Defend Truth


Donald Trump’s disdain for climate science is an existential threat to the planet


Dr Ross Wanless is a marine and conservation scientist, working as an independent consultant to Ocean Outcomes and Petrichor-Africa. He is a research associate at UCT’s FitzPatrick Institute of Ornithology, and a visiting scholar at the Taiwan National Ocean University. His current professional focus is assisting Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese tuna fleets (and relevant governance structures) to fish sustainably.

If we are to prevent the planet from entering into positive feedback loops that spiral the climate completely out of control, to 6°C or more, it’s up to our leaders to act decisively, collectively and scientifically. Because Covid-19 is nothing compared to a 6°C hotter planet – and the science is crystal clear on this.

The person in the Oval Office after the November 2020 US presidential election will probably seal the fate of the planet. The coronavirus is hurting everyone, and the responses have ultimately driven the entire planet into a tailspin. But as surely as lockdown sucks, so too will there be a brighter, post-pandemic future. The climate crisis, however, carries no such certainty; it is an existential threat. The critical narratives emerging from the handling of the current crisis have to be observed, and changed, before we again reach the point where the next one is out of control.

The Late Show host Stephen Colbert interviewed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a full symbolic decade ago in the halcyon days of early March 2020. He asked Tyson about the Covid-19 pandemic. Tyson’s response was incisive: “… I think we’re in the middle of a massive experiment worldwide… will people listen to scientists?” Tyson went on to explain that in this case, the scientists were medical professionals. But his point was much broader than the coronavirus pandemic. We can ignore facts, but we cannot change them by wishful thinking. When scientists say, “Look, this is a serious issue, we need to stop doing X and start doing Y,” the consequences of failing to heed that advice can be catastrophic.

I am a scientist. So it’s no surprise that I think we should view responses to the pandemic through the lens of science. There are many other lenses that are perhaps even more interesting. But science, in Tyson’s view and in the view of many global leaders, is fundamental. The contrasts in how nations have responded to Covid-19 offer us a hopeful chance to correct course.

Much has been written about Stefan Löfven, Tsai Ing-wen and Giuseppe Conte’s science-based responses. They are the Prime Ministers of Sweden, Taiwan and Italy respectively. The most devastatingly affected of them, Italy, now sits comfortably in 5th place in the global Covid-19 rankings table. The contrast with Donald Trump is fairly dramatic, but he’s regrettably not alone in responding in ways that fly in the face of scientific advice. Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro is overseeing a catastrophe in South America, while in Africa, Tanzania’s John Magufuli is simply refusing to accept facts and has essentially stopped testing or reporting. I do not think it will end well for them or their citizens. But I digress.

There are two things that are fascinating. One is Donald Trump’s behaviour, and the other is the media’s response. The criticism of Trump is endless, frequently purely partisan and unfair, frequently entirely fair. Reporters covering the White House have so many issues to tackle him on, if they gave each one the attention it deserved, the coverage would be impossibly long for the average modern reader, and unduly shouty. Journalists have to temper the pitch and pace of their story. As a consequence, there are issues which pass almost without comment, as Trump throws the tired old ball of distraction through outrage, and the hacks predictably chase it every time in an apparently endless loop.

It’s time for the media to stop chasing that ball quite as energetically. We all need a break, but with stepping back and watching comes a revelation. There’s a startling warning, in full glare of the camera. Trump refuses to yield the floor to scientists like Dr Anthony Fauci to explain key policy points or respond to questions on medical and scientific issues. Like a medieval monarch, Trump simply retakes the podium whenever he feels his view is more important than that of the scientists. He is the supreme ruler, and everyone speaks, or not, at his pleasure, with obsequious toadying in full display at almost all occasions. Now that Trump has moved on from minimising the spread of Covid-19 to reopening the economy, he has abandoned the reality-TV daily briefings. But his strategy is already showing the same alarming pattern.


The entire planet’s economy, whether we like it or not, is caught up in the USA’s wake. We will all experience shattering, if unpredictable, consequences. Should a second wave hit. Should reopening too soon actually prolong the pain we are all experiencing. Should that bus careen over the edge.


Trump’s handling of science and of criticism in the face of his disastrous Covid-19 approach is the issue, as I see it, about which we are not talking sufficiently loudly. This should be an unrelenting, prime theme from responsible media. Instead, there’s clickbait and soundbites. They sell much better.

Trump has to maintain control of the narrative, or he loses control and probably loses the election in November. How so? To yield the floor to scientifically credible opinion on things like when and how to reopen the economy, or why hydroxychloroquine really does need to be approached with great caution, is to cede power to science. That would concede that there are opinions more important to follow than his own. It changes the debate and the narrative and the focus. That would be fatal to him. He can get away with whatever happens despite making many, significant missteps. They are all irrelevant as long as he’s in charge of the narrative, as long as he is in the spotlight.

