Climate Scientists Speak Out Against Trump’s Plans to Cut NASA Funding
Dr. Kevin Trenberth is among the many who signed an open letter calling on President-elect Trump not to cut funding for research or censor scientists
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown. Red flags are flying in the scientific community over pending Donald Trump appointments of climate change deniers in key roles, such as the Head of the Environmental Protection Agency and in the Interior Department. Also alarming is Trump’s possible plan to scrap the NASA Earth Science Research Division in favor of deep space research. Now, NASA is one of the world’s renowned organizations on issues of climate change whose purpose, according to their own mandate, is to, “Develop a scientific understanding of the Earth’s systems and its response to natural or human-induced changes, and improved prediction of climate, weather and natural hazards.” Well, now over 2,300 scientists have signed a letter, an open letter to President-elect Trump asking him not to cut funding for research or censor scientists.
With us to discuss this is Dr. Kevin Trenberth. He is a distinguished senior scientist, he’s also representing NCAR’s Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory. He joins us today from Boulder, Colorado. Dr. Trenberth, thank you so much for being with us.
KEVIN TRENBERTH: You’re most welcome.
KIM BROWN: So talk to us about the characterization of climate change by President-elect Trump and others as a hoax, as something that is conjured up by the environmental lobby. It’s been a way of politicizing science and it seems that we only hear this sort of characterization when it comes to describing climate change, especially from those on the right. So how important is the research that the NASA Earth Science Departments do in terms of our national preparedness and awareness of climate change?
KEVIN TRENBERTH: Well, firstly, with regard to NASA, of course, their mission is not just to climate change, that’s a very small, secondary part of it. Their mission is, indeed, to understand and explore planet Earth, the planet we live on, how it works and why and what changes are going on, whether they’re natural or whether they’re from human activities. And there are many human activities that are changing the landscape, whether it’s farming or forestry or all sorts of things. But the one which has the important effects on climate is the changes in the composition of the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels has increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by over 40% since pre-industrial times, mostly in the past century or so. And we have very good evidence of all kinds, from observational evidence, from physical understanding, how it all puts together to say that, indeed, humans are changing the climate, climate change is real. And then you can also ask the question, you know, “What do we do about it?” And that is one certainly where values come into play and politics comes into play. But there are many scientific aspects that are strongly evidence-based to say that climate change is real and it’s a problem.
KIM BROWN: So, Republicans in Congress already tried to cut NASA’s funding last year, but they weren’t successful. So how long has this political “war on science” been going on here in the US? And what do you think is behind it?
KEVIN TRENBERTH: It certainly goes back to about 2012 when some of the biggest cuts have occurred in NOAA. The pressure on NOAA went through the House Science Committee led by Lamar Smith. And, so NOAA at that time was proposing a climate service parallel to the National Weather Service and it was really more an organizational approach to bringing all of the things that relate to climate together. It was more administrative than anything, but the word “climate” stuck in somebody’s throat and, as a result, a big chunk of their portfolio was cut by something like 30%. And that affected basic observations of the ocean, for instance. And so, it had an adverse effect and it’s been that way ever since. And so, last year, as you said, it crept into some other areas potentially affecting NASA and also in the National Science Foundation, affecting geophysics and social sciences also in the National Science Foundation.
KIM BROWN: And NOAA is the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. NOAA does a wide range of work. The one primary function that NOAA seems to do for our country that comes immediately to mind is that they’re the ones that fly the planes into the hurricanes, is that right?
KEVIN TRENBERTH: That’s one of the things, yes, but they’re responsible for all of the satellite pictures that you see on television at night. They run the operational aspects of the satellites, whereas NASA is more in the development phase in building new things, but not so much in the monitoring phase. But NOAA does many other things. They’re responsible for all of the fisheries, for instance, and they have very large environmental information service that supplies all kinds of information to farmers and people in forestry and all other areas. And, of course, they run the National Weather Service. And so, they are responsible for all of the forecasts. Often you’ll see television people issuing forecasts, but they’re nearly always based pretty heavily upon what the National Weather Service has put out.
KIM BROWN: So, Doctor, what needs to be done that the US doesn’t fall behind on climate change research?
