The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) in its various organizational incarnations has consistently focused on building scientific knowledge and making it useful. While the Program has invested the largest share of its budget in advancing the scientific understanding of the Earth system, informing decisions has become increasingly important. The latter priority reflects a growing awareness across American society, through individual experience and media coverage, of severe storms, heat waves, and droughts, changes in agricultural yields, and rapid urbanization. In addition to these localized impacts, there has also been coverage in conventional and social media of global phenomena including unprecedented changes in Arctic environments, rising sea levels, and a continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions within and beyond the borders of the United States. Global environmental change is only one part of a complex and dynamic context; as scientists’ understanding has advanced, knowledge generated by federally sponsored research has also become increasingly important to those making critical economic and life-saving decisions, such as relocating facilities vulnerable to flooding, preparing for heat waves in poor neighborhoods, or knowing what crops to plant (Petkova et al., 2016; Upbin, 2013; Winkler et al., 2010).
At the Program’s inception, the federal leadership in Congress and the Executive Branch realized that the phenomena of global environmental change, including climate change, were important but incompletely understood. Looking back, one can see that the scientific community had limited and sparse observations of the Earth system, and that the scientific community’s understanding of basic Earth system processes was far less complete than now. Something now largely taken for granted, the ability to model or project future trajectories of the Earth system, was in its infancy. In addition, the notion that the physical/natural sciences and the social sciences both had important roles to play in the Program had yet to be recognized. The initial effort was accordingly put into developing a scientifically compelling and societally useful program that spanned the diverse capabilities of federal departments and agencies.
The early 1990s was a pathfinding era for the Program. In 1988, the Committee on Earth Sciences prepared the first Our Changing Planet: A U.S. Strategy for Global Change Research, which provided goals, scientific motivation, and the research budget of the U.S. Global Change Research Program to accompany the President’s fiscal year (FY) 1990 budget (CES, 1988). This document was followed up by Our Changing Planet: The FY 1990 Research Plan, which served as the first strategic plan for the Program and stated the Program’s goal: “To gain a predictive understanding of the interactive physical, geological, chemical, biological, and social processes that regulate the total Earth system and, hence, establish the scientific basis for national and international policy formulation and decisions relating to natural and human-induced changes in the global environment and their regional impacts” (CES, 1989). The document also included an implementation strategy that described specific scientific objectives (the monitoring, understanding, and predicting of global change), the importance of disciplinary integration, and the coordination of communities involved with the science of global change (national and international scientific community, government agencies, and intergovernmental science bodies).
The interagency process of preparing the annual Our Changing Planet report—produced to explain the president’s annual appropriations request to Congress—facilitated coordination across the participating agencies around the priorities highlighted in the annual documents. In addition, to ensure that the global change research community had input to the formulation of the USGCRP’s research objectives,
the Program commissioned studies from the National Academies on various global change topics (e.g., data management, hydrology, ecology, and modeling capabilities; see Appendix D for a list of reports from the National Academies for the Program). These studies helped guide the USGCRP’s development during that period and through to the present.
The second strategic plan for the Program was produced in 2003, in a process that started during the Clinton Administration and completed under the George W. Bush Administration. This plan focused specifically on advancing research on climate change (CCSP, 2003). An update to this strategic plan was published in 2008, outlining progress since the 2003 plan and identifying priorities moving forward. A third strategic plan was published in 2012 by the USGCRP to provide guidance for the period to 2021 (USGCRP, 2012b). This 2012 plan focused on increasing the attention to decision support. The Program just produced an update to that strategic plan, a draft of which was reviewed by this committee early in 2016. Appendix E provides a brief overview of the evolution of the goals and objectives included in the original 1989 planning documents, and the 2003 and 2012 strategic plans.
The USGCRP has fostered relationships and coordination among its 13 member agencies on topics related to global change research. This coordination has attempted to minimize duplicative efforts, support initiatives too great for any one agency to tackle (e.g., creating and maintaining global observing systems), address issues that cross the mission mandates of multiple agencies (e.g., the global carbon cycle), and provide a focal point within the federal government for global change research. The fruits of the coordination led by the Program are illustrated in the examples discussed later in this section.
