2. WATCHDOGGING FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CLIMATE PROGRAMS & LEGISLATION
Furthering our understanding of how human activities are affecting weather patterns, climate, hydrological cycles, and the ecological systems that support and sustain all life on Earth has traditionally and globally been viewed as a valuable and essential endeavor that transcends politics and short-term aspirations. The United States of America leads the world in climate science and global change research under the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) to develop and coordinate “a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” Established in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush under a presidential initiative with strong bipartisan support, the US Congress codified this interdisciplinary, interagency program by passing the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (GCRA), which mandates a variety of requirements that must be met on the timelines Congress established. In plainer terms, under US law, the executive branch is required to conduct certain climate change science research, assessment, and reporting activities, regardless of who occupies the White House or what the President’s and the current administration’s policy preferences and priorities may be. Over a dozen agencies and departments operate climate programs that fall under the USGCRP, most notably, NASA, NOAA, NSF, USGS, DOE, and others. Facilitated by a National Coordination Office, the program is steered by the Subcommittee on Global Change Research under the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Sustainability, overseen by the Executive Office of the President.
However, now well into the Trump Administration, the USGCRP is without a White House liaison and, presumably, without any champions in the White House, especially given that President Trump has not yet appointed a presidential Science Advisor to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Further, neither President Trump nor Vice President Pence support the notion that climate science is a national priority, or perhaps even has a basis in reality, as evidenced by President Trump’s stated belief that climate change is a “hoax.” Further, plans to impose deep budget cuts into discretionary programs to fund a military build-up has climate science program managers concerned that key research and assessment activities will be shut down.
Our nation’s energy systems, agriculture and food production, water resources, infrastructure, and nearly all private commercial business enterprises are vulnerable to abnormal weather patterns and climate conditions that, as a result of a steady, multi-decadal global warming trend, are damaging the US economy and imposing hardships to communities everywhere. Most Americans in communities across the country now accept that climate change is no longer an abstract, theoretical threat to society: they clearly see that dangerous disruptions to our climate system are occurring now, in real time, to real people, in real places. The fact that climate change has become politicized in the US and that more than a handful of elected officials have opted not to “believe in” climate change, as if it were a religion, does not alter the reality: the seas are continuing to rise, massive floods are causing death and destruction, prolonged droughts are compromising crops and forests, severe storms are causing emergency declarations and devastating families and neighborhoods. A key component of the USGCRP is the periodic national assessment of climate change impacts required by the GCRA; a comprehensive report is due to the Congress and the public every four years. Compliance with this legal mandate has been inconsistent across presidencies; the George W. Bush Administration even buried the 2000 national assessment to keep the American people from drawing connections between fossil fuel use and damaging climate impacts (see CSPW’s latest White Paper).
Climate Science & Policy Watch continues to carry out its original mission by watch-dogging the federal climate science programs, in order to call attention to instances of political tampering and to protect climate scientists from having their important work censored, suppressed, or otherwise compromised. Already, we are concerned to see that the Trump Administration has been altering and deleting government website content having to do with climate change, and beginning to roll back and unwind climate change programs and policies undertaken by the Obama Administration. We are teaming with other organizations to enhance our watchdog capabilities, organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. CSPW is also on the lookout for instances of self-censorship, a common phenomenon that occurs when federal civil servants operate in fear-based environment in which worry that an activity or project will catch the negative attention of White House officials is avoided by simply avoiding the activity in question. GAP has warned about the power of this “chilling effect” on public servants and would-be whistleblowers for decades. The most notable act of self-censorship so far under this administration is the decision by the Center for Disease Control to cancel a large conference scheduled for February 2017 to explore the links between climate change and human health. “Anticipatory surrender” is one way federal employees choose to protect themselves and their programs from attack, but is also harmful in that it deprives the taxpayer of the fruits of federal research.
Indiscriminate budget cuts pose another large threat to a well-functioning climate science research program; CSPW will be keeping a close eye on the budget process as appropriations bills make their way through Congress. CSPW will also be on the lookout for new legislative initiatives that are harmful to our climate science capabilities, such as proposals put forth by Rep. Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science Committee, and others. Lastly, CSPW will be working on a project to assess the health and well-being of the USGCRP under the Trump Administration and how to build a stronger constituency that will go to bat for climate science by articulating the value and importance of these research and assessment activities to Members of Congress. In the fall of 2017 we will be producing a White Paper on this topic.