In the eleventh hour of the outgoing Congress’ term, the Senate confirmed one of President Trump’s nominees that could have a profound impact on the future of our planet.
Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorologist and former University of Oklahoma professor, was confirmed to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy on Wednesday– a role commonly referred to as “science adviser” and the top scientific office in the country.
The position has sat vacant since Trump’s presidency began nearly two years ago.
Droegemeier, an expert on extreme weather that has served as The University of Oklahoma’s vice president of research since 2009 and has conducted atmospheric research for over 35 years. His extensive background in weather provides some hope among the science community that he can influence the administration, which has disputed the scientific community’s view that the planet is warming and that humans are the primary cause of the change.
“It is encouraging to see that this position is finally filled, and by someone with solid scientific credentials and extensive experience in connecting cutting-edge science to policy decisions,” according to Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist with Texas Tech University.
Droegemeier was nominated by the President at the end of July and breezed through hearings with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, receiving bipartisan support and a unanimous approval vote in early September.
But it took almost four months for the Senate to confirm Droegemeier, despite the bipartisan support.
In that time, a number of alarming reports have come from the United States as well as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reiterating that global warming is occurring, that impacts are already being felt and that it will become much more significant in the not-too-distant future.
Asked about his opinion on the National Climate Assessment, a scientific report administered by the federal government and released the day after Thanksgiving, Trump said, “I don’t believe it.” He said he had read only “some” of the report that found, among other projections, that the warming planet would reduce the US economy by 10% by the end of this century.
Would having a science advisor in place during the release of these critical reports helped to guide the administrations view of the findings?
Trump has a history of dismissing his own experts, whether they be top intelligence reports or senior military officials, so many are skeptical that Droegemeier will have much influence over Trump’s view on climate.
“No one should expect that he will be advising this president on any meaningful manner,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado who studies the intersection of science and politics and who has published on the history of US science advisers. Pielke has worked with Droegemeier and known him for more than 20 years.
“This president does not appear to seek advice,” Pielke said, adding that the primary function of the science adviser has historically been to coordinate budgets and support science and technology programs that cross agency boundaries.
“Science advisers have historically had little, if any, impact on major policies,” Pielke said. “This goes for John Holdren under Obama and all others before him.”
Though Droegemeier has noted that observations show that the planet is warming and “the evidence suggests that it is human-induced,” he has been quick to indicate that there is much left to learn about how the planet will react to the warming.
In a 2014 talk he gave to climate scientists at the University of Oklahoma, Droegemeier said his “feeling is that the planet, you can kick it in the butt really, really, hard, and it will come back.”
He continued to point to the uncertainty in the science of climate change during his Senate confirmation hearings, saying, “science rarely provides immutable answers about anything. … I think we have to have everyone at the table talking about these things and let the science take us where it takes us.”
One thing Droegemeier has been consistently clear on, however, is that science must remain free from political influence, something many have feared within the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior.
“I believe science is extremely important in informing policy,” Droegemeier told the Senate.
“I think science needs to be conducted free from political interference. The science has to lead the way in terms of telling us whatever the facts are.”
Will Droegemeier be able to bring these scientific facts to the White House, where “alternative facts” have been known to reside and Trump’s own “gut” has been leading the way when it comes to climate change policy?
According to Renee McPherson, the university director of the South Central Climate Science Center at OU, who has worked directly with Droegemeier for over 30 years, he is the right person for the job.
“It’s likely that the Democrats in the House will bring climate change to the forefront, and I’ve worked with many Republicans who desire to address climate change without all of the political hype that the issue unfortunately has become charged with,” McPherson said.
“I believe Kelvin can bring everyone together to focus on what the science tells us and how both parties can cooperate in moving forward.”