The USGCRP provides a platform for the agencies to coordinate their activities. This coordination is facilitated through development of the strategic plans, routine meetings of representatives from participating agencies, and interagency working groups (IWGs) that focus on specific Program priorities.1 For example, the Adaptation Working Group and the Climate Change and Human Health Working Group were very active in the most recent National Climate Assessment (NRC, 2015), and the Carbon Cycle IWG has facilitated significant progress, as discussed later in Example 3. In addition, these structured interactions have created informal cross-agency relationships that led to other collaborative activities. Although those relationships are incompletely documented, the committee judges them to have been significant as catalysts to collaboration and greater efficiency in the use of public resources.
The committee recognizes, however, that coordination can be a difficult challenge, particularly given that the Program does not have budgeting authority. Quantifying and documenting the benefits stemming from the Program’s coordination role is difficult. While inclusion of priorities in strategic planning documents or agencies’ agreements to undertake a coordinated effort can be tracked and assessed, these represent only the initial steps in the scientific process, which require individual agencies’ funding of research efforts and investigators’ years of inquiry before research findings are generated initially, replicated, and translated into a form relevant for policy action. Nonetheless, numerous examples illustrate how the coordination function of the Program has enabled key advances.
In this section, we highlight four such examples: (1) the development of global Earth observation systems, (2) improvements in Earth system modeling capabilities, (3) the incorporation of process-level understanding within carbon-cycle science, and (4) the integration of human dimensions within global
1 There are currently 11 interagency working groups or coordinating committees catalyzing work on the Program’s goals: Integrated Observations; Process Research; Integrative Modeling; Carbon Cycle; Adaptation Science; Climate Change and Human Health; Social Sciences; National Climate Assessment; Scenarios and Interpretive Science; International Research and Cooperation; and Education, Extension, and Training.
change research. These examples were chosen because they represent significant advances in knowledge of value to the United States in response to the Global Change Research Act (GCRA) mandate and provide a sense of USGCRP priorities and contributions made by the Program to its members’ mission to serve the nation.
In addition to national coordination, the USGCRP has aided the United States in playing a leading role in international partnerships to organize and facilitate global change research. The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) is the oldest, and it is devoted to analysis and prediction of Earth system variability and change. The USGCRP has participated in WCRP through its projects, such as CLIVAR (Climate and Ocean—Variability, Predictability, and Change), whose mission is to understand the dynamics, the interaction, and the predictability of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system. The U.S. CLIVAR office is co-located with the USGCRP National Coordination Office, providing enhanced integration of international, national, and individual agency priorities related to observing, predicting, and understanding climate variability and change. Close coordination with other WCRP core projects has also been provided by the USGCRP process.
The USGCRP provided similar support to three sister organizations: the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program that coordinated research on biological, chemical, and physical processes and how they are influenced by human activities and institutions; the International Human Dimensions Program that focused on anthropogenic drivers of environmental change and the factors that contribute to vulnerability and resilience of societies; and DIVERSITAS, an international program of biodiversity science that linked biological, ecological, and socioeconomic sciences. More recently, these three organizations were reorganized into a single entity, Future Earth, which is focused on providing the wide range of knowledge needed to support a sustainable and resilient world. These international partnerships have contributed substantially to the productivity of the USGCRP, and continuing participation will be important in meeting the GCRA mandate, and to provide information needed by decision makers at all scales in the United States.
The Program has also participated in international efforts to align funding and funding priorities. Beginning 1990, the International Group of Funding Agencies for Global Change Research helped coordinate the efforts of those nations that fund global change research. Reorganized over the past decade as The Belmont Forum, it continues to add value to national investments and co-fund international partnerships, helping make best use of available resources to deliver the knowledge needed for action to avoid and prepare for environmental change.
