Climate scientists need to start fighting back nowby Philip Ball / November 28, 2016 / Leave a comment
It’s not yet three weeks since Donald Trump won the US presidential election, but science is already under attack. This is not new in itself—recall the interference of the George W Bush administration into stem-cell research and climate change. In 2007 the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform concluded that “the Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.” At that time, Nasa’s chief climate scientist James Hansen told the New York Times that “In my thirty-some years of experience in government, I’ve never seen control to the degree that it’s occurring now.”
It’s a measure of how far we have come that Bush is now looking like one of the good guys in his refusal to vote for the Republican candidate. Bush’s right-wing agenda, although highly damaging to US stem-cell research (not to mention to the political stability of the Middle East), was unquestionably within the bounds of what we might accept as a valid outcome of the democratic process. Trump is not.
Like an errant child brought to the front of the class and asked to defend the posturing and jeering he has been conducting from the back, Trump seems a touch uncertain how to present his climate denial now. Previously he was happy to claim that climate change is a Chinese conspiracy to undermine US industrial competitiveness, and to tweet his contempt for the consensus of climate scientists whenever there was a cold snap. Now, when questioned by the New York Times he repeated an evasive little mantra about having an “open mind.” Who, after all, could complain about someone having an open mind?
But this is like saying you have an open mind about the shape of the earth, or about evolution. Which is to say, it is a transparent code for denial—a way of avoiding an argument he knows he will not win. Anyone with a genuinely open mind will acknowledge that there is a huge body of evidence showing that human activities are affecting global climate. Not all climatologists are persuaded, certainly—but the doubters constitute a tiny minority. Trump’s adviser Bob Walker is simply lying when he says that “half the climatologists in the world” doubt that anthropogenic climate change is real. Of course, “simply lying” is an accusation that no longer carries any weight.
Walker says that funding for Nasa’s earth science division, which operates satellites vital for collecting climate data, will be stopped. The money will go instead to deep-space exploration: precisely the kind of grandstanding science that would appeal to the swaggering Trump.
It’s no surprise that Trump is going to lay into climate and environmental science—he has talked also of dismantling the US Environmental Protection Agency, saying “what they do is a disgrace” (by constraining businesses with their prissy laws). It is hard to know whether he doesn’t want to think about the facts of climate change and environmental hazards or—potentially scarier—that he is genuinely incapable of understanding them, or just doesn’t care.
Nasa’s climate research and monitoring is essential and respected worldwide. Its satellites monitor atmospheric carbon dioxide, sea surface temperatures, cloud cover, ice sheets, rain and snow fall, deforestation and land use, soil moisture, solar radiation, and more—all vital data for climate models and for spotting changes and trends in the environment. The Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, of which Hansen was director until 2013, is one of the leading centres for studies of global change. If Walker’s threats are carried through, it’s not clear how much, if any, of this can survive.
It’s a ruinous plan, even for the US alone. Hurricane Katrina raised awareness of the potentially devastating consequences of rising temperatures, among which one clear prediction is an increase in the frequency of tropical cyclones. It is hard to link any individual extreme event to global change, but in 2015 American climatologist Kevin Trenberth and coworkers showed that Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the second most costly hurricane in US history, was influenced by high temperatures above the ocean “that had a discernible human component.” Those researchers also said that the long Californian drought, beginning in 2012, involved a combination of factors the odds of which “have increased with human-induced climate change.” A report from the international think tank the Atlantic Council released this year identified climate change as a threat to US national security.
One might say that US climate research will just happen elsewhere, but that would be naïve. Historian of science Paul Forman has argued that, simply by how they choose to support research or not, governments “can profoundly influence how scientists work—the questions they investigate, the methods they use, how they present their results.” (Forman was talking here about the Cold War US governments in particular.) The plans of the Trump camp are not a shifting of Nasa’s priorities but a concerted attack on science that will surely be extended elsewhere. There is no compelling scientific or economic argument to put all of Nasa’s resources into space missions. As Trenberth has said, “space research is a luxury, earth observations are essential.”
Walker told the Guardian that environmental monitoring is “politically correct” and that climate science has been “heavily politicised.” Make no mistake: this is ideological science denial on a par with the attacks on “Jewish science” (such as Einstein’s theory of relativity) in prewar Germany and the disastrous dismissal of “bourgeois” Darwinian evolution by Russian biologist Trofim Lysenko in the Stalin era.
That means it’s crunch time already. No self-respecting Nasa leaders will accept such blatant political manipulation.
An article for Just Security, an online forum on US national security law and policy, by American professor of law and philosophy David Luban expresses the dilemma for US public servants now. Can moderates, even those of a conservative persuasion, serve the Trump administration in good conscience? Luban, who says he is normally scrupulous in avoiding comparisons with Nazism, cites the example of the lawyer Bernhard Lösener, who, while disapproving of Hitler’s rule, found himself drafting the Nuremberg Laws. Sometimes, Luban says, one is faced with the stark choice of either quitting or accepting complicity. That may be the case here.
The Trump team are announcing their intention to stamp their brand of crude ignorance and bigotry on science. Cries of dismay are not enough. A Nasa deprived of its role in climate science for political ends is not one in which scientists should participate.