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House Science Committee Grills NOAA Administrator about Climate Service

David A. Kronig
Number 80 - June 30, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a divisive hearing recently to examine the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) proposal to create a Climate Service. Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) opened the hearing by noting his “irritation” with the lead witness, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, whose written testimony was delivered to the Committee late. Said Hall, “The Committee invited NOAA more than three weeks ago. It is truly appalling that this testimony was 26 hours late and is 27 pages.”

Hall then outlined his concerns, both procedural and substantive, with NOAA’s Climate Service proposal. According to NOAA’s website:

“NOAA's Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Budget Request includes a reorganization that brings together its existing widely dispersed climate capabilities under a single line office management structure, the Climate Service. The principal goal of this reorganization is 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. NOAA provides this to citizens as climate services. The Climate Service will allow NOAA to provide a reliable and authoritative source for climate data, information, and decision support services and to more effectively coordinate with other agencies and partners.”

Last year, at the request of Congress in the Conference Committee Report to Accompany the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2010, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) studied the feasibility and merits of creating a NOAA Climate Service. NAPA strongly endorsed creating a unified Climate Service, saying, “Creation of a NOAA Climate Service vested with a strong mandate will not only strengthen NOAA’s science and service deliverables, but it will likely also accelerate the work of making the broader federal climate enterprise more focused, cohesive and effective.”

Based on this report, NOAA released a draft framework of its Climate Service in September of 2010, which it revised based on public comment and formalized in the FY 2012 Budget Request. However, the final fiscal year 2011 funding resolution contained language prohibiting NOAA from using any funds to establish a Climate Service.

On process, Hall said that NOAA had been “delinquent – or at best evasive – in responding to Member inquiries.” Regarding the substance of the proposal, Hall’s primary concern was the “amount of resources NOAA is planning on moving from the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. More than half the resources of NOAA’s research enterprise would be moved into a climate service. This proposal appears to contradict the notion that fundamental research must not be driven by operational demands.”

By contrast, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) expressed strong support for NOAA’s proposal and said:

“I hope that this hearing is not going to be another discussion about whether NOAA, in some underhanded way, has already established a Climate Service office without the consultation and approval of Congress…. To rehash that discussion again today would be a waste of our time and taxpayer dollars when we should working to determine how NOAA can best serve the public’s need for these services.”

Lubchenco echoed the assertion that NOAA has not established a Climate Service in her own opening statement, reiterating that NOAA is waiting for congressional approval. She also apologized to Hall for the lateness of her testimony, appearing to mollify him. Lubchenco was careful to note that, “[a]lthough many people think very long term when they hear the word ‘climate,’ climate simply picks up where weather leaves off. ‘Climate services’ refer to forecasts of conditions any time in the future beyond two weeks.”

Lubchenco stressed that the proposed reorganization would not alter the kind of data NOAA collects or services it provides, but is simply NOAA’s attempt to become more efficient and effective at its mission. She added that the idea of creating a consolidated Climate Service was actually initiated during the George W. Bush Administration.

The second witness, appearing at the request of the minority, was Robert Winokur, Deputy Oceanographer of the U.S. Navy. He discussed the Navy’s need for accurate, timely climate data because of the large impact that weather and climate have on the Navy’s operations. He also explained that it is imperative the Navy have data on sea level change and coastal effects of climate change because they have national security implications.

Lubchenco was the target of most of the Committee’s questions. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) expressed concern that the Climate Service would engage in advocating for greenhouse gas reduction policies not approved by Congress. Lubchenco, seeming eager to address the issue, answered that “Our proposed reorganization has nothing to do with cap and trade, it’s not regulatory, it is not advocacy. Our mission is to provide scientific information and to translate that information into usable data… [for] the American public, the private sector, state and local managers, so that they in turn can use that information to make the best decisions.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) both alleged that NOAA had already established or was in the process of establishing a Climate Service without seeking Congressional approval. Rohrabacher questioned Lubchenco about whether the hiring of six regional climate service directors was implementing the Climate Service proposal in contradiction of the law. Lubchenco responded that these directors were hired prior to passage of the legislation, and their function is part of NOAA’s existing mandate to provide long-term climate information that communities need.

Broun went further than Rohrabacher, saying that the proposed Climate Service “sounds like a propaganda office” that would engage in climate change advocacy. Lubchenco answered that advocacy is not a part of the Climate Service’s mission. Instead, she said that the proposal will consolidate various climate services into one office that are currently spread across several disparate offices, which can cause inefficiencies. Broun closed his question time by reiterating that he believes NOAA is creating a Climate Service without congressional approval, saying “I think you’re breaking the law, frankly.”

Committee Democrats contradicted these allegations and gave Lubchenco ample opportunity to defend her agency’s actions and explain the importance of climate data. In response to questions from Rep. David Wu (D-OR), Lubchenco described some of the many ways climate data is used, such as predicting pending droughts, floods, and severe storm conditions.

She continued, explaining that last fall NOAA used its data to warn communities in the Midwest that this spring was likely to bring significant flooding. Firefighters in the West, Lubchenco went on, used NOAA data to anticipate that a warm, dry spring would be conducive to wildfires, enabling early planning. Lubchenco pointed out that these sorts of services would be made more efficient and effective under the proposed Climate Service.

In response to questions from Johnson and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), Lubchenco described ways in which NOAA climate data helps the private sector. Lubchenco said that the U.S. homebuilding industry estimates that it saves $300 million per year in construction costs by using NOAA climate data. Lubchenco also said that weather is a billion dollar industry, naming the Weather Channel and Accuweather as two of many well-known private sector entities whose business models rely on adding content and value to NOAA data. She also listed farmers, insurance companies, public health departments, and power utilities as heavy users of NOAA data.

Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) referenced the allegations that NOAA had broken the law in adding employees and asked Lubchecno to respond. She reiterated that the employees were hired prior to passage of the FY 2011 funding bill and explained that three separate acts of Congress direct NOAA to provide climate services. Therefore, she said that in hiring those employees, NOAA was simply fulfilling its statutory obligations.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), sitting as acting Chairman, closed the hearing by urging Lubchenco to respond to the Committee’s questions as quickly as possible.

A week from today, the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee is scheduled to consider its FY 2012 funding bill, which will contain the funding for NOAA. It will be interesting to see whether the prohibition on establishing a Climate Service contained in the FY 2011 funding bill is continued.

David A. Kronig
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics