At the conference last month where Gov. Jerry Brown declared the state would “launch its own damn satellite” if the Trump administration restricts access to climate data, a group of scientists from the University of California gathered in a side room to figure out how to do just that.
Alarmed by statements they’d read from members of Trump’s transition team, the scientists brainstormed whether they could find new data sources or if they could somehow partner with a private company to pay for a satellite program.
The group did not settle on a plan, and it may not need to find one. It’s unclear whether President-elect Donald Trump’s administration actually would make it more difficult for researchers to access information from NASA satellites they’ve been using for years.
But the gathering was another sign that California scientists don’t know what to expect from an incoming Trump team. They’re preparing for everything from a cut in funding for scientific research to a public relations campaign deriding their work.
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“We’re being pre-emptive. It would be a mistake not to think preemptively,” said Ben Houlton, the director of the John Muir Institute of the Environment at UC Davis, who participated in the meeting with fellow UC researchers last month.
In many cases, state scientists are girding to protect programs they’ve cultivated for decades. The Department of Water Resources, for instance, has been looking at how global warming would affect water storage since the 1980s.
That kind of work lately has enjoyed widespread public support. A report released this week from the Public Policy Institute of California noted that 81 percent of residents view global warming as a serious threat, and that more than two-thirds of residents surveyed in a July poll favor California laws limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
Brown’s 2017-18 budget released this week included a six-page section on climate change and an appeal for the Legislature to explicitly extend the authority of the Air Resources Board’s cap-and-trade program. He told reporters in his budget remarks that the didn’t think the state would have to follow through on building a satellite, but he wouldn’t rule it out.
“The silver lining of all of this is we’re in California, so we’re probably in the safest place we can be to talk about climate change. There’s enough understanding of what’s at risk that this work is not going to stop,” said Amber Pairis, a state scientist who leads a climate science program in San Diego that’s partly funded by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Here’s a look at the main ways that California state scientists say a Trump administration could upend their work.
My facts are your fake news
After his election, Trump met with former Vice President Al Gore and told The New York Times he’d keep an “open mind” about climate change research.
But his earlier statements are shaping worries in the scientific community that he’ll cast doubt about their work. Before he launched his presidential bid, for instance, Trump declared on Twitter that global warming was a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
Robert Walker, a former congressman who advised Trump’s team on space exploration, in October also published an editorial in which he derided “politically correct environmental monitoring” by NASA.
“More than anything, it’s this fact-free society that concerns me,” said Houlton, who has reached out to lawyers and colleagues from the humanities in addition to other UC scientists since Trump’s election. They’re trying to think of ways to communicate differently about climate change to connect with people who have disagreed with them in the past.
Challenging environmental regulations
During the Obama administration, the California Air Resources Board’s pollution-control policies were largely in sync with programs coming out of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that aimed to increase auto mileage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Both the state board and the EPA are monitoring the auto industry’s compliance with new mileage standards, and both agencies issued reports in July suggesting that they expected car manufacturers to hit the targets.
Two days after the election, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers President Mitch Bainwol wrote a letter asking the Trump transition team to review those policies and others.
Scott Pruitt, Trump’s choice to lead the EPA, has a long record as Oklahoma’s attorney general of challenging federal environmental regulations to promote economic growth. Trump’s energy platform calls for boosting fossil fuel production.
As a result, the Air Resources Board could find itself standing alone to stick up for the regulations it advanced during Obama’s terms.
“More eyes are on us because we’re seen as more of a leader with less leadership coming out of Washington in climate and other areas,” said Dan Sperling, a UC Davis professor who sits on the Air Resources Board.
Cutting federal climate research
Paying for an expensive environmental study sometimes takes a mix of state, federal and private funds. Some scientists worry that new priorities from the White House will mean an end to new grants for climate research.
“We’re worried about these big, large-scale creative endeavors. It’s going to be hard to fund them,” said Pairis, whose Climate Science Alliance works to help Southern California communities prepare for climate change. It’s funded by state, federal and philanthropic sources.
Lately, the state has partnered with federal scientists on several studies that assess how global warming could affect California’s water resources. The results shape decisions on how to fund new water storage projects, said John Andrew, who has led the climate change program at the Department of Water Resources since 2006.
Opportunities for those studies developed after Obama took office and sought to collaborate with the department, he said.
“It’s just speculative to say where the next administration will be in reality,” he said. “Where there are opportunities to do things, we’ll certainly take advantage of them, and where there isn’t, there certainly is support to continue it at the state level.”
Turning back the satellites
The remarks that caught Brown’s attention when he gave his call-to-arms last month came from Trump space adviser Walker. His October editorial and interviews he gave in November suggested Trump would restrict NASA’s earth science budget or steer that kind of work to another federal agency.
Throughout California, scientists rely on NASA images almost daily to study the water content of the state’s snowpack, prepare for weather hazards or track natural disasters.
“It’s data availability that would concern me,” said Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced. “That would affect not just research, but it would affect response to natural hazards and management decisions around forests and water resources. There’s a lot of money riding on those data.”
Trump’s team has not sent any new signals suggesting it would follow Walker’s guidance. Gov. Brown in his budget remarks noted that silence likely meant the satellites were safe. After all, NASA has already spent the money to put the data-gathering satellites in space and budgeted funds to operate them.
But Bales and other researchers are watching the programs closely, just in case they’re targeted for cuts.
“We should be concerned,” Houlton said. “We should take this as a call to arms. And we should collaborate like never before.”