Earth system science cannot be done on a bench in a laboratory—it is an observational science where the laboratory is the planet. Without continuous global observations that are quality controlled for long time series analysis, it is impossible to make progress on documenting and understanding global environmental changes. Since the inception of the USGCRP, addressing the need for observations from space and in situ has been a top priority. Observations provide new eyes and scientific insights into how our planet works. They allow scientists to propose ideas and test them, enabling new understanding that is represented mathematically and incorporated into models. Models are the integrating tools of understanding, but they also can be used to run experiments to explore the consequences of alternative futures based on alternative plausible scenarios. This constant synergy between observations, data analysis and synthesis, and models and simulation has greatly expanded since the inception of the USGCRP. Various aspects of global change, including climate change, are among the most challenging scientific problems and at the same time are associated with the most pressing societal issues. Our ability to take this
new scientific knowledge and develop information products for decision makers has grown significantly over the past decade.
From the beginning of the USGCRP, one of the important challenges of global change research was to develop and secure a comprehensive set of observations of global change (e.g., CES, 1989). There were examples of data sets from single locations that represented global processes, the CO2 record from Mauna Loa being the best known. Yet there were very few data sets that were truly global in extent or had been measured for long enough to provide time series against which change could be measured. In the 1980s, the scientific community had begun its international planning for global change research, and was seeking ties to existing programs coordinated under the WCRP. Within the United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Science Advisory Committee developed a research and observational agenda for understanding global change (NASA, 1986). The foundation of the agenda was the assertion that it was possible to construct a global, space-based observational system dedicated to the task of understanding and documenting global change.
At the time, existing global space-based observational programs were primarily weather satellites (both polar orbiters and geostationary) operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which had a primary mission of providing data for numerical weather prediction models. In general, these sorts of measurements lacked the accuracy and precision over long time periods needed for global change studies. NASA began formulating plans for the Earth Observing System (EOS) in the 1980s and received its “start” from Congress in October of 1990. EOS was instituted as an integral element of the USGCRP, and its objectives, and associated critical measurements, were designed to address many of the priorities outlined by the Program (King, 1999a). The stated intent of EOS was to produce 30-year time series of a wide suite of global measurements of critical elements of the Earth system, including land-cover change, ocean color, aerosol concentrations, stratospheric ozone concentrations, sea level, and many other important chemical and physical properties. In 1996, the National Space Policy (September 19, 1996 revision) required NASA to undertake continual measurements from EOS and assigned related roles to the Department of Defense, Department of Energy (DOE), and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). These and other agencies partner with NASA in the conduct of the USGCRP. Landsat-7,2 which provided global imagery of land cover archived by USGS, was among the first instruments of EOS launched in 1997 (King, 1999b).
Greatly improved understanding of land-cover change was an early success of the global observing system. The first consistent, replicable measurement of loss of humid tropical forest in the Amazon basin, for example, was a direct consequence of USGCRP investments both in data (Landsat) and in methods for analysis (Skole and Tucker, 1993). Today, the ability to calculate terrestrial ecosystem processes globally, such as net primary productivity (e.g., Verma et al., 2014), or measure changes in the length of the growing season and terrestrial productivity (e.g., Mao et al., 2016), can only be accomplished with the global satellite data record initiated by the USGCRP. These global surveys of land use and biological productivity inform decisions ranging from economic intelligence to warn of famine, to diplomacy relating to deforestation in the Amazon River basin, to commercially valuable estimates of fish harvest.
Now, 25 years after the inception of the USGCRP and aided by the ongoing coordination of the Program through mechanisms such as the Integrated Observations Interagency Working Group (ObsIWG), there is a large and growing portfolio of global measurements from space. There are eight missions currently operating in near-Earth orbit, with more than 30 instruments measuring or allowing the calculation of a wide suite of conditions including wind speeds and circulation patterns, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other important chemical constituents, land-cover change, ice sheets, cloud properties, ocean
salinity, sea ice, and the biosphere’s net primary productivity on both land and ocean.3 NOAA provides additional global observations with the accuracy needed to estimate global change effects through its growing weather data that adheres to climate data requirements and proper climate data curation methods.4 While its investments are still oriented around the primary objective of providing information for numerical weather prediction, NOAA remains a critical part of the U.S. contribution to global change research and observations. The international community has also stepped forward, working within parallel international organizations such as the Committee on Earth Observing Satellites, to provide significant observational contributions from the European Union (and individual nations within the EU), China, India, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, and others.
