The United States is now one step closer to creating a National Climate Service, with the mark-up approval June 3 of a bill by the House Committee on Science and Technology.  The provisions are much like those approved by a subcommittee two weeks ago, with a few important changes.  A potentially debilitating cap on spending for regional climate service projects known as “RISAs” was (thankfully) eliminated. In an unexpected but welcome shift, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is tasked with exploring options for an interagency climate services program, a framework much superior to an entirely NOAA-centric operation.  Minority Members offered numerous amendments, some of which would have compromised the overall intent to provide climate services to stakeholders.

post by Anne Polansky

CSW has been closely tracking developments that may lead to legislation formally creating a National Climate Service.  Action taken by the House Science Committee this week paves the way for House floor action.  In understanding this initiative, it helps to recall that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been building a capability to provide climate services for several years, but in patchwork fashion, as we and others have noted.  This bill would enhance these efforts, and would increase the ability of Congress to appropriate funding for specific authorized activities and to conduct stronger, more routine oversight. 

This week’s committee mark-up follows action taken in mid-May by the Science Committee’s Energy and Environment (E & E) Subcommittee— see our write-up linked below. 

Congress takes step to create a National Climate Service – but beware of shackles and poison pills

This step paves the way for the provisions to be included (to replace the current “placeholder” language) in the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade climate bill (H.R. 2454) expected to be taken up by the full House of Representatives by the end of June, if Speaker Pelosi is successful at reining in all of the committees with overlapping jurisdiction. 

The most significant change to the E&E Subcommittee mark addresses an issue that has concerned us and others:  while NOAA has the right sort of expertise and resources to play a central role in offering climate services to stakeholders, other agencies (such as the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Geological Survey) should also be involved as partners with NOAA in providing climate services.  This idea is consistent with feedback NOAA received during a retreat in 2008, that NOAA should not be the sole provider of climate services, that some sort of coordination mechanism for a multi-agency effort is required.  An amendment offered by Reps. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Bob Inglis (R-SC)—the Chair and Ranking Minority Member of the E & E Subcommittee, respectively— would direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to engage in a three-year process to “evaluate alternative structures to support a collaborative, interagency” climate service.  Specifically, OSTP’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources of the National Science and Technology Council is tasked with developing a detailed plan that would specify the roles and responsibilities of various agencies across the federal government, based on a thorough inventory of existing climate programs and a comprehensive survey of the proposed climate service’s potential users, including state, local and tribal governments.  However, the amendment would not alter NOAA’s role as liaison between federal climate programs and the “users” of climate services.  This amendment modifies what otherwise would be an overly NOAA-centric approach to creating a National Climate Service, and reflects the views of climate policy veterans that a well-coordinated interagency approach will be more robust, comprehensive, and in line with user needs. 

This charge to OSTP, under the capable leadership of John Holdren, is consistent with our vision of a stronger White House role in dealing with the consequences of climate change.  Coverage of the markup by ClimateWire (subs. required) captures the essence of the amendment by claiming that it puts OSTP in the “drivers seat” for a National Climate Service, rather than relying exclusively on NOAA to call all of the shots.  We would add that OSTP’s planning for an interagency NCS must be conducted in coordination and communication with parallel efforts at OSTP to strengthen, revitalize, and reform the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) spanning 13 federal agencies and budgeted at nearly $2 billion annually.  There needs to be a more focused effort to draw connections between the USGCRP’s research agenda and products, and the use of those products to help people anticipate, plan, and prepare for climate disruption consequences.  Strong leadership from the White House is needed to ensure a more functional relationship between science and society, to be able to bring usable, useful, timely, and relevant information and decision support to grassroots stakeholders.  These programs need bold leadership in the White House—by someone hand picked by Dr. Holdren, preferably— who is held in high regard by the scientific community, and has strong management skills and the requisite level of political sophistication to navigate the complex terrain of Washington DC policymaking. 

