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U.S. Climate Program Flawed, Threatened by Budget Cuts

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, September 13, 2007 (ENS) - The Bush administration's climate research program has helped scientists clarify some basic facts about global warming, but has done little to provide much-needed information about how society might mitigate or adapt to the changing climate, a National Academy of Sciences committee said today.

The independent panel warned that the progress of the program is threatened by a lack of strong leadership and budgetary authority and by the administration's plan to reduce the number of satellites and other instruments used to monitor the climate.

The panel also criticized the Climate Change Science Program, CCSP, for failing to adequately communicate its research with stakeholders and for completing only two of 21 planned assessments of climate science.

"Discovery science and understanding of the climate system are proceeding well, but use of that knowledge and support decision making and to manage risks and opportunities of climate change is proceeding slowly," the 15 member committee concluded in its report.

The Bush administration created the CCSP in 2002 to facilitate climate change research across 13 federal agencies - the program essentially absorbed the U.S. Global Change Research Program, USGCRP.

The coal-fired Montour power plant in Pennsylvania (Photo by Mark Morey)
From the outset, critics said the president's vision for CCSP lacked focus and reflected his skepticism of the scientific consensus that human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, are having a major impact on the climate.

In early 2003, a different panel convened by the National Academies questioned CCSP's effectiveness and the program has been marred by allegations of political interference. Rick Piltz, who had worked for a decade as a senior associate with USGCRP and CCSP, resigned in 2005 in protest of the Bush administration's editing of climate science documents.

The new report praised some aspects of the program, pointing out that "good progress has been made in documenting the climate changes of the past few decades and in unraveling the anthropogenic influences on the observed climate changes."

But the panel's overall evaluation of the program is largely critical, echoing many of the initial concerns about its framework and priorities.

The program has made "inadequate progress" on assessing how people will be affected by climate change and how they might react, said committee chair Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric, oceans and climate scientist and professor at the University of California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan (Photo courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanograpy)
The report found that of CCSP's annual budget of $1.7 billion, only $25 million to $35 million is devoted to studying the social impacts of climate change, including adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Although the program has contributed to better understanding and improved predictions of climate change at the global and continental level, it has not provided much insight at regional and local scales, the committee concluded.

For example, the program has failed to complete national assessments of the impacts of climate change on agriculture, water and health.

Such information is vital for state and local resource managers and policymakers, as well as for the general population, the panel said.

It may be difficult for the program to respond to the criticisms in the report because of its rather haphazard structure and its lack of influence over the agencies involved, Ramanathan told reporters on a telephone press briefing.

"CCSP itself does not have too much clout or leverage because they don't have funding," he said. "We see progress happen when agency interests coincide with CCSP directives."

The committee called the Bush administration's plan to cut funding for programs that monitor the Earth "perhaps the single greatest threat to the future success of CCSP."

Glory is a U.S. remote-sensing Earth-orbiting observatory that collects climate data. (Photo courtesy GISS)
In January a different National Academy panel warned that half the scientific instruments on the nation's environmental satellites are expected to stop working by 2010. The Bush administration has delayed or canceled a number of planned satellite missions and recommended not replacing some aging satellites for budgetary reasons.

These instruments are "critical for documenting how the climate has changed," Ramanathan told reporters. "The committee is very concerned about this."

The panel highlighted bureaucratic delays as the main reason for CCSP's failure to deliver its promised reports on climate science. The 21 reports were all supposed to have been released by 2006, but only two have been completed.

In addition, the CCSP has not done a good job in communicating the results of its research with stakeholders outside of the scientific world or the federal government, the committee said.

"Efforts to identify or engage in a two-way dialogue with state and local officials, nongovernmental organizations, and the climate change technology community have generally been limited and ad hoc," the report said. "As a result, the program is not gaining the input it needs on what scientifically based CCSP products to create, and opportunities to inform decision making are being missed."

The CCSP did not answer requests for comment on the study.

The National Academy of Sciences committee plans to issue recommendations for how to improve the CCSP program next year.

Copies of "Evaluating Progress Of The U.S. Climate Change Science Program: Methods And Preliminary Results" will be available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.



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