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At the National Leadership Level

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?

A central challenge facing the United States and other countries in the twenty-first century will be to enhance human well-being in a world where growing populations and the drive to improve living standards place potentially huge demands on natural resources and the environment. Whether we succeed or fail in meeting this challenge will be determined, in part, by how we respond to immediate demands to address human health and economic growth in the context of the wide range of crucial, environmentally related decisions made every day by insurance companies, water resource managers, agribusiness, households, city planners, public health officials, and countless others. Rising to this challenge will entail using natural resources as efficiently as possible, devising practical solutions that meet our immediate needs and also provide for long-run economic growth, while maintaining the environmental systems on which life depends.

To guide wise public policy decisions that continue to improve human and economic conditions and to clarify public debate, it is necessary to restructure the science and engineering framework addressing the biological, chemical, and physical integrity of our surroundings. Private-sector and governmental decisions will be made regarding air, water, and living systems that will fundamentally affect our nation's health and its economic and environmental vitality. Will the information that is necessary to adequately inform these decisions be available?

The answer to this question is not consistently “yes” because of several limitations that are beyond the capacities of individual agencies, including the following:

  • The observing “system” available today is a composite of observations that do not provide the information needed nor the continuity in the data to support decisions on many critical issues.

  • The United States today does not have the computational and modeling capabilities needed to serve society's information needs for reliable environmental predictions and projections.



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Page 1 1 At the National Leadership Level WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES? A central challenge facing the United States and other countries in the twenty-first century will be to enhance human well-being in a world where growing populations and the drive to improve living standards place potentially huge demands on natural resources and the environment. Whether we succeed or fail in meeting this challenge will be determined, in part, by how we respond to immediate demands to address human health and economic growth in the context of the wide range of crucial, environmentally related decisions made every day by insurance companies, water resource managers, agribusiness, households, city planners, public health officials, and countless others. Rising to this challenge will entail using natural resources as efficiently as possible, devising practical solutions that meet our immediate needs and also provide for long-run economic growth, while maintaining the environmental systems on which life depends. To guide wise public policy decisions that continue to improve human and economic conditions and to clarify public debate, it is necessary to restructure the science and engineering framework addressing the biological, chemical, and physical integrity of our surroundings. Private-sector and governmental decisions will be made regarding air, water, and living systems that will fundamentally affect our nation's health and its economic and environmental vitality. Will the information that is necessary to adequately inform these decisions be available? The answer to this question is not consistently “yes” because of several limitations that are beyond the capacities of individual agencies, including the following: The observing “system” available today is a composite of observations that do not provide the information needed nor the continuity in the data to support decisions on many critical issues. The United States today does not have the computational and modeling capabilities needed to serve society's information needs for reliable environmental predictions and projections.

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Page 2 The necessary partnerships do not exist between both the physical and social science research communities and the public and private decision makers that are required to address multiple interacting and changing environmental factors in specific geographic areas. Reliable and consistent observations are a critical first step in providing the scientific information necessary for decision making, and the federal government has a primary responsibility for providing them. The observations of the environment that are available today are useful but cannot provide the decisive information needed to make properly informed decisions on many crucial issues. Critical examples of these information gaps include the absence of a precise, sustained, and comprehensive climate observing system, inadequate coverage of carbon flux measurements that define sources and sinks, the inability to define ultraviolet dosage levels and the causes for midlatitude ozone erosion, and ineffective attempts at mapping sulfate–nitrate–organic–heavy-metal emissions on the urban-to-regional scale. To make vital, informed decisions on the basis of these and many other types of data, substantial improvements in observations of the atmosphere, surface and ground water, oceans, and ecosystems, as well as relevant economic and societal data, will be required. Individual researchers and research teams do not have the wherewithal to develop and maintain observing systems that can provide a comprehensive and consistent historical record in outcomes of interest. The federal government has been key to the success of past observing systems, whether the problem was measuring economic progress, demographic change, weather, or pollution levels. If critical chokepoints in our understanding of global environmental change are to be overcome, the federal government must make a substantial commitment to establishing and maintaining an observing system that is up to the job. The nation's ability to create reliable short- and long-term environmental projections and analyses is promising but insufficient. Promising advances have been made in modeling and analysis in such fields as climate, hydrology, atmospheric chemistry, agronomy, and the economics underlying carbon dioxide emissions. But insufficient progress has been made in analyzing and modeling ecosystem and human responses to environmental change, as well as physical (e.g., climate, atmospheric and land surface chemistry) changes at the fine scales of human interest. The federal government should find a way to increase efforts in these areas of research to meet the needs of a diverse set of U.S. interests ranging from agriculture to fisheries, from environmental protection to energy production, and from commodity markets to public health. Improvements in the nation's observational and modeling capabilities will set the stage for dramatic new opportunities to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience to environmental change, maximize economic gains, protect the nation's natural resources, and better understand the sensitivity of our national security to the environment. The previous decade of research on global environmental change reinforced the idea that, while understanding and predicting change requires a global perspective, solutions to these changes must work at the local and regional levels as well as the global level. This is true whether one is projecting long-term climate, transboundary air pollution, crop prices, or the effects of proposals to limit greenhouse gases on U.S. industrial competitiveness. Indeed, the effects of environmental change on societies and ecosystems can vary profoundly from place to place, due in part to the set of multiple stresses and conditions that are unique to

