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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
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1
Introduction

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is the nation’s principal contribution to the worldwide effort to understand our changing planet and the implications of those changes for the people of the United States and the world. It is an interagency program established under the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) to “assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change” (P.L. 101-606).

Global change means changes in the Earth’s environment (including alterations in climate, land productivity, ocean or other water resources, atmospheric chemistry, and ecological systems) that may alter the capacity of the Earth to sustain life (NRC, 2012a). Processes of global change include climate variability and change, but also other changes in ecosystems that can have substantial effects on the supply of natural resources, on the economy, and on human well-being (NASEM, 2016). Global change research, as defined in the GCRA, means the study, monitoring, assessment, prediction, and information management activities to describe and understand

  • the interactive physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the total Earth system;
  • the unique environment that the Earth provides for life;
  • changes that are occurring in the Earth system; and
  • the ways these system changes are influenced by human actions.

A better understanding of what is changing and why can help decision makers in the public and private sectors cope with ongoing change. For example, the Program has documented substantial increases in heavy downpours in most regions of the United States over the past 50 years (see Figure 1). These heavy precipitation events can cause flooding and overwhelm infrastructure such as sewers and roads that were not designed to handle such extreme events. By being aware of this trend, government and businesses can design facilities that can cope with current and future extreme events.

The Program has contributed to a significant increase in scientific understanding of global environmental change since its establishment in 1990, even as the pace of global change has continued to accelerate in response to human influences—including a globalizing economy, rapid urbanization, and increased emissions of greenhouse gases. During this time, significant questions about the rate and causes of change were answered. The Program’s scope expanded to address multiple impacts to human and natural systems and societal responses, and made significant investments in actionable information to assist decision makers at every level of society, from households to global corporations, as well as local, state, and national governments. The Program’s coordinating function plays a key role in synthesizing diverse results from agencies and offices to provide relevant and timely information to decision makers and the public.

In addition to the new scientific knowledge produced by its coordinated research, the USGCRP provides the nation a range of benefits resulting from use of this information. This value chain is illustrated with examples throughout this report. One example is research on the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other key elements, which have, among other things, led to advice to farmers on how to optimize fertilizer use to maintain high yields while reducing their costs and ecological damage from the runoff of excess fertilizer into streams (see Figure 2). Another example is knowledge about changes in the frequency, intensity, and duration of some extreme weather and climate events, which is being used to

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
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Image
FIGURE 1. This map shows percent increases in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events for each region of the continental United States from 1958 to 2012. Very heavy precipitation events (downpours) are defined as the heaviest 1% of all daily events. Trends are larger than natural variations for the Northeast, Midwest, Puerto Rico, Southeast, Great Plains, and Alaska. Trends are not larger than natural variations for the Southwest, Hawai‘i, and the Northwest. SOURCE: Melillo et al., 2014.

reduce their human and financial costs. Research on the effects of climate variability and climate change on the hydrologic cycle has allowed for the development of drought early warning systems and other aids to practical decisions (see Figure 4, on p. 20). Yet another example is how research on the impacts of heat waves on human health led to the development of the National Integrated Heat Health Information System; decision-support tools such as heat-wave early warning systems have reduced morbidity and mortality (Ebi et al., 2004; see Figure 5, on p. 30).

The contributions of the USGCRP to achieving these results, and many others, can be seen in various stages throughout the process of research, development, and use, as indicated in Figures 2, 4, and 5. The USGCRP coordinates research among its agencies to address key questions identified by the scientific community and stakeholders. It synthesizes what we learn from this research and provides this information to decision makers in its reports and assessments. These reports inform decision makers at all levels, as well as support the development of resources to protect lives and property, advance economic prosperity, and improve environmental quality. These interactions then help to direct new research in the most useful directions.

This report highlights the growth of global change science in the quarter century that the USGCRP has been in existence, and documents some of the Program’s contributions to that growth through its primary functions of interagency planning and coordination, and of synthesis of research and practice to inform decision making. The report begins with the committee’s task and approach. We include a short history of the Program. Its accomplishments are then discussed in terms of the two functions: (1) strategic planning and coordination of global change research activities across the many federal agencies engaged in global change research and (2) high-level synthesis of global change research results and sharing them with decision makers and the American public. The report concludes with comments on future directions for the Program, building on these accomplishments.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Growing out of interagency activities and planning under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) was formally established by Congress in 1990 under the Global Change Research Act (GCRA; full text of the Act is included as Appendix A).1 Congress tasked the USGCRP to “assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change” (P.L. 101-606). Its creation was a milestone achievement in organizing administrative and political resources in response to growing concern about issues of global change. The USGCRP was built on a foundation of cooperation begun in the 1980s among agencies and departments of the federal government engaged in initiating research around the then newly emerging field of Earth system science.

