Editorial | Climate-change Research at Risk

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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.