Trump nominated a climate denier as USDA chief scientist — here's why that matters

Democrats vow to fight Sam Clovis, who isn't a scientist and whose ignorant views threaten our food supply

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 28, 2017 4:59AM (EDT)

Chuck Schumer; Sam Clovis   (Getty/Zach Gibson/AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Chuck Schumer; Sam Clovis (Getty/Zach Gibson/AP/Charlie Neibergall)

In all the Donald Trump-created chaos, it might seem a little odd at first blush that Senate Democrats, led by Chuck Schumer, are making a big public stink over Sam Clovis, Trump's pick to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientist.

“President Trump should withdraw the Clovis nomination immediately,” Schumer announced in a statement. “If President Trump refuses to withdraw Mr. Clovis, we will vehemently oppose his nomination and urge our colleagues from both parties to come together and summarily reject him as well.”

To many voters, this might seem like a minor consideration in the grand scheme of things, but the grim fact of the matter is that the Clovis nomination is a very real threat, not just to the farmers who rely on the USDA, but to the country as a whole that depends on the food they grow. Picking Clovis is a chilling reminder that Trump doesn't care what damage he does to this country, so long as he's sticking it to liberals and erasing Obama's legacy.

Much of the negative press attention devoted to Clovis, a talk show radio host from Iowa, stems from his history of racist and homophobic remarks. Equally troubling, however, is the fact that Clovis is completely unqualified for the role of chief scientist, and there's reason to believe he's hostile to much of the important work protecting America's food that the people who would be working for him do every day.

“If he is qualified for this job, then I should try out for the Golden State Warriors," joked David Lobell, a professor in Stanford University's Center on Food Security and the Environment. “Ideally, you want a scientist doing science and leading scientists. I can’t really make sense of this.”

Clovis is definitely not a scientist. His defenders try to shore up his credentials by calling him an economist, but as Karen Perry Stillerman of the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out, even that's a stretch.

"Perhaps Clovis taught an economics class to undergraduates at Morningside College (or perhaps not)," Stillerman writes, "but even if he did that hardly makes him an economist. He has no economics degree and no published work in the field."

Clovis' doctorate is in public administration, but his life's passion is in being a right-wing propagandist. In between teaching business classes at a small liberal arts college in Iowa, Clovis hosted "Impact With Sam Clovis" on KSCJ in Sioux City, Iowa, where he promoted right-wing conspiracy theories such as birtherism.

Most importantly, Clovis promoted the conspiracy theory that holds that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the world's scientists in order to enact some shadowy leftist agenda.

"Speaking with [an] Iowa radio host in February 2014, Clovis agreed . . . that climate change was a way to redistribute wealth and 'a big hustle,'" write Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie, and Paul LeBlanc of CNN. "Clovis also made reference to 'Agenda 21,' a United Nations action plan on sustainability that right-wing figures have long claimed is an attempt by the internal organization to strip local governments of their sovereignty."

That's alarming, because a lot of the research work that Clovis would be managing at the USDA is focused on climate change. Some of that work is about trying to slow down and reduce climate change, but, as Lobell argued, the more pressing concern is the work being done by USDA scientists around the country in trying to help American agricultural adapt to the changes brought by global warming.

“I would say the biggest challenge is that our main commodity crops are growing where we anticipate pretty negative effects of climate change," Lobell explained. "I think adapting some of our main commodity crops — corn, soybeans — is a really big challenge.”

No doubt many of these scientists will keep their heads down and try to keep doing their job of helping farmers adjust to changing temperatures and water supplies, Lobell added. He still worries that having a climate-change denier as boss might "cause an exodus of really good scientists."

"We depend on good science for insuring our food supply," he added. 

"Adapting to climate change doesn’t just mean making the bad stuff go away," Lobell continued. "It also means making sure we don’t miss new things we can do that we couldn’t have done before. Both of those take science. Both of those take long-term research to figure out what actually works.”

If this work doesn't happen because Trump thought it was amusing to appoint a talk show host to head up an agricultural research department, farmers may start seeing their yields go down.

“The consumers of food end up paying the cost of shortages in food production," Lobell said, at least in the short term.

In the long term, he warned, the U.S. could start seeing its agricultural dominance decline. Countries like Canada and Russia may become significantly more competitive, if agricultural research efforts in the U.S. are stymied. 

Clovis' appointment may not even be legal. Federal law stipulates that the person who holds this position must be "from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics." Barack Obama appointed Catherine Woteki, a nutrition scientist, to this key role in the USDA. George W. Bush's appointee was Gale A. Buchanan, a scientist who researched soil.

Clovis got the nomination, according to Politico, mostly because he's good at flattering Trump. Nearly two dozen industry groups have also backed the nomination, however, arguing that the scientists working at the USDA "do not need a peer" but rather "need someone to champion their work before the administration, the Congress, and all consumers around the world."

That might sound good on paper, but there's no reason to think Clovis will show much interest in championing science, especially when the researchers in questions are working to solve problems Clovis refuses to admit are real. No doubt industry groups are excited to have a business-friendly right-winger in this office, but the decision to back an anti-science conspiracy theorist is short-sighted in the extreme. Whatever short-term economic gains may result could easily be lost if, under Clovis's management, the American agricultural system fails to adapt to climate change.

It is both symbolically and materially important that Schumer, leader of the Senate's Democratic minority, has put a priority on fighting Clovis' appointment. Clovis is a symbol of the cynicism of the Trump administration and the contempt the president has for the people he is supposed to represent. Even more worryingly, he's a threat to the affordability of food and the health of our country's agricultural system for generations to come.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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