The Intersection

There’s been trouble at NASA lately. A suite of scientists from the agency’s National Advisory Council have resigned over the agency’s priorities, a dispute which seems to centrally turn on how the president’s Moon-Mars plans have taken an emphasis away from purer scientific research. The NAC itself was reorganized just this spring, when it was put under the leadership of one Harrison M. Schmitt, a former Apollo astronaut who’s also been a U.S. senator and is trained as a geologist.

But there’s more that you ought to know about Harrison M. Schmitt. He is chairman emeritus, and former chairman and president, of the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy, an Exxon Mobil supported think tank whose representatives have often questioned the science underlying global warming, and have bestowed “science” awards upon the likes of James Inhofe and Joe Barton. Indeed, here’s a sampling from an anti-Kyoto op-ed in the Baltimore Sun co-authored by Schmitt and another Annapolis representative on July 27, 2001, after the release of the IPCC’s third assessment report:

[Kyoto] says far more about economic competition and a disregard for science than about the rational consideration of environmental issues….

The reality is that our climate is changing and will continue to change. If we lived in 1400, for example, Earth would begin a rapid cooling that would last a century….

Is global warming real? Does man affect global warming? If so, by how much? Is there a possibility that after a period of warming, Earth may cool as it did in the 1400s? Europe’s “Little Ice Age” lasted until 1850.

Asking questions like these is not denial. Most scientists who have studied the issue believe the Earth’s surface has been warming for centuries, but at an erratic yet accelerated rate in the 20th century.

We know that temperatures near the Earth’s surface, but not the higher reaches of the atmosphere, increased about 1 degree in the last century, most of it in the early 1900s. Temperatures in the lower 5 miles of the atmosphere have barely nudged upward in several decades.

Both natural and man-made water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane are the most prevalent greenhouse gases, with water by far the most important (about 95 percent) contributor to climate change. The Kyoto pact would drastically alter the output of these gases by developed countries.

Careful readers will note many climate “skeptic” tropes here, although Schmitt and his co-author never come out and directly say that global warming isn’t happening, or is natural. But they strongly imply it. And their statements are far from consistent with the work of the IPCC, which by that time had stated more strongly than ever before that humans were causing global warming.

Given that Schmitt is now heading NASA’s National Advisory Council, and is clashing with other scientists who have left the council and who are questioning NASA’s research priorities, this background information seems very relevant to me.

Comments

  1. #1 David Bruggeman
    August 25, 2006

    I’d quibble with how relevant this is. The dispute in the NAC seems to be centered on the funding tension between human exploration and scientific research in general. None of the NAC members who resigned were focused on climate research. Schmitt’s astronaut experience seems more germane here.

  2. #2 Chris Mooney
    August 25, 2006

    Um, but what kind of research is getting cut in favor of human exploration?

  3. #3 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    August 25, 2006

    Chris- All of it. See the links at the top of the following essay:

    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/resource-2459-2006.08.pdf

    David is right. Climate conspiracy theories are good fun, but in this case there are much larger issues at work regardless whatever Schmitt happens to think about the science of global warming.

    To suggest that NASA is shifting money into human spaceflight as part of an anti-climate science cabal is to completely misunderstand NASA, its history, and its politics.

  4. #4 Chris Mooney
    August 25, 2006

    I don’t think there’s a cabal, but I also don’t think it’s out of bounds to point out that he’s a possible skeptic based on previous writings, given his position and given what NASA does.

  5. #5 bob koepp
    August 25, 2006

    for chrissake… are we now going to start screening people for being “possible” skeptics? Get a grip.

  6. #6 John Fleck
    August 25, 2006

    Chris -

    I think this is an example of what happens when your hammer is RWOS-shaped. Everything starts looking like a particular sort of nail.

  7. #7 Chris Mooney
    August 25, 2006

    These criticisms confuse me. Okay, there is no conspiracy to cut NASA’s climate funding. I never thought there was. But I’m still wondering what is wrong with pointing out that the head of NASA’s National Advisory Council is affiliated with the Annapolis Center and has made climate “skeptic” noises.

  8. #8 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    August 25, 2006

    Chris- All I’d ask is that you do your homework before issuing a Scarlet Letter —

    “Apollo 17 Astronaut Harrison Schmitt said, “Human settlement in space is imperative.” Citing trends in population growth, rising energy demands and the threat of climate change, he called for tough, competent management of space endeavours, based on solid business models that can attract private investment.”
    http://ec.europa.eu/research/conferences/2005/esw/news/article_2147_en.htm

    Your characterization seems a bit incompletely researched for a journalist. Just 2 cents.

  9. #9 David Bruggeman
    August 25, 2006

    John Fleck is pretty on point about why the criticisms have popped up. Given the particular focus of your science writing (heavy on RWOS and climate), it’s easy for some (like me) to see an implication where none was intended. Reading the same material on a space-focused blog would have made me wonder why it was mentioned (absent some explanation). Without explanation from you, my inclination is to place the information in the context of your focus.

