Congress nixes National Climate Service

November 20, 2011

At first look, the proposal is as dull, bureaucratic and routine as an agency request to Congress can be.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wanted to reshuffle its offices to establish a National Climate Service akin to the agency’s National Weather Service. It asked for no new funding to do so.

But in a political climate where talk of the earthly kind of climate can be radioactive, the answer in last week’s budget deal was “no.” Congress barred NOAA from launching what the agency bills as a “one-stop shop” for climate information.

Demand for such data is skyrocketing, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told Congress earlier this year. Farmers are wondering when to plant. Urban planners want to know whether groundwater will stop flowing under subdivisions. Insurance companies need climate data to help them set rates.

But the climate service, first floated under President George W. Bush, became predictably politicized.

“Our hesi­ta­tion,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) told Lubchenco at a hearing in June, “is that the climate services could become little propaganda sources instead of a science source.”

At the same hearing, a key opponent to the service, Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Tex.), said he recognized that “certain climate services can provide value.” But he fretted that the reorganization would “severely harm vital research at NOAA.”

In September, Hall’s tone turned decidedly less friendly. As chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, he launched an investigation of NOAA. Hall claimed the agency was operating “a shadow climate service operation” without congressional approval.

For supposedly being in the dark, a lot of light shines on NOAA’s climate data: It’s been public for decades.

But demand for that data is threatening to overwhelm NOAA’s ability to deliver it, Lubchenco told Congress. Between 2009 and 2010, the amount of climate data grabbed from NOAA Web sites shot up 86 percent. Climate-related phone calls and e-mails jumped from 26,000 to 30,000.

And with data spread across agency offices and Web sites, people are “often confused where to go for climate information,” said Mary Glackin, the NOAA deputy undersecretary heading up the proposal. The new service would streamline delivery, she said, and make it easier for people to find information, such as seasonal growing outlooks and drought, wildfire and flood forecasts.

The proposal has drawn wide-ranging support. NOAA’s administrator from 2001 to 2008 under Bush, Conrad C. Lautenbacher, urged Congress to approve it this year. So did scientific, weather and industry groups, including the Reinsurance Association of America, which represents huge firms that backstop home, car and life insurance companies.

Franklin W. Nutter, president of the RAA, said insurance companies are increasingly relying on the predictions of a changing future that NOAA provides. “It’s become clear that historic patterns of natural catastrophes — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods — are not good predictors of future risks,” he said. In other words, the future’s looking rougher.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change buttressed that message last week. A report from the world’s top climate science group warned of more extreme weather, more frequent droughts, worse downpours and more dramatic flooding.

“There is strong scientific consensus that climate change is happening and human activity plays a significant role,” a congressional supporter of the climate service, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), said in a statement. “Yet the Republican leadership in Congress continues their reckless political stunt of climate change denial.”

In the NOAA budget battle, the Democratic-led Senate approved most of the climate service in its budget. The Republican-led House approved none of it. Led by Hall, the Republicans won.

After the deal, which passed Congress last week, a House Appropriations Committee news release implied that Congress had saved $322 million in fiscal year 2012 by nixing the climate service.

The reality: Congress is still giving NOAA those funds for climate research and data delivery. But they’ll be distributed across the agency instead of consolidated under an umbrella climate service. The hundreds of millions in savings trumpeted by the Republican-led Appropriations Committee are an illusion.

“We think it’s very unfortunate,” said Chris McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, which represents 60,000 scientists. “Limiting access to this kind of climate information won’t make climate change go away.”

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