Trump’s NASA Leader Should Explain His ‘Evolution’ on Climate Change

It’s great that Administrator Jim Bridenstine accepts his own agency’s consensus on climate science. Let’s hope he builds on his new perspective.

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May 25 2018, 2:30pm

Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) was sworn in as NASA administrator in April, after facing criticism over his past skepticism of anthropogenic climate change. During a Wednesday meeting of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, however, Bridenstine conceded to Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) that his viewpoint has evolved, and he no longer disputes “that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming.”

“I have no reason to doubt the science that comes from that,” he said.

This is one of many recent reversals from Bridenstine as he gets acclimated to his new job heading NASA, and it’s refreshing that he resisted doubling down on climate skepticism. In fact, the sense of relief was so palpable that Schatz spent over a minute commending Bridenstine for his change-of-heart.

While it is good news that Bridenstine has evolved on this issue, something about this exchange sat wrong with me. I don’t think Bridenstine should be excoriated for his past positions, but I am genuinely curious what influenced his previous false ideas about climate change, and what persuaded him to abandon them. If he were pushed to delve into his ideological evolution in more detail, it might help to bridge the frustrating partisan divide on the issue.

To get an expert gut check on this, I reached out to Joshua Busby, an associate professor of public affairs at UT Austin who has studied the efficacy of various strategies in promoting climate change awareness.

“Whereas [EPA administrator] Scott Pruitt has taken the opposite approach and tried to inject his ideology into the climate science, Bridenstine has shown some capacity for public growth,” Busby told me in an email. “If Bridenstine is willing to expand on what new information he has seen that allowed him to shift his public stance, that would be valuable. I think asking about how his views have evolved offers a more constructive pathway than praising him for his new stance or asking him about his original position.”

“The journey of reflection perhaps could provide some guidance to others for a path out of the climate skepticism wilderness,” he said.

Bridenstine has attempted to address his earlier views, including his 2013 demand that President Obama apologize for granting climate change research 30 times the funding of weather forecasting research (which was both a misleading ratio and an obfuscation of global warming’s impact on local weather events).

In a NASA town hall last week, Bridenstine shared “the story” behind those comments, emphasizing that he was profoundly affected by the devastating tornadoes that killed dozens of Oklahomans that year. Of course, everyone should be compassionate to victims of natural disasters, but this response dodged accountability for why Bridenstine chose to specifically rag on climate funding. Why couldn’t he have just highlighted the need for better disaster relief?

Read More: The Climate Change Deniers in Congress

The simplest answer is probably that climate denialism has been a reliable way to appeal to the GOP base in the past. But that assumption increasingly lies on shaky ground—young Republicans are much more likely than their elders to accept that human activity is driving climate change. It might demonstrate some political foresight for Bridenstine to persuade other members of his party to relax or reverse their views on climate change. Of course, that would be risky, as it would put him at odds with President Trump, who promotes fringe theories on a range of subjects, including climate change.

“I'm not sure if Bridenstine is in a position in terms of administration hierarchy to challenge the wider position on climate change,” Busby told me. “We still don't have a White House science adviser. That said, he could be an important champion for getting the scientists in front of policymakers, to the extent that some of them pretend to have an open mind.”

“Pretend” may be the operative word there, but even under the veil of partisan rhetoric, a good faith discussion about shifting public perceptions surrounding climate change—especially one led by “evolved” Republican leaders—could help clear the air in more ways than one.

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