A strategy session on the future of the US Global Change Research Program

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A process for developing a set of recommendations to the next administration and Congress in January 2009 was kicked off on January 17 at a national conference on Climate Change: Science and Solutions, in Washington, DC.  Climate Science Watch participated in and reports on the session, chaired by Dr. Robert Corell: “The US Global Change Research Program:  What do we want from the next Administration?”

This posting is by Climate Science Watch senior research associate Anne Polansky. CSW director Rick Piltz contributed.

The conference was organized by the National Council on Science and the Environment 
This year marks roughly 20 years since the creation of the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).  Currently operating under the name US Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) a re-branding alias assigned by President Bush in 2002, this collection of scientific programs at 13 different federal agencies and departments has served our nation extremely well for two decades.  However, there is mounting concern that the USGCRP/CCSP is not meeting the informational needs of society, and is falling far short of providing adequate decision support to policymakers crafting climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

It is safe to say that whoever occupies the White House on January 20, 2009, will face a daunting set of challenges, domestic and international, including many thorny problems either created or worsened by the Bush Administration. One challenge that our new President must face directly and address coherently is the growing threat of global climatic disruption. (Global climatic disruption was suggested by American Association for the Advancement of Science board chairman Dr. John Holdren, of Harvard University and the Woods Hole Research Center, in a keynote address at the conference, as the appropriate term to describe global warming and its pervasive impacts.)

Scientific uncertainties no longer center on whether our climate is changing, and whether climate change is a result of human activity. Now the most urgent questions concern the potential consequences of global climatic disruption, and how abruptly and unpredictably these changes might occur; how we might cope with and adapt to these changes; and whether we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to limit “dangerous” climate disruption, i.e.,  post-tipping point climate conditions that make it quite difficult if not virtually impossible to continue providing the goods and services needed to sustain our burgeoning population. 

Most policymakers now recognize that some fairly dramatic policy measures are needed at the national level to complement and enhance the plans and measures that are already beginning to take place in the states.  While we cannot say with precision just how much carbon cutting will need to take place and how soon, it is now evident that significant, timely cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are needed in virtually every sector of our economy. 

The public policy discourse on this issue has increased in intensity. Dozens of bills have been introduced in Congress, and more than 20 states have developed detailed climate action plans.  Most of the focus is on mitigation:  policies for changing the market signals to discourage behavior that is carbon emissions intensive; various proposals for cap-and-trade mechanisms and/or a tax on carbon dioxide emissions are being thoroughly vetted as they move through the various House and Senate committees. 

However, the question of how Americans will be able to cope, adjust, and ultimately adapt to climatic conditions that may not even remotely resemble those of the past is not receiving the attention it deserves at the federal level.  This inadequacy needs to be corrected, especially as local and state public officials are largely being left to sort out these tough issues on their own.  Rising sea levels (potentially much faster than scientists previously believed) and the lingering severe droughts in the western and southeastern states are just two examples. Many more lurk.

The USGCRP/CCSP (henceforth the “Program”) has served our nation well for two decades.  Its scientific findings have contributed mightily to the reports of the IPCC, have advanced our understanding of the Earth’s climate system and its potential impacts on the United States, and served as a model for research programs in other countries.  However, those most familiar with federally supported climate and global change research recognize that it is time for the Program to evolve.  The Program’s ability to generate useful information has not only been diminished in recent years by shrinking budgets – the overall Program budget today is just two-thirds what it was in 1995 (in real, inflation-adjusted terms). The Program also has been hampered by a lack of supportive leadership at the top, and even subject to inappropriate interference by political appointees intent on suppressing or manipulating communication its findings and censoring its scientists when their findings are too politically inconvenient. The termination and suppression by the Bush Administration of the National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change offers the most potent example. For more on this see here and here.

Growing acknowledgment of these realities has led to a collaborative effort to rethink how the the federal climate science program should be retooled to meet the needs of the 21st century.  The first strategy session occurred as a break-out session of the NCSE annual conference. The sesssion was chaired by Dr. Robert Corell, Global Change Program Director at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. It featured a set of panelists and discussants well-qualified to speak on this issue: 

The US Global Change Research Program:
What do we want from the next administration?

PANELISTS:

• Dr. Richard Moss, Vice President and Managing Director for Climate Change, World Wildlife Fund and former Executive Director of the Office of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the USGCRP.

• Dr. Lynne Carter, Co-Director, Adaptation Network: Building Resilience in a Changing Climate and an independent scientist and consultant who has been an active participant in the USGCRP, the CCSP, and other global change programs and activities, including for example, the US National Assessment.

• Dr. Roberta Miller, Senior Research Scientist at Columbia University and a Senior Fellow and former Director of the Center for Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University.

• Ms. Susan Joy Hassol, a climate change communicator known for her ability to translate science into English, making complex issues accessible to policymakers and the public.  She is a lead author of many scientific documents and reports, including [ITALICS] Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change.

• Mr. Rick Piltz, Director, Climate Science Watch, Government Accountability Project, former senior associate in the office of the US Global Change Research Program/CCSP coordination office, and former professional staff member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

DISCUSSANTS:

• Dr. Aristides (Ari) A. N. Patrinos, President, Synthetic Genomics and former associate director of the Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research overseeing
human and microbial genome research, structural biology, nuclear medicine and health effects, and global climate change.

• Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, President, the H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, the World Bank’s Chief Biodiversity Advisor and Lead Specialist for Environment for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Senior Advisor to the President of the United Nations Foundation.

