UN Climate Change Report Affirms the Value of American Climate Science and the Need to Double the Focus


This week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first of four reports – “Climate Change 2021 – The Basis of Physical Science– which constitute its sixth evaluation report. Unsurprisingly, the results affirm the surprisingly serious nature of the climate crisis and confirm the “unequivocal” role of human activities in its cause, with impacts such as heat waves, droughts, pest infestations, and forest fires. forest, flooding, sea level rise and coral bleaching. , to name a few.

This report is the authoritative scientific basis for policymakers around the world who are urgently working to tackle the crisis. In addition, it underlines the critical importance of ongoing climate research at national and global levels. The conclusions of this report are based on scientific data that is only becoming more definitive about what the future holds. Going forward, political leaders around the world will need better data, more computing power, and more highly skilled experts to make informed decisions that enable them to respond quickly to extreme events affecting their communities and bring an end to it. global dependence on fossil fuels.

IPCC reports form the scientific basis for global climate policy

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

The IPCC does not generate new scientific information. Instead, it draws on peer-reviewed scientific publications, government data and reports, and other credible documents 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 examine, synthesize and assess thousands of articles documenting climate change. More often than not, this meticulous research is backed by government funding, without which the report’s findings would not be as conclusive or actionable. According to the annual report of the US Research Program on Global Change to Congress – “Our Changing Planet” – the US government spent $ 2.4 billion in funding climate research in fiscal year 2019. Well As it may seem sufficient, climate science accounts for only about 2% of annual federal spending. funded research.

The United States is a world leader in climate science and it needs to do more

The value of IPCC reports depends on the amount and quality of research and results used to support its conclusions. As a global leader in climate science, the United States is at the forefront of the basic and applied research in climate science needed to inform policy on 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 been the world leader in research and development investment; the number of research articles published annually; and the number of science and engineering doctorates awarded each year. As countries like China invest more in science and technology, the current US primacy in research and development is uncertain without strong political will and action. Indeed, federal investments in research on global change have stagnated for almost 20 years, once adjusted for inflation. At a minimum, research priorities for addressing the climate crisis should include investments in sustained, long-term environmental monitoring and advanced computer modeling of the Earth system.

Invest in long-term environmental monitoring

In the late 1950s, Charles Keeling’s pioneering work with scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facilities – in which they measured levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in Hawaii – revealed to the world that greenhouse gas concentrations were increasing dramatically and rapidly. In the decades that followed, thousands of Earth observation platforms, such as air quality stations, ground sensors, hydrometers, ocean buoys and satellites, were deployed. to deepen our understanding of the evolution of Earth systems.

These instruments require extraordinary precision, requiring expensive maintenance by qualified experts. Unfortunately, the pursuit of these coveted data sets is threatened by budget cuts and reallocation of resources. It is imperative that the United States sets an example for the rest of the world by investing in maintaining, updating and expanding existing Earth observation networks to provide greater spatial and temporal coverage. The need to understand our earth systems demands nothing less.

Invest in the modeling of the next generation Earth system

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

New capabilities enhanced by exascale computing combined with new machine learning and / or artificial intelligence techniques may lead to a radical shift in the projection of how climate change will manifest in the future as a result societal decisions. However, this leap requires significant investment through federal entities such as the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy; NOAA Climate Program Office; NASA Earth Sciences Division; and the Geosciences Branch of the National Science Foundation.

Invest in Federal Climate Scientists

The US climate science company is the best in the world because of the extraordinary researchers that make it up, whether they work in federal agencies or are backed by federal funds for 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 trained federal service climatologists during the Trump administration has left a vacuum that jeopardizes President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda if not addressed quickly. This challenge is particularly acute when viewed against the attendant risk of an impending retirement cliff as climate scientists remaining in the federal public service reach the end of their careers.

It is imperative that the federal government’s climate science ranks be recognized as a priority and that hiring be accelerated. Fortunately, existing powers within the federal government could be harnessed in the short term and possibly modeled to create a dedicated climate science pipeline, including assessments of subject matter expert qualifications to shorten the process. hiring and hiring highly qualified candidates for federal positions; federal government design and technology consultancy firm 18F; and the Presidential Management Fellows Program and the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program. A commitment by political leaders to recruit and train staff is also needed to attract new talent to the federal workforce.


The Biden administration recognizes that climate change poses an existential threat to life as we know it, demanding extraordinary action to ensure that humanity continues to prosper for generations to come. As climatologists who previously worked for the federal government – through the Obama and Trump administrations – the authors recognize the extraordinary achievements of the US climate science enterprise as well as its fragility if the necessary investments are not made to maintain leadership. world of the United States. status. While scientific information is only one of many factors used to inform decision-making, it is more important than ever that policy reflects the best information available. As the Biden administration contemplates a myriad of mitigation and adaptation measures needed to address the scale of the climate crisis, it is imperative that federal climate experts be invited early in the process and consulted throughout. process, not only to ensure sound policy development, but also to meet the expectations of the President. commitment to restore science to its rightful place in government.

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


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