US House Science Committee promotes fake news on climate change

The US House Committee on Science, Space & Technology has apparently decided that they too need to get into the business of alternative facts, by hosting a Mail on Sunday article that falsely claims a major climate change study had exaggerated global warming. The article, which is currently the top entry under news on the committee’s website, is categorically nonsensical and has been thoroughly deconstructed by Snopes.

The Mail on Sunday, an offshoot of the equally disreputable Daily Mail, alleges that, in order to influence the Paris Climate Agreement, America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used misleading and unverified data to exaggerate global warming in a June 2015 paper published in the journal Science entitled Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus. The allegations stem from supposed whistleblower, Dr John Bates, a retired NOAA scientist.

Supposedly, according to the article’s author David Rose, NOAA not only broke general organisation protocols by failing to archive their data and rushing through the internal review process but used “flawed” data from a doubtful source. The article of course ignores that the study actually fully took into account the data differences inherent in the research.

A screenshot of the Science, Space & Technology Committee’s website, showing the provably false article linked on the bottom left

The range of issues with the allegations is astonishing, but let’s start with one of the bigger ones: the fact that the very “whistleblower” himself stated in an interview with E&E News that he does not believe that the data of the study was manipulated in any way. The issue he takes was instead that he felt the timing of the paper was rushed out.

Well, a rushed paper certainly seems problematic, and sure it could have played a part in the Paris Agreement. Except for the fact that said Agreement had been in discussion for four freaking years when the study was published.

In addition, the original article’s author, and director of the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Thomas R Karl states that not only was Bates’ only role to organise the internal review process but that there was never any kind of critique of the data used.

“There were] no discussions, nor emails to me. Dr Bates was asked to coordinate the internal review of the paper (I am not sure who made the request) since this was normally handled by Tom Peterson, but he was one of the authors,” he said. The responsibility of the coordinator for the internal review is to identify an individual within the [National Centers for Environmental Information] who could review the paper and pass those comments back to the authors for their response. In our case, there were no comments by the reviewer.”

It should moreover be noted that despite the allegations of obscured and misappropriated data, the entire methodology was spelled out in the paper and there was a further study this January, absent from the Mail’s article, that showed the data record from Karl et al’s study was more accurate than any other model.

Oh, and just in case you still though the timing might be problematic? The actual US State Department came out and said that the study had little to no bearing on the Paris Agreement. Aside from the fact that the negotiations had been underway for years before the study was even published, according to a statement to E&E news, the negotiating team were barely aware of the study.

“I never heard it discussed once, let alone this one NOAA report, discussed in Paris, the run-up to Paris or anything after Paris, so this is really just an incredibly bizarre claim,” Andrew Light, a senior member of the State Department’s climate talks 2015 negotiating team, said.

Let’s just go ahead and say that, in the best of lights, the Trump administration is a little behind the times in regards to climate change (to give just one example, a man who sued the EPA 14 times now put in charge of the agency). But to see an actual House Committee selectively promote an article when it has been so thoroughly refuted bodes very poorly for the future of policy related to climate change.

It does, however, seem in line with other comments made by the committee’s chairman, Lamar Smith. “The United States’ contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement, which includes the Clean Power Plan, could cost up to $176bn annually, and would have no significant impacts on climate change,” he said in a statement on the agreement in November.

With an administration that seems determined to blindly disbelieve hard science in favour of short-term greed, future US action on climate change is deeply dubious.

As Donald Trump takes office as President, there are several big questions to be asked about what direction his policies will take. As yet, we haven’t heard much about what the new administration plans for the US’ efforts in space. We explore what the Trump administration may mean for NASA

“We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.”

So said the freshly inaugurated President Donald Trump during his speech on Friday, sending a perhaps surprisingly pro-science, if somewhat vague, message to those listening. And while the categorisation of a new millennium is somewhat off, it’s interesting that Trump seems determined to push for advancements in space. Given the big goals NASA is in the midst of trying to accomplish, it is promising that there is at least an overtone of presidential support.

