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An Agenda for Climate Impacts Science

Both mitigation and adaptation decisions are becoming increasingly necessary. Advancing our knowledge in the many aspects of science that affect the climate system has already contributed greatly to decision making on climate change issues. Further advances in climate science including better understanding and projections regarding rainfall, storm tracks, storm intensity, heat waves, and sea-level rise will improve decision making capabilities.

The focus below, however, is on advancing our knowledge specifically on climate change impacts and those aspects of climate change responsible for these impacts in order to continue to guide decision making.

Recommendation 1:

Expand our understanding of climate change impacts.

There is a clear need to increase understanding of how ecosystems, social and economic systems, human health, and infrastructure will be affected by climate change in the context of other stresses. New understanding will come from a mix of activities including sustained and systematic observations, field and laboratory experiments, model development, and integrated impact assessments. These will incorporate shared learning among researchers, practitioners (such as engineers and water managers), and local stakeholders.


Ecosystem changes, in response to changes in climate and other environmental conditions, have already been documented. These include changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere and precipitation, vegetation patterns, growing season length, plant productivity, animal species distributions, and the frequency and severity of pest outbreaks and fires. In the marine environment, changes include the health of corals and other living things due to temperature stress and ocean acidification. These observations not only document climate-change impacts, but also provide critical input to understanding how and why these changes occur, and how changes in ecosystems in turn affect climate. In this way, records of observed changes can improve projections of future impacts related to various climate change scenarios.

In addition to observations, large-scale, whole-ecosystem experiments are essential for improving projections of impacts. Ecosystem-level experiments that vary multiple factors, such as temperature, moisture, ground-level ozone, and atmospheric carbon dioxide, would provide process-level understanding of the ways ecosystems could respond to climate change in the context of other environmental stresses. Such experiments are particularly important for ecosystems with the greatest potential to experience massive change due to the crossing of thresholds or tipping points.

Insights regarding ecosystem responses to climate change gained from both observations and experiments are the essential building blocks of ecosystem simulation models. These models, when rigorously developed and tested, provide powerful tools for exploring the ecosystem consequences of alternative future climates. The incorporation of ecosystem models into an integrated assessment

framework that includes socioeconomic, atmospheric and ocean chemistry, and atmosphere-ocean general circulation models should be a major goal of impacts research. This knowledge can provide a base for research studies into ways to manage critical ecosystems in an environment that is continually changing.

Economic systems, human health, and the built environment

As natural systems experience variations due to a changing climate, social and economic systems will be affected. Food production, water resources, forests, parks, and other managed systems provide life support for society. Their sustainability will depend on how well they can adapt to a future climate that is different from historical experience.

At the same time, climate change is exposing human health and the built environment to increasing risks. Among the likely impacts are an expansion of the ranges of insects and other animals that carry diseases and a greater incidence of health-threatening air pollution events compounded by unusually hot weather associated with climate change. In coastal areas, sea-level rise and storm surge threaten infrastructure including homes, roads, ports, and oil and gas drilling and distribution facilities. In other parts of the country, floods, droughts, and other weather and climate extremes pose increasing threats.

Careful observations along with climate and Earth system models run with a range of emissions scenarios can help society evaluate these risks and plan actions to minimize them. Work in this area would include assessments of the performance of delivery systems, such as those for regional water and electricity supply, so that climate change impacts and costs can be evaluated in terms of changes in risk to system performance. It will be particularly important to understand when the effects on these systems are extremely large and/or rapid, similar to tipping points and thresholds in ecosystems.

In addition, the climate change experienced outside the United States will have implications for our nation. A better understanding of these international linkages, including those related to trade, security, and large-scale movements of people in response to climate change, is desirable.

Recommendation 2:

Refine ability to project climate change, including extreme events, at local scales.

One of the main messages to emerge from the past decade of synthesis and assessments is that while climate change is a global issue, it has a great deal of regional variability. There is an indisputable need to improve understanding of climate system effects at these smaller scales, because these are often the scales of decision making in society. Understanding impacts at local scales will also help to target finite resources for adaptation measures. Although much progress has been made in understanding important aspects of this variability, uncertainties remain. Further work is needed on how to quantify cumulative uncertainties across spatial scales and the uncertainties associated with complex, intertwined natural and social systems.

Because region-specific climate changes will occur in the context of other environmental and social changes that are also region-specific, it is important to continue to refine our understanding of regional details, especially those related to precipitation and soil moisture. This would be aided by further testing of models against observations using established metrics designed to evaluate and improve the realism of regional model simulations.

Continued development of improved, higher resolution global climate models, increased computational capacity, extensive climate model experiments, and improved downscaling methods will increase the value of geographically specific climate projections for decision makers in government, business, and the general population.

Extreme weather and climate events are a key component of regional climate. Additional attention needs to be focused on improved observations (made on the relevant time and space scales to capture high-impact extreme events) and associated research and analysis of the potential for future changes in extremes. Impacts analyses indicate that extreme weather and climate events often play a major role in determining climate-change consequences.

Recommendation 3:

Expand capacity to provide decision makers and the public with relevant information on climate change and its impacts.

The United States has tremendous potential to create more comprehensive measurement, archive, and data-access systems and to convey needed information that could provide great benefit to society. There are several aspects to fulfilling this goal: defining what is most relevant, gathering the needed information, expanding the capacity to deliver information, and improving the tools for decision makers to use this information to the best advantage. All of these aspects should involve an interactive and iterative process of continual learning between those who provide information and those who use it. Through such a process, monitoring systems, distribution networks, and tools for using information can all be refined to meet user needs.

