THE BLOG
01/29/2017 01:48 pm ET

We Must All be the Lorax

I teach at Dartmouth College, famous among other things for having provided a home to the author Theodore Geisel (aka "Dr. Seuss") during his formative years. Among his most loved stories is "The Lorax", a tale of a cranky Seussian creature living among the beautiful Truffula Trees, a proto-eco-advocate fighting the scourge of a textile industry-led deforestation ("You need a Thneed!") who "speaks for the trees, for the trees have no tongues." It is both poignant and prescient.

We are in dire need, maybe more than ever for our own Lorax. Recently, President Trump sent a directive down the line calling for the removal of the climate change page from the Environmental Protection Agency's website, while also ordering a freeze on EPA grants and contracts and a muzzling of all EPA employees. This all part of a broader effort to control the flow of information from various agencies where workers have been told to "cease communication with members of Congress and the press." In short, our new President is doing his best to silence all government reporting and communications around the science of climate change. In fact, he is making it a priority. This was recently "walked back", but we all know what he would do if he could.

The pressure from above to bring about a moratorium on direct contact between agency employees and Congress is extraordinarily dangerous. Staffers often rely on information from science experts. To declare that such exchanges are off-limits is to encourage policy-making based on ideology rather than facts, an effort particularly at odds with the fact-making enterprise that is science, which underlies any sensible discussion of the environment and its protection.

There is no reason to believe that this kind of information control will stop either horizontally (i.e., across the government) with the EPA and its stewardship of our and the world's environment, or vertically in the space of the still many public resources available for learning about the fact and facts of climate change and the things we can try to do stanch the flow. As for the former, why stop there? Well, it hasn't - the same directive has gone out the to other climate-related Federal entities such as the Departments of Agriculture and Interior and USDA. There will surely be more to come. And why just climate? When will the NIH be told that they can't discuss the links between obesity and fast food (e.g., Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder's Hardee's...)? When will CDC be told that they can't provide study information countering the claims linking vaccines and autism? (They are already not allowed to study gun violence.) When will the National Science Foundation be told to cut all funding for the study of evolution? If the government can reach into one agency, deny the facts of science just to make an industry (e.g., Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson's old employer Exxon) or some other special interest group happy why not others?

This doesn't only have direct effects - it also has downstream affects. Research in an area can dry up when funding disappears. The careers of academic scientists depend on the ability to attract funding. Scientists are often supporting labs and graduate students. If funding disappears, so do scientists. This is not some near future dystopic nightmare. This is already happening.

As for broader public communications, the effort to take down the EPA's website attacks science communication and education on a different and broader front. Today the page is still up and it's worth looking at what's there, and if you are able, downloading some of the information. So what will we no longer have access to should the website go dark? Perhaps first and foremost are the "climate change indicators", a list of important measurements related to the detection of climate change. They are there for easy exploration and it is also possible to download the most recent (2016) report. You will find NASA and NOAA data that shows that 2016 was the warmest year on record - across the entire planet, in fact it was the third record-setting year in a row. You will also find some basic science, some of it in an easily navigable "Student's Site", where you can "Learn the Basics", "See the Impacts", learn how to "Think Like a Scientist", and most importantly get tips on how to "Be Part of the Solution". This is the kind of stuff that Donald Trump wants to hide from you and your children. No irony intended, this is chilling.

Democracy is not a spectator sport and science can no longer be a spectator sport, especially when the communication of basic facts is endangered. At the risk of shining a bright light on a new conservative target, I can tell you that public engagement in doing environmental science - and thereby learning how science is done and sparking curiosity and natural inquiry - is currently alive and well and needs to be fostered and broader engagement encouragement. Examples of environment relevant "citizen science" include local monitoring of air and water quality, and keep track of various flora and fauna. An electorate that is seeing first hand the effects of climate change and more broadly a diminishing of environmental controls stands a chance at being an electorate that will stand up to call for an end to these things and a restoration - if needed - of an EPA. At the other end of the spectrum, professional scientists need to get into the classroom, in the libraries, and on the stage. As I've suggested before, tenure is not only a reward, but in times like these comes with responsibilities. More pointedly, we may need to take over the preservation of the agency webpages. Who would have thought that the Internet Archive's "Wayback Machine" , providing a backup of the Web, might have to serve as the nexus for Science in Exile. Perhaps a Women's March on Washington needs to be matched by a March for Facts or a March for Science on Washington: a gathering of science-friendly, science-aware, science-curious people, standing up for (gulp!) science-based facts.

The tale of "The Lorax" ends with the Lorax mournfully lifting himself up and away, defeated, leaving devastation all around. But there is a small sliver of hope, as he leaves a small sign with the word "Unless". And as Dr. Seuss tells us, "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." That "you" is you reading this, it's me writing this. And it's not just just about the environment and climate change. It's about truth, justice, fairness, and every tentpost of civil society and democracy. In the new world of the Trump presidency we must all be the Lorax. #WeAreAllTheLorax

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