Republicans aiming to cut NASA’s climate change research budget picked up an important new ally this week — presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBill Kristol: Trump praising China's leader ‘embarrassing’ Trump stands to win big on tax reform, but a trade war with Canada could change everything Tillerson on North Korea: 'Our goal is not regime change' MORE.
In a Wednesday speech in Florida, Trump slammed the Obama administration for “undermining our space program."
Trump's remarks are in line with many congressional Republicans who have vowed to prioritize space exploration. The promise to boost exploration funding was likely welcome news for those who see America leading the world in space missions, including a high-profile effort to send astronauts to Mars within decades.
But the remarks are also raising alarm among many who fear the GOP plans are a cover for slashing NASA's significant budget for climate research.
NASA’s earth science work, something it’s undertaken since the 1970s, includes a focus on climate change research, making NASA the only federal agency able to study the impacts of a warming Earth from orbit.
The agency says it has 17 space missions collecting climate data, contributing to reports on everything from the state of the atmosphere to rising sea levels. Its scientists offer some of the government’s most cited analyses of the extent of climate change.
Key Republicans have long attacked the Obama administration, as Trump did, for increasing NASA’s earth science budget at the expense of other missions.
Trump's campaign did not respond to a request for more information about his plans for NASA's climate work. And on Capitol Hill, Republicans would rather talk about other areas of NASA’s nearly $20 billion annual budget, such as space exploration and planetary science.
The House Science Committee last year passed a NASA authorization bill that aims to cut up to $300 million from the nearly $2 billion NASA spends on earth science. Committee Republicans say the bill “balances” funding between earth and space studies.
In his final budget, Obama requested $1.9 billion for Earth science funding for 2017, an amount that represents a 70 percent increase over the course of his presidency.
When the budget came out in March, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the House Science Committee’s chairman, said “there is a lack of balance in the science account request,” calling the earth science increase “the most glaring example."
“We must restore balance to NASA’s budget if we want to ensure the U.S. continues to lead in space for the next 50 years,” Smith said when his committee passed the bill last year. “And we must continue to invest in NASA as the only government agency responsible for space exploration.”
Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzNet neutrality fight descends into trench warfare Secret Service: No guns at Trump NRA speech Cruz: Breaking up 9th Circuit Court ‘a possibility’ MORE (R-Texas), a former presidential candidate who chairs the Commerce Committee’s NASA oversight panel, has questioned some of NASA's missions as "political directives." He tangled with NASA Director Charles Bolden on funding during a committee hearing last year.
“I would suggest that this [funding imbalance] does not suggest that the investment of budgetary resources is going where it should,” he said of the increase in Earth science research.
The House Appropriations Committee this year advanced a spending bill that raised NASA investments to a record $19.5 billion, or $500 million more than Obama requested. But the Earth science’s budget absorbed a $231 million cut, making it, in the Planetary Society’s words, the budget’s “loser.”
Democrats have pushed back.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the ranking member of the Science Committee, called the Republican efforts to cut earth science funding “embarrassing.”
“It’s hard to believe that in order to serve an ideological agenda, the majority is willing to slash the science that helps us have a better understanding of our home planet,” she wrote then.
“NASA is and should remain a multi-mission agency if it is to meet the nation’s needs, with a balanced portfolio of programs in space and earth science, aeronautics and human space flight and exploration.”
Environmental advocates, too, question trimming the earth science budget just as the federal government has become more aggressive in combating climate change.
“One of the missions of NASA is to conduct space missions to improve life on Earth,” said Erin Ryan, an environmental and constitutional law professor at Florida State University College of Law.
She flipped Cruz's own words, saying that trying to "disinvest NASA from earth science" has become a "political directive" for Republicans.
Despite Trump’s remarks and the push by some in Congress, cutting NASA’s earth science budget is a still a heavy lift for lawmakers.
Earth science funding is at an all-time high, and even though House appropriators aimed to cut NASA’s funding for such research, Senate appropriators used their 2017 spending bill to bump it up.
And David Golston, the director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there is actually a fair amount of support for earth research at NASA and throughout the government.
“There is more bipartisan support for Earth science research than there is on climate policy initiatives. It hasn’t become as partisan, that’s one reason why it’s been maintained,” he said.
“While there can be disagreements over particular missions, that kind of general opposition to NASA Earth science projects is motivated, largely, by a lack of interest in knowing the facts that are developed from it.”
NASA, too, has defended its earth science research, calling it central to its overall mission.
“The fact that earth science has increased, I’m proud to say, enables us to understand our planet better than we have before, because it’s absolutely critical,” Bolden told Cruz’s committee last year. “We can’t go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don’t know it.
"It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment because it’s the only place we have to live,” he added.