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Neil deGrasse Tyson Slams Climate Deniers And Scientists At The Same Time
7 months ago

Human activity is largely responsible for accelerated climate change: That's the consensus among climate scientists. Nevertheless, climate change deniers regularly contend that the consensus is part of a conspiracy which pits scientists against the hapless public. Astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out the flaws in this logic in a tweet to his followers yesterday.

"Anyone who thinks scientists like agreeing with one another has never attended a scientific conference," he wrote.

Tyson further highlights the issue in a Facebook note, itself a repost of a Huffington Post article he penned in 2015 titled "What Science Is –– and How and Why It Works." From the top, he warns readers that if "you cherry-pick scientific truths to serve cultural, economic, religious or political objectives, you undermine the foundations of an informed democracy." He also notes that science distinguishes itself from all other branches of human pursuit by its power to probe and understand the behavior of nature on a level that allows us to predict with accuracy, if not control, the outcomes of events in the natural world."

But perhaps most valuably, Tyson acknowledges that scientists do not always agree with each other because "in science, conformity is anathema to success." Moreover, he writes, the "persistent accusations that we are all trying to agree with one another is laughable to scientists attempting to advance their careers. The best way to get famous in your own lifetime is to pose an idea that is counter to prevailing research and which ultimately earns a consistency of observations and experiment. This ensures healthy disagreement at all times while working on the bleeding edge of discovery."

Recent events underscore the importance of Tyson's words more than ever. 

Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to answer questions from reporters about whether climate change influenced two back-to-back major hurricanes which ravaged the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida over the span of two weeks.

When asked whether President Donald Trump's personal opinion on climate change changed in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Sanders only said, “I don't think that it's changed over the last several weeks," before adding that she is unsure whether the president is reconsidering his decision to honor the Paris Climate Accord, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases and stem the effects of climate change. Trump triggered an exit from the agreement in the spring, sparking protests around the nation and drawing international condemnation from world leaders and environmentalists alike who predict it could damage U.S. international standing on environmental concerns.

The president has a long history of climate change denial and has claimed that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. (He denied ever saying this during his time on the campaign trail, despite evidence to the contrary.) 

In addition to pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, Trump has previously announced plans to scrap NASA’s climate change research––an adviser referred to it as “politicized science”––to increase the country’s production of coal, oil, and natural gas, and to undo the Obama administration’s regulations aimed at cutting emissions from power plants.

Criticisms that the White House has also legitimized climate change denial are not unfounded, as the appointment of Scott Pruitt, a noted climate change denier who received campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry while Attorney General of Oklahoma, as the fourteenth Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, can attest. Last week, for example, Pruitt told reporters that debating the impact of climate change amid Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and Hurricane Irma preparations would be “very, very insensitive to [the] people in Florida.” 

Other individuals Trump has appointed to his administration, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, have also positioned themselves as significant threats to the environment. Under Tillerson's leadership, Exxon misled shareholders, regulators and the public about the company's financial risks related to climate change, and has continued to deny charges that it knew about the link between fossil burning fuels and climate change before a scientific consensus.

The political climate, or what have you, has further provided companies free license to bypass environmental regulations and curry favor within the Trump administration, as when The Dow Chemical Company, a manufacturer of plastics, chemicals, and agricultural products, asked the White House to ignore studies from federal scientists about the environmental risks posed by organophosphates, a major class of pesticides. Dow made its request after Scott Pruitt announced he would reverse efforts from the previous administration to bar the use of Dow’s chlorpyrifos pesticide on food after recent peer-reviewed studies found that even minor exposure could hinder the development of children’s brains, particularly in the regions “associated with functions like attention, decision-making, language, impulse control and working memory.”  

The Trump administration’s FY 2018 budget blueprint for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also found itself in the political crossfire, amid reports that it slashes "roughly $667 million from FEMA state and local grant programs which play key roles in disaster response." The budget blueprint also guts $90 million from FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program funding to local communities and all $190 million of funding for the National Flood Insurance Program’s Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program. As the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey's destruction continues to grow, it can no longer be denied that the Trump administration's freewheeling cuts have hastened its economic toll on the state of Texas, or that these practices could have similar consequences for those suffering from the effects of Hurricane Irma.

"No rational U.S. administration would look at the devastation from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and seek to deny climate change," writes veteran Washington Post reporter and opinion writer Eugene Robinson. "At present, however, there is no rational U.S. administration. We have instead a president and an Environmental Protection Agency chief who refuse to acknowledge the obvious. Thoughts and prayers are welcome at times such as these, but they are insincere if not supplemented by analysis and action. Future megastorms will likely be worse, scientists say; the question for policymakers is to what degree."

And on this Robinson is correct: The scientific consensus tells us that a warming climate will make storms, including hurricanes, worse. A time when we have hurricanes breaking records––as he points out, Harvey dumped "unprecedented, almost biblical amounts of rainfall on Houston and its environs" and Irma spent longer as a Category 5 storm "than any other Atlantic hurricane on record"–– is precisely the time for climate scientists to be studying them.

Indeed, a 2013 analysis of climate research found that 97 percent of peer-reviewed papers that made their positions on climate change known endorsed the consensus view that human activity is responsible for climate change, and there is very little doubt about the overall trend. The reason that scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson are openly discussing and debating the topic is because scientists have learned, as Tyson writes, "not to claim knowledge of a newly discovered truth until multiple researchers, and ultimately the majority of researchers, obtain results consistent with one another."

It would be difficult to imagine a more costly intersection than a changing climate and a climate change denying president, and the issue's political implications go hand in hand with its potentially catastrophic effects on the environment. Removing "climate change" from the government lexicon has lent credence to the seeming blindness of climate change denial. To prompt the Republican Party's donors to mitigate the damage caused by fossil fuel industries appears impossible, but that is the price we all pay for government malpractice with impunity.