White House launches climate data initiative

The White House launched an initiative Wednesday aimed at expanding the use of climate data nationwide, to help communities cope with the impacts of global warming.

The effort includes making federal data more accessible through climate.data.gov and launching a design competition to demonstrate the extent to which Americans are vulnerable to coastal flooding. The administration also is releasing new federal map data to depict which parts of the nation’s infrastructure are vulnerable to climate change, and is enlisting Google, Esri and other private firms to distribute and store data.

White House counselor John D. Podesta and presidential science adviser John P. Holdren told reporters the initiative would allow government officials and businesses to prepare for rising sea levels, flooding and drought.

“This begins to make clearer what the risks are of inaction,” Podesta said.

The idea of creating a centralized climate data center dates back to 2006, during the Bush administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration formally proposed its creation in 2010. NOAA’s administrator at the time, Jane Lubchenco, called it a National Climate Service, since it is modeled loosely on the National Weather Service.

Congress, which was controlled by Democrats, called for an independent review of the proposal. But Republicans later rejected the plan after taking control of the House.

In an interview Wednesday, Lubchenco called the effort “very timely. As we saw at NOAA the requests for information are just escalating exponentially . . . It’s not just data, it is being able to visualize it, to manipulate it, and to tailor it to the decisions you are making.”

Holdren said the effort is “broader” than the 2010 plan and “brought more resources to bear” by involving other agencies as well as the private sector.

The climate service has practical appeal beyond the political dispute over global warming: NOAA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Western Governors Association in June 2011 to provide them with climate data on drought and other issues.

Jack Dangermond, chief executive of the software firm Esri, said his company had already analyzed how a one-meter rise in sea level would affect the New York City area; 780,000 people would be displaced.

But the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group that opposes federal limits on carbon dioxide, said the idea is part of an effort to justify stricter regulations based on the prospect of harmful climate impact. While the data initiative will come out of agencies’ existing budgets, the group said the administration is already spending too much on infrastructure in the name of climate readiness.

“Even as millions of Americans experience continued economic plight, the White House is expending enormous resources, including billions in taxpayer dollars, on the president’s pet project: ‘climate change preparedness,’ ” the group’s spokeswoman Laura Sheehan said in a statement. “The administration’s new climate change Web site will further bolster its fear-inducing vision of the future, which sounds more and more like a scene out of a Hollywood movie.”

Some private firms are joining with the administration to launch the initiative. Esri will work with the District and 11 other cities to create free “maps and apps” for state and local planning officials. The technology giant Google will donate 1,000 terabytes of cloud storage for climate data, along with 50 million hours of high-performance computing.

Mary Glackin, a longtime career official at NOAA who served as the agency’s acting administrator at the start of the Obama administration, said it was important to enlist the help of the private sector to modernize the way businesses and consumers access climate data. “Our climate services are back in the 1940s, and our problems are really the problems of today,” she said.

Dawn Zimmer, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, N.J., which was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, said in a statement that the move allows her city to conduct “a data-driven analysis” of flooding risks and solutions.

“As we work with a team of experts to make Hoboken more resilient, it is critical that we have the tools and data necessary to anticipate the impacts of climate change,” she said.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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