White House spokesman Sean Spicer used his first official briefing to announce, against all evidence, that more people had attended President Trump’s inauguration than at any other time in history. It was a case of, “who you gonna believe, me or your own lyin’ aerial photography?”
How many people actually attended the January 20 event may seem unimportant to some, but a willingness at the highest levels of government to flout evidence is deeply problematic. It begs the question: What comes next?
Will data needed for decision-making – by policymakers, legislators, farmers, business people and others – soon be replaced with “alternative facts?”
While every White House spins numbers for political or policy reasons, they do not normally dispute such numbers themselves. If the unemployment rate is going up, for example, they blame someone or something else, but they don’t claim it’s going down.
To give you a sense of what may be at stake, here are 10 data sources that answer important environmental questions with information regularly reported by the government and on which many sectors of our economy depend.
1. How much pollution is in the air?
Numbers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tell us how much air pollution is emitted into the air across the country. The amount of this pollution affects the health of millions of Americans.
2. How many clean energy jobs are there today?
Employment numbers from the U.S. Department of Energy show, among other things, that 2.2 million Americans are working full or part-time in energy efficiency jobs.
3. Is our water safe to drink?
The federal government assembles information from water quality reports that is used by more than 400 state, federal, tribal and local agencies.
4. How does pollution affect our climate?
Data from NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration shows what impact greenhouse gas pollution is having on our climate. The latest report showed that 2016 was the hottest year on record globally – the third year in a row of record-breaking heat.
5. How much energy do we use?
Almost all information from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which tracks energy use and related information, is of utmost importance. The EIA reports how fast clean energy is growing in the United States, for example, and it provides tools for making projections about energy use and production.
6. How much climate pollution does industry emit?
EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program requires facilities to monitor and report greenhouse gas emissions above certain threshold levels. It includes a section requiring operators across the oil and natural gas supply chain to estimate methane emissions, an important source of detailed, transparent data.
7. How dirty is the air in our national parks?
The National Park Service’s Air Monitoring Program measures air pollution levels throughout the national parks system, and helps us know if we’re protecting our most important natural places.
8. Is the United States reducing emissions?
The U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory tracks total annual emissions. This way we know what progress we’re making in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and whether we’re meeting international climate commitments. The Inventory also compiles total emissions by source, such as methane from the oil and gas sector and data on gas mileage and pollution from cars.
9. Which toxic chemicals are released, and where?
The Toxics Release Inventory, a database managed by the EPA, tracks the management of many toxic chemicals that can be a threat to our health and the environment.
10. What’s the asthma rate?
The Centers for Disease Control collects, among many other things, data on asthma rates and other diseases linked to air pollution. Because more air pollution means more asthma attacks, it’s important to have a clear picture of the extent of this condition among Americans.
These are just a few of thousands of important statistics that the government collects related to environmental protection that are vital to keeping us safe and that support our economy.
The scientists and other workers who compile this data are dedicated to their missions, and I have no fear that they will suddenly drop their commitment to providing accurate information.
It is up to the rest of us to insist that the political appointees above them learn from the backlash against Spicer’s foray through the looking glass.