October 23, 2018
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When reading and experts changed the mind of a climate change skeptic

Joel Kowsky | AP
Joel Kowsky | AP
James Bridenstine, R-Oklahoma, nominee for administrator of NASA, testifies at his nomination hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Nov. 1, 2017.

Reading, as the decades-old TV spots used to remind us, is fundamental. With an added twist, reading is fundamental to understanding climate change.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was a long-time climate change denier. But, now that he heads a federal agency that conducts a lot of research about conditions on Earth, the former congressman says he understands that climate change is happening, and that humans are causing it.

The source of his conversion? Reading, and talking to experts. So, three cheers for reading and listening to experts, the basic building blocks for understanding, well, pretty much everything. We hope that other Trump administration officials follow Bridenstine’s lead.

“I heard a lot of experts, and I read a lot,” Bridenstine told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “I came to the conclusion myself that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that we’ve put a lot of it into the atmosphere and therefore we have contributed to the global warming that we’ve seen.”

“And we’ve done it in really significant ways,” he said.

Just five years ago, Bridenstine, a conservative, three-term representative from Oklahoma, denied that human activity is responsible for a warming planet, sea level rises and other climate changes.

“Global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago,” he said in a 2013 speech on the House floor. “Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.” Climate scientists long refuted such claims.

One place where Bridenstine differed with his fellow climate change skeptics was his willingness to study it. That willingness to seek and understand new information, perhaps from within the agency he oversees, appears to have changed his mind.

We’d suggest that Bridenstine lead a book group where he can suggest, and interpret, reading materials for his former colleagues and current administration colleagues who refuse to be swayed by actual evidence that the planet is warming at an alarming rate.

Bridenstine can use his own conversion as an example for Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example. Pruitt faces near daily ethics scandals, but he is also a climate change denier who is rolling back environmental protections under the guise of helping businesses. Last year, Pruitt said that he did not believe humans were a “primary contributor” to climate change. A federal judge last week ordered Pruitt to provide evidence to back up his claims.

Bridenstine’s biggest job is to convince his boss, President Donald Trump, that climate change is real and that the US needs to do something about it. He also needs to convince the president not to cut funding for NASA’s climate research programs.

Trump has called climate change “ a hoax” made up by the Chinese to doom the American economy. He has signed numerous executive orders that will increase climate-change causing pollution. He has also declared that the US will leave an international accord aimed at reducing such pollution to ease the consequences of climate change. If the US officially withdraws, which is a long process, it will be the only country in the world that is not a signatory to the accord. Despite its years-long civil war, Syria joined the accord last year.

It is encouraging that hearing from experts and reading scientific material have convinced the NASA chief of the realities of climate change. Now, he needs to spread that message throughout Washington and the country.

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