Expanding the Climate Change Conversation

Today, a committee of independent advisors to the U.S. Government released its first draft of a new National Climate Assessment (NCA)—a 400-page synthesis of scientists’ current understanding of climate change and its impacts in the United States. The Global Change Research Act of 1990 calls for an NCA to be produced at least every four years—the last came out in 2009. The draft NCA is a scientific document—not a policy document—and does not make recommendations regarding actions that might be taken in response to climate change. Today is the first time the Government has been presented with this draft and the administration will be one of a number of entities that will begin the process of reviewing it. When completed about a year from now, however—after considerable inputs from the public and expert reviewers—it will represent the most thorough, rigorous, and transparent assessment ever of climate change and its U.S. impacts.

The new NCA has been years in the making, with the draft version released today reflecting the efforts of more than 1,000 individuals from the public and private sectors and academia who have been compiling data since 2010. But that’s just the beginning of the process. Concurrent with our review of this document, the public, starting Monday, is also invited to comment on the draft, which will also be painstakingly reviewed by the National Academies. Ultimately, towards the end of this year, a final NCA will be presented to the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which coordinates global-change research activities across the Federal Government. USGCRP will use the Assessment to help pinpoint knowledge gaps and develop research priorities.

But equally important, the NCA—which as a scientific document makes no policy recommendations—is expected to be used widely by public and private stakeholders who need information about climate change in order to thrive—from farmers deciding which crops to grow, to city planners deciding the diameter of new storm sewers they are replacing, to electric utilities and regulators pondering how to protect the power grid. To maximize its practical usefulness, the draft document breaks down the impacts of climate change across eight regions of the United States and more than a dozen sectors of the U.S. economy and society, including: energy, transportation, agriculture, health, urban infrastructure, coastal zone development, and water resources.

While the specific findings of the draft NCA are still subject to revision in response to inputs from the public, the National Academies, and the 13 Federal departments and agencies that make up the USGCRP, the document released today deserves credit already for setting a new standard of scientific integrity, user relevance, and stakeholder inclusiveness. It was developed with input from more than 240 contributing authors under the leadership of 60 independent expert advisors. More than 1,000 volunteers across the Nation helped build it from the ground-up by organizing regional workshops and contributing technical reports.

In a parallel effort, USGCRP recently launched “NCAnet,” a growing network of more than 60 stakeholder organizations committed to engaging broad and diverse audiences on this important topic. NCAnet represents a major step toward building the “sustained assessment” process that has been articulated as a strategic goal for USGCRP—a process that will aim to inform climate-related decisions on continual basis, rather than just every four years.

We thank the contributors to the draft 2013 National Climate Assessment and look forward to reading a final product that has taken into account inputs from scientific reviewers and the public.  It will surely be an important contribution to the ongoing national conversation about climate change.

To access the draft National Climate Assessment, please visit www.ncadac.globalchange.gov

For detailed background information about sea level rise and climate trends, please visit: http://scenarios.globalchange.gov/

For detailed information about coastal changes, please visit: http://www.globalchange.gov/what-we-do/assessment/nca-activities/available-technical-inputs

John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)

Jane Lubchenco is Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

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