It’s so cold! What happened to global warming?

Science Q&A

On December 19, Washington, D.C. was buried by two feet of snow, setting a new record for snowfall during the entire month of December and paralyzing the city for three days.  As my neighbor and I shoveled out from the storm, he stopped for a moment, grinned, and asked, “So what happened to global warming?” Boy was he surprised when I said, “Glad you asked,” and launched into a 15-minute oratory on why global warming might mean more, not less, extreme snowfall for some parts of the world.

Before continuing, I need to reiterate that no single weather event can be attributed to global warming. So the question here is not, “What caused the heavy snowfall on December 19?” The question is, “Is heavy snowfall or unusually cold weather inconsistent with global warming?”

You need two things to create heavy snowfall: moist air and cold air. The two generally don’t occur in the same air mass because cold air can’t hold much moisture. So you need two air masses, one that is warm and moist and one that is cold and dry, to collide with each other. That is exactly what happened over the Mid-Atlantic region on December 19.

This condition is not only consistent with global warming, but it can be expected to occur more frequently in certain places as a direct result of global warming. It takes warmth to generate moist air. First, you need warmth to evaporate enough water from lakes or oceans to generate a massive snowstorm. Second, you need warm air to keep the water vapor aloft so that it doesn’t rain out before it finds a cold air mass to collide with. When I asked weatherman Joe Witte where the moisture that ended up in my snow shovel came from, he said, “Some of the moisture came out of the Gulf of Mexico AND some from the warm Atlantic ocean with the VERY warm (70s!) Gulf Stream along the East coast acting as a hot plate for evaporation of moisture into the cold dry air.”

(SOURCE:  NOAA polar-orbiting satellite data compiled by Rutgers University Coastal Ocean Observation Lab)

Although the past few weeks have been very cold in the eastern United States, Joe pointed me to NOAA satellite measurements that found sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean to be 1 to 3 °F warmer than normal during the week before the big snowstorm hit (see figures above). There is strong scientific evidence showing that, on average, the oceans are warmer today than they were a century ago because of human-induced global warming. So the warm ocean temperatures that fed the heavy snowfall are consistent with global warming. In fact, because of global warming, we should expect such conditions to be more common today than in the past and even more common in the future as warming continues.

So where did the cold, dry air come from? Global warming is about changes in long-term averages and not about single events; it does not mean an end to cold weather. Instead, it means that cold weather will become less frequent and hot weather more frequent when averaged over decades. In fact, both of these trends have been observed over the past 50 years in the United States and globally. So, even with global warming we will have cold winters, just fewer of them. It is also important to remember that a cold winter here doesn’t mean a cold winter everywhere. In fact, many parts of the world, including the Arctic and the tropics, are having an unusually warm winter. The current cold snap is concentrated in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and there will always be the potential  for cold Arctic air masses to visit the mid-latitudes from time to time.

The current cold snap is related to a known weather pattern called the Arctic Oscillation. When the Arctic Oscillation switches between “positive” and “negative” states, it simply shifts heat between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes. Scientists call this kind of pattern “internal variability,” and it does not change the total amount of heat in the climate system. Internal variability can create strong differences in the weather from year to year and place to place, but these shifts average out to zero net climate change over decades. Only a net change in the total amount of heat in the climate system can change the long-term average climate, and that is the nature of global warming.

When the mid-latitudes get periodic blasts of cold Arctic air, global warming makes it more likely that the cold air from up north will collide with moist, warm air from down south, creating more heavy snowfall events in mid-latitude areas near large bodies of water. A similar phenomenon is affecting the Great Lakes region. Syracuse, New York is one of the snowiest places in the country, but it and other areas around the Great Lakes are getting even snowier! Because the Great Lakes are getting warmer, they are icing over later and melting earlier than they used to. Without the ice, water can evaporate and enter the atmosphere over the lakes later in the fall and earlier in the spring. When winds blow this moist air over the land where temperatures are lower, we get the famous “lake effect” snow. With more open water during the winter, more lake effect snow is falling.

These are the cold facts of global warming.

