Walking on Coals: Bridenstine Dances Around Hot Climate Change Issues

The new NASA global data set combines historical measurements with data from climate simulations using the best available computer models to provide forecasts of how global temperature (shown here) and precipitation might change up to 2100 under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. (Credit: NASA)

NASA Nominee Kinda Sorta Doesn’t Really
Walk Back Position on Global Warming

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On Friday, the U.S. government released a long-in-the-making report on climate change that contained a stark assessment of what humans are doing to planet Earth.

“This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” the report states. “For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

The report laid out a plethora of negative consequences that would result unless the world reduced its output of carbon: sharp increase in global temperatures, rising sea levels, flooded coastal cities increased number of forest fires in the western United States, and long-term droughts that would threaten crops and vital drinking water supplies.

The conclusions of the Fourth National Climate Assessment were not new in any way. The assessment was merely the latest in a series of reports issued in the United States and around the world that have  expressed the overwhelming consensus of scientists on the subject.

Although most of the world’s governments are taking the threat seriously, Republicans in Washington are not. The Trump Administration has been busy withdrawing from international climate agreements, cutting global warming programs, removing information from federal websites, barring government scientists from delivering papers at conferences, replacing scientists with industry representatives on key panels, promoting the increased use of oil and coal, and nominating global warming deniers to oversee key agencies.

And that brings us to the confirmation hearing held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last Wednesday, two days before the release of the climate assessment.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine

A Fox in Climate Research Hen House?

One of the four nominees was Rep. Jim Bridentstine (R-OK), a House member from the oil patch who has been a vocal global warming denier. He is Donald Trump’s choice to serve as administrator of NASA, an agency deeply involved in climate change research thorough its Earth Science Division.

During his five years in office, the extremely conservative Bridenstine has been one of the most implacable opponents of efforts to address climate change. He took to the House floor to claim that the Earth stopped warming 10 years earlier, and he demanded an apology from President Barack Obama for allegedly spending 30 times more on climate change than weather forecasting based on numbers that critics say greatly exaggerated the gap.

While denying global warming was occurring, Bridenstine was nonetheless extremely interested in improving Earth observation from space. However, his interest has been narrowly focused on improving weather forecasting, with the goal of reducing to zero the number of Oklahoma residents who die from tornadoes that annually touch down in the state.

In 2015, he co-sponsored the American Energy Restoration Act with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).  The act included numerous regulatory changes designed to promote oil, gas and coal production — moves that would benefit Oklahoma and Texas while adding to the human-produced carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

He followed up that measure the next year with the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA), a bill that proposed wide-ranging changes to the nation’s civil, commercial and military space programs.

A key provision was rewriting NASA’s mission statement around a pioneering doctrine aimed at expanding human presence in space. The measure would have also dropped Earth science as one of NASA’s three statutory goals.

Through ASRA and other actions, Bridenstine became known as one of Congress’s foremost space policy wonks. But, he did not plan to remain so for very long. Having promised voters he would serve only three terms in the House, his time in Congress will end after the mid-term elections next year. Come January 2019, he will need a new job.

Bridenstine latched onto to Trump’s campaign for the presidency; when the real estate mogul won, the Congressman saw his opportunity. He vigorously campaigned for the job as NASA administrator, finally getting the nod from the president in September.

Dancing on Hot Coals

Sen. Brian Schatz

While his fellow Republicans have no problem with Bridenstine’s climate change record, Democrats have deep concerns about putting the highly-partisan, global warming denier in charge of a space agency that spent $1.9 billion — about one-tenth of its budget — on Earth science programs during fiscal year 2017.

Bridenstine sought to reassure Senate Democrats by changing his position from human-caused global warming denier to being an agnostic on exactly what is causing it.

The strategy became clear when Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked Bridenstine to agree or disagree with two conflicting statements about climate change. [Emphasis added]

Schatz: Climate warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.

Bridenstine: Yes.

Schatz: Global warming theories should not drive national energy policies without clear evidence.

Bridenstine: I do believe, and I don’t know what the context–

Schatz: This is you. Just so you know.

