Behind Schedule

In 1990, Congress enacted the Global Change Research Act, based on the premise that climate change was enough of a threat to be taken seriously, even if its consequences were not entirely agreed on. The law required that every four years the administration provide Congress with an assessment of the scientific consensus on climate change and its potential to affect a wide range of national interests.

Unfortunately, White Houses haven’t followed along: The Clinton administration didn’t put together a comprehensive and detailed report until 2000, and many significant findings weren’t included until three years later. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) doesn’t seem to be doing much better. According to the Government Accountability Office, the report was supposed to be completed by 2004, but the first of its 21 reports won’t arrive until January 2006, and the last scheduled for late 2008.

The GAO did concede that four years is probably an unrealistically short amount of time to put a useful assessment together, pointing out that the Inter Governmental Panel On Climate Change, the world’s utmost scientific authority on the matter, only reports every seven years. Chances are that if the administration appealed to Congress for more time, as the GAO has suggested, it might be granted.

Of course, timeliness isn’t the only problem. The Bush administration’s CCSP strategic plan, first laid out in 2003, made no mention of whether or not it would even address the implications of climate change. As reported by a National Academy of Sciences panel in 2004:

“The purpose of the plan’s proposed [reports] must also be clarified, because it is unclear whether they … will … meet the 1990 Global Change Research Act requirement for impact assessments….” The council noted that “…some areas specified in the Act, such as analyzing the effects on energy production and use, human health and welfare and human social systems, are only peripherally addressed by the portfolio of products. Not a single [report] explicitly addresses the nation’s water supply.”

Also worrisome is the fact that unlike the Clinton administration’s report, which included a 154 page summary for general audiences, the Bush administration’s CCSP has given no indication it will do the same. Because the reports will be completed separately over the course of two or three years, Congress will face considerable uncertainty as to when they might receive the findings, as well as serious doubt regarding their overall usefulness on matters of policy.