As climate change accelerates, accurate environmental data is critical to researchers. But recent changes in federal policy threaten to deny scientists the facts they need to understand the challenges and investigate solutions.
That’s why Stony Brook history professor Christopher Sellers is fighting to safeguard data that could impact our shared global future.
Sellers joined together with a dozen volunteers around the country ranging from academics to activists, to help form a new non-profit, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), to scrutinize the Environmental Protection Agency following the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Later joined by Stony Brook PhD students Natalia Navas and Katarzyna Kaczowka and sociology instructor Linda Wicks, their mission is to improve environmental data stewardship and promote environmental health and environmental justice.
Sellers is a historian with a long-standing interest in the environmental, cultural, and health history of the 20th-century United States, and the ways this history has compared with that of other parts of the world. His research concentrates on the history of occupational and environmental health, of cities and suburbs, of industrial development and its hazards, and of the environmental movement. He is co-editor of Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World and is author of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th-Century America.
Recently his focus has shifted to the politics of climate change. Shortly after the 2016 election, Sellers received an email from a Canadian colleague who had seen how her country’s ultra-conservative government, led by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, had moved to scrap much of its environmental data as well as protection policies.
“She knew what to fear, so she along with colleagues such as myself started interdisciplinary data rescue events,” Sellers said. “The resulting effort has been a significant part of my life for the last three years.”
EDGI acts to archive vulnerable environmental data, monitor changes to information about the environment, energy and climate on federal websites, interview federal employees about threats and changes to environmental science and policies and promote environmental justice by tracking the eroding federal attention to environmental racism and inequality.
“With rare uniformity the evidence we’ve found adds up to a convincing picture of a sad truth: the EPA is extracting its own teeth,” Sellers testified at a 2019 Congressional hearing.
“This is not just some bureaucratic reshuffle,” he testified. “Less enforcement will have real consequences for many Americans.
EDGI is now an international network made up of 175 members from more than 30 different academic institutions and ten non-profit or grassroots organizations and committed volunteers from a wide variety of work and life backgrounds.
EDGI volunteers say they can document that the Environmental Protection is changing its mission from protecting human health and the environment to protecting industry. As companies and trade associations enjoy a new ease of access to high-level leadership, agency scientists and other career staff are regularly being excluded from regulatory decisions on greenhouse gases and pesticides, and reporters are also shut out, for instance, from a summit meeting on chemical composition in drinking water. Under the current administration, EDGI reports, 26 percent of climate change references have vanished from .gov web sites and EPA’s policing of environmental violations has fallen to historic lows.
Sellers and Wick collaborated with Navas and Kaczowka, respectively Stony Brook PhD candidates in Sociology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studie, and seven others to update “A Sheep in the Closet: The Erosion of Enforcement at the EPA,” in May 2019, first released in November 2018. The report looks at environmental enforcement in the EPA two years into the Trump administration and concludes that a broad range of metrics in fiscal year 2018 are the lowest they have been in decades and usually far below the averages for previous administrations. Students in Sellers’ current Stony Brook class on the History of Environmental Disasters are now busily digging into the backgrounds of recent pollution episodes across the country, research that will provide basis for another anticipated EDGI report assessing the local effects of the enforcement rollback.
“We are documenting the record so all of what they are doing is not lost for posterity,” said Sellers of the EPA. “They need to be held accountable. As an historian that’s the angle I am looking at.”
— Glenn Jochum
Prof. Sellers’ testimony