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EXPERT REACTION: Donald Trump plans to scrap climate science research at NASA

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Reports suggest Donald Trump's team is planning to scrap climate research at NASA. Trump’s senior advisor on NASA, Bob Walker, has announced plans to scrap climate research at the agency in a crackdown on what his team refers to as “politicised science”. NASA’s Earth science division is set to be stripped of funding, according to reports. Below, Australian experts comment.

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Dr Liz Hanna is a Fellow of the National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health at the Australian National University, and National Convenor of the Climate Change Adaptation Research Network for Human Health

Shutting down the science will not stop climate change. All it will do is render people, communities and societies unprepared and at even greater risk. We know 2016 will break the 2015 global record for heat, which broke the 2014 record.

At one degree of global warming, the rise in nations' climatic disaster costs is rising faster than GDPs around the world, and the Paris pledges, if kept, will take us up to three degrees C. Trump and others fail to realise that human physiology cannot tolerate  exposure to extreme heat, and we have seen heat deaths rise by 2300 per cent. If Trump does not care about people’s lives, perhaps he might consider the drop in productivity that inevitably tracks temperature increases.

Last updated: 25 Nov 2016 3:11pm

Professor Patricia Werner is at the College of Medicine, Biology and Environment at the Australian National University

Trump can do this because NASA is one of three science-based US agencies funded out of the Executive branch of government (the other two being the EPA and the NSF), with the Director/Administrator directly answerable to the President.

NASA has provided vast and invaluable satellite data for approximately 20 years that is used by climate modellers over the world (including Australia).

This long period spans tenures of other Republican presidents; interestingly, the main NASA climate scientist under the first Bush administration (Bob Watson) became the second President Bush's science advisor.

Last updated: 25 Nov 2016 10:16am
Dr Paul Read is Senior Research Fellow at the Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University and a Co-Director of the National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson

If Mr Trump is planning on transferring funding from earth science to space science, he'll be going against his own electoral supporters and his own advisor's statement that 'We need good science to tell us what the reality is and science could do that if politicians didn’t interfere with it.'

The existing work by NASA collects incomparable levels of data, without which the science can't be done properly. So many bizarre ironies are operating here.  A billionnaire prophet for America's poor.  Yet these are the people most likely to be hit hardest by climate change. Protectionism at a time when globalisation needs to be managed for the betterment of all people.  The launch of a new space race when now more than ever we need to manage our own planet.

What's more, the idea of locating a planet with such finely tuned habitable zones as Earth is uncertain and, at best, would take 100 years to reach. Some estimates suggest 1,000 years and even then travelling at the speed of light. Will Mr Trump be taking his electorate with him once he's finished with Earth?

Mr Trump is about 10 years behind the public understanding of climate science, much less the scientific consensus. As the climate hits home here on Earth, his own support base could turn on him like a snake with whiplash.

You can't let Life on Earth deteriorate and then claim it as depreciation. Nature has its own business to take care of.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 4:30pm
Dr Jenny Fisher is a researcher in the Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry and a lecturer in the Schools of Earth & Environmental Sciences and Chemistry at the University of Wollongong

The idea of stripping funding from NASA’s Earth Science division is deeply disturbing. NASA has a diverse Earth observation portfolio that includes not only climate science but an array of other programs that are providing critical information to address practical societal issues.

Air pollution is a great example – because air moves rapidly around the globe, pollution emitted from one source (like a wildfire in the Amazon or a mega-city in Southeast Asia) can affect the air quality somewhere completely different, even on another continent.

Over the past two decades, NASA’s satellites and aircraft have given us a bird’s eye view of how much pollution is being produced, how it travels through the air, where it ends up, and what happens when different types of pollution mix with one another.

They have shown us that smoke from bushfires in Africa and South America can affect the air here in Australia and New Zealand. They have helped us identify previously unreported emissions of toxic chemicals and pinpointed where air pollution is getting better — and where it is getting worse.

These satellites are especially critical in the Southern Hemisphere, complementing ground-based efforts by filling in the gaps over large areas that are much too remote for continuous surface monitoring sites. Without NASA’s earth observation programme, much of our atmosphere will go back to being invisible.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:30pm
Dr Grant Wardell-Johnson is the Director of the Curtin Institute for Biodiversity and Climate in the Department of Environment and Agriculture in the School of Science at Curtin University

Climate change research has now gathered sufficient momentum that this decision would merely provide China with the opportunity to be the global leader in this area and render the US less relevant. Of course the scientists are likely to be well-supported in China – but would have to move. 

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:28pm
Professor Mark Tjoelker is Theme Leader, Ecosystem Function & Integration at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University

With greenhouse gas concentrations rising and temperature records being broken worldwide, now more than ever do we need to continue to support our Earth observation systems and the science underpinning climate change research.

