Remarks on the development of a national climate change research agenda. March 2003

John C. Mutter

    The federal government is struggling to shape what could become one of the most important pieces of science policy of the 21st century - its strategy for climate change research. And already we are seeing the lines being drawn between scientists and those charged with making policy who must consider the science that underpins policy development along with the many social and economic constraints within which government must operate. An entrenched battle will do no one any good and could lead to a dangerous stalemate in which no action is taken. With the future of the planet at stake there can be no winners or losers. There are three essential foci that must shape the collective deliberations of scientists and policy makers alike as we develop a national science policy to meet the challenge of global climate change. Because our concern is to make preparations for what we might expect the climate to be like in the future we are working in a setting characterized by uncertainties. The uncertainties do not arise because scientific understanding of the climate system is inadequate, they arise because we actually have a well developed understanding of the nature of the climate system. Global climate can be broadly thought of as chaotic in nature. Some characteristics of the system are predictable - there will always be seasons - but many key components are not. predictable at all, or can be forecast only a small time into the future. That's just the nature of it and all the science that we can throw at it won't change nature itself. Any statement about the future state of the global climate will contain uncertainty, and that's that. Given this scientific fact the first focus of our climate change research strategy must be to identify the source of the uncertainties, reduce them if possible while acknowledging that this may not in fact be possible, quantify them if that can be done, but most importantly we must develop decision making tools and strategies that allow us to make rational choices about what should be done in the face of the uncertainties. That is, after all, what we all do in our daily lives and what governments do routinely on myriad issues of national policy. The second is the recognize that climate perturbations that occur on time scales of months to years associated with such phenomenon as the El Nino produce climate variations that equal or exceed any we might expect to come from long term climate change, at least over the present century. We can learn from this. The El Nino brings devastating floods to some countries and droughts to others but is one of the climate's more predictable components. Science has unlocked that part of the climate genome and predictions of the El Nino can now be made several months to as much a year in advance with uncertainties of course but with sufficient confidence that forecasts can be of huge value to those who have to manage the economic and other consequences of these climate fluctuations. The federal government through the National Oceans and Atmospheres Administration sponsored much of the research that lead to the scientific breakthrough of El Nino prediction and has established the International Research Institute (IRI) for climate prediction hosted by Columbia University whose mission is to advance the prediction skill we have in El Nino forecasting, but as important as advancing the science IRI's mission is to develop decision strategies for adaptation to and mitigation of the most devastating consequences of the El Nino related weather changes. We are doing this right now and the lessons we are learning can be applied to understanding how to deal with long-term climate changes. Sadly, the El Nino's harshest consequences most often happen in the tropics and arid parts of the world where most of the world's poorest people live. Their lives can be profoundly affected through associated food shortages or even lost through climate-related natural disasters including disease outbreaks. The pathway toward development can be deeply impeded if already poor countries need to constantly wage costly battles against the ravages of climate. We cannot prevent climate variations but we can warn of their coming and develop ways to endure them with the least harmful consequences. So the third focus must be on the worlds poor. Global climate change will no doubt be distributed quite differently around the world. There will be winners and losers and one thing of which there is no uncertainty is that the poorest will be the greatest losers. Even if the climate change is at the low end of predictions the consequences in poor countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa could be tragic. Life for tens of millions is there already on the edge. People live a marginal existence characterized by scarcity, hunger and disease. Even minor climate changes that the developed nations of the world could easily cope with could threaten the very lives of people in these regions. The climate is global, The richest are connected to the poorest through the atmosphere and ocean currents and they will be affected by our actions. There is no uncertainty about that.

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