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  Geotimes - February 2008 - Federal climate change initiative under the gun
NEWS NOTES

Federal climate change initiative under the gun

Four years ago, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) — a federal initiative to coordinate and direct federal climate change research at 13 agencies — agreed to prepare 21 reports on various topics related to climate change and its impacts by the end of September 2007. As of December, however, only four had been released. And now, Congress and many scientists are taking the program to task.

CCSP “clearly has not met its goals,” says Steven Sherwood, an atmospheric physicist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., who served as an author on one of CCSP’s first reports. “I think the process became very bureaucratic.”

CCSP’s own deadlines aren’t the only ones the program has missed. Legislation passed in 1990 requires the federal climate change program to conduct a national assessment every four years to help policymakers understand what climate change means for the United States. The first and only assessment ever completed was in 2000. CCSP’s 2003 strategic plan stated that the requirements of a second national assessment — due in 2004 — would be satisfied by the program’s 21 reports. But the majority is still incomplete.

In 2006, Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth joined forces, bringing a lawsuit against CCSP and the program’s director for failing to put forth such a document. They won. A federal judge ruled that CCSP had violated the 1990 law and gave the program until the end of May 2008 to issue an assessment. That’s just a few months from now, says Rick Piltz, a former senior associate at CCSP who now directs a public interest watchdog project called Climate Science Watch in Washington, D.C. “They’re going to have to scramble to be technically in compliance,” he says.

“We intend to comply with the court order and provide a scientific assessment by the end of May,” says David Miller, a spokesperson for CCSP. According to the timeline posted on CCSP’s Web site, just 13 of the 21 planned reports will be complete by then.

But even if CCSP meets the court deadline, some scientists are skeptical that the planned reports will meet the requirements. A national assessment must include an analysis of how global climate change will impact the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems and biological diversity. “The truth is that the reports that they’re planning are relatively short in usable information for people who need to know what the impacts will be and how to adapt,” says Jay Gulledge, a senior scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va.

Piltz agrees: “It’s no substitute for a national assessment,” he says. “[The reports] are all very intellectually interesting, but the rubber does not meet the road as far as really connecting with the needs of society’s decision-making.”

A committee put together by the National Research Council (NRC) to assess CCSP’s progress in furthering the understanding of climate change and its impacts issued its first critique in September 2007. It found that “discovery science and understanding of the climate system are proceeding well, but use of that knowledge to support decision-making and to manage risks and opportunities of climate change is proceeding slowly.”

Part of the problem, says NRC committee chair Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., is that, at the time the committee assessed the program’s progress, only two of CCSP’s 21 reports had been released. But even a complete set might not have changed the committee’s conclusions, Ramanathan says. “I don’t think that would have resolved all of the issues,” he says. “They need to engage social scientists, economists and people who look at risk analysis.”

Another problem, Ramanathan says, is CCSP’s shrinking budget, which has fallen from a peak of $2 billion to about $1.7 billion. And that money is controlled not by CCSP, but by the 13 agencies that make up the program, including NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. “CCSP is five or six levels removed from the authority and they don’t control the budget,” Gulledge says. “One could look at their organizational chart and say [the program] was designed to fail.”

To address these issues, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, introduced a bill in November to streamline CCSP’s organization and emphasize products that are relevant to state, local and nongovernmental decision-makers. “Our bill will ensure the American people can learn the real story of the climate crisis’ effect on our neighborhoods, businesses and families,” Kerry said in a statement posted on Snowe’s Web site. At press, the bill had been approved by the Senate Commerce Committee but had not yet been scheduled for floor debate.

The need for information and action is urgent, Ramanathan says. “The climate has changed so much in the past four or five years,” he says. “I’m really worried. Are we going to step up to the plate and be able to convince our leaders that we urgently need more resources” to study, mitigate and adapt to climate change?

Cassandra Willyard

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