Holistic Advice On Climate Change | April 13, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 15 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 15 | pp. 34-36
Issue Date: April 13, 2009

Holistic Advice On Climate Change

Congress asks National Academies to start the work needed to lay out choices for U.S. action
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Climate Change
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Seeking Input
The Committee on America's Climate Choices is considering a host of information, including data on the thinning and melting of glaciers such as Alaska's Valdez glacier.
Credit: USGS
Seeking Input
The Committee on America's Climate Choices is considering a host of information, including data on the thinning and melting of glaciers such as Alaska's Valdez glacier.
Credit: USGS

IT'S A TALL ORDER from Congress to the National Academies: Analyze issues related to global warming and suggest to lawmakers what the U.S. should do about it.

In response, the National Academies formed the Committee on America's Climate Choices to take an overarching look at what to do about global warming. The committee took its first step toward meeting its charge late last month when it held a two-day summit, which brought together representatives from academia, industry, and government.

This effort differs from the more than two dozen National Academy of Sciences studies related to climate change, Committee Chairman Albert Carnesale, emeritus chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, said at the summit.

"We were asked specifically by government to provide advice and recommendations—actionable advice, not simply or solely to describe the state of science and what we know and don't know," he said.

The effort is focusing on the information that society needs as it faces the challenges of climate change, said Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Another thing that's different about this study, as opposed to most academy studies, is the sheer magnitude and range of the audience who are interested in this subject and who have a stake in this subject," Carnesale said.

The committee's makeup reflects that diversity. Among its members are environmental scientists, a water resources expert, an environmental justice advocate, DuPont's chairman of the board, and a public relations professional.

How the report will be communicated to the public—and not just written—is extremely important in this effort, Carnesale told summit attendees. This is true because the committee faces gaps in data for some aspects of climate change. "The fact that there are some things we don't know doesn't mean [we should] keep waiting" before acting to mitigate or adapt to the effects of global warming, Carnesale remarked.

In its report, the committee will suggest short-term actions to respond to climate change. In addition, it will identify promising long-term strategies, investments, and opportunities. It will also recommend how to fill scientific and technological gaps and describe the major roadblocks to action on climate change.

To accomplish these objectives, the committee formed four panels to take an in-depth look at limiting the magnitude of, adapting to, advancing the science of, and informing decisions related to climate change.

THE PANELS expect to break new ground. For example, ways to adapt to climate change are not yet well documented, so the report will represent pioneering work, said Katharine Jacobs, who is chair of the Panel on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. Jacobs is executive director of the Arizona Water Institute, a consortium of Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University that focuses on water supply sustainability.

"Once the U.S. sets the rules, a lot of other people will follow."

"We're laying out the choices," said Diana M. Liverman, who is vice chair of the Panel on Informing Effective Decisions & Actions Related to Climate Change. For instance, the panel will describe the emissions cuts needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a given level in a specified year. It will also describe the type of climate effects that would be expected at that concentration of greenhouse gases, said Liverman, a professor of environmental science at Oxford University and codirector of the Institute for Environment & Society at the University of Arizona.

In addition, the Panel on Informing Decisions & Actions will recommend ways to monitor the impacts of emission reduction or adaptation policies to determine whether they are effective, Liverman said. It will study "what sorts of information needs to be fed back to the decisionmakers so that they know whether they've made the right or wrong decisions," she said.

The committee received direct input at the summit from the decisionmakers who requested the analysis. The directive for the committee came from the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science & Related Agencies and its chairman, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who described to the summit participants his vision for the Academies' work.

Congress wants the committee, drawing on scientific data, to spell out how climate change is likely to affect the U.S. and describe what realistic strategies are available to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Mollohan said. Decisionmakers from the federal level to state and local levels will use the report for years to come as they set policy on a vast array of issues ranging from energy infrastructure to wetlands restoration efforts, he said. The report would be a domestic analog of the assessments compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he added.

One question on lawmakers' minds, Mollohen said, is, "Do any of the geoengineering ideas hold real promise, or are they just escapist dreams?"

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN

GEOENGINEERING, sometimes now called environmental intervention measures, involves massive efforts to cool the planet. Ideas range from injecting sulfur into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and prevent it from reaching Earth's surface to fertilizing the oceans with iron to induce phytoplankton to absorb immense quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Geoengineering will be the subject of an upcoming June workshop, Carnesale added.

Credit: DuPont
Credit: DuPont

The Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change will try to identify the kind of research that would need to take place before any attempts are made at geoengineering, said Pamela A. Matson, who is chair of that group. The panel will get input on geoengineering from scientific and technical experts and will also consider its ethical and environmental justice aspects, said Matson, dean of Stanford University's School of Earth Sciences.

Another subject that the committee should address is the role of oceans in climate change and the effects of acidification on oceanic ecosystems, said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. In addition, she told summit attendees that recommendations on adaptation should not be limited to food crops and the "built environment," which includes things such as power plants and bridges. Policy suggestions should include ways to create conditions that allow as much biodiversity as possible to adapt to climate change, Lubchenco said.

The NOAA chief lobbied for creation of a national climate service within her agency. This new entity would be equivalent to the National Weather Service and would be "an honest broker of information" about climate, Lubchenco said. She asked the committee for suggestions on making a climate service "maximally useful."

MEANWHILE, Charles O. Holliday Jr., chairman of DuPont's board of directors and a member of the Academies' committee, called for improved communication about the risks of and possible responses to global warming.

"Step number one, from a business perspective, is help me convince my suppliers, my employees, my customers, my customers' customers that this really makes sense, it is necessary, and it is in their best interest," he told summit attendees.

Holliday said he hopes that the panels' reports will help Congress establish a policy framework for addressing climate change. Once Congress passes legislation, he said, "I believe we'll all be shocked as to how fast business can move and really make a difference." A majority of businesses are likely ready to curb greenhouse gas emissions now, but they are holding back, waiting for certainty about federal climate policy, he said.

A new U.S. climate law would have repercussions within industry internationally, too, Holliday said. "My judgment is, from doing business in a lot of countries, once the U.S. sets the rules, a lot of other people will follow," he explained.

One elected official who would help create a U.S. climate law challenged the Committee on America's Climate Choices to come up with a better term than "climate change." The term is vague and fails to convey the urgency of the situation, said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science & Technology Committee. For many Americans, climate is synonymous with weather, he told summit attendees, and is addressed by adjusting a thermostat or wearing season-appropriate clothing. Change, meanwhile, is seen as part of life and is often positive, he said.

Gordon reminded the summit that congressional leaders hope to move a bill this summer and autumn to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A draft version of the bill was released in the House on March 30 (C&EN, April 6, page 6).

"You need to move quickly," Gordon told the committee.

When asked about the timing of the committee's and panels' work in the face of current action by lawmakers, Carnesale said, "I don't think the absence of our reports is going to be the difference between whether something gets done or not" in Congress. Carnesale added that he wasn't concerned that Congress might pass climate-change legislation before the reports are finished.

"Our job is to look further down the road, beyond the legislation," said William Chameides, vice chair of the Academies' committee and dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment & Earth Sciences. Unlike the draft legislation, he said, the reports will provide guidance on wide-ranging issues such as recasting U.S. energy infrastructure and adapting to impacts such as changing precipitation patterns and sea-level rise.

Carnesale added that problems associated with global warming won't be solved for years, and the reports will be relevant after the U.S. has a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The four panels are expected to report their findings by the end of 2009. The committee will issue an overall assessment in 2010.

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