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Invest in Climate Science to Guide Energy, Economic, and Environmental Policy

A deeper understanding of the issues and developing science associated with the environment and climate change will influence national and global energy, economic, and environmental policy choices. Balancing these priorities requires greater consideration of the complex processes driving climate change and increased attention to adaptation measures. We must increase our investment in climate science, which will enable us to adjust policies as scientific understanding advances. At the federal level, we need better coordination and collaboration across agencies for policy coherence and balance.

A significant reduction in GHG emissions implies a huge—and hugely expensive— transformation to low-carbon energy systems. Because climate policy will cut across and impact virtually the entire economy, it should be informed by the best science and observations available.

Our understanding of the climate system and the human impact on it has progressed significantly and supports efforts to mitigate GHG emissions. The recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) provide an overview of our current understanding of the scientific issues and the environmental and policy challenges that is both comprehensive and compelling. The United States should continue to be the world leader in climate change science and the major sponsor of the work upon which the IPCC reports rely. Our universities and research institutions house some of the finest minds, and our national labs house the world’s fastest supercomputers. There is no reason we cannot remain the world leader in climate science.

To address climate issues and other environmental challenges, reduce uncertainty, and more properly identify and assess the risks and opportunities for mitigation of climate change, we ought to increase our investment in climate science to enable policymakers to set and adjust policies as scientific understanding advances. Although we have made considerable progress, we need an even deeper understanding of the complex processes that affect the environment and climate change to inform national and global energy, economic, and environmental policy choices. This is especially relevant now, as real world observations have raised questions about the sensitivity of the climate and the ability of climate change models to reproduce natural variability and predict future temperatures. Models also perform poorly at a regional level, and, although they are improving, a growing body of evidence suggests that there is a much broader range of factors that impact climate, such as land use change, that deserve greater attention. More and better analysis of the costs and benefits of various climate change policies are necessary to make informed policy decisions.

Accurate long-term observations of the earth and physical systems are indispensable to climate research, modeling, and prediction. Without such observations, progress in all areas of climate science will be held back. Many of our current systems were designed for weather prediction, not climate change research. The IPCC noted that trends derived from surface observations still contain significant errors, and the National Academies have expressed dismay over the state of the U.S. environmental satellite system. Developing and maintaining a robust and modern observational system integrating an array of surface, ocean, and space-based sensors— including the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS)—should be a priority.

Moreover, there needs to be greater transparency, including public access to data and methods from research supported with federal funds, which would increase the public’s confidence in research results.

The focus on the climate issue has been largely confined to climate science and mitigation—both of which are extremely important. But the issue of adaptation has not received the attention it deserves in our federally supported science programs, especially given its growing prominence in international negotiations. Increasing our resiliency to changes in the climate, whether due to natural variability or human-induced change, is an area where more research and coordination are needed. We also need to take a closer look at the potential cost, effectiveness, and risks of different geo-engineering strategies.