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President’s Corner

The 2008 transition document: Advice to the new administration and Congress

by Richard Anthes, UCAR president

“The United States depends on a smooth-functioning international system ensuring the flow of trade and market access to critical raw materials such as oil and gas, and [ensuring] security for its allies and partners. Climate change and climate change policies could affect all of these—domestic stability in a number of key states, the opening of new sea lanes and access to raw materials, and the global economy more broadly—with significant geopolitical consequences." Thomas Fingar, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, before a 25 June 2008 hearing of the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence and the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming

American voters will soon elect a new president and a new Congress. Many of us believe it is vital that our nation’s new leaders make an aggressive commitment to deal with challenges associated with severe weather, climate change, and their impacts.

Under the leadership of Jack Fellows, UCAR’s vice president for corporate affairs, UCAR is working with a number of partner organizations to facilitate this commitment. These partners include the American Meteorological Society (AMS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and the Weather Coalition.

In 1988, UCAR and the AMS teamed up for the first of a series of “transition documents” prepared during each presidential election through 2000 and during the 2002 midterm election. These reports were designed to orient incoming congressional staff to the importance of weather and climate research and weather services to our national safety and well-being. Along the way, the process has evolved: we’ve learned to keep the documents short, to make specific recommendations that a new administration can implement, and to bring on many partners to increase the level of community support.

wildfire in georgia

Record-setting drought and tinder-dry vegetation fueled destructive wildfires across parts of Georgia last year. (Photo courtesy National Interagency Fire Center Archive.)

This year’s transition document is entitled Advice to the Administration and Congress: Making our Nation Resilient to Severe Weather and Climate Change. For the first time, the report was completed in time to be distributed to the staff of major-party candidates while the nominating process was still under way. It has also been used in structuring community-related meetings with congressional staff and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Along with issuing this document, we are asking community members to suggest candidates for relevant leadership positions in the new administration. No matter who wins the election, we will need excellent and knowledgeable leaders in key weather and climate positions in the next administration. The website mentioned above lists the key administration positions and includes a form where you can suggest individuals for these posts. These nominations are completely confidential. The transition document partners will review these nominations and eventually forward them to the transition teams in both parties, after asking permission to do so from the community nominees. It is important that you make these nominations as soon as possible.

Below is a summary of our 2008 transition document. You may recognize some of these points from past President’s Corner columns as well as various reports issued by the National Research Council and other bodies. Some themes even hark back to our very first transition document, issued 20 years ago. Then, as now, we stressed the importance of basic research, solid observations, advanced computer modeling, and improved warning systems. Today, however, we must warn society not only about severe weather but also about the many long-term risks posed by a climate that is changing with ever-increasing certainty.

More than 75% of natural disasters around the world are ­triggered directly or indirectly by weather and climate. Each year, our nation sustains billions of dollars in losses from weather-related damages associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, flooding, winter storms, and drought. All 50 states are impacted by these events, many of which will be exacerbated by climate change. One doesn’t have to look beyond Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the multiyear droughts in the southeastern and southwestern United States, the 2007 and 2008 California wildfires, and the 2008 Midwest floods to see the devastating impacts on our nation’s people and economy. These events have caused hundreds of billions in losses and disrupted millions of lives.

global average temperature change

This graphic—Figure SPM.7, found on page 10 of the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) from the IPCC’s Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report—shows the range of impacts projected as global temperature (top) rises beyond various thresholds. (Illustration courtesy IPCC.)

While the threats associated with extreme weather and climate change are substantial, successfully adapting to climate change can help provide crucial economic stability—for example, by ensuring that future water, food, and energy supplies are reliable and sustainable.

The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that we are already committed to a significant level of climate change over the next few decades regardless of our near-term strategies, although the local and regional impacts of that change are not well known. Understanding these regional and local impacts and having the science and policy tools to make our nation more resilient to these hazards must be a high priority for our country.

Policy debates and emerging legislative initiatives are calling for climate research that is more relevant to decision makers. However, creating integrated atmosphere-ocean-land predictions or scenarios that are relevant to local and regional decision making is hampered by the lack of key Earth observations, computer resources, and ways to merge science output with management tools in water, agriculture, transportation, and other sectors. There has been an erosion of key observational and science programs at NASA, NOAA, and NSF at precisely the time when they are most needed. In addition, these science programs will be crucial in developing and monitoring the success of current and proposed climate policy initiatives, such as carbon cap-and-trade systems and carbon taxes.

The IPCC has estimated what the impacts of climate change might be in key areas (food, water, ecosystems, extreme weather events) at various levels of temperature increases. Many of these impacts will be quite challenging for society, but there is significant uncertainty in the details, especially at local levels. We need better answers to these impact questions and we need them soon.

We make four recommendations to the new administration and Congress. To implement them will require three critical ingredients: strong leadership, effective management, and ­adequate and wisely invested resources.

