Right up front I want to confess my bias. I’m a strong pro-science guy, and I’m very interested in astronomy and space. I watched Apollo 15’s launch to the Moon, and I have bits of meteorites proudly displayed on my mantle. There, I said it, I’m a nerd (Ed: gasp!)
Thus, it likely doesn’t come as a surprise that a particular Colorado Politics story leapt out at me from my computer screen: Colorado U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter introduced a bill to study space weather. Now, you may be asking yourself, what is space weather? Isn’t space just empty, well, space?
As it turns out, not so much. Don’t think of space weather like you think of Earth weather. Rather, space weather deals with such things as the stuff the Sun does, like blast plasma jets out into space and occasionally toward the Earth. There are good reasons to study these phenomena, many having to do with the very direct impact space weather can have on us here in Colorado, and, well, the Earth. Electric grids, for example, could be blasted by fierce energy storms erupting from the Sun’s surface, and that could cause massive blackouts, to say nothing of frying your computer, your smart thermostat, your phone, and… You get the idea.
So, what are the odds that this bill becomes law? Tough to say, in part because even if it makes it out of the House, the Senate has been sitting on a large number of House-passed bills, with Senate Majority Leader McConnell talking about being the “grim reaper” of house-passed bills, because, you know, it’s more important to keep power than to do the people’s business.
But beyond the Senate, any bill such as Perlmutter’s, must face the most anti-science administration in decades, if not of all time. For reasons I truly don’t fully understand, the Trump administration has declared war on science, as some sort of liberal plot. They’ve rolled back a number of Obama and earlier era directives on things such as how much coal ash is ok to dump in streams. Hint: none, but that’s not what the Trumpers are doing. They’ve reduced regulation on air pollution, that directly contributes to children’s health issues, especially those with asthma and similar respiratory ills. Under the George W. Bush 8-year administration, the Union of Concerned Scientists documented some 98 examples of that administration attacking science. In just three years, the Trump Administration has surpassed the 8-year total of Mr. Bush, and that’s not a good thing. There are so many, in fact, that the Union has created a web page where you can choose from dozens of federal agencies and seven different attacks, ranging from outright censorship to politicization to studies halted or suppressed. That is not a good legacy.
The issue of why Republican administrations tend to be anti-science far more than Democratic ones (note: Obama was noted for a couple of different “anti-science” actions) is largely left to one’s own partisanship. The GOP seems to feel that somehow a massive coverup is conducted by unconnected scientists and engineers across the country for, I guess, grant money. Happily, the GOP seems to think, there is a small, plucky band of oil companies, coal companies, major manufacturers and others to fight back against the tyranny of science.
Which brings us back to the space weather bill offered by Mr. Perlmutter. If you do an internet search for “space weather,” you may be surprised by how much you find. There are sites dedicated to predicting what’s happening out there, with particular attention often paid to the Sun and its sunspots, magnetic storms, and plasma bursts that impact our lives daily, although happily not to a huge extent, so far. A site set up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is filled with information and predictions on x-ray emissions, the aurora, and other solar stuff. But there is always more to do, hence the Perlmutter bill.
Spending money on space weather may seem like a silly idea to some. But just ask the good people of Quebec, when in March of 1989 the Earth was facing just so, relative to Quebec, and a massive geomagnetic storm on the Sun took that province’s power grid out of commission for nine hours. Understanding space weather is something that is, as it turns out, quite important to our industries, our power grids, and the cities and towns in which most of us reside. And yet, I’m guessing that this essay may be the first time some of you have heard about the very idea of space weather. Happily, that’s ok, because other folks have been thinking about it, and in Perlmutter’s case, trying to do something about it. But I confess I’m not optimistic, given the current Senate and White House.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.