With the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy intensifying the debate about global climate change, a broad coalition of industry, academics and state and local government officials is preparing to push Congress to create an expert commission focused on strengthening forecasting capabilities.
The Weather Coalition is in discussions with congressional staff about legislation it hopes to see introduced and enacted in the next Congress that would establish a National Weather Commission.
The push, announced last month at a congressional briefing, is intended to minimize the effects of costly extreme weather events such as Sandy, which are expected to multiply as climate change intensifies. On Wednesday, dozens of U.S. deaths were blamed on Sandy, which could also cost tens of billions of dollars in economic losses, according to preliminary estimates.
“In a lot of ways, I think Sandy keeps reminding us that our vulnerability to extreme weather events is just increasing with time,” Thomas Bogdan, the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which is leading the push for a commission, said in an interview Wednesday.
While scientists are generally reluctant to attribute any single storm to climate change, there is a broad agreement that global warming will produce an increasing number of extreme weather events.
Pointing to the hurricane, along with severe droughts, wildfires and thunderstorms earlier this year, House Democrats renewed calls Wednesday for hearings on the link between global warming and the weather.
“Hurricane Sandy is exactly the type of extreme weather event that climate scientists have said will become more frequent and more severe if we fail to reduce our carbon pollution,” Henry A. Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee,and Bobby L. Rush of Illinois, the top Democrat on the Energy and Power Subcommittee, wrote Wednesday.
In their letter to Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., the lawmakers complained that 17 previous requests for hearings have gone unanswered.
“For two years, the House of Representatives has pretended that climate change is not happening and that the consequences can be dismissed without concern,” Waxman and Rush wrote.
While the committee has examined the potential impact of EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations on the economy, the Republican majority has paid little attention to a nexus between human activity and the warming planet. Many GOP panel members reject or doubt that human activity is contributing to global warming..
“We’ve had about 20 hearings on climate change in the last 12 years, so it’s not like we’ve been ignoring climate change,” Whitfield said earlier this year.
Budget Cutting Concerns
Bogdan praised investments in weather forecasting over the past half-century, which he credited with providing seven-day forecasts of upcoming weather events.
However, with automatic, across-the-board spending cuts slated to kick in at the end of the year unless Congress stops them, Bogdan said he fears that lawmakers will look at atmospheric research funding and conclude, “We just can’t afford to do this.”
“But I think the lesson from Sandy is that we can’t afford not to do this,” Bogdan added.
Even in a tight budget environment, Bogdan said a weather commission provides a “golden opportunity for public, private and academic sectors to come together and agree on shared roles and responsibility and how we ensure that the very best science and technology out there makes it into our operations.”
The effort builds on a recent National Academy of Sciences study of modernization efforts at the National Weather Service, which recommended greater collaboration between the private sector and other organizations involved in forecasting.
On Wednesday, the coalition posted an open letter on its website soliciting feedback on how the commission should be structured. Bogdan said the comments will inform the legislation he expects to be introduced next year.
Hill staffers have made it clear they are looking for “broad consensus” from the weather community, Bogdan said. The group has also held discussions with the Obama administration, which has not taken an official position on the idea of a commission.
One possible stumbling block is the poisonous politics surrounding climate change. While declining to blame that for Sandy’s unprecedented magnitude, Bogdan said he expects the commission will consider the science underlying major storms.
“The focus of the commission I think is going to be around extreme weather, weather in general and those events that have a very immediate impact on our society and our culture,” he said. “But I hope that the science that goes into it will encompass all the relevant science that really does impact what’s happening.”
Congress has twice created similar commissions to develop ocean policies, including a 1966 panel that led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.