Recommendations for Meeting the Challenge of Climate Change Research
Meeting the diverse information needs of decision makers as they seek to understand and address climate change is a formidable challenge. The research needs and cross-cutting themes discussed in Chapter 4 (and listed in Box 4.1) argue for a new kind of climate change science enterprise, one that builds on the strengths of existing activities and
Focuses not only on improving understanding, but helps to inform solutions for problems at local, regional, national, and global levels;
Integrates diverse kinds of knowledge and explicitly engages the social, ecological, physical, health, and engineering sciences;
Emphasizes coupled human-environment systems rather than individual human or environmental systems in isolation;
Evaluates the implications of particular choices across sectors and scales so as to maximize co-benefits, avoid unintended consequences, and understand net effects across different areas of decision making;
Develops and employs decision-support resources and tools that make scientific knowledge useful and accessible to decision makers;
Focuses, where appropriate, on place-based analyses to support decision making in specific locations or regions, because the dynamics of both human and environmental systems play out in different ways in different places and decisions must be context-specific; and
Supports adaptive decision making and risk management in the face of inevitable uncertainty by remaining flexible and adaptive and regularly assessing and updating research priorities.
These points, and the discussion in the preceding chapters, lead to the following conclusion.
Conclusion 2: The nation needs a comprehensive and integrative climate change science enterprise, one that not only contributes to our fundamental understanding of climate change but also informs and expands America’s climate choices.
This comprehensive, integrative program of science will need to continue current research but also engage in new research themes and directions, including research in the physical, social, ecological, environmental, health, and engineering sciences, as well as research that integrates these and other disciplines. Creating and implementing this more integrated and decision-relevant scientific enterprise will require fundamental changes in the way that research efforts are organized, the way research priorities are set, the way research is linked with decision making across a broad range of scales, the way the federal scientific program interfaces and partners with other entities, and the way that infrastructural assets and human capital are developed and maintained. This chapter examines some of the steps that will be needed to implement this new era of climate change research.
AN INTEGRATIVE, INTERDISCIPLINARY, AND DECISION-RELEVANT RESEARCH PROGRAM
Climate change research efforts that address the seven crosscutting themes described in Chapter 4 have several important distinguishing characteristics.
Climate Change Research Needs to Be Integrative and Interdisciplinary
Climate change affects a wide range of human, ecological, and physical properties and processes, and it interacts in complex ways with other global and regional environmental changes. The response of human and environmental systems to this spectrum of changes is likewise complex. Given this complexity, understanding climate change, its impacts, and potential responses inherently requires integration of knowledge bases from different areas of the physical, biological, social, health, and engineering sciences. Science that supports effective responses to climate change also will require integration of information across spatial and temporal scales. For example, global-or regional-scale information about changes in the climate system often needs to be analyzed in the context of local data on economic activity, vulnerable assets and resources, human well-being, and other place-specific information. Climate change science in the coming decades will need to be more multi- and interdisciplinary and integrative than in the past.
In some ways, the call for cross-disciplinary and cross-scale integration is a step, albeit a large one, in a progression that has been under way in national and international climate science for quite some time. As described later in the chapter, a number of domestic and international scientific programs have organized the research community to focus on climate and other regional and global environmental changes. These
programs have played a critical role in establishing our present understanding. However, in general they have not been as successful in bridging the gaps between those who study the physical climate system; those who study the impacts of and responses to climate change in human, ecological, and coupled human-environment systems; and those who study the technical, economic, political, behavioral, and other aspects of various responses to climate change (ICSU-IGFA, 2009; NRC, 2009k). Moreover, a concerted effort is needed to increase the engagement of some disciplines, such as the social, behavioral, economic, decision, cognitive, and communication sciences.
Achieving better integration will require significant increases in interdisciplinary science capacity among scientists, managers, and decision makers. It will require changes in cultures within and actions across a range of institutions, including universities, government, the private sector, research institutes, professional societies, and other nongovernmental organizations, including the National Research Council. It will also require the creation of new institutions to facilitate the needed research at the appropriate scales and in appropriate contact with decision makers.
Climate Change Research Efforts Should Focus on Fundamental, Use-Inspired Research
This report recognizes the need for research to both understand climate changes and assist in decision making related to climate change. In categorizing types of scientific research, we have found that terms such as “pure,” “basic,” “applied,” and “curiosity driven” have different definitions across communities, are as likely to cause confusion as to advance consensus, and are of limited value in discussing climate change. A more compelling categorization is offered by Stokes (1997), who argues that two questions should be asked of a research topic: Does it contribute to fundamental understanding? Can it be expected to be useful? Research that can answer yes to both of these questions, or “fundamental, use-inspired research,” warrants special priority in a climate science enterprise that seeks to both increase understanding and assist in decision making. Research that addresses one or the other of Stoke’s questions, which describes the full range of scientific inquiry, is also valuable. Priority setting is discussed in further detail in the next section.
Climate Change Research Should Support Decision Making at Local, Regional, National, and International Levels
Although making choices about how to respond to climate change fundamentally involves values, ethics, and trade-offs, science can inform and guide such decisions.
In particular, science can help identify possible courses of action, evaluate the advantages and disadvantages associated with different choices (including trade-offs, unintended consequences, and co-benefits among different sets of actions), develop new options, and improve the options that are available. It can also assist in the development of new, more effective decision-making processes and tools. These goals require interactive processes that engage both scientists and decision makers to identify research topics and improve methods for linking scientific analysis with decision making. Active dialogue with stakeholders at local, regional, national, and international levels can also enhance the utility and credibility of, and support for, scientific research. Strategies, tools, and approaches for improving linkages between science and decision making are described in Chapter 4 and discussed in detail in the companion volume Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change (NRC, 2010b).
Climate Change Research Needs to Be a Flexible Enterprise, Able to Respond to Changing Knowledge Needs and Support Adaptive Risk Management and Iterative Decision Making
As climate change progresses, past climate conditions and human experiences will serve as less and less reliable guides for decision makers (see Chapter 3 and also NRC, 2009g). Even with continued advances in scientific understanding, projections of the future will always include some uncertainties. Moreover, because climate changes interact with so many resource and infrastructure decisions, from power plant design to crop planting dates, responses to climate change will need to be developed and implemented in the context of continuously evolving conditions. Furthermore, as actions are taken to limit the magnitude of future climate change and adapt to its impacts, decision makers will need to understand and take the effectiveness and unintended consequences of these actions into account.
