According to 2016 election exit polls, only 38% of voters considered Donald Trump qualified to be president. 17% of those who thought him unqualified voted for Trump anyway, perhaps because he promised that as a wealthy businessman, he would be able to hire the best people to advise him. That was a claim his daughter Ivanka explicitly made in her speech at the Republican National Convention:
Unfortunately, Trump has not lived up to this promise. In many cases he’s hired some of the worst people imaginable.
Who worse to lead the EPA than a man whose primary qualification is having sued the agency 14 times on behalf of polluting industries? Who worse to lead the Midwestern states EPA than a woman who the EPA cited for failure to control air pollution in Wisconsin and who deleted all mention of human-caused climate change from her department website? Who worse to lead the Department of Energy than a man who wanted to eliminate the department (until he forgot – oops)? Who worse to be the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist than a right-wing birther radio host with no scientific background? And these are only the administration officials in positions related to energy and the environment.
There are of course exceptions where Trump nominated people who are at least qualified for the job, but in many cases it’s hard to imagine worse choices.
And now we can add Trump’s selection to lead Nasa to the list – Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma.
Bridenstine is a climate denier
Scientists and astronauts are usually chosen to lead Nasa, for obvious reasons. Bridenstine is neither – he’s a member of Congress (and would be the first politician ever to lead Nasa), formerly executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium and a Navy Reserve pilot. He reeled off this string of climate denial myths on the House floor in 2013:
global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago. Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with Sun output and ocean cycles. During the Medieval Warm Period from 800 to 1300 A.D.—long before cars, power plants, or the Industrial Revolution—temperatures were warmer than today.
The first myth looks particularly bad in retrospect, with 2014, 2015, and 2016 each breaking the record for hottest global temperatures. But even at the time it was a baseless claim. While the rise in global surface temperatures did temporarily slow up to around 2013, global warming never stopped. More heat was stored in the oceans and other factors also acted to temporarily slow the rise in surface temperatures, but as long as we keep pumping carbon pollution into the atmosphere, the long-term global warming trend will continue.
Over the past 50 years, global surface temperatures and solar output are negatively correlated, meaning they’re going in opposite directions. While global temperatures have risen rapidly, solar activity has slightly declined.
Ocean cycles are just that – cycles. They go up and down and have no long-term trend, unlike global temperatures. And global temperatures are now significantly hotter than during the Medieval Warm Period, and rising fast.
As is the case for most politicians who mangle climate science to this degree, Bridenstein’s denial appears rooted in opposition to policy solutions. In a 2016 interview, he argued that climate policies will damage the American economy, and in 2013 he criticized the Obama administration for spending too much on climate science research. Those comments, and Bridenstine’s beliefs about Nasa’s mission, may very well be the reason Trump nominated Bridenstein to lead the agency.
Bridenstine and GOP don’t want Nasa doing climate research
Nasa does some of the best climate research in the world. For example, Nasa scientists published a 2010 paper in Science showing that carbon dioxide is the principle control knob governing Earth’s temperatures, which directly contradicts recent assertions by members Trump administration who have claimed otherwise.
But Republicans have decided that they don’t want Nasa doing climate research. For example Trump’s proposed budget would terminate four Nasa Earth science missions as part of a $102 million cut to the agency’s Earth science program. His space policy advisor suggested eliminating Nasa’s climate and Earth science research altogether. Republicans in Congress have been trying to slash Nasa’s Earth science budget for years.
Some Republican policymakers have suggested that the agency’s climate resesarch could be absorbed into Noaa, because they want Nasa focused on space. The problem is that aside from the needless difficulty of shifting scientists and their research from one government agency to another, these policymakers aren’t proposing to increase Noaa’s budget to pay for that climate research. Quite the opposite – Trump’s proposed budget would also cut hundreds of millions of dollars from Noaa’s research funding.
Currently, Nasa’s institutional objectives include “The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” In Congress, Bridenstine introduced legislation that would change that objective to “The expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System.” Like his fellow Republicans, Bridenstine wants to shift Nasa away from its world-class scientific research toward space exploration.
“Best” is subjective, but Trump’s picks are terrible for science
Of course, what’s “best” is a subjective determination. If your goal is to eliminate government regulations – particularly those that protect public and environmental health and scientific research – then the Trump administration might indeed be considered the best. If you care more about industry profits than our health and the well-being of our children and grandchildren, then you might think Trump has hired some excellent people.
But if you care about our health and future welfare, or about the scientific community’s ability to keep studying the dangers posed by human-caused climate change, then it’s hard to imagine worse choices than Trump’s (anti-)environmental team. To a man and woman they seem interested in little more than maximizing short-term profits of polluting industries to society’s long-term detriment.
For those who think Nasa should continue its excellent climate science research, there’s still hope. The Senate must confirm Bridenstine, and there’s already some bipartisan opposition to his nomination. Americans who oppose his nomination – and the nomination of Sam Clovis as Department of Agriculture chief scientist – should contact their senators to voice their objections.