Much needed attention has turned to the intersection of science and politics in the year since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, with a special focus on attitudes within Washington regarding climate change. Few people were expecting Trump to have a sober approach to scientific matters given that he had already declared climate change to be a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese and had lent support on his platform of choice, Twitter and elsewhere, to America’s burgeoning and dangerous antivaccination movement. Despite this wariness. Few could have predicted just how damaging the 45th President of the United States’ attack on science would prove to be or how potentially catastrophic this could be for both America’s future and the World’s as a whole.
Trump’s latest assault on science came in the form of his attempt to appoint Sam Clovis, an ex-talk radio show host and college lecturer, as head scientist of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Clovis had previously acted as Trump’s campaign manager in Iowa and was forced to reject the post because of the ongoing investigation into Trump’s election campaign and its ties to Russia. But many were appalled at the idea of Clovis taking the position of “chief scientist” within any governmental agency or department before the suggestion of collusion was even raised. There’s one simple and striking reason for this: Sam Clovis doesn’t hold any scientific qualifications. None. This is despite the fact that a 2008 law requires that the head of the USDA is selected “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” Clovis has a degree in administration, but this hardly qualifies one for the role of “chief scientist”.
Sam Clovis, science experience: None
Even before Clovis stepped down from consideration for the role, Senate Democrats had prepared to challenge his appointment. Debbie Stabenow, the highest-ranking Democrat in the department of agriculture, had written to Clovis requesting that he disclose both his qualifications and his experience in the areas of science and agriculture. The Washington Post obtains Clovis’ response dated October 17th.
Highlights from the ten questions Stabenow asked Clovis include:
Stabenow: Please list all graduate level courses you have taken in natural science.
Stabenow: Please list all membership and leadership roles you have held within any agricultural scientific, agricultural education, or agricultural economic organizations.
Stabenow: Please describe any awards, designations, or academic recognition you have received specifically related to agricultural science.
In the letter, Clovis does list his work in other sectors as qualifying him for the position, the validity of which Stabenow is very clear on. She tells the Washington Post:
“It’s clear from his own words that Sam Clovis does not meet the basic qualifications required for the job… This fact alone should disqualify him, not to mention his long history of politically charged comments and the recent questions surrounding his time as co-chair of the Trump campaign.”
So why did Trump consider Clovis suitable for the USDA job? More than likely it’s because of his history as a climate-change denier, a position he shares with the POTUS if not the scientific community.
In a 2014 interview Clovis told Iowa public radio:
“I am extremely skeptical. I have looked at the science and I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed. And a lot of the science is junk science. It’s not proven; I don’t think there’s any substantive information available to me that doesn’t raise as many questions as it does answers. So I’m a skeptic.”
By ‘enough of a background’ one can only assume what Clovis means is ‘no background what-so-ever’.
Scott Pruitt: Abolish the EPA or hamstring it from the inside
Of course, Clovis isn’t Trump’s first questionable science related appointment (or attempted appointment). Trump put Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, an agency that he had not only sued 14 times, but one he had also suggested several times should not exist at all, making this akin to employing Homer Simpson as the head of doughnut and beer preservation. As with Sam Clovis, Pruitt has no science qualifications to speak of, and shares the same position on man-made climate change in that Pruitt doesn’t accept that climate change is driven by human activity. In May 2016 Pruitt wrote an article for the conservative magazine National Review in which he criticised Barrack Obama’s actions to curb carbon emissions and more worryingly; pushed the completely false narrative that there is no scientific consensus on climate change.
“Healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy, and global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress.”
If this sounds a lot like the narrative that young-Earth creationists use to insist that Intelligent Design should be taught in science class, that is because it is. This ‘teach the controversy’ approach disguises the fact that within the scientific community there is no controversy. As with evolution by natural selection, the consensus is agreed upon by the vast majority of scientists. Pretending that controversy exists is a powerful weapon of misinformation. It would seem to many that Pruitt’s primary role within the EPA is essentially to dismantle it whilst simultaneously undoing a great deal of the decent work done by the previous administration.
Before even putting Pruitt in place, Trump’s administration silenced scientists at the EPA forbidding them from talking to the press or the public, meaning that any environmental research conducted by the agency was not allowed to be distributed to a wider audience. In addition to this, all funding to the EPA was suspended and any scientists that do accept government funding have been forbidden to serve on advisory boards. The ‘gagging order’ which includes everything right down to social media content, was also applied to the USDA, the department of agriculture. Trump and Pruitt’s latest initiative is to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan regulation that was introduced to help reduce carbon emissions through the burning of fossil fuels. Pruitt has presented the plan not as an attempt to reduce human-driven climate change, but as part of Obama’s supposed ‘grudge’ against the fossil fuel industry, also stressing that the act hits Americans in the pocket by resulting in them paying more for electricity.
