Integrative Themes for Climate Change Research

One of the main tasks assigned to the Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change was to identify the additional science needed to improve our understanding of climate change and its interactions with human and environmental systems, including the scientific advances needed to improve the effectiveness of actions taken to respond to climate change. An examination of the research needs identified in the technical chapters of Part II of the report reveals that there is indeed still much to learn. However, our analysis suggests that the most crucial research needs of the coming decades can be captured in seven crosscutting research themes, whether one is interested in sea level rise, agriculture, human health, national security, or other topics of concern. For example, nearly every chapter in Part II calls for improved understanding of human behaviors and institutions, more detailed information about projected future changes in climate, and improved methods for assessing the economic, social, and environmental costs, benefits, co-benefits, and unintended consequences of actions taken in response to climate change.

Box 4.1 lists the seven crosscutting research themes that the panel has identified, grouped into three general categories: research for improving understanding of coupled human-environment systems, research for improving and supporting more effective responses to climate change, and tools and approaches needed for both of these types of research. These seven crosscutting themes are not intended to represent a comprehensive or exclusive list of research needs, nor do the numbers indicate priority order. Rather, they represent a way of categorizing and, potentially, organizing some of the nation's most critical climate change research activities. Most of these themes are integrative—they require collaboration across different fields of study, including some fields that are not typically part of the climate change science enterprise. Moreover, there are important synergies among the seven themes, and they are not completely independent. For example, research focused on improving responses to climate change will clearly benefit from increased understanding of both human systems and the Earth system, and advances in observations, models, and scientific understanding often go hand in hand. Finally, because most of the themes include research that contributes both to fundamental scientific understanding and to more informed decision making, research under all seven themes would benefit from


BOX 4.1

Crosscutting Themes for the New Era of Climate Change Research

Research to Improve Understanding of Human-Environment Systems

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

2. Climate-related Human Behaviors and Institutions

Research to Support Effective Responses to Climate Change

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

Research Tools and Approaches to Improve Both Understanding and Responses

6. Integrated Climate Observing Systems

7. Improved Projections, Analyses, and Assessments increased dialogue with decision makers across a wide range of sectors and scales. As discussed in Chapter 5, these characteristics all point to the need for an expanded and enhanced climate change science enterprise—an enterprise that is comprehensive, integrative, interdisciplinary, and better supports decision making both in the United States and around the world.

In the following sections, the seven integrative, crosscutting research themes identified by the panel are discussed in detail. Our intent is to describe some of the more important scientific issues that could be addressed within each theme, to show how they collectively span the most critical areas of climate change research, and to demonstrate the vital importance of research progress in all of these areas to the health and well-being of citizens of the United States as well as people and natural systems around the world. Issues related to the implementation of these themes are explored in the next chapter.

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