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A drought for science?

A Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster for science - and for the environment, says Paul Bergen.

Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. I should make a confession here, I am a registered Republican and I voted in my state’s primary. I do not find myself aligning with many of the party’s policy positions and I am appalled at the language many Republicans have used this election season. I watched this US primary election season with a mixture of trepidation and dread. Especially as a scientist interested in evidence-based policy and rational regulation. Never have I come across a nominee less engaged with science than Trump. If there is ever a reason for better science outreach and education, he is a prime example.

Let’s ignore for the moment that Trump is on record stating he will dispense with constitutional checks and balances and that he really (really, really) doesn’t like immigrants, positions which are troubling to say the least, and focus on his recent statements in California:

 “You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous. Where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea. And I just met with a lot of the farmers, who are great people, and they’re saying ‘We don’t even understand it’ They don’t understand it. Nobody understands it. And I’ve heard this from other friends of mine in California where they have farms up here and they don’t get water. I said ‘Oh, that’s too bad. Is it a drought?’ ‘No we have plenty of water.’ ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Well, we shove it out to sea.’ And, I said, ‘Why?’ And nobody even knows why. And the environmentalists don’t know why. Now they are trying to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish, but…well…”

“No, no, think of it. So nobody even knows why. And by the way the environmentalists don’t know why. And you know I should say this. I’ve received many, many environmental rewards, you know, really rewards and awards. I have done very well environmentally and I’m all for it, but you have some people that really just want to get in the way and I don’t know if it's for their ego or what, but there are so many things and, you know, we want jobs, we have to bring jobs back. And if we can bring this part of the world water. That we have. That we have.”

There is a lot to unpack in those statements. Contrary to what Mr Trump thinks, we know a lot about California’s current drought.

Another quick confession, I am also a licensed water treatment operator. Ocean outfall is a topic that very much interests me. It is true that many places utilise ocean outfall, where secondarily treated wastewater is pumped into the ocean, and that it causes significant environmental impacts on its own. That California is in a drought is not disputable, but ocean outfall is not responsible for California’s drought. Many different environmental and anthropogenic factors, including long-term misuse of water by agriculture, industry and homeowners, have led to one of the worst droughts the state has seen.

Climate change
Conditions may be slightly improving, which is good news for many people in the western US. But the evidence is mounting that (anthropogenic) climate change is exacerbating the drought and will prolong it. California experiences quite low snowfall now compared to what it once did, which means less water in the spring to refill supplies. Lake Mead, the reservoir on the Colorado River formed by the Hoover Dam that provides water to southern California among other places, is at a historic low and running in close to emergency conditions.

Further, many regulations environmentalists fight for are necessary to maintain local ecosystems, including the return of water to the environment rather than straight to a cultivated field or pasture. Although regulators and downstream users can debate the appropriate balance between water use and water return using the best science available, these ecosystems are critical for the health of the state and its water supplies and therefore warrant protection.

Trump is a known climate change denier. He thinks global warming, a well documented scientific fact, is a hoax. His energy advisor is likewise a climate change denier in a time when an unprecedented expansion of zero-emission energy sources, such as solar, nuclear and wind, are needed to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The data that say that every successive month from the beginning of 2015 until today has been the warmest on record? Forget about it. Don’t worry. It’s all an elaborate hoax dreamed up by dangerous people in white lab coats.

Not only is this a dangerous line of thinking, it is also extremely insulting to the many researchers, environmental and social activists and policy makers who are working hard to find solutions to one of the greatest problems humankind has been tasked with solving. We did much to create the problem, so we should clean up our mess. But that will not happen if one of the most powerful people in one of the most powerful countries chooses to believe that anthropogenic climate change is not a fact.

The future of science
Recently, President Obama and the US launched the National Microbiome Initiative, an initiative to bring researchers together and make great advances by tapping into microbiomes, the microbes that inhabit a given ecosystem. Vice President Biden is spearheading the US’s effort to better understand and defeat various forms of cancer. New targets and projects have been announced with the goal of increasing the funding amount the US government gives for scientific research through its various agencies. This is an administration that cares about science. They care about climate change and finding solutions to mitigate its effects. Can the same be said about any future Trump administration? So far, the evidence is pointing towards no and that should scare everyone, not just scientists.

I will vote this year by absentee ballot. And I am going to vote for the candidates who most trust scientists and researchers on these and other important topics. Not the ones who cherry-pick studies to their liking or ignore well-established and supported scientific fact to pander to ignorance. The beauty of scientific data is that it doesn’t lie or wilfully mislead, unlike Donald Trump. The interpretation a researcher offers may be wrong, but the peer-review process, for its many flaws, will sort it out. Unlike the #NeverTrump movement, which fizzled among Republican elites almost as quickly as it formed.

In a short time, I will be faced with another choice. Whether I return to work in the US or if I should search outside its borders for employment. With Trump as President, I imagine I’d spend much of my time, along with many others, arguing for the necessity of science. That shouldn’t be necessary. Now isn’t the time to debate climate change or the threat posed by antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. It’s time to act. Four years of “Don’t worry, we’ll build a wall” will not leave the US the world leader in scientific research and progress as it is currently. Americans like being number one. When it comes to science, we shouldn’t demand anything less.

*Paul Bergen [2013] is doing a PhD in Pathology. Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons.