Space & Innovation

Climate Scientists Fear Trump Budget Cuts and Wonder What He Really Believes

Trump's mixed signals on climate change send a worrisome message to NASA and federal climate agencies.

It's a confusing time for scientists who watch the news.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said he was not "a great believer in man-made climate change." In 2012, he tweeted in that climate change was a hoax fostered by the Chinese.

But more recently, Trump told the New York Times there was "some connectivity" between human activity and climate change. Last week, he met with former vice president-turned climate advocate Al Gore at Trump Tower.

What worries scientists most are public comments and writings by Trump's transition team members, many of whom deny climate change exists and want the government to stop funding climate research.

In an interview with the Guardian last month, Trump adviser Bob Walker said Trump will shift $2 billion in climate funding out of NASA.

"We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research," Walker told the Guardian. "Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission. My guess is that it would be difficult to stop all ongoing NASA programs but future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies. I believe that climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing. Mr. Trump's decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science."

Solid science has been the hallmark of NASA's Earth Science division for several decades. The agency uses a fleet of satellites to monitor ocean and atmospheric conditions round-the-clock, putting together short-term weather forecasts, long-term climate models, and trends over decades about where the planet is headed.

RELATED: NASA and Other Climate Funding Could Be Slashed by Trump

Until Trump issues a more definitive statement on his plans, many of the scientists who work for NASA's Earth Sciences Directorate fear they may be soon be out of work.

"It's got everybody here worried," said one senior NASA climate scientist who asked not to be named because of possible retribution.

"If they get rid of Earth science, there's a large chunk of the NASA community that has to find other work," the scientist said. "That's our personal stake. But in addition to us losing our jobs, there's a huge community that loses out on key data sets."

Data sets are the vital signs of the Earth such as land, sea and air temperatures, rainfall amounts, sea ice coverage and sea-level measurements that provide the backbone in making climate change predictions for the future.

Farmers use these same data sets to make decisions about what crops will grow best during the next season, when trees are ready to harvest or ski resorts' investment in snowmaking during the winter months. NASA's Earth science satellites also track tornadoes forming across the Midwest and the impact of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

"All the (weather) forecasting are applications of the same data," the NASA scientist said. "Any data sets we collect have both science goals and application goals. That's why it's valuable."

The scientist said that senior NASA officials are collecting information to present a case to the incoming Trump administration about the value of climate science, while promoting the #thanksNASA hashtag. So far, however, it's not clear that Trump has focused much attention on science at all.

A group of leaders of 19 scientific societies wrote to vice president-elect Mike Pence asking him to ensure that Trump appoints a science advisor to the White House. So far, there hasn't been a response.

"There was a lot of rhetoric during the campaign that caused even those outside of this discipline to be concerned," said Chris McEntee, executive director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union, which represents 60,000 Earth, atmospheric, oceanic, hydrologic, space and planetary scientists.

RELATED: Climate Change Threatens NASA's Launch Sites

"The priorities (the Trump administration) say they care about - infrastructure, national security public safety, clean air and water - depend on sound science advice, not picking and choosing," McEntee told Seeker.
McEntee says her organization and other science groups are not in an adversarial position, but want a chance to meet with someone in Trump's team.

Trump has yet to make public his picks to head NASA, or any other federal agencies that fund climate science including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEH/NIH).

If Trump proposes cutting climate science funding he will have allies on Capitol Hill. The current chairs of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith, and Senate Science Committee, Ted Cruz, both deny the human impact on climate change. In 2015, Smith subpoenaed NOAA scientists emails about a climate change report that he didn't like. NOAA's administrator Kathryn Sullivan backed her scientists and refused to comply, although Smith's staffers were able to review the data behind the report.

One academic climate scientist says the worse damage may be the chilling effect on young scientists entering the field.

"What could happen is you will have fewer scientists doing science," said Andrea Grottoli, head of the division of Water, Climate, and the Environment at Ohio State University. "There may be a whole lot less being done."

Grottoli and her team of doctoral students are examining the lethal effects of increasing acidic tropical oceans on coral reefs, a documented outcome of a warming planet.

"My two Ph.D. students were devastated because it affects their career options," Grottoli said. "Traditionally, the U.S. has been the best place to get science jobs."

Photo: The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, in the midst of their ICESCAPE mission, retrieves supplies in the Arctic Ocean in this NASA file photo. Credit: Kathryn Hansen/NASA via Reuters WATCH: When NASA Went to Space Without Leaving the Earth