In addition to a “manager’s package” of amendments offered by Chairman Gordon making a variety of technical changes and clarifications, other amendments adopted include:

• requiring a National Integrated Drought System to coordinate with state and regional offices to assess practices for drought mitigation (offered by Rep. Smith of Nebraska)

• ensuring that NOAA properly takes into account the needs and capabilities of its stakeholders and partner agencies, and that NOAA will consult with other federal agencies, state climate offices, and regional climate centers as it defines its role in the climate service (offered by Rep. Inglis of South Carolina)

• requiring the creation of a clearinghouse of federal climate data and the ongoing maintenance of a website for making information available in a central location (offered by Rep. Fudge of Ohio);

• authorizing a summer program directing the regional climate centers to help elementary, middle, and high school teachers incorporate climate change into their science curricula (offered by Rep. Johnson of Texas)

(We will link to the bill as marked up when it becomes available on the Science Committee website.)

Some Republican members offered amendments that would have weakened or seriously undermined the intent of this initiative.  All were soundly defeated.  The most egregious of these was an amendment offered by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California—a member of the Science Committee going back more than two decades— that would have deleted all references to “climate change” in the bill and referred instead to “natural forces that affect climate.”  (Mr. Rohrbacher has repeatedly stated over the years that he “doesn’t believe in” human-induced climate change.)  He inquired:  “Are we going to be looking at natural forces?” to which Chairman Gordon responded that there was nothing in the bill preventing NOAA or its partners providing climate services from doing so.  (It is difficult to imagine how a serious attempt to provide climate services could ignore the forces of nature.)  As part of the markup he requested that a report prepared by the Heartland Institute (a climate denialist organization), alleging that the majority of our climate monitoring stations are flawed or compromised, be inserted into the record.  The report, he claims, substantiates his amendment to require the National Academy of Sciences to independently certify the accuracy of these monitoring stations.  He voiced his concern that climate services should based on “real science” (which seems to rest on his own definition of the word “real.”)  Near the close of the markup, Mr. Rohrabacher lamented that he remains “confused” by the terms “climate services” and “climate products.”  It was explained to him that “products” means data and information, and “service” means the dissemination of data and information, roughly speaking. 

Another amendment offered by Rep. Smith (R-NE) would have subjected climate models and data used by the climate service to peer-review guidelines set forth in the Federal Register, developed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under the Bush administration.  Rep. Miller (D-NC) objected, noting that Bush’s OMB was prone to “political meddling,” that the guidelines required the sort of analysis that results in paralysis, and that he understands that the Obama White House plans to revoke these Bush-vintage peer-review guidelines outright.

Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) claimed there was “no consensus” regarding how a National Climate Service should be structured, and offered an amendment that would have “sunsetted” (permanently terminated) the National Climate Service in 2016—just about the time that Texans can expect to start experiencing even more climate-related hardships and to require assistance from the federal government in being able to deal with them. 

Rep. Biggert (R- IL) offered a secondary amendment that would have required an assessment of the need for the program at all and related costs.  Chairman Gordon responded that the need for climate services functions has already been firmly established, and that, at this stage in the game, it was unnecessary.  He suggested that committee members should review the hearing record on this point. 

Mr. Hall of Texas, the Ranking Republican Member and a well-established naysayer on all matters relating to climate change, complained that he doesn’t think this bill should be included in the Waxman-Markey bill and that the bill in its current form “doesn’t do the job.”  (Mr. Hall didn’t clarify which job he thinks the bill should do, however.)  He put forth an amendment that would have prevented NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco from starting up a National Climate Service office until the provisions requiring a survey of potential users on their needs and an implementation plan were completed.  Mr. Baird reminded Mr. Hall that climate services are already being provided, and that the amendment would have served to halt assistance already being provided to policymakers and decisionmakers across the nation grappling with climate-related challenges such as prolonged drought and coastal inundation from storm surges. 

The bill, as amended, was favorably reported out of the committee by a vote of 24-12. 

Nearing the end of the five-hour-long mark-up session, interrupted by the need for members to go the House floor for a series of votes, one frustrated member lamented that the afternoon’s deliberations represented “the most partisan session this committee has had under Chairman Gordon’s leadership.”

Climate Science Watch Research Associate, Alexa Jay, contributed to this post.