Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), found lots of support for the agency at a 27 March congressional hearing.
However, he also faced sharp criticism about the Trump administration’s plans to slash climate and ocean research programs as well as education initiatives, grants, and other activities throughout NOAA.
The administration has proposed cutting NOAA’s budget to about $4.5 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2020, a drop of about 18%, nearly $1 billion, compared with the agency’s FY 2019 enacted budget.
For FY 2020, the agency would focus on NOAA’s core programs and highest priorities, Jacobs testified at the hearing held by the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. Those priorities include improving the prediction of extreme weather and water events by implementing the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, maximizing the economic contributions of ocean and coastal resources, and further investing in innovating NOAA’s space-based Earth observations.
The focuses on NOAA’s highest priorities “are good steps, but remain vastly overshadowed by the devastating cuts President Trump has in store for NOAA,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), chair of the subcommittee.
When Jacobs complained that the cuts are because “it’s the budget situation we’re in,” Serrano questioned whether the proposal purposely leaves holes in the budget for Congress to fix. “Is that what’s happening here, that you are hoping that Congress will fill any holes in negotiations with the House and the Senate?”
The proposed budget would terminate most climate research programs within the agency’s Climate Program Office and eliminate climate competitive research funding. Among other cuts, the budget would terminate the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, the National Sea Grant College Program, and some Arctic research products; decrease funding for ocean exploration and research efforts; and eliminate coastal zone management grants.
“I cannot believe that anybody in NOAA that believes in the mission of NOAA supports these cuts” to the budget, said subcommittee member Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii). “I have to assume that somebody somewhere told you, ‘Hey, cut it.’”
The budget proposes some increases, including for the agency’s Earth Prediction Innovation Center to improve U.S. operational forecast skills and the ability to provide accurate warnings of weather-based threats.
Republican Concerns About the Budget
Republican members of the subcommittee also questioned aspects of the budget. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said that although he is pleased about NOAA’s focus on core priorities and on identifying agency efficiencies, he is concerned about the proposed budget’s impact on the agency’s research programs.
Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), who said that he plans to reintroduce bipartisan legislation this year to support aquaculture in U.S. waters, questioned why the budget zeroes out the Sea Grant program. That program, he said, “provides important aquaculture research to drive economic development.”
Climate in the Spotlight
Under questioning from subcommittee member Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) about climate change, Jacobs reacknowledged the validity of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, whose volume 2 was released in 2018. That report states, “Global average temperature has increased by about 1.8°F from 1901 to 2016, and observational evidence does not support any credible natural explanations for this amount of warming; instead, the evidence consistently points to human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse or heat-trapping gases, as the dominant cause.”
“I don’t disagree with anything in the national assessment,” Jacobs said. “In the absence of any other natural forcing, human production of CO2 [carbon dioxide] as well as the removal of the CO2 sinks is certainly a dominant factor.”
After the hearing, Jacobs elaborated, telling journalists that the National Climate Assessment “was built on peer-reviewed literature.”
He added, “It does have an appearance that we understand everything. But that’s only because there is no peer-reviewed literature being published on things we don’t understand. It doesn’t mean there are not things we don’t understand. There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.”
Jacobs also commented on reported plans by the Trump administration to establish a National Security Council panel or committee led by a climate change skeptic to reassess climate science.
“As long as they stick to the peer-reviewed literature, personal views really don’t matter,” he said. “If you go through the peer review process, it’s designed to eliminate personal bias.”
Congressional Support and Concern
After the hearing, several members of Congress commented to Eos about their support for NOAA and their concerns about the proposed budget cuts.
“NOAA is one of those agencies where you don’t find people on a committee disagreeing with what they do,” said Rep. Serrano. “We support [NOAA]. We are troubled that, perhaps as part of this whole denying of climate change, it’s beginning to take effect on other issues. You see it in NOAA with cuts here and cuts there.”
Rep. Cartwright told Eos that Jacobs was in “a ticklish position” at the hearing for trying to defend a “penny-wise and pound-foolish” budget proposal.
“Part of me wants to hammer [Jacobs] for sticking up for this budget, and part of me recognizes that the man has a job to do and he’s answerable to the White House,” Cartwright said. “For my own part, I have no intention of following the White House’s budget on slashing NOAA’s funding.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer