Lies to Deed & Truth to Power: Climate Change, Blights, Pandemics, Global Security & the Good Fight
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a benign mess of a movie, but when it recently showed up on Amazon Prime, its campy poster proved too tempting not to click. I wanted escapism. I got alt-reality.
The plot, an elaborate ruse to get Indy and the love of his life, Marion Ravenwood, back together, makes no sense. It involves the eponymous crystal skull, which belongs to trans-dimensional being from “the space between spaces” that must be returned to a booby-trapped Mayan temple-cum-spaceship in the middle of a multi-danger-filled jungle. Set during the Cold War, Indy is in a race against the the Russians, led by Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko, a femme fatale-ish agent in army fatigues who “vants to know!” everything and intends to harness the skull’s mysterious psychic powers to create a weapon for world domination.
It turns out you don’t need an alien skull, just some enterprising Macedonian teenagers with a knack for building websites, zero scruples about fake news and a bot-driven system for selling digital ads at a fraction of a penny per to “be everywhere at once, more powerful than a whisper.” Mind control isn’t so hard after all.
Four weeks into the Trumpian wormhole and dozens of lawsuits, outrageous scandals, hundreds of protests and countless lies later, translating Trumpspeak has become a little easier. With a veteran con man’s facility to distract and pre-deflect, his accusations are artfully nested in hearsay, weaponized and targeted with precision fury at whomever is perceived to be the “opposition.” It is offense as defense raised to a spectacular new level.
Last fall when Trump railed about the election being rigged, he was telling a warped truth (a close relation to an “alternative fact”). The election was rigged, but not by voter fraud and not to Hillary Clinton’s benefit. Instead, it was Vladimir Putin deftly pulling the propaganda strings to shift the outcome in Trump’s favor, unleashing a barrage of fake news (aided and abetted by those Macedonian teens) calculated to stir up the candidate’s racist, misogynist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, white nationalist, fact-averse base.
Likewise, Trump’s campaign against “the dishonest media,” “the fake media” and most recently “the very fake media,” focuses the spotlight on respected news organizations, deflecting attention away from actual fake newsmongers such as Breitbart, which former editor and current Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon famously called “the platform of the alt-right,” and Infowars.
According to Pulitzer-winning media watchdog Politifact, just 16% of what Trump has said is either true or mostly true, while 70% is false, mostly false or the astonishing “pants on fire.”
Trumpspeak is much more than a curve ball. It is a smoke-and-mirrors speedball, propelled by a defining, chronic and frantic need to weasel out of anything that could translate into responsibility or worse, blame—and an equally powerful need to bask in the addictive glory of singular accomplishment, no matter how fictional or delusional.
The more pointed Trump’s attacks, the more likely the truth is exactly the opposite: American intelligence agencies can’t be trusted. The media are the “enemy of the people.” Vladimir Putin is a paragon of enlightened leadership. Federal judges aren’t real judges, just “so-called” judges. Three million illegal immigrants gave Hillary Clinton the popular vote. Fears of mass deportations are unfounded. The crowds at the inauguration were huge. Alec Baldwin’s imitation of Trump and Melissa McCarthy’s take on press secretary Sean Spicer aren’t funny at all. And something happened in Sweden.
“You know what’s important? Millions of people agree with me,” said Trump in a recent interview. That actually is true, but a truth made possible by lies.
WORDS & DEEDS
More menacing than Trump’s audacity of lies, constitutionally suspect executive orders, or even the spate of hate crimes that his cynical, craven rhetoric has inspired, is the specter of Congress turning rabble-rousing slogans into law. Likewise, Trump’s Cabinet is empowered to undermine or derail scientific research, education, environmental protections, healthcare and civil rights for years to come.
Already, executive edicts such as the “two for one” regulation policy that forces government agencies to trade regulations like commodities has thrown a wrench into the machinery of government: Each new regulation introduced now requires that two existing regulations be removed. It’s like saying you can have a warm hat, but you have to give up your coat and boots to get it. It adds a another layer of agency politics to an already heavily politicized process: department heads will be pitted against one another to protect their regulatory turf.
