Science!

On Black Friday — the day Americans trade being thankful for trampling over each other to be the first in line to snag video games and flat screen televisions — the Trump Administration released the truly terrifying results of a government-sponsored climate study. The report wasn’t supposed to come out until December, but the day after Thanksgiving seemed the best time to issue a taxpayer-funded scientific analysis thoroughly debunking the president’s claim that global warming is a hoax. Between tryptophan hangovers, mall traffic, and shopper brawls, the chances of anyone noticing what’s in the news are relatively low. Plus, in the Northeast it’s been so unseasonably cold that a little global warming sounds kind of nice. Almost.

To paraphrase the report in less-than-scientific terms: We’re seriously screwed. The consequences of climate change over the next eighty years will be severe. Thousands will die, not only from more frequent and intense natural disasters like floods and hurricanes, but because on a hotter Earth disease-causing organisms will proliferate and mutate, creating strains of illnesses for which we have neither natural immunity nor established medical protocols. Economies will lose billions of dollars, particularly in the agricultural sector. This is the second scientific study released in the past few months containing a dire warning about the imminent dangers posed by climate change. These claims are not mere histrionics akin to, for example, bogus stories about swarms of brown-skinned invaders charging north from Mexico like some Mongol horde. They are data-driven, scientific analyses prepared by highly-educated experts who have no political agenda and know of which they speak.

The United States used to put a premium on science. In fact, from the beginning of World War II until the end of the Cold War, the greatest weapon in the United States’ military and economic arsenals was arguably its scientists. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, as Germany and Japan pursued aggressive rearmament, American isolationism left it ill-prepared to fight the rising Axis powers. After Pearl Harbor, as the country re-tasked its industrial sector to mass-produce conventional weapons, it also undertook the Manhattan Project, which ultimately gave the United States such a huge technological advantage that it not only swiftly ended the war against Japan but announced itself as the world’s first nuclear superpower. To a generation of post-war leaders, the development and deployment of atomic weapons was proof of the power of science to reshape geopolitical realities.

During the Cold War, front-line deployments were comprised as much of scientists as soldiers. The arms race was a competition to determine which country could develop weapons systems sufficiently advanced to establish and maintain a strategic advantage. President Eisenhower stressed the value of American scientists in his first inaugural address: “Love of liberty means the guarding of every resource that makes freedom possible — from the sanctity of our families and the wealth of our soil to the genius of our scientists”. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States responded as government, the private sector, and academia collaborated to develop a national presence in space. American success and dominance was confirmed with the 1969 moon landing and later in the 1980’s with the preliminary development of the Strategic Defense Initiative by which terrestrial weapons could be neutralized by satellites. The Soviet Union ultimately collapsed in part because it couldn’t match American spending on technological advances. The same emphasis on science which resulted in the United States’ global military supremacy also produced wholesale economic and cultural benefits like the home computer and the internet.

However, science is not always so convenient and can easily become an enemy to the entrenched interests whose primacy it challenges. But we ignore it at our own peril. Sometimes it takes tragic consequences rendering a bleak reality unavoidably obvious before we finally accept and face the truth. For years tobacco companies buried studies showing that their products were addictive and laced with deadly carcinogens. They funded their own skewed, fatally-flawed research and used it in aggressive lobbying campaigns in a continuing effort to debunk what was becoming increasingly obvious over time: Cigarettes kill. Big tobacco ultimately failed, but only after its addictive products took scores of lives.

The current administration defines its own truth no matter how tangential it may be to reality. And while Trump is struggling to find funding for the monument to his faux grandeur that would be the southern border wall (see the Roman Emperor Hadrian, circa 122 A.D.), he has already fortified a much more threatening wall of ignorance. The president has lauded his own superior “science instincts” which exist only because his Uncle John happened to be a scientist. Ironically, a man who finds much support among creationists insists a deeper understanding of the mechanics of nature is gleaned not through rigorous study but either genetically or by osmosis. Thus he replaced former EPA head and penny-ante grifter Scott Pruitt — a man so daft and unambitious that the he tried to parlay his Cabinet post into prizes like a used mattress and fast-food franchise — with a coal lobbyist. Coal is the primary man-made contributor to the climate change that Trump insists doesn’t exist.

The science of climate change need not be so inconvenient. The same innovative spirit with which the United States successfully abated the Soviet threat can be marshaled to deal with the current crisis. We have far more tools at our disposal for collaboration and cooperation today than we did in the 20th century. Then, the potent trifecta of government, private sector, and academia allowed only the largest companies with sufficient resources and manpower to contribute. In today’s entrepreneurial economy, small ventures can be key participants to ending our reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants like plastics and finding environmentally-friendly solutions. So climate change also presents an opportunity. But we cannot begin to effectively address it until we acknowledge its reality and accept it for the threat that it is, and that requires elevating science to the lofty perch it held when we last desperately needed it.

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