Plans are underway to create a National Climate Service – But what does that mean, exactly?


Federal officials are formulating a plan to create a National Climate Service, a concept that the National Research Council defines as “the timely production and delivery of useful climate data, information and knowledge to decision makers.”  With more than 1/3 of our GDP dependent on weather and climate, and an entire population that is vulnerable to climate impacts, it is increasingly important for people to understand the local effects of global climate change, which will vary markedly from place to place, and will continue to change (and in a number of ways likely worsen) over time.  But what is the appropriate role of the federal government in assisting decisionmakers—e.g. state and local elected officials—with the myriad choices that will need to be made in order to cope with, and eventually adapt to, climate disruption?  Climate Science Watch is engaged in a deliberative process to help determine the answer – see Details. 

post by Anne Polansky

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken the lead in organizing a process for determining just how we should go about setting up such a federally funded service that, by definition, will require the participation of several government agencies and will serve a broad set of “customers.”  In parallel, CSW is organizing dialogues that will help to flesh out the particulars of this ambitious plan to help ensure that it meets the needs of society and that the appropriate role of the federal government is exercised.  (Stay tuned for updates on this project.)

Here, as we see it, is the challenge:

The need to be able to translate the fruits of the good work of the IPCC, the US Climate Change Science Program, and other ongoing scientific climate-related research and observations into information that is usable, useful, timely and relevant to people whose lives and livelihoods depend on present and future climate conditions is what the drive to create US National Climate Service is all about.  In collaboration with officials from other agencies and research institutions, NOAA has been engaged in a deliberative planning process for establishing an overall framework within the federal government that would spell out the respective roles and responsibilities of NOAA and other federal and non-federal entities, and provide a prescription for managing and operating a NCS. 

Though the idea has been kicked around for years—for example, the National Research Council has issued two reports of relevance:  A Climate Services Vision:  First Steps Toward the Future (2001) and Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services (2003)—a consensus has still not been achieved on how best to design, operate, and fund such an entity, or even whether a National Climate Service as it is being currently framed is the right vehicle for meeting today’s needs. 

For example, acknowledging the power of naming, is “National Climate Service” the right name for something that should be designed to encourage robust two-way dialogue among scientific and technical experts and the users or customers (decisionmakers) who will need to deal with climate change impacts, sooner or later?  Is it a “service”—or more of a “partnership” and therefore does the name “National Climate Partnership” better capture what’s needed?

Before going further with these questions, it’s important to understand where things currently stand in the policy discussions taking place now, at NOAA, in other agencies, among non-governmental organizations, and in the US Congress.  A brief synopsis follows:

In 2008, NOAA prepared a draft Strategic Plan and began making public statements that it was in the process of developing a National Climate Service—a NOAA-centric viewpoint was conveyed, perhaps unwittingly, but this was not lost on other agencies who also have a stake in this arena, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Geological Survey, convinced they have valuable resources and capabilities that can and should be brought to bear in the context of a National Climate Service.  Many in the climate policy community have also recommended that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers – because they are often called into operate on the front lines of climate change impacts (e.g. fiercer hurricanes, coastal erosion, flooding) – should also be brought in formally to an interagency entity established to assist communities in better understanding future climate conditions and ways to prepare for them. 

Partly in response to this sort of feedback NOAA held a three-day retreat in Vail, CO in June 2008 that included representatives from multiple federal agencies, and a variety of nongovernmental entities involved in delivering climate services.  The stated purpose of this exercise was:

To assemble a representative group of experts and stakeholders that will examine a long-range view of what a climate service should be and provide a productive and critical assessment of the draft NOAA Strategic Plan for a National Climate Service and a National Climate Service partnership. The review is expected to result in a written critique and set of recommendations addressing:
a) The purpose and justification of such a service
b) Expectations for the difference it will make in informed decision making
c) How we design and invest in scientific programs
d) NOAA’s role and leadership capabilities
e) Critical dependencies that the Service should build in order to succeed (e.g. what does the Service need from the US Climate Change Science Program/Global Change Research Program (CCSP/GCRP))

At the retreat in Vail, four “tiger teams” were established, each with 5-8 members, and charged with assessing the pros and cons for each of four scenarios:

•  Create a national climate service federation that would determine how to deliver climate services to the nation
•  Create a non-profit corporation with federal sponsorship
•  Create a national climate service with NOAA as the lead agency with specifically defined partners
•  Expand and improve weather services into weather and climate services within NOAA

In September 2008, NOAA’s Science Advisory Board released its review of the “NOAA Climate Services Strategic Plan” as a final report to NOAA (.pdf)

The four tiger teams met and deliberated over a period of several months in the fall of 2008.  Next week (March 9 and 10), Eric Barron—who serves as chair of the Climate Working Group, one of several under NOAA’s Science Advisory Board—will be delivering a summary of the tiger team reports to a formal meeting of the SAB in Silver Spring, MD.  The SAB will then take this information and produce a formal report to NOAA making recommendations for structuring and operating a National Climate Service.

In her confirmation hearing on Feb. 12, NOAA Administrator-designee Jane Lubchenco made particular reference to the National Climate Service, in her written testimony (emphasis added):

Now our country must rise to a new challenge—dealing with the impacts of the changing climate. In my work on the Ocean Commissions, I heard firsthand from businesses and state and local governments about the need for better information and predictions about the impacts of climate change in communities all across this country. From concern about droughts and sea level rise to changes in the chemistry of the ocean, there is a real hunger for more and better information. If confirmed, I will work to create a National Climate Service, which would be similar to the National Weather Service, within NOAA.  NOAA is the best agency in the government to synthesize the scientific data on climate change and create products and services that can be used by the public to guide important decisions such as where to build a road or wind turbines. This idea has been studied by the agency, the National Academy of Sciences, and by members of this Committee. It is an idea whose time has come, and I would like to make it happen.

One sentence here raises questions, specifically, “NOAA is the best agency in the government to synthesize the scientific data on climate change and create products and services that can be used by the public to guide important decisions such as where to build a road or wind turbines.”

This statement raises several serious question that, in our view, are worthy of a broader discussion and debate than we have witnessed thus far.  For example, in making critical decisions regarding infrastructure improvements and building new energy production facilities, won’t it be important for the Departments of Transportation and Energy, and the US EPA, for example, which have resources that should be brought to bear on these questions, to play a leading role?  How far along the continuum of “decision support” can and should NOAA go? 

Serious questions have also been raised about just how a National Climate Service would interact and overlap with the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP, renamed the Climate Change Science Program under President Bush).  Some NOAA managers have suggested that a Service should, in addition to providing climate data and information products and services, conduct climate impacts research and produce impacts assessments (a role that is, by law under the Global Change Research Act of 1990 the responsibility of the USGCRP). 

CSW is partnering with the Center for Clean Air Policy and The Keystone Center to host a series of dialogues designed to engage a broad range of stakeholders (existing and potential users of the technical assistance and decision support available in the federal government, at NOAA and elsewhere) to examine how best to go about ensuring that the needs of communities dealing with climate disruption are met.  These discussions are intended to provide an independent perspective on the issues under deliberation within NOAA and the relevant Congressional committees and to help ensure that any new entities or functions established at the federal level are commensurate with the challenges facing decisionmakers, and have the benefit of more diverse and broader input than we have seen so far.  We will be posting periodically on the developments arising from these discussions.   


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