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About this Report
What is this report?
This report summarizes the science of climate change and the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future. It is largely based on results of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP),1 and integrates those results with related research from around the world. This report discusses climate-related impacts for various societal and environmental sectors and regions across the nation. It is an authoritative scientific report written in plain language, with the goal of better informing public and private decision making at all levels.
Who called for it, who wrote it, and who approved it?
The USGCRP called for this report. An expert team of scientists operating under the authority of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, assisted by communication specialists, wrote the document. The report was extensively reviewed and revised based on comments from experts and the public. The report was approved by its lead USGCRP Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the other USGCRP agencies, and the Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources on behalf of the National Science and Technology Council.2 This report meets all Federal requirements associated with the Information Quality Act, including those pertaining to public comment and transparency.
The report draws from a large body of scientific information. The foundation of this report is a set of 21 Synthesis and Assessment Products (SAPs), which were designed to address key policy-relevant issues in climate science (see Primary Sources of Information); several of these were also summarized in the Scientific Assessment of the Effects of Climate Change on the United States published in 2008. In addition, other peer-reviewed scientific assessments were used, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. National Assessment of the Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board report on the Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation, and a variety of regional climate impact assessments. These assessments were augmented with government statistics as necessary (such as population census and energy usage) as well as publicly available observations and peer-reviewed research published through the end of 2008. This new work was carefully selected by the author team with advice from expert reviewers to update key aspects of climate change science relevant to this report. The icons following this section represent some of the major sources drawn upon for this synthesis report.
At the bottom of each major section, the sources primarily drawn upon for that section are shown using these icons. Endnotes, indicated by superscript numbers, are used for specific references throughout the report.
See Primary Sources of Information for descriptions of these sources.
Does this report deal with options for responding to climate change?
While the primary focus of this report is on the impacts of climate change in the United States, it also deals with some of the actions society is already taking or can take to respond to the climate challenge. Responses to climate change fall into two broad categories. The first involves “mitigation” measures to reduce climate change by, for example, reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases and particles, or increasing removal of heat-trapping gases from the atmosphere. The second involves “adaptation” measures to improve our ability to cope with or avoid harmful impacts and take advantage of beneficial ones, now and in the future. Both of these are necessary elements of an effective response strategy. These two types of responses are linked in that more effective mitigation measures reduce the amount of climate change, and therefore the need for adaptation.
This report underscores the importance of mitigation by comparing impacts resulting from higher versus lower emissions scenarios. The report shows that choices made about emissions in the next few decades will have far-reaching consequences for climate change impacts. Over the long term, lower emissions will lessen both the magnitude of climate change impacts and the rate at which they appear.
While the report underscores the importance of mitigation as an essential part of the nation’s climate change strategy, it does not evaluate mitigation technologies or undertake an analysis of the effectiveness of various approaches. These issues are the subject of ongoing studies by the U.S. Government’s Climate Change Technology Program and several federal agencies including the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Transportation, and Department of Agriculture. The range of mitigation responses being studied includes more efficient production and use of energy, increased use of non-carbon-emitting energy sources, and carbon capture and storage.
Adaptation options also have the potential to moderate harmful impacts of current and future climate variability and change. While this report does address adaptation, it does not do so comprehensively. Rather, in the context of impacts, this report identifies examples of actions currently being pursued in various sectors and regions to address climate change, as well as other environmental problems that could be exacerbated by climate change such as urban air pollution and heat waves. In most cases, there is currently insufficient peer-reviewed information to evaluate the practicality, effectiveness, costs, or benefits of these measures, highlighting a need for research in this area. Thus, the discussion of various public and private adaptation examples should not be viewed as an endorsement of any particular option, but rather as illustrative examples of approaches being tried.
How is the likelihood of various outcomes expressed given that the future is not certain?
When it is considered necessary to express a range of possible outcomes and identify the likelihood of particular impacts, this report takes a plain-language approach to expressing the expert judgment of the author team based on the best available evidence. For example, an outcome termed “likely” has at least a two-thirds chance of occurring; an outcome termed “very likely,” at least a 90 percent chance.3 In using these terms, the Federal Advisory Committee has taken into consideration a wide range of information, including the strength and consistency of the observed evidence, the range and consistency of model projections, the reliability of particular models as tested by various methods, and most importantly, the body of work addressed in earlier synthesis and assessment reports. Key sources of information used to develop these characterizations of uncertainty are referenced in endnotes.
How does this report address incomplete scientific understanding?
This assessment identifies areas in which scientific uncertainty limits our ability to estimate future climate change and its impacts. The section on An Agenda for Climate Impacts Science under Supporting Materials highlights some of these areas.
- 1. The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which was established in 1990 by the Global Change Research Act, encompasses the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP).
- 2. A description of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) can be found at www.ostp.gov/cs/nstc.
- 3.  CCSP. Best Practice Approaches for Characterizing, Communicating, and Incorporating Scientific Uncertainty in Decisionmaking In Synthesis and Assessment Product 5.2, Edited by G. Morgan, H. Dowlatabadi, M. Henrion, D. Keith, R. Lempert, S. McBrid, M. Small and T. Wilbanks. Washington, D.C.: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2009.