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House Science Panel Spars With Lubchenco Over Climate Service

The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives this week criticized steps that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken to create a National Climate Service, telling NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco that she is ignoring congressional language intended to block its implementation. The dispute is part of a larger battle between the Obama Administration and House Republicans over how to address climate change.

In February 2010, NOAA announced its intention to create a parallel entity to its National Weather Service that would issue long range climate forecasts about future weather conditions such as severe storms, floods, and droughts. The proposed climate service would enable NOAA to answer the increased number of requests for climate change data, Lubchenco told the committee, and would strengthen science across the agency by integrating three data centers, two laboratories, and the Climate Prediction Center. Veteran NOAA climatologist Thomas Karl, director of one of the data centers, serves as transition director, and Lubchenco has hired six new regional climate service directors.

Those actions don't sit well with the Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which on Wednesday held an oversight hearing on the activity, for which NOAA has requested $346 million in 2012. "My objection to this proposal has been the concern that the focus to create a climate service will severely harm vital research at NOAA by transferring resources away from fundamental science to mission-oriented research and service-driven products," said the chair of the committee, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX). "More than half the resources of NOAA's research enterprise would be moved into a climate service. This proposal appears to contradict the notion that fundamental research must not be driven by operational demands."

One big sticking point for legislators is language in this spring's final 2011 spending bill that averted a government shutdown, which states that "none of the funds made available by this division may be used to implement, establish, or create a NOAA Climate Service." Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said the appointment of Karl and the hiring of six regional directors appear to have ignored those instructions. He quipped that NOAA was "living in climate sin," a reference to Karl's statement during an interview in December 2010 with ClimateWire that "we've moved in, … we're waiting for the marriage certificate, but we're acting like we have a climate service."

Lubchenco defended her actions, saying that her appointments were "smart" and merely "good planning." She said their salaries are drawn from "existing funds" and that legislation dating back to the National Climate Program Act of 1978 describes providing climate services as part of NOAA's mission. She responded to Hall's concerns that the climate service would take away from NOAA's other activities by saying, "It's good government to reorganize periodically." She also referred to its economic potential, citing the $1 billion industry that has emerged around the National Weather Service.

Speaking with ScienceInsider after the hearing, she made it clear that NOAA intends to push ahead. "This is an idea whose time has come."