Jim Reilly had only been in charge of the US Geological Survey for seven months, and already things were getting hot. It was December 13, 2018, and he was about to give a keynote at the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference, billed as the largest gathering of earth and space scientists in the world. Reilly is a petroleum geologist and former astronaut who has logged more than 850 hours in space, 22 days in deep-sea research submarines, and four months on the glaciers of West Antarctica. But among the more than 8,000 government employees who now served under him—many of whom were in attendance at the conference—the affable, lanky Texan was something of a stranger. So when he approached the ballroom lectern on that Thursday afternoon, he knew just where to start: “I wanted to talk very briefly,” he said, “about ‘who the heck am I?’”
For those in the earth science community, there was a far more pressing question to be answered. Just a few weeks earlier, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Trump administration had released—dumped, really—a landmark, 1,500-page federal review of the risks of global warming, the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Two of Reilly’s top scientists had helped to oversee the project, which drew heavily on research done at USGS and other federal agencies. But the White House had gone out of its way to discredit the report: “It’s not based on facts,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters a few days after its lackadaisical release. “It’s based on modeling, which is extremely hard to do when you’re talking about the climate.” As the new director of the agency, Reilly hadn’t made any public statement on the matter, and it wasn’t clear exactly where he stood.
Forty-five minutes later, as Reilly finished up his conference presentation, that mystery remained. “The most important thing about flying in space is changing your perspective,” he told the audience of scientists. A final slide went up: Earth, as seen from orbit. “All those things that you and I see as differences here on the ground disappear in space,” he said. “You don’t see some of the differences that you might see politically in space. It’s really all about the planet, and that’s what we do at USGS.”
It was not until the Q&A that AGU’s then president, Eric Davidson, gently put the new director on the spot: “I think many of us found it a little—maybe more than a little—discouraging,” he said, referring to Huckabee Sanders’ attack on climate modeling. “So what’s your advice to your scientists, to the rest of us in AGU who are working on providing datastreams to help constrain models, about trying to communicate that basis for the science of climate change?”
Behind the scenes, that very issue—how to constrain models, and then communicate them—had already inspired one of Reilly’s most ambitious and divisive efforts at the agency. At its heart was a plan to reorient USGS research away from long-term thinking, to shrink its perspective. The idea, laid out in a memo Reilly drafted for Ryan Zinke, then the secretary of the interior, in December 2018 and obtained by WIRED, would be to develop department-wide “climate change decision-making” guidelines that focused only on the next 10 years, so predictions could be made—and acted upon—with maximal confidence. That meant the policy process would disregard the distant future, where climate impacts could be cataclysmic.
Reilly had hinted at this plan during his conference presentation, showing what he called the “spaghetti chart” of climate model pathways, extending from 1950 to 2100. In the middle of the chart, from the present day up until around 2040, the spaghetti strands are sheathed together—the models well-aligned because, over the next few decades, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are already accounted for; and the other, most important variables, such as El Niño weather patterns, are beyond the control of humans. But off to the right, the same strands splay out like noodles plopped into a pasta pot: a bath of boiling unknowns, a tangle of “emissions scenarios” that follow from whatever choices we make in years to come. Reilly warned the audience that it’s risky to set policy based on these far-out reaches of the modeled climate curve—there’s far too much uncertainty. So instead, he said, he’d like the agency to take a narrower view: “What’s gonna happen over the next 20, 30, 40 years? How far out can we push that and still stay within a statistically relevant trajectory?”
For many in the audience, this must have sounded obtuse. In fact, these furthest reaches of the climate pathways—the tips of the spaghetti—are the very ones that matter most for policy, says Richard Alley, a geoscientist at Penn State and the former chair of the National Research Council’s panel on abrupt climate change, who was also at the conference. By the time you get to the end of the century the greatest source of uncertainty derives from what we as a society do—or fail to do. The imprecision represents an opportunity, then: a chance to navigate a safer, flatter curve into the future. Put another way, by focusing exclusively on climate projections for the next few decades, where there isn’t much to argue over, Reilly’s plan enforces helplessness. “The shorter the window you worry about, the less you do to reduce emissions,” Alley says.
In the conference ballroom, Ericson tried to press Reilly on this topic, as it related to the comments from the White House. “Of course there’s a left and a right to these issues,” Reilly answered. “It’s all politics—and my position on the science is that science has no politics.” Reilly would come back to that favorite phrase again a moment later: Science has no politics.
The "spaghetti chart" of climate-change scenarios.
By this point in the session, though, it was easy to imagine that the new director might really mean the opposite. Within the federal government, the USGS has long been a bastion of independent-minded research—“policy neutral but policy relevant,” its staffers like to say—with a grand and vital mission to describe and understand the Earth. Almost one-third of the agency’s first 47 employees, upon its founding in 1879, were members of the National Academy of Sciences. But now, it seemed naive to wonder whether science has any politics. A different proposition was on the table: Under Reilly’s leadership, and in this Administration, would politics allow for that much science?
When you’re an astronaut, there isn’t always time to think ahead. The first spacewalk, in 1965, lasted just 10 minutes. The longest one that Reilly ever took during his 13-year career at NASA was just shy of eight hours—a standard workday spent inside a spacesuit, tethered to a craft, installing solar arrays on the Destiny module of the International Space Station. Even then, there’s barely time for contemplation. “Your head’s in a fish bowl, and you get an opportunity to look at the planet … and the only thing between you and the planet 250 miles away are your boots,” Reilly said during a presentation to the Geological Society of America in November 2018. “But, as you might imagine, you only have about ten seconds to get that gee-whiz moment.”
Geology, as a discipline, often involves the study of “deep time”: the profound magnitudes of history, a billion-year continuum on which continents drift and break apart, and the climate sways from ice to fire and back again. But the work at USGS can also come down to crucial moments, not so much gee-whiz as oh-shit: A seismic wave from far away hits a laboratory instrument, signaling the onset of an earthquake, and there’s a narrow interval in which to issue an alert. “You might have 20 seconds or 120 seconds, it isn’t much for you and I,” Reilly told the audience at AGU. But for a gas utility, this could be the margin needed to shut things down and prevent a series of explosions. The same is true for tornado warnings, flood alerts: Every minute, every second, counts.