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Climate scientists face uncertain future under President-elect Trump

A view of Earth as seen from EPIC, the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera.

This week, thousands of scientists are meeting in San Francisco for the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union.

The gathering focuses on the latest developments in earth and space sciences, but this year, organizers added a relatively last minute special session titled "The Shifting Landscape for Science."

The goal of the talk is to "explore ways AGU can work with and provide support to scientists during this period of uncertainty."

That "period of uncertainty" refers to the election of Donald Trump who will be working with a Republican majority in both the House and Senate.

Many climate scientists worry this means cuts in funding for research into the human causes of global warming.

President-elect Trump has called climate change a "hoax" and he recently nominated Scott Pruitt, a leading climate skeptic, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the weekend on Fox News, Trump cast doubt on the science by saying that when it comes to climate change, "nobody really knows."

Statements like these trouble USC climate researcher Sarah Feakins.

She's afraid Trump and his administration will put climate scientists on the defensive and reopen the debate on the links between human activities and global warming.

"What’s particularly frustrating and damaging about it is it means a lot of our time is wasted on reviewing things that are already known," she said.  "We are, actually, then not pushing the boundaries forward."

Like Feakins, the vast majority of scientists believe this debate is settled and that humans are causing significant changes to the climate.

Feakins studies sediment from around the world for tiny traces of ancient plant matter. By analyzing that material, her lab can piece together details about the conditions those plants grew in.

"We’re little detectives exploring how the climate systems, how the landscape has changed in the past," Feakins noted.

That’s important, because right now, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are rising faster than they have in more than 400,000 years, according to data from NASA.  Every clue about what climate conditions were like in the past might help researchers understand what they’ll be like in the future as the planet warms.

Over the past eight years, the federal government has been a strong partner for climate scientists, providing funding and data to advance their work.

A number of federal agencies openly acknowledge global warming as a serious problem including the Defense Department, NASA and the US Geological Survey.

Ken Hudnut, a risk reduction science advisor for the USGS in Pasadena, said his agency is particularly concerned about the potential for stronger storms and higher tides due to climate change.

"People are very well aware of the vulnerabilities that our nation has," he explained. "This is a major issue of national security when it comes to the infrastructure along the coast lines. You can’t ignore that."

It’s not clear if President-elect Trump agrees.

During his campaign, he vowed to cut billions of dollars of climate change spending. And one of his advisors told The Guardian newspaper that NASA should be stripped of its climate research budget.

That would not only stifle NASA, which has played a lead role gathering climate data, but it would also affect researchers like Steve Margulis with UCLA's  Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

"NASA is one of the main funders of our work," Margulis explained.

He also relies on the data from NASA’s earth-based missions. If funding drops, Margulis thinks he can find other ways to carry out his research, but it’ll likely mean he won’t be able to hire as many grad students. He worries they’ll take their degrees and good ideas to other countries.

"So it’s going to put a significant dent in the research over all but also the training of the next generation scientists," he said.

Other researchers worry the U.S. will lose its edge as a leader in climate science, or that once long-established projects lose funding and go dark, they’ll cost too much to bring back on line later.

"We share their concern," said Christine McEntee, CEO of the American Geophysical Union.

Her organization hopes to be a resource for scientists looking for tips on how to better communicate their work to skeptics.

"It’s not a time to hide," she said. "It’s a time to really amplify our voice about the value of science and what it means."

Yet Judith Curry, a climatologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, takes a different view, saying a shift in funding priorities might be a good thing.

She thinks the government currently spends too much on complicated computer models that predict possible climate conditions in the future. She thinks they are costly and often inaccurate.

"We need to get back to basics and really develop our understanding of fundamental climate dynamics," she said.

James Sweeney, an energy policy expert with the California based Hoover Institution, said rather than cutting funds, the government should change how it spends them, focusing less on climate models and more on ways to address climate change.

"But that is an issue of relative balance, not a statement that we should spend less on either effort," he explained.

Whatever happens to funding scientific priorities under Trump, it'll likely be a while before any changes he makes trickle down to researchers.

In the meantime, many climate researchers are speaking out about the value of their work in hopes it’ll resonate with the next administration.