U.S. National Climate Change Assessment strategic planning kicks off in Chicago meeting

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The National Climate Assessment Strategic Planning Meeting held in Chicago from February 24-25 was part of the initial planning phase for the reactivation of the U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts. The first National Assessment was completed in 2000, but the Bush Administration suppressed its use by the federal government. Climate Science Watch attended the Chicago planning meeting.

Historical context of the U.S. National Assessment process

The first National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts was developed by a distinguished synthesis team and hundreds of other scientists and produced a set of national, regional, and sectoral reports that, at that time, was the most comprehensive and authoritative scientifically-based assessment undertaken of the potential consequences of climate change in the United States. The Overview and Foundation volumes of the assessment were completed in late 2000.

In collusion with the global warming disinformation campaign, the Bush Administration essentially suppressed the first National Assessment and subsequently sidestepped the intent of the Global Change Research Act of 1990—to produce an integrated scientific assessment that would effectively inform society and policymakers responsible for dealing with climate change. Once they suppressed official reference to the first National Assessment, the White House saw to it that this work was not used in planning for new climate change research, nor was a meaningful follow-on second National Assessment initiated, even though it was required by law.  This is a story that Climate Science Watch has told numerous times and won’t recapitulate in detail here (see links below).

In November 2006 the Center for Biological Diversity and two other environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit to compel the Bush Administration to end its violation of the Global Change Research Act’s requirement that the federal climate research program produce a periodic scientific assessment of global change impacts on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity. In August 2007, in the case of Center for Biological Diversity v. Brennan, a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and required the administration to produce a new scientific assessment by May 31, 2008. In response, the program issued a scientific literature summary report that served to met the minimum requirement for legal compliance a few days before the deadline.

In 2003, in the absence of any intention to produce an integrated national climate change assessment, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program announced that, during the next four years, it would produce a series of 21 climate science-related synthesis reports on various topics. However, production of the reports bogged down in interminable and dubious Bush Administration political and bureaucratic procedure, which delayed the originally scheduled release of many of the reports by years, until the last 5 were cleared on the final working day of the Administration. 

These reports represented a serious effort by teams of government and university scientists and other experts to communicate the state of knowledge in various areas of research, ranging from the global temperature record to weather extremes, to potential impacts of sea-level rise on the U.S. East Coast, to thresholds of change in ecosystems, to incorporating scientific uncertainty in decision-making. However, they did not amount to an integrated effort to effectively inform society and policymakers responsible for dealing with the climate change problem.  They were not designed for decision-support. Further, they typically were released on what could be termed a “stealth” basis – with little if any publicity and no acknowledgement by high-level administration officials. In at least one case, a lead author was directed by his agency not to talk with the press about the contents of the report. 

The material in the 21 CCSP synthesis reports was eventually synthesized by a distinguished panel of authors in the report Global Climate Change Impacts on the United States, a regionally and sectorally focused overview of the current state of the science. The report was released by the Obama Administration in June 2009.

The 2009 U.S. Impacts report was a significant effort, one that should be used to inform public discussion of the wide range of likely harmful consequences of global climatic disruption for the United States.  However, the development of the report did not include the kind of substantial stakeholder involvement and two-way communication between scientists and stakeholders that is needed for an ongoing process of assessing and informing decision-making on dealing with the impacts of global change. The Obama Administration has done little with the report and the President thus far has spoken little about the likely impacts of climate change on the United States.

The first National Assessment completed in 2000 was a pioneering experiment in stakeholder engagement and societal relevance. Building appropriately on this work during the past decade would have had a salutary influence on developing the “decision-support” component of the CCSP (now the U.S. Global Change Research Program) and would have advanced the Program’s approach to assessment priorities.  In particular, appropriate follow-up to the first National Assessment should have sharpened the focus of scientific research and assessment on climate change environmental and societal impacts, vulnerability, resilience, and analysis of proactive response strategies. 

Climate Science Watch has argued that the suppression of the first National Assessment was the central climate science scandal of the Bush Administration. The failure to build upon the progress it made is one clear manifestation of the eight years of opportunity squandered under an administration unwilling to come to grips with anthropogenic climate change and its implications for national policymaking and preparedness planning.

Planning for the revitalization of the National Assessment

The initial efforts toward a second National Assessment reflect a new approach to the process: an attempt to engage with stakeholders at an unprecedented level to assess levels of vulnerability and the appropriate federal role in both supporting and assessing the effectiveness of adaptation and mitigation efforts.  Previous Assessment activities have not sought to support both adaptation and mitigation decisions. 

These new priorities were articulated by John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in his December 2, 2009 testimony submitted to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming:

The next national assessment…will include sustained, extensive stakeholder involvement to ensure full regional and sectoral coverage…The lessons learned from the previous assessment activities provide the main ingredients and structure for this next assessment.  Understanding climate change impacts and adaptation requires a bottom-up approach—identifying impacts in a specific place or within an economic or industrial sector and aggregating information to larger scales.

