On Saturday, thousands of scientists and activists gathered in Washington DC for the March for Science, calling on the public to defend science-based policy making against what they see as an assault from the Trump administration. Smaller gatherings in hundreds of US cities, as well as in Europe and Asia, echoed that message, calling for evidence-based solutions to today’s most pressing global problems.
Although climate change is often discussed in terms of decades and centuries, the world’s most vulnerable communities are already threatened from policies that ignore scientific conclusions. In the short-term, the global poor and developing nations have much more to lose from these phenomena than the wealthy political class of which Donald Trump is a prime example.
Referring to the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan which she was instrumental in exposing, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha addressed a rally in DC, saying the march was just the beginning of a movement to stop governments from dismissing or denying science.
“If we want to prevent future Flints, we need to embrace what we’ve learned and how far we’ve come in terms of science and technology,” she said in an interview.
The march grew out of a social media campaign responding to President Donald Trump’s dismissal of climate change during his campaign. Though Trump’s tone on climate change has softened somewhat since the campaign, he has signed executive orders rolling back a number of President Obama’s measures to fight climate change. He also chose Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Trump’s budget proposal includes deep cuts to the National Institutes of Health and the EPA – yet Trump and his cabinet are not the ones most urgently in need of these institutions.
Climate change as a result of human activities is perhaps the issue most central to the science debate. Numerous studies in peer-review scientific journals have shown that 97 percent of active climate scientists agree that warming trends in the last century are most likely due to human activity. Yet politicians like Trump and Pruitt argue that more debate is necessary before the need for action becomes clear.
According to a 2014 report from the UN’s climate panel, “people who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change.”
Even if warming effects are kept to only 2 degrees Celsius, an optimistic estimate, the report predicts a reduction in crop yields in warmer and drier parts of the planet, leading already disadvantaged communities to suffer from malnutrition. The report added that climate change would make it more difficult for developing countries to rise out of poverty, and would exacerbate “pockets of poverty” in both poorer and rich countries. A later report from the World Bank echoed these conclusions.
“Agriculture is one of the most important economic sectors in many poor countries,” says the World Bank report. “Unfortunately, it is also one of the most sensitive to climate change given its dependence on weather conditions, both directly and through climate-dependent stressors (pests, epidemics, and sea level rise).”
Climate change has also increased the frequency of extreme weather such as heatwaves and hurricanes. The number of natural disasters between 2000 and 2009 was roughly three times higher than during the 1980s. The destabilizing impact of such events falls most heavily on poorer communities, less able to relocate or adapt in the event of a crisis. Hurricane Katrina is a prime example of this. Research compiled by the Overseas Development Institute showed that extreme weather and natural disasters exacerbate poverty in parts of the world where they are prevalent, focusing on drought, extreme rainfall, and flooding. Just last month, scientists found a strong connection between this kind of extreme weather and climate change, particularly as a result of warming and melting in the Arctic. The changes affect global wind patterns that are crucial to keeping weather patterns on the move, instead of stuck in one place.
Health and Pollution
Other crises facing marginalized and poor communities call for policies with a firmer foundation in science, instead of cuts to research and enforcement capability. In the months leading up to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, residents were assured that their water was safe to drink. It wasn’t until Hanna-Attisha used blood data from an area hospital to prove children had experienced spikes in lead levels that the EPA issued an emergency order to address the situation. The EPA inspector general later said the agency should have acted sooner.
Trump’s budget proposal seeks to cut EPA funding by one third. Pruitt has argued the EPA should use its resources focus on enforcing federal laws not already covered by state governments, such as rules pertaining to lead content in water. Yet in the Flint crisis, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality admitted it had failed to act.
David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the budget proposal would limit the EPA’s ability to address lead content and other concerns regarding the quality of drinking water.
After a crisis like the one in Flint, and similar problems with drinking water throughout the country, it should be clear that the EPA needs more resources to prevent these problems. Once again, these problems primarily affect poor communities, yet Trump and his advisors are aiming to move the government away from tighter enforcement of environmental regulations. Similar problems with air pollution also call for better detection and enforcement, and once again affect poorer, urban areas. The Flint crisis is not an isolated incident, but instead is an example of the need for more stringent environmental regulations nationwide. Cuts to the EPA are not the way to accomplish this.
Trump’s policies ignore climate change, related extreme weather, and pollution, issues which disproportionately affect marginalized communities in the US and around the world. Not only is Trump’s cabinet the richest in American history, but is filled with individuals with a record of putting their own interests ahead of the greater good. It should not come as a surprise that their emerging set of policies ignores these communities. The March for Science should spearhead broader efforts to fight moves that prevent science-based policies from helping the people that need them most.
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