As global Earth observations from space were expanding, some of the same USGCRP agencies, and others as well, were planning and implementing airborne, ground, and ocean-based observing systems. The Tropical Ocean-Global Atmosphere (TOGA) Tropical Atmosphere Ocean Array5 in the western Pacific (a program of the WCRP supported by the USGCRP; Subcommittee on Global Change Research, 1994), the expansion of the ocean Argo floats6 including Bio-Argo (an internationally coordinated effort), the development of AmeriFlux7 (a DOE coordinated network of observations from previously uncoordinated observations of terrestrial CO2 fluxes), and the creation of a nationally consistent archive of observations of temperature and atmospheric chemistry are prime examples. One important accomplishment was the leadership of the United States in the development and implementation of the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE), within which the USGCRP provided major support for ocean sampling and analysis, that provided the first ever global and scientifically structured data set on the key physical characteristics of the global ocean (Subcommittee on Global Change Research, 1999). Prior to WOCE, there were only regional efforts to characterize parts of the global ocean.
The resulting observations of these in situ regional and global observing networks have informed questions that have arisen in policy debates about the consistency of observations, as happened in the case of surface and satellite-based temperature measurements (Box 3). Answering these questions was achieved by having the data available for the scientific community to analyze, interpret, and resolve the issue, as well as having the USGCRP’s interagency coordinating mechanisms in place to facilitate research directions for the scientific community.
Most of the civilian observational data from surface-based and orbiting platforms are available not only to all federal agencies, but more broadly to the scientific community and the public. It is important to note that data collected by other nations are also available worldwide, a result of international collaboration on open data policy. The USGCRP has supported free and open access to data through resources like Data.gov8 and the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit,9 which has improved the ability of scientists and their user communities to see important connections in the Earth system, such as between land-use change and local/regional drought and rainfall changes, or the differential sensitivity of the Earth system to albedo changes at different latitudes, or the complex interaction of ocean currents, ice sheets, and atmospheric warming in Greenland. In addition, just as the international community benefits from data
8 Find data and resources related to coastal flooding, food resilience, water, ecosystem vulnerability, human health, energy infrastructure, transportation, and the Arctic region at https://www.data.gov/climate/.
generated by U.S. activities, U.S. science benefits from the availability of key data from many other countries.
The connections among processes on land, sea, and air have in turn woven a more accurate and comprehensive picture of the global environment and how it is changing due to natural and human influences. Newer techniques such as “fingerprinting” have allowed for the detection and attribution of human influence in observed global environmental changes. Having this more complete portrait of our changing planet is of keen scientific interest, and simultaneously yields numerous dividends to human societies such as better forecasts of epidemic disease (Monaghan et al., 2016).
Earth system models—mathematical representations of the physical, chemical, and biological processes across the planet—are an indispensable tool for better understanding Earth system science and in generating information needed by decision makers at all levels. Output from these models informs decisions by many different users, from farmers to public policy makers to national security planners. For example, a collaboration of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers (USACE) is producing maps of coastal flood risk that take into account model projections of sea-level rise and that are useful for infrastructure planning and emergency preparedness.10
These models have become increasingly sophisticated since 1990 (see Figure 3). At that time, state-of-the-art models represented only one component of the Earth system in detail, with limited interaction with other components, and had relatively coarse horizontal and vertical resolution. For example, most models used to study climate change included an atmospheric component with crude representation of clouds and radiation processes; interactions with the ocean and land surface were not well represented. These atmospheric models were useful for studying large-scale responses to changes in radiative forcing (e.g., increases in greenhouse gases, variations in solar activity) but were not able to represent smaller-scale features such as tropical storms, hurricanes, or sharply defined warm and cold fronts. Models of that day were constrained by available computer power, in that obtaining higher spatial resolution requires running models with smaller time steps, compounding the computational requirements enormously. Models were also constrained by limited understanding of many climate processes, and sparse observations for validating model results. Given these limitations, the models of this time had limited capability to replicate observed past climate conditions (see Box 4).
