As the U.S. West Coast struggled to contain unprecedented wildfires, Donald Trump maintained that science really doesn’t know the root cause of this devastation. Before we dismiss this as another off-the-cuff Trumpian comment, the pandemic has shown that a president’s beliefs—however illogical and unscientific—can translate into official U.S. government position. When it comes to climate and the future of this planet, there is every reason to be concerned.
The Trump administration already has a record of sidelining climate scientists, just as it has done with health scientists, and deleting mentions of climate change in scientific reports.
The president has routinely used the power of his office to force our premier science agencies to do his bidding. After Trump showed a doctored hurricane chart last year, the leadership at the nation’s flagship atmospheric research organization—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—actually issued a statement declaring that the National Weather Service was wrong to dispute the president’s made-up warning.
The pandemic has turned into a case study for how politics can influence science. The Centers for Disease Control changed its Covid-19 testing guideline under political pressure to exclude asymptomatic individuals, which would make contact tracing impossible. The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of convalescent plasma to treat Covid-19 using data taken out of context. Science-based actions have been undermined by turning action vs. inaction into a political issue.
Can what happened to our national pandemic response happen to our climate response in the next few critical years? The Trump administration already has a record of sidelining climate scientists, just as it has done with health scientists, and deleting mentions of climate change in scientific reports. It has now appointed a longtime climate change skeptic to help run the aforementioned NOAA, a sign of things to come in a second term.
Climate science is even more vulnerable to political influence than something like the pandemic where there is a steady stream of real-time data that is difficult to dispute. Climate change is a much slower process than a quickly spreading disease. Climate data is collected over many years, allowing plenty of time to manipulate it before it sees light of day.
The other vulnerability of climate science is that it is largely a model-based science that depends on sophisticated computer models to predict future climate trajectories. Climate models at their core are based on detailed physics as well as a certain amount of so-called parameterizations where a climate-related process is not well understood. Observed data from the past is used to calibrate and tune these models.
This scientific process has worked well because climate scientists around the world collaborate as well as peer review the work of other scientists. Good model building depends on transparent methodologies and free exchange of information, but the process is not built to withstand political pressure on government scientists or government-funded researchers.
Other kinds of models are used by practitioners like myself to calculate and predict the actual emissions generated today and in the future from industry, agriculture, transportation, consumption, and waste. In the U.S., these emission models depend on underlying data maintained and published by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Energy Information Administration, and other government agencies. Without accurate and timely data from these agencies, we would not be able to reliably estimate the emissions produced by a company, industry sector, region, or the entire country.
We have taken all of this scientific infrastructure for granted through multiple administrations, but what we have in the way of climate models and data can be easily contaminated by politics. The warning signs are clearly there. If we are going to have any chance of adapting to the increasingly ferocious fires and storms while mitigating the worst future impacts of a degrading climate, we as voters must ensure that climate science is immune from political meddling and elect leaders who will respect the scientific process.