The leading U.S. weather agency finds itself in the eye of a storm: climate change in the age of Trump.
With global-warming deniers in Washington, outside scientists are setting up an anonymous hotline for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s employees to report political meddling. Fearing deletion, academic researchers are backing up U.S. data. Insiders are considering jobs outside government.
“I am hearing a lot of worry,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which established the hotline. “The worry is that they will be putting another ideologue in place.”
The President-elect himself called climate change a hoax and is backed by a Republican-controlled Congress that has also denied the science. Trump picked Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Department of Energy. Perry has denied climate change; Pruitt has said the science isn’t settled.
Last week, a member of the Trump transition team sent a 74-item questionnaire arrived at the Energy Department demanding to know which employees or contractors worked on climate change projects. A Trump transition official has said the employee hadn’t authorized the survey, and the person who sent it “has been properly counseled.”
“We can’t speculate on any policy changes an incoming Trump Administration might make,” weather agency spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton said to all requests about potential changes. A Trump spokesman declined to comment.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plays a key role in gathering and maintaining climate data. Through the National Weather Service, it also supplies the lifeblood of the $5 billion-a-year commercial forecasting industry, essential to morning commuters, farmers and commodity traders.
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“The U.S. has the most robust weather industry of any country in the world and to keep that continuing and to keep it growing, it is critical that the core functions of the National Weather Service be maintained,” said Barry Lee Myers,chief executive officer for AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.
A concerted effort to back-up government data followed a tweet by Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and contributor to the Washington Post, Slate and the New Yorker. He asked: “Scientists: Do you have a U.S. .gov climate database you don’t want to see disappear?”
At the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania, scientists also set up a “Guerrilla Archiving team” and a Facebook page, according to school spokeswoman Kathleen O’Brien.
The speculation on Twitter likened the potential loss to the Roman sacking of the Library of Alexandria. The fear spurred on an effort to save it before inauguration day, when the climate agency’s current administrator Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut, has to offer to resign.
It isn’t just the loss of past data that worries scientists. The service maintains ships, planes and satellites that collect weather, oceanic and solar data used to protect the world’s energy and communication grids.
Part of the Commerce Department, the oceanic administration includes the National Hurricane Center. To lead the Commerce Department, Trump has nominated Wilbur Ross, a billionaire who has acquired and restructured troubled companies.
Scientists fear that climate science could fall prey to budget cuts, as well as politics.
“The observations and their processing are irreplaceable. It would be a crime to cut those,” said Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “An observation not made is lost forever.”
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