More Federal Support Needed For Local Decision Makers Coping with Climate Change

Many state and local officials and private organizations are basing decisions -- such as how to build bridges or manage water supplies -- on the assumption that current climate conditions will continue, but that assumption is no longer valid.

by / March 12, 2009
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Many state and local officials and private organizations are basing decisions -- such as how to build bridges or manage water supplies -- on the assumption that current climate conditions will continue, but that assumption is no longer valid. To produce the climate information these decision makers need and to deliver it to them effectively, federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency should expand their activities in these areas. This was the conclusion of a new report issued today from the National Research Council.

"Government agencies, private organizations, and individuals whose futures will be affected by climate change are unprepared, both conceptually and practically, for meeting the challenges and opportunities it presents," the report noted. "Many of their usual practices and decision rules -- for building bridges, implementing zoning rules, using private motor vehicles, and so on -- assume a stationary climate -- a continuation of past climatic conditions, including similar patterns of variation and the same probabilities of extreme events."

"That assumption, fundamental to the ways people and organizations make their choices, is no longer valid," the report adds. "Climate change will create a novel and dynamic decision environment. The parameters of the new climate regime cannot be envisioned from past experience. Moreover, climatic changes will be superimposed on social and economic changes that are altering the climate vulnerability of different regions and sectors of society, as well as their ability to cope. Decision makers will need new kinds of information and new ways of thinking and learning to function effectively in a changing climate."

The report recommends six principles that all agencies should follow in supporting decision makers who are facing the effects of climate change. For example, agencies' efforts should be driven by the needs of end users in the field, not by scientific research priorities. And agencies should create close ties between the scientists who produce climate change information and the practitioners who use it.

It is not just the climate challenges themselves that require a different approach to decision making. "The changes in the climate system will require a longer-term view than is usual in most decision-making contexts," the report noted. "The need for a longer perspective is especially acute for decisions that are hard to readjust in the future, such as those about development policy, long-lived infrastructure, and programs and policies that alter the driving forces of climate change itself."

The committee that wrote the report also urged an expansion of federal research to generate the information regional and local decision makers need -- for example, studies on which locations are vulnerable to the effects of climate change and on ways to mitigate or adapt to these effects.

"Climate change will have different effects in different locations and regions and
on different ecosystems," the committee pointed out. "These effects will be superimposed on place-specific aspects of social systems, such as characteristics of energy supply, human population change, water use, and the legal and institutional environment."

Therefore, studies should also assess the best ways to collect and disseminate information with a regional focus.

In addition, the report calls for a new federal initiative to identify and serve decision makers, such as county planners, who may not already be served by particular agencies. This new initiative should not be centralized in a single agency; instead, it should involve and coordinate all agencies that either serve constituencies affected by climate change or collect the information that these decision makers need. This broad initiative will need strong leadership from the Executive Office of the President, including the president's science adviser and the new coordinator of energy and climate policy.

The committee was not tasked with evaluating whether a "national climate service" -- an idea that has received considerable attention in recent years -- should be created. However, if any such service is created, it should use the principles for decision support recommended by the report, and it should be closely linked to national climate research efforts.

Copies of "Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate" are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at

Photo by Dan Rhett. Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Blake Harris Contributing Editor