Climate Change Science Program assessment failures aired at Senate Commerce oversight hearing


We examine key issues raised in the November 14 Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on federal climate change science research, set the record straight on a few matters—in particular, on some of White House science advisor John Marburger’s misleading answers to questions from Sen. Kerry, and review testimony by a panel of nongovernmental witnesses that pointed to needed reforms in the Climate Change Science Program.

The hearing title—“Time for Change: Improving the Federal Climate Change Research and Information Program” —framed the overall dissatisfaction of Committee members with the way the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP)/Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) is being run, and with its failure to produce climate change assessments to effectively inform decisionmaking.  Serious concerns were raised by Committee members from both parties and developed by several of the nongovernmental witnesses invited to testify.  Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who chaired the hearing, elaborated at several points on his growing frustration with the program and its management.

Panel I of the hearing featured Dr. John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Under the Global Change Research Act, OSTP has authority and responsibility for the research program.  Panel II witnesses were asked to comment on the CCSP, especially in light of recent critiques by the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the National Research Council, and to provide comments on the Kerry-Snowe bill, the Global Change Research Improvement Act (see our November 13 post (“Kerry-Snowe global change research bill focuses on climate impacts assessment and communication”).

During the questioning session for the first panel, Sen. Kerry ran off a litany of criticisms of the climate science program and asked Dr. Marburger for his view of OSTP’s accountability for the CCSP.  This is one excerpt of the hearing (note – all transcripts provided here are unofficial and were prepared by CSW):

Sen. Kerry:  At the beginning of the year the National Academy of Science decadal study sounded grave concerns about the loss of climate sensors, and they discussed a couple of aspects of the satellite programs at NOAA and NASA, and subsequent to that, the President’s budget came out that had significant reductions in climate research budget.  The GAO came out with its study in August concluding that our federally managed resources are suffering from climate impacts, and yet our Administration has provided no guidance for addressing such impacts.  A federal district court, as we discussed earlier, decided the Administration is violating the Global Change Research Act due to its failure to issue the National Assessment.  The NRC released a preliminary review of the CCSP that found many weaknesses in the climate change program, notably, its weaknesses in climate change impacts, and through all of this, NOAA, the agency that chairs the CCSP, has not appointed a scientist to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Jim Mahoney.  So, as we look at this mix of returns for this program, how do you counter notion that this “just ain’t workin’ right?”  This is not what we put in place, and this is not the way it ought to be.

Marburger:  I think it could work better, and…..

Sen. Kerry:  Well, whose responsibility is it to do that?

Marburger:  The responsibility lies with us.  I would have to say that this is an Administration responsibility, and we’re determined to do it.

From his testimony, however, it is not clear what Dr. Marburger is willing or able to commit OSTP to do, at this late date, to correct the manifold problems of the program that have developed or been exacerbated under this administration. And misleading answers he gave to some of the questions at the hearing seem indicative of an unwillingness to engage in straight talk.

Some key issues that were developed during the hearing:

The Bush administration has failed/refused to produce an assessment of climate change impacts every four years as required by the Global Change Research Act of 1990. A significant exchange between Sen. Kerry and Dr. Marburger centered on whether or not the 21 CCSP Synthesis and Assessment Products (SAPs) now being developed—in a process that is years behind the schedule that was promised to Congress in 2003—will meet the substantive requirements of Congress as well as new deadlines imposed by a recent federal district court decision. (See our August 22 post (“Court rules that Bush Admin. unlawfully failed to produce scientific assessment of global change”).

Sen. Kerry:  You’ve got this issue of 21 reports versus one report.  The court ruled that we envisioned one report – we envisioned one report,  we’ve now introduced legislation to make it clear we envisioned one report, and most people have determined that that’s the best way to help people to be able to make decisions about this, not to wade through 21 disparate reports, but to have a centralized reporting thing. Notwithstanding that, the Administration has announced that is going to plan to the 21 reports, and that it comports with the law.  So, we just don’t seem to be getting from here to there.

Marburger: Well Senator, the court decision did acknowledge that the 21 reports could be appropriate, and insisted that they be submitted on time. The strategic plan that led to the creation of the 21 reports, or to the plan to create them, was in fact vetted by the National Academies at the time that it was produced, and they commented favorably as far as I can recall on this proposal.

