What do we need from the National Academy of Sciences “America’s Climate Choices” study?


Hundreds of people are on their way to Washington to attend “The Summit on America’s Climate Choices” March 30-31 at the National Academy of Sciences.  The Summit kicks off a comprehensive two-year study requested by Congress “designed to inform and guide responses to climate change.”  Four panels of experts will address key issue areas relating to mitigation, adaptation, climate science, and decision support.  So, what needs to come out of this exercise in order to truly advance national policy on preparedness for climate disruption?  We offer some “DOs-and-DON’Ts” as food for thought. 

Post by Anne Polansky

Climate Science Watch will attend the Summit for America’s Climate Choices, billed as “an opportunity for study participants to interact with major thought leaders and key constituencies to frame the questions and issues that the study will address.”  The event will also be webcast.  CSW will submit written comments to provide our best advice “on the questions and content to be considered by the America’s Climate Choices committee and panels,” as invited to do so by the NAS, before an April 17 deadline, and encourage our readers to do the same. 

Meanwhile, we have some preliminary thoughts to share in advance of the Summit, in a colloquial “DOs and DON’Ts” format. 

DO:  Maintain a solutions-oriented approach.

Keep the focus on concrete steps that federal, state, and local decisionmakers can take to simultaneously build resiliency against climate change impacts and transition to a low-carbon economy.  Be as specific as possible;  statements along the lines of, “the government needs to interact more regularly with potential users of climate information,” are correct but do not give policymakers the tools they need to determine how best to go about creating the means for these interactions.  Avoid lengthy descriptions of problems; the existing scientific and policy literature is replete with them. 

DON’T:  Summarize, repackage, or regurgitate existing knowledge and information; rather, build from it and advance the dialogue. 

A vast body of literature has been generated over the past several decades, addressing the problem of climate change from many angles.  To the maximum extent possible, the group of highly qualified experts assembled for this ambitious task should be up to speed on existing analyses and information (e.g. the CCSP’s 21 Synthesis and Assessment Products) but then stretch beyond existing knowledge to establish a set of specific policy recommendations.  For example, each member of the four panels and the over-arching committee should be well-familiarized with the findings and recommendations in two recent NRC reports:  Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate released on March 12, and Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change released on February 26. 

DO:  Break down recommendations into near-, mid-, and long-term options, with the most focus on nearer term options that are specific and achievable enough (practically and politically) to be put into force within a reasonable time frame. 

Top scientists are associating an increasing sense of urgency with the need to address the threats associated with global climate disruption.  Economists are in general agreement that actions taken sooner will be less expensive and more effective than actions taken later to deal with impacts and to reduce GHG emissions.  While longer term solutions, such as those that rely on significant innovations in technology, are important, it is even more so to place emphasis on what could be done now, and to understand better how to overcome existing barriers to implementing near-term solutions. 

DON’T:  Work in a vacuum.  Make reasonable efforts to keep apprised of major policy developments and achievements (or lack thereof) at the federal and state level, and offer advice and recommendations that take into account these developments. 

One obvious example is the recent passage of the economic stimulus bill, resulting in the disbursement of billions of dollars to the states for things like infrastructure improvements and improved social services.  How widespread is consideration of climate change impacts and opportunities for adaptation and mitigation within the context of all of this new economic activity?  For new construction of roads and bridges, for example, are altered temperature and precipitation patterns being taken into account?  The need for better evacuation routes in the event of extreme weather?  If not, then what sorts of policies and/or leadership is needed to help draw connections between economic stimulus and climate change resiliency? 

DO:  Estimate and consider, wherever practical to do so, the costs associated with both action and inaction with respect to any particular solution.

For example, some coastal communities are beginning to consider the need to relocate to higher ground, either instead of or in addition to building dikes and other flood control options.  It would be useful for these communities to better understand the potential loss of life and property if no action is taken, and to have useful tools for comparing and contrasting the costs associated with a set of possible response strategies. 

DON’T:  Be afraid to recommend bold, new approaches requiring new ways of doing business within the federal government. 

The way our federal government is currently structured and operated is very poorly suited to the task of dealing with the myriad interrelated complexities associated with climate change.  Our agencies and departments and the offices within them have become much too stove-piped and balkanized to rise to the challenge of bringing federal expertise to bear on state and local problem-solving.  It just may be the case that creating the new position of “Assistant to the President for Climate and Energy” is not a sufficiently robust answer to this problem.  For example, the panels should consider creating a “National Climate Change Preparedness Center,” whose job it would be to act as a central nervous system linking together the capabilities and resources of myriad federal offices with the needs of urban and rural communities.

