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Why NOAA Matters

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Christopher Flavelle


CreditPhoto Illustration by The New York Times; Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rebuked its own meteorologists on Friday for contradicting President Trump, the uproar that followed demonstrated more than the usual concern over political interference in science.

That pushback, which now includes inquiries from both Congress and the inspector general responsible for NOAA, reflects a deeper anxiety: The notion that one of the country’s leading science agencies, which has thus far received more autonomy from Mr. Trump’s White House than other parts of the federal government, might now be losing that autonomy.

To recap: On Sept. 1, the president wrote on Twitter that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” A few minutes later, the National Weather Service in Birmingham posted a message on Twitter saying that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian.” NOAA, which oversees the weather service, issued a statement on Sept. 6 rebuking the Birmingham office.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that NOAA’s statement came at the behest of the White House.

Understanding the furor of the past few days requires an understanding of NOAA’s role and its importance, especially in measuring what’s happening to the planet. Its centrality to climate research could be calculated in many ways, including the steady stream of climate-related science it has continued to produce. The agency puts out an annual Global Climate Report, and told the public just a few weeks ago that this July was the hottest on record.

That work continued long after the Environmental Protection Agency took down the climate page on its website “to reflect E.P.A.’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump.” It continued after the United States Geological Survey was instructed to stop projecting the impact of climate change after 2040, when the most severe impacts are expected. It continued after the head of the Climate and Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention filed a whistle blower complaint that alleged retaliation for speaking out on climate change.

NOAA’s independence is partly structural, according to current and former staff members and outside experts. Unlike the E.P.A. and many other agencies, NOAA isn’t primarily a regulatory agency (the regulations it does handle mainly concern fisheries). That means there are few businesses with a financial stake in weakening the agency or limiting its authority.

Culture matters, too. NOAA’s scientists, and the career staff members who oversee them, have a reputation for fiercely guarding the agency’s independence. They seem to feel they’ve been successful. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists asked more than 63,000 scientists at 16 federal agencies to gauge their perceived independence; of the scientists at NOAA who responded, two-thirds agreed with the statement that the agency “adheres to its scientific integrity policy.”

For most of the time Mr. Trump has been president, in other words, NOAA has flown under the radar.

That changed during the past 10 days, as the agency’s skill at avoiding the political spotlight was eclipsed by Mr. Trump’s refusal to admit that he was wrong, coupled with the lengths to which his White House proved willing to go to reset the record.

The question that remains is whether this episode will inflict a sufficiently high price on Mr. Trump to restore the measure of autonomy that NOAA once enjoyed, in this and future administrations. The answer to that question will depend partly on the findings of the two inquiries — one by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, the other from the inspector general at the Department of Commerce.

But it will also depend on the strength of the perception, by scientists and the broader public, that meddling with NOAA is beyond the bounds of whatever constitutes acceptable political behavior.

“There is a price to pay for compromising NOAA’s independence,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The public is clamoring for information it can trust.”

CreditTyler Varsell; Shutterstock

Installing solar panels is expensive, but if you have the money, now might be the time to act. That’s because the investment tax credit, which offers significant deductions for installing a solar energy system, is set to expire soon.

If your system is hooked up and running before the end of the year, you’ll be able to deduct 30 percent of the installation costs from your tax bill. In 2020, the tax credit will fall to 26 percent. In 2021, it drops to 22 percent, and, in 2022, it will be phased out for residential customers.

Congress could decide to renew the program, of course. Abigail Ross Hopper, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, said she was “cautiously optimistic” that the tax credit would be extended.

Still, she said, the remainder of this year is when you can be sure to earn the largest possible deduction.

Because it can take several weeks to shop around and schedule an installation, and several more for your utility company to connect you to the grid, you should get started soon.

First, determine whether you have adequate space, and sunlight, on your roof or in your backyard. Then, consider the cost. The average solar installation, after tax credits, runs roughly between $10,850 and $14,200, depending on location, size and whether you opt for a top-of-the-line system. (This calculator allows you to estimate costs and 20-year net savings, as well as compare quotes.)

Vikram Aggarwal, chief executive of EnergySage, a solar comparison-shopping service, said you’d generate the greatest long-term savings by purchasing your system outright. If you can’t afford that, the next best move would be to get financing through a credit union, home equity loan or line of credit. You could also apply for a loan through a government-backed program like FHA Title I or NY-Sun.

While many solar installation companies offer loans, they usually have higher fees and interest rates.

Leasing a solar energy system, Mr. Aggarwal said, isn’t as popular anymore, in part because the price of solar has dropped 70 percent over the past decade and in part because leasing precludes you from claiming the investment tax credit. Most leases also come with an “escalator” that raises electricity rates on an annual basis.

When you buy with cash or a loan, on the other hand, you’ll benefit from fixed electricity costs over your system’s lifetime, usually in the range of 20 to 30 years. And, in addition to the federal tax credit, you might be eligible for state incentive programs. Enter your ZIP code into the DSIRE database to see what’s available. (Worth noting: Condo owners can claim the investment tax credit for their share of the costs when their homeowners association goes solar.)

“The system will actually pay for itself in a reasonable amount of time,” said Parth Vaishnav, an assistant research professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. The average payback period, according to the Center for Sustainable Energy, is six to nine years. In some cases, Dr. Vaishnav said, you could also recover a portion of your costs through an increase in home value.

Lest you forget, solar panels help the climate, too. “On average, every residential solar panel system is almost like planting between 100 and 200 trees — every year,” Mr. Aggarwal said. “It is a very, very meaningful carbon offset.”

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