For someone who has always been keen to discuss climate change, Pruitt was reluctant to do so when asked about the connection between global warming and natural disasters such as Hurricane Irma. Pruitt told CNN:
“To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm; versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced,”
Again, a familiar argument, this time as used by the gun-lobby who insist that immediately after a mass-shooting is not the time to discuss gun control.
Kathleen Harnett White: Not a scientist
The appointment of climate change deniers continues with Trump’s pick for the head of the Council on Environmental Quality, the top environmental position within the White House given to Kathleen Harnett White. White raised eyebrows at a Senate hearing on November 8th, when she failed to answer some extremely basic science questions correctly. White struggled with the concept that water expands when heated and repeatedly described CO2 as a “plant nutrient”. Perhaps her most telling statement and almost a guarantee that whenever uttered by a politician, whatever you are about to hear is utter nonsense, White began her defence of her position on climate change with the immortal words “I’m not a scientist, but….”
These are just the cases where Trump has actually attempted to fill science vacancies, the position of chief scientific advisor to the White House remains vacant nine months after Trump took residency, the longest period the position has gone unfilled since it was created in 1976. As if weren’t bad enough, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has seen staffing fall from 130 staff under Obama to just 35. This means the department is struggling to cope with its regular duties of distributing funds across departments and agencies, meaning that important research has slowed or stalled. Many in the department fear making decisions until a new advisor is chosen in case those decisions don’t line up with the future directive.
If it looks like it’s all about denying climate change is man-made, that’s just because it is
It should be unnecessary to point out that the opinions that Trump and his appointees hold with regard to climate change oppose what the scientific community hold as consensus on the matter. Consensus in science is not reached by debate or persuasive argument or impressive rhetoric. In science, evidence is king. Consensus regarding climate change has been developed over decades, mountains of data has been gathered supporting the conclusion that man’s activities are causing an increased greenhouse effect. The only suitable discussion at this stage, is what exactly we can do about it.
These appointments, or lack thereof, reflect Trump’s move to make America one of the only developed nations not in agreement with the Paris Climate Accords, with previous hold-outs Nicaragua and Syria having recently agreed to the 2015 pact to reduce carbon emissions. The decision to renege on the accords by the US, which will see them withdrawn by the day after the results of 2020 US election, is so potentially harmful because the US has been consistently one of the highest per capita producers of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and the second highest overall contributor after China. Under Trump’s guidance, the steady decline in US emissions per capita that began in 2007 looks likely to end.
It would seem that Trump has no intention of allowing science to inform policy, rather he and his administration seem intent on forcing science to conform with policy. This isn’t really a new thing in politics. Politicians often lack a necessary understanding of science, opting to cherrypick results which support their positions whilst ignoring or denigrating results that do not. Trump’s approach has thus far been much more aggressive. He seems fully intent to silence climate scientists and has picked the heads of relevant departments to enable this. Failure to take other action to stem the departure of scientists and advisors leaves the US, previously a leader in science and technology, seriously lagging behind the rest of the world. This isn’t particularly good news for anyone; science is a collaborative effort between many nations. Nor is it good news that the US is now leading the way in climate-change denial. Time is running out to stem global warming. The world can hardly afford to wait another four years for America to replace Donald Trump, and the idea that Trump could get a second term is a scary thought indeed. Trump’s aim is to serve his own interests the fossil fuel industry and businesses and he must be a dream come true for those parties.
As this post was being written, two news stories broke that sharply demonstrate Trump’s disregard of scientific advice and environmental concerns. The President has lifted the ban on issuing hunting permits for the hunting of African elephants. The reason for the lifting of the ban given by the US Fish and Wildlife Service?
“Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,”
The hunting of elephants will aid their conservation. Who knew? Nothing at all to do with Trump’s sons both being avid big-game hunters.
Even more concerning than this, on the 16th November 200,000 gallons of oil leaked from the Keystone pipeline in South Dakota. The incident is believed by experts to be the worst the area has ever seen. Whilst Trump did not commission the pipeline, he has greenlit an extension, The Keystone XL, which was blocked by the previous administration in 2015.
In both of these cases, the Obama administration took the action they did based upon the advice of scientists, researchers and environmentalists. It would seem evident that Donald Trump and his administration are only prepared to do this if the deck is stacked with advisors who already agree with them.