Our nation’s federal Climate Change Science Program “has been plagued by a stagnant budget, poor coordination between participating agencies, and a lack of White House leadership” reported Eli Kintisch in the October 10 Science magazine.  The article underscores the need for the next President to renovate and revitalize US capabilities to assess impacts, essential for enhancing US preparedness for global climatic disruption.

Post by Anne Polansky

Drawing on reports by the NAS National Research Council, the GAO, recent recommendations by eight national climate and weather organizations, and interviews with former Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) managers, Kintisch identifies several problems plaguing the multiagency climate science program:  a crippled satellite program that could result in critical data collection instruments going dark before replacements can be deployed; a shrinking budget for climate research; lack of true coordination among more than a dozen agencies; and no system in place for measuring and assessing climate impacts. 

Meanwhile, we are seeing increasingly frequent and severe impacts of phenomena that are likely to be exacerbated by global climate change.  Hurricanes Ike and Gustav alone inflicted tens of billions of dollars in property damage; raging wildfires in California and other western states continue to destroy thousands of acres of land and hundreds of homes; prolonged drought in western states threatens major agricultural crops; melting arctic sea ice endangers the polar bear and the entire way of life of indigenous peoples; pine bark beetles are devastating vast stands of forest across the Pacific Northwest; and so on.  Yet, there is currently no systematic federally supported effort to assess climate impacts across regions and sectors, as was conducted under the Clinton administration from 1997-2000 culminating in a set of reports still cited today:  the US National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change.  We have referred to the termination and suppression of the National Assessment as the “central climate science scandal” of the Bush administration. 

Kintisch reports:

“Scientists who have briefed the campaigns on how to reform the nation’s current climate research say the candidates have gotten the message.” 

It is difficult to determine whether and to what degree this is so.  Neither of the two candidates has explicitly addressed the need to revitalize and renovate the climate research programs.  The primary focus is on reducing emissions—a high priority, indeed, but one that needs to be accompanied by a much more active federal presence in helping Americans understand, cope with, and ultimately adapt to myriad consequences that promise to continue to disrupt business as usual, regardless of how much the US and the world are able to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  In order for this to happen, the President will need a top climate change adviser who will be able to articulate the full set of challenges we face, and breathe new life into our federal climate science program.