.

Last year, for example, it was reported that a political appointee in the White House was editing the government's reports to downplay the role of fossil fuels as a cause of climate change. And this year, a top scientist at NASA complained that White House public affairs staff ordered that his lectures, papers and discussions with journalists be reviewed and in some cases canceled.

Why? President Bush seems to oppose any measure that will meaningfully reduce the pollution that contributes to global warming, as do most of his supporters from the fossil fuel industry. They don't want scientific truth because it may inspire policies to transition us to cleaner energy technologies and upset what is for them a very profitable status quo. Politics is driving science.

To understand why it matters, we can look to some unpolluted science to see how it can help us. Take the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, initiated by the United Nations and published this year. It's an unprecedented international environmental study that runs to more than 2,500 pages and took five years to complete. It draws on the work of thousands of scientists and has been thoroughly peer-reviewed.

The assessment offers a stark warning about the state of the environment and asks us to do a far better job understanding, measuring and protecting nature's gifts, not for nature's sake but for our own. Scientists call nature's gifts "ecosystem services." We call them clean air, clean water, food and shelter - and we depend on them for the quality of our lives and our very survival.

According to the assessment, nearly two-thirds of nature's gifts, such as fresh water, a stable climate and fisheries, and the ecosystems that support them are being degraded beyond what they can possibly bear. When those gifts become scarce or disappear, we may well find them very costly or even impossible to replace, and that would land many people around the world, rich and poor, in crisis.

Based on the assessment's unvarnished information, we could make decisions today that will help us tomorrow. We could cut our global warming pollution through technological innovation to avert dangerous climatic swings. We could do more to preserve the forests and wetlands that give us clean water for agriculture and our everyday use. We could end the overfishing that is depleting a critical source of food for millions around the world. Preserving these essential natural services would improve our quality of life, reduce conflict and help safeguard our well-being.

What we shouldn't do is ignore the assessment or try to change scientific findings if they threaten the status quo. We sell nature and ourselves short when we distort science because we've asked a question but don't like the answer. We need unpolluted science to inform and shape the best policies for the environment.

Edward J. Markey, a Democrat who represents the 7th Congressional District of Massachusetts, is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Resources Committee. He can be e-mailed through his Web site at http:--markey.house.gov.

Columnist Trudy Rubin is on vacation.

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