7 Assessing Progress in Climate Science
What are the substantive differences between the IPCC Reports and the Summaries?
What are the specific areas of science that need to be studied further, in order of priority, to advance our understanding of climate change?
The committee was asked to address these two questions. The first involved evaluating the IPCC Working Group I report and summaries in order to identify how the summaries differ from the report. The second question involved characterizing areas of uncertainty in scientific knowledge concerning climate change, and identifying the research areas that will advance the understanding of climate change.
INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE
The full text of the IPCC Third Assessment Report on The Scientific Basis represents a valuable effort by U.S. and international scientists in identifying and assessing much of the extensive research going on in climate science. The body of the WGI report is scientifically credible and is not unlike what would be produced by a comparable group of only U.S. scientists working with a similar set of emission scenarios, with perhaps some normal differences in scientific tone and emphasis.
However, because the IPCC reports are generally invoked as the authoritative basis for policy discussions on climate change, we should critically evaluate this effort so that we can offer suggestions for improvement. The goal is a stronger IPCC that will lead to better definitions of the nature of remaining problems, a clarity in expressing both robust conclusions and uncertainties, and thus aid achievement of the best possible policy decisions. We must also consider options for an improved process, given the enormous and growing investment required by individual scientists to produce this assessment. Three important issues directed to this goal are described below.
The IPCC Summary for Policy Makers
The IPCC WGI Summary for Policymakers (SPM) serves an obviously different purpose than the scientific working group reports. When one is condensing 1,000 pages into 20 pages with a different purpose in mind, we would expect the text to contain some modifications. After analysis, the committee finds that the conclusions presented in the SPM and the Technical Summary (TS) are consistent with the main body of the report. There are, however, differences. The primary differences reflect the manner in which uncertainties are communicated in the SPM. The SPM frequently uses terms (e.g., likely, very likely, unlikely) that convey levels of uncertainty; however, the text less frequently includes either their basis or caveats. This difference is perhaps understandable in terms of a process in which the SPM attempts to underline the major areas of concern associated with a human-induced climate change. However, a thorough understanding of the uncertainties is essential to the development of good policy decisions.
Climate projections will always be far from perfect. Confidence limits and probabilistic information, with their basis, should always be considered as an integral part of the information that climate scientists provide to policy and decision makers. Without them, the IPCC SPM could give an impression that the science of global warming is “settled,” even though many uncertainties still remain. The emission scenarios used by the IPCC provide a good example. Human decisions will almost certainly alter emissions over the next century. Because we cannot predict either the course of
human populations, technology, or societal transitions with any clarity, the actual greenhouse gas emissions could be either greater or less than the IPCC scenarios. Without an understanding of the sources and degree of uncertainty, decision makers could fail to define the best ways to deal with the serious issue of global warming.
Modification of the Scientific Text After Completion of the SPM
The SPM results from a discussion between the lead authors and government representatives (including also some non-governmental organizations and industry representatives). This discussion, combined with the requirement for consistency, results in some modifications of the text, all of which were carefully documented by the IPCC. This process has resulted in some concern that the scientific basis for the SPM might be altered. To assess this potential problem, the committee solicited written responses from U.S. coordinating lead authors and lead authors of IPCC chapters, reviewed the WGI draft report and summaries, and interviewed Dr. Daniel Albritton who served as a coordinating lead author for the IPCC WGI Technical Summary. Based on this analysis, the committee finds that no changes were made without the consent of the convening lead authors and that most changes that did occur lacked significant impact. However, some scientists may find fault with some of the technical details, especially if they appear to underestimate uncertainty. The SPM is accompanied by the more representative Technical Summary (TS). The SPM contains cross-references to the full text, which unfortunately is not accessible until a later date, but it does not cross-reference the accompanying TS.
The IPCC as Representative of the Science Community
The IPCC process demands a significant time commitment by members of the scientific community. As a result, many climate scientists in the United States and elsewhere choose not to participate at the level of a lead author even after being invited. Some take on less time-consuming roles as contributing authors or reviewers. Others choose not to participate. This may present a potential problem for the future. As the commitment to the assessment process continues to grow, this could create a form of self-selection for the participants. In such a case, the community of world climate scientists may develop cadres with particularly strong feelings about the outcome: some as favorable to the IPCC and its procedures and others negative about the use of the IPCC as a policy instrument. Alternative procedures are needed to ensure that participation in the work of the IPCC does not come at the expense of an individual's scientific career.
