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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2018

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Editorial - Forbidden Words

Public policies are sets of principles or statements of intent used to guide decisions by governments. Normally implemented through laws, rules, regulations, or local ordinances, public policy in the United States increasingly is being established by executive fiat without input from legislators or the public. This is not a new development, as many U.S. Presidents have used the route of executive orders to implement public policies when partisan politics in Congress stalled legislation. In these instances, executive orders provide guidance to federal agencies on actions often contrary to Congressional intent. In other words, executive orders allow the President to make major policy decisions and law unilaterally.

In the environmental policy realm, Theodore Roosevelt used executive orders to preserve America's natural lands by establishing national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act—setting the precedent for future Presidents to use such orders for land preservation without Congressional action. Roosevelt established the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908, and then a decade later it became a national park by an act of Congress, permanently preserving it for future generations. Richard Nixon used executive orders to establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, while Jimmy Carter used the same mechanism to establish the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama used executive orders to promote environmental sustainability and resilience in the federal government. Obama's 2013 executive order on preparing the federal government and the nation for the impact of climate change was reflective of the growing concern about the national security implications of climate change. This order was a reaction to an oppositional Congress that failed to support climate change in theory and practice.

While Presidential administrations have always had the right to overturn executive orders from previous administrations, and most do to some extent, the rapidity with which the Trump administration has reversed the environmental executive orders of previous administrations is startling.1 In less than a year, the Trump administration has reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah—one designated in 2016 (by Obama), the other in 1996 (by Clinton). All of the Obama climate policy executive orders were overturned. And despite the record-setting year in disasters, a 2015 executive order signed by Obama requiring federally funded projects to adhere to the federal flood risk management standard to reduce the risk of future flooding was overturned. Interestingly, the flood risk standard simply stated that federal actions (including funding) to repair community and federal assets in the aftermath of flooding must employ one of the following to reduce the risk of future flood damage: (1) use best actionable climate science to establish flood elevations; (2) build 2 feet above 100-year flood elevation or 3 feet above flood elevation for critical buildings; or (3) build to 500-year flood elevation. Trump revoked that order in an effort to hasten federal infrastructure decisions and streamline the environmental review—rebuild faster after disasters, not smarter or more sustainably. While many argue the merits and pitfalls of using executive orders to subvert the legislative process especially in times of extreme political partisanship, the power of the U.S. Constitution gives Presidents such broad powers to direct offices and agencies of the federal government.

A more insidious assault on the environment is now taking place, one that directly affects Environment Magazine and its readership. While “fake news” and “alternative facts” have entered our lexicon to essentially describe the cognitive dissonance many in the current administration are experiencing, certain words are now censored from use by some U.S. federal agencies. These are not the swear words or profanity normally prohibited by broadcast media, but words that reflect science and understanding of the human condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention effectively has stopped using terms like “science-based,” “evidence-based,” “fetus,” “entitlement,” “transgender,” “diversity,” and “vulnerable” in many of its public statements and budget documents. “Climate change” is another forbidden term. References to climate change (along with data) were removed from U.S. EPA websites and those of other federal agencies in early 2017. Causes, consequences, and indicators of climate change are no longer available in real time on the Web from many federal agencies.

Privileging policy instruments to assure weak governance lacking in public oversight creates conditions where the environment surely loses. For example, instead of sustainable development and the green economy, there is a backward slide in policies to the old views of economic development versus conservation. This is happening in the United States but also around the globe. In this issue, Mukete Beckline and coauthors provide a pessimistic case study of Cameroon's attempt to reconcile economic development and resource protection within the framework of sustainable development goals and policy instruments. Meanwhile, in Amazonia, the sustainability transition is well underway according to Robert Walker and Cynthia Simmons, yet the Brazilian government's plans for exploitation of ecosystem services are stalled by indigenous resistance. As Walker and Simmons intimate, such resistance is a new form of conservation. In a third regional example, Shixiong Cao and coauthors provide a more optimistic view of economic development and ecological restoration to reduce poverty in the drylands of northern China, yet caution that climate change may reduce options for sustainable resource utilization in the region.

These are scary times for science and public policy both inside and outside of the U.S. federal government. As our journal's subtitle, Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, indicates, our mission is to inform and educate our readership about the betterment of the human condition and the systems that support it. We now need to push back against the politics of those who dismiss science-based evidence,2 and more importantly voice opposition to and mobilize against attacks on the very foundations of sustainability science and practice.

1 See Michael Greshko, Laura Parker, and Brian Clark Howard, “A Running List of How Trump Is Changing the Environment,” National Geographic (18 December 2017),

2 See National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017. Statement by NAS, NAE, and NAM Presidents on Report of Banned Words at CDC,

—Susan L. Cutter

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