DO:  Delineate between policy recommendations requiring new or modified legislation, and those that can be implemented using existing laws or by Executive Order. 

For example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a powerful mechanism for assessing the expected environmental impact of major federal projects (such as building a new highway or setting aside areas for protection) and for applying environmental factors in the decision of whether or not to proceed.  Assessments of the ramifications associated with climate change, both in terms of adaptation and mitigation, could be more explicitly required as part of the NEPA process, absent legislative action.  Likewise, the panel addressing mitigation should keep a close eye on the EPA’s ongoing analysis of best ways to utilize the various provisions of the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 emissions and offer, where possible, an independent perspective.  Policy recommendations requiring new legislation should be clearly identified.   

DON’T:  Take refuge in generalities;  wherever possible, attempt to be as specific as the topic will allow. 

For example, recommending that a national assessment of climate change impacts be resumed (after it was terminated in 2000) is good, but will not have meaning to policymakers unless there is also a set of suggestions for how best to go about conducting such assessments.  For example, which agencies should be engaged, and why?  How should we fund it?  What is the proper role of the private sector?  What types of assessments are needed more urgently than others?  And so on. 

These are just some preliminary thoughts; upon hearing more about America’s Climate Choices at this week’s summit, we will more fully develop our ideas and suggestions, and post them to share with our readers.  Anyone wishing to give us their input can do so by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Below is a description of the overall scope of work for each of the four panels.

Panel One will address the question: “What can be done to limit the magnitude of future climate change?”

The panel will describe, analyze, and assess strategies for reducing the net future human influence on climate, including both technology and policy options (this is sometimes referred to as “mitigation of climate change”). The panel will focus on actions to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions and other human drivers of climate change, such as changes in land use, but will also consider the international dimensions of climate stabilization. The costs, benefits, limitations, tradeoffs, and uncertainties associated with different options and strategies should be assessed qualitatively and, to the extent practicable, quantitatively, using the scenarios of future climate change and vulnerability developed in coordination with the Committee on America’s Climate Choices. The panel will also strive to keep abreast of the wide range of proposals currently being advanced by policymakers at a number of levels to limit the future magnitude of climate change, and strive to frame their recommendations in the context of these developments.

Panel Two will address the question: “What can be done to adapt to the impacts of climate change?”

The panel will describe, analyze, and assess actions and strategies to reduce vulnerability, increase adaptive capacity, improve resiliency, and promote successful adaptation to climate change in different regions, sectors, systems, and populations. The costs, benefits, limitations, tradeoffs, and uncertainties associated with different options and strategies should be assessed qualitatively and, to the extent practicable, quantitatively, using the scenarios of future climate change and vulnerability developed in coordination with the Committee on America’s Climate Choices and other panels. The panel will draw on existing reports and assessments and use case studies to identify lessons learned from past experiences, promising current approaches, and potential new directions. The issues and examples considered by the panel should be drawn from a variety of regions and sectors, focusing on domestic actions but also considering international dimensions, and should cover a range of temporal and spatial scales.

Panel Three will address the question: “What can be done to better understand climate change and its interactions with human and ecological systems?”

The panel will first provide a concise overview of past, present, and future climate change, including its causes and its impacts, then recommend steps to advance our current understanding, including new observations, research programs, next-generation models, and the physical and human assets needed to support these and other activities. The panel should consider both the natural climate system and the human activities responsible for driving climate change and altering the vulnerability of different regions, sectors, and populations as a single system; it should also consider the scientific advances needed to better understand the effectiveness of actions taken to limit the magnitude of future climate change, including “geo-engineering” approaches, and to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Panel Four will address the question: “What can be done to inform effective decisions and actions related to climate change?”

The panel will describe and assess different activities, products, strategies, and tools for informing decision makers about climate change and helping them plan and execute effective, integrated responses. It will describe the different types of climate change-related decisions and actions being made at various levels and in different sectors and regions, develop a framework for analyzing and informing these actions and decisions, and evaluate the activities, products, and tools that could help ensure these actions and decisions are informed by the best available technical knowledge. The tools, products, and activities considered by the panel will include, but are not necessarily limited to, observing systems, climate models, monitoring and early warning systems, assessments, integrated assessment models, outreach activities, and communication networks between information providers and users. The panel will also recommend steps to better educate and train future generations of scientists, decision makers, and citizens to meet the challenges associated with climate change.


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