Recommendation 1: Fully fund the Earth observing system from satellites and other remote and in situ instruments as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The Congress and next administration should strongly support a key 2007 recommendation of the NAS: “The U.S. government, working in concert with the private sector, academe, the public, and its international partners, should renew its investment in Earth observing systems and restore its leadership in Earth science and applications.” (Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond)


The Atlantic’s hyperactive hurricane season of 2005 included three hurricanes on 8 September: (left to right) Ophelia, Nate, and Maria. (Image courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, with data from NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, GOES-12.)

Recommendation 2: Greatly increase the computer power available to Earth sciences for weather and climate predictions and related applications and research. Current climate models do a reasonable job providing useful information at the global level, but most climate change and severe weather impacts (for example, those involving public health and safety, water and ecosystem management, energy production and use, food production, transportation services, recreation opportunities, and military readiness) will be at local and regional levels, not global. To provide this level of information will require a better understanding of local and regional user needs and finer-scale computer models (a few kilometers ­versus today’s 100 kilometers). We actually have computers that can perform this level of computation now, but not ones that can devote the needed computational cycles to this level of ­output—that is, dedicated petascale computers. High-performance computers and models are also needed to improve forecasts of high-impact weather such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and winter storms.

Recommendation 3: Support education and training to use the observations, models, and application tools for the benefit of society. We need to teach people at an early age how data are collected, analyzed, and applied to pressing environmental problems. We also need to equip emergency managers and other public and private officials with the needed tools and information to make local and regional decisions. In the late 1990s, a national climate assessment was undertaken to establish and better understand the partnerships between users, researchers, and providers. This national assessment approach should be reinvigorated. The process could begin with a national dialogue led by the AMS and UCAR to help define the goals of a new assessment. That dialogue could be one national meeting or several ­regional meetings, but it should involve all stakeholders—scientists, political leaders, and users and providers of weather and climate information.

Recommendation 4: Support a broad fundamental and applied research program in Earth sciences and related fields to advance present understanding of weather and climate and their impacts on society. Doing so will require the administration and Congress to provide adequate resources for key agency programs in weather and climate. In addition, it will require:

Leadership. Strong, qualified leaders must be appointed, especially to top policy positions. Most importantly, an experienced and knowledgeable scientist coordinating the overall federal effort should report directly to the president. It will also be vital for the new leaders of OMB and OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) to support the interagency management processes that are critical to the success of the science (see below). NOAA will play a key role in this effort, and top NOAA and Department of Commerce officials should be able to make strategic decisions relative to weather and climate issues. Also, NOAA needs organic legislation to better define its role.

On the Web

Advice to the Administration and Congress:
Actions to Make our Nation Resilient to
Severe Weather and Climate Change


Management. The federal agencies involved in weather and climate activities must do a better job managing and coordinating their efforts. Since the late 1980s, the U.S. Global Change Research Program—overseen in the last few years by the Climate Change Science Program—has made substantial progress on understanding Earth processes and coordinating related agency efforts. Some of the USGCRP’s most effective years occurred when there was a strong partnership between the research agencies and OMB/OSTP. The result was an integrated program plan submitted to Congress by the president. This process should be deployed again to create an integrated national weather and climate program. OMB and OSTP staff should be given the authority, resources, and time to support this interagency process. The U.S. Global Change Research Program Act of 1990 may need to be updated to reflect a greater focus on adaptation to climate change and to ensure that critically important management approaches are followed. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars recently produced a report entitled OSTP 2.0 that outlines the key role the president’s science advisor should play in this area and how a proven set of interagency management and review mechanisms should be applied. We support the recommendations in this report.

Evaluation. We must have mechanisms to evaluate whether we are making progress toward creating and using knowledge that can help society adapt to climate change and severe weather. Congress can and should vigorously exercise its oversight responsibilities to assist in the implementation of these and other policy recommendations. We also call for the establishment of a presidential advisory committee that will advise, assess, and report on progress being made on the recommendations mentioned above, and on their impacts with respect to national policy. This high-level interagency advisory committee should include representatives from across the weather and climate enterprise, including public, private, and academic sectors.

In summary, one of the great imperatives for the next administration and Congress is to deal effectively and forcefully with the broad and widespread challenges associated with high-impact weather events and climate change. There is much that can be done now to improve the nation’s resilience to both short-term weather and long-term climate risks and to more effectively manage these risks. The costs are not high—on the order of $50 per person per year (approximately the cost of re­fueling a typical automobile)—and the benefits are large. This modest investment in weather and climate knowledge could save us untold millions in understanding, mitigating, and adapting to an environmental shift that may well be as large as any in human history.

The transition materials include detailed budget estimates and actions needed to implement these four recommendations. Please take the time to review and share these materials and nominate leaders for key positions in the next administration. It is important for the community to speak with a single voice on these important matters, and we hope these transition materials will help you participate.

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