Many of these limitations have now been addressed. Modern Earth system models are composed of multiple interacting components and much improved horizontal and vertical resolution.11 Today’s models can simulate realistic conditions that can be compared with both satellite and in situ observations. This ability to intercompare model output with the observational record (discussed in the previous section) is critical for advancing model development and performance, and for giving potential users an indication of
10 Maps for New York and New Jersey can be found at http://www.globalchange.gov/browse/sea-level-rise-toolsandy-recovery.
11 Generally, the horizontal resolutions for atmospheric models are roughly 1 to 2 degrees for large ensemble simulations and 30 to 60 vertical levels. Most groups have high-resolution model versions for limited studies that have 0.25 to 0.50 degree grids. Resolution of ocean models ranges from 1.0 degree (low resolution) to 0.10 degree (high resolution). Computing power has increased by 2.5 times every 4 years or so at major modeling centers.
their predictive usefulness. These models are now useful for many more applications. For example, it is now possible to estimate the changing risks of extreme weather events, such as heavy precipitation, droughts, and wildfires; understanding of these changing risks is already being incorporated into planning across many sectors, from agriculture and water resource management to coastal and energy infrastructure development (see Figure 4). The emerging ability to make useful projections in turn prompts those using models to demand further improvements in the models.
Since the inception of the USGCRP, Earth system modeling has been an integral part of strategic efforts in response to its mandate (see Appendix E). Several USGCRP agencies have made significant investments to develop these capabilities. In contrast to other nations, in which a centralized approach to model development was pursued, the United States has supported multiple centers that develop and use climate models in largely independent efforts. This approach makes it possible to test different model techniques and uses (NRC, 2012a). However, at times, it has proven challenging to coordinate these efforts (NRC, 1998). These challenges were particularly apparent in the late 1990s, at which time the U.S. modeling capabilities were perceived to be lagging. To address these challenges, the Environmental Division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy commissioned a report authored by the USGCRP (2001a), and NOAA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) requested a second report from the National Academies in 2001 (NRC, 2001).
Building on the recommendations of these reports, multiple USGCRP agencies focused existing and/or launched efforts to rapidly improve models, and to improve linkages among their programs. For example, NSF initiated a major interagency effort in the early 2000s to link multiple smaller and larger climate modeling centers to accelerate U.S. modeling. Smaller centers focused on specific topical areas and approaches were developed for incorporating insights from their work into the models of the two large centers. NASA funded a multiagency activity focused on model interoperability and reuse, which resulted in the Earth System Modeling Framework (NRC, 2012a). To take stock of progress in improving modeling capacity, the Program’s 2003 Strategic Plan commissioned Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.1, which provided an assessment of the strengths and limitations of climate models and guided future research efforts (CCSP, 2008b).
Recognizing the need for even more coordination of efforts, the USGCRP established an Interagency Group on Integrative Modeling (IGIM) in 2011. The need for the USGCRP to provide coordination at the interagency working group level was emphasized in A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling (NRC, 2012a). The report also called for a National Climate Modeling Forum to “help bring together the nation’s diverse and decentralized modeling communities,” and identified the USGCRP as a natural choice for organizing such a forum. In response, the IGIM began convening an annual U.S. Climate Modeling Summit12 (starting in 2015) to bring together participants from the leading U.S. governmental and academic modeling centers.13 Objectives of this summit are to develop a shared understanding of research directions and implementation strategies, to identify opportunities for enhanced coordination, and to identify outreach opportunities to user communities. Given the recent increase in Earth system models in operation in the United States, continued attention is merited by the USGCRP to avoid redundancy and maximize collaboration.
