The Global Change Research Act (GCRA) requires the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) to submit to Congress an assessment of the main findings of the Program regarding global change science every 4 years. The GCRA specifies that the assessment address the potential effects of global change, both human and natural, on a set of sectors and activities given observed trends and near-term (25 years) and long-term (100 years) projections. The Program prepared three National Climate Assessments (NCAs)—published in 2000, 2009, and 2014—and is in the process of preparing a fourth one. The NCAs are coordinated and produced by the USGCRP National Coordination Office. Dozens of supplementary reports have been produced by the Program and its participating agencies, often as input to the NCAs. In addition, the USGCRP helped to establish and actively participates in several international assessment processes including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)/United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion.
The purpose of an assessment is to evaluate the state of scientific knowledge (NRC, 2007). A useful assessment communicates, to a wide range of audiences and users, what research indicates about risks and potential benefits of current and projected global change. With assessments, one can appraise the efficacy of policies, measures, and programs intended to manage those risks. The assessment process also produces a host of ancillary outcomes that are more diffuse and difficult to document, including new collaborations, new research, and newly engaged stakeholders. It also can stimulate substantial involvement by agencies, which have supported the assessments by lending staff to the USGCRP, providing technical input, and leading the federal government’s engagement with specific expert and stakeholder communities.
As documented in previous sections, scientific investments have led to, for example, useful and useable knowledge about changes in the frequency, intensity, and duration of some extreme weather and climate events. Knowledge summarized in assessments is being used to prepare for and reduce the human and financial costs of future events. Research on the societal impacts of hurricanes shows that forecasts are likely generating substantial benefits by saving lives, reducing the costs of evacuations, and improving supply chain management (Sutter and Ewing, 2016). In addition, evidence suggests that hurricanes can lead to substantial increases in government outlays not only for direct disaster relief but also for other forms of assistance, such as unemployment insurance and public medical payments (Deryugina, 2016), and for infrastructure improvements that can build resilience to future events. Thus, having better information about factors influencing the frequency and costs of hurricanes and cost-effective means of mitigating their impacts can provide substantial benefits not only within the affected communities but for the nation as a whole. This is just one example of the wide range of public goods benefits of investment in the scientific enterprise and of the value of the USGCRP in prioritizing and coordinating research to benefit the nation. Other examples are provided in Figures 2, 4, and 5.
The process used by the USGCRP to prepare the assessments has changed over time. The main variation concerns the degree of participation by experts and stakeholders outside the federal government. The first and third NCAs were produced through a process that included extensive engagement of
university-based experts and stakeholders from different sectors (e.g., agriculture, water resources, and insurance) and regions. The second NCA involved a smaller author team asked to synthesize material from a set of more focused assessments. In all cases, the reports have been reviewed for relevance, technical accuracy, and clarity by experts, stakeholders, and federal agencies that are part of the USGCRP.1
The first NCA was released in 2000 and was titled “Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change”2 (National Synthesis Assessment Team, 2000). The report was prepared with input from academic and government scientists. The assessment began with a set of workshops for stakeholders from regions and sectors to articulate their concerns. Uncertainty was framed through use of climate scenarios produced primarily using Canadian and U.K. models, although results were also drawn from U.S. modeling centers. The assessment revealed a number of national-level impacts of climate variability and change including impacts on natural ecosystems and water resources. The report combined this national-scale analysis with findings on potential impacts on different regions. Authors employed a lexicon of “uncertainty terms” to convey uncertainty and likelihood. The timing of the release of the report, at the transition from the Clinton to the George W. Bush Administration, likely reduced its impact since the incoming administration withdrew the report from government websites and did not continue the extensive process of stakeholder engagement that had been initiated.
The second NCA (NCA2) was released in 2009, titled “Global Change Impacts on the United States” (Karl et al., 2009). It was prepared by a team of approximately 30 authors using material from a set of 21 Synthesis and Assessment Products (SAPs)3 produced by the Program (known as the Climate Change Science Program during the George W. Bush Administration), other assessments, and the research literature. In NCA2, impacts were addressed by sector (water resources, energy supply and use, transportation, agriculture, ecosystems, human health, and society) and region (seven geographical regions plus cross-cutting chapters on coasts and islands). Increased attention to adaptation was incorporated, as several SAPs analyzed available options, e.g., for ecosystems.
