Trump’s New NASA Chief Controls One of the Most Important Parts of Climate Science

We assess many parts of our changing planet from the sky.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images, iStock.

President Donald Trump has made no effort to hide his vehement disbelief that climate change is real: He’s chosen to pull the country out of the 2016 Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and he’s found egregious ways to dismantle much of former President Barack Obama’s moves to combat it, too. And now, NASA, it seems, will not escape Trump’s disdain of sound environmental policy. Trump’s nominee for the agency’s new administrator is Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a man who’s been vying for the job since the election, and who is also no friend to climate science.

In 2013, for instance, Bridenstine said matter-of-factly on the congressional floor that global temperatures “stopped rising 10 years ago”—a pretty bold statement for someone with no real scientific background. His explanation? “Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.” Needless to say, that’s not quite how it works.

On Wednesday, the Senate’s science committee held a hearing to finally question Bridenstine on his qualifications, and the Democratic members of the committee raced to grill him on his scientific literacy. For his part, the congressman told the committee his views of climate change have evolved.

“I believe carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I believe that humans have contributed to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” he said. Bridenstine said that he “absolutely” believes climate change is real and that it was creating tangible problems in the form of increased rain and storm formation. “All that is very real and happening.”

It is, of course, good that he could get behind a true statement like that, but it’s extremely disheartening that his reputation necessitated such a statement to be made in the first place. Even more disheartening was that he copped out on the question of whether human activity was the leading cause of climate change—something the vast majority of scientists say is true. “We’re just scratching the surface,” he said, defecting to the classic denialist line that more studies were needed.

Obviously Bridenstine should join us in the year 2017 and accept that humans are causing climatic havoc, but hey, if he actually does think we need to learn more, NASA’s the perfect place to start.

Although NASA’s a powerhouse name thanks to its space travel exploits, it also plays a critically underrated role in the world of Earth science research. One of the reasons why climate scientists are so good at their jobs is because they’re able to utilize the data observed and collected by a variety of NASA’s orbital satellites, taking real-time measurements of the Earth’s temperatures, atmospheric chemistry, fluctuations and changes in ocean currents and air movements, and glacier melts. The world’s scientists are given unimpeded access to that data, so they can translate those raw numbers into trends and conclusions that help us understand the world that we inhabit. That’s one of the reasons we know the Earth is getting warmer, the sea levels are rising faster, and humans are to blame. NASA’s tools and minds are essential to tracking this phenomenon.

A lot of this is in the form of imagery. Those state-of-the-art cameras on those satellites are some of the best tools used in showing people much of the Arctic has been lost in the past few decades; the extent to which coastlines are now becoming inundated by flood waters and rising tides; the loss of fertile, green land to extended drought; and more. Moreover, this isn’t work other government agencies could easily pick up. Besides how crucial it is to have NASA engineers at the helm in designing, building, and operating these forms of equipment, there’s an institutional knowledge and expertise that would be lost by trying to shuffle these investigations into other places.

Trump clearly doesn’t care about this work. The administration’s proposed 2018 budget—hypothetical, yes, but meaningful when it comes to discerning intent—would put the kibosh on five different Earth science missions, including a pernicious move to needlessly end an Earth-imaging mission that’s already ongoing. It’s proposed as a cost-saving measure, but in government terms, the savings are not huge—$191 million in 2018 and $850 million over four years amounts to a fraction of NASA’s overall annual budget of about $19 billion.

Bridenstine said Wednesday he wants to continue NASA’s Earth science work, but it’s entirely unclear how aggressive he’ll work to this end. Those five missions Trump wants to nix were meant to replace a fleet of old climate satellites that are on their last legs, and currently there’s no real plan to replace them. Moreover, while Bridenstine has said he intends to lead NASA apolitically and will not seek to punish or reassign Earth science researchers for their views, it’s incredibly doubtful NASA’s personnel will have much confidence in Bridenstine’s ability to protect NASA from Trump’s brash whims.

Instead, Bridenstine’s nomination feels a lot like another recurring theme of the new administration: disarm the clout of federal agencies from the inside by appointing heads who will toe an adversarial line. He seems to be a softer cut of that strategy but part of the plan nonetheless.