Climate Science: A Shift Toward Impacts Research?

Climate Science: A Shift Toward Impacts Research?

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“[Its] focus has definitely not been on understanding impacts,” says Lubchenco

“Š local and regional officials are receiving
‘inadequate’ help in preparing for potentially
catastrophic changes.”

“Š you have to monitor the planet closer than we’re doingŠ”

“Š CCSP staff Š recommend a shift toward impacts science.”
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SCIENCE
10 OCTOBER 2008  VOL 322

NEWSFOCUS
Impacts Research Seen As Next Climate Frontier
Scientists hope the next U.S. president will
devote more of the billion-dollar climate change
research program to impacts

Marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco was among the
first scientists to study how ecosystems off the
California coast are being affected by climate
change. Although that work has put her ahead of
the curve, it’s hurt her chances of obtaining
funding from the $1.8 billion U.S. Climate Change
Science Program (CCSP), the major federal effort
in the field. “[Its] focus has definitely not
been on understanding impacts,” says Lubchenco, a
professor at Oregon State University, Corvallis,
and a former president of AAAS (which publishes
Science). Instead, she’s relied on grants from
private foundations to support her examination of
oxygen-depleted oceanic “dead zones.”

Neither Republican John McCain nor Democrat
Barack Obama has discussed climate change
research on the campaign trail. But both
presidential hopefuls have weighed in on the need
to better understand the regional consequences of
global warming — the kind of information
Lubchenco is collecting. In May, at a town hall
meeting in Portland, Oregon, McCain warned of
“more forest fires” and “more heat waves
afflicting our cities.” In July, Obama told a
Dayton, Ohio, audience that climate change could
bring “devastating weather patterns, terrible
storms, drought, and famine.”

McCain is thinking about reorienting the climate
research program toward what his aide, Floyd
DesChamps, calls “urgent impacts.” He says that
the White House’s “21 [CCSP] reports” are
inferior to the “real National Assessment” that
his boss would launch. Obama’s campaign says
he’ll stress “short-term and long-term effects”
on society and ecosystems. Both candidates have
promised to strengthen Earth monitoring and
efforts to link scientists and local officials.

To implement those changes, the next president
will need to beef up and restructure the
18-year-old CCSP. A string of reports by experts
say CCSP has been plagued by a stagnant budget,
poor coordination between participating agencies,
and a lack of White House leadership. The U.S.
National Academies’ National Research Council
(NRC) concluded in 2007 that local and regional
officials are receiving “inadequate” help in
preparing for potentially catastrophic changes.
Its report also pointed to the country’s
“relatively immature” understanding of how
climate change may affect residents. “The health
of the climate science [program] is not what it
should be,” says Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ),
speaking on behalf of the Obama campaign.

Missed opportunities

Created by Congress in 1990, CCSP coordinates
climate change research across 13 federal
agencies. Initially called the U.S. Global Change
Research Program, it helped U.S. scientists lead
a global effort that by 1999 had, in the words of
former GCRP Director Richard Moss, “nailed the
question of detection, ‘Is climate changing?’ and
attribution, ‘There is a human cause.'”  The next
step, Moss says, would be getting a better handle
on the impacts of climate change and developing
adaptation strategies.

In 2002, the Bush Administration renamed the
program and laid out five overarching strategic
goals, three addressing basic climate science and
two focused on impacts and adaptation. But
roughly 75% of the funding gets spent on the
first three goals. “They said, ‘Wait a minute,
we’re not there on the question of detection and
attribution,'” says Moss, who ran CCSP until
2006. “There was far less of a shift in the
program than [we had proposed].”

William Brennan, the current CCSP director, says
the lopsided emphasis within CCSP on
characterizing global climate change over
identifying impacts reflects “our state of
[scientific] understanding.” But the NRC study
said the U.S. program lacks the investment in
data or modeling capabilities to forecast how
warming might create feedbacks, such as carbon
released from warming soils or methane from
melting tundra.

As did the Clinton Administration, the Bush team
gave CCSP little power to set agency budgets or
shift priorities. Each participating agency
controls its own budget and must approve
decisions taken by CCSP staff. “The structure
discourages the CCSP coordination office from
taking initiatives on anything that even a single
agency, or a single White House official,
opposes,” says former CCSP staffer Nick Sundt.
“It’s a deficiency,” acknowledges Brennan.