The infamous immigration ban, though currently suspended, already has had a chilling impact on scientific research and universities, with students and faculty from suddenly non grata nations caught in limbo. Hospitals now have to consider a doctor’s country of origin when assigning residencies. Prestigious international conferences are considering a US boycott, which would put American researchers at a disadvantage, adding travel expense to those with American passports and a frightening risk to those with visas or green cards. Not only has the ban highlighted just how precarious visa and green card status can be, but also that no one with a visa or a green card is safe. With the stroke of a presidential pen, any foreign country can be added to the enemies list at any time.
Any association with a targeted country can be enough to scuttle a visa application. At a recent meeting about climate change and health in Atlanta, two globally-respected scientists, Diarmid Campell-Lendrum of the World Health Organization and Nick Watts of Lancet Countdown and UK Health Alliance on Climate Change had to present via “Skype” because each had visited Iran to work on public health.
The conference itself was almost a casualty of the new Trumpian order. Originally scheduled as a three-day gathering hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it was cancelled shortly after the inauguration in January. Although no reason was given, the new President skeptical stance on climate change may have played a role in the decision. A one day meeting to fill the void was quickly organized by former Vice President Al Gore, the American Public Health Association (APHA) , former President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center, the Turner Foundation and the Climate Reality Project.
FACTS OF THE MATTER
Just like former President Obama’s American birth, climate change is a fact: in fact, many facts gathered by tens of thousands of scientists from across the world who have been working for decades gathering and analyzing data sets on everything from ancient ice cores to the latest satellite data. Evidence is everywhere. Just open a window. Years of steadily rising global temperatures are the result of pumping the atmosphere full of CO₂ and other greenhouse gas byproducts of burning fossil fuels. This has led to more extreme weather (heat, cold, rain, snow, drought), rising seas and melting ice caps.
Closer to the ground, CO2 and co-pollutants such as particulates, sulphur and nitrogen oxides (NOx and SOx) and mercury have taken an enormous toll on public health, a catastrophe with especially devastating implications for children.
CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
Smog is the most obvious air pollution problem, with levels routinely off the charts in cities throughout China, India, Kazakhstan, Iran, Nigeria, Mexico, Chile, but also in France and England. Largely thanks to the US Clean Air Act, most US cities are comparatively smog-free, or at least vastly improved from the 1970s.
Inhaled particulates can trigger asthma and other respiratory ailments, but they also can travel through nasal passages directly into the brain causing neurological problems. Since the body’s all purpose response to attack is inflammation, smog causes weight gain, with all the attendant metabolic and heart health issues that follow. Worse, the changes may impact the epigenome (chemical compounds that affect gene expression) and could potentially be heritable.
According to a recent study by the International Energy Agency, the combination of urban / industrial and indoor pollution (dirty cooking fuels), has shaved more than two years off life expectancies in China and India. In Europe, an estimated 467, 000 people die prematurely due to air pollution.
Length of life and the quality of life are at stake for tens millions of people. Families are weakened when parents are too sick to work and children too sick to study. The right to breathe should not need to be spelled out. Smog—the direct result of burning fossil fuels—more than qualifies as a crime against humanity.
That’s just for starters:
- Higher CO₂ counts near ground level accelerate plant growth, but the promise of record-breaking bumper crops comes at a steep cost: The plants are less nutritious with measurably lower levels of essential micronutrients such as zinc, iron, copper, magnesium and calcium. The implications are catastrophic, affecting billions of people.
- The pollen is also less nutritious, which means that pollinators can gorge and still starve: a junk food recipe for disaster for already health-beleaguered bees.
- Higher CO₂ levels, however, significantly boosts pollen production, which is bad news for allergy-sufferers. By 2040—less than 25 years away—pollen levels are expected to double. There literally will be more to sneeze at.
- Heat stress will dramatically affect crop yields. By some estimates, as much as half of the US corn crop could be lost annually by the end of the century.
- Heat stresses humans, too, causing illness (heat stroke) and death, and extreme heat waves have become more frequent. Climate change is thought to have doubled the risk for the heat wave currently baking Australia to a crisp. Areas of the Middle East, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, are on track to become too hot for humans to survive by the end of the century.
