The discussion below does not track, one-for-one, all of the specific goals and objectives listed in the Strategic Plan. Rather, we highlight particular aspects of the Program’s goals that in the Committee’s judgment most require attention, focusing primarily on the newer proposed elements of the USGCRP’s work. The final section of this chapter cuts across the other specific topics discussed herein, and discusses how the Program will actually undertake the challenge of expanding its scope.
Goal 2 of the Strategic Plan addresses the issues of observations, modeling, and data management. The Plan’s objectives in these realms are clearly stated and are all appropriately recognized as important priorities of the USGCRP. There are, however, some issues that the Committee believes do not receive sufficient emphasis in the Plan, discussed below.
Sustaining Satellite Observations. The Plan acknowledges that satellite remote sensing observations are a core foundation of global change research that must be sustained in the coming decades, but the Committee is concerned about the lack of clear strategies for doing so. The NRC Decadal Survey (NRC, 2007c) recommended an ambitious set of remote sensing missions to be undertaken by NASA, to provide a foundation for studying key global change questions. The Decadal Survey also made recommendations for critical climate observations to be continued by NOAA, and for transitioning some measurements from NASA to NOAA. As these goals have been pursued over the past several years, the costs of some missions have grown, in some cases dramatically; and some missions have been set back by launch failures (e.g., the loss of both the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and the GLORY satellite in 2009). Meanwhile, the budgets for these efforts have not been sustained at the expected level.
As a result of such developments, the Nation is currently at risk of having serious gaps in observational capability, for both operational forecasting missions and for key climate records (e.g., sea level observations). For instance, delays in advancing NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System have led to the possibility of a gap in some key observations that have been collected over the past decade by the Earth Observing System satellites (which are well past their expected operational lifespan). More details about these and other threats to the continuity and integrity of remote sensing observing systems are discussed in a recent position paper of the World Climate Research Program (Trenberth et al., 2011).
These realities are acknowledged to some degree in the Plan (L.1282-1288). The suggested strategy for meeting this challenge is “for agencies to continue working collaboratively through USGCRP to leverage resources and set priorities.” This emphasis on general “collaboration” seems insufficient, given the magnitude of this challenge and its enormous ramifications for the future of global change research. The USGCRP needs an appropriate governance structure and clear mechanisms for assuring that long-term satellite-based observing
systems are developed and sustained in a manner suitable for meeting the Program’s key science objectives.
A related issue that should be more clearly acknowledged in the Plan is the fact that an increasing array of global change observations are now coming from instruments being developed and operated by other countries. This includes remote sensing observations as well as in situ monitoring systems (e.g., the ARGO ocean profiling network, radiosonde networks to observe the upper atmosphere). As a result, the USGCRP’s efforts to foster international cooperation and data sharing may, in the coming years, become as important as its efforts to foster the growth of U.S.-led observations.
Social and Ecological Science Observations. The Committee applauds the USGCRP’s intent to broaden its scope beyond the physical sciences; but we do not see sufficient evidence that the Program is prepared to take concrete steps in meeting its stated goals to better integrate social and ecological sciences. In this regard, the Plan needs to broaden its discussion of observational and data management systems.
In the social sciences realm, there is a need for observations and data related to human activities that drive global environmental changes and that affect vulnerability and ability to respond to global change. This may encompass a wide array of factors such as population growth and distribution, economic development trends, technological innovation and adoption, institutions governing natural resource use, disaster response capacity of governments and nongovernmental organizations, and changes in the built environment (e.g. location of infrastructure and property in sensitive areas, infrastructure investments made for climate adaptation purposes). In the ecological sciences realm there are a wide array of observational needs, which are well-documented in earlier NRC reports (e.g., NRC, 2010a) and assessments (e.g., the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment).
One specific concern to highlight in this regard is the need to make data on social phenomena more interoperable with environmental data. For example, data on human populations, land tenure, economic activities, disaster losses, pollutant emissions, and so forth are often collected according to political jurisdictions or administrative geography. These data need to be put into a common geographic framework with geocoded biophysical environmental data, in order to allow the different types of datasets to be analyzed in an integrated fashion. There has been progress in advancing this sort of data integration in some social domains (e.g., land cover and population dynamics, see NRC, 1998), but this progress is uneven across types of social data, information is sparse for some geographic areas and time periods, and data comparability is sometimes in question across national boundaries. Moreover, issues of confidentiality and privacy sometimes stand in the way of making data public (in cases where it might make the data providers identifiable as individuals or firms). Such issues can be addressed, but until they are, they impede analysis of social changes and their relationships to environmental change.
Social and ecological monitoring can also be improved by collecting new kinds of data or using new data collection methods. This includes emerging opportunities to use non-traditional data sources (discussed below) as well as “citizen science” research programs. For instance, in the ecological sciences, citizen observer networks have revealed long-term, climate-driven trends in plant phenologies – e.g., from more than 50 years of data on lilac phenology from observer sites
across the United States (Schwartz and Reiter, 2000), from an 800 year long Japanese cherry blossom database (Menzel and Dose, 2005), and from a 500 year long grape harvest database (Menzel, 2005). The Strategic Plan does acknowledge the National Phenology Network (L.3165 -3210), but it is not clear how the USGCRP intends to integrate these sorts of networks into its broader observational systems.
There are many reasons why a strong initiative in data collection to support social and ecological sciences should be given high priority; including, for instance:
• Every year that data collection is delayed, crucial observations are irreversibly lost, which reduces the base for understanding important, ongoing changes.
• Designing and implementing data collection efforts provides the ideal testbed for working out the complex relationships and shared understandings necessary to a truly integrated earth systems science that draws upon the physical, social and ecological sciences.
• The cost of most social and ecological science data collection is modest compared to the cost of many of the physical science observing systems being supported.
• Social and ecological science communities are poised to answer many questions that are articulated in the Strategic Plan as critical, but are currently stymied by lack of data.
Some initial data collection initiatives in the social sciences could include, for instance, a sequence of national surveys and parallel collection of intensive interviews on public concerns and consumption behavior, or aggregation of case studies and local data sets (as has been pioneered, for example, by the International Forestry Resources and Institutions network4). New ecological monitoring initiatives may build on existing efforts at National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) sites. These existing efforts might also provide a useful testbed for integrating social science observations with ongoing physical and ecological science work.
Building an Integrated Observing System. Even if the Program goals were limited to “simply” understanding and predicting the evolution of the physical Earth system, this alone entails a major challenge for the USGCRP, in terms of the breadth of observations that are needed. (For example, the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS, 2010) identifies fifty “Essential Climate Variables” that require systematic observation.) By expanding the Program’s purview to also understanding coupled social-ecological systems and providing the scientific insights needed to support decision making for risk management, adaptation, and mitigation, the USGCRP faces a wide array of additional challenges for building and sustaining an integrated observational system.
The Plan effectively articulates these challenges and acknowledges the need to monitor diverse factors (e.g., land use, agricultural productivity, economic activity, human population characteristics, disease incidence, and hazard exposure). But the Plan is weak in describing a concrete vision or offering clear guidance regarding the goals, structure, and mechanics of the integrated observing system that is needed. For instance, the Plan does not offer clear strategies to identify what specific observations are most needed, to integrate existing observations available from sources outside of the USGCRP, to meet the unique technical challenges associated with this observational mandate, or to ensure that the resulting data are available in useable form for
research and decision support needs. An observational system that integrates relevant social, ecological, and physical data (and that can cope with the rapidly evolving needs and capabilities in satellite and in situ observations) is an indispensable foundation for understanding and informing societal responses to global change. We strongly underscore the need for the USGCRP to play a leadership role in developing such a system.
One way the Program can help to meet this challenge is by supporting broad-based planning efforts among the relevant research and user communities to identify top priorities for data collection and data linkage, with special emphasis on social and ecological science observing systems and their integration with existing/planned physical science systems. In addition, the USGCRP’s existing interagency working group structure might provide a valuable forum for discussion about the integrated observing systems needed to support use-inspired research on specific topics (e.g., vulnerability of food production and delivery systems, water resources, health) and specific geographically-oriented concerns. Such cases studies may yield important information about the specific cases in question, as well as general “lessons learned” that help guide the broader process. Regardless of what specific engagement approaches are used, the USGCRP needs to work with research and user communities to develop a clearer vision – and the Strategic Plan should describe how this will be done.
