National Academies Press: OpenBook

A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Draft Strategic Plan (2012)

Chapter: 3 Global Change Versus Climate Change

« Previous: 2 Conveying the Importance and Value of Global Change Research
Suggested Citation:"3 Global Change Versus Climate Change." National Research Council. 2012. A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Draft Strategic Plan. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13330.
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3

Global Change Versus Climate Change

The scope of the USGCRP has varied over time, particularly regarding whether it is only a climate research program, or rather, is a program to study global change. The U.S. Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 19902, which established the program, mandates a broad definition:

“Global change” means changes in the global environment (including alterations in climate, land productivity, oceans or other water resources, atmospheric chemistry, and ecological systems) that may alter the capacity of the Earth to sustain life. “Global change research” means study, monitoring, assessment, prediction, and information management activities to describe and understand

•    the interactive physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the total Earth system;

•    the unique environment that the Earth provides for life;

•    changes that are occurring in the Earth system; and

•    the manner in which such system, environment, and changes are influenced by human actions.

It must be acknowledged that the above definitions can be difficult to apply, in terms of deciding what specific kinds of environmental changes qualify as “global change” issues. The first NRC report on the topic, Toward an Understanding of Global Change, lists “rapidly evolving changes in the global environment [that] have captured the attention of scientists, policymakers, and citizens around the world: the increase of atmospheric greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and the chlorofluorocarbons; the expected consequent changes in global climate and sea level; global depletion of stratospheric ozone and the observed ‘Antarctic ozone hole’; widespread desertification in many parts of the developing world; massive tropical deforestation and reduction in the diversity of plant and animal species; extensive damage to mid-latitude forests; and acidification of lakes and soils in many regions” (NRC, 1988). A later NRC analysis attempted to identify what these sorts of changes have in common, pointing out that they can include both systemic global changes in which actions initiated anywhere on Earth can have effects anywhere else (e.g., atmospheric chemistry) and cumulative global changes in which the accretion of localized changes in natural systems has worldwide effects (e.g., land productivity) (NRC, 1992).

Although the concept of global change is not precisely defined at the edges, and remains a matter of active debate, the GCRA clearly calls for a program that encompasses more than climate change alone. In 2002, however, the name was changed to the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, which implies a narrower scope. The new draft Strategic Plan for the program (once again called the USGCRP) defines a scope that is broader than climate change science, although not as expansive as the mandate given in the law. As stated in the Strategic Plan (L.242-248):

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2http://uscode.house.gov/download/pls/15C56A.txt

Suggested Citation:"3 Global Change Versus Climate Change." National Research Council. 2012. A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Draft Strategic Plan. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13330.
×

This 2012- 2021 Strategic Plan describes a program that builds from core USGCRP capabilities in global climate observations, process understanding, and modeling to strengthen and expand our fundamental scientific understanding of climate change and its interactions with the other critical drivers of global change, such as land-use change, alteration of key biogeochemical cycles, and biodiversity loss.

The Committee interprets this wording to mean that the Program will encompass climate change and its links to other aspects of the Earth system that contribute to or are affected by climate change, but will not encompass other global environmental changes (e.g., in land productivity or in biogeochemical cycles) except as they link to climate change. If this reading is indeed correct, then the Plan’s definition of “global change” is not fully consistent with the definition in the Plan’s glossary (taken from the GCRA), which treats changes in land productivity, ecological systems, etc. as integral to the program, even when they do not interact with climate change. The Plan’s currently defined scope could perhaps be labeled as a “climate change and related global changes.” Such a clarification would help set boundaries on what could be a large and ambiguous universe of issues.

These distinctions are not clear throughout the Plan. The lack of clarity is especially evident where the document refers to global change when it seems to mean only climate change. Some examples of this problem, among many, include:

•   The discussion under Objective 1.2 (Science for Mitigation and Adaptation) seems to be about mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, even though the term “global change” is used. There is no indication that the intent is to include mitigation or adaptation in relation to, for example, land-cover changes, except perhaps as these changes result from or affect climate change.

