Climate scientists are always called upon to communicate in a way that makes them more ‘relevant’ to policymakers and the public.  But a much greater problem is holding government officials accountable for how they use and communicate about the science.  Recently, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack dodged a question about connecting climate change to the drought currently ransacking crops across the Midwest by stating, “I am not a scientist so I’m not going to opine as to the cause of this.” Administration officials should be expected to show more intellectual competence and political leadership than this, given the wealth of scientific assessments that address the causes, impacts, and potential for adaptation to climate change sitting at Vilsack’s (and all policymakers’) disposal – not to mention the substantial expertise at high levels of the Administration and in the Department of Agriculture.  And given that some of his colleagues in the Administration are speaking a bit more candidly, as did even Vilsack himself last year, before White House campaign-mode messaging took over.

Earlier post: US Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s evasiveness on climate change and drought

This kind of non-communicative response does a disservice to the public interest.  It disrespects the climate science community in the guise of acknowledging its expertise, by showing an unwillingness or inability to talk about the subject.  It fails to promote the kind of discourse that is needed in order for the country to think proactively about the harmful impacts of climate change impacts.  And it feeds climate denialist efforts to make the subject appear controversial.

Readily-available, government-sponsored climate change assessment reports by leading scientists and other experts supply the reader with enough information for a more accountable response than the one Vilsack actually gave.  As we noted in our previous post, Vilsack at least could have said: “Our top scientists tell us there is a connection between human-caused global warming and the likelihood of more of these severe droughts, and we need to deal with that in addition to the immediate drought-relief steps we will be taking.”

Indeed, information needed for this response can be found in the US Global Change Research Program 2009 report on Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.  The Executive Summary of the report includes this:

“Climate change will stress water resources: Water is an issue in every region, but the nature of the potential impacts varies. Drought, related to reduced precipitation, increased evaporation, and increased water loss from plants, is an important issue in many regions, especially in the West. Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions. Declines in mountain snowpack are important in the West and Alaska where snowpack provides vital natural water storage.

Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged: Many crops show positive responses to elevated carbon dioxide and low levels of warming, but higher levels of warming often negatively affect growth and yields. Increased pests, water stress, diseases, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for crop and livestock production.

Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today.

The amount and rate of future climate change depend primarily on current and future human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases and airborne particles. Responses involve reducing emissions to limit future warming, and adapting to the changes that are unavoidable.”

The National Research Council’s America’s Climate Choices series report on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change suggests that society’s response to extreme weather events today will shape how they are dealt with in the future, when impacts like drought, flooding, and wildfire are likely to be more severe than they are now.  The report puts this up-front:

” …adapting today is about reducing vulnerabilities to emerging or future impacts that could become seriously disruptive if we do not begin to identify response options now; in other words, adaptation today is essentially a risk management strategy.”

The report further suggests a range of measures that could be implemented to adapt to a world with less water, for agricultural purposes or otherwise:

“Options for adapting to the prospect of more severe water shortage in the West and Southwest include improving efficiencies in water use, reducing the need for water for competing purposes (e.g., power plant cooling), finding ways to reduce evaporation from reservoirs, learning more about potentials and limits of groundwater withdrawal, increasing mechanisms for interbasin water transfers, revisiting approaches to water rights, and developing technology for affordable desalination of sea water. These are examples of options that can be considered by decision makers responsible for water resources in the context of the local or regional socioeconomics, combining relatively low-cost near-term actions with preparations to evaluate more substantial actions in the longer term. While it is difficult to know precisely the impacts that will occur in the future, adaptation offers a way to prepare and minimize the risks to social, economic, and natural systems associated with these impacts.”

Clearly, in making such recommendations, the NRC is expecting that policymakers will recognize climate change as part of the cause of extreme events.  In response, policymakers need to be willing to learn from scientific assessments and to think in terms of long-term impacts and responses.  It is not sufficient for US policymakers to deal with drought solely in terms of helping communities cope once the disaster hits.

How different was Vilsack’s response during an interview last year, when he said:

I think it’s important to point out what’s happening here. We have record droughts in the southern part of our country, record droughts…. If people don’t understand that the climate is changing, it’s just hard to explain how anybody could not see that, given this year that we’ve had with natural disasters.

See video of the interview here; h/t Brad Johnson).

And some other Administration officials have been a bit less reticent recently, at least when not speaking at the White House, or from another podium in Washington. See, for example, The Hill’s Energy and Environment Blog, July 5, which had this:

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano this week linked climate change with the wildfires hitting Colorado.

Napolitano said “there’s a pattern here” as she noted the summer wildfires as well as the East Coast heat wave and the high-velocity winds that whipped through the mid-Atlantic late last week….

“You have to look at climate change over a period of years, not just one summer,” Napolitano said. “You could always have one abnormal summer. But when you see one after another after another then you can see, yeah, there’s a pattern here.”

Napolitano’s comments came in response to a question at a press conference Tuesday inColorado Springs. They were posted by Climate Desk.

In response to a question about whether the federal government is ready for weather changes caused by climate change, Napolitano said the federal government is adapting.

“I think that we are preparing. We understand and we are seeing the changing weather patterns. We are seeing right now in what already has been a difficult summer,” Napolitano said.

“So yes, we incorporate some of that into our planning,” Napolitano said. “What do we need? Do techniques need to change? Tactics need to change? This is not a static universe that we live in.”

That’s more like it.

And NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco had a piece on “Extreme weather and a changing climate” posted online at CNN on July 24, which included this:

At present we cannot definitively link any single extreme event to climate change. But it is worthwhile to consider whether the apparent increase in some extreme events has roots in a larger, longer-term trend, since that would predict a continuation of these events in the future.

That kind of understanding can have practical importance because it can inspire action to reduce economic losses and human suffering….

The science in this area is getting stronger all the time. In one recently published study, six international research teams led by scientists from NOAA and a number of countries investigated seven different 2011 extreme weather and climate events. In six of the seven, there was sufficient evidence to conclude that climate change caused by human activities played a factor in the events — affecting their severity, likelihood or frequency.

Among those events exacerbated by climate change were heat waves in Texas and Oklahoma…

And Vilsack and other public officials should pay attention to this, at Climate Progress:

UPDATE: Without Carbon Controls, We Face Many More Dust Bowls; 2002-2004 Western Drought Was Worst In 800 Years

We’re Already Topping Dust Bowl Temperatures — Imagine What’ll Happen If We Fail To Stop 10°F Warming

Earlier CSW posts:

Climate Change goes AWOL

US drought planning: Congress reviews the National Integrated Drought Information System

White House energy policy talk has ‘all of the above’ except climate change

Washington Post connects wildfires, climate disruption; Obama doesn’t

Hansen: It’s time for the politics to follow the science on global warming