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Kelvin Droegemeier

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What does Trump’s pick for science adviser think about climate science? A 2014 talk offers clues

The meteorology professor picked to advise President Donald Trump on science-related matters has urged climate scientists to be more humble when they talk about the conclusions of their research—and said Earth might be more resilient to human-caused environmental assaults than many believe.

The comments by Kelvin Droegemeier, Trump’s pick to lead the White House science office, were made during a talk he gave 4 years ago to researchers at a climate science center in Oklahoma.

Droegemeier, vice president for research at The University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman and an expert on predicting severe storms, will appear before the Senate on Thursday to field questions on his qualifications to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Given the policies of the Trump administration, Droegemeier is almost certainly going to be asked about climate change and other environmental issues. He has kept mum on those and all other research topics since his nomination was announced on 31 July, as is the custom for presidential nominees. But a video of a June 2014 talk Droegemeier gave to OU colleagues provides some intriguing hints about his thoughts on climate science and other politically charged topics.

Droegemeier was speaking at the South Central Climate Science Center, a federally funded university consortium based at OU’s Norman campus. The topic was how researchers can contribute to national science policymaking, and for most of his 45-minute talk he spoke in lofty, philosophical terms about how the sausage gets made. But for 150 seconds (starting at about the 22-minute mark of the video), he descended from those academic heights to grapple with more tangible matters, including his thoughts on the state of climate science, the capacity of the planet to withstand environmental disasters, and the way in which many climate scientists present their findings.

Grappling with uncertainty

A group of scientists had asked him about his stance on climate change, Droegemeier related. And here’s what he told them.

“The [climate] models tell us what they tell us, but they’re not perfect,” he recounted. “If we’re intellectually honest with one another, we should say, ‘Yes, the observations show that the planet is warming. The evidence suggests that it is human-induced, that is, there’s a strong human signal. But we don’t know everything about the nitrogen cycle, about all the carbon cycling, and about carbon sequestration …’”

“Unfortunately, a lot of scientists have gotten to the point where they say, ‘[I’d be] an idiot [to] go up [to policymakers] and say’ what I just said to you. But I think if you say it’s obvious, then you’re not a scientist. Because science is never, ever, that certain. And I’m very skeptical of people who take that almost deeply ideological position and say we absolutely know the answer. No, we don’t.”

To buttress his point, Droegemeier cited lessons from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It was a massive, catastrophic disaster beyond all proportions,” he began. “[So] where’s the oil? It got eaten by microbes. Guess what? We didn’t know those microbes existed and that they had the capacity to do that. The oil’s gone. And there’s no catastrophe. Yeah, there’s oil on the shore and stuff. But the planet is incredibly resilient.”

“So what do I feel about it?” he said to the climate scientists. “My feeling is that the planet, you can kick it in the butt really, really, hard and it will come back.”

“Is there a tipping point for climate change? I don’t know. The only thing we can say for certain is that they have our model results, and that’s what we know. That’s the intellectually honest answer. But a lot of people don’t [want to] allow that debate to happen.”