We find that the NCA draft report does generally meet the requirements of the legislative mandate in terms of timeliness, in summarizing key findings from USGCRP research, in analyzing effects on the various sectors/systems specified in the GCRA, and in projecting important trends for the coming decades. In addition, the draft report has gone beyond the explicit GCRA mandate in a few ways, which we find to be worthwhile and constructive additions to the report. For instance:
• it identifies research needs and knowledge gaps;
• it provides a vision for an ongoing assessment process;
• it examines mitigation and adaptation responses.
As defined in the NRC report Analysis of Global Change Assessments (2007, p.5), “assessments are collective, deliberative processes by which experts review, analyze, and synthesize scientific knowledge in response to users’ information needs relevant to key questions, uncertainties, or decisions.” This definition points to some key constraints affecting how the NCA must approach its work:
• The NCA must build on existing science, primarily research supported by the USGCRP. To the extent that the available body of research does not adequately meet users’ information needs, the NCA in turn is not fully able to meet those information needs. By identifying important gaps in knowledge and data, this NCA can help develop the research goals for improving future assessments.
• The NCA must build on users’ information needs, yet some decision makers are only just beginning to become aware of the implications of climate change for their sector or region, and have not yet fully identified their climate-related information needs. The NCA’s broad participatory process is, in large measure, an attempt to help users identify those needs. Offering a vision for an ongoing assessment process that can link scientific analysis with decision maker deliberation is a useful advance, because an ongoing process is essential for the exchange of information, both to inform decision makers and to inform the scientific community about the needs of decision makers.
• The NCA must consider mitigation and adaption activities as essential to an assessment of this scope. However, this points to an ambiguity in the GCRA mandate, which is not fully clarified in the NCA draft. The assessment definition above, with its focus on scientific knowledge, can comfortably encompass information about climate change, its impacts, and the social vulnerabilities implied in those impacts. But when discussing mitigation and adaptation response options, there is a gray area between describing the current state of scientific knowledge and offering guidance on what actions to take. Some would argue that the effort should be limited to only assessing knowledge (including knowledge about the current status and outcomes of mitigation and adaptation efforts), while others would argue that actual guidance on future action is a necessary part of being responsive to the nation’s information needs. It would be helpful for the intent and the goals of the NCA to be clarified, regarding this balance between assessing knowledge and providing guidance.
Because the NCA must examine climate change impacts on such a diverse array of regions and sectors, as well as a diverse array of response efforts, this leads to a very broad mandate for the assessment—much broader than that of many other high-profile assessments (e.g., the UNEP Stratospheric Ozone Assessment). The breadth of what must be done and the lack of clearly articulated needs by some decision makers create a very challenging task for the NCA authors. Given this, inevitably some parts of the NCA draft report are stronger than others. This review does raise a variety of concerns about, and suggestions for improving, specific parts of the draft NCA report. But these detailed suggestions should not cloud the Panel’s overall assessment—that the NCA draft is a useful synthesis of a large body of knowledge, much of which did not exist when the Global Change Research Act was enacted. As the nation continues to engage with the threats, opportunities, and surprises of climate change in its many manifestations, the 2013 NCA provides a valuable summary of the state of knowledge about climate change and its implications for the American people.
Below are three particular areas where the Panel feels more attention is needed in order for the report to fully meet the GCRA mandate.
I A part of the GCRA mandate is to “integrate” the USGCRP’s research findings. The Panel suggests that this integrative effort would be enhanced if the report provided a clear overarching framework that helps people think about the complex problem of climate change within the broader context of global change. Although the current draft offers some framing concepts in later chapters of the report, this framing needs to be presented clearly from the outset to give the reader much-needed context for the sector- and region-specific information that follows. These framing concepts likewise need to be reinforced throughout the document, in part because many readers may only view a few select chapters. Building upon the ideas that are already touched upon in the NCA draft, this framing would include at least two important dimensions:
Climate change as part of a complex, coupled human/natural system. While this NCA draft has made progress in looking at linkages among different biophysical systems, the overall framing also needs to convey how human systems are intrinsically linked with the biophysical systems. Climate change is not a phenomenon happening in isolation, but rather it is embedded in a complex set of interacting global changes. The influence of human activities has grown over time to become a dominant driver of global environmental change, such that it is no longer possible to understand the earth’s ecological and physical systems without a concomitant understanding of how human activities influence these systems. Many NCA authors are likely familiar with the growing body of research that demonstrates the nature of these coupled human/natural systems.
