Most of the questions circulated at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco in mid-December seemed innocuous enough, one University of Nebraska-Lincoln research professor who attended the conference said.
But among the scientists and professors doing research into global climate change, some of the 74 questions put to the U.S. Department of Energy raised eyebrows, like this one.
Question No. 40: “Can you provide a list of Department employees or contractors who attended any of the Conference of the Parties (under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in the last five years?”
Other questions asked what the department would do if it was asked to cut its budget by 10 percent. Or they asked respondents to provide a list of the research and development grants awarded to private companies or universities over the past five years, or list professional society memberships held by staff.
The questions came from the transition team for President-elect Donald Trump, who once tweeted that climate change was a concept created by the Chinese to “make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” and it has scientists entering a period of uncertainty.
David Billesbach, one of two researchers studying climate change through Department of Energy grants awarded to UNL, said he doesn’t know what to expect, but he believes change is on the horizon.
“I suspect there will be a change in research policy, and I suspect there will be something of a pull-back from the science we’ve been trying to do and it won’t be funded as generously as it has been,” Billesbach said.
Most of the climate change research being done by UNL is funded through grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or from NASA.
Those grants are awarded to the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and used to pay for the salaries of researchers like Billesbach as well as for labs or facilities used by the staff.
In addition to overseeing the country’s nuclear arsenal and energy production, the U.S. Department of Energy sponsors research in the physical sciences -- including climate change.
UNL has three running grants from the department totaling nearly $1.1 million to study climate change. All three grants, awarded in 2009, 2012 and 2015, are set to expire Sept. 30.
Billesbach works with about 100 researchers from the Lawrence-Berkley National Lab to measure the transfer of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane between land and the atmosphere at stations in north central Oklahoma and the North Slope of Alaska.
“One thing we can do is tell how much plants are growing, how much carbon they are pulling out of the air and compare that to the light, rain, soil moisture and temperature,” he said.
Along the Arctic Circle, in Barrow, Alaska, Billesbach said, he is collecting data on the release of carbon from a melting permafrost, energy frozen for 2,000 years that could result in a large “pulse” of carbon entering the atmosphere.
Another researcher, Andy Suyker, oversees a climate research station at UNL’s Agricultural Research and Development Center near Mead that measures the transfer of gases in a Nebraska-specific agricultural research system.
The data collected -- often by automated instruments left to record changing conditions for years at a time -- is later made available to researchers and the general public around the world.
Billesbach said the raw data he has recorded in the past 15 years indicates the climate is in a state of change -- an interpretation based on decades of scientific experimentation and observation, and not on economics or politics.
“One thing we really try very hard to do is not put politics into what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re doing science and if you try to inject politics into it or personal philosophies, you’re going to do a bad job.”
The “almost universally accepted” conclusion that the climate is changing and humans are responsible for a good part of the change has met with external resistance, however, as Billesbach acknowledges.
The original moniker “global warming” adopted by scientists in the 1980s and '90s was a failure, he said. The U.S., he said, is becoming less and less of a science-based society than it used to be.
But the evidence is still there.
“Overall, the planet is warming. The climate is changing is what we’re finding out,” he said. “Some places are going to be drier, some are going to be wetter. That changes patterns of plant growth, and agriculture is going to have to follow that.”
Last Wednesday, a bipartisan committee of state senators issued a recommendation that the Nebraska Legislature establish a panel to "create an evidence-based, data-driven climate action plan" for the state.
In February, the university published a 55-page report summarizing a series of roundtable talks held in 2015 in response to a study that shows temperatures in Nebraska will rise between 4 and 9 degrees by the end of the century while average soil moisture will drop by as much as 10 percent.
Billesbach said continuing to follow the changes in climate variables in hot years, cold years, wet years and dry years requires uninterrupted work -- work that requires ongoing funding.
As the federal government has gridlocked over appropriations, issuing continuing resolutions instead of budgets, Billesbach said scientists working through government contracts have come to expect some uncertainty with year-to-year research funding.
With a new president set to take office in a few short weeks, that uncertainty is growing, he said.
“This may have longer-term implications.”