Global Change Impacts, Vulnerabilities, and Responses Print E-mail
Impacts, Vulnerabilities, Responses

Scientific discovery and societal concern have complementary roles in identifying the most urgent vulnerabilities and biggest risks from global change.

Science identifies emerging problems (e.g., the ozone hole or human-caused climate change), analyzes the feasibility of response options, proposes new options, and monitors to track progress. Society communicates its requirements and the values that guide where and how urgently to respond and the preferred set of responses. Both evolve together in an iterative and collaborative dialogue.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) embodies this evolving dialogue by providing the scientific foundation for global change risk management in the areas of greatest societal need, as defined and guided by the strategic priorities of decision makers and stakeholders.

USGCRP Efforts

USGCRP aims to advance understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of integrated human-natural systems, and enhance the usability of scientific knowledge in supporting responses to global change. The Program engages with decision makers and stakeholders through its communication, assessment, and decision support efforts. Major themes of this effort include:

  • Understanding potential vulnerabilities of natural and human systems in the face of global change
  • Understanding essential elements of societal structure, governance, and human behavior necessary to know about human responses to change
  • Applying fundamental scientific knowledge about the Earth system to support the development of adaptation and mitigation strategies for specific places, systems, and sectors, as well as for global-scale threats
  • Developing the scientific tools and methods needed to iteratively manage global change risks through these adaptation and mitigation responses

Please click on the buttons below for more information on the core efforts USGCRP is undertaking to improve our understanding of impacts, vulnerabilities, and responses to global change.

The concept of vulnerability refers to the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse impacts of global change. The ultimate purpose of identifying and characterizing vulnerabilities is to support the development and assessment of options to reduce and manage risk. Vulnerability:

  • Provides a major thread linking science, society, and decision-making about responses to global change
  • Helps focus scientific research around key societal concerns and provides a framework for identifying the sectors, regions, resources, and populations that are most at risk from the impacts of global change
  • Aligns strongly with foundational concepts of environmental management, such as risk assessment and benefit-cost analysis, thereby providing a bridge between scientists and the managers who will be in the front lines of adaptation and mitigation actions

USGCRP creates a knowledge base and evaluation capability for identifying critical global change vulnerabilities across a continuum of scales: from global, long-term threats to the stability of the whole Earth system to regional, near-term threats to particular ecosystems, human communities and populations, and socioeconomic sectors.

Understanding the magnitude and rate of change, the entities impacted, and how their responses to change feed back into the Earth system, are vital research ends that span this scale continuum. Building from this understanding, USGRP is able to implement a robust research agenda for the two major and interlinked categories of global change responses, adaptation and mitigation, and in so doing advance the development of actionable knowledge to support decision making about effective adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Incorporating learning from the social, behavioral, and economic sciences is required to improve understanding of adaptive capacity and to learn about the characteristics of resilient populations and communities. Systematically integrating outside scientific research and information products with local knowledge is critical for identifying feasible and effective adaptation and mitigation options.

To aid in the overall effort to build a knowledge base for regional and sectoral responses to global change, USGCRP coordinates focused research to understand the resilience and adaptive capacity of ecosystems, and the corresponding implications for people and society. The Program fosters new research on methods for quantifying, tracking, and, ultimately, enhancing the adaptive capacity of ecosystems, places, human communities, and socioeconomic sectors in the face of global change.

USGCRP is also building new partnerships with engineers, architects, and planners because adaptation and mitigation will likely provoke transformations of infrastructure and the built environment. Leveraging local and international partnerships will be essential for applying relevant experience and information in adaptation and mitigation from around the world to here in the United States and vice-versa.

USGCRP aims to enhance existing research, and foster new research, to support the development of actions to reduce the global-scale risks associated with the different dimensions of global change, such as:

  • global warming
  • ocean acidification
  • global sea-level rise
  • widespread loss of biodiversity

The Program is working to coordinate existing research, and foster cutting-edge new research, in areas such as carbon stocks and natural greenhouse gas fluxes, oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide, the role of agricultural practices in greenhouse gas sequestration, short-lived climate forcers such as ozone and aerosols and the links between air quality and climate change, the contributions of urban areas to both local and global changes in climate, and the potential for crossing thresholds and tipping points in physical, ecological, and social systems.

In coordinating such research, USGCRP will also leverage its partnership with the interagency Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP) whose purpose is to accelerate development, reduce the cost, and promote the deployment of new and advanced technologies and best practices that could avoid, reduce, capture, or store greenhouse gas emissions.

CCTP will need to inform USGCRP as new technologies are developed and implemented that affect future emissions trajectories. Similarly, USGCRP will need to inform CCTP regarding the potential global change impacts of and on the imple-mentation of these new technologies.

An iterative process of research, decision support, monitoring, evaluation, and learning can reduce risk and promote adaptive management in the context of global change.

USGCRP contributes to the development and enhancement of tools and approaches which area essential to realizing this iterative process, including decision support frameworks, scenarios, valuation methodologies, and indicators. The aspirational goal is the eventual institutionalization of a national learning process in coping with global change.

Across all categories of global change response strategies, advances in methods for estimating the dam¬ages associated with regional and sectoral impacts are required for informed analyses of the benefits of adaptation and mitigation efforts. USGCRP explores new frameworks for assessing risks and benefits that account for these challenges and allow policy makers to better understand the impacts, co- benefits, and potential unintended consequences of adaptation and mitigation options.

USGCRP helps define best practices for transforming new scientific knowledge into actionable information. To maximize relevance for adaptation and mitigation decision-making, the Program strives to foster science that is coherent and meaningful within specific decision contexts, integrates across disciplines, and engages stakeholders as participants. Research that incorporates these considerations will be particularly important in the following areas:

  • Developing models and tools to assess the environmental, social, human health, and economic outcomes of alternative adaptation and mitigation options
  • Developing scenarios of possible global change impacts, including extremes and high-conse¬quence events
  • Identifying social and ecological thresholds that help define limits to adaptation and the options for mitigation
  • Characterizing uncertainties for the many decisions necessary to respond to human-driven global change, particularly at the local scale (as they are for most of the important policy deci¬sions faced by society)

In addition, USGCRP sponsors vital social sciences research that evaluates the uptake of its research into adaptation and mitigation decisions and its effectiveness in inform-ing outcomes. Strong partnerships with regulatory agencies, collaborative science and applications initiatives at the regional level, and international efforts are essential for both enhancing Program capacity and ensuring the relevance of its research activities.