Dealing with uncertainty through iterative risk management. A wide range of decisions made by societies (e.g., regarding the location of settlements, planting of crops, planning for epidemics, management of fisheries) rely on an assumption that climate is stable—that any given place will have the same kinds of weather fluctuations in the future that prevailed in the past. But climate change undermines this premise of a “stationary” system by changing the future probabilities of weather norms and extremes. Even with continued advances in climate science, significant uncertainties about these changes will remain. As discussed in the NRC’s America’s Climate Choices reports, the soundest approach for dealing with this uncertain future is iterative risk management. This involves moving away from a traditional “predict-then-act” paradigm, in which one identifies an optimal outcome and then takes the action most likely to realize that outcome, towards an “explore-then-test” paradigm, in which one considers multiple plausible outcomes and then pursues/tests response strategies that are adaptable and likely to prove resilient across a broad range of outcomes. Risk management decisions made by government leaders, businesses, and individuals are guided by many factors other than science (e.g., personal values, economic considerations, social norms); thus while scientific knowledge is critical, it is just one of many factors that will inform and help us build a resilient society. Advancing these risk management strategies thus requires sustained dialog between scientists and the broader community—a goal that the NCA process itself can (and has already begun to) help advance.
The NCA authors have several options for where these framing ideas can be raised within the draft. The ideas might be presented as a stand-alone opening chapter; and they might be reinforced in the short synthesis pieces presented at the beginning of the sectoral chapters, regional chapters, and “response strategies” chapters. The Panel’s view is that the introductory “Letter to the American People” offers the best opportunity to initially raise these framing ideas. More suggestions for how “the Letter” can be best used are given in the response to Question 3.
II As the title implies, the National Climate Assessment is focused primarily on climate change, whereas the GCRA refers to an assessment of global change more broadly2. The NCA draft needs to clearly define how it is interpreting the concept of global change used by the GCRA. This distinction between climate and global change was discussed at length in the recent NRC review of the USGCRP Strategic Plan, and many of the same concerns raised in that review apply here.
It is appropriate to have climate change be the central focus of the assessment effort; and it is understandable that practical constraints (in time and resources available, in document length, etc.) make this focus necessary to some degree. Further, the overwhelming majority of work funded by the USGCRP has been on climate change, and that work must be the basis of the assessment. We are concerned, however, that the current draft sometimes portrays climate change as an isolated problem, without sufficient consideration of other important global environmental changes and societal developments (both positive and negative) that will interact with climate change, affecting both our vulnerability and our strategies for responding.
In most settings, decision makers have to deal with a broad set of interacting issues and priorities, not just climate change in isolation. An overly narrow focus can encourage one-sided solutions, for instance by giving an impression that reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone will solve all of the major environmental concerns discussed in this report. Of course it is not feasible for the assessment to provide detailed analysis of all the relevant interacting global change forces, but the report could note, with greater frequency and clarity, that climate change will unfold in a broader and very complex context. This would help the NCA report to ultimately be more responsive to the nation’s information needs.
There are a number of ways that the current NCA draft could be feasibly augmented to give readers a better understanding of this broader framework. For instance, Chapter 2 could have an additional section that describes some of the other global changes that interact with climate change. Perhaps the chapter title could even be revised from “Our Changing Climate” to something such as “A Changing Climate in a Changing World.” The report could also reinforce this idea within each of the sectoral chapters by pointing to examples of how climate change impacts and response needs will interact with other key developments and priorities in that sector. This broader perspective may point to some “win-win” actions that help address multiple priorities simultaneously.
III The GCRA mandate to discuss scientific uncertainties appears to be adequately addressed in the NCA draft on some fronts. However, the Panel is concerned about the lack of explicit discussion about the uncertainties associated with the regional model projections presented in the NCA draft. The report presents model projections for changes in key climate variables (temperature, precipitation, etc.) at regional spatial scales and decadal timescales. At these scales, variations of results among the models for any given scenario can be as large as or larger than (for some
2 The definition of “global change” given in the GCRA itself and used in the recent USGCRP Strategic Plan is “changes in the global environment (including alterations in climate, land productivity, oceans, or other water resources, atmospheric composition and/or chemistry, and ecological systems) that may alter the capacity of the Earth to sustain life.”
variables) the variation of results between scenarios (see comment #25 for further discussion). Decision makers need a clear understanding of these uncertainties in order to fairly evaluate the actual utility of using these projections as a basis for planning decisions. The NCA report can help provide that understanding.
