The first 25 years of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) were marked by impressive advances in understanding of global change, by unprecedented efforts to observe and document change in the natural and built environments, and by major improvements in bringing scientific knowledge to bear in decision making. Several highlights of these accomplishments are described in this report, and many more could have been featured.
Looking forward, the Program should build on this legacy to be ready to address the challenges and needs emerging today and over the next few decades. Over the past three decades, the USGCRP and the research community supported by its member agencies focused on detecting the signal of climate change against a background of natural variability, and then analyzing how and when more significant impacts might become manifest. Based on that research, we can expect the impacts of climate change will be increasingly apparent. As a result, the Program will need to strengthen the knowledge base for protecting the nation’s interests in the face of accelerating global environmental changes, and to work with users to provide timely warning to citizens, businesses, and governments at all levels.
The current global observing system has been implemented by USGCRP agencies, a process that has benefited from the formal and informal coordination of the Program. The data and information from these observation systems form the foundation for global change science, both in the United States and globally. The USGCRP has a critical responsibility to ensure their continuity, while also looking to expand the observational archive to address new scientific questions and users’ needs. The coordinating role of the USGCRP will become more important, as a greater diversity of observations becomes available and needed. For example, coordinating observations from more diverse platforms and sources, including those operated by other nations, by the private sector, or by disciplines not typically associated with climate science, will present new challenges as well as opportunities.
Sustaining and expanding Earth observations are at the core of our ability to enhance scientific understanding of our interconnected planetary system and in developing and providing information products for decision makers. Earth system modeling is complicated, and the process understanding of atmosphere-ocean-land-ice interactions that needs to be discovered and incorporated into models requires an increasingly diverse set of satellite and in situ observations. The United States has benefited greatly from the investment that has been made to date in Earth observations, including enhanced forecasts of weather extremes and climate variability impacts, as needed by cities and communities to develop plans for climate adaptation. Almost every sector of our economy, national security, and the sustainability of ecosystem services that are provided to humanity depend on the understanding and use of integrated global Earth observations (both satellite based and in situ). The USGCRP has been the critical coordination group for planning this observation system and must remain a core responsibility.
Global environmental changes, including climate, are transforming the conditions of human life and the ecosystems on which we depend. Global change research has much to contribute—to identifying vulnerabilities and threats, to evaluating alternative policies and programs, and to informing the judgments and decisions of individuals, organizations, and institutions, including national governments. As with much research, the returns from the investments in global change science are largely public goods (see Figures 2, 4, and 5 for examples), making it a responsibility of government to support that research. Users of this research include decision makers, such as farmers coping with drought, governments planning for sea-level rise, and scientific groups using data, models, and assessments in their investigations of global change.
To increase the return to the nation on investments in global change research, the committee supports use-inspired research within the Program (Clark et al., 2016; Stokes, 1997). This research entails engagement with a wide spectrum of users, so as to produce research that informs decision making, and leverage the value of discovery-driven research, including long-term observations of the Earth system. For example, given the dependence on ecosystems, use-inspired research is critical for natural resource management, for example in informing the use of forest thinning as a management tool to prevent massive wildfires. Use-inspired research requires the fluent integration of knowledge from the social and biophysical sciences, a synthesis that remains more of an aspiration than an achieved reality. The wide uptake of the third National Climate Assessment (NCA3) suggests, however, that a clear articulation of the state of knowledge contributes to the continuing dialogue on climate change and its potential hazards, benefits, and solutions. This is a hopeful sign, as well as a significant accomplishment of the Program.
The committee believes there are opportunities for use-inspired research to make further significant contributions to the work of the USGCRP and its member agencies as part of the current strategic plan, for example by synthesizing the data now being collected into indicators of vulnerability for specific regions (Janetos and Kenney, 2015). A broad analysis identifying some potential vulnerability indicators was prepared by a working group during the process of developing NCA3 (Kenney et al., 2016). Kennel et al. (2016) suggested that indicators can be grouped into leading and lagging sets. Testing whether a set of indicators can provide reliable warning of abrupt changes in specific locales may be an attainable objective in the next 5 years.
In global change science, U.S. government agencies make a major contribution to the necessarily global enterprise of research, data development, and analysis. The effectiveness of U.S. efforts is enhanced by dialogue and coordination with other nations, catalyzing scientific understanding while reducing duplication of efforts. The USGCRP, with its unique overview of diverse U.S. climate research activities, plays an important role in this process in three useful areas: joint research, global observation, and international assessment.
