The Obama administration has not decided what a National Climate Service should look like, the president's science adviser told a Senate committee yesterday.
But one thing is clear, said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: "We'll get it right. It's too important to fail."
Holdren ducked lawmakers' questions about which agency should lead the proposed federal effort to provide U.S. communities and businesses with the information they need to adapt to rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and other effects of climate change.
The OSTP chief also stayed mum when asked whether the administration is seeking changes to the National Climate Service plan included in the recent House-passed climate legislation.
"The administration supports the general approach," Holdren said in an interview after the hearing. "But I'm sure changes will be made in the Senate."
The House-passed bill would put Holdren's office in charge of shaping the climate service, drawing on more than a dozen federal agencies that research or regulate climate change. That is a switch from the original plan put forth last summer by the Bush administration, which favored creating a National Climate Service within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The administration is not ready at this moment to make a specific recommendation as to how the whole climate service arena should be organized," Holdren told lawmakers. "Some things are clear. NOAA is going to have a big role ... it's also clear that other agencies have very big stake on both the [information] supply and demand side."
Multi-agency task force is assigned to fill the policy voids
Holdren said the White House has convened a task force, organized through the National Science and Technology Council, to address the issue. Its members include representatives of the Interior, Commerce, and Agriculture Departments, along with NOAA, U.S. EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA.
Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke lobbied hard yesterday for the Senate to give NOAA a major role in its climate service plans.
"Clearly, a National Climate Service is badly needed, and the Department of Commerce -- NOAA in particular -- has been exercising a leadership role for several decades," Locke said. He noted that NOAA has worked on climate change since 1978 and now maintains 66 percent of the world's greenhouse gas monitoring stations, among other duties.
But Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who called yesterday's hearing, said he also has not decided how a National Climate Service should be structured. Rockefeller plans to include language that would create a climate service in his piece of the broad climate and energy legislation that five Senate committees are now formulating.
"It's the most important piece of legislation we'll probably do in the history of our country," Rockefeller said of the broader effort. "And I think we'll do it."
Rockefeller said the key to moving climate legislation -- and creating an effective climate service -- is bringing a clear message to the public about the serious threat posed by global warming.
"Unless the information reaches people who are confronting climate change on the front lines, it's for naught," Rockefeller said. "It is time to take science out of the labs and into our communities."
The senator had little patience for anyone skeptical that climate change is happening and human activities are the main driver. "Climate change is happening," Rockefeller said. "Scientists agree. The people that say it's not happening -- well, have a nice day."