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Program Manager for Science & Impacts

Our Year in Review

Domestically and internationally, climate action in 2009 laid critical groundwork for potential breakthroughs in Congress and global negotiations in 2010. Yet with an issue as complex and political as climate change, turning groundwork into policy is a challenge.  2010 will undoubtedly be a pivotal year for climate change – but first it is instructive to take a look back at what happened in 2009 and how that shaped where we are today.

We captured these highlights in our annual Year-in-Review Newsletter – a useful compilation of 2009’s big climate change stories and related insights. The year’s major domestic action included passage of the landmark House climate and clean energy bill along with numerous Obama administration efforts to improve our climate and economy. These accomplishments included the stimulus bill’s $80 billion in clean energy-related funding and EPA actions, including the endangerment finding, the greenhouse gas reporting rule, and stricter auto-efficiency standards.

Copenhagen consumed international climate attention in 2009, culminating in the pre-dawn hours of December 19 when final touches were put on an accord directly brokered by President Obama and a handful of key developing country leaders. While many questions remain after Copenhagen, our summary of the conference provides a sound starting point for grasping what transpired at the year’s largest climate event.

The lead-up to 2009’s main events required a great deal of work, and some of the year’s highlights include the detailed Blueprint for Climate Action released one year ago this month by the influential business-NGO coalition U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP). More industry leaders also showed support for mandatory climate action by joining our Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC). And efforts to reach business communities, employees, and families expanded through the Make An Impact program. In partnerships with aluminum manufacturer Alcoa and utility Entergy, we continue to provide individuals with strategies to save energy and money while protecting the environment. 

We continued to educate policy makers and opinion leaders, producing reports, analyses, and fact sheets on topics ranging from clean-energy technologies, climate science, competitiveness, and adaptation. Featuring expert insights and thoughtful opinions, we informed broad audiences about the immediate need for climate action. And our timely, relevant work moves forward in 2010 as we seek progress in addressing the most important global issue of our time.

Tom Steinfeldt is Communications Manager

Hill Briefing on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation

Promoted in Energy Efficiency section: 
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), The American Geophysical Union (AGU), The American Meteorological Society (AMS), The Ecological Society of America (ESA), and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change held a briefing on climate change impacts and adaptation.

Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation
January 8, 2010

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), The American Geophysical Union (AGU), The American Meteorological Society (AMS), The Ecological Society of America (ESA), and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change held a briefing on climate change impacts and adaptation.

Click here for a video of the event.


Program Summary:
Human-caused climate change is well underway and almost certain to continue in the decades ahead. Comprehensive risk management strategies will include efforts both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) and to enhance society’s ability to cope with climate impacts (adaptation). Mitigation and adaptation often get mistaken for competing, mutually exclusive alternatives when they are really complimentary approaches with differing strengths and limitations. This briefing will examine the nature of climate impacts occurring within the United States, and explore options for dealing with those impacts.


  • Thomas R. Karl, Director, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center; Lead, NOAA Climate Services; and President, American Meteorological Society
  • Kristie L. Ebi, Executive Director, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 2 Technical Support Unit - Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability 
  • Katharine L. Jacobs, Executive Director, Arizona Water Institute; and Professor, University of Arizona Soil, Water and Environmental Science Department 
  • Susanne Moser, Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting; and Research Associate at the University of California-Santa Cruz Institute for Marine Sciences

Moderator: Paul Higgins, Senior Policy Fellow, American Meteorological Society

Click here for a summary of speaker remarks and biographies.

Calculating the Benefits of Climate Policy: Examining the Assumptions of Integrated Assessment Models

December 2009

Prepared for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change
by Michael D. Mastrandrea
Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University

Download full paper (pdf)

Policy-relevant results of Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) are sensitive to a number of uncertain assumptions that govern model simulation of the climate, society, and the policy response to climate change. Uncertainties remain in understanding of the rate and magnitude of climate change, the nature and severity of climate impacts, and the ability to cope with those impacts. Methods for quantifying and comparing climate damages across different regions and different time periods are fiercely debated. This paper examines assumptions that are central to model estimates of the benefits of climate policy in three well-known IAMs, and discusses their consistency with current natural and social scientific research. Different IAMs take different approaches to dealing with these uncertainties, and understanding their assumptions is critical to interpreting their results, since those results can change dramatically when assumptions are varied.



