Executive Director, Climate Central
Berrien Moore recalls being annoyed when the National Research Council panel he was co-chairing was asked for an interim report on the 10-year plan for space-based Earth observation they were then preparing for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “At the time it seemed something of an irritation,”
recently recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness gracious. That’s the last thing we need’ because it will deflect us from where we are going.”
Moore now believes that the slender 58-page report the panel published in 2005 helped ensure that the full 456-page report published two years later, “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond,” did not end up gathering dust. “What we got was a real bounce off the strong leg a short interim report was able to deliver,” he said, “And I think that in hindsight that turned out to be very, very valuable.”
In early 2006, with only the interim report in hand,
went before the House Science and Technology Committee to present a picture of a NASA Earth science program in decline due to budgetary neglect.
lawmakers took up the cause, adding money to the program where it could while hectoring the
space agency not to forget about the home planet in its zeal to study new worlds.
The National Research Council’s 10-year plan for Earth science got its second big bounce in February 2007 when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said unequivocally that global warming is real and that most of the observed warming is “very likely” due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
said the clarity of the IPCC’s findings drove home the relevancy of the recommendations contained in the first of its kind Earth science decadal survey Moore and his fellow panelists had released just two weeks earlier.
NASA and NOAA, for their parts, publicly embraced the National Research Council’s call to embark on a slate of 17 new missions for the decade ahead and in early 2008 asked Congress for more money for Earth science.
, however, believes that NASA’s efforts to recapitalize its fleet of Earth-observing satellites and sensors still falls well short of what is needed since the proposed 7 percent increase would be followed by two years of cuts.
stepped down this year as director of the
‘s Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space to direct Climate Central, a new think tank based in
, and dedicated to educating the public and policymakers about climate change and potential solutions.
spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger during a recent visit to
What’s the single biggest challenge confronting Earth science today?
Understanding the climate’s sensitivity to change.
While we know greenhouse gasses are increasing in the atmosphere and that in turn kicks off a certain degree of climate change, what we are uncertain about are the ripple effects. It’s like tossing pebbles into a pond. As we continue to toss pebbles, ripples begin to cause other ripples. The clearest example of this type of amplification process is the loss of arctic sea ice. Global warming today contributes to the loss of arctic sea ice, which in turn decreases the reflectivity of the planet, adding to further warming. So the climate sensitivity question is: How strong are these other feedbacks in the system, and how much can they amplify what the greenhouse gas change has set in motion?
How important are space-based observations to answering these questions?
Absolutely dead central.
But before we are going to get a measure of climate sensitivity, we have to get a very good understanding of Earth’s radiation balance – the energy in, energy out. We also need a very good understanding of the carbon dioxide concentration and the sources and sinks, because they could change. Both of these fit into the very first pieces of the climate sensitivity question. The next part is a little harder to understand, but it’s at the core of our problem. We know the climate is going to continue to change even if we stabilize greenhouse gasses today. We’ve been tossing pebbles into the pond. Those ripples are out there. Even if we stop tossing pebbles, the ripples will continue for a long time.
What grade would you give the White House and Congress for following through on the recommendations made in the Earth science decadal survey?
The White House gets a very low ‘C’, which is an average between a near-term ‘B-‘ for the 2008 and 2009 budgets and an ‘F’ for the out year budgets, which actually go down. That makes it almost completely impossible to plan any future missions. Congress I would give an ‘A-‘ for continuing to plus-up Earth science above what the White House requests. But Congress gets a ‘D’ for not using the NASA authorization bill to strongly condemn the White House’s proposed Earth science budget runout as unacceptable.
Despite these shortcomings, are you surprised by the amount of influence the Earth science decadal survey has had on discussions in
Yes, it has exceeded my expectations. But I was a bit pessimistic going in – hopeful but pessimistic.
The decadal survey called for NASA to increase what it spends on Earth science by $500 million a year, a raise NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has called unrealistic. What was the community’s response?
We viewed his comments as without basis in logic and Rick Anthes [president of The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research] and I called him to task in a public letter. The program we set forth was not prescriptive to any budget profile. We simply said this is the program needed to confront the issues facing the planet and here’s what it will cost. We then observed that $2 billion is not an excessive number since, adjusted for inflation, it is roughly where we had been in 2000. Why is it unrealistic in 2010 to be back to where we were in 2000 when the NASA budget is bigger, the gross domestic product is bigger and the need is greater? His statement did not have a basis in fact.
‘s “bring it on” moment, as far as Earth scientists were concerned?
It was. That and his comments on National Public Radio about global climate change were just two dumb statements made by a very smart guy.
Mark Bowen’s 2007 book “Censoring Science” laid a lot of the blame on
for what’s happened to Earth Science during the Bush administration, both in terms of NASA climatologist Jim Hansen’s censorship claims and budget cuts. Do you agree
is to blame?
It was [former NASA Administrator] Sean O’Keefe. No question about it. It was Sean O’Keefe. I know that for a fact. Sean O’Keefe’s relationship to the White House and to the vice president in particular, that’s where the pressure came on Hansen. Mike was trying to clean up the mess. Same goes for the budget. Sean O’Keefe.
Speaking of Hansen, what do you think of him and his knack for publicity?
He’s a very good scientist. He’s been quite outspoken. There are times when I think that he’s maybe a little too outspoken. Some of his phraseology makes me wince, such as when he equated the rail transport of coal to the transport of Jews during World War II. I do not think he needs to raise the level of rhetoric as high as he does on certain occasions.
However his scientific record and his contribution to public understanding of the importance of this issue have got to be given full credit. But his comment about coal and the Holocaust was off target and inappropriate. The fact is that we all burn fossil fuels. We now are recognizing that there is a very serious out-year cost that we are going to have to encounter soon.
How do you see Earth science faring under the next
Very well, regardless of who is elected.
Do you see any differences on climate change research between the two candidates, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and BarackObama (D-Ill.)?
Both of them have the climate and Earth observation high on their agendas. The only differences I see have to do with other areas of the budget, such as the
war, and how that affects what they can spend on NASA, NOAA and other Earth science areas. That could result in some differences. But I think both McCain and Obama recognize that climate change is a very real issue.
How would you propose raising the profile of climate change in the next
I’d suggest we perhaps need a national security adviser for climate and the environment reporting right in to the president of the
at a level equal to the national security adviser. Historically that is higher than the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and in the current administration, OSTP has been a shadow of itself. We need to go back to not just the OSTP level of Bush the elder and Clinton. We really need to go to a national adviser on climate and the environment that is at the level of the national security adviser.