Simply Unprecedented

Doomsday clock 2


In a bold, unprecedented move, U.S. scientists are planning the “next big march on Washington” because they’re “alarmed by the clear anti-science actions taken by the Trump Administration.”

For example, the Administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to get rid of mentions of climate change from its website, froze its ability to award of research grants and contracts, and ordered its scientists to stop talking to the press and the public – including Congress. Gag orders also issued to the Department of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and the National Park Service.

“I’m not aware of any such policy in the past,” said David Lobell, a Stanford University agricultural scientist, in an interview with Scientific American. “Our society deeply depends on good science, and good science depends on open communication. … this as a sign that the administration does not appreciate the critical role that science plays in our nation’s success.”

A brief sampling of our leading science and medical journals also show unprecedented alarm. From the venerable New England Journal of Medicine: In “Care for the Vulnerable vs. Cash for the Powerful — Trump’s Pick for HHS,” the authors argue that HHS nominee Tom Price’s record “demonstrates less concern for the sick, the poor, and the health of the public and much greater concern for the economic well-being of their physician caregivers.” From Nature: “Scientists must fight for the facts — President Trump’s unconventional stances cannot go unchallenged.” From Science: “Here’s some advice for you, President Trump, from scientists.” And so on: simply Google your favorite science journal together with the word “Trump” and you’ll get a handful of listings in each.

And then yesterday came the dire announcement from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — putting all this in a global perspective — that it moved its Doomsday Clock ahead to two and a half minutes to midnight, thus moving the planet closer to a catastrophic disaster than at any time since 1953:

In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: ‘The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.

(For those unfamiliar with the award-winning Bulletin, its Doomsday Clock may sound like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, so here’s yesterday’s NYT op-ed by Bulletin scientists, and here’s a little backgrounder on the Bulletin, from which I lifted this:

Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 15 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains.)



What’s most telling about the Bulletin’s announcement — distinguishing it from all past announcements — is how they reached their conclusion: similar to the reasoning in the science journals they also zeroed in on Trump:

This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change …

Just the same, words matter, and President Trump has had plenty to say over the last year. Both his statements and his actions as president-elect have broken with historical precedent in unsettling ways. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the US nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency dispute the basics of climate science. In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.

Last year, and the year before, we warned that world leaders were failing to act with the speed and on the scale required to protect citizens from the extreme danger posed by climate change and nuclear war. During the past year, the need for leadership only intensified—yet inaction and brinksmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth. Who will lead humanity away from global disaster?

He probably doesn’t want the leadership role, but last October Noam Chomsky, “arguably the most important intellectual alive today,” essentially foretold what the Bulletin announced yesterday. But he added something:

Another major problem is the threat of pandemics — diseases that can’t be controlled. That’s already happening, and it’s happening for important reasons. One reason that we haven’t mentioned … is industrial meat production. Industrial meat production is a huge contributor to global warming. It’s an enormous producer of carbon dioxide and methane.

But it also has another feature. Corporations pour antibiotics into these systems. Animals are crowded together in horrible conditions and to prevent disease and to maintain growth there’s an extensive use of antibiotics. An enormous part of antibiotic production is for this. Use of antibiotics leads to mutations which make bacteria antibiotic resistant. We’re now … the rate of antibiotic resistance is growing faster than the techniques for dealing with them. So we may be destroying ourselves in that way too.

The Obama administration felt the same way. And so, guided by the presidential science advisor, John Holdren, PhD (Stanford), who headed the Presidential President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), they drew up the “National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria.” Significantly, when Obama announced the Plan, he said “it covers the next five years starting right now.” That was March, 2015.

The Trump administration has not yet filled three top government positions. The presidential science advisor is one of them. The two rumored choices are not popular with the science community: one is a climate skeptic, the other “a critic of liberal academia,” according to Nature.

Yesterday, I went to the PCAST website to check on the progress of the Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, “one of the most serious public health issues we face today,” according to Obama. This is what I found:

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