As a direct result of these complexities and uncertainties, all responses to climate change, including the next generation of scientific research, will require deliberate “learning by doing.” Actions and strategies will need to be periodically evaluated and revised to take advantage of new information and knowledge, not only about climate and climate-related changes but also about the effectiveness of responses to date and about other changes in human and environmental systems. The nation’s scientific enterprise should support adaptive risk management (i.e., an ongoing decision-making process that takes known and potential risks and uncertainties into account and periodically updates and improves plans and strategies as new information becomes available—see Box 3.1) by monitoring climate change indicators, providing timely information about the effectiveness of actions taken to respond to climate risks, im-
proving the effectiveness of our responses over time, developing new responses, and continuing to build our understanding of climate change and its impacts. These tasks require flexible mechanisms for identifying and addressing new scientific challenges as they emerge and also ongoing interactions with decision makers as their needs change over time. Continued progress will also be needed in monitoring, projecting, and assessing climate change, especially abrupt changes and other “surprises”. Individually and collectively, these demands will require significant changes in the way research is funded, conducted, evaluated, and rewarded.
Recommendation 1: The nation’s climate change research enterprise should include and integrate disciplinary and interdisciplinary research across the physical, social, biological, health, and engineering sciences; focus on fundamental, use-inspired research that contributes to both improved understanding and more effective decision making; and be flexible in identifying and pursuing emerging research challenges.
Recommendation 1 calls for a broad, integrative research program to assist the nation in understanding climate change and in supporting well-crafted and coordinated opportunities to adapt to and limit the magnitude of climate change. In Chapter 4, seven crosscutting, integrative research themes were identified that would provide effective focal points for such a program:
Climate Forcings, Feedbacks, Responses, and Thresholds in the Earth System
Climate-Related Human Behaviors and Institutions
Vulnerability and Adaptation Analyses of Coupled Human-Environment Systems
Research to Support Strategies for Limiting Climate Change
Effective Information and Decision-Support Systems
Integrated Climate Observing Systems
Improved Projections, Analyses, and Assessments
Progress in these areas would advance the science of climate change in ways that are responsive to the nation’s needs for information, and progress in all seven themes is needed (either iteratively or concurrently) because they are synergistic. However, due to limits in capacity—for example, many of the key research needs are in fields that have not yet been fully incorporated into or developed within the nation’s climate change science enterprise—and in financial resources, priorities will ultimately need to be set within these themes, and perhaps also across them.
Setting priorities has been and will continue to be a critical part of the scientific process. Priority setting can be accomplished via community-based long-range planning mechanisms, national and international assessments and advisory reports, federal agency and interagency advisory and strategy planning processes, and federal budget development processes. Indeed, the U.S. federal government has already developed and established legislation, policies, and practices for developing climate and global change research budgets and priorities (for example, see Appendix E for a description of some of the USGCRP’s past and current priority-setting practices).
Given these detailed, well-established processes, this panel can contribute to priority setting only at a comparably coarse level—for example, by suggesting the high-level research themes discussed in Chapter 4. The development of more comprehensive, exhaustive, and prioritized lists of specific research needs within each theme will need to involve members of the relevant research communities. It is critical, however, that priority setting also include the perspective of societal need, which necessitates input from decision makers and other stakeholders. Implementation of such priority-setting activities will further require the establishment of agreed-upon priority-setting criteria, strong leadership of and support for the research program, and new mechanisms for stakeholder input.
The establishment of criteria by which prospective priorities should be evaluated is critical for effective priority setting. There have been a number of efforts to establish priority-setting criteria for climate-related research (see, e.g., NRC, 2005a, 2009k). Drawing on these analyses, we identify the following three main criteria for setting research priorities for the nation’s climate change research enterprise, including (but not limited to) the entity or program responsible for coordinating and implementing research at the federal level (see Recommendation 5 later in this chapter). The numbering of these criteria do not imply relative importance; rather, it is important to consider all three criteria. Bulleted points after each criterion are ways of thinking about priorities in the context of that criterion, not separate criteria.
1. Contribution to fundamental understanding
Addresses key theoretical, observational, process, or modeling uncertainties;
Adds new information to important scientific debates; and/or
Extends research to understudied areas and questions.
2. Contribution to improved decision making
Addresses topics that have been identified as decision-maker needs or that are key to the nation’s economic vitality, its security, or the well-being of its citizens;
Provides scientific foundations for new solutions or options, especially those that have co-benefits for other environmental or socioeconomic challenges;
Contributes useful results that can be communicated effectively to decision makers and affected parties or have the potential to establish ongoing dialogue between researchers and users of scientific information; and/or
Supports risk assessment and management by improving projections or predictions, providing information on probabilities, clarifying societal consequences of key outcomes, or creating decision-support resources.
3. Feasibility of implementation (practical, institutional, and managerial concerns)
Is ready for implementation (infrastructure, personnel, and facilities are available or could be available to execute the research);
Will provide usable results on time scales relevant for decision making or improved understanding;
Contributes to more than one application or scientific discipline; and/or
Is cost effective (anticipated outcomes or value of information generated by the activity is sufficient to justify both financial and opportunity costs).
The climate change research program envisioned by the Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change and encapsulated by these criteria focuses on fundamental, use-inspired research that increases understanding and supports decision making. To develop research that is both fundamental and useful, assessments of research priorities will need to engage both the scientific community and those who will make use of new scientific understanding in decision making, ideally through interactive and ongoing dialogues. A multidirectional flow of information between the decision-making and research communities helps decision makers understand the uses and limits of scientific information and helps the scientific community understand what information and innovations would be most useful to decision makers. This should not be a process in which decision makers have undue influence on the conduct of science or scientific conclusions. Rather, our vision is one of ongoing dialogues that lead to better understanding and improved collaboration. Interactions between decision makers and scientists have the additional benefits of enhancing the trust decision makers place in the scientific process and ensuring that researchers use actual input from decision makers, rather than educated guesswork, to help identify and prioritize research topics.
The research program envisioned in this report involves a broad range of scientific disciplines, including multi- and interdisciplinary science. Identifying and setting research priorities across such a broad and diverse range of scientific activities is much more challenging than priority setting within individual disciplines, which usually share common practices, understandings, and language. Working across areas of research where no unified community has yet been assembled represents an additional challenge, one that requires both careful sampling of views across communities and time to develop mutual understanding.
Because the costs associated with the different climate change research themes described in Chapter 3 are likely to vary by several orders of magnitude, appropriate ranking requires an understanding of the budget constraints agencies will face as well as the benefits that could potentially be realized. As discussed in the preceding recommendation, climate change research should be a flexible and adaptive enterprise, so priorities, and priority-setting criteria and processes, need to be revisited regularly. In addition to changing knowledge needs, advances in methodology or research technology can also motivate a reassessment of priorities in the context of evolving environmental conditions, changing budgets, and other variables that inform research agendas. Given that both climate change and responses to it are ongoing, and that they interact with each other as well as with other changes, such reassessments will be a key element of a healthy research program.
Recommendation 2: Research priorities for the federal climate change research program should be set within each of the seven crosscutting research themes outlined above. Priorities should be set using the following three criteria:
Contribution to improved understanding;
Contribution to improved decision making; and
Feasibility of implementation, including scientific readiness and cost.
