This chapter identifies key areas of research to provide foundational understanding and advance climate assessments. Many of these research topics overlap with those needed for advancing scientific understanding of climate and its impacts and for informing a broader range of relevant decisions.
The research areas and activities discussed in this chapter were identified during the development of the regional and sectoral technical input reports, from the contributions of over 250 National Climate Assessment (NCA) chapter authors and experts, and from input from reviewers. The five high-level research goals, five foundational cross-cutting research capabilities, and more specific research elements described in this chapter also draw from a variety of previous reports and assessments. These lists are provided as recommendations to the Federal Government. Priority activities for global change research across 13 federal agencies are coordinated by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which weighs all activities within the more than $2 billion annual climate science portfolio relative to one another, considering agency missions, priorities, and budgets.
The last National Climate Assessment report, released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) in 2009, recommended research on: 1) climate change impacts on ecosystems, the economy, health, and the built environment; 2) projections of climate change and extreme events at local scales; 3) decision-relevant information on climate change and its impacts; 4) thresholds that could lead to abrupt changes in climate or ecosystems; 5) understanding the ways to reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change through mitigation; and 6) understanding how society can adapt to climate change.8
Some of these topics have received continued or increased attention in the last five years – such as ecosystem impacts, downscaled climate projections, and mitigation options – but the current assessment finds that significant knowledge gaps remain for all of the research priorities identified in 2009. This conclusion is reinforced by the findings of many subsequent reviews by the National Research Council (NRC) and others who have continued to identify these as priorities. For example, the NRC’s America’s Climate Choices Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change and the Panel on Informing Effective Decisions and Actions1,3 highlighted several priorities that are relevant to climate assessments (see “Cross-Cutting Themes for the New Era of Climate Change Research Identified by America’s Climate Choices”). These included the need for a more comprehensive, interdisciplinary, use-inspired, and integrated research enterprise that combines fundamental understanding of climate change and response choices, that improves understanding of human-environment systems; that supports effective adaptation and mitigation responses, and that provides better observing systems and projections. In recognition of fiscal limitations, it is clear that research agencies and partners will need to work together to leverage resources and ensure coordinated and collaborative approaches.
Research Goals and Cross-Cutting Capabilities
Five Research Goals
- Improve understanding of the climate system and its drivers
- Improve understanding of climate impacts and vulnerability
- Increase understanding of adaptation pathways
- Identify the mitigation options that reduce the risk of longer-term climate change
- Improve decision support and integrated assessment
Five Foundational Cross-Cutting Research Capabilities
- Integrate natural and social science, engineering, and other disciplinary approaches
- Ensure availability of observations, monitoring, and infrastructure for critical data collection and analysis
- Build capacity for climate assessment through training, education, and workforce development
- Enhance the development and use of scenarios
- Promote international research and collaboration
The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2012-2021 Strategic Plan5 lists a number of strategic goals and objectives for advancing science, informing decisions, conducting sustained assessments, and communicating and educating about global change. The plan includes research priorities to understand Earth system components, their interactions, vulnerability and resilience; advance observations, modeling, and information management; and evaluate assessment processes and products.
Cross-Cutting Themes for the New Era of Climate Change Research Identified by America’s Climate Choices
Research to Improve Understanding of Human-Environment Systems
- Climate forcings, feedbacks, responses, and thresholds in the Earth system
- Climate-related human behaviors and institutions
Research to Support Effective Responses to Climate Change
- Vulnerability and adaptation analyses of coupled human-environment systems
- Research to support strategies for limiting climate change
- Effective information and decision support systems
Research Tools and Approaches to Improve Both Understanding and Responses
- Integrated climate observing systems
- Improved projections, analyses, and assessments
Source: America’s Climate Choices, Advancing the Science of Climate Change, National Academy of Sciences 2010, p. 92.9
This chapter focuses specifically on the research identified through the National Climate Assessment process as needed to improve climate assessments. It is not intended to cover the full range of goals and related research priorities of the USGCRP and other groups, but instead to focus on research that will improve ongoing assessments. Therefore, many USGCRP priorities for climate change and global change science more broadly are not reflected here. The chapter does, however, directly support the USGCRP Strategic Plan’s sustained assessment activities (see “Goal 3 of the USGCRP Strategic Plan”).
Goal 3 of the USGCRP Strategic Plan
Conduct Sustained Assessments: Build sustained assessment capacity that improves the Nation’s ability to understand, anticipate, and respond to global change impacts and vulnerabilities.
The USGCRP will conduct and participate in national and international assessments to evaluate past, current, and likely future scenarios of global change and their impacts, as well as how effectively science is being used to support and inform the United States’ response to change. The USGCRP will integrate emerging scientific understanding of the Earth system into assessments and identify critical gaps and limitations in scientific understanding. It will also build a standing capacity to conduct national assessments and support those at regional levels. The USGCRP will evaluate progress in responding to change and identify science and stakeholder needs for further progress. The program will use this regular assessment to inform its priorities.
This chapter is not intended to prescribe a specific research agenda but summarizes the research needs and gaps that emerged during development of this Third National Climate Assessment report that are relevant to the development of future USGCRP research plans.
During the development of this report, the authors were concerned that several important topics could not be comprehensively covered. In addition, several commenters noted the absence of these topics and felt that they were critical to consider in future reports. These include analyses of the economic costs of climate change impacts (and the associated benefits of mitigation and adaptation strategies); the implications of climate change for U.S. national security as a topic integrated with other regional and sectoral discussions; and the interactions of adaptation and mitigation options, including consideration of the co-benefits and potential unintended consequences of particular decisions.