An independent federal research panel has strongly criticized the U.S. Government's strategic plan to combat global warming. The new report by the National Research Council prepared at the request of the Bush administration - calls the White House plan "a good first step" but says it falls short of the needed response to global climate change.

Eight months after the Bush Administration rejected the United Nations-sponsored Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, back in June 2001, the White House established its own Climate Change Science Program. Its purpose was to coordinate climate change research across more than a dozen federal agencies. The White House then submitted its draft plan for review by a National Research Council committee, made up of experts from the academic, business and the environmental communities. And that group has now offered its analysis of the Bush Administration's plan to combat global warming.

Committee Chairman and Yale University professor Thomas Graedel says the plan provides a solid foundation for future research. He commends the plan in particular for its emphasis on the use of science to guide policymaking in this complex field. "So while we have the underlying Global Change Research Program moving forward to take the in-depth looks at the science that one needs to understand increasingly well the complex interactions dealing with climate, we also have a shorter term initiative to take those results and make them available to a wide variety of stakeholders, rather more quickly," he said.

The committee also supports the plan's call for cutting edge research to better understand the science of climate change and to develop computer models that would offer more reliable forecasts of climate change.

While the study says the plan could build on these initiatives, Committee Chairman Thomas Graedel says it lacks most of the elements of a strategic plan. Notably absent the report says, are "executable goals, clear timetables, criteria for measuring progress, an assessment of whether existing programs are capable meeting these goals, and a management plan."

"Even though the goals are scattered here and there throughout the plan, or things that could be goals, we don't find a clear vision and strategic plan structure that would support a measured progress toward meeting what is outlined as the things that the plan would like to achieve," said Mr. Graedel.

Chairman Thomas Graedel says it is also not clear how the lead agencies working on climate change issues will coordinate their efforts, nor how other agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency or agricultural extension services would fit into the program. "This is particularly important to think about because this program is a new start, and it has the opportunity to redefine how the interagency activities are better integrated, certainly important for areas like decision support science that have not essentially been a part of the old program and it is not clear how you make them go forward vigorously unless you have some way to assign responsibility for getting that job done," he said.

The National Research Council report says the plan has serious gaps when it comes to studying the effects of climate change on human societies and ecosystems. Also missing, it says, are key global climate observation systems, which the report notes are currently a "patchwork of observational networks, not particularly well-integrated."

Thomas Graedel says another critical weakness in the Bush Administration proposal is the absence of a system for delivering information to decision makers. "In particular it is not clear from the draft plan who will use climate research results and what it is they need to know," he said. "And, we are thinking fairly broadly here, yes, watershed managers, yes urban planners, also people like corporations who in one way or another might be influenced by changes in climate or evolving changes in one or more of the perimeters driven by climate."

The committee did not include details of the proposed U.S. budget for the next fiscal year, but noted that the goals of the Climate Change Science Program could not be realized without more money than the White House is seeking for climate research.

In response to the Council's strong criticisms, James Mahoney, director of the Bush Administration's Climate Change Science Program, told the New York Times newspaper that he welcomed the comments, "even though they may sound like they're fairly harsh. It is like getting a ship into motion," he noted. "Let's make a solid start, and then we've got something to critique and build on."

Committee Chairman Thomas Graedel applauds the White House openness to suggestions from a wide group of critics. And he says he is "cautiously optimistic" that the final version of the plan, due in April, will incorporate at least some of the committee's recommendations.