Sarah Hill

Getting (Un)Involved: Climate Change Researchers and The Paris Agreement

“We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.” These words regarding climate change were spoken by Mick Mulvaney, director of the Trump Administration’s Office of Management and Budget. The government has rolled back policies that aimed to slow down climate change and reduce environmental pollution. It has also limited federal funding for science and the environment, including cuts to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Is it any wonder that climate researchers became concerned that their federally-funded projects would be slashed? Philip Mote, the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University, stated in a piece for NPR: “Some people have shifted away from climate research altogether.”

Rules of “war”

The Paris Agreement is an international accord aimed at limiting the global average temperature rise this century to two degrees Celsius or less, supplemented by a 1.5 degree Celsius amendment, since it was determined that two degrees may still cause substantial harm to the environment.

The agreement, sealed December 2015 and made effective in November 2016, is not about pursuing research on climate change itself. Rather, it is about implementing political strategies to limit CO2 emissions.

“Joining the Paris Agreement is important and shows a commitment by the United States to achieve emission reduction goals that would incorporate innovative goals and promote carbon-free energy,” said Tracy Hester, associate instructional professor of law and co-director of the Center for Carbon Management and Energy at the UH Law Center. “Withdrawing, it can be inferred, will undo all of the United States’ good will and effort.”

Although President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement (the earliest the U.S. can be officially removed is November 4, 2020), it would take a new president just one year to re-enter the Agreement.

The federal government has claimed an early victory regarding its withdrawal from the agreement saying it “ended the costly war on energy.” According to the administration, this “war” cost American workers their jobs, hurt America’s energy producers and showed no real meaningful reduction of emissions.

But is this really the case?

“Jobs in oil, gas and coal have been slowly vanishing – some because of lower demand, but perhaps more importantly because of technology advancement, such as digital, automation and robotics,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer at the University of Houston. “Interestingly, the development of the new energy economy has the potential to grow a large number of new jobs across the supply and value chain – some of these safer and some more reliant on advanced technologies.”

Should researchers be concerned?

UH employs many researchers who study the climate, the rise of global temperatures and a range of issues related to energy. In addition, the professors at UH are conducting their research in the city that recorded 40 inches of rainfall over four days in August 2017.

After Hurricane Harvey impacted Houston, Tom Bossert, President Trump’s Homeland Security Adviser, told reporters: “We continue to take seriously the climate change – not the cause of it, but the things we observe.”

The worsening of storms, flooding, wildfires and other disasters are of great interest to the federal government and researchers, alike. These extreme weather events strain federal resources, especially along coastlines, and may lead to national security issues, risks from terrorism, infectious diseases, poverty and food shortages.

So when the intent to withdraw from the agreement first surfaced, there was fear in the science community that research funding would be severely impacted. It devolved into a full-blown panic on social media, with scientists tweeting that their livelihoods were at stake.

But, Julia Smith Wellner, an associate professor in the UH Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences who conducts research through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Polar Programs division, said: “To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened much yet. Our programs are continuing largely as expected so far. In part, most NSF programs are years in development and so changes happen at a slower frequency than election cycles.”

There is some evidence of early impact, according to Hester.

“Definitely, federal program offices doing climate change policy work have already been curtailed, particularly at the EPA,” he said, although he could not speak to larger, NSF-funded projects.

Far more detrimental may be the deletion of terms like “climate change” from federal reports and the fact that advisory committees were terminated. Scott Pruitt, the former administrator for the EPA, forced scientists off advisory panels and replaced them with people from industry. Science magazine reported a federal researcher, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal, said, “It’s been made clear to us that we’re not supposed to use climate change in press releases anymore. They will not be authorized.”

While Wellner and her colleagues have not been financially affected, she muses on the overall hit researchers have taken over this new vocabulary, one in which “climate change” is deleted from nearly every exchange. “Scientists working for federal agencies have essentially had their hands tied behind their backs by the current policies, and that will have a lasting impact on not just the environment, but also our nation’s scientific community and infrastructure.”