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U.N. Climate Change Report Affirms Value of American Climate Science—and the Need To Double Down

Scientists with the Rocky Mountain Science Center and the U.S. Geological Survey take core samples on the Wolverine Glacier near Primrose, Alaska,
September 2019.

This week, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first of four reports—”Climate Change 2021-the Physical Science Basis—that constitute its sixth assessment report. Not surprisingly, the results affirm the astonishingly dire nature of the climate crisis and confirm the “unequivocal” role of human activities in causing it, with impacts including heat waves, droughts, pest infestations, wildfires, flooding, sea level rise, and coral bleaching, to name just a few.

This report is the authoritative scientific basis for policymakers around the globe who are working, urgently, to address the crisis. Furthermore, it underscores the crucial importance of ongoing climate research nationally and globally. The conclusions in this report are based on science that has only become more definitive about what the future holds. Looking forward, political leaders around the world will require better data, more computing power, and more highly trained experts to make well-informed decisions that allow them to react swiftly to extreme events affecting their communities and end the global dependence on fossil fuels.

IPCC reports form the scientific basis for global climate policy

The IPCC was created in 1988 with the goal of assessing “the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.” For decades, IPCC reports have served as a definitive information source about the physical science of climate change; impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability; and mitigation, with each assessment report cycle culminating in a synthesis report. This body of knowledge provides the scientific foundation for international climate negotiations under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—as well as the Sustainable Development Goals—while also informing climate policies locally and globally.

The IPCC doesn’t generate new scientific information. Instead, it relies on peer-reviewed scientific literature, government data and reports, and other credible material to inform its findings. The new report released this week has 236 authors and includes 14,000 citations, illustrating the enormity of the effort required to generate this invaluable resource. None of this is possible without legions of scientists and other experts who volunteer their time to review, synthesize, and assess thousands of papers documenting climate change. More often than not, this meticulous research is supported by government funding, without which the report’s conclusions wouldn’t be nearly as conclusive or actionable. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s annual report to Congress—“Our Changing Planet”—the U.S. government spent $2.4 billion on climate research funding in fiscal year 2019. While this may seem adequate, climate science only represents around 2 percent of annual federally funded research.

The United States is a global leader in climate science—and it must do more

The value of IPCC reports depends on the quantity and quality of the research and results used to underpin its findings. As a global leader in climate science, the United States is at the forefront of the basic and applied climate science research required to inform policy about how to mitigate the causes of climate change and adapt to its impacts. As other countries increase their investments in science, the United States risks losing its leadership position. Historically, the United States has led globally in investments in research and development; the number of research articles published annually; and the number of science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded annually. As countries such as China invest more in science and technology, the United States’ ongoing primacy in research and development is uncertain without strong political will and action. Indeed, federal investments in global change research have been stagnant for nearly 20 years, when adjusted for inflation. At a minimum, research priorities to address the climate crisis should include investments in sustained, long-term environmental monitoring and cutting-edge Earth system computer modeling.

Investing in long-term environmental monitoring

In the late 1950s, Charles Keeling’s pioneering work with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists and facilities—in which they measured atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in Hawaii—revealed to the world that greenhouse gas concentrations were increasing drastically and rapidly. In the ensuing decades, thousands of Earth observing platforms—such as air quality stations, soil sensors, stream gauges, ocean buoys, and satellites—were deployed to deepen our understanding of how Earth systems are changing.

These instruments require extraordinary precision, necessitating expensive maintenance by trained experts. Unfortunately, continuing these coveted datasets is threatened by budget cuts and redirection of resources. It’s imperative that the United States lead by example for the rest of the world by investing in maintaining, updating, and expanding existing Earth observing networks to provide greater spatial and temporal coverage—the need to understand our Earth systems demands nothing less.

Investing in next-generation Earth system modeling

Climate change represents a complex network of interconnected systems—land, ocean, and atmosphere—and time periods that unfold over years, decades, and centuries. In response, the global research community developed increasingly sophisticated computer models to represent Earth system processes, enabling us to project the consequences for the environment under various future scenarios. The meticulous observational data described above combined with geological records—such as ice, sediment, and tree rings—enable these models to replicate (or hindcast) past Earth system conditions with a high degree of skill. This fact, in turn, confers confidence in their ability to characterize those same processes and conditions into the future.

New capabilities empowered by exascale computing married with new machine-learning and/or artificial intelligence techniques can lead to a step change in projecting how climate change will manifest in the future as a result of societal decisions. However, this leap requires significant investments through federal entities such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science; NOAA’s Climate Program Office; NASA’s Earth Sciences Division; and National Science Foundation’s Geosciences Directorate.

Investing in federal climate scientists

America’s climate science enterprise is the best in the world because of the extraordinary researchers who comprise it—whether they work in federal agencies or are supported by federal funding to universities, nonprofits, or the private sector. Like the countless scientists and experts responsible for the IPCC report, human capital and talent are needed to maintain observational instrumentation; collect, analyze, and compile data; and run computer models. The recent exodus of highly qualified climate scientists from federal service during the Trump administration has left a void that risks President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda if not addressed swiftly. This challenge is particularly acute when considered with the concurrent risk of an imminent retirement cliff, as climate scientists remaining in federal service reach the end of their careers.

It is imperative that the climate science ranks of the federal government be recognized as a priority and that hiring should be fast-tracked. Fortunately, existing authorities within the federal government could be leveraged in the near term and, eventually, modeled to create a dedicated climate science pipeline, including subject-matter expert qualification assessments to shorten the hiring process and hire highly qualified applicants into federal positions; the 18F technology and design consultancy for the federal government; and the Presidential Management Fellows Program and the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program. A commitment from political leadership to recruit and train staff is also necessary to attract new talent into the federal workforce.

Conclusion

The Biden administration recognizes that climate change poses an existential threat to life as we know it, demanding extraordinary action to ensure humanity continues to thrive for generations to come. As climate scientists who formerly worked for the federal government—across the Obama and into the Trump administrations—the authors recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of America’s climate science enterprise as well as its fragility should necessary investments not be made to retain the United States’ global leadership status. While scientific information is just one of many factors used to inform decision-making, it is more important than ever that policy reflects the best available information. As the Biden administration contemplates myriad mitigation and adaptation measures required to address the scale of the climate crisis, it is imperative that federal climate science experts are invited into the process early and consulted throughout—not only to ensure sound policy development but also meet the president’s commitment to restore science to its rightful place in the government.

Kelly Kryc is a senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Center for American Progress. David Reidmiller is the director of the Climate Center at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.