Part 2: John Holdren Senate testimony on new directions for climate research and information service


In July 30 Senate testimony, President Obama’s science and technology adviser John Holdren addressed the need for new directions for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, national climate change assessment, and the development of a National Climate Service—all along lines we have been advocating. 

See Part 1: John Holdren Senate testimony on climate change science and policy

In July 30 testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at a hearing on “Climate Services: Solutions from Commerce to Communities,” Dr. Holdren addressed the problem of new directions and research priorities for the $2 billion U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).  We, along with others, have been advocating that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), of which Holdren is the director, needs to play a strong leadership role and move the USGCRP from its 20-year primary focus on the physical climate system to also include a much stronger agenda for research on climate change impacts on society and the environment, and on research and assessment of mitigation and adaptation response strategies.  See for example, our earlier posts: 

White House science & budget offices must lead in revitalizing federal climate research (posted on April 27)

Questions for John Holdren Senate confirmation hearing to head Office of Science & Technology Policy (posted on Feb. 11)

The U.S. Global Change Research Program: What do we want from the next administration – For a National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative (posted on Feb. 6, 2008)

Dr. Holdren’s statement on the USGCRP included this:

Although the USGCRP supports a wide variety of research activities to gain more detailed predictive understanding of climate change, there remain significant gaps in going from an estimate of how much the climate may change to the effects these changes may have on ecosystem services, water resources, natural resource utilization, human health, and societal well-being. It is important for the USGCRP to make a strong commitment to providing the information that society is seeking in order to reduce vulnerabilities and improve resilience to variability and change. For example, a recent National Research Council report, Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenge of Climate Change, recommends restructuring the USGCRP around “…the end-to-end climate change problem, from understanding causes and processes to supporting actions needed to cope with the impending societal problems of climate change.” This will require the USGCRP to support a balanced portfolio of fundamental and application-oriented research activities from expanded modeling efforts to studies of coupled human-natural systems and institutional resilience.

In addition, it would mean boosting adaptation research; bolstering capacity to monitor change and its impacts (including not only enhancing our monitoring networks on land and for the oceans but also strengthening our system of Earth-observation satellites); producing the sorts of integrated assessment of the pace, patterns, and regional impacts of climate change that will be needed by decision makers as input into their deliberations on the metrics and goals to be embraced for both mitigation and adaptation; and making climate data and information accessible to those who need it….

Adaptation Research

There currently exists limited knowledge about the ability of communities, regions, and sectors to adapt to a changing climate. To address this shortfall, research on climate change impacts and adaptation must include complex human dimensions, such as economics, management, governance, behavior, and equity. Interdisciplinary research on adaptation that takes into account the interconnectedness of the Earth system and the complex nature of the social, political, and economic environment in which adaptation decisions must be made would be central to this effort. Given the relationships between climate change and extreme events, the community of researchers, engineers and other experts who work on reducing risks from natural and human-caused disasters will have an important role to play in framing climate change adaptation strategies and in providing information to support decision-making during implementation. For example, assessments of emergency preparedness and response systems, insurance systems, and disaster-relief capabilities are an important component of a society’s adaptive capacity.

This suggests that, after years of White House neglect and political undermining, the USGCRP under Holdren’s leadership may begin to move in the right direction.  However, there are substantial insitutional obstacles to translating these stated priorities into a functioning, integrated impacts and adaptation research program – which we will be discussing in upcoming posts.  It is essential to get this transition done right.

Eight years after the first National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts, sponsored by the USGCRP and completed in 2000, was suppressed by the Bush administration, Holdren suggested that this process, involving what should be an ongoing two-way communication between experts and stakeholders, will be revitalized: 

Preparing for and adapting and responding to the impacts of climate change must start locally and regionally, as each region is distinct, and each type of impact is experienced in different ways in different places and for different sectors of the economy. Any national assessment activity must engage localities and sectors to aggregate information into a national picture of climate impacts, and should also use this engagement to gather information on the “demand-side” of the adaptation problem, where people live and work, to reorient research and observation investments. While there are certainly issues where national policy steps are warranted, there will be many challenges where individuals, public and private sector organizations, local communities, states, and regions will need to respond. USGCRP activities need to serve all of these scales and stakeholders, not dictating what policies to follow, but providing information and capabilities needed by those experiencing the impacts so that they can prepare for and adapt and respond to future conditions.

See:  The US National Assessment of climate change impacts is now available on DVD, free of charge (posted on Jan. 16)

Holdren said that OSTP is convening an interagency group to design a National Climate Service that will make effective use of federal capabilities to communicate relevant climate change data, forecasts, and information to users at all levels, “e.g., local, regional, national, and international.”  This is in keeping with the provision in H.R. 2454, the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill passed by the House in June, for a 2-year planning process led by OSTP.  It is essential to get the structure and function of a National Climate Service right, and Holdren’s approach is preferable to prematurely creating the NCS in a single agency, or designating a single lead agency, such as NOAA, at this stage:

See our posts:
House climate bill gives White House science office lead role in guiding climate research & services (posted on July 1)

“The concept is so broad that it may not make sense to place a climate service inside NOAA.” (posted on April 21)

Holdren said:

Just as the nation’s climate research efforts require and benefit from interagency and academic partnerships, so too will the development and communication of climate change information to users. No single agency is capable of providing all of the information and services needed to inform decision-making. To be successful, the delivery of climate services will require sustained federal agency partnerships and collaboration with climate service providers and end users.

While much work has been done to evaluate the need for climate services and a National Climate Service, the Administration believes that additional assessment and analysis of existing climate-service capabilities and user needs for climate services is necessary. A National Climate Service and, more broadly, our nation’s approach to delivering climate services will require that such analysis and assessment is ongoing, science-based, user-responsive, and relevant to all levels of interest, e.g., local, regional, national and international. Such a framework must also be able to adapt to new developments in the scientific understanding of climate change and resultant impacts to serve the needs of decision-makers and the public.

The Administration recognizes the Nation needs reliable and accurate climate information. To promptly address this issue, the OSTP is working to convene a task force with representation from a diverse group of key agencies whose charge will be to examine national assets, existing data and information gaps, and costs related to the development of a cohesive framework for delivering accurate climate-related information to the public. This process is intended to result in a more detailed functional and organizational approach for delivering climate services to the nation, in concert with the Administration’s views presented here for a broad authorizing framework.

All of this leaves significant questions and unresolved issues, but it opens the door to further steps in the right direction.


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