Among the climate change research programs and clean energy initiatives in the spending bill just approved by the U.S. Senate are provisions to determine how best to create a National Climate Service that could act as a clearinghouse for climate information and forecasts.
The idea of an NCS has been discussed for a while, and the need for one has been recognized by policymakers and agency officials since at least the spring, but what exactly it would do beyond the current climate programs that already exist in a variety of federal agencies is still an open question. Also an open question is where such a service would be located in the Washington bureaucracy.
Originally, it was thought the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be the natural home for a climate service, seeing as NOAA already studies and provides information on oceans and climate science. This was the plan when the House of Representatives’ Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill was being discussed this spring. But when the bill was eventually passed in June, it was the White House that was designated with overseeing the design of the service.
Now, the omnibus appropriations bill that was approved by the Senate on Sunday puts the job of studying options for creating an NCS back in NOAA’s hands. It asks NOAA to set up a contract with the National Academy of Public Administration within the next two months in order to do a feasibility study of a National Climate Service.
“Discussions within the agency are under way, and we are reviewing a scope of alternatives for providing climate services,” Scott Smullen, a NOAA spokesperson, told SolveClimate.
Of the $446.8 billion allotted in the bill, already approved by the House and now awaiting President Obama’s signature, about $4.7 billion will go to NOAA. The fiscal year 2010 budget, meant “to increase important ocean, weather, and climate research and provide for satellite acquisitions,” is the agency’s largest ever, $372 million above last year’s.
What Will a National Climate Service Do?
One of the strongest proponents for the creation of an NCS, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, outlined her vision for the proposed service at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment in May. Her main concern is having in place a straightforward way to get information to people, communities and businesses affected by – or likely to be affected by – changes brought on by a changing climate.
“To appropriately prepare their communities, decision-makers will need to be supported with access to the best climate information science can provide, and tools to apply that data to guide their decisions. Meeting the climate challenge will require an unprecedented level of coordination among federal agencies,” Lubchenco said.
She cited specific examples of farmers, renewable energy entrepreneurs and agencies that manage resources like water and land who have a need for access to scientific information and forecast about the future in order to make informed decisions.
Having a dedicated climate service would make the gathering and distribution of this information much more efficient than is currently possible with the various and diffuse current climate programs spread out among the Departments of Energy and Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, National Science Foundation and others.
Lubchenco’s vision is of an NCS that acts in partnership with these other federal agencies, as well as state and regional governments and the private sector. Its mission would be “to provide the essential climate change information needed for effective decision-making.”
The model most frequently cited as the closest relation to an NCS is the National Weather Service, which provides a plethora of data to the public and policymakers on weather and climate.
“The nation needs an objective, authoritative, and consistent source of consolidated, reliable, and timely climate information to support decision-making,” Lubchenco said.
The Case for NOAA
The notion of objectivity in climate information has gained attention in recent weeks as climate researchers’ hacked e-mails have given new life to climate change deniers. It is possible that an NCS located under the White House’s authority would be seen as more susceptible to politicization – or at least to accusations of politicization. NOAA, as part of the Department of Commerce, is under the indirect authority of the White House.
“NOAA’s mandate for climate activities was established in 1978, and its capabilities span operational climate observing networks, global greenhouse gas monitoring, climate predictions and projections, climate research, and climate data stewardship,” Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in July.
Currently, NOAA has a Climate Program Office, which was established in the 1970s. NOAA has been pushing for a climate service, though, for years and has been the main voice calling for such a service since the Obama administration took office and climate change action in Washington has heated up.
In her confirmation hearing in April, Lubchenco said, "NOAA is the best agency in the government to synthesize the scientific data on climate change and create products and services that can be used by the public to guide important decisions such as where to build a road or wind turbines.”
“NOAA has a strong commitment to serving the climate needs of the nation,” says Smullen. “We are in the process of advancing climate science and research while improving our product development and service delivery to meet the growing demand for useful climate information and services.”
It is possible an NOAA-based NCS would emphasize the effects of climate change on oceans more so than an NCS housed elsewhere.
Since taking over NOAA, Lubchenco, a marine biologist, has worked to raise awareness of consequences like ocean acidification, which stems from the accumulation of carbon dioxide in seawater.
The FY2010 spending bill includes significant funding for programs to mitigate the damage to coral reefs by climate change. Within NOAA’s $4.7 billion allocation, $522 million will go to the National Ocean Service, a major budget increase for them.
Both the “State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs” section of the appropriations bill and the “Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies” section include billions of dollars for clean energy and climate change research programs. The latter section’s allotment of $2 billion is $75 million above FY2009’s, according to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, and is meant “to study and respond to global climate change, one of the greatest challenges facing our country.” The lion’s share of this funding, $1.2 billion, will go to NASA to develop “space-based climate measurements,” while NOAA will receive $375 million.
(Photos: Breckenridge, Colo., NASA; Lubchenco, Oregon State University)