Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz put forward our proposal that the next administration undertake a National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative, at a national conference on “Climate Change: Science and Solutions,” in Washington, DC. He spoke on January 17 as part of a panel on the future of the the federal global change research program.
See our February 5 post: A strategy session on the future of the US Global Change Research Program.
National Council on Science and the Environment
Annual Conference: “Climate Change: Science and Solutions”
February 16-18, 2008
Panel: “The U.S. Global Change Research Program: What do we want from the next administration?”
February 17, 2008
Panel Chairman: Dr. Robert Corell, Global Change Program Director at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment
Remarks by Rick Piltz
(These remarks have been edited somewhat for posting.)
Thanks to Bob Corell for organizing this session. I have known Bob since 1992, when he was chairing the U.S. Global Change Research Program interagency committee and I was working for the House Science Committee, organizing what I think was the first congressional oversight hearing on the program. Then for 10 years I worked in the coordination office of the program, until 2005, when I resigned from that. Since then I have directed Climate Science Watch, a public interest watchdog and reform advocacy program of the Government Accountability Project, here in Washington, DC.
I am going to focus on the climate change problem in the U.S. context, and the connection between the scientific research and assessment program and the larger society. I’ll raise a few key issues that may provoke some discussion.
What do we want from the next Administration? I think we need a program with leadership that is strong enough to integrate the program and focus resources expeditiously on key new priorities. We need program leadership that is strong enough to stand up to political interference from the White House and other administration officials, no matter who is in the White House.
The USGRCP has long-standing issues with budget and program integration and focus. Bob Corell and some of the other early leaders can tell you about how this all got started, the “terms of reference” for the agencies, and how things got undermined politically. But we still face the problem of how to get this program focused adequately on new priorities.
This is particularly a concern when you see, in the budget chart that Corell put up, that the budget for climate and global change research in this country has been cut by about one-third in real terms since 1995 (in constant 2005 dollars.) That was the last fiscal year that the Democrats had both the White House and a Senate and House majority — just as an empirical observation. We have seen sharp budget reductions in real terms since 2004, which the administration has tried to mask.
The research budget is particularly a concern as the program needs to focus new resources on what I would summarize as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II and Working Group III-type issues — climate change impacts, adaptation, and mitigation. The program has always focused on the IPCC Working Group I issues — the science of the physical climate system. That has always been a core strength of the program. Now we need a program that gives greater emphasis to the impacts, adaptation, and mitigation research and assessment issues.
Leadership that is strong enough to orchestrate that effort under the next administration also needs to be able to do better at communication than they have been doing. Under the current administration, climate science communication has not been effectively buffered from inappropriate interference from White House and other administration political appointees.
This is not just a look-back problem. It’s something that we have learned a lot from, that we and others have documented in detail, and that will need to be watchdogged no matter who wins the next election. I have spoken for many hours and written many thousands of words on all of that. I won’t recapitulate it here. But to take a look forward from that —
I think the next administration needs to revitalize and extend the process that was initiated with the first National Climate Change Assessment that was carried out in the 1997-2000 time frame. It’s a very long story, but briefly, the National Assessment was a seminal effort to initiate a process of linking the global change program to the larger society, through networks of scientist-stakeholder interactions, on the question of “what are the potential consequences of climate change for the United States?” — for beginning to deal with questions of, “what are we going to do about it?” It was intended to be an ongoing processs, with a set of reports. It has been repeatedly praised by committees of the National Academy of Sciences. The National Assessment was deep-sixed by the Bush administration, which has always stonewalled on providing any legal or scientific justification for their action. It was a first step. It suggested a possibility that now needs to be brought to greater fruition.
In dealing with the threat of global climatic disruption, the nation needs a way to deal with intelligence, risk assessment, risk management, and preparedness, that is much more effective than what we have right now. It would entail a large-scale, federally supported effort to bring leading science and technology experts, engineers, economists, and other experts together in a two-way, ongoing interaction with a wide range of policymakers at all levels — and with the private sector, managers, civil society — to diagnose the potential implications of climate change, discuss measures necessary to adapt to the impacts, and to deal with mitigation — emissions reduction — issues.
No matter what is negotiated beyond the Kyoto Protocol, no matter what cap and trade legislation might be passed, there is a going to be a whole host of practical implementation issues, from the national down to the local level. How do we implement mitigation alternatives? How do we deal with adaptation?
The USGCRP needs to be retooled to support an effort like that. It’s beyond the research program per se, but the USGCRP needs to be an essential component of that. We need the program to extend its original primary focus on physical climate system issues to deal with the full IPCC research and assessment agenda. And mitigation is not just about cap and trade and energy technology R&D — it’s a research and assessment set of questions, as well.
Climate Science Watch proposes that the next administration undertake what we are calling a National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative, to deal with this nexus of intelligence, risk, and preparedness questions. This would be a vehicle for linking scientists with decisionmakers. It would be a vehicle for linking the federal government with the rest of society, to get the climate change problem dealt with.
This raises the question of whether the current configuration and leadership of the USGCRP is set up to carry out this kind of new mission. Traditionally the USGCRP has been led, at the principals’ level of agency representatives, by upper-level and in some cases mid-level career science management executives — people who oversee their agencies’ global change research programs, who support the scientific researchers, the development of the observing systems, and so forth. They have not been primarily oriented toward communication, assessment, and dealing with mitigation and adaptation.
Let me just put this out there for discussion. How should the USGCRP be designed for its new role? I think Richard Moss’s suggestion for a “user council” is a good idea and should be a piece of it. We need to make the program accountable to a wider range of stakeholders. I also think that maybe we need a new government entity to deal with focusing resources on key priorities and dealing with the risk and preparedness issues. Roberta Miller suggested a new cabinet-level department. That’s a possibility.
But I think maybe what we need instead is an independent agency — not under a president’s cabinet secretary, but with a specific mandate to be independent of the president’s political team — headed by someone who reports directly to the president, but not in quite the same way as cabinet officials, who are there to execute the president’s agenda. This should be an agency that speaks truth to the White House, to the Congress, to the public, and should have the resources to focus on key priorities. Impacts and response strategy research and assessment is not the biggest ticket item, for example compared to the cost of global observing systems, but it needs to be focused.
A new entity to manage this should not take anything away from the other agencies — the National Science Foundation supporting university researchers, NASA and NOAA flying satellites, the EPA and Energy Department labs, the Smithsonian research centers, and so forth. But it should get some things done that have turned out to be extremely diffcult to do under the current set-up of a loose multiagency confederation of science programs, overseen by White House political offices, which have blatantly interfered with the communications process, and that the program has not really been able to protect itself from.
I’m not sure how all of that articulates institutionally, but we clearly need to deal with both mitigation and adaptation, the USGCRP needs to develop new institutional capabilities along those lines, we need strong leadership, a focused budget, and independent assessments. The aim has to be for society to get global warming and climatic disruption dealt with on a decisionmaking and implementation level, and the science program needs to be designed to communicate with and support that preparedness effort.