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Tectonic Shifts In Climate Politics: Researchers Confused On Trump Era Consequences


Thousands of Earth scientists met this week in San Francisco for the meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Now, normally, sessions focus on topics like earthquakes, volcanoes and climate change. This year, researchers also talked about a tectonic shift in politics. NPR's Christopher Joyce was at the meeting. And he joins us to tell us more. Christopher, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: There's a new administration. Donald Trump will be president. Will it necessarily directly affect the work of these researchers?

JOYCE: Yes, indeed. The U.S. government has a massive scientific enterprise on everything from bio medicine and - to climate. I mean, the climate effort by the U.S. government is second to none in the world, really. And there have been very mixed signals from Donald Trump about what he thinks about climate research. And he said it's a hoax. He said the science is unsettled, which the scientific community disagrees with vehemently. But on the other hand, he met with Al Gore to talk about climate. So scientists really don't know what to think.

SIMON: Are they worried about their jobs?

JOYCE: Some are. The people who work in the federal government - the scientists who do - are worried about their jobs. There's a lot of them. And the federal government and the scientists who work in the government do a tremendous amount of work that, you know, a veritable Mississippi River of research flows out of. The satellites that NASA provides, the buoys from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, flood gauges that determine, you know, river stages - I mean, it's a huge amount of information, huge amount of data.

And people are worried that that could be undercut, to the point where there's even some guerrilla activity, you might say, of a few scientists who say they're urging their colleagues to back up their data in safe places because they're afraid that somebody might - from the government - might just delete it. There's no evidence that that will happen. But it is a concern.

SIMON: What went on at this conference? Just discussion?

JOYCE: Well, you know, the sessions were the usual things, you know, plate tectonics and river sedimentation and asteroids hitting the earth and that sort of thing. But in the hallways and over coffee or beer, it was all about Trump, Trump, Trump and the people he's picked to run the government. You could say that the community is rather split. There are scientists who say, wait and see. We've been through this before. George W. Bush was somewhat skeptical of climate when he came in and changed his mind. Maybe it'll get better. Who knows?

Others are quite confrontational. And there was even a demonstration rally held by several dozen scientists carrying placards, which is something you don't often see senior scientists doing. And they were saying, you know, we're going to defend our science strongly. And don't try to undercut it. So, I mean, there's even a climate-change legal defense fund that's wandering around the meeting, offering its advice to people. So it has split people.

SIMON: What would be the ramifications, if you can project, of the government actually cutting back on research efforts, if they were to do that?

JOYCE: Well, the U.S. effort in climate research, as I said, is second to none. And, you know, the rest of the world looks to the United States for leadership in this area. It provides data not only for scientists within the government - for people who are in academia. And they depend on this.

There's also the Paris climate agreement that was agreed to last December. The U.S. took a leadership position there. If the U.S. were to undercut its own research effort, that would, in turn, send a signal to others that, you know, perhaps the largest economy in the world is not going to bother with it anymore. And that could be a real anchor on holding back research in the future everywhere.

SIMON: Christopher, did you hear any talk - any speculation - as to what some researchers will do if they find that federal money for climate science is cut?

JOYCE: Right now, you know, people are - it's early days. A lot of people are advising calm. Stay calm. Keep your head down. Do your lab work. But at the same time, yes, there are some discussions going on about where to find money elsewhere if, indeed, the federal government under Donald Trump decides to cut back. You know, foundations, entrepreneurs with money - I'd say, right now let's stay tuned and see what they've got to find.

SIMON: NPR's Christopher Joyce, thanks so much.

JOYCE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.