In addition, the preparation of the SPM involves both sci-enlists and governmental representatives. Governmental representatives are more likely to be tied to specific government postures with regard to treaties, emission controls, and other policy instruments. If scientific participation in the future becomes less representative and governmental representatives are tied to specific postures, then there is a risk that future IPCC efforts will not be viewed as independent processes.
The United States should promote actions that improve the IPCC process while also ensuring that its strengths are maintained. The most valuable contribution U.S. scientists can make is to continually question basic assumptions and conclusions, promote clear and careful appraisal and presentation of the uncertainties about climate change as well as those areas in which science is leading to robust conclusions, and work toward a significant improvement in the ability to project the future. In the process, we will better define the nature of the problems and ensure that the best possible information is available for policy makers.
The underlying scientific issues that have been discussed in this report and the research priorities that they define have evolved over time. For this reason, many have been identified previously in NRC reports. 1
Predictions of global climate change will require major advances in understanding and modeling of (1) the factors that determine atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols and (2) the so called “feedbacks” that determine the sensitivity of the climate system to a prescribed increase in greenhouse gases. Specifically, this will involve reducing uncertainty regarding: (a) future usage of fossil fuels, (b) future emissions of methane, (c) the fraction of the future fossil fuel carbon that will remain in the atmosphere and provide radiative forcing versus exchange with the oceans or net exchange with the land biosphere, (d) the feedbacks in the climate system that determine both the magnitude of the change and the rate of energy uptake by the oceans, which together determine the magnitude and time history of the temperature increases for a given radiative forcing, (e) the details of the regional and local climate change consequent to an overall level of global climate change, (f) the nature and causes of the natural variability of climate and its interactions with forced changes, and (g) the direct and indirect effects of the changing distributions of aerosol. Because the total change in radiative forcing from
1Decade-to-Century-Scale Climate Variability and Change: A Science Strategy, 1998; The Atmospheric Sciences Entering the Twenty-First Century, 1998; Adequacy of Climate Observing Systems, 1999; Global Environmental Change: Research Pathways for the Next Decade, 1999; Improving the Effectiveness of U.S. Climate Modeling, 2001; The Science of Regional and Global Change: Putting Knowledge to Work, 2001.
other greenhouse gases over the last century has been nearly as large as that of carbon dioxide, their future evolution also must be addressed. At the heart of this is basic research, which allows for creative discoveries about those elements of the climate system that have not yet been identified, or studied.
Knowledge of the climate system and projections about the future climate are derived from fundamental physics and chemistry through models and observations of the atmosphere and the climate system. Climate models are built using the best scientific knowledge of the processes that operate within the climate system, which in turn are based on observations of these systems. A major limitation of these model forecasts for use around the world is the paucity of data available to evaluate the ability of coupled models to simulate important aspects of past climate. In addition, the observing system available today is a composite of observations that neither provide the information nor the continuity in the data needed to support measurements of climate variables. Therefore, above all, it is essential to ensure the existence of a long-term observing system that provides a more definitive observational foundation to evaluate decadal- to century-scale variability and change. This observing system must include observations of key state variables such as temperature, precipitation, humidity, pressure, clouds, sea ice and snow cover, sea level, sea-surface temperature, carbon fluxes and soil moisture. Additionally, more comprehensive regional measurements of greenhouse gases would provide critical information about their local and regional source strengths.
Climate observations and modeling are becoming increasingly important for a wide segment of society including water resource managers, public health officials, agribusinesses, energy providers, forest managers, insurance companies, and city planners. In order to address the consequences of climate change and better serve the nation's decision makers, the research enterprise dealing with environmental change and environment-society interactions must be enhanced. This includes support of (a) interdisciplinary research that couples physical, chemical, biological, and human systems, (b) improved capability of integrate scientific knowledge, including its uncertainty, into effective decision support systems, and (c) an ability to conduct research at the regional or sectoral level that promotes analysis of the response of human and natural systems to multiple stresses.
Climate research is presently overseen by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). A number of NRC reports 2 have concluded that this collection of agencies is hampered organizationally in its ability to address the major climate problems. The ability of the United States to assess future climate change is severely limited by the lack of a climate observing system, by inadequate computational resources, and by the general inability of government to focus resources on climate problems. Efforts are needed to ensure that U.S. efforts in climate research are supported and managed to ensure innovation, effectiveness, and efficiency. These issues have been addressed by NRC reports, but more examination is needed.
2Global Environmental Change: Research Pathways for the Next Decade, 1999; Improving the Effectiveness of U.S. Climate Modeling, 2001; The Science of Regional and Global Change: Putting Knowledge to Work, 2001