Thursday, 4 July 2013

Obama's $2.7 Billion Climate Science Salvo

 Last week U.S. President Obama announced a new initiative to spur action on climate change.  Unlike previous efforts, this Climate Action Plan bypasses a legislature that has been largely paralyzed and relies on existing legislation and the President's executive authority.

There has already been a great deal of commentary about this new plan, and especially the proposal to regulate emissions from new and existing power plants.  I discussed the power plant proposals last year and will return to this issue again.  Today, we'll focus on a component of the Climate Action Plan that has received much less attention: science.

Many of the remaining critics of robust government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions argue that the science is still not solid enough to provide a foundation for decisions that will fundamentally alter the U.S. and global economy.  President Obama has provided a two-fold response.  First, in his speech he made a strong moral argument in favor of the precautionary principle:

So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.

As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act. 

This moral call to arms is important - we need to act on the courage of our convictions.  But it probably won't silence the critics, even if it turns out that the United States is able to cost-effectively make the transition to a low-carbon economy and create tens of thousands more green jobs.

The President's second response to the remaining critics of climate science, then, was a masterstroke.  The Climate Action Plan announces over $2.7 billion of funding to develop "actionable climate science".  Government agencies will provide research grants to better understand and document climate change risks and impacts, make more and better government climate science data freely available, and provide toolkits that boost climate resilience.

For climate change skeptics, the President's response is a classic example of the adage, "be careful what you wish for".  The Climate Action Plan threatens to unleash a tsunami of new data.  The Office of Management and Budget's peer-review process for publication of important scientific research is in some cases more rigorous than  for scientific journals.  The peer reviewed scientific literature showing a positive link between human activity and climate change impacts vastly outnumbers publications showing the reverse.  Thus, it's likely that the deluge of new research resulting from this "actionable climate science" initiative will tilt scientific and popular opinion even further away from those who advocate business-as-usual.

Research does not deliver instant results, but it's good to see which way the wind is blowing.  Across the globe, businesses are beginning to assess their own climate-related risks, impacts and opportunities - often as part of their annual CDP disclosure process.  The new climate research agenda from the U.S. will provide further tools to help businesses understand their climate change exposure and take action.

This article was originally published on the 2degrees Network.