Bridenstine: Sure. I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I believe that humans have contributed to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Schatz: To what extent?

Bridenstine: That is a question I do not have an answer to, but I do know that humans have absolutely contributed to global warming.

Schatz: Because I only have five minutes here, I want to just be clear about what happens now. Testifiers have been essentially given permission to say that climate change is real, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and then they get into, ‘It’s really impossible to decipher how much of these are natural and cyclical and how much of this is man-caused,’ but only in the halls of Congress is this a live debate.

And what concerns me the most, in addition to everything that Senator [Bill] Nelson said, is that this is a science agency, and I get that you don’t have a scientific background, and I don’t begrudge you that, although it is true that previous administrators had extraordinary scientific backgrounds, but I don’t begrudge you that because I don’t have a scientific background.

But you know what I do do? I defer to scientists. I rely on the scientific consensus, and the scientific consensus is not that it’s really difficult to tell how much of climate change is really attributable to human activity. The scientific consensus is that climate change is primarily caused by human activity. Do you agree with the scientific consensus?

Bridenstine: If that’s the scientific consensus that it’s primarily driven by human activity, what I will tell you is that–

Schatz: You don’t know that that’s the scientific consensus?

Bridenstine: Sir, I would say that human activity absolutely is a contributor to the climate change that we are currently seeing.

Schatz: What is the scientific consensus about climate change?

Bridenstine: I think right now we’re just scratching the surface as to the entire system of the Earth. And one of the great missions of NASA is the Earth Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate. And with your help and support, we want to make sure that we’re getting the absolute best science. NASA is the only agency in the world that can do this kind of science, and really the best agency in the world. And we need to make sure that we’re understanding it better every day.

Schatz: I just want to get clear. Are you disagreeing with the scientific consensus? Or are you saying you don’t know what the scientific consensus is? Or are you saying the scientific consensus doesn’t exist yet? Which is it?

Bridenstine: I believe that the scientific consensus is that humans are contributing and have contributed to the climate change that we have seen.

Schatz: Are they the primary cause?

Bridenstine: It’s going to depend on a whole lot of factors, and we’re still learning more about that every day. In some years you could say absolutely, in other years, you know during sun cycles and other things, there are other contributing factors that would have maybe more of an impact.

Given numerous opportunities, the man nominated to oversee what is arguable the nation’s most vital climate change research could not — or would not — describe what the majority of scientists believe about global warming.

Don’t Believe Your Eyes

When Schatz asked the Congressman about why he eliminated Earth science from the list of statutory goals in his ASRA legislation, Bridenstine denied what was right there in black and white in the proposed bill.

Bridenstine: That was not what I did in the bill. Some have construed that to be the case, but it is absolutely not the case. And, in fact, there are provisions in there to help us get even better Earth science. That provision I think you’re talking about—

Schatz: Where you struck the goal?

Bridenstine: No, in fact I said in there, there’s another line that specifically says that we must get the best science that NASA can get. And that line is in there as well. What I would say was, when I was drafting that bill, the objective was to…basically create a pioneering doctrine for NASA for deep space. And ultimately that was what I was working on in that bill….So that was not my intent if that was the way it was read.

Schatz: That’s not just the way it was read, that’s the way it reads. Here’s the line: the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and the phenomena in the atmosphere and space. That’s the Earth science statutory goal for NASA. And that line was struck.

Bridenstine included a provision in ASRA that would require NASA to produce a report in consultation with other relevant agencies on how emerging commercial spacecraft could be incorporated into government Earth science research programs.

However, that’s very different from eliminating Earth science as one of NASA’s three goals. Doing so would effectively tell NASA that it is not responsible for focusing on that area.

And that’s where another key provision in ASRA comes it. The measure would require NASA to eliminate, privatize or transfer to other agencies any programs not aligned with the pioneering doctrine. Earth science would be a primary target for transfer if it was no longer included in NASA’s goals.

