In Its Waning Months, Obama Administration Continues to Enhance Climate Planning

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Publication date: 
28 September 2016

As Barack Obama’s presidency draws to a close, his administration is continuing to improve the nation’s apparatuses for assessing and responding to climate change impacts. Recent actions to deepen the connection between climate research and planning include initiating a sustained National Climate Assessment, creating a new public-private climate data sharing partnership, and instructing the government to incorporate climate threats into national security planning.

With less than four months remaining in President Barack Obama’s second term, his administration is putting some of its final touches on efforts to improve the nation’s ability to understand, prepare for, and mitigate a rapidly changing climate.

Recently, the administration’s most prominent efforts have involved its commitment to reducing the nation’s contribution to climate change. Most notably, earlier this month it ratified the ambitious U.N. climate change agreement negotiated in Paris last December. Currently, the administration is also fighting to protect its Clean Power Plan against a legal challenge brought by a group of state plaintiffs led by West Virginia.

At the same time, the administration is working along multiple lines to strengthen the nation’s capabilities for climate change planning. These efforts aim to deepen the connection between climate research and planning, and to develop organizational structures and tools that will improve public and private organizations’ ability to access data and adapt it into actionable plans.

President Obama collects meltwater from the retreating Exit Glacier in Alaska. (Image credit - Pete Souza, White House)

President directs national security planning to account for climate threats

On Sept. 21, the administration issued a presidential memorandum instructing the federal government to incorporate the impacts of climate change into national security planning. The memo is backed up by a National Intelligence Council report, issued simultaneously, detailing the sorts of threats that climate change is likely to pose.

The memo establishes a Climate and National Security Working Group to be chaired by the national security adviser and the science advisor to the president, or by their designees. It will comprise representatives at the assistant secretary or equivalent level from 20 federal agencies and cabinet departments. In addition to informing the development of national security doctrines, the group is to work with the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) to identify needs for new data and research.

The administration’s announcement is the latest in a series of strategic climate-related actions. In June 2013, President Obama released a Climate Action Plan, outlining a general strategy for confronting climate change. That November, he issued an executive order instructing the government to prepare for the impacts of climate change and creating an interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. In 2014, the Department of Defense released a Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap and highlighted the threats of climage change in its Quadrennial Defense Review. The White House’s 2015 National Security Strategy identified climate change as “an urgent and growing threat.” In November 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the formation of a State Department task force “to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities.”

The president’s new memo has drawn scrutiny from Republican lawmakers. On Sept. 26, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science Committee, issued a letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice requesting a briefing on the policy. As chair, Smith has opened a series of hostile inquiries into agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency, and has often voiced skepticism about the mainstream scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

Sustained National Climate Assessment gearing up

Another initiative to improve the connection between climate reserach and planning, the sustained National Climate Assessment (NCA), is currently taking its first steps toward implementation.

The NCA process originated with the Global Change Research Act of 1990. It is coordinated by the USGCRP and draws on the efforts of thirteen federal departments and agencies. The objective is to provide a consolidated report of the impacts of climate change on the United States. Since the first NCA was completed in 2000, the assessment has been conducted in series. The third and most recent assessment was issued in 2014, and a fourth, currently underway, is scheduled to appear in 2018.

The sustained NCA, which was recommended in the third NCA, will supplement the existing assessment process by providing a forum for the continuous engagement of scientists and stakeholders as well as a mechanism for responding to new developments and emerging needs. It will produce reports on special topics and it will publish assessment results in timelier and more concise formats than is possible under the current quadrennial assessment process.

A key step in establishing the sustained NCA is the appointment of a federal advisory committee (SNCAFAC), which will provide guidance to the assessment relating to its activities and products. The committee, which was formally established last year, is administered by NOAA. In consultation with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, NOAA selected the committee’s members this summer. The committee chair is Richard Moss, senior scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland. Moss previously served as director of the USGCRP from 2000 to 2006.

The committee held its inaugural meeting from Sept. 13 to 15 at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. The agenda included overviewing the sustained NCA’s goals, better defining the procedural choices the assessment would face, and deciding what SNCAFAC’s advisory products would be. Slide presentations and other documents from the meeting are available at the meeting's website.

New public-private climate data sharing partnership announced

A map from showing inundated energy assets in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia following one foot of sea level rise (anticipated by 2050) and a Category 1 hurricane storm surge.

The more flexible structure of the sustained NCA aligns with a larger administration goal of making national climate planning into a more responsive process capable of providing customized, actionable information to any institution, public or private. On Sept. 22, the White House announced another development aligning with that goal, the establishment of the Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness (PREP).

Billed as “a public-private collaboration to empower a data-driven approach to building climate resilience,” PREP is an offshoot of the administration’s Climate Data Initiative (CDI), which was launched in 2014. But, where CDI simply collects data sets into a centralized resource, PREP is designed to expand access to CDI data, to enhance its usability, and to promote sharing of data sets and analyses. Its centerpiece is an open-source online platform, currently in beta phase. The federal agencies currently contributing to PREP are USGCRP, NASA, NOAA, and the Department of the Interior. Private companies and organizations contributing to the project include Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft, and the World Resources Institute. 

Announcement of PREP was accompanied by the announcement of a Joint Declaration on Harnessing the Data Revolution for Climate Resilience, signed by 13 nations as well as several private entities, most of which also contributed to PREP.

White House convenes Arctic Science Ministerial

On Sept. 28, the White House took a further step in improving international collaboration on research and planning when it hosted an Arctic Science Ministerial. The event brought together government science leaders and other high-level officials from around the world. Among the issues discussed was the need to identify specific climate science challenges for the Arctic region as well as their global implications, and to strengthen the sharing and integration of Arctic observations and data. Remarking on his experience as U.S. special representative for the Arctic, Admiral Robert Papp captured the vital importance of such initiatives:

Probably the most important lesson that I have taken away is how vital science is to everything we do. Good science makes good policy.

Global leaders in Arctic science and other high-level officials convene for the White House Arctic Science Ministerial

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