The 2012 Strategic Plan increased attention to developing and providing usable information. This was an important act of leadership, providing a way for the USGCRP to recognize and address a growing set of national needs for knowledge about global environmental change. The Program has made major progress in a short period of time, especially including the innovations achieved in the NCA. The Committee believes that the USP should build on these advances so that a productive and vibrant research enterprise can continue to stimulate discovery and support applications as the Nation addresses the changing circumstances brought by a climate that is no longer stationary and a world that continues to be dynamic in many dimensions.
The Committee believes that the grouping of Goals 2-4 in the draft USP (Chapter 3, pp. 31-32) is a sign of the evolution of the Program’s approach to decision support that recognizes the connections among informing decisions, assessments, and education/communication. As discussed in section 2.1 of this report, as a set, Goals 2-4 signal that “advancing understanding” is to be implemented in a fashion that informs decisions, supports assessments, and provides a foundation for education and training. While it is important that the Program clearly states its commitment to all three sets of objectives, and each area has unique opportunities and challenges, all of the areas share things in common as well, as described in the draft USP. From the Committee’s perspective, these three goals require development of knowledge (including about the processes of effective decision support) and a variety of mechanisms that expand the USGCRP beyond its traditional role of facilitating conversations within the scientific community to include spanning the boundary between scientific research and its users, both in and beyond the federal government. They also require evaluation and adaptive learning, not only within each area, but also across them with regard to their common elements. What is being learned about engagement and communication in the assessment process that can also be applied in improving decision support and educational materials? How can the assessment process be used to synthesize knowledge being gained in the many decision support activities underway in different sectors and regions? What workforce or other needs are identified that can help prioritize development of educational materials useful in training climate-savvy professionals in engineering, architecture, public health, and other fields? To realize the full potential of grouping these objectives together, the Committee recommends that the USGCRP develop mechanisms that promote adaptive learning across them. This does not mean, however, that the Committee is suggesting that the emphasis on these three topics be reduced. They are all at relatively early stages of development or in important transition (e.g., to a sustained, distributed assessment process) that requires continued prioritization if objectives are to be met.
The remainder of this chapter starts with a brief discussion of the need for research on decision support, as well as providing decision support as described in Goal 2 (see section 2.6 above for discussion of a broader range of opportunities for integrating social science in the USGCRP). The chapter then provides reactions and recommendations related to each of Goals 2-4.
Decision support systems and tools are being developed for users in many sectors and regions. Some of these, such as many of those assembled in the Climate Resilience Toolkit (https://toolkit.climate.gov/) provide climate information to those who need it to assess vulnerability or plan adaptation. Others portray potential impacts related to specified changes in climate (e.g., drought, flooding) and processes such as sea level rise. Still others seek to support stakeholders in evaluating consequences of impacts for operation of infrastructure, for the economy, and for communities. Decision support in its various forms, including assessments, is a complex process that depends on high-quality science that includes information on uncertainty and levels of confidence. It also depends on knowledge of a variety of psychological, social, institutional, and other dimensions of the human context in which the information is used. In the 10-year Strategic Plan and the draft USP, the USGCRP commits to developing the knowledge required for effective decision support. It describes the Program’s commitment to integrating social science research needed for decision support. But it has yet to articulate a clear and focused agenda for social science research needed to understand what distinguishes effective decision support in different contexts.
The NCA’s chapter on Decision Support (Moss et al., 2014) identifies elements of this agenda, described relative to the different phases of an idealized adaptive risk management process that includes (1) framing the decision and information needs, (2) discovering and coproducing information, (3) integrating values, science, and other contextual factors, (4) deciding and implementing, and (5) monitoring, learning, and reviewing decisions and decision support. Each stage of any adaptive management process includes different challenges that must be considered in effective decision support. The Committee believes that the USP should begin to move the USGCRP toward a more specific description of social science research that will support evaluation of decision support tools and systems. Articulating the research agenda would advance some of the generalities mentioned (effective practices, lessons learned, etc.). The agenda also should provide concrete approaches for integrating social, behavioral, and economic science to support effective decision-making processes and to understand how different tools/systems affect decision-making processes and outcomes. This includes research in psychology, sociology, economics, etc. that evaluates how different tools/systems affect decision-making processes and outcomes (Moss, 2015).
