Seattle convention underscores science world’s battle with Trump administration
Although they had hundreds of panels and topics to choose from, talk among the 4,500 or so scientists that gathered this week at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle seemed to be dominated by one thing: the Trump administration’s apparent assault on climate science.
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“I’ve never heard so many people talking about politics before,” said Andrew Freedman, science editor for digital news site Mashable — one of the nation’s pre-eminent science journalists — with a Masters in Climate and Society from Columbia.
“People here want to do their scientific work and be able to communicate it in accordance with their scientific integrity policies. They do not want to be interfered with politically, let alone denigrated, let alone shunned aside or gagged in terms of communications,” he said after speaking on a panel about the challenges and opportunities in digital media for climate sciences.
The fears are understandable. Trump has repeatedly said he believes climate change is a hoax.
Just this week the Trump administration reportedly ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to delete all its pages on climate change, before widespread outcry prompted a seeming reversal and the pages have been allowed to remain.
And numerous other reports say federal employees have been discouraged or banned from discussing their findings on the effects of global warming on the environment or even speaking with the media.
That’s prompted an outbreak of so-called rogue Twitter sites, purportedly from disgruntled employees within agencies ranging from the National Park Service to NASA, vowing to continue disseminating climate change information and other research data.
As Freedman points out, NOAA and NASA reported last week that 2016 was the hottest year on record for the globe.
Most frustrating for many in the science community is the disregard by the Trump administration of the vast body of evidence.
Paul Higgins, the director of the American Meteorological Society’s Policy Program, says he’s not a politician, he’s a scientist with an impressive CV.
As we spoke, Higgins went out of his way to avoid criticizing the administration or those who disagree with the scientific findings. But he emphatically underscored that the massive body of science around client change is apolitical and indisputable.
“Climate change can be best understood as boiling down to three primary conclusions each of which is based on decades of intensive research that has been conducted by thousands of scientists whose expertise spans numerous — maybe 20 or 30 — sub-disciplines,” Higgins said.
The first of those conclusions is that humans and the release of greenhouse gasses are largely responsible for recent climate change.
“We know this based on multiple, independent lines of evidence,” Higgins said, rebutting Trump’s claims he “does not believe” climate change is real.
Higgins says the other conclusions are that climate change poses serious risks to society worldwide from rising oceans and flooding caused by rising temperatures to drought. He says there are a number of ways to potentially deal with climate change such as reducing carbon emissions from factories and cars.
Higgins emphasizes while the scientific community has provided options to slow or reverse warming, the AMS specifically stays out of making policy recommendations.
He acknowledges and understands a coal miner or the owner of a mine, for example, might view the long-term risks of climate change quite differently from someone with greater concern for the environment in both the short and long term.
But he says the science is indisputable. And he says any conflicting evidence would be welcomed by the scientific community. There is no bias or agenda.
“In principle, new evidence could come along and change our understanding of even those overarching conclusions that I described earlier. But it’s extremely unlikely because we have multiple, independent lines of evidence from multiple, independent researchers that have been assessed and vetted by multiple, independent additional researchers, often from different disciplines,” Higgins said.
But the big fear is Trump’s dismissal of climate change and what his administration might do to impede or manipulate both research and the release of information.
But Mashable science editor Freedman says the scientific community has made clear it’s not going to back down.
“If the Trump administration thinks that they can muzzle these agencies…they are grossly underestimating the willingness of scientists to get their message out there via investigative journalists, via whomever,” Freedman said.
So what are we supposed to do while this battle rages on?
Higgins says his hope is everyone becomes far more engaged and informed about the science of climate change, then weighs in on policies surrounding everything from transportation to energy emissions.
“If those are informed discussions, then I’m very happy in a democratic society for different people to have different views and different opinions and for us to discuss them and come to an agreement on how we move forward,” he said.