Draft federal climate research plan gives new emphasis to ‘decision support,’ sustained assessments, and communications

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Will the Obama administration stand up for the priorities in this plan and push for funding it when the going gets rough with the denialists in Congress?  We talked with the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media about the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s draft 10-year strategic plan for climate and global change research. The plan, now being updated for the first time since 2003, aims to build on the $2 billion federal program’s strengths in scientific research and global observing systems by significantly enhancing the program’s science-for-society component. The plan sets goals of building sustained capacity to assess impacts and vulnerabilities, informing decisions on adaptation and mitigation, and advancing public communication and education.

The United States Global Change Research Program Strategic Plan 2012-2021 has just completed a 60-day period of being posted for public review and comment. A final version of the plan should be issued in the near future.

The following goals frame the Strategic Plan:

• Goal 1: Advance Science: Advance scientific knowledge of the integrated natural and human components of the Earth system
• Goal 2: Inform Decisions: Provide the scientific basis to inform and enable timely decisions on adaptation and mitigation
• Goal 3: Sustained Assessments: Build sustained assessment capacity that improves the nation’s ability to understand, anticipate, and respond to global change impacts and vulnerabilities
• Goal 4: Communicate and Educate: Advance communications and education to broaden public understanding of global change, and empower the workforce of the future

Earlier, we spoke with the Yale Forum on Climate Change & Media for their article,  “Communications, Decision Support Seen Key In Government’s Research Plan.” Excerpt:

Communications, decision support, and outreach to decision makers could get added emphasis in a long-overdue revised strategic plan for federal government climate science, now in a public comment period.

The revised strategic plan for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is to replace a plan developed in 2003 by a less-enthusiastic Bush administration, but it’s aggressive implementation under the Obama administration that could make the real difference. …

The new strategic USGCRP plan has attracted the interest of the National Academy of Sciences, which has a committee of experts overseeing its development, and from many in the research community and political arenas. The previous strategic plan had attracted substantial controversy.

Leaders of the 13 federal agencies comprising the USGCRP are to announce the new plan in December 2011. …

The USGCRP coordinates and integrates federal research on environmental change, including climate change. The new plan is to dictate research from 2012 to 2021 and guide USGCRP priorities in coming years. …

Revisiting History of Earlier Plan

… Rick Piltz, director of Climate Science Watch, a nonprofit group that examines how government officials use climate research in policy decisions, had been a staffer at the USGCRP coordination office (then called the Climate Change Science Program) and was involved with development of the previous strategic plan under the Bush administration. Piltz resigned his position in 2005 over what he considered to be political interference that mischaracterized climate science.

“The 2003 strategic plan had elements of strategic goals, but it didn’t give a clear picture of who will do what,” Piltz said in an interview. The 2003 plan, he continued, was developed under a high level of political sensitivity toward climate change. “It had very cautious language, and it suppressed all references to the first National Climate Assessment,” said Piltz.

Piltz said the new plan is “way overdue” but falls short in some key areas. “I think the intention is good,” he said. “They’ve tried to be more responsive and concise. But this strategic plan doesn’t have a budget, and it doesn’t look at obstacles …

Communication and education — reaching a diverse audience, engaging people, cultivating a knowledgeable American workforce — are the least developed parts of the plan, according to Piltz. “The words are good but compared to the other sections, it seems underdeveloped and under-cooked,” Piltz said.

Conversely, Piltz remarked that the “advancing the science” section is built on decades of major research [that] is moving forward with a highly detailed and very clear research agenda.

Everything Hinges … on Implementation

Richard Moss, senior staff scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, in College Park, Maryland, had been director of the USGCRP, then called the Climate Change Science Program, during development of the 2003 strategic plan.

“We got dinged because of political circumstances,” said Moss. “In this case, the administration is not doubting climate science, and we are able to have an honest dialogue about what the plan needs.”

Moss said the strength of this new strategic plan is that it ties environmental change to societal change, especially through informing decision makers and communicators. “Everything now hinges on the implementation of the plan,” Moss said. …

As with most strategic plans once adopted, implementation remains the next critical step.

Some of my additional thoughts that weren’t included in the piece as posted:

I think this an honest effort, but the question is: at the level of people who actually control the money, what exactly is the buy-in as to who will put money on doing what? And the more politically sensitive it gets – you know, you start really communicating the climate change problem for real, you start giving advice to ‘decisionmakers’ for real, you start to piss off right-wing people on the Hill, and you start to draw controversy.  And the USGCRP leaders are kind of risk-averse career federal executives and program managers. They don’t want controversy. So what are they willing to do in terms of decision support and communication and engagement that has real integrity?  I’m not sure you can do it in a way that will please everybody without turning it to complete nothingness.

Even now, with the fiscal 2012 appropriations, what we’ve seen is members of Congress going after any line item they can lay their hands on that has anything to do with climate.  Its like, no, the Department of Homeland Security will not participate in the federal Climate Adaptation Task Force. The Army Corps of Engineers will not do any climate adaptation planning. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will not implement its policy statement on climate adaptation.  No you may not do this, no you may not do that. Trying to kill any use of scientific intelligence for national preparedness planning. And the debt-ceiling deal, which Obama and the Democrats agreed to, pretty much guarantees budget cuts as far as the eyes can see.

So if they’re going to target climate-related funding, they’re definitely not going to be happy to see these assessments and ‘decision-support’ documents and public education coming out of the USGCRP, if its any good. They’re going to want to kill it.

Behind the scenes, among federal planners, everybody knows this is politically very sensitive stuff that they are wading into. They’re trying to do it in a way that you can’t meaningfully argue with because it’s scientifcally based and in the public interest.  But it’s still going to be controversial.

You just give policymakers and the public a straightforward education in what the IPCC, and the National Climate Assessment process, are coming up with, and you will be attacked.  So how do you implement a reasonable strategy that tries to connect the science to societal consciousness and societal management? And you have a program that’s, for the most part, never pushed very hard in the area of external communications.

When the first National Assessment was suppressed by the Bush Administration, the whole USGCRP leadership rolled over in craven surrender. There was no pushback at all. Now we have Obama in the White House, so there’s not the kind of overt disinformation coming from the top.  But there’s still the question of how strong will the support be?  Will the President embrace the National Assessment and the Climate Service, and tell the American people why they’re so important, and articulate the key points and stand up for them? If he doesn’t, then they really are a vulnerable target.

And I don’t hear the President talking about climate and global change at all, which must send a message to the leadership in the agencies to be careful.  To kind of keep it low key.

Another bad sign, another leadership failure:  Congress kills request for National Climate Service.  More on this later.

Earlier posts:
House Science Committee Republicans aim to slash climate and sustainable energy programs

Dangerously Unprepared: Congressional Budget Cuts are Leaving Americans Vulnerable to Climate Extremes

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

Budget cuts loom as the U.S. launches a National Climate Assessment

Tom Karl discusses plans for NOAA Climate Service

 

 

 

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