POLICY:

Panel leans toward Climate Service outside of NOAA

The federal government's best option to meet a burgeoning demand for "user-friendly" climate change information could be starting from scratch, suggests a much-anticipated report that will be released later today.

The analysis, by an independent scientific panel that advises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, examines four very different blueprints for a "National Climate Service." The idea is to create a central federal source of information on everything from projections of sea-level rise to maps of the nation's best sites for wind and solar power.

But despite the endorsement of climate scientists and lawmakers from both political parties, precisely what a National Climate Service would look like has been an open question. Bush administration officials pushed to create a new division within NOAA but left office before any real plans took shape. President Obama's pick to head the agency, Oregon State University marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, has said she favors creating a National Climate Service but isn't sure what it should look like (ClimateWire, Feb. 13).

Enter NOAA's Science Advisory Board. Over the several months, the independent panel has worked to flesh out the climate service concept, based on four options sketched by researchers, government officials and industry representatives who met at a NOAA conference in Vail, Colo., last June.

The advisory board's final report, scheduled to be released later today, doesn't officially favor one approach. But it seems to lean toward creating a federally sponsored nonprofit corporation or a new "national climate service federation" of regional groups of "climate information providers," which it says is likely to create a "stronger connection to users and the research community."

Wanted: a 'nimble, flexible' service with strong focus

Starting from the ground up would also create a "nimble, flexible" National Climate Service with a singular focus that can be hard to achieve in federal agencies with broader agendas, the report says. And the government already has several models for such an approach, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., which is administered by the National Science Foundation and run by a consortium of universities.

There are some drawbacks, the report notes, including questions of whether such a climate service would be able to participate in global efforts, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or how "authoritative" its advice could seem to the general public.

Taking the opposite approach and carving a National Climate Service out of existing federal agencies has its own disadvantages, the report says, including the potential for inter-agency rivalries.

While NOAA's National Weather Service is often cited as a model for a National Climate Service, NOAA "is not well-suited to the development of a unified climate services function," the new report says, without serious efforts to increase communication between the agency's weather and climate divisions.