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Climate may be right for agency devoted to it

Published April 29, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - You can't go two days without hearing how global climate change is threatening national security, endangering Florida, creating more hurricanes, upsetting the delicate balance of Earth, or, if you prefer, a crackpot conspiracy.

So it comes as a surprise that in spite of all this, the federal government still has no single agency for studying climate.

On a visit to St. Petersburg earlier this month, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested that should change.

Conrad C. Lautenbacher said there should be one government agency or department "which provides some stable level of climate reports that have a certain amount of credibility."

And he says NOAA, which already employs scientific experts on atmospheres and oceans, "is a good candidate to be the climate services agency."

Lautenbacher, a retired rear admiral with a doctorate in mathematics from Harvard, is approaching the idea cautiously. A spokesman says it's purely in talking stages now - NOAA has not asked Congress for money or developed a specific proposal.

But as the presidential campaigns ramp up, and candidates are increasingly asked what they're doing to understand climate changes affecting Earth, it's an idea that could take off.

Other perceived national crises have led to federal creations - such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education - so it will be instructive to see how far this one goes.

"Our staff has sort of picked up on the fact that the idea was being discussed at the agency level, " said Bryan Gulley, press secretary to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat. But he added, "There could be something forthcoming down the road if now they're starting to talk about it publicly."

As NOAA administrator, Lautenbacher oversees the National Weather Service. But there is no National Climate Service.

There's actually a big difference between the two disciplines.

Weather questions are short-term: Will it rain tomorrow? Climate questions are long-term: Will rainfall increase in the next decade?

Climate has never been a hotter issue, so to speak, than it is today.

But when Lautenbacher says "climate, " he's not just talking about global warming.

Think how many need to know what the weather will be like next year, he says. And think how much they would value a series of regular, credible government reports on climate.

"For instance, agriculture needs to know, what is the next growing season going to look like? Shall I plant corn or cotton?"

"Water managers need to know, is this going to be a good year for snowpack or do I have to conserve early because the yearly forecast for the climate shows that there's a strong likelihood that we'll have the following conditions."

However, concern about global warming certainly is one reason we need more climate research, he said.

"We know a lot and we need to act on it, but we need to invest in a continuous sustained program of research and observation that will help us improve our ability to forecast what's going to happen."

Lautenbacher visited USF's College of Marine Science recently because he likes to encourage students who are pursuing careers in marine science and other scientific fields. His comments found a receptive audience.

"I think that it would be very useful if there was one place where all the agencies could look for leadership" on climate, said professor Frank Muller-Karger, who worked closely with Lautenbacher while serving on a federal ocean policy panel. Such an agency "could provide leadership rather than an uncoordinated set of entities, which is what we have now."

"That's the first I'd heard of that, " said Gary T. Mitchum, a physical oceanographer who studies climate. "I think his notion is excellent."

Mitchum remembers years ago talking to his grandfather, a carpenter and farmer in South Carolina, about why he used the Farmer's Almanac. His grandfather explained something about long-term cycles of the weather and "even as a teenager I was going, 'I don't know, that doesn't make a lot of sense.' "

A climate agency might serve as kind of a scientific version of the old almanac. To Mitchum, that does make sense.

Staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at or 727 893-8232.

[Last modified April 28, 2007, 22:44:10]

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