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Why Timing Matters in Climate Change Science
Washington Monument Lightning Photos

Andrew Freedman @ 10:15 AM


Like many journalists, I find deadlines equally motivating and aggravating. For example, typically I can only concentrate well enough to write this column on Saturday evenings right before it has to be posted. And that sucks for readers, because I'm often drunk on Saturday evenings (but not right now).

But my deadline issues pale in comparison to those of the Bush administration, which has repeatedly blown major benchmarks for global climate change science reports for reasons that remain unclear.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: HighToday: Mostly cloudy with a 20% chance of showers and storms (higher chances to the south). Highs 85-90.
Tonight: Mostly cloudy with a 30% chance of showers and storms. Lows 65-70 (suburbs-city).
Monday: Partly cloudy. Highs 80-85.

The Washington Monument in lightning last night (click to enlarge). By photographer Kevin Ambrose. For more lightning images from last night, click here. Last night's storms caused a delay and then an early suspension of play for the Redskins pre-season game against the Baltimore Ravens.

At long last, last week the administration was taken to task for its delinquency. A federal judge in California ruled in favor of a coalition of environmental groups and two members of Congress who argued that the administration has failed to meet the basic deadlines set forth in a climate change law enacted in 1990. That law, known as the Global Change Research Act or GCRA, set forth the timetable for updating climate change research plans and releasing scientific reports for use in decision making.

The groups had sued in order to prod the administration to produce both an updated global climate change research plan and a new assessment on how climate change may affect the U.S..

The only such assessment the U.S. government ever produced under GCRA, known as the "National Assessment", was released in 2000, although you'd never know it now because the Bush administration has taken great pains to avoid even referring to it at all.

The GCRA mandated that a follow-up assessment be released by 2004, but that has not happened. Instead, since taking office in 2001, the Bush administration has steered climate research towards producing 21 different "synthesis and assessment" reports, which have themselves been delayed.

To understand why this is significant, picture yourself for a moment as a member of Congress. In a few weeks you may have to decide how to vote on a bill mandating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which could result in economic hardship in your district.

In order to analyze the science on the issue and answer the basic question of what is going to happen if action is not taken, you search for scientific data about the potential consequences of climate change on this country, and on your district in particular.

Now, would you find it more helpful to read a single overall report about climate change impacts, broken down by region, or would you rather read 21 different reports that focus more on clearing up remaining, and esoteric, scientific uncertainties in climate change science?

I'd choose the former. The administration's decision to go the other way was a little-noticed component of its agenda to forestall action on climate change.

Making information difficult to access dramatically reduces the ability of policy makers to make decisions based on the best available scientific information.

In 2005 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) raised questions about the administration's approach, stating: "Because the 21 individual reports are planned to address scientific uncertainties associated with climate change and other technical subjects and are to be issued over a period of three or more years, it may be difficult for the Congress and others to use this information effectively as the basis for making decisions on climate policy."

Scientists and policy makers have enough issues to deal with that cause friction and miscommunication in their relationship. Artificially creating a greater divide between the two can only be detrimental to the process of creating policies to successfully address a complex issue like global warming.

The lawsuit the administration resoundingly lost on August 21 didn't rule on whether the 21 staggered reports comply with GCRA's requirements. Instead it found that the administration has missed GCRA's deadlines and must cough up the documents by 2008.

Hopefully the plaintiffs in the recent GCRA case will continue to challenge the administration's compliance with GCRA.

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