Fixing the U.S. National Climate Assessment

To fulfill its science advisory role the U.S. National Climate Assessment needs to be depoliticized, here's how to do it

In 2020 we’ve learned many lessons about the importance of expert advice in policy making. Among them is that it is far easier to politicize expertise than it is to secure its independence and legitimacy. As the fifth U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) gets underway, it is already being politicized, but it is not too late to change course.

It turns out I know a lot about the NCA. In fact, I wrote my 1994 PhD dissertation on it and the connections of climate science and policy. The NCA was established by Congress in a 1990 law that mandated the production of a periodic scientific assessment to policy makers “to provide usable information on which to base policy decisions relating to global change.” Congress required this assessment to be produced every four years, but in the 29 years since, only four assessments have been produced (2000, 2009, 2014, 2017/18).

Technically, the NCA is a report of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), an interagency research effort that was also created under the same 1990 legislation. The USGCRP was a result of collaborative efforts of federal agency officials who realized that issues like climate change were just too big and cross-cutting to fall under a single agency. Make no mistake, these officials also realized that if they wanted to see increasing budgets for global change research in their agencies, they’d need to come together to make the case.

Originally, during the Reagan and Bush (HW) administrations, the USGCRP was focused entirely on research, with the largest expenditures focused on earth observing satellites in NASA. In the late 1980s, to coordinate research across more than a dozen agencies a few forward-thinking policy entrepreneurs proposed to create a coordinating committee within the offices of the White House (and specifically, under the Federal Coordinating Committee on Science, Engineering and Technology, FCCSET — pronounced “fix-it” — which had been established under the Carter administration).

The Committee on Earth Sciences, as it was originally called, promised to work with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make research across agencies more effective and coordinated. More research, more coordination — What was not to like?

But larger budgets for global change research also required Congress to act, since it actually appropriates funding. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s global change and climate change were still-emerging issues, and certainly not viewed as ones requiring increased spending on top of what were already multi-billion dollar research expenditures. So Congress had not to that point been particularly favorable to new research spending on these issues.

Here is where things changed.

Instead of just promising more research, agency officials promised relevance to policy. This focus was compelling to Congress. As Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) said in 1989: “My hope is that a long-term coordinated research effort will one day give Congress the information it needs to take corrective action and avert a future disaster.” Even then it was easier to sell investments in research as a response to climate change, rather that the more politically difficult issues associated with adaptation and mitigation.

With Congress on board, thirty years ago this week the “Global Change Research Act of 1990” was enacted, creating the USGCRP and under it, the NCA. But within the act was a design flaw that is still with us today.

Establishing a coordinating committee within the White House makes good sense when the focus is the development of research budgets across multiple federal agencies. After all, OMB is responsible for developing the annual president’s budget and working with the USGCRP offered the promise of facilitating that process. However, housing a science advisory process within the White House is a recipe for challenges to its legitimacy, because the White House is unavoidably a partisan institution.

We saw these dynamics at play just yesterday. The Washington Post reported that the Trump White House has removed the director of the USGCRP, a career official from the Department of Energy, and sent him back to his home agency. Importantly, note that while the leader of the USGCRP is not a political appointee — something everyone would agree is a bad idea for any science advisory mechanism — but by virtue of its position in the White House, the USGCRP is necessarily led by someone who is politically appointed.

As a result, overseeing the NCA from the White House is inevitably a recipe for politicization, real or perceived. This is a design flaw.

Not surprisingly, every NCA has seen challenges to its legitimacy for exactly this reason, whether under Clinton, Bush (W), Obama or Trump. As reported today, “a total overhaul of the National Climate Assessment to highlight doubt and downplay certainty was planned for Trump's second term.”

The NCA does not exist to promote or to sell the policy agenda of the current administration — regardless of the merits of an particular administration’s policy proposals. The NCA exists to produce a “scientific assessment” which can certainly including evaluation of policy alternatives, but as a tool of expert advice, it does not exist to advance the political goals of the White House.

To fix the NCA would not be difficult. Three actions are needed.

First, the assessment should be housed within and implemented entirely from a federal agency within the scope of the USGCRP. There should be no oversight or control exerted from the White House.

Second, the report should be led and written by experts chosen by an empaneling team. This team should be selected by a bipartisan group, as is typically done for reports on highly politicized issues. For instance, the majority and minority members of the House Science Committee could each select 6 members of this empaneling committee, with two co-chairs. The empaneling committee would then identify experts to lead and contribute to the report.

Third, before the writing starts, the assessment team should query decision makers — federal, state, local, in business and civil society — to identify what information they perceive to be most useful to their decisions related to climate mitigation and adaptation.

These three steps would ensure that there is no perception of White House influence on the report, that it is authored by experts assembled in a bipartisan manner and that the topics that the report focuses are have direct relevance to decision makers. The NCA is far too important to be politicized, and politicization is a choice.

For further reading:

Pielke, R. A. (1995). Usable information for policy: an appraisal of the US Global Change Research Program. Policy Sciences28(1), 39-77. (PDF)

Pielke Jr, R. A. (2000). Policy history of the US global change research program: Part I. Administrative development. Global Environmental Change10(1), 9-25. (PDF)

Pielke Jr, R. A. (2000). Policy history of the US global change research program: Part II. Legislative process. Global environmental change10(2), 133-144. (PDF)

Sarewitz, D., & Pielke Jr, R. A. (2007). The neglected heart of science policy: reconciling supply of and demand for scienceEnvironmental science & policy10(1), 5-16.