INFRASTRUCTURAL ELEMENTS OF THE RESEARCH PROGRAM
Scientific progress in measuring climate change, attributing it to human activities, projecting future changes, and informing decisions about how to respond has and will continue to rely on significant investments in a wide range of global observational programs and modeling efforts. As noted in Chapter 4, these efforts are limited in part by infrastructure, especially the lack of a comprehensive, integrated climate observing system and of reliable, detailed projections of climate and climate-related changes at regional and local scales. Because these infrastructural areas underpin progress in virtually all other areas of climate change science, we have identified observations and
modeling as critical themes in climate science research, and below we offer specific recommendations related to these key themes. Many previous reviews of climate science needs (e.g., NRC, 2009k) have also highlighted observations and models as key research needs.
As discussed in Chapter 4, long-term, stable, and well-calibrated observations across a range of scales and a spectrum of human and environmental systems are essential for diagnosing, understanding, and responding to climate change and its impacts. Observations provide ongoing information about the health of the planet and clues about which components of the Earth system are at risk due to climate change and other environmental stressors. Observations are also critical for developing, initializing, and testing models of future human and environmental changes, and for monitoring and improving the effectiveness of actions taken to respond to climate change. Unfortunately, many of the critical observational assets needed to support climate research and climate change responses are either in decline or seriously underdeveloped, and the data that are being collected are not always managed as effectively or used as widely as they could be. A number of specific steps are needed to rectify this situation and develop a coordinated, comprehensive, and integrated climate observing system.
A Careful, Comprehensive Review Should Be Undertaken to Identify Current and Planned Observational Assets and Identify Critical Climate Monitoring and Measurement Needs
An observing system strategy for the new era of climate change research will need to consider not only existing and planned assets, which have largely been developed by the scientific community without much input from decision makers, but also the observations needed to support effective responses to climate change. In considering available resources and data sources, federal programs should work with international partners to identify opportunities for collaboration, leveraging, and synergy with observational systems in other countries. A special effort should be made to evaluate observations and databases from areas that have historically been neglected. Where possible, the review should consider assets in the intelligence community that could serve scientific purposes without compromising national security interests. Finally, the climate observing system should be coordinated with other environmental and social data collection efforts to take advantage of synergies and ensure interoperability.
The federal climate change research program (see Recommendation 5) is the entity
best suited to lead a comprehensive assessment of current and planned observational assets and needs in support of climate research. However, the research community will need to work closely with a broad range of responsible entities and stakeholders, including programs for adapting to, limiting the magnitude of, and supporting effective decisions related to climate change, to ensure that the scope and structure of the observing system can support both fundamental research on and responses to climate change. Such partnerships are critical in light of the costs of creating and maintaining a comprehensive and long-term observing system. As the recent problems with NPOESS have demonstrated (NRC, 2008d), planning for climate observations will require clearly defined roles and responsibilities of the partners and a systems approach to the design of the overall architecture of the observing system.
A Comprehensive and Integrated Climate Observing System Should Be Developed, Built, and Maintained by the Federal Program and Relevant National and International Partners
The climate observing system should be able to monitor a broad spectrum of changes, including changes in the physical climate system (such as sea level rise, sea ice declines, and soil moisture changes); changes in related biological systems (such as species shifts and changes in crop yield or the amount of carbon stored in forests); the impacts of these changes on human systems (including human health and economic impacts); trends in human systems (such as human population and consumption changes and GHG emission trends); indicators of climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity across a range of sectors and spatial scales; and indicators of the effectiveness of actions taken to limit the magnitude of climate change and adapt to its impacts. In addition to a robust and flexible network of remote and in situ assets to monitor physical, chemical, and biological changes, observations and data sets from a wide range of human systems are needed. Observations of emission trends and the effectiveness of various climate policies and action plans are particularly important for informing actions taken to limit the magnitude of future climate change, while observations of climate change impacts at regional to local scales are particularly important for informing adaptation decisions.
The observing system, like other research activities and responses to climate change, should be integrated and flexible, and it should support adaptive risk management and decision making. For example, although observational assets with long-term and global coverage will play a critical role in monitoring climate change, its impacts, and our responses to it, we may also need easily deployable short-term observational technologies to monitor potential abrupt changes or important regional trends. The
observing system should also be designed both to take advantage of advances in technology and to explicitly support adaptive risk management and decision making. External advisory boards, user councils, and other formal and informal stakeholder groups (see Recommendation 5) can play an important role in ensuring that the observing system is supplying the information required by stakeholders.
Adequate Climate Data Access, Management, and Stewardship Are Needed
Linking, integrating, and providing access to data of dramatically different types and scales will call for new and improved approaches and standards for climate and climate-related data management, including data collection, storage, and stewardship. To ensure a stable, long-term record of climate and climate-related changes, funding for data-generating activities should always include resources for long-term data management (NRC, 2007d). An equally important activity, described in further detail in Chapter 4, is the integration of data from different sources through data assimilation, analysis, and reanalysis. Finally, the system should allow ready access to data by a wide range of users, including decision makers. This will require the federal climate change program to work closely with programs involved in informing and supporting effective responses to climate change.
Recommendation 3: The federal climate change research program, working in partnership with other relevant domestic and international bodies, should redouble efforts to design, deploy, and maintain a comprehensive observing system that can support all aspects of understanding and responding to climate change.
Enhanced Modeling Capabilities and Other Analytical Tools
Improved predictions and scenarios of future climate change, its impacts, and related changes in ecosystems and human systems are critical for understanding and guiding plans to respond to climate, many of which require local- or regional-scale information at decadal time scales. As discussed in Chapters 4 and 6, great strides have been made in improving the spatial resolution, comprehensiveness, and fidelity of global climate and Earth system models. However, improvements are still needed in the ability of climate models to represent key climate feedback processes (such as the carbon cycle and changes in ice sheets) and to resolve and simulate the physical processes, interactions, and feedbacks that govern climate change at regional scales. Another emerging research need is integrated assessment models that can connect emissions projec-
tions, GHG concentrations, climate trends, and the social, economic, and environmental impacts of these trends on human and environmental systems. Other kinds of assessment tools and models, including those that allow integrated analysis of trade-offs and unintended consequences among combinations of actions or across different sectors, would also be valuable both to improve understanding and to support climate-related decision making. Chapter 4 includes a more extended description of these and other research needs related to improved projections, analyses, and assessments.
As noted in Chapter 4, and in many previous reports (e.g., NRC, 2009k), a national strategy is needed to improve (and to coordinate existing efforts to improve) regional climate modeling, global Earth system modeling, and various integrated assessment, vulnerability, impact, and adaptation modeling efforts. Developing improved models and analytical tools is strongly dependent on the availability of high-performance computing capacity as well as the infrastructure and human resources needed to develop, manage, analyze, and improve modeling approaches. The output from such models needs to be made readily available to a wide range of decision makers in formats that allow them to incorporate model analyses and projections into their decision-making processes. As with the integrated climate observing system—and perhaps more so, given the highly technical and interdisciplinary nature of many model development activities—the federal climate change research program is the logical entity for coordinating and integrating these development efforts. Input and buy-in will be needed from its partner agencies, action-oriented response programs, and other stakeholders. Likewise, international coordination and leveraging will be vital.
