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#506 - Science Against the Environment, 07-Aug-1996

The latest report from the International Joint Commission (IJC) reveals
that industry and government officials have a new strategy for rolling
back environmental protection in the 1990s.[1]

Created in 1909 by treaty between the U.S. and Canada, the IJC has
responsibility for water quality in the Great Lakes. Every two years,
the IJC issues a formal report on its progress against pollution in the
Great Lakes. The eighth such report was published last month. (See REHW

The new report makes clear that environmental protection programs in
the Great Lakes are being eroded. About a third of the new report is
spent explaining how existing programs are being threatened and why
they should be maintained.

Although couched in non-political language, the report makes it clear
that a combination of libertarians in Congress (and in state
governments), funded by corporate polluters, have hit upon a formula
for crippling environmental protections in the Great Lakes (and
elsewhere). The formula has two parts: require scientific standards of
proof for all decision-making, and at the same time cut funding for
scientific research.

Because the mass media do not regularly (if ever) report on science
funding, or on the uses of science in decision-making, these assaults
on environmental protection are invisible to the general public.

The IJC does not say so, but this coordinated effort by libertarians
and corporate polluters serves two purposes: for the libertarians, it
diminishes the size of government (which is the main ideological goal
of libertarians), and for the corporate polluters it provides increased
independence because it diminishes government's ability to monitor
their activities, identify environmental harms, and enforce the law.

The new-found formula for crippling environmental protection is being
used successfully everywhere. But let's look at how it is working in
the Great Lakes:

The IJC reports that it surveyed all of the major scientific research
institutions responsible for conducting programs related to water
quality in the Great Lakes. Responses came back from 31 organizations
with combined budgets totaling $88 million, which represents 80% of all
scientific funding for Great Lakes research.

Those 31 organizations reported that they expect their total operating
budgets to be cut anywhere from 23% to 53% this next year. Salaries
within those organizations are expected to be cut anywhere from 31% to
45%. The number of researchers in the 31 organizations is expected to
decline by anywhere from 47% to 62%. In other words, in round numbers,
scientific research in the Great Lakes is slated to be cut roughly by
half. (pg. 5)

While science funding is being cut at the federal and state levels,
polluters and libertarians are simultaneously insisting that scientific
certainty must be established before chemicals can be banned or even
regulated. They are working hard to substitute a scientific standard
for decision-making in place of the "reasonable person" standard.

Science is a very conservative enterprise. Before scientists will
change their minds about the nature of reality and agree that something
new is happening, they require 95% probability or in some cases 99%
probability. For example, scientists must be 95% (or 99%) sure that a
chemical is causing harm before they will say, "Harm is occurring."
Until they become 95% sure, they will only say, "I'm not sure. We need
more studies to give us more data."

In contrast, a jury in a civil trial makes a decision based on "the
preponderance of the evidence" or "the weight of the evidence." This is
the normal, "reasonable person" standard for decision-making in our
society. If most of us had to wait for 95% certainty before we could
make a decision about anything, most of us would be paralyzed most of
the time.

Therefore, the incessant pressure to make decisions based only on "good
science" is really an attempt to paralyze decision-making. How does
this help the polluters?

Corporate polluters and their representatives in government have made a
national policy (unwritten, but real policy all the same) that says the
burden of proof is on the public to prove harm, and not on the
polluters to prove safety. Therefore, new chemicals can be put into
commercial use without any safety testing. And chemicals can remain in
use until it can be shown that they have caused substantial harm --a
process that can take decades or longer. (The burden of proof is
reversed in the case of pharmaceutical drugs at the Food and Drug
Administration, but ONLY in the case of pharmaceutical drugs. Drugs
must be proven safe and effective before they can be marketed. Now,
however, the libertarians and corporate polluters have developed a
concerted campaign to reverse even this FDA standard.[2])

Given the national policy that puts the burden of proof on the public,
a scientific standard of proof helps keep chemicals on the market. A
"reasonable person" might conclude that a chemical was causing harm
after learning that several people or animals had been harmed, but a
scientist insists on the 95% level of certainty. By substituting
scientific certainty for the "reasonable person" standard in decisions,
science is pressed into the service of the polluters.

The use of a scientific standard of proof also greatly increases the
importance of doubt. A reasonable person reading 3 scientific studies
showing harm is probably ready to make a decision. When a fourth study
comes in showing a different conclusion, the reasonable person weighs
the evidence --three studies show one thing, one study shows another --
and probably comes down on the side of the three studies. However, a
scientist faced with conflicting studies is justified in being very
cautious about drawing ANY conclusion. "The data are conflicting. We
need more study," is the likely response from a scientist. Meanwhile
harm continues.

