The time may finally have come for a national climate service

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As the administration of George W. Bush drew to a close, Scott Rayder was faced with a difficult choice. Should it push to fund a new national climate service? Or should it instead direct those funds to a set of sensitive science instruments for the government’s new polar orbiting satellite system?

At the time, Rayder was chief of staff at NOAA, where the concept of a national climate service had gained traction under the leadership of NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher. The idea was to establish a central home for federal climate data – which is often scattered across federal science agencies – with the potential ability to provide long-term climate predictions and information for climate decision-making.

But as the outgoing administration prepared to make its final request to Congress, Rayder was mired in budget negotiations with the White House.

“We were given a choice,” he told E&E News in a recent interview. “Do you want to buy the climate service? Or do you want to buy those instruments … which provide climate data? “

Either choice would have obvious benefits for climate science. But a climate service needs climate data first, Rayder thought. He went with the instruments, hoping the next administration – yet to be determined by the 2008 presidential election – would establish climate service as a logical next step.

“I really thought it would happen,” he said.

This is not the case.

It’s not for lack of trying: NOAA offered a national climate service under the Obama administration, a request that would have required a reshuffle of agency resources but no additional funding. But the demand died on the Hill after a Republican-run house refused to approve it, despite the concept’s origins under Republican administration, The Washington Post reported at the time.

“I always kick myself,” said Rayder, now executive director of the Alabama Water Institute. “It was a very difficult lesson to learn – you know what, we should have bought the climate service, set it up and then passed it on to the next administration. “

However, the idea is not dead. In fact, he might be ready for a comeback.

The idea of ​​a federal climate service – an agency similar to the National Weather Service, but focused on the climate – has recently started to resurface in conversations between lawmakers and scientists. It was the subject of a hearing held in April by the Subcommittee on Environmental Science, Space and Technology (Daily E&E, April 22). And last month, he was at the center of a meeting of the Council for Atmospheric and Climate Sciences (BASC), which is part of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Marshall Shepherd, BASC member, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, recently wrote on the subject in a recent Forbes column, noting that “it is definitely time to revisit the conversation about climate services and what they mean to society.”

The concept of a national climate service has evolved somewhat over the years. Under Lautenbacher, the idea arose out of a need for “an authoritative source for our climate data,” Rayder said – a way to organize all of the government’s reliable climate information in one place and d ‘avoid confusion on how to use them.

Later, the concept expanded to include the possibility of long-term climate forecasting, looking at seasonal forecasts and beyond. It was an idea that continued to take root under Jane Lubchenco, who served as a director of NOAA during the Obama administration.

Today, there is a growing interest in climate services that could be adapted to help individual communities make decisions, from where and when to plant certain crops to how to protect themselves from extreme weather events. A climate services framework today can combine socioeconomic information with climate data to produce “personalized products or services for various end users,” Shepherd wrote.

Shepherd himself doesn’t necessarily advocate for or against a federal climate service, he said in an interview with E&E News. He just wanted to bring the conversation to a larger audience.

This is a relevant time for that, he added.

“I think maybe people feel the time is right in terms of some of the changes in the administration, a lot of the money that is allocated to various bills, like the infrastructure bill. , etc. “So maybe there’s just some sort of renewed interest, given the temperature change in Washington, if you will.”

Access and equity

The federal government already offers a wide range of climate services – they are simply distributed among several different offices.

For example, the National Integrated Drought Information System provides drought forecasting and planning information for the whole country. The National Interagency Fire Center tracks wildfires across the country, provides fire forecasts, and coordinates fire management efforts.

The regional integrated science and assessment program supports research projects aimed at informing local climate adaptation plans. Regional Climate Centers provide climate data on everything from drought to heat to precipitation, tailored to six regions of the country.

And federal science agencies, including NOAA, NASA, and the EPA, independently collect all kinds of climate data.

Advocates for a national climate service say these types of services could be better organized and distributed if they were brought together under one roof.

“These two things are not mutually exclusive,” said Richard Moss, senior scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute and a member of Princeton University, who testified at the House science subcommittee hearing. in April. “In other words, you can keep the system distributed while you keep the national climate information system or service. “

The added value of having a national service, he added, “is that it helps people determine what information is right for their problem.”

As it is, communities trying to plan for the future have a wide variety of information and data sources, but they are so dispersed that it can be difficult to pull together all the relevant information. .

For example, a coastal city may want to develop a plan to deal with future flood risks. He can look at satellite data on sea level rise from NASA. It can view data from NOAA tide gauges. He can view hurricane and precipitation statistics from the National Weather Service. He can consult the US Geological Survey for information on the landscape and the rate of shoreline erosion. And it can work with local environmental groups and climate adaptation organizations to gain information on how to build dikes, dikes, or natural coastal protections.

A national climate service could bring all of these different forms of information together in one place, Moss said. Such an agency “would be designed to give [communities] temporal information on complex risks which would also be linked to the capacity of their institutions to plan these risks.

This type of tailor-made service is already offered by a small but growing number of private risk analysis companies, for those who can pay the price. Jupiter Intelligence, for example, is a rising star in the field of climate risk startups, founded in 2016. Its clients include industry giants such as BP and Consolidated Edison Inc., as well as major cities such as New York and Miami.

But these services come at a price that not everyone can afford. Adding to the inequity is the fact that many low-income communities are much more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – from extreme heat to rising sea levels – than their wealthier neighbors.

A federal climate service could address the issue of “access for underserved communities who won’t have the money to pay” for private climate risk assessments, Moss said.

“It could be a better time”

While President Biden has not publicly commented on the idea of ​​a federal climate service, there is reason to believe he would have support within the administration.

Former NOAA chief Lubchenco was instrumental in the previous attempt to establish a national climate service. She is now deputy director for climate and environment at the White House.

And Richard Spinrad, who was sworn in last month as a director of NOAA, was also an early proponent of a national climate service under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, when he was in office. Head of NOAA’s Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Office.

That said, the concept might still run into some of the same hurdles it has faced in the past.

To be effective, experts say, a national climate service should be well funded. As early as 2009, Spinrad said Science that such a service would need a budget at least as large as the National Weather Service, at the time, about $ 900 million per year. Today the budget is approximately $ 1.2 billion.

A federal climate service doesn’t necessarily have to be part of NOAA, but it is a likely landing spot given that the agency is already home to the NWS. In that case, “he would need that budget without it coming at the expense of the National Weather Service and other parts of NOAA and other parts of the agencies that could host him,” Shepherd said. Many scientists believe that the NWS is underfunded as it is.

There is also the issue of congressional support. Republicans at a recent House Science Subcommittee hearing had reservations about the idea, but they may be more open than in the past.

If another proposal emerges under the Biden administration, there are opportunities to generate more interest this time around, advocates say. Industry support could potentially play a bigger role, suggested Rayder, the former NOAA chief of staff. There will likely be interest from climate analysis companies, which rely on federal data sources, and other companies that could benefit from better access to climate information.

In the past, he has added, “I don’t think we appreciated back then how much industry could use climate data to make better business decisions.

At the same time, there appears to be some level of bipartisan interest on the Hill in issues of national resilience, Moss suggested. According to him, this is a trend that gives him hope for the expansion of federal climate services in the future.

“I think there are a lot of things lining up,” he said.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential information for energy and environment professionals.


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