It’s pretty worrying, just his Covid-19 debacle. Erstwhile President Thabo Mbeki’s nightmare views on the HIV/AIDS pandemic resulted in South Africa gaining the ignominious title of the highest HIV infection rates on Earth. The USA tops the Covid-19 infection listing. Trump’s Mbeki-like refusal to listen to scientific argument, and to ignore facts, has created such a shitshow that he is driving his country, at full throttle, over the edge of a very, very tall cliff. 

Reopening the economy, encouraging the public to “liberate” states from lockdown, laying blame everywhere while congratulating himself – these are not the middle or the end, but the start of a catastrophe. The entire planet’s economy, whether we like it or not, is caught up in the USA’s wake. We will all experience shattering, if unpredictable, consequences. Should a second wave hit. Should reopening too soon actually prolong the pain we are all experiencing. Should that bus careen over the edge.

To have a narcissist of such extravagant proportions de facto in charge of the global economy, is a deeply problematic state of affairs. US presidents come and go (although Trump might buck that trend). Dealing with the climate crisis is, according to the overwhelming evidence and opinion from science and scientists, all about the now. The window to prevent irreversible change is closing faster every month that we prevaricate. 

Trump’s responses to Covid-19 are drawn from the same playbook he used for the climate crisis in the BC era (Before Coronavirus). This involves ignoring warnings from scientists, his own intelligence agencies and economic advisors. It involves taking decisions based on articles of faith, built from the ephemeral stuff of wishful thinking instead of concrete facts. It involves prioritising short-term economic (and hence re-election) objectives over long-term sustainability or human lives (they are, apparently, equally intangible to the man). Because that inglorious experiment that Neil deGrasse Tyson referenced has gone horribly. Italy has figured that out and changed – with results that even Trump should celebrate. Scientific approaches are THE solution.

If we are to prevent the planet from entering into positive feedback loops that spiral the climate completely out of control, to 6°C or more, it’s also up to our leaders to act decisively, collectively and scientifically. Politicians will have to enact measures and endure, collectively with the rest of us, the kind of pain that ordinarily puts them out of jobs. They’ve managed to achieve this with the pandemic. Now they need to do that for the climate. Because Covid-19 is nothing compared to a 6°C hotter planet – and the science is crystal clear on this issue.

If Covid-19 exists somewhere, it exists everywhere, and therefore requires a globally united, coordinated response. So too with the climate crisis. Global solidarity is required of a type far stronger and kinder than that being shown today in the time of coronavirus. Trump’s isolationist, America First At All Costs “fuck you” to the World Health Organisation (note the emphasis) and the quest for a cure or vaccine, belie what he will continue to do for the climate crisis. That work necessarily involves the US, the single biggest climate-changing economy on earth. If Donald Trump remains in charge come December, it’s probably game over.

There is, of course, some hope. We are not doomed to suffer a climate-flavoured crisis like our current obsession with Covid-19. Leaders across the planet have to inflict deep cuts to economies and remove the fossil-fuel cancer that is damaging the entire planet. They will have to stitch economies together again with sustainable and yes, biodiversity-friendly alternatives. Biogas and biofuels are definitely NOT part of that future. But we’ve seen that it can be done.

We, citizens of earth, all breathe the same air that transmits Covid-19 and which is heating the planet to metaphorical boiling point. The world, collectively, should support the expression of the American people in whatever way we can. I believe that, as in 2016 when Trump lost the popular vote, a majority of American voters will vote in favour of Joe Biden. But let’s not leave that to chance, since it’s an existential threat.

How can people act sensibly, compassionately, and carefully, to ensure that an existential threat to the planet is addressed, without resorting to illegal acts? Do we lobby our leaders, unrelentingly, or work with other leaders to ensure the desired outcome? Do we create or support initiatives that can influence how Americans vote in November? Do we promote euro-denominated global financial transactions to remove the strategic global hegemony that the greenback gives to the US? 

Do we expose and punish (through market pressure and boycotts, or the withdrawal of financing) those businesses that profit from doing business with climate-destroying sectors of Trump’s economy? Or do we wring our hands in despair, opine about the sorry state of affairs, binge on short-news-cycle sugar, and, once the coronavirus has been de-crowned, spend our savings on travelling for a much-needed, undeniably well-deserved holiday, and fuck any carbon guilt?

Because lockdown certainly is not a seaside vacation. But then neither is the climate crisis. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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