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Agency director defends US climate service proposal

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Jane Lubchenco, head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was on Capitol Hill this morning, pleading for permission to reorganize her agency. NOAA is the parent agency to the National Weather Service, and Lubchenco would like to pull the various climate research and forecasting parts of the agency together under a similar National Climate Service.

But what might seem like a housekeeping measure—reorganizing within the agency, and with no change in overall funding levels—has become politically hot. The reason? The word ‘climate,’ which in Washington DC this summer is hotter than the hottest potato. In April, an amendment to an appropriations bill prohibited the agency from using its budget to create the new office. Nature has argued that this was, to put it bluntly, silly.

At this morning’s hearing before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Lubchenco endeavored to explain that while weather can be predicted within about a ten-day window, anything more that two weeks out counts as climate. She repeated that the major functions of the Climate Service would be to produce and disseminate data that could predict floods, fires and droughts. “Our proposed reorganization has nothing to do with cap and trade,” she said. “It is not regulatory; it is not advocacy. We are providing information so others can make decisions.”

“Climate Service is really shorthand for long-term weather and climate information,” she said, adding that such information is “vitally important for saving lives and property but also for stimulating business.”


And yet, Republican congressmen smelled an agenda. “Our concern is that Climate Service could be a propaganda source,” said Andy Harris of Maryland. He pointed to a recent article in NOAA’s online ClimateWatch magazine about sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay, an article he called “sensational” and derided for not being peer reviewed. “You are asking Congress, when we have to borrow 41 center on every dollar—most of that from the Chinese—for you to set up a climate service to publish this? This is absolutely atrocious.”

Lubchenco, looking smart in a magenta suit with a large umbrella pin, at times appeared to be containing her annoyance—especially when Dana Rohrabacher of California and Paul Broun of Georgia called her a criminal. They contend she broke the law by not stripping from NOAA employee Tom Karl the title of Interim Director of NOAA’s Climate Service. Karl was given the title before the bill that put the brakes on the Climate Service passed.

The anti-Climate-Service amendment in the 2011 Appropriations Act was little more than symbolic, since Lubchenco didn’t plan on funding the Climate Service until 2012 . It will be interesting to watch whether Republicans eager to prove that they are firmly against any action on climate change will be willing to stop the agency from reorganizing next year.

picture courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce

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