Decision makers in many levels of government, in private sector firms, and in society are increasingly requesting information on natural and human systems and their multiple interconnections to help them design and implement risk-reduction strategies. Typical approaches to climate research that project changes in the natural environment and then estimate the potential consequences of these changes for human systems, typically within sectors, are not meeting their needs (Holm and Winiwarter, 2017). These projections generally do not consider the complex coupling between natural and human systems and often do not consider how societal systems are likely to evolve over coming decades. Furthermore, differential impacts across groups and thus equity impacts of climate change and responses to climate change (mitigation and adaptation) are often ignored.
Effectively managing climate risks requires greater integration of the physical manifestations of climate change with its ecological and socioeconomic consequences. Factors to be considered include vulnerabilities and capacities of exposed systems; multidirectional coupling interactions; multiple interconnections of projected changes, responses, and effects in human and natural systems; and the implications of these dynamics for equity and social justice.
This chapter highlights research in human and natural systems, as well as their interactions, that are underemphasized in the current U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP or “Program”) activities and that could put the nation at risk over the coming decade in the absence of further research and investment. Building new capabilities over the next decade will not only increase resilience over the time period covered in the next strategic plan but will lay the foundation for resilience to risks that are projected to arise or increase by mid-century. The committee recognizes that the current
activities agencies formally consider part of the USGCRP portfolio are not well aligned with these areas and therefore identifies ways the Program can accelerate its transition in this direction. Given the urgency of climate risks, the nation can no longer afford for the Program’s historical interpretation of the U.S. Global Change Research Act (GCRA) to constrain efforts to build the capabilities needed to provide useful and usable information.
USGCRP and its participating agencies have maintained a strong portfolio of activities related to observing, understanding, and projecting changes in the physical climate system (see Figure 3.1), and have taken leadership in international programs of research and observation (see Chapter 1). This emphasis reflects the most important research questions, research capacities, and funding priorities of participating agencies in the early years of the Program. Over time, the critical need for research on social and ecological systems has been recognized (NASEM, 2017a; NRC, 1992, 2003, 2012). The Program has made efforts to expand and better support these research areas (e.g., USGCRP, 2012); however, research on the physical climate system remains the dominant focus of USGCRP (see e.g., USGCRP, 2020). The committee believes that meeting the decision needs going forward will require rapidly evolving research related to social and ecological systems, with associated increases in agency support.
Framing research priorities to manage systems-based risks also demands a much more integrated approach to research, indicated in Figure 3.1 for 2030 and beyond. Human actions are changing the dynamics of the natural system in ways that can, in turn, alter human systems, that then further change the dynamics of the natural system, in an ongoing feedback loop. A perfect understanding of individual parts or subsystems does not automatically lead to an adequate understanding of the behavior of the whole Earth system. Such an integrated systems-approach requires a more complete integration of the natural and social sciences than has been achieved by USGCRP to date.
Over the next decade, the grand challenge for the USGRP will be to integrate and communicate knowledge across the physical, ecological, and human systems to provide a more complete understanding of the Earth System and its complexity. Indeed, the most pressing research on the climate-related risks described in Chapter 2 requires knowledge of the integrated Earth System to manage climate change which is the grand challenge for society in the 21st century.
Given its mandate to coordinate research across multiple agencies and multiple dimensions of global change, it is imperative USGCRP play an important role in accelerating integrated systems-based research and encouraging this approach in cooperative international efforts. The Program has made steps forward since the last decadal plan (notably the sector-based assessments on food security and impacts of climate change on human health). Meeting the urgent decision needs of the next decade will also require a much greater commitment to research efforts that take a whole systems view, involve experts from the social and natural sciences, more explicitly consider the interactions among natural and human systems, and involve stakeholders throughout.
An integrated systems-based risk-management approach will enable USGCRP to more fully meet the mandate of the GCRA, given the urgency of addressing climate impacts happening today and projected risks for the near future. This approach is the logical extension of the research priorities described in the Act, reflecting the progression of knowledge and the advancement of data and tools. Continued advances in fundamental and applied Earth system science over the next decade will be significantly more useful if the integration of natural and social sciences is prioritized.
