Web Extra Thursday, August 28, 2003

Climate change report reexamined

One of the more controversial topics of the Bush administration's revised strategic plan for climate change research is the ongoing debate of how anthropogenic factors factor into global climate change. Discussion at this week's meeting between government scientists and a committee of the National Academies of Science (NAS) in Washington, D.C., proved no different.

The committee expressed interest in what they saw as a disconnect between the revised plan's vision statement and its individual chapters: The vision statement seemed to contain little discussion of how or to what extent human activities drive global climate change. However, a chapter on human contributions and responses explores how human activities influence and are influenced by changes in the global environment.

Several committee members also voiced concern that the report came to no real conclusions. But Janet Gamble of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested that the current discussion represented an accurate representation of where climate scientists are with their current knowledge, and where they can legitimately go in future projects. The committee's consensus on the matter should become clearer after it publishes its comprehensive review of the 364-page Strategic Plan for the Climate Change Science Program, due out soon.

Thomas Graedel, chair of the committee and Yale University industrial ecology professor, reminded the audience that the committee had made no conclusions as to the merits of the document and that this was purely an information-gathering session. But outside of this meeting, others have already weighed in with their opinions on the plan.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said in a July 24 press release, "[This] 10-year global warming research plan is too little, too late. …Instead of wasting more time by reopening this debate, the president should be taking action to stop global warming." (Geotimes, September 2003)

The president established the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) in 2002 as part of a new cabinet-level management structure to oversee climate change science and technology. The new management structure also includes the Climate Change Technology Program (focuses on accelerating climate-related technology research and development), and incorporates the Climate Change Research Initiative (focuses on climate effects of aerosols and the carbon cycle) and the Global Change Research Program (established by the Global Change Research Act of 1990, which mandates the development and periodic updating of a long-term national global change research plan). The program coordinates and integrates scientific research on global change and climate change sponsored by 13 participating departments and agencies of the U.S. government.

On July 24, Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham released the program's revised strategic plan, which includes revisions from an earlier NAS committee review and hundreds of scientific and stakeholder comments, collected and integrated after the draft version was released in November 2002 (Geotimes, December 2002).

"The CCSP strategic plan is a framework to address some of the most complex questions and problems that our nation and the world now face," said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, in a recent press release.

At the meeting, government officials promised to research climate change issues further: "We're not promising to solve these issues in the next two to four years, but we are promising to research and report," said Richard Moss, director of the CCSP office. CCSP has adopted five overarching scientific goals and by developing information responsive to these goals, scientists at various agencies will work together to address the most pressing climate-related issues.

But "no country, let alone an agency, can do this alone," said NASA's Ghassem Asrar. "We need to elevate the importance of international collaboration, like with the Earth Observation Summit," which also took place in Washington, just a few weeks ago. Participating countries at the summit adopted a set of principles to pursue and realize a 10-year plan, with a set of near-term goals. The strategic plan is similarly a blueprint of a 10-year plan that includes short-term targets, such as an annual review of research priorities, including budgeting.

When committee members expressed concern that the government scientists were looking too long-term, or too short term, for various project milestones, Asrar answered, "We need to look at the near-term to get to the long-term."

But the government officials recognized that one of their biggest challenges is determining which subjects to tackle first and where to allocate resources. "We've heard time and again the need to establish priorities," Asrar said. "We want to work with [industry and academia scientists] to make sure this strategic plan works on the most pressing national priorities." Federal science agencies look at this as an opportunity to organize in a way to do something important. Asrar reiterated that the strategic plan is a living document that will go through many revisions as scientists learn more and make progress in this area.

Another ongoing challenge for the climate program, Moss said, is in attracting mainstream social scientists to their research. They asked for advice from the committee on how to involve more scientists. Moss and Arsar reiterated that they are cognizant of the gap between scientists and policy-makers, and they are working to bridge it.

"We have a special need to develop information that the nation and the world can really use," Moss told the committee. And they're looking forward to it, he added.

Megan Sever


Intergovernmental Climate Change Science Program
Strategic Plan for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program
"Bush officials weigh climate change options," Geotimes Web Extra, December 4, 2002
"Climate debate in journals, on Hill," Geotimes September 2003 (check this site next month)

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