• December 6, 2021

The Trump Team Has a Plan to Not Fight Climate Change

In the conference ballroom, Ericson tried to press Reilly on this topic, as it related to the comments from the White House. “Of course there’s a left and a right to these issues,” Reilly answered. “It’s all politics—and my position on the science is that science has no politics.” Reilly would come back to that favorite phrase again a moment later: Science has no politics.

By this point in the session, though, it was easy to imagine that the new director might really mean the opposite. Within the federal government, the USGS has long been a bastion of independent-minded research—“policy neutral but policy relevant,” its staffers like to say—with a grand and vital mission to describe and understand the Earth. Almost one-third of the agency’s first 47 employees, upon its founding in 1879, were members of the National Academy of Sciences. But now, it seemed naive to wonder whether science has any politics. A different proposition was on the table: Under Reilly’s leadership, and in this Administration, would politics allow for that much science?

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When you’re an astronaut, there isn’t always time to think ahead. The first spacewalk, in 1965, lasted just 10 minutes. The longest one that Reilly ever took during his 13-year career at NASA was just shy of eight hours—a standard workday spent inside a spacesuit, tethered to a craft, installing solar arrays on the Destiny module of the International Space Station. Even then, there’s barely time for contemplation. “Your head’s in a fish bowl, and you get an opportunity to look at the planet … and the only thing between you and the planet 250 miles away are your boots,” Reilly said during a presentation to the Geological Society of America in November 2018. “But, as you might imagine, you only have about ten seconds to get that gee-whiz moment.”

Geology, as a discipline, often involves the study of “deep time”: the profound magnitudes of history, a billion-year continuum on which continents drift and break apart, and the climate sways from ice to fire and back again. But the work at USGS can also come down to crucial moments, not so much gee-whiz as oh-shit: A seismic wave from far away hits a laboratory instrument, signaling the onset of an earthquake, and there’s a narrow interval in which to issue an alert. “You might have 20 seconds or 120 seconds, it isn’t much for you and I,” Reilly told the audience at AGU. But for a gas utility, this could be the margin needed to shut things down and prevent a series of explosions. The same is true for tornado warnings, flood alerts: Every minute, every second, counts.

That’s where Reilly seems most comfortable—in the zone of near and consequential outcomes, measured and assessed with extreme precision. As a logistical engineer at NASA, he’d been responsible for multi-staged tasks that require months of planning and for which the margin of error could be razor thin. “You get one shot to get it right, and if you don’t get it, you’re stuck,” says Danny Olivas, who was Reilly’s partner for his eight-hour spacewalk in 2007. More serious mistakes, of course, could be fatal. On his first mission in 1998, Reilly was in charge of choreographing the transfer of thousands of pounds of supplies and equipment to the Mir space station. “He did that just masterfully,” says Terry Wilcutt, the flight’s commander. “He can take a complex task and break it down into executable pieces and then it just goes smoothly.”

But what USGS scientists do is in a sense the opposite of logistical engineering: Much of the agency’s research is based on stitching together a diverse array of data and observations, both in the lab and in the field, in order to better understand the planet. That’s true whether scientists are estimating petroleum reserves in the Permian Basin or the rate at which glaciers are melting in Montana. Doubt is often pervasive, and USGS scientists must think very carefully about how to address it. “You have to be comfortable with the uncertainty, or at least not paralyzed by it,” says one former scientist at USGS.

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