Republicans: NASA Wastes Money on Climate-Change Research

Lawmakers want to cut Earth-monitoring program in favor of space travel.

Space shuttle Atlantis blasts off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on July 8, 2011 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
May 7, 2015, 4:01 p.m.

NASA con­trols more than a dozen satel­lites and space­craft, mon­it­or­ing everything from melt­ing ice to wa­ter stor­age to rain and snow. To the agency’s sci­ent­ists and sup­port­ers, these pro­grams are es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing the plan­et and the chan­ging cli­mate, and part of its core mis­sion.

But to con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, they are just an­oth­er ex­ample of an ad­min­is­tra­tion wast­ing money on cli­mate-change re­search, zap­ping funds away from what NASA should be do­ing: blast­ing in­to and ex­plor­ing space.

House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Lamar Smith, a Texas Re­pub­lic­an, last week moved a two-year NASA bill through his com­mit­tee that would shift money away from the Earth Sci­ence pro­gram to spend on plan­et­ary ex­plor­a­tion. “There are 13 oth­er agen­cies in­volved in cli­mate-change re­search, but only one that is re­spons­ible for space ex­plor­a­tion,” Smith said at a re­cent hear­ing.

Sen. Ted Cruz, an­oth­er Tex­an, who over­sees the Com­merce sub­com­mit­tee in charge of NASA, has like­wise said it’s time for NASA to re­fo­cus on space ex­plor­a­tion. At a hear­ing earli­er this year, Cruz said that the “core func­tion of NASA is to ex­plore space” and “NASA in the cur­rent en­vir­on­ment has lost its full fo­cus on that core mis­sion.”

Smith and Cruz rep­res­ent a state flush with NASA fa­cil­it­ies and spend­ing, which would stand to be­ne­fit from see­ing the plan­et­ary pro­gram flour­ish. Both are also glob­al-warm­ing skep­tics; Cruz, a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, has com­pared cli­mate-change be­liev­ers to “flat earthers” and ques­tions the sci­ence ty­ing hu­man ac­tions to rising tem­per­at­ures.

Re­pub­lic­ans across the board are go­ing after Pres­id­ent Obama’s cli­mate agenda, cut­ting fund­ing for the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency and the En­ergy De­part­ment, en­cour­aging law­suits against cli­mate rules, and in­tro­du­cing bills that would roll back vir­tu­ally every reg­u­la­tion that gets pro­posed. NASA is just the latest tar­get.

Un­der Obama, NASA’s Earth Sci­ence budget has been in­creased from $1.38 bil­lion in 2009 to $1.77 bil­lion in 2015. The data from that pro­gram has a whole suite of uses, everything from weath­er fore­cast­ing to mil­it­ary plan­ning to crop plan­ning. NASA has also been ag­gress­ive about us­ing its find­ings to edu­cate the pub­lic on cli­mate change and the need to ad­dress green­house-gas emis­sions. For in­stance, this week NASA put to­geth­er a run­down with 10 agency sci­ent­ists ex­plain­ing the news that the glob­al con­cen­tra­tion of car­bon di­ox­ide in the at­mo­sphere had reached 400 parts per mil­lion for the first time in re­cor­ded his­tory.

Sci­ent­ists who have worked for NASA and rely on its data say that it’s also the only agency cap­able of hand­ling its Earth Sci­ence agenda. Be­cause of NASA’s dec­ades-long ex­per­i­ence in launch­ing satel­lites and track­ing their data, it’s not as simple as hand­ing the keys over to, say, the Fish and Wild­life Ser­vice.

Waleed Ab­dal­ati, who served as NASA’s chief sci­ent­ist from 2011 to 2012, said that pro­grams like the Grav­ity Re­cov­ery and Cli­mate Ex­per­i­ment, or GRACE, mis­sion are not just part of a cli­mate re­search port­fo­lio, they’re the back­bone to oth­er valu­able re­search.

Un­der GRACE, a pair of satel­lites circle the Earth map­ping vari­ations in the plan­et’s grav­ity field, al­low­ing sci­ent­ists to de­tect changes in ocean cur­rents, wa­ter stor­age, and vari­ations of land mass. The meas­ure­ments can track things as spe­cif­ic as the land mass lost in Green­land and Ant­arc­tica, track­ing melt­ing ice and rising sea levels.

“That’s not something any oth­er agency can do, and it’s fun­da­ment­al to our un­der­stand­ing of what our chan­ging sea levels will look like,” said Ab­dal­ati, now the dir­ect­or of the Co­oper­at­ive In­sti­tute for Re­search in En­vir­on­ment­al Sci­ences at the Uni­versity of Col­or­ado Boulder. “NASA fig­ures out new ways to look at things and un­der­stands pro­cesses that have not been de­veloped be­fore.”

The House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee last week passed a two-year NASA au­thor­iz­a­tion bill that would au­thor­ize the Earth Sci­ences pro­gram budget at $1.45 bil­lion each year, with the plan­et­ary sci­ence pro­gram set at $1.5 bil­lion (it’s cur­rently en­acted at just over $1.4 bil­lion). Oth­er sci­ence pro­grams, like as­tro­phys­ics ($730 mil­lion) and he­lio­phys­ics ($651 mil­lion) would be in line or slightly in­creased from Obama’s budget re­quest.

