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EDITORIAL: Better Living Through Science

Ignore the science about the COVID-19 and you may die; ignore the science about climate change and your children may die.

Most scientists are apolitical; they assume that policy decisions will be based on the best available science. That did not happen in the U.S. response to COVID-19 until the rising number of deaths made the toll of scientific ignorance clear. The anemic response to the rising threat of climate change has ignored the scientific consensus for years. Might policymakers learn from the COVID-19 disaster and be more prepared to listen to scientific advice?

There have been multiple warnings about pandemics since the AIDS virus spread worldwide in the mid-1980s. The most likely culprit was thought to be a new influenza strain, and though new strains did emerge, none of them spread like the current coronavirus. We became complacent, ignored the warnings from scientists and epidemiologists, and trusted that new vaccines and medicines would protect us. Remember that a new AIDS vaccine was promised by Margaret Heckler (Health and Human Services Secretary under President Reagan) “within a year” in 1984, and none exists today. Development of treatment for AIDS took almost a decade. There is a strange dichotomy in thinking: we don’t listen to scientists when they warn us of looming disasters, yet we have unrealistic expectations that they will develop miracle cures when a new disease emerges.

Part of the problem is the human tendency to deny unpleasant facts. But a more insidious problem is disinformation campaigns that play to this tendency. Remember how tobacco companies funded bogus science that claimed that smoking was not linked to cancer. Oil companies have supported equally bogus claims that fossil fuel consumption has nothing to do with climate change. Even though 98% of climate scientists disagree with this conclusion, the contrarian view is still promoted by conservative politicians and media while temperatures keep rising and extreme weather events become more common.

We keep putting off meaningful action to address climate change because many people view it as a future event, not one that is threatening our way of life right now. But, as with COVID-19, failure to take immediate action will result in exponential growth in the magnitude and make the response even more challenging. The COVID-19 pandemic is changing our way of life today. Recovery of normal life will require listening to the best medical advice and adhering to that advice, however unpleasant that might be. The same should be true for dealing with the global threat of climate change. Listen to the best scientists and take whatever action is needed now.

If we can live through social isolation and face masks, maybe when we recover from the pandemic, we will have learned to reduce unnecessary travel, to use Zoom more rather than going to in-person meetings, to shop less frequently, and to grow our own vegetables. All of these actions will reduce our “carbon footprint,” and thus help to reduce the impact on global warming. We now know we can change human behavior given the pandemic challenge, so let’s use that knowledge to prepare for the coming climate change catastrophe. Every personal action counts in responding to these challenges, and each resident of Del Mar can (and should) make a difference.

 

 

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