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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
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CHAPTER ONE

Introduction

The world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion people (about 25 percent), from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050 (UN, 2019). Over the same period, the world economy is projected to more than double in size, far outstripping population growth (PwC, 2015). Already, a growing and wealthier human population is driving a set of interacting global changes that are disrupting the climate through: greenhouse gas (GHG)–emitting activities; polluting the air, land, and water; warming and acidifying Earth’s oceans; and reshaping the land surface through cropping, forestry, and urbanization that threaten the planet’s biodiversity.

These global environmental changes have already affected the health and well-being of the U.S. population, with many of these impacts driven by climate change. Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides and some see sea level rise as an existential threat. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Insurance rates are rising in some vulnerable locations, and insurance is no longer available in others. Heat waves are the number one weather-related killer of Americans. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage. In Arctic Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts is receding and autumn storms now cause more erosion, threatening communities with destruction and necessitating considerations of relocation.

Other global environmental changes, including global nitrogen pollution and land-use change, are already exacerbating risks to people and property, independent of and jointly with climate change. Increased nitrogen fertilizer application on croplands to increase yields not only has led to widespread surface and groundwater pollution but also has resulted in increases in the release of nitrous oxide—a potent GHG—along with carbon dioxide and methane, which together are major drivers of climate change. A dominant form of land-use change today is the clearing of tropical forests and woodlands for croplands. Much of the felled wood is burned on site, and the decay of soil organic matter accelerated. As part of this process, an estimated 1–2 billion metric tons of carbon are released to the atmosphere annually, amounting to 10 to 20 percent of human-caused carbon emissions (Global Carbon Project, 2020).

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×

Projections of the magnitude and pattern of climate change published over the past decade paint a picture of a world increasingly challenged by extreme weather and climate events. An extreme event is a time and place in which weather, climate, or environmental conditions, such as temperature or precipitation, rank above a threshold value near the upper or lower ends of the range of historical measurements. Such events often have disproportional effects on people and the environment. The impacts of further climate change on food, water, health, and energy systems and on ecosystems are projected to be more extensive and severe than recent experience. At the same time, society’s capacity to prepare for and manage these risks is increasingly challenged because of increases in the frequency and intensity of impacts, among other factors. Interactions between climate change and human systems (e.g., food, water, and health), and among human systems themselves, are complicated and interdependent. It is becoming ever more apparent that these complex interactions create cascading and compounding events and challenges that pose significant risks for Americans and people across the globe. Meeting these challenges requires a new framework for global change research—one that looks across and within natural and human systems to manage future risks.

Over the past decade, issues of equity and social justice have become increasingly important considerations in managing the risks of global change. The adverse impacts of global changes have been and will continue to be greatest on people who already suffer health and socioeconomic disparities. Moreover, climate change is now recognized alongside impaired air quality and hazardous waste as another driver of environmental injustice, racism, and disenfranchisement that undermines human well-being (Hoffman et al., 2020). As a consequence, climate risk and its change over time is not distributed equally within and among U.S. cities, regions, and economic sectors (Martinich and Crimmins, 2019). In addition, it is increasingly apparent that responses to climate change, including adaptation and GHG mitigation, can in themselves exacerbate social inequities and enhance vulnerability (Eriksen et al., 2021; Jakob et al., 2020).

The ability of the federal research enterprise to generate and communicate new insights that advance understanding of global change processes, the risks they pose to society, and the implications of alternative policies and technology is contingent on maintaining robust scientific infrastructure as well as the human capital that drives innovation. Scientific advances over the next decade can be enhanced by recognizing diversity, equity, and inclusion as being foundational to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s (USGCRP’s or “Program’s”) mission. This will enable the nation to continue to attract world-class talent while integrating researchers with diverse expertise, experiences, and perspectives into the scientific enterprise.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×

THE ROLE OF USGCRP IN PREPARING THE NATION TO MEET THESE CHALLENGES

For more than three decades, USGCRP has been the home for coordinated research on all aspects of global change across the federal government. It also has supported U.S. engagement in collaborative international efforts of research, observation, and assessment. To spur the development of global observation systems, which are essential to research and analysis, USGCRP has fostered international cooperation through collaborations with organizations such as the Global Carbon Observing System. The collaborations have built and sustained unprecedented efforts to observe and document changes in the natural and built environments. Drawing on its extensive contacts in the domestic research enterprise, the Program plays a key role in marshaling participants from the U.S. scientific community to author and provide commentary for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other international assessments. USGCRP’s efforts, including its international contributions, not only have resulted in impressive advances in understanding and robust modeling of global change but also have brought useful scientific knowledge to bear in decision making (NASEM, 2017a).

