April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Much to dismay of world-leading scientists, environmentalists, and politicians alike, President Trump has frequently branded climate change as “fake news” during his campaign.

Trump versus Einstein

Trump vs. Science: In the pursuit of remerging as a self-sustained, global superpower, scientists allege policies based on “myth over truth” under Trump. Mariel Schmidt

“Make America great again”. These words, now an unmistakeable slogan, have echoed loud and clear to every corner of the world since Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America on January 20th, 2017. We are now almost nine months into the Trump era. The reactions from the public have thus far been mixed, ranging from shock and utter disbelief for the many, and to jubilation and rejoice for the few. Either way, it is safe to say that Mr. Trump’s actions have instigated a global furore that is transmitting ripples across the political playing field. Albeit rarely, and with much criticism, the Trump administration have made their stance on science and funding private- and non-profit research programmes quite clear. Much to dismay of world-leading scientists, environmentalists, and politicians alike, President Trump has frequently branded climate change as “fake news” during his campaign. This article explores what implications this attitude and outlook could have on the future, both short-term and long-term.

Although their actions have been anything but foreseeable, one could argue that reading news surrounding the Trump presidency has carried with it an element of predictability during the past few months. Up until now, there has only been a restricted palette of topics that the Trump administration have been happy to openly discuss; these include tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, the alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, repealing the Obamacare bill, expanding infrastructure in America, amongst several others. You can add building the infamous wall spanning the U.S.-Mexico border to that list as well. In analogy to listening to music on our handheld devices, global media platforms have since established a playlist from these topics and continuously toggled between the ‘shuffle’ and ‘repeat’ buttons.

For the reader’s interest, I should clarify that this article hasn’t been written to address the aforementioned topics, nor serve as an outlet to express my own political standpoints on such issues. On the contrary, this article aims to explore an amalgamation of topics that the U.S. President and his administration have very seldom discussed, if at all, until now: science, technology, and research funding.

Science and the Trump presidency

The White House recently released a four-page memo outlining the national budget and priorities for scientific research and technological development until 2019 – a document that the American scientific community has been waiting for with baited breath. U.S. military superiority, energy dominance, cyber security, prosperity and health formed the top five priorities of the proposed research programme. To the dismay of numerous scientists, engineers and environmental campaigners, the document made no mention of an assigned budget for climate change or environmental science – both top priorities under the Obama administration.

Indeed, it should not come as a surprise that emphasis on military investment and cyber security forms the crux of the Trump administration’s science priorities, with the negligence of climate and clean energy. President Trump has had no qualms in highlighting his desire to slash environmental regulations and shift the balance of power in the fossil fuel industry towards a coal-dominant energy infrastructure. The basis of his actions has stemmed from his belief that his predecessor used climate change and environmental science “too frequently and at the wrong time” to hinder job growth in the U.S., and that the former was “merely a hoax” perpetrated by China to restrict U.S. in the global markets.

However, with the U.S. still coming to terms with the impact of three major weather disasters within a month, one wonders whether the destruction caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria will convince President Trump and his administration of the ever-growing reality of climate change. Whilst Trump’s decadent Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida may have escaped unscathed, the huge loss of American lives, billions of dollars in infrastructure damage, and growing frustrations from the public over a lack of relief aid, Harvey, Irma and Maria have laid the costs of climate change denial at the door of the White House.

An executive order signed by Trump, merely days before the onset of Hurricane Harvey, revoked an Obama-era initiative that had established national standards for federally funded infrastructure projects in areas at risk of flooding or prone to the effects of sea-level rise. Several of these areas in Texas and Florida are now either underwater or sinking. Many in the upper echelons of the Senate and House of Representatives have since called out the President to acknowledge the consequences of these weather disasters, and their potential link to climate change.

Is climate change to blame for Harvey, Irma, and Maria?