Recommendation 4: The federal climate change research program should work with the international research community and other relevant partners to support and develop advanced models and other analytical tools to improve understanding and assist in decision making related to climate change.
ORGANIZING THE RESEARCH
A research effort that can improve understanding of and support effective responses to climate change across a broad range of scales will require the engagement of universities, professional societies, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and governments at many levels, including international partners. To date, the federal government, under the auspices of the USGCRP, has played a leadership role in the nation’s climate change research enterprise. This section summarizes the history, structure, and current goals of the USGCRP, evaluates its capacity to carry out the seven research themes identified in Chapter 4, and recommends elements that would be
needed for the USGCRP, or another federal entity, to lead and coordinate the nation’s climate change research efforts. Additional background on the history and organization of the USGCRP can be found in Appendix E.
Evaluation of the U.S. Global Change Research Program
Congress established the USGCRP with the U.S. Global Change Research Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-606, Title 15, Chapter 56A). The act set the objective of “assist[ing] the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change systems.” With federal support ranging from $2.2 billion in 1990 (in 2008 dollars) to $1.8 billion in 2008, the USGCRP1 has made enormous contributions to the understanding of climate change over the past two decades, including a considerable fraction of the advances summarized in Chapter 2 (see, e.g., USGCRP, 2009b).
There have been a wide range of assessments, observations, and reviews of the USGCRP, including mandated formal reviews by the NRC (1999a, 2003a, 2004b, 2005e, 2007f, 2009k) and assessments and observations by other groups (e.g., the Congressional Research Service). Most of these reviews have praised the USGCRP for its support and facilitation of major advances in our understanding of the natural science aspects of global change, including the physical climate system, atmospheric chemistry, hydrology, and ecosystems, and also for supporting national and international scientific assessments. Earlier reviews of the program also noted significant progress in establishing a comprehensive and inclusive national climate change assessment process and in providing strategic guidance that promoted major advances in observations and modeling, although later reviews have noted a decline in the support for and effectiveness of these activities.
One persistent area of criticism has been the scope and balance of the program. In its early years, the primary research emphasis of USGCRP was on the physical climate system. The program has consistently aspired to call increasing attention to human interactions with the Earth’s climate and other environmental systems, but these aspirations have for the most part fallen short (NRC, 2007f). Another persistent criticism has focused on decision support, including progress in decision-support science and whether the program has lived up to its mandate of providing useful information for decision making (NRC, 2007f, 2009k). Identified reasons for these shortcomings include a lack of consistent and adequate funding and institutional support for fundamental
and applied research in the social sciences and a lack of adequate integration across scientific disciplines. Moreover, the failure to follow through with periodic, comprehensive national climate change assessments weakened the program’s ability to build a consistent and sustainable relationship with stakeholders. Other troubling signs include a decline in congressional oversight of and interest in the program—measured, for example, by the number of hearings convened to review aspects of the program—and an overall decline of 18 percent (in constant 2008 dollars) in program funding from 1990 to the present (NRC, 2007f, 2009k).
Past NRC reviews have also pointed out weaknesses in the program’s structure and institutional processes. For example, the program has relied on individual federal agencies to identify and engage in areas of climate change research aligned with their missions, with only a few, typically episodic and informal, mechanisms for supporting research in areas that do not map onto agency missions. One result of this “stove-piping” has been uneven progress, with some research elements receiving significant funding and making excellent progress, while other research areas—including those associated with several of the crosscutting themes identified in Chapter 4—receiving much less attention. Moreover, without strong coordination, leadership, and buy-in from the full range of federal agencies affected by climate change, the program has been limited in its ability to support the evolving needs for climate science, including research that could support more effective responses to climate change. Additionally, as discussed in the next section of the chapter, the activities of the USGCRP have not been very well coordinated with the Climate Change Technology Program (NRC, 2007f, 2009k) or with preliminary efforts to establish mechanisms to provide “climate services.”
Needs for the Climate Change Research Program of the Future
The USGCRP currently involves 13 federal departments and agencies, and many of these organizations have several different agencies or groups active in climate change research. This scope of engagement is essential given the broad range of public interests that will be affected by climate change. However, this broad scope and inconsistencies between the mandates of the Global Change Research Act and the narrower missions of the participating agencies create a difficult and complex management environment. For example, as noted in the previous subsection, gaps between agency missions have led to weaknesses and gaps in certain research areas. Furthermore, progress on several key crosscutting issues, such as maintaining and improving climate-related observational programs, have suffered from a lack of leadership and coordination (e.g., NRC, 2008d). Thus, it is not clear that the USGCRP as presently con-
stituted can adequately address the full set of research challenges posed by current demands for climate change research.
How then might the federal climate change research effort be structured to meet these new challenges? The Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change considered several alternatives, each with its strengths and weaknesses. One model is to create a new office or agency that aggregates all federal climate change research into one organizational structure. This harkens to the call in the 1990s for a National Institute of the Environment to be the home for all federal environmental research. An NRC report examined this proposal and saw several problems with as well as several advantages to this approach (NRC, 1993). For example, a consolidated aproach would improve cross-agency coordination and planning, while a more distributed responsibility for environmental research leads to improved linkages between researchers and decision makers. The report called for “cultural changes” in the practice of environmental research in the federal government, including greater engagement of the ecological, social, and engineering sciences. It also considered several options for organizing these changes and suggested that the best immediate step would be to retain the multiagency support of environmental research but with better coordination and attention to neglected priorities, rather than consolidate research into a single agency.
For climate change research, a consolidated agency would facilitate coordination and allow for priority setting based on a systematic analysis, such as the seven research themes identified in Chapter 4. Neglected high-priority areas could thus be allocated the resources needed to move them forward. Decision makers and the public would also have a single entity to consult on climate change. However, there are many disadvantages to consolidation, and those may outweigh its benefits. First, given the many challenges facing the federal government at present, it is unlikely that a proposal to create a new agency that would pull current research functions out of existing agencies could reach an actionable level on the federal agenda. Second, one of the strengths of the USGCRP is that it encourages engagement by multiple agencies and, thus, has been able to adapt relatively easily as concerns about and needs for scientific understanding of climate change have spread to affect the missions of more and more agencies. This trend is likely to continue, especially as more agencies are involved in efforts to respond to climate change. Openness to new partnerships, which is a strength of the current USGCRP, would likely be reduced with the creation of a new agency. In addition, a single agency would be limited in its ability to draw on the strengths of the non-USGCRP components of currently participating agencies. For example, NASA’s Earth science activities benefit significantly from their integration with other complementary aspects of NASA’s portfolio. These benefits could be significantly compromised if the Earth science activity were moved from NASA to another entity.
