Trump administration ends critical NASA greenhouse gas monitoring program

The move comes less than a month after a climate science denier took over the agency.

Rep. James Bridenstine (R-OK) testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during his confirmation hearing to be administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill November 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Rep. James Bridenstine (R-OK) testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during his confirmation hearing to be administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill November 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Trump administration has gutted a crucial research program run by NASA that helped monitor greenhouse gases. Without the program, experts say they will have difficulty tracking national carbon emissions.

Science Magazine reported Wednesday that the White House has ended NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (CMS), a $10 million-per-year program that has supported 65 projects since 2010. The effort measures carbon dioxide and methane using satellites and similar mechanisms.

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Greenhouse gases are historically difficult to measure, something the CMS has sought to remedy. That data gathered is used both nationally and internationally, helping cities and countries around the world map their carbon emissions. Among other things, with the CMS gone it will be challenging to verify the emission reductions laid out by the Paris climate agreement in 2016.

Steve Cole, a D.C.-based NASA spokesperson, told Science that the program ended after a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill approved in March by Congress failed to even mention the effort. Citing “budget constraints and higher priorities within the science budget”, Cole said that existing grants will run their course but no new projects will receive a green light.

Kelly Sims Gallagher, who directs Tufts University’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, told the publication the decision was a “grave mistake.”

“If you cannot measure emissions reductions, you cannot be confident that countries are adhering to the agreement,” said Gallagher.

One major ongoing effort for the CMS recently has been understanding the nature of carbon contained in forests. Working with the U.S. Forest Service, NASA scientists have helped to generate critical research and access remote areas, including the isolated and remote Alaska interior. Tropical forest carbon inventories have also greatly improved with CMS assistance, allowing for more accurate measuring in developing areas.

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Experts indicated they did not believe the end of the CMS would signal the end of monitoring and measuring carbon altogether. Rather, Europe is likely to rise up to fill the space left behind by the United States, part of a continuing trend under President Trump’s leadership.

The Trump administration has sought repeatedly to undermine climate efforts, rolling back a number of Obama-era environmental initiatives and announcing a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement last June. NASA has served as a source of ire before for the White House, which has sought to cut funding for the agency’s Earth Science division twice. That division is associated with measuring climate trends.

The decision to end the CMS marks a major swipe at NASA’s climate efforts and indication of what the agency may look like under Jim Bridenstine, who took over last month. Bridenstine’s confirmation process took seven and a half months, the longest time NASA has ever gone without a permanent leader.

A Republican Oklahoma congressman, Bridenstine is the first elected official to serve in this position, something Democratic lawmakers worry will make him too political. He is also a climate science denier without any scientific credentials.

Under pressure from Congress during his confirmation, the congressman pledged his support for the Earth Science division. Bridenstine has historically suggested the division be moved out of NASA entirely, potentially to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which is also reeling from spending cuts.