Climate Change Research Needs to Be a Flexible Enterprise Able to Respond to Changing Knowledge Needs and Support Adaptive Risk Management and Iterative Decision Making

As climate change progresses, past climate conditions and human experiences will serve as less and less reliable guides for decision makers (see Chapter 3 and also NRC, 2009g). Even with continued advances in scientific understanding, projections of the future will always include some uncertainties. Moreover, because climate changes interact with so many resource and infrastructure decisions, from power plant design to crop planting dates, responses to climate change will need to be developed and implemented in the context of continuously evolving conditions. Furthermore, as actions are taken to limit the magnitude of future climate change and adapt to its impacts, decision makers will need to understand and take the effectiveness and unintended consequences of these actions into account.

As a direct result of these complexities and uncertainties, all responses to climate change, including the next generation of scientific research, will require deliberate "learning by doing." Actions and strategies will need to be periodically evaluated and revised to take advantage of new information and knowledge, not only about climate and climate-related changes but also about the effectiveness of responses to date and about other changes in human and environmental systems. The nation's scientific enterprise should support adaptive risk management (i.e., an ongoing decision-making process that takes known and potential risks and uncertainties into account and periodically updates and improves plans and strategies as new information becomes available—see Box 3.1) by monitoring climate change indicators, providing timely information about the effectiveness of actions taken to respond to climate risks, im proving the effectiveness of our responses over time, developing new responses, and continuing to build our understanding of climate change and its impacts. These tasks require flexible mechanisms for identifying and addressing new scientific challenges as they emerge and also ongoing interactions with decision makers as their needs change over time. Continued progress will also be needed in monitoring, projecting, and assessing climate change, especially abrupt changes and other "surprises'! Individually and collectively, these demands will require significant changes in the way research is funded, conducted, evaluated, and rewarded.

Recommendation 1: The nation's climate change research enterprise should include and integrate disciplinary and interdisciplinary research across the physical, social, biological, health, and engineering sciences; focus on fundamental, use-inspired research that contributes to both improved understanding and more effective decision making; and be flexible in identifying and pursuing emerging research challenges.


Recommendation 1 calls for a broad, integrative research program to assist the nation in understanding climate change and in supporting well-crafted and coordinated opportunities to adapt to and limit the magnitude of climate change. In Chapter 4, seven crosscutting, integrative research themes were identified that would provide effective focal points for such a program:

1. Climate Forcings, Feedbacks, Responses, and Thresholds in the Earth System

2. Climate-Related Human Behaviors and Institutions

3. Vulnerability and Adaptation Analyses of Coupled Human-Environment Systems

4. Research to Support Strategies for Limiting Climate Change

5. Effective Information and Decision-Support Systems

6. Integrated Climate Observing Systems

7. Improved Projections, Analyses, and Assessments

Progress in these areas would advance the science of climate change in ways that are responsive to the nation's needs for information, and progress in all seven themes is needed (either iteratively or concurrently) because they are synergistic. However, due to limits in capacity—for example, many of the key research needs are in fields that have not yet been fully incorporated into or developed within the nation's climate change science enterprise—and in financial resources, priorities will ultimately need to be set within these themes, and perhaps also across them.

Setting priorities has been and will continue to be a critical part of the scientific process. Priority setting can be accomplished via community-based long-range planning mechanisms, national and international assessments and advisory reports, federal agency and interagency advisory and strategy planning processes, and federal budget development processes. Indeed, the U.S. federal government has already developed and established legislation, policies, and practices for developing climate and global change research budgets and priorities (for example, see Appendix E for a description of some of the USGCRP's past and current priority-setting practices).

Given these detailed, well-established processes, this panel can contribute to priority setting only at a comparably coarse level—for example, by suggesting the high-level research themes discussed in Chapter 4. The development of more comprehensive, exhaustive, and prioritized lists of specific research needs within each theme will need to involve members of the relevant research communities. It is critical, however, that priority setting also include the perspective of societal need, which necessitates input from decision makers and other stakeholders. Implementation of such priority-setting activities will further require the establishment of agreed-upon priority-setting criteria, strong leadership of and support for the research program, and new mechanisms for stakeholder input.

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