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Should the Super-Rich Save Climate Research from Trump?

If the president-elect slashes funding for climate science and clean-energy research, billionaires might step in.
December 16, 2016

Judging from statements made by President-elect Donald Trump's transition team, and the growing list of nominees for key jobs in his administration, the future of environmental science and clean energy research is looking shaky. The question is, even if America’s climate-friendly billionaires can fill the gap, should they?

Trump has his eyes on defanging the Environmental Protection Agency and scrapping the Clean Power Plan. It’s also been suggested that he might cut funding of NASA’s climate science research. Researchers have been backing up data amid fears that it might vanish. And if Rick Perry becomes the head of the Department of Energy, research into new energy solutions will not be led by concern for the climate.

All of which leaves some scientists wondering who might help them monitor humanity’s impact on the planet.

At the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Thursday, Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said that private donors may foot the bill for funding climate science. According to Buzzfeed, McNutt says that she’s spoken with people who could raise billions of dollars to help the cause.

The news follows the announcement earlier this week of the Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, which commits $1 billion over the next 20 years to funding energy ideas considered to be too risky by regular venture capital firms. It’s bankrolled by over 20 billionaires, among them Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and Virgin’s Richard Branson.

The problem, of course, is that by offering to pay for climate science and energy research, billionaires may simply signal that private funding will suffice—a notion that Trump may be happy to buy into. That is not the case. The government plays a crucial role in funding basic research, and that must continue.

McNutt seems to be thinking along the same lines. While she may be attempting to line up potential funding sources, her message to them is, apparently, “hold off.” She says that she doesn’t want anyone to give Trump and Congress the excuse to cut funding for climate science.

Fortunately, most billionaires are probably quite good at holding their nerve. For the sake of maintaining the U.S. government’s investment in the planet, they might have to.

(Read more: Buzzfeed, “Bill Gates’s $1 Billion Fund Will Back Radical Clean Energy Ideas,” “Trump’s Empty Promise to Coal Country,” “Trump’s Impact on Clean-Energy Businesses”)