Climate-Change Research Plan Is Good Start,
But Major Improvements Needed to Meet Nation's Needs
NATIONAL ACADEMIES 25feb03
WASHINGTON -- While the federal government has taken a good first step toward better understanding and responding to climate change by drafting a strategic plan that contains new research initiatives, the plan lacks a clear guiding vision and does not sufficiently meet the needs of decision-makers who must deal with the effects of climate change, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report also noted that the president's fiscal year 2004 budget request appears to leave funding relatively unchanged for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), which wrote the draft plan, despite the important new initiatives called for in the plan.
"While past climate-change science has focused on how climate is changing and affecting other natural systems, future science must also focus on more applied research that can directly support decision-making," said committee chair Thomas E. Graedel, professor of industrial ecology, Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, Conn. "Research is especially needed to improve our understanding of the possible impacts of climate change on ecosystems and human society, as well as options for responding to -- and reducing -- these effects."
The federal government formed CCSP a year ago to facilitate climate-change research across 13 federal agencies. CCSP released its draft strategic plan for public comment in November and also held a workshop in Washington where hundreds of climate scientists and other stakeholders commented on the plan. CCSP asked the Research Council to review the draft plan as well.
The draft plan provides a solid foundation for future research by identifying some exciting new initiatives that build on the success of the Global Change Research Program, which has been funding valuable research for more than a decade, the committee said. It commended CCSP for introducing an emphasis on the need for science to address national needs, including support for people in the public and private sectors whose decisions are affected by climate change. In addition, CCSP has made genuine overtures to the research community, indicating a strong interest in developing a plan that is consistent with current scientific thinking. Some of the more important initiatives in the plan include a call for models that can offer trusted projections, or forecasts, of climate change, and cutting-edge research into aerosols and the carbon cycle that is needed to improve our understanding of climate change and variability.
However, the plan needs to be revised substantially, the committee concluded. To begin with, the plan should more clearly articulate CCSP's goals and priorities for meeting national needs. These goals should be accompanied by ways to measure progress, clear timetables, and an assessment of whether current research efforts are capable of meeting them.
The plan also should be revised to present clear and consistent goals for a new component of CCSP called the Climate Change Research Initiative, designed to support activities that would produce results of value to decision-makers within two to four years. For example, trusted climate forecasts could be of great use to policy-makers, regional water managers, or even individuals deciding on which car or appliance to purchase. The committee applauded this emphasis on scientific support for decision-makers, but said that many of the activities included in this part of the plan, although important scientifically, are unlikely to produce the desired results within two to four years. The committee agreed with CCSP's new emphasis on short-term results to inform decisions, but said that scientific support for decision-making also will be needed over the long haul.
Revisions are also necessary to fulfill key information needs, the committee said. For example, there is a strong need for research aimed at developing models that can forecast the regional impact of climate change. This information is essential for local officials. For instance, municipalities may need to construct coastal barriers if sea levels keep rising because polar ice caps continue to melt, and authorities in the western United States may confront increased water shortages if less snow falls in the Rocky Mountains.
The draft plan has serious gaps when it comes to studying the effects of climate change on human societies and ecosystems, the committee said. The revised plan should ensure that CCSP supports research on understanding and predicting the impacts of climate change, and providing the scientific foundation for possible actions to minimize the effects. Research on the costs and benefits of possible strategies for responding to climate change is also needed.
The draft plan misses an opportunity to improve cooperation with other countries on research, observation networks, and future assessments because the plan is too focused on U.S. issues and includes little on international activities. International cooperation is especially needed to help build a global system for observing climate, which the revised strategic plan should address in more detail, the committee said.
The draft plan also does not adequately build on prior U.S. and international reports that have provided scientific information to policy-makers, the committee added. It said the revised plan should better take into account the lessons learned about climate forecasts and stakeholder involvement found in such reports, especially the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Climate Variability and Change and the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
While it acknowledges both that uncertainty is inherent in science and that it is not an excuse for inaction by policy-makers, the draft plan has not identified where an improved understanding of the significance of uncertainties, or reductions in uncertainty, is expected to have the greatest value to decision-makers, the committee added. The revised plan should do more to identify which uncertainties are most important to reduce and by how much, and to look at how uncertainties can be better explained to policy-makers. The committee did not have time to examine the president's proposed budget for next fiscal year in detail, but a cursory review indicated that funding for the Climate Change Research Initiative was increased at the expense of the Global Change Research Program. Funding decisions should be guided by priorities in the revised strategic plan, the committee said. CCSP should move forward with the important new elements of the Climate Change Research Initiative while preserving crucial parts of the Global Change Research Program. The committee noted that significant investments will be needed to develop the computing power necessary for some of the modeling and data collection called for in the draft plan.
Existing management processes may not be adequate to ensure that the 13 agencies involved in CCSP cooperate toward the program's goals, the committee found. The revised strategic plan needs to clearly describe the responsibilities of program leadership and ways to foster greater agency cooperation. At the same time, CCSP should encourage participation by other mission-oriented agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the land management agencies of the Department of the Interior.
The committee, whose work was sponsored by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, will review a revised strategic plan later this year. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows. Copies of Planning Climate and Global Change Research: A Review of the Draft U.S. Climate Change Science Program Strategic Plan will be available this spring from the National Academies Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
Date: Feb. 25, 2003 Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Officer Christian Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant Office of News and Public Information (202) 334-2138; e-mail <email@example.com>
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