First National Climate Assessment: Overview Print E-mail

Below you will find answers to the most frequently asked questions about the First National Climate Assessment Report.

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Goal and Architecture

What was the goal of the First National Assessment?

The overall goal of the National Assessment was to analyze and evaluate what was known about the potential consequences of climate variability and change for the nation in the context of other pressures on the public, the environment, and the nation's resources. Special efforts were made to involve the end users - such as water resource managers, farmers, and decisionmakers - in all stages of the Assessment so that the final outcome was useful to the widest audience possible and was truly developed through a participatory process.

What were the main components of the First National Assessment?

There were three major components of the assessment: regional analyses, sectoral analyses, and a national synthesis. Regional analyses identified and characterized potential consequences on the specific geographic regions identified by the current workshop process. These analyses were performed by teams comprised of experts from both public and private sectors and the spectrum of stakeholder communities. Sectoral analyses considered potential consequences on major economic sectors such as agriculture, "environmental sectors" such as water resources, and "societal sectors" such as human health. These analyses were quantitative and national in scope. The national synthesis drew together the results of both the regional and sectoral analyses.  It was national in scope.

Common climate and socioeconomic scenarios were used to derive information for each of these components, to test out sensitivities, and to develop information that could be effectively synthesized. Outreach and stakeholder involvement was also a fundamental part of the assessment.

What timeframe did the First National Assessment address?

The National Assessment emphasized the potential consequences over the next 25-30 years, and also over the next 100 years. Analyses of potential consequences over the next 100 years considered the potential for significant secular changes in climate, potentially accompanied by changes in climate variability and the frequency of extreme events, as well as the projected large changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Over this time frame, coping technologies and practices were expected to change, so some provision was made in the analyses for these considerations. Analyses of potential consequences over the 25-30 years were needed to consider that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations would certainly continue to rise, and that  there might be modest, but observable, trends in climate. Potential consequences over both short and long time frames were needed to consider the possibility of non-linear and threshold responses.

Who was the intended audience for the First National Assessment?

There were multiple audiences for the Assessment. The regional assessments were primarily for regional audiences; the sectoral assessments and Synthesis were primarily for national audiences. Congress was the primary audience for the Synthesis Report, as a surrogate for the American people. In general, the Assessment was focused on providing information for various users of information - such as people working in areas sensitive to natural resources (water managers, farmers, ranchers, etc.) and people positioned to implement or make decisions about coping strategies at local, state and Federal levels.

Did the First National Assessment synthesize existing literature or conduct new research?

Primarily the former. Analysis was based on extant scientific literature and on new studies done specifically in support of the national assessment process. The national assessment process was guided by a short list of questions such as the following:

  • What are the current environmental stresses and issues for the United States that will form a backdrop for potential additional impacts of climate change?
  • How might climate variability and change exacerbate or ameliorate existing problems?
  • What are the priority research and information needs that can better prepare policy makers to reach wise decisions related to climate variability and change?
  • What research is most important to complete over the short term? Over the long term?
  • What coping options exist that can build resilience to current environmental stresses, and also possibly lessen the impacts of climate change?

Organization and Mandate

Was the First National Assessment mandated?

The United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is mandated by statute with the responsibility to undertake scientific assessments of the potential consequences of global change for the United States. The "Global Change Research Act of 1990" (P.L. 101-606) states that the Federal government "shall prepare and submit to the President and the Congress an assessment which:

  1. integrates, evaluates, and interprets the findings of the Program and discusses the scientific uncertainties associated with such findings;
  2. analyzes the effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity; and
  3. analyzes current trends in global change, both human-inducted and natural, and projects major trends for the subsequent 25 to 100 years."

How was the First National Assessment organized?

A National Assessment Synthesis Team (NAST) was responsible for broad intellectual leadership and preparation of the Synthesis Report. The NAST was a FACA-chartered committee with roughly a dozen members drawn from government, academia, and the private sector. A National Assessment Working Group (NAWG) coordinated the participation of the Federal agencies who were sponsoring and catalyzing the assessment and also provided significant intellectual input into the development of the overall assessment strategy. A National Assessment Coordination Office (NACO) linked the various components and tracked progress. NACO helped provide a framework within which the efforts of large numbers of local, regional, and Federal participants interacted with the national assessment process in ways that provided useful insights and results for the National Synthesis, and promoted development of stakeholder networks that developed useful insights for their own purposes, quite apart from any final National Synthesis. Each region and sector was sponsored by a Federal agency and implemented by an assessment team.

Who was "in charge" of the First National Assessment?

The parent body within the US Government for the National Assessment was the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR), which is a subsidiary body of the National Science and Technology Council, chaired by the President. The CENR has delegated responsibility for oversight of assessment activities to its Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR), which is the parent committee for the USGCRP. The SGCR has broad responsibilities for research planning and coordination among the Federal agencies. With respect to the National Assessment, the SGCR was charged with overall coordination, implementation, and sponsorship of the national assessment process.

Individual agencies, in cooperation with the SGCR/NAWG, had lead responsibility for organizing and sponsoring the sectoral analyses under the guidelines established by the NAST and SGCR/NAWG. Each sectoral team was composed of both public and private participants.

Who was "in charge" of each region and of what ended up in the regional report? Each sector?

Each region had at least one Regional Coordinator and one Agency Contact, representing the sponsoring agency. In addition, many regions had both a Steering Committee to focus on general strategy, and an Assessment Team to conduct the analysis. It was important that all of these mechanisms  worked together so that the assessment was reflective of broad interests and perspectives in its strategy, conduct and findings. In addition, each report went through review and revision. Finally, the NAWG assisted with developing a coordinated strategy across regions and for troubleshooting. However, ultimate responsibility for each regional report and the overall conduct of each regional assessment rested with the Regional Coordinator(s) and Agency Contact(s).

