Tag Archives: science

Ideology And Climate Change

Most of Australia appears to be on fire. The extent of the devastation is hard to comprehend–as this is written, 24 people have been killed, 15.6 million acres burned (so far), hundreds if not thousands of homes destroyed, and an estimated billion animals killed.

Yet, as Vox reports, government officials in Australia continue to downplay the link between climate change and the wildfires– Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists that the country doesn’t need to do more to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. The government is apparently willing to shirk its duty to protect the population and the environment in order to protect the country’s powerful mining sector.

There’s a strong scientific consensus that links climate change to the number and severity of the wildfires.In its 2018 “State of the Climate” report,  the Australian Bureau of Meteorology warned that climate change had already ushered in a long-term warming trend and was also responsible for changes in rainfall that increase the risks of wildfires.

It isn’t only Australia. The effects of climate change are appearing everywhere. In Indonesia, the capital city of Jakarta is sinking so quickly that officials are working to move it to another island. Pictures of Venice are heartbreaking. Other examples abound.

Here in the United States, the Trump administration is responding by rolling back numerous environmental measures that had been put in place both to combat pollution and address climate change. It sometimes seems as if the administration is trying to poison the air and water and actually accelerate climate change.

Sane people faced with an existential threat don’t behave this way. What explains it?

The Roosevelt Institute attributes this inexplicably destructive behavior to neoliberal ideology.

In Transcending Neoliberalism: How the Free-Market Myth Has Prevented Climate Action, Roosevelt Fellow Mark Paul and Anders Fremstad of Colorado State University present a coherent account of how neoliberalism has contributed to inaction. To do so, they explore three tenets of neoliberal ideology that have stymied action to address the climate crisis:

Decentralize democracy: A feature of the neoliberal order in the US has been the systematic decentralization of government. Neoliberals have promoted federalism to address “government failure” and subject the state to market forces, exacerbating the race to the bottom in climate policy.

Defund public investment: Neoliberals dismantled the Keynesian consensus that the state has a major role to play in providing public goods, stabilizing the macroeconomy, and solving coordination problems. In the neoliberal order, government investments are rejected as expensive and wasteful, crowding out productive private investments.

Deregulate the economy: Neoliberalism has launched a concentrated attack on government’s ability to regulate the economy. Ignoring the ability of regulations to positively shape markets, neoliberals dismiss government intervention as “red tape” that merely increases the cost of doing business.

Those tenets of neoliberalism have been mainstays of Republican policy at least since Reagan. To them, however, you have to add the rabid anti-intellectualism of the Trump administration–an anti-intellectualism married to an obsessive determination to undo anything Barack Obama accomplished. Trump has persistently worked to drive scientists out of government agencies, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that those agencies’ effectiveness depend upon sound scientific evidence.

As the New York Times, among others, has reported,

In just three years, the Trump administration has diminished the role of science in federal policymaking while halting or disrupting research projects nationwide, marking a transformation of the federal government whose effects, experts say, could reverberate for years.

Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.

What is it that Neil DeGrasse Tyson always says? Reality doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.

If climate change makes the Earth uninhabitable–a result that is looking more and more likely– the cause will be stubborn ignorance and the willful elevation of ideology over evidence.

We Don’t Need None Of Yer Dumb Facts…

The current version of the GOP seems intent upon retreating to its roots in the the Know-Nothing Party.

In September, a Republican lawmaker from Tennessee made an impassioned plea to get rid of higher education. 

It seems that evil professors and other “elitists” are brainwashing students, presumably by introducing them to “facts” and “science” and other matter likely to wean them from the verities preferred by the lawmaker.

A Tennessee state GOP lawmaker has called for getting rid of the entire higher education system, asserting that such a move would “save America” and cut out “the liberal breeding ground.”

State Sen. Kerry Roberts made the remarks while speaking on his conservative talk radio show last week. He addressed his problems with the higher education system while discussing a recent legislative hearing focused on abortion legislation.

“If there’s one thing that we can do to save America today, it’s to get rid of our institutions of higher education right now and cut the liberal breeding ground off,” he said, before questioning why public colleges were funded by tax dollars.

If you saw this, and dismissed it as a bit of buffoonery representative of a fringe belief, allow me to enlighten you. Anti-intellectualism is the default policy preference of the Trump administration. Science, especially, is perceived as an enemy to be overcome, rather than a source of valuable information.

According to the New York Times,

The Trump administration is preparing to significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use to determine public health regulations, overriding protests from scientists and physicians who say the new rule would undermine the scientific underpinnings of government policymaking.

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. E.P.A. officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently.

Andrew Wheeler, the former fossil fuel lobbyist who is currently dismantling the EPA, has a soothing explanation: he says that good science that which can be replicated and independently validated, science that can hold up to scrutiny. Therefore, the new approach is simply an effort to ensure that the agency is using “good science.”

For people who don’t understand scientific research, that sounds eminently reasonable.For people who do understand research, not so much.

The measure would make it more difficult to enact new clean air and water rules because many studies detailing the links between pollution and disease rely on personal health information gathered under confidentiality agreements. And, unlike a version of the proposal that surfaced in early 2018, this one could apply retroactively to public health regulations already in place.

