Dangerously Unprepared: Congressional Budget Cuts are Leaving Americans Vulnerable to Climate Extremes

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In 2011, the U.S. has been hammered by climate extremes, with economic damages by mid-June approaching a record $32 billion. Yet determined Congressional opponents of Federal climate change efforts are doggedly impeding Federal activities to inform and engage the public around climate impacts, vulnerability and risks; and to prepare for those impacts. Such tactics have successfully stymied progress on climate policy for over a decade, but at a high cost that is becoming increasingly evident: they have left Americans dangerously unprepared for an era of climate disruption.

Above: No relief in sight for Texas' record drought, CBS Nightly News, 18 July 2011. As extraordinary drought and heat afflicts the U.S. in a year punctuated by billion-dollar climate extremes, Congressional opponents of action on climate change are using the budget process to eviscerate national climate preparedness efforts.

Proposed National Climate Service: Broadly Supported Proposal Dismissed by Climate Change Denialists as “Propaganda Office”

With his state facing the worst drought it has ever seen, Texas Congressional Representative Ralph Hall (Republican, Texas) chaired a hearing before his Committee on Science, Space and Technology on 22 June on the “Climate Service” proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA says the goal of this centerpiece of its climate work is “an informed society capable of anticipating and responding to climate and its impacts.”

Under the circumstances, the Climate Service should have broad public support. The U.S. already had suffered through eight weather related disasters in 2011, each with costs exceeding a billion dollars. In Texas, nearly three-quarters of the state were experiencing drought conditions and most counties had been designated disaster areas. Meanwhile, the Atlantic hurricane season had just started and was expected to be unusually active – partly because of high and rising sea surface temperatures. “We can’t count on luck to get us through this season,” warned NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. “We need to be prepared.

But instead of support for the Climate Service, House Republicans have thrown up roadblocks. Representative Hall introduced in February an amendment to the FY 2011 House budget bill prohibiting the use of funds for the proposed Climate Service. The amendment passed largely along party lines and ultimately became law. In the June hearing before Representative Hall’s committee, several Republican members of the committee clearly articulated the basis for their opposition: climate change denial and a deep-rooted suspicion that the climate service will stoke public concerns about climate change and ultimately lead to mandatory reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

Above: Congressman Paul Broun (Rep, Georgia) believes climate change is nothing but a “hoax” that was “perpetrated out of the scientific community.” He said in June that NOAA’s proposed Climate Service “sounds a lot like a propaganda office.” Source: U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Representative Paul Broun (Republican, Georgia), who believes climate change is nothing but a “hoax” that was “perpetrated out of the scientific community,” said the service “sounds a lot like a propaganda office to me.” Representative Andy Harris (Republican, Maryland) similarly warned that the climate service “could become a little propaganda source instead of a science source.” More to the point, Representative Randy Hultgren (Republican, Illinois), who has said “I don’t believe we have a significant impact on climate change,” asserted in the hearing that NOAA would use the service for “conducting research to support the implementation of greenhouse gas emission reduction policies.”

Above: Randy Hultgren (Rep, Illinois) who previously has stated that “I don’t believe we have a significant impact on climate change” asserted in a June committee hearing that NOAA would use its proposed Climate Service for “conducting research to support the implementation of greenhouse gas emission reduction policies.” Source: U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Our proposed reorganization has nothing to do with cap-and-trade,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco in the hearing. “It is not regulatory. It is not advocacy. Our mission is to provide scientific information and to translate that information into usable data, usable products.” She said in her prepared statement that “these data and products are not just critical to Americans when it comes to saving lives and property; NOAA’s information is being used by businesses, industry, and governments to make smart investments in the economy and infrastructure.

The senior Democrat on the committee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas) said in her opening remarks:

“Instead of denying the existence of climate change, today we should be asking ourselves what we can do to help Americans adapt to the impacts of a changing climate…[W]hy would we not want to give people the tools and information needed to anticipate what is to come?...I believe we can all see the benefit of providing the individuals, communities, governments, and businesses in our districts with the type of reliable long-term climate information and services that will reduce our vulnerability to weather and climate events."

Among supporters of the proposed Climate Service is the National Academy of Public Administration, which said in September 2010 (Building Strong for Tomorrow: Recommendations for the Organizational Design of the NOAA Climate Service) that it “strongly supports the creation of a Climate Service to be established as a line office within NOAA.” Support for the Climate Service also was expressed in many letters submitted to the House committee (see Letters in support of the NOAA Climate Service that the House Science Committee hasn’t made public, Climate Science Watch, 25 June 2011).

Among these was a letter [PDF] from D. James Baker, NOAA Administrator under President Clinton; and Conrad Lautenbacher, Administrator under President Bush. “This is good government and good for those who depend on climate-related information to inform decisions in their lives, businesses, and communities,” they said. “Businesses, individuals and governments in communities across America are demanding authoritative, trusted and timely information from NOAA today to help them prepare and plan for a more sustainable future.”

