The Trump Administration just castrated an important carbon monitoring program run by NASA — just as the ever increasing CO2 levels that have surpassed a new alarming threshold.
Weather stations at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii registered CO2 levels constantly above 410 parts per million (ppm) throughout the whole month of April. Just a year ago, the station recorded the first blip over 410 ppm. The last time CO2 levels were this high was about 3.6 million years ago, during the mid-Pliocene warm period. Today, that’s new normal. Back then, Earth’s sea levels were roughly 20 meters (66 feet) higher than today and the atmosphere was a lot warmer. The big difference is that we’ve moved towards mid-Pliocene CO2 levels in the span of less than a century, whereas 3 million years ago CO2 levels were sustained over far longer periods of time.
NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (CMS) costs about $10 million but with this relatively modest budget (approximately equivalent to a US production tank), scientists were able to monitor the flow of carbon across the entire planet. The program tracks not only the sources of carbon and its movement around the atmosphere but also carbon sinks (oceans and forests), where some of it is eventually sucked in and deposited. For instance, the U.S. Forest Service used data amassed by the CMS to conduct inventories of carbon stocks within Alaska’s remote interior. In total, at least 65 different projects have directly benefitted from CMS data.
In the absence of CMS, it will be very difficult now for scientists to assess the efficacy of cutting emissions at the national level, among other things. Being unable to accurately measure emissions means the country will face difficulty meetings it Paris Agreement pledge, which entails reducing emissions by 26–28% of 2005 levels by 2025. That probably doesn’t bother the current administration one bit seeing how it started the procedure to withdraw the US from the agreement.
Withdrawing CMS funding is the latest in a string of White House executive decisions meant to undermine NASA’s Earth Science programs, many of which are important to climate research. Government spokesperson Steve Cole attributed the project’s scrapping to “budget constraints and higher priorities within the science budget.” However, according to Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of Tufts University’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy in Medford, Massachusetts, the move may actually be intended to jeopardize plans to verify the national emission cuts agreed to in the Paris climate accords.
“If you cannot measure emissions reductions, you cannot be confident that countries are adhering to the agreement,” she told Science, adding “[canceling the CMS] is a grave mistake.”
The timing could not have been worse. NASA is preparing to launch several space-based carbon trackers, including the OCO-3, which is set to be mounted on the International Space Station later this year. The CMS program would have been an important component that bridged all of these observations, providing a better overview.
The good news is that all of this doesn’t mean that the world is at risk of inaccurately measuring carbon in the atmosphere from now on. As it so happens in similar situations since President Trump came to office, Europe is prepared to take over the reins and assume a leadership position. The world won’t end tomorrow. But it’s just a shame to see CMS go when common sense said it was doing so much good — a damn shame.