As discussed further in the Appendix A comments, some possible strategies for improving the presentation of the model projections include evaluating how the statistics of critical processes such as extreme precipitation (e.g., frequency, persistence, intensity) might change under climate change scenarios and presenting the statistics of the projections themselves, as well as the statistics of the particular process being modeled. The assessment would also benefit from employing more rigorous methods for using historical observational data to calibrate and validate the regional-scale models (see comment #23 for details).
QUESTION 2: Is the report responsive to the nation’s needs for information on climate variability and change in a global change context, their potential implications, and the potential effects of different response options?
This is a difficult question to answer because (a) the nation comprises a diverse array of communities and stakeholders with widely varying needs, (b) the Panel cannot define a priori what the nation’s needs actually are for all of these broad realms, and (c) some decision makers are only beginning to understand climate change as a serious risk and thus be able to articulate information needs to which the NCA could respond. Given the current state of the science and the scope of time and resources available, we believe this draft report does a reasonable job of fulfilling its charge. The Panel suggests, however, that the information provided in the current draft, with its heavy focus on impacts, is necessary but not sufficient as a foundation to fully meet the nation’s needs for information and guidance. As discussed later, many such needs cannot be met without expanded research efforts on the part of the USGCRP agencies or others.
With regard to information on climate variability and change: The report does offer substantial information about current trends and future projections of key climate variables. For some purposes, decision makers would like to use projections of greater certainty and finer spatial resolution than are currently possible, which thus inherently limits the degree to which the NCA can be responsive. But for many purposes, regional-scale information on climate trends (as provided in the draft) can be a valuable starting point for helping decision makers understand potential risks and for understanding why it is necessary to move away from the “stationary climate” assumptions that implicitly inform so many decisions today
With regard to information on potential implications: The report offers a wealth of information about the potential impacts of climate change on specific regions and for important social and economic sectors, and in general this is one of the strongest aspects of the report. However, the
Panel does have numerous suggestions for ways in which specific elements of this information could be augmented or changed to be more useful to readers (discussed further in the Question 4 response and in the Appendix A comments). Some general concerns that arose include the following:
• The report would be more balanced if it explicitly acknowledged some of the possible beneficial impacts that may result from climate change (along with the wide array of negative impacts that are identified), and acknowledged that some predicted adverse impacts might be lessened through other developments that are expected in the coming decades (for instance, the idea that historical trends of rising agricultural productivity are expected to continue, and adverse climate change impacts may only slow this increase).
• In several chapters, the discussion of current and future impacts comes across as a litany of disconnected facts with no sense of prioritization of major versus minor concerns. While assigning relative importance to different impacts is largely a subjective exercise, greater use of tabular presentations and approximate rank ordering of scale of impacts would be helpful.
• As discussed earlier, the draft tends to look at the regional and sectoral climate change impacts in isolation from other processes of change; and as a result, climate change is sometimes portrayed as a key driving force behind trends that are in fact driven by numerous causal factors. For example, the decline of some tribal and indigenous cultures has been ongoing for many decades and may be accelerated by (but not primarily driven by) climate change.
With regard to information on the effects of response options: This is the first NCA report to explicitly evaluate the state of the nation’s response efforts, and the Panel acknowledges that this sort of evaluation is a challenging undertaking and an important positive step. But the evaluation efforts fall short in some important ways, discussed below in the context of the three “response options” chapters.
Chapter 26 (Decision Support): While this chapter contains a useful summary of the basic concepts and frameworks for decision support, there were also several concerns about the chapter, summarized below and with further details in the Appendix A comments.
• This chapter suffers from an overly academic orientation, as demonstrated in part by the “insider” jargon used throughout the chapter. In addition, there is a heavy focus on idealized models of decision-making, and an apparent view that knowledge production is the final goal of decision support efforts. There is little discussion of the real-world situations in which valuable knowledge and support tools are often not used by the intended audiences— a reality that is especially relevant for an issue as complex and politicized as climate change. When the chapter does offer real life examples, it engages and informs; it would thus be helpful to see more of these examples of current climate-related decision support efforts, coupled with practical guidance for advancing such efforts.