The third NCA (NCA3) was released in 2014 (Melillo et al., 2014), based upon wide engagement with stakeholders, researchers, and experts from business and civil society (Cloyd et al., 2016). Extensive stakeholder engagement occurred through multiple workshops convened by lead authors and other participants. More than 300 authors guided by a 60-person Federal Advisory Committee were drawn from the research and user communities, including government (federal, state, local, and tribal stakeholders), industry, and civil society. NCA3 was aimed at informing those user groups, as well as the broader public. Extensive public comments were received (more than 4,000 comments from more than 600 individuals) and a review was conducted by the National Academies (NRC, 2013b). NCA3 included a number of innovations related to engagement, scenarios, risk assessment, and communications that are described by Jacobs et al. (2016). Of particular note, the report was released through an interactive website,4 in addition to being available for download in more traditional report formats. The USGCRP also developed the Global Change Information System,5 a web-based resource for traceable global change data, information,
1 In addition to public review, this committee and others of the National Academies have reviewed reports for the USGCRP, including many of the Synthesis and Assessment Products and the latest National Climate Assessment (NCA3). A list of reports for the USGCRP from the National Academies is included in Appendix E.
3 The SAPs were designed to meet the GCRA requirement for assessment by addressing a series of policy-relevant questions related to human and natural influences on the Earth system, the response of the climate system, impacts, and response strategies. These questions were linked with the main elements of the CCSP strategic plan. References for SAPs provided in Appendix B.
and products, designed for use by scientists, decision makers, and the public, which includes fully transparent access to data in the NCA3.
Reflecting the research literature on effective communication of science for policy and decision support, the USGCRP continues to evolve its assessment program toward more varied processes and products. The Federal Advisory Committee for NCA3 produced a report with a set of recommendations for building a sustained process (Buizer et al., 2013). A new Federal Advisory Committee6 has been established to focus on developing a more sustained assessment process with products in addition to reports to better support the wide range of users whose interests are expected to be affected by global change. The fourth assessment is being prepared through a process that is similar to that used for NCA2—a smaller core team of federal authors—but with opportunities for the public and research community to provide inputs.7
7 For more detail, see http://www.globalchange.gov/search/Fourth%20Assessment.
The Program’s assessment products (for an example, see Box 6) are a key accomplishment of the Program and have been of demonstrable value to the nation in informing decisions at all levels of government, within the private sector, and among the public (Jacobs et al., 2016). They have also led to identification of research directions and outputs, new collaborations, and broader and deeper engagement with stakeholders, including those within the federal family, within and outside USGCRP agencies (NASEM, 2016).
The USGCRP has played a major role in establishing, providing scientific inputs for, and preparing international scientific assessments. In particular, the USGCRP and its participating agencies have made significant contributions to assessment activities convened by the WMO and UNEP, specifically the IPCC and a series of scientific assessments of ozone depletion. Other U.S. agencies have taken the lead with respect to the Global Biodiversity Assessment and its successor, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, but USGCRP research has also contributed to the knowledge base for this assessment process.
The need for international assessments grows out of experience preparing national studies of ozone depletion, which was understood to have the potential to lead to increases in UV radiation and risks of impacts to human health (e.g., skin cancers) and the environment (NRC, 2007). Governments agreed it was important to establish a shared understanding of the state of science with respect to ozone depletion, climate change, and other environmental issues that required coordinated national responses to inform international negotiations.
