Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3: “It’s difficult to describe all the ways this is stupid.”

Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3: “It’s difficult to describe all the ways this is stupid.”


Guest Op-ed of an Op-ed by David Middleton

A really stupid Op-ed by John Timmer of ARS Technica…


Op-ed: The story behind the satellite that Trump wants dead

It’s difficult to describe all the ways this is stupid.

JOHN TIMMER – 2/13/2018

There were plenty of striking things about Monday’s budget news, given that it contained lots of draconian cuts that were simultaneously restored because Congress had boosted spending the week before. But perhaps the most striking among them was an item in the proposed budget for NASA: Trump wants to block the follow on to a highly successful NASA mission.

To truly appreciate just how awful this is, you have to understand the history of that satellite and what it means to the scientific community as a whole. So let’s step back and take a look at why the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (or OCO) exists in the first place. It turns out it was built specifically to handle some outstanding questions of the sort that people in the administration say are important, and killing its successor would mean the existing mission never lives up to its full potential.

Real uncertainty

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory’s primary job is to see what’s happening to the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. You may think that’s a solved issue: we’re emitting a lot, and levels are going up. And that’s true to a point. But once you pass that point, you enter a world where there are lots of details, and many of them matter.


Although the carbon cycle is complex, we have a relatively good idea of how it works. And, plus or minus a few gigatonnes here and there, we know the volume of carbon dioxide handled by most of the sources and sinks.

That said, this is still an area where there are significant uncertainties. People make a big deal about false uncertainties in climate science—we know the temperature’s rising, and we know human carbon emissions are the primary driver, but people keep trying to pretend there’s uncertainty there.

But the carbon cycle is a case where the uncertainties are real, and scientists will tell you as much. We don’t have as good a handle on some of the sources and sinks as we’d like. And, more importantly, these things are dynamic and change with time. To give one example, water dissolves more gas when it’s cold. We’re warming the oceans, which means they will be able to dissolve less carbon dioxide. Are the oceans starting to weaken as a sink? We don’t really know at this point.


Trump wants NASA uninvolved

Yet this is precisely the point where Trump wants NASA to blind itself. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory is just starting to reduce some of our uncertainties about carbon fluxes, but is already closing in on double the originally planned mission lifetime. A lot of hardware lives well beyond its planned lifetime, but we can’t expect OCO to go on indefinitely, and NASA was appropriately planning on having something ready to replace it.

Yet the Trump budget plan refers to the successor as a “lower-priority science [mission] that cannot be accommodated under constrained budgets” and suggests that the data could be gathered by other satellites, although it doesn’t name any of them.

It’s hard to overstate the ways in which this is stupid. The cost of NASA missions is nearly entirely in the construction and launch of the hardware—something that’s already been done twice in this case.


By trying to kill this program, people in the administration are sending two messages. One is that everything they’ve been saying when they try to explain why they’re taking no actions on climate change is a sham—they don’t actually believe any of it. And the second message is they’d abandon a project that cost millions of taxpayers’ dollars than gather data that could possibly tell us we need to act.

Correction: the original editorial was based on shutting down the existing OCO 2 rather than cancelling its successor. The editorial has been corrected to reflect this. 

ARS Technica

John became Ars Technica’s science editor in 2007 after spending 15 years doing biology research at places like Berkeley and Cornell

I really recommend following the link and reading the full Op-ed.  It’s a hoot!

It really is difficult to describe all the ways this Op-ed is stupid.

Mr. Timmer starts out writing an editorial wailing about President Trump killing the current Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission (OCO-2), then realizes OCO-2 is not about to face the budget-cutting ax.  Well, clearly Trump Derangement Syndrome wouldn’t permit the lack of facts to get in the way of an unfinished Trump-bashing Op-ed.  So, he moves on to President Trump killing the successor mission, OCO-3 by categorizing it as a “lower-priority science [mission] that cannot be accommodated under constrained budgets”… Which it clearly is; even if the recently announced budget isn’t particularly constrained.

