THE SCIENCE OF REGIONAL AND GLOBAL CHANGE:
PUTTING KNOWLEDGE TO WORK
Charles F. Kennel, Ph.D.
Chairman, Committee on Global Change Research
National Research Council
Director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California, San Diego
Committee on Science
U. S. House of Representatives
March 14, 2001
Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am Charles Kennel, Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego. I also serve as Chairman of the National Research Council’s Committee on Global Change Research.
Crucial decisions related to environmental changes are made every day by households, insurance companies, water resource managers, agribusiness executives, public health officials, congress, and countless others. These decisions fundamentally affect our nation’s health and its economic and environmental vitality. But the National Research Council’s (NRC) Committee on Global Change Research (CGCR) concluded that the information necessary to inform these decisions is not always available.
In its recent report titled “The Science of Regional and Global Change: Putting Knowledge to Work,” the CGCR found that the United States’ observational and modeling capabilities do not adequately serve society’s needs for reliable environmental predictions or precise estimation of ongoing changes. This is in part because the federal government does not have mechanisms to establish and provide resources to key research, observational, and technological endeavors that either cross or transcend individual agency responsibilities.
To solve this problem, the National Research Council recommends establishing a high-level governmental authority to define the national priorities related to global and regional environmental research and decision-making. This authority should ensure and direct adequate resources to those priorities. Without such an authority, agencies will continue to fund only those areas that fall within their purview and the resulting patchwork of observing systems and research will not work as an effective decision-support system.
The progress made over the past decade in understanding global environmental change is substantial, as documented in numerous reports of the NRC and in some of the comments of the other witnesses here this morning. This progress has generally been in understanding the effects of single problems in the environment—such as the effect of carbon dioxide on climate or the effect of acid rain on forests—without considering cumulative effects of multiple factors or the societal context in which the pressures exist. Progress toward sustaining the environmental systems on which life depends is unlikely to be impeded by the individual environmental problems that have occupied the world’s attention to date. It is the multiple natural and human factors interacting in a particular location that present the greatest threats and the greatest opportunities. This presents the greatest organizational challenge as well.
A good example of this is the situation in California. That state, which is currently in the midst of an energy crisis, derives up to a third of its electricity from hydropower. Because of the numerous competing uses for water in California, choices must be made as to whether the rain that falls on the state is diverted for agriculture, lake sustenance, drinking water, flood protection, or river flow for recreation, fish habitat maintenance, as well as electricity generation. These choices can be at odds with one another. The changing natural environment compounds the difficulty of these choices, and better information about the changes is needed to inform the decisions.
In 1998 a strong El Niño led to intense rainfall in parts of California. As a result of climate forecasts in the summer of 1997, water resource managers were able to reduce flood damage and power utilities were able take advantage of the high river flows to maximize hydroelectric production and profits. Coastal communities were also able to prepare for the potentially damaging waves that struck the coast in the winter of 1997/1998 and take steps to blunt their force. Local energy companies altered plans to ensure adequate power supplies and to minimize environmental damage to their facilities. There are other success stories from California. But the picture is not all rosy.
The investment in global change research has led to the limited, but valuable capabilities we have now for short-term climate prediction. The range of estimates from NOAA on the annual return on the investment in the El Niño observing network is between 13-26%, compared to a government goal of 7%. This suggests that even imperfect understanding can add significant economic value to society. But there is much more that remains to be done with even greater promise of payoff. We cannot yet predict the start of an El Niño with precision. However, once it begins, we can identify it and assess its progress. We still have very little idea how the strength or frequency of El Niños might change over the course of the next few decades. There are longer-term processes that operate on decadal to century timescales that we are just beginning to understand and that may impact the El Niño cycle.
The case of California and the 1997/1998 El Niño is illustrative of the great promise of information relating environmental variability and change to society’s needs. Today, seasonal climate forecasts are routinely provided, and used by energy planners, commodities traders, and other sectors of the economy. However, these forecasts are imperfect and have significant uncertainties. In addition, many economic investments must consider time horizons much longer than the 6-9 months covered by today’s forecast services. Decisions about energy plants, hydroelectric dams, and other infrastructure components need to consider 10-year outlooks. With continued research and model development, particularly focusing on variations at local and regional scales, we believe significant progress can be made toward providing useful forecasts on such a 10-year horizon.
A new organizing philosophy is needed to reap the benefits of the information revolution and the investments in environmental observations, modeling and research. The NAS recommends organizing around enduring questions as outlined in the NRC report Global Environmental Change: Research Pathways for the Next Decade; making a significant investment in modeling, and more closely linking social and natural sciences to examine and understand the multiple stresses interacting in specific areas.
A critical role for the government is to ensure that we have a more comprehensive and sustained observing system and improved modeling capability. The environmental observing “system” available today is a composite of specific, limited systems with no assurance of continuity. The result is insufficient spatial coverage, lack of stability, and poor precision. While these problems do not exist for all environmental variables, they are quite pervasive and inhibit the overall ability of our nation’s observations to fully inform decision-making. The other deficient component is our nation’s environmental modeling capability. As alluded to in the case of El Niño forecasting, there have been promising developments in the nation’s capability to predict climate variations. But the limited availability of computational capacity and the human resources to utilize that capacity for environmental modeling is insufficient. If critical chokepoints in our understanding of global environmental change are to be overcome, the federal government must make a substantial commitment to establishing and maintaining an observing and prediction system that is up to the job.
The businesses and households of our nation can only gain through the use of better information about environmental variability on local to global scales. The magnitude of the potential gains is illustrated by the fact that nearly 15% of the U.S. GDP originates in climate sensitive industries. To fully realize these gains, the United States must not only improve its modeling and observational capabilities, but it must also forge stronger ties between the physical and social science research communities and the nation’s public and private decision makers. These links can be made in part through the establishment of regionally-focused projects that more directly couple environmental research to decision making and that more fully address the multiple interacting and changing environmental factors in those geographic areas. The continuing information revolution can assist in the process of connecting new research results with decision making.
I have not explicitly mentioned human-induced climate change. In my view, defining global change through the narrow focus of the responsibility for greenhouse warming may be obscuring an important opportunity. We may be able to transform the discussion into one that addresses how to capture the potential of the information revolution to structure a science-based end-to-end decision-support system for industry, government, and individuals. The system that is required to extract economic value from environmental information is quite similar, if not identical in many cases, to the system needed to inform policy decisions regarding long-term climate change and the human role in it.
Strong leadership will be required from both Congress and the Executive Branch to establish a new and productive dialogue that helps the nation seize the initiative. New partnerships are needed between physical and social science researchers and decision-makers in government and industry. With the establishment of a high-level governing authority as recommended by the NRC, there will be a focal point for these partnerships. There will be an entity to coordinate global and regional environmental research and decision making and to ensure that adequate resources are directed to the highest-priority issues and that long-term capabilities are sustained.
There is common ground for progress. It will require a new way of thinking. But, let’s get started. What we do in the next few years may condition what is possible over the next few generations.