Given the disproportionate investment by the United States in supporting Earth science through world-class organisations such as NASA, deeps cuts in funding and job loss will have repercussions for earth system science far beyond the US.

These cuts if realised will further amplify the loss in research capacity in climate science here in Australia.

It is in the best interest of policy makers of any political persuasion to protect, nuture and maintain the flow of science-based information in order to make the best possible policy choices in the face of climate change threats to agriculture and the environment.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:26pm
Dr Adam Hartland is a Senior Lecturer in Geochemistry at the University of Waitkato

It is hard to overstate the importance of the information provided by NASA from orbiting satellites, so called 'remotely sensed' data. This information reveals the functioning of the Earth climate system (land, oceans, atmosphere) in exquisite detail. It documents the impacts of human activities on the climate, but much more besides. Did you know, for example, that NASA is the leading source of information on the state of the ozone hole, the extent of Antarctic sea ice, or the amount of plankton growing in the Southern Ocean? This sort of information is critical for New Zealand and Australia, more people need to know about it and appreciate what it would mean to do away with it.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:23pm
A/Prof Helen McGregor is an ARC Future Fellow at the University of Wollongong

My advice to president-elect Trump is to look beyond his advisor Bob Walker’s comments and see exactly the important work done by the NASA Earth science division.

Want to have a decent rainfall forecast ahead of time? Then you’ll need the satellite observations of clouds and weather systems provided by the Earth science division.

Hurricanes and cyclones are clearly destructive — so the more we know about them, the better prepared we will be for their impact. Division scientists just last month gave us a unique view of the internal workings of Hurricane Nicole and a far better understanding of her 176 km per hour winds and rain intensity.

The work from the Earth science division even extends to disease prevention by matching up land temperature data gathered from space with disease-carrying mosquito hotspots and reducing outbreak risk.

This is not “politically correct environmental monitoring” as Walker asserts but is essential data to ensure society’s health and wellbeing.

As for climate change science, the division's reports on global temperatures are solely based on robust data. What’s being politicised here is not the science but the story that the science tells: that the planet is warming.

Let’s not shoot the messenger.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:19pm
Dr Christian Downie is a Research Fellow and the Higher Degree Research Convenor in the School of Regulation and Global Governance, RegNet, (from 1 May 2017) at The Australian National University

Reports that Donald Trump will scrap climate change research at NASA are outrageous .
Faced with the grave threat of climate change, President-elect Trump has decided that he would prefer to know less about the issue, not more.
Sadly, this represents the latest in a long line of Republican attacks on science, which threaten to undermine the US’ role as a global leader on science and technology.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:15pm
Associate Professor Pete Strutton is from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes

NASA satellites measure a vast range of Earth science parameters. They track changes in the climate as they are manifest in properties such as ocean and land temperature, sea level, ice cap mass, sea ice, the water cycle and ocean productivity.

The quality of these data depends on their continuity. Stopping these satellite missions, moving them to another US agency, or assuming that other countries will take up the slack, will lead to the cessation, interruption or bungling of these important programs.

This will kill our ability to monitor and predict the trajectory of climate change and its impacts.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:14pm
Dr John Cook is a Climate Communication Research Fellow at the Global Change institute, University of Queensland

It is a matter of concern that Bob Walker, the advisor on NASA to President-elect Trump, is basing his policy recommendations on clear misinformation about climate change. A number of studies have independently found that around 97 per cent of climatologists agree that humans are causing global warming. This research demonstrably falsifies Walker’s claim that half of climatologists doubt human-caused global warming.

Similarly, Walker claims that climate science has been politicised by NASA. But many psychological studies have found that ideology associated with political conservatism is the main driver of the rejection of climate science. In this instance, Walker’s accusations of politicising science are a clear case of projection. This is unfortunate and concerning as policy regarding climate change should be based on accurate scientific information rather than misinformation.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:13pm
Dr Andrew King is Climate Extremes Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, University of Melbourne.

The work that NASA does is on the cutting edge of climate science. If NASA no longer did climate research it would be to the detriment of our field.

In addition, NASA gathers, compiles and distributes many vital datasets including the GISS global temperature data. These datasets form the bedrock of many climate studies and are essential to our work.

Threats such as this one to climate research at NASA are very damaging. Increasing our understanding of how our climate's changing will benefit everyone. It is vital that we expand rather than shrink our capabilities.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:11pm
Ian Lowe is Emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, Qld and former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

For ideologues on the far right of the political spectrum, the science of climate change is a real threat.

Their laissez-faire approach is untenable in the face of the evidence that burning fossil fuels is causing dangerous climate change.

The easiest way to avoid embarrassing exposure is to shut down the science.

