Beyond Climate Science

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Science  30 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5953, pp. 643
DOI: 10.1126/science.1179807

The United States is moving rapidly into an age of climate-related decisions involving mitigation and adaptation, following decades of focusing on reducing uncertainties in attribution and prediction. But the nation lacks a deliberate approach to generating the “environmental intelligence” needed to support good decisions.

It is critical to create a single, credible, authoritative source of climate information to support decision-makers. Consider one example: Will U.S. cities or states simply pick one climate model as a basis for decisions? Will the information be defensible as the best available? The level of authority required dictates that a National Climate Service be established. Climate information must also be more accessible. Many decision-makers don't know what is available, where to find it, how to use it, or the limits to appropriate use. A highly developed research-provider–user partnership will be essential to create a useful service. Information from diverse federal agencies should be provided through a single portal. The potential for creating a National Climate Service is high. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a strong foundation, and Congress is actively considering legislation.

The United States also lacks sufficient investment in the sciences required for moving beyond climate science to define impacts and vulnerabilities. In 2001, the United States Global Change Research Program's report “Climate Change Impacts on the United States” described a new vision for climate-impacts research, with integrated regional and sector (e.g., water, health, ecosystems) analysis at its core. However, funding was short-lived. Currently, 40 years of intensive climate model development is being coupled to what amounts to a cottage industry of impact sciences. The result is that our understanding of how ecosystems, water, human health, agriculture, and energy will respond to climate change advances only slowly.


The nation needs a concerted effort to develop predictive models explicitly for adaptation and mitigation. Weather and climate models offer a powerful foundation for expanding the ability to predict a broader range of environmental factors. The potential is enormous. Consider, for example, that infectious diseases have strong relationships to the environment. Imagine the societal benefit of a partnership between the climate and human health communities in developing models to provide advance warning of adverse health outcomes. Although these communities are beginning to interact with positive results, a far more rapid pace is needed to develop predictive capabilities that will adequately serve society.

It is also critical to tackle the issue of spatial and temporal scales. Human vulnerability to climate change largely revolves around how climate change will influence high-impact “weather,” such as hurricanes. And regional climate model output with high spatial resolution is a frequently stated need of agencies that manage water, forest, and agricultural resources. Weather and climate prediction must become integrated. Climate information that is useful on a regional scale will only slowly become available without the concerted investments required to enable this new class of models.

Finally, good decisions depend on the ability to create “environmental intelligence” that can be accessed by decision-makers. The strongest intersection between human decision-making and environmental stresses is at a regional or local level. Its five critical elements are integrated regional observations, a comprehensive and accessible regional data and information system, process studies designed to improve regional prediction, a regional climate modeling capability appropriate for society's needs, and efforts to promote the intersection between research, operations, and applications. The uniqueness of this framework stems from the required level of integration, scale of prediction, and promotion of new modes of research.

The deficiencies in the current approach to environmental intelligence are not unique to the United States. The 2009 World Climate Conference has called for a global approach to climate services, although few nations have developed formal plans. This recommendation is a positive development, but it is insufficient. The research strategies and investments needed to define impacts and vulnerabilities and to enable wise decisions are not in place.

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