Rep. Jim Bridenstine’s nomination to become the next NASA administrator has already run into trouble, with Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) expressing concerns over appointing a politician to lead an agency that has enjoyed broad bipartisan support and has been mostly free of the sharp partisan divisions that have led to gridlock in Congress in recent years.
Some media reports have suggested that Rubio is angry at Bridenstine’s attacks upon him when he ran for president, a charge the Florida senator denies. Bridenstine first backed Ted Cruz’s bid, then switched to Donald Trump after Cruz dropped out of the race.
Or it could be the conservative Oklahoma Republican’s floor speeches, which include one in which he claimed President Barack Obama “dishonesty, incompetence, vengefulness and lack of moral compass lead many to suggest that he is not fit to lead.” His opinion of Vice President Joe Biden was hardly better. “The only problem is that his vice president is equally unfit and even more embarrassing,” Bridenstine said.
Did I mention Bridenstine is a strong Trump supporter? Let that sink in for a moment.
Aside from the concerns about partisanship, there is one other issue that could cause Senators to vote against Bridenstine when his nomination is considered later this year: climate change, also known as global warming.
A couple of years back, Bridenstine made an 1 minute 6 second speech on the House floor that laid out his views on the subject.
These sentiments clearly played well back home in Oklahoma, whose economy is heavily dependent on the oil, gas and coal that workers can extract from the ground. Accepting that human created climate change is a real and must be addressed is a serious threat to the state’s economy.
However, in seeking to lead NASA, Bridenstine would be stepping into a national agency with a substantial climate change research portfolio. The space agency’s Earth Science budget, which includes climate change research, totals $1.9 billion in the current 2017 fiscal year.
The first part of his speech is composed of standard Republican talking points on global warming. There are serious questions about the accuracy of these claims. Rather than go through them one by one, I would point you to detailed rebuttals of them based on science that can be found here.
Bridenstine saved his most spectacular and partisan charge for the very end of the speech. At about 50 seconds, he accuses the Obama Administration of spending 30 times more on climate change than on weather forecasting and demands an apology from President Obama to the tornado ravished people of Oklahoma.
What pieces of evidence did Bridenstine present to back up the 30-to-1 ratio? None. No charts. No tables. No graphics. No facts. No figures. No evidence. No nothing. He merely states it as fact, promises legislation to address the imbalance, and ends his speech.
So, how accurate is the 30-to-1 ratio? PolitiFact rated the charge as mostly false after it drilled down into the numbers and got some clarifications from Bridenstine’s office. In addition to finding the ratio much smaller, PolitiFact also noted substantial overlap between climate change research and weather forecasting.
We think the most obvious way to read his words is to compare climate-change research funding with dollars spent on “weather forecasting and warning,” which produces a 2.7-to-1 ratio. However, even if you accept Bridenstine’s argument that he meant to compare it to “weather forecasting and warning research,” the ratio is still not near 30 to 1.
Bridenstine does have a point that climate change research exceeds weather forecasting expenditures, but he’s overstated the discrepancy. We rate his statement Mostly False.
So, in demanding an apology from the president, Bridenstine’s was off by as much as a factor of 11. Little wonder that Nelson and Rubio are concerned about the Congressman running NASA.
Assuming that Bridenstine obtains Senate approval, what might he want to do with the space agency’s substantial climate change and Earth science portfolio? Here’s what he said early this year.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who confirmed that he is the running to become NASA administrator, said he is open to moving part of the earth science study out of the agency and into NOAA, or even swapping a few programs between the two agencies. He was generally supportive of the earth science but did not commit to keeping climate research at NASA.
“I support earth science; it is critically important for us as a nation to understand what is happening on our own planet, so I think there is broad consensus, bipartisan, that earth science is important,” he said.
This is line with views expressed by the Trump Administration and the Republican leadership in Congress, which are equally skeptical that human-caused climate change is anything to worry about. (Trump, in fact, has previously claimed climate change is a Chinese plot to destroy American industry.) Yes, Earth science is important and we support it, they say. But, let’s have other agencies deal with it and let NASA deal with deep-space exploration, which has suffered due to the focus on climate change.
It’s an argument that, on the surface, makes perfect sense. Drill down a bit and Grand Canyon sized gaps begin to appear in it. While it’s certainly true that Earth science takes up a chunk of the budget, this has not stopped NASA from mounting a vigorous robotic exploration of the planets.
As for moving astronauts out beyond low Earth orbit, it’s difficult to point to NASA’s work on Earth science as having prevented that. The problems have resulted from a series of decisions over decades by various administrations and Congresses relating to funding and technical architectures that have resulted in extremely expensive programs that nobody wants to properly fund.
The other problem involves the motivations of the people saying that other agencies should do climate research. These calls are coming from politicians like Bridenstine who don’t believe climate change is a problem. They will not give NOAA and other agencies the funds to study it properly.
It’s true that Bridenstine supports Earth science. However, he has been laser focused on improving weather forecasting, which is related to but not the same as climate change. There’s no indication in his record of supporting climate change research. In fact, the American Energy Renaissance Act, which he co-sponsored with Cruz, is aimed at promoting more oil, gas and coal use and weakening environmental controls.
The Trump Administration has proposed slashing environmental and climate research across the government, including a significant cut in NASA’s Earth Science program for fiscal year 2018. It also has been scrubbing references to climate change from government websites.
The House Appropriations Committee cut the space agency’s Earth Science budget even deeper than the Trump Administration proposed. The Senate Appropriations Committee kept NASA’s Earth Science budget flat at FY 2017 levels.