USGCRP agencies have also played a role in international modeling efforts, specifically the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). CMIP was established in 1995 under the Working Group on Coupled Modeling of the WCRP. The model comparisons in CMIP use standardized specifications of inputs and output formats established by an international committee; an extensive suite of model outputs is
12 See http://www.globalchange.gov/about/iwgs/igim-resources#Annual U.S. Climate Modeling Summit.
13 Leading modeling centers include the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (NOAA), the Climate Forecast System (NOAA), Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA), Goddard Earth Observing System (NASA), the Community Earth System Model (National Center for Atmospheric Research), and the Accelerated Climate Model for Energy (DOE).
then archived and made publicly available for the science and applications communities. In addition to considerable national research, notably the National Climate Assessments, the output from CMIP3 and CMIP5 have been coordinated with and used in the IPCC fourth and fifth assessment reports, respectively. The Department of Energy has been instrumental in developing CMIP, including archiving, analysis, and quality control of model output, through the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. CMIP has also been supported through meetings and the annual summit convened by the USGCRP IGIM.
The USGCRP agencies have played an important role in carbon-cycle research by championing strategic planning activities and by promoting and coordinating core observations and process studies. Carbon is the basis of all organic material, and carbon-cycling research has been a focus for the USGCRP because of the role this element plays as a regulator of Earth’s climate and as a key factor in controlling the acidity of the global oceans. Research supported by USGCRP agencies has contributed to our understanding of these important functions, for example in understanding the rate of ocean acidification, consequences of ocean acidification for marine ecosystems and society, and the quantification of the current land carbon sink (see Box 5).
The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a primary driver of climate change. Understanding the rates and causes of both carbon fluxes to the atmosphere (sources) and carbon sequestration in land and ocean ecosystems (sinks) is essential for developing policies to manage climate change. The USGCRP agencies have played an important role in research on the global carbon sink by championing strategic planning activities and by promoting and coordinating core observations and process studies. In 1998, the Carbon Cycle Interagency Working Group of the USGCRP was formally constituted to coordinate efforts that 12 U.S. government agencies and departments (currently) lead as part of the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program. In 1999, a plan to study the carbon cycle as it affected the United States was prepared at the request of the USGCRP (Sarmiento and Wofsy, 1999).
Today, the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program consists of the North American Carbon Program (NACP) and the Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry Program (OCBP), which is supported by USGCRP member agencies NSF and NASA, as well as by international partners. Having already absorbed ~30% of the carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere by human activities, the oceans play an important role in mitigating warming and other climate-related impacts of rising carbon dioxide levels. The OCBP has been built on a solid foundation of ocean research such as the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study, funded by NSF in the 1990s, to improve understanding of the time-varying fluxes of carbon and other life-essential elements, including nitrogen and phosphorus, both within the ocean and between the ocean and the atmosphere.
As with other aspects of globalization, the flows and transformations of carbon are complicated, and some of them affect the accuracy of models. Over the past 25 years, research, partly organized and supported through the USGCRP, has greatly increased our understanding of the processes involved. This has led to more accurate accounting of how carbon flows through ecosystems, atmosphere, land, and ocean, and has contributed to a better understanding of how changes in average global temperature affect the flows of carbon. For example, scientists now better understand the dynamics of carbon dioxide fertilization, the potential for enhanced decomposition of soil carbon as the climate warms, and the processes influencing carbon dioxide uptake in a warming ocean. Natural and human-induced disturbances, such as fire, thawing permafrost, melting sea ice, water deficits and management, and land use, have increased our understanding of geographic and ecosystem differences in carbon and their sensitivities to change and disturbance. Important components of this research are intensive, interagency coordinated field campaigns. They unite in situ, airborne, and satellite-based observations that bring the
resources of many agencies to bear on measuring the influences of human and natural processes on carbon-cycle variability and change. While the tools for conducting carbon-cycle research have become increasingly sophisticated over the past two decades, there is a need to develop additional observational capacities including those that are satellite based.
The value of integrating social and behavioral sciences into global change research has become increasingly important. Economic approaches to modeling energy use are necessary but not sufficient to understand the complexities involved in projecting future climate and the potential consequences for human and natural systems. The social forces shaping land and energy use and urbanization globally are now understood to be of basic importance in developing scenarios for climate models. Designing effective responses to both disasters and ongoing stress, and designing programs to adapt to ongoing environmental change, requires understanding the behavior of individuals, organizations, and communities. Through its coordinating activities, the USGCRP has made important contributions to recognizing and expanding the interdisciplinary imperative bringing together the natural and social sciences in global change research.
