To save ourselves, we must end the president’s war on science

earth

Earth, seen from the Apollo 11 lunar landing site, July 20, 1969. (NASA.gov)

Recently, on July 20, America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Today, we carry phones with 7 million times the data storage of the Apollo computer. Yet, our society has woefully degraded in its respect for science since Neil Armstrong took that “one giant leap for mankind.”

Consider the growing gulf between scientists’ warnings on climate change, and the malicious obstruction of climate science for partisan gain and corporate greed.

The Guardian reported on July 24 scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change has surpassed 99%. But, a recent study by Yale and George Mason universities found only 13% of Americans know there’s a scientific consensus on climate change. Most thought it was 50/50. While virtually all scientists say the world is in dire danger, 87% of Americans think it’s a flip of a coin — a debatable threat, at worst.

How have we arrived at such a dangerous disparity between scientific consensus and the willful ignorance of our society?

It certainly isn’t for lack of available information. A brief walk through recent headlines makes the level of popular ignorance surrounding climate change inexcusable. Permafrost has begun thawing in the Canadian Arctic more than 70 years earlier than we were warned. Greenland is experiencing ice loss at the greatest rate in recorded history. Between 1970 and 2014, human activity led to the loss of nearly 60% of all wildlife on the planet — a rate comparable only to mass extinctions.

News snippets like these underscore the findings of the 2018 National Climate Assessment: If we don’t reduce carbon emissions, by 2100 we’ll experience chronic flooding in 670 U.S. communities, mass extinctions of wildlife, immense wildfire outbreaks and persistent drought where we grow our food (think summer 2011 in Oklahoma). These are the outcomes our nation’s best scientists see in our future.

The threat before us is more imminent and potentially far more dangerous than any threat our nation, or humanity in general, has ever faced. So, how do we not see it? Why are we not mobilizing, with a unified front, like we did after Pearl Harbor? Or after 9/11? Or the 1918 influenza pandemic? Or the herculean effort that put us on the moon?

Our refusal to address these threats could only be caused by deliberate efforts, at the highest levels of our government, to suppress action on climate change and deny scientific consensus on its risks. Enter Donald Trump. Suddenly, up is down, science is fake, facts are lies and climate change isn’t happening.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has sought to undo more than 80 environmental regulations, especially those dealing with fossil fuels — most notably withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. Most recently, the administration approved the “emergency” (meaning profitable) use of the bee-killing pesticide sulfoxaflor on nearly 14 million acres. Soon afterward, USDA suspended its annual study of honey bee colonies, which declined by more than half between 1947 and 2008. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating one third of the food we eat.

The administration’s outright assault on environmental protections is an inexcusable crime against all creation. But, what’s perhaps more damning in the long-run is the administration’s war on science itself.

Last week, Politico reported USDA suppressed a comprehensive plan for how ag producers could help avert climate change, while protecting their ability to produce our food. Why? Because it didn’t fit the administration narrative that science isn’t science.

Still upset over the gloomy predictions of the last climate assessment, the administration ordered the next assessment not model predictions past 2040 — when scientists predict the worst outcomes will really ramp up. Nothing to see here, folks.

“What we have here is a pretty blatant attempt to politicize the science — to push the science in a direction that’s consistent with their politics,” Woods Hole Research Center president Philip Duffy told the New York Times in May. Where would one expect to see such malicious and ignorant manipulation and suppression of scientific data? “It reminds me of the Soviet Union,” Duffy said.

In June, the president signed an executive order cutting the number of government advisory committees by a third, targeting those who provide advice to the White House based on, well, science.

“Now they’re removing the possibility of even making decisions based on robust science advice,” said Gretchen Goldman, a research director with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s no longer death by a thousand cuts. It’s taking a knife to the jugular.”

Unfortunately, that knife is at the jugular of us all, and our children and grandchildren.

There remains time for us to act. Rejoining the Paris climate accord at this point would only be a start. Real change is going to have to be drastic, and will likely be painful at first. But, our society and our economy are resilient. We have — or at least have had in the past — the ingenuity, the strength and the courage to take this moment of dire emergency and turn it to our advantage, to craft a society and an economy retooled to live in harmony with, instead of in a constant state of war against, our fragile island home.

However, to get there, and save nothing less than our children’s future, we need the kind of unity of purpose that put Armstrong on the moon. And that, my fellow Americans, can only be based on science — whether or not we like its findings.

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