After Trump inauguration, UAS climate researchers discuss national uncertainty

President Donald Trump took down the whitehouse.gov webpage on climate change after taking office Friday, but scientists and academics at the University of Alaska Southeast will continue to confront the issue despite federal policy uncertainty and fears for research funding.

At a Friday night teach-in titled, “The inauguration of a new era of climate change in America?” faculty, students and community members gathered to discuss potential shifts in climate policy with the advent of a Trump administration.

Though the discussion’s tenor was one of uneasiness with the new president’s policies and cabinet heads, panelists said their work likely won’t be hamstrung by national politics.

“I think our bigger concerns honestly, are the Alaska state budget,” said Dr. Lora Vess, UAS Sustainability Committee chair and co-moderator of the teach-in. The UA system faces multimillion dollar budget cuts that will likely force UAS to cut programs and send research scientists scrambling for funding.

Though the state budget is the more immediate issue, several UAS researchers expressed concern that federal funds for climate science will become vulnerable under a Trump administration that has questioned the validity of global warming.

Marine biologist Dr. Heidi Pearson, a panelist at the teach-in, said she’s already looking for alternative funding for her research in the event that a Trump administration cuts grant programs.

Pearson studies “blue carbon,” or the, “natural processes of oceans that help sequester carbon.”

“Many of us get federal funding, from NSF (National Science Foundation), for example,” said Pearson, referencing the federal agency responsible for funding 11,000 grant proposals a year. “Even in the Obama administration, federal funding was declining just because there are so many different budget pressures. Some of my colleagues and myself are worried that (under Trump) funding will go down even more.”

Pearson is part of a UA-wide federal grant which funds about half of her research. That grant runs through 2020, which will carry her through Trump’s first term.

She’s additionally heartened by the fact that Dr. France A. Córdova, appointed by President Obama to head of the 7.2-billion dollar NSF, will lead the independent federal agency through 2020.

Though Pearson’s research funding will not disappear overnight, she said America’s new commander in chief has her worried as an educator.

“I think that there’s been an anti-education movement in the Trump administration which is really worrisome to me for my students to be exposed,” Pearson said.

“One of the things I always try to do is teach critical thinking skills, so they can discern the facts. … I always try to bring it back to the facts.”

Dr. Sonia Nagorski, a geologist, said her day-to-day work will not be affected by a presidential administration packed with climate skeptics, but will only make her work harder.

“Science is not a political field. It’s not a matter of opinion,” Nagorski said. “If anything it reminds me how much more urgent it is for the up and coming generation of leaders and voters to understand the science properly and understand that there is deep consensus in the scientific community that climate change is real and it’s happening now.”

Nagorski estimates that 90 percent of her research funding has some federal connection. Though she’s a geologist and not a climate scientist, Nagorski has worked on projects studying the effects of black carbon on the Mendenhall Glacier.

Trump’s cabinet picks for the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency have all downplayed or denied climate science. Trump himself has called global warming an “expensive hoax” perpetuated by the Chinese in order to take American jobs.

Vess is hopeful that, once in office, Trump’s cabinet leaders will be forced to confront the reality that cutting funding at the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency will hurt the fed’s bottom line.

She referenced Texas governor and climate change skeptic Rick Perry, Trump’s cabinet pick to head the Department of Energy. Perry once proposed eliminating the very department he’s been tapped to head, but couldn’t remember the its name.

“Rick Perry said he wanted the Department of Energy to go away, and now he is going to be head of the Department of Energy. Now he realizes that actually two-thirds of it deals with nuclear weapons and nuclear waste,” Vess said. “If we cut off climate science, we’re not going to know when a hurricane comes, we’re not going to know what the weather will be, we’re not going to know how to tell airports to prepare.”

Vess is confident that the Sustainability Committee’s efforts will help keep climate issues in the forefront, at least locally.

“The more that people come to these things, the more we can have a dialogue about it,” she said.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

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