A Language of Hope

A Language of Hope

During an interview several years ago I was asked, “what inspires you about science?” (scrub to 16.35). I said the first thing that came to mind: science is a way to share truth and knowledge, develop common understandings, communicate across cultures, work through problems and discover solutions. As it turns out, I was echoing the words of Albert Einstein.

The practice of science, where objective skepticism, mathematics and logic are used to test alternative hypotheses, has yielded truths upon which we have built modern society. Understanding the shape of the Earth, predicting the tides and weather, curing disease, harnessing electricity, utilizing radiant energy (x-rays, ultraviolet, radio waves, WiFi) — the contributions of science to human prosperity are endless.

The language of science speaks of threats as well, like air and water pollution, pandemic disease and climate change. And it can also reveal how to ameliorate those threats: washing our hands, wearing masks, putting catalytic converters on tailpipes, developing renewable sources of energy.

But President Trump, his followers and enablers are rejecting the language of science in favor of conspiracy theories and “alternative facts.” We are all suffering as a result, and the impacts will be with us for decades.

The President proclaimed last month on his visit to California that the climate “will start getting cooler, you just watch.” In response, California Secretary of Resources, Wade Crowfoot, explained that — as scientists predicted decades ago — climate change is a key factor in the increasing scale and intensity of our wildfires. The President refused to acknowledge this truth.

“I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump said.

But science does know. We have known since the 1890s that carbon-dioxide emissions would warm the earth by trapping heat that would otherwise escape to outer space. Emissions have now increased carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere by 40%, and the climate in which human civilization evolved is gone. That stable world, where temperatures varied by only 1°F over ten thousand years, has been replaced by a world that has warmed by almost 2°F in just two hundred years.

Our weather and ecological support systems are changing just as the scientists had predicted. Every President since Lyndon Johnson has been warned that these disruptions would threaten national security by raising sea level, interfering with food production and displacing human populations. There is no other credible explanation for what is happening before our very eyes. The Earth will no more “get cooler” than a tea kettle simmering over a flame will cool down on its own.

President Trump’s statement is not just ignorant — it’s dangerous. We must be preparing for the changes ahead, not making believe they are not going to happen. As Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M, recently said, “If you don’t like all of the climate disasters happening in 2020, I have some bad news for you about the rest of your life.” Past emissions, which stay in the atmosphere for decades, have already ensured ever more disruption in the coming years. If we do not eliminate emissions soon, climatic changes will overpower human efforts to preserve health and safety.

The value of science for human progress was recognized in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8), and it remains the only way we have to share a universal objective reality — to communicate in a common language. We can neither describe nor solve the problems we face without it. The global practice of science gives me hope that humans can reason together rather than war over beliefs and opinions, to navigate through these perilous times.

Trump warned his supporters last week that, if elected, Joe Biden “will listen to the scientists.”

That would be a welcome and necessary change.