Summary

Science has made enormous inroads in understanding climate change and its causes, and is beginning to help develop a strong understanding of current and potential impacts that will affect people today and in coming decades. This understanding is crucial because it allows decision makers to place climate change in the context of other large challenges facing the nation and the world. There are still some uncertainties, and there always will be in understanding a complex system like Earth's climate. Nevertheless, there is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities. While much remains to be learned, the core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious scientific debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations.

As a result of the growing recognition that climate change is under way and poses serious risks for both human societies and natural systems, the question that decision makers are asking has expanded from "What is happening?" to "What is happening and what can we do about it?"" Scientific research can help answer both of these important questions. In addition to the extensive body of research on the causes and consequences of climate change, there is a growing body of knowledge about technologies and policies that can be used to limit the magnitude of future climate change, a smaller but expanding understanding of the steps that can be taken to adapt to climate change, and a growing recognition that climate change will need to be considered in actions and decisions across a wide range of sectors and interests. Advice on prudent short-term actions and long-term strategies in these three areas can be found in the companion reports Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change (NRC, 2010c), Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change (NRC, 2010a), and Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change (NRC, 2010b).

This report, Advancing the Science of Climate Change (Box S.1), reviews the current scientific evidence regarding climate change and examines the status of the nation's scientific research efforts. It also describes the critical role that climate change science, broadly defined, can play in developing knowledge and tools to assist decision makers as they act to respond to climate change. The report explores seven crosscut-ting research themes that should be included in the nation's climate change research enterprise and recommends a number of actions to advance the science of climate f N

BOX S.1

Statement of Task and Report Overview

The Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change, one of five groups convened under the America's Climate Choices suite of activities (see Foreword), was charged to address the following question:"What can be done to better understand climate change and its interactions with human and ecological systems?" The panel was asked to provide a concise overview of past, present, and future climate change, including its causes and its impacts, then to 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 was instructed to 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, and to consider the scientific advances needed to better understand the effectiveness of actions taken to limit the magnitude of future climate change and to adapt to the impacts of climate change. (The full statement of task of the Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change can be found in Appendix B, and its membership can be found in Appendix A; full biographical sketches of the panel members can be found in Appendix C.)

In response to this charge, the panel first assessed what science has learned about climate change and its impacts across a variety of sectors, as well as what is known about options for responding to climate change in those sectors. An overview of this analysis is provided in Chapter 2, and the details can be found in the technical chapters (Chapters 6-17) that compose Part II of the report. The panel also identified scientific advances that could improve our present understanding of climate change or the effectiveness of actions taken to limit its magnitude or adapt to its impacts. Seven crosscutting research themes, presented in Chapter 4, were identified based on this analysis. Finally, the panel evaluated actions that could be taken to achieve these scientific advances, including the physical and human assets required. Chapter 5 includes the panel's recommendations on these important topics.

changeā€”a science that includes and increasingly integrates across the physical, biological, social, health, and engineering sciences. Overall, the report concludes that

1. Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems; and

2. The nation needs a comprehensive and integrated climate change science enterprise, one that not only contributes to our fundamental understanding of climate change but also informs and expands America's climate choices.

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