Metrics and Indicators

Metrics and indicators are critical tools for monitoring climate change, understanding vulnerability and adaptive capacity, and evaluating the effectiveness of actions taken to respond to climate change. While research on indicators has been a focus of attention for several decades (Dietz et al., 2009c; Orians and Policansky, 2009; Parris and Kates, 2003; York, 2009), progress is needed to improve integration of physical indicators with emerging indicators of ecosystem health and human well-being (NRC, 2005c). Developing reliable and valid approaches for measuring and monitoring sustainable well-being (that is, approaches that account for multiple dimensions of human well-being, the social and environmental factors that contribute to it, and the relative efficiency with which nations, regions, and communities produce it) would greatly aid adaptive risk management (see Box 3.1) by providing guidance on the overall effectiveness of actions taken (or not taken) in response to climate change and other risks.

Development of and improvements in metrics or indicators that span and integrate all relevant physical, chemical, biological, and socioeconomic domains are needed to help guide various actions taken to respond to climate change. Such metrics should focus on the "vitals" of the Earth system, such as freshwater and food availability, ecosystem health, and human well-being, but should also be flexible and, to the extent allowed by present understanding, attempt to identify possible indicators of tipping points or abrupt changes in both the climate system and related human and environmental systems. Many candidate metrics and indicators exist, but additional research will be needed to test, refine, and extend these measures.

One key element in this research area is the development of more refined metrics and indicators of social change. For example, gross domestic product (GDP) is a well-developed measure of economic transactions that is often interpreted as a measure of overall human well-being, but GDP was not designed for this use and may not be a good indicator of either collective or average well-being (Hecht, 2005). A variety of efforts are under way to develop alternative indicators of both human well-being and of human impact on the environment that may help monitor social and environmental change and the link between them (Frey, 2008; Hecht, 2005; Krueger, 2009; Parris and Kates, 2003; Wackernagel et al., 2002; World Bank, 2006).

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