Nominee to lead NASA is out of step with mainstream climate science


It happened again. 

Another Trump administration nominee to lead a major science agency danced around the topic of human-caused global warming, going just far enough to avoid seeming like a rabid climate denier, while remaining out of step with mainstream climate research findings. 

This time the nominee was Oklahoma Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine, nominated to lead NASA. In addition to its more well-known space exploration missions, NASA is also one of the biggest players in Earth science research, running satellites that track carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere, monitor changes in the ice sheets, and maintain records on global average surface temperatures.

During Bridenstine’s hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Space, and Transportation Committee, one senator in particular worked to pin down the congressman’s views on global warming. 

U.S. Rep. and NASA nominee Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, speaks in Tulsa, Okla.

U.S. Rep. and NASA nominee Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, speaks in Tulsa, Okla.

Image: Sue Ogrocki/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Bridenstine emerged from this exchange as someone who clearly disagrees with mainstream climate science findings, but who isn’t a straight-up climate denier. Still, his views on this issue, plus his history as a partisan politician will likely be enough to cause many Democrats to vote against his nomination. In fact, he may earn more “no” votes than any other recent NASA nominee, for a variety of reasons.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii used his time at the hearing to zero in on Bridenstine’s climate stance. For NASA scientists working on climate research at facilities around the world, Bridenstine didn’t exactly badure them that he understands the current state of the science.

Here’s part of his exchange with Schatz, while the senator was asking a series of yes or no questions:

Schatz: Climate warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities?

Bridenstine: Yes. 

Schatz: Global warming theories should not drive national energy policy without clearer evidence? 

Bridenstine: “I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I believe that humans have contributed to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Schatz: “To what extent?”

Bridenstine: “That is a question I do not have an answer to, but I do know that humans have absolutely contributed to global warming.”

Schatz kept at it, clearly frustrated at the pattern established by nominees including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and others who have skirted past their climate denialism during Senate confirmation hearings.

Schatz’s statement is worth reading in full [emphasis added]:

“… I want to just be clear about what happens now. Testifiers have essentially been given permission to say that climate change is real, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and then they get into, ‘It’s really impossible to decipher how much of these are natural and cyclical and how much of this is man-caused,’ but only in the halls of Congress is this a live debate. And what concerns me the most, in addition to everything that Senator [Bill] Nelson said, is that this is a science agency, and I get that you don’t have a scientific background and I don’t begrudge you that although it is true that previous administrators had extraordinary scientific backgrounds, but I don’t begrudge you that because I don’t have a scientific background. 

But you know what I do do? I defer to scientists. I rely on the scientific consensus, and the scientific consensus is not that it’s really difficult to tell how much of climate change is really attributable to human activity. 

Schatz continued: “The scientific consensus is that climate change is primarily caused by human activity. Do you agree with the scientific consensus?”

Bridenstine said that “human activity absolutely is a contributor to the climate change that we are currently seeing,” but he then hedged on how much of a contributor it is. 

It’s noteworthy that Pruitt, Zinke, Perry, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all said similar things during their confirmation hearings. Tillerson, for example, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that human emissions of greenhouse gases are not the primary factor behind global warming.

“I do not believe the scientific consensus supports their characterization as the ‘key’ factor,” Tillerson said.

As for Bridenstine, he didn’t depart all that much from those prior nominees when he said that humans are not necessarily the primary cause of global warming. 

“It’s going to depend on a lot of factors and we’re still learning more about that every day. In some years you could say absolutely, in other years, during sun cycles and other things, there are other contributing factors that would have maybe more of an impact,” Bridenstine said.

In fact, among the scientific community there is virtually no debate that human activities, such as the destruction of forests and burning of fossil fuels for energy are the main cause of global warming since the preindustrial era. 

NASA’s own website says the following about the scientific consensus on global warming: “Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”

The site also says that “the sun doesn’t appear to be responsible for the warming trend observed over the past several decades.”

The year 2016 was the warmest on record, followed by the previous two years. All of the top 20 warmest years have occurred in the 21st century, with the exception of one, which was 1998.

A report out on Tuesday, for example, found that there is more carbon dioxide, which is a long-lived global warming pollutant, in the air now than at any other point since between 3 and 5 million years ago, making this an unprecedented time in human history. 

Perhaps Bridenstine believes that is a coincidence?

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