• The chapter makes several claims regarding the effectiveness of decision-support tools, but does not support these claims with any evaluation of existing climate-related decision support efforts. For instance, while the draft chapter discusses the value of participatory processes to link scientists and stakeholders, there is no discussion of existing efforts to do this sort of work, such as the Regional Integrated Science and Assessments (RISAs). Because the chapter is so heavily focused on the process of decision support, it gives little sense of the outcomes that can ultimately be achieved (or that have been achieved thus far) through successful decision support efforts. It would be useful to explore what has worked and not worked in these real-world examples. (See comment #584 for references on the RISAs and related activities).
• Unless the chapter itself can be substantially re-drafted, it might need to be re-titled to better reflect the actual content. For instance, it could be called “Informing Decisions” or “Decision Support Tools and Processes,,” or include a subheading such as “Models for bridging the gap between scientific understanding and decision making.”
Chapter 27 (Mitigation): This chapter does go farther than the adaptation or decision support chapters in terms of actually assessing the adequacy of current response efforts (concluding that current mitigation efforts are “not close to sufficient”). But much of the relevant information about what particular mitigation options might do to actually bend the curve of greenhouse gas emissions nationally or in particular sectors is scattered among other chapters of the report (e.g., chapters 3, 10, 13, 16). It would be helpful to see better linkages among these different chapters, perhaps using hyperlinks to avoid repetition of text. The Panel members identified some specific issues that they feel merit more in-depth consideration within this chapter. These include, for instance,
• greater acknowledgement (and at least one key message?) about the international context— i.e., how U.S. emission reductions fit into the larger picture of needed global emission reductions;
• an acknowledgment that not only pricing and technology changes affect emissions, but also population growth and shifting demographics, institutional arrangements, consumption patterns, and culture (see comment #595);
• additional consideration of the opportunities that exist to close the “energy efficiency gap” as part of the nation’s mitigation strategy (see comment #597);
• consideration of a greater range of possible emission scenarios (see comment #601);
• discussion of the possible distributional impacts of mitigation policies on different parts of the population (see comment #602); and
• a more complete understanding of the state of the science related to the major energy sources discussed in this chapter, including additional discussion of how the recent dramatic expansion of natural gas production affects emission trajectories.
Chapter 28 (Adaptation): This chapter is based largely on presenting lists of adaptation planning efforts underway by various actors across the country, which may serve as useful inspiration for some readers. But these unstructured lists of planning activities do not offer the readers much of a systematic understanding of what is needed to advance effective adaptation efforts, nor a vision for how research could help develop the knowledge base to inform coherent adaption policy. The goal of adaptation is to handle change resiliently and to cope with some unavoidable or unpredictable conditions. As the NRC America’s Climate Choices reports pointed out, decision-making in this context requires a risk management strategy. It would be helpful for the chapter to directly describe how iterative risk management can be used to aid adaptation efforts and to suggest what kinds of data (e.g., on vulnerability) most need to be collected to support such efforts. Some related suggestions and areas of concern highlighted by the Panel include the following:
• This Chapter did not try to assess how much past adaptation actions have reduced, and future ones might reduce, vulnerability to climate-related events. This omission is understandable, given the lack of necessary information base and robust indicators needed to support such an assessment, but at a minimum this could be an important knowledge gap.
• In addition to all of the examples of adaptation planning efforts, it would be helpful to see some examples of actual activities underway to build adaptive capacity and resilience (recognizing that in some cases, planning itself can contribute to increased resilience—e.g., having an emergency plan in place may be sufficient, as long as the plan is actually enacted when needed).
• The discussion needs a more complete and realistic examination of the barriers that can prevent further progress in adaptation (see comments #635-637 for details).
• The chapter needs a fuller consideration of how adaptation planning connects to disaster management planning (see comments #640, 641 for details).
• There is a heavy focus on steps to be taken by large governmental or private sector institutions, but little consideration of how to downscale these efforts and engage small businesses, households, etc.
• Some of the most useful discussion and examples relating to adaptation are found in the sector-specific chapters (e.g., on agriculture). It would be good to at least refer the reader to those discussions through the use of hyperlinks or some other means.
