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In post-election media, colorful thread develops on science—mainly climate science

18 November 2016

Is Donald Trump “the first anti-science president we have ever had”?

Until autumn, the US presidential campaigns and their press coverage attended only Donald Trump and Mike Pence shake hands at the Republican National Convention in July. Researchers and media organizations are trying to understand the science and climate implications of a Trump administration. Credit: ABC/Ida Mae Astute, CC BY-ND 2.0

Donald Trump and Mike Pence shake hands at the Republican National Convention in July. Researchers and media organizations are trying to understand the science and climate implications of a Trump administration. Credit: ABC/Ida Mae Astute, CC BY-ND 2.0

Within three days, Nature had posted an editorial and five news stories on Trump-era science. In the coverage generally, fears of climate catastrophe proliferated. Within a week, an Atlantic headline had proclaimed the “prospect of a new Dark Age.” From Time to Mother Jones, from Huffington Post India to Vox, and from the Independent to Truthdig and beyond, headlines trumpeted the word disaster—including twice at the Guardian, once on 11 November and again two days later.

Within the science-related trickle that wasn’t about climate, a post-election BBC headline asked, “What does Trump win mean for US science?” The article conjectured that the president-elect might misunderstand the need for pure research. He might also hamper or even hobble immigration necessary for benefiting from first-rate talent. The article reminded readers that Trump once called the National Institutes of Health “terrible.” It also reported that Trump seems enthusiastic about NASA. Concerning that enthusiasm, Space News surmised that Trump’s policy would likely focus on human spaceflight and on technology development and commercialization, with diminished attention to Earth science.

A few days after the election, a Wall Street Journal editorial mentioned, and advocated, the possible resumption of efforts to create a nuclear-waste repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. That project had been politically stymied during the Obama years. Echoes emerged quickly from Bloomberg, Politico, and Daily Caller.

During the campaign, critics had regularly warned against giving candidate Trump control over nuclear weapons. After the election, the Washington Post published a piece by Audra J. Wolfe, author of Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America. Invoking physicists’ Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and its 1995 Nobel Peace Prize, she offered reassurance that physicists’ long history of back-channel international cooperation “will always offer hope for preventing a nuclear catastrophe, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.”

Signs of deep worry about candidate Trump’s relation to science had been seen long before the election. In a March Nature commentary, Colin Macilwain wondered if “the West is really in its decline-and-fall stage, its Caligula stage, its Donald Trump stage.” A September Scientific American editorial invoked no Roman tyrant, but carried the headline “Donald Trump’s lack of respect for science is alarming.” The editorial framed itself historically, as summarized in its subhead’s lament about “how far the political conversation has degenerated from the nation’s founding principles of truth and evidence.”

Immediately after the election, media reporting and analysis on President-elect Trump and science became not just heated, but inflamed. An Atlantic article opened by warning of “cataclysmic” consequences for the planet. The Los Angeles Times headlined an editorial “With Trump’s election, science—and the global environment—will lose.” PBS saw among scientists “distrust bordering on fear.” A Washington Post piece condemned “eight cases” in which the president-elect and Vice President-elect Mike Pence “have gotten science wrong”: climate, vaccines, Ebola, wind farms, Trump’s assertion that “lightbulbs can cause cancer,” ozone, fracking, and evolution.

That Post article joined Newsweek, Wired, Business Insider, and others in quoting what American Physical Society public affairs director Michael Lubell told Nature: “Trump will be the first anti-science president we have ever had.” Science quoted “simply stunned” physicist Neal Lane, who formerly led NSF and served as White House science adviser under President Bill Clinton: “Trump’s election does not bode well for science or most anything else of value.” The Public Library of Science illustrated a blog post about “bad news for science and medicine” with a version of the Edvard Munch image The Scream.

But climate and environment have dominated the post-election media treatment of the general issue of the president-elect and science. Three days after the election, the top of the New York Times front page displayed the article “Climate policy faces reversal by new leader: Clear path to undercut an Obama legacy.” The online version’s headline announced “Donald Trump could put climate change on course for ‘danger zone.’” The Times reported that global warming may be “the sharpest example of how policy in Washington will change under a Trump administration.” Trump’s actions, the Times warned, “could doom the Paris agreement’s goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions enough to stave off an atmospheric warming of at least 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at which, many scientists say, the planet will be locked into an irreversible future of extreme and dangerous warming.”

The article lamented the prospects for President Obama’s Clean Power Plan with its Environmental Protection Agency regulations targeting coal-fired power plants. An online overview from the presidential transition website shows how Trump sees this cluster of issues:

Rather than continuing the current path to undermine and block America’s fossil fuel producers, the Trump Administration will encourage the production of these resources by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters. We will streamline the permitting process for all energy projects, including the billions of dollars in projects held up by President Obama, and rescind the job-destroying executive actions under his Administration. We will end the war on coal, and rescind the coal mining lease moratorium, the excessive Interior Department stream rule, and conduct a top-down review of all anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama Administration.  We will eliminate the highly invasive “Waters of the US” rule, and scrap the $5 trillion dollar [sic] Obama–Clinton Climate Action Plan and the Clean Power Plan and prevent these unilateral plans from increasing monthly electric bills by double-digits without any measurable effect on Earth’s climate.

