A 23-year-old 'Star Trek' episode nails the most troubling thing about Trump's climate research proposal
Last night, I took a break from the news to watch an episode of "Star Trek," and it turned out to be the most relevant commentary on science and President-elect Donald Trump I've seen so far.
In November, The Guardian reported that Trump's administration was "poised to eliminate all climate change research conducted by NASA as part of a crackdown on 'politicized science,'" as senior Trump campaign adviser Bob Walker has said.
As far as Trump the individual goes, his stated opinions on human-induced climate change have wavered. In 2012 he denied it, saying instead that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to cripple US manufacturing. Several weeks ago, however, he acknowledged that it could be real, telling a room of New York Times reporters and editors that he believed there was "some connectivity" between humans and climate change.
Of course, his policy speaks louder than his personal opinion.
And if last month's statement is any indication of what climate change policy will look like under President-elect Trump, we should be worried. Essentially, Trump is proposing to halt future NASA research on climate change. NASA currently does a ton of work in this field - just take a look at climate.nasa.gov. NASA researchers would be significantly limited in working on the climate models that show how and why our actions are contributing to a warmer planet.
On a more positive note, Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist and director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which studies the changing atmosphere, has told my colleague Rafi Letzter that it won't be simple for Trump to purge federal agencies of climate researchers during his presidency.
"Chopping off science just to prevent people from talking about climate change won't work," Schmidt said. "You need science for hazards, for weather forecasting, and climate comes along for the ride."I hope he's right. Still, I'm terrified by the prospect that climate change research would be limited in any way. So last night, I turned away from the news and toward science fiction television for solace.
I rewatched a classic episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," an episode I saw for the first time when I was a kid. I'd seen it with my father, a self-proclaimed Trekkie and a man from whom I continue to draw endless inspiration.
Turns out the episode was one of the most powerful critiques of Trump's proposal - which is essentially a ban on future NASA-led climate change research - that I've come across.
"Force of Nature" (season seven, episode nine, available on Netflix), takes place aboard the main ship, the Enterprise, and focuses on its reliance on warp drive, a faster-than-light spacecraft propulsion system that they use skip around the galaxy. Basically, if warp drive allows the Enterprise to ferry itself around in a Ferrari, without it, it would be reduced to something like crawling on all fours.
The warp drive is to the Enterprise what fossil fuels are to us
Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the crew members, every time they engage warp drive, they slowly contribute to the creation of a phenomenon they call "a rift," which is causing terrible damage to multiple solar systems. The rift is like a massive tear - every time someone uses warp drive, they wreak havoc on the solar system nearby. The rift does everything from shifting the planets' tilt to triggering massive earthquakes, both of which are small now but will destroy the planets as the rift grows.
In the episode, the crew is using warp drive for a rescue mission - it's traveling to an area of space where a friendly ship has been stalled. On the way to the ship, the Enterprise is rendered powerless by an unrecognized ship and boarded by a pair of strangers.When they come aboard, the strangers - a brother and sister from another planet - tell the Enterprise it must immediately stop using warp drive. "You are killing us!" the sister says.
'Maybe I was a little threatened, the thought that warp engines might be doing some kind of damage'
The Enterprise crew members, while initially outraged that they've been shut down by an unrecognized vessel and boarded without permission, eventually agree to look into the pair's claims.
The Enterprise's captain, Jean-Luc Picard, essentially tells them their claims are reasonable and promises to ask the powers in charge (the Federation Council) to conduct "more research" on their behalf in exchange for the strangers' agreement to let the Enterprise go. The sister responds angrily, saying it isn't good enough. She leaves aboard her ship and sends herself into warp drive to prove her point. In the process, she destroys her ship and kills herself.
They all soon see that she and her brother were right. Some of the crew members who earlier dismissed her claims say they feel responsible.
"Maybe I was taking the whole thing personally. Maybe I was a little threatened, the thought that warp engines might be doing some kind of damage," Geordi La Forge, the chief engineer, says.
Finally, the Enterprise sends its report, which concludes that warp drive is harmful, to the Federation Council. The agency responds by announcing strict policies limiting the use of warp drive except for specific situations when it is necessary. At the end of the episode, Captain Picard says he feels partially responsible for using warp drive even though he wasn't aware of the damage it was doing.
"I've charted new worlds. I've met dozens of new species. I believed that these were all valuable ends in themselves," says Picard. "And now it seems that all this while I was helping to damage the thing that I hold most dear."This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.