The new administrator of NASA held a town hall Thursday at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Jim Bridenstine is about three weeks into the job, and his path here was mired in controversy. After a few opening remarks, he started taking some questions. The first was about what Bridenstine thinks makes him qualified to be the head of NASA. The second was, as the moderator put it, “one more easy one—because it’s about climate change.”
Bridenstine laughed. So did many in the room. It was an uncomfortable question. Bridenstine, as a Republican in Congress, has a record of denying that humans are responsible for causing climate change. For Democrats and liberals, Bridenstine’s view on this and other issues—particularly on same-sex marriage and transgender rights—made him a contentious pick to lead NASA, an agency that supports climate-change research and very publicly agrees with the majority of climate scientists who say that humans are the primary cause of the planet’s rising temperatures.
“As far as my position on climate change and how it’s evolved, I’ll be very open,” Bridenstine replied. He described, as he has done multiple times before, his longstanding interest in funding weather-forecasting programs, particularly for tornadoes, which threaten people in Oklahoma, Bridenstine’s home state, each year. Then he got to what his critics wanted to hear.
“I don’t deny that consensus that the climate is changing,” he said. “In fact, I fully believe and know that the climate is changing. I also know that we humans beings are contributing to it in a major way. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. We’re putting it into the atmosphere in volumes that we haven’t seen, and that greenhouse gas is warming the planet. That is absolutely happening, and we are responsible for it.”
Bridenstine did not say that humans are the main drivers of climate change. But his assertion that people are contributing to climate change “in a major way” marks his strongest support to date for the scientific consensus behind warming temperatures. And he went further than most other Trump-picked leaders.
Bridenstine went further on Thursday than he has in the past—even in the very recent past, like at his Senate confirmation hearing in November, which was convened a month after President Trump picked Bridenstine as his choice to lead NASA. When Brian Schatz, a Democratic senator from Hawaii, questioned Bridenstine about his views on climate change, Bridenstine said,