Vice President-elect Mike Pence won’t be a friend to the scientific community nor to the environment. The international scientific community has a very good reason to be afraid of the next four years.
The selection of Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to the Republican ticket last summer came with a footnote.
Only nobody reads the footnotes.
In an election where every news cycle was rife with controversies that would have sunk a traditional campaign, the story of Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s potential role in the new administration barely raised eyebrows.
It should have.
According to The New York Times, Donald Trump Jr. wooed potential VP candidates to his ticket by promising that they would be the most powerful vice president in the history of the republic, responsible for both domestic and foreign policy.
Donald Trump Jr. (Credit: Source.)
Trump would be too busy "making America great again."
It was a striking admission, and suggested that President-elect Donald Trump has virtually no interest in actually governing the country. To the left, it offers a frightening condemnation of the government-in-waiting. To the right, which wields power in both the House and the Senate, it offers the comfort of a familiar face. As the Republican Party moves unceasingly to the right, Vice President-elect Mike Pence is viewed as a conservative's conservative, with an impeccable record supporting right-wing orthodoxy.
He is, in his own words, a “Christian, conservative, and Republican — in that order.”
America’s First Anti-Science Administration?
So far, the only news cycle devoted to Pence resulted from a respectful one-minute lecture delivered on behalf of the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton, that implored the vice president to use his office to protect women, people of color, and the LGBTQ communities. The Vice President-elect handled the moment with graciousness and aplomb, but the
subsequent firestorm of tweets from his new boss gave it life. In truth, Hamilton's cast voiced a fear held by many, and the fervent hope that Pence will help steer the government away from Trump’s more bombastic pronouncements during the election campaign about Muslims, immigrants and women. But Pence’s record suggest that hope is misplaced. As Indiana governor, he signed legislation into law allowing businesses to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, and his voting and legislative record on abortion suggests that the country's new vice president will not weigh all rights equally.
Early reports indicate that scientists are deeply concerned about their future, too, though no one suggests their safety is at stake. But their livelihoods may be.
In the hours after the election, Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, was quoted in Nature as saying Trump will be “the first anti-science president we have ever had.”
Vice President-elect Pence might be dangerous to the academic community if he proves half as influential as some pundits suggest. By most metrics, his understanding of the scientific method and the role of science borders on the illiterate.
Déjà vu: Scopes “Monkey” Trial all over again
Mike Pence is obviously intelligent; on many issues like conservative fiscal policy, he sounds well informed. But his fundamentalist Christian faith is a greater determinant into how he lives his life than either knowledge or curiosity, and that's a deadly combination in the world of science.
Consider Pence's views on evolution. He demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the Theory of Evolution, beginning with the very notion of theory.
Speaking in Congress during a 2002 debate about requiring intelligent design to be added to school curricula, Pence made his points forcefully. "The truth is that [evolution] always was
a theory, Mr. Speaker. And now that we've recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask that can we teach it as such and can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species..."
When Darwin first proposed the Theory of Evolution, it was a painstaking analysis of the natural world—elegantly explaining how life on Earth began simply and grew more complex and varied as environmental pressures decided which species won the races, and which were consigned to the fossil record. In 1859, it was a theory. After 150 years of intense study and experimentation, more than 99 percent of working scientists would describe evolution as a fact.
Speaking more recently on evolution, Pence doubled down, saying that "I think, in our schools, we should teach all of the facts about all of these controversial areas and let our students — let our children and our children‘s children — decide, based upon the facts and the science.”
Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue, but make note of what he said and how he said it. The science and the facts. As if the two were mutually exclusive.
Of course, Pence’s beliefs might not translate into government action, but it’s fair to suggest that a Trump and Pence administration believe scientists delve more into propaganda than fact and inquiry. This could have wide-ranging implications throughout the United States. Pure scientific research might see funding cut. Government scientists who contradict religious dogma might be muzzled. Schools might be forced to teach intelligent design, and millions of school children might grow up to distrust scientific inquiry.
Denying Hell and High Water
And it could cost millions of lives. Pence, like so many in Congress, is a climate denier.
“I think the science is very mixed on the subject of global warming,” he wrote on his congressional website years ago. “Environmentalists claim that certain ‘greenhouse gases’ like carbon dioxide are mucking up the atmosphere and causing the earth to gradually
warm. Despite the fact that CO2 is a naturally occurring phenomenon in nature, the Greenpeace folks want to blame it all on coal (another natural mineral) and certain (evil) coal burning power plants.”
That carbon dioxide in significant concentrations can alter climate on a planetary scale is elementary school science. The hottest planet in our solar system isn’t the one closest to the Sun; it’s Venus with its a big, puffy comforter of CO2.
