March for Science
People take part in the March for Science as part of Earth Day 2017 in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Jeff Masters)

Mother Nature gave human civilization a survival pop-quiz in 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nations like South Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan, which studied for the quiz and heeded the expertise of their tutors (i.e., scientists), have done much better on the quiz than nations that rejected the expertise of their scientists – like the U.S. and Brazil. The number one lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is: LISTEN TO THE SCIENTISTS! Scientific ignorance can be fatal.

Commentary

Decisions by President Trump to downplay the threat as no worse than the seasonal flu, ignore and silence top scientists, and delay a full-bore response to the pandemic have led to a horrific failure by the U.S. on the COVID-19 quiz: A May 2020 study by Columbia University epidemiologists estimated that with the extreme social distancing many scientists had been pushing for just seven days earlier, the United States could have prevented 36,000 deaths through early May – about 40% of the death toll at that time.

Silencing scientists, down-playing their advice

In an attempt to down-play their failing grade on the COVID-19 quiz, government officials have sought to shift the blame, including, in particular, silencing scientists attempting to communicate their evidence-based science. The nonprofit Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) maintains a Silencing Science Tracker showing where government scientists working on the pandemic have been silenced.

As reported by the New York Times this week, the Trump administration’s antagonism towards climate science has pervaded the government, and is no longer limited to the people at the top. The article called attention to an inspector general’s report at the Environmental Protection Agency made public in May: It found that almost 400 employees surveyed in 2018 believed a manager had interfered with or suppressed the release of scientific information, but they never reported the violations.

Civilization’s final exam – climate change – with no vaccine

Many students’ recurring nightmares involve a final exam tomorrow for a course they seldom attended all term: They can’t remember where the classroom is, and barely studied for the exam. Unfortunately, that nightmare describes humanity’s situation for the coming climate change final exam. While the stakes for flunking the COVID-19 quiz have been crushing – over 425,000 people dead globally by mid-June, economies crippled, and an as-yet unrealized catastrophe looming for many nations in the developing world – the cost of failing our inevitable collective climate change final exam will be apocalyptic for civilization.

When the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica melt, the forests of the Amazon transition to scrubland, and vast swaths of once-fertile land become inhospitable desert, there will be no climate change vaccine that will suddenly bring an end to these essentially irreversible catastrophes. Tens of millions will starve. Wars will break out over scarce resources. Hundreds of millions of climate change refugees will flee rising seas, coasts will be ravaged by stronger storms, and desert-like lands will be without the food and water needed to sustain civilization.

Mother Nature doesn’t grade on a curve. Her grading system is fixed and absolute. Science governs the rules of the final exam, and ignoring and suppressing the information scientists give about our upcoming final exam ensures we will fail it. CSLDF has documented 433 cases of government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information since the November 2016 election. Many of these attempts involved climate change science. Our failing to defend science and scientists will surely lead to our failing Mother Nature’s final exam.

CSLDF fights for scientist and for science

CSLDF – full disclosure here: I am a founding board member – was created nine years ago to help climate scientists fight back against politically-motivated and industry-funded harassment. It has played a key role in helping us pass our climate change final exam. CSLDF provides support and resources to the scientific community by offering free legal aid to scientists harassed, threatened, or attacked for doing their jobs; educating researchers about their legal rights and responsibilities; sharing strategies and information about cases with attorneys; and publicizing attacks on science. The organization’s 2020 scientific integrity guides for federal scientists helps researchers understand their agencies’ own policies and how to file a scientific integrity complaint. The guides also reveal which agencies have strong policies and where the policies are lacking. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, is missing fundamental protections against censorship and against political interference in its policy making – an omission that has had deadly consequences in the current pandemic.

With the pandemic raging and public attention somewhat distracted away from continuing climate-destructive anti-scientist manipulations, protecting climate scientists is a more urgent task than ever. The world-wide coronavirus lockdowns are proof that humanity can act quickly on a global scale to help pass our civilization’s pop quiz. Collectively, we can do so again to help us pass our coming climate change final exam.

Failing to do so isn’t an option.

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Topics: Policy & Politics