Scientists are yet to establish a direct correlation between the annual hurricane count and the effects of global warming. Therefore, we cannot conclusively claim that climate change is the sole cause of the unprecedented onslaught of hurricanes this year, nor for the occurrence of any given storm. However, rising global temperatures stemming from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions certainly play an instrumental role in escalating the consequences. Firstly, the rise in global oceanic temperatures, particularly in the North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, have in a sense “added further fuel to the fire” by serving as a more potent heat reservoir for forming hurricanes and storms. A recent study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Letters revealed that the average temperature in the Gulf of Mexico did not drop below 73°F, even during peak winter. According to Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Gulf was 4°F above average at the time Harvey intensified into a Category 4 hurricane. Given that the Gulf constitutes a large body of water spanning the U.S. south coast, such a large temperature increase would drive exponential rises in sea water evaporation, which could explain why Irma and Harvey strengthened quickly.


Eye of the storm: NOAA satellite geocolour image of Hurricane Irma approaching the U.S. on September 8th 2017. NASA

Further, a warmer atmosphere facilitates the retention of larger quantities of water vapour resulting from sea water evaporation; this is a key contributor towards heavy convectional rainfall. Often with storms, namely those classified with lower categories of strength, it is the relentless rainfall over a single area that causes long-term damage to infrastructure. This was one of the main reasons that many areas of Texas were submerged by extreme flooding; Harvey stalled over major cities, such as Houston, and continued dumping rain for several days instead of continuing to move. Meteorologists and scientists are, however, uncertain as to whether climate change played a key role in establishing the atmospheric conditions for this to occur. Finally, the onset of ‘storm surges’, where the strong winds carry and drive lashing waves of seawater, tend to magnify the damage of hurricanes. Low-lying coastal cities, such as Corpus Christi in Texas, are typically prone to this. With the rise in global sea levels in recent years, such cities are becoming increasingly at risk from the consequences of major hurricanes, causing storm surges to have more deadlier impacts.

Hurricane under a radar image

NOAA satellite infrared image of Hurricane Harvey approaching the coastal area of Texas. NASA

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S./North Atlantic hurricane season is cited to last from the start of June to the end of November, during which time an average of 12 tropical storms tend to develop, of which six typically intensify to hurricane strength. However, with still a month and half to go until the end of the season, there have already been 11 storms in total, of which six were hurricanes, with Hurricane Ophelia emerging as we speak.

People walking through piles of wood from collapsed houses  flooding in a US city

Surveying the damage: (top) Locals in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico start to clear the damage left by Hurricane Maria; (bottom) Houston virtually submerged by the relentless rainfall from Hurricane Harvey. ABC News

What has the Trump administration’s reaction been?

In the immediate aftermath, President Trump was pressed on whether three deadly hurricanes consecutively making landfall on the U.S. mainland would force him and his administration to change their stance on climate change, and potentially recommit to the Paris Climate Agreement. The question, just like countless others during his campaign, was dodged by Trump who contradicted previous tweets and comments he made about Harvey and Irma.

Trump claimed that, “If you go back to the ‘30s and ‘40s, we’ve had storms over the years that have been even bigger than this”. However, as Irma intensified and approached Florida, he tweeted, “Hurricane Irma is of epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen and largest ever recorded in the Atlantic!”. Indeed, this brash style of turning-the-tables when cornered and refuting an argument with aggressive counters shouldn’t come as a surprise – after all, this formed the basis of his campaign. Leading Trump administration officials have followed suit by repeatedly avoiding questions about the link between climate change and the effects of Harvey, Irma and Maria. Scott Pruitt, leading science advisor to Trump and administrator of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), said in a press conference, held shortly before Hurricane Maria formed, that “it would be insensitive to address global warming at this time and it’s a discussion for a later date”.

Scientists are repeatedly banging at the door of the White House, claiming that the disastrous effects witnessed during the 2017 hurricane season were obvious signs that the clock is ticking and that we must act now to mitigate the effects of varying global climate patterns and future weather disasters. Although it is not yet entirely conclusive as to whether climate change is the sole cause, the battered residential areas of south Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as the submerged streets of Houston, are indicative of extreme weather patterns exacerbated by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. With 86% of the population of Puerto Rico without basic water and electricity, and with several suburbs in cosmopolitan cities, such as Houston and Miami, still struggling to get back on their feet, one has to question what it will take for the Trump administration to accept fundamental science, let alone climate change. “Make America great again”. Very well Mr. Trump, but at who’s expense?

Ravi Shankar is studying for a PhD in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Hurricane Irma, CHIPS