NASA plays a crucial role in observing and tracking the global effects of climate change — employing a myriad of satellites to study atmospheric changes, melting ice, and ocean patterns. The first congressional committee hearing on NASA’s future will be held on Thursday this week, and it’s set to feature Harrison Schmitt — a former astronaut who walked on the moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission, a former U.S. senator from New Mexico, and a long-time denier of climate change.
Although Thursday’s hearing may focus more on space exploration, President Donald Trump is poised to eliminate NASA’s climate change research efforts and defund NASA’s earth science division. If Schmitt is asked to give his thoughts on what the future of NASA’s Earth science research ought to be, he will likely use his influence and status to voice a negative assessment. If Trump is serious about downsizing research on climate change, having Schmitt speak at the upcoming NASA hearing is likely an optical move to show people affiliated with NASA that don’t see the need for Earth science research programs.
NASA has accrued a vast plethora of evidence, which shows that the planet has warmed at an unprecedented rate in the past 1,300 years. Over 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that this is extremely likely due to human activities.
In the past, rather than acknowledging the scientific consensus based on evidence, Schmitt has called it a “political tool.”
In 2008, Schmitt resigned from space exploration nonprofit The Planetary Society, as a result of the group saying that climate change is a result of human activity. In 2013, he co-wrote a commentary piece in the Wall Street Journal saying carbon dioxide has little to do with climate change.
Although scientific experts from all over the world have concluded that there’s over a 95 percent probability that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have caused the increase in Earth’s temperature in the past 50 years, Schmitt wrote, “There isn’t the slightest evidence that more carbon dioxide has caused more extreme weather.”
He’s also presented incorrect facts about Earth’s climate trends. In a paper he sent to NASA, he wrote, “How long this cooling trend will persist remains to be seen,” saying that Greenland glaciers and Arctic sea ice have been increasing. This piece’s assertions have since been debunked by many academics, as Earth is actually in a warming trend, and both Greenland and the Arctic are losing — not gaining — ice.
Schmitt’s credentials as a NASA astronaut are impressive, but he has significantly less experience in energy and climate science. He’s advocated mining Helium-3 on the moon and using it to fuel fusion reactors — a costly source of energy.
Schmitt has not only repeatedly denied climate change, he’s disparaged leaders of the environmental movement as well. In an interview with right-wing radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Schmitt said, “I think the whole trend really began with the fall of the Soviet Union. Because the great champion of the opponents of liberty, namely communism, had to find some other place to go and they basically went into the environmental movement.” As evidence against climate change being impacted by human activities, he said, “If you want to read some of the history of the American Revolutionary War, you will realize how damn cold it was back then.”
Trump himself has repeatedly denied climate change, calling it a Chinese hoax. And Texas Republican Lamar S. Smith is a top pick for NASA administrator. Smith isn’t a climate change denier, but he’s skeptical about the consensus that human activities have led to climate change.
If NASA’s programs on climate change and earth science are defunded, the U.S. will see the elimination of research on global temperatures, ice, and other climate phenomena. This likely won’t be the only move to downplay climate change in the upcoming years.