An official website of the United States government

August 31, 2009

Press Briefing

Shere Abbott speaking at the World Climate Conference in Geneva. Dr. Jack Hayes and Dr. Tom Karl listening.





Sherburne B. Abbott (Shere)
Associate Director for Environment

White House Office of Science & Technology Policy


Tom Karl

Director, National Climatic Data Center, NOAA


Jack Hayes
Assistant Administrator for Weather Services
Director, National Weather Service
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Dan Reifsnyder
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment
U.S. Department of State

Monday, August 31, 2009


Geneva, Switzerland

SHERE ABBOTT: –I am joined by my colleagues, Dan Reifsnyder, who is a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Jack Hayes, the Associate Administrator for Weather Services at NOAA, and Tom Karl, also with NOAA.

It’s a pleasure to be here representing the Obama administration in the Executive Office of the President.  We don’t have a lot of time because I have to speak at 1:30, but I wanted to leave you with a couple of key points.

The first one is that climate change and the climate challenge is urgent.  Climate change is real, it’s here, and its impacts are already being felt all across the globe.

The climate challenge demands a genuinely global response.  No one nation is responsible for it.  No one nation possesses all the knowledge or know-how to confront it.  Every nation is vulnerable to its impacts.  The poor and developing countries are particularly vulnerable.  So we must all work together to avoid the worst possible outcomes of climate change and to reduce the threat of climate change to sustainable development.

Climate change is a major priority of the Obama administration.  We intend to take aggressive action at home to fight climate change and to bring a new level of U.S. leadership to the global climate effort.  That’s one reason we’re here at the World Climate Conference in such large numbers — about 50 members of our delegation including 20 scientists and members from about 10 agencies and offices of the government.

We bring to the conference strengths in climate science and a strong commitment to multilateral efforts and partnerships to help the most vulnerable countries.

Let’s be clear.  Geneva is not Copenhagen, and the World Climate Conference is not the UNFCC.  Nonetheless, Geneva is essential to Copenhagen.

This conference is about integrating science into the decision-making process, so the the link between the World Climate Conference and the goals of Copenhagen is clear and important.  We hope the World Climate Conference launches a Global Framework for Climate Services to assist in all elements of climate prediction and response.  The framework will be important to climate change science and it will be critical to coping with climate variability.  We’re looking forward to a productive conference.

Thank you. Do you have any questions?

QUESTION: Of course, it’s very welcome the commitment of the Obama administration to climate change as a priority, but could you list some examples of that commitment?  How would you participate in reduction of CO2s, how much money will you put in the near future helping developing countries?  Whatever steps you have.

ABBOTT: Thank you.  Those are excellent questions.

The Obama administration, President Obama has made a clear commitment to revolutionize the way that we use energy, including mandatory cap and trade legislation, long term submissions, reductions goals, and a commitment to renewable energy technologies.

The President’s budget for 2009 in the Recovery Act includes the largest increase for R&D in history.  The 2010 budget request had about $150 billion spread out over a ten year period for energy R&D, mostly devoted to carbon sequestration, efficiency improvements, and several other renewables issues.

QUESTION: I didn’t get an answer on how would you assist developing countries.

MS. ABBOTT: We will assist developing countries in two major ways.  One is through an increase in interest in supporting various efforts, particularly in adaptation research, and we are working to try to improve — There has been, I don’t know exactly the numbers, but they’re in the President’s budget request.  There was a significant increase in support for some of these efforts.

In addition, we are very committed in this conference to a robust strategy and a framework for climate services, most of which would be sharing a large amount of scientific information about climate science with the developing world.

Also a number of strategies and modalities that we have already enacted in the U.S. to try to deliver climate services and products in a very efficient way to those who need them.

QUESTION: I’m wondering about this global framework on climate.  It sounds like much of it is to support developing countries who don’t have enough weather observations and services and things.

What specific benefits do you expect of this framework to come for the United States?  What concrete things should be in that framework that would help the U.S.?  Also do you expect any mandatory elements to be in that framework that would oblige countries to exchange weather information or climate things?  Is there anything mandatory in there?  Thank you.

MS. ABBOTT: Let me answer the first part of your question first.

There is a lot in there for the United States, not the least of which is that as we help other countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and help them to work towards adaptation strategies to improve their capabilities and their responses and their resiliency to climate change, everybody gains because we all become less vulnerable.

It is a very significant interest of the U.S. to be fully engaged in the framework.  As my understanding is right now, there is no real discussion about a proposed governance structure.  It is under consideration.  I do not know of any, I have not read about any mandatory commitments.

QUESTION: We’ve heard a lot of people talk about gaps in the current system for reporting on climate events.  I was wondering if you could specify from the U.S. perspective what is your goal for this conference in terms of filling the gaps?  What are the specific gaps, the glaring gaps that need to be plugged in order for this conference to eventually be considered a success?  Thank you.

MS. ABBOTT: I wonder if I could call on my two colleagues here to answer that, who are much more in tune with the climate services piece.

Tom Karl: My name is Tom Karl.  I’m the lead for NOAA’s climate services and the Director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

An important gap that we would hope that this conference could address is related to advancing climate services to a point similar to what weather services provide today, namely a global framework.

The economies and countries of the world act on information from weather on a regular basis, it becomes part of their plans for mitigation. We don’t have in place a similar system yet for climate services and we hope that this conference can help us on the path to deliver that kind of service.

Jack, do you want to add anything?

HAYES: I’m Jack Hayes, the Assistant Administrator for NOAA’s Weather Service.