Similarly, each sector had two Co-Chairs (one from government, one from outside of government), an Agency Contact, and an Assessment Team. While the regions were monitored by the NAWG, the sectors were monitored and guided by the NAST. However, the Co-Chairs and Agency Contact had ultimate responsibility.


Regions

What regions were covered in the First National Assessment?

Twenty regions held scoping workshops from May 1997 to October 1998 to identify the priority questions and issues of regional stakeholders. Pending funding support, each of these regions was invited to participate in the next phase of the assessment, which involved quantitative analysis of the key issues that had been identified. There were a few cases where one region merged with another, or where a region did only minimal follow-up to the workshop report. However, the majority of these regions fully completed this process. Regions were also encouraged to conduct joint activities and analyses where possible.

What was the relationship between the regional scoping workshops and the regional assessments?

The regional scoping workshops represented the first stage in conducting regional assessments. They were meant to identify key questions, issues, and concerns which then were further analyzed and pursued. This sometimes involved applying quantitative methods and models, and further outreach activities, such as additional workshops with stakeholder groups. The two major components of the post-workshop phase included (a) quantitative assessment of 2-3 key issues or sectors and (b) continuous cultivation and engagement of regional stakeholder networks.

What products came out of the regions?

Each regional scoping workshop began with a scoping paper meant to generate discussion among participants. Following each workshop, organizers prepared a workshop report to reflect discussions; often this was a revision of the scoping paper. For the next (post-workshop) phase, each region prepared a report addressing a common set of questions. However, regions were also free to develop any other useful products, although these were not published as regional documents, and were not as part of the national volumes.


Sectors

What sectors were covered in the First National Assessment?

Five sectors received special treatment in this National Assessment: health, water, forests, agriculture, and coastal areas. In each case a team was formed to conduct an assessment of the vulnerability of the sector and the possible coping strategies at a national level. However, regions also worked with sectors and were not limited to those (five) selected by the Synthesis Team. As a result, the Synthesis Report was not limited to these five sectors.

Why were these sectors selected and not others?

The intent was to select a small number of sectors where this assessment could have some "value-added". The idea was to do a relatively small number of sectors well and then move onto other sectors later. It was recognized that this list was not comprehensive.

How did the regions and sectors interact?

It was anticipated that the regions would be involved in the sectoral assessments from the earliest stages. For example, the leaders of the water sector held a workshop to launch the analysis which involved one representative from each region and one from each of the other sectors. The sectoral analyses both built from the regional inputs, and did some additional broader scale (national and sub-national) analyses.

Each region was also asked to select about 2-3 sectors to pursue in the post-workshop phase. However, these did not necessarily reflect the five sectors that received special treatment. Therefore, very strong communication was necessary between regions and sectors to assure adequate coordination.


Synthesis Report

What is in the Synthesis Report?

The Synthesis Report drew together the results of both the regional and sectoral analyses of the potential consequences of climate variability and change. In addition, the synthesis effort involved new analyses. So it was mainly, but not exclusively, based on the regional and sectoral analyses.


Scenarios

What scenarios were used by the regional and sectoral teams?

The Synthesis Team developed a strategy for the regional and sectoral teams to use scenarios that assisted with some common formats that could be more easily synthesized. For climate scenarios, the Synthesis Team focused on three components: (1) historical information (a historical climatology of the U.S. covering the 20th century to examine trends); (2) General Circulation Model projections (primary tool was the Canadian Climate Model run in transient mode to 2100, assuming a 1% per year increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, with and without aerosols); and (3) Flexible, "what if" component where regions developed their own scenarios to understand the sensitivity of systems. For socioeconomic scenarios, the Synthesis Team developed a framework which combined assumptions about the regional economy with assumptions about the degree to which the sector was stressed. Hadley Centre and Max-Planck General Circulation Model runs also were available.

Were assessment teams limited to these scenarios?

No. Teams were requested to follow this scenario strategy in order to develop some common information that could be effectively synthesized and compared across volumes. However, teams were welcome to pursue additional scenarios, and could use any other General Circulation Models (GCMs).

Why were these General Circulation Models (GCMs) selected rather than others?

Some criteria for selecting GCMs included: (a) availability of daily data; (b) accessibility of the data (how "user-friendly"); and (c) timing of availability (will the runs be completed in time to be useful for this assessment?). The intent was not to discriminate against any models, but to find the most accessible and useful runs, given the need for immediate availability.


Relationship to Other Activities

What is the relationship between the First National Assessment and the Kyoto Protocol?

These were separate activities. The National Assessment looked at vulnerability and coping strategies ("impacts") while the Kyoto Protocol (which the U.S. has not ratified) concerns emissions reductions ("mitigation"). Within the National Assessment process, regional stakeholders were encouraged to develop "win-win" strategies that simultaneously reduced emissions and enhance the resilience of the particular sector. However, the focus was never placed exclusively or directly on mitigation.

Was it "off limits" to talk about policy impacts (for example, potential impacts of Kyoto on the energy sector) at the regional workshops?

Nothing on the minds of regional stakeholders was necessarily "off limits". However, it was emphasized that this process was set up by the research arm of the Federal government, and so was not necessarily designed to channel these debates and concerns.

What was the relationship between the First National Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?

The National Assessment was timed to provide input into the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC. The IPCC itself developed a regional focus and published a Special Report on The Regional Aspects of Climate Change in 1997. However, IPCC regions were much larger than National Assessment regions: in the IPCC Special Report, the United States was merged with Canada in a North American chapter. In the National Assessment, the United States was divided into 20 regions.