President Trump and his cabinet aren’t really into solving climate change, or science for that matter. But that didn’t stop four representatives from federal agencies that oversee climate and Earth science from giving a major presentation at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting, the largest annual meeting of Earth scientists in the U.S.
Their comments make it clear that the administration is interested in Earth science research that can help make money and advance national security interests, as well as ways to improve near-term weather forecasting.
Climate change research and data collection is likely to continue under these auspices as well, which at this point is the most positive climate development from this administration. But without a push to use that data to inform policy that will avert the impacts of climate change, the U.S. could still be behind the eight ball to address the world’s biggest challenge.
“As everyone is already keenly aware, it is an interesting and dynamic time to be a science agency inside the federal government,” Bill Werkheiser, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) deputy director, said in the understatement of the year.
Indeed, agencies have axed climate websites, taken policy recommendations from coal barons, and muzzled scientists. But Werkheiser, along with representatives from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showed where there could be at least some continuity for federal climate science amid Trump’s efforts to Make Coal A Thing again.
The Arctic was a recurring theme on Thursday, as well as earlier this week. Its rapid meltdown is a geopolitical, societal and ecological quagmire waiting to happen, as huge swaths of land and ocean open up for oil and gas drilling and mining. On Tuesday, NOAA scientists rolled out the Arctic report card, which showed that sea ice has never been lower in the region over the past 1,500 years, and likely longer.
That’s why the National Science Foundation is planning major investments in observing and understanding the changing the Arctic, according to William Easterling, the associate director of the agency’s geosciences unit.
“Every time I see this, I like many of you am blown away by how much change is happening there,” he said, showing a slide of the dramatic decline in sea ice since the 1980s. “We’re developing a deeper understanding of the physical mechanisms that are driving the rapid changes happening in the Arctic. That will require a robust observational network on land, in the atmosphere, space and the oceans.”
Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, the acting head of NOAA, helped with the rollout of the Arctic report card earlier this week by citing national security threats, and a bonanza of drilling opportunities, as reasons the White House was taking a major interest in it. On Thursday, Gallaudet said those same issues will also drive other parts of NOAA’s science mission.
“We need to know our oceans better than the competition, not only for economic contributions from resource extraction but in terms of defense,” Gallaudet said, while noting the “very important” national security contribution of NOAA-led undersea explorations.
“Those [underwater cables] are threatened by adversaries and we need to know the seafloor and protect them,” Gallaudet continued, referring to the series of communication cables that criss cross the ocean and help keep the U.S. (and global) economy humming along.
It’s an interesting idea, but it also ignores the part of NOAA’s mission to “conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.”
On the atmospheric side of the coin, one area NOAA will be particularly focused on is improving forecasts that range from a few weeks to a few months out, something mandated in a major weather bill that became law earlier this year.
“What this administration wants to focus on is the immediate,” Gallaudet told Earther.“We’re focused on what the law requires, which is seasonal and sub-seasonal forecasting.”
The bill that became law was introduced in the House by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who has been nominated to head NASA. During his confirmation hearing, he said he would also like that agency to focus on improving forecasts of disasters, from hurricanes to tornadoes to wildfires.
After a supremely destructive hurricane season and intense California wildfires, it’s again tough to argue against the value in having better forecasts. They save lives, and science should benefit society!
But focusing solely on economics and near-term benefits could lead to missed opportunities. The internet (RIP net neutrality), for example, wasn’t created just to make money, and yet some of the biggest companies in the world wouldn’t exist without it. Further, not having a strong mandate to improve climate modeling could leave us in a weaker position to address the economic and national security problems it will create.
Take sea level rise. The better we can predit how fast oceans will rise, the better equipped communities will be to take action, whether it be managed retreat or building stronger defenses. The White House proposed completely cutting the NOAA Sea Grant program, which translates climate and fisheries information for state and local decision makers, as well as slicing 19 percent from the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research’s budget. The latter is where much of NOAA’s climate research takes place.
The FY-2018 budget is not final yet. But with Congress on the brink of adding $1.5 trillion to deficit thanks to its garbage tax bill, science funding could be on the chopping block (along with Social Security, Medicare, and just about everything that’s not defense spending).
“Flat [funding] is the new up,” Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associated administrator at NASA, quipped.
One area where NASA is in good shape is space exploration, with Trump inking a directive to send astronauts back to the Moon earlier this week. Andrucyk was also upbeat about the future of Earth observations, particularly from satellites.
“We’ve got a pretty good relationship with the folks on the Hill and continuing the research we need to in order to maintain the datasets,” he told Earther.
Despite all the challenges climate science faces at the federal level, it’s not dead yet. And there are clearly still advocates for it working within the system to make sure that even this administration will still have to face research that’s sometimes inconvenient.
“We will never back away from funding and confronting research that asks—and shows promise through merit review—to answer these very difficult questions,” Easterling said. “Let the record stand that we’re in it.”