Editor’s Note: David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. James Piltch is Gergen’s chief research assistant. His writing on civic life and education has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion on CNN.
In the midst of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had the foresight to see that advancements in American science were critical to Allied victories in World War II.
Searching for day-to-day guidance, he named Vannevar Bush, an engineer with a joint Ph.D from MIT and Harvard, as the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development.
Bush became a quiet hero in the war effort, serving essentially as the first national science adviser to a president, providing critical oversight of the Manhattan Project—the WWII research effort that produced the atomic bomb– and eventually helping to create the National Science Foundation
In 1945, Vannevar Bush submitted his landmark report, Science: The Endless Frontier, to President Roosevelt. It argued that if the United States wanted to remain a world superpower and keep the peace, it was essential that it remain at the cutting edge of scientific and technological research.
He wrote to President Roosevelt, “Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”
In nearly every presidential administration since, it has been axiomatic that the country must believe in science and invest generously and wisely in science and technology.
When all the fireworks are over in Donald Trump’s presidency, historians may look back and conclude that even more important than the Mueller Report and the American retreat from global leadership was Washington’s disregard of this history and its consequential neglect of the threat to our planet.
Consider some of the main examples of this neglect:
• Just last week, the UN released a report stating that almost one million species —one-eighth of the Earth’s total– are at risk of extinction. According to 145 authors in 50 countries, if the world doesn’t act, 40% of amphibians, 33% of corals, and 10% of insects might die. Any viewer of David Attenborough’s “Our Planet” is likely already aware of this devastation. Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, however, apparently has not watched or wasn’t moved by what it saw, as it approved offshore drilling in the Arctic before a federal judge fortunately ruled the drilling illegal. The Trump administration’s plan is currently on hold, but if his team has its way, it would make more than 90% of federal water available for offshore oil and gas leasing.
• One of the main sources of damage to wildlife is climate change, which potentially poses an existential threat to humanity. Last year, citing 6,000 scientific studies, the UN released a report asserting that the world has 12 years to prevent a “climate change catastrophe.” Despite near total consensus from the scientific community, the administration has already signaled such threats are not a priority right now, by, for example, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords in 2017.
• Last week, most of the world’s leaders agreed to limit countries’ pollution from plastic waste. The United States was one of the few countries not to join.
• Climate change is no longer an abstract concept, but rather a regular presence in Americans’ lives. Perhaps the most obvious, and terrifying, example was the devastating spate of wildfires in California that claimed dozens of lives and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages last year. President Trump declined to connect the blazes to climate change. His solution? Better raking and cleaning. How that fixes a massive drought is beyond us.
• The government’s response to the frightening hurricanes of 2017 was baffling, too. Independent researchers from George Washington University estimated that some 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico, and yet, the support given to the island both in finances and in words in the wake of Hurricane Maria has been minimal. Despite the damage there, just last week, a $13.6 billion disaster relief bill that would help Americans hit by disasters across the country stalled in Congress because the president wants to limit additional aid to Puerto Rico.
• Just last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo captured the administration’s mentality toward climate-related damage, saying, “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new naval passageways and new opportunities for trade, potentially slashing the time it takes for ships to travel between Asia and the West by 20 days.” During this address at the Arctic Council last week, Pompeo did not once mention climate change. So, the disappearance of Arctic ice, which may intensify climate change and will cause increased flooding across much of the US coastline, is a good thing for the United States? Really?
• The administration’s apparent disregard for — or at best, deprioritizing of – science extends beyond climate change. An anti-vaccination movement has gripped the country, and now measles has returned to infect hundreds and threaten millions. Despite such a danger, the President took months to tell people to “get their shots.”
• Funding for research has declined as a priority (beginning with the Obama administration). As of 2016, funding for R&D at public universities had dropped to .8% of federal spending, down from 1.3% at various points in the last few decades. In 2017, Trump sought to cut funding for basic research 17%, but Congress thankfully intervened.
• And since Roosevelt tapped Vannevar Bush to help him during World War II, Presidents have recruited top scientists to advise them in the White House. Truman kept Bush around. Ike had George Kistiakowsky, among others. Clinton chose John Gibbons. George W. Bush had John Marburger, and Obama had John Holdren. Trump, always one to eschew tradition, left the role vacant for nearly two years amid this critical moment for humans and the planet, before appointing meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier.
While Democratic leaders are not blameless for government inaction, Republicans are largely responsible for the current belittling of science and disregard for the environment. Although some Republican representatives are encouraging market-based climate solutions, and Sen. Lamar Alexander has proposed a Manhattan Project for energy, their efforts have gotten no traction with the leadership of their party.
Republican leadership’s anti-science and anti-environment mentality is particularly frustrating because it betrays some of the party’s greatest accomplishments. Richard Nixon oversaw the creation of the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He helped ensure the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
Several decades later, George H.W. Bush recognized the growing threat of climate change and decided to require a government report at least every four years on climate change. He also oversaw a critical updating of the Clean Air Act.
Fortunately, there is some good news on the science front. CNN found late last month that among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 82% said that doing something about climate change was extremely important for the next president. It was the top-rated issue in the poll.
Critically, Republican voters might be coming around on climate change. In a New York Times opinion piece last December, Arlie and David Hochschild detailed that polling and their own personal experience speaking with Republican voters suggest that Republican voters now seem to believe that action needs to be taken on climate change. The recent floods in the Midwest and the looming return of forest fire season highlight that climate is already changing Americans’ lives and, seemingly, their opinions about politics and science.
One doesn’t have to believe in the Green New Deal or climate plans coming from Democratic presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to take the climate threat much more seriously than we are now. We need to find solutions that will work and are politically attainable. There is no longer any excuse for head-in-the-sand approaches to climate dangers. We need to think boldly and change dramatically. We should stop ignoring the warnings of our top scientists just because they are telling us “inconvenient truths.”
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The GOP has set itself apart from its own history, the desires of the American people (62% say Republicans are outside the mainstream on climate), and the consensus of the scientific community.
Today, the threat the United States faces is not another country, as it was when Roosevelt hired Vannevar Bush. But the danger of climate change is certainly as grave a danger to American prosperity and global security as World War II.
If voters will put more pressure on both parties in the coming election cycle, making clear their growing fears, we perhaps can turn ourselves in a more hopeful direction. With the news this week that the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is at its highest point in human history, the clock is ticking loudly.