Let’s get right to it. Understanding the dynamics of our Earth, including disasters like hurricanes and droughts, has never seemed more important. As if on cue, we have a confirmation hearing for the NASA Administrator nominee coming down the pike. Is President Trump’s nominee, Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), the right fit?
There are a number of things that members of Congress should be looking for as they go into the confirmation hearing. If members of Congress want a NASA that will be able to advance understanding of the formation and impacts of disasters like Hurricane Irma, Harvey, and Maria or droughts in the Upper Midwest, they need a NASA Administrator who will prioritize Earth science research, including that of climate change and land use/land cover change. Accomplishing this in an administration that has politicized – and at times obfuscated – climate science will not be easy.
The job will require a NASA Administrator who can tell science from politics, and whose main objective is to advance the former.
Critical Attribute #1 – A NASA administrator who will not drop NASA’s Earth science research
Bridenstine would come into the NASA Administrator position, most often held by a scientist or a space professional, with no formal science or engineering training.
His main qualifications include his service as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, his service on the House Science, Space, and Technology and Armed Services Committees, and his leadership of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium.
In 2016, Bridenstine introduced a piece of legislation that should have anyone who wants NASA to better understand natural disasters worried. In H.R. 4945, Bridenstine recommends significantly altering NASA’s mission by stripping out all Earth science related work from Congress’ declared policy and purpose for NASA:
Bridenstine’s recommended changes to Congress’s policy and purpose statement for NASA, as specified in his 2016 proposed legislation, “The American Space Renaissance Act”.
As Administrator, would Bridenstine seek to extract Earth science research from NASA’s work, or would he commit at the confirmation hearing to supporting this critical arm of the institution?
Critical Attribute #2 – A NASA administrator who understands and will promote climate science
Bridenstine made a number of public remarks that both question the well-accepted human cause of climate change and are incorrect. Members of Congress need to hold him accountable to these woefully inaccurate statements, such as:
“I would say that climate is changing. It is always changing. There were periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today. Going back to the 1600s, we have had mini Ice Ages from then to now.”
Reality: We are living in between two ice ages – one that ended roughly 11,500 years ago, and one that is yet to come. Ice ages happen because of changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. If people weren’t emitting so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the Earth would be slowly beginning to cool right now.
But that’s not the case.
Instead, the Earth’s average surface temperature is the warmest it has been in the past 1,400 years in the Northern Hemisphere (where it is possible to make this kind of measurement). Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are the highest in at least 800,000 years. Sure, there was a period of cooling in some portions of the world between ~1400 and 1900 (not an actual ice age, but a period that is affectionately known as the Little Ice Age). However, by using both basic physics (more heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere = more heat trapped) and sophisticated computer models, scientists know that the warming they have seen since the mid twentieth century is the result of human-caused global warming emissions. Members of Congress also need to inquire about this false statement:
“Here’s what I would tell you. That if you look at the Chinese and the Russian and the Indian production of carbon emissions, it is overwhelmingly massive compared to the carbon footprint of the United States of America.”
Reality: Currently, the United States is the second largest producer of global warming emissions in the world, behind China and ahead of Russia and India, and has produced more global warming emissions than any other country since preindustrial times.
And this one:
“Again, I am not opposed to studying it [climate change.] What you’ll find, though, is that the space-based assets that are studying climate change are not in agreement with the terrestrial assets that are studying climate change. In fact, the space-based assets are not corroborating some of the data.”
Reality: Scientists have examined trends in the Earth’s average surface temperature using satellite observations of the troposphere (the lower atmosphere), weather balloon and ocean buoy measurements, information from weather stations, and more – and they all show that the Earth’s surface temperature has increased significantly since the 19th century. Furthermore, the latter part of Bridenstine’s statement is a claim made by skeptics of climate science that has been debunked many times.
Can Bridenstine explain these statements and demonstrate an accurate understanding of climate science?
Measurements of Earth’s changing climate. Each colored line represents an independent measurement of an aspect of the Earth’s climate. Source: IPCC AR5.
Critical Attribute #3 – A NASA administrator who will be able to differentiate science from politics
Bridestine’s public remarks suggest that his current understanding of Earth science is largely informed by politically-charged skeptics of climate change research.
Given that Bridenstine would enter into the Administrator position with no formal science education, it is particularly important that members of Congress test his ability to differentiate science from politics.
Members of Congress should not underestimate the quandary they will find themselves in if NASA does not continue these critical Earth science research activities. The products of these endeavors form the basis of our nation’s weather forecasts, lead to new technologies that drive our economy forward, and help protect American lives, infrastructure, and investments. Doing away with or demoting these activities is a risk they should not be willing to take.
Anyone who does not support Earth science research at NASA should not be confirmed as Administrator.
By: Rachel Licker, Senior Climate Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists