Jan 21st 2016

How the GOP Is Killing Us With Ignorance

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

In his State of the Union speech on January 12, 2016, President Obama said this about climate change: 

Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You'll be pretty lonely, because you'll be debating our military, most of America's business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it's a problem and intend to solve it.

Senator Bernie Sanders, reflecting the view held by the other Democratic presidential candidates, observed on the Bill Maher show that, "One of the embarrassments that goes on in this country today is that we have a major political party called the Republican Party that is rejecting what the overwhelming majority of scientists are saying."

A New Disease Coming Your Way

Outside of the strange and insular world of extreme right-wing politics, most folks generally recognize the hazards of climate change: deadly heat waves, droughts, more frequent and more severe cyclones, floods, wildfires, catastrophic loss of marine life, and shifts in agricultural productivity. But because many of these impacts are not immediately evident in everyday life, those who wish to deny the obvious can continue to embrace the enticing comfort of ignorance.

Unfortunately, mosquitos are indifferent to the vagaries of American conservatism: with a warming planet they march north like an unstoppable Roman army. They are not alone, enjoying the companionship of a full menagerie of disease-vectoring insects never before seen in North America. Right-wing nutcases can deny that our climate is changing, but they will be unable to ignore that burning itch and spreading rash following the July 4 BBQ in a sweltering backyard. Bone-crushing joint pain, oppressive headaches, vomiting and blindness are hard to pawn off as a liberal conspiracy. I'm sure Obama is to blame, somehow.

Water-borne diseases will increase in frequency because warmer water expands the season and range of diseases like schistosomiasis and Cholera. Rodents also proliferate in the growing temperate regions with milder wet winters; they themselves are disease carriers, and also are reservoirs for disease-carrying ticks. Typhus and Hantavirus anyone?

Here are just a few of the ugly infections coming our way because of the changing climate that the GOP refuses to acknowledge:

• dengue fever
• malaria
• yellow fever
• hantavirus
• leptospirosis
• Japanese B Encephalitis
• elephantiasis
• Lyme's disease
• West Nile
• leishmaniosis
• Chagas disease
• Zika
• chikungunya
• typhus

The arrival of these diseases is not theoretical, or a future development, but is happening right now here in the good old U.S. of A as we record higher and higher temperatures.

Severe drought in the southwest has reduced predator populations, leading to an explosion of white-footed mice. We cannot therefore be shocked to learn that in May 1993 the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States saw an outbreak of a deadly pulmonary disease caused by the mouse-borne hantavirus, virtually unknown in the States prior to this event. Subsequent outbreaks have been recorded in Yosemite National Park in 2012, and cases have now been reported in 34 states. In Austin, Texas, flea-borne Typhus was reported for the first time in 2008 and is now endemic to the Austin area. New Yorkers first suffered an outbreak of West Nile virus in 1999, a new scourge for the city, which is now an annual threat.

In 2014, for the first time in Central America, authorities reported the transmission of mosquito-borne chikungunya. Symptoms include dangerously high fever and such severe joint pain that patients become immobile; shaking hands is too painful. If that were not enough, Zika, another disease transmitted by mosquitos, has invaded our neighbors just to the south. U.S. officials warn us that this "once obscure virus" is spreading rapidly across Latin America and the Caribbean. So much so that the Center for Disease Control has issued a travel warning, urging pregnant women to avoid more than a dozen countries in which Zika can now be found. The disease has been linked to severe brain damage in newborns. There are currently no specific treatments against these diseases, nor any vaccines.

There is more bad news as the GOP plugs its collective ears saying "niener, niener, niener, I can't hear you." While conservatives rearrange deck chairs, and cling desperately to their stubborn ignorance, climate change is wreaking havoc with bird populations. The Audubon Society classifies 314 species, about half of all birds in North America, as severely threatened by climate change. Many of those birds were eating insects...

With fewer birds to eat the bugs, not only will the pests be moving into the United States, where they've never been before, but there will be more of them than ever before across the expanded range. In Sweden, we are already seeing disease-bearing ticks moving north as winters become warmer. Not a good sign for the U.S. and those who would rather not contract Lyme's disease. We will also get new strains of old diseases. A new strain of West Nile first detected in 2002, is moving quickly. The virus infected about 175,000 people in 2007, killing 117, and has continued its deadly march ever since.

Ignorance Kills

The GOP has become the party that embraces ignorance, celebrates anti-intellectualism and dismisses scientific truths as mere inconveniences. The leading presidential candidates are climate change deniers. Ted Cruz says that "the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of flat-Earthers." Donald Trump claims the issue is a hoax. One tweet reads: "This very expensive global warming bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice."

Watching candidates embarrassing themselves like this may have been amusing at one point, but the consequences are now deadly and no laughing matter. Ignorance kills; and here is a perfect story to tell that tale. During the height of the Ebola epidemic in 2014, eight health care workers combating the disease were killed by an angry mob who believed the doctors and nurses were infecting people with the virus. The population most in need of help murdered the only people who could provide assistance. In that tragedy, we can learn much about the mentality of the GOP, even if the problem initially seems distant and remote.

Sitting in the comfort of our homes we can easily see these horrible killings as ridiculous, obviously counterproductive to the killers, and dangerous to people globally with an increased risk of a broader epidemic. The terrible episode is based entirely in the transparently false idea that doctors were spreading the disease, a notion borne of ignorance of basic biology. While the killings in Africa are easy to condemn, and rightfully so, we actually witness the very equivalent embrace of deadly ignorance with every Republican utterance denying the reality of climate change. The GOP is guilty of a deep scientific illiteracy of a magnitude similar to what we see in Africa, with equally lethal results. Those who deny the obvious truth of climate change are no different from fearful African villagers who reach conclusions based on ignorance of established fact.

These people are running for the highest office of our country -- and they have supporters among us. I can imagine few things more frightening. Republicans want to pull us back to the Dark Ages in a world increasingly dependent on the advances of science and technology. Get out the bug spray. The GOP is the wrong party at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons. We can only hope that sanity prevails in November.



Dr. Jeff Schweitzer is a marine biologist, consultant and internationally recognized authority in ethics, conservation and development. He is the author of five books including Calorie Wars: Fat, Fact and Fiction (July 2011), and A New Moral Code (2010). Dr. Schweitzer has spoken at numerous international conferences in Asia, Russia, Europe and the United States.Dr. Schweitzer's work is based on his desire to introduce a stronger set of ethics into American efforts to improve the human condition worldwide. He has been instrumental in designing programs that demonstrate how third world development and protecting our resources are compatible goals. His vision is to inspire a framework that ensures that humans can grow and prosper indefinitely in a healthy environment.Formerly, Dr. Schweitzer served as an Assistant Director for International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President Clinton. Prior to that, Dr. Schweitzer served as the Chief Environmental Officer at the State Department's Agency for International Development. In that role, he founded the multi-agency International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program, a U.S. Government that promoted conservation through rational economic use of natural resources.Dr. Schweitzer began his scientific career in the field of marine biology. He earned his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He expanded his research at the Center for Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. While at U.C. Irvine he was awarded the Science, Engineering and Diplomacy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.Dr. Schweitzer is a pilot and he founded and edited the Malibu Mirage, an aviation magazine dedicated to pilots flying these single-engine airplanes. He and his wife Sally are avid SCUBA divers and they travel widely to see new wildlife, never far from their roots as marine scientists..To learn more about Dr Schweitzer, visit his website at http://www.JeffSchweitzer.com.

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