Michael D. Mastrandrea

Press Release: Aviation and Marine Transportation Offer Big Potential Emissions Reductions

Press Release
December 22, 2009

Contact: Tom Steinfeldt, (703) 516-4146

Report Finds Extensive Options Currently Available

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The potential for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from global aviation and marine transportation is considerable — reductions of more than 50 percent below business-as-usual (BAU) levels by 2050 are possible, according to a new report from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

The report, Aviation and Marine Transportation: GHG Mitigation Potential and Challenges, examines growth projections for emissions from both aviation and marine transportation and options to reduce those emissions.  Aviation and marine transportation combined are responsible for approximately 5 percent of total GHG emissions in the United States and 3 percent globally and are among the fastest growing modes in the transportation sector. Under business-as-usual forecasts, CO2 emissions from global aviation are estimated to grow 3.1 percent per year over the next 40 years, resulting in a 300 percent increase in emissions by 2050.International marine transportation emissions are estimated to grow by 1 to 2 percent per year, increasing by at least 50 percent over 2007 levels by 2050. Controlling the growth in aviation and marine transportation GHG emissions will be an important part of reducing emissions from the transportation sector.

A range of near-, medium- and long-term mitigation options are available to slow the growth of energy consumption and GHG emissions from aviation and marine shipping. These options include improvements in operational efficiency, improvements in the energy efficiency of engines and the design of air and marine vessels, and transitioning to less carbon-intensive fuels and transportation modes. Implementation of these options could result in reductions of more than 50 percent below BAU levels by 2050 from global aviation and more than 60 percent for global marine shipping. For these reductions to be realized, however, international and domestic policy intervention is required. Developing an effective path forward that facilitates the adoption of meaningful policies remains both a challenge and an opportunity.

 “Aviation and marine shipping are two of the fastest growing modes of transportation,” said Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.  “Their greenhouse gas emissions are growing rapidly as well. To protect the climate, we need to reduce emissions across the entire economy. Aviation and marine shipping are part of the climate problem, and this report shows that they can be part of the solution.”

Aviation and Marine Transportation: GHG Mitigation Potential and Challenges also examines policy options for achieving reductions in GHG emissions from these transportation modes. The paper, authored by David McCollum and Gregory Gould of the University of California at Davis and David Greene from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, explains the challenges, examines policy efforts to date, and explores both domestic and international policy options for addressing emissions from aviation and marine transportation.  

Key sections of the paper include:

  • An introduction to aviation and marine transportation and a discussion of the determinants of their GHG emissions;
  • An overview of current emissions trends and growth projections;
  • An explanation of the technological mitigation options and potential GHG emission reductions; and
  • Policy options at both the domestic and international level to achieve deep and durable reductions in emissions.

For more information about global climate change and the activities of the Pew Center, visit


The Pew Center was established in May 1998 as a non-profit, non-partisan, and independent organization dedicated to providing credible information, straight answers, and innovative solutions in the effort to address global climate change. The Pew Center is led by Eileen Claussen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

Black Carbon and Climate

Today, the Obama Administration has formally recognized the importance of black carbon as a component of broader policies to address climate change. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Nancy Sutley, the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, announced an initiative aimed at reducing emissions of black carbon. The United States is committing $5 million towards international cooperation to reduce black carbon emissions in and around the Arctic. According to Chair Sutley, the new initiative will include investments to study the effects of black carbon, demonstrate options for reducing emissions, and begin to quantify both the climate and public health benefits of reducing emissions. The initiative will focus on diesel engines (both on-road and non-road, including those used for port operations), older district heating and industrial facilities, and agricultural and forest fires.

We just released a new white paper highlighting the climate impacts of black carbon (Black Carbon: A Science/Policy Primer). Over the last decade, a growing body of evidence indicates that soot and smoke are major contributors to climate change. Black carbon, a component of soot, warms the air by absorbing sunlight in the atmosphere, changes rainfall patterns and, when deposited on snow and ice, accelerates melting. Black carbon is produced by both natural processes and human activity from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass. Primary sources include diesel engines, small industrial sources, residential coal and solid biofuels for cooking and heating, and agricultural and forest fires.

