April 26th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a letter report (PDF) on the structure of the U.S. government’s Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). The New York Times characterized the report as follows, “The Bush administration’s program to study climate change lacks a major component required by law, according to Congressional investigators. The program fails to include periodic assessments of how rising temperatures may affect people and the environment.” The GAO concludes that due to the structure of the CCSP and its process for connecting science with decision makers, “it may be difficult for the Congress and others to use this information effectively as the basis for making decisions on climate policy.”

The GAO report was interpreted by the New York Times as a narrow criticism of the Bush Administration, but what is missing is the historical context. The CCSP, and its former incarnation as the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), have always deemphasized research on the impacts of climate change and on mitigation and adaptation responses. It is probably true that the Bush Administration is happy with a CCSP focused on questions of climate science absent an impacts or policy context, but this stance is possible because it overlaps with the long-time interests of the climate science community in avoiding these issues as well.

I’ll claim to know something about this subject because my PhD thesis (1994) was an evaluation of the USGCRP’s ability to contribute useful information to policy makers, and the dynamics reported on by the GAO go back to the late 1980s. Here is some background (references at the bottom):

First, it is unambiguous that the overarching goal of the U.S. investment in climate research is to support decision making. Here is what the law says: “the goals and priorities for Federal global change research which most effectively advance scientific understanding of global change and provide usable information on which to base policy decisions relating to global change (P.L. 101-606, sec. 104).” The law also explicitly calls for research on adaptation and mitigation. In the early 1990s some in Congress expressed frustration that climate research was advancing knowledge but not particularly useful. Here are two statements of frustration, one from 1989 and the other 1993:

“We [in Congress] are in desperate need of policy assistance. What are the ways – what are some of the things that we could do to increase the policy relevance of scientific research on global change?”

“How much longer do you think it will take before [the USGCRP is] able to hone [its] conclusions down to some very simple recommendations, on tangible, specific action programs that are rational and sensible and cost effective for us to take . . . justified by what we already know?” These questions seem fair and timeless.

In a 1992 hearing a USGCRP official was asked by a member of Congress if the program “pays sufficient attention to the potential impacts of climate change on human society, and the impacts on society of climate change; that is, the economic issues, the sociological issues, the international issues, the institutional issues”. The official replied “we do not, in the USGCRP, support what’s called mitigation and adaptation research. . . This program is focusing on some of the fundamental scientific issues”. No one seemed bothered by the fact that the law establishing the USGCRP in fact calls for research on mitigation and adaptation.

In 1993 an Office of Technology Assessment evaluation identified a number of gaps in the program: “What are the implications [of climate changes] for forestry, agriculture, and natural areas? What mitigation strategies would slow climate the most? How much would they cost? To whom? How might society respond to changes in climate and global ecosystems? What technologies should be developed?” The USGCRP steadfastly avoided such issues in its research focus, not because of the Clinton-Gore administration, but because the climate science community deemphasized such research (for reasons why see the references below).

In short the USGCRP, now the CCSP, has a long history of neglecting research on impacts, mitigation and adaptation (consider that the 2000 National Assessment was 6 years late and, among many of its problems, served largely as a substitute for research on impacts, mitigation and adaptation). If the scientific community has ever thought that such neglect was problematic, then they could recommend changes to the structure of climate research that would increase the emphasis on impacts, mitigation and adaptation. With very few exceptions the climate science community continues to deemphasize such work.

Framing this issue into a Bush Administration vs. opponents may fit neatly into the politics of the day, but it neglects the underlying incentives and interests of the climate science community that have led it to deemphasize the research identified by the GAO as needed in the USGCRP. If the Bush Administration is hiding behind climate science, it is because the climate science community, as a primary beneficiary of the Bush Administration’s approach to climate research, is allowing this to happen.

Here is what Dan Sarewitz and I wrote (PDF) in 2003:

“One way to exercise this leadership and make the CCSP more useful to decisionmakers would be to involve policymakers, in whose name the program is justified, in structuring, implementing, and evaluating the program’s research. Practically, this would mean sharing control over resource-allocation decisions with the mission agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Energy, Transportation, and Heath and Human Services, whose day-to-day business actually involves decisions related to climate. Another way would be to conduct serious research on the information needs of relevant decisionmakers at the local and regional level-farmers, emergency managers, city and regional planners, natural resource and energy supply managers, to name a few-as a basis for determining areas of research that are most likely to provide support for effective actions. We recognize that these approaches would represent a fundamental shift in the science and policy of climate and would likely result in a significant change in scientific and budgetary priorities for climate research. But if the public, rather than the scientific community, is to be the primary beneficiary of the nation’s commitment to climate research, then this is the direction in which we must move.”

Read this whole article (here.


Pielke, Jr., R. A. and D. Sarewitz, 2003. Wanted: Scientific Leadership on Climate, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter, pp. 27-30. (PDF)

Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2000: Policy History of the U.S. Global Change Research Program: Part I, Administrative Development. Global Environmental Change, 10, 9-25. (PDF)

Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2000: Policy History of the U.S. Global Change Research Program: Part II, Legislative Process. Global Environmental Change, 10, 133-144. (PDF)

Pielke Jr., R. A., 1995: Usable Information for Policy: An Appraisal of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Policy Sciences, 38, 39-77. (PDF)

Pielke Jr., R. A., 1994: Scientific Information and Global Change Policymaking. Climatic Change, 28, 315-319. (PDF)

One Response to “GAO on CCSP”

  1. JRM Says:

    I had not read your IS&T article when I posted a comment after another post on Apr 1. After reading this, I agree you have nailed it: climate change will happen – human-generated or not – and we had better prepare to deal with it.