Climate Science in the Trump Years

 Dec 5, 2016    by Ethan Coffel

Most early career climate scientists, myself included, entered the field during the years of the Obama Administration. Climate science was officially respected and encouraged, and we saw the U.S. take a leading role in negotiating the Paris Accord and back up its talk by substantially reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. These policies are now in question under the incoming Trump administration; many are concerned that the science of climate change may not be supported and possibly even rebuked. In the coming Trump years, it will be more important than ever for climate scientists to promote and defend the importance of their work and communicate the responsibility of addressing the environmental threats that we face.

Early indications are that the EPA, the Department of Interior, and the Department of Energy will be staffed by oil executives, energy lobbyists, and climate deniers. The President-elect has pledged to end NASA funding of environmental research and zero-out federally funded clean energy development. Whether all of these policies are implemented remains to be seen, but it seems likely that the new administration will take a drastic turn away from environmental protection.

As early career scientists, these changes could affect our work and our lives directly. Broader science policy under the Trump administration is still unclear, but federal funding for climate and environmental research could be curtailed. Competition for climate science positions and grants also could intensify. We may even face renewed personal attacks on climate scientists with the goal of discrediting their work and dissuading them from speaking out to defend the facts. The organizations that support the climate denial movement are well funded and motivated to reverse environmental regulation and stop climate change action.

Scientists are often reluctant to engage politically or defend their work publically for fear of compromising their neutrality, or because they consider their work to be purely objective. But the rules of public discourse are distinctly different from those of peer-review; the most qualified voices will not be heard if they are not defended. This fact is particularly important for climate scientists to remember. Our field is inherently political – while we ourselves may not be suggesting specific policy solutions, the broad message of our work is that changes to the global economy and energy system are necessary to avoid severe impacts from climate change. Our climate projections demonstrate that the business as usual scenario for industry sets us on a course for major changes that affect the global economy, as well as local ecological and cultural resources. But changing how we do business is difficult and, unsurprisingly, some industries are reluctant to adjust their practices.

However, we should remember that the energy economy is already changing in ways beyond the incoming President’s control. The coal industry is shrinking and unlikely to return due to market forces, despite campaign pledges to renew it. The cost of renewable energy is rapidly declining, a trend almost certain to continue over the next four years. Climate change is increasingly recognized as a major financial threat by some industries. Local governments and the public are unable to ignore climate impacts such as tidal flooding and will continue to pursue and support adaptation efforts. In short, many of the groups working to combat climate change will continue on. The world understands that the future does not lie solely with fossil fuels; the question is how long the transition to a less carbon intensive economy will take.

As climate scientists and environmentalists, it is reasonable to be concerned about the coming Trump years; they may well be a challenging time for climate science in the United States. We as a community may need to defend our science, our funding, and even our character – it has happened before. But remember: the strength of the opposition to our work is a sign of its importance, and in that sense, there has never been a more important time to be a climate scientist. 

Ethan Coffel is a NE CSC fellow and Ph.D. candidate studying atmosphere science and climate in the Earth & Environmental Sciences department at Columbia University. Ethan studies the effect of climate change on extreme weather using the NARCCAP and CMIP5 climate model suites.

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