The new paper summarizes current knowledge on the climate effects of soot components (black carbon and organic particles) and identifies emission sources and technologies to mitigate their impacts. It also presents perspectives on the potential role of soot mitigation approaches in developing more comprehensive climate strategies.

Black carbon remains in the atmosphere for only days to weeks, meaning it has strong regional climate effects. Recent studies suggest that black carbon may be responsible for 30-50 percent of recent warming in the Arctic, contributing to the acceleration of Arctic sea ice melting. Loss of Arctic sea ice is one potential “tipping point” that could lead to rapid warming and irreversible climate change. Black carbon is also driving increased melting of the glaciers in the Himalayan Plateau, upon which some 40 percent of the world’s population depends for fresh water. Reductions in black carbon would help address these issues and also would have many co-benefits, particularly in public health and especially in the developing world.

Controlling emissions of CO2 and long-lived greenhouse gases must remain the centerpiece of policies to address climate change, since they ultimately drive the Earth’s temperature in the long term. However, reducing black carbon emissions represents a win-win scenario: it would have an immediate cooling effect on the Earth’s climate, potentially delaying temperature increases in the short run and helping reduce the risk of irreversible tipping points in the climate system, and it would reduce air pollution, significantly improving public health.

Jeremy Richardson is Senior Fellow for Science Policy

Black Carbon: A Science/Policy Primer

December 2009

Prepared for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change
by John Bachmann, Vision Air Consulting, LLC

Download the full paper (PDF)

Over the last decade, a growing body of evidence indicates that soot and smoke from incomplete combustion are major contributors to climate change. Black carbon, a soot component, is a potent climate driver that absorbs sunlight in the atmosphere, changes rainfall patterns, and when deposited on snow and ice, accelerates melting. In addition, soot can cause direct effects on health and agriculture. Climate and other effects of soot are magnified in broad regions where the strongest source emissions occur, but transported soot is also a major concern in the Arctic. The short atmospheric lifetime of soot particles also means that emissions reductions produce nearly immediate results, in contrast to most greenhouse gases (GHGs).

The principal source categories include diesel engines, small industrial sources, residential coal and solid biofuels for heating and cooking, and open biomass burning for agriculture and forestry. Control and mitigation approaches exist, but the small size and wide dispersion of these sources present significant challenges. The available evidence suggests that appropriately targeted soot controls have the potential to accelerate and enhance climate and air quality related public health benefits when used as a complement to overall climate strategies centered on greenhouse gases. Consideration of such controls is, however, subject to a number of scientific and technical uncertainties and complexities regarding emissions, controls, and the net effect of addressing some soot sources on both global and regional scales. This paper summarizes current knowledge on the effects of soot components—black carbon and organic particles—on climate, and identifies sources and technologies to mitigate their impacts. It also presents perspectives on the potential role of soot mitigation approaches in developing more comprehensive climate strategies.

John Bachmann

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful we base policy decisions on peer-reviewed science instead of emails!

The kerfuffle over email correspondence hacked from a server at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit is making climate change deniers giddy. But just like all the other non-smoking guns they’ve waived around over the years, this “mushroom cloud” will soon blow away. Nothing has come to light that undermines scientific assessments of the climate system, which are firmly anchored in peer-reviewed scientific publications, not emails.

Some of the past “smoking guns” that were supposed to put the theory of human-induced climate change in an early grave are among the hot topics flying around in the hacked emails. One was a paper by Soon and Baliunas published in a peer-reviewed journal called Climate Research in 2003. That paper was supposed to put to rest the conclusion of the 2001 IPCC report that the late 20th century was warmer than any previous period in the past millennium, but it was quickly and thoroughly refuted in the peer-reviewed literature (not in emails). Another was a 2005 paper by McIntyre and McKitrick in an often-not-peer-reviewed journal called Energy & Environment. This paper had the same goal as the first one, but it too was rebutted in the peer-reviewed literature and in a report by the National Academy of Sciences (not in emails). In the emails, climate scientists complained about these papers and expressed frustration that they were published in spite of serious flaws. However, policymakers did not use these emails to help them determine America’s policy actions on climate change.

