Trump Dumps Climate Science and Innovation in 2018 Budget Blueprint

NASA’s telescope on DSCOVR snapped a solar eclipse over South America in February

Al Gore didn’t really claim to invent the Internet in 1999, but he did champion a NASA mission that installed a deep space webcam pointed at Earth in 2015. And yesterday President Trump put a bullseye on that mission. Or, rather, on part of it. Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint asks Congress to defund the Earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Its sensors tracking magnetic storms emanating from the Sun would keep doing their jobs.

Selectively deep-sixing well-functioning instruments on a satellite 1.5 million kilometers from Earth is one of the stranger entries in President Trump’s first pass at a budget request. But it fits a pattern: Throughout the document programs aimed at comprehending or addressing climate change take deep cuts, even where there is no obvious fiscal justification.

“The budget targets almost anything that is related to climate,” observes David M. Hart, who directs the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C.

Asked about climate change cuts at a press briefing yesterday, Trump Administration budget director Mick Mulvaney stated categorically: “We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.” Whether the proposals come to pass, say Hart and other experts, will depend on Congress, and on how much political capital Trump and his administration gain or lose fighting on other issues such as immigration and health care in the months ahead.

Trump’s budget officials swung hardest at the Environmental Protection Agency, verifying earlier leaks that he would ask for a 31 percent slash in funding from its anticipated budget for fiscal 2017 (which ends 1 October). Many programs would lose ground under the proposed $2.6 billion reduction. Those targeted for elimination include the Clean Power Plan, which regulates CO2 emissions from power plants, EPA’s climate change research and partnership programs, and the Energy Star product labelling program—“the most successful voluntary energy efficiency movement in history,” according to its website.

Cuts proposed for the Department of Energy, meanwhile, are deeper than expected and disproportionately hit programs designed to carry energy innovations across the so-called valley of death between basic research and commercialization. Trump’s blueprint would nearly eliminate the department’s applied science offices with a $2 billion reduction, andit zeroes out its tech incubator, Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E had $291 million for fiscal 2016.

The Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) warned in a statement yesterday that these and other proposed cuts to Federal research and development would, if enacted, “signal the end of the American century as a global innovation leader.”

George Mason University’s Hart, who is also a senior fellow with the foundation, sees an ideological take on the innovation process driving Trump’s cuts. Hart has documented close alignment between the president’s proposals and a budget plan issued by the Heritage Foundation. Heritage, a conservative Washington think tank, argues for a sharp division between government-funded lab research and proprietary corporate-funded product development.

“A more realistic view is that you have a continuum of projects. There’s a broad middle where the benefits are shared and thus the investment should be shared,” says Hart. Bridging that middle ground is critical in today’s power sector, he argues, because deregulation has dried up the cash that once fuelled its cooperative R&D body. “The Electric Power Research Institute still exists, but it’s a shadow of its former self,” says Hart.

Venture capital attracted by ARPA-E-backed energy technologies, meanwhile, shows that DOE’s efforts appear to be paying off.

NASA looks like a budget survivor at first glance—Trump’s blueprint would shave just 1 percent off the agency’s $19 billion 2016 top line and only 5 percent off of its $1.9 billion Earth sciences budget. “That is much less than the Earth science community feared,” says Marcia Smith, president of Arlington, Va.-based consultancy Space and Technology Policy Group and editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com.

Nevertheless, some of the Earth science cuts are potentially pernicious, and all target efforts to understand climate. In addition to 2018 spending cuts, three planned NASA Earth science missions would be scrubbed in addition to the blinding of DSCOVR’s Earth-facing sensors.

In three of the four cases, Trump would forego real benefits to gain minimal budgetary relief. For example, Smith figures NASA might save about $1 million by downgrading DSCOVR. Yet it measures Earth’s albedo, which is a “critical parameter for climate” according to Harvard University atmospheric chemist Steven Wofsy. Its measurements incorporate the scattering of sunlight by clouds and aerosols, which is “a tricky thing to calculate” says Wofsy.