An issue that reaches across the different response chapters in the NCA report (decision support, mitigation, adaptation) is the need to draw upon fields such as anthropology, decision sciences, and psychology to gain important insights on the cognitive and social processes that affect how people may respond to the expectation of climate change and its impacts. Such insights are needed, for instance, to assess the uncertainties in human responses to climate change and to effectively pursue iterative risk management strategies. The IPCC Fifth Assessment report, currently under development, is taking some important steps towards applying this sort of perspective.
The draft contains numerous figures that are likely to be clear and compelling to readers, but the Panel does also have numerous suggestions for improving the clarity of specific graphs and figures. Some of the more general concerns include:
• There are many instances where the figures are not referenced in the text. It is left to the readers to determine how the figure relates to the discussion.
• The time periods illustrated by the different figures vary a great deal, with little apparent rationale for these differences. This may leave the NCA vulnerable to accusation of cherry-picking data to prove certain points. The report needs a statement affirming that the time periods used for all figures were based on the reliable data available in each case. To the extent possible, it would be best to use just a few standard time scales, even if this means that for some figures, the time scale begins somewhat before data is available. And at a minimum, all figures need to have their time frame clearly indicated in the figure title.
• A few of the images and figures seem misleading. For instance, the “shrinking clam” photo (Figure 24.3) is at odds with the report’s message about having “low confidence” in predictions of ecosystem change. The tick distribution map (Figure 9.8) suggests a significant spread of Lyme disease risk, whereas the reference that figure is based on actually concludes the opposite.
The report’s use of Key Messages is a good way to distill the massive collection of information into a digestible set of ideas, which many readers will surely appreciate. But the Panel members offer a number of suggestions for strengthening specific Key Messages, as discussed in the Appendix A comments. General concerns are that some of the Key Messages are so vague or hedged in nature that they lack real meaning (e.g., see comments #7, 589); and that some Key Messages seem inconsistent in tone with or unsubstantiated by the underlying chapter text (e.g., see comments #19, 454, 529, 531, 552, 607). Some other communication-related concerns about the draft report include the following:
• Parts of the report are written at a level of discussion that may be suitable for certain specialist audiences (such as scientific researchers and federal agency managers) but inaccessible to the average lay reader. The use of technical and scientific jargon and undefined acronyms needs to be minimized, if not entirely removed, throughout the report. A few terms are defined at various places in the report, but we urge consideration of a more comprehensive glossary, as well as an acronym list (both of which could be hyperlinked from the main text).
• Some chapters read like a complex collection of facts, with no sense of a narrative or roadmap to help the reader to make sense of all the information or follow the train of
evidence to the conclusions. We suggest working with the science communication specialists on the NCA team to improve the report’s readability in this regard.
• Looking across the NCA report chapters, one finds inconsistencies in terms of verb tenses and imperial versus metric units. There is also inconsistent usage of some key terms (e.g., vulnerability, impacts, risks). A thorough editorial scrubbing of the report is needed to address such problems.
• There are unavoidable repetitions of content across the report, e.g., between regional and sectoral chapters, and between both of these and the last several cross-cutting chapters. This may be necessary because many readers will only look at specific chapters of interest to them. But the authors should check for repetitious areas and make sure what is said in the multiple places is consistent.
Some of these concerns could be partially addressed by taking full advantage of the e-book format planned for the final publication. The NCA can effectively exploit this electronic platform by using hyperlinks among multiple instances of similar or related concepts used in different places throughout the report. The jargon problems can be partially addressed by using hyperlinks between the text and a glossary and acronym list. One could even exploit the non-linear nature of this platform by doing away with chapter numbers and presenting a “network” rather than a line of chapters. The non-linear structure also opens up new opportunities to help guide the experience of the diverse audiences that will be reading this complex assessment. In thinking over these communication challenges, the Panel thought of a fanciful (though hopefully helpful) analogy, described below.
A Museum Analogy
Imagine the NCA reader as a first-time visitor to a large museum containing a wealth of knowledge. Some of the information presented in the museum will be of immediate passing interest; some may engage the visitor more deeply and lead to significant learning; and some will be the province of specialists (though available to a curious and persistent visitor).
