Revisiting Presidential Transition recommendations on climate change assessment and preparedness


As the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy brings Katharine Jacobs on board as assistant director for climate adaptation and assessment, we revisit recommendations we submitted in November 2008 to the Presidential Transition Team for OSTP, calling for the reactivation of the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts and the establishment of a National Center for Climate Change Preparedness. It looks like some of what we recommended may now be on a path to being implemented.

Some previous posts:
(January 10) White House Science Office reactivating U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change

(January 12) Capitol Hill briefing draws needed attention to challenges of climate change impacts and adaptation

(September 28, 2009) CSW recommendations for Senate climate bill on preparedness, research, & climate services

News release on Jacobs appointment

Kathy Jacobs will work with the U.S. Global Change Research Program agencies and others to help coordinate climate assessment and adaptation activities. She reports directly to Sherburne “Shere” Abbott, associate director of environment for OSTP. Abbott reports directly to John P. Holdren, who serves as assistant to the president for science and technology and also directs OSTP in the Executive Office of the President.

In December 2008, the National Academies named Jacobs chair of its America’s Climate Choices Panel on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. She was a member of the National Assessment Synthesis Team that developed the first National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts, published in 2000-2001.

In November 2008 Climate Science Watch submitted a rather lengthy memo to the Obama Transition Team for OSTP, with our recommendations for strengthening and redirecting the U.S. Global Change Research Program, for a reactivated national climate change assessment processs, and for a new national climate change preparedness entity.  The following is a condensed extract (slightly modified for 2010) from what we wrote then.  It looks like some of what we recommended may now be on a path to being implemented:

Recommendations to the OSTP Transition Team on the
Global Change Research Program and Climate Change Preparedness

The U.S. Global Change Research Program/Climate Change Science Program (henceforth USGCRP) has, for the past 20 years, been the essential vehicle through which the federal government coordinates across multiple agencies its support for scientific research and observations on climate and global environmental change.  This program, operating under the Global Change Research Act of 1990, is an essential resource coordinating research and advancing scientific understanding on the urgent and ongoing questions about the relationship between human activities and change in the Earth system.  We will continue to need a strong global change research program on an ongoing basis into the future, as the nation confronts the 21st century challenge of managing our relationship to our environmental life support systems.

The Bush administration has mismanaged and undermined the USGCRP in several ways that now need to be corrected by the Obama administration.  It has failed to provide strong, credible leadership from the White House OSTP.  It has left the program adrift without strong agency leadership and without strong coordination for much of the time.  It has cut the program’s budget in real terms and failed to direct needed new resources into new research on climate change impacts.  It has allowed the space-based observing systems to deteriorate through budget cuts, mission delays, and mismanagement. White House political interference with the program’s climate change communications early-on undermined the integrity of the program and had a chilling effect on career science program managers.  The administration’s suppression of the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts and the scientist-stakeholder interaction process it had initiated undermined the program’s ability to carry out its “decision support” mandate in a manner from which it has yet to revover.  The new administration inherits a damaged program in need of strong new leadership, budget support commensurate with the scope and seriousness of the climate change problem, a renewed mandate, and redirected research and assessment priorities. …

Reactivate the National Assessment

The White House should direct the USGCRP to reactivate and revitalize the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts process that was undertaken during the 1997-2000 time period, scientifically updated and with some significant modifications to make it more effective.  The aim is not the replicate the first National Assessment but to improve on it.

In order to make the National Assessment process ongoing rather than framed basically as a single report-development exercise, and to substantially expand both expert participation and stakeholder involvement at the national, regional, and sectoral levels, the National Assessment process should have a dedicated coordinating entity and budget. 

The National Assessment should operate as a natural component of the scientific research enterprise, analogous to the IPCC assessments — except that the National Assessment should be an ongoing process, with more two-way communication with information users (rather than strictly periodic report-writing by eminent scientists), and with some built-in original analytical and ad hoc report-writing capabilities (i.e., not just an every 5 years state of the science literature review). 

By suppressing the National Assessment process and substituting a non-integrated set of synthesis reports (that are gradually being published, often years beyond their scheduled due dates), the Bush administration undermined the most significant effort by far ever undertaken by the USGCRP to make climate and ecosystem science relevant to societal concerns.  In this and other ways the Bush administration has systematically disconnected the USGCRP from what should have been an increasingly strong connection with society.  The Obama administration can begin to rectify this as a near-term action, with a very small percentage of the overall global change research budget, by reactivating this process.  The science has developed greatly during the past decade, while public and policymaker concern about climate change and its potentially disruptive consequences has intensified.  This makes renewed national climate impacts assessment timely and relevant.