As understanding of the processes and drivers shaping global change have evolved, so too has USGCRP. Strategic planning for the early years of the Program focused largely on major physical science questions driving global change and improving the ability to observe and model the changing climate. The Program’s focus on “advancing science” has been essential for understanding the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of the Earth system; understanding how increasing atmospheric GHGs affects these systems; detecting human-caused changes in the observational record; and characterizing and quantifying the plausible uncertainties of the changes to come.

As impacts of climate change have played out over the globe, and across regions and sectors in the United States, USGCRP has conducted regular assessments of global change science and impacts that serve as a foundation of information for the nation’s top decision makers, guiding future research investments and helping to prioritize policies to protect the health and well-being of Americans.

In 2015, the Committee to Advise the U.S. Global Change Research Program produced a report on the accomplishments of USGCRP over its first 25 years of existence. The committee highlighted the scientific advances discussed above, as well as articulated the value-add of USGCRP research and coordination activities and the important evolution in strategic planning to meet the needs of the nation. Since that report was released, the Program has continued to shepherd global change research activities across the federal government, including establishing new interagency working groups on the water cycle

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×

and on coastal systems and dynamics, and continued to coordinate U.S. participation in international efforts. The most significant public accomplishment during this time was the release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) in 2017–2018.

A NEW FRAMEWORK TO APPROACH THE NEXT USGCRP STRATEGIC PLAN

The Global Change Research Act of 1990 (GCRA; Public Law 101-606) established the Program and required that USGCRP produce a decadal strategic plan, with updates every 3 years. Relevant text from the GCRA (Section 104) is included in Box 1.1. At the time of the Act, an initial strategy was produced by the Committee on Earth Sciences under the George H. W. Bush administration (CES, 1989). The second decadal strategic plan was produced by the Program in 2003, with an update published in 2008. The third decadal strategic plan was published by USGCRP in 2012 to provide guidance for the period through 2021, an update to which was formally reviewed by this committee and published in 2016.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×

The provisions in the Act outline what should be included as contents of the plan, list necessary research elements, and call for an evaluation of the plan by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (then the National Research Council). The Act also specifies that there should be public participation in the development of the plan, as well as information management recommendations, including guide-

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×

lines for combining data from various sources “to produce information readily usable [emphasis added] by policymakers attempting to formulate effective strategies for preventing, mitigating, and adapting to the effects of global change.”

USGCRP is approaching the end of the period provided for in its current decadal plan (2012–2021). As it begins planning for the next decade, laying the groundwork for decades to come, USGCRP has an opportunity to more proactively fulfill its mandate by producing an integrated science agenda essential for communicating information to enhance efforts at local to national scales as Americans work to manage the increasing and interacting challenges of further climate change. This re-orientation of USGCRP’s strategy, which informs the structure of this report, is needed to provide enhanced decision support for those in the public and private sectors who are managing mounting risks of climate change on human and natural systems.

Traditional climate research that projects changes in the natural environment and estimates the potential consequences of these changes for human systems, typically within sectors, is not fully meeting decision-maker needs. These projections rarely consider the complex multidirectional interactions among natural and human systems. Integrated risk-based management research should be based on greater integration of the physical manifestations of climate change with ecological and socioeconomic changes. This research will be more effective if it focuses on the vulnerabilities and capacities of human and natural systems and how these will shift over time, taking into account the multiple interconnections of projected changes, responses, and impacts.

