This 2012- 2021 Strategic Plan describes a program that builds from core USGCRP capabilities in global climate observations, process understanding, and modeling to strengthen and expand our fundamental scientific understanding of climate change and its interactions with the other critical drivers of global change, such as land-use change, alteration of key biogeochemical cycles, and biodiversity loss.
The Committee interprets this wording to mean that the Program will encompass climate change and its links to other aspects of the Earth system that contribute to or are affected by climate change, but will not encompass other global environmental changes (e.g., in land productivity or in biogeochemical cycles) except as they link to climate change. If this reading is indeed correct, then the Plan’s definition of “global change” is not fully consistent with the definition in the Plan’s glossary (taken from the GCRA), which treats changes in land productivity, ecological systems, etc. as integral to the program, even when they do not interact with climate change. The Plan’s currently defined scope could perhaps be labeled as a “climate change and related global changes.” Such a clarification would help set boundaries on what could be a large and ambiguous universe of issues.
These distinctions are not clear throughout the Plan. The lack of clarity is especially evident where the document refers to global change when it seems to mean only climate change. Some examples of this problem, among many, include:
• The discussion under Objective 1.2 (Science for Mitigation and Adaptation) seems to be about mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, even though the term “global change” is used. There is no indication that the intent is to include mitigation or adaptation in relation to, for example, land-cover changes, except perhaps as these changes result from or affect climate change.
• Under Goal 3 (Sustained Assessments) the document states that the “USGCRP is required by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 to conduct a National Climate Assessment” (L.2417-2419). However, the language of the Act clearly requires a periodic assessment of trends and effects of global change, not only of climate change.
• Box 3 on species’ range shifts states that “global change” is driving the shifts of hardwood trees up mountains, when in fact it is specifically rising temperature regimes that are driving upward elevational shifts of most mountain species. Likewise, in Textbox 6, long-term observed changes are stated to be due to “global change,” when in fact all of the examples listed are responses either to climatic changes or to increased atmospheric CO2 directly and not to the multitude of other global change factors.
On scientific grounds alone, a broadly-focused global change research program that fully meets the mandate of the GCRA is more appropriate than a research program focused more narrowly on climate change alone. For example, the global hydrological cycle is under stress, but at present climate change is arguably not the most important stressor. Widespread land use changes and pollution associated with population increases, urbanization, and industrialization, as well as the drilling of wells, and the construction of dams, irrigation systems, and other water projects may be more important. As another example – human activity has dramatically altered the planet’s nitrogen cycle, not through climate change but primarily through the transformation of atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizers for agricultural use.