Energy & Environment

While Trump and UK prime minister meet, British scientists worry

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One-hundred members of the United Kingdom’s climate change research community have written to Prime Minister Theresa May to highlight potential threats and opportunities for the national interest arising from President Trump’s election.

The letter, sent to May on Jan. 13 and made public shortly thereafter, urges her to use the special relationship between the two countries to:

[P]ress President-Elect Trump and his administration to acknowledge the scientific evidence about the risks of climate change, to continue to support international action to counter climate change, including the Paris Agreement, and to maintain support for world class research and data-gathering on climate change in the United States.

I helped organize the letter after becoming increasingly concerned over the past couple of months by media reports from the United States suggesting that Trump’s administration was perhaps preparing for a purge of federally funded climate change researchers.

According to Scientific American and other media, Trump is being advised on space policy by a former Republican congressman, Robert Walker (R-Pa.), who co-authored an article in October 2016 complaining that NASA has been “largely reduced to a logistics agency concentrating on space station resupply and politically correct environmental monitoring.” The authors argued that “NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies.”

This has been interpreted by some scientists as a threat to NASA’s climate monitoring and research activities. Walker has subsequently claimed that he does not want to shut down the research, but only move it out of NASA.

{mosads}Further worries about the fate of federally funded research under Trump have been created by news that a member of his transition team had distributed a questionnaire seeking the names of all staff at the Department of Energy who have contributed to domestic and international policymaking on climate change.


Trump’s transition team indicated that the questionnaire had not been authorized. However, Trump’s choice as Energy secretary — Rick Perry (R), the former governor of Texas — has previously pledged to abolish the department that he is now set to lead.

The letter to May points out that cuts to climate change research in the United States would have global ramifications because it would “diminish the provision of robust and rigorous evidence that is used by policy-makers and researchers around the world, including in the United Kingdom.”

The signatories to the letter also state:

We stand ready to support and assist our counterparts in the United States, as collaborators, co-authors and colleagues, in resisting any political attempts to prevent, hamper or interfere with vital research on climate change.

These fears have been stoked by memories of the blatant political interference in climate change research by the administration of the last Republican president, George W. Bush.

For instance, James Hansen, who was head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, revealed in 2006 that the Bush administration had tried to discourage him from speaking publicly about climate change.

There was further controversy when it emerged that a member of Bush’s administration, Philip Cooney, had been watering down reports about the evidence for climate change.

Cooney subsequently left the Bush administration to join Exxon Mobil. The oil company had attracted criticism after the disclosure that its senior lobbyist sent a memo to Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality calling for the removal of senior scientists from their positions because they had spoken publicly about the risks of climate change.

Bob Watson and Mike MacCracken both lost their senior positions within a year of having been targeted by the memo.

Of course, Trump may yet allay any fears about the future of federally funded climate change research under his presidency, allowing the U.K. and U.S. to work together to exploit potential opportunities.

As the signatories to the letter stress:

We believe that the United Kingdom could now have a great opportunity to work alongside the United States in strengthening the evidence base, supporting the development of innovative technologies, and leading international cooperation to manage the risks of climate change.

Bob Ward is the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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