Emerging Data Sources. The nature of global change observations is changing rapidly. Real-time data streams from thousands to millions of sensors on “unconventional” platforms are now becoming available. Some of these data streams consist of traditional observational variables (e.g., atmospheric pressure can be measured in automotive fuel injection systems; accelerometers in smartphones can be used to detect seismic activity). Other types of data streams may offer significant new opportunities for social science research, for instance through internet blogs, geolocated photos, and surveys conducted in real time via smartphones (e.g., Lai et al., 2009; Peytchev, 2010; Maisonneuve et al., 2010).
Transforming these unconventional data streams into useful scientific information is a cutting-edge research challenge that could have significant impact on both natural and human systems research in the coming decades. They will allow much finer-grain spatial and temporal analysis of social and environmental change and thus reveal much that is invisible to periodic surveys and remotely-sensed data. In some instance, these new data sources may be critical for developing and validating higher resolution models, and for allowing more subtle analyses than are possible with current methods. While on the one hand offering exciting new research opportunities, these unconventional data sources can, on the other hand, pose new challenges related to data quality and standardization.
The Plan does briefly allude to such developments in a paragraph on using advances in information technology to harness public participation in research (L.1936 – 1942), but the Committee suggests there should be a greater emphasis on developing new capabilities to accommodate real-time data streams as part of USGCRP’s portfolio of data management tools. This could be done in part by leveraging ongoing research on new data-collection opportunities taking place other disciplines outside of global change research.
Integrated Data Management. Objective 1.5 (Information Management and Sharing) does a good job of discussing some important developments related to data management that have taken place since the previous Strategic Plan (e.g., the rapidly expanding capabilities to collect, store, and process data). The Committee agrees with the Plan’s emphasis on organizing distributed databases and developing tools to improve access to, and interoperability among, datasets of interest. This discussion, however, seems to call for only incremental improvements to the data management developments already underway. A more imaginative, forward-looking perspective would help ensure that USGCRP plays a leadership role in the coming decades. In particular, the Plan should acknowledge and strive to help advance the profound new ideas and opportunities that are emerging around the concept of data-intensive science (e.g., Hey et al., 2009).
Large data collection activities may continue to be organized around collaborative teams, but analysis of enormous data sets is now within reach of individual scientists. Individual users now have data, storage, and computation capabilities that dwarf what used to be available only at government and university centers. For example, ability to access and process one petabyte of data is now within the range of university department or even an individual scientist; but traditional database architectures often cannot be simply scaled up to accommodate such enormous (and often unstructured) data sets. The USGCRP should acknowledge these new data management challenges and work with other organizations engaged in developing state-of-the-art architectures to enable data-intensive science. The Department of Energy’s Earth System Grid (which is mentioned in the Plan) offers a prototype of the type of data access systems that are increasingly needed.
Development and Application of Integrated Models. Objective 1.4 in the Strategic Plan emphasizes increasing model resolution to obtain more realism in global change simulations. While such advances will indeed be valuable to future research efforts, this does not represent the full range of modeling advances that are needed. Some examples of other issues that need to be considered:
• There is a need is to improve models’ representation of ecological and social processes, which is a far more complex challenge than increasing resolution. For instance, many social processes are driven by rule-based systems developed within a particular societal context, as opposed to physical processes that are driven by conservation laws.
• Scenario-based modeling approaches will continue to be an important direction for global change research. But the application of this approach in decision support efforts requires careful explanation of the assumptions that underlie the scenarios used, and requires quantitative estimates of uncertainties both in the environmental processes being modeled and in the models themselves.
• As the USGCRP’s modeling efforts are increasingly used to support important policy and economic decisions, there needs to be a high level of confidence that scenario projections are internally consistent and based upon credible assumptions. High resolution, multidimensional, and coupled models are extraordinarily complex. Scientific confidence will come in part from the ability of independent groups being able to reproduce the results of
these models. The USGCRP should develop approaches to ensure that the model outcomes can be reproduced.
Issues Raised by Increasing Data and Model Resolution. As our technological capabilities for collecting, storing, and processing enormous volumes of observational data have rapidly advanced, there has emerged a widely-held strategic tenet of global change research (suggested in the Plan at L.1585-1602) that the complexities of global change can be better understood and better managed by finer resolution data and models.
This may be correct in a theoretical sense; and one can, in fact, point to many examples of where increasing model resolution has yielded important new insights (e.g., more realistic representation of storms and rainfall in mountainous regions, and of hurricane/cyclone statistics). However, increases in resolution rapidly multiply the data needing to be managed and the complications of modeling and analysis. And putting more resources into increasing resolution may force tradeoffs in terms of support for other important Program goals. On what basis can the USGCRP make decisions about where it is most worthwhile to increase the resolution of data collection and modeling efforts?
The Committee suggests that one possible basis for making such decisions is to explicitly consider the value of information to be gained by increasing observational/modeling resolution. Of course, scientific research cannot be rigidly programmed to maximize return on investment without undermining the creativity and productivity of the scientific enterprise. That said however, it may still be possible to at least set a lower bound on the value of global change research knowledge by asking: If a certain research advance could in fact provide the answer to some given question, what difference would it make? For example, accurate estimates of sea level rise or storm surge height can inform decisions by local governments, businesses, and property owners about where to locate or to move human settlements and infrastructure in the coastal zone. These decisions entail large economic choices—and the value of knowing whether sea level rise in this century will be one meter or three could be enormous as a result. (This implies, of course, a need for social science research to help understand how decisions are made in key sectors and how more detailed information would affect those decisions.)
Explicit valuation of the knowledge being produced by USGCRP would help to clarify when greater spatial and temporal resolution is worthwhile or exceptionally promising as ways to make better decisions. When there is substantial benefit in terms of the effectiveness of the choices being made, the additional costs can be well worthwhile. This “value of information” approach will not provide simple answers about how to set priorities, but it can at least provide important perspectives on how to do so. In some cases it will be possible to quantify the value of information with some precision; but even in cases where it is only a general qualitative characterization is possible, such analyses could be of considerable value in guiding USGCRP investments.
The Strategic Plan directs the USGCRP to produce research that creates new scientific knowledge about climate change and “other critical drivers of global change” and that simultaneously makes that knowledge “more readily usable in decision making” (L.242-248). The Plan calls for more effective integration of the social sciences, as well as more investments in fundamental social science research that contributes to global change science. Recent NRC studies, including the America’s Climate Choices reports (NRC, 2010a, b, c, d; NRC, 2011) and reviews of the CCSP (NRC 2007, 2009b), have strongly argued that without strong contributions from the social sciences, many salient USGCRP research questions cannot be adequately addressed. These reports offer numerous examples of research questions across different problem-inspired or sectoral areas (water, urbanization, agriculture, etc) that require integration of social, ecological, and physical sciences.
The Committee re-emphasizes the same basic point here – that research in the social sciences and effective integration of social science knowledge are essential if the USGCRP is to achieve the goals stated in the Strategic Plan. Box 2 offers an illustration (taken from an earlier NRC report) of how scientific analysis that integrates physical, ecological, and social sciences is necessary to understand and inform decision making about environmental hazards that can be affected by global changes such as climate variability, climate change and sea level rise. (It also illustrates that even the best science is not sufficient to ensure an effective response.)
Vulnerability of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina
The Mississippi River, especially in and around New Orleans, has been intensively engineered to control flooding and provide improved access for ships to the port of New Orleans. These hydraulic works significantly reduce the river’s delivery of sediments to the delta between the city and the Gulf of Mexico, and thus the land-building processes that would otherwise offset the gradual subsidence and erosion of the delta. In addition, the construction of channels and levees and other changes in the lower delta have affected vegetation, especially the health of cypress swamps. Together, these changes in elevation and vegetation have weakened the capacity of the lower delta to serve as a buffer to storm surges from the Gulf of Mexico.
Various assessments of the condition of the lower Mississippi Delta—which together form a quasi-integrated vulnerability study—revealed that in the event of a direct hurricane strike, the vegetation and land areas south of New Orleans were insufficient to protect the city from large storm surges, and also that various hydraulic works would serve to funnel flood waters to parts of the city (Costanza et al., 2006; Day et al., 2007). Despite this knowledge, little was done to reduce the region’s vulnerabilities prior to 2005. When Hurricane Katrina struck in late August of that year, the human-induced changes in the region’s hydrology, vegetation, and land-building processes, together with the failure to maintain adequate protective structures around New Orleans, resulted in extensive flooding of the city and surrounding area over the following week. This, combined with a lack of institutional preparedness and other social factors, led to a well-documented
human disaster, especially for the poorest sections of the city (Costanza et al., 2006; Day et al., 2007; Kates et al., 2006).
Source: NRC, 2010a.
