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Posted at 11:50 AM ET, 05/26/2009

Congress Ponders National Climate Service

By Andrew Freedman

A significant shakeup may soon take place within the federal government's weather and climate programs, as the House Science and Technology Committee is scheduled to consider legislation on June 3 that would establish a "National Climate Service" within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Climate Service would head up the government's efforts to provide policy-relevant information about climate and climate change to decision makers and the public, something which outside reviews have found to be lacking in the country's multibillion dollar climate research programs to date.

As the deliberations on the proposal have made clear, the issue isn't so much whether to create a new climate entity of some kind, but rather how to go about doing so.

Keep reading for more on the possibilities of a National Climate Service...

Some, such as the National Weather Service Employees Organization, favor placing the new service within the existing National Weather Service (NWS), arguing that to do otherwise would duplicate existing functions and waste taxpayer dollars. The legislation to be considered next week, however, would create a new stand-alone office within NOAA, which currently appears to be the most likely scenario to be implemented. This approach is favored by President Obama's NOAA administrator, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, among others.

Wherever it is located, the important thing is that the new climate program successfully addresses some of the key shortcomings in U.S. climate science efforts that have been identified to date, particularly concerning translating results from scientific research into information that ordinary policy makers and citizens can actually use. This has been a particular criticism of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, which is an interagency collaboration that produces research reports on climate science.

The idea of creating an entity like the National Climate Service has been kicking around for many years, but it has gained significant traction recently due to growing concerns about persistent gaps in federal climate science programs. For example, a 2007 National Academy of Sciences report faulted the Climate Change Science Program for "inadequate" progress in "supporting decision-making and risk management."

Eric J. Barron, the director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told the House Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment at a hearing earlier this month that the country's current climate services are a "patchwork" that are ill-suited to help society prepare for and respond to climate change.

"Currently, there is no single source of authoritative, credible and useful information that will allow society to span such important topics as the physical aspects of sea level rise, temperature and precipitation, the resource implications of failed crops, anticipating adverse human health outcomes, robust water supply, managing changes in ecosystems, or the social implications of migrations and resource competitions," he stated in his written testimony.

Proponents of the new Climate Service, such as Lubchenco, see it as the best way to translate research results into practical tools that could help decision makers in a variety of climate-sensitive fields, such as water resources and agriculture.

The National Climate Service is one of Lubchenco's key goals, and was also pushed by Lubchenco's predecessor at NOAA, Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher.

In testimony before the same House subcommittee hearing on May 5, Lubchenco advocated for the Climate Service as a one-stop-shop for climate information, rather than the current system in which multiple agencies conduct climate analyses and project future conditions, but no particular agency plays a lead role.

"The nation needs an objective, authoritative, and consistent source of consolidated, reliable, and timely climate information to support decision-making," Lubchenco told members of the subcommittee. According to Lubchenco's written testimony and the current version of the House bill, the Climate Service would not absorb the functions and personnel of other existing agencies, but rather would serve a coordinating role. It is not yet clear, however, if the Climate Service would absorb elements of other so-called "line offices" within NOAA, such as some within the NWS.

Some climate policy analysts oppose setting NOAA up as the lead agency for a National Climate Service. For example, the nonprofit group Climate Science Watch has called a NOAA-led Climate Service a "dubious idea," mainly because of the many details that have yet to be worked out regarding how the new agency would collaborate with others that conduct climate-related work.

"How will NOAA carry out its primary charge--to "develop and provide access to policy-relevant climate information products, databases, decision tools, and services for Federal, State, local, and tribal government decisionmakers and policymakers"--without being able to readily tap into the many informational and other resources at other agencies, such as the US EPA, the USGS, NSF, and so on?" Climate Science Watch's Anne Polansky wrote on April 5. "Clearly, other agencies have much to offer in the way of providing "climate services" and assisting state and local decisionmakers in developing strategies for coping with and adapting to impacts such as extreme weather, sea level rise, prolonged droughts, and so on."

Although the NOAA leadership intends to avoid the potential fiasco of trying to consolidate the personnel and missions of other agencies that conduct climate-related research, the NWS Employees Organization sees the legislation as a threat to that agency's budget and human resources. Richard J. Hirn, the Organization's general counsel, told Congress that his organization favors renaming NWS the "National Weather and Climate Service," without creating a separate agency.

Part of the reason for the skepticism among members of the NWS Employees Organization is that the Weather Service already performs many climate functions, ranging from collecting climate data to making climate projections out to 90 days. For example, the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland, is part of the Weather Service, and it produces seasonal temperature and precipitation outlooks.

In addition to the bill that is slated to be marked up by the House Science Committee next week, the climate change legislation offered by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts also contains provisions that would establish a National Climate Service within NOAA. That bill was approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, and it now moves on to consideration by other committees, potentially reaching the House floor for a vote this summer.

By Andrew Freedman  | May 26, 2009; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Environment, Freedman, Government  
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Some (not all) personal thoughts:

Devil is in the details, especially in creating the equivalent of an organization chart – connecting the dots within NOAA and, especially difficult, ensuring necessary collaboration of NOAA with other agencies, e.g., NSF, NASA, DOD, DHS. The record on this, as I’ve personally witnessed and experienced, leaves something to be desired.

The NCS as currently outlined is primarily the organization to integrate and deliver climate information - “one stop shopping”. One, among other similar areas of potential difficulty appears to be that the NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction’s (NCEP) Climate Prediction Center (CPC) will produce the climate forecasts but, unlike the case now, hand them over to the NCS for delivery, interpretation, etc to users. This could be a problem with personnel as postulated by the NWS Employee’s Union. On the other hand, local expertise in regional centers certainly complements CPC expertise and strengthens the connection to users.

Collection, integration, and consolidation all available climate information and rendering it “user friendly” is clearly necessary. However, it’s not clear what new the NCS can deliver in the all important area of reliable and USEFUL predictions of REGIONAL (let’s say state scale) predictions of climate and climate change over time periods from months to decades. That capability simply does not exist and likely will not become a reality (if ever) in the foreseeable future. Global models currently can provide some information on overall trends over very large scales (e.g. Arctic versus lower latitudes); but a World Modeling Summit for Climate Prediction last year concluded that for regional scale prediction we need an international investment of billions of dollars for adequate computer resources, climate research, model development and modeling strategies.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | May 26, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

A fiscally responsible solution in establishing a Climate Service would be to establish it within an existing service like the National Weather Service since those functions overlap. Having a fragmented climate and weather service would no doubt be a costly venture. Weather and climate are tied together so why separate those services?

Posted by: cyclone2005 | May 28, 2009 8:45 PM | Report abuse

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