Trump and Science

Ansar Fayyazuddin

WITH REAGAN AT the helm in the 1980s, I recall a sense that we had reached the nadir of U.S. political life. His unembarrassed ignorance and gaffes, his invention and frequent use of the “sound bite,” all represented instances of the general degradation of politics and political discourse.

Sadly, the intervening years confirmed them to not be the nadir but the beginning of a precipitous decline that continues to this day. The latest iteration has yielded a specimen who further confirms that Reagan and W. represented not the lowest points of politics, but stations on a downhill trajectory that shows no sign of coming to an end.

Although there were important elements of continuity with the past, the Reagan years also represented a break. The embrace of neoliberal market fundamentalism, a focused attack on organized labor, the interventions in Central America and elsewhere as an openly stated overcoming of the “Vietnam syndrome,” and the extreme heightening of Cold War tensions were some of the signal shifts of those years.

Among the most significant breaks was the assault on inconvenient scientific facts, those that threatened the basic commitments of neoliberals — unregulated markets, expansionist global political and military intervention, and the buildup of conventional and nuclear arms with the help of private industry.

Wherever scientific consensus clashed with these priorities, scientific “doubts” were introduced by practiced industry hacks peddling uncertainty where there was none.(1) Thus one found industry lobbies formed to sow seeds of doubt about the harmfulness of cigarette smoke, the reality of “nuclear winter,” the unfeasibility of anti-ballistic missile technology, and the efficacy of regulation in checking environmental disaster and global warming.

Undermining inconvenient facts, whether scientific or not, has continued in practice throughout the various changes of guard — Republican or Democrat. Obama was the first person I heard using the oxymoronic term “clean coal” before Trump’s use of the same term made it an object of ridicule.

Obama is praised for his commitment to science, yet his record was checkered at best — another indication of the general malaise and poverty of politics that one’s stated positions need not have any relation to one’s practice. He was elected on the basis of his progressive public positions, but his actual policies were at times indistinguishable from and often worse than those of his Republican forebears.

Obama was no denier of climate change, yet on his record in office he may as well have been one. His policies, whether on offshore drilling or on pipelines, swayed with the political winds but fundamentally did nothing to mitigate climate change.

His tenure began with the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen UN climate summit, and ended with the Paris Agreement signed late in his second term. The latter was a toothless publicity stunt that resulted in no real changes, and has now been annulled by another publicity stunt.

Trump’s Distinctive Barbarism

It’s in this context of decades of denial of inconvenient scientific and historical facts that we arrive at the present. Reagan through Obama seeded doubts about inconvenient facts; they or their agents suggested that there were cracks in the scientific consensus even when there were none.

Trump represents, first and foremost, a change of style. But whatever the continuities in substance, Trump represents a distinct form of barbarism that requires dedicated analysis if we are to understand its roots — i.e. its relationship to the past — and its distinctive characteristics and meaning.

Trump’s presidency had virtually instantaneous repercussions for scientists. As I have discussed elsewhere in these pages, the introduction of the Muslim ban threw international scientific collaboration, recruitment of scientists and the ability of international students to pursue their studies in the United States into immediate jeopardy.

The tumult and trauma, physical and psychological, was shared across academic disciplines as well as outside the academy. I do not think that full stock of the consequences has yet been taken. It is not clear how many potential incoming graduate students as a consequence of the ban, chose not to come to this country or were denied admission or student visas.

Similarly, I am unaware of any studies on how the ban has affected where international scientific conferences or collaborative meetings are held. These are difficult numbers to ascertain and parse. The ban has not been lifted but continues to be contested, and cannot but chill the spirit of collaboration and shared sense of purpose that are necessary for science to flourish as an international endeavor.

Trump’s relationship with scientists and science research funding agencies has been tense at best. He proposed severe cuts in the 2018 budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Additional cuts were proposed in the budgets of the EPA and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

These proposed cuts were rejected by Congress and the budget that was eventually passed included modest funding hikes for the NIH, DOE and the NSF.

Trump has not filled key advisory posts usually occupied by scientists. As of today, there is no Director of the Office of Science and Technology and no Associate Director of Science. This is consistent with how Trump is managing other departments, such as the State Department, where many diplomatic and other posts remain vacant.

It is not clear how to read this bizarre situation. When Trump has appointed people, his choices have been laughable for the transparent cronyism, lack of qualifications, and conflicts of interests of the nominees.

Among these, the choice of Rick Perry as the head of the Department of Energy and Scott Pruitt as the head of the EPA stand out as particularly egregious. Perry, during his own presidential run, notoriously called for the abolition of the department that he now heads. The contrast with the two heads of the DOE under Obama — a Nobel laureate and a distinguished nuclear physicist — couldn’t be starker.

