The Trump administration appears to be planning to shift the mission of one of the most important federal science agencies that works on climate change — away from climate change.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Department of Commerce, operates a constellation of earth-observing satellites. Because of its work on climate science data collection and analysis, it has become one of the most important American agencies for making sense of the warming planet. But that focus may shift, according to a slide presentation at a Department of Commerce meeting by Tim Gallaudet, the acting head of the agency.
In the presentation, which included descriptions of the past and present missions for the agency, the past mission listed three items, starting with “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts.” In contrast, for the present mission, the word “climate” was gone, and the first line was replaced with “to observe, understand and predict atmospheric and ocean conditions.”
The presentation also included a new emphasis: “To protect lives and property, empower the economy, and support homeland and national security.”
NOAA’s sprawling mission includes the National Weather Service and management of the nation’s fisheries. Its use of satellites and scientific research to understand climate change has been an enormous part of its work in forecasting the cycles of phenomena such as El Niño and tracking hurricanes, as well as forecasting the coastal effects of rising seas.
While the past mission for the agency was focused on resiliency, including “healthy ecosystems, communities and economies that are resilient in the face of change,” the present mission, according the presentation, replaced that with a focus on “a safe, secure and growing economy empowered through accurate, reliable and timely environmental information.”
The presentation by Dr. Gallaudet, an oceanographer and retired Navy rear admiral, was part of a Department of Commerce “Vision Setting Summit.” While it is common for agencies to shift priorities under a new administration, sweeping changes to the core mission of an agency are unusual.
It is unclear whether a large shift in the federal science agency’s direction could be accomplished without extensive action by Congress. The agency’s current structure and mission are defined by 127 congressional mandates, and Congress passes the agency’s budget. Changing the agency’s focus would require an extensive rule-making process — a process that has proved troublesome to the Trump administration.