• Dr. Peter Schultz, Director, U.S. Climate Change Science Program Office.  (Dr. William Brennan, Acting Director of the CCSP, was invited but did not attend.)

A Scoping Paper for consideration and comment was released in advance of the session, outlining key issues to be addressed.  Three overarching questions helped to focus the discussion:

1) What leadership and institutional structure and process can best strengthen and integrate the Program?

2) How can the Program translate scientific advances into decision support; and improve two-way communication with policy-makers and public?

3) How can the Program’s credibility and integrity, and its communications, be protected from inappropriate political interference?

Some key issues developed by the panelists included:

• The Program needs to place greater emphasis on impacts and adaptation research, especially at the regional and local level. “The scale of the research needs to match the scale of the issue” was the way one panelist stated it. This idea is related to a Climate Science Watch theme, that the Program should not only be continuing to generate the scientific underpinnings for our improved understanding of the climate system, but should also be helping all Americans better understand and prepare for climatic disruption that is already underway and is projected to worsen across the United States.

A closely related need is to revive and reestablish some form of the US National Assessment on the Potential Consequences of Climate Change, not necessarily repeating the format and method that was employed in the first assessment, but premised on the idea that the federal government needs to build a climate impacts assessment, evaluation, and preparedness capability that respects and supports what is already going on in the states and regions, and that actively involves stakeholders.  Along these lines, Rick Piltz put forth the idea of a National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative, to better connect leading experts in science and technology with society to drive a program that delivers information to stakeholders that is both usable and useful.  . 

• Several possible institutional changes for strengthening the program, protecting its integrity while making it more accountable, were raised, including: whether the Program coordination office should be situated within the Executive Office of the President (such as within the Office of Science and Technology Policy); the potential value of establishing an independent oversight body, such as a user council, to hold the Program accounatble for meeting the information needs of stakeholders; and even whether a new cabinet-level or independent agency should be created to deal with the challenge of climate change and incorporate research Program integration, communication, and outreach functions. 

• The overall Program budget is too small to meet current needs, and the downward trend over the past several years needs to be reversed and ramped up quickly.  One participant suggested that the total budget should be at least doubled. 

• Stakeholders need to be able to influence the setting of research priorities and the development of scientifically based assessments. Stakeholder input should be formalized and made a routine part of program and project planning, to avoid the creation of reports that are developed without such input on priorities and communication needs, then handed off to society in the hope that they will be used. 

• The Program needs to be much better at delivering “decision support” – information and tools – to policymakers and other decisionmakers in the public and private sector.  Along these lines, stakeholders need to be able to access climate information, understand it, and use it. 

• The Program should be equipped to provide a wide variety of technical expertise – economists, geographers, and social scientists in addition to physical and biological scientists – to assist in the development of cost-effective adaptation and mitigation measures (recognizing they can be closely related).  Bringing in mitigation — i.e., research and assessment focused on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — to the Program would be a new addition and thus requires development of new capabilities, with careful planning and scoping. 

Along these lines, the “human dimensions” of climate change capability needs to be expanded and better integrated into the science programs. The Program needs a much stronger social science component so that we can better understand how people are going to react to a changing climate and how best real (mitigation and adaptation) solutions can be implemented.  We also need to build a technical capability to better understand the impacts of mitigation and adaptation solutions – for example, what are the environmental and economic impacts of aggressively pursuing corn-based ethanol? 

• A vastly better communication capability was called for, echoing a key recommendation recently made by the National Academy of Sciences in its 2007 report, Evaluating Progress of the US Climate Change Science Program:  Methods and Preliminary Results. It was noted that the findings and products of these programs simply aren’t getting adequately communicated to the Congress or to the public (noting that polls show only 41% of the American public believes climate change is human-induced), and that the United Kingdom and other European countries are doing a much better job at this.  One participant emphasized the need to consider outreach and communication at the beginning of every major research and assessment endeavor, rather than completing technical reports that then go to a communications specialist for conversion to a more universally understood form for policymakers and the public.

• Other agencies should be brought in under the umbrella of the USGCRP, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• The Program needs to have a way to address “geoengineering” solutions to climate change (ideas put forth include loading the atmosphere with particulate matter or chemically altering the oceans to increase CO2 uptake), especially so that we avoid problematic unintended consequences. A need for exercising great caution was expressed.

CCSP Office Director Peter Schultz reported that the the Program is currently in a strategic planning mode, and working diligently to comply with last summer’s federal court order to produce an updated research plan and an assessment report.  He reported that the 21 CCSP Synthesis and Assessment Products in progress “are on the verge of release” and, while they are not stakeholder driven, they are “quality scientific documents” being written by the “best scientists” and that the reports are not being rewritten by the White House.  It is still unclear to us how the CCSP will meet the May 31 court deadline to produce a new climate change assessment. 

In the Q&A that followed, several attendees brought up the need to tie the Program even closer to academia, and to build in a stronger public education component. 

This was the first step; another working group session will be convened in the near future. The set of recommendations that ultimately result from this process will be “Presidential Transition Team–ready” and, we hope, will strongly influence the next administration’s priorities for the future direction of climate and global change research, assessment, communication, and decision support.

Climate Science Watch will be moving this issue forward, by supporting and helping to organize ongoing dialogue and debate, by developing the National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative, and sseking consensus on key Program issues to ensure that the US can rise to the many and difficult challenges with which global climatic disruption will confront us.

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