Beyond the Environment, it’s a Sustainability Problem
The National Academy of Sciences, a group of elite American researchers that advises the US government, issued an 869-page report underscoring mankind’s role in altering the climate. It also called for specific policy measures to help forestall undesirable effects. Stanford’s Pamela Matson says the nation needs a comprehensive, integrated and flexible climate change research enterprise that is closely linked with action-oriented programs at all levels.
By Gautam Naik in Wall Street Journal (21 May 2010):
The National Academy of Sciences, a group of elite American researchers that advises the U.S. government, on Wednesday issued an 869-page report reasserting mankind’s role in altering the climate and calling for specific policy measures to help forestall undesirable effects.
The report, requested by Congress 2008, essentially supports the main findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body whose most recent report released in 2007 was criticized for containing several errors.
Those errors and the publishing of unflattering emails hacked from a U.K. lab have put climate-change science in the hot seat in recent months.
“Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks,” the academy report concludes. The peer-reviewed study was done by 55 scientists from academia, industry and elsewhere vetted by the academy.
The next IPCC report will be in 2014. In some areas, the study provides a more up-to-date assessment of climate change. “We carefully looked at the scientific literature of the last five years, our own [academy] research,” plus other sources, said Pamela Matson, dean of Stanford University’s school of earth sciences, who helped compile the report.
Nonetheless, the academy acknowledged that there is significant uncertainty when attempting longer-term predictions about climate change.
For example, the 2007 IPCC report said sea levels could rise by between 0.6 and 1.9 feet by 2100, but later studies suggested that forecast was too conservative. The academy’s report incorporates the newer research and concludes that sea levels could rise by as much as 6.5 feet in that period.
The new report also urges the U.S. to take bold steps to cut fossil-fuel use, calling for a carbon tax on such fuels—mainly oil and coal—or a cap-and-trade system, which offers monetary incentives to cut emissions of pollutants. Those recommendations are a big step up from the less-sharply-worded prescriptions issued by the academy in the past.
“The charge we got from Congress was not just to tell them what the science says but what to do about the problem,” said Robert Fri, a visiting scholar at the nonprofit Resources for the Future, who helped compile the report.
The report says that the U.S. emissions of between 170 billion to 200 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from 2012 until 2050 would be a “reasonable goal,” in line with reduction targets proposed by the White House. In 2008, the U.S. emitted about seven billion tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent. At that rate, the U.S. will run through the suggested emission amounts well before 2050, the academy said.
Stanford’s Pamela Matson urges U.S. to adopt coordinated research program on climate change
Temperatures are rising, and the U.S. must respond with a coordinated research program, said Stanford researcher Pamela Matson, who chaired a recent study by the National Research Council: ”We need to focus not just on improving our fundamental understanding of climate change but also informing and expanding America’s climate choices.”
By Daniel Strain for Stanford Report (21 May 2010):
The National Research Council issued three major climate reports on Wednesday recommending that the United States act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a national strategy to adapt to the inevitable impacts of global warming.
The three reports were commissioned by Congress in 2008 to inform and guide the nation’s response to climate change. Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford, presented the findings of one report, Advancing the Science of Climate Change at a news briefing in Washington, D.C. The report was prepared by a panel of 20 climate experts chaired by Matson.
“The core phenomena of climate change have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of scientific debate for several decades,” said Matson, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “The nation needs a comprehensive, integrated and flexible climate change research enterprise that is closely linked with action-oriented programs at all levels.”
To accomplish that goal, the report recommended giving a single federal program the authority and resources to implement a national climate change research effort.
Affirming climate change
In the report, Matson and her colleagues affirmed that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.”
Global temperatures have risen an average of about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, they wrote, and this hike is largely due to fossil fuel burning and other human activities that release greenhouse gases.
Rising temperatures could have big consequences for global ecosystems and humanity, Matson said, igniting a chain of events that could lead to more severe storms and even starvation. “Climate change is not just an environmental problem,” she said. “It’s a sustainability problem.”
Impacts will vary at the regional level, she added. California, for example, could see an increase in droughts over the coming decades as Sierra Nevada snowpacks – which provide the state most of its freshwater – shrink. “We need to know more about climate change at the regional scale,” Matson said.
Although the causes of global warming are well understood, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the magnitude and rate of future climate change, the report said, noting that climate models project an additional warming of 2 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
Some of this uncertainty stems from the complexity of the Earth, Matson said. For example, estimates of sea level rise – anywhere from 0.6 feet to 6.5 feet – vary because scientists don’t know all the dynamics of how large ice caps melt, such as those over Greenland and Antarctica.
“We need to understand more about metrics and measures and processes to predict who’s vulnerable and who’s not to climate change,” Matson said.
New era of research
In the report, Matson and her colleagues called for a “new era of climate science research.” The panel recommended that scientists and policymakers form a national umbrella organization “aimed at improving both understanding and responses to climate change.”
The U.S. Global Change Research Group, a collaboration of federal agencies established by Congress in 1989, could fulfill this role, but the agency would need to “address weaknesses” that have led to gaps in research on how best to respond to global warming.
”We need to focus not just on improving our fundamental understanding of climate change but also informing and expanding America’s climate choices,” Matson said.
The linchpin to this new era, she said, will be to build a dialogue between scientists and the people in government and industry who will make decisions on how to adapt and respond to change. “It’s very important for scientists to understand what the concerns of decision-makers are so they can focus their attention in the right directions,” Matson said.
Last week, members of the U.S. Senate introduced a comprehensive energy bill designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. Matson said that she and other panelists hope that their recommendations will help inform this debate.
“If we understand what the challenges are, we will do a better job of developing the scientific information that will help them make good, effective decisions,” she said.
“We recognize that scientists aren’t going to be the ones making decisions.”
In addition to Matson, the panel also included Stanford researchers John Weyant, a research professor of management science and engineering and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute and Precourt Institute for Energy; and Ken Caldeira, an associate professor, by courtesy, of geological and environmental sciences.
The National Research Council is administered by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. The mission of the council is to provide elected leaders, policy makers and the public with expert advice based on sound scientific evidence.
Daniel Strain is a science-writing intern at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.