Similar arguments can be made for changes in biodiversity, soil thickness and fertility, and other global changes (e.g., the decline of ocean fisheries, coastal “dead zones”, ocean acidification). Climate change exacerbates these issues, but many of them would be creating enormous problems even in the absence of climate change; and in some cases these other global change issues can have more near-term (and perhaps more profound) impacts on human populations than climate change. The global implications of these other global change phenomena thus deserve study as part of a comprehensive global change research program.
At the same time, it should be recognized that the international research community is moving towards a significantly more expansive framework that looks at global environmental change in the context of global sustainability challenges – that considers, for instance, the inexorable interconnections among climate change, energy security, population growth, and economic and social developments; and that seeks to understand the potential for, and the root causes of, exceeding the boundaries for a sustainable planetary system. (See, for instance, the Earth System Sustainability Initiative, the Belmont Forum, and the “Planet Under Pressure” conference.3)
Some would argue that embracing this substantially expanded research agenda is an appropriate, indeed an essential, next step for the Program in the decade ahead. Such an expansion, however, would require an extensive rethinking of the USGCRP from the ground up, would mean setting priorities among very different areas of science, and would further complicate the existing challenge of setting manageable boundaries on the definition and scope of a “global change” research program.
In light of these considerations, and of the real-world budget constraints facing the Program, the Committee suggests that focusing the near-term USGCRP goals on “climate and related changes” seems like a step in the right direction. It may not be realistic to implement a further broadening of the Program at this time, but the Strategic Plan should at least acknowledge that the long term mission of the Program embraces global change broadly, as defined by the GCRA. And we encourage the Program to devote serious consideration to better defining what sorts of issues “global change” research will and will not encompass. Table 1 in the Strategic Plan serves as a useful initial attempt in this regard, although it contains some items that are unclear or questionable as part of a global change agenda.
In the Committee’s judgment, the plan for Objective 1.3 (Integrated Observations) is much clearer in terms of the implied definition of global change. Many of the observations to be supported under that Objective will enable improved analysis and modeling of a variety of different types of global change (not only those associated with climate change), and thus will inherently be contributing to understanding of global change in the broader (GCRA-defined) sense of the term.
Many of the federal research activities that contribute to understanding the state of water resources, soil fertility, ecosystems, and other globally changing environmental systems (not to mention the many research activities that look at large-scale socio-economic changes) are
3See further discussion at: http://www.icsu.org/earth-system-sustainability-initiative; http://www.igfagcr.org/images/documents/belmont_challenge_white_paper.pdf; http://www.planetunderpressure2012.net/conferencevision.asp