    If you want to make the argument that Schmitt’s apparent climate skepticism colors his actions in the NAC – independent of an attempt to squelch climate funding – you’ll need to connect the dots for us.

  10. #10 Dark Tent
    August 25, 2006

    “To suggest that NASA is shifting money into human spaceflight as part of an anti-climate science cabal is to completely misunderstand NASA, its history, and its politics.”

    Alas, there is a much less immaginative (and less over-reaching) interpretation of Chris’ above post.

    One does not have to believe in “anti-science cabals” to understand that this (as any) administration might just have an interest in avoiding future problems — particularly in an area (climate science) that has caused them so much headache of late.

    I suppose we are to believe that it is mere coincidence (as NASA claims) that NASA just happened to drop the phrase “To understand and protect our home planet” from their mission statement — not long after NASA Climate scientist James Hansen quoted that very phrase to push back against censorship by NASA political appointees of his statements about global waming.

    Perhaps we are also to believe that James Hansen is himself a conspiracy theorist:

    “They’re making it clear that they … prefer that NASA work on something that’s not causing them a problem.” — James Hansen, in his response to the mission statement change

    http://www.physorg.com/news72971590.html

  11. #11 Joel Shore
    August 25, 2006

    While I understand some posters’ points not to overinterpret everything Schmitt does from the perspective of climate change, I think the basic point here is an important one: We have someone heading the scientific advisory council at NASA who was head of a right-wing libertarian-ish organization dedicated to fighting against regulations regarding the environment and public health by attacking the science behind them (with climate change being one particular example). Do you guys really think such a person is going to be sympathetic to the part of NASA’s mission that involves study of environmental issues regarding planet-earth?

    And, Roger, since you are a public policy expert, I find it impossible to believe that you are really so naive as to think that just because Schmitt is willing to mention “climate change” in a plug for human space settlement that this is some great evidence that he is not a skeptic on whether or not anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem. Does this really negate the fact that he was head of an organization that bestowed awards on crazies like Barton and Inhofe?

  12. #12 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    August 25, 2006

    Joel-

    Schmitt has a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard, walked on the moon, and served as a US Senator. I think that his qualifications to advise NASA are pretty sound, even if you or I might not agree with all of his political views.

    If you want to issue Scarlet Letters to people associated with this Annapolis Center (to which I’ll admit some considerable ignorance about) or otherwise disqualify their participation in US politics, then I suppose we should also discount the recent NRC Hockey Stick report (chaired by Gerald North, Annapolis Center director) and the work of climate scientist Michael Schlesinger (also a Director)?

    How about we evaluate arguments on their merits rather than try to smear or blackball people, and then dismiss them because of their organizational associations? What views of Schmitt’s do you happen to disagree with?

  13. #13 Joel Shore
    August 25, 2006

    Roger:

    I must admit that I am somewhat ignorant on the Annapolis Center too and a fuller look on their website does suggest that they may be a little less extreme than I thought or inferred from their honoring Barton and Inhofe, although it is hard to tell.

    By the way, though, you seem to be confusing “Directors” with members of their “Science and Economics Advisory Council,” which appear to be two different things. I agree that their council has an interesting mix…two respected mainstream climate scientists (that you mention) plus Lindzen and Baliunas (notable skeptics). [I know Lindzen is considered a very respectable atmospheric scientist, although when he starts repeated this "there has been no warming since 1998" mantra, I think its a little destructive to his scientific credibility.]

    As for your comments about “Scarlett Letters” and “disqualify[ing] their participation in US politics,” I think that language is a bit hyperbolic. I don’t think Chris, myself, or anyone else here has talked about disqualifying them. However, it is always useful to understand the perspectives of those in government positions and to consider how that might be influencing their views or policies.

    Finally, as for the view’s of Schmitt’s that I disagree with: I must admit that this is the first time I have heard this guy’s name (or at least remembered it). However, I have certainly been hearing a lot of bad things about what is happening to science at NASA and I tend to generally agree with Bob Park’s views on manned space exploration (although perhaps with a little less stridency). I also think that a focus more on solving our environmental problems here on earth is superior to far-fetched ideas about human settlement in space. But, hey, those are just my opinions.

  14. #14 Dark Tent
    August 26, 2006

    Joel said “I also think that a focus more on solving our environmental problems here on earth is superior to far-fetched ideas about human settlement in space. But, hey, those are just my opinions.”

    If the (forced) resignations of several members of the NAC are any indication, I’d say they are not just your opinions.

    According to the article Chris linked to above
    “Both Levy, a physicist, and Huntress, an astrochemist now at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, say they support human space exploration but fear that science is now taking a back seat after years of a careful balance between human and robotic efforts.”

    I think it is very valid to ask “Why is this happening now?”

    The “conspiracy theories are good fun” comment was pretty juvenile, at any rate.