The Frankness of Bridenstine

NASA’s proposed new chief gets grilled about the home planet.

James Bridenstine at today's nomination hearing. (Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee)
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In many ways, Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine is ideally qualified to be the next NASA administrator. He’s a decorated Navy pilot (he flew the F/A-18 and E-2 Hawkeye), a former director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, and a well connected politician. He’s genuinely passionate and well informed about space exploration—not because he has a NASA center in his district (he doesn’t), but because he’s actually interested. His ideas about re-focusing human spaceflight on the moon and cislunar space are in keeping with NASA’s new direction, and he appears eager to get going, which wasn’t always the case with the previous administration.

And yet…

In these times, politics pervades everything. So Bridenstine’s nomination hearing yesterday was more contentious than usual for a new NASA head, touching on everything from accusations of financial mismanagement to controversial views on climate change and same-sex marriage.

Bridenstine is a conservative Republican who campaigned for Ted Cruz in the last election. He comes from Oklahoma, the home of vocal climate skeptics like Senator James Inhofe and new EPA head Scott Pruitt. Bridenstine’s own views on climate change came up early and often in today’s hearing, since his past statements on the subject have, as Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey put it, contributed to the “implicit casting of doubt” on the reality of human-caused climate change. Take this statement on the House floor in 2013, his first year in Congress:

Yesterday Bridenstine got a grilling on the subject, particularly from Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii. Asked repeatedly (watch here beginning at the 1:30:10 mark) whether he thought human activity was the main cause of recent climate change, Bridenstine looked like an animal trying to wriggle free of a trap. Virtually all scientific organizations, including the American Meteorological Society, the National Science Foundation, and the American Geophysical Union, have no problem with such a clear statement. But when the Senator pointedly asked the NASA nominee “What is the scientific consensus on climate change?” Bridenstine waffled: “I think right now we’re just scratching the surface as to the entire system of the Earth…” Frustrated, Schatz gave up. Even though NASA itself says the consensus is very strong, Bridenstine, for whatever reason, couldn’t bring himself to say it. He was evasive to the point of dishonesty.

He probably wishes some of his backers on the Senate commerce committee hadn’t weighed in, because they made the NASA nominee look even worse by association. Roger Wicker, Republican from Mississippi, repeated the familiar denier refrain that “climate change has been occurring for millions and millions of years” (as if scientists haven’t considered that). Inhofe called claims of a strong scientific consensus on climate change “nonsense.”

In fact, Bridenstine doesn’t seem to be an ideologue on this topic, or at least his ideas appear to have tempered in his four years in Congress. During today’s hearing, he was convincing in his insistence that he won’t suppress scientific opinion on climate change within NASA, or punish anyone who speaks out on the subject. We wouldn’t expect him to. NASA is not a regulatory agency like EPA, and it isn’t the biggest player in climate research, even though its satellites and computer modeling are critically important to the field. For those reasons, the space agency is rarely on the front lines of the climate wars.

But Bridenstine’s reluctance to accept what almost all climate scientists hold to be true is still troubling. Is he being honest about his reasons for doubting a clear consensus? If confirmed, what will he say to NASA Earth scientists who brief him on their research? That he doesn’t believe their results? You’d hope the head of a science-driven agency would base his ideas and actions on the best available scientific advice. 

Bridenstine probably will be confirmed, and there’s reason to think that’s a good thing for those who want to see humankind venture farther into space. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come at the expense of the rest of us, who still live here on Earth.

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