What does it mean for me? Excellent article on regional climate assessments in “Issues in S&T”


“Climate change is here to stay.  Scientists must develop regional assessments of climate change that are essential to the local policymakers who will have to make the critical decisions about how to respond,” says Charles Kennel at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the winter 2009 issue of Issues in Science and Technology.  “Until people can answer the question, ‘What does it mean for me?,’ they are unlikely to develop their own strategies for adaptation.”  This compelling article deals with what we have been advocating since the US National Assessment of climate change impacts, which the Bush administration terminated and suppressed.  See Details.

post by Anne Polansky

In his article “Climate Change:  Think Globally, Assess Regionally, Act Locally,” Kennel lays out a solid rationale for undertaking a systematic, large-scale, all-out set of local and regional climate change impacts assessments, and for reconnecting science with society in a way that allows us to make the critical decisions needed to live in a climate-disrupted world.  He leads with:

Climate change is here to stay. No matter how effectively governments and the private sector limit greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures will rise during the next several decades. Scientists know less well how climate change effects will be manifested regionally. And this information is critical because each region will have to decide how to adapt to change.

Noting how evidence of warming is already here and that the nature and degree of specific impacts varies markedly from place to place, Kennel says that people have become much more concerned with how they can “adapt to the inevitable consequences of climate change and mitigate the most undesirable ones.” 

It all depends, of course, on where one is living.  These paragraphs aptly capture the essence of the challenge:

Not only will climate change affect each community differently, but each community has a unique combination of environmental, economic, and social factors and its own ways of reaching decisions. Each community will have to decide how it can respond, so each needs information about how, when, and where climate change will affect the specific things it cares about. How will citizens know when they need to make decisions, or if they do?

Many of the responses to climate change will be local, and the variety of items that need attention is daunting. Infrastructure resilient to single stresses has been known to fail in a “perfect storm,” where vulnerability and multiple stresses combine. By analogy, localities are subject to social and environmental stresses that change simultaneously at different rates. These effects are often not simply additive; they can interact and reinforce one another in unexpected ways that can lead to potentially disastrous threshold responses or tipping points.

Not only do different multiple stresses interact differently in different places, but the ways in which people make decisions differ as well. Key decisions are made locally about land use, transportation, the built environment, fire management, water quality and availability, and pollution. For perfectly good reasons, local officials focus on the most concrete local trends and most visible social forces, and many of them perceive global warming as distant and relatively abstract.

The conundrum associated with a global problem requiring global (i.e. international) solutions that manifests locally—and has local solutions to cope with climate consequences but no one locality can slow down the global impacts—is also expertly described here:

All too often, local social, economic, political, legal, and cultural forces overshadow the warnings of the international scientific community. Besides, local officials understandably see global warming as an international issue that should be addressed by national and world leaders. And if local leaders were motivated to act, the effects of climate change do not respect jurisdictional boundaries, and they would find it difficult to marshal the necessary information and expertise to craft and harmonize their responses.

Though “decision processes become dangerously long and complex,” he says, “time has run out for ponderous decisionmaking when every generation will have to adapt to a different climate.”

A call to action that could serve as the clarion call for a National Climate Service now in the policy development stages, and a renewed US National Assessment process, follows:
“The scientific community needs to help by providing local leaders with the specific regional climate information they need to motivate and inform coordinated action.”

Yes, yes, triple yes.  The National Academy of Sciences has called for this repeatedly in reports critiquing the Climate Change Science Program /US Global Change Research Program that had all intentions of performing this role and began to do so under Clinton with the US National Assessment but was undercut by Bush who apparently decided it was not in the best interests of his largest donors in the fossil fuel business to have people connecting the dots between carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, melting arctic ice sheets, prolonged droughts, fiercer wildfires, coastal flooding, deadlier hurricanes, and worse heat waves.  Now mayors, governors, Members of Congress, major corporations, and scientists normally shy of the political process—constituencies outside of the usual environmental activist and NGO community—  are standing up to demand that we get a handle on these local and regional impacts, soon, so as to save lives and property, and find ways to “adapt” to a set of climate conditions that promise to bear little resemblance to any that humans have experienced.

But this is no easy task.  Even our best climate models run on supercomputers with massive data sets can’t adequately give local planners a read on what to expect, and how, where, and when to expect it. 

An important distinction is made:

“A true regional assessment, however, differs from a regionalized global assessment in its spatial specificity” because “topography and coastal proximity create local climatic and ecological zones that cannot be resolved by contemporary global models,” but nevertheless “must be evaluated to make a regional impact assessment meaningful.”

Increasing our resolve to increase the spatial resolution of existing global models isn’t going to do the trick, he concludes, calling on the scientific community to develop “truly regional climate impact models that will help local leaders see what the future holds and understand how actions they can take will make a difference in their region.” 

To us, this demand seems nearly impossible given the existing dearth of resources to take this on.  For example, contrast this need with the the pitiful reality that a large proportion of coastal communities do not even have access to topographic maps showing elevations accurate enough to determine just how much and where rising sea levels will inundate the land. 

