One Year Into the Trump Administration, Where Do We Stand?
By John R. Platt
What a long, strange year it's been.
Saturday, Jan. 20 marks the one-year anniversary of the Trump administration officially taking office after a long and arduous election. It's a year that has seen seemingly unending attacks on science and the environment, along with a rise in hateful rhetoric and racially motivated policies. But it's almost been met by the continuing growth of the efforts to resist what the Trump administration has to offer.
So where do we stand, one year in?
Well, for one thing, we can say that the year has given the administration's actions a visible shape. "These are not isolated incidents at this point," said Jacob Carter, research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been tracking the administration's attacks against science—at least 65 since the president took office. "They're happening so often now that there is definitely a pattern starting to emerge. The administration really wants to undermine the role of science and science-based decision making. They're getting the expertise out of the way to further a political agenda."
Carter said these attempts to remove science from government decision-making—ranging from ending a study of the health effects of mountaintop-removal mining to eliminating the words "climate change" from all EPA grants—"have real consequences on peoples' lives. It's about our health and safety. If we don't listen to the best available science, then our lives are at risk."
But pushing science and scientists aside doesn't mean they go away forever. "Under this administration we know the scientific evidence isn't going to be able to speak for itself, so scientists really have to step up and speak for it," Carter said. And scientists have been doing that in record numbers, starting with last year's March for Science and continuing on multiple fronts ever since. "They're stepping up in an unprecedented number and saying science has got to be used in policy-making decisions." That's not slowing down; Carter recalls how he attended two big scientific conferences last year and "I had tons of scientists coming up and asking me how they can advocate, what they could do to make sure that science is being used and remains in a proper place."
That increased level of activism is not unique to scientists, as people from many walks of live have definitely become more politically engaged in the past year. "Trump's election was a wakeup call in a way," said Gayle Alberda, an assistant professor of politics at Connecticut's Fairfield University, who studies elections, political participation and civic engagement. "Nation-wide, we've seen this huge influx of people wanting to know not only how to run for office, but how to get politically engaged."
Of course, people are rising up on both sides of the political aisle. In addition to the citizens opposing Trump's policies, Alberda said the people who see Trump as representing their ideals have also made their voices louder over the past year. "I think both sides are getting pushed in a way to really engage vastly differently than we have in the past," she said.
Unfortunately, the two sides aren't exactly talking to each other, and that's bad for the country. "We're losing the ability to engage in civil discourse in a way that's healthy for democracy," Alberda said.
Alberda said this has been building for a while, even before the election. "It's almost like you keep throwing firewood onto the fire and you don't realize how big it is until it blows up," she said. "You're like, 'whoa, that's a big fire.' Lots of little things have happened over the years and we're kind of seeing that all of a sudden in our face, because you have all of these questions about the state of democracy today." She said examples such as Trump's attacks on the free press, the Republican push to pass their legislative agenda, and the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the last election have only served to stoke this fire even further.
So where do we go as we enter the administration's second year? One avenue is to look toward groups that have experience fighting these kinds of regressive activities. "One of the strengths of the movement is solidarity," said Nadia Aziz, program manager of the Stop Hate Project run by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "There are a lot of organizations like ours that have been around for 50 years or more. We've been fighting to secure equal justice for racial and ethnic minorities for a very long time. I think we're very resilient organizations because of that," she said.
That resilience is important, she said, because right now we're at a critical point: "How do you make sure that this movement that we're all in, this resistance, is creating sustainable action and that we all don't get burned out?"
One way Aziz said she keeps herself strong is by seeing and experiencing what others are doing. "There are a lot of a lot of groups are doing such wonderful work," she said. "One of the most inspiring things about my job is being able to connect with people. I think that gives me resiliency, seeing how awesome the people are on the ground what the remarkable work they're doing."
That, in fact, may be one of the lasting legacies of this administration: Local community groups and national groups are connecting with each other, learning from each other, and collectively strengthening their voices. "I do think we're going to keep getting stronger and we're going to keep building out our movement," Aziz said.
As we enter year two of this administration, Alberda said she's looking toward local 2018 elections and the rise of candidates opposing Trump and his policies. "That is going to be really interesting," she said. "We've seen already that Republicans in safe Republican state legislative seats are getting challengers. I think that's indicative that we're going to see some interesting elections."
John R. Platt is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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