updated 2/18/2004 9:14:28 PM ET 2004-02-19T02:14:28

The Bush administration’s program to study climate change is much improved but lacks a commitment to pay for many of the new research proposals, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences complained Wednesday.

The panel urged that the plan, announced last July, be implemented vigorously.

“Advancing the science called for in the plan will be of vital importance to the nation,” said committee chairman Thomas E. Graedel, professor of industrial ecology at Yale University.

“There are still ways in which the plan could be improved, but at this point the main challenge is to implement it vigorously.”

Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans welcomed the report, saying “development and implementation of the (climate) plan continues the president’s commitment to effectively guide research on climate and associated global changes over the next decade.”

The government’s 10-year Climate Change Science Program is aimed at learning more about natural causes of climate change; to better understand how climate changes affect human, wildlife and plant communities; and to find more exact ways of calculating the risks of global warming.

Assistant Commerce Secretary James Mahoney, who oversees U.S. research on climate change, responded that fundamental work in the research effort is under way.

The plan calls for a series of 21 reports in specific subject areas, such as what can be known from current temperature data, the impact of aerosols such as clouds, soot and chemicals and the uses and limitations of data in making policy forecasts.

All of these studies are in the detailed planning stage, Mahoney said, with the lead agency determined for each one. The reports will be open for peer review and public comment, he added.

Graedel noted the program calls for turning these out in the next four years, a number of them in next two years. “That is a very rapid pace, it will call on the capacity of the (research) community to respond to it,” he said.

Graedel said he doesn’t see a clear line in the plan between the reports and a way to follow through to the goals of the program.

The new report, “Implementing Climate and Global Change Research,” was prepared by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academies.

Climate and disease

The panel praised the administration’s emphasis on understanding how climate change will affect ecosystems and people, as well as research to help make decisions about how to ease climate change and adapt to its effects.

However, the panel said the program’s current budget does not appear capable of supporting all of the activities outlined in the strategic plan.

While some research in the plan has a record of funding by particular government agencies, other areas, such as the study of climate change’s effects on ecosystems and humans, are likely to be underfunded, the committee said.

In addition, spending higher than current levels will be needed for the proposed upgrade in global climate observing capabilities and advances in computer models to project future changes in climate.

Mahoney responded that the plan extends over 10 years and funding isn’t just a matter of the first year’s budget.

Graedel also said an effort needs to be made to be sure the scientific credibility of the research is maintained throughout the process, suggesting a standing advisory committee to review the work. Interactive: The greenhouse effect

On Wednesday the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report charging that the administration is ignoring the scientific consensus on global warming in favor of political concerns.

Asked if they had seen any political interference in the climate program, Graedel said the panel did not look for that, but had seen nothing to suggest that was the case.

A member of the Academy committee, Anthony L. Janetos of the John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, noted that the climate program involves high-level members of the administration.

That’s a two-edged sword, Janetos said, because it means scientists are dealing with people who can make decisions and provide resources but also creates a challenge in maintaining scientific credibility.

Environmentalists complain the administration focuses too much on natural causes and reopening scientific issues already well studied.

The first draft of the climate research plan, announced in late 2002, drew harsh criticism from the National Academy of Sciences, where experts said it didn’t set hard priorities or provide a clear vision and specific timetable for meeting goals.

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