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Obama proposes federal climate change agency

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post / February 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration proposed a new climate change agency yesterday to provide Americans with predictions on how global warming will affect everything from drought to sea levels.

The initiative, modeled loosely on the 140-year-old National Weather Service, would provide forecasts to farmers, regional water managers, and business operators affected by changing climate conditions. It is being proposed as skeptics have become increasingly effective in attacking the credibility of global warming forecasts.

The agency would be part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors climate and conducts research. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also directs similar operations.

“We currently respond to millions of annual requests for climate information, and we expect those requests to grow exponentially,’’ said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, adding that with recent scientific advances, “the models will continue to improve, and we will be able to provide more and more information.’’

The move does not come with a designated boost in funding, but it would link NOAA’s climate-research division to its more consumer-oriented services so they can operate, in Lubchenco’s words, “cheek by jowl.’’

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said the service would be able to provide advice on everything from where ski operators might want to refocus their activities to reflect snowfall patterns to which farm crops would need increased irrigation. In the same way businesses such as The Weather Channel and AccuWeather.com have taken advantage of the National Weather Service’s predictions, Locke said, “You’ll see much of the private sector will want to build on this one-stop shop of climate services.’’

The agency launched a web portal yesterday at www.climate.gov to provide a single entry point for access to climate information, products, and services.

In order to launch the reorganization, Locke said, the House and Senate appropriations committees with jurisdiction over NOAA will have to concur with the move, which is planned for Oct. 1.

Even without the reorganization, NOAA has been providing more detailed climate-related forecasts. The National Integrated Drought Information System, which became law in 2006, provides drought forecasts and impacts for the West and Southwest for at least a season and up to a year. Climate models suggest both these regions will experience increasing dryness over the next 20 to 40 years, and Lubchenco said the agency will expand this system to cover the Southeast as well.

Researchers are still trying to determine how to improve regional climate projections and pinpoint future changes in precipitation. Recently flaws have surfaced in some of the 2007 projections of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including one that suggested Himalayan glaciers would all melt by 2035. This has led critics to question the value of climate computer models and predictions.