Earlier this month, President Donald Trump nominated Jim Bridenstine — a Republican representative in Oklahoma — as NASA's new leader. Like most people in this administration, Bridenstine actively supports ideas antithetical to his (soon-to-be) agency: he's an avid supporter of private space companies and denies that human activity impacts climate change. Now, Bridenstine wants to take a seemingly good idea — studying Mars' weather — and turn it into a misleading talking point about climate change on Earth. Probably.
According to E&E News, Bridenstine recently wrote about his plans for Mars in a questionnaire he submitted to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. "Mars once had a magnetic field, rivers, lakes and an ocean on its north pole," he wrote. "At some point, Mars changed dramatically and we should strive to understand why. Studying other planets can inform our understanding of Earth."
It's true that studying other planets — especially Mars — can help us understand the history of our home. Mars has many geographic features similar to ones we find on Earth, like volcanoes, valleys, and ice caps. Studying these can tell us so much about how these features have formed on Earth in the past.
But it seems Bridenstine is suggesting that if we could figure out what caused Mars to become dry over millions of years, we could explain what's going on here on Earth. This wilfully ignores NASA research that suggests Earth has been rapidly heating at an unprecedented rate, and it's only expected to get worse.
In the past, climate deniers have tried to use research about Martian weather as a way to prove that the Sun — not humans — impacts climate change. Paleoclimate data — which informs us about Earth's warming and cooling patterns over millions of years — juxtaposed with recent data collected from satellites and buoys would suggest this idea is bullshit, and that carbon emissions and other human activity are ramping up global warming.
If you don't believe me, here's a nifty graph from NASA, which should clear up any doubts:
It's important to go to Mars and study its myriad mysteries. Mars is a likable planet — I mean, at the very least, it's better than Mercury. But it's worth questioning why Bridenstine — who once told President Obama to apologise for spending money on climate research — wants to study Mars to clue us in on climate change.
"Bridenstine is correct in his comments that studying Mars can help us understand Earth — in a general sense," Tanya Harrison, Director of Research at ASU's Space Technology and Science (NewSpace) Initiative, told Gizmodo. "But the timescales we're talking about for Mars becoming a cold and arid planet are many orders of magnitude longer than the changes we are seeing in our climate here on Earth."
It's unclear when Bridenstine will officially be named head of NASA — he has to go through a senate confirmation process in order to do so. At least the Trump administration has stayed on-brand by choosing another science sceptic to fill our nation's highest science policy positions.
"It is an embarrassment indeed that someone with as poor an understanding of basic science as Jim Bridenstine would be nominated to lead NASA," Michael Mann, a climatologist and geophysicist at Penn State, told Gizmodo. "It is indeed proof that the 'Madhouse Effect' that Tom Toles and I wrote about last Fall is alive and well, and has now infected the inner core of our nation."