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Escalating climate risks will outpace climate services without federal action

Escalating climate risks will outpace climate services without federal action
© Richard Sexton; The Historic New Orleans Collection. (Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection)

Though the impacts of climate change are felt locally, the responsibility for managing climate risk at a national scale rests with the federal government. Managing the risks and any opportunities associated with climate change is an urgent national challenge that will affect U.S. preparedness, competitiveness and social cohesion. Climate services in the United States, as organized today, are not able to meet user needs and are not keeping pace with escalating climate-related risks.

To ensure the best available and most appropriate information is used in risk analysis and adaptation, Congress urgently needs to support decision-makers by authorizing and funding a federally supported national system or framework for climate services. Fortunately, this issue was addressed in a hearing convened last week by the House Science, Technology and Space Environment Subcommittee.

“Climate services” include climate projections and scenarios, risk analysis, vulnerability and adaptation assessments as well as facilitation. Federal agencies, regional and university-based hubs and centers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private sector consultancies offer different types of services.

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This bottom-up structure of climate services has advantages because it has evolved in response to the different needs of local, regional, sectoral and institutional contexts. When existing providers have trusted relationships, information is more likely to be put into practice. They are well placed to integrate climate science with detailed local knowledge. 

But there are a number of issues. With so many different sources and types of information, the lack of standards makes it difficult to choose which are appropriate and authoritative. There are equity issues — the same communities most at risk from climate impacts often lack financial resources to access services that could help them. In short, depending on a poorly funded and uncoordinated system of climate services is totally inadequate to meet the nation’s needs. 

Given the accelerating pace of damages and growing need for climate services, Congress urgently needs to create a new coordinating body with authority and funding to manage the existing multi-agency distributed climate information system. A coordinated multi-agency/public and private sector approach is needed because no single agency has the observations, research, modeling and stakeholder relationships to provide the wide range of data, information and services required. A strong, non-political, standing oversight committee/board of directors can establish priorities, considering equity, risk, economics and regional conditions/cultural preferences. Furthermore, there should be a mechanism for maintaining stability across administrations.

The new approach needs to provide:

  • A strong coordination and advisory framework with clear lines of communication and authority
  • Systems to make data and information findable, accessible and usable
  • Financial support for technical assistance and engagement, especially for underserved communities
  • Ongoing data collection, research and assessments to “learn from experience”
  • Funding to enable local and regional centers and providers to participate

This entity also needs to learn from and evaluate the effectiveness of adaptation efforts on the ground. As a component of establishing the new authority to coordinate fragmented federal and local efforts, Congress should establish a Title 36 Corporation (a federally chartered non-profit) to convene sustained “communities of practice” (CoPs) of non-federal and federal experts (i.e., engineers, planners, climatologists, hydrologists, adaptation professionals) and stakeholders. Such CoPs could be organized around commonly occurring problems like managing flooding or drought. They would build capacity, identify good practices as a starting point for others, and inform standards and quality assurance to assist providers and users alike. This learning could be incorporated into the national climate information system and feed into the National Climate Assessment. 

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The United States urgently needs a new institution to provide more leadership, coordination, resources and engagement to expand high quality, effective and equitable climate services. Given that underserved communities are often disproportionately disrupted, access to these climate services cannot be limited by a community’s ability to pay. Progress in addressing climate change fairly and effectively is possible with the establishment of better coordinated multi-agency programs that work with existing adaptation professionals and networks.

Richard Moss is the former director of the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program, chairman of the convening board of the Science for Climate Action Network and adjunct professor in the Department of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland.

Kathy Jacobs is the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona, was the director of the third U.S. National Climate Assessment during the Obama administration.

Both have extensive experience working on climate solutions at local, state, national and international levels. The views express here are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of these institutions.