Evidence of the increasing pace and severity of the impacts of climate change is motivating local governments and communities to limit their carbon footprints and implement adaptation measures. In many locations, climate action plans are stalling, particularly in communities confronting preexisting burdens such as inadequate public health infrastructure and limited economic opportunity. New types of support are needed to accelerate progress, including technical guidance on how to use climate science to customize adaptation and mitigation strategies.
These are among the findings of a new report released today, Evaluating Knowledge to Support Climate Action. The report analyzes the types of support needed by communities and makes three main recommendations: (1) Establish a nonfederal network to assess how to apply science in making and implementing decisions, (2) focus these assessments on the common problems and challenges that climate risk managers face, and (3) use new methods such as artificial intelligence to support climate risk management. The report was prepared by the Independent Advisory Committee (IAC), a group of climate researchers; state, local, and tribal officials; and other experts. The group also included most of the members of a federal advisory committee that was dismissed by the Trump administration in 2017 and reconvened at the invitation of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, with support from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and the American Meteorological Society.
While the work of the IAC ends with the publication of the report, we—the authors of this Eos article, including some members of the IAC—are taking immediate action on its recommendations by establishing the Science for Climate Action Network (SCAN). SCAN will coordinate preparation of applied climate assessments that evaluate the quality and usability of climate science to mitigate and manage climate threats. SCAN will serve as a backbone organization for groups that already are beginning to incorporate climate science in their work. It will facilitate collaborative learning, develop tested practices and authoritative data, and disseminate this information, with support, for user groups.
SCAN will build on the National Climate Assessments (NCAs) mandated by the Global Change Research Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990. Under the Act, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has produced four NCAs, supplemental reports, and data that have clarified the economic, health, and environmental risks we face from climate change. The reports address challenging topics such as cascading impacts across interdependent infrastructure systems and provide increasingly high-resolution scenarios of climate parameters with more localized information. But the NCA reports stop short of delivering authoritative guidance on how to use that knowledge to address the risks they so clearly identify. SCAN can bridge this gap between knowledge and action by taking a sustained approach to interactions with stakeholders. But while SCAN can help, it is not a replacement for federal efforts, which remain of paramount importance and must be continued.
Need for Definitive Information
Local government and community leaders need information on how to integrate climate science into the decision-making, planning, and implementation processes they already use. For example, which of the many different data sets and methods used for projecting hazards such as droughts and floods, wildfires, and heat waves are useful in a community’s unique locale? Is it scientifically advisable to use only a subset of models known to perform best for a specific region to increase certainty in projections? How should probabilities of extreme events and the effectiveness of preparedness plans be reflected in evaluation of financial risks?
Those tasked with managing climate risk can feel exposed and even fear legal vulnerability for decisions about the data and methods they use. Thus, they need guidance on what is authoritative and appropriate, given how they plan to use the information to frame problems and goals, design and calculate the benefits and costs of options, establish incentives, and monitor progress. But it can also be difficult for scientists to provide simple answers to these questions because they don’t have experience in implementing policy and won’t know what information is useful or appropriate. They may lack understanding of thresholds at which infrastructure systems are disrupted, or which local groups are most vulnerable to climate risks.
The next frontier in actionable climate science involves bringing together these different types of expertise—scientific and applied—to evaluate what works and what doesn’t, and what science is robust but also usable. That is what we propose should be the focus of SCAN.
Bridging Science and Practice
The IAC’s report is not the first to propose a sustained assessment process. In 2013, the federal advisory committee for the third NCA recommended that federal agencies adopt the concept of “sustained assessment” built on “enduring partnerships” of users and providers of climate science. While that report provided a number of specific recommendations, it did not delve into the details of how to structure these ongoing partnerships, which have proven difficult for federal agencies to sustain.
To address this challenge, the IAC’s report recommends establishing a consortium of groups that have already started to bridge the worlds of science and practice. There are many worthy efforts and we cannot list them all, but we do offer a few examples. The American Society of Civil Engineers has developed a “manual of practice” on incorporating climate change data into infrastructure design. Credit rating firms such as Moody’s are starting to incorporate risks and resilience measures when evaluating bonds floated by cities to raise capital for public infrastructure. University-based regional science and applications centers link scientists and communities to apply climate science to address problems like long-term management of flooding, extreme heat, and drought. AGU recently established the Thriving Earth Exchange to help connect these groups and encourage additional projects. The American Public Health Association has supported research on and application of interrelated climate and health solutions, including through public-facing fact sheets. The work of these and other groups provides a foundation of data, models, tools, and case studies that can be assessed to develop tested practices and usable knowledge.
