University of Arizona climate researchers worried about funding cuts for future projects

CLIMAS director, Daniel Ferguson in his office at The University of Arizona. Photograph by Jules Zappone

One month ago, a forest fire in California burned over 200,000 acres, destroyed 2,800 homes and killed 41 people. Two months ago, Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico and left millions of people without electricity, fresh water or ways to communicate. This year, Arizona and 38 other states, experienced above-average temperatures for the first 10 months of the year.

Across the globe, climate change research is being used to prepare for natural-disaster response, sustainability and the future. But the research that helps prepare, save lives and preserve the economy is under attack. The Trump administration has promised to eliminate or greatly reduce all climate change research funding in the next four years.

“At this point, we haven’t seen a real budget from this administration. So we don’t know yet what they’re going to do,” said Daniel Ferguson, director of the Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) project at the University of Arizona. “But the [climate] problems are not going away…Who pays the bill is really what it comes down to, but there’s no doubt that we’re going to have to pay for climate research over the next 100 years.”

According to Ferguson, climate change research “isn’t just about stopping CO2 emissions.” Research is being used and consulted to improve infrastructures to withstand the consequences of a warming climate and to track, predict and prepare for weather disasters and weather patterns.

“Sure, we’re curious about what’s happening, how is it happening and why is it happening,” he said. “But climate change has a direct bearing on people—we’re driving it and we’re also being impacted by it. It’s about responding to the changes that have come as a result of climate change.”

Those changes include rising sea levels threatening shoreline homes around the world, higher temperature heat waves in the summer, and persistent draught and shorter winters in the Southwestern region.

“For the past few years we’ve been trying to understand how high heat in general and high heat events are important for cities and urban areas—how are they dealing, what do they need, are they doing anything to mitigate the [effects],” Ferguson said of the climate change research being done at the UA.  “We’re helping communities build up resilience to these changes.”

Daniel Ferguson (right) discusses range conditions with Rick Nasafotie (Hopi Office of Range Management) in summer 2013 on the Hopi tribe’s land. Photo courtesy of Daniel Ferguson. Photo by Michael Crimmins ©2013.

As a major research and development institution, the UA typically receives about $600 million a year for research purposes. According to senior director of research partnership services, Lori Schultz, approximately 45 percent of that funding comes from federal agencies. The Higher Education Research and Development Survey (HERD), reported that in 2016, the UA received $ 262,989 in federal funding for all research and development expenditures.

Of that, $32,085 was used for geoscience, atmospheric sciences and ocean sciences research and development.

However, the continuation of climate change research is somewhat endangered for the next four years. In the first year of his term, President Trump, who once tweeted that climate change a “hoax” that was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” has already scaled back environmental regulations and has withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate change agreement that requires countries to curb their carbon emissions. Additionally, Trump’s proposed 2018 budget called for substantial cuts to federal agencies that fund environmental and climate research.

Screenshot of President Trump’s 2012 tweet in which he said global warming “was created by the Chinese.” Since 2011, president Trump has tweeted his skepticism about global warming and climate change over 120 times.

There is hope, according to Schultz; extensive funding cuts would primarily impact future climate change research projects, not current ones.

“Projects already funded would continue.  [Agencies] wouldn’t come back and take what they already gave us,” Schultz said. “But [they] could come back and tell us this is the last year we’ll receive funding.”

If the budget for a single research project were cut, the lead researcher would have to figure out what can still be done with the money they have left. As government research funding is shrinking, researchers are being pressured to find private funding whenever and wherever possible.

“We’ve had a big push here at the UA…to go after more industry partnerships and things like that,” said Lucio Guerrero, director of research communications.

Jules Zappone is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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