Much of the bickering in the emails boils down to scientists’ irritation over serious breaches of the normal peer review system to get denialist papers published (see here, here and here). The publisher of Climate Research (CR) admitted that the major conclusions of the paper by Soon and Baliunas “cannot be concluded convincingly from the evidence provided in the paper. CR should have requested appropriate revisions of the manuscript prior to publication.” The paper was so bad that three editors resigned in protest over its publication. The paper by McIntyre and McKitrick (2005) wasn’t peer reviewed at all and the editor of Energy & Environment openly stated, “I'm following my political agenda – a bit, anyway. But isn't that the right of the editor?” Scientists value the peer review process and they find it unfair and objectionable when they subject their own work to potential rejection while others circumvent this critical step in the scientific process to force low-quality research into the debate.

Luckily, none of this matters since the scientific assessments produced to inform policymakers about the science of climate change are based on peer-reviewed science publications, not on the opinions of individuals expressed in email correspondence. As happens in the normal scientific process, when the occasional bad paper slips through the peer review cracks it gets refuted through subsequent scrutiny in the peer-review literature. In the end, what may be said in emails doesn’t matter; the scientific peer-review process will prevail.

Read more here.

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Program Manager for Science & Impacts

Assuring America Can Ably Adapt

This morning, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing titled “Building US Resilience to Global Warming Impacts.”  The hearing took place just as the Government Accountability Office released a new report finding that US reaction to climate change is happening on an ad hoc basis and is not coordinated among Federal, state, and local agencies.

Given the absence of a coordinated Federal adaptation strategy, we’ve been looking at what the options might be to fill that void.  As the Pew Center’s Steve Seidel stated in his testimony to the Committee, an improved Federal mechanism would begin with each agency developing an adaptation strategic plan to build greater resilience to climate change into its programs and mission.  He pointed to a recent announcement by the Dept. of Interior as an example.   A National Climate Service that can develop and communicate credible and actionable climate scenarios and projections for use in adaptation planning by Federal, state and local governments and the private sector is also needed.

Executive office leadership is critical.  After reviewing other climate-related interagency programs in existence, it’s clear that a national adaptation program needs to be established and chaired or co-chaired by CEQ or the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  To ensure that adaptation is truly “mainstreamed” by the federal government,  CEQ should also update NEPA regulations to require the consideration of adaption needs in all major federal actions.

Michael Tubman is a Congressional Affairs Fellow

Congressional Testimony of Stephen Seidel - The Federal Government’s Role in Building Resilience to Climate Change

Testimony of
Stephen Seidel, Vice President for Policy Analysis
Pew Center on Global Climate Change

Submitted to
Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
U.S. House of Representatives

October 22, 2009

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Sensenbrenner, members of the Select Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the topic of what the federal government should be doing to adapt to climate change.   My name is Stephen Seidel and I am Vice-President for Policy Analysis at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.


Responding to the risks of climate change represents one of the major challenges facing our nation and the global community. Most of the attention to date has appropriately been placed on actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.  This is obviously the first and best line of defense against the risks associated with global warming.  But as our scientific understanding of climate change has improved, we also have come to realize that our past emissions have already begun to affect our current climate.  Climate change isn’t some distant concern that will impact our children or grandchildren.  There is clear and convincing evidence that we have already experienced the following changes:

  • U.S. temperatures have increased by more than 2 degrees F. over the past 50 years.
  • Average global sea level has risen by 8 inches over the last century.
  • The amount of rain falling in the heaviest downpours (the heaviest 1%) has increased by 20 percent over the last century.
  • Arctic sea ice is declining dramatically – end of summer ice losses have averaged 11% per decade over the past three decades.

The changes we’ve experienced to date are likely to increase dramatically over time.  In fact, one of the unfortunate aspects of our climate system (due to built-in lags such as absorption of heat by the oceans) is that even if we could wave a magic wand and totally stop emissions of greenhouse gases immediately, global average temperatures would increase by another 1 degree F.   If we continue on our current path and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, temperatures would further rise, for a total increase on the order of 7-11 degrees F. by 2100.

To reduce the damages associated with changes of this magnitude, two imperatives must be addressed:

  1. We must take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit both the rate of climate change and the ultimate magnitude of that change.
  2. We must take actions to minimize the costs associated with the unavoidable climate change that is already underway and will continue for many decades.1

The second point is the focus of this hearing and of a study that the Pew Center2 undertook to explore what the federal government should do to provide leadership to our nation in its effort to more effectively adapt to climate change.



