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Climate Change Science Program (9-02-04)

The Climate Change Science Program integrates federal research on climate and global change. It is sponsored by thirteen federal agencies and overseen by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Economic Council and the Office of Management and Budget.

According to the website (available at, during the past thirteen years the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has made the world’s largest scientific investment in the areas of climate change and global change research. The USGCRP, in collaboration with several other national and international science programs, has documented and characterized several important aspects of the sources, abundances and lifetimes of greenhouse gases; has mounted extensive space-based monitoring systems for global-wide monitoring of climate and ecosystem parameters; has begun to address the complex issues of various aerosol species that may significantly influence climate parameters; has advanced our understanding of the global water and carbon cycles (but with major remaining uncertainties); and has developed several approaches to computer modeling of the global climate.

Because of the scientific accomplishments achieved by USGCRP and other research programs during a productive “period of discovery and characterization” since 1990, we are now ready to move into a new “period of differentiation and strategy investigation”, which is the theme of the President’s Climate Change Research Initiative (CCRI).

Most Recent Action

A Bush administration annual climate change research report was released to Congress on August 25th. The report, "Our Changing Planet," is a congressionally required budgetary breakdown of the administration's nearly $2 billion Climate Change Science Program, and traditionally includes climate change research results along with raw budget numbers. Last week the report ignited a controversy over whether the White House is embracing the link between human emissions of heat-trapping gases and rising temperatures, and possibly from there to establishing stricter greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. The controversy stems from a handful of references in the report to studies that show a direct connection between human greenhouse gas emissions and observed warming in the latter half of the 20th century.

The report cites recent research that found North American temperature changes from 1950 to 1999 "were unlikely to be due only to natural climate variations." It also describes data showing significantly greater amounts of freshwater from melting ice have been accumulating in the Atlantic Ocean during that same time period. "A growing body of evidence suggests that shifts in the oceanic distribution of fresh and saline waters are occurring in ways that may be linked to global warming and possible change in the global water cycle," the report states. "Our Changing Planet" also cites simulations showing the oceans are absorbing an ever-greater amount of heat, and identifies that as an important area of future research.

Greenwire reported that climate experts said none of these studies are novel, but their inclusion may be significant because the Bush administration has long been accused of watering down scientific studies showing the link between human greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Environmentalists hailed the new report as long-awaited White House acceptance of climate change findings. "The White House is finally recognizing what scientists have been saying for years -- that global warming is real, is happening, and heat-trapping pollution is the problem," Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council told Greenwire.

Asked Friday by The New York Times whether the administration had changed its position on the cause of global climate change, President Bush stated: "Ah, we did? I don't think so." The White House has committed to reducing greenhouse gas intensity, the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to gross domestic product, by 18 percent over the next decade.

"I think it highlights a contradiction for them, it just becomes increasingly difficult for them to defend a policy of inaction when they acknowledge the truth about global warming science," said NRDC's Lashof.

Such a strategy of forcing science to drive policy may not be successful, according to Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder, a specialist in the relationship between science and policymaking. "I don't think it's realistic for anyone to think that the Bush administration's position on climate change derives directly from climate change science," Pielke told Greenwire.

Indeed, the report comes with a disclaimer that states it does not "make any findings of fact that could serve as predicates for regulatory action." (9/2/04)

Previous Action

The Bush administration's recent climate change initiatives flesh out priorities, research foci, and specific approaches for accomplishing goals largely established in the administration's previous climate change initiatives. On July 24, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham released a strategic plan for the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) along with a proposal to speed up the deployment of global observation technologies. In addition to outlining the program's research-oriented objectives for the next decade, the plan would reorganize the CCSP by bringing together the differing expertise of thirteen federal agencies as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Economic Council, and the Office of Management and Budget.

The central vision outlined in the CCSP strategic plan is for research that will reduce lingering uncertainties enough to support improved decision-making. The question of whether these uncertainties are substantial enough to warrant delaying action on GHG emissions has been hotly debated in recent legislative wrangling over energy and atmospheric pollution. Never the less, the administration has consistently framed the issue as a quest to reduce uncertainty since the president received his requested evaluation of current climate change science from the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council in June, 2001.

Building on the extensive U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the president launched the U.S. Climate Change Research Initiative (CCRI) to accelerate research into "areas of uncertainty and…priority areas where investments can make a difference" in the short term. Stated CCRI aims were to reduce scientific uncertainty about the effects of aerosols, the global carbon cycle, and climate feedback processes; to increase Earth observation data; and to improve modeling capacity. These objectives translate directly into the near-term priorities of the CCSP, which the president established in February, 2002 as part of a new cabinet-level structure "to oversee public investments in climate change science and technology."

The overarching CCSP goals, which attempt to integrate the comprehensive USGCRP and the short-term CCRI aims, are similarly focused on assessing natural climate variability and change and reducing uncertainty about the causes and effects of climate change. The five principal goals identified in the CCSP vision statement refer to so much uncertainty that they appear to question the primary findings of the 2001 NRC report: that human activities are bringing about quantifiable temperature increases and that this problem will continue into the foreseeable future. The first and second goals seek to understand and quantify, respectively, the causes of climate and environmental variability. The third and fourth goals aim to reduce uncertainty in projections of the future climate and how ecosystems and human systems will react, respectively. The fifth goal is to identify the limits and usefulness of all this uncertain knowledge in assessing risks.

