Will Obama’s FY2011 budget fund essential new climate change research priorities?


Will the President’s forthcoming Fiscal Year 2011 budget request for the U.S. Global Change Research Program demonstrate a commitment to essential new research priorities? The National Research Council identified key research needed for understanding and responding to the implications of climate change for extreme weather and climate events and disasters, sea level rise and melting ice, freshwater availability, agriculture and food security, human health, and managing ecosystems. The Bush Administration, driven by its politics of downplaying the reality of human-driven climate change and the seriousness of potential impacts of climatic disruption, failed to move the USGCRP to a focus on impacts and response strategy research. The Obama Administration science policy leadership should be moving expeditiously to demonstrate that it is undoing this damage and backing it up with new funding priorities, before another year goes by.

The Obama Administration’s science policy leadership has stated its support for addressing significant gaps between the level of understanding of changes in the physical climate system and the more limited understanding of the likely impacts of climate change—on ecosystems, water resources, coastal areas, food production, human health, infrastructure, and other aspects of the well-being of social systems. 

In his testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in July 2009, OSTP Director John Holdren took note of the National Research Council recommendation to restructure 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.’”

His testimony continued: “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.”

CSW previously commented on Holdren’s testimony here.

The National Research Council’s 2009 report Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change establishes six priorities for reorganizing the USGCRP around integrated scientific-societal issues and the strengthening of research on the human and societal dimensions of climate change adaptation, mitigation, and vulnerability. These issues are:

o Extreme weather and climate events and disasters
o Sea level rise and melting ice
o Freshwater availability
o Agriculture and forestry
o Managing ecosystems
o Human health


The report also recommends baseline research on adaptation, mitigation, and vulnerability, and the need for agencies with appropriate expertise to “increase funding and take a leadership role in supporting, managing, and directing this research.”

The NRC recommendations highlight the need for a change in orientation to an overarching strategic research focus on adaptation, mitigation, and human and societal vulnerability. 

As Holdren noted in his testimony: “The USGCRP works most effectively to address national needs when the scientific capacities of individual agencies are leveraged with coordinated interagency planning and priority setting across the program. To encourage cooperation and budgetary discipline, the GCRA [Global Change Research Act] requires an integrated research plan in combination with an interagency budget cross-cut.”

But with its current leadership, structure, program priorities, budget, and lack of effective overall coordination, the USGCRP is ill-equipped to undertake major integrated social scientific research priorities. Properly addressing the need for an integrated research and assessment program to address climate change impacts and response strategies will require a clear mandate from the White House, a coordinated budget, and stronger program leadership. Strong OSTP leadership, moving expeditiously and aggressively, is needed to move the USGCRP research agenda in new directions and to support the creation of a new institutional capacity to reduce societal vulnerability to global climatic disruption.

The USGCRP Fiscal Year 2010 budget (which covers the 12-month period ending September 30, 2010), to the extent that it is decipherable, does not appear to reflect this type of integration and coordination to support shifting research priorities. It is unrealistic to expect that the USGCRP will develop and implement the needed research and budget priorities without a clear mandate, with OSTP backed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

OMB and OSTP coordination with USGCRP participating agencies and with Congress will be essential to secure, sustain, and properly allocate funding needed to maintain existing USGCRP physical climate science research while ramping up the needed impacts and human dimensions research.  The individual USGCRP agencies have potential research capabilities applicable to these new research priorities, but how these capacities can best be coordinated and leveraged is undetermined at present.

During 2009 OSTP should have moved aggressively to bring new high-level leadership to the USGCRP and to strengthen the USGCRP Coordination Office with new leadership capable of working with OSTP to drive the program in new directions.  Delay at the top in forging new directions for the USGCRP threatens to undermine this $2 billion program’s ability to meet the nation’s needs.

The President’s FY2011 budget, which will be released early this year, will carry the USGCRP all the way to September of 2011. We will be looking to see whether Dr. Holdren’s promised new priorities are reflected in this budget.

The NRC identified the following examples of research needs that are not being met adequately by the USGCRP.  This is an indication of what we will be looking for: 

Extreme Weather and Climate Events and Disasters

•  Improved understanding of climate thresholds and vulnerabilities, impacts, and adaptive responses in a variety of different local contexts across the country
•  Improved understanding of vulnerable populations (e.g., urban poor, native populations on tribal lands) that have limited capacities for responding to climate change
•  Ways to build adaptive capacity that can be generalized across individuals, communities, and countries
•  Decision support tools for entities responsible for hazard mitigation and management
•  Collection of socioeconomic research to inform impact, vulnerability, and adaptation research

Sea Level Rise and Melting Ice

•  Tools, datasets, and land management information to support coastal planning, including better data and resources provided via platforms that improve their usability by decision makers
•  Linking physical vulnerability with economic analysis, planning, and assessment of adaptation options
•  Improving understanding of increased risks of and damage from coastal storm surge flooding
•  Developing risk-management approaches for coastal development and local land-use planning

Freshwater Availability

•  Tools to predict change in water demand, which requires demographic models that incorporate climate change impacts and models that consider the effects of climate change on natural and agricultural landscape water use
•  Research on water governance, including adaptive management models, adaptive capacity building, and water systems sustainability
•  Research on the economics of water supply, demand, and conservation

Agriculture and Food Security

•  Regional, spatially explicit process models of land use change to project agricultural expansion, intensification, and abandonment; use of these to model the potential impacts of these changes on the major biogeochemical cycles, land-atmosphere exchange of water and energy, and human population dynamics
•  Place-based models of societal vulnerability and the various autonomous and planned adaptation pathways and coping strategies

Human Health

•  Assessment of the nation’s readiness to predict and avoid public and occupational health problems caused by heat waves and severe storms
•  Characterization of and quantification of relationships between climate variability, health outcomes, and the main determinants of vulnerability and equity within and between populations
•  Development of reliable methods to connect climate-related changes in food systems and water supplies to health under different conditions
•  Prediction of future risks in response to climate change scenarios and of reductions in the baseline level of morbidity, mortality, and vulnerability
•  Identification of the available resources limitations of, and potential actions by the current U.S. health care system to prevent, prepare for, and respond to climate-related health hazard and to build adaptive capacity among vulnerable segments of the US population

Managing Ecosystems

•  The effects of management strategies on climate, ecosystem services, and the resilience of ecosystems to climate change; field experiments and models designed to learn about coupled human- and environmental systems and to test different management interventions
•  The valuation of ecosystem services, including the economic or other costs associated with impacts of climate and other environmental changes
•  Adaptive approaches and institutional and governance mechanisms for addressing the regulatory aspects of special status species management

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