Making policy based on science fiction

Posted June 14th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Scenarios of the future

Following up on all the buzz about what Michael Griffin said on NPR – as noted at ThinkProgress and on The Colbert Report (video link)[sorry, this video seems to have disappeared] based on reporting by Andrew Revkin in the NYT in July 2006 – when NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said it is “not NASA’s mission to make policy regarding possible climate change mitigation strategies,” it is because he changed the mission. This was done very quietly in February 2006, with a clause in the 2006 Earth Science Research and Analysis Budget bill that replaced the words “to understand and protect our home planet” with “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.” According to James Hansen, that bill also retroactively slashed the 2006 earth science research budget by 20%.

Not that I had anything to do with it but, in a January ’06 post about the conflict between James Hansen – NASA’s chief climate scientist, and George Deutsch, a politically appointed public affairs officer who tried to prevent him from discussing the policy implications of scientific findings about climate change, I suggested that “Bush could, of course, seek a change in the law so as to redefine NASA’s mission – and admit that he gives higher priority to searching for water on Mars than to the health and welfare of Americans and other human beings, for which maintaining a habitable Earth is a prerequisite. And if he is successful, we would then be able to send him to Mars too. But if not, let the impeachment proceedings begin” as it would provide a clear case of an administration not willing to carry out its responsibilities under the law. Besides forcing the administration to go on record that it does not believe it is the government’s role to conduct science to support the well-being of its citizens it would also remove the fig leaf provided by obscure and misleading technical debates about whether or not there is human induced climate change. So Griffin’s honesty is refreshing but incomplete. Little did I know, in a 2005 interview in the Washington Post (hat tip ClimateScienceWatch) Griffin also said:

…But the goal isn’t just scientific exploration . . . it’s also about extending the range of human habitat out from Earth into the solar system as we go forward in time. . . . In the long run a single-planet species will not survive. We have ample evidence of that . . . [Species have] been wiped out in mass extinctions on an average of every 30 million years…

…I’m talking about that one day, I don’t know when that day is, but there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it. We may well have people living on the moon. We may have people living on the moons of Jupiter and other planets. We may have people making habitats on asteroids. We’ve got places that humans will go, not in our lifetime, but they will go there…

…To me it’s important [that Americans lead the way] because I like the United States, and because I know — I don’t know the date — but I know that humans will colonize the solar system and one day go beyond. And it is important for me that humans who carry — I’ll characterize it as Western values — are there with them.

…there are other stars in our near neighborhood . . . four light-years away . . . 12 light-years away….

…I don’t know that it’s a concern that others get there first. What does concern me is that where other people go, the United States must also be. I’m not trying to stomp other people into the ground, but I would like to be assured that wherever the frontier of human civilization is, that people from America are there as well. . . . It should be viewed as an investment in carrying American culture, American values….

Regardless of what Americans have come to believe about climate – based on misleading information that has been in circulation, I suspect that an overwhelming majority support the use of science to understand the rapid global and climatic changes that are affecting us all regardless of who or what caused them, and that they would prefer tax dollars to be spent on that rather than on delusions of colonizing outer space. What I don’t know is whether any surveys have ever framed questions in that way but if not, it would be a good research project. I find it inconceivable that Bush would have even come close to being elected had people known that he intended to reduce capacity not only to monitor climate change, but to forecast the weather, including hurricanes and El Ninos, but maybe thats just me…..

Rocket scientists have not always been the best communicators regarding the relevance of various kinds of satellite data but, according to an NAS report released earlier this year, the capacity of all of our earth observing systems is expected to decrease by 40% by the end of the decade and many critical measurements are expected to cease altogether, jeopardizing this capacity, at a time when changes in climate are affecting global precipitation patterns, and land use patterns changing rapidly as well. ClimateScienceWatch also has an internal NOAA/NASA report from December 2006 recently obtained by AP, and provides briefing notes regarding the specific capacities for climate related measurements that are being jeopardized which sums up the importance of long term data in the opening paragraph:

Detecting climate change, understanding the associated shifts in specific climate processes, and then projecting the impacts of these changes on the Earth system requires a comprehensive set of consistent measurements made over many decades. Many climate trends are small and require careful analysis of long time series of sufficient length, consistency, and continuity to distinguish between the natural long-term climate variability and any small, persistent climate changes. Interruptions in the climate data records make the resolution of small differences uncertain or even impossible to detect. To confidently detect small climate shifts requires instrument accuracy and stability better than is generally required for weather research and most other scientific uses. For more than thirty years, NASA research-driven missions, such as the EOS, have pioneered remote sensing observations of the Earth’s climate, including parameters such as solar irradiance, the Earth’s radiation budget, ozone vertical profiles, and sea surface height. Maintaining these measurements in an operational environment provides the best opportunity for maintaining the long-term, consistent, and continuous data records needed to understand, monitor, and predict climate variability and change.

According to James Hansen, the massive budget cuts happened just as major changes are beginning to be detected, thanks to these long term data collection efforts. Speaking about the Landsat mission, one of my former professors at UMD, John Townshend, said the scientific community failed to speak up loudly enough when some of these programs were delayed because they simply assumed continuity. Once upon a time, that would have been a reasonable assumption.

If you haven’t been following this one, for other commentary on the rest of what Griffin said, see this post by Kevin Vranes, and this one at Dynamics of Cats, to name a few.

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