14 The Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR-2) is currently in production by the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program.
In 1990, there was already a large foundation of knowledge in the social sciences and in various fields of professional practice—including public health, development assistance, and agricultural extension—that examined the interaction of human activities and well-being with the ecosystems and climates in which people lived. While some understanding reflected global changes implicitly, there was little focus on the significant magnitude of human-induced change. The biophysical research described above has, in this respect, altered our understanding of the place of humans in the world over the past quarter-century. Humans do not just live in a world controlled by nonhuman forces; we change that world, too, for better and worse. Understanding how this happens has been a major contribution of the global change science coordinated by the USGCRP.
In 1992, the National Academies noted that social science research was essential to understanding, preparing for, and responding to global environmental change (NRC, 1992). That study reviewed knowledge, suggested a research agenda, and noted challenges the USGCRP would face in developing the appropriate social science research program as an essential companion to its natural science research program. The following year the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) concluded that adaptation research, encompassing human dimensions and economic implications, was lacking (OTA, 1993).
Although the need to integrate social science research within the Program was recommended early in its existence, there were and are obstacles to this effort. Most universities are organized primarily around disciplines, although some have also developed innovative structures to encourage interdisciplinary research and education. Most of the USGCRP agencies, as well as the national laboratories, have very few social scientists on staff, making integration difficult. Despite these and other challenges, the USGCRP has made progress, albeit uneven at times, in better integrating social sciences within the federal global change research portfolio.
The USGCRP has enabled and encouraged member agencies to support fundamental social science that can advance the understanding of the human dimensions of global change. For example, the Program coordinated the establishment of the National Science Foundation’s Decision Making Under Uncertainty research centers that have supported research on decision making relevant to global change and especially on situations when outcomes of actions are uncertain, policy proposals face controversy, and the responses of the natural world to human actions are delayed and indirect (SSTF, 2013). Additionally, investments in Integrated Assessment Modeling as part of the overall USGCRP portfolio have supported the United States becoming a world leader in this field; these models link climate system processes with socioeconomic drivers of global change, allowing decision makers to explore issues such as the potential consequences of different pathways of greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation options (SSTF, 2013).
Several mission agencies within the USGCRP have made strides in delivering actionable science in support of decision making, particularly at the regional scale. Regional decision support centers were established by the DOI (Climate Science Centers), NOAA (Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments [RISA] program and Regional Climate Centers), and USDA (Climate Hubs), each targeted at the specific responsibilities of the sponsoring agency. These centers have served as testbeds for experimentation in informing decisions, effectively providing platforms for applied human dimensions research. Indeed, the RISAs explicitly seek to include social, behavioral, economic, policy, and communications experts as part of their centers. Because of the regional focus of these centers, they have played a key role in the National Climate Assessments, often taking the lead in producing regional reports. All of this has drawn on and contributed to social science. However, work on actionable science has to be supported by parallel work to improve fundamental knowledge. Systematic efforts to improve fundamental global change social science remain a challenge.
In addition, these regional centers carry out projects that help decision makers in their regions to adapt effectively to climate variability and change. For example, the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center (a NOAA RISA center) worked with the Michigan Department of Health and Human
Services and with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify climate-related health risks, and to tailor climate information so that it was useful to state and local public health officials for emergency planning, especially for helping vulnerable people (the elderly, the chronically ill) deal with heat extremes (Cameron et al., 2015). The goal is to reduce the costs and deaths from heat waves such as the one that killed over 700 people in Chicago in 1995 (Kaiser et al., 2007). The Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast supported a similar effort in New York City (Petkova et al., 2016). The Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program (SCIPP), another RISA, has provided decision makers with forecasts of summer temperatures, made several months in advance, to inform farmers, provide a reservoir data visualization tool to help water managers, and inform a mobile phone app that can assess conditions for pastures, cropland, lawns and gardens, water resources, and wildfires (SCIPP, 2016).