Scott Pruitt at the EPA was installed to undermine the mission of the EPA and this he proceeded to do. However, like Trump himself Pruitt possesses a self-destructive streak, and his time at the EPA was marked by a series of scandals — personal profiteering, spendthrift ways with EPA money for his own comfort, and open fraternization with corporate lobbyists finally leading to his resignation. Pruitt’s replacement, Andrew Wheeler, is a former lobbyist for the coal industry and can hardly be considered an improvement.

Rampant Deregulation

Trump has distinguished himself in the level of open interference in the operations of the EPA (and other agencies), particularly on issues of environmental regulation.

As an example, consider the Clean Power Plan, which was introduced by the EPA in 2015 to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by electric power plants. The plan required states to formulate strategies to reduce emissions from the electricity production sector by 32% from 2005 levels by the year 2030.

The CPP was immediately challenged in the courts (by then Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt among others) and, in an astounding act, suspended by the Supreme Court until the legal challenge would work its way through the courts. As the signature attempt to comply with the Paris Agreement, the rule’s immediate suspension was a significant blow.

Under Trump, the CPP was essentially rescinded by executive order which asked the EPA to revisit the CPP and replace it if necessary. The EPA under Pruitt then proceeded to argue that the CPP was an overreach of its authority, and proposed to replace it with a new rule.

This rule, released in August of this year, called the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule, seems primarily designed to keep coal-based electric power production in business while recommending minor “upgrades” of coal plants to reduce emissions. Thus the regulatory force of the CPP is replaced with optional industry-friendly “upgrades.”(2)

Late in the Obama regime, the Bureau of Land Management of the Department of Interior introduced the Methane Waste Prevention Rule, a rule regulating methane leaks and waste during oil and gas extraction. Its purpose was to “reduce the waste of natural gas from flaring, venting, and leaks from oil and gas production operations on public and Indian lands.”

BLM’s rule encouraged the fossil fuel extraction and production industry to actively prevent avoidable leaks of methane by instituting a penalty for wasted gas. The rule both encouraged lower methane emissions and extracted monetary compensation for waste.

This rule was opposed by the affected industries and has now been annulled by the Trump administration. After initially suspending the compliance deadline to 2019, the BLM has now replaced the Waste Prevention Rule with the “Revision Rule,” returning standards to pre-2016 levels, which were set in the 1970s.

Trump’s meddling with the EPA and other departments, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has led to the weakening of important regulations and the repeal of bans. The close relationship that the USDA under Trump has with Dow Chemical Company is of particular concern.(3)

The Chief Scientist position at the USDA was recently filled by Scott Hutchins, a high-level and longterm Dow executive whose financial entanglements with agribusiness are deep. His commitment to chemical pesticides is not surprising given his long association with Dow.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists reports, large donations from Dow to the Trump inaugural fund, seem to have paid off. One example is the EPA’s decision not to pursue a ban on the Dow pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been shown by the EPA’s own studies to be damaging to the development of children.

Attacks on emissions standards for toxic chemicals and waste products, the lifting of restrictions on fossil fuel extraction and transport, and other deregulatory acts are virtually a daily occurrence. These rollbacks are being closely tracked by a number of organizations but a good resource is the website maintained by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University (see https://bit.ly/2yjR12z).

The Sabin Center is also monitoring the Trump regime’s attacks on science, particularly climate science. They have developed a Silencing Science Tracker (SST), which already has 155 entries mainly centered on silencing climate change-related science.

The EPA has lost over 1600 employees in the first 18 months of the Trump regime. These appear to be due to extreme demoralization as a result of the active undermining of the central projects and purpose of the EPA. A significant number of the departing employees are scientists and researchers, with likely a lasting impact on the EPA for the foreseeable future.

Before Trump’s flagrant and unabashed meddling in regulatory agencies in the interest of personal and corporate profits, Obama had pursued a distinctly demure way of suppressing regulations. With the help of Cass Sunstein, Obama gave his anti-regulatory stance a veneer of academic disinterest.

As the New York Times noted at the time of Sunstein’s departure from his role at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA): “Few proposed rules escaped his gaze or his editor’s pen. Of the hundreds of regulations issued by the administration as of late last year, three-quarters were changed at OIRA, often at the urging of corporate interests, according to an analysis from the Center for Progressive Reform …. For rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, the figure was closer to 80 percent, the group found. In virtually every case, the rule was weakened, the group claimed.”(4)

I mention this to remind us that we are dealing with a difference in style, more than substance.

Anti-science or Neoliberal

Trump is often characterized as being anti-science and, more generally, against fact-based thinking. Much that Trump does and says certainly suggests that this view is correct. However, there are important aspects that are missed when we characterize Trump, climate change deniers and others of that ilk as being anti-science.

