One million US deaths from COVID-19. Catatonic politics on climate change. Communities suffocating from environmental injustice. All these issues are tragically linked by the hardening divisions in the United States over our acceptance or rejection of expertise in science, public health, and environmental protection.
Nearly six decades ago, in 1963, US President John F. Kennedy told the National Academy of Sciences that science is “the most powerful means we have for the unification of knowledge.” He said it could help us “cut across boundaries,” to solve major problems. But today, COVID-19, climate change, and environmental injustice seem to have done the opposite by exacerbating the already horrific divides between rich and poor, cities and states, urban dwellers and rural residents, Democrats and Republicans, old and young, polluters and the polluted, the healthy and the immune-compromised, and last but hardly least, races and ethnicities.
It increasingly feels like our nation now stands at a precipice, teetering between truth and the consequences of denying it. The evidence is all around us. One respected recent survey, for example, found that 64 percent of Democrats but only 34 percent of Republicans have a “great deal of confidence” in the scientific community. The survey, conducted regularly for decades, found that the gap between the parties has tripled since 2018, when high Democratic and Republican confidence in science stood, respectively, at 51 percent and 42 percent. Equally notable, high confidence in science between Democrats and Republicans was essentially equal just two decades ago.
Beyond partisan politics
But before Democrats get on a high horse about being more sensible about science than Republicans, it’s important to note the critical holes in trust along racial lines. Black Democrats historically have much lower levels of trust in science than White Democrats. The mistrust is well earned after centuries during which dark-skinned people were “scientifically” judged as inferior, many decades during which they were abused in experiments, not to mention ongoing discrimination in becoming scientists themselves.
The US reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic only adds to that sordid history. The siting and signup procedures for testing and vaccines in both liberal and conservative states blatantly catered to wealthier and whiter families with access to cars and computers. Conservative governors were particularly vicious in ignoring science around COVID-19 protections, fighting against masking policies and keeping their economies open on the backs of essential workers who, in many critical occupations, were disproportionately Black and Latino.
Families of color are still paying the price for being first in line to get the virus and at the back of the bus of prevention. Two years after COVID-19 began sweeping the nation, Black, Latino, and Indigenous people are still twice as likely to die if infected. During the Omicron wave, the hospitalization rate was four times higher for Black people than White people. And decisions keep getting made that ignore that reality and bow instead to the emotions of privileged and more protected white people to get back to normal.
One example was the debate all fall and winter over when to drop indoor mask mandates and return to in-person classes in K-12 education. The call to end masking was led primarily by White medical experts, right-wing think tanks, and conservative commentators. Many health experts of color, joined by hundreds of physicians concerned about an equitable return to “normal,” said it was way too soon to drop all COVID-19 prevention measures as Indigenous, Black, and Latino children were still two to three times more likely to die if infected and were much more likely to live in homes with vulnerable elders or parents compromised by preexisting health conditions.
And now, the entire nation is dropping mask mandates and social distancing rules even though COVID-19 continues to cause some 30,000 cases a day, three times what White House Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci once said was the safe rate at which to reopen the nation. We are still losing 1,000 people a day, equivalent to wiping out the undergraduate enrollment of Harvard University within a week or the University of Wisconsin-Madison within a month.
Of course, part of the problem is that the United States has one of the lowest vaccination rates among high-income economies. Its 65 percent rate for fully vaccinated people is lower than or equal to that of many nations such as El Salvador, Iran, Columbia, Nepal, and Cuba. The Biden administration, despite its efforts to restore respect for science throughout federal government, and its pledges to account for racial disparities, has frequently tripped over itself in bowing to political and economic pressures to drop restrictions.
The cost of dismissing science
Mistrust and dismissal of peer-reviewed scientific experts is poisoning other mortal matters. Despite the fact that more than 99 percent of papers on climate science agree that humans are causing climate change, the level of urgency to stop spewing heat-trapping gases is crippled by partisan and racial divides. Only 22 percent of Republican-leaning respondents said in a 2020 Pew poll that humans contribute “a great deal” to climate change. Only 39 percent of Republicans think climate change is a serious problem, according to a 2021 Washington Post/ABC News poll.
White consumers, regardless of party, disproportionately produce global warming emissions and soot while being relatively spared the environmental injustice of fossil pollution in their communities or living in heat islands and flood zones. Even if they are hit by climate disasters, White families on average have much more access to property damage relief funds than families of color.
With this systemic buffer from the worst of climate effects, only 60 percent of White people in the United States said climate change is serious in the Washington Post poll. Only 40 percent say global warming requires immediate action by the government. Such a low number is not driven by fossil fuel company disinformation alone. It is also evidence of general White privilege.
