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Global Environmental Change: Planning for an Effective US Assessment

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Session Description: 

Overview & Relevance:
Most thinking about global change impacts has been at the global scale; this "thinking globally" has led to suggestions that the net consequences of global climate change will be on the order of a few percent as there will be significant accommodation and adaptation. But climate change will be "acting locally" or regionally and we know very little about what the actual consequences will be and how adaptation and mitigation may occur. Many nations of the world, some with the assistance of the US Country Studies Program, have been undertaking national assessments, and because of their limited size are able to explore what might happen in sufficient detail to be able to explore the various changes, gains, losses, and adaptations that together create the net influence. While regional assessments have been undertaken in some parts of the United States, this has not occurred in all regions and economic sectors and there has been no attempt to assemble an indication of the many ways in which climate change will affect the United States.

The U. S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has initiated a national assessment of the consequences of climate change and climate variability for the United States and the significance of these consequences for its people, its environment, and its economy. With the increasing certainty about human-induced effects on climate and with the recent evidence for increasing climate variability, it is particularly important that society be made more aware of what is happening, what the significance of the changes could be, and how to be better prepared to cope and adapt to the changes and variations.

During the period July 29 through August 7, 1997, more than 60 people convened at the Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) in Aspen, Colorado, for a process entitled "Planning for a U. S. National Assessment," devoted to the forthcoming National Assessment of Consequences of Climate Change. The purpose of this meeting was to explore how to design a national assessment process that would examine the vulnerabilities of the U. S. - its ecological systems, its major economic sectors, and its social infrastructure - to climate variability and climate change. The AGCI meeting also provided an opportunity for participants, particularly for those who had participated in and were planning regional workshops, to present and synthesize information gained from past assessments and workshop findings and inter actions.

This workshop focused on:
i. what regional assessments have been done in the United States (and overseas) and what can be learned from these assessments about what has worked well and what has not;
ii. what attempts have been made at assessments of the United States as a whole (both by summing over regions and with integrated assessments) and what the strengths and weaknesses of these assessments have been; and
iii. what approaches to a new US assessment might be useful and how might such an assessment be organized so that it provides both a region by region and sector by sector indication of changes as well as an integrated national picture.

Lasting eight working days plus a weekend, the session began with reviews of the early workshops on regional consequences of climate variability and change and with breakout groups to discuss issues for major sectors across the U. S., along with a discussion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regional assessment experience. With this background, it then turned to the U. S. national assessment, starting with a review of discussion documents produced by the National Assessment Working Group (NAWG) and the U. S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).

Background and Expectations
As background for the workshop, the USGCRP's National Assessment Working Group (NAWG) had developed draft plans and objectives for the proposed national assessment. In addition, the USGCRP agencies together with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) had sponsored four regional workshops in the preceding three months and four more were planned for late 1997 and a dozen more for 1998. All of this provided a rich background for discussion at the AGCI meeting.

The AGCI participants were asked to contribute to the development of the national assessment by identifying several key criteria, by concluding that the process must: involve a broadly defined research and stakeholder community; consider the nation's vulnerabilities to climate variability and climate change in the context of other important environmental stresses and current concerns; and account for region to region differences as well as common themes reaching across regions.
Approach and Goals
Extensive discussions took place at the workshop about all aspects of the planned assessment. The AGCI participants made clear their support for the proposition that the assessment being organized by the Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR) needs to be carried out as a public-private partnership and as an iterative and continuing process to provide a scientifically based evaluation and summary of current understanding. They also suggested that the assessment process needs to be designed to be comprehensive and integrative, to couple research by scientists with specific policy-relevant needs of stakeholders, to ensure scientific excellence and credibility, to be open and transparent, and to provide planners, managers, organizations, and the public with information needed to cope with and increase their resilience to natural climate fluctuations and projected climatic changes resulting from human activities.

Aspen Spirit
The context for this active, intensely participative meeting was the vision of a national assessment of consequences of climate change and variability articulated by Jerry Melillo at the regional workshops and at the Aspen conference itself. His vision was of a strikingly new approach to environmental policy assessment in the United States, grounded in dialogues at the regional/local level between regional experts and regional stakeholders: farmers, ranchers, local business people, local government leaders, local interest groups, and citizens at large. Activated by the regional workshops, this consultation would raise the level of awareness of local citizens of climate change issues, invite them to consider vulnerabilities to possible impacts, and then identify the major issues at the regional scale from the point of view of citizens and voters. Out of this democratic process of information exchange would come a picture of vulnerabilities of our country to impacts of climate change and variability not as a function of scenarios or local climate change forecasts that could result simply in arguments about assumptions, but as a strong, robust set of views from the grassroots across the country. Moreover, this would not be a one-time process. The regional workshops and subsequent regional assessments would catalyze the development of stakeholder networks that would support a continuing process of information exchange, education, and outreach related to climate change issues. In fact, this approach might well serve as a model for addressing other thorny environmental policy issues in the United States in the future.

In a very real sense, by the end of the Aspen meeting the attendees had come to share an "Aspen spirit" that was forged through their participation in an intensive joint experience among a highly diverse group of people, gathered because of their commitment to the national assessment and (in most cases) their belief in the basic vision for that assessment. This vision included several dimensions:
1. that the regional assessments, with stakeholders involved at every stage, would be the foundation of the national assessment; the national synthesis would be constructed largely from these building-blocks:
2. these assessments could be done at a high level of professional quality, according to a template that would make aggregation and synthesis possible, although quantitative modeling would probably not be undertaken by every region;
3. that, in fact, by drawing on the knowledge bases of stakeholders and local /regional experts the assessment would be stronger than if it were based only on the knowledge base of national experts and modelers; and
4. moreover, that such a participative approach would increase the usefulness and credibility of the assessment for national policy making, mirroring the geographical and topical diversity of the report's principal audience, the U. S. Congress.

But the "Aspen spirit" was more than a philosophy about how best to produce an assessment product. It was partly the discovery of profound value in the interaction of people from diverse professional backgrounds in considering climate change issues. It was partly a sense that the participants were helping to break new ground in processes for environmental policy making in the U. S., pioneering a new kind of three-way engagement among scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders. And it was partly a drive to convert this one-time assessment (and that one-time meeting) into a continuing structure for analysis, assessment, stakeholder interaction, and out reach that will enable our country to do its very best in exploring the challenges and opportunities associated with global change. Such a participative approach would increase the usefulness and credibility of the assessment for national policy making.

Workshop Topic (s): 
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Climate Variability and Change (including Climate Modeling)
  • Human Contributions & Responses
  • Land-Use/Land-Cover Change
  • Water Cycle