Republicans in Congress who are skeptical of global warming have long argued that NASA should transfer its Earth science work to NOAA. Former Congressman Bob Walker, who was a key adviser to Trump during the campaign and transition, said the administration was considering doing exactly that. Bridenstine has also said he is amenable to the idea.

Critics say those advocating the transfer do not have the best interest of Earth science in mind. They fear the transfer would be done without providing NOAA with the financial and human resources required to do the job properly. They also worry that climate research could be crowded out by NOAA’s weather forecasting work.

Promises Made, Promises Not Kept?

Sen. Tom Udall

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) had somewhat better luck in pinning down the nominee, getting Bridenstine to agree that climate change is real and extracting a series of promises on respecting the work of NASA scientists even if they ran counter to administration policy.

Udall: Will you commit to ensure that the research and science-based activities by NASA employees are protected from political interference, including science related to climate change?

Bridenstine: Yes, sir.

Udall: Will you commit to maintaining a culture at the agency that does not compromise the integrity of rigorously researched or tested scientific findings?

Bridenstine: Yes, sir.

At this point, Udall asked how Bridenstine planned to make sure this happened. The Congressman replied that NASA would follow the decadal surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences that set science priorities for the space agency.

Udall then rephrased Schatz’s question about the cause of climate change.

Udall: Ninety-seven percent of the scientists with articles in peer-reviewed journals have concluded that climate change is real, is caused by human activity, and is already causing devastating in our country and around the world. Do you agree or disagree?

Bridenstine: I agree with that.

Udall: How would you address the arguments of outside entities and those serving in the current administration who refute NASA’s scientific research on climate change?

Bridenstine: What we have to do is make sure as leaders that we keep the debate dispassionate, that it is driven by the science. And, should I be confirmed as NASA Administrator, it would be my highest ambition that science would drive the direction of NASA and the Science Mission Directorate.

Udall: You’re working in an administration, you have a lot of people who disagree with what you just agreed climate change is all about. And if they come to you to try to influence the scientists within your agency, what are you going to do?

Bridenstine: I would tell them the same thing that I’m going to tell you right now. That carbon dioxide is, in fact, a greenhouse gas, and because of that greenhouse gas there’s more water vapor in the atmosphere than we have ever seen in the past. And that water vapor ultimately has to release its energy. And it does so through cloud formation and rain, and we’re see precipitation effects from it. And all that is very real and happening. I’m happy to say that to you. I’m happy to say that to anyone else because it’s the truth.

The debate over climate change is hardly dispassionate. It’s not clear that skeptics in Congress and the White House will be convinced by Bridenstine’s explanation of how water vapor becomes rain.

As for letting science drive the debate over climate change, that’s been tried. The climate assessment last week was based on science. But, it seems unlikely to change any minds on Capitol Hill.

Trump’s actions in gutting climate research prove the administration  has made up its mind and isn’t interested in clarifying the uncertainty it claims surrounds the issue.

Even if he is inclined to vigorously protect NASA’s Earth science and climate research, Bridenstine’s power to do so would be strictly limited as NASA administrator. As a member of the Trump Administration, he would take his direction from the White House and its powerful Office of Management and Budget.

For FY 2018, the administration proposed a sharp cut in NASA’s Earth science budget, including the elimination of five programs that would provide valuable environmental and climate data. The administration also proposed a deep cut in NOAA’s budget.

House Appropriators cut NASA Earth science’s  budget even deeper, while their Senate colleagues rejected most of the proposed reductions and program cancellations. Negotiators are currently working out their differences on spending.

Nothing But Net

Bridenstine’s answers on climate change only seemed to strengthen support for his nomination among committee Republicans.

“It’s my understanding that it’s not even the position of NASA at this point that there is a consensus on that point,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). “And so I think it was entirely appropriate for you to defer and acknowledge your viewpoint that it is an issue, it is a factor, but defer to answer on whether or not it is the primary driver of it.”

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) invoked the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo over his scientific theories, accused Democrats of trying to make people cold in their homes, doubted whether any actions humans could take would even affect future global temperatures, and finished up by asking if Bridenstine supported Stennis Space Center, which is located in the senator’s home state.