Environmental Scientist. Writer. Mother.

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Science is a Refugee

So it’s official: the Electoral College has secured Donald Trump’s victory as the next President of the United States. Short of an underground act of rebellion, yesterday’s process went as expected, certifying Trump as our nation’s next leader.

I say ‘our’ as the collective, as in ‘our failure’ — though I certainly feel no loyalty to this demagogue as the leader of my country, because I feel the position was not earned within the accepted architecture of our democracy. Lies were told without accountability. Fear and hatred were exploited as diversion tactics. Worse yet, a foreign nation interfered, and now it appears that a Manchurian candidate has prevailed.

In the month since the election, Trump has given us reason to fear the worst. His cabinet, for instance: a collection of the least qualified, least educated individuals in modern American  history, two of whom (Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, chosen for Secretary of State, and Wilbur Ross, chosen for Secretary of Commerce) have close economic ties to Russia. The rest, filled with people whose principled ideals run counter to the missions of the very agencies they’ve been appointed to lead, most notably the anti-science climate-deniers appointed to the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Why? Because willful domestic ignorance is what the master plan requires.

If Trump’s team is any indication of his administration’s priority over the next four years, you can boil it down to one word: petroleum. Notwithstanding America’s own love affair with oil, it seems that Russian oil interests have turned this election on its head. This past year, while Americans argued over Trump’s tweets and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, Vladimir Putin was positioning his chess pieces to support Russia’s increased Arctic drilling. Climate change is a good thing for him (and others with oil interests), at least in the short run, because melting polar ice caps will make fossil fuel extraction economically feasible in previously inaccessible areas.

Last February, Russian officials presented a revised claim of Arctic Territory to the United Nations, arguing that the country’s continental shelf extends well into the Arctic Ocean, including an area under the North Pole. If granted, Russia’s claim to the seabed would include mineral rights in the area — hundreds of billions of dollars in crude oil, currently unclaimed and untouched.

Now the only things standing in the way of Putin and Exxon Mobil’s development of these resources are 1) U.S. sanctions against Russia as punishment for their occupation of Crimea and crimes against Ukraine, and 2) U.S. policies restricting fossil fuel development in light of climate change.

If only there were people inside the White House who were sympathetic to their cause…


Last week, the Washington Post published an article about climate scientists in federal agencies scrambling to copy and archive as much federal climate data as possible before Trump is sworn into office. The fear, of course, is that Trump’s administration will order the destruction of the scientific evidence — a fear heightened by his transition team’s memo to the Department of Energy, asking agency officials for the names of employees and contractors who have participated in climate talks, conferences, and development of climate-based regulatory policy.

In the women’s domestic violence shelter where I volunteer, we call this kind of activity safety planning — preparations for survival under the threat of abuse. This kind of intimidation — the threat of retaliation, the threat of destroying one’s livelihood, or one’s property and professional work — is really not so different from the domestic abuse tactics we see before the escalation of physical violence. In these circumstances, we might help someone gather their supplies, make copies of the essential documents they need. Help them go into hiding if they feel their existence is at stake.

I shared the article on Facebook, posting: “Science, going into hiding like Anne Frank.”


Much has already been written about the parallels between the current political climate and the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. The patterns are recognizable, even with the limited history that I know: the xenophobic rhetoric, the racial superiority, the nationalism, the nostalgia for ‘better days of old.’  I sense danger in my body, my cells registering some kind of implicit knowledge, like the fight-or-flight impulse triggered by a predatory gaze.

I struggle to explain this history, this feeling to my kids — as much as I want to shield them from these things, it seems important for them to know an age-appropriate version of the truth. So I bought my oldest daughter a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. I can’t remember how old I was when I first read the book, but my daughter is the same age that Anne Frank was when she began documenting her family’s life in hiding: just thirteen years old.

When I was thirteen, I believed in the nobility of my country. Freedom and democracy, justice for all. I believed in the history book lessons we were told about the land of opportunity, the inscription on our Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Fact: in 1941, Anne Frank and her family were denied entry as refugees to the United States. I did not learn this part of the story until I was an adult. Despite her father’s business connections in the U.S. and the presence of family in Boston, the Frank family’s applications for visas came too late, at a time when U.S. attitudes and policies concerning immigration were increasingly suspicious. It seems that America turned Jewish refugees away during the Holocaust because, among other things, we were worried about them being spies. (Does this sound familiar?)

Anne Frank died in a concentration camp at age fifteen. Turns out, her blood was also on our hands.


I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with that?


Do you see it now? A bouquet of words; they complement one another.


I wonder sometimes about the other diaries-in-hiding that could emerge when all of this is done. What stories will they tell? How bad will it really get? Will our children read about some Muslim girl hiding with her family in the attic of someone’s house? Or will it be more ‘civil,’ like the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s? Who else will be detained?  Dissenters? Journalists? Scientists?

It’s crazy, this line of thinking, I know. Unimaginable. Except that in many ways, the unimaginable has already happened — the data are already there. The votes have already been counted.

Maybe this is the diary they’ll find: a climate scientist’s records showing what we really knew all along.



Photo credit: Will Rose, Afghan refugees floating on the Mediterranean Sea, from qns.com

About Mary Heather

I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.


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