Climate is something we generally take for granted until it does something unexpected.  Many key aspects of our economy are based on the critical assumption that our future climate will be similar to what we have experienced in the past.  For example,


  • Agriculture – what, where, and when we plant depends on temperature, length of growing season and water availability.
  • Community development – what we build and where we locate structures and development depend on such factors as the availability of water, temperatures, risks of wildfires and coastal impacts. 
  • Energy development – many sources of electricity require large amounts of water for cooling, and different types of renewable energy depend critically on the availability of stream flows, sunlight or wind.
  • Public health systems – are designed to anticipate and treat different types of diseases whose geographic ranges and seasonal occurrence may be influenced by climatic conditions.
  • Emergency response systems – are designed around the likelihood and magnitude of extreme weather events (e.g., storms, floods, drought, and heat waves).
  • National security – growing recognition among security experts that climate change, such as extreme weather events, scarcity of food, coastal flooding, etc. can contribute to increased tensions.
  • Natural resources – the habitat for plants and animals, the viability of forests and the health of wetlands are all affected by temperature and the availability of water.It should be clear that the impacts of changing our climate cut across a broad swath of our economy from food to energy production, to where and in what we live and how we travel, to the wellbeing of our natural resources and even to our national security.  And that critical assumption – that future climatic conditions will be similar to the past – moves further and further away from reality with each ton of carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere.


Damages from climate change are often discussed in terms of the impact that an average change in temperature or precipitation could cause.   Yet we know from real life experience that the occurrence of extreme events (such as heat waves, floods, and intense storms) is what drives economic losses.  We also know that one of the insidious aspects of climate change is that the number of extreme events is expected to increase dramatically.  For example, under a scenario where emissions continue to grow uncontrolled, the number of days over 90 degrees in the Southern United States would increase from 60 per year to 150 per year by the end of the century.3 With a one-half meter rise in sea level, the maximum level of flooding that New York City used to experience once every one hundred years would occur once every 25 years.


Role of the Federal Government

It is sometimes said that “all adaptation is local.”  This expression makes good sense in that climate impacts occur at a particular time and place and therefore are indeed local.  Nonetheless, we believe that for our nation to build an economy more resilient to climate change, the federal government’s role is critical for the following reasons:

1.    Federally owned assets are at risk

The federal government owns 29% of all lands in the country.  It owns 476,000 public structures including bridges, tunnels, and flood control structures that are valued at $723 billion.  The Department of Defense alone has vast holdings many of which are in coastal areas. Naval bases are of course at sea level, but so are many Air Force bases and training bases such as Camps Pendleton in southern California and LeJeune in coastal North Carolina. Many of our prized national parks are also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and key features of some such as the Everglades and Glacier National Park could mostly disappear or be substantially changed.  To properly manage these assets it is critical that the federal government understand the risks posed by climate change and the opportunities to adapt in a timely and cost-effective manner.    

2.    Federal guidelines, standards, and regulations are used across the economy

The federal government influences many decisions made by state and local governments and the private sector.  The federal government is involved, directly or indirectly, in setting air and water pollution control regulations, in transportation and water infrastructure planning and design, and in design and siting of hydroelectric and other energy facilities.  Other federal programs, such as the national flood and crop insurance programs, also play a major role in decisions that are affected by climate change. 

3. Federal technical support is critical

The federal government provides critical information and technical support in areas related to climate and its impact.  Weather information and hazardous conditions advisories are part of the daily fabric of our lives.  The federal government’s technical expertise is also made widely available through such mechanisms as the National Climatic Data Center, the Agricultural Cooperative Extension Service, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, federal land and forestry managers, and the Public Health Service.   

Federal leadership in each of these areas is critical.  If properly directed these and similar resources across the federal government can become important cogs in a national effort to adapt to climate change.   Moreover, these same resources could play a significant role in both assisting state and local governments and the private sector in their adaptation activities.

We recommend a comprehensive review of federal activities aimed first at identifying assets, programs and activities most at risk from climate change and then making the necessary changes to enhance resiliency.  Above all, we recommend that recognition of our changing climate be “mainstreamed” across all relevant federal programs.  Nowhere should the federal government continue to assume that our future climate will be the same as the past.