While there are surely other alternative arrangements for organizing federal climate research, the main alternative to a consolidated agency is some sort of interagency program, ideally one that retains the current and historical strengths of the USGCRP while addressing its known weaknesses. The major advantage of the continuance of the USGCRP in this coordinating role is that the program already exists and has the legal authority and mandate to engage in a cross-agency research program. In fact, a careful reading of the Global Change Research Act of 1990 indicates that the program was intended to accomplish many of the goals identified in this report. The main disadvantages of a continuation of the USGCRP are the weaknesses highlighted in the previous subsection. Hence, provided that these weaknesses can be addressed, the panel finds that a modified USGCRP could serve the role of leading and coordinating an integrated, decision-relevant, and expanded climate change research enterprise that continues to pursue an enhanced understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change while also improving understanding of and support for responses to climate change. Indeed, as of the writing of this report, the USGCRP is already engaging in a strategic planning process to address the weaknesses and pursue the opportunities identified in past reviews of the program. The next two subsections describe ways in which the current program might be reshaped to better meet the challenges of the new era of climate change research while maintaining its existing strengths.
Improving the Relevance of the USGCRP to Decision Making
A common finding among many past reports (for example, NRC, 2007a, 2008b, 2009g), and this one, is that improving the relevance and utility of scientific research and infusing scientific information into the decision-making process require increased dialogue and engagement between scientists and decision makers. Several mechanisms help connect scientific and decision-making entities in the context of the USGCRP. For example, the USGCRP could establish an external advisory board to provide input on research needs, to review and provide advice on research priorities, and to guide activities designed to enhance communication and interactions with the broader stakeholder community. An external advisory board would help to ensure that priorities for research are informed by and responsive to the needs of decision makers and other information users, and it could assess and improve the program’s decision-support capabilities. If established, such a board should be composed of decision makers and stakeholders from a broad range of communities (e.g., leaders in state, local, and tribal governments; relevant businesses and industries; citizen groups; and other non-governmental organizations), including communities that are currently not strongly
linked with the program, as well as members from across the scientific research community.
Mechanisms should also be developed for regular interaction between users and researchers at the individual research project level. A number of federal agencies have already taken steps to increase such engagement, but more comprehensive and coordinated efforts are needed. For example, “user councils” focusing on a particular type of decision or research area could help researchers understand the questions that are most critical for decision makers and other stakeholders, help users understand the information that science can and cannot provide, and assist in the development of enhanced decision-support processes and tools. Workshops and dialogues, such as the “listening sessions” USGCRP has held at various venues across the country, are also a valuable contribution.
There are two important caveats that need to be kept in mind when designing and implementing strategies to increase interactions between the research community and its stakeholders. First, and most important, interactions between users and producers of scientific information should always preserve the integrity of the research process in reaching factual conclusions. Second, input from stakeholders needs to be considered in the context of the tractability of the proposed research and the resources required, and mechanisms are needed to ensure that the scientific enterprise is not totally dominated by near-term decision-support activities.
Next Steps for the USGCRP
A careful reading of the Global Change Research Act indicates that the legislation provides most of the necessary authority for implementing a strategically integrated climate change research program (see Appendix E). The act envisions a program that covers the full spectrum of activities from understanding climate change and its interactions with other global changes and stresses through developing and improving responses to these changes. The act also mandates research that is closely aligned with decision-making needs, including decisions related to the nation’s energy, natural resources, and public policy programs.
The USGCRP has achieved many of the original goals of the act. However, as discussed above, in other areas some critical weaknesses and shortcomings have emerged. As the climate research program expands to include a greater emphasis on use-inspired and decision-relevant research, additional gaps and barriers are likely to arise unless steps are taken to address these deficiencies and help the program evolve. Some of the specific changes that are needed include
Setting priorities more effectively and transparently using clear criteria and evaluative information on program performance;
Promoting a closer connection between research and decision making by engaging a broader range of federal agencies whose stakeholders and mandates will be affected by climate change and by establishing mechanisms for sustained engagement of users in program decision making;
Addressing known weaknesses in the program, including development of decision-support resources and engagement of the social and behavioral sciences;
Fostering integration through targeted research funding opportunities, decision-relevant interdisciplinary research centers, and other means that build on established capacity in universities, national laboratories, and the private sector; and
Strengthening budget coordination and management to ensure the research activities of participating agencies are sufficiently focused on USGCRP priorities.
As a first step toward developing a more comprehensive and integrated program, a program-level effort could be initiated to identify, recruit, and leverage new partner agencies, including some that have not participated heretofore in climate change issues, and to expand participation by current partner agencies. For example, programs within the Departments of Agriculture or Interior that are responsible for protected lands, national parks, conservation reserves, and activities such as agricultural extension or water resources management have not been very active players in the USGCRP to date, yet they are in the process of developing responses to climate change because their missions will be directly affected by it. Such agencies and programs could play important roles in improving understanding of climate impacts and vulnerabilities and in formulating, evaluating, and improving response strategies. Data collection and research efforts performed by agencies and programs not specifically focused on climate change, such as those at the U.S. Census Bureau or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could likewise contribute substantially to our understanding of both climate change and its interactions with other human and environmental systems. The relative ease with which the USGCRP structure can integrate new agencies or departments is a key advantage over a single consolidated entity or agency. Likewise, some of the traditional research and mission agencies could be more actively involved in engaging with decision makers to help shape the program’s scientific agenda and ensure the results are used effectively.
Flexibility is a key advantage of the current USGCRP structure, but, as noted above, this organizational structure has also led to research gaps. One problem is that while the USGCRP might be able to reach agreement about research priorities, the budgets to
implement those priorities reside within the partner agencies, where climate change research needs compete with other agency priorities. To address this problem, mechanisms are needed to ensure that research priorities identified by USGCRP are given greater weight by participating agencies, and the USGCRP needs the budgetary authority to implement the priorities it identifies. Improved review and oversight mechanisms, such as coordinated reviews of participating agency budgets (as opposed to merely designating established agency activities as contributions to USGCRP), would help promote accountability and would assist in evaluations of how well the priorities identified by USGCRP are reflected in the programs and budget requests of the participating agencies. Mechanisms are also needed to ensure that critical areas of research that are currently underrepresented in federal agency activities receive appropriate attention. Finally—and perhaps most difficult—program managers need to have the authority, willingness, and capability to emphasize the interdisciplinary, decision-relevant science needed to both improve understanding and support effective responses to climate change. Changes to the Global Change Research Act or other mechanisms, such as an Executive Order or performance measures, may be appropriate means to implement these changes and strengthen the program’s budget coordination and alignment with identified research priorities.
