Trump and the GOP may be trying to kneecap climate research

Last week, Donald Trump’s space policy advisor Bob Walker made headlines by suggesting that the incoming administration might slash Nasa’s climate and earth science research to focus the agency on deep space exploration. This caused great concern in the scientific community, because Nasa does some of the best climate research in the world, and its Earth science program does much more. Walker suggested the earth science research could be shifted to other agencies, but climate scientist Michael Mann explained what would result:

It’s difficult enough for us to build and maintain the platforms that are necessary for measuring how the oceans are changing, how the atmosphere is changing, with the infrastructure that we have when we total up the contributions from all of the agencies ... we [could] lose forever the possibility of the continuous records that we need so that we can monitor this planet.

Walker’s comments set off alarm bells for another reason. Were it simply a matter of transferring Nasa’s climate and earth science programs to other agencies, what would be the point? Such a transfer would be logistically difficult, and if the research funding weren’t cut, it wouldn’t save any taxpayer money. And it’s not as though the branches doing Nasa’s climate research are distracting other branches of the agency from conducting deep space exploration.

The suggestion does however look a lot like a Trojan horse whose true purpose is to cut government-funded climate research, perhaps transferring some of Nasa’s programs and budget to other agencies and simply scrapping the rest.

Bob Walker’s politicized science

In an interview with The Guardian, Walker accused Nasa of “politically correct environmental monitoring” and “politicized science.” Carol Off from CBC’s program As It Happens conducted a follow-up interview with Walker and asked for examples to support his accusations. Walker cited the example of Nasa’s announcement that 2014 was the hottest year on record, claiming:

The fact that they have reported temperature that they said was the highest turned out that they were only 39% sure of that figure. Well that’s a press release, not a scientific kind of statement. I’m interested in scientific integrity. I’m interested not in scientific analysis that goes to a politically correct outcome.

The reason Walker knew that Nasa estimates gave 2014 a 38% (not 39%) chance of being the hottest year on record (Noaa put its odds at 48%) is that Nasa and Noaa included this information in their announcement. There is uncertainty in every scientific measurement. That’s why scientific theories and conclusions aren’t proven; they’re only supported or disproved by the available evidence.

Nasa and Noaa concluded that 2014 was about twice as likely to be the hottest year on record than the second-most likely year (2010). Thus they decided that they could announce that 2014 was likely the hottest year on record, but they also included the uncertainty in that conclusion, as good scientists do. For that, Walker wrongly accused them of “politicizing science.” Coincidentally, 2015 broke the 2014 record, and 2016 is about to shatter the record for hottest year once again.

Bob Walker’s characteristics of climate denial

In the CBC interview, Walker also claimed: “the models that the scientists have used on global warming have been extremely flawed.” In reality, as documented in my bookclimate models have been incredibly accurate at predicting global warming. But Walker’s most glaring red flags were raised when he was asked about the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming, to which he replied:

I don’t think it’s the vast majority of climatologists who believe that [global warming is happening and man-made] ... among climatologists there is still a debate about the causes of the global warming. And so I think that debate is healthy, and I am entirely concerned about the fact that some of the climatologists that do not buy into the orthodoxy are being prevented from even having their works published.

Walker followed up to the interview with three sources he claimed supported his rejection of the 97% expert climate consensus. In this answer, Walker checked off three of the five characteristics of science denial.


First, he engaged in conspiratorial thinking by accusing the climate science community of blocking contrarian research. In reality, the 3% of climate scientists who dispute the expert consensus on human-caused global warming are able to publish their work in scientific journals. It’s just that the contrarian research tends to be flawed and falls apart under scientific scrutiny, so it doesn’t get much attention outside of certain biased media outlets.

Second, in denying the 97% expert consensus, Walker instead appealed to fake experts. He cited three sources to dispute the consensus, one of which was the National Association of Scholars; but digging deeper, the source was actually a 2011 interview the association did with Fred Singer. Singer is a tobacco and fossil fuel industry-funded scientist, who claimed in the interview:

the number of skeptical qualified scientists has been growing steadily; I would guess it is about 40% now.

In short, one of the sources Walker cited to dispute the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming is the unsubstantiated guess of a fossil fuel-funded fake expert. Walker also referenced the Open Source Systems, Science, and Solutions Foundation (OSS), which says:

97% of working climate scientists say the temperature is rising, and human activity is a significant contributing factor.

On the same page OSS does mention that 31,000 scientists signed the Oregon Petition disputing the consensus, but only to debunk this particular myth. Strike two for Walker.

His third source was “The Center for Climate Research,” which most likely refers to a paper published by David Legates, who used to head the University of Delaware’s so-named center. While Legates’ paper was published in a scientific journal, it badly misrepresented the expert consensus on climate change by focusing on the papers that didn’t explicitly quantify how much global warming humans are responsible for. By that logic, there’s no expert consensus on evolution, or the Earth not being flat, or on any scientific question, because in every scientific field most papers don’t focus on answering the most basic, settled questions.

Trump is getting bad advice

The problem is that Walker is getting his climate information from inaccurate, biased sources, and he’s an advisor to the president-elect. It’s possible that the incoming administration won’t follow his dangerous, biased advice. The issue will predominantly be in the hands of Congress in any case, but Republicans in Congress have been trying to slash Nasa’s earth science budget for years. Now they have an ally in the White House.

Additionally, Trump has surrounded himself with advisors and cabinet members who likely don’t view climate research favorably. 

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Posted by dana1981 on Wednesday, 30 November, 2016

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