The same people who espouse some scientifically untenable positions hold other views that are in the main perfectly compatible with science and empirical data. Indeed, it would be difficult for them to function without having a largely science-compatible worldview. Their selective fact-defying positions are not random but determined by their very real material interests.

An important example of this was exposed within the past few years by Inside Climate News. They broke the detailed eye-opening story of how Exxon had perpetrated a climate change-denying fraud that defied and suppressed the findings of their own scientists. In other words, the science that Exxon itself funded and produced was incompatible with its public pronouncements about the effect of fossil fuels on global warming.

As the research of their scientists had the potential to undermine their profit-making model, Exxon opted for suppressing the science instead. This example (along with so many others such as from the tobacco industry) illustrates the problem with treating our political opponents as irrational and anti-science. They are in fact perfectly rational neoliberal actors whose interests lie in suppressing or denying inconvenient facts.

In the end, it is not so much the facts where we disagree but rather the kind of world we want to live in.

It is also essential to keep in mind the historical roots of much that Trump is perpetrating. As an example, consider Trump’s Muslim ban. It has his distinct aura — belligerent, un-nuanced and openly racist. Yet this presidential order would not have been possible without there being already in place a certain climate.

We have lived through 17 years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, characterized by their singular length, loss of life and destruction of ways of living. The introduction of Obama’s favored strategy of “targeted” drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere has required the counting of every adult Muslim male victim of drone attacks as a potential if not actual terrorist.

More generally, a completely dehumanized view of Muslims has been a necessary concomitant of this endless war. The (at first sight) arbitrary selection of countries singled out by Trump for his ban is taken straight from the openly racist legislation introduced by a Republican and signed into law by Obama in 2015.

The toll of the ongoing wars, the unfathomable decimation of life, individual and collective, could only be considered acceptable if the victims and their culture were already considered to be subhuman. The victims, whether actually Muslim or not, were conceptualized in official and unofficial rhetoric as an undifferentiated mass of Muslims.

Their status as Muslims made them potential terrorists and served as post-facto justification for their dispensability. In my view, Trump’s Muslim ban would not have been possible without the virulent Islamophobia sustained and stoked particularly by the previous two regimes.

The Power of Magical Thinking

Meanwhile, opportunist neoliberals have become self-described climate warriors, among them the last two mayors of my home, New York City: Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio. Bloomberg must have his own lexicon according to which he is both a “libertarian”(5) and an environmentalist.

Under both Bloomberg and de Blasio, subway and bus fares have risen steadily and in tandem with the decline in quality of public transportation. Their legacies are inconsistent with their self-proclaimed commitment to the environment. Both promote neoliberal market-based “solutions” such as divestment and carbon trading while doing nothing to control emissions by, for example, committing to making public transportation free or, at least, affordable.

Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, shows that the insatiable thirst for profit, the motive force of capitalism, is at the root of the climate crisis and incompatible with climate justice no matter whether in its “green” disguise or not. Her chapters on geotechnology are to me the most book’s compelling, and address a serious problem that we face — the use of science to promote what Klein calls “magical thinking.”

Whether the promise of dimming the sun or extracting carbon from the atmosphere, these “solutions” to the climate crisis do not require changing anything about the social world, only the establishment of an imagined physical and chemical balance through the insertion of technologies into a world that remains otherwise unchanged.

As Klein shows, these fantasies are based on unreasonable simplifications that are incompatible with preserving the complex ecosystem that is the very basis of life as we experience it. If the parameters of science require finding solutions to complex problems within the strictures of capitalism, we will remain hamstrung to a narrow range of the possibilities of science.

Science emerges from engaging with the world. What we call theory and experiment are impossible without each other. However, in the world of professional politics, science is reduced only to theory, indeed to something even more impoverished — a set of rhetorical positions about the world.

It isn’t surprising then when supposedly disparate and incompatible positions seem to lead to the same actions, which quite often is a complete lack of action. Science, like poetry, “makes nothing happen.” We must bring to science our independent moral sensibility and from it fashion a better world.

Notes

  1. The issue of industry sponsored scientific doubt is covered extensively in the excellent book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt.
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  2. See the EPA’s own side-by-side comparison summarized in the document https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-08/documents/ace-cpp_side_by_side.pdf.
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  3. See the Union of Concerned Scientists blog https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/at-the-trump-usda-the-d-stands-for-dow for more details.
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  4. New York Times, August 4, 2012.
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  5. I experienced first hand the “libertarian” Bloomberg’s New York Police Department during the anti-RNC demonstrations of 2004, Occupy in 2011 and the day-to-day operations of the NYPD with its stop and frisk harassment of people of color, Muslim surveillance and other illiberal tactics which characterized his entire tenure, including his illegitimate third term. De Blasio’s signature issue on the campaign trail was reforming the NYPD but his record is that of Bloomberg’s “broken windows” policing and surveillance of minorities.
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November-December 2018, ATC 197