Changes in the USGCRP will require strong leadership. The importance of effective leadership, with adequate support and programmatic and budgetary authority to coordinate and prioritize across agencies, has been recognized in a number of previous NRC reviews of the USGCRP (NRC, 2004b, 2005e, 2007f, 2009k). Such leadership will be essential for setting priorities and building a more balanced and integrative program, ensuring effective interactions between federal research activities and action-oriented programs (as discussed in the next section of the chapter) and executing the other recommendations in this report. One step that could be taken to improve program leadership could be achieved by assigning higher-level leaders within the partner agencies and organizations to be liaisons to the program. The assignment of senior-level, experienced program managers to staff the USGCRP coordination office could increase buy-in from the participating agencies; experienced staff will be needed to address program gaps and help lead interagency program prioritization and coordination. Effective guidance and budget review could be provided by organizations such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the units within the Office of Management and Budget responsible for USGCRP partner agencies.
As noted in the first two sections of the chapter, setting research priorities needs to be an ongoing, iterative process. Such adaptive management of the federal research program would be facilitated by regular strategic planning and reviews that address both specific research areas and the program as a whole. The USGCRP is already required to
conduct a strategic review and submit a new strategic plan every 3 years. While there have occasionally been delays in the process, these review and planning exercises have provided useful opportunities for the program to remain flexible and to support emerging priorities. A major focus of future reviews and other ongoing assessment activities within the program should be mapping the priorities, activities, and capabilities of participating agencies onto the goals of the overall research program to identify weaknesses and gaps. Identifying impediments and obstacles that may be contributing to these weaknesses and gaps would also help the program develop specific actions to address these shortcomings and build a more balanced and effective program.
Finally, it might be beneficial to coordinate future reviews of the nation’s climate change research program with reviews of the effectiveness of the nation’s overall response to climate change in terms of limiting climate change, developing adaptation approaches, and informing effective climate-related decisions. Because coordinated federal efforts to inform, limit, and adapt to climate change are still in early stages of development, it is difficult to offer suggestions as to how this coordination can be achieved, but attention to such coordination will be important (see also Recommendation 6).
Recommendation 5: A single federal entity should be given the authority and resources to coordinate and implement an integrated research effort that supports improving both understanding of and responses to climate change. If several key modifications are made, the U.S. Global Change Research Program could serve this role.
These modifications are described in the paragraphs above and include
An expanded mission that includes both understanding climate change and supporting effective decisions and actions taken to respond to climate change;
Establishing a wide range of activities and mechanisms to support two-way flows of information between science and decision making, including improved mechanisms for input from decision makers and other stakeholders on research priorities;
Establishing more effective mechanisms for identifying and addressing gaps and weaknesses in climate research, as well as the barriers that give rise to such gaps;
High-level leadership both within the program and among its partner agencies; and
Budgeting oversight and authority.
Climate change is both a global problem and a local problem, and its impacts have implications for and interact with nearly every sector of human activity, including energy and food production, water and other natural resources, human health, business and industrial activities, and, in turn, political stability and international security. Efforts to limit climate change are also inherently cross-sectoral and international in scope—national efforts to limit GHG emissions are connected by the global climate system, making it necessary for the United States to formulate and coordinate its strategies for reducing emissions in the context of international agreements and the actions of other nations. At the same time, many of the actions taken to limit or adapt to climate change ultimately play out at local and regional scales. Thus, the engagement of institutions at all levels and of all sorts—academic, governmental, private-sector, and not-for-profit—will be required to meet the challenges of climate change.
The scientific enterprise is also inherently local to global in scope—scientific contributions to understanding or responding to climate change appear in international journals, get assessed by international scientific bodies, and contribute to improved understanding and responses to climate change worldwide. The international research community has established a number of scientific programs to coordinate and facilitate international participation in global change research. Some of these programs and partnerships include the following:
The World Climate Research Program (WCRP) was established by the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the (nongovernmental) International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) in 1980 with the aim of determining the predictability of climate and the effect of human activities on climate.
ICSU established the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP) in 1987 to more broadly address global environmental changes and their interactions in the biosphere and physical Earth system.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 by WMO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to provide an international assessment of the science that all governments could use in negotiating an international approach to addressing climate change.
In 1990, in partnership with the International Social Science Council, ICSU established the International Human Dimensions Program (IHDP) to address the social science components of global change research.
In 1991, DIVERSITAS was established with the goal of developing an interna-
tional, nongovernmental umbrella program that would address the complex scientific questions posed by the loss of and change in global biodiversity. It was founded jointly by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment; and the International Union of Biological Science.
In 1992, the START (System for Analysis, Research and Training) Programme was formed jointly by ICSU and its four international global change science programs. START is designed to assist developing countries, through research and education, in building the expertise and knowledge they need to explore the drivers of and solutions to global and regional climate and environmental change.
In 2002, the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) was established in order to provide integrated studies of the Earth system. ESSP is a joint initiative of WCRP, IGBP, IHDP and DIVERSITAS.
The United States has been a key scientific contributor to all of these programs—the U.S. policy of making satellite data freely available around the world is just one example—and has also been a beneficiary of international research efforts. Since the early 1990s, the International Group of Funding Agencies for Global Change Research (IGFA) has provided a forum through which national agencies that fund global change research identify issues of mutual interest and look for appropriate ways to coordinate. Continued participation in these international activities will be crucial to an effective climate science enterprise in the United States. In particular, as noted in this report and others (e.g., NRC, 2009k), the science needs for improved climate observing systems and improved model projections of future climate change can best be met through collaborations and partnerships at the international scale. Moreover, climate change is a global challenge; impacts on ecosystems and societies span the globe and some of these impacts will cascade from one region to another. Climate change science conducted in the United States can thus play an essential role in improving the knowledge of and scientific capacity to respond to climate challenges in the developing areas of the world, where knowledge about possible responses to climate change is much more limited.
National and international coordination are essential, but decision-relevant research is often focused at regional and local scales. Thus, there are many opportunities for states, municipalities, and other subnational entities to work with each other and with the federal government to build expertise, fund relevant research and research infrastructure, and create the kinds of networks and partnerships that enable effective collaborations among the research and decision-making communities. For example,
research in many academic and nonacademic institutions is supported in part by state funds, including the system of agricultural experiment stations and targeted initiatives on water and other resources. Because so many climate change challenges play out at local to regional scales, new kinds of partnerships and programs will be needed to link federal and local research and response approaches and to make research useful to decision making at all scales. So-called “boundary organizations” that purposefully link researchers and decision makers provide one model for doing so (see, e.g., Brooke, 2008; Moser and Luers, 2008; Pohl, 2008; Tribbia and Moser, 2008). The Regional Integrated Science and Assessments (RISA) program and, until recently, the Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP) organized by NOAA are examples of such programs (NRC, 2007h). Examples can also be found in other countries (for example, the United Kingdom Climate Impacts Program). Shared funding and governance can help ensure such programs provide both effective decision support and decision-relevant research.
