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As Climate Changes Threatens U.S. Gulf States, Federal Agencies Twiddle Thumbs

We ought to be outraged at how poor a job our government is doing when it comes to processing information about global warming.
 
 
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In late 2006, as I was completing my second book, Storm World-which concerns the relationship between hurricanes and global warming-there was one pesky outstanding piece of information that never seemed to fall into place. Considering the strong grounds that we have for thinking that hurricanes will change in some way due to global warming (and probably worsen, and definitely coast atop higher seas), it seemed obvious to me that relevant government agencies should be taking that fact into account as they go about performing their taxpayer-funded duties.

And so began my long and still unrequited quest to find out what the heck the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is doing with this information as it endeavors to re-defend the City of New Orleans.

Right after Katrina, in October of 2005, the Corps quickly organized a research process to study, among other matters, "risks to New Orleans and the region posed by future tropical storms." And no wonder: The scientific analysis of how hurricanes will change-and, equally important, how much sea levels will rise-will obviously be of dramatic significance to any attempt to defend the city in the future. Indeed, without such analysis it's hard to see how residents, businesses, and government leaders can have sufficient confidence to move back to New Orleans, rebuild their lives, and reinvest there.

So you would think this would be a priority and would be promptly executed...or at least, that's what you would think if you were from Mars and had never hear anything about the legendary Corps. Here we are, fully two years later, and all the agency has produced on the subject is an "interim draft report" that was recently eviscerated by a National Academy of Sciences panel charged with reviewing it. My favorite comment from the NAS critique? I quote: "Central pressure is measured in millibars, not megabytes (VIII-38)."

Initially, the relevant Corps research was supposed to be completed by June 2006. Yet even today, the Corps still hasn't done enough cogent work for the NAS to even perform a "complete review or a full validation of the method that was used." Apparently the Corps is trying to take climate change into account in its planning, but it's unclear exactly how-one of the many matters on which the National Academies' experts fault the agency. "Given the potentially serious consequences that [climate change] may have for New Orleans and all coastal U.S. areas affected by hurricanes," writes the NAS panel, "it would be prudent and appropriate to provide detailed guidance for methods to account for climate change effects."

Just what I've been thinking for well over a year now.

Americans ought to be outraged at how poor a job their government is doing when it comes to processing information about global warming and using it to better prepare the Gulf Coast region for hurricane risks. And it's not just the bumbling Corps that's at fault-or just the fate of New Orleans that's at stake. No-what I'm describing is part of a far broader and much more nefarious pattern under the Bush administration of either ignoring mounting climate risks, refusing to seriously study them, or refusing to release information about them to the public in a timely and prominent way.

The scientific community is of the strong opinion that we must start adapting our communities now to climatic changes that are already upon us. But the Bush administration seems to think that bumbling, or worse, is an adequate governmental response to this matter of mounting urgency.

Consider another recent example. The U.S. government's Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), a severely hobbled interagency group that has been faulted in federal court for its failure to follow the law in studying global warming impacts to the U.S., has at least been researching the subject piecemeal, through a series of 21 reports, rather than a single comprehensive one. One of these came out two weeks ago-a study of how global warming will threaten the Gulf Coast region's considerable transportation infrastructure, which includes myriad ports, railways, highways, and airports.

But as CCSP whistleblower Rick Piltz details on the invaluable Climate Science Watch, it appears there has been every effort to minimize the impact of this report:

The DOT/CCSP report has been essentially completed since December 21, the date on a final review draft that appears to be nearly identical to what was finally issued yesterday. DOT appears to have been sitting on it for nearly three months...Note that they held it until the day AFTER the release of the Academy report [on a similar subject], which got some media coverage, then didn't put out a press release on it until 3 p.m. Clearly they're trying to limit attention to the report, rather than promote it.

Indeed, the Department of Transportation press release on the new study, notes Piltz, is wholly inadequate and makes it sound like this is a report significantly devoted the dangers of land subsidence, rather than climate change. In its title, the press release cites "potential environmental impacts" as the matter under study, rather than global warming. Piltz adds:

There appears to be no other rollout activity in connection with this major climate change risk assessment-preparedness study. The press release lists only one contact, a press official who is a former Republican congressional staffer. It does not list as contacts any of the lead authors of the report--the individuals with the real expertise to discuss its contents.

And so off we go again -- more of the Bush administration screwing around, rather than doing its job to inform us about and prepare us for climate risks. It's such an old story-and still such an outrageous one.

Chris Mooney is a Contributing Editor for Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming . He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.