Like evolution, climate change is a scientific fact, and more than 98 percent of climate scientists argue that our window of opportunity to act has shrunk from decades to years. Literally thousands of exhaustive, peer-reviewed studies conducted over the last two decades all point in the same direction: The earth is warming dangerously and unpredictably.
Unable to counter the facts, Pence, in recent years, has modified his views, but not in any meaningful way. He updated his arguments when an interviewer pressed him on the President-elect’s tweet that climate change is a Chinese hoax to place U.S. businesses at an economic disadvantage, a theme that clearly resonates with the former governor.
“What Donald Trump said was a hoax is that bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., can control the climate of the earth,” said Pence. “And the reality is that this climate change agenda that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton want to continue to expand is killing jobs in this country.
“Look, we can develop all the resources of this county,” he continued. “We can end the war on coal, and continue to develop clean coal technology.”
Certainly, many fundamentalist Christians hold fast to similar views to Pence in what one researcher called Biblical literalism. It doesn’t matter what information comes from studies or books if it contradicts the Word from The Good Book.
Christian author Scott Rodin writes that most fundamentalist Christians have almost been brainwashed into believing that people who care about the environment are “left-wing,
socialist, former hippies who have no job and hate those who do” and “atheists who worship nature, hate Christians and believe humans are intruders on the earth.”
Only in America: The Silence of Conservatism
Only in North America are conservative voices missing from the climate movement. As Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics indicates, climate change may be expensive to tackle now but, in a decade, the costs will be prohibitive. Conservatives everywhere understand the urgency. Right-wing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a PhD in chemistry, is leading the world in renewable energy efforts. From a standing start at Kyoto in 1997, Germany pledged to source more than 80 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2050; under Merkel, they’re already on track to surpass 40 percent renewables by 2020. That sounds like achievement enough, but Germany is exceeding its Kyoto commitments while phasing out nuclear energy — mothballing 25 percent of the country’s electrical capacity— in favor of wind and solar. Now more than 350,000 Germans work in the renewable energy industry.
Throughout the rest of Europe, both left- and right-leaning governments have signed the Paris Climate Accord, and most are on a path to exceed commitments. Less developed countries are more than willing to take a low-carbon path if we help.
Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. (Credit: Source.)
And now the United States under Trump and Pence will be blazing a trail away from the rest of humanity. The President-elect has already indicated that he will probably vacate or ignore the Paris Accord. If so, Pence will be cheering from the sidelines, or from deep inside the room where it happens. Trump has also signaled that his administration will defund NASA’s world-class climate section for conducting “politicized science” and destroy the EPA’s capacity to cut carbon emissions.
Perhaps the climate agreement will hold in other countries despite this dramatic reversal. Or perhaps progressive states pursuing a low-carbon agenda will be enough to keep the United States working towards a solution. It’s vital. There hasn’t been a reputable, contrary climate change study in more than a decade. One of the latest in respected Science Advances, just days after the election, indicates that we’ve likely underestimated
temperature impacts greatly, and that if we don’t cut carbon emissions immediately, we could see much more than 5°C (9°F) warming this century. If we do, billions will die, and billions more become climate refugees.
But despite overwhelming evidence that investing in renewables and energy efficiency would employ a lot of people, Pence’s congressional record on environmental matters is almost legendarily bad. The League of Conservation Voters indicates that he supported the environment about four percent of the time, choosing heavily polluting and fossil fuel industries over the natural world and public health at almost every opportunity.
As Indiana governor, Pence refused to support President Barack Obama’s climate initiatives through the EPA and canceled an energy efficiency program that, according to the Indiana Public Utility Commission, created nearly 19,000 jobs in a state that could always use more jobs and pollutes heavily.
Even if you don’t believe the planet is warming dangerously, surely you’d like your children to breathe clean air and drink clean water. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a man who refuses to believe that cigarettes cause cancer also refuses to believe that pollutants can kill more than seven million people annually — more than than 19,000 per day. But that’s what the science suggests.
The same was true when Pence tried to ban the use of embryonic stem cells because they were “obsolete”; the scientific community remains excited by their potential. In 2013, he argued that drugs like the Morning After Pill are dangerous to a woman’s health as he was restricting access to abortions in Indiana when, in fact, medicine has proved these drugs to be benign and safe.
Science has been under siege before, and it will survive these trials. Scientists will continue to trade in facts and provable results, but those facts are unlikely to be heard in the halls of power for the foreseeable future.
“Science without religion is lame,” said Albert Einstein, and one can imagine Mike Pence would have agreed, until he heard the late celebrated physicist’s conclusion.
“[But] religion without science is blind.”