That support will be necessary given the ambition of programmes such as the Mars mission. NASA are currently building the necessary rocket in-house, but it is possible Trump’s administration, given their business-friendly nature, may instead choose to have NASA make use of SpaceX’s in-development heavy-lift rocket.

“The next president is inheriting a space program that has this nascent ambition to go to Mars but doesn’t have hardware actually flying yet,” Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, told Space.com in November. “

So there’s a lot of opportunity for the next administration to say, ‘Should we continue these [programs]? What will the direction be? Do we want to commit to supporting these programs as is? Do we change them? Do we cancel them?’ … So it’s a big question mark.”

An Expansionist Outlook

There is a certain space race vibe to Trump’s approach to the future of the US in space; a combination of nationalism and a belief in industry that could see the administration funnel cash and support into NASA programmes. It is possible this may come about through private-public partnerships, such as with SpaceX, but either way should result in a more robust space programme.

Image courtesy of Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com. Featured image courtesy of JStone / Shutterstock.com

The fear, however, is that the efforts of NASA to explore space may be boosted at the expense of their programmes on our own planet. Given the incoming administration’s at times flat-out denial of climate change, there is a strong chance that NASA’s Earth Sciences Mission Directorate could have its $2bn funding stripped to be directed towards expanding space programmes.  

“NASA should be focused primarily on deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” Robert S Walker and Peter Navarro, both senior advisers to the Trump campaign, wrote in an opinion piece published in SpaceNews before the election.

“Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.”

As for the President himself, outside of his inaugural speech, his view is slightly less clear. He has previously expressed excitement for the idea of privatisation in the space industry and critiqued President Obama’s approach to NASA.

“It is very sad to see what @BarackObama has done with NASA. He has gutted the program and made us dependent on the Russians,” he tweeted in August 2012. but at the same time seems reluctant to commit to a huge investment in the space agency. When questioned on NASA’s budget, Trump said “our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country. Then, we can have a discussion about spending.”

Capitalising the Cosmos

A primary Trump policy is putting America first. That means American business and American workers fueling the American economy over any outsourcing or importation of foreign talent. Given that the foremost private space efforts are primarily American (Space X, Blue Origin), and Trump is notoriously business-first, it makes sense that the idea of private industry leading the way into the next generation of space exploration would be exciting to the new President.

Image courtesy of SpaceX.

During a town hall in New Hampshire, Trump said that he “likes that maybe even better” when discussing the prospect of a private space programme as opposed to a public one and though he couched it in wanting to first prioritise infrastructure, he did also call the idea of a manned mission to Mars “wonderful”. Given that privatising such efforts allows him to push off the responsibility, and certain costs, from the government, it also allows him to boast of a combined cost cut and American industry boost.

Perhaps most notably, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, made two trips to Trump Tower during the transition period. According to the Washington Post, it seems that Musk discussed how private-public partnerships could help prime NASA for manned missions to Mars. Having probably the most prominent private space entrepreneur meeting with Trump one-on-one certainly suggests that the announcement of a NASA/SpaceX partnership may be on the cards for the administration.  

Into the Unknown

There are still a lot of decisions to be made in the coming months as the new administration settles into its role, and there’s a strong chance that NASA won’t be at the top of the list of priorities.

It’s not exactly a new problem, given the problems on our own soil; it’s often hard to convince people that billions should be spent firing probes into space. However, it’s hard to argue that the world isn’t better off for having a robust and well-funded NASA, whether it be for its exploration programmes or any of its other diverse efforts.

It certainly seems that there is an enthusiasm for the idea of buoying American interests in space but it may be that this is done so more via the promotion of private companies than public agencies.

Those behind NASA’s programmes should certainly feel concerned as to where they will be headed under Trump, it seems likely that even if they gain support in some areas it will be at great cost in others.