Ongoing input from users of the information on global change would ensure that a shift in the Program’s orientation could help in identifying research priorities needed to meet its mandate to “provide usable information on which to base policy decisions relating to global change” (PL101-606). This information needs to be more than usable, it should be useful and easily used. In this report, the National Academies Committee to Advise the U.S. Global Change Research Program argues that these needs to manage climate change risks can be best met if USGCRP works within an integrated, systems-based risk framework and engages in coproduction with interested and impacted parties.

USGCRP has recognized the need for a risk-based approach to climate change challenges before. For example, the 2012 strategic plan aimed to “foster the iterative and collaborative dialogue between science and society needed to develop the scientific foundation for understanding and managing the risks of global change in the areas of greatest societal need” (USGCRP, 2012, p. 17). However, its risk-related focus was primarily on identifying and quantifying uncertainties within selected areas or sectors, rather than on understanding the widespread climate change risks discussed in

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×

this report, the connections among climate change risks, and effective and proactive means for addressing and managing them. A research program to meet these added challenges will require a more complete understanding of the multiple couplings among the physical climate system, ecosystems, and human systems than has been embodied in USGCRP research to date, one that recognizes the larger integrated system within which these risks arise and explicitly incorporates the needs and constraints of potential users of the research.

OUR COMMITTEE AND TASK

The National Academies have played a major role in shaping and advising USGCRP over the past three decades—from preparing scientific consensus reports in the 1970s and 1980s that led to the GCRA (which established the Program), to conducting regular document reviews of draft strategic plans and National Climate Assessments, to convening a standing committee forum for the Program leadership and participating agencies. These mechanisms have enabled the broader nonfederal scientific community’s perspectives and expertise to be shared with USGCRP as it works to meet its mandate.

The Committee to Advise the U.S. Global Change Research Program provides ongoing and focused advice to USGCRP by convening key thought leaders and decision makers at semiannual meetings, providing strategic advice, and serving as a portal to relevant activities from across the National Academies. This committee is charged specifically to review draft strategic plans and updates thereof as requested; provide ongoing, integrated advice to USGCRP on broad, program-wide issues; and help to identify issues of importance for the global change research community.

To proactively meet its charge, this committee, with approval from the Program, developed this report to provide input in advance of the Program’s next decadal strategic planning efforts (Statement of Task provided in Appendix A). The committee membership is broadly constituted to bring expertise in all of the areas addressed by USGCRP (see committee member biographies in Appendix B). To carry out its task, the committee has drawn on this expertise and the prior advice provided to the Program, as well as its reviews of Program assessments and other National Academies consensus reports.

REPORT ROADMAP

This first chapter highlights selected challenges for the United States in the coming decade arising from global change and offers an integrated approach for how USGCRP

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×

can prioritize investments into potential solutions for its next strategic planning period (2022–2031). Non-USGCRP agencies, corporations, and civil society can draw on the perspectives in this report to inform their own research agendas and investments. Chapter 2 outlines the most pressing global change risks in the coming decade identified by the committee and includes examples of integrating research needed to assess these risks. Chapter 3 discusses how USGCRP can use an integrated systems-based risk approach to provide more useful and usable information to help Americans deal with the urgent climate change challenge. Chapter 4 includes an overview of the portfolio of risk-management components to be considered within the mandate of USGCRP: mitigation techniques, adaptation needs for the set of previously identified human security risks, and examples of integrating needs to inform management of the climate change risks identified in Chapter 2. In Chapter 5, the committee provides five potential crosscutting priority areas for USGCRP to consider in addressing the nation’s risk-management needs: extreme events and tipping points; improved simulation of local and regional-scale climate; a scenarios-based approach to project and manage climate change, associated risks, and effectiveness of mitigation policies; equity and social justice; and improved analysis frameworks and supporting data sets to meet these needs.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26055.
×
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The US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is a collection of 13 Federal entities charged by law to assist the United States and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change. Global Change Research Needs and Opportunities for 2022-2031 advises the USGCRP on how best to meet its mandate in light of climate change impacts happening today and projected into the future. This report identifies critical climate change risks, research needed to support decision-making relevant to managing these risks, and opportunities for the USGCRP's participating agencies and other partners to advance these research priorities over the next decade.

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