Climate change researchers fear funding cuts under Trump

Dec 12, 2016
Originally published on December 13, 2016 9:11 am

The political waters remain murky regarding the topic of climate change – after president-elect Donald Trump’s flip-flopping on the issue.

He’s touted climate change as a hoax.  His pick for the head of the EPA has been a big critic of federal regulations related to climate change. And, he’s threatened to back-out of the Paris Agreement, which regulates greenhouse gases. But just a few weeks ago, he said there’s “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change.

All this teeter-tottering has climate change researchers in the Great Lakes region on edge about potential cuts to federal research funding.

“I think the president-elect is ignorant of science and takes advantage of other people’s ignorance of science,” said researcher Robert Warren at Buffalo State College.

Warren and his students study the behavior of ants as a method of detecting climate change. He’s worried funding might not be available for future projects.

“There’s been statements about eliminating the EPA,” he said. "So these are very disturbing signs of what’s to come.”

A few miles across the city, at the University at Buffalo, researchers Jason Briner and Elizabeth Thomas are studying climate change using a freezer full of mud.

They use the samples to track the history of climate change. Although their current project is not at risk, Briner says future projects may be.

“We’re extremely nervous. It’s been very difficult to get federal funding for a long time for our projects,” Briner said.  “It’s extremely competitive.”

Their federally funded project involves several other universities, with UB as the lead. The project gets about $3 million in federal funding from the National Science Foundation.

“It would be very difficult to raise the kind of money you need to go to the arctic to study some of the glaciers and to learn about things like sea level change and sea ice change,” he said. 

The National Science Foundation is the largest funder of nonmedical-based science research, which includes climate change. The foundation declined to comment for this story.

Another major funder for climate change research is NASA.

UB researcher Beata Csatho has been working on NASA climate change projects for the last 15 years. She uses information gathered from NASA’s satellites and laser imaging to measure the height of polar ice.

Data from the research of Csatho and Briner will be compiled in a program that will improve predictions of ice sheet changes and sea level rise.

Csatho is also participating in a NASA satellite project called IceSat2. It’s set to launch in 2018. But under the incoming Trump administration, she’s worried that might not happen.

“When we do research we are always hopeful that we will be able to continue what we are doing -- especially because these are continuing projects like that satellite mission I mentioned,” she said. “It has been developed for like 10 years and the satellite is almost ready to be launched. So we are hoping and we are trying to be very positive that it will happen.”

If the U.S. pulls back on climate change research, other countries could leap ahead.

“We’re just going to step aside, and other countries are going to be the leaders and in sustainability and clean energy,” Briner said. “They’re going to be the ones leading the market in all of that new technology. And we’re going to fall behind.”

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