•   Under Goal 3 (Sustained Assessments) the document states that the “USGCRP is required by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 to conduct a National Climate Assessment” (L.2417-2419). However, the language of the Act clearly requires a periodic assessment of trends and effects of global change, not only of climate change.

•   Box 3 on species’ range shifts states that “global change” is driving the shifts of hardwood trees up mountains, when in fact it is specifically rising temperature regimes that are driving upward elevational shifts of most mountain species. Likewise, in Textbox 6, long-term observed changes are stated to be due to “global change,” when in fact all of the examples listed are responses either to climatic changes or to increased atmospheric CO2 directly and not to the multitude of other global change factors.

On scientific grounds alone, a broadly-focused global change research program that fully meets the mandate of the GCRA is more appropriate than a research program focused more narrowly on climate change alone. For example, the global hydrological cycle is under stress, but at present climate change is arguably not the most important stressor. Widespread land use changes and pollution associated with population increases, urbanization, and industrialization, as well as the drilling of wells, and the construction of dams, irrigation systems, and other water projects may be more important. As another example – human activity has dramatically altered the planet’s nitrogen cycle, not through climate change but primarily through the transformation of atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizers for agricultural use.

Suggested Citation:"3 Global Change Versus Climate Change." National Research Council. 2012. A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Draft Strategic Plan. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13330.
×

Similar arguments can be made for changes in biodiversity, soil thickness and fertility, and other global changes (e.g., the decline of ocean fisheries, coastal “dead zones”, ocean acidification). Climate change exacerbates these issues, but many of them would be creating enormous problems even in the absence of climate change; and in some cases these other global change issues can have more near-term (and perhaps more profound) impacts on human populations than climate change. The global implications of these other global change phenomena thus deserve study as part of a comprehensive global change research program.

At the same time, it should be recognized that the international research community is moving towards a significantly more expansive framework that looks at global environmental change in the context of global sustainability challenges – that considers, for instance, the inexorable interconnections among climate change, energy security, population growth, and economic and social developments; and that seeks to understand the potential for, and the root causes of, exceeding the boundaries for a sustainable planetary system. (See, for instance, the Earth System Sustainability Initiative, the Belmont Forum, and the “Planet Under Pressure” conference.3)

Some would argue that embracing this substantially expanded research agenda is an appropriate, indeed an essential, next step for the Program in the decade ahead. Such an expansion, however, would require an extensive rethinking of the USGCRP from the ground up, would mean setting priorities among very different areas of science, and would further complicate the existing challenge of setting manageable boundaries on the definition and scope of a “global change” research program.

In light of these considerations, and of the real-world budget constraints facing the Program, the Committee suggests that focusing the near-term USGCRP goals on “climate and related changes” seems like a step in the right direction. It may not be realistic to implement a further broadening of the Program at this time, but the Strategic Plan should at least acknowledge that the long term mission of the Program embraces global change broadly, as defined by the GCRA. And we encourage the Program to devote serious consideration to better defining what sorts of issues “global change” research will and will not encompass. Table 1 in the Strategic Plan serves as a useful initial attempt in this regard, although it contains some items that are unclear or questionable as part of a global change agenda.

In the Committee’s judgment, the plan for Objective 1.3 (Integrated Observations) is much clearer in terms of the implied definition of global change. Many of the observations to be supported under that Objective will enable improved analysis and modeling of a variety of different types of global change (not only those associated with climate change), and thus will inherently be contributing to understanding of global change in the broader (GCRA-defined) sense of the term.

Many of the federal research activities that contribute to understanding the state of water resources, soil fertility, ecosystems, and other globally changing environmental systems (not to mention the many research activities that look at large-scale socio-economic changes) are

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3See further discussion at: http://www.icsu.org/earth-system-sustainability-initiative; http://www.igfagcr.org/images/documents/belmont_challenge_white_paper.pdf; http://www.planetunderpressure2012.net/conferencevision.asp

Suggested Citation:"3 Global Change Versus Climate Change." National Research Council. 2012. A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Draft Strategic Plan. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13330.
×

conducted outside the official purview of the USGCRP. Thus another option, in principle, is that the government could simply declare these programs and their budgets to be part of the USGCRP. Assuming that the government agencies conducting this research agreed to the relabeling, it would at least create the perception that the USGCRP is more faithfully fulfilling its mandate, give the federal agencies that conduct this research increased visibility, and broaden the constituency for the Program. However, fully integrating these additional activities into USGCRP would require additional staff time and funding, which may be infeasible given current budgetary constraints. An informed analysis of this potential broadening strategy requires more time than this review allows; but we do suggest that the matter deserves further discussion as the Program develops.