Partnerships with Programs to Limit, Adapt to, and Inform Decisions Makers About Climate Change
As discussed in Chapters 3 and 4, climate change science can make a wide variety of contributions to action-oriented programs that focus on responses to climate change. Working collaboratively with action-oriented programs, both at the federal level and across the country, would help response programs take more effective actions and would help the federal climate change research program ensure that its research activities support effective decision making, in addition to improving fundamental understanding. The recent NRC reports Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change (NRC, 2009k) and Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate (NRC, 2009g) also called for an integrated, “end-to-end” climate change research program that is closely linked with relevant action-oriented programs. Achieving this integration will require careful and deliberate coordination, perhaps through an oversight committee that coordinates all federal actions to understand and respond to climate change, or through less formal partnerships led by dedicated managers. In this panel’s opinion, formal mechanisms have a greater chance of long-term success.
Limiting Climate Change
As discussed in Chapter 4 and in the companion report Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change (NRC, 2010c), scientific research can help support actions taken to limit the magnitude of future climate change in a variety of ways. Some technol-
ogy options in the energy sector are already commercially viable and could be implemented to achieve emissions reductions in the near term. However, research and development are needed to improve implementation success, lower costs, increase the effectiveness of current options, and expand the number of options available. Expanded investments will be needed in a wide range of research areas, such as energy sources that emit few or no GHGs, carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency and conservation approaches (including strategies to promote adoption and use of energy-efficient technologies), and technologies to reduce emissions from agriculture and other land uses. Technologies that remove GHGs from the air or reflect more sunlight back to space (geoengineering approaches) may also warrant attention, provided that they do not replace other important research efforts (see Chapter 15).
A variety of research programs on transportation and energy technology development and deployment already exist in the federal government (for example and most notably, the Climate Change Technology Program led by the Department of Energy), in several states (e.g., California’s PIER program), in corporations, and through public-private partnerships such as corporate-funded university research efforts (NRC, 2009a,b,c,d). The climate change research enterprise envisioned in this report—including the USGCRP—would complement and build on these efforts. For example, research will be needed to evaluate the overall effectiveness of different technologies, possible unintended consequences of large-scale deployment, and possible tradeoffs and co-benefits with other types of responses. New scientific knowledge about human behavior, public perception, and institutional structures can help identify potential barriers to widespread implementation of promising technologies or policies to limit climate change. Research is also needed on a wide range of technology implementation and deployment issues, such as research on cost and cost effectiveness, governance issues, barriers to technology adoption, and policies and programs designed to overcome these barriers. Finally, research can help to develop frameworks for decision making that allow these barriers, costs, benefits, co-benefits, and trade-offs to be explicitly evaluated and incorporated into strategies for reducing emissions.
As noted in Chapter 4, an effective national research effort on limiting the magnitude of climate change will require integration of knowledge across a wide range of fields and collaboration with engineers, policy makers, and others involved in developing and implementing actions to limit climate change. However, collaboration and linkages between the USGCRP and existing programs relevant to limiting climate change—most notably the Climate Change Technology Program—are currently weak (NRC, 2009k). These linkages need to be improved, and any new programs that emerge to focus on limiting the magnitude of future climate change would surely benefit
from formal linkages to the USGCRP as well as other scientific research organizations, efforts, and activities.
Adapting to Climate Change
The companion report Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change (NRC, 2010a) concludes that there is an urgent need to better understand and project climate change and its impacts (especially at local and regional scales), convey this information to decision makers and other stakeholders, and develop options and strategies for reducing the vulnerability and increasing the resilience and adaptive capacity of both human and natural systems in the United States and abroad. As discussed in Chapter 4, science can make major contributions in all of these areas. A national climate change research enterprise that has an expanded focus on adaptation strategies could, for example, provide region- and sector-specific information about climate change impacts and vulnerabilities in the context of multiple stressors acting on coupled human-environment systems. It could also evaluate and verify the feasibility and effectiveness of, trade-offs among, and the secondary environmental, social, and economic consequences of different adaptation options. Moreover, because it is difficult to assign a monetary value to some kinds of impacts (for example, biodiversity loss or threats to national security), the development of alternative metrics and assessment strategies is needed. Science can also support adaptation through research-based development and testing of decision-support strategies and tools designed to connect scientific information with decision making. Finally, there is a need for further research on human behavior and institutional barriers to implementation in the context of adaptation options and choices.
The companion report Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change (NRC, 2010a) recommends that a national adaptation strategy be established to engage decision makers, stakeholders, and researchers at all levels in developing and implementing adaptation plans. The USGCRP and other elements of the nation’s climate change science research enterprise will be essential partners in the success of these adaptation efforts. Connecting adaptation programs with scientific research is complicated, however, by the fact that many adaptation decisions are inherently local or regional in scale and can take years to implement. Federal centers established to address climate challenges may not effectively assist at these scales unless there are regional or local entities to provide integration in a place-based context and facilitate connections with local decision makers. Local, state, and regional partnerships between academic, public, and private institutions could serve the role of coupling adaptation efforts with scientific research to create end-to-end knowledge systems. Approaches for linking knowledge
about adaptation responses across these scales, and to international adaptation research efforts, will also be needed.
Informing About Climate Change
To respond effectively to climate change, decision makers at all scales from local to international will need up-to-date, cogent, accessible, and usable information. The companion report Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change (NRC, 2010b) provides analysis and advice on how to ensure that scientific information is used, and used effectively, by decision makers. Many previous reports (e.g., NRC, 2008h, 2009g) have also analyzed the information sources, assessment tools, decision-support mechanisms, and other aspects of informing effective climate-related decision making.
There have been several recent efforts at the federal level to establish programs to provide climate-related information, such as NOAA’s announcement of its intent to form a climate service (NOAA, 2010) and the Department of the Interior’s announcement of a coordinated climate change research and resource management strategy (DOI, 2009), as well as an international agreement to establish a global framework for climate services (WMO, 2009b). As discussed in Chapter 4, these efforts, and those established in the future, will require the climate change science community’s assistance in providing more and better decision-relevant information, as well as scientific research on improved communication and decision-support tools and structures.
Scientific assessments are another way the climate research program can work collaboratively with national or international initiatives to inform effective climate-related decisions and responses. Climate change assessment processes, if carefully and deliberately designed, can engage a broad range of stakeholders in the assessment of risks, costs, and potential responses to climate change impacts (Farrell and Jäger, 2005; NRC, 2007a, 2008h). Assessment activities represent an important opportunity to improve linkages between the scientific and decision-making communities. The recent NRC report Restructuring Federal Climate Research (NRC, 2009k) called for the USGCRP to begin planning a comprehensive national assessment of climate change impacts, adaptation options, and actions to reduce climate forcing, as called for in the Global Change Research Act, and it is encouraging that planning for such an activity is now under way.
Recommendation 6: The federal climate change research program should be formally linked with action-oriented response programs focused on limiting the magnitude of future climate change, adapting to the impacts of climate change, and informing climate-related actions and decisions, and, where relevant, should
develop partnerships with other research and decision-making entities working at local to international scales.
