National Academy of Sciences releases a must-read report: Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate


The National Research Council on March 12 released a report, Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate, that concludes we are “unprepared, both conceptually and practically” for climate change and that it is no longer valid to base decisions on the assumption of continued climatic conditions of the past.  The report makes many well-grounded recommendations for moving forward in a climate-disrupted world. 

See related posts:

CSW weighs in with NOAA advisory board on criteria for forming a National Climate Service 

Plans are underway to create a National Climate Service – But what does that mean, exactly? 

Questions for Jane Lubchenco Senate confirmation hearing to become NOAA Administrator 

post by Anne Polansky

The report is the result of two years of effort by the NAS Panel on Strategies and Methods for Climate-Related Decision Support, chaired by Dr. Robert Corell, now serving as the Global Change Director at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment (link here for a list of the panel members and their bios).

This paragraph in the executuve summary captures the primary message in the study: 

Considering the great diversity of climate-affected decisions and decision makers, it is useful to organize decision support around constituencies.  [Decision support is defined elsewhere in the report as organized efforts to produce, disseminate, and facilitate the use of data and information in order to improve the quality and efficacy of climate-related decisions.]  We identify four roles for the federal government in climate-related decision support. Federal leadership is essential in serving the constituencies of federal agencies, participating in international efforts related to climate decision support, providing decision support services and products that serve a public good that would not otherwise be provided, and facilitating distributed responses to climate change.  The last of these is important because central management is neither feasible nor effective for providing decision support for the many climate-affected constituencies in the nation. All four roles are consistent with federal responsibilities under the U.S. Global Change Research Act of 1990 and can be pursued under that mandate.

There are many good recommendations in the report (see below); however, the NRC panel stops short of prescribing just how we might achieve them.  Implementing these ideas will require a tremendous amount of coordination and communication not just among federal agencies but also among Congressional committees and stakeholder groups.  CSW has been developing recommendations along these lines as part of our Climate Change Preparedness Project, and will be continuing to think through how we can create a more comprehensive, functional system for better preparing society for the challenges to come. 

Recommendation 1: Government agencies at all levels and other organizations, including in the scientific community, should organize their decision support efforts around six principles of effective decision support: (1) begin with users’ needs; (2) give priority to process over products; (3) link information producers and users; (4) build connections across disciplines and organizations; (5) seek institutional stability; and (6) design processes for learning.

Recommendation 2: Federal agencies should develop or expand decision support systems needed by the climate-affected regions, sectors, and constituencies they serve.
• The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should expand its Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments Program (RISA) and Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP) centers to serve the full range of regions and sectors of the nation where NOAA has natural constituencies.
• The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should expand its climate-related decision support programs to serve more regional and sectoral constituencies.
• Other federal agencies should take similar steps for their climate-affected constituencies.
• The federal government should selectively support state and local governments and nongovernmental organizations to expand their efforts to provide effective decision support to their climate-affected constituencies.

Learning poses difficult challenges for climate-related decision making, especially by public agencies, because frequently there are multiple participants with varied and changing objectives interacting with uncertain and evolving knowledge. We found that the most appropriate model for learning under such conditions combines participatory deliberation with expert analysis in an iterative manner. This model is quite demanding in its needs for leadership and other resources. (emphasis added)

(CSW comment:  The combination of “participatory deliberation with expert analysis in an iterative manner” is precisely what we believe is a necessary ingredient not just for decision support, but for climate change impacts assessments as well.  Robust, two-way communication between grassroots constituencies and experts in a variety of disciplines relevant to climate change, where there is give-and-take and both learn from one another to chart out adaptation and mitigation responses, is essential for enhancing overall US preparedness for climate disruption.) 

Recommendation 3: Federal agencies in their own decision support activities and in fostering decision support by others should use the approach of deliberation with analysis when feasible. This is the process most likely to encourage the emergence of good climate-related decisions over time. The federal government should also fund research on decision support efforts that combine deliberation with analysis and that use other appropriate learning models, with the aim of improving decision support for a changing climate.

