In Trump’s State Of The Union, A Promise To End AIDS—But Silence On Climate Change

7:44 minutes

When President Trump announced his goal of ending HIV transmissions in the U.S. by 2030 in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, he got a standing ovation. But his statement also raised eyebrows. AIDS activists noted that the President disbanded his HIV/AIDS advisory council not long after taking office.

It was one of a few moments in Tuesday’s speech when the President touched on science and health topics. But one hot-button issue he didn’t mention? Climate change. And as new NOAA data out this week demonstrates, climate change is costing us. Climate disasters cost the U.S. at least $91 billion last year, and those disasters are becoming more frequent, according to NOAA.

Washington Post science reporter Sarah Kaplan joins John Dankosky to talk about the science that was—and wasn’t—in the State of the Union, plus other science stories from the week.

Further Reading

  • Read Amy Goldstein’s report in the Washington Post on Trump’s announcement to end HIV/AIDS by the next decade in his State of the Union Address.
  • Read Sarah Kaplan and the team at Washington Post’s coverage of the tolling financial costs of natural disasters in Lumberton, North Carolina.
  • Learn more about how the Earth’s magnetic north pole is mysteriously migrating in the Washington Post.
  • Find out what NASA scientists are trying to do in their last ditch efforts to revive Opportunity on Mars.

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Segment Guests

Sarah Kaplan

Sarah Kaplan is a science reporter at the Washington Post in Washington D.C..

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away but he’s back next week. It’s a State of the Union staple. Along with standing ovations, special guests, and statement outfits this year, Americans have come to expect proposals from their president about how he’s going to improve their health. And this past Tuesday President Trump made one. 

DONALD TRUMP: My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years. We have made incredible strides, incredible. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: So stop the spread of HIV in the US by 2030, that’s the goal, but what would it take to make this happen? Here to talk about that and other selected short subjects in science is Washington Post science reporter Sarah Kaplan. Welcome to the show. Thanks Good to be here so Trump says he wants to eliminate HIV in the US in ten years, any details about how this could happen? 

SARAH KAPLAN: So there’s not a ton on strategy or cost. But what we do know is the ideas that the CDC and other agencies would focus on a few dozen US counties that are responsible for more than half of all new HIV transmission in the US. There’s about 40,000 new cases every year and more than a million people in the US living with HIV. And so the idea is if you can focus on these counties, give people access to the drugs needed to prevent infection, then you can actually lower transmission by a lot. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: How have AIDS activists, public health folks, people been watching this for a while, how have they responded? 

SARAH KAPLAN: So it sort of raised some eyebrows. Because, you know, I mean obviously people are excited about this proposal, but at the same time, shortly after the president took office, he disbanded his HIV/AIDS advisory council. And he’s also taken some policy positions that make it harder for the people most affected by these diseases to access treatment. He opposed Medicaid expansion, for example. And if you’re a person who’s a person of color or LGBT, it might be harder to get treatment that way. So people are sort of confused about what exactly this means. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: Any other signs in this speech? 

SARAH KAPLAN: So there were a few other health subjects. The president talked about his ambition to reduce drug prices, fund childhood cancer, but, significantly, there was no mention of a lot of other science subjects, including climate. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: Including climate change, and there is a big news this week in climate change. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah. So a day after the State of the Union, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released new data showing that climate-induced natural disasters cost the US nearly $100 billion last year, and also 247 lives. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: So that’s an awful lot, obviously there’s a lot of impact there. You’ve done some reporting in North Carolina. They’ve seen two big climate disasters in just the last couple years. What are you learning there? 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah. So in southeast North Carolina, where I’ve been reporting, people had Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and then Florence last year. And this is, you know, in the course of two years they’ve had two 500 year floods, so things that supposedly have a one in 500 chance of happening. But now there’s sort of this idea that we’re facing a new normal. 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record. 

And all of the science suggests that severe natural disasters will become more frequent and more destructive as the climate continues to warm. They’re happening twice as frequently as they used to. So people in Lumberton, in North Carolina, are sort of bracing themselves for the next thing. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: And again, no real word from the top about what we’re going to do about it? 


JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, let’s move on to another story we’ve been following this week. And this one– well this is unusual– it’s about our magnetic north pole, and it’s on the move. What’s happening? 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yes, so it’s very bizarre. So the magnetic north pole is different from the geographic north pole, which is the top point of Earth’s axis– 

JOHN DANKOSKY: We know where that is? 

SARAH KAPLAN: We know where that is, it’s not moving. But the magnetic north pole is reflective of Earth’s magnetic field, which is actually generated in Earth’s interior. So at the very center, in the core, is this roiling, tumultuous ball of molten metal. And that conducts an electric current and generates this field. And the field fluctuates depending on what’s happening in the core. And lately it’s been fluctuating really unpredictably at this accelerating pace. 

It’s now moving more than 30 miles per year, and sort of zipping towards Siberia. And scientists have to actually update, they had to have this emergency update to the world magnetic model, which they used to sort of mathematically predict where the poles should be, where a compass needle ought to be pointing. They had to have an update a year sooner than planned just because it’s moving so fast, to keep up. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: But why is it moving so fast, what’s happening? 

SARAH KAPLAN: So that’s the big question, right? Clearly something is happening in Earth’s interior. But we can’t get down there, It’s 2000 miles beneath the surface. So the only thing to do is keep tracking Earth’s pole and try to extrapolate from that what’s happening beneath our feet. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: And we’re going to have more later this hour about how this whole thing works, and it’s really fascinating. Very quickly though, have we fixed our GPS systems? Because that all got messed up by the magnetic north pole. 

SARAH KAPLAN: So, actually, unless you’re really close to the pole and trying to navigate very precisely, it wouldn’t have affected you too much. But, you know, every day that the pole moved and the magnetic model didn’t did create a little bit of discrepancy. So now cell phone, GPS, and military navigators can be pretty sure they’re back on target. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: And everything’s back on target now because the government’s not shut down and they can do all the stuff they need to do, right? 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah, absolutely. So, actually, part of the reason that the magnetic model didn’t get updated till this week was because the NOAA scientists who are supposed to host the model were not at work. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, I’m going to have to end with a sad story with you here. NASA attempted CPR, so to speak, on it’s lovely little Mars Rover, it’s been doing such a great job, Opportunity, what is the status of Opportunity right now? 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah, so Opportunity got caught in this really dramatic dust storm on Mars, actually last summer. And it hasn’t been heard from since. And it’s solar powered so when dust blocks out the sun that could be pretty problematic. But, you know, even if this is the end, it’s a pretty noble way to go for a rover. Opportunity has been on Mars for more than 15 years, which is a record for any spacecraft on the surface of another world. And it’s moved 29 miles which, actually, pretty far for a rover. They move kind of slow. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: But how far was this supposed to go? It was only supposed to go a couple of thousand yards or something. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah, it was only supposed to operate for 90 days. But instead it’s made all of these really amazing discoveries. And most important of which is that it has really found concrete, unambiguous evidence suggesting that Mars had liquid water on the surface early in its history. And that really changes our perception of what kind of world Mars used to be. It’s really important in the search for life and trying to understand what happened to this planet, to turn it into the kind of desolate desert we know today. So Opportunity has got a pretty good legacy, even if it does end soon. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: And they’re trying to reboot it, but they’re not feeling confident that they’ll be able to bring it back to life? 

SARAH KAPLAN: So, yeah, there’s like a couple more kind of last ditch things that NASA is trying to do, including resetting Opportunity’s clock, in hopes that maybe that will wake the rover back up, allow it to get back on schedule with the rising and setting of the sun over Mars. But every day that goes by and they don’t hear from Opportunity, the chances get lower and lower, unfortunately. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: I hear you have an obit already written? 

SARAH KAPLAN: I don’t want to bury the robot too soon, but, you know, we try to be prepared for these things. 

JOHN DANKOSKY: Sarah Kaplan, science reporter at the Washington Post. Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Thank you.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Annie Minoff

Annie Minoff is a producer for The Journal from Gimlet Media and the Wall Street Journal, and a former co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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