Climate science is threatened by much more than just Donald Trump.
Klassekampen, 17 Mar 2017
Last week I attended a meeting in Seattle, where together with climate scientists from Europe and the US we mulled over the question of how much methane is released from permafrost in the Arctic. This group also included researchers from NASA and NOAA, institutes that are now under fire from Trump and his people. This became apparent once more at the end of the meeting, when I saw on the news that Scott Pruitt, the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency, had said that scientists didn’t agree on whether CO2 was the main cause of climate change.
Take a moment to realise how bizarre this situation is: the man who’s now the head of this federal environmental agency, founded by Nixon of all people, doesn’t believe his own employees. They could’ve told him that nearly all climate scientists agree that CO2 is the main cause. Or he could’ve looked it up on the website of his own agency. At least, as long as that information is allowed to stay there by the current American government.
An academic boycott would be a gift from heaven for Trump
As I walked through Seattle, I saw a lot of posters put up out of protest against Trump. Likewise, I had expected that the immense shift in Washington would also be discussed informally at the meeting. But despite the not so rose-colored future for climate science under the current US administration, Trump was barely mentioned by the scientists I met. They avoided the issue, and continued with the science as we always do. Understandable. It must be hard to think about how everything you worked for your entire life can be pushed aside with a single stroke of a pen in the form of a presidential decree.
About that, I had difficulties with a decree myself. Should I have gone to that meeting in the US? Only the weekend before, Trump signed his new travel ban for immigrants and asylum seekers from six islamic countries. When the first ban was enacted, many scientists called for a boycott of scientific conferences in America. Don’t go there, as long as colleagues from islamic countries aren’t welcome either.
To me that sounds like a gift from heaven for Trump. By denying muslims access to the country, he also prevents critical-thinking (climate) scientists from entering the country. Killing two birds with one stone. Besides: holding meetings outside of the US is no solution either as long as muslims who live in the US cannot attend when they fear they won't be let back into the country upon returning home.
Obviously, I did attend. But not only from the principal of not trying to add to the obstruction of US climate science. I simply do not have the luxury not to go. Young scientists, like myself, lead an uncertain existence, in Norway and the rest of Europe, even without a populist that’s hostile towards science.
A scientist in the early stages of his or her career lives from project to project. This can mean that one year you work for one university, until you run out of money, and then you have to find a job somewhere else. This is called ‘mobility’. But for me, and many colleagues with me, this signifies first and foremost uncertainty. When you’re unlucky with attracting research funding, you have to pack your things and move. More often than not to another country.
If you’re lucky, and receive funding, you are ok for another 3 or 4 years. But the competition is extremely fierce. So you have to be noticed, and become a familiar face within your field. So go to meetings, hold talks, and publish a lot of course. The dire lack of fixed contracts drives a lot of talented people out of science. A steady job, a permanent place to live, and time for a family are often more important.
In other words, the basic situation in science is already nearly untenable, which is a consequence of a development that has been ongoing for decades. Add to that the current anti-scientific attitude of Trump and his people, and it’s crystal clear that the career opportunities of young American scientists, like the ones I spoke to last week, vanish like the snow. It can be questioned whether, in a few years time, they can apply for funding at all, or whether their institute has been denied funding and had to close its doors. If this continues for long enough, it will lead to a lost generation of researchers, and with it a lack of new insights.
The sad thing about it is that the big loser in all of this is our planet. Or as the American journalist Dan Rather recently said: “Slashing scientific research into climate change will not prevent our planet from warming. It will just mean we will know less.”
This text first appeared in Klassekampen on 17 Mar 2017