This is not only a social science agenda but also involves research in climate and other natural sciences to develop tailored information about climate and other global change phenomena for decision support. Downscaling of climate model simulations, for
example, is often described (including by decision makers) as the key to improving decision making. But in some cases, this is not the best approach for providing the information decision makers actually are seeking (see discussion in section 3.2 of this report). Research that mines large archives of climate model data to determine frequency of occurrence of different threshold events or the synoptic conditions that give rise to them may provide information more useful for some types of decisions. Additional research on information tailoring, as well as work with engineers, architects, and other professionals to understand the information required for their modeling, analysis, design, and other activities, is also needed as a component of this agenda.
As evidenced by the impacts of recent extreme weather and climate events, there is a critical need for science to inform decisions on adaptation and mitigation. As suggested above, the Committee sees in the draft USP a growing realization that the USGCRP has an important role to play in boundary spanning. In this section, we explore ways in which the USP discussion of this goal could serve as an opportunity to clearly articulate a research agenda, not just about research needed to improve decision making, but also research to understand what makes some decision support tools and approaches more effective than others. For example, heatwave early warning systems save lives, but can fall short of their potential (see Box 2.2). In this case, research is needed on effective approaches to encourage appropriate social and behavioral change.
Another research direction needed to support decision-making processes is better understanding of which components of successful decision support tools and approaches are unique to a particular context and which components can be transferred from one location to another. For example, the significant personal commitment of Mayor Michael Bloomberg was an important driving force in developing and implementing adaptation programs and projects in New York City. Better understanding is needed of the human and financial resources, capacity building, and political will needed to replicate this elsewhere.
It could be helpful to highlight the fact that decisions create path dependencies that could increase or decrease future vulnerability, depending on the magnitude and pattern of climate change. Understanding these path dependencies is important if decisions are going to continue to be effective with additional climate change.
Research also is needed on how individuals and societies can better prepare for and manage residual impacts that will be too costly or too difficult to eliminate. And, as illustrated in the recent extensive flooding in the Midwest, increased understanding is needed of how to better manage consequences, including mental health, of climate-related impacts.
As noted in the discussion of Objective 1.2, research is needed to develop baselines of current capacities in decision making and implementation against which progress can be measured; this effort includes deciding what information should be captured and monitored. The text refers to using results of evaluations of decision-support
activities to inform future activities, but does not describe the social science research needed to guide these evaluations, or who is going to do so. Further, it would be helpful to clarify what activities are planned with respect to developing metrics and guidance on scales and uncertainties and who will undertake these activities.
The substance of the Maintaining Direction sub-section is good, but the role of the member agencies is not clear, obscuring the real contribution of USGCRP. Interactions with users occur primarily through the agencies’ existing networks of constituents. USGCRP can play a key role in synthesizing questions being asked, in a form that can guide work on Goal 1 across the government. USGCRP also can promote clearer, more coherent discussions of risk and vulnerability, so that stakeholders working with different agencies receive consistent and helpful perspectives and guidance on scientific knowledge and uncertainties. Including a brief discussion of the roles of the agencies would benefit this section.
The Navigating Challenges sub-section is very general; it talks about viewing Earth and human systems “holistically” without saying how, promises to improve engagement without specifics, and states that USGCRP will build on joint identification of research needs to target research and knowledge production without indicating what priorities are emerging. The “threat multiplier” example in this sub-section is useful. It is worth noting, in addition, that an important contribution of USGCRP lies in understanding and communicating opportunities in which a specific agency-focused research enterprise provides benefits beyond the scope of the agency’s perceived mandate. Studies of wetland function in the coastal zone, for example, have contributed to understanding the way that natural functions of coastal ecosystems bring economic benefits and protection to human communities. The broader lesson is that global change research does not have to be comprehensive or integrated to bring significant social benefit.
