Critical NASA program cut by Trump re-introduced in latest budget

Last week, the Trump administration confirmed a crucial greenhouse gas-monitoring system had ended. Now, it might have funding again.

Vehicles move along the the New Jersey Turnpike while a factory emits smoke on November 17, 2017 in Carteret, New Jersey. CREDIT: Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images
Vehicles move along the the New Jersey Turnpike while a factory emits smoke on November 17, 2017 in Carteret, New Jersey. CREDIT: Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images

A House panel reportedly voted this week to restore a critical climate science program run by NASA, a week after reports circulated that the effort had ended. The program has been cited as central to domestic efforts monitoring greenhouse gases.

The House Committee on Appropriations, which is responsible for overseeing NASA, voted on Thursday to approve $10 million in funding for a “climate monitoring system” intended to help the agency better “understand the major factors driving short and long term climate change.” In a unanimous vote, lawmakers gave the green light to an amendment in a 2019 spending bill mandating that NASA fund such a system, Science first reported Thursday.

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“Not less than $10 million [within the allotment given to NASA] shall be for a Climate Monitoring program, including competitive grants to help develop the capabilities necessary for monitoring, reporting, and verification of biogeochemical processes to better understand the major factors driving short and long term climate change,” reads the amendment, sponsored by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who serves as Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman.

That system’s description sounds nearly identical to the Carbon Monitoring System (CMS), a $10 million-per-year program established to measure carbon dioxide and methane using satellite technology and similar mechanisms. The CMS has played a crucial role in the study of greenhouse gases, but last week the Trump administration confirmed that the program had ended after its funding was cut from the 2018 budget passed in March.

Now, it appears the CMS might be back from the dead — in everything but name.  The $62 billion 2019 CJS Appropriations bill approved on Thursday extends to a number of departments, including the Justice Department and numerous science-linked agencies, NASA among them.

“This bill invests our hard-earned tax dollars into the safety and security of our nation,” said Culberson, who went on to detail various elements within the legislation.

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“It supports critical medical and scientific research so that we’re able to tackle the economic and technological challenges of the digital age,” Culberson said. “Additionally, it continues NASA’s record-level funding, setting the agency on the trajectory to rise above and beyond the glory days of Apollo.”

If the climate monitoring system mentioned within the bill is indeed the CMS, that marks an abrupt shift in a short period of time. Last week, the Trump administration confirmed that “budget constraints and higher priorities within the science budget” had sparked a decision to leave out any mention of the CMS from a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill in March.

That seemed to spell the end for the CMS. D.C.-based NASA spokesperson Steve Cole told Science that while pre-existing grants used by CMS would be permitted to wrap up, there would be no support granted for new research.

Experts decried that decision, lamenting the impact such a move would have on U.S. efforts to keep track of greenhouse gases. The research produced by the CMS is especially crucial for verifying the emission reductions laid out by the 2016 Paris climate agreement.

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Under the agreement, virtually every nation in the world signed on to prevent global warming from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. President Trump announced plans to withdraw the United States from the agreement in June 2017, but U.S. scientists have still worked to monitor emissions regardless.

Those efforts would be greatly hindered without the CMS. Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of the Tufts University’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, told Science last week that without the ability to “measure emissions reductions” it would be incredibly challenging to know if any of the signatories to the Paris agreement were in fact adhering to its targets.

It is unclear what may have sparked the revival of the CMS. The Trump administration has sought to cut funding for NASA’s Earth Science division several times, taking aim at a branch of the agency known for monitoring climate patterns.

Newly appointed NASA head Jim Bridenstine, a Republican Oklahoma congressman, has also attracted controversy over both his lack of scientific credentials and history of climate science denial. But Bridenstine declared Thursday that he believed climate change to be real, on the same day that the House vote occurred.

“As far as my position on climate change and how it’s evolved, I’ll be very open,” the NASA head told listeners during a town hall at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t deny that consensus that the climate is changing. In fact, I fully believe and know that the climate is changing,” he continued. “I also know that we humans beings are contributing to it in a major way. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. We’re putting it into the atmosphere in volumes that we haven’t seen, and that greenhouse gas is warming the planet. That is absolutely happening, and we are responsible for it.”

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Bridenstine’s comments mark an abrupt shift for the Trump administration, even though in follow-up questions the official failed to clearly assert whether he believes humans are the main drivers of climate change. The NASA head has not weighed in publicly about the CMS, either with reference to its end or its recent revival. Culberson, the Texas Republican who introduced the amendment, cited the importance of tracking the sources of greenhouse gas emissions in explaining his proposal.

The bill heads next to the full House for a vote. Given that a parallel vote is making its way through the Senate, it could be months before the budget is approved.