While the Plan does recognize the importance of social science in achieving USGCRP goals, the Committee is not convinced that, as written, the Plan will actually help foster significant advances in this regard. In particular, it is almost entirely silent about how social science research will be implemented, how it will be coordinated with research in the physical and ecological sciences, and who will take lead responsibility for these efforts. Without clear targets, and identified parties held accountable for meeting these targets, the Plan is likely to repeat its earlier unsuccessful efforts to integrate the social sciences.
The Committee’s skepticism results from of a history of failures to make good use of social science knowledge in global change research, both by the USGCRP and its member agencies. Statements of good intentions have been made numerous times. The initial USGCRP Strategic Plan identified “human interactions” as one of the Program’s seven interdisciplinary science elements, noting that “Understanding the role of human dimensions in global environmental change requires fundamental research on human social, economic, and institutional behavior” (USGCRP, 1989, p.72). NRC reviews of the Program since its inception have repeatedly identified “human dimensions” or similarly named topics as needing development and funding (NRC, 1988, 1992, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2010a). The 1992 NRC review found that this research domain accounted for only three percent of the USGCRP budget and recommended that it be ramped up to five percent over three years. An examination in 2007 found that, by that time, expenditures for human dimensions research were less than two percent of the total budget of the Climate Change Science Program. That review concluded that “Progress in human dimensions research has lagged progress in natural climate science….This disparity in progress likely reflects the inability of the CCSP to support a consistent and cogent research agenda as recommended in previous studies.” (NRC, 2007).
The small and declining share of investment in social science in the USGCRP, despite the continually expressed need and the far lower cost of social science research compared with capital-intensive physical observing systems, reflects two important factors. First, the USGCRP member agencies have limited capacity in the social sciences, resulting in limited understanding of how to translate a core scientific question (how do humans drive and respond to global change?) into a concrete research effort. This is a challenge that persists today. Second, the development of the social science community focusing on environmental questions over the last three decades has been slowed by limited and unreliable funding and by a lack of common data resources (relative to the substantial investments in training and data resources that have been made in other areas of global change science, and in other areas of social science).
The Strategic Plan needs to recognize the significant opportunities to be developed in the social science research community, while strengthening the federal government’s capacity to draw upon that community as a full intellectual partner in global change research. In this context, the Committee has identified several weaknesses in the Plan’s treatment of the social sciences; for instance:
• The “social sciences” are not clearly defined in the Plan, and are referred to inconsistently with a variety of terms (socio-economic sciences, social and behavioral sciences, economics and social sciences, human dimensions, natural science and human components). These terms have quite different implications for research specialties that need to be engaged. While the Plan offers some discussion of the role of economists, there is little sense of the wide range of other social sciences fields that need to be engaged, such as anthropology, demography, geography, history, political science, psychology, sociology, and urban and regional planning.
• Modeling, data, and observational systems are often described without regard to the social sciences. For instance, Objective 1.3 (Integrated Observations) focuses almost entirely on platforms to monitor biophysical systems.
• The discussion of geoengineering does not mention important social science questions regarding public acceptance, governance and institutional challenges, and international relations. As pointed out in most assessments of geoengineering research needs, such questions will play a crucial role in determining whether geoengineering can be a feasible tool for responding to climate change.
• The Plan’s discussion of observations (P.33-34) suggests a lack of “maturity” in social science observing systems (L.1418). This comment suggests that the USGCRP is unaware of the 40 years of consistent research data collection carried out in the General Social Survey, the 60 year history of the American National Election Study, or the 50 year history of the Inter-University Consortium on Political and Social Research (not to mention the Census and the National Accounts statistics). There is likewise little mention of social science data in the discussion of international cooperation, despite the long and successful history of efforts like the World Fertility Survey, the International Social Survey Program, and ongoing programs within various United Nations agencies, the International Energy Agency, and the International Monetary Fund. These and other existing social science data series (that are either fully or partly relevant to global change research) meet standard scientific criteria such as reliable, accurate, and precise measurement that is relevant to users’ needs; affordable costs of measurement, processing, and interpretation; and sustainable institutional structure for observation and analysis.
• The Plan discusses social science research mainly in relation to impact, vulnerability and adaptation. But there are many other aspects of global change research where social sciences can advance understanding of important issues; e.g, consumption patterns for food, water, energy and other basic resources; drivers and economics of climate change (e.g. human modifications of the carbon cycle); costing of mitigation and adaptation; public acceptance of mitigation options; and decision support (e.g. integrated assessments, institutions and governance).
The Committee suggests that the Program could begin to change past practices (e.g., in terms of organizational structure, budgeting, priority setting mechanisms), even in light of an uncertain budgetary future, by strengthening the Plan in three key areas, discussed below.
(i) Identify the types of social science observations and data that are required for a research program that supports global change decision making, and identify specific initial steps to advance collection and integration of these data.
Developing and sustaining observational systems, and managing and disseminating observational data are core activities of the USGCRP. To date, the Program’s efforts have focused largely on physical science data. In an earlier section of this review, we discuss the numerous motivations for supporting social science and integrated social/physical research, and we suggest initial steps the Program could take to foster such progress.
(ii) Commit to invest in specific areas of fundamental social science research related to global change and integrated research across the physical, social and ecological sciences.
We suggest that the Strategic Plan identify and commit to funding research in at least one or two substantive areas of social science research (or at least develop a process for doing so, as suggested earlier). NRC, 2009b (Appendix D) suggested five priorities for fundamental research that is crucial to understanding global change.
• “Improving the understanding of environmentally significant consumption5.
• Improving fundamental understanding of risk-related judgment and decision making under uncertainty.
• Improving the understanding of how social institutions affect resource use.
• Improving the understanding of socioeconomic change as context for climate change impacts and responses.
• Valuation of climate consequences and policy responses.”
The report further suggested five priorities for action-oriented human dimensions research, which could engage the full range of social science disciplines:
• “Understanding climate change vulnerabilities: Human development scenarios for potentially affected regions, populations, and sectors.
• Understanding mitigation potential: Driving forces, capacities for change, and possible limits of change.
• Understanding adaptation contexts, capacities for change, and possible limits of change.
• Understanding how mitigation and adaptation combine in determining human systems risks, vulnerabilities, and response challenges associated with climate change.
• Understanding decision support needs for climate change responses and how to meet them.”
The Plan’s discussion of modeling (P.35-41) recognizes that the development of models that integrate social and natural science will improve capacity to characterize uncertainty and will provide decision makers with a better understanding of available options. (A good example of this can be found in the DOE Integrated Assessment Research Program.) The Plan, however, does not discuss strategies for actually advancing this sort of integration in specific mission or research
5 See Environmentally Significant Consumption: Research Directions (NRC, 1997)
areas. As mentioned above, we suggest that the Plan include a few examples that show how integration across social, physical and ecological sciences can be achieved, and the benefits that can result from such efforts. For example, it could cite NOAA’s RISA program, which has yielded an impressive body of research and practice focusing on understanding and meeting stakeholders’ decision needs in areas such as water management, agriculture, and disaster response.
(iii) Provide a clear plan for phasing in efforts toward accomplishing stated goals for increasing the role of social sciences and for integrating across physical, social and ecological sciences, including specific commitments for the next few years.
Of particular concern is the fact that the Plan’s Implementation section suggests that the USGCRP will only consider phasing in newer priorities– presumably including the expansion of social sciences research– at some unspecified point in the future when new resources make it feasible. Given that there has not been significant progress in integrating the social sciences in the 20 year history of the USGCRP, it seems likely this point may not come in the next 10 years either.
It is not clear from the Strategic Plan who will take the lead, and be held accountable for, developing and implementing climate-related social science and integrated research. This reflects a long-recognized problem that few of the USGCRP mission agencies have any strength in the social sciences. While economics and to some degree sociology have a presence in the resource agencies, this strength is typically not in the parts of the agency that deal with global change. The one agency with considerable strength in the social sciences, NSF, continues to organize nearly all of its social science research program around individual disciplines. There have been some successful efforts at NSF to move past this (e.g., in the Decision-Making Under Uncertainty Centers; the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program; the now defunct Human Dimensions program; and the Water, Climate and Sustainability initiative); but there is no indication of a long-term plan to enhance and consolidate these kinds of initiatives within the overall Program.
As initial steps, the Plan could propose establishing research programs in one or two priority areas. We suggest a few possible strategies for developing initial efforts, despite the paucity of social science expertise within the Program:
• The Program could support social science research focused on specific areas of concern (e.g., water resources, energy, agriculture) through collaborations across agencies (for instance, NSF and DOE) and within them (for instance, linking DOE’s Office of Science more effectively to programs in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy that could benefit from improved analysis of valuation and decision support).
