In August 2017, the Trump administration dissolved an advisory committee charged with translating the findings of the periodic National Climate Assessment down to practical local and regional levels. The dismissal drew protests from around the country. Now, a private and public coalition has counterattacked, reconstituting the committee with support from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the state of New York, and other partners.
A 1990s federal statute requires that a comprehensive report on climate change be delivered to the government every four years. The most recent scientific findings, produced by academic scientists and 13 federal agencies, were published in November 2017. As expected, they were dire: ongoing sea-level rise, extreme weather and other damaging effects, driven by human action and predicted to intensify. President Obama previously issued an order to form an advisory committee to translate the broad national findings down to more granular levels so that towns, counties, states and businesses could consider how to take appropriate actions. The committee, first convened in 2016, included academics, local officials and businesspeople.
In August 2017, the Trump administration allowed the committee’s charter to expire, effectively disbanding it. The move followed the administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and other actions to ignore or deny the effects of changing climate. A fuller National Climate Assessment on the economic and societal implications of the science is due in 2018. But critics of the administration have feared that without the planned added report from the advisory committee, the national assessment would be less useful.
Effective Jan. 1, the Earth Institute has brought on Richard Moss, the former chairman of the Federal Advisory Committee for the National Climate Assessment, as a visiting senior research scientist in the Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management. In his role, Moss will reestablish the panel, and deliver the report that the committee originally set out to write. The Earth Institute is supplying financial and logistical support as well as office space for the effort. The committee is expected to meet in New York in coming months, and produce a draft report for review by experts and the public by the end of June, similar to its original intended schedule.
On Jan. 2, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced that the state would help reconvene the committee. Cuomo is co-chair of the United States Climate Alliance, which includes New York and 14 other states that have announced their intention to follow through on the Paris accords. “In the absence of guidance from the Advisory Committee, decision-makers will have limited ability to know how climate change will impact their organizations and communities, and what they can do to better plan,” said an official statement. New York will help the committee “continue its critical work without political interference and provide the guidance needed to adapt to a changing climate.” The state is expected to provide as-yet unspecified funding, and other states in the alliance may also pitch in. The committee is also receiving financial and administrative support from the American Meteorological Society.
“There’s been an upwelling of support for the committee, because states and cities and businesses want access to information that helps them prepare,” said Moss, who is taking a leave from the University of Maryland to work on the project. “They want a better network, and they want to keep learning from each other.”
Moss said the Earth Institute will provide an opportune home base for this work, not only because of its exceptional research on climate and sustainability, but because “it’s not an ivory tower. It’s been a place where practitioners interact with scholars. Climate research needs to be connected to society if knowledge is going to be useful.”
Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, emphasized the importance of the report, noting, “We raised some new funding for this endeavor and devoted the rest we needed from existing Earth Institute resources because we believe so strongly in the need for this work. Connecting science to decision-makers is a core part of our mission.”
Building A Broader Base of Climate Resilience
The advisory committee was established after a 2013 Obama administration report found that the lengthy written reports typically used to release National Climate Assessment findings were not an effective way of providing information to potential users.
“The idea is to get beyond these big tomes to products and formats that are more useful if you’re planning infrastructure or long-lived investments,” said Moss. “It’s about what the federal government needs to do to help states and cities and others prepare for and deal with climate change.”
The committee will focus on ways that data can be made useful for practitioners such as engineers who build roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. Most climate models can only forecast broad impacts, so projecting regional and local effects can be extremely challenging, said Moss. The committee will also highlight ways to present climate information in innovative ways to decision-makers.
Another goal is to build information-sharing networks between state and local governments, and private organizations. There is a growing view that states, cities, and civil society need to play a greater role in climate-related policy, especially as support from the federal government may continue to fluctuate from one administration to the next, said Moss.
Moss added that he hopes to build bipartisan support for the report. “This process is open to anyone—Republican, Democrat, or Independent—who acknowledges the risks climate change poses to life, property, and health,” he said. “If we can make this non-partisan, it starts to break down some of the impasses which just shouldn’t exist.”
The committee members come from academia, industry, government, and nongovernmental organizations. Ten of the original 15 members have decided to rejoin the new iteration. Additional members are being added to fill in missing expertise.
While a final roster has not been released, returning committee members include: Susan Avery, past president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory; Paul Fleming of Seattle Public Utilities; Daniel A. Zarrilli from the New York City Office of the Mayor; Maria Carmen Lemos of the University of Michigan; Kim Knowlton of the National Resources Defense Council; Jan Dell from the Wood Group; Jessica Whitehead of North Carolina Sea Grant; and Lucas Joppa of Microsoft Corporation.