Mainstreaming Adaptation

In analyzing how to structure a federal adaptation program it quickly became clear that one frequently used approach would not work.  Adaptation is not the type of new issue where it would make sense to set up a new office or department and charge it with tackling the problem.  It must be integrated into the everyday decisions of program managers across a wide spectrum of climate-related activities.  Coastal zone managers must begin taking sea level rise into account when planning new development or shoreline protection.  Agricultural agents must begin thinking about changes in growing seasons, temperatures, and water availability when deciding on seed selection or crop rotations.  Land managers must consider fire risk changes resulting from shifts in precipitation, or damage to forests due to pest infestations (such as bark beetle infestations).  Transportation planners must consider flood hazards when designing and locating new roads or bridges.   None of these are new decisions, but each must be viewed with a new perspective – that future climate will be altered.  Only by “mainstreaming” adaptation considerations across all relevant programs will our nation be in a position to meet the challenges of unavoidable climate change.

Based on a review of adaptation programs initiated by other countries and by state and local governments in the United States, we have developed the following recommendations.

1. Federal Agency Strategic Plans

We believe that a critical starting point is that each agency should develop its own strategic plan for what it needs to do to build greater resilience to climate change into its programs and mission.   Agencies should begin by looking at their own programs because these will be the easiest to address and will also help them identify areas that need to be coordinated with other agencies or entities.  Each agency’s strategic plan should include the following:

  • Identify and assess climate-sensitive assets, programs, policies, regulations and projects;
  • Engage key stakeholders as part of the planning process;
  • Identify barriers to incorporating climate change into agency decision-making and resource needs for implementation;
  • Identify and develop priorities among the most vulnerable areas and response actions;
  • Establish plans to monitor and evaluate implementation;
  • Define areas requiring coordination with other agencies and partners; and
  • Identify future research needs.

The good news is that several agencies have taken the first step down this path.  In January 2009, the Secretary of Interior issued an order requiring bureaus and offices to “consider and analyze potential climate change impacts when undertaking long-range planning exercises, setting priorities for scientific research and investigations, developing multiyear management plans, and making major decisions regarding potential use of resources under the Department’s purview.”   The order goes on to require that offices identify legal barriers, resource needs and recommended actions to respond to potential climatic impacts. In September 2009, this order was supplemented by the creation of Climate Change Response Councils and regional response centers to facilitate information sharing and response strategies across the Department.   Within the Department of Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its climate change strategy and five-year action plan in September of 2009.  EPA’s Office of Water has also has issued a strategic plan to address the impacts of climate change on its programs.

The White House, working through its Council on Environmental Quality, could play an important role in advancing the development of an effective federal program for adaptation. It took an important step in that direction recently as part of its Executive Order on “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance.” (October 5, 2009) This order requires each agency to develop an Agency Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan.     As part of that plan each agency is required to

    “(i) evaluate agency climate-change risks and vulnerabilities to manage the effects of climate change on the agency’s operations and mission in both the short and long term;”

This requirement could serve as a lynchpin for initiating an effective strategic planning process within agencies.  Even before the executive order was issued, CEQ had been working with an interagency group identifying actions that could be taken to begin developing both agency and sector-specific strategic plans.  These are encouraging initial signs of executive office leadership, but follow-up will be critical to ensure that agencies are committed to pursuing the internal engagement required for an effective planning and implementation process.

We fully recognize that in developing their strategic plans, agencies are likely to identify a number of key areas where program responsibility is shared with other agencies and with state and local entities.  We believe that an important next step in the planning process is to identify areas where sector-specific plans are required.  Such areas as water resources, land management, human health, ecosystem protection, and coastal protection are examples where multiagency efforts with strong stakeholder participation will be required.  Finally, we believe that over time it would be useful and possible to combine agency and sector plans as key building blocks in the development of a national strategic plan.   The national plan can help provide strategic direction, set priorities, and identify key milestones.  This can best be done based on the content of more detailed plans (bottom-up) rather than be developed first (top down).