An important goal of global change research is to increase resilience through improved understanding of ways to effectively manage interdependent risks within and across systems and sectors while meeting other societal objectives. There are many dimensions to this challenge. The decision space for risk management includes natural science questions about the magnitude, pattern, and timing of hazards associated with future global change and the responses of ecosystems to global changes. The decision space also includes fundamental social science questions about which regions and populations will likely be more vulnerable to individual and compound risks, and the factors that influence decision making; how knowledge spreads and is taken up across social networks; the degree to which management strategies from one place are useful in another; the appropriateness and availability of technologies; the distribution of risks, costs, and benefits across social groups; and how these could shift over time under different assumptions of climate change and socioeconomic development (Janetos, 2020). There also are economic questions about the costs and benefits of mitigation and adaptation policies and programs, including their trade-offs and synergies over spatial and temporal scales. Because much of the societal context of future worlds is unknown, the shape of future risks is likely to shift with climate change and with policy decisions that may or may not be made in a timely manner (Ebi et al., 2016). More transdisciplinary research into these questions can lead to better informed policy designs and public and private incentives for policy adoption and effective implementation that considers behavioral factors that determine (or undermine) their success.
For example, greater understanding is needed about how future development choices could affect not just greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but also trends in population growth, urbanization patterns, human migration, economic growth, investments in scientific research, and technology development and deployment. These trends will influence the magnitude and pattern of risks, and the extent to which communities
and states will likely invest in mitigation and adaptation to avoid preventable impacts and reduce residual risks. Future development choices have greater impacts on the magnitude and pattern of future risks than climate change alone, particularly until mid-century (Byers et al., 2018). Investments in social science research are needed to improve understanding of the socioeconomic consequences of climate change, as well as behavioral, institutional, and political drivers of climate at different scales—the implications for migration, global security, supply chains, governance, human health, the insurance industry, and a host of other issues that together define the societal consequences of climate change. And, of course, all of these will unfold differently for different social groups.
Understanding of vulnerability and resilience can be gained through studying how changing conditions of populations, places, infrastructures, and environmental, socioeconomic, and political systems interact to affect exposure, susceptibility to harm, capacity to manage, and eventual impacts. These interactions are constantly evolving and influenced by public and private policy (McLaughlin, 2011). This knowledge can be used to project changes in vulnerability that can inform modeling of the magnitude and pattern of risks to provide more robust estimates of possible future challenges under a range of climate and development pathways. The projections can be used to prioritize investments into research and technology to be prepared to address those challenges.
Limiting climate risk also requires greater understanding of the technical potential for reducing emissions and requires equity and ethical considerations (i.e., what is feasible given existing or developing technologies, and at what potential cost to whom). Another key goal is understanding any path dependencies created that would reduce future flexibility in reducing emissions. Technical potential does not directly translate into desired outcomes if technologies are not adopted or relevant behaviors do not change. An effective risk-reduction strategy should facilitate businesses, communities, cities, and households to adopt the technology, take on any needed expenditures, and change behaviors. Boundary spanners, such as agricultural and coastal (e.g., Sea Grant) extension agents, may be needed to facilitate adoption of the technologies through education and training. Adoption, either of emissions reduction activities or of activities that reduce damage, depends on the incentives and constraints faced by households, firms, etc.; these are shaped by public decisions and by public and private initiatives, as well as how they are implemented. Thus, research is needed not only on policy design (and associated incentives) but also on the incentives for policy adoption and effective implementation, the behavioral factors that determine their success, and any path dependencies created (Bidwell et al., 2013; Lemos et al., 2014; Nielsen et al., 2020).
The goal is to identify paths forward that facilitate effective initiatives that individuals and communities are willing to adopt (i.e., that will likely lead to technically feasible and achievable behavioral changes that are desirable from a risk-management perspective [Caniglia et al., 2021; Stern and Dietz, 2020] and that consider synergies and trade-offs). This effort should include research related not only to public policy, but also to private sector initiatives because private firms are increasingly influencing climate-related choices by individuals and throughout supply chains (Gilligan and Vandenbergh, 2020; Vandenbergh and Gilligan, 2017). Additionally, nonstate civil society organizations and nonprofits are also a means to collective action (Tosun and Schoenefeld, 2017). USGCRP and the National Climate Assessment could catalyze directly the development of sustained public-private collaborations that can connect appropriate expertise to decision makers in federal, state, local, and tribal governments to ensure adoption of acceptable (to affected groups), humane, resilient, and equitable adaptive measures (Moss et al., 2019; NASEM, 2016a).
Additional research needs to support understanding the decision space for risk management include the following:
- The possible path dependencies, synergies, and trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation over time, both the physical interdependence where an action affects emissions reduction and aids resilience, and socioeconomic factors that influence public support and action, such as addressing environmental justice in energy transitions.