“This means the E.P.A. can justify rolling back rules or failing to update rules based on the best information to protect public health and the environment, which means more dirty air and more premature deaths,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.

Public health experts warned that studies that have been used for decades — to show, for example, that mercury from power plants impairs brain development, or that lead in paint dust is tied to behavioral disorders in children — might be inadmissible when existing regulations come up for renewal.

For instance, a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University project that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths, currently the foundation of the nation’s air-quality laws, could become inadmissible. When gathering data for their research, known as the Six Cities study, scientists signed confidentiality agreements to track the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 people in six cities.

As the Times reports, this is simply the latest in a stream of efforts to deny the negative effects of fossil fuels.

The change is part of a broader administration effort to weaken the scientific underpinnings of policymaking. Senior administration officials have tried to water down the testimony of government scientists, publicly chastised scientists who have dissented from President Trump’s positions and blocked government researchers from traveling to conferences to present their work.

The proposed rule is opposed by virtually every medical and scientific organization. Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists describes it as a wholesale politicization of the process.

That politicization requires rejecting “elitism”–defined as reliance on facts, evidence, science, and belief in the value of knowledge.

Welcome to what has become of the Republican Party.

 

It’s Not Easy Being Green

I recently received an email announcing this year’s “Greening the Statehouse” event sponsored annually by the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Greening the Statehouse will be held at the IMMI Conference Center in Westfield, Indiana on November 16th. The day will be filled with informative panels, presentations, and a keynote address all focused on solutions to the climate crisis. As you may recall, GTS is a full day that also includes a light breakfast and lunch. You can learn more at www.hecweb.org/gts

In my more optimistic moments, I think Americans are finally taking environmental concerns–notably, climate change–seriously. It is past time to do so.

I’ve followed the work of organizations like the Hoosier Environmental Council, and shared the dismay of rational people as we’ve watched the current administration not only block progress, but gleefully regress.

I know I’ve written this before, but the climate calculation is simple.

What will happen if the 97% of climate scientists who warn about climate change are proven wrong (or, as conspiracy theorists would have it–plotting to fool us for some mysterious reason), and we nevertheless listen to them?

What if we proceed to clean up our air and water, improve conservation and move to cleaner energy sources–and then find out that all those scientists were wrong?

In that case, we’ll be “stuck” with a healthier, cleaner environment–air our children and grandchildren can breathe and water they can drink; cheaper and more reliable energy sources, and fewer pesticides in our foods. Bummer. True, the bottom lines of fossil fuel companies will shrink, and they might lose some of the 60 billion dollars in yearly subsidies we taxpayers provide them, but those are the breaks in a market economy.

On the other hand, what if all those climate scientists are right, and we follow what passes for policy in the Trump administration–“saving” coal, subsidizing fossil fuels, failing to clean up our waterways, rolling back air pollution standards…and issuing warnings that wind turbines cause cancer?

In that case, we’ll hasten the time the earth can no longer support human life, at least not human life and civilization as we know it.

This “risk to reward” ratio seems like a no-brainer to me, and I am cautiously optimistic that most people are getting the message. The children certainly are–and it may be the children who save us. Greta Thunberg, the remarkable Swedish teenager, minced no words at the recent climate action summit in New York, telling world leaders “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” She accused them of ignoring the science behind the climate crisis, saying: ‘We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth – how dare you!”

Can we dare to hope that at least some of them were listening to her? Can we dare to hope that enough of us are working on voter turnout in 2020–turnout that will dislodge the corrupt and incompetent Trump Administration and install a scientifically-literate one in its place? Can we dare to hope that a majority of earth’s population has come to understand the magnitude–and imminence–of the threat?

I’m writing this in Indiana, where temperatures were in the nineties the first week of October.

If you can, go Green the Statehouse.

 

The Word Of The Day Is Epigenetics

I just finished reading a fascinating–and provocative–book: Pleased to Meet Me, by Bill Sullivan. Sullivan is a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at IU’s Medical School, and unlike most research scientists I know–sorry, guys and gals– is a gifted (and witty) writer. The book is actually fun to read.

The chapter titles give a clue to the book’s approach: “Meet Your Maker,” “Meet Your Tastes,” “Meet Your…Moods, Addictions, Demons, Beliefs, Future…etc.”  Each of the chapters adds to the story of how we have come to be the person we are, thanks to the complicated role played by the genes we’ve inherited, and the mechanisms that support or depress the expression of those genes.

Whether and why a gene “expresses itself” or is “turned off” is what epigenetics is all about.

Epigenetics–I now understand–is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of genes expressions rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. As Sullivan puts it, epigenetics is the study of the “means by which the outside world interplays with our genes.”

After reading this book, I also understand why attributing any characteristic to a single gene, or even several genes, is likely to be inaccurate. It’s incomplete.

