We receive weather forecasts and warnings from the National Weather Service, and the National Ocean Service provides critical information about the ocean. Both organizations fall within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Increasingly, climate services are recognized as critical for decisions and policy related to infrastructure, agriculture, public health, wildfire management, economic vitality, energy, transportation, and more. Is it time for a National Climate Service?

While I am not going to definitively answer that question herein, it is certainly time to revisit the conversation about climate services and what they mean for the society. In early June 2021, the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate (BASC) discussed the future of climate services at its spring meeting. The Board, of which I am a member, is a part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In that session, key leaders from various Federal agencies and Congressional staffs discussed:

  • Current strengths and gaps with providing climate services
  • Mechanisms required for multi-agency, multi-scale coordination on climate services, and
  • Evaluation of climate services.

At this point, I know the cart has been put before the horse. Some of you may be asking, “What are climate services?” The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) website notes that climate services, “provide climate information to help individuals and organizations make climate smart decisions.” In a climate services framework, information on socio-economic factors (vulnerability, population, economics, health, infrastructure, delivery of goods and services) and climate data are made into customized products or services for various end users. This process is exactly what the National Weather Service does when it collects meteorological data and converts them into forecasts, warnings, and various indices for its customers. For a more robust discussion of climate services, there is an entire peer reviewed journal called Climate Services. I recommend exploring some of the articles within it.

NOAA and its partners are already engaged in climate services. The various elements include Regional Climate Centers, Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment programs, the National Integrated Drought Information System, Sea Grant, state climatologists and institutional partnerships. If you are not familiar with it, the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) is a national treasure for a wealth of climate data, science, and services.

Over a decade ago, there was quite the debate about whether the U.S. should stand up a National Climate Service (NCS). A 2006 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences even laid out an approaching for designing an NCS. The idea has been percolating for decades, but former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco resurrected the discussion in her confirmation hearing over a decade ago. At that time, a report of climate stakeholders and experts delivered to NOAA’s Advisory Board assessed the steps needed and provided cautions along the way. According to Roberta Kwok’s article in Nature, the report recommended assessing existing efforts, determining how NOAA and other agencies would engage, and understanding the true budget requirements. There was a strong feeling that NOAA’s climate-related budget would need to be significantly increased to that of the National Weather Service (more on that point later).

The Biden administration seems bullish on providing climate funding if the $2 trillion dollar green infrastructure plan is any indication. This news is welcomed as many of us have long argued that climate is directly tied to core socio-economic aspects of society right now. In 2019, I even argued in Forbes that the case could be made for climate change as a national emergency. Climate issues are kitchen table, “So what?” issues just like paying for health care, buying groceries, or turning on your lights. In fact, each of the aforementioned examples is very strongly tied to climate services. Oh, and guess who’s in the Biden White House, Dr. Jane Lubchenco.

I think the conversation is very timely. However, I would offer the following cautions:

 

  1. Climate services is not necessarily a discussion of climate change. I recall quite the misinformation and hidden agendas around previous climate services discussions. It is actually amusing (and disturbing) that so many people hear “climate” and make a beeline to climate change. To be clear, climate change is real and one of the major challenges of our time, but climate services is a broader discussion.
  2. The National Weather Service is already significantly under funded, in my opinion, given the value of what they do for our nation. As we ramp up federal funding in climate services areas, the National Weather Service budget must not be reduced. In fact, I believe the National Weather Service budget should be significantly larger than it is given the role weather plays in virtually every aspect of our lives.
  3. There is a role beyond NOAA. Other federal agencies, the private sector, and even universities contribute to the climate services spectrum. Proper coordination and leveraging will be critical.
  4. In climate services, there are equity and justice issues that must not be overlooked as we move forward. It is overwhelmingly clear that certain communities and people are disproportionately impacted by climate and weather hazards. Such considerations must be baked in to any policy, strategy, or discussion going forward.

 

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