Science Panel Urges Bush to Revise Climate Plan

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, February 26, 2003 (ENS) - A panel of scientific experts has concluded that the Bush administration's plan for studying the causes and solutions of climate change needs "major improvements" if it is to guide the nation's decision makers in addressing this international threat. The National Academy of Sciences panel said today that the proposal "lacks a clearing guiding vision" and will require far more funding than is currently available to be effective.

While the federal government has taken "a good first step" toward better understanding and responding to climate change, the new report from the National Academy's (NAS) National Research Council also said it does not sufficiently meet the needs of decision makers who must deal with the effects of climate change. The committee that wrote the report also noted that the president's fiscal year 2004 budget request appears to leave funding relatively unchanged for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), which wrote the draft plan, despite the important new initiatives called for in the plan.

Graedel

Yale University professor Thomas Graedel headed the panel that critiqued the Bush administration's proposal for climate change research. (Photo courtesy Yale University)
"While past climate change science has focused on how climate is changing and affecting other natural systems, future science must also focus on more applied research that can directly support decision making," said committee chair Thomas Graedel, professor of industrial ecology at Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

"Research is especially needed to improve our understanding of the possible impacts of climate change on ecosystems and human society, as well as options for responding to - and reducing - these effects," he said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists said the report confirms the assessment of more than 1,000 climate experts who said in December that the Bush science plan lacks balance, focus, and resources.

"Since taking office, President Bush has ignored the scientific community's warnings on global warming," said Dr. Susanne Moser, a staff scientist at the UCS and reviewer of the academy's critique. "Not only has the president abandoned any meaningful action to solve the problem, he is poised to shortchange serious efforts to study it."

Sun

Climate change is linked to an increase in heat trapping gases in the atmosphere, which trap more of the Sun's energy near the Earth's surface. (Photo courtesy NASA)
The National Academy's report is the first of two reviewing the administration's strategic research plan: this one on the content of the draft research strategy, and a later one to be completed this summer on the process of developing it.

The federal government formed the CCSP a year ago to facilitate climate change research across 13 federal agencies. CCSP released its draft strategic plan for public comment in November and also held a workshop in Washington where hundreds of climate scientists and other stakeholders commented on the plan. CCSP asked the Research Council to review the draft plan as well.

The draft plan provides a solid foundation for future research by identifying some new initiatives that build on the success of the Global Change Research Program, which has been funding valuable research for more than a decade, the committee said. It commended CCSP for introducing an emphasis on the need for science to address national needs, including support for people in the public and private sectors whose decisions are affected by climate change.

In addition, CCSP has made genuine overtures to the research community, indicating a strong interest in developing a plan that is consistent with current scientific thinking, the panel said. Some of the more important initiatives in the plan include a call for models that can offer trusted projections, or forecasts, of climate change, and cutting edge research into aerosols and the carbon cycle that is needed to improve our understanding of climate change and variability.

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High elevation ecosystems like this alpine meadow in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, could disappear as the U.S. climate warms. (Photo courtesy High Meadows Ranch)
However, the plan needs to be revised substantially, the committee concluded. To begin with, the plan should more clearly articulate CCSP's goals and priorities for meeting national needs. These goals should be accompanied by ways to measure progress, clear timetables, and an assessment of whether current research efforts are capable of meeting them.

The plan also should be revised to present clear and consistent goals for a new component of CCSP called the Climate Change Research Initiative, designed to support activities that would produce results of value to decision makers within two to four years. For example, trusted climate forecasts could be of great use to policy makers, regional water managers, or even individuals deciding on which car or appliance to purchase.

The committee applauded this emphasis on scientific support for decision makers, but said that many of the activities included in this part of the plan, although important scientifically, are unlikely to produce the desired results within two to four years. The committee agreed with CCSP's new emphasis on short term results to inform decisions, but said that scientific support for decision making also will be needed over the long haul.

Revisions are also necessary to fulfill key information needs, the committee said. For example, there is a strong need for research aimed at developing models that can forecast the regional impact of climate change - information that could be essential for local officials.

shore

Local decision makers need to know whether they will be forced to build barriers to prevent the loss of homes like this one on the Jersey Shore to rising sea levels. (Photo courtesy B&K Realty)
For instance, municipalities may need to construct coastal barriers if sea levels keep rising because polar ice caps continue to melt, and authorities in the western United States may confront increased water shortages if less snow falls in the Rocky Mountains, the panel said.

The draft plan has "serious gaps" when it comes to studying the effects of climate change on human societies and natural ecosystems, the committee said. The revised plan should ensure that CCSP supports research on understanding and predicting the impacts of climate change, and providing the scientific foundation for possible actions to minimize the effects.

Research on the costs and benefits of possible strategies for responding to climate change is also needed, the report notes.

Major improvements of the draft plan are needed to draw on the international scientific consensus on climate and global change, build on lessons learned from the U.S. National Assessment, better prioritize research areas, and provide clearer guidelines on how the research is to be accomplished, the NAS panel concluded.

The draft plan is too focused on U.S. issues and includes little on international activities, the panel said. International cooperation is needed to help build a global system for observing climate, which the revised strategic plan should address in more detail, the committee said.

The panel also criticized the draft plan for expressing so much uncertainty about the causes of climate change, the report said. Scientists know much more than the CCSP report suggests about how human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, contribute to global warming.

While it acknowledges that uncertainty is inherent in science, and that it is not an excuse for inaction by policy makers, the draft plan has not identified where an improved understanding of the significance of uncertainties, or reductions in uncertainty, is expected to have the greatest value to decision makers, the committee added. The revised plan should do more to identify which uncertainties are most important to reduce and by how much, and to look at how uncertainties can be better explained to policy makers.

Decades of research into the causes and consequences of global warming have already spurred other nations to act. Earlier this week, Great Britain announced it will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent over the next 50 years.

Bush

President George W. Bush (Photo courtesy The White House)
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush has offered a voluntary plan that critics say will not guarantee any cuts in heat trapping gases, even though the United States is the world's largest emitter, contributing a quarter of the world's CO2 from our vehicles and power plants.

"The president is using his research plan as cover to create the impression the administration is concerned about global warming," said Dr. Moser. "He says he wants sound science to guide the debate, yet he dismisses and avoids anything that doesn't mesh with his political views."

The committee did not have time to examine the president's proposed budget for next fiscal year in detail, but a cursory review indicated that funding for the Climate Change Research Initiative was increased at the expense of the Global Change Research Program. Funding decisions should be guided by priorities in the revised strategic plan, the committee said.

CCSP should move forward with the important new elements of the Climate Change Research Initiative while preserving crucial parts of the Global Change Research Program. The committee noted that more investments will be needed to develop the computing power necessary for some of the modeling and data collection called for in the draft plan.

Existing management processes may not be adequate to ensure that the 13 agencies involved in CCSP cooperate toward the program's goals, the committee found. The revised strategic plan needs to clearly describe the responsibilities of program leadership and ways to foster greater agency cooperation.

Earth

Scientists warn that the Earth's average surface temperature could increase by five degrees Celsius (10.4 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next century. (Photo courtesy David Suzuki Foundation)
At the same time, CCSP should encourage participation by other mission oriented agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the land management agencies of the Department of the Interior.

The committee, whose work was sponsored by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, will review a revised strategic plan later this year.