Science — not politics — should guide our government

When Donald Trump stood in front of the White House last Thursday night to accept the Republican Party’s nomination for him to seek a second term as president, he started his speech — as had his daughter in introducing him — expressing his sympathy and support for those whose lives had been devastated by Hurricane Laura.

All of us of course can rally behind the worth of helping those in need, of rebuilding after a natural disaster.

But there is also irony in this. Climate change has made hurricanes more severe. Warmer water provides more energy to fuel the storms.

Rather than embracing the job opportunities and planetary health that would come from wind and solar energy, the Trump administration has pushed use of the very fossil fuels that cause global warming.

Later in his speech, Trump drew applause when he spoke of leading the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Every country in the world had signed on to try to save the planet from the death and destruction that comes from climate change.

Rather than expressing sympathy after a hurricane has destroyed lives and communities, wouldn’t it be better to work to prevent or reduce such destruction in the first place?

When Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, he said it was in accordance with his America First policy, that the agreement would undermine the United States’ economy and put it at a disadvantage.

Even if there are Americans who can’t think of the worth of the planet and its peoples as a whole, surely they must see that the billions of dollars of loss in the United States — and especially the loss of American lives — is the result of ignoring the science that shows many kinds of “natural” disasters, from hurricanes to droughts, are worsened because of climate change.

A study published in May, conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed satellite imagery for the past four decades, showing what computer models had long suggested — warming has increased, by about 8 percent a decade, the likelihood of hurricanes being Category 3 or higher with sustained winds of 110 miles per hour or more.

NOAA, part of the United States Department of Commerce, has a long history as a respected scientific agency. Citizens depend on NOAA to conduct research to understand and protect the environment, to guide the use and protection of coastal and ocean resources, to chart seas, and to warn of dangerous weather like hurricanes.

Last year, as Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on the southeastern United States, President Trump tweeted that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” on the very same day that NOAA had issued a statement saying that the “current path of Dorian does not include Alabama.”

The Birmingham office responded on Twitter a few minutes later, “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”

Rather than deferring to the scientists, Trump went on to display a map that had been altered with a black marker to show Dorian could hit Alabama. The Secretary of Commerce threatened to fire top workers at NOAA after NOAA’s Birmingham office contradicted Trump’s claim that Dorian might hit Alabama.

In fact, as NOAA had predicted, Hurricane Dorian did not hit Alabama. Following guidance based on science is important. And the integrity of the federal institutions that provide citizens with essential guidance, based on sound science, must not be politicized.

We thought of this as we watched the crowd that gathered on the White House lawn to cheer on the president last Thursday. They were seated closely together, not following the six feet of social-distancing set out by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nor were most in the crowd wearing masks, which science has shown to be effective in stopping the spread of the virus.

In his speech, Trump said he had followed science and data in dealing with the pandemic. Saying it doesn’t make it so.

Actions speak louder than words.

This past week, we were deeply troubled when the CDC changed its guidelines to exclude testing people who do not show COVID-19 symptoms even if they have been exposed to the virus. In Albany County, and across New York State, the focus for months has been on increasing diagnostic testing, especially to identify COVID-19 in people who may be spreading the disease before they show symptoms or who never show symptoms.

In Albany County, people in the 20-to-29 age group have had more cases of COVID-19 than people in any other decade of age, and the county’s health commissioner has frequently warned that, without testing, they could unwittingly spread the disease to people for whom it could be serious or even deadly.

“They reversed their own guidance: If you are in close contact with a person, you don’t need to get a test,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo of the CDC in a conference call with the press last Wednesday.

“I’ve spoken to health experts from around the globe,” Cuomo went on. “None of them will say that this makes any sense from a health point of view. The only plausible rationale is they want fewer people taking tests because, as the president has said, if we don’t take tests, you won’t know that people are COVID-positive and the number of COVID-positive people will come down. Yes, that is true.

“That is his policy of ‘deny the problem.’ If you don’t take your temperature, you won’t know that you have a fever. Yes, that is true. But it totally violates public-health standards and rationale, and just fosters his failed policy of denial.”

Howard Zucker, the state’s health commissioner, echoed Cuomo’s thoughts. “Regarding the CDC situation,” he said, “this is indefensible from a public-health point of view and I have to say it makes absolutely no sense, and I’ve spoken to the scientists at the CDC and they say it’s political, so I concur with all you’re saying that this is just indefensible.”

We worry about the well-being of citizens when any politician alters or ignores science for personal gain. Whether it’s NOAA, which sets out to accurately inform residents if they are in danger of a hurricane, or the CDC, which should be issuing guidance that will best promote public health, the integrity of such institutions must be inviolate.

We were somewhat relieved on Thursday when the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut jointly announced they would not change guidance in their states — people without COVID-19 symptoms will continue to be tested. But, as always, a reliable, science-based national standard would be best.

Such testing is important not just so individuals know if they have been infected — a young person with no symptoms who tested positive, for example, would know not to visit her elderly, ailing grandmother — but also for mapping larger trends to better understand the disease and combat it.

Ignoring science to tell people what they want to hear won’t stem the spread of the coronavirus and won’t protect our Earth or ourselves from climate change. It took four decades of releasing fossil fuels to increase — at 8 percent each decade — the severity of hurricanes. There is no quick fix or easy path to save ourselves from further and more frequent disasters.

But, if we were to work together with other nations of the world, following the lead of science, we could have hope of controlling climate change and controlling the current pandemic — while lessening the chances of other pandemics that will surely erupt if we don’t care for our natural world.


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