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Analysis After the Midterm Election

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:31 AM GMT on November 11, 2014

Analysis After the Midterm Election

Have a bunch of blogs in the blogging part of my brain, including that typhoon that ended up in Alaska and going back to the Synthesis Report of the previous blog. Going to do a little analysis of the election and what it means for climate research and climate change. About a month ago at the National Center for Atmospheric Research a colleague sat down in front of me in the cafeteria and asked what I thought the election would mean for climate-change research. My short answer was, “think weather” – there is interest in federal budgets for improving weather forecasting, but for climate, it’s like when we brought a cat home and the dog spent 6 months trying to not look at the cat. See no cat, there is no cat. Already, climate had not been doing especially well in federal budgets, and I suspected it would get worse irrespective of the outcome of the election.

I spent 20 years in the government. Some of my colleagues would watch the machination of the budget process, trying to divine some sort of special meaning with each markup. There was the proposed President’s budget, and then there were budgets coming from the House and budgets coming from the Senate. There were overtly political moves every year, when some member of the House would cut some part of the budget that contained the word “climate” by 80 or 90 per cent or the dreaded “zero out.” Every now and then there would be an exercise within NASA – what if your budget was cut by half, what would I do, and what would I not do. Generally, I did not pay too much attention to this back and forth because I knew that some senator, somewhere, would “restore the House cut,” and some stability would be realized. However, over the years I recognized that the instability caused by the budget uncertainty was quite damaging to research and morale and consumed a massive amount of individual and institutional energy. Therefore, even without the realization of drastic budget cuts, there was damage to the scientific enterprise of the government, a weakening, that made it, ultimately, easier to cut.

A few blogs ago, I wrote about the downward spiral of federal research and development. The damage of the chaos that I described in the previous paragraph has been aggravated by the mindless automatic budget cuts of the sequestration. The sequestration has a disproportionate impact on the government’s discretionary budget, and research and development is a part of that discretionary budget. If we take sequestration in concert with the fixed costs for centers and infrastructure, protected programs, and relentless political attacks on the budget associated with “climate,” it’s an un-pretty world.

When I said to my colleague that I thought the budget for climate research was going to get worse no matter the outcome of the election, I based by conclusion on the decision that we were pretty much going to sustain bombing in the Levant. If we actually pay for our commitment to bombing, then that will amplify the pressure on the discretionary budget. Since I don’t think that anything in the realm of “climate” rises to level of a Presidential veto, most climate research is left with supporters who, for the moment, don’t hold power.

It is worth pointing out that for recent years, the House and the Senate have really not passed a budget, and we have worked under continuing resolutions. It is not a example of progressive governance.

Now for the election, it is likely that Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma will assume the leadership of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Therefore, what have been continual attacks on climate research and climate services from the House will meet with very little resistance in the Senate.

In addition to direct attacks on budgets, there will be gleeful attacks on the carbon regulation strategy that the Obama Administration has pursued with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I have followed the role of the EPA in climate since the 2007 Supreme Court Decision, and the use of the EPA to manage carbon pollution has enjoyed bipartisan opposition (Coal and EPA). Though, I expect that Democrats will be placed in a position where they more vocally defend the EPA, I expect that the efforts to disrupt or derail the EPA’s climate efforts will be effective. I expect that there will be many lawsuits.

To me, the wild card in the federal mix is the Department of Defense (DOD). The DOD has consistently identified the risks of climate change ranging from risks to facilities to risks of national security (2014 Quadrennial Defense Review). To thwart DOD’s efforts in climate and climate change will be a direct threat to our national security readiness and posture. The position taken in DOD and how they fare will be the place to look for any staying power in the next two years.

The political situation in Washington assures that any proposals that the Obama Administration brings to the 2015 Conference of the Parties in Paris will be hollow.

So if I were a climate scientist looking for bright spots, they are increasingly outside of the government. The core of climate-change activities has, for the past five years, been moving in fits and starts away from basic research towards impacts and responses. Opportunities are emerging in non-governmental organizations, local governments and the private sector. There is more attention on how to use the knowledge we already have generated rather than a focus on more knowledge generation – that is, basic research.

I do not see the results of the 2014 mid-terms as a political mandate of any type. The 2014 election is part of an amplifying flailing at the federal level, that I suspect will continue until something so bad happens that our government has to govern. I recently watched a documentary called The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization. I am not a good enough student of history to know whether this was an excellent documentary or simply interesting. Something that stood out to me is the time when the Greeks, really the Athenians, were the superpower was very short lived, a few decades. The documentary said that after the death of Pericles that the leaders that evolved and devolved in their democracy represented the fractured interests of society rather than the interest of the state. The result was a rapid and chaotic decline.

There is no doubt that the political instability in Washington extends through to the day-to-day practice of science – perhaps, disruption is the goal of our science policy makers. It is counter to what a nation needs to compete in the world, and it is counter to what is needed to address the challenges we face as a nation and individuals. I keep coming back to those Beardogs at the Watering Hole.


A more professional analysis by the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.