Climate Science Watch attended a briefing at the National Academy of Sciences on the release of a set of three new major National Research Council climate change reports, part of the larger America’s Climate Choices study requested by Congress.  The three reports examine the state of the science of climate change, the scientific underpinnings of domestic mitigation strategies, and approaches to climate change impacts adaptation.  America’s Climate Choices brings together the work of about 90 scientists from different fields, and represents the NRC’s most comprehensive study to date on climate change.  The reports “emphasize why the US should act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and also to develop a national strategy to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change that cannot be avoided,” said Dr. Ralph Cicerone, President of the Academy.

More on the NRC America’s Climate Choices reports released May 19 here.  (The National Research Council is the operational arm of the National Academy of Sciences.)

To read the reports online, or to purchase PDF downloads or printed reports:

Advancing the Science of Climate Change

Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change

Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change

A fourth report, forthcoming late summer 2010:
Informing Effective Decisions and Actions Related to Climate Change

A final synthesis report will build upon the recommendations from the four panel reports to “offer a scientific framework for shaping the policy choices underlying the nation’s efforts to confront climate change.”

The reports were presented by the chairs of each of the three research panels, Dr. Pamela Matson, Dr. Robert Fri, and Dr. Thomas Wilbanks.

Dr. Cicerone introduces panelists Dr. Fri, Dr. Matson, and Dr. Wilbanks (from L to R).

Pamela Matson, Dean of the School of Earth Science at Stanford University and chair of the Advancing the Science of Climate Change report, gave an overview of the robust scientific conclusions underlying the understanding of climate change, and identified areas of uncertainty in modeling projected climate futures.

“These projections are based on scenarios of human activity—how do we use energy, how do we use land, how will our economies grow—and of course it’s hard to predict all of that. But some of the uncertainty arises because there are a number of processes in the Earth system that we don’t understand well, or that are not included in our models.  These are processes that can mute or can reinforce the greenhouse gas forcing of climate change…Confounding all future projections of climate change is the possibility that abrupt changes…that could lead to dramatically different climates could occur, and that kind of climate change would be really difficult to adjust and adapt to. And there is good evidence that suggests not all climate change will be smooth and gradual, and therefore easy to adapt to,” Dr. Matson said.

The panel recognized that we have entered a new era in our understanding of climate change, one in which decisionmakers are asking scientists not just what is happening in the climate system, but also what we should do about it, Matson said. To meet this new challenge, the US scientific enterprise must adjust its mission and scope accordingly; it must become more interdisciplinary and more tightly linked with action-oriented programs, she said, in order to expand and inform America’s choices in responding to the climate change problem. 

Dr. Matson identified the multiagency US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) as the proper institutional vehicle for carrying out new research priorities. The program has made tremendous contributions to our understanding of the climate system in its twenty-year history, but has focused few of its resources on the human dimensions of climate change. In a 2009 report, Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change, the National Research Council recommended that the USGCRP integrate social and natural science research to better support decisionmaking needs associated with climate change mitigation and adaptation.

“Climate change science can also work to improve our understanding of how social and economic factors influence and underlie actions that are taken. Science can develop metrics that help identify the people and places that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.  It can help evaluate the trade-offs, unintended consequences, and cobenefits of different strategies that we take to limit climate change. We need to do what the panel calls fundamental use-inspired research. We need to do more research that contributes to improved understanding as well as to problem-solving,” she said.

The panel concluded that the USGCRP currently has the authority to take on this expanded role, but changes are needed to expand its mission, increase stakeholder involvement, and improve ways of addressing gaps in the science, Dr. Matson said.

Robert Fri, currently a senior fellow at and formerly the president of Resources for the Future, chaired the Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change report. The panel’s chief recommendation was that the US use an emissions budget—a specified amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted over a fixed period of time—as a framework for developing domestic mitigation strategies. This would equip policymakers with a scientific underpinning for developing an emissions reduction regime, without dictating specific policies.  This approach explicitly ties scientific understanding of the climate system to policy imperatives, while acknowledging that policymakers need flexibility to design politically feasible emissions reduction strategies.

Dr. Fri said that the panel did not specify a specific amount for an allotted budget, but determined that a representative amount is 170-200 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases between 2012 and 2050.

“Even if all available technologies can be deployed to their fullest technical potential, it’s clear that we will still need new and additional emissions reductions options if we are going to meet that target,” Dr. Fri said. The panel recommended both a prompt and sustained commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and a robust investment in research and development aimed at creating new emissions reductions options that can reach this goal by 2050.

Thomas Wilbanks, a corporate research fellow at the Oak Ridge National laboratory, chaired the Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change report. This report discussed the challenge of planning for adaptation to climate changes given the inadequate understanding of what regional-level changes will look like. The biggest challenge to adaptation, Dr. Wilbanks said, is that adaptation activities are by nature highly context-specific. Further, “because adaptation received so little support until very recently, the knowledge base is still in its infancy,” he said.

Taking these challenges into consideration, the panel made recommendations for the development of a national adaptation strategy that would be coordinated federally, but play out locally. “We suggest that decisionmakers at every scale of government and every part of US society should look at climate change adaptation from a risk management point of view,” Dr. Wilbanks said. In the near term, activities should focus on vulnerability assessments for all contexts and the implementation of actions with co-benefits in that they meet existing economic and development goals. But in the longer term, the US must be prepared for the possibility of abrupt changes that cannot be accommodated through incremental adaptation.

“The most dramatic possible threat appears to be the recent projection by US government agencies that apparent sea level rise, including land subsidence, in the Gulf Coast could be 2-4 feet by 2050, plus the prospect of more intense coastal storms,” Dr. Wilbanks said. “We may need to consider contingency plans that go beyond what’s easy to do now.”

The panel recommended that a collaborative national adaptation strategy be implemented through a “national adaptation program that facilitates cooperation and collaboration across lines, between different levels of government, and between government and other key parties, including the private sector, community organizations, and NGOs. A national adaptation program should be one in which the federal government provides technical and scientific resources that are lacking at local and regional scales, incentives for state and local governments and other parties to begin adapting, attention to some current policies that may in fact be maladaptive, a clearinghouse for sharing lessons learned, and support scientific research to expand knowledge of both impacts and adaptation options,” Dr. Wilbanks said.

During the Q&A period, CSW Director Rick Piltz noted that, while the USGCRP has formal authority to redirect its efforts toward the important new priorities identified by NRC reports, the program has found it difficult to actually do so in practice. In addition, while the NRC Adaptation report panel calls for a national climate adaptation program, the federal government currently lacks an institutional structure for carrying out such a program. “At the highest levels of political leadership and federal organization,” he asked, “what do you propose creating that will drive this research program to the needed new priorities? Similarly, in implementing adaptation as a federal program activity, what is needed to drive it?”

Rick Piltz, CSW

Dr. Matson replied that because this is not really a scientific question, but rather a political and management issue, the panels did not address it beyond determining that the USGCRP has the necessary authority to shift to a “use-inspired focus.” She acknowledged that implementation would require a commitment at the top levels of government to address climate change issues and to expand the climate change research program to help do so. Dr. Wilbanks agreed that high-level leadership will be needed if the changes recommended in the reports are to be implemented.

Some earlier CSW posts:

April 4: U.S. National Climate Change Assessment strategic planning kicks off in Chicago meeting

March 17: Federal Climate Change Adaptation Task Force progress report shows early steps on a long road

January 18: Will Obama’s FY2011 budget fund essential new climate change research priorities?