• The Program could establish joint grants competition between two agencies, emulating past efforts to link the social science expertise in NSF to needs and interests of mission agencies such as EPA. Typically in such efforts, the mission agency has provided a set of priority research questions and the majority of funding, and NSF has run the grants completion (especially the peer review process) with input from the mission agency.
• The Program could champion the incorporation of social sciences research into major existing global change research efforts, such as the LTERs, NEON, and the DOI climate centers.
The Plan has made a strong case for integrating the social sciences, but has not backed that up by identifying specific priority activities or indicating specific agencies that would support them. Unless the Plan acknowledges the current lack of “ownership” of social sciences by the agencies and takes concrete steps to assign responsibility and resources to specific agencies in specific priority areas, we cannot be optimistic that the USGCRP will succeed in providing the kind of science the nation needs to support decision making in the face of global change.
As understanding of the roles of key ecosystems (e.g., rain forests, Arctic tundra) in shaping Earth’s climate system has emerged, it has become clear that biological systems both affect and are affected by climate change. In order to respond effectively, it will be necessary to have a better understanding of the interactions among biological systems, human uses of ecosystems, and changes in climate. The USGCRP could help to address numerous gaps in biological understanding (at levels ranging from individual species to populations to ecosystem processes), which currently impede our ability to make sensible, effective decisions about how to sustain and manage natural systems under a changing climate. Among the key needs are enhanced observational systems (discussed earlier in this review); relevant organism, population, and community-level ecological research; and representation of coupled social-ecological systems in earth system models. These and additional issues discussed below are implicit in parts of the draft Plan, but require more explicit recognition and integration into the research agenda.
Multi-level ecological research. Considering ecological research in its broadest sense, the Strategic Plan is strong in recognizing and integrating essential research streams at the ecosystem level – that is, research pertaining to materials exchange (e.g., CO2) between biosphere and atmosphere, and to ecosystem-level properties and processes (e.g., water storage and filtration, carbon storage). However, there is little inclusion of organismal-level ecological research, which relates to individual organisms, to populations of individuals, and to interacting communities of multiple species.
The USGCRP research goals should include research designed to illuminate processes at the population, species, and community levels that link to ecosystem functioning (e.g., carbon storage or water filtration and storage), resilience and integrity. Some important ecosystem services, such as crop pollination, can be understood only through population and community level ecological studies. Ecosystem ecology is but one end of the spectrum of ecological disciplines and cannot, on its own, address all of the important questions that fall under the USGCRP mission.
Studies of populations, species, and ecological communities are already being sponsored by many of the USGCRP member agencies; but there is no coherent analysis of how such organism-level studies can best contribute to an understanding of climate change (or global change more generally). The Strategic Plan could suggest concrete steps to perform such analyses, with special
attention to ecosystems of concern to the United States (e.g., coastal oceans that harbor commercially-harvested fish, croplands, forests, estuarine wetlands, temperate lakes and rivers, wilderness).
Restoration Ecology. Maintaining ecosystem integrity in the face of climate change is likely to require both the restoration of disturbed ecosystems, and the construction of ecosystems that are resilient to climatic changes (Jackson et al, 2009; Connelly et al, 2009). The Plan does contain a brief reference to the concept of restoration ecology (L.1094), but it would be helpful to see some additional explanation of how the USGCRP can help develop this nascent branch of ecology into a rigorous science. Restoration ecology, as the most recently emerged branch of ecology, has the weakest scientific foundations (Dobson et al, 1997; Cabin, 2007; Giardina et al, 2007; Weiher, 2007).
Significant research opportunities include both the “green” carbon of terrestrial systems (e.g., restoration of native prairie from abandoned farmland) and the “blue” carbon of marine systems (e.g., restoring native seagrass beds along denuded coastlines; or restoring areas of coral reef with large carbon storage capacity). Restoration to native conditions in both “green” and “blue” realms could contribute substantially towards increased carbon sequestration and play a role in lowering atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.
Likewise, many natural systems store more carbon per meter-squared than disturbed systems such as agricultural lands (Fargione et al. 2008, Nelleman et al. 2009), and thus research on restoration of degraded areas may offer an important approach to increasing carbon sequestration. By developing a more pragmatically useful science of restoration ecology, the USGCRP could also help pave the way for new, superior sources of biofuels that come from natural systems, which lack the pitfalls of crop biofuels (NRC, 2008; Searchinger et al. 2008, Fargione et al. 2008).
Use of Ecological Knowledge in Assessments. A number of recent multi-disciplinary assessments (e.g., Grifo and Rosenthal, 1997; Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005; Pongsiri and Roman, 2007; Sala et al. 2009) illustrate how the knowledge base from organismal ecological research can be effectively integrated into assessments that lead to more informed, effective decision making. Assessments usually provide scenarios for estimating climate change impacts on ecosystem-level processes; but it is important to also incorporate ecological dynamics at the individual, population, and community levels in analyzing those scenarios. This has been a difficult challenge in the past, and integrating organismal science into the modeling of ecosystems has not been supported as part of global change research. USGCRP could help lead such efforts by summarizing the current state of practice and laying out directions to pursue in the next decade.
Ecology as a communication tool. Awareness of global change is often communicated in ecological terms—from crop failure to dwindling populations of polar bears. As the nation’s authoritative scientific voice on global change science, the USGCRP has an opportunity to improve public understanding through strong support for research on the ecological impacts of global change and through efforts to ensure that this research is communicated to entities – either within or outside of the Program – that do outreach to the media, to the general public (e.g., in popular venues such as zoos and aquaria), and in formal educational programs.
Finally, as with many other areas discussed in this review, the ACC Advancing the Science report (NRC, 2010a) offers numerous examples of specific research questions that could be incorporated into the Plan. See in particular Chapters 9 (Ecosystems, Ecosystem Services, and Biodiversity) and 10 (Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Production).
The Strategic Plan’s discussion of mitigation and adaptation are discussed primarily under Goal 1 (Objective 1.2 – Science for Adaptation and Mitigation) and Goal 2 (Objectives 2.1 – Informing Adaptation Decisions; and Objective 2.2 – Informing Mitigation Decisions). The identified goals are appropriate ones for the USGCRP; but the Committee does have concerns about missing elements. In addition to the concerns discussed here, the concerns discussed in our later section on decision support are directly relevant to mitigation and adaptation as well.
One general issue, noted earlier in this review, is that the Plan is ambiguous about whether the USGCRP intends to advance mitigation and adaptation efforts just for climate change, or for global change more broadly. While there are logical reasons to focus primarily on climate change (since this is where most adaptation / mitigation efforts are currently developing), there are of course also many other types of global change concerns that may require mitigation and adaptation responses. To be effective in meeting stakeholder needs, USGCRP efforts may eventually need to encompass this broader scope.
Defining the research agenda. Objective 2.1 (Inform Adaptation Decisions) is too vague to provide much help in shaping priorities in an adaptation research program. The discussion in general seems to be focused more on process needs to inform decision makers than on research needs to advance fundamental understanding. While acknowledging that this is a relatively new research area, we believe the Plan can go further than it does in defining specific research topics. Some examples of important adaptation research topics that could be mentioned include:
• developing and validating indicators of sensitivity and adaptive capacity to environmental changes (for particular places, sectors, population groups) for use in decision making;
• research on decision-making methodology (see discussion below on research for iterative decision making);
• examining how adaptation efforts at different levels (national, state, local) can be coordinated and mutually supportive (i.e., what types of information flow and data are needed?), how to facilitate social learning across levels, and how to learn from the experience being gained from adaptation currently underway;
• defining the appropriate relationship between adaptation planning efforts and disaster risk management efforts;
• providing evidence to support the idea (commonly stated) that unabated climate change will “overwhelm” the capacity to adapt, even for the richest countries.
Objective 2.2 (Inform Mitigation Decisions) likewise seems vague and incomplete. There is no mention, for instance, of the need for research on the effectiveness, costs, or technical, economic, or social feasibility of many mitigation options that decision makers will be considering; or research on the socio-economic, cultural, and behavioral factors that affect efforts to reduce major greenhouse gas emission sources (understanding that is crucial for crafting effective mitigation strategies).
The discussion of science for mitigation (under this objective and Objective 1.2) offers some details on what is needed in terms of better models, projections, and other tools; but here too the Plan offers only a vague sense of what research questions will be pursued to provide the scientific basis for improving such tools. It is not clear, for instance, what new research and metrics would allow us to better determine the value of mitigation efforts or inform tradeoffs among mitigation options.
