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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Evolution of Climate Science

Air Date: Week of February 27, 2009

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Climate science traditionally focuses on research and gathering data. But a new report says the focus must shift and address mitigation and adaptation to the changing climate. Chris Justice is vice chair of the National Research Council committee that wrote the report. He speaks with host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: Two years ago The National Academy of Sciences Research Council issued a report evaluating how well the federal government’s Climate Science Program was doing.

Now, the NRC has issued a new report and this one looks to the future. Professor Chris Justice from the University of Maryland is vice-chair of the committee that wrote the report. And Professor Justice says the focus of climate science research needs to change.

JUSTICE: We identified some areas where we were making very good progress in the natural sciences. We’d been making inadequate progress in looking at the impacts on human wellbeing and societal vulnerabilities. How societies are going to be able to adapt and what we’re going to do to mitigate, and which sectors of society are going to be particularly vulnerable to the changing climate.

GELLERMAN: So the focus is now climate change as a fait accompli. It’s gonna be here and we better get ready for it.

JUSTICE: That’s right, and I think there’s a need and what our report says is that there’s a need for us to start to address the questions that are responsive to the urgent needs of society, and I think that’s echoed around the world as international organizations and national organizations, state level, are all interested in asking what do we do now about climate change. And I think that the science research needs to be done to provide the underpinning to those responses.

GELLERMAN: So what kind of science would you suggest that we might start doing in order to address some of these urgent human needs?

JUSTICE: So we identify some priorities for this interagency program. We think that a re-organizing of the program along the lines of scientific societal issues such as the continued food supply, raising sea levels, fresh water availability, ecosystem management, human health and the impacts on the economy of this country, and, of course, extreme weather events and climate events and disasters.

GELLERMAN: So we really haven’t been looking at these types of critical questions until now?

JUSTICE: I think in terms of some of the underpinning science we’ve been doing that, but we’ve not been very good at communicating how we should respond to those and what needs to be done. There’s been a strong emphasis on the physical science part of research and now there’s time to broaden the program a little bit to include the human dimensions.

GELLERMAN: This stuff doesn’t come cheap. I know that just a few days ago, the United States lost a satellite to observe carbon from an orbiting satellite. It was 273 million dollars.

JUSTICE: Yes, that was an extremely unfortunate event, and a lot of people had spent a large amount of time and effort to try and get these instruments built and launched, and that’s a real blow for us. But it does highlight the need for us to look at an international code or cooperation to share data and information from the different observing systems. Luckily there is a Japanese satellite that was launched last month which is addressing some of these observations, and I think now, leaning on that a little bit while we recover from the loss and figure out what we’re gonna do to fill the gap I think is quite important.

GELLERMAN: What kind of money are we talking about in terms of this future research you’re suggesting?

JUSTICE: So, in terms of significant increases of funding we felt that clearly providing the observations needed to see how the climate is changing, to look at the impacts of the change, and for us to monitor those over the long term, that’s a significant cost as you mentioned in the previous comment about the cost of the carbon observatory. We think that regional indicator scale modeling will require a whole new generation of computer infrastructure and a cadre of scientists which have been trained a equipped to work at the regional scale. Funding a national climate service will cost a lot of money. And a comprehensive effort on adaptation mitigation will require new funds. As an academy committee, we didn’t talk about precise dollar amounts, and we get a sense from the program that it’s actually had declining funding since a peak in 1995. So, although the demand for information and the demands on the program are increasing, the budgets have actually declined. And so, we do believe that to build a program that we envision through this report, we’ll need significant increase in funding.

GELLERMAN: How receptive is the current administration to this kind of study?

JUSTICE: Well, we’re hopeful that the current administration will play an active role in guiding and supporting this kind of initiative. We’ve heard repeatedly that they’re interested in supporting a combination of both basic research and mission-oriented research. The administration has been supportive of doing research, and I think now the movement is toward action, what do we do about it, and so the question is, what can be done now and what role does the science play. And so we believe that there’s a need for research to understand the basic processes, but also to address the questions that society are asking as to what do we do now about climate change.

GELLERMAN: Well Professor Justice, I want to thank you very much.

JUSTICE: Thank you very much indeed too.

GELLERMAN: Chris Justice is a professor of geography at the University of Maryland and vice-chair of the National Research Council panel, which just released the report “Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change”.



Click here for the complete report "Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change"

National Research Council


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