Journey to Antarctica: What Scientists Think of Trump’s Latest Climate Tweet

Jeff Goodell

This is the latest dispatch in a series from Jeff Goodell, who is aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer in Antarctica, investigating the effect of climate change on Thwaites glacier.

To scientists in Antarctica, President Trump is weirder than a sea pig. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted a quote from Patrick Moore, a well-known climate denier who claims to have been a co-founder of Greenpeace. (He wasn’t, and Greenpeace has disavowed him as a “paid lobbyist.”) “The whole climate crisis is not only Fake News, it’s Fake Science,” Trump quoted Moore as saying on an episode of Fox & Friends. A day later, I asked Rob Larter, the chief scientist aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer, where we have spent the past six weeks in Antarctica doing Real Science, what he thought of Trump’s tweet. Larter can talk about the movement of the Earth’s continents 500 million years ago as breezily as other men talk about off-season baseball trades. And of course out here in Antarctica, Larter had been far too busy during the past 24 hours actually contributing to the sum of human knowledge to pay attention to tweets from the conspiracy theorist in the Oval Office.

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I showed Trump’s tweet to Larter on my iPhone. As he read it, he smiled slightly and shook his head. “It’s crazy talk,” said Larter, who is British. “Do any Americans really believe that stuff?”

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The 55 scientists and crew members from around the world who are aboard the Palmer with me have been living in a Trump-free paradise for weeks. We get very little news, as we are bandwidth-starved and have only intermittent connection to the outside world via internet and satellite phone.

But I’ll admit Trump’s tweet woke me up to a curious point: During this entire six-week cruise, I have lived in close quarters with my shipmates. I know what kind of cake was served at their kid’s birthday party and their views about the afterlife and why they believe that physicists who research the existence of other dimensions are likely to be crackpots. But there has been very little talk of climate politics or climate policy. The subject of Trump’s re-election comes up, and the Brits talk a lot about the disaster known as Brexit. There is much debate about internal politics at various universities, and within the National Science Foundation and the UK’s National Environment Research Council, both of which are funding this trip, which is part of a five-year-long collaboration to better understand the risks of collapse of Thwaites glacier in West Antarctica. But as far as I can tell, the words “Green New Deal” have not been uttered on the ship by a scientist, nor have the words “carbon footprint” or “Paris climate accords.” I overheard one scientist engaged in a not-particularly-well-informed debate with the captain about the pros and cons of wind power, but that has been about it.

It’s not entirely surprising. “You don’t bring up climate politics because you have to live with people on the ship in very close quarters for seven weeks,” says Lars Boehme, an oceanographer from University of St. Andrews who has successfully tagged 11 seals on the trip. “It’s divisive.” Bastien Queste, a researcher from the University of East Anglia in the UK, has a different view: “Why talk about climate politics? We all have similar views on the ship. We all are big supporters of clean energy. We all know we have to get off fossil fuels. What is there to discuss?”

But even off the ship, the reluctance to get involved in politics persists. So far as I can tell, none of the scientists on this trip are engaged in climate-related political activism in their daily lives. Few are even comfortable talking about it. Several started squirming as soon as I brought it up. Two of the youngest researchers on the trip, one from the U.S. and one from Sweden, told me they have actually quit climate activism in recent years simply because they have no time.

Building a career in science is a brutally competitive endeavor, sucking up all your time and energy. But for many, the real problem with climate activism is that it requires dealing with the media. And if there is one thing that spooks climate scientists more than collapsing glaciers, it’s a person with a microphone. It’s not hard to see why. Scientists deal with facts, not characters or emotions. They often see journalists as ignorant about science and all too eager to transform scientific debates into a new front in the culture wars. And they are not always wrong about that. “To be good at communicating about science, you have to spend a lot of time at it,” explains Queste. “If you try to analyze data and communicate with the public, it’s nearly impossible to find the time to do both very well.”

There is also the fear that if they are outspoken, they might be seen as too “political” and not do as well with research grants or other funding. That’s not a trivial question these days, when science budgets are slashed and tenured positions at universities are increasingly difficult to secure. It’s much easier just to keep your head down and do the work. “I am paid to do science,” one U.S. scientist on the trip told me. “So I do science.”

Others worry about offending family and friends by speaking out too bluntly. One scientist talked about a friend who published a paper on climate change in Nature, a top scientific journal, then received threats online. “This is a dangerous time to be a climate scientist,” the scientist said. And if the reaction of researchers on the Palmer is any indication, American scientists feel that danger more viscerally than most (and, not surprisingly, were more reluctant to talk on the record for this dispatch).

But to some U.S. scientists, it’s also a dangerous time to keep silent. From the Palmer, I emailed Andrea Dutton, a highly-regarded geologist at the University of Florida, about her reaction to Trump’s tweet. “This is no longer a matter of simple misrepresentation,” she wrote. “It is dangerous and reckless for our leaders to mislead the American people about the impacts of global warming. As a scientist, and perhaps more importantly, as a citizen of the U.S., I do feel that I have a moral obligation to speak out against misinformation. The American people deserve the truth about their future.”

Photo credit: Linda Welzenbach/Rice University

One thing that has become very clear on this journey to Antarctica is that climate science is risky in all kinds of ways — including risks to life and limb. On the ship, instruments are dropped into the sea in the middle of the night while the deck of the ship pitches wildly in rough seas; winches spin with cables attached to 700-pound coring devices; marine technicians launch Zodiac boats in rough seas. On the Palmer, science goes on 24/7, no matter how bad the weather, no matter how exhausted you are.

Queste has been in the middle of most of it. When I sat down with him in the mess hall yesterday, he looked more tired than most. I asked him if he had seen Trump’s tweet. He hadn’t. So I showed it to him. “I can’t handle this much crap,” he moaned, his face drained from long hours in the lab. “It depresses me. Such blatant pandering and shit-stirring.”

A few minutes later, I showed Trump’s tweet to Lars Boehme, who seized onto a line in the tweet about carbon dioxide being “one of the main building blocks of life.” It’s a well-worn talking point for climate deniers. “You like carbon dioxide so much?” Boehme mused. “Try putting a plastic bag over your head and see how that works out.”

But perhaps the best response to Trump’s tweet came from Anna Wåhlin, a professor of physical oceanography at the University of Gothenburg and leader of the team that sent the Hugin, a semi-intelligent underwater research device, 1,500 feet beneath Thwaites glacier. It was one of the most remarkable scientific achievements of the trip, and the data the Hugin collected has already helped scientists understand how ocean currents circulate in West Antarctica, pushing warm water beneath Thwaites and melting it from below. This is what science is supposed to do — go underneath our everyday world and make the unknown known.

Late Wednesday night, the lab on the Palmer boomed with the sound of the ship’s hull busting through thick sea ice. I asked Wåhlin if she’d seen Trump’s tweet. “No, I have not,” she replied. She read it on my iPhone, then looked at me with something beyond anger or disgust. “I’m sorry,” she said.

 

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