The Plan contains a few statements about technologies and energy systems (L.1101), but it seems that the Program is intending to focus primarily on mitigation research related to forest and soil carbon sequestration. While energy technology R&D is (as suggested in the Plan) more appropriately housed within the Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP), there are many technology-related research questions that would be appropriate, and indeed very important, to include in the USGCRP agenda. This includes questions about the factors that determine how new technologies are accepted and used (or not) in different societal contexts. For instance, the lack of adoption by households and businesses of readily-available, cost-effective technologies is an important research question, as it appears to be a “low hanging fruit” for mitigation. The Plan’s references to “the human actions that lead to greenhouse gas emission changes” (L.1086-1087) and the need to understand “choices about energy usage and technological change that lead to changes in emissions” (L.1103-1104) do at least suggest the need for research that could inform mitigation choices in the energy domain, but the Plan offers no specifics.
A related gap is the lack of acknowledgement that mitigation and adaptation will require transformation of infrastructure and the built environment (e.g., homes and office buildings, and facilities for energy production and distribution, industrial activities, transportation, waste management, water supply and waste water treatment). The design of the built environment is both a driver of global change (through impacts on resource consumption, land use and habitat destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, storm water runoff from impervious surfaces, etc.) and is a source of vulnerability to extreme weather events affected by global change (e.g., impacts from drought, flooding, storm surges, heat waves, storm winds).
Thus a research program on assessing and responding to global change should include the research needed to support the development of standards and regulations that shape the built environment. This requires extending the integrated research efforts discussed earlier (i.e., among physical, ecological, and social scientists) to also include integrative research with engineers, architects, builders, landscapers, urban planners, regulators and others (in both the private and public sectors). Advancing such linkages will likely require that the USGCRP engage with numerous Agency programs/divisions that conduct and support research related to the built environment – including, for instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the DOI Bureau of Reclamation, the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the NIST Engineering Laboratory, and the NSF Directorate of Engineering.
The CCTP will presumably continue to have purview over technological development related to improving energy efficiency and conservation in the building sector, and developing technologies and infrastructure for energy production, distribution, and carbon capture and storage (CCTP, 2006). But the success of such efforts will hinge not only on technological advancements, but also on public understanding and acceptance, and on the development of efficient, streamlined regulatory practices. These sorts of research questions (grounded primarily in the social, economic, political sciences) need to have a clear home in either the USGCRP, the CCTP, or linked programs in both.
The ACC reports offer numerous additional examples of research questions for advancing the science of adaptation and mitigation (see Box 3). While some prioritization among those many research questions is likely necessary, it would be helpful for the Plan to include at least this level of detail and to explain how the Program will begin developing the selected research areas.
Examples of Research Needs for Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation
Given the breadth of societal actors and economic sectors that are affected by mitigation and adaptation efforts, there are, accordingly, a wide array of research questions that need to be explored. The following are suggestions of key research needs from ACC Advancing the Science of Climate Change (NRC, 2010a).
Examples of Research Needs Related to Limiting the Magnitude of Climate Change:
• Advance the development, deployment, and adoption of energy and transportation technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
• Develop and evaluate strategies for promoting the use of less-emission-intensive modes of transportation.
• Characterize and quantify the contributions of urban areas to both local and global changes in climate, and develop and test approaches for limiting these contributions.
• Continue to support efforts to improve energy efficiency in all sectors and develop a better understanding of the obstacles to improved efficiency.
• Improve understanding of behavioral and sociological factors related to the adoption of new technologies, policies, and practices.
• Develop integrated approaches for evaluating energy services in a systems context that accounts for a broad range of societal and environmental concerns, including climate change.
• Develop and improve technologies, management strategies, and institutions to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, while maintaining or enhancing food production potential.
• Assess the potential of land, freshwater, and ocean ecosystems to increase net uptake of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) and develop approaches that take advantage of this potential without major adverse consequences.
• Improve understanding of links between air quality and climate change and develop strategies that can limit the magnitude of climate change while improving air quality.
• Improve understanding of the potential efficacy and unintended consequences of solar radiation management approaches and direct air capture of CO2, provided that this research does not detract from other important research areas.
• Establish and maintain monitoring systems capable of supporting evaluations of actions and strategies taken to limit the magnitude of future climate change, including systems that can verify compliance with international greenhouse gas emissions-reduction agreements.
Examples of Research Needs Related to Vulnerability and Adaptation:
• Expand the ability to identify and assess vulnerable coastal regions and populations and to develop and assess adaptation strategies, including barriers to their implementation.
• Assess food security and vulnerability of food production and distribution systems to climate change impacts, and develop adaptation approaches.
• Develop and improve technologies, management strategies, and institutions to enhance adaptation to climate change in agriculture and fisheries.
• Develop vulnerability assessments and integrative management approaches and technologies to respond effectively to changes in water resources.
• Assess vulnerabilities of ecosystems and ecosystem services to climate change.
• Assess current and projected health risks associated with climate change and develop effective, efficient, and fair adaptation measures.
• Assess the vulnerability of cities and other parts of the built environment to climate change, and develop methods for adapting.
• Advance understanding of how climate change will affect transportation systems and how to reduce vulnerability to these impacts.
• Develop improved vulnerability assessments for regions of importance in terms of military operations and infrastructure.
International information. The Plan does contain considerable discussion about international engagement in a general sense; but it does not acknowledge some of the areas where such engagement is most needed in regards to science for climate change adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation is often about learning how people already cope elsewhere, and that “elsewhere” extends far beyond U.S. borders. A huge repository of relevant experience and information can be found in the efforts of other countries and in international organizations. There are important opportunities for the U.S. to both contribute and benefit through active international engagement, as systematic analysis of the various forms of adaptation and mitigation being adopted around the globe provides a valuable opportunity for learning what works in what context. For example, relatively modest investments in the database of the International Forestry Resources and Institutions network have yielded substantial scientific and practical insights (e.g., Phelps et al, 2010; Persha et al, 2011).
The Plan needs to more clearly recognize that information about other countries’ climate change response policies and actions, and their participation in international institutions and agreements, is a necessary input to any projections of future global changes. It is also necessary to track trends and projections for international commodity markets (especially for fossil fuels), and consumption patterns, as this has important long-term effects on the trajectories of many global changes. Some specific places in the Plan where this sort of international focus could be added include Objective 1.1 (Earth System Understanding) at L.673-680, Objective 1.4 (Integrated
Modeling) at L.1647-1653, Objective 2.2 (Inform Mitigation Decisions) at L.2126-2166, and Chapter IV (Coordinating with Other Nations) at L.3377-3385.
An integrated approach. The Committee suggests that the USGCRP take an integrated approach to considering research needs of “Impacts, Vulnerability, Adaptation, and Mitigation” holistically. The Plan does contain a few references to the interactions and tradeoffs between mitigation and adaptation (e.g., L.1109), but identifying Objectives 2.1 and 2.2 separately may obscure attention to the relationships between mitigation and adaptation that decision makers need to consider. It should be recognized, for instance, that the value of adaptation efforts depends on the magnitude and timing of mitigation efforts; and that both are components of reducing risk (risk equals probability times consequence; mitigation reduces the probability of adverse effects and adaptation reduces their consequences). It is particularly important to explore how mitigation efforts may interact with adaptation efforts and vice-versa. (As just one example, promoting the increased use of air conditioning as an adaptation strategy may increase energy use and thus undermine mitigation efforts).
Prioritizing key vulnerabilities. We suggest that the Plan more directly confront the question of how research into key vulnerabilities can be prioritized across the country, to more efficiently spend scarce research resources of time, funding and talent. Given that every source of concern cannot receive the same detailed level of attention, there is a need for “triage” mechanisms that would allow the USGCRP to scan the country for significant changes in the incidence of important global change impacts, and superimpose the geographic distribution of those changes (likelihood) over the distribution of vulnerable sectors, locations and activities (consequence), in order to locate places and contexts where detailed analyses of potential adaptation strategies are most needed. An example of research that uses geographic analysis to evaluate vulnerability is presented in Box 4.
Example of the Use of Geographic Analysis in Assessing Climate Change Risks
Strzepek et al. (2010) explores how one might evaluate the geographic variations in climate-driven changes in drought frequency. Drought frequency projections vary widely across climate models and climate sensitivity estimates, particularly over the longer term and in the higher (IPCC) emission scenarios. The initial spatial and temporal distributions of drought frequencies could, however, support the identification of local/regional “hot spots” by “overlaying significant changes in drought frequencies (and/or widening disagreement of those changes across climate projections) over geographically explicit distributions of water sensitive sectors and population centers.”