Climate scientists have been speaking up. The Huffington Post publicized the UK’s Carbon Brief website’s report of the post-election reactions of 21 of them. Michael Mann was terse: “To quote James Hansen, I fear this may be game over for the climate.” Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science used the terms “day of mourning” and “disaster.” Scientific American republished a similar piece from Climate Central, arguing that “disregard and plain denial of science” now threaten the planet.

Scientific American’s post-election focus shows in some headlines:

At the New York Times, “Dot Earth” science columnist Andrew Revkin has twice pointed readers to an article at Vox arguing that “few people understand just how radical the GOP environmental agenda is.” Vox offers this list of “top environmental priorities for Trump and a GOP Congress”:

  1. Kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan
  2. Withdraw from the Paris climate agreement
  3. Dismantle US environmental rules around coal power
  4. Weaken fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks
  5. Open up new public lands to oil and gas drilling
  6. Scale back federal support for wind and solar power
  7. Dramatically limit the EPA’s ability to regulate in the future
  8. Reverse the White House’s climate guidance to federal agencies
  9. Make the Supreme Court more hostile to environmental regulation
  10. Pack the executive branch with industry-friendly appointments
  11. A flurry of anti-EPA budget bills that will emerge every year, without end

Vox concludes that “the overwhelming likelihood is that GOP operatives and industry lobbyists will control energy and environmental policy for the next four years. What lies ahead now is triage, a long string of terrible choices, desperate battles, and wrenching losses, the consequences of which could reverberate for millennia.”

“Desperate battles”? Battles in the climate wars? After a few days of delay, the post-election climate-wars media battle got joined by the side that’s called “conservative.” The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal posted “Trump and science” by contributing editor and former New York Times columnist John Tierney. He attributed to the president-elect “a practical outlook,” accused President Obama of politicizing science, charged that the Obama administration uses junk science, and asserted arguments seen regularly from deniers of scientists’ climate consensus. Trump’s election, Tierney wrote, “has left the science establishment aghast.”

At the Washington Times, an op-ed warned that climate-change skeptics must pressure the new president because “after all, until recently [he] supported the climate scare.” A National Review commentary indicted “the yearnings of fantasists who are in perpetual argument with the laws of physics, and who contend that the Koch brothers and a deficit of political will, rather than the limits of science and technology, are preventing our cities from being powered entirely by renewable energy.” The commentary asserted, “Trump’s policies will likely make American energy production not ‘great’ again—the so-called shale revolution guaranteed that—but even greater.” Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins declared that the election result means a “climate movement … purged of its rottenness” and the dismantling of “a green gravy train powered by moral vanity that contributes nothing to the public welfare.” Citing the new president, Jenkins enthused, “Happily, it only takes a crude, blunderbussy kind of instrument to shatter … a fragile smugness” about climate models’ efficacy.

And then, less seriously from the right, there was also a post at the climate-denier blog Watts Up With That? It opened by proclaiming “the best election aftermath” ever. It ended by invoking something from the TV cartoon sitcom The Simpsons: a two-second-long clip—“Nelson says haha”—that distills sneering, adolescent mockery.

But mockery isn’t concerning the many scientists and science observers who have begun calling for active, positive participation in the coming political struggles involving science generally and climate specifically. Science quoted Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Scientists need to stand up and be heard. They can’t just hunker down in their labs and say that they won’t get involved because the election didn’t go the way they wanted it to.” Nature quoted Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology: “It’s going to be critically important for researchers to stand up for science.” A Nature editorial declared that “the world must not lose faith in the value and the power of evidence.”

Under the headline “How to save the Earth in the era of Donald Trump?” at the Washington Post, Anthony Faiola and science writer Chris Mooney pointed to market forces and to the mitigating effects of political momentum in India and China. At Slate, meteorologist Eric Holthaus contributed “All is not lost on climate change: Trump will be terrible, but it’s not just about Trump. It’s about you, too.” Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe published a gently worded, optimistic open letter to the president-elect. Nature conveyed constructive thoughts from nine prominent scientists about science policy. At the Guardian, Jack Stilgoe of University College London and Roger Pielke Jr of the University of Colorado Boulder declared “They may not like it, but scientists must work with Donald Trump.”

In a 17 November Nature commentary, Daniel Sarewitz predicted that the new president “will need to promote creative science to benefit the disaffected millions who voted for him.” Sarewitz offered specific ideas: public–private partnerships, an organization modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to engage health, R&D on next-generation nuclear power, resumption of the Yucca nuclear repository effort, coal plants that co-fire biomass and capture carbon dioxide, and a national network of electric-vehicle recharging stations.

In a Physics Today quoted David W. Titley, director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk:

Many black swans have taken flight this year. One thing science teaches you is that systems frequently revert to the mean. So, as dark as everything looks at this moment for fixing our climate, we need to have hope that we won’t realize the worst case. If there is a silver lining it’s that Trump does not seem bound by whatever he has said previously. So perhaps he will see the wisdom or at least self-interest, in investing in non-carbon, US-produced, energy.

The climate community has a huge challenge ahead, to frame this issue in a way that will resonate with the likely president-elect. It may not be possible but it would be negligent to not even try.

Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA’s history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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