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Climate science denier Rep. Jim Bridenstine to be nominated as NASA's chief

By Phil Plait
Jim Bridenstine and NASA

The White House has announced that they will be nominating Oklahoma Congressperson Jim Bridenstine to be the next NASA administrator. I’ll admit: I’m conflicted about this choice, but (for the <tl;dr> crowd) in the end, I do not support his nomination.

For some quick background, Space News has a good article on Bridenstine’s nomination, the New York Times has one on Bridenstine’s history, and Ars Technica has its usual solid reporting on him as well. But let me fill you in …

NASA needs a new chief right now. Since January 20, 2017, NASA has been running without a formal administrator; Robert Lightfoot is the current associate administrator of NASA and has been acting as chief since Charles Bolden’s resignation on that date. In many cases, a government agency administrator will tender their resignation upon the installation of a new president; it’s up to the new president to accept or reject the resignation. Michael Griffin was George W. Bush’s pick, for example, and he resigned when Barack Obama took office; Charles Bolden became head after a few months (and, in the meantime, associate administrator Christopher Scolise was acting chief). So this transition and its timing aren't all that unusual.

The choice of Bridenstine is unusual, though. Rep. Bridenstine is a politician, not a scientist or engineer or someone with extensive space exploration background outside of his congressional work. Some politicians, notably Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Representative Bill Nelson (D-Florida), have expressed concerns about Bridenstine being more of a politician than someone qualified to run NASA. [Correction (Sep. 4 at 21:00 UTC): I originally wrote that it was Ted Cruz, not Rubio.]

Now, I want to be careful here; I’ve read some accounts of people saying this is the first time a NASA nominee has had no science background, and that’s not the case. Sean O’Keefe had no formal training in science, and neither did James Webb. Still, that’s the exception, not the rule.

I would, of course, prefer someone with a strong science or engineering background, or someone who was an astronaut (Bolden was a four-time Shuttle astronaut, with 680 spent hours in space, for example). Having said that, Bridenstine does have some science background: He was the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium for several years, for example, and he has been a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee since 2016 (though that’s hardly an asset, given how outrageously Orwellian that committee has become in its anti-science advocacy).

He’s also an advocate for space exploration; he’s pro-commercial space, supporting NASA’s deeper involvement with private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, something with which I very much agree. On the flip side, he also supports the Space Launch System and the Orion crew capsule, both of which I strongly do not support.

SLS launching

But where this really goes wrong is Bridenstine’s very loud and strident denial of climate science.

Since he’s a Republican from Oklahoma, this perhaps isn’t surprising, but the breadth and depth of his denial is cause for great concern. He was elected to Congress in late 2012, and immediately launched into climate science denial grandstanding.

In June 2013, he gave a one-minute speech on the floor of Congress regurgitating straight-up denial propaganda:

The part that gets me is this:

Mr. Speaker, global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago. Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with Sun output and ocean cycles. During the Medieval Warm Period from 800 to 1300 A.D.—long before cars, power plants, or the Industrial Revolution—temperatures were warmer than today. During the Little Ice Age from 1300 to 1900 A.D., temperatures were cooler. Neither of these periods were caused by any human activity.

This is really off the rails. Global temperatures never stopped rising. They don’t correlate with the Sun (at least not usually, and that’s generally overwhelmed by the human-caused warming trend) and oceans (whatever he means by including the oceans there; it’s not clear, since the oceans are warming rapidly as the planet does as well), not in the long term. The Medieval Warm Period was local, not global. The Little Ice Age was also local to parts of Europe, and not global. In other words, literally everything he said (except for that last link, which is irrelevant) is just so much fertilizer. But not any fertilizer, but specifically the kind of garbage promulgated by the climate science deny-o-sphere.

In that short speech, he also said then-President Obama spent 30 times as much money on climate research as weather, and also said, bizarrely, that Obama should apologize for it. This claim is outrageously false.

Given all that, his record on oil and energy policy is pretty much what you’d expect.

consensus project

But there’s more, and this is critical. In 2013, when he had been in Congress just a few months, he sponsored a bill that would have gutted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate research, funneling that money instead into weather warning. While the latter is important, we do spend quite a bit on that already, and at the same time NOAA’s research into climate leads the world and is an absolutely critical resource. This bill would have been atrocious and incredibly damaging, but happily it didn’t pass.

So it should be obvious why I’m conflicted about the White House nominating Bridenstine to head NASA. While he might advocate for a lot of important issues, I think he would actively work on cutting back NASA’s extremely important climate research. Mind you, Scott Pruitt is a climate science denier and was appointed to run the Environmental Protection Agency, and has done just appalling things to destroy the fine work the EPA had been doing up until recently.

My friend Marshall Shepherd (who was president of the American Meteorological Society in 2013 and is quite vocal on matters of climate) gives quite a bit of background on Bridenstine, and is hopeful that the Congressman’s past climate science denial came from a place of representing his constituency. That’s possible, but I’m far less optimistic. Bridenstine’s past behavior was pretty strident, and it doesn’t seem likely he’ll simply drop his partisan anti-science attitude when it comes to climate science.

So there comes a time when a stand must be taken; a wait-and-see attitude could be catastrophic (as we’ve seen over and again with Trump nominees and appointments). So, given all the evidence, I have decided I stand against the nomination of Jim Bridenstine to run NASA. To me, the risk is simply too great.

The formal nomination is expected to occur sometime this week. After that, there will be Senate hearings to confirm him, and it’s expected the Democrats will resist. I will be calling both my senators (one is a Democrat, the other Republican) urging them to reject the nomination. While it’s preferable to have the NASA administrator have a science or engineering background, it’s absolutely critical they not be anti-science when it comes to the climate.

Climate change due to global warming is one of the greatest threats facing us as a species. The leader of the world’s premier space agency should at the very bare minimum be willing to admit it exists.