By: Larry J. Schweiger
There are many lessons from the mishandled COVID-19 pandemic that should inform us as we face the fast-approaching climate crisis.
President Trump claimed on March 18th that the pandemic “snuck up on us.” Later, during a press briefing, he added that the virus is “a very unforeseen thing.” That claim was not true as it was clear at the time that we were facing a fast-spreading novel virus. It was one of his earliest attempts to avoid responsibility. Now, with more than 155,000 deaths, Trump has misled millions by downplaying the importance of the virus and of wearing masks as he has misled millions about the risks of climate change.
The climate crisis is not sneaking up on us, there is ample evidence that it is fast approaching. Don’t let politicians say we do not know enough or downplay the danger ahead. The science is solid and overwhelming.
While failing to use good judgment or common sense, defying top medical scientists’ warnings, Trump held a controversial rally in Tulsa on June 20th. There were scarcely any masks and purposely no social distancing. Not long after the rally, Tulsa hit alarming new highs in COVID infections. One of the attendees, Herman Cain sat in a crowded space without a mask and tested positive nine days later. Cain was hospitalized on July 2nd, and from his hospital bed tweeted in all caps, “PEOPLE ARE FED UP!” apparently over the criticism of the controversial Trump rally at Mount Rushmore on the 4th of July. Herman Cain’s death should be a message to Republicans everywhere. We must listen to the medical professionals and research scientists. One can only hope that Cain’s death will force new realizations on the unmasked followers of Trump to respect science warnings.
There are several lessons from the mishandling of the pandemic that should be applied to the climate crisis. To date, the raging epidemic makes it clear that the flawed libertarian attitudes against wearing masks, social distancing, and taking the other necessary steps to protect our health or the community’s health have made things much worse across the Nation.
Intensified fires worldwide, massive floods, hurricanes, typhoons, and increasing heatwaves have not awakened the Republican Party. Our continued failure to move to clean energy will have profound consequences in the days ahead. Trump’s retreat on clean energy will make things much worse.
We have been forewarned and we must follow science and act responsibly. It seems that hardened right-wing political ideology wins against medical science and climate science every time. Has a significant segment of America abandoned evidence-based reasoning for political ideology?
We must not Ignore science
It has been widely-understood in scientific circles that the risks of disease and pandemics are heightened by over-population, global travel, and trade. Even widespread deforestation increases the human interface with elements of nature, including previously unknown bacteria and viruses. In 2011, Paul Epstein, MD, and Dan Ferber wrote a book, “Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about it.” Their book focused on how climate change is altering disease patterns and presenting a warning that the human health risks are increasing from climate change. The linkage between the climate crisis and cholera, malaria, Lyme, asthma, and other health risks are well-known. We now know that minorities have much more asthma and air pollution increase the COVID-19 risks to the poor and minorities forced to live in some of the worst polluted places in America.
Public health researchers have warned for years about the growing threat of a pandemic in the face of increased globalization of commerce. President George W. Bush and President Obama took the warnings seriously. They were beefing up the CDC’s rapid response capacity and providing international assistance to address emerging new diseases wherever they may begin. Trump’s vision was to “deconstruct the administrative state” in every agency. The CDC was not spared. Vital programs established during the Bush and Obama administration were eliminated. Budgets were slashed, and the pandemic headlights were turned off around the world.
Federal agencies and even some members of the Trump administration warned about the dangers of the pandemic. At the same time, Trump compared the virus’s severity to the flu, arguing that it “will go away.” The Washington Post documented twenty-two times that Trump claimed the coronavirus would go away
The Nation’s best pandemic modelers have repeatedly underestimated the number of illnesses and deaths principally because they failed to fully considered the perverse influence that populist governors, legislators, and Trump have had on the low-information segment of the public. While promoting freedom of choice and the rapid reopening of the economy, they have inexplicably discouraged simple public health guidelines and made wearing a mask a political issue.
Trump has also repeatedly denied the risks of climate change while dismantling the Obama policies and programs to curb emissions. On November 26th, 2018, the Fourth National Climate Assessment issued a warning about the potential impacts of climate change across America. “With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century – more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many US states… Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.” Asked about the findings that unchecked global warming would wreak havoc on the US economy, Trump said: “I don’t believe it.” The Federal report warned that climate change would cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars annually and damage public health. Rejecting this warning, Trump has aggressively pursued a pro-fossil fuels agenda.
Trump assigns political motives to scientists as he did with Mueller and his team of investigators. At a Michigan campaign rally on March 29th, 2019, Trump called the Russian investigation “a plan by those who lost the election to try and illegally regain power by framing innocent Americans – many of them, they suffered – with an elaborate hoax.” In the same way, Trump has a consistent response to any adverse scientific assessment that he considers “bad news” that may jeopardize his reelection. He is fond of calling such things a “hoax” and “fake news” to deflect attention. During a February 28th campaign rally in South Carolina, Trump likened the Democrats’ criticism of his administration’s response to the new coronavirus outbreak to their efforts to impeach him, saying, “this is their new hoax.” He knows the hoax claim activates his conspiracy theorist base who distrust science, the media, and government.
Trump spawned a revolt against our top health scientists who were doing their best to keep us safe. Trump propagates the notion of a “deep state” bent on spawning conspiracy theories. Trump has attempted to be rid of Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is shown by polls to be regarded as a truth-teller by a majority of Americans. Trump knows the political risks of firing Fauci but has repeatedly undermined his messages. The Washington Post reported that Trump sidelined the CDC over the last several months, which prompted four former CDC directors to pen an op-ed in The Washington Post that argued no other president had politicized the CDC as Trump has.
While other Presidents have done their share of economic cheerleading, none have pushed Americans to act in ways that jeopardizes life and threatens the long-term economy and all of this for Trump’s ill-advised political purpose. Trump and his minions have pushed the responsibility to the governors and failed to develop a National strategy. Trump misled many in the belief that a rapid restart of the economy will be safe. Now he is pushing all schools to reopen. A recent editorial in the Lancet, a leading medical journal, warned that false information is a “threat to public health.” The large-scale flow of misinformation “makes it harder for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when needed, and has become a major threat to public health.” According to a CNN report, the editorial also warned that the spread of misinformation on Covid-19 is “highly organized political or pseudoscientific bodies that are experienced at using nefarious techniques to propagate their narratives” causing a “growing mistrust in science and experts” and “poor and confusing responses by political and government leaders…”
We have seen this attack on scientists by Trump before. In October 2018 Fox News interview, Trump accused climate scientists of having a “political agenda” and said he was unconvinced that humans were responsible for the earth’s rising temperatures.
The pandemic has caused far too many deaths and has left too many Americans with horrific health consequences that may be permanent. Trump has ignored the informed counsel of both medical scientists and the climate scientists alike. We are now paying the price in human lives and profound economic consequences for the mishandled pandemic. Our children and their children will pay a terrible price for the continued failure to confront the climate crisis. Ironically, investing in a clean energy economy could pull us out of this economic tailspin, but Trump will have none of it. The Trump administration has profoundly failed America will not be able to get us out of this pandemic nor will they acknowledge and confront the threat of massive climate disruption.