- Projections of how changes in hazards, exposures, and vulnerability over temporal and spatial scales could shape future risks and resilience.
- Applications of exploratory modeling that deal with deep uncertainty through iterative modeling processes that analyze the implications of different potential solutions across diverse potential futures (e.g., Moallemi et al., 2020; see Box 5.1).
- Potential responses of households, firms, public agencies, etc. to public and private initiatives intended to spur emissions mitigation, and the design of programs and policies for maximum effect.
- Use of an equity focus to promote resilience and sustainability. Climate change is exacerbating current and creating new inequities. Historical inequities drive current inequities that drive future inequities that in turn drive exposure and vulnerability. Understanding these linkages could improve the ability to address future inequities, exposures, and vulnerability.
- Improvement of science communication to more effectively provide global change data, information, and tools for a range of stakeholders and risk-management decisions (NASEM, 2017a).
Traditional approaches to designing and implementing global change research are likely to yield stove-piped, science-driven research programs similar to those in place. New approaches to setting research priorities are needed that put user needs at the forefront; doing so would attract a broader and more diverse set of stakeholders and incentivize integrated research. The next strategic planning process will need to embrace and incorporate these approaches more fully, taking advantage of public participation scholarship. Likewise, the planning process will need to engage a much broader swath of federal agencies and other partners to more fully meet needs for global change information and to take best advantage of diverse capacities.
User and Public Participation in Global Change Research
Making global change science useful for effective and timely decision making that (1) protects communities and assets in the short term and (2) fosters needed resilience over the coming decades will require ongoing discourse between the research community and those who are concerned about, are impacted by, and make decisions that influence global change (NRC, 2010a). This needs to be done while acknowledging the significant uncertainties over what changes will prove to be most critical when communities and systems experience impacts. Because researchers do not always understand or prioritize the needs of stakeholders and decision makers, users should be involved in setting the research agenda and, in some cases, actually be involved in designing and conducting research. Advantages include that participatory approaches build trust in the science, help the research community calibrate analysis to local contexts by drawing on indigenous and local knowledge, and help direct scientific attention to issues and questions that will influence risk-management decisions (McClymont Peace and Myers, 2012; Ziegler et al., 2019). Users who are involved in setting, implementing, and communicating a research agenda are more likely to embrace its findings and information products (see, e.g., Gunderson and Dietz, 2018; O’Grady, 2020).
The numbers of decisions that need to be made at local to regional scales place new demands for knowledge generation at relevant, actionable scales. USGCRP and its par-
ticipating agencies should purposefully include as users highly diverse segments of the U.S. and global populations, including racial and ethnic minorities, socioeconomically disadvantaged people, environmental justice communities, and others (e.g., Dietz et al., 2020; see also Chapter 5 section Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Global Change Research). Integrating user needs into the research agenda means more closely coupling user needs into how the USGCRP research agenda is set. Engagement with the larger body of interested and impacted parties, not just government agencies, is essential to assure that the research is broadly useful and attentive to local, regional, and sectoral contexts. Understanding these contexts is crucial, as is the need to ensure that equity-based solutions are central to the implementation of research findings.
USGCRP has laid the groundwork for linking analysis and public deliberation in the National Climate Assessment (e.g., through stakeholder engagement in development of technical inputs and participation on author teams). Over the next decade, USGCRP will need to place strong emphasis on this approach. Of special note is the necessity to engage with underserved and disadvantaged communities, who are often at especially high risk from global change, and to invest in research on the deliberative processes themselves so as to learn from experience and enhance capabilities.
Disciplinary integration in global-change research is also expected to improve the utility of research outputs to user communities. Transdisciplinary efforts like participatory scenario development require model and other research outputs that are usable by a diverse audience, and they invite an exchange of knowledge rather than a one-way transfer. USGCRP could expand opportunities for mainstreaming findings into user communities through these sorts of transdisciplinary approaches, which increase the likelihood that information communicated will be appropriate, timely, and useful.
Previous National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports on climate change and other complex issues at the interface between science and decision making have called for approaches that link scientific analysis to an ongoing public deliberation (NRC, 2010a, b, 2011). National Academies reports have also pioneered the theory and evidence behind such approaches, providing guidance on how they can be implemented (NRC, 2008). The approach is now being called for to handle many science-based policy issues (Dryzek et al., 2020; NASEM, 2016b, 2017b). The committee emphasizes that the design of the exact mechanisms appropriate for such engagement needs to be tailored to the circumstances, but recognize that ongoing research on participation has led to design principles that can provide guidance (NRC, 2008).