Wait a minute, Dr. Marburger. That’s not quite a straight story. As has been detailed in testimony by Rick Piltz before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on January 30, 2007, and elsewhere, the report of the National Academy of Sciences Committee to Review the U.S. Climate Change Research Program Strategic Plan, issued in February 2004, was sharply critical at several points of the failure of the program to incorporate and build on the National Assessment in its strategic planning for assessment and “decision support” activities. And although you referred to the Academy as the “gold standard” of scientific advice to the government, and despite the criticism of the plan for failing to provide any rationale for the disappearance of the National Assessment, you have offered no response to this criticism of how the administration treated the National Assessment. No changes were made to the Strategic Plan in response to the NRC’s criticism.

Marburger (cont’d): Now it turns out that these 20, more than 20 assessment reports has taken a lot longer than anyone expected them to complete and to clear through the agencies.  It’s a cumbersome process, and it really needs to be streamlined, so our experience there has not been totally satisfactory, and we’re concerned about it.

Sen. Kerry: It’s hard—look I’m not trying to—look, if you want to have 21 reports, and you pick and struggle through them, and sort of do an Administration document out of it, that’s one thing.  But 21 different reports is not a—- the word a—a national assessment, is what Congress asked for.  It’s not a national assessment, it’s 21 agencies giving us a report.  And, it looks to me, the GAO concurs completely, and you sort of choose to ignore the GAO, and pick and select how you want to approach this.  What is the virtue of 21 reports in their disparate manner?  And why would you choose not to give us a national assessment, as an Administration speaking with one voice, in that assessment?

Marburger:  Senator, I believe that it would be appropriate to have a single assessment report, but to do it right, that report would have to be very long, and include much of the material that would occur in the 21 assessment reports.

Sen. Kerry:  What would it take to get a report together?

Marburger:  One of the reasons the first report, the one prepared during the Clinton Administration took so long is that there was so much in it, and each one of the different components of the whole climate change picture had to be addressed, and studied, and written up, and included in the final document.  I believe that the management of the climate change science program at the time felt that it would be appropriate to focus not agency by agency, but topic by topic, on the key remaining areas of uncertainty that had been pointed out by the National Academies that needed to be addressed by the program, to focus on those, and really clean them up and provide the information that was needed to move ahead.  And, I still think that’s not a bad strategy, but it clearly doesn’t satisfy the desire for Congress and for the public to have a single document that summarizes these findings.

This is evasive. First, the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts completed in 2000, while substantial, was presented in a 128-page Overview document and a single Foundation document of 500-600 pages.  Many of the CCSP synthesis reports contain far more scientific and technical detail than would be needed for a focused impacts and response strategies assessment aimed at making itself useful in framing issues for decisionmakers.

Second, it is misleading—inaccurate, really—to say “One of the reasons the first report, the one prepared during the Clinton Administration took so long is that there was so much in it, and each one of the different components of the whole climate change picture had to be addressed, and studied, and written up, and included in the final document.”  The National Assessment report completed in 2000 and delivered to Congress as an Overview document and a Foundation document was completed in about 3 years, during 1998-2000. It did not cover every component of “the whole climate picture;” rather, it focused on the key potential impacts of climate variability and change, a complex but well-focused agenda.

On the other hand, if we include as part of the original National Assessment process all the subsidiary regional and sectoral reports that accompanied the 2000 National Assessment report, they would add up to about 20 substantial documents in all – and most of them also were produced within a 3-4 year period. The Bush administration has been in office for almost 7 years now, and so far only 4 of 21 prospective Synthesis and Assessment reports have been completed. The CCSP Strategic Plan in 2003 specified that all 21 were to be completed by September 2007,

So the 2000 National Assessment, in the conciseness and clarity of its Overview and its highly-referenced and well-focused Foundation—both authored by a panel of eminent scientists and other experts—and in the overall volume of regional and sectoral work that was produced during a 3-4 year period, vastly outperformed the assessment work of the Climate Change Science Program on the watch of Dr. Marburger and others who have been in leadership positions in the program under this administration. Double-talk won’t get Dr. Marburger out from under this reality.

Sen. Kerry:  Are we going to get a single document by May 31, 2008?  That’s what the judge directed you to do:  to give us a research plan by March 31, and a scientific assessment by May 31st.

Marburger:  We will obey the law.

Sen. Kerry: And, it doesn’t say multiple scientific assessments, it says a scientific assessment.

Marburger:  My understanding is that that will be produced…..

Sen. Kerry:  Well, that’s good news……We requested one every four years, and I think we have a right to expect it.

Since the administration had no intention of ever allowing the CCSP to produce a new National Assessment, and thus since no groundwork for such an integrated piece of work was laid prior to the August victory in federal court in Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. Brennan, Marburger, et al., we expect that whatever the program might scramble together by May 31 won’t be even close to what is needed.

Most of the witnesses on the second panel made a strong case for the need for a national assessment over and above the 21 SAPs.  Some relevant excerpts from the written testimony submitted, as well as quotes from the oral testimony:

Donald F. Boesch, Professor of Marine Science and President, Center for Environmental Science, University of Maryland (oral testimony):  “The National Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Climate Change…. [which] involved hundreds of scientists and stakeholders inside and outside of the Federal government, was unwieldy at times…. However, it focused on developing an integrated assessment, not of the state of science, but of what could be reasonably concluded about the potential consequences of climate change on the United States from available knowledge and understanding.  It is distressing to me as a pro bono contributor to see how the 2000 National Assessment … has been suppressed and marginalized when it should have been built and improved upon.”

Boesch (written testimony):  “As the Committee is aware, a Federal District Court recently issued a finding that the Administration has failed to produce another National Assessment as called for by the statute…Rather, the Climate Change Science Program has undertaken to produce 21 Synthesis and Assessment Products (SAPs), the majority of which are oriented to knowledge related to the past and present climate, quantification of forces bringing about changes, and reducing uncertainty in projections of how climate may change. Seven of the SAPs address the sensitivity and adaptability of ecosystems and human systems to climate change and three explore the uses of evolving knowledge to manage risks and opportunities. Significantly, there does not appear to be a strategy of producing integrated assessments, either across systems (natural, managed or human) or within regions. Yet such integrated, regional assessments are critical to communicating to citizens and decision makers at the state and local levels the impacts of climate change where they live and over timeframes they can understand, and what they will be required to do to deal with those impacts.” [emphasis added]

Boesch also used the example of an August, 2007, GAO report, Climate Change: Agencies Should Develop Guidance for Addressing the Effects on Federal Land and Water Resources to underscore his belief that the 21 SAPs are not meeting critical information needs of natural resource managers:  “My own impression and that of some my scientific colleagues who participated in GAO-convened workshops was that the resource managers with whom we interacted had serious concerns about their ability to meet their responsibilities in a world where climate is obviously already changing and were frustrated by the lack of substantive support from their headquarters. The GAO report underscores the deficiency in the CCSP synthesis and assessment approach, because such site or even region-specific information is not forthcoming in the SAPs, which also stops short of offering specific guidance or even general direction for managing resources through anticipated climate changes.”

Lynne M. Carter, Co-Director, Adaptation Network: Lynne Carter, who offers rich perspective on these issues from her experiences acting as the federal liaison to all of the regions studied in the 2000 National Assessment and now in her capacity with a nonprofit group called the Adaptation Network, offered in her oral and written testimony four areas needing attention:  “1) regional and locally relevant research needs to be undertaken, and the scale of the research must match the scale of the issue for the region; 2) regional and locally relevant information (not just data) needs to be generated and distributed; 3) regionally relevant assistance must be available to help regional and local decision makers make use of the information in appropriate ways including identifying and assessing adaptation options; and 4) a formal mechanism must be established to provide for regular dialogue between regional and local decision makers and federal research planners to identify regional and locally relevant research needs.”
These four elements, we note, are essentially missing from the set of individual SAPs.

Braxton Davis, Chair, Climate Change Working Group, Coastal States Organization: Braxton Davis, who specializes in coastal issues, also underscored the need for more policy-relevant products not even at the regional level, but also at the state and local levels (written testimony):  “Our general understanding of climate change and related impacts continues to improve through research supported under the …USGCRP. However, this research must be useful at scales appropriate for actions by state and local planners and decision-makers. In many cases, regional information will be inadequate for individual communities. Each city and town needs to understand the potential impacts of climate change, the associated risks, and the costs and benefits of various management options, as well as the potential costs of inaction.”  Davis encouraged the climate science programs to act as a “clearinghouse” to disseminate relevant information from USGCRP/CCSP participating agencies –as well as other agencies – to the states and regions, and to take better advantage of existing programs such as those authorized by the Coastal Zone Management Act.  He warned, “If we collect all of this research and data but fail to get it into the hands of the decision-makers at the appropriate scale, then we may become very knowledgeable but ill-prepared to meet the challenges facing us in the coming decades.”

Richard Moss, Vice President and Managing Director, Climate Change, World Wildlife Fund, who directed the coordination office of the USGCRP/CCSP from 2000 to 2006 (a position now held by Peter Schultz), directed his comments almost exclusively to the Kerry–Snowe bill (the proposed GCRIA). Notably, he strongly endorsed the provision that would create a National Climate Service for delivering climate-related decision support to state and local managers.

