The White House announced March 29 that Tom Armstrong, recently the Senior Advisor for Climate Change at the U.S. Department of the Interior, is the new Director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s National Coordination Office. Over the years, the USGCRP Office has occupied an interesting and sometimes troubled position in the relationship between the climate science community and the White House.

The USGCRP Office supports the federal climate science management technocracy that administers a $2 billion research program, under the oversight of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Administration political appointees in the USGCRP participating agencies.

The announcement, on the OSTP website, includes this (links added):

Appropriately enough, change is underway at the Nation’s primary global change research program. Teams of top scientists and policy makers representing over a dozen different Federal agencies are hard at work drafting a new strategic plan to strengthen not only scientists’ fundamental understanding of our changing planet but also the program itself, known as the U.S. Global Change Research Program or USGCRP. 

As part of these changes, the program also has a new leader who will oversee these enhancements at time of great import for the global-change science community and for society as a whole.

Established by the Global Change Research Act of 1990, USGCRP coordinates and integrates Federal research on changes in the global environment and their implications for society. Thirteen Federal agencies participate in the program, which is also responsible for executing the quadrennial National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive inventory of climate-change-related impacts, vulnerabilities, and efforts across the United States. …

Taking the helm amidst this sea of change is the newly appointed Director of USGCRP’s National Coordination Office, Dr. Thomas Armstrong. He comes to the position having most recently served as the Senior Advisor for Climate Change at the Department of the Interior, where he was a key figure in the development of the Department’s climate-change-related policies, organizational elements, and budget strategies. 

As the Vice Chair for Adaptation Science on the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR), the steering body of the USGCRP, Dr. Armstrong has been an active participant in the program’s restructuring and the drafting of the new strategic plan. … [H]e has worked closely with the SGCR’s chair, Dr. Thomas Karl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and its executive committee to identify key priorities in the field of adaptation research and oversee the seamless integration of these goals into the larger evolving vision of the program.

OSTP and the USGCRP leadership have taken a long time to fill this position, which has been held by an acting director for the past year-and-a-half.  The hard-working acting director has done a good job under difficult and uncertain circumstances.  This position took even longer to fill than the chairmanship of the principals-level interagency committee for the USGCRP, which was left with an acting chair for 16 months until the administration finally appointed Tom Karl of NOAA as USGCRP chair in the spring of 2010.

The Bush Administration did much, in various ways, to undermine the USGCRP, including suppressing the first National Climate Assessment, allow the global climate observing system to seriously degrade, and finally leaving the program without a strong leadership voice and coherent priorities and direction.  I believe the Obama Administration has not moved swiftly enough to strengthen and redirect the USGCRP — although heavy-handed political interference abated and a serious effort was undertaken to rectify the degradation that had been allowed to overtake the global climate observing system.

Finally, in the third year of the Administration, we are seeing some good signs. The federal advisory committee charged with developing the next National Climate Assesment report will finally meet for the first time on April 4-6, the next step in a project that seems to have been taking a long time to develop momentum. It took a full year from the start of the Administration to get new leadership on board at OSTP to head up planning for the National Assessment, and another year to get a federal advisory committee team selected and approved to produce the report.  Hopefully the assessment will now progress more expeditiously.

Likewise with the development of the long-overdue new USGCRP strategic plan for research, which hopefully will stay on track for completion by the end of this year.  The program has not produced a strategic plan since 2003 (not counting a perfunctory document produced at the end of the Bush Administration strictly to comply with a court order).

Tom Armstrong has his work cut out for him. I wish him well and hope he can provide strong leadership in the USGCRP Coordination Office and move this very complex monster of a program forward. It is an essential national capability and resource.

I have a history with the USGCRP (which was also called the Climate Change Science Program during most of the Bush Administration), having worked in the program office for 10 years, from 1995-2005, before resigning and starting Climate Science Watch. (A few quick links for the record, here, here, here, and here.)  I have always been a strong supporter of the program, since I worked on Congressional oversight hearings on the USGCRP and climate research and assessment in the early 1990s, while on the professional staff of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

My experience in the USGCRP Coordination Office, in particular from 2001 onward, helped clarify my understanding that, in the troubled relationship between climate science and climate politics — a collision that is turning into a real train wreck in Washington —  the problem is mainly on the political side. The science community is not the problem, notwithstanding the war on climate science that we see coming from the right-wing. Politicians who ignore, deny, and abuse climate science, and the voters who elect them, are the key problem.

In analyzing the damaged relationship between climate science and policymaking, there is little point in focusing only on supposed shortcomings in the science community, or on the need for more scientists to learn how to communicate better with civilians.  That communication is essential, yet it must be noted that scientists supported by the USGCRP participating agencies have communicated plenty enough about climate change during the past two decades for policymakers and the public to be conducting a national discourse on its implications at a far higher level than we are seeing.  The scientists are doing their job pretty well, the political system is not.  Any analysis of the problem of the relationship between climate science and climate policymaking that does not include a hard-nosed critical view of U.S. politics is doomed to irrelevance.

A few links to USGCRP activities and reports:

The new National Climate Assessment is getting underway and is scheduled to complete a report in 2013.  Much more on this to follow.

The most recent assessment from the USGCRP is the state of the knowledge report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the U.S., issued in June 2009.

First U.S. National Assessment report (2000) — U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change

2011 edition of Our Changing Planet, the USGCRP annual report to Congress 

The USGCRP, through the activities of its participating agencies, is responsible for supporting a substantial portion of the climate observations, modeling, and process studies that form the mountain of scientific work that is periodically synthesized in the pre-eminent assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation is currently in preparation and will be released in late 2011.  On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, the USGCRP Office coordinates solicitation and collation of U.S. expert comments and the review of the report by panels of Federal scientists and program managers in order to develop a consolidated U.S. Government submission.