Congress Nixes Climate Service

GOP lawmakers deny NOAA proposal to create central information hub

Congress has denied the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) bid to create a promising “one stop shop” for data and information about climate, according to a scoop in The Washington Post.

NOAA’s budget request for fiscal year 2012 (which began October 1) included a proposal to reorganize its existing climate capabilities and services into “a single point of entry” for users called the Climate Service. The stated goal was to “more efficiently and effectively respond to the rapidly increasing demand for easily accessible and timely scientific data and information about climate that helps people make informed decisions in their lives, businesses, and communities.”

Despite the fact that the proposal did not call for any additional funding to establish the new office, Republican lawmakers opposed it every step of the way, according to the Post’s Brian Vastag, who was seemingly the only reporter one of the few reporters to spot Congress’s decision to scuttle the Climate Service during budget negotiations last week.

[Update: A few people have written to say that Vastag’s piece, though well done, wasn’t a scoop. This is a debatable point, but I stand by that call.

ScienceInsider and E&E Publishing both mentioned Congress’s decision to deny NOAA’s request, and they deserve credit for that, but they mentioned it in passing at the bottom of their stories. Neither went into any detail about the service. More importantly, neither specified that NOAA hadn’t requested any additional money, a key point because of the highly politicized nature of any funding related to the environment right now.

I don’t mean to criticize ScienceInsider or E&E. They have covered the squabble over the Climate Service doggedly since NOAA pitched its idea in late 2010 (see here and here). But in the sense that, on this occasion, Vastag was the only reporter to write a focused article that cast Congress’s decision to abort the service in a new light, yes, he had the scoop.]

NOAA’s plan was to integrate operations like the National Climatic Data Center, Earth System Research Lab, and Climate Prediction Center, which currently belong to separate units. The idea was to mimic the National Weather Service, which provides useful, up-to-date information to those who need it. According to Vastag’s article:

Demand for [climate] 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.

Somehow, members of the GOP saw more nefarious intentions. During a hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in June, Rep. Paul C Broun, a Georgia Republican, said the Climate Service sounded “a lot like a propaganda office.” At the same hearing, according to Vastag’s article in the Post, committee chairman Ralph Hall of Texas “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 launched an investigation, alleging that NOAA had formed the Climate Service without the required Congressional authorization, calling it a “shadow operation.” Last week, the Post reported, “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.”

Vastag not only deserves credit for noticing the decision, but also for calling out the ensuing effort to spin the news:

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.

Spurious justifications notwithstanding, the decision to axe the Climate Service is a blow to the free flow of information. As Vastag pointed out in his article, it arrived just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report that reaffirmed is growing scientific consensus that climate change is already creating more frequent episodes of extreme weather.

With more droughts, floods, and storms likely on their way, the efficient delivery of accurate, up-to-date information will become increasingly important to the farmers, urban planners, and insurance companies highlighted by NOAA’s Lubchenco. The same goes for journalists.

In late 2010, scientists launched two separate efforts—Climate Science Rapid Response Team and American Geophysical Union’s Climate Q&A Service—designed to improve the flow of climate information to the media, policymakers, and the public. The former is still going strong, but the latter is on hiatus pending an overhaul. Ideally, NOAA’s Climate Service would have complemented these programs, but it seems that prospect is now gone.

On the bright side, Vastag reported Monday that “federal science funding emerged relatively unscathed last week after the House and Senate worked out a deal for fiscal 2012.” NOAA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology all received small budgetary increases, while NASA took a modest cut that was much less than feared.

Federal research will continue. But, at NOAA at least, there will be no “one stop shop” for information about that work.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.