Changing Vision for the Research Agenda for the 21st Century

Creating a New Partnership Between Science and Public Policy

The growing relevance of Earth system science to policy concerns was central to the establishment of the USGCRP as a Presidential Initiative in 1988. In 1990 Congress passed The Global Change Research Act, which called for:

"…the development and coordination of a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change;" and

"…increasing the overall effectiveness and productivity of Federal global change research efforts."

    Other nations similarly increased their emphasis on research designed to address these issues. Further, international research programs were established to provide a venue for coordinating the scientific research. Thousands of projects have been established, and many thousands of scientists have committed their professional careers to addressing this new challenge to human understanding. A new era of scientific collaboration was established as Earth system science matured as a field of knowledge during the 1990s.

The First Decade of Research Focused on Understanding the Components of the Earth System and Modeling at the Global Scale

The first decade of global change research, including the USGCRP, was necessarily a broad attack on the multiple problems presented by climatic and other changes in the Earth system. Problems such as a potential human influence on the stratospheric ozone layer, the perplexing issue of the timing and magnitude of greenhouse warming, the degree of predictability in El Niño events, and the coupling of ecological systems to climate on the one hand and to human land-use practices on the other all demanded scientific attention. The need for greater understanding led to the creation of a range of individual projects, each focused on a seemingly quite distinct problem.

    This strategy of addressing tractable parts of the Earth system was complemented by research that addressed broad global-scale Earth system processes, characteristics, and change, and sought to integrate those across the whole planet. This approach produced substantial increases in knowledge, predictive understanding, and documented evidence of changes on the global scale, including major scientific advances in the understanding of stratospheric ozone depletion, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon, global climate change, tropical deforestation, and other issues. However, this initial strategy, more often than not, emphasized scientific understanding at spatial or temporal scales that were either of limited significance to societal interests or of limited relevance to assessing socioeconomic impacts.

Critical Unanswered Questions and Societally Relevant Issues Remain

By the end of the 1990s it was becoming much clearer how many component parts of the Earth system are interrelated. This improved understanding of the systemic nature of the environment has resulted in the identification of a set of intriguing — and socially-relevant — scientific questions: Could global warming be influencing the timing and duration of El Niño events? Have human land-use practices, known to be a factor in carbon cycling, been influencing managed and natural ecosystems sufficiently to create large-scale, transient carbon sinks? How can the large, global-scale, but very rapid changes in the paleoclimate record be explained.

    Global Environmental Change: Research Pathways for the Next Decade, a major report recently issued by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes, in its review of the USGCRP:

During the past decade, the USGCRP has realized an impressive array of scientific accomplishments. Progress has been made in understanding the loss of stratospheric ozone, and amendments and adjustments to the Montreal Protocol have benefited from research flowing from the USGCRP. Ice cores have provided evidence of past changes in the Earth's environment, and human-induced environmental changes have been documented. There is a much better understanding, including the development of large-scale models, of the important roles of terrestrial and marine ecosystems in the overall carbon cycle, including knowledge of how such systems might shift under a changing climate. The success in providing predictive, useful information about El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomena is a significant step in providing scientific information for natural resource management and for improving human welfare, and it offers encouragement that the broader issues of climate variability and human-induced climate change can also be successfully attacked.
    The inherent challenges in achieving the central purposes of the USGCRP, however, will be ongoing; to ensure our well-being for the foreseeable future, it is essential to meet these challenges. They also set a difficult agenda for science....Fortunately, with 10 years of experience of successes and setbacks, we are in a far better position to meet the scientific challenges in the coming decade.