Even if we are able to get a better handle on projected climate disruption impacts in specific locales, our work is not done.  This next assignment has the air of a mini-IPCC Working Group II-like endeavor for every area in the nation:

The next question to be answered is how climate change affects key natural systems such as watersheds, ecosystems, and coastal zones. Assessing the effect on natural systems is the starting point for assessing impacts on regionally important socioeconomic sectors such as health, agriculture, and infrastructure. For example, agriculture, a managed ecosystem, is subject to multiple environmental stresses: human practices, changes in water availability and quality, and the lengthening of the growing season.

And these human activities then influence local climate. Deforestation, irrigation, and agriculture affect local moisture concentrations and rainfall. The burning of fossil fuels plays a particularly complex role, only one dimension of which is its contribution to overall global warming. Inefficient combustion in poor diesel engines, open cooking fires, and the burning of coal and biomass produce aerosols with organic soots, or “black carbon,” as well as atmospheric brown clouds.

The collection of effects from aerosols and other local pollutants under the backdrop of a disrupted global system is another topic ripe for scientific exploration, one that is relatively poorly understood. 

Probably one of the most critical areas needing a more sophisticated understanding than we have now is the relationship between climate change and water availability where it is needed, as we are now beginning to experience first-hand in the western and southeastern US (and of course elsewhere around the globe) evidence of a “redistribution of rainfall and snow, with more precipitation at high and equatorial latitudes and drying at mid-latitudes.” 

Kennel notes:

Topography, coastal and mountain proximity, land cover, prevailing storm tracks, and other factors all make regional water climate distinctive. These issues are best addressed on a watershed-by-watershed basis. At mountain altitudes, black carbon heats the air and turns white snow gray, which absorbs more sunlight. These effects are contributing to the melting of the Himalayan snowpack and glaciers, and this melting is, in turn, affecting the river water supply of more than 2 billion people in Asia.

The regional impacts of a change in water availability will depend on factors such as the number and types of ecological provinces, the balance of irrigated and nonirrigated agriculture, the urban/rural population balance, the state of water distribution infrastructure, and regulatory policy.

The decisions to be made will be locally conditioned. How should managed irrigation systems adjust to changes in the timing and volume of spring runoff? Which farmers and crops will be affected? Should farmers change their crop mix? How and when should investments be made in water delivery capacity, agricultural biotechnology, or monitoring systems? Rigorous and detailed regional climate change impact assessments are necessary to answer these questions.

This article then goes on to describe how the state of California is “leading the way,” for example by now requiring biennial formal climate change impacts assessments.  The first such assessment, Our Changing Climate:  Assessing the Risks to California, released in 2006, he notes, “motivated California’s leaders to enact a series of climate-related measures and to forge cooperative programs with neighboring states and even some countries”—- demonstrating just “how powerful regional assessments can be, because Californians learned how they will be affected, and this, in turn, motivated political action.”

Here is the line we think deserves to be on bumper stickers, T-shirts, street signs, and in the vocabulary of every public official across the land:

Until people can answer the question, “What does it mean for me?,” they are unlikely to develop their own strategies for adaptation.

We second his motion that “California and other well-equipped regions” —such as New York City that has just released a similar report diagnosing the depth and breadth of climate disruption across the NY metropolitan region (see NY Times coverage)— “should translate their knowledge and techniques to other parts of the world.”  Including, of course, parts of the US where we still don’t know quite what to expect. 

Kennel then calls for a “mosaic” of assessments world wide. 

The world needs a new international framework that encourages and coordinates participatory regional forecasts and links them to the global assessments. Such a framework for collaboration will not only help build assessment capacity in the nations and regions that need it, but will also generate the local knowledge that is a prerequisite for making the response to climate change genuinely global.

He then lays out a set of questions we should all be asking ourselves:

What lessons can be learned from the regional assessments done to date?

How should global and regional assessments relate to one another?

Should regional assessment panels be connected to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and if so, how?

What are good ways for the international community to incubate regionally led assessments?

Are there best practices that promote interaction between scientists and decisionmakers?

Do these differ regionally?

What are good ways to encourage coordination among regional assessments?

What standards should regional assessments adhere to?

Who should define them?

Who should certify compliance?

How should assessment technologies be transferred?

How should assessment results be disseminated and archived?

How can assessments be designed so that assessment infrastructure can be used later in decision support?

Does anyone else have a headache yet?

Noting several international organizations where discussions can take place, perhaps his wisest advice is this:

“… the world must not wait for the creation of the perfect framework. It is by far preferable to learn by doing. Ideally, the framework will be an emergent property of a network of already active regional assessments that connect global assessments to local decisionmaking.”

There are already many such assessments that have taken place by both public and private interests, creating a patchwork of useful information and insight, but the effort over the past decade has been spotty and inconsistent.  We need a renewed commitment to an ongoing National Assessment of climate change impacts that focuses on geographical regions and socioeconomic sectors, and a vibrant set of “climate services” and climate change planning and preparedness operations that connect our best scientists, technical experts, and planners with our most-in-need decisionmakers, sooner rather than later. 

We thank Charles Kennel for this excellent essay, and beg his indulgence for quoting him at length. 

Charles F. Kennel, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is also a founding director of the Environment and Sustainability Initiative at the University of California, San Diego.




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