Thus, substituting a scientific standard for decisions, in place of a
reasonable person standard, increases the importance of doubt and makes
it easier for a determined group of scientists to prevent decisions
from being made. Since paralyzing government is an ideological goal for
both the libertarian AND the corporate polluter, substituting a
scientific standard of proof serves both these interest-groups.

"It is... ironic," says the IJC's Eighth Report, "that statements about
a lack of 'sound science' in current policy discussions about toxic
chemicals are heard concurrently with calls for financial cutbacks to
the very programs that could provide additional, credible scientific
information and contribute to responsible public policy in such areas
as human health and persistent toxic substances." (pg. 17)

The same dynamic can be seen in the debate over global warming. Some
250 scientists worldwide concluded last December that humans are
changing the earth's climate. (See REHW #467 and #471.) But half a
dozen industry-sponsored scientists are disputing the finding. These
critics are focusing on the uncertainties, trying to prevent decisive
action to curb global warming. The NEW YORK TIMES recently described a
"systematic campaign of disinformation" by the "Global Climate
Coalition, an industry lobbying group" and by others. The TIMES also
reported that, in Congress, "conservative Republican allies" of these
critics are threatening to cut funding for scientific research on
global climate change.[3] Naturally, this is all being done in the name
of "sound science."

Unfortunately, we observe, traditional environmentalists have almost no
way to combat this new initiative for 3 reasons:

** Whether they recognize it or not, most environmentalists are
ideologically committed to REGULATING the behavior of polluters around
the edges, rather than tackling the core issue of DEFINING what
corporations can and cannot do. The regulatory arena was created by
corporate polluters; it is a place where they control the terms of the
debate and strictly limit the possible outcomes. In sum, regulation
cannot solve environmental problems, yet it is the framework that we
all grew up within, and it is the only way most environmentalists have
so far been able to think.

** Many environmentalists believe that better science is the answer to
pollution problems. They do not yet see that science CAN DESCRIBE BUT
CANNOT REMEDY environmental crises brought on by the withering of
democratic commitments and institutions. Pollution is caused by
powerful polluters. It is their power that makes their pollution
possible. The only feasible counterweight to their power is more
democratic decision-making, yet many traditional environmentalists are
not committed to democracy in this way. Rather they are committed to a
traditional hierarchy in which they get invited to the White House
periodically to sup and supplicate while the pollution continues.

** Many environmentalists are not committed to getting private money
out of politics, which is the only way to break the stranglehold of
polluters on Congress. (See REHW #426 and #427.) (Some
environmentalists have endorsed limits on campaign contributions, but,
perversely, such limits end up consolidating the power of corporations
in the electoral process. Thus environmentalists who do not favor full
public financing of elections end up protecting the status quo.)
Because current laws and practices encourage private money in
elections, corporations dump mountains of cash into campaigns to elect
representatives who then minister to corporate needs while pursuing
their own libertarian goals. It is a closed-loop system: "You scratch
my back with a campaign contribution, and I'll scratch yours with
legislation guaranteed not to make any difference in the way you do
business." Environmentalists who remain indifferent to this distortion
of the democratic electoral process (or who advocate the half-way
reform of spending limits instead of full public financing) play
directly into the hands of the libertarian/corporate-polluter axis that
is rolling back environmental protections, using "good science" as its

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] International Joint Commission, EIGHTH BIENNIAL REPORT ON GREAT
LAKES WATER QUALITY (Ottawa, Canada, and Washington, DC: International
Joint Commission, July, 1996). Available free from the IJC. Telephone
(in Detroit, Michigan): (313) 226-2170. In Canada, phone (519) 257-
6700; fax: (519) 257-6740.

[2] Eight libertarian think tanks have received millions of dollars to
study ways to discredit the Food and Drug Administration and change its
policies. See "Report Finds That Drug, Medical Device, Biotech and
Tobacco Companies gave at Least $3.5 Million for Anti-FDA Campaign,"
CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER July 29, 1996, pgs. 5-6. And see Jeffrey
Goldberg, "Next Target: Nicotine," NEW YORK TIMES August 4, 1996, pg.
23. And see Marian Burros," F.D.A. Chief Questions Safety of
Proposals," NEW YORK TIMES, May 2, 1996, pg. 21.

[3] William K. Stevens, "At Hot Center of Debate on Global Warming,"
NEW YORK TIMES August 6, 1996, pgs. C1, C10.

Descriptor terms: ijc; science; libertarianism; corporations; burden of
proof; global warming; global climate coalition;