- Plant pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi) and plant pests (insects and rodents) thrive under warmer, more humid conditions, benefitting from longer reproductive seasons.
- Pathogens are taking an increasing toll on livestock, wildlife and people, too. Vector-borne pathogens such as malaria, dengue, Zika virus and borrelioses (Lyme disease is one of a family of related pathogens) are already accelerating their spread as the mosquitoes and ticks that carry them are able to over-winter further north and south, and at higher altitudes. Water-borne diseases present direct threats to humans (cholera) and indirect threats through the loss of fisheries and, indeed, entire marine ecosystems (massive algal blooms).
- Since the Spanish flu pandemic nearly a century ago, global public health efforts have been focused on the next big pandemic, but the reality emerging is one of overlapping near-continuous epidemics and co-infections. Dozens of viruses have now been linked to cancers, while other pathogens have been linked to mental illnesses (borrelioses, Toxoplasma gondii), and still others can have serious sequelae that take years to manifest (polio). The shadow of destruction left by an outbreak can stretch decades.
- Higher temperatures have also been correlated with increased aggression, crime and war. Combined with all the above—air pollution, pathogens, threats to food supplies, survivability—a warmer world is a considerably more dangerous one. At the annual Munich Security Conference, the message was clear: Climate change is both a direct threat and threat-multiplier to global safety. One of the hottest spots for conflict, ironically, is the Arctic:
…“Ground zero” for armed conflict over the climate will be the Arctic, where record-high temperatures are melting ice and revealing natural resources that some countries might be willing to fight for, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto said on a panel.
“We have already seen flag planting and already some quarrels on the borderlines,” Niinisto said, pointing to new Russian military bases on its Arctic border. “Tensions will rise.”
The Arctic climate paradox —where countries could fight for rights to extract the very fossil fuels that would cause even more global warming — underscores energy’s role as a cause and potential moderator of climate change, according to Niinisto.
For Russia, the world’s biggest energy supplier, European nations switching to renewables represents an economic threat. At the same time, European over-reliance on Russian energy exposes them to coercion, according to Kelly Gallagher-Sims, a former climate and energy adviser to President Barack Obama.
In short, if you want to help the Ukrainian resistance, send solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps and building insulation.
Climate change is where science, innovation, healthcare, agriculture, energy policy and economics overlap. The sliver of resilient hope in an otherwise bleak story is that the technology to turn things around exists. The shift to solar and wind energy has happened much faster than predicted. Microgrids, efficiency gains and breakthroughs in material science are clearing the path toward energy independence and security. Hybrids and electric cars reduce the need for gasoline, while improvements in fuel cell design and hydrogen production point to what may follow.
So serious and acute are the issues linked to rising CO₂ levels that countries all over the world are taking dramatic action. China has emerged as a renewable energy powerhouse, dominating the global solar industry and betting its future on a low carbon economy (Reinventing Fire China, Rocky Mountain Institute). Japan and South Korea are investing heavily in hydrogen; Toyko is readying itself to become the world’s first “hydrogen society” in time for 2020 Olympics. The challenge in Germany has been to try to steady the rapid shift to renewables. Even fossil fuel poster-child Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in grid-level solar, though motivated primarily to preserve oil reserves for export rather than domestic consumption. Dubai, meanwhile, is positioning itself to be at the forefront of climate-friendly tech, seeing a multi-billion dollar opportunity. Corporations have also voiced strong support for reining in carbon and slowing climate change.
While Trump is focused on resurrecting the jobs of the fossil fuel past, the rest of the world is focused on the jobs and opportunities of the clean energy future: efficiency retrofits for old buildings and low-carbon designs and materials for new ones; new products to manufacture (e.g., in just a few years, the LED lighting segment has grown to more than $30 billion in the US, about a third of the market, and is positioned for dramatic global growth); and new services to sell (including ridesharing, which is shifting both traffic and car buying patterns across the world).
Environmental restoration work could become the “CCC” of the 21st century, replacing low skill factory jobs now permanently lost to automation. This includes maintaining healthy “urban forests,” which help scrub air clean air of smog-causing particulates and mitigate the “urban heat island effect” driven by heat-absorbing asphalt.
