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June 12, 2017

Ex-NASA scientist warns of ‘climate disinformation campaign’

The American people are “under siege” from an “active disinformation campaign” in regards to climate science – a campaign perpetuated by fossil fuel companies and others “who have a profit motive,” former NASA chief scientist Dr. Ellen Stofan told a British newspaper on Thursday.

Speaking with The Guardian prior to an appearance at the Cheltenham Science Festival late last week, Dr. Stofan, who left the US space agency last December, said that the spread of fake news on the issue had left many Americans oblivious to the real, growing threat of climate change.

“We are under siege by fake information that’s being put forward by people who have a profit motive,” she told Hannah Devlin, a science correspondent with the UK publication. “Fake news is so harmful because once people take on a concept it’s very hard to dislodge it.”

The spread of false information, primarily by oil and coal companies that have a vested interest in preventing regulations limiting carbon emissions, has been increasing countered by scientists who have launched a grassroots effort to spread climate research, she noted. However, she said, experts still face an uphill battle in making sure that the public has the facts on the issue.

“I’m always wondering if these people honestly believe the nonsense they put forward. When they say ‘It could be volcanoes’ or ‘the climate always changes’... to obfuscate and to confuse people, it frankly makes me angry,” Dr. Stofan said. She said that much of the problem is due to an “erosion of people’s ability to scrutinize information.”

Don’t count on an interplanetary migration to bail us out

Dr. Stofan’s resignation in December had nothing to do directly with the 2016 Presidential election and the subsequent ascension of Donald Trump – a noted climate science skeptic – to the office of chief executive. Even so, she told The Guardian, “I’m glad I’m not there now.”

Despite any issues she might have with the current administration’s handling of climate change, the former NASA scientist said that she was pleased with the continued commitment to the Mars program in the most recent national budget. She also expressed relief that cuts to NASA’s Earth science programs were relatively small ($167 million from a $1.75 billion budget).

She also dismissed the notion put forth by many – including the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk – that humanity should begin searching for a way to colonize another world, should we screw up the planet we’re living on beyond repair. “I don’t see a mass transfer of humanity to Mars, ever,” she cautioned, telling The Guardian, “Job one is to keep this planet habitable. I’d hate us to lose focus on that.”

Dr. Stofan was appointed chief scientist of NASA on August 25, 2013 after working as the vice president of Maryland-based Proxemy Research and as an honorary professor in the department of Earth sciences at University College London. Her research focused on the geology of Earth, Mars, Venus and Saturn's moon Titan, the agency said. She also worked on the Cassini mission, the Mars Express Mission's MARSIS sounder and the proposed Titan Mare Explorer.

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