Climate Research Called No Excuse for Inaction

WASHINGTON, DC, July 24, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration today released a 10 year research strategy for developing knowledge of climate change and its potential impacts on the environment and human lives. The strategic plan builds on the expertise of 13 federal departments and agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Critics say the comprehensive study should not replace action to curb U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases.

"We have strong evidence of global warming and high degree of consistency," said Dr. Warren Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who is involved in creating and carrying out the research plan. "There is uncertainty over exactly how much it is going to warm over next 100 years."

"One of the aspects we will be looking at carefully," Washington said, "is what happening in the North Atlantic as the sea ice and glaciers melt and add fresh water to ocean circulation, and may change the transport of warm water in the Gulf Stream." It is the potential for effects like this to trigger abrupt changes in the global climate that scientists will be studying, he told reporters today.

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As Alaska's Hubbard Glacier melts, the water in Russell Lake has been rising at about six inches (15 cm) per day, covering former beaches and flooding into the tree line. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
The plan emerged from months of consultations by federal experts, independent scientists, nongovernmental organizations, members of the general public and international specialists who make up the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), a joint federal program of President George W. Bush's Committee on Climate Change Science and Technology Integration.

The CCSP strategic planís vision is ďa nation and the global community empowered with the science based knowledge to manage the risks and opportunities of change in the climate and related environmental systems.Ē

The plan outlines five scientific goals aimed at addressing key questions and uncertainties:

  1. Extend knowledge of the Earth's past and present climate and environment, including its natural variability, and improve understanding of the causes of observed changes.

  2. Improve understanding of the forces bringing about changes in the Earth's climate and related systems.

  3. Reduce uncertainty in projections of how the Earth's climate and environmental systems may change in the future.

  4. Understand the sensitivity and adaptability of different natural and managed systems to climate and associated global changes.

  5. Explore the uses and identify the limits of evolving knowledge to manage risks and opportunities related to climate variability and change.

But environmentalists say no matter how many scientific puzzles are solved, if the politicians do not integrate these solutions into their policymaking, climate change cannot be curbed.

Dr. Daniel Lashof, science director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said today, "We should learn as much as possible about global warming. The question is, what happens in the White House when the coal and oil companies don't like the results. The Bush administration has a history of sweeping science under the rug when it undermined their political agenda. That's what happened last month when the White House suppressed global warming findings in a major EPA report."

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Dr. Ari Patrinos directs the U.S. Energy Department's Office of Science's biological and environmental research division (Photo courtesy DOE)
Dr. Ari Patrinos, director of the U.S. Energy Department's Office of Science's biological and environmental research division, told reporters today, "We will not be dabbling into policy. At the same time, we're not just throwing information over the wall and hoping it will stick somewhere useful. It will be more of a dialogue that may translate into useful policy."

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, has called for a Senate hearing to investigate reports of federal agencies manipulating science to support Bush administration policies. In a July 15 letter to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and and Ranking Member Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, Lieberman said, "Given the skepticism surrounding the veracity of the Administration's statements on environmental issues, I believe that any hearing on this issue must be held under oath."

In his letter, Lieberman quoted Jeremy Symons, a former EPA climate policy adviser, who wrote in the "Washington Post" on July 13, "What began with the Bush administration exercising its discretion over policy choices on global warming has devolved into attempts to suppress scientific information. These efforts jeopardize the credibility of federal agencies and the information they provide to Congress and the public."

The need to limit global warming is urgent, according to two experts from the Harvard Medical School and Duke University speaking for the nonprofit Civil Society Institute, who expressed their concern earlier this month that droughts fueled by unchecked global warming would touch off more wildfires and a rise in related public health problems.

"The rise of U.S. wildfires is turning global warming into a real and direct health threat for American adults and children," said Paul Epstein, MD, associate director, Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. "The chief concern has to be that global warming, if left unchecked, will mean more intense weather extremes, including drought. The resulting, and worsening, wildfire problems in the United States could well mean a steadily increasing toll in the related health problems."

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Smoke rises from the Cramer fire on Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forest where fast moving flames claimed the lives of firefighters Jeff Allen and Shane Heath on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Professor William Schlesinger, dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, said that due in large part to global warming, the stage is now set for wildfires to rage out of control to an extent not seen before. "Global warming is causing much of the world's water to evaporate, leaving dry vulnerable forests."

Research under the U.S. Climate Change Science Program is sponsored by 13 federal agencies - the Agency for International Development, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, State, and Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Scientists from these agencies will undertake programs in climate modelling, atmosphere radiation measurement, atmospheric science, the terrestrial carbon cycle, the ocean carbon cycle, and ecosystem research program, and finally will produce an integrated assessment, according to Dr. Raymond Orbach, the Energy Department's director of the Office of Science.

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Dr. Paul Gilman will direct the climate change research for the EPA. (Photo courtesy EPA)
The EPA's participation in the climate research effort is headed by Dr. Paul Gilman, who serves in the dual roles of EPA science advisor and assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development. "This plan will support scientific discovery and excellence," Dr. Gilman said. "The partnerships will produce high quality, science based knowledge that we will use as the platform for policies that protect the Earth's environment."

The NRDC's Lashof says the pursuit of knowledge should not be a reason to avoid action. "We know enough to know that's its time to start fixing the problem," he said. "Scientists agree that heat-trapping carbon pollution is causing global warming. They say that if we don't take sensible action soon, it will be too late. Research should not be an excuse to put off solutions."

Schlesinger says the problem of global warming is urgent. "The most important thing for the public to understand about this is that our nation needs to curb its emissions of carbon dioxide. We are altering the climate of the planet to a point never before seen."

emissions

Emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels blanket the Earth with heat trapping greenhouse gases. (Photo courtesy National Center for Atmospheric Research)
With about five percent of the world's population, the United States emits some 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. Under the administration of President Bush, the United States has backed out of the Kyoto Protocol originally signed under President Bill Clinton.

President Bush says U.S. participation in the international agreement to limit the emission of six greenhouse gases would be too costly for the good of the U.S. economy.

While the President did not comment today on the release of the climate research plan, he made his views on the issue clear in June 2001, saying, "I've asked my advisors to consider approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including those that tap the power of markets, help realize the promise of technology and ensure the widest possible global participation."

"Our actions should be measured as we learn more from science and build on it," President Bush said. "Our approach must be flexible to adjust to new information and take advantage of new technology. We must always act to ensure continued economic growth and prosperity for our citizens and for citizens throughout the world."