Smith adds that, in her personal opinion, Gore was right about DSCOVR’s unique, full-disc image of the Earth (and the Moon orbiting it): “It is useful to remind people just how fragile the Earth is.” Given the “tiny amount of money” at stake, Smith says that cut “has to count as a political issue, not a money issue.”

Another targeted mission, a follow-on to the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) that launched in 2014, awaits a 2018 launch. It was assembled from earlier missions’ spare parts and can be cheaply launched since it is destined for the International Space Station.

NASA.CLARREO.Pathfinder.ISS.intercalibrationsunandmoon

NASA illustration of its satellite-calibrating CLARREO Pathfinder mission

Whereas the existing OCO-2 scans CO2 emissions across the globe every 16 days, OCO-3 is promises high-precision measurement of regional carbon sources and sinks. One obvious application, he says, is fact-checking greenhouse gas reports. “It could really be powerful … to assess the emissions in China or in India where you can’t trust the numbers,” says Wofsy.

Then there is the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) mission, whose first iteration is, like OCO-3, to be bolted on to the ISS. CLARREO Pathfinder packs a finely calibrated spectrometer designed to cross-calibrate optical sensors on the entire fleet of U.S. and international Earth observing satellites, thus improving their accuracy 5-10 fold. “It would make sure that what they’re saying about climate is correct,” says University of Colorado senior scientist Michael King, who chairs the U.S. National Research Council’s Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space.

King says better satellite data should, in turn, boost confidence in climate models, whose findings have been questioned by President Trump and top Administration officials, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “There are uncertainties in climate models. Improving their accuracy should be in everybody’s best interest,” says King.

Wofsy also worries about unspecified reductions in Earth science research grants, which he calls the “seed corn” for future satellites.

Whether any of these attacks on climate science and action come to pass is ultimately up to Congress, and the reaction yesterday was weak even among Trump’s fellow Republicans. Smith notes that Rodney Felinghuysen, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, responded with the dry reminder that Congress holds “the power of the purse.”

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, called Trump’s budget “dead on arrival” over its proposed deep cuts to the State Department. And Democrats also issued blistering rejections.

Bill Foster, a physicist representing metropolitan Chicago, said in a statement: “It is hard to overstate how much damage this budget will do to our ability to remain at the forefront of innovation and problem solving.”

How much of the blueprint survives Congress is linked to how the Trump Administration’s credibility and popularity evolves in the months ahead, according to Hart and other budget watchers. “It may depend on how much clout the administration really has, [and] whether they’re deemed to be worth listening to.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

Trump’s Impact on Clean-Energy Businesses

Published today at MIT Technology Review:

President-elect Donald Trump is a self-declared climate-change denier who, on the campaign trail, criticized solar power as “very, very expensive” and said wind power was bad for the environment because it was “killing all the eagles.” He also vowed to eliminate all federal action on climate change, including the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s emissions reduction program for the power sector.

So how will renewable-energy businesses fare under the new regime?

Trump’s rhetoric has had renewable-energy stocks gyrating since the election. But the impact could be far less drastic than many worst-case scenarios. “At the end of the day what Trump says and what is actually implemented are two completely different things,” says Yuan-Sheng Yu, an energy analyst with Lux Research …

For the whole story see “Trump’s Impact on Clean-Energy Businesses

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

GM’s Feisty and Embarrassing Vice Chairman

“Once again, Bob won’t get the job.” That was the definitive prediction this weekend by Automotive News, the industry’s journal of record, on GM vice chairman Robert Lutz’s chances of being named CEO [link may require subscription]. Yesterday they were proven right when GM’s acting CEO, GM chairman Ed Whitacre, announced that he would continue permanently in the position. What they got wrong, however, was why Lutz was unfit for the top job.

Automotive News let Lutz speak for himself, arguing that at 78 years old he was too “geriatric” for an ailing automaker in need of rejuvenation. That logic flies in the face of Whitacre’s logic that what GM needs most, after ousting two CEOs in 2009, is stability. After all, Lutz has served in top product development and marketing roles for GM since 2001, and previously held top jobs at Chrysler and Ford.

