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Warming up to Jim Bridenstine

An unlikely ally in the fight for survival

Jim Bridenstine

NASA/Bill Ingalls

Jim, we hardly knew ye.

Let’s first set the Wayback Machine for a Tulsa town hall meeting in February 2014.

Then-Oklahoma First District Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-Tulsa) was confronted with a constituent who proclaimed then-President Barack Obama “should be executed as an enemy combatant.”1

It should have been easy to swat away such vitriol, especially for a former member of the United States Armed Forces who had served under that Commander in Chief.

Instead Bridenstine was an accelerant: “Look, everybody knows the lawlessness of this president.”

There was also Bridenstine in the well of the House of Representatives accusing Obama (and then-Vice President Biden) of tyranny.2

Bridenstine, a cardboard cutout—a smug, doughy, predictable mouthpiece for the Tea Party—was the only person who could make us miss his predecessor, John Sullivan.

Then, in January 2018, something seemingly insignificant happened. He was still fighting to be named NASA administrator, and he invited Bill Nye (TV’s “The Science Guy”) to the president’s State of the Union Address.

Nye accepted:

“I’m very pleased to join Congressman Bridenstine at the president’s first State of the Union Address … I have enjoyed a productive working relationship with Congressman Bridenstine on space issues.”3

Enjoyed … productive … working relationship—come again?

Fast forward to April 2018 when Bridenstine, recently confirmed as the new NASA administrator on a straight party line vote, 50–49, said the unthinkable.

“The National Climate Assessment that includes NASA, and it includes the Department of Energy and it includes NOAA, has clearly stated it is extremely likely—is the language they use—that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming,” Bridenstine said.

“I have no reason to doubt the science that comes from that,” he added.4

Well knock me over with a CO2 meter. Up until this point, Bridenstine and science barely spoke to one another.

“Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.”5

Consider that Donald Trump, the leader of Bridenstine’s party and the guy who got him the gig, once tweeted this:

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.6

Bridenstine’s statement was remarkable, for it’s not just the president whose climate change stance is preposterous. There has been something wrong with the Republican Party on this issue—well, on most issues, but it’s a long day and a short column—for decades.

Of all the major conservative parties in the democratic world, the Republican Party stands alone in its denial of the legitimacy of climate science.7

At the 2012 GOP presidential convention, its presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, used global warming as a punchline.

“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans, pausing for the audience to laugh at the absurdity, ‘and to heal the planet.’ My promise ... is to help you and your family.”8

Stop. You’re killing me.

You don’t get ahead in today’s GOP by driving Nissan Leafs and joining hands at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, so Bridenstine can be forgiven for not making his comments known before his confirmation hearings. It’s not like he is going to now advocate wind power over coal or join Native Americans in their fight to protect ancient burial grounds from the extraction industry, but his evolution on this issue is a wonderful development. And—assuming it didn’t happen between January and April 2018—it may indicate he’s been punking the GOP for years.

How delicious the thought.

There’s a famous abstract—you’ve probably heard of it—released in 2013, with the fancy name “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming” that states 97.2 percent of scientists were in agreement on anthropogenic global warming (AGW).9 The controversy surrounding the study, led almost exclusively by the Right, raised questions about whether that percentage related to all scientists, just climate scientists, or simply those scientists who bothered to participate in the study. In raising the issue, the Right hoped to sully the whole shebang.

It was subterfuge, for it was clear however you read the data, AGW was real.

The authors looked through the abstracts of 11,944 papers on climate change published from 1991 through 2011, and found only 78 (0.7 percent) that clearly rejected man-made global warming and 40 (0.3 percent) that expressed uncertainty about it. So only 1 percent of published climate abstracts from 1991 to 2011 explicitly questioned the notion that humans are warming the climate. Geologist James Lawrence Powell did a similar if less painstaking examination of the abstracts of 24,210 peer-reviewed climate papers published in 2013 and 2014 and found only five (0.021 percent) that “in my judgment explicitly rejected AGW.”10

The point here—because in America these days, facts are so 2015—is that Jim Bridenstine has accepted what only end tables, mannequins, and Republicans haven’t—that human activity is causing global warming. This is a rebuke to every Republican representative from Washington to Muskogee.

To wit: Oklahoma’s senior senator, Jim Inhofe (R-Tulsa), wrote an entire book on the subject called “The Greatest Hoax” and once brought a snowball to the Senate floor to prove the earth wasn’t warming.11

“My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”12

How does the man dress himself in the morning?

Second District Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-Tulsa) remembers warm days as a lad.

“I haven’t seen the reports that would get me to believe that anything’s different than the patterns that we had that we’ve gone through the time of records. All of our records we’ve hit in heat waves, look at them. They’re in the 1930s. Dust bowl happened way before your and I’s time. And the cycles we had, we had cold winters growing up and we’ve had mild winters growing up.”13

It’s the “your and I’s time” that makes it art.

Oklahoma’s junior senator, James Lankford (R-Oklahoma City), has gone full paranoia on the issue:

“This whole global warming myth will be exposed as what it really is—a way of control more than anything else. And that generation will be ticked.”14

And he’s the thoughtful one.

Mullin’s a plumber by trade, Lankford’s a camp counselor, and Inhofe has been a politician since Nebuchadnezzar was in swaddling clothes, so they know as much about this issue as I do fly fishing. Their “expertise” is a conglomeration of talking points received from the exploration industry, cheap props, sepia-toned memories, and a touch of Jesus.

But much of the change was due to a systematic effort by conservatives, with significant help from fossil fuel interests that were seeking to stave off policies that might cut into their profits.15

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed C. Everett Koop to be the U.S. surgeon general. An unapologetic conservative, Koop wore bow-ties, white socks, a military uniform, and had the most biblical of beards. The left hated him.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said Dr. Koop, in denying a right to abortion, adhered to a “cruel, outdated and patronizing stereotype of women.” Women’s rights organizations, public health groups, medical associations, and others lobbied against his appointment. An editorial in The New York Times called him “Dr. Unqualified.”16

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the 14th century. Koop championed AIDS research, fought against big tobacco, argued against parents withholding medical care from their children on religious grounds, and even, though he was fiercely pro-life, declared that abortion procedures posed no medical risk to women.

In short, he checked his religiosity at the door and followed the science.

What does this have to do with Bridenstine?

What the congressman did in announcing his acceptance of climate change, and the certainty of man’s contribution to it, was to tell those—like his Oklahoma brethren—that the science, consensus, and data can no longer be waived off, and it’s time to grow up. If—unlike Scott Pruitt at the EPA—Bridenstine doesn’t fire all the scientists and replace them with industry hacks,17 his NASA may lead the way on finding solutions.

“Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas … That greenhouse gas is warming the planet—that is absolutely happening, and we are responsible for it.”18

Jim Bridenstine may save us yet.

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