The CCSP vision statement also indicates the four "core approaches" that participating federal agencies will employ in order to reach these goals: scientific research, observations, decision support, and communications. The statement indicates that research planned, conducted, and sponsored by participating agencies is the highest program budget priority. The vision document emphasizes integration between the seven research elements identified: atmospheric composition, climate variability and change, global water cycle, land use/ land cover change, global carbon cycle, ecosystems, and human contributions and responses. According to the statement, the CCSP will act as a clearinghouse for in-situ and remotely-sensed global observational data. This approach is bolstered by the administration's pledge of $103 million over two years for global observation technologies. The CCSP also aims to develop resources to aid in decision-making, and is especially aware of the need to devise a systematic way of using scientific information in decision-making despite uncertainties. The vision document states that CCSP will emphasize openness and transparency when communicating results to domestic and international scientific and stakeholder communities.

Reactions to the initiatives have naturally mirrored the two camps in the debate over whether to begin to reduce GHG emissions now or to seek a larger knowledge base before acting. In support of the latter strategy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher remarked, "The issue of climate variability and change, the level and potential effects of human contributions to these issues and how we adapt and manage our response is a capstone issue for our generation and those to follow." The administration's approach has drawn criticism from those who believe enough of a scientific consensus exists to justify carbon emissions controls. Representative Mark Udall (D-CO) responded to the initiative by saying, "Basic research alone isn't enough. Going back to the drawing board is only a stalling tactic. While the Administration plays for time, we are becoming increasingly vulnerable to accelerated impacts of climate changes." According to a paper published in the July EOS, the geoscience community holds a "robust consensus view" that "anthropogenic factors likely play an important role in explaining the anomalous recent warmth" (Mann, et al., 2003). A recent report by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change concluded that mandatory carbon caps are essential to checking rising carbon emission rates. (8/18/03)

On August 25, 2003, a National Academies of Science (NAS) committee held an open meeting to discuss revisions to the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) strategic plan. Speaking on behalf of the federal agencies involved, Richard Moss, Director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and Ghassem Asrar of NASA explained the approach taken to revising the document in response to the committee's February evaluation of the initial draft plan. The revised strategic plan released in July incorporates major changes to its vision, information needs, decision-making support, and program management sections, and adds a new chapter on modeling science. Moss sought to refute what he termed a media characterization of the plan's focus on uncertainty. He asserted that uncertainty is only the basis for one of the plan's five goals, which together guide the process from data collection to decision-making. The evolving nature of the CCSP program was a recurring theme, as both speakers emphasized its adaptive management mechanisms. Moss called the strategic plan a "living document" that will continue to be revised. The committee is expected to release an additional set of recommendations following the meeting.

Committee members questioned Moss and Asrar on matters including agency cooperation, research time-frame, and human capital during the discussion period. Members expressed concern over whether agencies would be able to succeed at the new roles they fill as part of CCSP, and whether they would be able to work together effectively. According to Moss, the new demands placed on the agencies are reflected in their respective budget requests. Asrar added that the agencies are strongly committed to the goals of the program, and that the lead agency in interagency groups is responsible for providing the necessary resources. Another committee concern was the short time frame of 2 to 4 years allotted for many of the research goals. According to Asrar, the short times were deliberately chosen to induce deliverable reports on the current state of knowledge, and to provide starting points for longer-term research. When asked how the program would deal with a possible shortage of brainpower to match the hardware capacities of the program, Asrar replied that the plan was to forge ahead and then "find out where the holes are."

An underlying wariness of the Administration's approach to the issue was also apparent in some questions. Jerry Mahlman of the National Center for Atmospheric Research noted a disconnect between the Administration's "evasive language" that does not recognize the human source of the climate change problem, and the "straightforward" scientific sections of the plan that do. Asrar expressed his hope that any such disconnect would be resolved through the transparent process of stakeholder involvement, and emphasized the program's necessity of learning by doing. Andrew Solow, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, noted that the scope of policy-making determines the scope of supporting research and asked why the plan did not include any analyses of the effects of emission reductions. Asrar indicated that the Administration is interested in such studies, and that the issue would be addressed through CCSP cooperation with the Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP). (9/02/03)

On July 7th, the Bush Administration's Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) issued a draft prospectus of its first of 21 major climate science assessments, titled "Temperature trends in the lower atmosphere -- steps for understanding and reconciling differences." This research, which is expected to be completed within the next two years, will be open for public review and comment through August 12th. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will act as the lead agency, while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will be supporting agencies. This first assessment will focus on discrepancies between warming rates at the Earth's surface and the middle troposphere. Climate computer models have predicted warming in the middle troposphere, but observations have contradicted this by showing the surface has warmed twice as fast as the atmosphere since 1980. Many studies have been done on this topic, including a 2000 National Academy of Sciences study and a 2001 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As a result, many are questioning the benefits of the new CCSP study, especially its ability to generate policy-relevant information. Others argue that the research is necessary to incorporate peer-reviewed studies done in the past few years. Flat funding between FY04 and FY05 of $2 billion annually will likely cause problems for the implementation of the 21 synthesis and assessment projects. It is not clear how the CCSP chose these topics and many have questioned the program's priorities at a time when climate change funding has been cut across the board. According to the most recent CCSP Strategic Plan, the 21 projects are part of a 0-2 year or 2-4 year timeframe, with nine defined as state-of-the-science reports, five intended to inform policy decisions, and seven focused on informing operational management decisions. (7/29/04)


Information on recent climate change policy developments are available at Climate Change Policy, Climate Change Hearings, Clean Air Issues, Clean Air Issues Hearings, Special Web Update: Senate Approves Last Year's Energy Bill, Special Update: Senate Debates the Energy Policy Act, Energy Policy Overview, and Energy Policy Hearings.

Sources: Climate Change Science Program, Commerce Department, EOS, House Science Committee Democratic Caucus, Pew Center on Climate Change, Greenwire.

Contributed by Brett Beaulieu, AGI/AIPG 2003 Summer Intern and Ashlee Dere, AGI/AIPG 2004 Summer Intern.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on July 29, 2004.