Bush Climate Change Plan Short on Details

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 6, 2002 (ENS) - Scientists and climate experts applauded the Bush administration's coordination of a three day workshop on global climate change, but found its draft plan for study of the issue short on priorities, details and funding.

Without serious revisions, experts say, the plan is unlikely to provide a strategy for policymakers to adequately address the issue of climate change.

"By focusing so much on the uncertainties and on the costs of action, the plan biases decision makers toward inaction," said Dr. Susanne Moser, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Global Environment Program. "This plan also shouldn't oversell the ability of the research community to overcome uncertainty, especially in the short term. We should be honest about how our work typically resolves some, and creates new, unknowns."

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The San Quintín Glacier, the largest outflow glacier of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field in southern Chile, appears to be losing mass and retreating. The change is evident in these two photographs taken by U.S. astronauts - the top one in October 1994, the bottom in February 2002. (Photos courtesy the NASA Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory at Johnson Space Center)
"This is a wonderful document but it is not a strategic plan," said Berrien Moore, a professor at the University of New Hampshire's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. "It lacks an overarching strategy, but the plan and the meeting are remarkable achievements in themselves."

More than 1,300 climate scientists and experts attended the administration sponsored meeting to offer public comments on the draft version of a new strategic plan for climate change and global change studies. It was held in Washington, DC from December 3 to 5.

Further public comments on the plan, which was prepared by the 13 federal agencies participating in the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), will be accepted through January 13, 2003 with the final version set for publication in April 2003.

Uncertainty and the cost of action remain key sticking points on how to address climate change. So far, the Bush administration has only called for voluntary measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Administration officials have repeatedly said further research on the effects of global warming and on humanity's influence on climate change is needed before sound policy can be formed. Its draft plan centers on reducing this uncertainty.

"We hope that this workshop and the strategic plan under discussion will map out the strategy by which these uncertainties can be cleared up or better understood," said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Sam Bodman.

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Scientist takes measurements to calculate sea level rise in Florida Bay. (Photo courtesy USGS)
"There is a great deal we don't know or don't know well enough," added William O'Keefe, president of the George C. Marshall Institute. "We think there may be a problem but we are far from understanding the causes. Unfortunately, in the climate change arena, skepticism has become a vice, not a virtue."

Many environmentalists and scientists contend that the administration's call for further research masks a strategy that seeks to delay any substantive action on the issue of climate change. There is ample evidence of global warming, they say, but this administration and its draft plan on climate change are ignoring it.

"Do we have enough evidence to decide that aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is appropriate? The rest of the world has answered yes and many states and cities in this country have answered yes," said Dr. Janine Bloomfield, a scientist with tne New York based nonprofit group Environmental Defense.

"Narrowing down uncertainties is a legitimate goal," added Donald Goldberg, senior attorney with the Center for International Law's Climate Change Program. "What is not legitimate is to use the existence of uncertainties as an excuse not to act. We all know there are uncertainties, there always are in science. If we could never act to avert an environmental catastrophe until we resolved all the uncertainties, then we would never act at all."

"This is not a delaying tactic," responded meteorologist Dr. James Mahoney, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and director of the CCSP. "Reasonable people can and do disagree with the interpretation of the research on climate change, but no one disagrees that we need continued research on this issue."

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Dr. James Mahoney is assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Financial resources available to address potential climate change are not infinite, Mahoney added, and the administration wants to ensure its policies do not pose undue burdens on either the U.S. or global economy. This cautious approach, he said, should not be misconstrued as inaction.

"We may well find that the solutions we need to address global warming are solutions that cost trillions of dollars," he added. "When we look at major shifts in energy use, one question for a government that has the largest economy in the world has to ask is 'what will the effects of these shifts be on our trading partners and within this country?'"

"We are greatly concerned that anything we might do in the U.S. economy might impede the ability of developing countries to sell to America," Mahoney said. "That is always a relevant question."

"You can achieve almost anything today, it is just a question of how much you want to pay," added Robert Card, undersecretary for energy, science and environment at the U.S. Energy Department.

