1. The Earth System: Global Change and Regional Implications

As concerns about global change have become increasingly prominent issues of national and international policy, the importance of research into the causes and consequences of global change has grown. Today, a broadly based scientific research program is essential for society to take effective steps to address the possible side effects of a changing climate and other aspects of global change. Sound decisions about global change require better documentation, understanding, and prediction of global changes and their environmental and societal implications. Global change research needs to be sustained and intensified so that it will continue to provide high-quality scientific understanding that can support national and international assessments to ensure that decisions are made wisely.

Central Purposes of the U.S. Global Change Research Program
  • To observe and document changes in the Earth system
  • To understand why these changes are occurring
  • To improve predictions of future global change
  • To analyze the environmental, socio-economic, and health consequences of global change
  • To support state-of-the-science assessments of global environmental change issues

The Earth System and Global Change Research

The broad array of research supported through the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is continuing to improve our understanding of global change. It is providing answers to important questions about the Earth system, documenting environmental change, and leading to a better understanding of the significance of this change for society. For example: These and other findings about changes in the Earth system are leading to a deeper appreciation of how human activities influence and are influenced by global change.

Science in Support of the Policy Process

Changes in the global environment are the subject of wide-ranging debates, intense international negotiations, and policy decisions that have the potential to affect many aspects of society. Perhaps most far-reaching in their potential implications are the negotiations under the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC).

The FCCC was the first international policy agreement to address the issue of human-induced climate change due to increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Based largely on the scientific assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the FCCC was concluded in 1992. More than 160 nations are Parties to the FCCC, including the United States. Among other goals, the FCCC calls for enhancement of mitigation and adaptation policies based on our understanding of global change and its consequences.

In December 1997, the Third Conference of the Parties to the FCCC was held in Kyoto, Japan, to strengthen post-2000 commitments under the Framework Convention. Among other commitments relating to reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases, the Kyoto Protocol that emerged from the meeting recognized the need for the nations of the world to "cooperate in scientific and technological research to reduce uncertainties related to the climate system, the adverse impacts of climate change and the economic and social consequences of various response strategies."

The United States, through the USGCRP, supports the world's most comprehensive set of climate research activities. Research supported by the USGCRP has been and will remain central to the development of the international scientific assessments that underlie the Framework Convention and any related agreements. The 1995 IPCC Second Assessment Report provided much of the scientific basis for the negotiations leading to the Kyoto Protocol. The United States will continue to play a leading role in the IPCC, which is preparing to conduct the Third Assessment Report, scheduled for completion in late 2000 or early 2001.

Global Change and Regional Implications

Much of the research supported by the USGCRP has emphasized understanding at the global scale. This research produced valuable insights into the Earth's climate system and other aspects of global environmental change. It is essential that the program continue to deepen and extend scientific understanding of the entire Earth system.

At the same time, the USGCRP has been actively building links between research advances and society's application of new knowledge in particular regions and sectors. Key areas of research that could enhance these links include:

  1. Regional estimates of the timing and magnitude of global change.  An important USGCRP priority is to improve capabilities to project climate change and other aspects of global change on a regional basis.
  2. Regional analyses of the environmental and societal consequences of global change, in the context of other stresses.  Policymakers, resource managers, and the public need projections of the consequences of global change for their regions. Each region is unique, and climate change and other aspects of global change will act with other stresses and conditions to affect society and regional ecosystems.
  3. Integrated assessments of the implications for society and the environment of global change.  Policy and management decisions related to global change could affect many aspects of society. To support these decisions, careful analyses combining economics, the social sciences, and the physical, biological, and health sciences are needed on both regional and global scales.

The Consequences of Climate Variability and Climate Change for the United States: A National Assessment Process

What are the risks and opportunities for the United States--its people, its environment, and its economy--associated with increased climate variability and climate change? This question is being addressed in a National Assessment of the Consequences of Climate Change for the United States being conducted by the USGCRP.

The process involves a broad spectrum of stakeholders from government, business, academia, and other interested parties. As an initial step, 20 workshops, encompassing every state and territory, are identifying distinctive regional characteristics and potential consequences of climate change and variability (see accompanying table). At a U.S. Climate Forum held in Washington, DC, in November 1997, more than 400 participants started discussion of the national- scale issues that must be addressed during the assessment.

The next phase will include a set of regional assessments, a set of sectoral assessments, and a synthesis that draws together the regional and sectoral assessments in a summary for policymakers. A National Assessment report will be issued in 1999, which will incorporate the regional and sectoral analyses and the national synthesis (see Chapter 4 for more details).

Results of the National Assessment process will, in turn, feed back into the research enterprise, by helping to clarify the critical societal needs that research must help to address. An assessment-oriented research program dedicated to supporting the development of policy-relevant information for decisionmakers will be implemented as part of the USGCRP.

1997 Workshops
Region Organizing Institution(s) Dates Coordinating Agency(s)
Central Great Plains Colorado State University and University of Nebraska/NIGEC May 27-29 DOE
Alaska University of Alaska June 3-6 DOI
Southeast University of Alabama, Huntsville and Florida State University June 25-27 NASA, NOAA
Pacific Northwest University of Washington July 14-16 NOAA, NASA
Southwest University of Arizona September 3-5 DOI, NOAA
New England University of New Hampshire September 3-5 NSF
Middle-Atlantic Pennsylvania State University September 9-11 EPA
Northern Great Plains University of North Dakota November 5-7 NASA
1998 Workshops
Region Organizing Institution(s) Tentative Dates Coordinating Agency(s)
Rocky Mountains and Great Basin Utah State University February 16-18 DOI
Gulf Coast Southern University and A&M College February 25-27 EPA
Southwest Border University of Texas - El Paso March 2-4 NASA
Hawaii and Pacific Islands Center for the Application of Research on the Environment; University of Hawaii March 3-6 FEMA, DOI, NOAA
California University of California, Santa Barbara March 9-11 NSF
Metropolitan East Coast Columbia University March 23-24 NSF
Great Lakes University of Michigan May 5-7 EPA
Appalachians West Virginia University May 26-29 USDA-FS
Eastern Midwest Indiana University June 29-30 USDA
Caribbean/Southern Atlantic Coast Florida International University July 21-23 NOAA
Southern Great Plains Texas A&M University June or September USDA
Tribal Lands September NASA

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Go to: Chapter 2. Global Change Issues: Highlights of Recent and Ongoing Research