Bob Walker, an adviser to US President-elect Donald Trump, has set alarm bells ringing by recommending that NASA’s climate monitoring programs be axed.
But his dismissal of the “politicised science” at NASA’s Earth Science Division shows an ignorance of the breadth, role and significance of its contributions to society in the United States and worldwide.
It’s unclear what exactly Walker means by his comment that “future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies”. Is the plan merely to shuffle the deckchairs – same science, different badge — or is it code for cutting the research observation and monitoring efforts altogether?
If the former, it is hard to see what it would achieve, beyond risking a loss of expertise as other agencies attempt to develop the same capabilities as NASA. But the latter is a frightening prospect, because it would effectively take us back to what climate scientists refer to as the “pre-satellite era”.
The global climate system is, well, global. There are places where there is no one around to take measurements, such as the vast expanses of our oceans, the central desert of Australia, and the Arctic and Antarctic regions. But what happens in these remote areas affects the climate elsewhere; the atmosphere has no boundary and the oceans are linked.
Before satellites, the patchiness of weather and climate observations for much of the globe made it hard to detect the patterns that govern rainfall, temperatures and winds.
Now we have a continuous global view of Earth, courtesy of NASA’s Earth observation satellite program. Cutting this research and returning to the pre-satellite era would leave us ignorant not only of Earth’s climate processes, but also of whether or not our environmental policies are effective.