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Climate Policy that Makes a Difference
David Curtiss

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.
— Mark Twain

As I write this column in late June, choking plumes of smoke blanket the West, stinging the eyes of evacuees fleeing the approaching flames and the firefighters sent to quench them. Several years of below-average rainfall and hot weather have made many parts of the country a tinderbox. As a result, the 2002 fire season is off to a fearsome start.

Meanwhile, from Montana to Oklahoma and beyond, farmers are fighting a losing battle to keep their crops alive. No one dares mention a return to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but fear lingers. When the rains finally do fall, it is often in sheets, causing rivers to overflow as they did during the summer of 2001 in Grundy, Va., turning Main Street into a raging torrent. Or the rains come with tornadoes or hurricane-force winds.

Humanity’s battle with the elements is cliché, but losses of life and property caused by severe weather are real, and demand a response. Currently, the U.S. Global Change Research Program assesses long-term climate change, while NOAA and other agencies engage in short-term weather prediction. But somewhere between knowing the climatic conditions facing future generations and knowing whether to pack sunscreen or an umbrella today is an area of climate assessment that deserves greater attention.

Did someone say, ‘No regrets’?

In May 2001, this column called for a new approach to climate policy: sidestep the political controversy and impasse surrounding atmospheric carbon dioxide, and focus instead on strategies that help people and communities. This proposed strategy is not meant to undermine continued research on carbon dioxide and the variables that control climate change, nor to limit our understanding of current trends. Instead, against a backdrop of ongoing research, it acknowledges the responsibility of scientists to develop effective ways to improve the resilience of people and communities to the impacts of severe weather. By linking what we know about historical trends to our present-day experience, and by connecting seemingly abstract scientific discovery to individual lives, we can advance a comprehensive strategy that leaves no regrets.

H.R. 4900, The Weather Safety Act, recently introduced by Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.) is such a plan. The bill establishes the National Climate Change Vulnerability and Resilience Program coordinated through an Office of Climate Change Vulnerability and Resilience Research. The program would review all existing climate change and vulnerability research being conducted across the U.S. Global Change Research Program and other appropriate federal, state and local agencies.
This knowledge will help in assessing the vulnerabilities our nation and individual regions face from phenomena associated with long-term climatic change and shorter-term climatic variation, including:

Accessing the currently available science on these issues, the Office will produce Vulnerability Scorecards that identify each State’s vulnerability and capacity to respond to such hazards. These assessments will present a clear picture of how prepared a region is for extreme weather, establishing a baseline for judging future improvements. Such improvements could include better flood maps to permit more effective zoning in flood plains; or identifying gaps in scientific knowledge where focused research can enhance a state’s resilience to severe weather.

Too often our national response to severe weather events is reactive. In the aftermath, the federal government declares the affected region a disaster area, and provides an infusion of relief funds. Assisting in the recovery of these communities is important. At the same time, the Weather Safety Act advocates a more proactive approach. The Office will develop short- and long-term strategies at all levels of government to reduce threats to human life and property, avoid negative economic impacts, and improve resilience to these hazards. Through ongoing evaluation, continued research, and consultation with local, state and national officials, the Office will refine these strategies based on newly available science and experience, creating a feedback mechanism that, over time, should lead to improved resilience of our nation’s people and communities to the impact of severe weather.

Stronger communities, stronger nation

Farmers need to know whether to plant drought-resistant crops. City planners need to work to prevent flooding. The first responders in emergencies need to analyze evacuation routes. The Weather Safety Act should dramatically improve their ability to plan effectively.

In filling this need, this program creates a bridge between scientists and America’s community leaders in two ways: First, by identifying the relevant research programs and aggregating them under one roof to evaluate current scientific understanding; second, by developing immediately applicable strategies that use this knowledge to benefit society. Furthermore, this process will be ongoing, where community leaders educate the scientific community on the challenges they face, thus informing the research process. This feedback should forge a partnership that demonstrates the importance and relevance of science to our citizens’ lives. But the benefits needn’t stop there.

The pursuit of more resilient communities — those able to withstand adversity — is important to America. It requires the involvement and cooperation of every facet of society, from public to private, and from scientist to city official. Ideally, this partnership to minimize the impact of severe weather will provide a model to successfully address other critical issues facing the nation. In our society, vulnerabilities are numerous and put people and communities at risk. The trick is to eliminate the vulnerabilities we can, and prepare for those that we cannot. We’ve got a lot to do, especially in the scientific community. Let’s get to work.


Curtiss is spending a year working as a staff member in the office of Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.) as the American Geological Institute’s Congressional Science Fellow. Previously, he worked at the University of Utah’s Energy & Geoscience Institute. He can be reached at the Office of the Republican Conference, U.S. House of Representatives, 1010 Longworth Building, Washington, D.C., or e-mail him.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of Rep. Watts, the House Republican Conference, or the American Geological Institute and its member societies.

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