US drought planning: Congress reviews the National Integrated Drought Information System

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As the US Drought Monitor recorded more than 70% of the country as Abnormally Dry or, worse, under Moderate, Severe, Extreme, or Exceptional Drought conditions this month, the House Science Committee held a hearing to examine the role of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) in drought planning. While federal agencies envision NIDIS as, among other things, a tool to help communities prepare for and adapt to climate change impacts, we saw at the hearing a failure in some quarters of Congress to recognize and value this role.

CSW attended the July 25 hearing held by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where we saw Republican committee members juggle support for NIDIS (and by extension their agricultural- and business- focused base) without acknowledging the long-term role that drought monitoring services will play in US preparedness and adaptation to the impacts of a changing climate.

Witnesses included Dr. Roger Pulwarty, NIDIS Director at NOAA; Dr. James Famiglietti, Director of Earth System Science, Universityof California, Irvine; business and agricultural representatives, as well as Gregory Ballard, Mayor of Indianapolis. You can access the hearing charter, witness statements, opening statements, and the archived webcast at the hearing webpage.

NIDIS aims to “improve the nation’s capacity to proactively manage drought-related risks, by providing those affected with the best available information and tools to assess the potential impacts of drought, and to better prepare for and mitigate the effects of drought.”  Discourse during the hearing revolved mostly on NIDIS’s past success and goals for improvement, focusing on operational, near-term goals like raising public awareness of drought and its impacts, as well as providing earlier, more accurate drought forecasts to support agricultural planning. The plight of crops and businesses in the current drought was, of course, a major focus.

Although the hearing was characterized by bipartisan support for NIDIS, climate change was, predictably, a point of contention.  Committee Chair Ralph Hall (R-Texas) wasted no time in claiming that the current drought cannot be attributed to climate change:

“History suggests that severe and extended droughts are inevitable and part of natural climate cycles.  In any event, debating the causes of drought is not the question in front of us today.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) fired back in her opening statement:

“We cannot have a comprehensive approach to drought research and mitigation without exploring the potential linkages with a changing global climate… To play politics and categorically deny the linkage between climate change and extreme weather is both irrational and irresponsible. Policy makers at every level have a duty to protect public welfare, and ignoring the realities of climate change simply leaves us less informed and ill-prepared for catastrophic events such as droughts and floods.”

She commented further on the lack of depth of Republican support for NIDIS and similar programs, in light of their refusal to include climate change as a serious topic of discussion in the hearing:

“Bipartisan support for NIDIS leaves me a bit baffled at my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who have otherwise been relentless this Congress in trying to undermine or outright kill every other climate-related product, service, or research program.”

Contention over climate change’s role in NIDIS services, while obvious in the opening statements, was also apparent more indirectly in the witness statements.  Both Dr. Pulwarty and Dr. Famiglietti were careful to avoid specific mention of climate change in their testimonies, suggesting that they had anticipated that climate change denialist attitudes, pervasive among the House majority, would make that particular facet of NIDIS services a problematic line of discussion.

Rather, Dr. Pulwarty emphasized NIDIS’s past success in helping farmers and businesses alike cope with drought through better planning. Dr. Famiglietti, while acknowledging the importance of climate change in future drought forecasting, was careful to avoid a direct reference, referring instead to the increasing frequency of fires and using the less contentious term “global change:”

“[Drought] causes billions of dollars of damage each year in the United States, and perhaps much more when its far reaching effects, for example, on water availability, on food and energy production and prices, or on the frequency of fires, are accounted for…Our nation’s ability to monitor and predict the state of its water environment is well behind where it needs to be, to address not only issues of drought, but also of water availability, flooding, groundwater depletion, of human vs ecological water requirements, and of the impacts of global change.”

Thanks to a question from Ranking Member Johnson, Dr. Famiglietti later took on the relationship between drought and climate change directly:

“The links between climate change and increasing extremes like flooding and drought are becoming much better established. They have been predicted by the IPCC for a number of years now, and more research is being conducted that is bearing that out…. We’re working on quantifying the frequency and intensity of flooding and drought, and even in just a 10-year time period, we’re seeing increases and figuring out how to quantify them.”

But Republican members gave his comments little recognition. Andy Harris (R-Maryland) went so far as to reject Dr. Famiglietti’s assertion by quoting from the 2012 IPCC report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, that in central North America “droughts have become less frequent, less intense, [and] shorter.”  (Harris neglected to mention that the report also finds with medium confidence that central North America will be host to “droughts that will intensify in the 21st century… due to reduced precipitation and/or increased evapotranspiration.”)

Republican attitudes on this issue are not just “baffling,” as Johnson put it, but counter-productive – they are essentially supporting near-term measures for drought adaptation while refusing to look at the problem in a long-term framework.  But climate scientists have been warning us for years that droughts will become more frequent and more intense as temperatures rise.

To dismiss the drought problem as a recurring inevitability ignores long-term uses for NIDIS to help farmers, businesses, and communities adapt to a world more severely impacted by drought. It also ignores the role for NIDIS laid out by the federal Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which envisions the program as helping the US adapt to climate change.  The 2011 Progress Report of the Adaptation Task Force refers to the NIDIS Guide to Community Drought Preparedness as a method to help communities with drought monitoring communication, education on mitigation and response, and to provide examples of how municipalities can reduce the economic impacts of future drought by building community resilience.  The report mentions drought many times as a more frequent and severe event as climate change progresses, e.g., “More frequent and longer periods of drought anticipated with climate change will impact water supplies necessary for energy production.”

Another Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force report, Priorities for Managing Freshwater Resources in a Changing Climate — a report that exemplifies key steps in the kind of proactive strategic thinking that we need to see developed and implemented throughout the country from the national to the local level — recommends that NIDIS be part of an effort to develop a federal internet portal to provide current, relevant, and high-quality information on water resources and climate change.

While federal officials envision NIDIS as a tool to help communities prepare for and adapt to climate change impacts, clearly there is a failure in some quarters of Congress to recognize its value in these terms. Even NIDIS, which carries bipartisan support (for now, as Johnson’s testimony implies), is potentially vulnerable to congressional denialist efforts to cut funding for anything identified as climate-change related.

Thus, we see federal programs tending to play down, rather than play up, their relevance to climate change preparedness.  This is an unfortunate, even dangerous, state of affairs in the dysfunctional relationship between climate science and policymaking, perhaps nowhere more so than with the threat of more frequent and severe droughts under global warming.

Earlier posts:

US Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s evasiveness on climate change and drought

Kevin Trenberth on US wildfires, drought, and global warming

IPCC says essential actions needed to reduce risks of changing climate extremes

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One Response to US drought planning: Congress reviews the National Integrated Drought Information System

  1. sailrick says:

    kudos to Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)

    There is intelligent life in Texas after all.

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