The final sentence makes an extremely important point about needing to develop information and products to enable stakeholders to self-organize and apply the information for their particular needs. There also is a need to describe underlying research on boundary processes and science of decision support (or include these matters in Goal 1 as research); this is not just a matter of implementing boundary processes but understanding how they work and how to improve them. This provides motivation for moving to the sustained assessment in the next section.
The text suggests there has been limited progress in integrating social and behavioral research for informed decision making since the 2012 plan. If that is the case, then it would be helpful to explicitly state so and to outline steps that will be taken to ensure that the needed research will be accomplished (see section 2.5 of this report for more extended discussion). The Committee discusses concrete examples of where USGCRP could make progress on this issue through the various federal agency sponsored regional climate centers in Box 4.1.
Boundary organizations are a work in progress, both in practice and in academic research. Unlike conventional mission-driven organizations, boundary organizations connect communities of different cultures and goals—not with the aim of making them more alike, but rather with the aim of sharing understandings in a way that will benefit both science and users, while preserving their respective strengths. Much boundary work
takes place through networks (Bidwell et al., 2013). Although the rise of social networks via the internet has spawned a vigorous research effort (e.g., Henry and Vollan, 2014; Lessig, 2001), what it means for a boundary spanning network to succeed, and how best to accomplish this, are understood to only a limited degree (see Austin & Seitanidi [2012b; 2012a] for a review of related research).
That means that the pursuit of Goals 2-4 is a source of questions that need to be tackled by the research community. An example, noted earlier, is the opportunity to analyze the experience of regional climate centers to test different models and missions for reaching Goals 2-4 at a regional level. In a similar vein, the regional climate centers are organized into networks, some of which are more tightly coupled than others; the
USGCRP accordingly has an opportunity to study these networks, with the aim of understanding what kinds of cross-agency and cross-sector collaborations advance the national interest in Goals 2-4. This is use-inspired research with the aim of advancing understanding of use-inspired research. The Committee believes a small budgetary commitment could accomplish a lot within the remaining years of the Strategic Plan. The USP is an appropriate place to indicate the interest of the USGCRP and its member agencies in pursuing such a research theme.
Although the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3) completed in 2014 has been a major accomplishment of the USGCRP since 2012, the path forward towards a sustained assessment process from NCA3 has been obscure. A special report on sustained assessments (Buizer et al., 2015) was completed and provided to the Agencies by the National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee (NCADAC), but there has not been a systematic response from the Program regarding these recommendations, and the treatment in the draft USP is uneven, making it difficult for the Committee to understand the status of the sustained assessment. The NCADAC special report identifies four critical elements of sustained assessments: (1) establishing mechanisms to support enduring collaborative partnerships; (2) making progress on a number of scientific foundations; (3) providing coordinating infrastructure; and (4) diversifying the resource base and setting priorities. As critical elements (3) and (4) pertain to implementation and are beyond the scope of the Committee’s expertise, our report will focus on the first two needs.
As described in the sustained assessment report, establishing and maintaining relationships with external communities will facilitate science translation at scales at which actions are being taken, identification of new research needs, and advances in working collaboratively to co-produce usable science. Importantly, the report points out that the benefit of expanding and maintaining these partnerships is that it has the potential to encourage local jurisdictions, universities, the broader research community, and others such as private voluntary organizations and for-profit firms to assume an increasingly active role in applying USGCRP-produced data, models, decision-support tools, reports, and other products in synthesis and analysis that meets their own needs. The draft USP does not describe progress or next steps related to this key challenge in the sections devoted to this objective of the 2012 Strategic Plan. Given the centrality of this issue, the Committee recommends that the USP address this matter directly or indicate how the Program will do so in the future. We note that much of the information on sustained assessment in the USP refers to preparation of specific special reports, such as the recent assessment of health and climate impacts. These are important to achieving the assessment role mapped out in Goal 3 of the Strategic Plan. However, as the box on p. 36 of the draft USP makes clear, the essential character of sustained assessment is to move beyond production of reports as the primary mechanism for interaction with users. It
would be useful for the USP to set objectives and commit to tracking progress in this regard.