KEVIN TRENBERTH: The US has certainly been a leader in many areas, but this is a global problem. Satellites have the advantage of being able to see the entire Earth, from space. And so, this is the wonderful thing from the monitoring satellites and what NASA does, but there’s a lot of, what we call, in situ, in place observations, thousands, actually tens of thousands of weather stations around the world measuring temperature and precipitation and winds and cloudiness and so on — and many of these are, of course, extremely valuable for, especially people who are growing things, farmers and so on. And all of this information has to be gathered together and processed. And it’s an amazing system when you see it all. And so a lot of this information that is gathered for weather is then used to try to put together the story about the longer term variations — the annual cycle and the changes in climate over time. Some of the observations are not very suitable for that because they’re not stable enough. But some of them are very useful and there have been many reconstructions of what the climate is actually doing over time. And so, we have pretty good information about that, but there are all kinds of interesting complications that matter — especially with regard to water, precipitation, rainfall, things like storms, how they’re changing. I think of Hurricane Matthew that caused tremendous flooding in the southeastern parts of the United States, as an example. You know, probably had a climate change component, but it probably had a very large natural variability component, as well. And understanding that and what it implies for the future is what a lot of climate change research is all about.
KIM BROWN: So, Doctor, talk to us about Donald Trump’s policies and how they would affect public health. And how American society would suffer if climate science research funding is slashed under a Trump Administration.
KEVIN TRENBERTH: Well, climate change is happening and it’s now quite substantial, as I mentioned before. Carbon dioxide has increased by more than 40% from pre-industrial levels. And, at the rate we’re going, we will double the amount of pre-industrial carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about 2060 or thereabouts. And, going along with that, there are substantial climate changes. The global mean surface temperature will go up by about 3 degrees Celsius, over 5 degrees Fahrenheit — and that’s judged to be in the dangerous level because it’s at a level where many ecosystems, many forests and all of the farming that we do would no longer be viable where it currently exists. And so, this has a huge threats for many countries around the world. It’s a global problem in that regard and the US needs to play a leadership role in two ways – one, because it’s been responsible more than anyone else for the problem, by putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than anyone else; and, secondly, because of the leadership that’s needed in getting solutions as to how we address this. And all of this came together late last year in Paris, the so-called Paris Agreement, where President Obama and the current administration played a substantial role in bringing that agreement into reality. And it was a remarkable agreement of over 190 countries to develop a consensus statement that we really need to address climate change in a substantive fashion.
KIM BROWN: So, regarding the letter that the 2,300 scientists have sent to Donald Trump asking him not to cut climate research funding, one of their main demands is that research such as on the climate be divorced from political considerations. Is that even possible, and, if so, Doctor, how?
KEVIN TRENBERTH: Well, this was the approach that was adopted in the first Bush, the Bush Sr. Administration, that we definitely need information. We want information on what is happening and why and what the implications are for the future. And these are all scientific questions but they depend very much on tracking what’s going on, on monitoring the weather and the climate around the world and trying to understand just what is going on and why. And then a separate question is, “Well, what do we do about this? Do we try to plan for what we think the consequences of this are or do we suffer the consequences?” And the more we ignore this problem, the more we go in the direction of suffering the consequences — and we can already see the effects of this around the world in many instances. I mentioned before, Hurricane Matthew and before that there was all of the floods in Louisiana that undoubtedly had a climate change component, as well. And you can go back to things like Superstorm Sandy, there was undoubtedly a climate change, a significant climate change component in that, as well. And so, they are big costs, tens of billions of dollars a year in the US and around the world already associated with climate change. But it doesn’t affect everyone all at once. It’s a hit-and-miss thing, it affects different communities, different towns, different places at different times. In the West it’s been much more a story of drought and wildfires, which also have a climate change component to it. And so, we really do need to plan for these consequences as best we can. And there’s various scientific approaches to addressing that. One approach you end up taking is, of course, the responsibility of all of us and it ends up being very much in the hands of politicians. And so, part of the objections seem to be, they don’t want government, or some people don’t want government involved in this and yet this is very much a national and international or global problem. It’s one which is very much, in that sense, something which governments need to be involved in.
KIM BROWN: If not governments, then who would have the ability to take on such a monumental issue such as global climate change?
KEVIN TRENBERTH: Yes, well, it relates to agreements and the United Nations is not a strong body, it’s not a governing body in that regard. The Paris Agreement that occurred late last year was quite remarkable but it has no enforcement powers at all. It’s an agreement for everyone to sort of do their best, in many respects. And, you know, we’ll try and provide information and keep checks on just how well we’re doing, and things like that. But there’s no enforcement for that. There’s no international governing body and so it’s very much up to countries like the US to play a leadership role in this. The US, China and Europe together can potentially lead our way out of a lot of this problem and put us on a much better basis in terms of where we stand with regard to the environment and climate.
KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Dr. Kevin Trenberth. He is a distinguished senior scientist at NCAR’s Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory. He’s been joining us today from Boulder, Colorado. Dr. Trenberth, thank you so much for joining us.
KEVIN TRENBERTH: Oh, you’re most welcome.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.