We are, in these dog days of summer, so consumed with the bleak coronavirus data and Trump administration efforts to bend the science to its political needs that we risk forgetting the myriad other ways in which science is being muzzled by the Trump gang.
Luckily, the Silencing Science Tracker, compiled by the Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, has been steadily chronicling the extent to which science is being attacked.
Some examples: The EPA Advisory Committee on Agriculture hasn’t met a single time since Trump’s inauguration, though it may hold one token meeting at the tail end of this summer. Earlier this year, the EPA’s inspector general reported that more than 200 EPA scientists had reported potential violations of the scientific integrity policy; and nearly 400 others had similar concerns that they hadn’t formally documented. In short, they were being pressured to cook the books—to withhold politically inconvenient data or, worse, to manipulate that data. Also this year, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler deliberately cast doubt on his own scientists’ climate-change models, as part of a broader administration effort to downplay the dangers of a warming planet.
In this coronavirus moment, it’s easy to forget that we must pay attention to multiple Signals simultaneously. On climate issues, the planet is fast approaching a point of no return, beyond which there will be environmental consequences so extreme and so rapid that they will have a far larger effect on planetary life and human civilization than the dislocations generated by Covid-19.
Take what’s happening in the American West this week: Temperature records are being set throughout the region. It was 111 degrees in Sacramento, where I live, on Saturday, and is expected to hover in the 110-degree zone for at least five days. In Phoenix, Las Vegas, and a slew of other cities, the temperature climbed above 115 degrees. In Death Valley it approached 130 degrees.
Meanwhile, the intense heat has spawned huge fires in the far north of California, fires so large that they have generated their own weather patterns—with fire-tornadoes threatening firefighters, and 30,000-foot plumes of smoke creating their own lightning strikes. Even for a region used to blistering heat and deadly fires, these phenomena are unusual.
And the extreme conditions aren’t dangerous only to those in the immediate vicinity. The unrelenting heat (it stays in the 90-degree range until late into the night) is forcing millions of Californians to run their air-conditioning nonstop, which is overloading the power grid. This weekend, for the first time since 2001—when Enron exploited a newly deregulated California energy market to deliberately create electricity shortages and drive up the price of their product—the state had to implement rolling power outages to counter electricity shortages.
Normally during heat waves, poor and vulnerable residents can seek relief in air-conditioned malls, cinemas, cafes, houses of worship, etc. But this year, because of the pandemic, these options aren’t available. Cooling centers have been opened by cities, but because of social-distancing requirements, they have strict limits on the number of people they can accept.
Unprecedented heat waves and fires in the West threaten to stress our already beleaguered safety net and public health systems. Meanwhile, the South and East are bracing for what NOAA scientists predict will be a particularly active hurricane season.
Trump has failed to contain the coronavirus. And his anti-science, pro-pollution policies are speeding up the slide to climate catastrophe, worsening poor communities’ exposure to toxins, undermining food safety systems, and harming both workers and consumers.
Meanwhile, the Noise intensifies. Trump wants you to think about birther conspiracy theories vis-à-vis Kamala Harris. He wants you to follow him down the rabbit hole of Sinophobia and, more generally, xenophobia, with his repeated references to the “China Virus” and his claims that Biden is an open-borders extremist. He wants you to blame “Nancy and Chuck” for the fact that, in the face of a surging pandemic, most large school districts have had to cancel in-person classes this fall.
Don’t fall for these tired tricks. Trump, in his selfishness and malignancy, has broken this country and its key institutions; debased its political language, reducing Washington to an endless soap opera; and accelerated a slew of environmental and economic crises that will affect people not only in the United States but around the world for generations. Now, in the run-up to the election, he wants you to think about everything but his dismal record. He’s running the full gamut of authoritarian tricks to hold on to power, from manipulating scientific data to suit his political needs to eviscerating the Postal Service to make it harder for Americans to vote.
Stay laser-focused on these Signals. Trump is betting the American house on being able to so damage the political process and so break the systems that keep this complex country functioning that millions of people tune out in disgust and simply cease to participate, shrugging their shoulders and accepting their disempowerment. That’s his only path to reelection. There is nothing more urgent in these perilous times than preventing him from realizing this goal.