Remarks Before the Final Plenary Session of the U.S. Climate Change Program’s Planning Workshop for Scientists and Stakeholders

I want to commend Jim Mahoney, his team and the Administration for this innovative forum for gaining input to the strategic planning initiative. I also want to express my appreciation for being included on this panel. The Marshall Institute promotes the use of science for better policy making so my remarks will be from the perspective of getting better information and using it more efficiently and effectively.

The challenge facing all of us is complex and daunting. As a consequence, I suspect that there is no one right way to proceed. Learning from the past, however, can help us do better going forward and make needed improvements along the way. So, I urge that a “lessons-learned, look back process” be part of the path forward.

Chapter 4 identifies a broad set of possible interactions at the national, state and international levels and information needs to improve decisions and resource management. These represent an ambitious set of goals, perhaps too ambitious given the complexity and uncertainty of the climate issue and the inevitability of resource constraints. Realistic expectations and steady progress in processes, in understanding and in the use of research results by decision makers should be objectives for the planning process. An iterative planning process, what some might call “muddling through,” may be the right paradigm if a reasonable level of flexibility can be introduced into the bureaucracy. That may not seem intellectually elegant or sophisticated but that is the proven way to deal with decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Clearly, the best should not be the enemy of the better.

Throughout the draft, as well as in Chapter 4, there is a recognition of the need for a better observational system and data collection effort. Admiral Lautenbacher made the abundantly clear in his remarks this morning. Observational data, especially about critical climate variables, is the foundation of everything else that is to be done. The system for gaining that data should be the highest priority. That requires a long-term commitment as well as an unwavering commitment, the highest standards of quality.

Since the beginning of the recent debate on climate change, models, in my opinion, have had an undue influence on policy. And, this plan continues to place too much emphasis on models. In many quarters, simulations and the perceptions associated with them have been a substitute for reality. In many quarters, simulations and the perceptions that flow from them have been a substitute for reality.

Even the best models do not have a sound, validated empirical basis. We need better models but until critical variables such as clouds, feedbacks, water vapor, natural variability and solar irradiance can be empirically validated, models should not be primary decision influencing tools. Building ever more complex models that are based on hypotheses and assumptions may be analytically elegant, but they will not help decision making. Validation should have a higher priority than increasing sophistication. Similarly, allocating more resources to computational power may be premature until the quality of models significantly improves. Rational sequencing of effort and a transparent priority setting process should be major planning drivers.

Implicitly and explicitly, there is too much focus on mitigation and not enough on potential adaptation. While I have serious reservations about how scenarios have been developed and used, a realistic scenario-or even optimistic one-would almost certainly lead to the conclusion that emission levels will be higher 50 years hence than today.

Mitigation efforts that can be economically and scientifically justified obviously should be pursued. But, they can slow down the growth in emission levels but not reverse it. That is why adaptation and actions that promote resiliency need to have a higher priority.

This chapter identifies factors other than energy that need to be considered for their potential contribution to a management strategy. While this is true, it also is true that energy policy and climate policy cannot be separated. They are opposite sides of the same coin. Policy actions must ensure a balance between risk management and maintaining a healthy economy. There has been a presumption for the better part of the past decade that alternatives to fossil fuels could be aggressively put in place with no adverse economic consequences. There is no sound basis for this belief and the sooner it is dispelled the better.

Finally, I want to address management. Decision support tools can help best when there is an effective management system and processes. Good and effective management starts with accountability and decision-making authority. If this climate research program was run by a private institution it would not be organized the way this one is. Responsibility is too diffuse and, in keeping with tradition, multiple agencies have to get their fair share of the budget. As a result, it is too difficult to make changes, priority-setting ends up being a negotiating process and there is not adequate management control.

Being pragmatic, I know that moving from loose coordination among 13 agencies to true program management is not in the cards, but that is an important objective that is worth pursuing. Again, gradual improvement is all that should and can be expected but it will add value.

Although there are limits to what can be done from an organizational and management perspective, there is one deficiency that is critical and which needs to be addressed immediately. Organizations strive for cohesion and consensus. These qualities are essential to efficiency. The drive for consensus can have an unintended consequence of shutting out negative information and the full vetting of alternatives. The effects of “Group Think” have been well documented. Science advances through debate, controversy, skepticism and the competition of ideas. In the climate arena, skepticism has been made a vice, not a virtue. The climate research initiative needs to find a way to make sure that competing theories and challenges to conventional wisdom and beliefs are not short circuited and pejoratively dismissed. In the Department of Defense the “Red-Team” approach is used and there is an Office of Net Threat Assessment. Something similar is needed for the climate issue to ensure that there is an adequate level of creative tension in the system.

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