Under Trump, NASA may lose climate research
Emerging victorious from a campaign in which he called climate change a hoax, promised to reinvigorate coal mining and vowed to overturn major international agreements and domestic regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, President-elect Donald Trump’s next target in his political denial of human-driven global warming might be NASA’s $2-billion annual budget for Earth science.
Trump himself has been relatively mum about his plans for NASA. But in an op–ed published weeks before the election, two Trump space policy advisors—the former congressman Robert Walker and the economist Peter Navarro—wrote that the agency is too focused on “politically correct environmental monitoring” of climate change.
Under a Trump administration, they wrote, NASA would prioritize “deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“Budgets would have to be realigned to handle that transfer,” Walker tells Scientific American. “We would also anticipate that any new [Earth science] programs would be funded by those agencies.”
With a budget about a quarter of NASA’s, NOAA spends the bulk of its funds on weather forecasting and environmental monitoring. It contracts with NASA to use the space agency’s Earth-observing satellites, and relies on NASA’s help in building and launching satellites of its own. The NSF has a budget roughly three times smaller than NASA’s, and has essentially no involvement in building, launching or operating satellites. In recent years Republican lawmakers have sought budget cuts to climate change–related Earth science programs at all three agencies.
Now set to hold majorities in both the House and Senate, Republicans appear likely to support forthcoming Trump administration proposals to pare back NASA’s Earth science budget, which grew by some 50 percent under the Obama administration. That boost, which gave Earth science the lion’s share of NASA’s science funding, has sustained a growing fleet of satellites that collect data demonstrating climate change’s reality: rising surface temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions, retreating glaciers and ice sheets, and shifting patterns of rainfall and vegetation growth, to name a few.
“Earth science’s preferred growth under Obama—the fact that it has grown over all of NASA’s other science—has created a big political target on its back and validated, in a sense, Republican interpretations of its partisan nature,” says Casey Dreier, director of space policy for The Planetary Society. “And this is taking place in a new political dynamic of strong, near-universal condemnation and skepticism of climate change by the Republican Party, without a Democratic president and key members of Congress that used to push back. That’s a bad double whammy for Earth science.”
Because he is not a member of the transition team now laying the groundwork for a Trump administration, Walker says he cannot speculate about what near-term space policy decisions the president-elect will soon make. Even so, he insists that climate-change denial is not behind the platform he laid out for the Trump campaign, and he notes that he co-sponsored the first climate bill ever passed into law—the National Climate Program Act signed by Pres. Jimmy Carter in 1978.
“This is not ideological,” Walker says. “When we talk about ‘deep-space activities,’ we’re talking about planetary science and space-based telescopes and all those kinds of things. There have been concerns among some of us that those sorts of NASA programs were robbed in order to concentrate on Earth science, and we want to reestablish the emphasis of NASA itself on the things that go beyond Earth orbit and Earth-observation activities.”
Amid the acrimony over NASA’s attention to climate change, the researchers who rely on funding and data through the agency’s Earth science program argue that they study much more. They and the satellites they use also provide critical insights for a broad range of public and private activities that enjoy bipartisan support, such as weather forecasting, agricultural reporting, and disaster response and preparedness.
According to a recent report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General, these sorts of services are so crucial to modern society that the agency now delivers about 1.5 billion Earth science data products to users each year, up from just eight million in the year 2000. But distinguishing them as unrelated to a phenomenon as multifaceted and omnipresent as climate change is difficult, and perhaps foolhardy.
“NASA’s Earth-observing satellites are maybe the single biggest advance in weather forecasting accuracy over the last couple of decades, and climate is really just the day-to-day accumulation of weather,” says Steve Running, an ecologist at the University of Montana and chair of the Earth Science Subcommittee for the NASA Advisory Council. “Our five-day forecasts are really quite good now just from tracking atmospheric dynamics, but once you reach for 10-, 30-, or 60-day forecasts you have to integrate much more information from the whole Earth system. … Any politically tinged effort to hamstring climate science would almost certainly have the unintended consequence of degrading our development of better midrange forecasting.”
Waleed Abdalati, a geographer at the University of Colorado and former NASA chief scientist, cites the agency’s monitoring of declining Arctic sea ice as an example of the complex interplay between climate, weather and commerce.
“We are on our way to a seasonally ice-free Arctic, and [NASA’s] observations of the rate at which this is occurring have implications beyond climate,” Abdalati says. As the sea ice wanes, it won’t just affect local ecosystems, global precipitation patterns, ocean circulation and weather—it will also create new shipping routes and unlock new seafloor oil and gas fields, altering the global economy.
“A loss of our observational capabilities would be like closing our eyes,” Abdalati says, “handicapping our ability to know what tomorrow, next week or next decade will bring.”
Along with William Gail, the chief technology officer of the Global Weather Corporation, Abdalati is leading the U.S. National Academies’ “decadal survey” on Earth science. Conducted once every 10 years, this poll of U.S. Earth scientists produces a wish list of future research priorities to guide policy makers setting the multibillion-dollar budgets for NASA and other science agencies.
The survey’s final report is expected in the fall of 2017. It will likely include recommendations for new generations of satellites and instruments to monitor Earth with unprecedented clarity as well as suggestions meant to lower costs. But confronted with the possibility of a president and Congress hostile to NASA’s Earth science programs, no one—Abdalati and Gail included—can muster much confidence that many of those recommendations are likely to become reality.
“I think the [Earth science] community has concerns that are inherent to any kind of change, and certainly the rhetoric that has occurred to date does make people wonder what the implications will be,” Abdalati says. “But we also recognize how important these activities are, and how incumbent it is upon us to make the case for what these investments mean for the taxpayer, for society as a whole and for science.”
Jeff Dozier, an environmental scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and former senior project scientist for NASA’s Earth Observing System of satellites, agrees that the decadal survey’s present efforts “might be fruitless.” Even so, he says, “we soldier on, recognizing that funding will certainly disappear if we lack a clear articulation of how to best spend it.”
For the time being, the U.S. fleet of Earth-observing satellites remains by far the most advanced and robust in the world. Perhaps, Dozier speculates, that supremacy could appeal to a new president eager to shore up the nation’s strengths. “The European Space Agency and the space ministries of Japan, China and India won’t give up on Earth science from space,” he says. “So it would seem that ‘making America great again’ could imply making American Earth science greater than those of our international competitors and partners.”