The assessment should have a central focus on climate change impacts, climate-sensitive resources, vulnerability assessment, and developing issues for consideration by decisionmakers.  The assessment should have a more stakeholder-centric perspective rather than being driven essentially by science priorities.  All assessment products should have joint participation from the conception and design stage onward.       

The Global Change Research Act requires periodic assessment reports to the President and Congress (every 4 years), a requirement that the National Assessment could be designed to meet, in whole or in part.  But communication of assessment information to stakeholders needs to be ongoing, as does stakeholder input to the framing of research priorities.  In addition to major scheduled national-level reports, the USGCRP assessment component should have the capability to produce national, regional, and sectoral “special reports” and “technical reports” on the basis of needs defined through ongoing relationships between the USGCRP and information-users. …

However, there are fundamental limits to what the USGCRP per se can be expected to do in connection with the federal role in supporting implementation of climate change response strategies.  The National Assessment, as a component of the science program, should not be expected to engage in real-world mitigation and adaptation problem-solving activity — that requires a dedicated federal climate change preparedness entity. 

National Center for Climate Change Preparedness

The President and Congress should establish a new National Center for Climate Change Preparedness.

Enabling the federal government to play a more active role in getting climate change “dealt with” as a practical problem of societal management calls for something that does not yet exist.  That missing something could be established by the Obama administration as a new resource and modality for dealing with the practical implementation of adaptive preparedness for climate change

Whatever international climate policy agreement the Obama administration participates in negotiating, and whatever U.S. climate change policy is enacted—an emissions cap and trade system, a carbon tax, regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, a major mobilization to develop and deploy new clean energy technologies, or any combination thereof—there will be a host of practical implementation issues throughout the system, to put emissions reductions into place and to seek to adapt to impacts that can’t be avoided. 

With the federal government being for the most part AWOL both in enacting strong policies and in implementing solutions, many initiatives have been undertaken by states and in communities around the country, and many businesses and nonprofit organizations have recognized the need for change.  The time has come for the federal government to engage with and promote such efforts in a new and much more active way.

Climate change is not a problem that can be “solved”, in the sense that global warming can be “stopped” or its impacts entirely averted.  Rather, climate change is now part of the evolving context in which a wide range of public policy, management, and planning decisions will be made from now on.  There is no quick-fix solution. The problem is to develop an effective response strategy for managing our relationship to climate change, and putting in place throughout society the institutional capability for ongoing climate-related decisionmaking and action. The federal government must play an essential role in developing this capability, starting with putting its own house and its relationship to the rest of society in order.  This will require new federal initiatives and resources and the creation of new federal entities for dealing with the climate change problem. The threat we face from unchecked global climatic disruption is far too serious to be met with the kind of limited and disjointed federal response that we have seen thus far.

Dealing with climate change will require a proactive, problem-solving orientation in the federal government.  While action at the state and local levels of government, in the private sector, by nongovernmental organizations, and by individuals are all essential, they will not aggregate in a sufficiently powerful and timely way to meet the looming threat without strong federal leadership, support, and commitment of resources. …

We need a federal climate change planning and preparedness entity that will work supportively with state and local governments and other relevant authorities and stakeholders, linking scientific and technical expertise to pragmatic real-world solutions and linking Washington with the grassroots. The problem is essentially two-fold:  1)  We currently have no organized, systematic means in place for connecting the informational needs of stakeholders with the relevant and appropriate expertise that exists across our government; and 2) federal agencies and programs with climate change-relevant programs are typically stovepiped and turf-conscious such that interagency cooperation is the exception more than the rule.

The result is that climate information and decision support are provided in an ad hoc, checkerboard fashion around the nation. With some notable exceptions, the vast majority of state and local officials whose jobs are affected by climate change don’t receive technical support or other assistance from the U.S. government.  Moreover, it is not clear where to go or whom to contact with any particular question or need for information.

A National Center for Climate Change Preparedness in the executive branch, operating with a lean budget and staff, could perform this function by acting as liaison between key stakeholders – perhaps starting with state governors and mayors of major U.S. cities – and federal resources and expertise. … 

This entry was posted in Climate Science Watch, Obama Administration. Bookmark the permalink.