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Page 3 each locality. As suggested above, the ability to provide regionally specific information pertaining to environmental change calls for an entirely new management philosophy for the environmental research enterprise. This approach must encompass several disciplines, include public- and private-sector participation, and must involve end users and stakeholders as well as researchers at all steps of the process from basic research to decision making. One of the challenges will be to embrace a new regionally specific approach while continuing to foster and even strengthen the global-scale environmental research enterprise, which produced remarkable advances in knowledge over the past decade. In addition: The current situation in the federal government does not sufficiently promote delivery of resources to key research, observational, and technological endeavors that either cross or transcend formal agency responsibilities. There are many areas where science has advanced but where research funding has been inadequate to develop effective technologies and assess potential responses to take advantage of this knowledge. For instance, the application of advances in physical science knowledge is particularly hampered by lack of knowledge pertaining to human–environment interactions and their linkage to natural environmental changes. Consequently, the committee concludes that the federal government's research on earth sciences and the environment, including the U.S. Global Change Research Program and other environmental research that we now see as increasingly interconnected with global environmental change, needs to address these obstacles. Doing so will catalyze the study of global change and human–environment interactions, thereby providing the foundation for a healthy society, economy, and environment—all three of which are inextricably intertwined. KEY DECISIONS AT THE NATIONAL LEADERSHIP LEVEL The NRC's Committee on Global Change Research recommends the establishment of an institutional arrangement positioned with sufficient authority to coordinate global and regional environmental research and decision making by ensuring adequate resources over the long term and directing them to the highest-priority issues. Decentralized research management has served U.S. research programs well in many areas and should remain a significant component of global change research. Decentralized research management is successful at creating a diverse set of research activities, which is important when there are several competing hypotheses. However, a weakness of a decentralized approach in, for example, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is that important areas may not have strong advocates in the existing agency structure and the needed observation systems are too costly for each agency to build its own. A high-level focus is thus needed to ensure that: 1. The federal government's resources can be directed into emerging and underfunded research areas that do not fall within the purview of a single agency. Success depends in part on appointments of agency directors and high-level staff who have the vision to support broad research with potential long-term benefits that may be difficult to defend under narrow interpretations of agency missions.

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Page 4 2. Organizational and resource obstacles to a sustained and flexible program of observations are removed. An integrated observing strategy must be established to effectively monitor climate, environmental chemistry, and ecosystems as well as concomitant socioeconomic factors. 3. Integrated multidisciplinary modeling and information systems on global, national, and regional levels are developed and sustained. These systems, which depend on strong disciplinary knowledge bases, should be designed in close cooperation with those whose decision making they are designed to support in both the public and private sectors. 4. Regionally focused environmental research and assessments are developed to complement global-scale research and transform its advances into usable information for decision making at all spatial scales. This will require building the necessary resource base, as well as new partnerships between the relevant sciences and the public and private sectors. There are a number of institutional options that could ensure that these critical tasks are fulfilled. Several high-level approaches were considered by the committee, including the following: 1. Creating a new National Environmental Council at the level of the National Economic Council and the National Security Council. 2. Strengthening the existing interagency structure through the National Science and Technology Council. 3. Broadening the mandate of the Council on Environmental Quality to give it oversight of the relevant research. Whatever approach is chosen, it must be able to cream a national framework that will encourage an intimate connection between research, operations, and the support of decision making. Specific responsibility and resources must be assigned to the integration of multiple-agency programs. Only by recognizing the nature of the challenges that will be present during the next few years and by showing early and innovative leadership can the tremendous capacity of the research community, the operational mission agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector be brought together to serve society and the environment.