Collaborative Learning About Climate Risk Management
SCAN will organize collaborative learning and assessment processes focused on challenges such as managing wildfires, planning renewable and resilient energy systems, and incorporating climate risk in economic planning. It will identify information required to make, implement, and monitor decisions and conduct technical assessments of the quality and usability of scientific methods and data to provide the needed information (Figure 1).
How might this work in practice? Let’s take the challenge of preparing communities for increasingly intense flooding. Many municipalities are working with university research centers, consulting firms, grassroots groups, city officials, planners, bond rating agencies, and local businesses to identify and evaluate possible solutions. SCAN will bring together a representative sample of communities and organizations already working on climate-related flooding and catalyze sustained, structured analysis of how each is approaching the issue to identify lessons learned.
The goal is not to support any one jurisdiction but to encourage collaborative learning and create consensus on tested practices across a range of settings. Particularly where there are different approaches available, SCAN will identify which are appropriate for which circumstances. An essential part of this process will be recognizing when information needs are similar and can be met with shared tools and data, and where such approaches are not desirable and can lead to poor decisions.
Returning to the flood management example, the community of practice would identify information and methods needed across the different cases. Communities addressing flooding challenges would likely need data to help project future rainfall intensity and measure how different land use patterns affect runoff. They’ll want to integrate results of hydrologic models into geographic information systems to understand the implications of different flood control options (e.g., ecosystem-based approaches versus traditional gray infrastructure such as flood barriers). Their policy makers will need methods to assess benefits and costs of the options and scenario planning tools for engaging community groups in planning.
Scientists and communities working in a network such as SCAN will be in a better position to assess the rigor of different approaches and establish which are best suited to specific cases. The resulting knowledge can be used to develop tools and data sets, professional standards, training, and other resources needed to scale up and accelerate action.
A Backbone Organization
As SCAN grows, it will build a distributed, sustained national network of networks focused on an array of high-priority adaptation and mitigation challenges. It will identify needs of climate risk managers, prioritize objectives, form new communities of practice, and extend climate assessments using knowledge to accelerate adaptation and mitigation.
SCAN will serve as a backbone organization for state, local, and tribal groups; professional societies; community-based organizations; academic and private research organizations; business interests; and federal programs (Figure 2). It will build partnerships with federal institutions and highlight research needs for consideration by scientists and funding agencies. SCAN is also committed to supporting the needs of marginalized and particularly vulnerable communities.
The IAC’s report notes that this sort of sustained engagement is difficult to maintain in the context of federal research programs, partly because of legal and structural challenges related to the Federal Advisory Committee Act and other regulations. A nonfederal consortium could begin mobilizing immediately, and it would have greater flexibility to integrate user groups into the assessment process.
Next Steps and Request for Input
The IAC’s report provides new ideas for adding to the practice of assessments as they have been conducted since the Global Change Research Act of 1990. SCAN will begin to apply and improve these ideas but needs to secure funding for a 3- to 5-year start-up phase. We have the elements of a self-sustaining business model but need resources to begin convening pilot communities of practice as soon as possible to develop tested practices, guidelines, data sets, communications tools, and other resources to help communities.
SCAN seeks to work with federal agencies as opportunities arise, including building on the results of the NCAs and other sources, and providing feedback on research needs. We also emphasize the need for allocating federal resources to advance planning and engineering practices and technologies for new and existing infrastructure, including support for updating codes, standards, and best practices in a range of professional settings.
Along the way, SCAN will engage in adaptive management to learn from these early experiences and refine the proposed approach to applied assessments. It must establish processes that ensure the credibility and transparency of its own efforts, including managing any perceived or actual conflicts of interest, for example, between financial sponsorship and review of methods or data. And it will need to improve understanding of how to convene and manage the interactions of practitioners, scientists, and other participants.
As the conveners of SCAN, we seek input from those with interests in improving climate change resilience and preparedness and invite them to join us to address the challenges. Visit SCAN’s interim website for information on initial leadership and engagement opportunities. It is urgent to accelerate climate mitigation and adaptation to avoid unmanageable impacts of climate change. Better assessments can’t overcome all the barriers, but they can be an important source of support for communities and jurisdictions on the front lines of climate change.
—Richard Moss ([email protected]), Columbia University Earth Institute and American Meteorological Society; Bilal Ayyub, University of Maryland; Mary Glackin, IBM and President-elect, American Meteorological Society; Alice Hill, Hoover Institution; Katharine L. Jacobs, University of Arizona; Jerry Melillo, Marine Biological Laboratory; T. C. Richmond, Van Ness Feldman LLP; Lynn Scarlett, The Nature Conservancy; and Dan Zarrilli, Mayor’s Office, City of New York