The incoming presidency of Donald Trump is marked by public uncertainty. His unpredictable campaign has given way to an equally unpredictable transition process that has left the country with Rick Perry, Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, and a host of other government insiders and one-percenters whose resumes have conspicuously little to do with the departments they’ve been selected to manage. Perhaps most uncertain of all is the future of the fight against climate change. Government organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy that, under President Obama, played a large role in this fight are now home to anxiety and disappointment. In one instance, a hotline has been set up for employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to report political meddling in their work.
But in a month where much of what we have to go on is speculation, the fate of Australia’s climate science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) could provide a glimpse — and a bleak glimpse, at that — of what scientific progress in America will look like under President Trump.
At the beginning of 2016, CSIRO, which is the premier climate monitoring agency in the Southern Hemisphere, cut 110 jobs related to climate change research. The decision, made by CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall, was justified by Marshall in a memo because “climate change is now settled science, and basic research is no longer needed.” He wanted the agency to move toward a future where “climate and industry can be partners.” In other words, CSIRO was not profitable in the research it was doing, and that was a problem.
That reasoning, as many pointed out, is nonsense. Oceanographer John Church said that “work at CSIRO is critical to understanding the climate change agreement that nations signed in Paris last year. While it is now certain that humans are altering the planet, scientists are still coloring in the shapes of the changes to come.” Research and monitoring are integral components in solving climate change. Just because people know it’s happening doesn’t mean research should stop. If anything, it’s cause for more to be conducted. But those arguments were ultimately trumped by the profit motive. In other words, even among those who acknowledge the reality of climate change, the interests of business reign supreme.
Transplant this into the context of Trump’s administration, and it’s not pretty. At least the Australians recognize that the threat is real. Trump and his cohorts have consistently denied that climate change is occurring. It certainly doesn’t seem like they’re going to care much for research. It’s tragically likely that Trump will try to enact changes to American science agencies that are similar to what happened to the CSIRO. Given that Trump is first and foremost a business leader, the justifications may well sound pretty similar as well.
It’s unlikely that all scientific progress will completely grind to a halt in America during Trump’s tenure. However, research without a profitable end in the eyes of Trump and his comrades will probably take a big hit. This may extend beyond climate change as well, into the areas like space exploration. Thankfully, industry leader Elon Musk will be in the Trump administration to help carry the torch. It may be that America will need someone like that in the field of climate science in the coming years.