Ahead of national March for Science, scientists reflect on proposed climate cuts

Pieter Tans was 25 years old the first time he heard about global warming.

He was a student in the Netherlands, perusing a bookstore, when he came across a book called Inadvertent Climate Change, a study of mankind’s impact on the Earth’s climate.

Transfixed, Tans took the volume home and read it cover to cover, scribbling notes in the margins. Soon after, he switched his focus of study from physics to earth sciences, committing then and there to devote his life to studying climate change. It was 1972.

Tans now works in Boulder for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), leading the Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases group. Among other things, the group maintains the Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, which produces widely-used data on atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, the three primary drivers of climate change.

In mid-March, President Donald Trump released his 2018 budget blueprint, a wishlist of cuts and boosts to various governmental agencies and programs. The budget proposed decreasing spending to all agencies except Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Trump specifically targeted climate research and environmental protections, requesting a 30 percent cut to the EPA, an end to funding for the Clean Power Plan and the halting of payments to some United Nations climate change programs.

NOAA, too, is in the crosshairs. An 18 percent cut to the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, would include a 4 percent cut to the agency. That includes the elimination of $250 million in coastal research programs meant to prepare cities for impending storms. The budget provides no numbers for influential programs like the Office of Atmospheric Research, NOAA’s main science arm.

Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama, told weather.com that the “draconian cuts” would be “devastating to the economy, jobs and to the safety and livelihoods of Americans in every state.”

NOAA prohibits its current employees from speaking about politics, and Tans is no exception. But in the run-up to Saturday’s nationwide March for Science, which is expected to draw at least 10,000 people in Denver alone, he answered The Colorado Independent’s queries about the importance of his work.

“We create an authoritative record of concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the rate at which they go up every year,” he said. The group’s preliminary data shows that global carbon dioxide levels reached 405 parts-per million (ppm) in Jan. 2017. It’s incredibly difficult to know how various feedback loops will affect the speed and extent of climate change, so it’s hard to name a “safe” level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has named 450 ppm as a do-not-cross line. Some environmental groups, like 350.org, have called for a reduction in global CO2 levels to 350 ppm.

The goal, Tans says, is for the measurements to be precise enough to say confidently where these emissions come from — he says the data is typically accurate within .1 ppm.  

The data complements, and occasionally challenges, other measurements. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, keeps a greenhouse gas inventory which tracks emissions by sector based on reported energy use, agricultural activities and other national statistics. The Global Greenhouse Gas Network, in contrast, measures actual atmospheric greenhouse gases using air sampling sites.

“We look at it from a different angle: The EPA has an inventory, but what actually shows up in the atmosphere? So this is like an independent verification of emissions,” Tans explains. “We found that in most cases, there are more emissions than what are in the EPA’s inventory. Then it’s up to the EPA to figure out what they missed.”  

Climate scientist Jim White, a professor and director of the Institute for Alpine and Arctic Research at CU Boulder, says the importance of NOAA research can’t be overstated.

“NOAA is the global hub. They feed the EPA data, they feed NASA data; weather scientists, climate scientists, farmers get that data,” he explained. Anyone who cares about weather, he says, cares about NOAA research.

White predicts that a cut to NOAA would probably lead to a cut to its greenhouse gas monitoring program. That’s particularly worrying given that the agency has already seen significant cuts since Congress “put the U.S. government on a starvation diet” after the economic downturn of the late 2000’s. Previous cuts have already eliminated certain monitoring sites.

But it goes further, he says: “If you’re talking about a 15-20 percent budget cut, you’re talking about people getting fired, jobs getting lost.” That could be particularly worrying for university professors who rely on the agency’s funding. 

Commerce Department spokesman Will Reinert told the Boulder Daily Camera in early March that Trump’s proposed cuts to NOAA grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management should not actually affect the Boulder facility. But other programs are still at risk.

Scientists remain cautious, but some say politics make it unlikely that the most troubling aspects of Trump’s budget will actually pass.

“Nobody is as ready to jump off the cliff  about Trump’s budget as the general public is,” said James Balog, a scientist who founded the Extreme Ice Survey and makes documentaries about climate change.Balog doesn’t receive federal funds for his research, but says he’s talked to plenty of friends about the Trump budget, including some who work in a relevant government agency. “They say these budgets they put out early are merely a theory, or a negotiating point. I think a lot of what he’s doing is street theater to appease his base.” 

White says he hopes Congress won’t permit Trump’s cuts, in part because of the jobs losses they could cause: Some estimates predict that as many as 14,000 jobs could be affected in Colorado alone. “If I had to read the tea leaves, I’d say more than likely there will be some cuts,” he said. “But will they be as big as the president wants? I don’t think so.”

Balog is worried too, “like everybody else is,” but notes that it “literally will take a year or two for the truth to be told” about exactly how various research, agencies and jobs will be hit.

Calling Trump’s election “a disaster and a disgrace” in the same breath, Balog submitted that the president likely won’t be able to eliminate all the climate change efforts he’s proposed, but — like previous administrations — still won’t do enough to protect Earth’s climate future.

“I don’t think he’ll turn out to be as bad as we feared, but he won’t be as good as the situation demands,” he said.

Balog ended his interview with the same remarks he plans to close with when he speaks at the March for Science in Washington, D.C. this weekend: “We shall march on these streets, and we can never ever surrender.”

Denver’s March for Science will begin in Civic Center Park on Saturday at 10 a.m.


Photo credit: Elizabeth Stilwell, Creative Commons, Flickr