The results from Strzepek, et al. suggest that lower greenhouse gas concentrations are consistently associated with lower drought frequency across the country. Their results demonstrate the potential value added of tracing geographically distributed measures of a physical impact of climate change (and select downstream measures of socio-economic risk for key vulnerabilities for which adaptation options might be explored) for alternative mitigation futures. This opens a door for exploring the degree to which mitigation and adaptation can complement
one another and the degree to which current mitigation decisions lock us into the more severe ends of the distributions of future risks.
Research to support iterative risk management. Given the enormous uncertainties that cloud our understanding of the climate system and what will drive it into the future, responding to the associated risks requires iterative decision-making. This concept is discussed in IPCC, 2007; and a common theme of all the ACC reports is the need for iterative approaches and a national commitment to monitoring and learning from emerging evidence (i.e., evidence about climate change impacts, societal reactions to such impacts, and the effectiveness of response actions). Iterative decision-making is required both for mitigation and for adaptation decisions. For mitigation, it is necessary to monitor and respond to a wide array of factors such as socioeconomic developments, international participation in mitigation efforts, energy sector developments, consumption patterns, and the efficacy of mitigation policies. For adaptation, it is necessary to better understand the forces that determine how responses can adjust to changing conditions (i.e., why in some cases adjustment can be quick and are nearly costless, while in other cases adaptation is slow and costly).
But the iteration process itself needs to be explored and understood more fully. We do not have a full understanding of what to monitor as we contemplate iterative decisions, or what metrics of risk are most useful to decision-makers. Nor do we have internally consistent indictors of risk for localities or methods to aggregate such indicators to national or international levels. The USGCRP can both help to build iterative learning processes and explore the important research questions embedded in such processes.
The Plan does an admirable job in noting that we must learn by doing. But it does not clearly identify the need for systematic research to learn what is succeeding (or not) in terms of communications, outreach, information sharing, and a variety of other efforts essential to iterative risk management. While there is a long history of evaluation research to assess the merits of social, educational, and health programs, such evaluations have been much less common for environmental programs. Learning from experience requires institutionalizing a national learning process in ways that have not been attempted before. It also requires a serious commitment of resources. It would be appropriate, for instance, to suggest that that a fixed percent of the budget for mitigation and adaptation efforts be devoted to monitoring, data management, and evaluation research so that the lessons to be learned from these experiences are not lost.
Decision support, which has been defined as “organized efforts to produce, disseminate, and facilitate the use of data and information in order to improve the quality and efficacy of climate-related decisions” (NRC, 2009) is a major objective in the USGCRP Strategic Plan. The concept is discussed most explicitly in Goal 2 (Informing Decisions), but it also relates to Goal 3 (Sustained Assessments), and to Goal 4 (Communicate and Educate) which is discussed in the next section of this review.
Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate (NRC, 2009b) suggested the following principles of effective decision support: “(1) begin with users’ needs; (2) give priority to process
over products; (3) link information producers and users; (4) build connections across disciplines and organizations; (5) seek institutional stability; and (6) design processes for learning”. The report also recommends that “the nation needs to establish a coordinated system of climate services that involves multiple agencies and regional expertise, is responsive to user needs, has rigorous scientific underpinnings (in climate research, vulnerability analysis, decision support, and communication), performs operational activities (timely delivery of relevant information and assessments), can be used for ongoing evaluation of climate change and climate decisions, and has an easily accessible information portal that facilitates coordination of data among agencies and a dialogue between information users and providers.”
The USGCRP has an important role to play in informing decisions about global change. In order to play this role effectively, we suggest a number of key areas that deserve attention:
• The Plan needs to demonstrate a clear, consistent understanding of what is needed for effective decision support and make clear how it will develop the scientific underpinnings required to provide the kinds of information that decision makers need. For example, the discussion of informing mitigation decisions mentions that decision makers need to “understand the effects of policy options on greenhouse gas emissions, the costs of reducing emissions, and the benefits of avoiding greenhouse gas emissions” (L.2119-2121). The Plan should indicate support for the lines of research that would provide a necessary foundation for such information, but it includes only one sentence on advances in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences of mitigation [L.1102-1105]. If the intent is to rely on integrated assessment modeling, the Plan needs to more clearly articulate the research efforts that would help advance these models.
• The discussion under Goal 2 defines a broad, ambitious set of roles that includes decision support processes (“engagements between scientists and decision makers”), provision of decision support products, research coordination, and provision of decision support services to federal agencies and departments (L.1966-1979). These different roles (in particular, the need for both processes and products) need to be more consistently addressed in the subsequent discussions. For instance, the Plan defines climate services as “the development and timely provision of information products” (L.2173), ignoring the distinction between process and product and the need for communication processes to ensure that products are useful and usable.
• The Plan needs to establish a clear division of responsibility between the Program and other entities regarding decision support service provision. The Plan does not demonstrate that the USGCRP is ready or able to make effective links to the many boundary organizations6 inside and outside the federal government that can connect climate change
6 Guston (2001) described boundary organizations as units that link the different social worlds of science and decision-making, which “involve the participation of actors from both sides of the boundary, as well as professionals who serve a mediating role; [boundary organizations] exist at the frontier of the two relatively different social worlds of politics and science, but they have distinct lines of accountability to each.” Also see Clark et al (2010).
research to user constituencies. Such linkages are mentioned several times in the Plan, but never with sufficient detail to suggest that the Program is ready to meet the challenge.
As concluded in an ACC study (NRC, 2010d) “there is an urgent need to improve the coordination of climate information, decisions, assessment, and programs across federal agencies to ensure an effective response to climate change across the nation.” This report suggested that an expanded USGCRP might contribute to this effort, but that leadership at a higher level would be needed to achieve effective federal coordination. The Strategic Plan should be more specific about the roles the Program will play in meeting this challenge and about how it will coordinate with decision support efforts among the federal agencies and with other boundary organizations.
The Plan likewise should set a consistent boundary between research activities and nonresearch activities. A set of general guidelines for setting such boundaries can be derived from a series of recent NRC reports (NRC, 2009, 2009b, 2010a), which distinguish research (which develops knowledge) from services (which make the knowledge useful for decision making). Some key elements of the Plan, such as advancing mitigation and adaptation, involve both science and services. Decision support likewise involves both. Science, services, and the connections of the two are all critically important, but they need not all be performed by the same organizations.
As a general guideline, the Committee suggests that that the primary role of the USGCRP with respect to decision support should be research for decision support and research on decision support (see Box 5 for examples). Research for decision support provides knowledge about choices (e.g., about possible options for meeting mitigation or adaptation goals and the feasibility, benefits, and costs associated with each option); while research on decision support uses knowledge from the decision sciences (e.g., Kahneman et al., 1982; Raiffa, 1968) to help to make choices more systematic and well-considered.
Recommendations on Research for and Research on Decision Support
The following are recommendations from the report Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate (NRC, 2009a) that may prove helpful to the USGCRP.
“The research for decision support should have five substantive foci:
• understanding climate change vulnerabilities: human development scenarios for potentially affected regions, populations, and sectors;
• understanding the potential for mitigation, including anthropogenic driving forces, capacities for change, possible limits of change, and consequences of mitigation options;
• understanding adaptation contexts and capacities, including possible limits of change and consequences of various adaptive responses;
• understanding how mitigation and adaptation interact with each other and with climatic and ecological changes in determining human system risks, vulnerabilities, and response challenges associated with climate change; and
• understanding and taking advantage of emerging opportunities associated with climate variability and change.
The research on decision support should have five substantive foci:
• understanding information needs;
• characterizing and understanding climate risk and uncertainty;
• understanding and improving processes related to decision support; including decision support processes and networks and methods for structuring decisions;
• developing and disseminating decision support products; and
• assessing decision support “experiments”.
In contrast, operational-level decision support should be the responsibility of boundary organizations throughout the public and private sectors that serve constituencies affected by global change. These services should be provided by the organizations best positioned for the role. These sometimes lie within the USGCRP. For example, NOAA could appropriately provide climate-related decision support to its constituencies in the coastal management community, USDA to farmers and foresters, and DOI to managers of public lands. In many cases, however, the most appropriate service providers are not part of the USGCRP. The general principle is that decision support should come from scientifically informed organizations that are easily linked to target audiences.