2. Creating a National Climate Service

A key requirement for adapting to climate change is the availability of information detailing what those changes are likely to be. In addition, technical support in how to use such information in decision making on adaptation will be critical.  A national climate service would be the entity responsible for developing and communicating credible and actionable climate scenarios and projections for use in adaptation planning purposes.  In every case study we examined, one of the first questions asked was what temperature change, sea level increase, or change in precipitation should we assume as the basis for our adaptation planning.  Given the local scale at which these questions are being asked and the uncertainty about important aspects of predicting future climate change, particularly at that scale, providing useful information is not a trivial matter.  Many state and local entities have turned to nearby university experts as a source for climate scenarios.  This has worked well in many cases, but the idea of making useful and consistent climate information widely available on a national basis has attracted attention for many years.

The leading proponent of a national climate service has been the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  As a lead federal agency in developing climate observing systems, data analysis and predictions, NOAA has the scientific foundation upon which a national climate services could be constructed.  It has undertaken an extensive process examining different ways to structure such an entity and has begun moving forward in its development.

In our review of how a climate services might be structured we divided the function into two key parts:  the development and provision of the climate data and the support required by the user community (such as coastal managers, water planners, agricultural agents, and transportation planners) to effectively identify their needs and use the information provided.  We found that NOAA could most effectively lead the first element but not necessarily the outreach and user community engagement. 

To effectively engage the critical and diverse user communities, we believe a national climate services should involve other key federal agencies as sector working group leads.  Figure 1 shows the proposed organizational structure.  For example, the Department of Agriculture could lead a sector working group for the farm community and the Department of Interior could lead a sector working group on natural resources.   The sector working groups would be responsible for fully engaging state and local entities, the private sector and other stakeholders in identifying the needs for information and decision support tools specific to their sector, in setting priorities and in communicating information to the sector.  


Figure 1: Proposed National Climate Service Sector Working Group Structure

3. Structuring a Federal Adaptation Program
Our analysis focused on how to integrate an adaptation program into other climate related program activities across the federal government.  We examined the two programs that currently exist – the Global Change Research Program (GCRP) and the Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP).  Both are established by statute and we would recommend that a national adaptation program also be established by legislation.  Because of the desirability of executive office leadership, we recommend that the national adaptation program be chaired or co-chaired by CEQ or the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  The program should be managed by a coordinating committee that is made up of senior policy officials from each of the relevant agencies.  We also recommend the creation of a small program office (along the lines of the office created under GCRP) to coordinate the agency and sector strategic planning activities. 
4.  Mandating Adaptation Considerations under the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA)

To ensure that adaptation is considered in all major federal actions, we recommend issuing clarifying regulations under NEPA.  These regulations would make it clear that climate change needs to be considered in the planning stage of any major federal action.  CEQ is responsible for NEPA’s implementation, while EPA’s Office of Federal Activities reviews environmental impact statements.  We suggest establishing an interagency working group to prepare the proposed regulatory changes and to develop guidance for agencies in preparing EISs.       


Adaptation Provisions in the American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454)

The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act passed by the House of Representatives in June of this year contains several provisions to address the issue of domestic climate change adaptation. While we we were pleased to see an adaptation section in the bill, we believe there are at least two important improvements that should be considered. First, the development of adaptation strategic plans for all relevant federal agencies is a key component of improving our nation’s resiliency to climate change. As currently written, the ACES Act only contains provisions for natural resource agency adaptation plans and a public health strategic plan. Second, although the ACES Act does contain provisions establishing a national climate service within NOAA, we would recommend a structure similar to the one outlined above that both provides for a central role for NOAA, but also more effectively engages other key agencies as sector working group leads.



In conclusion, I would like to thank the Chairman, Mr. Sensenbrenner, and the members of the Select Committee for their time and attention to the important matter of furthering the U.S. government’s efforts to address climate change adaptation.





1. Global Change Impacts in the United States, Thomas Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Pederson, (eds.) Cambridge University Press, 2009.
2. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change will be issuing a report before the end of the year detailing its analysis of the federal role in adaptation. Supporting the Pew Center in this research has been Stratus Consulting and Terri Cruce, an independent contractor.  
3. Karl, Melillo, and Pederson (eds.), Climate Change Impacts in the United States, pg. 34.

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