For example, tools used by researchers that could also be useful to decision makers include those that analyze and display the probability of occurrence of a range of outcomes to help in assessing risks.

Improved climate monitoring can be efficiently achieved by following the Climate Monitoring Principles recommended by the National Academy of Sciences and the Climate Change Science Strategic Plan in addition to integrating current efforts of governments at all levels. Such a strategy complements a long-term commitment to the measurement of the set of essential climate variables identified by both the Climate Change Science Program and the Global Climate Observing System. Attention must be placed on the variety of time and space scales critical for decision making.

Improved impacts monitoring would include information on the physical and economic effects of extreme events (such as floods and droughts), available, for example, from emergency preparedness and resource management authorities. It would also include regular archiving of information about impacts.

Improved access to data and information archives could substantially enhance society’s ability to respond to climate change. While many data related to climate impacts are already freely and readily available to a broad range of users, other data, such as damage costs, are not, and efforts should be made to make them available. Easily accessible information should include a set of agreed-upon baseline indicators and measures of environmental conditions that can be used to track the effects of changes in climate. Services that provide reliable, well-documented, and easily used climate information, and make this information available to support users, are important.

Recommendation 4:

Improve understanding of thresholds likely to lead to abrupt changes in climate or ecosystems.

Paleoclimatic data show that climate can and has changed quite abruptly when certain thresholds are crossed. Similarly, there is evidence that ecological and human systems can undergo abrupt change when tipping points are reached.

Within the climate system there are a number of key risks to society for which understanding is still quite limited. Additional research is needed in some key areas, for example, identifying thresholds that lead to rapid changes in ice sheet dynamics. Sea-level rise is a major concern and improved understanding of the sensitivity of the major ice sheets to sustained warming requires improved observing capability, analysis, and modeling of the ice sheets and their interactions with nearby oceans. Estimates of sea-level rise in previous assessments, such as the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 report, did not fully quantify the magnitude and rate of future sea-level rise due to inadequate scientific understanding of potential instabilities of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Tipping points in biological systems include the temperature thresholds above which insects survive winter, and can complete two life cycles instead of one in a single growing season, contributing to infestations that kill large numbers of trees. The devastation caused by bark beetles in Canada, and increasingly in the U.S. West, provides an example of how crossing such a threshold can set off massive destruction in an ecosystem with far-reaching consequences.

Similarly, there is increasing concern about the acidification of the world’s oceans due to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. There are ocean acidity thresholds beyond which corals and other living things, including some that form the base of important marine food chains, will no longer be able to form the shells and other body structures they need to survive. Improving understanding of such thresholds is an important goal for future research.

Recommendation 5:

Improve understanding of the most effective ways to reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change, as well as unintended consequences of such activities.

This report underscores the importance of reducing the concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Impacts of climate change during this century and beyond are projected to be far larger and more rapid in scenarios in which greenhouse gas concentrations continue to grow rapidly compared to scenarios in which concentrations grow more slowly. Additional research will help identify the desired mix of mitigation options necessary to control the rate and magnitude of climate change.  

In addition to their intended reduction of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, mitigation options also have the potential for unintended consequences, which should also be examined in future research. For example, the production, transportation, and use of biofuels could lead to increases in water and fertilizer use as well as in some air pollutants. It could also create competition among land uses for food production, biofuels production, and natural ecosystems that provide many benefits to society. Improved understanding of such unintended consequences, and identification of those options that carry the largest negative impacts, can help decision makers make more informed choices regarding the possible trade-offs inherent in various mitigation strategies.

Recommendation 6:

Enhance understanding of how society can adapt to climate change.

There is currently limited knowledge about the ability of communities, regions, and sectors to adapt to future climate change. It is important to improve understanding of how to enhance society’s capacity to adapt to a changing climate in the context of other environmental stresses. Interdisciplinary research on adaptation that takes into account the interconnectedness of the Earth system and the complex nature of the social, political, and economic environment in which adaptation decisions must be made would be central to this effort.

The potential exists to provide insights into the possible effectiveness and limits of adaptation options that might be considered in the future. To realize this potential, new research would be helpful to document past responses to climate variability and other environmental changes, analyze the underlying reasons for them, and explain how individual and institutional decisions were made. However, human-induced climate change is projected to be larger and more rapid than any experienced by modern society so there are limits to what can be learned from the past.

A major difficulty in the analysis of adaptation strategies in this report has been the lack of information about the potential costs of adaptation measures, their effectiveness under various scenarios of climate change, the time horizons required for their implementation, and unintended consequences. These types of information should be systematically gathered and shared with decision makers as they consider a range of adaptation options. It is also clear that there is a substantial gap between the available information about climate change and the development of new guidelines for infrastructure such as housing, transportation, water systems, commercial buildings, and energy systems. There are also social and institutional obstacles to appropriate action, even in the face of adequate knowledge. These obstacles need to be better understood so that they can be reduced or eliminated.

Finally, it is important to carry out regular assessments of adaptation measures that address combined scenarios of future climate change, population growth, and economic development paths. This is an important opportunity for shared learning in which researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders collaborate using observations, models, and dialogue to explore adaptation as part of long-term, sustainable development planning.