Not only can genes be switched on or off, or dimmed, their expression–i.e., the work that they do–interacts with environmental factors. Sullivan explains in great detail (and with funny analogies) why pregnant women shouldn’t drink, for example–and more surprisingly, why fathers who booze it up prior to baby-making can also have a negative effect on the fetus. (I had my children before the negative effects of drinking while pregnant were known–now I wonder whether their tendencies to be smart-asses is a result of my tippling….)

Sullivan doesn’t just want us to understand what science has discovered about our minds and bodies, he also wants us to appreciate the importance of the scientific method that led to those discoveries, and to base our personal and collective decisions on evidence. What science has to tell us should inform public policy. (Obviously, that won’t happen while Trump is in the White House–this is the most anti-science administration in American history.)

In fact, a Pew study confirms a significant partisan divide when it comes to science.

The partisan gap in Americans’ views of government spending for scientific research has grown over the long term. In 2001, there was no significant divide between the parties on this issue. This year, 62% of Democrats support increased spending for scientific research, compared with 40% of Republicans.

Sullivan has a chapter on genetic differences between conservatives and liberals that helps explain this…

If social policy were informed by what scientists now know about the effects of poverty on children, for example, America’s “safety net” (note quotation marks) would look very different. Studies have shown genetic methylation in adults who suffered economic challenges in childhood. (Methylation–another new word for me– changes the activity of a DNA sequence without changing the DNA itself. It’s all pretty complicated.) Underprivileged children don’t just suffer from unfortunate social conditions while they’re experiencing them–they also suffer observable, permanent biological damage.

The most important contribution of this very readable book isn’t the illumination it provides to non-scientists about the operation of our genetic inheritances, although that is certainly a plus. It is the recognition that scientific evidence should–must–inform government policies. Americans have always had an unfortunate habit of creating information silos, of failing to see the relevance of  information we have walled off into specialized domains to other areas of our lives.

Granted, it’s no longer possible to be Renaissance men or women. There is too much information for anyone to be an expert in everything. We can, however, reform our political system to ensure that it recognizes  the existence and importance of expertise. We can insist  that lawmakers base public policies on evidence offered by credible authorities who possess specialized understandings.

But first, we have to elect people who know what they don’t know, who aren’t threatened by people who do know, and who are willing to listen and learn.

 

 

 

Climate Insanity

In Trump’s America, and especially in the wake of the increasing white nationalist mayhem he is encouraging, it’s easy to lose sight of the other damage being done by this utterly corrupt administration.

Take the administration’s wholesale rejection of science.

As Europe tightens restrictions on herbicides and pesticides found to be harmful to humans, the EPA rolls back similar restrictions. The panel of scientists that used to advise policymakers about such threats has been replaced by former lobbyists and industry hacks. Worse still, the administration refuses to admit that climate change is real. It has buried reports from reputable scientists, including those working for the Pentagon.

Last month, The Guardian carried a column by a scientist fired by the administration for insisting on reporting the facts.

The Trump administration’s hostility towards climate science is not new. Interior climate staffer Joel Clement’s reassignmentand the blocking of intelligence aide Rod Schoonover’s climate testimony, which forced both federal employees to resign in protest, are just two of the innumerable examples. These attempts to suppress climate science can manifest themselves in many ways. It starts with burying important climate reports and becomes something more insidious like stopping climate scientists from doing their jobs. In February 2019, I lost my job because I was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration. And yet my story is no longer unique.

This is why on 22 July I filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration. But this is not the only part to my story; I will also speak to Congress on 25 July about my treatment and the need for stronger scientific integrity protections.

I have worked at the National Park Service (NPS) for a total of eight years. I started out as an intern during the Bush administration, where I experienced nothing like this. I returned in 2012 after earning my PhD, when the NPS funded a project I designed to provide future sea level and storm surge estimates for 118 coastal parks under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. This kind of information is crucial in order for the NPS to adequately protect coastal parks against the future effects of the climate crisis.

I handed in the first draft of my scientific report in the summer of 2016 and, after the standard rigorous scientific peer review process, it was ready for release in early 2017. But once the new administration came into power, publication was repeatedly delayed, with increasingly vague explanations from my supervisors. So for months, I waited. And waited. I was still waiting when I went on maternity leave almost a year later in December 2017.

While she was on her maternity leave, she received an email from an NPS colleague, warning her that “senior leadership” was changing her report without her knowledge, eliminating all references to the human causes of the climate crisis. As she points out in her column, this went far beyond normal editorial adjustment. It was climate science denial, and she initiated a months-long battle over her findings.

Senior NPS officials tried repeatedly, often aggressively, to coerce me into deleting references to the human causes of the climate crisis from the report. They threatened to make the deletions without my approval if I would not agree, to release the report without naming me as the primary author, or not release it all. Each option would have been devastating to my career and for scientific integrity.

She stood firm. The NPS was forced to publish the report as written–and then the retaliation began. There were pay cuts. Her research funding was terminated. She eventually joined the growing exodus of scientists from federal agencies.

I think it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who said “Reality doesn’t care if you believe in it.” While this administration protects the bottom lines of its donors, sea levels continue to rise, the planet continues to warm, and life on earth gets more precarious.

Trump and his “best people” aren’t just corrupt and inept; they are insane–and our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences.