U.S. research effort lacks focus, funding — NAS report

Posted on September 14th, 2007
By Lauren Morello

Greenwire: The Bush administration’s overarching climate science research effort has helped answer basic questions about global warming, but its progress is jeopardized by a lack of central budget authority and planned cuts in the number of satellites that monitor the Earth and its atmosphere, the National Academy of Sciences said today.

Begun in 2002, the Climate Change Science Program coordinates about $1.7 billion in research across 13 federal agencies.

But the program, which has released just 2 of 21 planned reports on various aspects of climate science, has not adequately addressed how climate change will affect everyday life, including agricultural yields, weather patterns, and the best ways to adapt or mitigate rising temperatures, concluded the NAS panel that reviewed the climate change effort — the first independent analysis of the program’s progress.

“Discovery science and understanding of the climate system are proceeding well, but use of that knowledge to support decision making and to manage risks and opportunities of climate change is proceeding slowly,” the science academy panel said in its report.

Agencies that participate in CCSP spend $25 million to $30 million per year of the program’s $1.7 billion overall budget to study how climate change will affect humans, the committee noted.

“There is no national assessment of [climate change] impacts on agriculture, water and health,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, chairman of the NAS panel and an atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “And as of last year, there were 2 billion people living in urban areas. That’s going to double 20 years from now, and how is that going to impact pollution and production of greenhouse gases?”

Answering such questions is important to allow local and state governments, water and forest managers and other groups to plan for the effects of climate change, the committee said.

But addressing the gap will be difficult because CCSP’s director does not have the power to direct or prioritize climate spending at the 13 agencies that participate in the research effort, Ramanathan said.

“CCSP itself doesn’t have too much clout or leverage, because they don’t have funding” beyond a minuscule amount to pay for a small central office, he said. “We see progress happen when the agency interests coincide with CCSP directives.”

Satellite program cuts

Another “red light” is a decrease in the number of satellites and other instruments that monitor the Earth and its atmosphere from space, Ramanathan said — echoing an earlier NAS report, released in January, that warned deep cuts to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth and climate science budgets could lead to a “potential collapse of the system of environmental satellites.”

In 2006, more than 120 instruments were used to collect climate data — a number that is expected to drop to fewer than 80 instruments by 2010, a decline of 25 percent or more, Ramanathan noted.

And a third problem the committee identified is the impact relatively new federal laws governing data collection and report authorship have had on the climate change program’s ability to produce its current series of 21 reports.

CCSP has issued final versions of two of the 21 reports it had planned to complete by 2006, a delay program managers attributed to difficulties complying with the Federal Advisory Committee Act and the Data Quality Act, said NAS panel member Maria Carmen Lemos, a policy analyst at the University of Arizona’s Udall Center for Studies of Public Policy.

“As far as we can tell, [the delay] is bureaucratic-driven,” she said.

CCSP spokesmen did not return requests for comment at press time.

But several points made in the National Academy report echo public comments by prominent former directors of the Climate Change Science Program and its predecessor, the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

In testimony before the House Science and Technology Committee this spring, former CCSP Director James Mahoney told lawmakers that there is “a clear need” to grant CCSP new budget authority that would allow the program’s head to “fill gaps and generate new research thrusts that are difficult to support under individual agency mechanisms.

“Right now, there’s no move away from the idea that this is a program conducted in 13 parts by different agencies,” he said.

Mahoney, CCSP’s first director, retired for health reasons in 2006 and has not been permanently replaced.

At the same hearing, former USGCRP Director Michael MacCracken said he believed the Bush administration had placed too much emphasis on “reducing uncertainties relating to the science of climate change,” rather than understanding its effects on people and the environment (E&E Daily, May 4).


While at USGCRP, MacCracken presided over the production of the 2000 National Assessment of Climate Impacts — the first and only broad government report on climate change impacts geared to local and state governments and other decisionmakers.

The issues identified by the science academy, Mahoney and MacCracken have not escaped the notice of Congress.

Folded into the House energy bill is legislation introduced by Reps. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) that would overhaul CCSP to provide more useful information for local and state governments and other end users of federal climate research.

Across Capitol Hill, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is planning to introduce his own bill to “update our nation’s climate science program” and mandate a second broad national assessment of global warming’s impacts, Kerry spokeswoman Liz Richardson said today.