I would say in partnership with the WMO over the past 30 to 40 years we’ve put in place a global observing system that the United States leverages and the rest of the world leverages.  We run global models today.  We have scientific exchange.  And when Tom says that we have a well developed infrastructure for weather, I would say we do.

When I began weather forecasting in 1970 our forecast window was maybe a day or two.  Now I think if you look at the output in developed countries, our models are capable on many days of accurate forecasts out to a seven, maybe even ten days window.

I think we need to extend that window.  Our focus, I think, in the United States will be seasonal and/or annual, but it can’t stop there.  It’s got to go on to the decadal and beyond where you address climate change and where we’re providing decision assistance to people that are planning communities. How to structure those communities.  Give them the scientific information and help them understand what we’re giving them so that we can better prepare for the inevitable that happens to our climate.

QUESTION: You talk about the importance of the Copenhagen process and the Copenhagen conference.  This is not Copenhagen, you said.  But in the G8 the eight most industrialized countries agreed on a reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050 which is a long way to go.

Does the U.S. administration feel that a process towards Copenhagen is at risk now and there’s a risk of failure of the process of the Copenhagen conference?  Do you think there is still a lot of work to do?

ABBOTT: On your first question, simply put, no.  But I’d like to leave the Copenhagen questions to be answered by the Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, who is the person who is working on behalf of the U.S. to do the negotiations.  Because of the nature of the negotiations it is minute by minute as we head towards Copenhagen, together with a minute by minute discussion within our Congress.  So it is very difficult for us as we’re sitting here to be really apprised of where they are.

QUESTION: I’d like to have you perhaps, humanize is not the word for it, but if you could give some practical examples, some concrete examples as to how the information that you’re able to provide with better observation facilities and so forth, can actually help people.  How the communities can help it.  What about in Africa?  What if a farmer finds out oh, there’s going to be seven years of drought or whatever it is, what does this farmer do?  How do you actually adapt the information that you have here for practical, every day use?

ABBOTT: There are two things.  The first is that the notion of a climate service that provides information and products to citizens, to individual farmers, to communities, to those who are living on the coasts, to provide information to help them adapt to the circumstances that they are currently in and that are changing as well as to any future changes that are related to climate impacts.  The ways in which information is transmitted to them will help them make decisions about, if you’re a farmer whether or not you’re going to go in for some extra, in our country, extra insurance or for a subsidy fee.  Information that you can get from drought data and other related climate information can help you make decisions about what you’re going to plant, when, how, and what kind of varieties.

For farmers in Africa, there are several agencies that have partnered on a program that I will talk about a little bit in my talk where using normal web-based tools, are providing information through hand-held devices to farmers and to others who are more connected with a cell phone in many places than they are with other forms of internet technology.  So we’re able to provide them with the kinds of information that they can use to make decisions on the spot.

Other decisions, other information can help communities understand whether or not to adjust their coastal communities in ways that are going to respond to sea level rise or coastal flooding or various other things.

So it’s large-scale information that with more science and better observations, monitoring and assessment tools, we’ll be able to deliver the kinds of products that will actually scale down to the level of place-based decisionmaking.

QUESTION: The largest sources of greenhouse gas are the United States and China, probably.  And I wondered if you could elaborate on whether the U.S. is working with China to try to bring that situation under control.

ABBOTT: I can’t get into the negotiations, but I do know we’ve had a number of discussions about the ways in which the Chinese are very interested in energy R&D, and we have worked very closely with the Department of Energy and with our colleagues in China to try to develop some joint initiatives where we’re sharing information about the kinds of renewables and carbon sequestration, other strategies for reductions.

QUESTION: Following up my colleague’s question, on this issue to what extent will technology transfer be without royalties, or will it be with royalties?  That has been an issue since Rio in ’92 and it has gone nowhere, and it’s gone nowhere in the trade talks as well.

So my question is, is this coming up in your talks with the Chinese?  Because they’re sending out very clear signals, and the Indians as well, what they would like from the advanced countries.  Thank you.

ABBOTT: Maybe Dan can take this one.  I’m not involved in any of the trade-related issues.

Reifsnyder: Well, just to say that I think this conference is certainly not about technology transfer and intellectual property rights protection, that kind of thing.  It’s really about trying to create a new framework for global climate services.  I think it’s best in this conference to confine it to that.

There are ongoing discussions in the context of the Copenhagen effort, and there are discussions bilaterally and in other groups in the major economies forum of various issues including technology and technology development and technology transfer, but I wouldn’t want to characterize those discussions at this point.

QUESTION: Are you putting the cart before the horse?  If you can’t talk about adaptation without addressing these issues at this conference.  We’ve seen even with the pandemic the IP issue is everywhere, and the use of technologies has an IP component.  So I can’t understand how it won’t be addressed at all in a session here on adaptation.  Thank you.

ABBOTT: We’re not going to be discussing particular technologies.  We’re more talking about observation systems and data systems and not the specific technologies that you’re referring to.  It’s more about a framework for delivering the services and the kinds of science, climate science questions that we need to focus on to help deliver those services.

QUESTION: But is the Obama administration itself doing anything as far as technology transfer is concerned?

ABBOTT: I believe that a number of things are always under discussion.

QUESTION: Could you elaborate a little bit about these gadgets that with people who don’t have internet access or don’t have a computer, that can access to them in the field in Africa, for example.  Would this be a result of that conference?  Will you start distributing them after this conference?  Or are they already distributed?  And are they free of charge?  Do they cost something?

MS. ABBOTT: I actually don’t know the specifics of that program other than the fact that I think what they do is they rely on existing hand-helds.

QUESTION: And they are there in the field now?


Press Briefing by Members of the U.S. Delegation to the WCC-3