While the Earth Sci­ences budget has in­creased at the ex­pense of oth­er NASA pro­grams un­der Obama, it’s still be­low where it was be­fore cuts un­der the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. The budget in fisc­al 2000 was $1.69 bil­lion ($2.29 bil­lion when ad­jus­ted for in­fla­tion), and notes that’s still a high­er per­cent­age of NASA’s over­all budget than even today’s re­stored fig­ures. And that’s on top of cuts to NASA’s top-line budget that star­ted un­der Bush and were ac­cel­er­ated by se­quest­ra­tion. A 2012 re­port by the Na­tion­al Academies of Sci­ence warned that the “in­ad­equate” fund­ing levels un­der the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion her­al­ded a “rap­id de­cline” in Earth ob­ser­va­tion.

In a March hear­ing, NASA Ad­min­is­trat­or Charles Bolden also said that the plan­et­ary ex­plor­a­tion budget has dropped by design—NASA is try­ing to make it cheap­er to run long-dis­tance mis­sions.

Bolden said last week that the House pro­pos­al “threatens to set back gen­er­a­tions worth of pro­gress in bet­ter un­der­stand­ing our chan­ging cli­mate, and our abil­ity to pre­pare for and re­spond to earth­quakes, droughts, and storm events.” Sci­ence Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Ed­die Ber­nice John­son of Texas wrote in a column last week that the budget had been “made cap­tive to ideo­lo­gic­al fer­vor,” ac­cus­ing Re­pub­lic­ans of cut­ting valu­able re­search in or­der to slash cli­mate fund­ing any­where they could.

The Sen­ate hasn’t yet draf­ted a NASA bill of its own, and a Com­merce spokes­man did not say when the com­mit­tee would move one, but Sen. Gary Peters—the Michigan Demo­crat who serves as rank­ing mem­ber of the space sub­com­mit­tee—said he feared that Cruz could push sim­il­ar cuts.

“If folks are try­ing to move a polit­ic­al agenda, they shouldn’t cut off the re­search in­to ba­sic sci­ence that can lead to bet­ter pub­lic-policy de­cisions,” Peters said.

Mark Ab­bott, a pro­fess­or at Ore­gon State Uni­versity who has served on the Na­tion­al Academies com­mit­tee be­hind the 2012 re­port, said the no­tion of par­ity between Earth Sci­ences and plan­et­ary ex­plor­a­tion was un­der­stand­able but offered a nar­row view of how NASA tries to split its work.

“There’s al­ways been a dis­cus­sion about what the bal­ance between ex­plor­a­tion and earth sci­ence should be,” said Ab­bott, the dean of OSU’s Col­lege of Earth, Ocean, and At­mo­spher­ic Sci­ences. “But the whole ‘Mis­sion to Plan­et Earth’ idea is a power­ful or­gan­iz­ing view.”

The “Mis­sion to Plan­et Earth” is the former name for the Earth Sci­ences pro­gram, launched un­der Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush and cham­pioned un­der Pres­id­ent Re­agan, as noted by the Hou­s­ton Chron­icle. The 1958 Na­tion­al Aero­naut­ics and Space Act that cre­ated NASA even says that space activ­it­ies should con­trib­ute to “the ex­pan­sion of hu­man know­ledge of the Earth and of phe­nom­ena in the at­mo­sphere and space.”

It’s a pro­gram that sup­port­ers say goes well bey­ond meas­ur­ing cli­mate change. The GRACE pro­gram, for ex­ample, has also been used to track changes in Cali­for­nia that can hold im­plic­a­tions for wa­ter stor­age in the state’s on­go­ing drought.

Oth­er NASA satel­lites are meas­ur­ing ocean sa­lin­ity and sea-level rise, con­sequences of cli­mate change that hold ser­i­ous im­plic­a­tions for coastal areas. The Glob­al Pre­cip­it­a­tion Meas­ure­ment mis­sions track snow and rain, meas­ure­ments sci­ent­ists say could be used to pre­dict ex­treme storms.

“Nobody I know thinks of this in polit­ic­al terms,” said Ber­ri­en Moore, former sci­ence ad­vis­ory com­mit­tee mem­ber at NASA and the dean of the Col­lege of At­mo­spher­ic and Geo­graph­ic Sci­ences at the Uni­versity of Ok­lahoma. “This is a sci­entif­ic ques­tion. These are all hard ques­tions, and this is the only cost-ef­fect­ive way to do it.

“You can have com­puter mod­els, you can run the mod­els, but you have to have glob­al data and you have to be mon­it­or­ing this around the globe,” Moore ad­ded.

Re­pub­lic­ans have ar­gued that NASA’s work isn’t ne­ces­sary, giv­en the num­ber of oth­er agen­cies work­ing on cli­mate re­search and the op­por­tun­it­ies in the private sec­tor. A sep­ar­ate bill set to be voted on by the full House later this month would clear the way for the Na­tion­al Ocean­ic and At­mo­spher­ic Ad­min­is­tra­tion to start in­cor­por­at­ing com­mer­cial satel­lites and weath­er data in its own activ­it­ies, which spon­sors say will im­prove the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fore­cast­ing abil­it­ies.

Ab­dal­ati said that ul­ti­mately, tight budgets will likely cur­tail the Earth ob­ser­va­tion work, but that le­gis­lat­ors would do well to re­con­sider cut­ting a “fun­da­ment­al ele­ment of the NASA mis­sion.”

“In a na­tion like ours, there’s room to in­vest in un­der­stand­ing the plan­et that’s most im­port­ant to us in the uni­verse, as well as those mis­sions that touch on the hu­man spir­it of ex­plor­a­tion,” he said. “Whatever you feel about cli­mate change, nobody can dis­pute the value of know­ing what lies ahead on Earth.”

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