Down one corridor lies the American Wing, where the landscapes of North America may be found, each in a separate glass-walled diorama. Here a citizen can see what her or his homeland might look like as the climate changes over the coming decades. Another corridor leads to the Natural History and Commerce Collection, where large sectors of the economy (cities, farming, energy) and of the environment (water, land) can be examined. Much of this may draw the interest of specific stakeholders more than the casual visitors. For the civic-minded, there is the Hall of Public Choice, where the questions of mitigation, adaptation, research, and decision support are presented, in a way that stands back from political controversy while informing public debate. Overall, visitors will see a portrait of a changing world, at once familiar and strange.
Given the great breadth and complexity of the information contained in this museum, there is a need for an “entry hall” of sorts, which helps to introduce visitors to the museum’s many
sights, and to efficiently direct them to the galleries that offer the information of greatest interest. In the current NCA draft, the Letter to the American People serves as this entry hall. We suggest this purpose be pursued more explicitly, with the Letter recast as a “guide to the reader” aimed at helping readers navigate the document, and providing an initial sense of the overarching frameworks that shape the document as a whole. The Letter could be posted on the first page readers encounter when they come to the website containing the report; it could then point readers with different interests to chapters containing the most relevant content. By providing readers with links to specific content, the entry page could help readers negotiate the vast body of material contained in the report.
We approach this question with an acknowledgement that the NCA draft already covers a huge array of topics, and that there are always more topics one could add to an assessment as broad this one. And it is probably fair to say that everyone would like to keep the report from expanding beyond its already considerable length. We have thus tried to refrain from suggesting a long list of all possible topics that could potentially be appropriate to add to the report. But there are some topics that do seem to be truly “missing,” in that their absence undermines the usefulness of the assessment. The comments in Appendix A point to an array of specific issues that the NCA authors may wish to consider. Some of these omissions were noted in the earlier discussion about the response efforts (decision support, mitigation, adaptation) chapters. Here we highlight some additional examples:
• As noted earlier, it would be helpful to see more explicit discussion of the uncertainties that are inherent in the report’s projections of future climatic changes (given that these uncertainties can be quite large for regional spatial scales and for decadal timescales).
• The Chapter 2 discussion of the climate system needs to look beyond just atmospheric system variables—for instance, to acknowledge the profound role of the oceans in the climate system and to highlight biological indicators of a changing climate.
• There is a clear need for more international context in the discussion of energy use and mitigation efforts, and in understanding U.S. vulnerabilities that stem from impacts occurring elsewhere in the world.
• Many readers will be looking for guidance on how climate change response efforts relate to other key priorities within particular sectors as well as for opportunities to advance adaptation and mitigation together with these other priorities.
• The urban cross-cut chapter lacks information about how urban areas contribute to emissions and can reduce emissions (especially considering the role of land use and transportation planning); about climate change impacts on cities (beyond just storm surge and sea level rise); and about the unique context of suburban and ex-urban environments. This chapter also lacks explicit consideration of the complex processes involved in applying
scientific and engineering knowledge to mitigation and adaptation in urban areas—i.e., through development of new standards, and in some cases new engineering codes, regulations, and enforcement, as well as the resulting requirements for reaching consensus among many stakeholders and for training for those who must implement new standards and regulations.
• The land-use discussion would be enhanced by consideration of the biophysical consequences (not only the biogeochemical consequences) of land use change, how land use changes affect vulnerability (e.g., flood risk), and how land use strategies can contribute to climate change mitigation.
• The discussion of human health issues needs to explore potential health threats caused by climate-related changes in infectious agents and to acknowledge the very limited understanding of the links between climate change, ecosystem change and disease vectors (discussion and example references in comment #324).
The traceable accounts analyses presented at the end chapter are a valuable innovation over past NCA reports and will prove especially valuable if the NCA’s e-book format allows readers to link back directly to the primary references and datasets. In most places, the draft does a good job of documenting the support for key findings. But the Panel’s Appendix A comments point to a number of places where the execution of the traceable accounts needs improvement (e.g., where the traceable accounts are not truly consistent with, or supportive of, the main chapter text).
Also it is worth noting that the confidence levels assigned in some traceable accounts seem to contrast with findings in recent and forthcoming reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), particularly on the topic of attribution of extreme events. (See comments #17, 195, 727-9, 736-8 for details and references). The credibility of the NCA report would be enhanced if these apparent differences are explained.
