Editorial | Climate-change Research at Risk


It was not surprising to hear that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is giving serious consideration to an expert panel’s recommendation that it scale back its next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite system by eliminating sensors intended primarily for climate-change research. After all, when those sensors — some of which would have to launch aboard dedicated climate-research spacecraft — are included, the cost of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is $12.9 billion through 2028, an eye-popping figure in these fiscal times.

The panel, led by former Lockheed Martin executive A. Thomas Young, suggested that at least two of the sensors be funded under a different NOAA account or transferred to NASA. A NOAA official, commenting on the recommendation, said the agency was open to simplifying the JPSS mission by narrowing its focus to weather only.

This was predictable: Federal agencies traditionally circle the wagons around their core functions when budgets get tight. Removing the climate-change sensors would strengthen JPSS politically by lowering its price tag and by separating its must-have weather forecasting capabilities from a line of research that is unpopular with many U.S. lawmakers, Republicans in particular.

But the ample — and still growing — body of scientific evidence that Earth is rapidly warming for reasons that are not yet fully understood argues in favor of prioritizing climate-change research. It might make sense for NASA, as a research and development agency, to take responsibility for flying the sensors now in question, but absent a solid case that this can be done more cost-effectively outside the JPSS program — it’s not immediately obvious why it would be — the White House should be wary of Mr. Young’s recommendation. These sensors might have a hard time getting to orbit on their own.