House Science Committee Grills NOAA Administrator about Climate Service

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Publication date: 
30 June 2011

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.