Card and other administration officials noted that the U.S. federal government has spent some $20 billion on climate change research since 1990, but must begin to focus these resources to provide better science on the issue. According to several experts more resources are needed.

"Resources are limiting the rate of progress," said Dr. Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. "We could justify one million times the present computing power worldwide."

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Ocean storm surge in a Maryland parking lot. Sea level rise rates along Maryland's coastline are nearly twice those of the global average. (Photo courtesy Maryland DNR)
Anthes and other conference participants repeatedly highlighted this need for more resources along with more clearly set budget priorities. They also found the draft strategic plan needs better integration among government and intergovernmental agencies and programs, and a global observation system, as well as improved modeling of regional climate patterns.

The plan needs to include costs of inaction and costs of adaptive measures to climate change for comparison with projected costs of mitigation efforts, experts say.

Many participants agreed that there is enough evidence for actions beyond voluntary measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, something the Bush administration appears reluctant to embrace. Critics point to the plan's failure to fully integrate findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or from the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Change.

"When you read the plan, you definitely get the feeling that it is not building on previous work," Bloomfield said.

"The global models all point towards warming and not to any small degree," Moser said. "There is huge agreement on some of the global patterns that we are seeing and on the human contribution, even if there is a natural element. This report doesn't highlight that or build on that at all."

Beyond the need to further incorporate the existing science, many experts found the plan in dire need of a more integrated international outlook. Goldberg, who served on a panel that reviewed the draft chapter on international collaboration, said there was "no sense of how the Bush administration is going to collaborate with other countries."

"It is entirely unfocused," he said. "Almost all of the chapter was a recitation of things that the United States has already been doing. You get the sense that they didn't really sit down and try to come up with a real, overarching plan that addresses all of the objectives in a cohesive, coherent way."

The administration now expects to digest the public comments with the aim to release a final version of the plan by April 2003. In addition, the simultaneous review of the plan by a new committee of the National Academy of Science's National Research Council could offer further insight into how seriously public comments are considered in the process.

According to National Academy of Science president Bruce Alberts, the organization will review both the draft and final versions of the plan, with a report expected in September 2003.

The open process, repeatedly touted by Bush administration officials, will let stakeholders understand how their comments and suggestions were addressed. This is could add further pressure on the administration to take these comments and suggestions to heart, said UCS' Moser.

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Iceland's Breidamerkurjökull glacier has receded by two kilometers (1.24 miles) since 1973 when it covered all the dark blue areas. 40 named glaciers in Europe are currently receding. (Photo courtesy Dorothy Hall and Janet Chien, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
"It will be really, really difficult for the Bush administration to completely dismiss and ignore this. Many of the critical comments are on public record," she said. "I still have my doubts to the extent they will take all this to heart. But so many comments on public record will make it difficult to ignore."

"The openness of the workshop got everyone hopeful again that they could have an influence on this plan and that it is something that is not a done deal already," she added. "They'll frustrate some of the best scientists in the country if they do not respond to it in a constructive manner."

The Bush administration has gathered a track record for not listening to public comments. This practice prompted a coalition of environmental groups to file a lawsuit yesterday against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its refusal to act on a petition that demanded the agency abide by the Clean Air Act. The agency has 60 days to respond to the suit.

The coalition, which consists of the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA), Sierra Club and Greenpeace, originally submitted its petition to the EPA in October 1999. EPA, the coalition charged, failed to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles in violation of the Clean Air Act. The agency received some 50,000 comments during a public comment period for the petition that ended in May 2001, but has still not acted on the petition.

The EPA's stalling tactics are doing real damage in the fight against global warming, according to CTA legal director Joseph Mendelson. Environmentalists, he added, are growing tired of the oft-repeated administration argument that more research is needed.

"The end of this study it to death kind of summit seemed to be a good time to call to action," he said. "It is always good to study the issue and find out more about it, but it is pretty clear from both the science on this issue and the law that the secretary has to act."

EPA officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The Bush administration's climate change plan can be found by clicking here.

Information about the workshop and the written comment opportunities are available online at: www.climatescience.gov.

The CTA legal complaint is available at: http://www.icta.org/