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Reports and Articles on Climate Change (6-18-02)

This page contains summaries of or links to a variety of reports and articles relevant to climate change and its relationship to policy:

Report Summaries

National Research Council (NRC): Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises, December 2001

Recognizing that there has been no plan for increasing knowledge about abrupt climate change, the U.S. Global Change Research Program asked the National Research Council (NRC) to create the Committee on Abrupt Climate Change.  The purpose of the new group was to document the known information on abrupt climate change and to offer recommendations to improve the understanding of this subject with the hope that this information will enable humans to more effectively prevent and mediate the impacts of abrupt climate change.  The results of the committee’s efforts are found in the report entitled Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises, released by the NRC in December 2001.

The causes and mechanisms behind abrupt climate change are unclear, but it is well-established that abrupt climate change has and can occur.  It is likely that faster changes to the Earth system, either natural or anthropogenic, increase the probability that the threshold for a climate shift will be reached.  The report likens this relationship to a person turning a light switch on and off.  The speed and amount of pressure one applies to the switch determine how quickly a room becomes light or dark.

The NRC committee “believes that increased knowledge is the best way to improve the effectiveness of [abrupt climate change] response, and thus that research into the causes, patterns, and likelihood of abrupt climate change can help reduce vulnerabilities and increase our adaptive capabilities.”  As a result of the committee’s investigation they have five main recommendations for improving our knowledge of and preparation for abrupt climate change.

1) "To improve the fundamental knowledge base related to abrupt climate change."  Specific attention should be paid to the mechanics of thresholds.  Knowledge in this realm may be gained through study of ocean-atmosphere behavior, oceanic deepwater processes, hydrology, and ice. Other helpful information includes the creation of a comprehensive land-use census, covering a range of issues from wildlife disease to fragmentation of habitats to distribution of forest fires and the development of integrated economic and ecological data sets to aid in creation of strategies to adapt to climate change.  Data collection should be focused in two types of areas: where impact of abrupt climate change is expected to be greatest and where information pertaining to ongoing changes will be particularly useful in understanding impacts and developing meaningful responses.

2) "To improve modeling focused on abrupt climate change."  Abrupt climate change of the past is still not fully explained, as models tend to underestimate the size, speed, and extent of those changes.  New, flexible models that include geophysics, ecology, and social-science considerations are needed.  There is much room for increased accuracy of these models.

3) "To improve paleoclimatic data related to abrupt climate change."  The past hydrologic cycle is of particular interest, therefore the addition of new proxies, which focus on changes in water (i.e. drought or flood) are needed.  The selection of multi-parameter projects to come to a deeper understanding of past climate in specific locations and an increase in the geographical coverage of paleoclimate observations are needed as well.

4) "To improve statistical approaches."  The majority of climate statistics are treated as if they are cyclic events, occurring at relatively predictable intervals.  The committee feels that this current use of statistics needs to be re-examined, as one cannot treat abrupt climate change in the same manner that one would treat the occurrence of a 100-year flood.

5) "To investigate 'no-regrets' strategies to reduce vulnerability."  Because abrupt climate change has potentially large impacts and current human abilities to predict the onslaught of this type of event are poor, special attention should be paid to “increasing the adaptability and resiliency of societies and ecosystems.”  Policies aimed at doing this will be “no-regrets” as they often involve low- or no-cost changes that will be beneficial for quality of life regardless of the level of environmental change that occurs.  Adjustments include improving air, water, and land quality; decreasing biodiversity loss; slowing climate change; improving climate forecasting; and assisting poor countries by offering research expertise.

Although recommendations found within the NRC report focus on US institutions, they apply to the entire globe.  The report stresses that the US is presented with a unique opportunity to provide both scientific and financial leadership, and to work collaboratively with scientists around the world in order to gain understanding of an issue likely to have widespread impacts.  It will be easier for wealthy nations, such as the US, to adjust to and/or recover from abrupt climate change.  However, these countries cannot ignore the rest of the world.  Increased interconnectedness is the direct result of increased globalization.  Because of this interdependence, adverse impacts of abrupt climate change are likely to cross over boundaries.  A few examples of cross-border impacts offered by the report are human and biotic migration, economic shocks, and political aftershocks.