The USGCRP has been sustained through successive administrations, with the Executive Office of the President participating in coordinating its activities from the outset, although the administrative structure involved in its coordination changed over time. During the presidency of George H.W. Bush, the Program was coordinated by the Committee on Earth and Environmental Sciences (CEES). The CEES was disbanded under President William Clinton as part of a larger science and technology reorganization effort and reconstituted as the U.S. Global Change Research Program under a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) and the Climate Change Technology Program were established under President George W. Bush; the CCSP incorporated the USGCRP along with the Climate Change Research Initiative established by President Bush in 2001. Under President Barack Obama the CCSP effort continued forward once again as the USGCRP. Today, the USGCRP includes 13 agencies and departments (see Box 1 for current participating entities).

_______________________

1 For more on the administrative development of the Program, see Pielke (2000a, 2000b).

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
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FIGURE 2. This schematic illustrates the ways the USGCRP contributes to scientific advancements in global change research and the value of that information in stimulating a broad array of applications, including for agriculture and conservation purposes. As an example, addressing the question of how human activities affect nutrient cycling has led to the development of a geospatial tool for conservation in the Gulf coast as well as advice for farmers on optimal use of nitrogen fertilizers. Orange boxes indicate points of specific USGCRP contributions: Research and coordination, synthesis of what was learned through that process, and identification of new research priorities. Citations for selected bullets are included in Figure Notes.
NOTES: 1. Science Questions includes examples of basic research questions from the scientific community in this area. 2. USGCRP Research and Coordination includes examples of activities and mechanisms for research and coordination by the USGCRP.
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×
Image
a/b. For example, research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Science Foundation can be found in the USGCRP’s annual reports to Congress and strategic plans (e.g., CCSP, 2002, 2008a; Subcommittee on Global Change Research, 1996; USGCRP, 2012a, 2015). c. See http://www.globalchange.gov/about/iwgs for more on the interagency working groups. See also Example 3 on page 22 of this report. d. A special open access issue of the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA’s) Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on Biogenic Greenhouse Gases in North American Terrestrial Ecosystems (2012) incorporates eight papers with the support from the Carbon Cycle Interagency Working Group member agencies and others (ESA, 2012). See also Suddick and Davidson (2012). e. A 2013 special issue of ESA’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment was an output of the NCA3 Ecosystems chapter team (ESA, 2013) f. A group of 21 agency and USGCRP representatives met for a full day meeting at USGCRP office on May 29, 2013 in order to improve interagency coordination of nitrogen cycle research and to identify opportunities for interagency collaboration. For more, see http://cpo.noaa.gov/ClimatePrograms/EarthSystemScience/AtmosphericChemistryCarbonCycleandClimate/AC4Archive/TabId/543/ArtMID/1405/ArticleID/156/Nitrogen-cycle-interagency-group-meets-at-USGCR.aspx 3. What We Learned includes examples of high-level findings from the research and coordination in box 2. Citations for the work to support these statements can be found in the products included in box 4, USGCRP Synthesis. 4. USGCRP Synthesis includes examples of Assessments conducted by the Program that communicate the findings to decision makers and the public. a. National Synthesis Assessment Team (2000, pp. 72-88); Karl et al. (2009, pp. 74-88, 149); Melillo et al. (2014, pp. 350-368). b. CCSP (2007). c. CCSP (2009). d. CCSP (2008e). 5. How the Results Are Used includes examples of the use of this information to provide benefits for the nation. a. See Hong et al. (2007). b. The Mississippi River Basin/Gulf Hypoxia Initiative Precision Conservation Blueprint is a tool that contains a number of geospatial products, including water quality layers, agricultural system layers, geophysical layers, fish and wildlife focal areas, and others. For more, see https://tallgrassprairielcc.org/resource/mississippi-river-basingulf-hypoxia-initiative-precision-conservationblueprint. 6. Research Priorities Identified by USGCRP includes examples of priorities highlighted in the USGCRP strategic plan (USGCRP, 2012b).
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×

The federal agencies’ responses to provisions in the GCRA have resulted in two primary value-added activities of the USGCRP: (1) strategic planning and coordination of global change research activities across the many federal agencies engaged in global change research and (2) high-level synthesis of global change research results and sharing them with decision makers and the American public. Our discussion below of Program contributions is organized around these two themes. We draw upon review of USGCRP products mandated by the GCRA, specifically its strategic plans and assessments, which are produced collaboratively among the 13 agencies, and its reports to Congress, entitled Our Changing Planet, a document produced annually to highlight recent accomplishments and provide associated budgetary information.

