As It Happens

'A disaster': Astronomer on Trump advisor's plan to cut NASA research

Astronomer Phil Plait has a bone to pick with President-elect Donald Trump's plan for NASA.
Astronomer Phil Plait has a bone to pick with President-elect Donald Trump's plan for NASA. (Phil Plait)

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On Wednesday's program, you may have heard our interview with Donald Trump's advisor Robert Walker. He was talking about the incoming administration's proposal to scrap NASA's research on climate change.

Many in the scientific community are unimpressed with Walker's proposal — including Phil Plait. The astronomer and science writer at Slate spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: Mr. Plait, what did you make of Robert Walker's — and by extension, Donald Trump's — plans to cut NASA's research into climate change?

Phil Plait: What I make of it is that it is a disaster waiting to happen. This is a horrible, horrible plan that will spell nothing but trouble for people in the coming years.

CO: Mr. Walker says NASA is supposed to be dedicated to exploring space. It's for the space program,  it's not for this kind of research. There are other organizations like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that are doing that. It's not necessary for NASA to be involved in this — what do you say?

PP: This is just wrong. It's part of NASA's mission to study the Earth. The Earth is a planet in space. By studying our own planet we learn about the other ones and vice versa. Sure, the NOAA is supposed to study the oceans and atmosphere but they do that with NASA. In the meantime, the Republican held Congress has been attacking NOAA, basically tying them up into knots and preventing them from studying the climate the way they should. So for somebody to say we'll just give the NASA work to NOAA — that's transparently wrong.
CO: So what is lost then if NASA stops doing its research into climate change — and as I understand this is principally satellite research what happens to our understanding of climate change?

PP: Well, it won't grind to a halt necessarily because there are other people studying this all around the world. But this is a major, major blow. There are many satellites observing the Earth and we have to observe the entire planet. Weather is what happens locally and over short periods of time. But climate is what happens over long periods of time and over large areas. That's what NASA is studying. We have satellites that are measuring the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the amount of water vapour, where the wind is blowing, how the oceans are behaving — all of these things are pieces of a global puzzle and when they fit together that's what is telling us the story of human-generated climate change.

CO: Mr. Walker says that the reason why NASA should pull out, as other agencies should limit their research into climate change, he says that the climate change research being done in the United States is politically motivated. It's not real science for scientific purposes — it's for politics. What do you say to that?

PP: I say the hypocrisy from that line is so thick you could cut it with a spoon, honestly. The scientists who study this, the climatologists and everyone else, they are not doing this to politicize it. They are doing this because they have devoted their lives to studying the natural world and studying how the Earth behaves. What they are finding is that humans putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is heating the planet and that is changing our climate and that is causing disastrous changes to our planet. This is not political. This is not left. It is not right. It is not neutral. It is just a fact. However, what happened is the fossil fuel industry doesn't want that information to be well-known. They've long known, for 40 years, that climate change is real and that carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is causing global warming.

CO: Mr. Walker says there is not a consensus among scientists that global warming is happening or that it's man made. He couldn't cite sources for his statement during the interview but he did later tell us where he gets them from. He sent us an email where he says that the National Association of Scholars has reported that 40 per cent of scientists with a speciality related to climate do not ascribe to anthropogenic warming. What is the National Association of Scholars?

PP: What that is is a group funded by right-wing sponsors. Going through a list of what they say it sounds like the typical kind of right-wing Fox News talking points. He also says that he got his numbers from the Centre for Climate Research. There is no such organization I can find online anywhere. Today, if you don't have a footprint on the web, I mean come on. So I don't even know if that place exists and it doesn't matter. The numbers he is quoting are simply wrong. 

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Phil Plait.


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