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Budget Cuts to Weather Programs Are Likely to Cost Us a Lot More Than They Save

Without government data from weather satellites and marine monitoring systems, we won’t be able to prepare for the effects of a changing climate.

By Michael White


(Photo: gsfc/Flickr)

This February, the Government Accountability Office — Congress’ watchdog agency that tracks the performance of the federal government — issued its biennial list of “high-risk areas.” The list, published at the start of each new session of Congress, identifies what the GAO sees as critical weaknesses in important federal programs. On this year’s list are several areas related to science and technology. One is the lagging effort to replace our aging fleet of weather satellites. The plans to launch replacements are behind schedule, leaving us at risk of a satellite data gap that would result in lower quality weather forecasts. A second high-risk area involves the risks posed by climate change, which, the GAO notes, “presents a significant financial risk to the federal government.” Federal agencies need to step up their efforts to reduce the potential impacts of climate change, or face the massive costs of disaster relief and damaged infrastructure.

The purpose of the GAO’s high-risk list is to get the government to focus on what it sees as urgent problems. The Trump administration clearly isn’t feeling any urgency: Weather satellites and climate change programs are both slated for cuts in the administration’s budget outline. These cuts are part of a broader and dangerous effort by the Trump administration to scale back federal earth and climate science programs that our society depends on to monitor and understand changes in our environment. Just as flu surveillance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics helps doctors, businesses, and government offices make important health and economic decisions, federal earth and climate science programs help us see what’s happening in our physical world and make informed decisions about how to respond. Science is the instrument panel that reports on our changing environment; if the Trump administration has its way, we’ll be flying blind.

Take weather satellites, for example, which produce data that affect us all, every day. Organizations from airlines to the military to your local television station use data from these satellites to make operational decisions, issue forecasts, and warn people about tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. Scientists also use the data to understand how our local weather patterns are affected by long-term changes in climate. There are several different types of weather satellites operated by the federal government, among which is a set that orbits the Earth’s poles. Polar-orbiting satellites help forecasters see global trends driving the weather in the United States, and the data they produce is critical for making forecasts days in advance.

Our weather satellites are the responsibility of two federal agencies, the Department of Defense and the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, both of which are behind in their efforts to launch the next generation of polar orbiters. If the existing satellites fail before the new ones are in place, we will have a gap in our weather data, which, the GAO warns, “would endanger lives, property, and our nation’s critical infrastructures.” In fact, some of the satellites have already failed: The Department of Defense lost its primary polar orbiting satellite last year, and is currently relying on an older one, while the NOAA is using an aging “bridge” satellite that was launched in 2011 with an expected life of five years.

Science is the instrument panel that reports on our changing environment; if the Trump administration has its way, we’ll be flying blind.

The Trump administration, contradicting the evidence presented by the GAO, suggests in its budget document that the risk of a gap in satellite coverage has been exaggerated. The proposed budget would maintain development for the NOAA’s next two polar orbiting satellites, scheduled for launch in 2017 and 2022, but would reduce funding for the program to build the succeeding two satellites, the first of which is supposed to launch in 2026. This would mean that, while we might avoid a data gap this year, we could face one again within the decade, if the budget cuts cause the launch schedule to slip.

Other climate-monitoring satellite programs, run by NASA, would be terminated outright. The PACE satellite, scheduled for launch in 2022, would monitor the oceans and the atmosphere and offer data on marine ecosystems, air pollution, oil spills, and volcanic eruptions. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 would provide high-resolution measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The CLARREO Pathfinder is a pilot project for a larger program to make needed measurements that would reduce the uncertainty in scientists’ models of future climate change. Despite the critical importance of space-based technology for understanding what’s happening on our own planet, President Donald Trump has deliberately presented a budget that, in the words of the administration’s proposal, “focuses the Nation’s efforts on deep space exploration rather than Earth-centric research.”

In its proposal, the Trump administration justifies cuts to climate and earth science by invoking the flawed argument that federal programs shouldn’t benefit individual states, communities, or industries. For example, Trump wants to cancel all of the NOAA’s grants and programs that support “coastal and marine management, research, and education,” claiming that they “primarily benefit industry, State, and local stakeholders.” This includes the Sea Grant program, established in 1966 for the purpose of bringing the latest science to bear on environmental problems facing coastal communities, such as cleaning up pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and planning for rising sea levels in Los Angeles. At the Environmental Protection Agency, all funding for climate change research would be eliminated, including studies like this one, which looks at how municipal water treatment facilities should deal with climate change-linked threats to the quality of our drinking water.

The administration’s view in the budget outline is that such things are not the federal government’s problem: “The Budget returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities.” Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, was even more explicit: when asked about these cuts, he answered that spending tax dollars on climate change programs is “a waste of your money.”

What this adds up to is a radical rejection of the role played by federal science programs in our society for at least half a century, a role that has been absolutely critical to U.S. economic success. Since the end of World War II, our federal investment in science and technology has spawned new industries, cleaned up our environment, drastically reduced or eliminated childhood diseases, improved our infrastructure, and protected our common natural resources. Today, our government’s investment in science is as critical as ever, with climate change threatening our health, agriculture, economy, and security in ways we can’t yet fully predict.

This means that reducing funding for earth and climate science is, in fact, likely to cost us more than the dollar value of the cuts: As the GAO’s report notes, the federal government has broad responsibilities that require confronting the reality of climate change. It owns and operates massive infrastructure, including dams, roads, bridges, and defense facilities; it insures property and crops that are vulnerable to extreme weather; and it provides billions of dollars in disaster aid. More broadly, the federal government is often the only organization with the resources to collect important climate and environmental data that businesses and local governments rely on to make key decisions.

In the letter prefacing his budget, Trump makes the usual political claim that cuts in programs his administration clearly opposes ideologically are really just for the sake of efficiency; it’s an elimination of “wasteful spending” that is better spent on efforts to “make the safety of our people [our] number one priority.” However, it is neither efficient nor safe to deprive our government, our industries, and our society of the science and data we need to make decisions, to plan for the future, and to prepare for the challenges we’ll face with a changing climate.