The US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation welcomed science adviser nominee Kelvin Droegemeier to Capitol Hill this week with open arms. The University of Oklahoma meteorology professor President Donald Trump has picked to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is inching closer to securing the position, which has been vacant a record-breaking 578 days.
Droegemeier's nomination in July was met with a sigh of relief by many scientists, who praised his credentials and his acceptance of mainstream climate science (a rarity in the Trump administration). His hearing on Thursday mostly went smoothly, but things did get a bit bumpy when it came to the climate.
Droegemeier didn't mention climate change in his opening remarks, and he only addressed the issue when he was asked about it outright. It didn't appear to be among his priorities. Instead, expanding the US's global role in science, increasing science education from K-12, and public-academic-private partnerships were — all of which are important, too.
He also seemed keen to avoid discussing how the issue of climate change has been politicised. He kept insisting that politics have no role in science, without noting how climate denial has fuelled politicisation of this subject.
"It is my position that science must be conducted without political influence," said Droegemeier in response to a question from Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts regarding protecting climate science during the hearing. "[Science] has to be free from political influence and conducted with the highest integrity."
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who recently launched an attack on programs that educate meteorologists about the connections between extreme weather and climate change, also decided to press the nominee on climate.
At that point Droegemeier, himself an extreme weather expert, got a lil' weak. The nominee called the injection of politics into science "non-negotiable" — a good start! Then, Cruz followed up by asking Droegemeier whether he believes there's more than one scientific view on climate change.
"I welcome all points of view," Droegemeier responded. "Science is the loser when we tend to vilify and marginalise other voices. I think we need to have everyone at the table talking about these things and let the science take us where it takes us."
OK, sure, but the scientific consensus shows that climate change is happening and humans are responsible. So, um, should climate deniers be welcome at the table?
Cruz took off running with this statement and asked our potential science adviser if he's familiar with "the empirical data from satellite measurements" that says there's been no warming over the last 18 years. (This is a misleading statement Cruz just loves to trot out.) All Droegemeier had to say is that yeah, he knows it. He didn't mention that the idea of a global warming pause has been debunked time and time again. Disappointing.
Anyway, let's not completely shit on the guy. He did note, after a question from Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, that he is dedicated to climate change. As a guy who's into weather modelling, he's excited to see what the future holds for climate models. He wants to spearhead that effort at OSTP.
"We need improvements in climate models," Droegemeier said, noting that he wants the weather and climate people to come together to figure out how to improve forecasts.
And to be fair, Droegemeier's response on climate was better than the nominee for deputy administrator of NASA, Jim Morhard, who wouldn't comment on whether humans were the dominant contributor to climate change. He did say they were a "significant" cause, but he wouldn't go any further than that.
Droegemeier also had plenty of positive things to say about ending sexual harassment in the sciences and increasing diversity in the field. Honestly, the guy didn't seem too bad. He does sound a little shook, though, when it comes to climate change. I'm guessing he doesn't want to say anything that might piss off his climate-denying big boss.
In the era of Scott Pruitts and Ryan Zinkes, Droegemeier may be our best shot at saving the planet. That is, if he isn't too scared to take it.