Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change, the latest report in the National Research Council’s America’s Climate Choices suite of studies, is a commendable effort to draw more attention to an issue that is often overlooked in mainstream climate policy discussions: the tools, networks, and coordination needed to build a national response to climate change and inform climate decisions at all levels. 

Post by Alexa Jay and Rick Piltz

The report was released on June 22 with little fanfare.  The Union of Concerned Scientists hosted a webinar on August 17 with Dr. Diana Liverman, co-chair of the report panel and an expert on the human dimensions of global climate change, to discuss the panel’s findings and answer questions. 

The report can be read in full online, or purchased for download as a PDF. 

Dr. Liverman said that rather than assessing agency plans for climate communication and information services, the panel looked at information that is publicly available and is actually being used by a range of users, asking the following questions to focus their inquiry: 

(1) Who is making decisions and taking action on climate change in the United States; what are their needs for information and decision support, and what are the barriers to good decisions?

(2) What decision making frameworks and methods are being used, and which are the most effective?

(3) How might climate and greenhouse gas information systems and services support more effective decisions and actions?

(4) What is known about the most effective ways to communicate about climate change, especially with the public and through formal and informal education?

The panel found that current information and reporting systems are inadequate for aggregating and evaluating the effectiveness of America’s climate choices to date, Dr. Liverman said, especially those made by the private sector.  The federal government has a role to play in developing those systems.  The federal government has the infrastructure for data collection and analysis that can support a national monitoring system for greenhouse gas emissions, provide tailored climate information services, and bring together information about international mitigation and climate response efforts. 

The panel found that “the federal government has the responsibility and opportunity to lead and coordinate the response to climate change, not only to protect the nation’s national security, resources, and health, but also to provide a policy framework that promotes effective responses at all levels of American society,” according to the report summary. 

The panel’s main recommendations for the federal government were: 

•  Coordinate a comprehensive, nationwide response to climate change
•  Adopt an iterative risk management approach to climate change
•  Improve the range and accessibility of tools to support climate choices
•  Create information systems and services to support limiting emissions, adaptation, and evaluating the effectiveness of decisions and actions
•  Improve the communication, education, and understanding of climate choices

Right now the U.S. has no “comprehensive, nationwide response to climate change,” no coherent policy that informs action by the federal government, on either emissions reduction and a clean energy transition or on adaptive preparedness to deal with the impacts of global climatic disruption. The U.S. has no “iterative risk management approach to climate change,” i.e., the type of approach long championed by our dear friend the late Stephen Schneider and others.

Developing a U.S. climate policy calls for a Congressional action component that does not appear to be in the cards for the immediately foreseeable future.  But in the absence of new legislation, progress can be made on these recommendations under existing executive branch authority, and by better marshalling existing resources (although appropriation of additional resources will be required both for climate change mitigation and for implementation of a preparedness strategy).

The Obama Administration has been taking some steps in the right direction on climate change preparedness and informing a response strategy.  We participated in the White House-sponsored National Climate Adaptation Summit in late May, which brought together federal, state, and local officials and nongovernmental advocates and experts in constructive dialogue on steps forward. The second National Climate Change Assessment is beginning to get off the ground, and is being developed with a good set of priorities under the leadership of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  NOAA is developing its Climate Service capability, which could potentially play a leading role in providing data and information services in support of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts nationwide. The federal Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, under White House and NOAA leadership, has taken the first steps toward developing a national strategy.

This activity is pretty much under the radar as far as media and public attention is concerned, and these efforts are proceeding for the most part with little if any new resources, and little high-profile political leadership.

The America’s Climate Choices reports provide a scientifically based analysis and vocabulary to underpin the kind of communication the country should be getting from high-level political and corporate elites. In particular, what the Academy panel in its report calls “a comprehensive, nationwide response to climate change” will not be developed, adopted, and implemented without strong, steady support and sustained public communication about the problem by the President and other high-level government officials – as we should expect on any issue of national security concern

Climate Science Watch post on the release of earlier America’s Climate Choices reports: “NRC: US should act now to cut emissions, develop a national strategy to adapt to inevitable impacts”