United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP): The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, 2000 & 2001

The US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has a directory of online reports on their website entitled The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change.  All published in 2000 and 2001, the National Assessment Overview and Foundation reports summarize key findings for what the impacts of climate change will be on the US, including assessments for individual regions.  They also detail the program's methods and assessment process.  The USGCRP was created in 1989 as a Presidential Initiative, and formalized in 1990 by the Global Change Research Act of 1990

National Academy of Science (NAS): Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, June 2001

Earlier this year, in preparation for a summit in Europe to discuss the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration's Cabinet-level working group to review the status of U.S. climate change efforts sought additional input from the National Academy of Science.  The result was a report that came out in early June entitled "Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions," intended to send President Bush to Europe fully informed on the status of climate change research in the U.S. and the world, as well as how the research should influence policy.  Although the report did state that uncertainties remain regarding natural climate variation and current climate models, its primary emphasis was that "greenhouse gases are accumulating in the Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities."  However, while in Europe discussing the Kyoto Protocol, Bush seemed to place more emphasis on the uncertainties the report confirmed.  Although Bush has stated he is open to policy that will deal with climate change, he has not come out in support of the Protocol.

National Research Council (NRC): The Science of Regional and Global Change: Putting Knowledge to Work, January 2001

This report is a transition document for the new administration to use in analysis of what can be done at the federal level to address global change issues.  It is a synthesis of several other NRC reports on global change. The extensive bibliography of the report is a great resource that includes not only primary sources but also other NRC report titles discussing a range of  natural science topics -- some specifically studying the role of the geosciences in environmental questions.  The brief report puts forth ideas to strengthen the link between legislators and scientists for the purpose of solving local and global problems occurring as the human population continues to grow and natural resources dwindle.  It also identifies actions that should be taken at the national leadership level and at the agency level to promote research on regional and global change.  The emphasis of the report's recommendations is the integration of all the natural sciences as well as aspects of social science across federal agency boundaries.  It stresses the interconnection between the health of the environment with the health of society and the economy.

The report charges the federal government with providing long-term reliable and consistent scientific information on regional and global change.  It recommends that the federal government establish a body -- incorporating many federal agencies -- to coordinate global and regional environmental research independent of appropriation whims.  Three administrative options for the group were identified -- creating a new National Environmental Council, strengthening the existing interagency structure through the National Science and Technology Council, or giving the Council on Environmental Quality oversight of relevant research. Whatever it's structure, the interagency group would fulfill the federal government's responsibilities in global and regional change research.  These responsibilities include: ensuring that resources are directed into under-funded research areas that are not contained in one agency, ensuring that an integrated and comprehensive monitoring program is established, developing and maintaining multidisciplinary modeling and information systems, and ensuring that scientific research on local, regional, and global scales provide pertinent information for use in decision making.

The second part of the report introduces actions that should be taken at the agency level to ensure that research continues on important environmental change topics.  The report affirms that there already is expertise and capacity for generating information on global change, but the difficulty lies in "putting knowledge into action."  The report makes recommendations for creating a focused fundamental research agenda in global, sustainable, and in environmental and ecosystem research.  The unifying themes of the recommendations are "better understanding the interactions of earth systems with the social system, how those interactions contribute to changes in the environment, and how to develop new strategies for mitigating and adapting to the changes."  The report indicates that in order to follow the recommendations there will have to be better links between the natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering.  Implementing an effective research agenda will require federal agencies individually or in collaboration to follow eight recommended action items:

The final section is an extensive bibliography of materials used in the synthesis of the report.

National Research Council (NRC): Reconciling Observations of Global Temperature Change, 2000

This report addresses the fact that global-mean temperature at the earth's surface is estimated to have risen by 0.25 to 0.4 °C during the past 20 years. On the other hand, satellite measurements of radiances indicate that the temperature of the lower to mid-troposphere (the atmospheric layer extending from the earth's surface up to about 8 km) has exhibited a smaller rise of approximately 0.0 to 0.2 °C during this period.  The report attempts to answer the question of whether these apparently conflicting surface and upper air temperature trends lie within the range of uncertainty inherent in the measurements and, if they are judged to lie outside that range, to identify the most probable reason(s) for the differences.

Congressional Research Service (CRS): Global Climate Change Briefing Book, June 2001

The Briefing Book includes objective and nonpartisan information and reports on a wide range of Climate Change Issues, including: greenhouse effect and global climate change, greenhouse gas sources and trends, energy issues, economic issues, legal issues, technology, chronology, the U.N. Framework Convention, and the 1997 U.N. Kyoto Protocol.

Sources: AGI website, CRS report, National Council on Science and the Environment webite,  National Academy Press, NRC Report Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Spring 2001 AGI/AAPG Intern Mary Patterson, Summer 2001 AGI/AAPG Intern Caetie Ofiesh, and Summer 2002 AGI/AIPG Intern Sarah Riggen.

Last Updated June 18, 2002

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