John R. Christy, Professor and Director, Earth System Science Center, National Space Science and Technology Center, University of Alabama in Huntsville, took issue with the quality of current climate modeling capabilities and projections, and claimed that “there is no guarantee that energy policies intended to deal with climate change will have the desired effect, either in sign or magnitude.” He acknowledged the need for better national preparedness for climate impacts.

Don Boesch acknowledged the excellent climate impacts work that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has been engaged in, most recently a major assessment of the northeastern region of the US coordinated by fellow panelist Peter Frumhoff:  “As an excellent example of such an integrated regional assessment I point to the recent reports of the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment (NECIA)…[which] developed and effectively communicated an assessment of climate change and associated impacts on key climate-sensitive sectors in the northeastern United States in a way that provides thought leaders, policy makers, and the public a basis for informed choices about climate change mitigation and adaptation.”

Later, Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy, Chief Scientist, Climate Campaign, Union of Concerned Scientists, asserted that, while he believed the northeastern assessment was a highly beneficial exercise, and that other areas of the US are clamoring for similar assessment activities,  “[T]he Union of Concerned Scientists should not be in the business of providing the nation with robust, accessible, policy-relevant information on climate change impacts. We are simply not positioned to provide such information at a scale commensurate with the need. This is the responsibility of the federal government.”

There are two problems with the issue of the 21 SAPs, that, in our view are related but also quite separate, and which keep getting commingled in these discussions.  The first relates to the question of whether the SAPs substantively comply with current law as well as with current need; the second has to do with pure timing.  In our view, while each stand-alone SAP, as well as all of them taken together, will contain high-quality scientific information useful for serving as building blocks for more synthesized and stakeholder-responsive knowledge building, in and of themselves they do NOT constitute a national assessment of climate impacts as stipulated by the GCRA. The testimony at this hearing clarified and highlighted this key point.  It is unfortunate, for clarity’s sake, that a court ruling earlier this year, finding the CCSP in clear violation of the GCRA and requiring a Research Plan by March 31, 2008 and a full national assessment of climate impacts by May 31, did not exclude the possibility that the SAPs could meet the terms of the GCRA.  However, there was one important proviso, as described in our earlier post. The judge reiterated that the assessment “must in some manner integrate, evaluate, and interpret the public comments of the Research Plan” and she tightly linked the Plan, which requires public input, to the Program and to the assessment, concluding:  “[I]f there is no consultation or comment period in the development of the Research Plan, the Scientific Assessment will not integrate, evaluate, and interpret the findings of the Program as required.”

This raises the companion issue of timing.  Only 4 of the 21 SAPs have been completed to date.  Ten are officially [but unrealistically] scheduled for completion by December 2007 (within the next three weeks essentially, a tough deadline by any stretch), one is scheduled for completion in April 2008 , and six are scheduled to be completed and released in June 2008, AFTER the court deadline of May 31.  (Don Boesch also lamented about the slowness with which these studies are being produced, claiming that ” the very way the SAP process is structured has slowed it down” and the peer review process being used is “constraining and inefficient.”  He also points out that the IPCC – which has addressed mitigation and “delved deeper into adaptation and vulnerability” than the CCSP—“has been able to complete its reports on a timelier basis, even though that involved global collaboration, a much larger number of volunteer scientists, peer review, and extensive negotiation.”)  The main point is that the overall timing of all these pieces prevents the CCSP from incorporating public input into a draft research plan in time to be applied to any of the SAPs.  Notably, the court retained jurisdiction over this case and will review compliance as each of these deadlines come and go.

This hearing has helped to make it abundantly clear that the Bush administration has neglected to meet the information needs of its citizens critical for preparedness, for our ability to adapt to whatever climate change throws our way in the coming years and decades. John Marburger and others would have us believe that the SAPs are an adequate substitute.  We disagree, and Congress shouldn’t let them get away with this fundamentally misleading position.  The insistence by Sen. Kerry that the Administration deliver one report – a national assessment – makes an important point.  But, technically, the CCSP could write a sort of “reader’s digest” of the 21 SAPs, bind it under one cover, and call it a single national assessment report.  Such a report, however, would still not suffice as a meaningful national climate change assessment.  The participants in the original 2000 National Assessment process learned a valuable lesson – it’s the process, not just the reports, that created essential learning and a functional network for addressing problems.  While it is too late under this administration to produce the sort of assessment that is useful, not to mention legally required – one where real stakeholders are meaningfully involved and the emphasis is on two-way dialogue and on-the-ground problem solving and preparedness— it is not too late to begin preparing for future assessments that have meaning and value to people “where they live.”  Passage of the Kerry-Snowe GCRIA bill or a close cousin to it has the potential to take us far in the right direction.