The scale, importance, and complexity of the climate challenge implies a critical need to increase the workforce performing fundamental and decision-relevant climate research, implementing responses to climate change, and working at the interface between science and decision making. Thanks to more than three decades of research on climate change, the research community in the United States and elsewhere is strong, at least in research areas that have received significant emphasis and support. However, level or declining climate research funding over the past decade (as documented, for example, in NRC [2009k]) has limited the number of young scientists and engineers entering the research workforce at just the point when an influx of young scientists and engineers is critically needed to revitalize the nation’s climate research. Moreover, the more integrative and decision-relevant research program described in Chapter 4 will require expanded intellectual capacity in several previously neglected fields as well as in interdisciplinary research areas. It will also require greater intellectual capacity among state, local, and national government agencies, universities, and other public and private research labs, as well as among science managers coordinating efforts to advance the science of climate change. Building and mobilizing this broad research community will require both a concerted effort and a new approach.
Challenges Posed by the New Era of Climate Change Research
The broad, interdisciplinary, and integrated research enterprise envisioned in this report presents a number of implementation challenges. Among others, it requires scientists to work together in ways that are not well supported by many existing institutional structures, such as discipline-specific academic departments. It also requires researchers to engage with decision makers and other stakeholders to identify research topics and develop mechanisms for transferring research results, activities that are not a traditional strength or focus of scientific training. These challenges suggest that changes are needed within universities, federal laboratories, vocational training centers, and other research and educational institutions.
At the national scale, institutional changes are needed in federal research and mission agencies to increase the focus on interdisciplinary and decision-relevant research both in government laboratories and in the nationwide research efforts the agencies sup-
port. Some agencies will need to recruit or train scientists and program managers with the expertise needed to organize and manage such programs, especially expertise in the behavioral and social science fields that have not been as well represented or supported as the more “traditional” areas of climate and climate-related research.
Many universities are already experimenting with new interdisciplinary departments or schools focused on the environment, while others have developed multidepartment programs, centers, or institutes on sustainability, climate change, and other crosscutting topics. Many of these same university experiments include the training of undergraduate and graduate students through interdisciplinary academic programs, some of which are funded by special federal programs (such as the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program). Although in great demand by students, these programs face challenges from a lack of long-term funding and commitment by faculty and administrators.
Changes are also needed in professional societies, journals, and other institutions that influence rewards and incentives for scientists, engineers, managers, and others involved in the climate research enterprise. For example, venues for presentation and publication of interdisciplinary and decision-relevant climate research, as well as professional organizations that support and reward these efforts, are needed to build networks and provide professional rewards. Likewise, organizational changes in advice-giving bodies (such as the NRC) may help by enabling them to emphasize the integrative nature of climate change science when providing advice for the government and the larger science community. Other needed investments include fellowships and early career awards that can help direct researchers toward interdisciplinary work, and “summer institutes” and other training opportunities that provide extended interaction and promote cross-disciplinary engagement.
Finally, at the international scale, interdisciplinary science efforts focused on climate and global change have started to emerge (for example, the ESSP projects under ICSU). Not only do these programs facilitate engagement and capacity building for scientists from developing countries, they provide a way for U.S. scientists to contribute to international programs that focus on integrative research in support of both basic understanding of and responses to climate change. Strengthening these programs will require improving international research funding capacity (through IGFA and other mechanisms) and developing new mechanisms to engage the U.S. research community with international partners. One obstacle that impairs both international collaboration and U.S. research capacity is the difficulty that non-U.S. scientists encounter in obtaining visas to visit or train in the United States; another is the fact that most federal programs will not fund non-U.S. citizens as researchers or students.
Challenges Posed by Linkages with Other Activities and Programs
State and local governments, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations are key partners in the nation’s climate change research enterprise (see Recommendation 6). These partners will need a workforce that can engage effectively with the scientific community. There are many opportunities for sponsorship and leadership on climate-related research and decision support at the state and local levels. State, local, and tribal entities should work together with federal and nongovernmental partners to build expertise and create the kinds of networks, partnerships, and institutions that enable effective collaborations between the research community and decision makers. Progress in this direction is already being made. For example, climate advisory councils composed of experts from state universities, research institutions, nongovernmental organizations, municipalities, tribal governments, and agencies have been mandated by executive orders or state legislatures in a number of states. In other cases, science-based nongovernmental organizations have provided leadership in developing impact assessments and climate action plans (both for GHG emissions reductions and adaptation) that have proven helpful for informing policy makers.
A number of corporations have also taken a leadership role in reducing GHG emissions (NRC, 2010b) and promoting other sustainable business practices. These efforts can be expected to increase intellectual capacity and practical experience, both of which will be useful to both the research community and society at large. Partnerships between the research community and the private sector are critical for building effective science-decision maker relationships, for linking knowledge and action, and for identifying critical science workforce needs. Federal programs, such as NOAA’s RISA program and the Regional Climate Centers, can aid in these efforts.
Finally, a strategy is needed for educating and training the next generation of climate change researchers as well as the personnel needed to design, build, and maintain the physical infrastructure and institutional assets needed to respond effectively to climate change. Climate researchers and research managers will also need training in decision-support and outreach activities needed to shape a decision-relevant science agenda. In addition, growing demands for climate information will require more people with skills and practice in effective communication, science-policy interaction, and activities at the interface between research and decision making. Much of the training in these areas will presumably need to take place at regional and local scales, but federal leadership and support are essential. Further discussion of the actions needed to educate and train future generations of scientists, engineers, technicians, managers, and decision makers for responding to climate change can be found in the companion report Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change (NRC, 2010b).
Recommendation 7: Congress, federal agencies, and the federal climate change research program should work with other relevant partners (including universities, state and local governments, the international research community, the business community, and other nongovernmental organizations) to expand and engage the human capital needed to carry out climate change research and response programs.
A NEW ERA OF CLIMATE CHANGE RESEARCH
We have entered a new era of climate change research. Although there are some uncertainties in the details of future climate change, it is clear that climate change is occurring, is largely due to human activities, and poses significant risks for people and the ecosystems on which we depend. Moreover, climate change is not just an environmental problem; it is a sustainability challenge that affects and interacts with other environmental changes and efforts to provide food, energy, water, shelter, and other fundamental needs of people today and in the future. In response to the risks posed by climate change, actions are now being taken both to limit the magnitude of future climate change and to adapt to its unavoidable impacts. These responses to climate change should be informed by the best possible scientific knowledge. Research is needed to improve understanding of the climate system and related human and environmental systems, to maximize the effectiveness of actions taken to respond to climate change, and to avoid unintended consequences for human well-being and the Earth system that sustains us. Acquiring the needed scientific knowledge, and making it useful to decision makers, will require an expanded climate change research enterprise. The challenge is tremendous, and so, too, should be our response, both in magnitude and in breadth.