The National Climate Assessment Strategic Planning Meeting in Chicago brought together a number of academic and federal scientists and support staff, including many with extensive experience in previous assessment activities, members of the non-profit community, and state and local planners currently involved in making adaptation and mitigation decisions.

The agenda included panel discussions on the mission, vision, and principles for the National Climate Assessment, current federal agency assessment activities, other assessment activities at the local, state, and national levels, and breakout discussions on how to build an enduring assessment structure, create the necessary partnerships, build breadth and depth of stakeholder engagement, and appropriately measure success.

There was also discussion of the relationship of the National Assessment to other current activities, including: the Interagency Task Force on Adaptation led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); the proposed NOAA Climate Service; the Department of the Interior Regional Climate Change Response Centers and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives; and ongoing assessment activities within multiple agencies, states, sectors, and NGOs.  These connections have not yet been clarified, and many of these activities are still evolving rapidly.

The relationship of the Assessment and these other efforts to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s scientific research activities needs to be defined, and poses a significant challenge.  A 2009 National Research Council report recommended a restructuring of federal climate research around the challenge of responding to the impacts of climate change on social and environmental systems.  The report called for a mission-oriented approach, integrating natural and social science research and connecting the worlds of science and policy-making to support decision-making on issues associated with climate change impacts and adaptation.  As Climate Science Watch has previously argued, it is crucial that the USGCRP develop a capacity to support research on the human dimensions of global climate change relevant to adaptation and preparedness planning. 

There was a broad consensus on the need to develop an ongoing Assessment process with robust partnerships that can meet both statutory and social and environmental needs.  The Assessment has the potential to feed into the process of building human and institutional capacity to make adaptation and mitigation decisions and to manage the risks and opportunities posed by climate change, and its success must be measured in terms of these real-world outcomes.  To that end, new types of metrics must be developed that are capable of meaningfully quantifying those outcomes. 
 
Although a comprehensive vision has yet to be defined, the strong sense of commitment to developing an innovative, lasting, and solutions-oriented approach to engaging with and serving stakeholders was clear.

The first National Assessment was initiated with strong White House leadership and support, in particular from Vice President Gore and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The assessment was carried out with the support of the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program under the leadership of chairman Robert Corell of the National Science Foundation. It was coordinated by a full-time National Assessment Coordination Office team under the leadership of Michael MacCracken. In developing the next National Assessment report and what should be an ongoing assessment process, high-level support from the White House and senior officials in participating federal agencies will be essential. At the day-to-day operational level, it will be essential to have a strong and well-staffed National Assessment team for coordinating the division of roles and responsibilities among participating agencies and overseeing the entire assessment process.

In December 2005, Rick Piltz wrote in the American Geophysical Union’s weekly periodical Eos:

Toward a Second U.S. National Climate Change Assessment

The climate science community, as well as policymakers and other users of assessments of climate change issues, should push to revitalize the National Assessment process and carry it forward into a new stage. There are many lessons to be learned from earlier work that can inform and improve a future effort [Morgan et al., 2005].

A second U.S. National Climate Change Assessment should be undertaken, based on advances since the 1990s in understanding the climate system and potential ecological and societal impacts of climate change in the United States. The new National Assessment should be developed as part of a process that institutionalizes a national climate change impacts assessment capability, i.e., an ongoing dialogue between scientists, policymakers, and other stakeholders, with periodically updated, scientifically-based assessments.

Further, as suggested by Morgan et al. [2005], the scope of the enterprise should be expanded to include, in an appropriate manner, the analysis of mitigation and adaptation response strategies. Finally, there must be a guarantee of scientific independence and lead author control in the production of climate change assessment reports that are commissioned by the federal government.

It is very encouraging to see the Obama Administration esentially adopting the position we argued for more than four years ago. But much time has been lost, and we are already well into the second year of this administration. We hope the Administration will move expeditiously now and without delay to implement this project. 

Earlier posts:

On the reactivation of the National Assessment (2010)

White House Science Office reactivating U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change

On the Global Climate Change Impacts on the United States report (June 2009)

Video link and key quotes from White House briefing on Global Climate Change Impacts report

On the first National Assessment report (2000)

The U.S. National Assessment of climate change impacts is now available on DVD, free of charge

Climate Science Watch testimony at House Oversight hearing

Center for Biological Diversity v. Brennan, Declaration of Rick Piltz

Court rules that Bush administration unlawfully failed to produce scientific assessment of global change

The “Vanishing” National Climate Change Assessment, Part 1: the Administration

The unfinished business of the National Climate Change Assessment scandal

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