Chapter 29 (“Research Agenda for Climate Change Science”) starts with the following disclaimer: “Since the focus of this chapter is on research needs identified through the national assessment process, it is not intended to cover the full range of goals of the USGCRP. There are many additional USGCRP priorities for climate change and global change science more broadly that are not reflected here.” While this disclaimer helps clarify that the goal is not to articulate a “full” research agenda, the Chapter title implies otherwise and might need to be changed to avoid confusion. More generally, there seems to be lingering confusion about the actual purpose of the chapter. Is the goal
to identify research needs for supporting the assessment process itself? Or research needs for directly informing decision makers? Or something else? This goal should be articulated as clearly as possible, as it affects what one identifies as the most important gaps in existing knowledge.
The Appendix A comments point to a variety of research needs that the Panel feels merit more consideration by the NCA authors. This includes some biophysical research topics, for instance, topics related to climate change impacts on ocean and coastal resources, characterization of the future frequencies and intensities of extreme events, and climate-driven infectious disease threats. It also includes many knowledge gaps in the social sciences, for instance, the need for research related to identifying and quantifying vulnerabilities, public understanding of risk, methodologies for valuation and for evaluating tradeoffs, understanding what motivates people to change practices and behaviors, and understanding of uncertainties in emission scenarios coming from demographic and lifestyle changes. Social science research is included by inference in some of the topics mentioned in Ch.29, but given how the USGCRP agencies have long struggled to expand research in this realm, we suggest more explicitly pointing to the need for a serious commitment to address these critical knowledge gaps.
Other general suggestions related to this chapter:
• The NCA is a process embedded within the USGCRP, and the USGCRP Strategic Plan commits to use the assessment process to identify research needs to meet the priorities of decision makers and stakeholders. It would thus make sense for the NCA report to offer some discussion about how the research needs identified in the NCA draft relate to the research goals in the USGCRP Strategic Plan (e.g.: Which goals in the Plan does the NCA see as a priority? What goals might be missing from the Plan that are critical to support an ongoing assessment?). It would likewise be helpful to provide some analysis of whether the topics identified in the NCA draft are addressed in existing research programs of the USGCRP agencies. And finally it would be useful for the USGCRP implementation process to explicitly draw upon the NCA in setting research priorities.
• It would be helpful to see some prioritization among the many topics that are listed. Setting research priorities is always a difficult endeavor, but at least within key realms (e.g. adaptation, vulnerability, resilience) it seems the NCA authors would be as well poised as anyone to say what is most needed in order to strengthen the assessment process in the future.
• Some NCA chapters already conclude with listing research needs (e.g., Ch.27). It might be helpful to do this more consistently across the report, with each chapter concluding with a list of (what the authors see as) glaring knowledge or information gaps that most need to be filled in order to assess that chapter topic more robustly and completely in future assessment reports. If this was indeed the approach used to compile the summary list in Ch.29, it does not come across very clearly.
QUESTION 7: Does the sustained assessment chapter provide an appropriate path to support the development of a sustained assessment process within USGCRP that engages regional and sectoral communities of interest?
Chapter 30 presents a detailed vision for a sustained process, argues for why the envisioned process would be desirable, and identifies the key elements of an ongoing effort (e.g., data sources, information management systems, an indicator system, research and observations, assessment reports, capacity building, identification of knowledge gaps and uncertainties). This chapter does not offer any details on how to actually implement the articulated vision, but the Panel was informed that the NCA authors did not actually attempt to present any such implementation plans, and that a separate report on that subject is now being produced by the NCA Development and Advisory Committee (NCADAC). While the Panel thus cannot comment on whether an appropriate path forward has been provided, we do offer a few general thoughts about the vision that has been offered.
This chapter describes an ambitious suite of activities that could enable effective use, through broad-based communication and outreach, of the USGCRP’s research findings. But these activities do have costs, and it is important to consider how the assessment activities can draw upon existing federal agency data collection, research, and evaluation efforts. Precise budget estimates for a sustained assessment process may be difficult to determine at this point, but it would be helpful to at least see order-of-magnitude estimates for the incremental costs of the sustained assessment as envisioned and for the underlying full cost of the monitoring and analysis infrastructure needed for its support.
It would be helpful for this chapter to more clearly explain the rationale for why the nation should have a sustained assessment process (beyond just the fact that it is mandated by law), for instance, by discussing how these types of assessments can actually help stakeholders incorporate climate change information into important decisions and build much-needed trust between producers and users of climate information. Is it possible to provide some evidence for the chapter’s claims that “this sustained assessment process will lead to better outcomes for the people of the United States by providing more relevant, comprehensible, and usable knowledge to guide decisions…” (p.1048)? The chapter discussion has such a heavy focus on process alone that it is hard to actually see the “better outcomes” that will ultimately result from this process.