The IPCC was established in 1988 to assess scientific information about climate change. IPCC reports are prepared through a multistage process that includes formulation of the information request to the scientific community through preparation and approval of the outline for a given report, independent drafting of the reports by scientists, and co-production of report summaries by scientists and government representatives. All IPCC products go through several rigorous stages of expert and governmental review to ensure accuracy and relevance to information needs. The success of the process over the years has depended on its transparency—comments and responses on all drafts are compiled and available through the Secretariat—and the enthusiastic participation of thousands of scientists (IAC, 2010). IPCC assessments have provided many important inputs to the negotiations that led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The United States has played a key role throughout the IPCC process as a major contributor of scientific and technical expertise and funding. U.S. participation in the intergovernmental process is coordinated through the U.S. Department of State. The USGCRP coordinates scientific and technical inputs. The United States chaired the IPCC during the Third Assessment Report. USGCRP has supported coordinating secretariats (“Technical Support Units” or TSUs) for many of the Working Groups as they prepared specific components of major assessments, special reports, and technical papers including the TSUs for the First Assessment’s “Response Strategies Working Group”; Working Group II (generally focused on issues related to impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability) for the Second, Third, and Fifth Assessments; and Working Group I (climate and Earth systems science) for the Fourth Assessment. Over the decades, the USGCRP has provided travel support for hundreds of U.S. scientists to participate in lead author meetings for drafting IPCC reports; the time spent by these scientists in assessing the state of knowledge and participating in the meetings was volunteered.8
USGCRP agencies have also played extensive roles in leading, authoring, and reviewing international scientific state-of-understanding assessments on the stratospheric ozone layer. Since its inception in 1987, the WMO/UNEP Scientific Assessment Panel on Ozone Depletion has provided state-of-science assessments to underpin the decisions associated with the protection of the Earth’s ozone layer through the United Nations Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and its amendments. The most recent assessments were in 2010 and 2014 (WMO, 2010, 2014). These assessments provided the foundation for policies to reduce and then phase out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals that were developed under the Montreal Protocol.
8 A digital record of documents associated with U.S.-hosted Working Groups is archived at the Environmental Science and Public Policy Archives at the Harvard University Library at http://hcl.harvard.edu/collections/ipcc/.
The understanding of best practice in assessment has evolved over the life of the USGCRP, and in many respects the USGCRP has been a leader in innovating and advancing this practice. For example, it is now widely recognized that scientific information is more trusted and usable if conveyed through a sustained process and in a variety of formats, not just as reports (Brown et al., 2015; Buizer et al., 2015; USGCRP, 2016). The idea of presenting climate assessment results within a risk framework was introduced in the third NCA and the USGCRP is continuing to support efforts to advance these approaches (see Box 7).
The Program has been particularly innovative in how it has connected knowledge users and producers. For example, NCAnet9—a network of partner organizations—was launched in 2011 to regularly interact with stakeholders across the country. The network offers a platform for constituents to provide technical inputs to assessment processes and build national assessment capacities by hosting public meetings, advancing work on indicators, and engaging with stakeholders.
While the assessment process has demonstrated the value of robust basic research to produce decision-relevant findings, more broadly, the sustained assessment process is beginning to demonstrate the capacity of a user-led approach to provide guidance to the research community on what needs to be learned as the consequences of global change emerge and people and institutions respond. The ongoing interaction between researchers and those who make use of scientific understanding aids in identifying priorities for future research while it helps build trust in the science. These processes also have the advantage of linking agencies, offices, and programs whose mission is primarily research with those whose mission is managing resources or providing other forms of public service. The collaboration of agencies with different missions in assessments led by the USGCRP facilitates mutual understanding of the state of the science and of user needs across agencies.
Use-inspired research is an innovation that is emergent in critical ways, and the idea that research agendas should be informed by users remains an aspiration to a degree. It is a goal that is in tension with the longstanding role of scientists in setting the agenda of research. The scientific community has an essential role to play, because discoveries and insights flowing from a scientific perspective identified the phenomena of global change long before they began to be felt in practical affairs, a pattern that is likely to continue because the global environment is now on a trajectory unlike that of the past. Finding the appropriate balance between applied research and scientific discovery is a recurrent challenge, and the USGCRP continues to play a critical role in the evolution of this balance, reflecting the essential need to generate scientific knowledge, but also to place this knowledge in the service of the nation.