Just as we have seen in Australia the attack on CSIRO climate science under the Coalition government, we now see the incoming Trump administration attacking NASA.

They obviously hope that pressure for action will be eased if the science is muffled.

But with temperatures in the Arctic this week a startling 20 degrees above normal, no amount of waffle can disguise the need for urgent action to decarbonise our energy supply and immediately withdraw support for new coal mines.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:11pm
David Bowman is Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, and Director of the Fire Centre Research Hub in the School of Natural Sciences, The University of Tasmania

This is an extraordinarily alarming story for a fire scientist.  
NASA has been at the vanguard in supporting and developing fire science.
The satellite products provided by NASA have revolutionised our understanding of fire in the Earth system, in terms of impacts on land cover, smoke emission and  the nexus of fire activity with climate and weather, and hence climate change.
To defund NASA Earth observation would be very damaging to understanding of fire-prone landscapes, particularly in the western USA and Australia.
Earth observation is a non-negotiable requirement for effective, sustainable fire management and it will be provided by other sources if the US proceeds with this path, such as Europe, Japan and China.
So, effectively the US would be ceding intellectual ‘real estate’ to other nations that could quickly become dominant providers of essential information on fire activity.
Why a world leader in Earth observation should to this is beyond rational explanation.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:10pm
Professor Peter Newman AO is the John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University. He is the Coordinating Lead Author on Transport for the IPCC.

Climate science has gone beyond the ability of any political leader to stop. The fossil fuel era is rapidly disappearing and King Canute Trump cannot stop it as solar is now significantly cheaper and better than anything else.

The business world and community action will now see an end to fossil fuels, governments cannot prevent this. Trump’s place in history will be likened to the last Roman emperor standing on top of the wall in Constantinople as the hordes of Muslim soldiers stormed his decaying city. Science and innovation will shift to other parts of the world.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:08pm
Professor Stuart Phinn is Director of the Remote Sensing Research Centre at the University of Queensland

Reducing NASA’s Earth Observation programs significantly will reduce the ability of every single country in the world to accurately measure and understand how their environments are changing. This is short (weather) and long (climate) term and will reduce society’s and governments' ability globally to forecast and  predict: weather, cyclones/hurricanes, fires, floods, earthquakes, tsunami’s, etc.

Governments, industry and society all around the world are fundamentally dependent on the data and information NASA provides on the earth FOR FREE!
Australia is no exception – we are in an even worse situation if this happens. Our governments and industry are totally dependent on data and services NASA provides – we have just released a 10 year plan to address this  - the attached 2 page summary [see download table] and whole of community (industry, government, research) full plan at These documents explain the level of government and financial dependency essential services and industry have on these data ….ie do we want to lose our ability to forecast weather and the natural disasters our country is prone to  - cyclones, floods, fire?

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:07pm
John Church is a Professor in the Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales.

This is terrible news. If it goes as far as eliminating the critical role of Earth Observation Satellites, it is disastrous for our ability to track how the climate system is evolving, where the Earth’s climate is tracking compared to historical observations and future climate targets, and of course our ability to effectively and efficiently mitigate and adapt to our changing climate, particularly extreme events.  

In my own area of sea level change, NASA has been absolutely critical in designing and maintaining the altimeter satellites that are giving us such a clear image of rising sea levels and decaying ice sheets.  

The analysis and modelling of the climate system at NASA plays an important role supporting these observation systems and contributing to our understanding of the Earth’s climate.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:04pm
Dr Megan Saunders is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography Planning and Environmental Management & Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at The University of Queensland

Scrapping funding to climate research in NASA would be devastating. The science conducted by NASA is critically important to monitoring temperature, ice, clouds, sea level, hurricanes and carbon dioxide levels globally. Without this information our ability to respond to climate disasters, such as heat waves, cyclones, and coastal flooding, is severely compromised.

In many instances symptoms of climate change are occurring faster than predicted by models. For instance, NASA’s temperature records have shown that September 2016 was the warmest in 136 years of modern record keeping. NASA’s research on sea-level rise demonstrated that sea-level rise in the 21st century was greater than previously understood. NASA research in West Antarctica identified the fastest rates of glacier retreat ever observed.

Timely information acquired using the most up to date technologies over the entire globe is required to monitor the state of the climate and to predict the changes expected in future. Cutting edge information on the past, present and future climate system, such as that provided by NASA, is essential to informing national climate policies and commitments. 

There is no debate among the climate scientific community that climate change is real, it will have serious consequences for life on earth, and it is being caused by human actions. Climate change is already causing significant disruptions to the earth system on which humanity relies, and urgent action on climate change is required around the globe. Cutting funding to NASA compromises our ability to cope with climate change sends a message that climate change is not being taken seriously.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2016 1:01pm

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