A report released in August by eight national
climate and weather organizations says CCSP needs
more budgetary control and recommends that its
director “report directly to the President.”
Policy experts believe a stronger CCSP could
persuade agencies to invest more in areas such as
impacts. They also argue that the effort needs
more money.

The bread-and-butter climate research budget has
hovered at about $1.9 billion in constant dollars
since 1994, although a recent downward trend has
squeezed academic researchers and federal climate
scientists alike (see graph). The totals include
funds for satellite programs-more than $1 billion
in some years. Infrastructure needs for labs run
by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA), the National Weather
Service, and NASA take up much of the rest,
although the exact distribution is hard to
follow. (A 2005 report by the Government
Accountability Office, for example, is labeled
Federal Reports on Climate Change Funding Should
Be Clearer and More Complete.)

The declining amount of funds actually available
for scientific research has meant fewer
scientists tackling increasingly complex issues,
including modeling ice sheets and measuring the
effect of aerosols on local climates (Science, 22
August, p. 1032). A flat budget has also put a
squeeze on hiring the next generation of
scientists. As an example, the National Center
for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder,
Colorado, receives 300 or so mostly “outstanding”
applications each year for postdoctoral
fellowship spots but can support only 40, says
Jack Fellows of the University Corporation for
Atmos- pheric Research, which manages the center.
“The system is so starved right now,” adds
Harvard University atmospheric
chemist James Anderson.

Feeding it would require a budget of $4.5 billion
by 2014, say climate research advocates, citing
recommendations in reports by the U.S. Commission
on Ocean Policy and NRC. But achieving that level
won’t be easy, admits Fellows, who helped write
the August report and who briefed White House
budget officials on its contents. “They kind of
laughed at me,” he recalls.

Having a voice

Researchers who run the nation’s Earth-sensing
network are feeling the pinch as much as anyone.
Continuous measurements from space are crucial
for monitoring climate impacts such as ice
melting, sea-level rise, and changing pollution
patterns, and such data underpin the whole
climate research program. In addition, as support
grows for implementing emissions cuts, “you have
to monitor the planet closer than we’re doing to
see that [the cuts] are working,” says NCAR
Director Eric Barron.

The U.S. environmental sensor fleet includes
roughly 30 orbiting satellites studded with more
than 120 instruments, as well as land stations
and ocean buoys. Most climate sensors fly on
experimental NASA crafts designed to last roughly
5 years. To establish a more permanent system,
the government is building the $14 billion
National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental
Satellite System (NPOESS). Managed jointly by
NASA, the Pentagon, and NOAA, NPOESS includes 12
weather, climate, and space weather sensors on
five bus-sized satellites, launched sequentially
from 2010 to 2026.

It’s an audacious vision, but the next
Administration will inherit a 14-year-old program
in trouble. In addition to soaring costs,
repeated delays have increased the chances there
won’t be NPOESS satellites in orbit to continue
crucial climate data records when NASA satellites
fail. Scientists say an influential White House
climate office might have made a difference. “We
didn’t play a role in that,” says Brennan, who is
also acting NOAA administrator. “I wasn’t
pleased.”

Both presidential candidates have promised to
revitalize Earth monitoring, but they’ll also
face the problem of processing NPOESS climate
data on the ground. “The NPOESS program lacks
essential features of any well-designed climate
observing system,” noted last year’s NRC report.

Some critics of the U.S. climate research program
say it needs more than an increase in funds and
new hands on the helm. One radical government
restructuring would merge NOAA and the U.S.
Geological Survey to create an Earth Systems
Science Agency. “No one agency has Earth
observation as their number-one priority,” says
Mark Schaefer, a former official at the Interior
Department, who proposed the idea in an article
in Science earlier this year (Science, 4 July, p.
44) with former top brass from NOAA, NASA, and
other agencies. A unified monitoring agency could
manage huge programs like NPOESS more
effectively, he claims.

The Bush Administration opposes such a massive
reshuffling. “We need to focus on what needs to
get done. I don’t want to spend 2 years moving
boxes around in the federal government,” says
Mary Glackin, NOAA’s chief operating officer.
Scientists who have briefed the campaigns on how
to reform the nation’s current climate research
say the candidates have gotten the message. The
current CCSP staff is also preparing transition
documents that recommend a shift toward impacts
science. “The campaigns are talking about this,”
says Lubchenco, approvingly. “What I would like
to see is that [talk] transformed into viable
research programs.”
-ELI KINTISCH

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