“I survived the Ice Queen’s Acid Reign.”
Those were the words on the front of the T-shirt that made its way around the US Environmental Protection Agency immediately after its administrator, Anne Gorsuch, resigned in disgrace in 1983.
Gorsuch’s 22-month stint as head of the EPA provides a painful history lesson about what happens when you put someone in charge of a federal agency who fiercely opposes its mission and disrespects the professionals who work there.
President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the EPA has the potential to repeat that past, just as the many hard-working EPA employees have the potential to stay true to the agency’s mission, as they did 35 years ago.
When Ronald Reagan appointed Gorsuch in 1981, her nomination was met with immediate opposition. A member of the Colorado House of Representatives, Gorsuch was a staunch opponent of environmental regulations. She accepted president Reagan’s appointment as administrator with zeal, not hiding her plans to strip the federal agency of its power.
I was a young lawyer in the EPA’s Boston office at the time, assigned to the group investigating sources of environmental contamination and helping to develop enforcement actions in the early years of the hazardous waste cleanup program. This proved to be a daunting task, as the new administrator made clear that she disapproved of the regional staff’s efforts to enforce federal laws. In fact, Gorsuch appointed as her head of the Superfund cleanup program Rita Lavelle, a woman who allegedly defended the hazardous chemical dioxin as safe enough to eat.
This left the EPA staff in the awkward position of fulfilling their statutory and regulatory obligations without support from high level agency officials. I recall how we all hoped that no one in Washington would pay attention to the work of the regional offices, so we could continue to carry out the mission of the agency.
But they clearly paid attention when business interests called. It was common for targets of enforcement actions to call senior EPA officials directly to demand a meeting to complain. Rather than supporting field staff, higher ups often met secretly with private parties to discuss settlement.
But through it all, career staff would support each other, and after nearly two years of turmoil, Gorsuch resigned in disgrace. Lavelle ultimately served time in jail for lying to Congress. Many other senior leaders brought in by Gorsuch also resigned under fire. Those who did not lose their jobs, however, were the rank-and-file professionals who struggled to do the right thing—including the whistle-blowers whose actions helped spur congressional investigations that ultimately led to Gorsuch’s departure.
The EPA has proud roots in the Republican Party. Signed into law by president Richard Nixon, the agency’s first head was an exemplar of professionalism and a mission-driven work ethic. That same administrator, William Ruckelshaus, was called back into service after Gorsuch resigned to restore morale and rebuild the agency.
It is reasonable to fear that Scott Pruitt’s approach to running the EPA will be similar to Anne Gorsuch’s period of turmoil and disruption. He is on record as opposing the EPA’s “activist agenda” and has spoken out against a myriad of environmental laws. Pruitt would bring this anti-environmental agenda to the federal agency entrusted to protect the nation’s air, soil, and water.
Most significantly, Pruitt does not “believe” in climate change. As recently as this past May, he chided his fellow state attorneys general for investigating whether oil industry executives withheld information on climate change. He also describes climate change as an issue to be debated, including the role of human activity in its cause.
Climate change is not a topic that one can choose to disbelieve, as though it isn’t so. Global warming is mainstream science. It is not a future threat. We are experiencing its consequences daily. As NASA reports, impacts predicted years ago are now occurring, including a rise in sea levels and melting glaciers. The EPA’s own website describes the life-threatening impacts of more severe hurricanes and longer heat waves and droughts. Studies and data have long supported the personal and economic devastation that will result if climate change is not aggressively addressed as the national and global threat it has proven to be.
The president-elect had an opportunity to demonstrate business acumen by appointing an EPA administrator who understood the great potential of a clean energy economy. Ironically, the compatibility between environmental protection and economic growth is a connection environmentalists have long understood.
A climate change denier serving as the top environmental official in the United States will be a step back to the future. It will also be a threat to the country and the planet. That is not hyperbole. That is science, and history.
This post originally appeared at WBUR Cognoscenti. Follow Lauren at the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and @LaurenRikleen. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.