The collection and analysis of data on Earth processes, which are crucial to understanding current and potential future change, are international tasks. Efficient use of resources demands effective collaboration among the nations able to carry out this work. To this end, the USGCRP supports global observation and data management through participation in the Group on Earth Observations. This group coordinates investments in Earth system observation and facilitates access to the information through its Global Earth Observation System of Systems. These data also are crucial for detecting current impacts and projecting future risks under a range of climate and development pathways, and for assessing the potential for adaptation and mitigation policies and programs to increase the resilience of communities and regions no matter what the future holds.
The USGCRP is a point of contact for U.S. participation in international assessment activities in global change. For example, it participates in recruiting, coordinating, and supporting U.S. chapter authors and reviewers for the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The USGCRP manages the review process for national and international assessments, including coordination of thorough review by U.S. agencies to ensure the accuracy and robustness of scientific findings. The USGCRP maintains a Review Portal for hosting and coordinating U.S. national reviews of international assessments and other reports.
The need for effective coordination of U.S. agencies with international activities seems likely to increase in the future. In addition to its 6th Assessment Report, just getting under way, the IPCC is organizing three special reports. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) requested by 2018 a report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C, and commitments were made on two other special reports: one on oceans and the cryosphere and another on desertification, land degradation, land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes. The United States has much to offer these activities, and much to learn from such global assessments, but coordination is needed to help ensure that its best scientists are involved.
In addition, terms of the Paris Agreement (adopted by consensus December 12, 2015, at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC) likely will place additional demands on U.S. agencies, creating an even greater need for coordination. For example, under Article 11 of the Agreement, developed country parties should “enhance support for capacity-building actions in developing country parties.” This obligation covers adaptation and mitigation, thus spanning the capacities of several U.S. agencies. Article 8 of the Paris Agreement incorporates the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts (COP19, November 2013). The Warsaw text commits the parties to efforts that enhance understanding of climate-related phenomena that is needed to support action to compensate or otherwise aid damaged parties. Meeting this objective involves resolving challenging scientific issues related to the attribution of specific climatic events, and of understanding the extent to which underlying vulnerabilities contributed to impacts; these cut across the capabilities of U.S. agencies involved in climate research.
Although details of implementation of these provisions is being worked out in ongoing negotiations among parties to the Paris Agreement, the United States may respond to these calls for action with contributions from U.S. agency programs. The salient research questions will require fundamental science and long-term observations to gain satisfactory answers, requiring decades of collaborative global effort.
Addressing the problems of global environmental change will require advances in fundamental scientific knowledge and application of that knowledge to decision making at all levels of government and by nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and households. This diversity of information needs is reflected in the diversity of missions of the agencies that participate in the USGCRP. Some are primarily research agencies dedicated to advancing science in the public interest. Some consider global change and climate change in the context of particular missions, whether to promote agricultural productivity, to manage the nation’s public lands and fisheries, or to identify meteorological hazards. Many support research to inform resource management and other decisions. A special advantage of the USGCRP is that it facilitates dialogue across these agencies and allows the varied missions to inform each other (NASEM, 2016). The coordination function of the Program is most obvious in Our Changing Planet, the strategic plans, the NCAs, and other summaries of knowledge and activities. In addition, the ongoing dialogue across the USGCRP facilitates mutual understanding and sharing of knowledge and resources. For example, it allows research-focused agencies to be aware of the information needs of action-focused
agencies. Conversely, it helps action-focused agencies to understand the strengths and limits of current science and what is likely to emerge from research over time.
Through interagency partnerships and collaborations with leading experts, the USGCRP has worked successfully since its inception to advance global change science and improve understanding of how global change affects society today and how it could affect society in the future. As we look to the coming decades, the impacts of climate change and other global changes will be increasingly apparent. In the nation’s interest, the USGCRP should continue to pursue two primary value-added activities: (1) strategic planning and coordination of global change research activities across federal agencies and (2) high-level synthesis of global change research results and sharing them with decision makers and the American public. To achieve its goal of providing science for the people of the United States and the world, it is essential that the USGCRP continue to build a balanced program that includes long-term observations of the Earth system, discovery-driven research, and use-inspired research that supports future decision making, mitigation, and adaptation efforts at local, regional, and global scales.
In 1989, the Committee on Earth Sciences stated the following as the fundamental rationale for the U.S. Global Change Research Program:
“In the coming decades, global change may well represent the most significant societal, environmental, and economic challenges facing this Nation and the world. The national goal of developing a predictive understanding of global change is, in its truest sense, science in the service of mankind” (CES, 1989).
Despite major advancements in our understanding of, observations of, and ability to model and predict global change, much remains to be done, making this rationale as true today as it was a generation ago.