The National Academies Calls on USGCRP to Adopt Integrated Climate Change Risk Framing

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By Dr. Marc Kodack

In February, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released independent guidance on high level priorities for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) as the USGCRP revises its next decadal strategic plan to be released in 2022. The NASEM’s assessment focused on climate change into the 2030s, and identified multidirectional and interrelated risks to consider (e.g., water-energy-food-health systems), the types of research needed to increase societal resilience to these risks, and actions that the federal agencies who support the USGCRP can do to implement the identified research, drawing on both social and natural sciences. National security is included in the recommended research areas. 

The NASEM assessment argues for shifting USGCRP’s strategic direction to one based on integrated-risk framing instead of one focused on merely documenting changes to the natural environment and their effects on human systems. This shift would provide decision makers at multiple governmental levels more useful information on the interconnectedness of natural and social systems, potential risks and vulnerabilities. While there are different aspects of global change covered by USGCRP, the NASEM assessment focused on climate change. 

Integrated risk framing simultaneously considers how global climate change affects both human and natural systems. It can also incorporate other global changes as needed. Coupled to this framing is the need to communicate to decision makers across all governmental levels the current capabilities and weaknesses of existing systems. Importantly, this communication must also include the possibility that these systems will change over time. Human systems that can be affected by global changes include water, energy, food, national security, the economy, health and transportation. Natural systems, such as ecosystems and the climate system, can also be affected by these same global changes (see figure S.1). These human and natural systems regularly interact, creating feedback internally within a single system and externally between one or more other systems.

The national security portion of the report draws significantly on prior research from the Center for Climate and Security and International Military Council on Climate and Security, and exemplifies the integrated nature of climate risks, noting, “Climate change is a diffuse threat that cannot be addressed by engaging with a single actor. The recognition of the cross-cutting risks climate change presents to the intelligence and military community elucidates how a new national security paradigm—of which climate change is a bedrock component—is evolving.” As an example, the report identifies potential areas of research needed to assess national and international security for coastal communities, including understanding the robustness of local security institutions and infrastructure and its ability to manage potential strains due to climate change effects.

NASEM recommends five research areas that the USGCRP should consider when determining what to focus on to reduce future climate risk across the United States. This integrated systems approach to addressing climate risk emphasizes research in “(1) extremes, thresholds, and tipping points; (2) simulation of regional and local-scale climate; (3) a scenarios-based approach to project and manage climate change and associated risks; (4) equity and social justice; and (5) augmentation of existing analysis frameworks and supporting data.” 

While these five research areas target the United States, climate risk is not contained within any single country’s borders. Thus, the NASEM recommends that the USGCRP research include not just the United States, but collaboration and cooperation with international organizations and researchers in other countries on how they are addressing  climate risk management research. Cross-border climate risks will challenge multiple systems, such as water, food, health and energy, with implications for national security. For example, as sea level rises or storm surges arrive, both civilian and military infrastructure can be damaged or destroyed. The loss of infrastructure, such as impassable roads, communication outages, and flooded ports, can disrupt local economies, regional security, and/or global supply chains. These disruptions, if they last for an extended time, can affect individual and family livelihoods, health and food systems and local/regional/national economies. Managing and adapting to climate risk sooner rather than later will decrease climate risk across multiple organizational levels. 

As USGCRP revises its’ strategic plan that will guide its work over the next 10 years, adopting a risk framing approach will help those federal agencies that currently support USGCRP, as well as others that should be invited to participate, better align with what is needed for coordinated, national research on climate change. 

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.


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