OUR TASK

At the request of the USGCRP, the committee prepared this report as a broad-brush review to identify, in the context of the Program’s mission and mandates, the most significant and consequential science and research accomplishments of the USGCRP, and what lessons can be learned from these accomplishments with respect to future Program planning (the committee’s full statement of task is provided in Appendix B). This report is not a comprehensive program evaluation; rather, the committee’s intent is to inform those unfamiliar with the program, using examples to illustrate some of its most valuable contributions to the science of global change and the applications of that science. The examples provided also illustrate what mechanisms have worked well for the Program and where challenges remain that bear upon the future of the Program.

To prepare this report, the committee reviewed many documents produced by the Program (see Appendix C for an extended list of USGCRP products), as well as prior National Academies’ reports that commented on various aspects of the Program (see Appendix D for a list of relevant reports). The committee also consulted a small number of scientists, analysts, and former government officials with deep knowledge of the USGCRP for their views on the accomplishments of the Program, barriers to progress, and opportunities to advance global change research. The committee received research support from an external consultant in reviewing products of the Program. The contributions of all these individuals, who are listed in this report’s Acknowledgments, are greatly appreciated. With this background, the committee drew upon its members’ broad expertise in the science and policy of global change, as well as knowledge

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×

of the USGCRP and its history, to select some of the most significant accomplishments of the Program in response to its mission and mandate since its inception.

The committee has employed the statutory framework of the GCRA as a way to select a small fraction of the activities and accomplishments of a large federal research effort, so that a non-specialist reader can quickly obtain an overview of this program. The GCRA (see Appendix A) provides the mandate and priorities for the USGCRP; the committee chose examples to illustrate how the Program has responded to this mandate. Specifically, this report discusses how the Program has conducted strategic planning and coordination, provides examples of accomplishments relevant to the research elements of the GCRA and strategic plans of the program, and describes the Program’s efforts to assess the state of knowledge and connect that knowledge with decision makers.

The Program’s major areas of effort have cross-cut a number of elements of the GCRA in sensible and productive ways. This report discusses accomplishments that span these elements: (1) Global Observation Systems, which correspond to research elements 1 and 2 (§104(c); see Box 2) and information management requirements (§104d); (2) Earth System Modeling, which corresponds to research elements 3 and 4 (§104(c)); and (3) Carbon-Cycle Science, which provides a direct example of the Program’s response to research element 5 (§104(c)). These examples also discuss the intersections with the Program’s international and assessment functions (§102(e) and §106, respectively). The fourth example in this report, Integrating Human Dimensions into Global Change Research, discusses an area recommended to the Program as necessary to incorporate into the nation’s portfolio of research as the scope of global change has evolved and expanded, and that the Program subsequently recognized in its strategic planning (§104(e)). Last, the report discusses accomplishments through the Program’s assessments and assessment process (§106).

Together, these examples, along with the schematics described above (Figures 2, 4, and 5), provide a sense of the different kinds of accomplishments that the agencies and departments of the government achieved through the coordination and leadership of the Program, and how the Program has evolved to meet the needs of the nation. The development of a complete list of accomplishments of the Program was beyond the scope of the committee’s task; thus, our selection is meant to be illustrative rather than representative in an analytical sense.

This report highlights areas of scientific progress, the value of the information obtained, and the role played by the USGCRP in generating the information through its planning and coordination of global change research across the federal agencies. There are many other examples of accomplishments that could have been identified for a program as wide-ranging as the USGCRP, but the examples highlighted by the committee in this report are particularly impactful and emblematic of the Program’s role in advancing global change science over the past 25 years.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×
Page 7
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×
Page 8
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×
Page 9
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24670.
×
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The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is an interagency program, established by the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) of 1990, mandated by Congress to “assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change”. Since the USGCRP began, scientific understanding of global change has increased and the information needs of the nation have changed dramatically.

A better understanding of what is changing and why can help decision makers in the public and private sectors cope with ongoing change. Accomplishments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program highlights the growth of global change science in the quarter century that the USGCRP has been in existence, and documents some of its contributions to that growth through its primary functions of interagency planning and coordination, and of synthesis of research and practice to inform decision making.

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