Press coverage and comment on the National Assessment lawsuit

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The suit filed in federal court on November 14 by the Center for Biological Diversity et al. to require the production of a second National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts (see our November 14 post) was reported by the Associated Press (“White House Sued Over Global Warming”), the San Francisco Chronicle (“White House sued for not doing report on warming”), and others. “The Bush administration has failed to comply with the law,’’ said attorney Julie Teel of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I think the administration’s afraid to release this information because it makes climate change real for people.’’  The NOAA press office responded on behalf of the government, with the official party line that offers 21 topical reports as an alternative to an integrative, independent assessment.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

White House sued for not doing report on warming
Federal law required scientific assessment be issued in 2004
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Environmental advocates sued the Bush administration Tuesday for ignoring a 2004 congressional deadline to report to lawmakers and the public on the latest research on global warming.

A 1990 federal law requires the government to produce a scientific report every four years on climate change and its effects on the environment, including land, water, air, plant and animal life and human health.

The Clinton administration issued the first report in October 2000, warning of severe effects on different regions. But the Bush administration has not filed a report and has indicated it will not do so, environmentalists said in the suit filed in federal court in San Francisco.

Instead, the administration’s Climate Change Science Program says it will issue 21 mini-reports on various aspects of the overall topic. The first report, on temperature trends in the lower atmosphere, was released in May, and others will be issued periodically through 2008, a spokesman said.

“The Bush administration has failed to comply with the law,’’ said attorney Julie Teel of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I think the administration’s afraid to release this information because it makes climate change real for people.’’

She said the May report on lower atmosphere temperatures is a technical document that would be hard for the average citizen or member of Congress to understand. A 14-page summary of the report on the agency’s Web site (http://www.climatescience.gov) contains findings about temperature variations at different atmospheric levels but does not discuss how those variations affect the environment.

Kent Laborde, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the agencies that make up the Climate Change Science Program, said the 21 reports are being prepared with public input and are intended to comply with the 1990 law.

“If you look at them in the aggregate, they are designed to be a complete picture,’’ Laborde said.

The suit asks U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong to set a new deadline for a comprehensive government report on global warming research….

Copyright 2006 San Francisco Chronicle

Note on NOAA spokesman Kent Laborde:
See Paul Thacker’s article, “Climate-controlled White House,” in salon.com.  E-mails obtained by Thacker through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the White House was, in fact, controlling access to scientists and vetting reporters. Thacker wrote: “In 2005, NOAA press officer Kent Laborde wrote an e-mail that approved Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin’s request to interview scientists. ‘CEQ and OSTP have given the green light for the interview,’ he wrote. CEQ is the Council on Environmental Quality and OSTP is the Office of Science and Technology Policy.”

Note on Climate Change Science Program communications:
There is a significant issue here about CCSP media communications.  Why does the government-wide U.S. Climate Change Science Program, which supports research in multiple federal agencies and universities, not have its own press operation, which can apropriately represent the federal program as a whole?  Why are press inquiries to the CCSP funneled through the NOAA press office, which has been politicized by the White House, the Commerce Department, and the NOAA leadership in such a way as to impede climate science communication in some key situations?  When a lawsuit is filed in federal court naming the Climate Change Science Program as a defendant, why is Kent Laborde designated to stand between the senior program leadership and the press, issuing a boilerplate comment about CCSP report-writing activities?

We will be returning to this issue at greater length in future posts.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s complaint (see our November 14 post) counters the assertion that the CCSP’s 21 so-called “synthesis reports” (whatever value they have as topical studies) are an acceptable alternative to an integrative national climate change impacts assessment. We have also critiqued this idea in earlier work—see, for example, our article published in Eos, “Toward a Second U.S. National Climate Change Assessment.”  An excerpt:

The administration essentially has suppressed a major study, the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts, which was produced by an independent team of scientists with the support of the federal research program [National Assessment Synthesis Team, 2000, 2001; Piltz 2005; Thacker, 2005a; Thacker 2005b]. In its place, the administration has substituted a set of 21 prospective synthesis reports on disparate topics, under a process in which drafts by lead authors will undergo final review at a political level prior to being published as government documents.

These prospective reports do not amount to an integrated effort to effectively inform society and policy-makers responsible for dealing with the climate change problem, as was called for in the Global Change Research Act of 1990. In addition, the convoluted bureaucratic process under which these reports are being developed has led to lengthy delays in even the early stages of designing and drafting them.

In contrast, the National Assessment was developed by a distinguished synthesis team and hundreds of other scientists. The project produced a set of national, regional, and sectoral reports that is the most comprehensive and authoritative scientifically-based assessment undertaken to date of the potential consequences of climate change for the United States….

The administration has chosen to require that future CCSP synthesis reports go through a White House and political-level federal agency review, rather than follow a more straightforward path of accepting, as written, reports drafted by independent scientists. The guidelines for preparation, review, and approval of the synthesis reports are posted online. This approach undermines scientific independence, and it has led the CCSP into a tangle of bureaucratic and political problems that could and should have been avoided….

The CCSP Strategic Plan announced that nine of the 21 prospective reports would be published by September 2005, but [3 years and 4 months as of November 2006] after the release of the Strategic Plan, only one of the 21 reports has [been published]. 

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