"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they've tried everything else."– Winston Churchill
I've always liked that Winston Churchill quote and I've used it often to try and explain America to my international friends. It usually results in a good, disarming laugh that enables us to compare and contrast cultures and political systems.
What concerns me today is whether or not we can still count on the first half of that quote: America doing the right thing. We face many challenges in which we've either tried everything else or have failed to accept what must be done, and yet we still are not doing the right thing.
Let's use the western wildfires as an example. The growing and multifaceted threats of climate change, forest (mis)management, development in the urban–wildland interface, inadequate community or infrastructure preparedness, and human negligence (e.g., target shooting and other human fire starts) have been recognized for years. No reputable scientists considers climate change the sole "cause" of the western wildfire problem, but it also cannot be ignored as an important contributor to the lengthening wildfire season, severity of drought, and intensity of wildfires in the western United States and other regions of the world (e.g., Australia).
How many people must die and communities destroyed before we finally come to terms with the reality that climate change is real and on a trajectory that will only continue to exacerbate this problem in the coming decades? Scientists know what is happening, why it is happening, and that it's not going to get cooler, as suggested by President Trump this week. We also know that "cycles of burning and regrowth" are natural, as argued by Senator Mike Lee, but also that these cycles have been altered by forest management AND climate change, contributing to extreme fire behavior.
I suppose it is a naive and pollyannish view to say I grew up in a country that invested in science and desired to utilize it to advance the general welfare of humankind. How have we gotten so far off the tracks? The example above is just one of many whereby scientists and scientific understanding are being dismissed and disrespected, to the detriment of our country and its citizens.
Naomi Oreskes, a Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, has an opinion article entitled America's Devastating Divorce from Science on cnn.com. In it, she writes:
"The unfortunate reality is that our elected government is increasingly populated with many men and women who do not merely ignore scientific facts, they appear to despise them and the people who produce them. They see science as something that stands in the way of their political goals, and therefore must be pushed out of the way.
The solution to this cannot be a call for more science or the restoration of "scientific integrity," whatever that is. We have tried that and it has failed. There comes a point when maybe one simply has to accept that the dream has died and it is time for a new one. I don't know what a new social contract for science would look like, but I am pretty sure it is time to start looking for it.
She is absolutely right that we cannot fix this with more science or more efforts to better communicate science. Climate scientists are not the only ones confronting this fact this (ask a virologist or epidemiologist). Where we go from here, I don't know, but the road is going to be rough if we continue to deny reality, fail to utilize science as a tool, and don't recognize that we've tried everything else and that the time is now to do the right things.