Finally, as discussed later in this review, the Plan not only proposes expanding its scope from climate change science to “climate and related global changes”, but also proposes expanding its scope to increased integration of the social and ecological sciences, increased attention to decision support, and increased attention to matters of education and communication. We strongly support these other areas of expansion, and emphasize that they are closely intertwined with the questions about climate change versus global change. For instance, the CCSP’s earlier focus only on climate change, to the exclusion of other global changes, may have inherently constrained the social sciences and decision support components of the Program – because most real-world decisions made by government leaders, businesses, individual citizens, etc. are seldom, if ever, based on consideration of climate change in isolation.

Key Message: The proposed broadening of the Program’s scope from climate change only to climate change and “climate-related global changes” is an important step in the right direction. The Program’s legislative mandate is to address all of global change, whether or not related to climate. The Committee concurs that this broader scope is appropriate, but realizes that such an expansion may be constrained by budget realities and by the practical challenge of maintaining clear boundaries for an expanded program. We encourage sustained efforts to expand the scope of the Program over time, along with efforts to better define and prioritize what specific topics are included within the bounds of global change research. As the Program moves in this direction, a high priority is to assure that observing systems are designed to monitor a broad array of global changes, given that valuable information is being lost every year that such efforts are delayed.

Suggested Citation:"3 Global Change Versus Climate Change." National Research Council. 2012. A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Draft Strategic Plan. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13330.
×
Page 8
Suggested Citation:"3 Global Change Versus Climate Change." National Research Council. 2012. A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Draft Strategic Plan. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13330.
×
Page 9
Suggested Citation:"3 Global Change Versus Climate Change." National Research Council. 2012. A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Draft Strategic Plan. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13330.
×
Page 10
Suggested Citation:"3 Global Change Versus Climate Change." National Research Council. 2012. A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Draft Strategic Plan. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/13330.
×
Page 11
Next: 4 Comments on Specific Topics within Program Goals 1 - 4 »
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The U.S. government supports a large, diverse suite of activities that can be broadly characterized as "global change research." Such research offers a wide array of benefits to the nation, in terms of protecting public health and safety, enhancing economic strength and competitiveness, and protecting the natural systems upon which life depends. The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which coordinates the efforts of numerous agencies and departments across the federal government, was officially established in 1990 through the U.S. Global Change Research Act (GCRA). In the subsequent years, the scope, structure, and priorities of the Program have evolved, (for example, it was referred to as the Climate Change

Science Program [CCSP] for the years 2002-2008), but throughout, the Program has played an important role in shaping and coordinating our nation's global change research enterprise. This research enterprise, in turn, has played a crucial role in advancing understanding of our changing global environment and the countless ways in which human society affects and is affected by such changes.

In mid-2011, a new NRC Committee to Advise the USGCRP was formed and charged to provide a centralized source of ongoing whole-program advice to the USGCRP. The first major task of this committee was to provide a review of the USGCRP draft Strategic Plan 2012-2021 (referred to herein as "the Plan"), which was made available for public comment on September 30, 2011. A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Strategic Plan addresses an array of suggestions for improving the Plan, ranging from relatively small edits to large questions about the Program's scope, goals, and capacity to meet those goals.

The draft Plan proposes a significant broadening of the Program's scope from the form it took as the CCSP. Outlined in this report, issues of key importance are the need to identify initial steps the Program will take to actually achieve the proposed broadening of its scope, to develop critical science capacity that is now lacking, and to link the production of knowledge to its use; and the need to establish an overall governance structure that will allow the Program to move in the planned new directions.

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