Recommendation 4: Federal agencies and other entities that provide decision support should monitor changes in science, policy, and climate-related events, including changes outside the United States, that are likely to alter the demand and opportunities for effective decision support. Knowledge of such changes will help them to learn and to improve more rapidly. 

Recommendation 5: Federal agencies should promote learning by supporting decision support networks to share lessons and technical capabilities. This may include support for expanding the capacity of boundary organizations and distributed entities for learning, such as internet sites. The federal investment should be selective and guided by the reality that networks operate satisfactorily only when their members see concrete benefits from participation.

Achieving decision support objectives requires research to understand, assess, and predict the human consequences of climate change and of possible responses to climate change. That research must be closely integrated with basic and applied research on climate processes.

(CSW comment:  This statement is right on target; the US Climate Change Science Program must be revitalized and reformed in a number of ways to better link the research programs with societal needs for information and assistance.  While maintaining resources to support basic research to better understand the climate system, we must also place a greater emphasis on research that will support our understanding of impacts at the local and regional level, and strategies for adapting to these impacts and employing an aggressive approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.)

Recommendation 6: The federal agencies that manage research activities mandated under the U.S. Global Change Research Act should organize a program of research for informing climate change response as a component of equal importance to the current national program of research on climate change processes. This program should include research for and on decision support, aimed at providing decision-relevant knowledge and information for climate responses.
The research for decision support should have five substantive foci:
1. understanding climate change vulnerabilities: human development scenarios for potentially affected regions, populations, and sectors;
2. understanding the potential for mitigation, including anthropogenic driving forces, capacities for change, possible limits of change, and consequences of mitigation options;
3. understanding adaptation contexts and capacities, including possible limits of change and consequences of various adaptive responses;
4. understanding how mitigation and adaptation interact with each other and with climatic and ecological changes in determining human system risks, vulnerabilities, and response challenges associated with climate change; and
5. understanding and taking advantage of emerging opportunities associated with climate variability and change.

The research on decision support should have five substantive foci:
1. understanding information needs;
2. characterizing and understanding climate risk and uncertainty;
3. understanding and improving processes related to decision support; including decision support processes and networks and methods for structuring decisions;
4. developing and disseminating decision support products; and
5. assessing decision support “experiments.”

Recommendation 7: The federal government should expand and maintain national observational systems to provide information needed for climate decision support.  These systems should link existing data on physical, ecological, social, economic, and health variables relevant to climate decisions to each other and develop new data and key indicators as needed. The effort should be informed by dialogues among potential producers and users of the indicators at different levels of analysis and action and should be coordinated with efforts in other parts of the world to provide a stronger global basis for research and decision support.

Recommendation 8: The federal government should recognize the need for scientists with specialized knowledge in societal issues and the science of decision support in the field of climate change response. There should be expanded federal support to enable students and scientists to build their capacity as researchers and as advisers to decision makers who are dealing with the changing climate.

Fulfilling the federal roles in climate-related decision support will require coordinated efforts involving many federal agencies.

Recommendation 9: The federal government should undertake a national initiative for climate-related decision support under the mandate of the U.S. Global Change Research Act (GCRA) and other existing legal authority. This initiative should include a service element to support and catalyze processes to inform climate-related decisions and a research element to develop the science of climate response to inform climate-related decisions and to promote systematic improvement of decision support processes and products in all relevant sectors of U.S. society and, indeed, around the world.


The report also addresses the notion of creating a National Climate Service:

The idea of a national climate service in or led by NOAA has received considerable attention in recent years. As of this writing, there is no agreed description of the purview, mandate, or organizational location of such a service. Yet it is clear that any form of national climate service should implement the principles of effective decision support. Thus, it should develop decision support products by means of communication between information providers and users that is likely to shape research agendas in ways that yield useful and usable research products. For this reason, we believe a national climate service should be part of the decision support initiative we recommend and be linked closely to its research element.

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