Meanwhile, African Americans, who disproportionately breathe in fossil pollution, bear higher burdens from living in heat islands and flood zones (regardless of class because of the legacy of redlining), and face much lower chances of collecting relief payments. They don’t need to wait for scientists to tell them about climate change, as billowing carbon pollution from power plants and transportation is deeply intertwined with deadly particulates. In a study published in December in Environmental Health Perspectives, Black seniors accounted for 33,000 of the nation’s 133,000 deaths in 2014 from particulate air pollution (25 percent), while comprising just 9 percent of the nation’s senior population.
Losing elders at that rate is one reason that 93 percent of Black people told the Washington Post poll that global warming is serious, and 62 percent say it requires immediate government action. Latino communities, faced with many of the same climate risks, also have significantly higher levels of concern than White respondents.
Conversely, most White people are unaware of the disparities that define climate injustice. According to both a 2021 poll by Axios-Ipsos and a 2020 poll by West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT) and the Environmental Defense Fund, only a third of White adults know that Black and Latino communities face more pollution than they do. Only 20 percent of White respondents in the WEACT poll thought that environmental justice was a serious problem in their state.
That leaves a big question: What horrible levels do COVID-19, climate change, and environmental injustice need to reach before a decisive majority of people in the United States—especially privileged White people—return to Kennedy’s notion that science can lead to a “unification of knowledge,” and unified action?
Science in the balance
We already live in a society where we tolerate far too many sources of death that science has told us are preventable. These include guns (45,000 deaths in 2020), fatty fast foods and sugary drinks (300,000 deaths a year through obesity and diabetes), and tobacco (480,000 deaths a year). Richard Keller, a medical historian and bioethics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, warns that COVID-19 is becoming yet another acceptable chronic disease, because it will disproportionately afflict marginalized populations that are out of sight and mind.
“It will move out of the headlines,” Keller wrote last month, on the medical anthropology website Somatosphere, “but will remain a central lived experience and an evolving tragedy in much of the world, the US included. . . precisely in the populations that can least afford it.”
A sign that we are headed in that direction came when Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, recently predicted that once the nation reaches “good immunity,” COVID-19 will still kill “some people,” but at levels we will “tolerate in some way.”
Will we similarly “tolerate” the forecasts of death and destruction from fossil-fueled climate disasters and pollution? We already know that 100,000 to 200,000 people die every year in the United States from air pollution. A study last year in The Lancet Planetary found that we already tolerate 5 million deaths per year from extreme temperatures, which will be exacerbated by climate change.
How much longer will people in the United States tolerate the immoral political morass around these issues? For instance, the Biden administration’s attempts to elevate climate science and environmental justice into public policy are being blunted at many turns. Sarah Bloom Raskin withdrew her nomination for a top regulatory role on the Federal Reserve after a withering attack by the fossil fuel industry and opposition by fossil fuel-backed Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. She was merely following the economic science that says climate risks should be factored into lending decisions. Similar forces continue to obstruct legislation on the “Build Back Better” agenda, which includes major funding for renewable energy, addressing environmental injustices, and creating high-quality jobs.
Biden has resorted to using regulatory powers within cabinet agencies to deal with climate change, but the right-wing packing of the courts by the Trump administration threatens to slow even that to a crawl. Though the White House recently won a big federal appellate court battle against conservative states to factor in the social costs of carbon in federal rulemaking, a critical decision looms from a conservative Supreme Court on the EPA’s powers to regulate carbon.
All that is making the Biden administration pull its punches on environmental injustice. Despite the cascade of science showing that systemic racism greatly determines which communities get polluted, the Biden administration last month undercut its promises on environmental justice by unveiling a new system to identify beleaguered communities that did not include race.
In short, at this most critical juncture of public health and the fate of the planet, science and scientists have been reduced to a political punching bag. It is because the United States has forgotten—or perhaps never truly believed—that science must be accompanied by something else.
A year after Kennedy’s speech about science as a unifying force, Martin Luther King, Jr., warned that science means nothing if it is not accompanied by moral force. In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he said the nation’s “technological abundance” to peer “into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space,” and build “gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies” were diminished by a “poverty of the spirit” in poverty, racial strife, and war.
That was 58 years ago. The challenge and choice remain the same, and the poverty of common sense and the common good are equally glaring. Had the nation adopted universal masking early in the pandemic, for instance, we might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. If the nation tightened industrial soot pollution limits by only a small amount, thousands more lives could be saved. Combating climate change could preserve the livelihoods and lives of millions more people around the globe.
As the United States nears its one-millionth death from COVID-19 and lurches toward climate catastrophe, the moment offers us one more chance to match our scientific abundance with something currently elusive in our politics and public policy: compassion, equity, and a clear ethic never to “tolerate” preventable death. Only then can it be the unifying force that cuts across boundaries.