What makes Lutz the wrong man at the wrong time is that he rejects the intensifying concerns for sustainability that now drive automotive markets and innovation worldwide. At the Detroit Auto Show last week Lutz held forth on climate science with the Sydney Morning Herald, explaining that Earth is being cooled by a dearth of solar flares rather than warmed by greenhouse gases from cars and other fossil fuel-burners:

“All I ever say is look at the data, look at the empirical evidence…Katrina was six years ago and we have yet to have the next hurricane.” Continue reading

Climate Denial Crock of the Week

Opponents of the theory of anthropogenic climate change are hard at work via Internet forums making a last stand against the present societal momentum to address our impact on global climate and, specifically, to reduce the carbon footprint of our energy systems. Midland, MI-based multimedia producer, cartoonist, and alternative energy enthusiast Peter Sinclair is returning fire, nugget-for-nugget, with his new YouTube-distributed video series, Climate Denial Crock of the Week.

Each episode of Crock answers one of the climate denial “hobby-horse arguments” with five minutes of science-based, semi-professionally produced video. The Vikings star in this week’s episode, Medieval Warming?, which explodes the notion that Earth was warmer in the Middle Ages:

Continue reading

Complication and Climate Communication

In response to CNN’s termination of its science/tech/environment unit and continued questioning of anthropogenic climate change, personal friend Peter Offenhartz wrote me to comment that while CNN’s move is “impossible to understand,” the continuing controversy over climate change is less perplexing.

In his email, Offenhartz suggests that part of the problem lies with the climatology community, which has not excelled at simplifying their models’ main results so that ordinary people can understand them. “The evidence is not so hard to understand as most people seem to think,” he writes. Offenhartz, a physical chemist, makes his case by offering the informal lecture on climate change that he’s been sharing socially in recent weeks. His explanation highlights the idea that rising CO2 matters most where water vapor concentrations are low: (emphasis Offenhartz) Continue reading

CNN’s Climate Change Denial Darkens a Dimming Media Picture

CNN axed their entire science, environment and technology unit in December, as documented by the Columbia Journalism Review. The Society of Environmental Journalists (disclaimer: I serve on the board of directors) joined three other journalism groups on a letter to CNN’s leadership protesting this “short-sighted” move “at a time when science coverage could not be more important in our national and international discourse.” Unfortunately, further developments suggest that we can expect further occular dysfunction from the media majors in general and CNN in particular.

This week CNN anchor Lou Dobbs gets the silliness award for devoting prescious broadcast minutes to a poorly documented rehash of climate change skepticism, putting sunspots and natural cycles in the climate change driver’s seat rather than anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. See the video clip below, immortalized by progressive media watchdog group Media Matters’ County Fair blog:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The deterioration of science reporting threatens to spread as other major media outlets follow suit with budget-slashing bloodletting. Joel Makower, a pioneer in reporting on sustainable business, made that point last month in a discouraging post entitled Are Environmental Journalists an Endangered Species?. Makower sees the cuts at CNN as just one example of a “devestating” trend, noting the recent loss of senior journalists at Fortune magazine, The Weather Channel, and the Los Angeles Times.

The likely result is that fewer reports on the environment (ie energy according to the IPCC, which Dobbs ignores) will run. As Makower points out, those that do run will be delivered by generalist reporters scrambling to get up to speed on complex topics:

I hear from such reporters every week: general-assignment reporters from newspapers and broadcast stations around the U.S., niche trade magazines, and others seeking comment or context on a story they’re covering. I can tell you unequivocally that the nature of their questions reveals a high degree of ignorance. I’m happy to bring them up to speed, but it’s a slog.

One of the few bright spots is the New York Times, where the environment team is still growing. However, given that the paper recently announced plans to re-mortgage its headquarters building to make up for slumping ad revenues, one wonders how long the leadership will last.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate