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Trump’s Attacks on Science Represent a National Security Threat

The president’s attacks on science demand an urgent response.

By Eric Holthaus


President Donald Trump displays one of five executive orders he signed related to the oil pipeline industry, January 24th, 2017. (Photo: Shawn Thew/Getty Images)

When Donald Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination last summer, climate observers held their collective breath. Beyond his tweets, Trump hadn’t addressed the climate issue often on the campaign trail, so his intentions were a bit murky. The Sierra Club raised perhaps the loudest objections, warning that, if elected, Trump would be the only head of state in the world who actively believed that climate change was a hoax: Not only did Trump believe that climate change not caused by human activity—he said it was a total fiction, intentionally crafted to hurt the American economy.

In hindsight, the notion that Trump would attempt to bend truth itself to benefit industry interests should have been plain for everyone to see. We’re now starting to see those fears emerge as reality. In terms of climate—and science generally—what’s happened in the first few days of Trump’s presidency is shocking, and terrifying, and wrong.

In just a few days, Trump has embarked on a systematic effort to discount and obscure concerns over climate and the environment, even as he has opened the door for an industry takeover of public lands. Most shocking, of course, are Trump’s moves to silence federal scientists who work in the public interest on the most pressing issue of our time — even of all time. If climate and environmental scientists aren’t allowed to do their job — understanding our rapidly changing planet and how we can work to lessen the impact of our actions for the benefit of all living things on Earth and then share that knowledge with the public — we are all at risk.

It’s impossible not to draw the conclusion that Trump’s actions, taken together with a complicit Congress, are designed specifically to enrich the fossil-fuel industry at the expense of the rest of us.

But perhaps the biggest move so far on the environment was quietly made the day before Trump’s inauguration. In a single line change to the rules of the House of Representatives, Republicans essentially zeroed-out the value of 640 million acres of public lands, paving the way for giveaways of drilling and mining rights to industry, or even wholesale land transfers.

With this context, it’s impossible not to draw the conclusion that Trump’s actions, taken together with a complicit Congress, are designed specifically to maintain the status quo and enrich the fossil-fuel industry at the expense of the rest of us. It’s no coincidence that Rex Tillerson — ExxonMobil’s former CEO and a master of his craft — is about to become our secretary of state. Indeed, this method of obscuring the truth has been the oil industry’s playbook for decades now.

In his rejection of science and of truth itself (by insisting on clear lies about the sizes of his crowds and the fiction of illegal voters), Trump risks undermining the foundations of our civilization. I’ll repeat that again for emphasis: Trump is a threat not only to America, but to the entire world. An escalation of climate change, a breakdown in public trust in science, a disregard for truth and the rule of law, these risk destabilizing society itself. We simply must not allow that to happen. There is no economy, there is no security, there is no prosperity without a habitable planet.

The urgency of climate change demands that Trump’s attacks on science be treated as a national security threat. Science, like all things that involve making choices, is inherently political — deciding which issues deserve further study requires funding if research is to be conducted in the public interest. But all around the world, scientists have already concluded that climate change poses a potentially existential threat to civilization if we allow it to continue unchecked — and that we are approaching the last few years of our window to keep global warming at levels consistent with the flourishing of civilization. Denying science is a declaration of war on current and future generations.

What Trump and his colleagues apparently doesn’t understand is that science is a process — a centuries-old way of finding objective knowledge about the world — and not an identity group. Science does not cease to matter simply because its results are inconvenient to one’s worldview. And science will continue, even in the face of political interference, simply because it is the best tool we have for understanding the world around us.

Our country was founded on the powerful idea that all human beings have equal rights to pursue the truth and beauty of this planet. But that does not mean that each of us has the right to our own version of the truth. Suppressing facts — especially facts that may help to ensure the continuity of our planet’s ability to support life as we know it — is criminal.

The outrage we’re all seeing at these moves is a hopeful sign. This weekend was the largest day of protest in United States history, and for good reason. Already, there are plans for marches in the coming weeks that could bring hundreds of thousands of people back to Washington, D.C., on behalf of science and the environment.

Scientists already know that this is a critically important moment in our collective story. As citizens, they’re beginning to find their voice to defend that truth.