Al Gore didn’t really claim to invent the Internet in 1999, but he did champion a NASA mission that installed a deep-space webcam pointed at Earth in 2015. And yesterday President Trump put a bull’s-eye on that mission. Or rather, on part of it. Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint asks Congress to defund the Earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Its sensors tracking magnetic storms emanating from the sun would keep doing their jobs.
Selectively deep-sixing well-functioning instruments on a satellite 1.5 million kilometers from Earth is one of the stranger entries in President Trump’s first pass at a budget request. But it fits a pattern: Throughout the document, programs aimed at comprehending or addressing climate change take deep cuts, even where there is no obvious fiscal justification.
“The budget targets almost anything that is related to climate,” observes David M. Hart, who directs the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C.
Asked about climate-change cuts at a press briefing yesterday, Trump administration budget director Mick Mulvaney stated categorically: "We're not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money." Whether the proposals come to pass, say Hart and other experts, will depend on Congress, and on how much political capital Trump and his administration gain or lose fighting on other issues such as immigration and health care in the months ahead.
Trump’s budget officials swung hardest at the Environmental Protection Agency, verifying earlier leaks that he would ask for a 31 percent slash in funding from its anticipated budget for fiscal 2017 (which ends 1 October). Many programs would lose ground under the proposed $2.6 billion reduction. Those targeted for elimination include the Clean Power Plan, which regulates CO2 emissions from power plants, EPA's climate-change research and partnership programs, and the Energy Star product-labeling program—“the most successful voluntary energy efficiency movement in history," according to its website.
Cuts proposed for the Department of Energy, meanwhile, are deeper than expected and disproportionately hit programs designed to carry energy innovations across the so-called valley of death between basic research and commercialization. Trump’s blueprint would nearly eliminate the department's applied science offices with a $2 billion reduction, and it zeroes out its tech incubator, Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E had $291 million for fiscal 2016.
The Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) warned in a statement yesterday that these and other proposed cuts to federal research and development would, if enacted, “signal the end of the American century as a global innovation leader.”
George Mason University’s Hart, who is also a senior fellow with the foundation, sees an ideological take on the innovation process driving Trump’s cuts. Hart has documented close alignment between the president's proposals and a budget plan issued by the Heritage Foundation. Heritage, a conservative Washington think tank, argues for a sharp division between government-funded lab research and proprietary corporate-funded product development.
"A more realistic view is that you have a continuum of projects. There’s a broad middle where the benefits are shared, and thus the investment should be shared,” says Hart. Bridging that middle ground is critical in today's power sector, he argues, because deregulation has dried up the cash that once fueled its cooperative R&D body. “The Electric Power Research Institute still exists, but it’s a shadow of its former self,” says Hart.
Venture capital attracted by ARPA-E–backed energy technologies, meanwhile, shows that DOE’s efforts appear to be paying off.
NASA looks like a budget survivor at first glance—Trump’s blueprint would shave just 1 percent off the agency's $19 billion 2016 top line and only 5 percent off of its $1.9 billion Earth sciences budget. “That is much less than the Earth science community feared,” says Marcia Smith, president of the Arlington, Va.–based consultancy Space and Technology Policy Group and editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com.
Nevertheless, some of the Earth science cuts are potentially pernicious, and all target efforts to understand climate. In addition to 2018 spending cuts, three planned NASA Earth science missions would be scrubbed in addition to the blinding of DSCOVR’s Earth-facing sensors.
In three of the four cases, Trump would forego real benefits to gain minimal budgetary relief. For example, Smith figures NASA might save about $1 million by downgrading DSCOVR. Yet it measures Earth’s albedo, which is a “critical parameter for climate” according to Harvard University atmospheric chemist Steven Wofsy. Its measurements incorporate the scattering of sunlight by clouds and aerosols, which is “a tricky thing to calculate,” says Wofsy.
Smith adds that, in her personal opinion, Gore was right about DSCOVR's unique, full-disc image of the Earth (and the moon orbiting it): "It is useful to remind people just how fragile the Earth is.” Given the "tiny amount of money” at stake, Smith says that cut “has to count as a political issue, not a money issue.”
Another targeted mission, a follow-on to the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) that launched in 2014, awaits a 2018 launch. It was assembled from earlier missions’ spare parts and can be cheaply launched because it is destined for the International Space Station.
Whereas the existing OCO-2 scans CO2 emissions across the globe every 16 days, OCO-3 promises high-precision measurement of regional carbon sources and sinks. One obvious application, Wofsy says, is fact-checking greenhouse gas reports. “It could really be powerful…to assess the emissions in China or in India, where you can’t trust the numbers,” he says.
Then there is the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) mission, whose first iteration is, like OCO-3, to be bolted onto the ISS. CLARREO Pathfinder packs a finely calibrated spectrometer designed to cross-calibrate optical sensors on the entire fleet of U.S. and international Earth-observing satellites, thus improving their accuracy fivefold to tenfold. "It would make sure that what they’re saying about climate is correct,” says University of Colorado senior scientist Michael King, who chairs the U.S. National Research Council’s Committee on Earth Science and Applications From Space.
King says better satellite data should, in turn, boost confidence in climate models, whose findings have been questioned by President Trump and top administration officials, including EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. "There are uncertainties in climate models. Improving their accuracy should be in everybody’s best interest,” says King.
Wofsy also worries about unspecified reductions in Earth science research grants, which he calls the "seed corn” for future satellites.
Whether any of these attacks on climate science and action come to pass is ultimately up to Congress, and the reaction yesterday was weak even among Trump’s fellow Republicans. Smith notes that Rodney Frelinghuysen, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, responded with the dry reminder that Congress holds “the power of the purse.”
Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, called Trump’s budget “dead on arrival” over its proposed deep cuts to the State Department. And Democrats also issued blistering rejections.
Bill Foster, a physicist representing metropolitan Chicago, said in a statement, “It is hard to overstate how much damage this budget will do to our ability to remain at the forefront of innovation and problem solving.”
How much of the blueprint survives Congress is linked to how the Trump administration’s credibility and popularity evolves in the months ahead, according to Hart and other budget watchers: “It may depend on how much clout the administration really has, [and] whether they’re deemed to be worth listening to."