Key science agency drops climate change from mission priorities

The change coincides with the gutting of three EPA advisory committees.

In this NOAA-NASA GOES Project handout image, GOES satellite shows Hurricane Irma as it makes landfall on the Florida coast as a category 4 storm as Tropical Storm Jose (R) moves west in the Atlantic Ocean taken at 11:45 UTC on September 10, 2017.  CREDIT: NOAA-NASA GOES Project via Getty Images
In this NOAA-NASA GOES Project handout image, GOES satellite shows Hurricane Irma as it makes landfall on the Florida coast as a category 4 storm as Tropical Storm Jose (R) moves west in the Atlantic Ocean taken at 11:45 UTC on September 10, 2017. CREDIT: NOAA-NASA GOES Project via Getty Images

A crucial federal agency overseeing the National Weather Service and other key programs addressing and documenting climate change issues appears set to pivot away from the issue at the behest of the Trump administration. The reported shift continues a White House trend of unraveling Obama-era efforts to address global warming and coincides with the gutting of three Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory committees last week.

Housed under the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is seen as one of the most important agencies tracking climate change in the United States — something that seems set to change.

The New York Times first reported Sunday that a Department of Commerce slide presentation lead by the agency’s acting head, Tim Gallaudet, introduced a new mission statement for the agency.

The past mission emphasized NOAA’s commitment “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts.” But the new mission dropped the leading pledge, reducing the pledge and committing only “to observe, understand and predict atmospheric and ocean conditions.”


The presentation also introduced a new pledge, one with an emphasis on themes the Trump administration has touted, including the protection of “lives and property” and a promise to “empower the economy, and support homeland and national security.”

That first emphasis indicates that the impact of climate change on both human life and property could still be a major factor considered by NOAA, albeit in less certain terms. But advocates are concerned by the wider pivot, which seems to move away from meeting the challenge of climate change head-on and towards a murkier mission than the one the agency has previously used.

NOAA has historically overseen a wide array of efforts, including monitoring waterways and ocean conditions in addition to the atmosphere. The scientific agency operates a number of satellites meant to observe Earth and provide critical information to scientists about the planet — including the impact of climate change. Managing the nation’s fisheries, as well as the National Weather Service, are among NOAA’s broader endeavors, and the agency has played a major role in tracking hurricanes and sea level rise.

Congress is responsible for NOAA’s budget and the agency’s structure has been laid out through nearly 130 congressional mandates, per the Times. That means dramatically changing how NOAA operates would likely be a challenge.  But experts told the publication that the shift in mission was “shocking” and “harmful” in its scope.

“Understanding the changing climate is becoming more critical by the day, as the effects of global warming mount,” said Andrew A. Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy and a former NOAA scientist. Rosenberg has seen the presentation content and told the Times that the 2017 wildfires and hurricane season are a sign that forecasts and the work done by NOAA are critical in 2018.


But the agency’s interim director, Gallaudet, downplayed the slide presentation in a statement given to the publication.

“It was not intended to create change in NOAA mission or policy from what it was before,” Gallaudet said. “Any interpretation to the contrary is simply inaccurate.”

NOAA’s work on climate has come under fire from conservative lawmakers like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who targeted the agency during the Obama administration. Smith, a long-time climate skeptic, accused the White House at the time of imposing an agenda centering climate change.

Under the Trump administration, such attacks have mounted, with encouragement from the president and key cabinet members. That extends far beyond NOAA. Last week, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) announced the end of three committees: the Ecological Processes and Effects Committee, the Environmental Engineering Committee, and the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee. 

In an email sent Thursday, SAB acting director Tom Brennan told researchers that the three EPA committees would be retired, leaving only four in existence. The committees slated for shuttering traditionally house experts, including academics, who provide advice and input on policy decisions.


Under EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the SAB itself has undergone a controversial reshuffling, one that has seen scientists and experts replaced with industry insiders. Pruitt has also instituted a rule barring EPA grant recipients from serving on the agency’s scientific panels, a major blow for a number of scientists.

Opponents of such moves have noted that fewer experts are now on hand to address the environmental implications of U.S. rules and policies, creating a disconcerting dearth of expertise in major decisions and assessments.

Not all efforts targeting science-based initiatives have seen the same fate. In May, the Trump administration confirmed that a critical greenhouse gas-monitoring system run by NASA was effectively dead. But a House panel later voted to effectively restore the program, in a move that seemed to demonstrate some bipartisan concern over climate issues.

Still, that development remains something of an anomaly. Last week, four GOP lawmakers demanded an investigation into the National Science Foundation’s grants amid reports that the agency has funded a program educating television meteorologists about climate change.

That effort came only a day after the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era National Oceans Policy, which emphasized prioritizing national “capacity to respond to climate change and ocean acidification” amid concerns about ocean and coastal ecosystems. The policy now contains no mention of climate change.