16 Dec 2016

Trump-fearing scientists remove 'climate change' from proposals

9:13 am on 16 December 2016

US climate scientists faced with a Donald Trump presidency are trimming the words "climate change" from study proposals, emphasising economic opportunities and safeguarding data showing global warming is real against political interference.

US President-elect Donald Trump and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson who has been nomiated as secretary of state.

US President-elect Donald Trump and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson who has been nomiated as secretary of state. Photo: AFP

The US climate science community enjoyed solid political and financial support under President Barack Obama, but could be isolated under a new administration skeptical of climate change and committed to expanding oil drilling and coal mining.

Mr Trump has questioned whether climate change exists and has raised the possibility of withdrawing US support for a global accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which an overwhelming majority of scientists believe is driving sea level rise, droughts and more frequent violent storms.

Mr Trump's transition team is also preparing to nominate cabinet members with close oil industry ties, including Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and former Texas Governor Rick Perry as energy secretary.

A scientist at the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research, Andreas Prein said he had replaced the politically charged term "climate change" with "global change" in a project he submitted for the oil industry.

"I think it is maybe really necessary to refocus what you are doing and how you are labeling it," he said.

Regardless of how it is labeled, interest in climate research would likely endure given the importance of extreme weather forecasting to a broad array of industries, like insurance and energy, Dr Prein said.

However, he was concerned the longer-term work crucial to understanding the scope of global warming could lose critical support.

Climate scientist Ben Sanderson, also at NCAR, said he was applying to renew funding for assessing uncertainty in climate change.

"Now, the proposal would have to be defensible without referring to climate change explicitly, so to talk about weather risks in general," he said.

Tracey Holloway, an air quality scientist at the University of Wisconsin, said she believed simple word changes sometimes could help scientists avoid trouble. Using the term "weather" instead of "climate change," for example, could work for studies that dealt with a short-term time scale, she said.

But Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes for online magazine Slate, was taking efforts to protect scientists and their work a step further.

He spearheaded an effort with the support of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Toronto, to let scientists move their data to publicly available non-government servers.

The project, called "DataRefuge," was intended to eliminate the chances of political interference with the data, he said.

The signals from the Trump transition team on climate change have also put members of Mr Obama's outgoing administration on edge. Current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told scientists at a conference in San Francisco this week they must confront climate change deniers and speak up if Mr Trump tried to sideline them.

White House spokesperson Josh Earnest later said in a press briefing he believed the concerns of the scientific community about Mr Trump were "legitimate."

"If the incoming administration determines that they want to base their policy on something other than science, it looks like they're going to get at least four years to try that out and we'll have an opportunity to see how it works," he said.

A member of Mr Trump's transition team further raised concerns among scientists this month by sending a questionnaire to the Department of Energy seeking the names of researchers there who worked on climate change issues, a move Trump's team later disavowed.

Federal funding for climate change research, technology and international assistance hit $11.6 billion in 2014, from $2.4 billion in 1993, according to the US Government Accountability Office.

While Mr Trump has not explicitly said he would cut such funding, one of his advisers told The Guardian newspaper last month that climate research at NASA would be eliminated.

The Trump transition team did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Other scientists were dealing with the stress of a new administration using humor. University of South Florida glaciologist Jason Gulley said his team had a list of joke projects for science under a Trump administration.

"How could we weaponize glaciers?" he asked, and "what is the best real estate currently hidden under Greenland ice sheets".

- Reuters

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