There is a discussion of NCANet and a commitment to continuing it, which is very positive. But NCANet, for all its benefits as a communications network, was not evaluated as a tool for engaging stakeholders outside the government, and relying on it as a stakeholder engagement mechanism might or might not be an efficient use of resources. The draft USP is unclear as to who the stakeholders are that the USGCRP envisions as being especially important in sustained assessment. This is a long-standing challenge for national programs, especially finding an appropriate balance between federal stakeholders, non-federal governmental stakeholders, and private stakeholders. How the USGCRP is going to find this balance is very important, but the Update is silent as to the Program’s thinking on this score.
There are several specific challenges in the draft USP’s discussion of Goal 3: Conduct Sustained Assessments. The first is the apparent disconnect between the box at the very beginning of the chapter, which outlines four objectives that the USGCRP presumably is committing to, and the text, which does not follow the objectives of the box. Much of the information that would be required to address the objectives seems to exist, but it is difficult to identify from the draft USP what the USGCRP will actually do to implement Goal 3. The text in the draft USP indicates the USGCRP will continue to manage the U.S. participation in IPCC processes, and perhaps other international scientific assessment processes (biodiversity is mentioned, but it is not clear what process is meant by this brief reference). There are references to assessment reports arising in response to particular interests or when scientific information has matured. This portrays a process that relies on a series of special reports along with a quadrennial update. But many important questions are left unanswered in this model; among them is how the decisions will be made about which topics and reports will merit such attention, how stakeholder communities will be involved, what the balance will be between providing information relevant to a range of decision making, who the actors are likely to be, and what the review and communication mechanisms are going to be. Another key issue is in processes used for production of special reports. This was an issue with the Sustained Assessment Products of the former Climate Change Science Program, where agencies used dramatically different processes to conduct, review, and communicate the results of their topical assessments. This is another aspect of production of special reports that the Committee believes the USP should briefly address.
It is important to be very clear about these issues, as the transparency and credibility of the assessment processes depend on them. The draft USP refers to a Federal Advisory Committee for Sustained Assessment, and the Committee is aware that the Program has asked for nominations. The Committee encourages the USGCRP to move forward in establishing an advisory mechanism to assist in establishing the critical elements needed for sustained assessment.
The text box under Goal 3 includes a commitment to evaluation. The Committee commends the Program for holding a workshop and issuing a report describing its approach to evaluation. We did not have sufficient time (nor the mandate) to review these evaluation plans but recommend that the scope of the evaluation be reviewed in light of
the USP and this review to ensure the full range of issues requiring evaluation is addressed.
With respect to providing the scientific foundations for sustained assessment (the second critical element described in the NCADAC sustained assessment special report), the USP devotes a fair amount of attention to the development of scenarios. The Committee views this as a positive development, as preparatory reports for NCA3 (Moss et al., 2011) and earlier evaluations (Morgan et al., 2005) have pointed to deficiencies in preparation and use of scenarios in prior assessments. Scenarios were a relatively minor feature of the NCA3, as it focused primarily on current impacts and response strategies. Future discussion of this issue in the next USP would be stronger if there were an evaluation to draw upon to ground the Program’s next steps.
Other topics such as indicators are mentioned in the draft USP, but their connection to the assessment process is undefined. The original proposal for indicators from the NCADAC committee in the NCA3 process emphasized that they would provide a baseline from which future change could be evaluated in sectors of interest and importance to a variety of stakeholders. By not including this issue, the USGCRP is missing an important opportunity to connect observations and research to user communities, thus missing a potential benefit of these program components.
Other key scientific foundations, such as specific attention to methods for vulnerability/risk assessment methods, valuation methods, approaches for incorporating international influences and impacts (discussed elsewhere in this review), and methods for uncertainty characterization and confidence communication, seem central to progress in Goal 3. The Committee encourages the Program to address specific objectives for these scientific elements in the future.
Recommendation 8: The Committee recommends that the USP discussion of Goal 3 (sustained assessments) more clearly articulate the Program’s efforts to sustain relationships with user communities, provide a wider range of products or services, and develop the scientific foundations for assessment.
