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How will climate science in Alaska fare under Trump? No one knows yet

John Neary Mendenhall Glacier (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
“[Climate change] is real. It is happening. We can see it out our windows,” said John Neary, who heads the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center “And we’ll continue to say that. But we’ll say it in an engaging, positive way that connects people instead of just infuriates people.” (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Federal agencies and scientists both inside and outside government endured a roller coaster of a week as President Donald Trump’s new administration took the reins. Many worry that funding for science and environmental research could be on the chopping block under the new president – along with public communication about climate change. But so far, the only sure thing is: nothing’s for sure.

For those who study climate change — or communicate about it — it was not a reassuring first week.

Memos went out to employees at the Departments of  Interior and Agriculture limiting public communication. The White House removed sections of its website on climate change, and the Environmental Protection Agency at first said it would follow suit, then backtracked.

This came on top of the new president’s own statements on climate change. In the past, Trump has called global warming a hoax (he later said he was joking) and said during the campaign he’d “cancel” the Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions, though after the election, he told the New York Times he’s keeping an “open mind.”

To Larry Hinzman, vice chancellor for research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks it all points to one thing: he expects federal funding for climate research to drop.

“I’m sure that there will be less of an emphasis on climate research,” Hinzman said. “There’s just no question that’s going to be true.”

Hinzman said Alaska is a hub for climate research, and “the lion’s share” of funding for that work comes from the federal government. He hopes the university can shift its emphasis.

“We will reorient our efforts,” he said. “Still doing very similar work, still looking at how our terrestrial ecosystems are evolving, still looking at how fisheries change…looking at shipping. We’ll still be doing a lot of work that was related to climate research, it just has other foci now, other purposes.”

Hinzman spoke Thursday at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, which gathered scores of scientists in Anchorage, many of them focused on the effects of climate change.

One of them was Carin Ashjian, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. She worries the new administration doesn’t value basic science.

“I’m very concerned,” Ashjian said. “I see an atmosphere of hostility toward science that I think is unfounded. And I also think it’s against the national interest.”

It’s in the nation’s interest, she said, to understand how the environment is changing, so communities, industry and government agencies can plan for those changes.

For Brendan Kelly, director of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change, the key concern is that federal researchers be allowed to work free of political influence. Kelly served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President Barack Obama.

“The gold standard of high-quality science that comes out of this country, and has for a long time, is threatened when any entity of government – congress, the administration, whatever – starts to meddle with that peer-reviewed process,” Kelly said.

But, he said, it’s too soon to say what the Trump administration will do.

“I start by saying to everybody, take a deep breath,” he said, with the reminder that all transitions are messy.

That was also the message at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in Juneau.

Last Monday, John Neary, the visitor center’s director, got an email. It was from the United States Department of Agriculture, his boss.

“It said stop all media until we review how this is going to move forward,” Neary said. “It’s not abnormal to get that kind of a memo at the change of a presidential administration.”

Neary has worked for federal agencies for over 30 years. He said he’s seen this kind of directive during transitions before: back when President Obama was sworn into office, and during the Bush administration before that.

The next day, he received another message from the higher-ups; it said the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center could continue “normal communications.”

Neary said that includes posting on social media about climate change. He said it’s not a political issue.

“It is real. It is happening. We can see it out our windows,” Neary said. “We understand, based on all the facts, that it’s in part because of our actions as humans on Earth. And we’ll continue to say that. But we’ll say it in an engaging, positive way that connects people instead of just infuriates people.”

Neary said unless he hears otherwise, that’s the plan. For now, it’s business as usual at the Mendenhall Glacier.

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