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The Energy 202: Biden creates new climate adviser role at NASA

By Dino Grandoni and Andrew Freedman

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

NASA is elevating one of its top climate scientists to a new role, a move meant to put greater focus at the space agency on studying the causes and consequences of global warming under President Biden.

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, will serve in the newly created position of senior climate adviser. He is being brought on in an acting capacity until NASA’s incoming administrator, who has yet to be named, makes a permanent appointment.

In an interview Tuesday, Schmidt said his vision for the position is to have just one person that’s kind of really focused on the climate issues” at the agency. Right now, the agency has high-ranking officials who oversee Earth science research, but their purview encompasses more than just climate change.

The creation of the new high-level climate position is in line with the Biden administration’s plan to marshal all federal agencies into action on climate change. 

And the choice of Schmidt, one of the nation’s most well-respected and outspoken modelers of how Earth’s atmosphere traps heat, is another sign the Biden administration will argue for aggressive cuts in emissions.

Steve Jurczyk,  NASA's acting chief, said in a statement the move “will enable the agency to more effectively align our efforts to help meet the administration’s goals for addressing climate change.”

Though more famous for space exploration, NASA has a dual mission that includes studying our home planet. 

The new adviser will guide NASA's administrator and other top leaders, as well as serve as a resource to other federal officials, according to senior administration officials.

Central to the agency's climate work is its fleet of satellites that enables policymakers and activists to monitor carbon emissions, deforestation, land use change, snow cover, ice sheets and other shifts in the landscape, with many data sets offered freely to the public and dating back to the 1970s. NASA has a slew of climate-focused space missions coming up in the next few years.

The agency, however, has not had a single point person on climate change issues, despite the role it plays in gathering critical data on the Earth.

NASA’s climate adviser role is among a number of new positions focused on climate change under Biden. The two most prominent appointees are former secretary of state John F. Kerry, now serving as the president’s special envoy on climate, and former Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy, now Biden’s domestic climate czar.

The move at NASA represents a sharp shift from the Trump administration’s management of the agency. 

Trump's White House sought to shift NASA’s focus away from studying Earth and toward exploring space with its funding requests.

Lori Garver, a former deputy NASA administrator under Barack Obama, said the role is “a fantastic and timely addition to NASA and Gavin is the right person to take on the task."

“Most of what we know about earth systems science comes from satellites and the agency has a major role to play in driving solutions and assisting society with adaptation measures that can lessen human suffering,” she added.

Bidisha Bhattacharyya, deputy director for climate and energy policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, agrees the new position is “an encouraging sign” but would like to see the Biden administration should double the amount spent on NASA's Earth science program.

“NASA has been grossly underappreciated as a climate agency,” she said.

NASA's Earth science portfolio is funded at a level of $2 billion for the current fiscal year and includes money for satellites, supercomputers and more beyond just climate change. This compares to a human space exploration budget of $6.6 billion out of a total agency budget of $23.3 billion. 

Schmidt is outspoken about the need to cut emissions and has not shied away from policy discussions.

But he sees his role as distinct from any policy opinions. “I’m not being tapped for this role because they particularly want my views on policy,” he said, adding NASA is a policy-neutral organization. “I’m looking forward to seeing where science falls on the table but I’m not going to suddenly start designing cap-and-trade systems based on NASA science.”

The Oxford-trained climatologist has appeared as a guest on “The Daily Show” and co-founded one of the first climate science blogs. In 2011, he received an award from the American Geophysical Union, the largest society of Earth scientists, for his work informing the public about rising temperatures.

Schmidt has published numerous scientific papers and oversees NASA’s surface temperature data set. His research areas include improving the accuracy of climate models and understanding climate variability, both from natural fluctuations and human-driven changes. He worked under renowned climate scientist James Hansen, who stepped down from running the institute in 2013.

Schmidt will remain in New York for the next few months as he figures out how he can best serve the new administration, he said. His lab, situated in Manhattan above the restaurant used as the exterior of the diner on “Seinfeld,” is largely disconnected from the political scene in Washington.

He added the position does not upend the organizational chart or make him the gatekeeper of NASA climate science, but rather is intended to help add more specific expertise for decision-making and intergovernmental efforts, including bringing climate science considerations into decisions on NASA’s operations.

For example, the agency’s launchpads and other facilities in Cape Canaveral, Fla., are vulnerable to damage from hurricanes as well as long-term sea level rise, as are installations in Virginia and other parts of the country. 

“Right now there is not going to be a formal change to who I work for and what I do. In a couple of months it will be clearer what role this really is, whether I am the right person to do that, and whether we want to make things more permanent.”

Power plays

The Senate will hold two environmental hearings today.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hear from Michael S. Regan, Biden’s pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Regan has served as North Carolina’s top environmental regulator since 2017. If confirmed, he will make history as the first Black man to lead the agency at a time when Biden has promised to make environmental justice issues center to his administration’s agenda.
  • And the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on climate change — the first under Sen. Joe Manchin III's (D-W.Va.) leadership. Manchin is a coal country native who often has taken a conservative tack on environmental issues.

Everyone take their seats: Senate Majority Leader Charles E/. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced new Democratic committee assignments. 

  • Sens. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and Alex Padilla (Calif.) will join the Environmental and Public Works Committee, replacing Cory Booker (N.J.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.)
  • Kelly and Sen. John Hickenlooper (Colo.) will join the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Stabenow will leave the committee.
  • And Booker, Sens. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) and Raphael G. Warnock (Ga.) will join the Agriculture Committee. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.) will leave the committee.
Agriculture secretary nominee Tom Vilsack said the USDA will address inequities in the department's programs at his confirmation hearing on Feb. 2. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Photo: Bloomberg/The Washington Post)

Finally, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee voted unanimously to advance Tom Vilsack’s nomination as agriculture secretary, setting him up for a quick confirmation in by the full Senate, our colleague Laura Reiley reports

Vilsack told lawmakers farmers would be crucial in combating climate change and said that he will focus on incentivizing farmers to adopt agricultural practices that reduce emissions or increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil.

Automakers drop out of the legal battle against California’s emission standards.

Toyota, Hyundai, Kia and Stellantis, the company formed from the merger of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot S.A., are no longer trying to stop California from setting its own greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars. The group of automakers said they made the decision as “a gesture of good faith and to find a constructive path forward." 

Under Trump, the federal government had sought to strip the nation's most populous state of its ability to set its own tailpipe rules. The Biden's team is now expected to tighten those fuel-efficiency standards as part of its agenda fighting climate change.

U.S. cities are underestimating their carbon emissions, researchers say.

A study published in the journal Nature Communications found that cities underreport their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 18 percent, Reuters reports. The report comes as cities pledge huge cuts to their carbon emissions in an effort to combat climate change.

The study compared self-reported emissions from 48 U.S. cities with estimates from an emissions data tool developed by study lead Kevin Gurney of Northern Arizona University. The data tool tracks emissions using an array of national public data sets and produces estimates consistent with atmospheric measurements, according to the paper.

Extra mileage

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