Chapter 30 suggests that the sustained assessment effort would aim to “evaluate the nation’s vulnerabilities to climate variability and change and its capacity to respond.” This implies a different type of assessment than what has been presented in the 2013 NCA draft report. Yet the chapter also suggests that the sustained assessment effort would largely continue the same basic approaches being used in the 2013 NCA report. We suggest that attaining the stated new aim requires exploring a broader range of possibilities for what a sustained assessment process might look like.
For instance, a more direct focus on the aim articulated above would entail assessing numerous factors beyond just climate science. It may include assessing the state of: technological
innovation (are we making sufficient progress in advancing clean energy technologies?), technical readiness (do we have adequate observational capabilities?), human resource capacity (are we training a new generation of scientists able to address broad interdisciplinary issues?), public education and engagement efforts (are we reaching the right audiences with opportunities for productive dialogue?), and current and proposed policy options (is a particular policy helping or hurting our vulnerability?).
An assessment of this broader range of questions would, of course, require a broader foundation of research findings to draw upon, and thus it would be necessary to explore how this broader range of issues could be addressed, either within the scope of the USGCRP’s research program or elsewhere. It might, for instance, require expanded involvement of programmatic agencies not typically involved with the USGCRP (e.g., the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration, Navy Facilities Engineering Command, Federal Highway Administration) to conduct pilot projects for mitigation and adaptation.
The Panel offers a few suggestions about alternative ideas (and practical strategies) that could perhaps be considered in planning the ongoing assessment process:
• The NCA could launch an effort to identify leading innovators, who are taking important exploratory steps in mitigation or adaptation and thus learning by doing. This effort to identify leading and best practices might initially be done as a stand-alone NCADAC report, but would ideally take the form of an ongoing system for tracking leading practices. It would be valuable to the sustained assessment process to ask these leading innovators to identify specific information and decision support tools they feel they need in order to do a better job in the future.
• The considerable length of the current NCA draft points to a need to consider a series of topically-focused reports, which could be of a more readable length yet would allow greater depth on any given subject. We are not recommending the approach used for the Synthesis and Assessment Product (SAP) reports produced in 2006-2008, which were very focused on physical science topics and didn’t use the transparent, user-driven model envisioned for the sustained assessment process. We consider the current assessment vision to be a considerable improvement over the SAP approach. But there are other possible models for a distributed assessment that could build upon the NCA’s current move from a traditional hardcopy report to more adaptive, web-based publishing approaches (as discussed under question 3).
• Relating back to the concerns expressed earlier about climate change versus global change, future NCA efforts could potentially expand the scope of issues addressed and look at other critically important elements of global environmental change. One approach to starting this expansion is with a special NCADAC report that identifies what particular topics could most feasibly be integrated into future assessments.
• The Panel did find the draft document to contain a variety of factual errors and editorial-type problems (that in some cases might be construed as biases), which are detailed in the
Appendix A comments. This is to be expected in a large, complex draft document developed by numerous authors on a very short timeframe. The public comment period and this NRC review were designed precisely to help catch such problems and thus allow the NCA authors an opportunity to make needed corrections for the final report. However, the public comment draft is, by definition, a public document, and in this case it was widely reported on by the media (even if this media coverage was not actively sought by the NCA). That reality entails some obligation on the part of the NCA leadership to ensure that errors are minimized before the public comment draft is released. To help assure scientific rigor, we thus suggest that in future assessments, the report production timeline be staged to allow an additional round of careful internal peer review before a draft is released for comment by the public (and the NRC).
• Executing the sustained assessment process as envisioned may require a more formal support structure that does not have to rely so heavily on volunteer experts. The problem of “assessment fatigue” may make it harder over time for the NCA to engage the necessary pool of volunteers on an ongoing basis. However, a larger core of dedicated staff points to a need for greater financial support, which is not a simple suggestion in today’s budget environment. But finding a way to assure financial support at levels commensurate with the magnitude of the task is a critical part of making the sustained assessment process actually sustainable. The NRC report Analysis of Global Change Assessments: Lessons Learned (2007) offers further useful discussion of these practical management challenges.