The USGCRP should provide mechanisms to link research to the appropriate boundary organizations. Box 6 suggests some criteria that the USGCRP could use in working with boundary organizations, to identify the contexts in which decision support efforts will be most feasible and effective.
Criteria for Assessing the Value of Decision Support
Goal 2 of the Strategic Plan indicates that USGCRP will have responsibility for guiding its member agencies to produce scientific knowledge that is credible, while working with users of that knowledge to assure that it is also salient and legitimate. What makes knowledge salient in a decision making context is that it be relevant and timely. Such salience is often in tension with scientific credibility, earned by careful testing, peer review, and publication in the open literature. The challenge is to reconcile these tensions in a way that honors the values of both users and researchers. We present below some examples of factors that the USGCRP should consider in managing the difficult balancing act of setting priorities for decision support. These lists are drawn from other contexts (e.g., global assessment processes, foundation grant-making processes) that are not entirely analogous to the USGCRP, but nonetheless seem quite relevant (Packard Foundation, 2010; Clark et al, 2006, 2010).
Whether a decision situation is ripe:
• Are there openings for rethinking, in which decision makers are seeking new information?
• Can new information be provided in time for the decision-making window?
• Are there good prospects that new information will be influential?
Whether the boundary between science and use can be spanned:
• Do stakeholders agree that the questions to be investigated are important, even when they disagree on desirable answers?
• Is there a boundary object, like an assessment, on which users and researchers can collaborate?
• Are actors who can influence success engaged by scientists or those working at the boundary?
Whether the actors have appropriate capabilities:
• Do researchers have the capacity to conduct the inquiry? If the questions to be answered require an interdisciplinary approach, is the research team capable of integrating knowledge across disciplines?
• Do those conducting the research have the interest and capacity to work with stakeholders?
• Are early adopters of the knowledge identified? Are they able to use it and communicate their experiences to other decision makers and stakeholders?
Whether the conditions for joint production of knowledge by users and researchers exist:
• Do potential users believe that the information process took account of concerns and insights of relevant stakeholders and was procedurally fair (Legitimate)?
• Do potential users believe that the scientific knowledge is relevant to their decision-making and timely in its availability (Salient)?
• Do potential users believe that the information has taken into account issues of data reliability, appropriate methods and validity of inferential claims, consideration of alternative hypotheses (Credible)?
Whether behavioral changes can be observed when knowledge is used:
• Are there changes in behavior and policies of relevant actors?
• Are there changes in actor goals, interests, beliefs, strategies and resources?
• Is there increased willingness and capacity to learn?
Expansion of the Program to help support decisions by conducting research, linking research to action, and providing decision support services to certain constituencies is highly appropriate. Such an expansion, however, does raise feasibility concerns, in terms of competition for scarce resources and the capacity of USGCRP agencies. The Program will need to increase scientific expertise that is scarce in member agencies (particularly in the social sciences), and to provide resources for improving links between producers and users of the science. As noted in NRC (2009), ”for many of the agencies that need to be involved, decision support research or services are not part of their current missions, and they lack offices and personnel with the responsibilities and expertise to manage the research.”
Assessment as Decision Support. The Plan’s discussion of the National Climate Assessment (Goal 3) is admirably clear and consistent. It recognizes that the assessment needs to be a process and also to generate products, and it articulates a way to do both, while maintaining
the process over time. It also articulates a strategy for using the assessment process to inform research that will, in turn, feed into future assessment products.
One issue that may merit further explanation in the Plan is that (as noted earlier), the GCRA does actually mandate a global change assessment, not one restricted to climate change. We recognize that expanding the bounds of the National Climate Assessment may not be feasible within current budgetary constraints or given the current scientific scope of the program, which does not encompass all of global change. But we encourage the USGCRP to explore the possibility of expanding the scope of its assessment efforts over time, and in the interim, to use the assessment process to expand understanding of how climate change affects and interacts with other aspects of global environmental change.
The Plan states that “Assessments support achievement of all the other goals of the USGCRP Strategic Plan” (L.2554). This should frame a discussion of how the assessment process can engage users and set priorities within USGCRP. The Plan mentions a wide range of audiences (L.2428-2515) but does not create clear expectations of how the USGCRP will work with them. The assessment process is called “ongoing” (L.2472) but the ongoing participation of users is not described. At a minimum, the Plan should articulate how it will link its ongoing assessment activities to its decision support tasks.
The discussion of Goal 3 could be strengthened by recognizing that subsections 3.1-3.4 are each organized around different aspects of jointly producing useful knowledge. Section 3.1 (Integrating Science) emphasizes scientific credibility in the content of assessments. Section 3.2 (Ongoing Capacity) describes efforts to engage stakeholders and to improve transparency, in order to build the legitimacy of the assessments. Section 3.3 (Inform Responses) is about providing knowledge that is salient to a diverse range of users. Section 3.4 (Evaluate progress) highlights the role of assessment as a means for social learning (i.e., reviews of the state of understanding naturally lead to an appreciation of knowledge gaps and limitations, which is useful both for planning future research.) By framing the discussions of Sections 3.1-3.4 in this way, the Plan would make clear that the assessment process entails balancing different, sometimes conflicting aims in the production of knowledge that is useful in decision making.
Goal 3 does not spell out how demand for assessments would be identified, beyond noting the legal mandate for a National Climate Assessment. Processes like the IPCC and Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are grounded in an authorizing environment; that is, they respond to an official request to convene representatives of the relevant scientific communities to provide a report on the current state of knowledge. The importance of having a clear authorizing environment that identifies primary users of the assessment outcomes was noted in the NRC report Analysis of Global Change Assessments (NRC, 2007b). If the USGCRP is working within a framework of use-inspired research, it is essential to identify key users at the outset (beyond just the American public in a generic sense), because those users need to be partners in defining the scope of the assessment. This joint production mechanism is what gives the knowledge produced the chance to be salient, legitimate, and scientifically credible.
Goal 4 of the Plan discusses the need for research on communication and education to expand knowledge and inform public decision making, for evaluation of educational efforts, for identifying best practices, for reaching diverse audiences, and for engaging stakeholders. These are all generally appropriate as goals for the Program, but in the Committee’s judgment, much of this content (e.g., research assessing the effectiveness of communication efforts; understanding best practices in communication and education) is more logically discussed under Goal 2 (Informing Decisions). Perhaps communication and education were separated into a distinct Goal in order to elevate their importance as elements of the Program. But the Committee suggests that it makes sense to place the objective to “Strengthen Communication and Education Research” under Goal 2, and to have Goal 4 focus just on the actual practice of communication and education.
A more substantive concern is that the Plan does not clearly define a division of labor between the USGCRP and other entities, both within and outside of the federal government, that also engage in communication and education about global change. It difficult to determine which of the proposed activities are considered core elements of the USGCRP, as opposed to activities that may be accomplished largely outside the USGCRP framework; and likewise is difficult to determine how USGCRP efforts will be coordinated with externally-driven activities.
For all of the different activities discussed in this section, it would be helpful to see a clearer identification of the specific roles planned for the Program (e.g., Will USGCRP agencies take on specific activities? Will other activities be performed jointly or entirely by entities outside the Program?). We suggest the same general guideline for education and communication as we suggested earlier for decision support efforts – they should be the responsibilities of boundary organizations that are best positioned for the role, which in many cases may be organizations that are not part of the USGCRP.
The Plan should clearly state that a primary role for the USGCRP is to build a sound scientific foundation for global change communication and education. And it should make clear that public communication and education efforts need to be evidence-based, two-way processes aimed at improving the capacity of target audiences to make informed choices, not at simply delivering information or persuading these audiences to accept government positions. These ideas are further discussed in past NRC work on environmental communication and science education (NRC, 1989, 1996, 2007e, 2008b, 2011b).
Some of the communication and education activities proposed in the Plan seem appropriate and feasible as parts of the Program. These include for instance, research on the effectiveness of global change communication and support for “communities of practice.” But the Plan also appears to promise that the Program will do things that it may not be appropriately organized or realistically able to do; for instance, “improving educational materials and resources” (L.3113) and “developing programs and forms of engagement to facilitate communication and education among citizens, stakeholders, partners, and the participating agencies” (L.3145-3146).
The stated intention to “coordinate an effort to raise environmental literacy and develop a future workforce that actively integrates global change and environmental considerations into future activities” (L.3244-3246) could engage the Program in everything from sponsoring museum exhibits to changing the K-12 science curriculum. Objectives in this domain should be defined
more clearly, and should identify a division of labor between activities conducted within the Program and possible collaborations with other federal agencies, with organizations in state and local government, and with the education community. There should be a much more focused description of the specific roles to be played by the USGCRP itself.
