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Harrison Schmitt
Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt speaks at an “Apollo Plus 50” session during the ScienceWriters 2018 conference in Washington, D.C. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  I didn’t invite Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt to get his views on climate change, but that’s the topic that created the most fireworks here today at the ScienceWriters 2018 conference.

The title of the session was “Apollo Plus 50,” and the focus was the past and the future of America’s space program in light of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon missions. Fifty years ago today, for example, Apollo 7’s astronauts were putting NASA’s moonship to the test for the very first time in Earth orbit.

Schmitt’s an expert on this subject, primarily because he was the last of 12 humans to set foot on the lunar surface, during the final Apollo mission in December 1972. He also served as a U.S. senator from New Mexico for a single six-year term, and is currently a member of the National Space Council’s Users Advisory Group.

Read more: 50 years after Apollo, will rivalry with China spark a new space race?

He’s known as the first professional scientist to go into space, by virtue of his Ph.D. in geology. At the age of 83, he keeps his hand in as an adjunct professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, focusing on fusion research (and the potential for using lunar helium-3 as a future fusion fuel).

Schmitt is controversial because of his views on a different scientific subject: He questions assertions that industrial emissions are contributing significantly to climate change, even though such questions counter to the increasingly accepted scientific consensus. In 2016, for example, he was the co-author of an op-ed essay in The Wall Street Journal titled “The Phony War Against CO2.” (Check out this critique from Climate Feedback.)

I was the organizer of today’s session at George Washington University, which was moderated by Jeffrey Kluger, Time magazine’s editor-at-large for science and technology. Schmitt’s fellow panelists included Valerie Neal, a curator specializing in space history at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum; and Scott Pace, executive secretary of the White House’s National Space Council.

In my view, there are few people better qualified to reflect on the Apollo anniversary than Schmitt. (Yes, there are three other living moonwalkers, but Schmitt was the one who answered the call.) I knew about the climate contretemps, but didn’t think it’d figure in the space discussion.

Boy, was I wrong.

Climate policy is a big deal for the science writing community, particularly in light of this month’s report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projecting that we could be in the midst of a climate crisis by around the year 2040. At the very end of the session, The New York Times’ Nicholas St. Fleur addressed the elephant in the room with an assist from science writer Betsy Mason. Here’s how the exchange went:

St. Fleur: “In 2009, we wrote a story called ‘Vocal Minority Insists It Was All Smoke and Mirrors,’ where we quoted you, Dr. Schmitt. The story was basically about people who think the moon landing was faked, and here’s someone who’s actually been there and walked on the moon. You were saying that ‘if people decide they’re going to deny the facts of history and the facts of science and technology, there’s not much you can do with them. … For most of them, I just feel sorry that we failed in their education.’

“I’m wondering if you see any irony in your remarks there and your views on climate change, as one of the leading climate change deniers, when there was a huge report that just came out last week [talking about] the risk and what is going to happen … as soon as 2040. I’d love to know if you see any irony in your views on people who denied man walking on the moon vs. your views on climate change.”

Schmitt: “I see no irony at all. I’m a geologist. I know the Earth is not nearly as fragile as we tend to think it is. It has gone through climate change, it is going through climate change at the present time. The only question is, is there any evidence that human beings are causing that change?”

Chorus from the audience: “Yes!”

Schmitt: “Right now, in my profession, there is no evidence. There are models. But models of very, very complex natural systems are often wrong. The observations that we make as geologists, and observational climatologists, do not show any evidence that human beings are causing this. Now, there is a whole bunch of unknowns. We don’t know how much CO2, for example, is being released by the Southern Oceans as the result of natural climate change that’s been going on now since the last ice age.

“The rate of temperature increase on the surface of the Earth and in the troposphere is about the same over this period of time, particularly since the Little Ice Age, which was not caused by human beings. Nor was the Medieval Warm Period, preceding that, caused by human beings. So that’s the only skepticism I have: What is the cause of climate change?

“Normally, we have always assumed up until the Industrial Revolution that climate change is a function of the solar cycles — and indeed, there is still very strong evidence that’s the case. So, no, there is no irony in that. I, as a scientist, expect to have people question orthodoxy. And we always used to do that. Now, unfortunately, funding by governments, particularly the United States government, is biasing science toward what the government wants to hear.

“That’s a very dangerous thing that’s happening in science today, and it’s not just in climate. I see it in my own lunar research. If NASA’s interested in a particular conclusion, then that’s the way the proposals come in for funding. So it’s a very, very serious issue, and I hope the science writers in this room will start to dig deeply into whether or not science has been corrupted by the source of funds that are now driving what people are doing in research, and what their conclusions are.”

Betsy Mason: “I just want to say that I’m a geologist, and I think that maybe you should reconsider speaking for geologists on that topic.”

Schmitt: “Really?”

You can check out the funky video I recorded to catch up with the whole session … including the part about space. To hear more about what climate scientists say about the issues that Schmitt raised, check out Full disclosure: In addition to organizing “Apollo Plus 50,” I’m the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, one of the organizers of the annual ScienceWriters conferences.

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