Climate Change Research Needs to Be Integrative and Interdisciplinary

Climate change affects a wide range of human, ecological, and physical properties and processes, and it interacts in complex ways with other global and regional environmental changes. The response of human and environmental systems to this spectrum of changes is likewise complex. Given this complexity, understanding climate change, its impacts, and potential responses inherently requires integration of knowledge bases from different areas of the physical, biological, social, health, and engineering sciences. Science that supports effective responses to climate change also will require integration of information across spatial and temporal scales. For example, global-or regional-scale information about changes in the climate system often needs to be analyzed in the context of local data on economic activity, vulnerable assets and resources, human well-being, and other place-specific information. Climate change science in the coming decades will need to be more multi- and interdisciplinary and integrative than in the past.

In some ways, the call for cross-disciplinary and cross-scale integration is a step, albeit a large one, in a progression that has been under way in national and international climate science for quite some time. As described later in the chapter, a number of domestic and international scientific programs have organized the research community to focus on climate and other regional and global environmental changes. These programs have played a critical role in establishing our present understanding. However, in general they have not been as successful in bridging the gaps between those who study the physical climate system; those who study the impacts of and responses to climate change in human, ecological, and coupled human-environment systems; and those who study the technical, economic, political, behavioral, and other aspects of various responses to climate change (ICSU-IGFA, 2009; NRC, 2009k). Moreover, a concerted effort is needed to increase the engagement of some disciplines, such as the social, behavioral, economic, decision, cognitive, and communication sciences.

Achieving better integration will require significant increases in interdisciplinary science capacity among scientists, managers, and decision makers. It will require changes in cultures within and actions across a range of institutions, including universities, government, the private sector, research institutes, professional societies, and other nongovernmental organizations, including the National Research Council. It will also require the creation of new institutions to facilitate the needed research at the appropriate scales and in appropriate contact with decision makers.

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