While a detailed understanding of the natural carbon cycle would be a really neat thing, OCO-2 hasn’t really told us much that we didn’t already know… But the mission website does provide links to an advertisement for OCO-3 and a place to purchase OCO-2 apparel:

I may have to order one of these to go with my STS-104 sweatshirt!


I kind of dig the DayGlo yellow Port Authority Safety Cap… But I really wish they had one with “scrambled eggs” om the bill.

Back to Mr. Timmer’s nonsense…

It’s hard to overstate the ways in which this is stupid. The cost of NASA missions is nearly entirely in the construction and launch of the hardware—something that’s already been done twice in this case.

Yes.  It really is hard to overstate the ways in which this is stupid.  It has already been done twice and the result was one lower-priority science mission.

Neither OCO-2, OCO-3, nor OCO-∞ will alter the Warmunist view that all of the recent warming is the result of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions and that Gorebal Warming is an existential threat to the planet.  Nor would they blunt their thirst for economic growth-killing regulations

On the flip-side, no number of OCO missions will alter the wise words of Dr. Roy Spencer:

Folks, this is nothing like fixing the stratospheric ozone problem by developing other refrigerants to replace Freon. CO2 is produced by nearly all sources of energy. CO2 is a part of nature; Freon was a manmade chemical. While replacements for Freon were already developed by the time Freon was banned, we have no large-scale replacements for fossil fuels we can switch to in the near future.

This issue is at least as important as our recent global financial crisis – probably more so in the long run. It has been said that regulating carbon dioxide emissions will make the United States the cleanest Third World country on Earth. And whoever controls carbon dioxide emissions will control the world.

Finally, you can expect that the threat of the EPA regulating CO2 will cause many politicians and pundits to advocate congressional cap-and-trade legislation as a more palatable alternative. But the choice will be like deciding whether you want to die quickly or slowly. Either one will be lethal.

Dr. Roy Spencer, April 19th, 2009

The OCO-2 mission has yielded some pretty cool maps of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and vegetation.  Quite a few papers have been written based on OCO-2 data.  It has all of the hallmarks of a lower-priority science mission.  That said, there is a clear reason for killing OCO-3…

The main points for the mission are:

Message One: The burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are currently adding more than 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, producing an unprecedented buildup in this important greenhouse gas. OCO-2 provides a new tool for understanding the sources of carbon dioxide emissions and how they are changing over time.

Message Two: Less than half of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by human activities stays there. The location and identity of the natural “sinks” that are absorbing the rest of this carbon dioxide are currently not well understood. OCO-2 will help solve this critical scientific puzzle.

Sub-message: Knowing what parts of Earth are helping remove carbon from the atmosphere will help us understand if they will keep doing so in the future. OCO-2 measurements will help scientists construct better models to predict how much carbon dioxide these sinks will be able to absorb in the future.

Message Three: The innovative technologies incorporated into OCO-2 will enable space-based measurements of carbon dioxide with the sensitivity, resolution and coverage needed to understand human and natural sources of carbon dioxide emissions and the natural sinks that control its buildup, at regional scales, everywhere on Earth.

Sub-message: To control carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we need to be able to measure it. We can only manage what we can measure.

Message Four: OCO-2 will help assess the usefulness of space-based measurements of carbon dioxide for managing emissions of this important greenhouse gas.

Regarding Message Four: Mission accomplished.

Regarding Message One:

Regarding Message Three’s Sub-message: “To control carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we need to be able to measure it.”  We can measure and do measure it… And since most of us don’t want to live in “the cleanest Third World country on Earth,” we aren’t urgently concerned controlling with carbon dioxide emissions, much less the carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere.

For some reason, the tale of OCO-1, OCO-2 and OCO-3 made me think of this Monty Python bit…


Superforest,Climate Change

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