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
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.
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).
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.
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
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.