The USGCRP has emphasized the need for greater integration across the sciences in its strategic planning (e.g., CCSP, 2003). The 2012 strategic plan highlighted the integration of social, behavioral, and economic sciences within its discussion of goal 1: to advance scientific knowledge of the integrated natural and human components of the Earth system, which includes all physical, chemical, biological, and human components, and the interactions among them, to improve knowledge of the causes and consequences of global change. The plan also designated “informing decisions” as one of four overarching goals, along with advancing scientific understanding of global change (as mentioned above), conducting assessments, and communicating and educating (USGCRP, 2011), and emphasized the need for research both for and on decision support. The Program has been developing plans to include more social science research into more activities in pursuit of that goal (Meyer, 2012).
After it released the 2012 strategic plan, the Program put in place a Social Sciences Task Force that produced a white paper in December 2013 on the integration of social sciences to support the implementation of the strategic plan. This task force was in part motivated by the National Academies’ review of the draft strategic plan (NRC, 2012b). The task force recommended an organizational structure to help implement its recommendations. In response, the Program created an interagency working group, the Social Science Coordinating Committee, that is charged with putting in place means to foster “integration of the methods, findings, and disciplinary perspectives of the social, behavioral, and economic sciences” into the Program’s activities.15
While progress is being made, challenges remain (NASEM, 2016). Given the lack of social science expertise at most of the USGCRP agencies, they will have to actively engage the larger environmental social science community to develop research programs that effectively integrate and make use of social science. Additionally, the National Academies identified the integration of human dimensions as “the most critically underfunded” area of the USGCRP in its review of the fiscal year (FY) 1991 budget (NRC, 1990) and has continued to make similar assessments over the years. The lack of sustained data resources remain an impediment to the development of cumulative understanding in the environmental social sciences. These challenges will have to be overcome for further progress in incorporating the social sciences into the USGCRP, to provide the information the nation needs to effectively and efficiently manage current and likely consequences of global environmental changes.
This committee noted in its recent review of the draft Update to the Strategic Plan (USP; NASEM, 2016) that calling for greater integration of social science within an agenda set largely by the natural sciences, as the draft USP did, fails to recognize and build upon the disciplinary contributions from the social sciences or, even more importantly, the novel contributions that can arise from an interdisciplinary approach combining social and natural sciences. A logical next step for the Program would be a broad review of the relevant social science research, e.g., in developing understanding of vulnerabilities to the multiple stressors involved in global change, or in understanding decision making by individuals and organizations under uncertainty.
Looking back over a quarter-century and four presidential administrations, the USGCRP has made notable accomplishments in its mission of scientific research to advance the national interest. Fundamental advances in knowledge have been achieved. Collection of consistent data sets, at levels of spatial resolution from global down to specific watersheds and neighborhoods, has documented a range of global environmental changes in ways that can inform American decision making. The development of sophisticated models now gives us the ability to forecast near-term risks such as drought or the track of severe storms, with an accuracy that far exceeds our capabilities in 1990. With a greater volume of useful knowledge has come a growing societal capability and demand for knowledge about risks and how to manage them that is timely and relevant to a wide range of users. For example, the ability of emergency responders to prepare for wildfire or unusual storm surges, and to place those risks in the context of their past experience, is now an operational reality. The evidence is clear that climate is changing, and this knowledge matters directly in long-range capital budgets as well as decisions about training, education, the location of homes and businesses, and national security (DOD, 2015).
The Program has also provided coordination to the efforts of a large federal research establishment. This has reduced duplication and increased efficiency. But it has done more: by finding alignments among the missions of agencies, the Program has made it possible for data collected by one agency to inform the modeling of a second agency and the operational decisions of a third. Many agency-supported programs and projects developed and evolved over time and supported data collection that continues to be an important component of the Earth Observing System. For example, the TOGA Coupled Ocean Atmosphere Response Experiment led to sustained tropical observations critical to projects on the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and to the study of the influence of climate change on natural variability. Global change is a multidisciplinary challenge, and bringing together the diverse capabilities of the federal government is an important objective that transcends the missions of individual agencies and departments; the USGCRP brings that objective within reach in ways that are economical and indispensable.