    The National Research Council report, which was commissioned by the USGCRP, outlines the central issues that should characterize global environmental research in the coming decade:

    We do not understand the climate system well enough to clarify the causes and likelihood of rapid or abrupt climate changes. What does the record from the past reveal in detail about environmental changes? What will be the patterns and modes of human-forced climate changes? What will be the impacts of multiple stresses upon systems; in other words, what are the effects on terrestrial ecosystems of changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere, changes in the patterns and intensities of land use, and changes in temperature and rainfall patterns? How will the chemistry of the atmosphere be affected by continuing patterns of human-induced forcing, and how will climate variability and change affect these changes? What is the geographical distribution of the sources and sinks of greenhouse gases, and how might they change? How will institutions respond to climate and other environmental changes? These are the types of scientific unknowns that require clarification if we are to make sound policy decisions; they are also the questions that must be answered if we are to have a sound foundation for mitigation science.

    Questions such as these require a new level of intellectual and program integration in the international global environment research effort, including the USGCRP.

Goals and Objectives for the USGCRP in the Decade Ahead

In the next decade the USGCRP will focus on understanding the Earth system as a whole, on the dynamics of environmental change, and on connecting that knowledge to societal needs. Our Nation’s investment in global environmental change research is heavily driven by our need to understand the societal implications of change, because environmental changes will influence the trends and patterns of social and economic development in the United States and around the world. The research and assessment activities of the USGCRP will address, to the maximum extent possible, the needs for relevant scientific understanding and predictive skill across a range of global environmental change issues.

   To provide an integrative perspective and overall direction to the program, the USGCRP will be guided by a comprehensive Overall Goal:

To achieve this goal and to guide the Federal investments in global environmental change research, a series of Research and Program Objectives will guide the program.
OBJECTIVE 1 – Determine the Origins, Rates, and Likely Future Course of Natural and Anthropogenic Changes: The USGCRP should continue to refine our understanding of both natural and human-induced changes in the Earth’s environment and project future changes.

OBJECTIVE 2 – Increase Understanding of the Combined Effects of Multiple Stresses on Ecosystems: Numerous environmental stresses are influencing the dynamics of the Earth’s major ecosystems. The consequences of stresses, individually and in concert, need to be better understood.

OBJECTIVE 3 – Understand and Model Global Environmental Change and its Processes on Finer Spatial Scales and Across a Wide Range of Timescales: Climate change manifests itself on a regional scale, and the magnitude of change and impacts varies by region. Providing decisionmakers with the information they need requires research and modeling of global environmental change on much finer spatial scales and across a wider range of timescales than is being done today.

OBJECTIVE 4 – Address the Potential for Surprises and Abrupt Changes in the Global Environment: Historically the planet has experienced wide ranges of environmental and climate conditions, from ice ages to tropical-like climates in the polar regions, with dramatic changes in patterns of temperature and precipitation. The transitions between these various conditions are not always smooth and gradual, but rather can be abrupt and very rapid. Climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions poses the potential for abrupt change. USGCRP research, particularly in the modeling programs, must increasingly account for these potential surprises that may result from nonlinear behavior and abrupt changes in the Earth system.

OBJECTIVE 5 – Understand and Assess the Impacts of Global Environmental Change and Their Consequences for the United States: The USGCRP should continue its involvement in and sponsorship of regional and national-scale assessment activities, as well as the international assessments of global issues such as climate, ozone, biodiversity, forests, and so forth. Such assessments are essential for making scientific information useful for decisionmakers. The scientific questions derived from assessing how climate change affects the environment and natural resources and how these impacts lead to societal consequences are very important for the continued development of the research and programmatic agenda of the USGCRP.

    The real significance of these objectives is seen most clearly when they are taken together. How several major Earth subsystems work is relatively well understood, and there is some degree of predictability in their behaviors. Researchers are poised to take a giant step toward a whole-system understanding of the Earth’s environment and application of this understanding to societal needs.

   A Broad Measure of Success: The broad suite of program elements within the USGCRP is now being modified in ways that should enable the program to achieve its objectives. This process, although it is not yet complete, has guided the creation of this implementation plan. Among the most pressing tasks ahead is the completion of a revised long-term research plan, which will more thoroughly map out the course of the USGCRP for the next decade and provide the context for annual implementation plans. The USGCRP will produce such a long-term research plan and seek endorsement of the plan by the National Academy of Sciences before the end of FY 2000.