Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic, Bloomberg and McCarthy Reach New Political Low

“Scientists are warning us that air pollution makes Covid-19, which strikes at the lungs, more deadly. Nonetheless, in the space of about a month, the president has repeatedly undermined rules limiting air pollution. Tens of thousands of Americans will die as a result.”

It’s no surprise that Michael Bloomberg and Gina McCarthy – two Democratic operatives – think Donald J. Trump is a very bad man. Yet their recent opinion piece How Trump’s EPA Is Making Covid-19 More Deadly does nothing to prove it. Bloomberg, coming off a failed presidential bid, and McCarthy, now head of an anti-Trump environmental pressure group, claim that because of a relationship between air pollution and COVID-19 mortality, the Trump administration’s recent announcements on environmental policy will kill tens of thousands of Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bloomberg and McCarthy cite a recent Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study that evaluated the correlation between exposure to particulate matter and coronavirus mortality. Bloomberg and McCarthy (who, coincidentally, is a visiting professor at the school) write that the study “shows that even a tiny increase in fine particulate matter air pollution — commonly known as ‘soot’ — increases death rates from Covid-19.” The casual reader would assume the Harvard study forecasts many, many deaths that will be attributable to recent Trump administration decisions. 

But the study, which has not been peer reviewed and has been dismissed by prominent epidemiologists, does not justify what Bloomberg and McCarthy imply. In fact, the study doesn’t really even address the policies that Bloomberg and McCarthy have targeted. Of course, that didn’t stop them from using it to advance their political agenda.

Rather than forecasting the impact of any particular Trump policy change, the study’s authors evaluated what relationship there may be between long-term average PM2.5 exposure (i.e., exposure over a decade and a half) and risk of COVID-19 mortality. They did this through an analysis of county-level statistics on PM2.5 and on COVID-19 mortality in same-said counties. In their own words, “We investigated whether long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the United States.”

The study concluded that a long-term average PM2.5 exposure increase of 1 μg/m3 is associated with an 8 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Long-term exposure, the study finds, is linked to many of the comorbidities that have been associated with poor prognosis and death in COVID-19 patients. In simple terms, areas that have had higher average PM2.5 counts over the long-term have been hit harder by the coronavirus. 

The study says virtually nothing about the Trump administration’s recent announcements—not a mention of the fuel economy mandate increases, nor a word about the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, two of the policy changes Bloomberg and McCarthy say will lead to mass death.  

By suggesting that the study relays meaningful analysis of Trump administration policy changes, Bloomberg and McCarthy blatantly mislead their readers. The study is about long-term exposure and COVID-19 risk, not concurrent policy changes. Perhaps they should have heeded the advice of the author of the study, who stated “I don’t think that major policy decisions should be made based on our study.” 

Beyond misleading their readers on the conclusions of the Harvard study, Bloomberg and McCarthy also farcically mischaracterize the particular policy decisions at issue. “First,” they write, “the Environmental Protection Agency told coal, oil and gas, and power producers they were free to ignore pollution monitoring and reporting obligations – as long as they use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse.” In reality, EPA has issued a temporary COVID19 enforcement policy to help regulated entities manage the unprecedented stay-at-home and social distancing orders issued by state and local governments that will prevent their employees from working as usual. EPA explicitly states that this temporary policy will not let facilities off the hook for violations and that EPA will, on a case-by-case basis, assess whether any violations that arise were caused by the public health emergency.

Bloomberg and McCarthy’s second target is the recent Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rulemaking in which the Department of Transportation and EPA established new parameters for automaker compliance with fuel economy mandates. The alleged “rollback” is no such thing. The SAFE rule calls for fleet-wide fuel efficiency to increase by 1.5 percent per year. This increase is an attainable goal for manufactures, that allows for a more consumer-driven market than the onerous plan written by the previous administration.

The authors’ third target is that EPA recently announced it will continue to enforce the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter. You read that correctly, EPA will retain the standards, not eliminate or even diminish them. But for Bloomberg and McCarthy, that’s tantamount to “turn(ing) down an opportunity to save 12,000 lives.”

Lastly, Bloomberg and McCarthy lash out at EPA’s April reconsideration of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. While a reader would think EPA might have erased it from the books entirely, in fact, the reconsidered standards merely recalculated some of the cost-benefit frameworks and established a baseline that will ensure no more mercury or any other hazardous air pollutant will be released than before. 

Attempting to tie COVID-19 deaths to things as innocuous as the recent fuel economy rule announcement or the continuation of established policy is a political bridge too far. Bloomberg and McCarthy, like so many others who can’t bear the fact that Donald Trump is our president, have fallen into the sad, tired “now-more-than-ever” coronavirus trap. They don’t really have something new to say here, but “now more than ever” they think we need to do what they have always thought we should. 

With millions of Americans out of work and many more anxious about how to reenter society, Bloomberg and McCarthy have reached a new low in political attacks: using a not-ready-for-prime-time study to scare Americans about the Trump administration’s reasonable and rational regulatory reform efforts. One has to wonder if the Bloomberg-McCarthy op-ed would have made it past the editor’s desk were one of their names not on the masthead.

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