The objectives for Goal 4 are appropriately ambitious for a Strategic Plan. However, the objectives would be more targeted to the needs of the Nation if they included the range of information needed by users, ensured the information communicated is understandable and useful, and supported multi-disciplinary training of the next generation of leaders and scientists. The resilience of the United States to shifting climate variability and changing climate would be facilitated by considering not just communicating information, but aiming to increase knowledge of climate change, the risks associated with changing weather patterns, and actions that could be taken by individuals, communities, states, agencies, and civil society to reduce and manage those risks. Further, for communication to be effective, there need to be institutions and
organizations with sufficient capacity, human and natural resources, political will, etc. to act on the information provided.
As noted in the comments on the other goals, the needs of the Nation are not just to understand basic information about climate variability and change, but also to understand factors that could increase (or decrease) exposure to those events, and effective actions to increase capacities to manage exposures and reduce vulnerabilities. Flexibility in decisions would be enhanced by understanding effective approaches for incorporating uncertainties and evaluating possible path dependencies. For example, communicating that warmer air temperatures means more heavy precipitation events does not necessarily translate into effective actions.
The examples provided in Maintaining Directions are helpful but lack specificity, so it is not possible to evaluate the importance actually given to this goal. Some indication of the magnitude of the cited activities and measure of their effectiveness would be helpful.
The descriptions under Building on Progress describe what the USGCRP or the agencies can do, but say little about what they will do, making it unclear whether commitments have been made to accomplish the objectives. One theme missing from the discussion is identification of the information needed by users; the text primarily focuses on what information the USGCRP can provide. The processes by which scientific knowledge is generated, repurposed and/or distorted for particular ends constitutes a legitimate, though understudied, arena of global change research and recent analysis. Vörösmarty et al. (2015) suggest that the process of communicating science to public and private sector stakeholders could be substantially improved through investments in systematic, interdisciplinary research, both theoretical and applied. Social and behavioral science research can make significant contributions to understanding of what data and information are needed to inform decisions, and to improve decision-making processes, to improving communications, and in moving from providing information to increasing knowledge. Among these needs are approaches for measuring the effectiveness of communications.
As noted in the introduction to Goal 4, dialogue with stakeholders is critical for effective communication. One could debate whether putting assessments on websites and counting the number of hits is an appropriate metric of usefulness or outreach. It would be helpful to have more information on how USGCRP and the agencies are supporting non-federal communities of practice. It also would be helpful to understand the extent to which the information contained in the various NCAs have informed decision making and with what result.
One objective is to cultivate the scientific workforce, but the only activity listed is training the federal workforce. What about training the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists and decision makers?
The Navigating Challenges section is primarily a list of research needs. Most of these paragraphs would be more appropriate in Building on Progress, along with indications of how these research gaps will be filled. Several of these paragraphs address points raised above, such as understanding the needs, motivations, and learning styles of
stakeholders, or training the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists. It is not clear why an interagency task force on communication cannot be formed.
The last paragraph states that USGCRP efforts over the past decade resulted in many positive results. Some illustrative examples would be helpful. As noted in comments on the other goals, there is inconsistency across the goals in what points are raised under the sub-headings.
The Committee has been following the Future Earth initiative, and we regard it as an emergent international research program. It may provide a useful arena for coordination for some USGCRP agencies, but the broad U.S. mandate implied in the Global Change Research Act should not be constrained by any particular international research initiative. The Committee is deeply concerned about the singular focus of the draft USP on Future Earth when there are many international organizations involved in climate change that are not part of Future Earth activities. It is the sense of the Committee that a more multi-organizational approach will be required to be successful.
There are already ongoing international research activities in the USGCRP programs and the Committee believes that those should be supported and better highlighted in the USP, in particular the collaborations required to maintain the international observation systems, which are crucial to improving the science. In addition, the Committee recommends that specific collaborations with other nations and international research programs be included in the description of specific research priorities (see Section 3.1). Lastly, the Committee also believes that the work within the USGCRP Strategic Plan should be expanded to include research support for U.S. involvement in international negotiations and agreements, especially in light of the recent Paris Agreement.