Questions about the new Acting Director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program

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On June 19 the secretaries of commerce and energy designated Dr. Bill Brennan as the “acting director” of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. The position of CCSP director has been vacant since the end of March. Scientists, congressional overseers, federal managers, and reporters should ask a number of questions about this appointment.

From the NOAA press release:

Brennan Takes Helm of U.S. Climate Change Science Program

The secretaries of commerce and energy have designated Dr. Bill Brennan as the acting director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, the interagency program that coordinates and integrates scientific research on changes in climate and related systems….

“CCSP has been the focal point of the U.S. government’s efforts on climate sciences, and it will continue to fill this valuable role,” Brennan said.  “As director, I will be an advocate for the program, and will help it carry out its vital mission. We remain committed to providing policy-relevant, but policy-neutral scientific information on this critical issue.”…

Brennan currently serves as deputy assistant secretary of commerce for international affairs with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and will continue to perform these duties while serving as acting CCSP director. He has extensive experience in environmental policy at state, regional, national and international levels, and holds a doctorate in ecology and environmental sciences.

NOAA’s Brennan bio
Immediate issues and questions:

(To begin with a disclaimer:  We do not know Dr. Brennan personally, nor are we familiar in any detail with his professional work.  We have no reason to question his ability nor to distrust his good intentions.  The issues and questions we raise, drawing on long experience and close familiarity with the Climate Change Science Program, mean no disrespect to Dr. Brennan.  We will observe and evaluate his actions as objectively as we can, as we would with any other appointee.  We wish him well in dealing with the complex and problematic task of leading climate change science research under the current administration.)

1.  The CCSP Director from 2002 until March 2006, Dr. James Mahoney, announced his resignation in July 2005, to be effective “upon confirmation of a successor.”  Eleven months later, the President still has not named a successor to fill Jim Mahoney’s position as CCSP Director and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere—let alone move a nominee through the Senate confirmation process.  Jim Mahoney finally, in spite of the administration’s dilatory approach to replacing him, left his position at the end of March—more than eight months after announcing his resignation.  This left a vacancy at the top leadership level as the $1.7 billion CCSP went 11 weeks without a director.  Now the administration has named as CCSP “acting” director a new player, someone who has not been associated with a significant role, if any role at all, vis-a-vis the climate change research community.

Those who have served as the director or chair of the federal climate and global change research program—an extraordinarily hard-working and productive set of individuals—will attest that this is a demanding high-level position, and that meeting the requirements of attempting to coordinate science leadership across many federal agencies while dealing with White House oversight and pressure took a large proportion of their time.  Yet the new acting director already has a day job, as it were, as the deputy assistant secretary of commerce for international affairs with NOAA, and “will continue to perform these duties.”

Questions:

Does the administration regard the directorship of the Climate Change Science Program as a low-priority position to fill?  If not, why has the White House failed to name a new, non-“acting” CCSP director in the 11 months since Mahoney announced his resignation? 

Is the White House wary of going through a climate-change-related Senate confirmation proceeding with an appointee to an Assistant Secretary position (an appointment at Mahoney’s level is a presidential appointment that requires Senate confirmation; Brennan’s position, a level below Mahoney’s, does not).

Is the administration unwilling to cast its net outside the current circle of administration appointees at NOAA to find a new CCSP director who is well-known to and has some stature with the climate research community?  (Of course we might wonder, considering the administration’s record of politicizing the CCSP and undermining its credibility and integrity—a record documented on this blog and elsewhere—especially with regard to communicating to wider audiences assessments of the implications of global warming and climate change, who would want Mahoney’s position at this point?) 

What does this situation say about the White House’s level of interest in appointing strong leadership to catalyze federal support for scientific progress in addressing global warming and climate change?  Coupled with other significant CCSP-related positions that are currently either vacant, or filled by “acting” position-holders, or filled by representatives from a lower level of organizational authority than those they replaced, and the President’s proposed reduction in the CCSP budget for Fiscal Year 2007, it surely suggests a downgrading of the administration’s seriousness about the issues addressed by the program—if it is possible for that to go lower.
Will Brennan serve essentially as a part-time caretaker, fulfilling the formal requirements of directorship but no more? How can a Deputy Assistant Secretary stand up to White House political pressure—from the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Office of Management and Budget?  Mahoney, even with the stature he brought to his position, and even as a political-level appointee with a collegial relationship with high officials in those White House offices and a fairly strong mandate to provide direction to the CCSP, had a mixed record in buffering the CCSP from political interference, including interference by agents of the global warming denial machine.  On a number of issues we regard as significant in this regard, Mahoney either lost battles or chose not to fight them. 

Perhaps the White House political apparatus has tamed the CCSP sufficiently—e.g., killing the National Climate Change Assessment process (in collusion with the industry-funded global warming denial lobby), diverting the climate change assessment process into a long-delayed set of prospective government-approved technical reports, making administration political sensitivities and biases clear enough to induce caution in career federal managers, and stifling the CCSP communication function—that it no longer regards the program as requiring the level of political policing that it was subjected to earlier.  A lot of the essential dirty work has already been done.  But this is a question that calls for a more extended discussion.

 

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