The connection to health is central notes Gary Cohen, a MacArthur fellow and co-founder of Healthcare Without Harm , who reminded the audience at the Climate & Health conference of the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm. “How do we bring that moral force to our addiction to fossil fuels, which is killing more people each year than AIDS, malaria and TB combined?” he asked. Cohen has spent the last twenty years working on the answer, which involves harnessing the economic clout of the US healthcare industry, which represents a staggering 18% of the economy. Hospitals are investing in solar and wind energy projects. Healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente spends at least half of is $11 billion annual purchasing budget on environmentally friendly products, services and energy, with a the goal of being carbon net positive by 2025. (conference Livestream video time code: ~5:48:30)
The only ones still pushing to expand the use of fossil fuels are Vladimir Putin, whose country has little else to offer, President Trump and his climate change-denialist minions, a few dozen corporations and a handful of oligarchs.
Trump’s plan to bring back “beautiful coal” means making it legal to pollute streams, while fracking operations will be able to “flare off” as much methane as they please (molecule for molecule, methane boasts 25 times the heat-trapping power of CO₂.) By weakening or completely dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NASA’s climate science work, the Trump administration will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the American public to know the extent of the damage. The “best science available”—a favorite flack phrase—won’t be nearly as good as it might have been, or even as good as it used to be.
The health implications are predictable. Trump’s vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) could easily leave tens of millions of people uninsured or underinsured; and those with chronic conditions, some likely attributable or exacerbated by climate change, uninsurable. Perhaps the only campaign promise for which Trump has reversed course is to bring down drug prices: the pharmaceutical companies are poised to have a field day, while the sick will be out of luck.
In fact, we will all be out of luck. Nearly 30 percent of doctors and surgeons in the US and 20 percent of nurses and medical support staff are foreign born, including many from the seven now banned, primarily Muslim countries. Trump’s executive order has weakened an already precariously stretched health system.
Public health efforts are also under threat. Without funding for inspectors, or EPA regulations to safeguard air and water quality, it will be more difficult to know whether the public is in harm’s way. Without strong leadership from the CDC, early disease detection efforts are weakened. Jingoistic proclamations of “America First” mean nothing to microbes who cross borders, even the ones with walls, with ease.
“Make America Great Again” turns out to be Trumpspeak for “Make America Worse in Every Way Imaginable ASAP.”
Over the course of a few days in January, the March for Science tallied up more than 800,000 members on its private Facebook page. Scheduled for Earth Day—April 22 — the main march will take place in Washington DC, with more than 250 satellite marches planned all over the world.
By then, three months into the Trump presidency, one can only imagine the damage done: agencies gutted, grants stalled, regulations shredded, projects cut, international collaborations scuttled, careers maimed, rights trampled and a world teetering on the brink.
“Political leaders’ ability to do good is very limited,” notes historian and author Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind). “But the ability to do harm is unlimited.”
“Almost always the people who deny climate change are nationalists. At first sight you think Why? Why the connection? Why don’t you have socialists denying climate change? But when you think about it, it’s obvious because nationalism has no solution to climate change. If you want to be a nationalist in the 21st century, you have to deny the problem. If you accept the reality of the problem, then you must accept that, yes, there is still room in the world for patriotism…but we need additional loyalties and commitments to a level beyond the nation.” (See full video interview with TED’s Chris Anderson.)
The laws of nature, however, remain unyielding, impervious to human machinations. Trump’s “beliefs” will do harm because the facts cannot be vanquished for political expediency. Burning fossil fuels put the planet on the brink of runaway climate change, with collateral damage already taking a devastating and dangerous toll. Other countries are taking action because it is ethically and morally right, economically smart and politically essential. Universities and companies around the world push on with research and innovation.
On April 22, scientists—and all those who respect science, value reason, understand that human rights apply to everyone and that the Earth with all its riches and mysteries is our only home in the universe and must be protected—will stand up for what’s right and true. It is the good fight. The best fight. The latest round in a fight that has been fought again and again throughout history. No less than the future of our future hangs in the balance.