On 13 July, the House Appropriations Committee passed the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations bill by voice vote. According to the committee report [PDF]: “It is the Committee’s intention that no funds shall be used to create a Climate Service at NOAA.”

In addition to the prohibition on funding the Climate Service, the FY 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations bill funds NOAA at $4.5 billion -- $1 billion less than requested by the President. On 19 July, Representative Ed Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts) responded in a press release:

When there’s a heat wave, people say it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. But with these cuts to our weather services, it’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity...House Republicans are foolishly cutting funding for our nation’s weather and climate forecasters. That won’t change the climate or end a heat wave, but these budget cuts will lengthen the time it takes to alert our citizens about an incoming storm, or reduce our ability to give our nation’s farmers the information they need to manage their crops.”

Preparedness Initiatives Would be Blocked by Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Amendments

Opponents of climate-related Federal activities have not limited their recent attacks to the Climate Service. They threaten to block other Federal efforts to communicate with Americans about climate variability and change, and to prepare for the impacts.

Representative John Carter (Republican, Texas) offered an amendment to the fiscal 2012 Department of Homeland Security spending bill that would prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from using funds for participation in the White House Climate Change Adaptation Task Force. The amendment was approved.

The House on 16 June passed another amendment sponsored by Representative Steve Scalise (Republican, Louisiana) that would block the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from implementing its Policy Statement on Climate Change Adaptation [PDF]. Under the USDA policy statement, the agency would identify “how climate change is likely to affect its ability to achieve its mission, operations, and policy and program objectives.”  Representative Scalise wholly mischaracterized the USDA statement as “a back-door attempt to put a cap-and-trade program in place.”

More recently Representative Rob Woodall (Republican, Georgia) proposed on 11 July an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations bill that would cut $4.9 million from the Army Corps of Engineers climate change adaptation efforts. “The Army Corps of Engineers is a construction agency—not a scientific research agency,” Woodall said in a press release on 12 July. “Its mission does not include climate change.” In the floor debate over the Woodall amendment, Congressman Pete Visclosky (Democrat, Indiana) countered: “We have had horrific flooding in the Midwest during this past year, and that flooding has huge impacts on the reservoirs that are managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.” The Woodall amendment was agreed to by voice vote on 11 July and the full Fiscal Year 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations bill was approved on 15 July by the House.

Above. Flooding from the Missouri River submerges houses in the floodplain between Omaha and Rulo, Neb., July 2011. In the floor debate over the Woodall amendment to block funding for climate change adaptation initiatives at the Corps of Engineers, Congressman Pete Visclosky (Democrat, Indiana) countered: “We have had horrific flooding in the Midwest during this past year, and that flooding has huge impacts on the reservoirs that are managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.” Source: Harry Weddington, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District.

National Assessment of Climate Impacts: Lack of Resources for Public Engagement “A Critical Issue”

Efforts to undermine public understanding of climate change impacts and impede preparedness measures are not entirely recent developments. In the late 1990s, when the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) initiated a legally mandated assessment of climate change impacts on the U.S., many of the same interests used every available means – including lawsuits -- to undermine the process and prevent dissemination of its findings. “To the degree that it has vanished, we have succeeded,” said Myron Ebell of the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The 13 Federal agencies of the USGCRP have launched a new National Climate Assessment (NCA) process that will over the next year engage Americans in all regions in dialogues about climate change impacts. As required by law, the assessment will transmit its findings to the President and Congress by June 2013. But already opponents are undermining the effort by draconian cuts in agency climate budgets. The Fiscal Year 2012 budget (1 Oct 2011-30 September 2012) for the USGCRP may end up being the lowest in two decades (in constant dollars, assuming 20% cut below FY2010 and FY2011 levels).

Members of an advisory committee overseeing the assessment said in a 12 May memo that the NCA’s public and stakeholder engagement efforts “are of critical importance and should be explicitly and adequately resourced. We are very concerned about whether the human capital and other resources exist to implement any one of them, let alone all of them.” Alarmed by the inadequacy of available resources for public and stakeholder engagement, the committee members said the resource shortfall was “a critical issue that must be addressed squarely and immediately.”

Conclusion

With the economic, social and environmental consequences of climate extremes rising around the U.S. and globally, Congressional opponents of Federal action on climate change are targeting climate initiatives with particularly severe budget cuts. These threaten to leave Americans vulnerable and dangerously unprepared for a future of climate extremes, a future that is all the more likely because we are failing to curb our dependence on coal and other fossil fuels. Unless Congress and the President make efforts such as the Climate Service and the National Climate Assessment fully funded national priorities -- and reject roadblocks that intentionally impede national climate preparedness – Americans ultimately will pay a much higher price.

 

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