Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which studies the changing atmosphere, says that it won’t be simple for Trump to purge federal agencies of climate researchers during his presidency.
“Chopping off science just to prevent people from talking about climate change won’t work,” Schmidt told Business Insider. “You need science for hazards, for weather forecasting, and climate comes along for the ride.”
President-elect Donald Trump’s stated views on climate change have ranged from the absurd — that it’s a Chinese hoax — to the doubtful — “There is still much that needs to be investigated.” His statements, including his pledge to roll back programs designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US and his selection of someone who says he does not believe in climate change to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition, suggest he could reject policies designed to control pollution and curb global warming.
“I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t some level of concern,” Schmidt said. “But the federal government is a very, very large place. And the number of appointees is very small.”
“I don’t think one should be complacent,” he added. “I think people are going around going ‘Oh yeah it’s just the same as the last time and it will be fine, it will be fine, it will be fine.’ I’m finding it hard to muster that kind of optimism.”
But still, the sheer scale of science at the federal level makes it hard for a new presidential administration to radically alter its course.
“When I first started working for the federal government I got frustrated,” Schmidt said, “like why are we stuck in this pattern? Why are decisions that are made so difficult to reverse? Why is it so hard to shift anything? And it’s hard because there’s a lot of people and there’s a lot of moving parts and there’s a huge amount of money. But now I’m thinking, ‘Oh, you know what, it’s a good thing that that things can’t be changed on a dime.'”
Schmidt added that the work he and his fellow researchers are doing has faced considerable challenges under previous administrations as well. But that didn’t stop them from continuing to do the research.
“During the [George W.] Bush administration we had climate sceptics rewriting reports and trying to control what’s said to the media,” he said. “But the planet kept warning. We kept reporting on it. We kept improving the science that underlies our understanding of why it’s changing. And we will work to continue to do so.”
If there was a campaign to censor or publish bad climate science under Trump, Schmidt said that outside researchers would notice.
“All of these things are peer reviewed up the wazoo,” he said.
And to the degree that there’s been information about Trump’s plans for NASA, Schmidt said it doesn’t worry him too much.
“The NASA appointee from what I can tell is going to be somebody who’s going to be very focused on Mars or human spaceflight, and I don’t think that’s terrible,” he said.
In the end, the exact fate of climate research under Trump is still impossible to predict.
“President Obama said that he hopes their policies will be ‘thought through,'” Schmidt said. “I think that’s something to hope for, though whether I would put money on it myself is a slightly different question.”