Proposed NOAA Climate Service attacked and defended at House Science Committee hearing

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U.S. Drought Outlook through July 2011 (Source: NOAA)

Following some preliminary skirmishing at the House Science, Space and Technology’s hearing June 22 on the proposal to create a Climate Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the real partsian ‘conservative’ objection to the NOAA reorganization was evident: flat-out denial of the validity and importance of climate science and the need to incorporate climate change into societal decision-making.

See also:  Letters in support of the NOAA Climate Service that the House Science Committee hasn’t made public

On June 22 the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing to review the Administration’s fiscal year 2012 budget request proposal to reorganize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create a Climate Service.  NOAA proposes to spend $346 million on the Climate Service in FY2012 that will be funded through the transfer of assets and resources from existing line offices; thus the Climate Service will be budget neutral.

Witnesses at the hearing included Dr. Jane Lubchenco (Administrator, NOAA) and Mr. Robert Winokur (Deputy Oceanographer, Department of the Navy).

Witnesses Lubchenco and Winokur at NOAA Climate Service hearing June 22, 2011 (photo: House Science, Space and Technology Committee)

Despite Dr. Lubchenco’s assurance that the reorganization within NOAA to create the Climate Service will increase efficiency in responding to growing demands for climate data, help communities and businesses adapt to climate change, and consolidate the NOAA’s existing climate activities, Republicans on the committee launched a three-pronged attack on the proposal. They maintained that NOAA has been uncooperative and irresponsible in its proposal for reorganization thus far, and that the change will negatively impact existing research programs.  While Democrats, especially ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) offered insightful questions and support, climate science denialist sentiments dominated.  The GOP seems determined to prevent a reorganization that will produce, as Congressman Broun (R – Georgia) termed it, “a propaganda office” with no goals “other than political advocacy.”

Dr. Lubchenco pointed out that this organizational shift is simply “good government,” allowing NOAA to meet growing demand for climate services, creating increased transparency and collaboration between government agencies and the private sector, and supporting economic innovation in related private sector industries.

“Our core climate science, information, and service activities are distributed across multiple line offices and therein inhibit our ability to efficiently target and deploy our resources and efforts,” she explained. “Americans are demanding more and better products to help them prepare for severe weather events and other hazards” (written testimony).

Mr. Winokur from the Department of the Navy pointed out that efficient access to climate information is integral to the U.S. Navy’s mission to anticipate future threats to national security.  While the Navy holds no official position on how NOAA should organize itself, any system that would enhance the ability to extract information “for tactical, operational, and strategic planning and execution” (written testimony) corresponds with interests of the Navy and the nation as a whole.

Chairman Ralph Hall (R-Texas) opened the hearing with derisive attacks on the conduct of NOAA, complaining about late witness statements and unanswered questions from the committee.  Following the Chairman’s opening statement, Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) accused Dr. Lubchenco of advancing the Climate Service proposal without congressional approval.

Mr. Rohrabacher cited a number of NOAA’s recently-hired employees – a Climate Service Transition Director, and six Regional Climate Service Directors.  Dr. Lubchenco explained that the regional directors act under previously existing authority, and are not included in the proposed reorganization. Furthermore, she argued that establishing a transition director is an essential aspect of planning that should accompany any proposed reorganization, whether or not the change actually occurs.

However, Rohrabacher interpreted these actions as an attempt to overstep congressional authority.  He concluded, “Something is going on…that you do not have the authority to do with your budget, and I think we need a further look.”

The larger objection to the reorganization followed these preliminary hostilities: flat-out denial of the validity and importance of climate science.  Andy Harris (R – Maryland) echoed Rep. Broun, suggesting that the proposed climate service would exist only to produce sensationalist scare tactics, rather than scientific data.  He cited an article reproduced in NOAA’s online magazine ClimateWatch that included an illustration of a four-foot sea level rise in Kent Narrows, Maryland.  “Is this science?” he asked, calling the article “absolutely atrocious.”  Oversimplifying the role of the proposed climate service to an online magazine publication, he asked, “is this where we’re going to concentrate millions of dollars?”

In the same vein, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) accused NOAA of proposing a service that will “be driven by a political agenda and not scientific research needs,” citing proposal documents that he alleges indicate that NOAA will be conducting research that supports greenhouse gas reduction policies. (Next Generation Strategic Plan).

Dr. Lubchenco fielded these questions by assuring the committee that NOAA is not trying to push a political ideology.  Rather, she emphasized that the agency is trying to establish an efficient data service to promote near-term uses of climate forecasts for decision-making in both private and public sectors.  She maintained, “Our proposed reorganization has nothing to do with cap and trade,” and that “there is no advocacy in what we are proposing.”

Indeed, the proposal is impressively nonpartisan in that it seeks to strengthen a climate research service that produces decision-relevant information through something as benign as a shift in management. That it is receiving so much criticism speaks to the strength of the climate skeptic and denialist sentiments that have come to permeate the ‘conservative’ ideology.  Dr. Lubchenco is clearly trying to perform a service to the American people: to provide climate services in a way that will afford the best protection and capacity for adaptation in communities across the nation.

To this end, NOAA received strong support from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson.  In her opening statement, Congresswoman Johnson said:

“Instead of denying the existence of climate change, today we should be asking ourselves what we can do to help Americans adapt to the impacts of a changing climate…These impacts will extend far beyond mere inconvenience.  For anyone that is more concerned about financial costs of taking action to prevent and adapt to climate change, I ask you to consider the economic impacts such as prolonged droughts and heat waves, increased flooding, more intense storms, species extinction and invasive species, sea level rise, melting polar ice caps, and mass migration, just to name a few.

“From the tornados in the South, drought and fires in the West, and flooding in the Midwest, regardless of their relation to climate change, we have seen in recent months how even isolated instances of these phenomena can devastate economies. That said; why would we not want to give people the tools and information needed to anticipate what is to come?

“We may not yet agree on the mechanics, scope, and scale of a program, but I believe we can all see the benefit of providing the individuals, communities, governments, and businesses in our districts with the type of reliable long-term climate information and services that will reduce our vulnerability to weather and climate events. I would hate to look back and regard the years we have spent discussing this as a lost opportunity to do something good for the next generation.”

This proposal is a much-needed step in the right direction.  Still, NOAA will not be able to serve the best interests of the nation while U.S. politicians continue to deny the validity of climate science, as well as the need for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptive preparedness to deal with the impacts of global climate disruption..

Hearing webcast

Committee webpage

NOAA Climate Services webpage

Earlier post:

NOAA Climate Service Blocked in 2011 Budget – Will Obama and Democrats let this happen again in 2012?

See also:

Will an Ideological Opposition to Climate Science Prevent Republicans from Making Government More Efficient?  (Climate Progress, June 22)

GOP Rips Plan for Climate Office (Washington Times, June 22)

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