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A Trump adviser wants to scale back NASA’s ability to study climate change

Earth From One Million Miles Photo by NASA via Getty Images

Donald Trump isn’t just vowing to dismantle US climate policies as president. His transition team is potentially considering major changes to NASA’s climate science programs.

In an interview with the Guardian, Bob Walker, a former congressman and Trump’s space policy adviser, said he’d like to shrink NASA’s Earth-monitoring programs going forward. “We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research,” he said. “Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission.”

In the piece, it becomes clear that what Walker really dislikes is NASA’s research on global warming, which he called “heavily politicized” without any real justification. (Walker, who was the Republican chair of the House science committee from 1995 to 1997, claimed that “half” the world’s climatologists doubt the human role in global warming — that’s just not true.)

It’s not at all clear if this will happen, or how much influence Walker will have over the White House budget. But if it did, it could be a big deal. Not only would it mean serious changes to US climate research, but it could affect a host of other key NASA programs that provide info on everything from weather to wildfires to drought and much more. And while any change to NASA’s budget would require congressional approval, it’s worth noting that plenty of Republicans in both the House and Senate are on board with removing the agency’s earth science programs.

What NASA’s Earth Science Division actually does

NASA’s main job has always been exploring outer space. But back in 1991, under George H.W. Bush, the agency began a new program to monitor Earth itself — which is, after all, the planet we care most about.

Starting with Terra in 1999, NASA has launched a fleet of Earth-observing satellites that collect data on everything from temperature and precipitation to underground aquifers and ocean currents and soil moisture to wildfires and storms. The idea is to track how the Earth functions as a large, living, breathing system and understand how that system is changing over time:

A selection of NASA's Earth Science satellites. (NASA)

Last month, for instance, NASA partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to launch the GOES-R satellite, which will map hurricanes, blizzards, and other severe weather in far more detail than previously available.

As part of its Earth studies, NASA also conducts extensive research into global climate change. That includes collecting data on carbon-dioxide emissions, temperatures, ice melt, and more. Perhaps most famously, the agency maintains this historical index of Earth’s average temperature. (Europe and Japan also maintain similar records.)

(NASA)

The climate science programs get lots of attention, but those other Earth-monitoring programs are hugely valuable — often in unexpected ways.

As Christine McEntee, president of the American Geophysical Union, explained here, NASA’s Earth programs have been used for things like: confronting the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, monitoring dangerous algal blooms that threaten coastal communities, assessing air quality and water availability, predicting floods, responding to earthquakes, and tracking tornadoes and hurricanes.

Back in 2015, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House science committee, made a similar argument: “NASA’s earth science program is much, much more than just climate science. The research is used by the Department of Defense to help keep our troops safe. It is used to improve electric and gas utility load forecasts and to document the variability of water available for agricultural use. It helps us understand the implications of thinning ice cover in the Arctic. It helps us predict floods, droughts and hurricanes. And it helps us track wildfires and volcanic ash.”

These other functions aren’t always easy to disentangle from climate research, Gavin Schmidt, who directs NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, argues here: “Chopping off science just to prevent people from talking about climate change won't work. You need science for hazards, for weather forecasting, and climate comes along for the ride."

Republicans have criticized NASA’s growing earth science budget for years

Under President Obama, NASA’s earth science budget has grown significantly, rising from $1.5 billion in 2009 to $2 billion next year. (For comparison, NASA’s space exploration budget for next year is $2.8 billion.)

Republicans in Congress have long opposed this expansion, arguing that NASA really needs to get back to studying outer space. And it’s clear that, like Walker, they’re often bothered by NASA’s research into climate change — an issue that many of them would rather just go away.

Here’s Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), an devoted climate denier, speaking at a Senate hearing in March 2015: “Almost any American would agree that the core function of NASA is to explore space. That’s what inspires little boys and little girls across this country … and you know that I am concerned that NASA in the current environment has lost its full focus on that core mission.”

At the time, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden countered that this view was misguided: “It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment because this is the only place that we have to live,” he told Cruz. “Science helps exploration; exploration helps science.”

Among other things, Bolden noted that sea level rise caused by global warming could ravage NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, so it’d be counterproductive for the space agency not to study it.

Conservatives were unconvinced. In April 2015, House Republicans unveiled a bill to cut NASA’s earth sciences programs by more than $300 million. That bill ultimately didn’t pass into law, in part because the White House was never going to sign on. Still, Walker’s comments suggest that a bill like this might get more traction under a Trump administration.

Other agencies may not be able to replace what NASA does

Now, in his Guardian interview, Walker clarified he didn’t want to abolish all earth science programs — he wanted to move them to other agencies. “My guess is that it would be difficult to stop all ongoing NASA programs but future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies,” he said.

Walker has said the same thing in past interviews, suggesting that many programs monitoring weather or storms could get moved over to NOAA.

One problem is that NOAA’s budget is much smaller, as Rachel Feltman points out at Popular Science: “NASA’s budget for Earth Sciences in 2017 is about $2 billion out of $19 billion total. NOAA’s total budget for 2017 is only $5.8 billion.” That could obviously be changed, but Republicans in Congress who want to cut NASA’s earth science budget never seem to propose significantly expanding NOAA’s funding to compensate.

Perhaps a bigger obstacle is that NOAA may not have the technical capacity to take over all of NASA’s missions. Jeff Foust of SpaceNews explains: “[NOAA] has usually relied on NASA for support developing and operating missions, including those funded by NOAA itself, such as traditional weather satellites. That would make any transfer of missions or other responsibilities more difficult than simply shifting funding.”

So we’ll see whether this actually happens. Large-scale reorganizations of federal agencies often sound easy on paper, but they can be very difficult in practice.

Further reading:


Watch: A history of inaction on climate change

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