The hearing also addressed the erosion of the climate science research budget, the overall integrity of the program, and how best to structure the coordinating function so as to prevent inappropriate political tampering. The federal climate science research budget has been cut over the course of the Bush administration – with major cuts since 2004—and along with it, support for essential satellite-based Earth observing systems.

We have already reported on the steady budget cuts being carried out under this administration and weak attempts to disguise them by playing shuffle with program elements across agencies and departments.  See our September 26 post (“U.S. Climate Change Science Program has been undermined by budget cutbacks”).

Sen. Kerry expressed concern over the eroding budget in his questioning of Dr. Marburger:

Sen. Kerry:  [W]hy is the research budget being cut?  I mean, when the resource demands for climate science are increasing, and we have this issue of getting a report out every four years,  to guide us intelligently, not every eight years.  We’ve seen the budget steadily decline, from a high of $2 billion in 2004 with a request of $1.54 [billion] requested for 2008.  So when you factor in inflation, additional costs, and everything else, that’s just a big whack at a budget, while people have lauded here the notion that we spend a lot, we do, but it’s not what we need to do.  And, this is a critical area.  NOAA’s budget request for climate research is a $23 million decrease from last year, and so forth.  Why are we moving in the wrong direction?

Dr. Marburger:  I can’t give a single answer for why the sum of all the climate science programs in different agencies is going, has gone down.  I do believe that these budgets are subject to large fluctuations because of the satellite system programs which are quite expensive.  As one goes down, then another one comes up – the construction costs, the launch costs, and so forth, tend to make the budget rather erratic.  Ah, but as far as the details, of this budget, which is not a single agency budget, but rather a roll-up of expenditures in many different agencies, I can’t give details at this point.

Dr. Marburger, you know better than this. Yes, it’s true that the NASA climate and global change space-based observations budget contains big-ticket items associated with the development of satellite missions, and budgets for these missions ramp up and down. But there has been a major cutback in the CCSP budget during this administration, in particular since 2004, with much of the cutback attributable to the undermining of NASA’s Earth Science budget for space based observations. This emerging crisis has been the basis of a hearing at which you testified earlier this year and also ducked a straightforward acknowledgement of the damage done to the program under this administration. See our July 7 post (“OSTP Director Marburger’s misleading testimony on NPOESS space-based climate observations”).

Sen. Kerry:  Well, I don’t want to belabor it now…  I don’t envy your position at all…. I’m sure there is some frustration in you that you don’t articulate …. You’re put in the tough position of defending those budgets without having made the decisions.

This raises an important point, which was explored somewhat during this hearing.  To provide some historical perspective, one of the primary driving forces behind the creation and passage of the Global Change Research Act of 1990 was the need to create a more integrated set of climate science research programs, which, by definition, meant looking at the individual agency budgets in terms of places where we needed to correct both research gaps and areas of overlap.  A process for creating a “budget cross-cut” was developed, the idea being that agencies would coordinate with one another, slicing and adding programs here and there to form a climate science program that was, in theory, more integrated and cohesive than a set of programs just stapled together.  In reality, this process does not work as well as it should, and there has been ample evidence of agencies moving program elements in and out of the USGCRP/ CCSP column to suit their purposes, and inconsistencies from year to year that confound attempts by Congress and others to understand what is going on with the program budget.

There is a central tension in the Climate Change Science Program between the need for high-level authority to manage and integrate the program and the pattern of undermining of the program and interference with its integrity that we have seen under this administration. Richard Moss basically stated this point in his written testimony: “The single most important management challenge for the future is balancing the need for greater central political authority to achieve programmatic and budgetary integration with the need to ensure the actual and perceived independence of the program’s research and assessment reports from political influence.”

Peter Frumhoff also addressed this issue:  “It is critical to ensure that the assessment products be produced in accordance with highest standards of scientific integrity and the assessment process is not subject to political interference. Towards that end, UCS strongly endorse the GCRIA’s provisions to protect the integrity of the scientific research and the unfettered dissemination of research results by participating scientists.”
Several of the bills introduced during this session of Congress have attempted to address this issue of structure within the Executive branch in various ways. The current system as it is configured is problematic, but an ideal solution is not readily apparent.  We believe one appropriate approach would be for Congress to commission an independent external evaluation that makes recommendations on alternatives for structuring, governing, coordinating, and protecting the integrity of the program, and the benefits and risks associated with various alternatives.

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