Government shutdown could stall climate change study and planning, thrusting researchers into 'political game'

For more than a month, Tampa Bay area climate change researchers have seen federal funding for new projects freeze up while key government employees are forced to stay at home.
Dr. Yasin Elshorbany, Assistant Professor, Chemistry, Environmental Sustainability, and Climate Change, poses in his office at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Elshorbany is set to submit a climate change research proposal to the National Science Foundation for funding, but the government shutdown has put that on hold.  (SCOTT KEELER  |   Times)
Dr. Yasin Elshorbany, Assistant Professor, Chemistry, Environmental Sustainability, and Climate Change, poses in his office at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Elshorbany is set to submit a climate change research proposal to the National Science Foundation for funding, but the government shutdown has put that on hold. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published January 24

Yasin Elshorbany builds models for a living. He studies large, complex forces and tries to understand how they shape our lives.

Normally, the parameters of Elshorbany’s experiments at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg are elemental and quantifiable: x much gas will have y effect on z. A proposal by Elshorbany to research the economic impact of permafrost thaw in the Arctic could have implications for the national discussion around climate change.

But some 33 days into a partial federal government shutdown, his research is at the mercy of a much different force: politics.

Elshorbany’s proposal has been put on hold by the longest government shutdown in American history. His study is just one example of how local climate change researchers are feeling the pinch. Federal grant money that would normally go to new scientific studies is frozen, and many government workers in the space are furloughed.

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“It’s a political game. That’s what they want. They want to (put) pressure on the other party so they can start to negotiate. But the reality is affecting the entire team, and years of planning and research,” said Elshorbany, an assistant chemistry professor.

Elshorbany has until Feb. 14 to apply for federal funding for his project, which could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money. The ambitious proposal would require the help of researchers in multiple states to plug Arctic environmental data into existing economic models. Elshorbany believes there’s a good chance he will win the funding.

After months of work, the proposal is nearly ready for submission to the National Science Foundation, Elshorbany said. But before he can submit it, the professor needs to hear back from a few government employees — who are legally forbidden from communicating with him during the shutdown.

The Feb. 14 deadline will almost certainly be pushed back, Elshorbany said. Still, he worries the project could be delayed indefinitely by the shutdown, preventing him and his colleagues from studying a threat that poses a present and future problem.

When permafrost melts, it releases planet-warming carbon into the atmosphere, creating a feedback loop of melting and warming, Elshorbany said.

“The melting of glaciers into the water will increase the sea level rise,” Elshorbany said. “But where? Not in the arctic. Most apparently in the eastern U.S.”

Climate change, by nature, is a slow-moving threat. It’s impossible to know the practical effect of a delay in one academic study. But preparing for a phenomenon that could change so many lives takes a significant amount of planning. And planning, local officials say, relies on science.

Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, said his group has seen hundreds of thousands of federal dollars frozen by the shutdown. For the council, which is charged with coordinating intergovernmental responses to major problems like climate change, that’s no small thing, Sullivan said.

One $210,000 grant that the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council can’t access during the shutdown would fund a program that helps the region set a detailed hurricane preparation plan, Sullivan said. Another would help local researchers model and plan for sea level rise.

The planning council also works closely with researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the local effects of climate change, Sullivan said. Those employees will miss their second paycheck to the shutdown on Friday.

“We’re in much better shape when we have our federal partners at the table,” Sullivan said.

Heidi Stiller, one of those employees, sits on the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel, which works closely with the planning council. Her group is working on updating sea level rise projections for the region.

She’s at home, unpaid.

“I certainly hope the shutdown ends soon and I can go back to being in that group,” Stiller said.

Not all climate change planning efforts are straining under the weight of the shutdown. The federal government isn’t all that involved with climate change planning in the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, for example, officials in those cities said.

Bob McDonaugh, Tampa’s administrator of economic opportunity, noted that major planning takes time.

“You’re talking about something that’s decades in progress, not something that’s going to change in one month, two months,” McDonaugh said.

But the longer the shutdown persists, said Stiller, the more difficult planning for climate change becomes.

And without proper planning, scientists say, everyone will feel the effects of climate change.

“We are all living in one earth, one system,” Elshorbany said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or 727-893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets.

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