Bridenstine Agrees Humans are Primary Cause of Climate Change, Vows to Follow Decadal Surveys

Bridenstine Agrees Humans are Primary Cause of Climate Change, Vows to Follow Decadal Surveys

At a Senate budget hearing today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine assured Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that he now agrees that climate change is happening and humans are the primary cause.  Schatz opposed Bridenstine’s confirmation as NASA Administrator in part because of their disagreement on this issue, but today he praised Bridenstine for the evolution of his views and commitment to ensure the integrity of NASA’s climate science research.  

The exchange took place as part of a Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee hearing on NASA’s FY2019 budget request.  Schatz is a member of the subcommittee.

The subcommittee has a new chairman, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), now that Sen. Richard Shelby has become chairman of the full committee and moved over to chair its Defense Subcommittee. Few of the subcommittee members were present for the approximately 45 minute hearing.  The top Democrat, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), did not attend and Schatz filled in as Ranking Member.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)

Those Senators who were present asked primarily about topics of constituent interest, such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) questions about potential use of the Kodiak launch site, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s (R-West Virginia) questions about the future of the Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) facility, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-Maryland) questions about the RESTORE-L, PACE and WFIRST programs that are managed at Goddard Space Flight Center.

The exchange between Bridenstine and Schatz was the highlight.  Schatz is also a member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and challenged Bridenstine on his position on climate change during his confirmation hearing last November.

In 2013 while he was a Congressman representing Oklahoma’s first district, Bridenstine questioned whether global warming was occurring in a highly partisan speech on the House floor. By the time of his confirmation hearing, he had moderated his views, acknowledging that climate change is happening and humans have a role, but would not go as far as Schatz wanted him to in agreeing with the scientific consensus that humans are the primary cause.

Today, Bridenstine did agree.

Schatz:  Do you believe that greenhouse gases are the primary cause of climate change?

Bridenstine:  Yes. The National Climate Assessment that includes NASA and it includes the Department of Energy and it includes NOAA has clearly stated that it is extremely likely, the language they use, it is extremely likely that human activity is the dominant cause of global warning and I have no reason to doubt the science that comes from that.

Schatz:  Do you agree with the scientific consensus which includes many NASA researchers that the climate is changing and humans are the leading cause?

Bridenstine:  Yes.

Schatz: Is it fair to call this an evolution of your views?

Bridenstine:  Yes.

Schatz:  Do you commit to supporting the funding, independence, and integrity of climate science at NASA?

Bridenstine:  Without question.

Schatz:  Thank you, Administrator Bridenstine.  You and I have had multiple conversations both over the table and since then in person and on the phone and I just want to recognize your evolution on this issue.  I think it’s essential for one of the premiere science agencies of the federal government for you to abide by the science.  I think it’s especially important because as you know you are the first NASA Administrator that was an elected official. You are also the first NASA Administrator with an essentially partisan confirmation vote.  So we need to move through this period of sort of ideological disagreement, political disagreement, and back to the point where the NASA Administrator is a leader of a science agency.  And  you can’t lead a science agency if you are not grounded by the science.  I thank you for that.  I don’t think it’s easy for you to come to that conclusion, but on the other hand what I have seen from you, and in my interactions with you, I have come to the conclusion that this is a true evolution.  That you respect the people with whom you work. You respect the science.  You want their respect.  There’s no way to move forward if you are going to be undermining the science.  I’m really pleased to see this change.

Van Hollen, another Democrat subcommittee member who voted against Bridenstine’s confirmation, similarly praised his commitment to “follow the science” and that is “real science, not political science.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testifies to the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee, May 23, 2018. Photo credit: NASA tweet.

Moran and others asked about NASA’s education programs, which the Trump Administration wants to eliminate.  Many states benefit from grants through the EPSCoR, MUREP and Space Grant programs administrated by NASA’s Office of Education.  Congress fully funded them in FY2018 despite the Trump Administration’s efforts to terminate them.  Many expect Congress to similarly rebuff the request to eliminate them in FY2019.  Capito suggested that NASA rename the Office of Education as the “Office of Inspiration.”  Bridenstine said NASA actually is thinking of calling it the “Office of STEM Engagement” to avoid any confusion with activities at the Department of Education.  He added that NASA has education and inspiration “in our DNA” and it will take place regardless of whether there is an Office of Education.  It is those specific grant programs, however, that many in Congress want to ensure continue.

Questions were asked about specific Earth science programs, including those that study the carbon cycle; the RESTORE-L satellite servicing program;  and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and its planned successor, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).  Bridenstine offered his commitment to follow the Decadal Surveys issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in all the science disciplines.  On those topics —

  • Asked by Schatz about the $10 million per year Carbon Monitoring System (CMS) grants program that NASA quietly cancelled earlier this year, Bridenstine explained that grants were made under the program 8 months ago and they are good through 2020. He noted that Congress did not specifically appropriate money for CMS in FY2018 and that NASA has a number of other programs, including OCO-2 and the soon-to-be-launched OCO-3, that will study the carbon cycle.  He told Schatz that “NASA is 100 percent committed to understanding the carbon cycle.”
  • Regarding the Trump Administration’s proposal to cancel the PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder and OCO-3 programs, he told Van Hollen those programs are continuing as Congress directed in the FY2018 appropriations bill.  He added that NASA received a new Earth science Decadal Survey from the Academies in January and it lists PACE and CLARREO as priorities. NASA’s Earth Science Division is “evaluating” the Decadal to ensure the agency is covering all the science it recommends and he will be happy to brief Van Hollen when that evaluation is completed.
  • Called the RESTORE-L satellite servicing project a “critical capability” that the United States needs “for strategic reasons,” including space debris mitigation and assured Van Hollen NASA is “committed” to it.  (The Trump Administration wants to restructure RESTORE-L so it is only a technology development effort, not a demonstration mission.)
  • Warned that he may have to come back to Congress to discuss the $8 billion cap on JWST, although he stressed that he does not yet know if it will breach that cap. If it does, however, “we have spent so much and come so far and we are so close” that it is important to continue.  He vowed that NASA will not repeat the mistakes of JWST on WFIRST.  “Civilization changing science” is just what NASA should be doing, but needs to find a way to do it with less risk, perhaps by pursuing several smaller missions with a life cycle cost of just $200 million each instead of  one big program.   He again promised to follow the recommendations of Decadal Surveys, but expressed hope that the next astrophysics Decadal, to be completed around 2020 if the current schedule holds, will recommend smaller missions to “distribute the risk” instead of “one massive program that can clobber an entire NASA division.”


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