The global environment has seen ups and downs over the last 10,000 years – due to both natural phenomena and human activities. But the environmental pressures of the last two hundred years, resulting from exponential population growth and similarly rising material consumption, have turned humans into major players affecting the global environment. Humans are exploiting almost all available agricultural land and grazing lands, we have emptied most of the world’s natural fisheries, we continue to deforest at a rapid pace. But the most worrying of these trends is the continuing flow of carbon dioxide and methane from human activity into the atmosphere, despite that these greenhouse gasses are warming our planet.
The upside of this environmental story is that we have abundant solutions – political, technological, and economic – to address our major challenges, including climate change. Policy initiatives have been successful at curbing wasteful consumption habits and encouraging energy efficiency. Technological advances offer us a smorgasbord of energy production alternatives – many of which are better in almost all ways to fossil fuels, and technology provides us with cellphones and smart cars that offer us more conveniences with less energetic investment. Small changes in our diet can result not only in health and economic benefits, but also enormous changes in our food-based climate impact.
However, the impetus for us to adopt these new policies and new technologies is an awareness of the damage we are doing to our global life-support systems. This awareness depends on our ecological literacy – whether we can understand basic scientific processes and how human activity is altering those processes (and then how those alterations affect our present and future wellbeing). Aware of this, President Donald J. Trump has declared war on ecological literacy.
By now it is clear that Trump denies that anthropogenic climate change exists and he has surrounded himself with like-minded individuals, including oil company executives and climate change skeptics. He is going full throttle on a fossil fuel-based energy policy. But to move forward with his plans, he still has to eliminate scientific voices from within the government and he seems to be doing so with tremendous efficiency. Only this week it has been reported that he is weakening government departments whose responsibilities are to monitor ecological conditions in the US and on the planet, silencing government employees who understand ecology and human impact on the planet, freezing government funding for ecological and climate research, and shutting down websites that provided information to the public. Specifically, he has expressed his intent to defund NASA’s earth observation program and instructed the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take down their sites associated to climate change. In short, Donald J. Trump is shooting the messengers of ecological literacy.
His supporters should consider that anthropogenic climate change is not a partisan issue and that Republicans aren’t, a priori, anti-science. This was made clear by four Republican-appointed EPA Administrators in 2013, who wrote:
“We served Republican presidents, but we have a message that transcends political affiliation: the United States must move now on substantive steps to curb climate change, at home and internationally. There is no longer any credible scientific debate about the basic facts: our world continues to warm, with the last decade the hottest in modern records, and the deep ocean warming faster than the earth’s atmosphere. Sea level is rising. Arctic Sea ice is melting years faster than projected. The costs of inaction are undeniable…”
Later, two of these Republican administrators, William Ruckelshaus and William Reilly would write:
“Republicans have a long history of support for the environment dating back to Theodore Roosevelt. Donald Trump threatens to destroy that legacy of respect for the environment and protection of public health… That Trump would call climate change a hoax—the singular health and environmental threat to the world today—flies in the face of overwhelming international science and the public conviction…”
Nonetheless, Donald J. Trump and his advisors have decided that science is their political tool. It’s not. We shouldn’t let them tinker with NASA and the EPA, or threaten government scientists who disagree with their skewed political agenda. They must be told to allow scientists to do their jobs and report their findings freely and honestly.
The Trump presidency is not just dangerous for US citizens, but for the future of human life on the planet. We may be stuck with him in the White House, but we can find others to take leadership on climate change policy and education. Civil society (us) must find alternative institutions for addressing issues of global and regional environment. Many of the 50 states will fill the void, as they have in the past, and enact progressive and productive environmental policies. At the international level, Europe will continue to strengthen its roles as global leader in clean energy production and perhaps China, facing monumental challenges of regional air pollution and rising carbon emissions, will assume leadership, as well. (Under Trump, the US will likely become the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gasses, a title recently taken from the US by China.)
Scientists, educators and researchers also have to become leaders, both advancing the state of knowledge about global climate and the impacts of human activities, and strengthening the ecological literacy of our youth. Education will be key in pushing back the damage that the Trump presidency is already causing. This is the moment to show that human society is stronger, and smarter, than its wayward leaders.