With hurricanes and floods recently swamping Florida, Texas, India and Bangladesh, and wildfires raging across California and the U.S. west, climate change is at the forefront of public policy discussions around the world.
An American agency with a central role in studying climate change is NASA, with its satellites providing critical data about temperatures and weather conditions. President Donald Trump has nominated as the next Administrator of NASA Congressman Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma, Navy aviator and booster of the idea of privatizing space exploration.
Bridenstine is strongly supported by the commercial space flight industry. But his confirmation is being opposed by many scientists, environmentalists and others who object to his denial of the scientific consensus that global warming is real.
Here is Congressman Bridenstine speaking on the floor of the U.S. House in 2013: “Mr. Speaker. Global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago. Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.”
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “That statement is false. Temperatures have continued to rise. This so called ‘hiatus’ in global warming has been shown to be not correct. It’s a very common talking point that has been used by those who have denied the reality of climate change.”
Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and author who has published extensively about climate change, said: “For the head of NASA to be saying that climate change has stopped – which we know is a completely untrue claim – would be like having the Surgeon General be a person who said that cigarette smoking is good for you.”
Here’s Bridenstine again, speaking on the floor of the House, making the point – often repeated by Congressional Republicans – that pollution from industry could not be causing climate change, because the global climate has always been changing.
“During the Medieval warming period, from 800 to 1300 AD, long before cars, power plants or the industrial revolution, temperatures were warmer than they are today,” Bridenstine said. “During the ‘Little Ice Age’ from 1300 to 1900 AD, temperatures were cooler. Neither of these periods were caused by any human activity.”
Kerry Emanuel is a professor of climate science at MIT. He said that Bridenstine is misstating the factual record and using historical anecdotes from one part of the world while ignoring hard evidence gathered from ice core samples taken from Greenland and Antarctica to give a false impression of what was happening with the global climate during these time periods.
“It’s very misleading, and I think deliberately so,” said Emanuel. “From about 2000 to the beginning of the industrial revolution, there was as very slight drop in temperature, followed by a very rapid rise from around 1800 to the present. It’s a very clear, unmistakable signal.”
Emanuel and other climate scientists worry that a NASA led by a politician like Bridenstine will suppress scientific research that conflicts with their ideological agenda -- which is to prevent regulation of greenhouse gases that might impact the profits of industry.
Other federal agencies under the Trump Administration have already made moves in this direction, the critics argue, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, recently dissolving its 15-member climate science advisory commission.
At EPA, former Republican Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a longtime political ally of the oil and gas industry, cancelled climate research programs at the agency he now runs. Pruitt also announced the planned elimination of greenhouse gas regulations and removed web pages about climate change.
Now the question is: Will NASA take a similar trajectory out of the orbit of science?