Science Matters

Mar. 15, 2020

There’s nothing to celebrate about the spread of the coronavirus, but this pandemic has contributed to a temporary decline in greenhouse gas emissions. The economy will be impacted by this virus, which impacts output, consumption and emissions. The economy and carbon footprints are highly interrelated although there are complex interactions between multitudes of variables.                                                                                                                                   

But it is clear that the spreading virus has caused a dip in global greenhouse gas emissions. Reasons include a temporary blow to industrial activities, falling demand for oil and a decline in travel. The transportation sector is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. As schools and businesses close their doors, reduced travel could temporarily drive down carbon emissions in communities where people are spending more time at home. In China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, experts estimate that emissions over the past month have been about 25% lower than normal. In Italy, where over half of the vehicles use diesel, emissions dropped drastically. In the United States, a major economic downturn would likely drive a further decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, as people simply consume less resources. 

But of course, there are other ways the pandemic is hurting the environment. For example in China there are mountains of waste to deal with, much of it medical waste. And as transportation energy usage declines, home energy will increase. And after the pandemic recedes, regulations will most likely be reduced to stimulate sagging economies.

Of course, the effects of this deadly outbreak, containing, testing and wrestling with overwhelmed health systems is the real focus of every country on the planet. It’s a warning about disaster preparedness at every level and the need for trust in our scientists, our governments and the facts that should inform policies. It also speaks to the ways that resilience in both the public health sphere and the climate sphere can often overlap.

I do believe that playing the blame game is often non-productive, but in this case, maybe it will open some eyes. Such a reflection is not just a political maneuver. We were unprepared for this pandemic and to be prepared the next time, we need to examine what mistakes and short-sighted decisions led to our current predicament. For example, the current administration shut down the entire global-health-security unit of the National Security Council. In 2018, the CDC cut 80% of its efforts to prevent global disease outbreaks because it was running out of money. Employment at the CDC has declined by 591 positions, or 5.4%, from December 2016 through March 2019. Ultimately, the department went from working in 49 countries to just 10. In addition, eliminating the US government's $30 million Complex Crises Fund left us unprepared to deal with the virus, testing, containing and treating our people with a more rapid response.

Our own POTUS tried to downplay the effect of the virus, hoping to maintain our economy on his hunches. He encouraged people to go to work and claimed the mortality rate was much lower than it was. Mortality rates are calculated by math- not by hunches. But then, the administration continually denies science to promote their own propaganda/agenda. And because our nation has become so tribal, so siloed, science, scientists and general truth speakers who communicate actual facts are not trusted. It is this lack of trust, lack of scientific literacy among the citizenry, along with the propaganda of a carnival barker that had led to the magnitude of the situation today.

It is a multidimensional problem reflective of our culture. Why is scientific illiteracy rampant in our nation? It starts with education. As the AAAS stated in Science for All Americans, “Our curricula is a mile wide and an inch deep.” Or to paraphrase David Orr, the outcome of modern education is like eating the menu instead of the meal. Under high stakes testing, science education has become an exercise of memorization and regurgitation focused on content rather than the power of scientific processes. This inability to independently and critically examine information, media bias and the evidentiary power of valid and reliable science methodology and peer review has left us vulnerable to flim-flam artists, conmen in disguise as politicians. People have become so accustomed to media spin, they can’t seem to sift out facts from propaganda. Facebook memes and email chains reinforce misinformation and it snowballs. When it comes to science, whether it’s medical information or climate change research, we need to leave the science to the experts in their fields. We, as a society, are drifting away from the use of scientific reasoning to inform public policy. And the outcome is clear: a misinformed voting public and the passage of policies to benefit special interests.

Media pundits, generally Jr College dropouts, are not the people you need to be listening to when it comes to scientific matters. Why not trust the PhD or the Nobel Prize winner? Science is not liberal or conservative, facts should not be dependent on which news outlet you watch. Maybe this emergency situation will awaken more people to this simple thing, facts and truth matters. And scientists are truth seekers. In an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” we need to step into the breach and inject scientific literacy into the political discourse.