In the education domain, the Program might appropriately co-sponsor (in collaboration with other federal education and science agencies) research on public understanding of climate change and on teaching strategies for improving such understanding. In the communication domain, it might support research to improve decision support products or communication processes, or training for researchers on how to explain climate change information and uncertainties to various audiences, as was recommended in the ACC studies (NRC, 2010d).
The writing in this section of the Plan is overly vague in important places. For example, “USGCRP will employ appropriate methods and processes for engaging with and seeking feedback and input from partners, participating agencies, and constituents” (L.3156-3157). Such language is not sufficiently specific to know how to evaluate or implement the Plan. Also, the Plan does not distinguish between different categories of education audiences (including, for instance: (i) climate change scientists, (ii) stakeholders who make real-world mitigation and adaptation decisions and thus need some familiarity with the science, and (iii) the general public. Educating the next generation of global change researchers is materially different from educating the general public or engaging stakeholders, but this distinction is not made clear in the Plan.
Finally, this section also makes promises that are neither supported elsewhere in the Plan nor adequately justified. For example, the Plan states that “A major goal for USGCRP is to understand the connections among the environmental knowledge, opinions, attitudes, and behaviors of its diverse audiences” (L.3000-3001). But there is no indication that the Program will support research on global change knowledge, attitudes, and behavior, and no argument is presented that supporting such research would help with communication about global change. The Committee commends the USGCRP for highlighting this important area of research, but suggests that the rationale for it be stated more directly, and that a clear strategy for supporting research in this area be articulated (for instance, see Marquart-Pyatt et al, 2011).
The overall goal of Objective 4.4 (Cultivate Workforce) is to “cultivate a capable, diverse workforce that is knowledgeable about climate and global change.” The Plan speaks to three elements of workforce: new scientists and future leaders, federal employees and contractors, and a next-generation workforce (which would appear to include training for workers in the “green jobs” or alternative energy sector). The needs for these different kinds of workers are quite different, and the roles that the Program would play in cultivating these different parts of the national workforce are not clearly specified. (Further, these are not mutually exclusive categories, since many climate change scientists are federal employees).
This section of the Plan includes some elements that seem appropriate and feasible, and others that do not. The USGCRP has a major role to play in development of the scientific work force needed to further its goals, including a workforce of social scientists and interdisciplinary researchers. This section of the Plan appropriately targets workforce development efforts at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels to develop a next generation of scientists in the range of research fields related to climate and related global changes.
The Committee questions, however, the feasibility of the ambitious goal “to coordinate an effort to raise environmental literacy and develop a future workforce that actively integrates global change and environmental considerations into future activities.” Doing this would go considerably beyond the original intent of the GCRA and the capabilities of the Program. In particular, engagement in job training for “green jobs,” which is implied by some of the language, would go beyond what we judge to be the proper purview of the USGCRP.
The same is true for the professional development of educators in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and the social sciences. While NSF support of professional development for educators is appropriate for that agency, such efforts are not (to our knowledge) an element of the USGCRP. We do, however, think it appropriate for the USGCRP to engage with NSF and other science education agencies in helping to develop curriculum and provide scientific content for educators who will be teaching about global change. Likewise, we do support strong programs to foster global change research in elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities and among the general public (i.e., citizen science). Such efforts are a reasonable extension of USGCRP research, and are also essential to recruit the next generation of global change scientists.
The Plan makes strong cases for increasing the integration of social and ecological sciences and for expanding research to support mitigation and adaptation decisions and the enhancement of climate services. The Committee agrees that broadening in these ways would help the Program better fulfill its mission under the GCRA. The increased emphasis on informing decisions is particularly important and long overdue. Broadening the Program in the areas of education, communication, and workforce development is also appropriate, to the extent that these efforts follow the suggestions made earlier, for linking to activities outside of the USGCRP.
In addition to the proposed broadening of the Program into relatively new areas, the Plan also calls for expanding existing program elements to deal with growing needs in physical climate science; for instance, to keep up with the rapid expansion of physical climate data, to expand modeling efforts, and to intensify observational activities that allow for development of climate models with finer spatial and temporal resolution.
An obvious challenge is how to broaden the Program’s scope in the planned ways and also expand efforts in traditional areas, all within a declining budget. The Plan suggests, in its section on implementation, that it will use “a phased approach” (L.3463) that will “ensure continuing strength at the scientific foundations of USGCRP (observations, modeling, and process research)” and “develop flexible plans for phasing in new activities and priorities over the decade” (L.3471-3473). This would seem to indicate that the ongoing strengths of the Program in physical climate science will get first priority and that new elements could be put on indefinite hold.
A second challenge concerns the limited capacity of the USGCRP agencies to broaden the Program into new areas related to decision support and integration of ecological and social sciences. Necessary scientific expertise (outside of economics) is scarce within the USGCRP member agencies and programs. Ideally, the USGCRP agencies should expand direct hiring of scientists with the needed expertise; but to the extent that hiring constraints make this approach
impossible, we encourage the Program to explore alternative ways of accessing that capacity – for instance, through engagement of the broader research community in universities and other laboratories, using a variety of grants and contracts. Unless the capacity issue is specifically addressed in this Plan, the USGCRP will likely fail to achieve the promised broadening of its scope.
In the Committee’s judgment, the implied strategy of putting all the new elements of the Plan on hold until the funding situation improves is a mistake. The Strategic Plan itself makes compelling arguments for broadening the Program now to strengthen science for decision support, to more broadly integrate all the sciences of global change for earth system understanding, to develop science to inform climate change mitigation and adaptation decisions, and so forth. Unless the Program begins to invest in these new elements now, it runs the risk of supporting only research that (while of high scientific merit) may not deserve highest priority in terms of meeting the nation’s needs for responding to global change. Moreover, without progress now, the Program will lack capacity to develop these areas later, if and when the funding situation improves. As suggested earlier, many of the initial investments that would help the Program broaden its scope are relatively low in cost and need not be postponed. Scientific priority setting should focus on the value of the information likely to be produced, more than on maintaining the momentum of past efforts.
The Committee believes that the Plan should explicitly acknowledge the challenges of phasing in new elements of the Program. The Program could face these challenges by: (1) establishing an appropriate interagency governance structure that has the authority, responsibility, and resources needed to implement the broader Program; and (2) identifying a set of specific, relatively low-cost initial efforts that lay the groundwork for a broader Program and improving the capacity of the participating agencies to undertake the planned work. Such an approach would, we believe, be feasible within the current budgetary context, and it would turn the planned broadening of the Program from what may seem like dubious promises into a credible Strategic Plan.
The proposed broadening of the Program – to better integrate the social and ecological sciences, to inform decisions about mitigation and adaptation, and to emphasize decision support more generally – is welcome and in fact essential for meeting the legislative mandate for a program aimed at understanding and responding to global change. Although this broader scope is needed, implementing it presents a grand challenge that should be met with more than just incremental solutions.
An effective global change research enterprise requires an integrated observational system that connects observations of the physical environment with a wide variety of social and ecological observations. Such a system is a crucial foundation for identifying and tracking global changes; for evaluating the drivers, vulnerabilities, and responses to such changes; and for identifying opportunities to increase the resilience of both human and natural systems. The Plan needs to describe a clear vision and specific objectives for adding and integrating new types of observations, along with a commitment to some concrete steps towards realizing this vision.
The Plan also needs to present an appropriate governance structure and dedicated mechanisms to sustain existing long-term observational systems.
The USGCRP and its member agencies and programs are lacking in capacity to achieve the proposed broadening of the Program, perhaps most seriously with regard to integrating the social and ecological sciences within research and observational programs, and to developing the scientific base and organizational capacity for decision support related to mitigation and adaptation choices. Member agencies and programs have insufficient expertise in these domains and lack clear mandates to develop the needed science.
In the Committee’s judgment, it would be a mistake to postpone phasing in the newer elements of the Program (as is implied in the implementation section of the Strategic Plan). Rather, we suggest that the Program identify some specific initial steps it will take in the proposed broadening of scope, including steps to develop critical science capacity that is currently lacking and to improve linkages between the production of knowledge and its use. The Program’s implementation plan should assign responsibilities and resources to specific entities to lead those efforts.
The proposed broadening of the Program in the areas of education, communication, and workforce development needs more careful thinking, regarding which of these activities belong within the Program, which are best organized by entities outside the Program, and how the former will link to the latter.