The new 10-year, $103 million plan to speed up research in some high-priority areas was released Thursday by Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who pointed to $4.5 billion in government spending on climate change-related programs.
"We're going to lead on this issue," Evans told reporters.
The first of the 364-page plan's five goals is to study the "natural variability" in climate change. The second is to find better ways of measuring climate effects from burning fossil fuels, industrial production of warming gases and changes in land use.
Other goals are to reduce uncertainty in climate forecasting; to better understand how changes in climate affect human, wildlife and plant communities; and to find more exact ways of calculating the risks of global warming, according to plan summaries obtained by The Associated Press.
But environmentalists said the administration was focusing too much on natural causes and reopening scientific issues already well studied.
Philip Clapp, president of National Environmental Trust, predicted that "most climate scientists around the world will see this as fiddling while Rome burns. ... This would have been a great research program if it had been announced by the first President Bush 10 years ago."
"We can't move the science faster than it goes," Assistant Commerce Secretary James Mahoney, who oversees U.S. research on climate change, told the AP. "At any point in time, there can be debates about the policy, but our job is to structure our information to be the most helpful."
The administration also will ask Congress to approve a new $103 million, two-year initiative to speed up research on carbon pollution, aerosols and oceans and determine the best ways to compile and disseminate information about them.
That effort will be included in President Bush's budget proposals for 2005 and 2006, Mahoney said, and would draw some of its funds from the existing $1.75 billion Climate Change Science Program.
Congress in 1990 required that the nation create a 10-year climate change research plan, but no administration has complied until now. Such a plan also is supposed to be updated every three years.
The Bush administration released its first draft of a plan late last year, focusing on making better economic projections of possible climate policy changes and tighter coordination of more than a dozen federal agencies' efforts.
That draft was harshly criticized by a panel of top climate experts at the National Academy of Sciences, who said it didn't set hard priorities or provide a clear vision and specific timetable for meeting goals.
"We've tried to take all of the academy's recommendations into account," Mahoney said. "The greatest focus is on what we can deliver in the shortest period."
The plan calls for 21 reports over the next four years on a wide range of climate change aspects. Many scientists blame carbon dioxide from burning oil and coal for contributing to a "greenhouse" or warming effect on global climates.
President Bush and his advisers have adopted the stance that reducing emissions through costly near-term measures is unjustified, and that scientific forecasting of climate change is too imprecise to agree to long-term, international, mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Mahoney said the administration has been careful to distinguish between science and policy.
Environmentalists said the administration was dragging its feet.
"It seems to me that it's an effort to postpone doing anything meaningful on the climate issue," Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown said, adding that the plan also seems to overlook an important link between global warming, grain production and water shortages.
Annie Petsonk, an Environmental Defense lawyer who helped craft the first President Bush's policy, said there is enough scientific certainty to begin taking action now to reduce warming.
"Where the administration has thought to take any action at all," she said, "has been to delete climate references from reports and to try to repudiate the science that says global warming is happening now."