Issue Date: July 6, 2009
Climate Info, Please
A massive piece of energy and climate legislation passed late last month by the House of Representatives is chock-full of provisions designed to help stave off global warming by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. But tucked deep in the bill (H.R. 2454) is a provision aimed at helping the public and private sectors adapt to unavoidable climate change.
The section in H.R. 2454 would establish a new federal agency, the National Climate Service (NCS), as an authoritative source of forecasts about changes in climate expected in the coming years and decades. NCS would be somewhat analogous to the National Weather Service, which provides forecasts and outlooks generally on the scale of hours to days to seasons.
NCS is intended to crunch climate-related data from many sources into valuable information. Businesses, farmers, states, and cities could use that information as they plan to adjust to the longer term effects of global warming, such as higher sea level or reduced rainfall.
For example, chemical producers deciding whether and where to expand their operations might turn to NCS. Their choices could be guided by predictions about the availability of water, essential to some manufacturing processes, in local rivers or aquifers. The quantity of these water supplies is, in turn, tied to precipitation patterns, which are predicted to shift in the years ahead.
Or an alternative-energy company eyeing a potential new site that currently has plenty of wind could avail itself of NCS-derived wind forecasts at that site for the next decade or two to estimate whether turbines would continue to spin profitably down the road. Local or state governments might rely on projections about sea-level rise as they zone lands for future development or as they select a site for a new wastewater treatment plant. And commercial foresters could seek information on which species of tree might grow better in areas predicted to turn hotter and drier in decades to come.
"Our nation is not ready for those decisions," according to Eric J. Barron, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a National Science Foundation-sponsored organization that collaborates with universities. "There's no single source of authoritative, credible, and useful information" detailing how the U.S. climate will change, Barron told a May hearing of the House Science & Technology Subcommittee on Energy & Environment that explored the need for an agency like NCS.
Currently, organizations and individuals seeking climate forecasts as they make plans to adapt to the effects of global warming "are often left to scramble haphazardly to collect tidbits of information from a multiplicity of sources," said David Behar, another witness at the hearing. Behar is deputy to the assistant general manager at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which provides drinking water and power to the Bay Area.
The idea of NCS has been tossed around in Washington for about two decades. But 2009 is the first year this notion—or legislation to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, for that matter—has gained traction in Congress.
The section of the House-passed energy and climate bill that would create NCS underwent legislative vetting separately from most of the 1,000-plus-page measure. The bulk of the bill passed through the House Energy & Commerce Committee, chaired by H.R. 2454's sponsor, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). The NCS language that ended up in the final House legislation was lifted from a separate measure (H.R. 2407) that the House Science & Technology Committee approved in early June.
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Science & Technology Committee and sponsor of H.R. 2407, led the charge to create NCS.
"We have built infrastructure, projected water availability, developed cropping systems, and managed coastal resources assuming a range of weather and climate" conditions, Gordon said. But those assumptions may not hold up as the climate changes. "Without more specific information about the magnitude and direction of these changes, we will be ill-prepared to exploit new opportunities and to adapt to new challenges. That is why we need a climate service," he said.
Although the House-passed climate bill would establish NCS, the legislation leaves up in the air where the new organization would fit into the federal government. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco has lobbied for both establishment of NCS and for it to be part of her agency, which is heavily involved in climate and weather research and information.
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service Employees Organization, which represents 4,000 employees within NOAA, likes the idea but opposes the formation of a freestanding NCS. The group says the weather service is already doing a lot of what the proposed new entity would do. It sees creation of a separate government body as threatening the weather service's resources. Instead, the employees' organization wants the weather service expanded to include climate issues through a new entity: the National Weather & Climate Service.
Instead of wading into a potential turf war, the House-passed legislation would put the onus on the executive branch to figure out where NCS would go. The bill would require an interagency group, spearheaded by the President's Office of Science & Technology Policy, to study the issue and then designate a place for NCS within the federal bureaucracy.
Having the White House in charge of this process is important, said Rick Piltz, director of Climate Science Watch, a program of the watchdog group Government Accountability Project. Leadership from the highest ranks of the executive branch will help ensure that agencies across the government funnel their climate data into NCS in a coordinated fashion, Piltz told C&EN.
H.R. 2454 would also charge this interagency panel with determining how the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which spans more than a dozen federal agencies, would be connected to NCS's work to provide information to the public.
Although House lawmakers opted to leave it to the interagency group to decide where in the government the new agency would reside, they gave a special nod to NOAA. The bill they passed would create a government entity closely related to NCS inside NOAA—the Climate Service Program. This program would oversee the distribution of climate data collected or generated by various NOAA agencies to the rest of the federal government. The program would also collect climate-relevant data from other federal agencies—including the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Energy and the Interior.
Nonetheless, the effort to create NCS has few opponents. They are mainly those skeptical that human activity is changing the climate or those opposed, in principle, to any further expansion of the federal government. Thus, it is likely that this provision will remain in whatever version of the energy and climate legislation the House and Senate can agree on.
Such an agreement, however, is far from certain because the political debate over the bill's higher profile cap-and-trade provisions for greenhouse gas emissions is expected to continue this summer in the Senate.
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