Skip to main content

AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Make Key Contributions to New Report on Adapting to Climate Change

Sabrina McCormick is a sociologist, author, and filmmaker, and over the past decade, her research has ranged broadly across the intersection of society and environment—from environmental factors in breast cancer and the health effects that extreme heatwaves have on humans to damming the Amazon River.

But in the fall of 2009, just as her AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship was getting started, came an experience that she regards as a breakthrough. With a handful of other Fellows, McCormick was recruited to work with a federal task force, commissioned by the White House, that was assessing how the U.S. government could help policymakers plan for the impacts of a changing climate. Much of her work would focus on listening to policymakers, from Alaska to the Gulf Coast, to learn about on-the-ground climate change, their adaptation plans, and the support they need from the federal government.

“I felt like it was a great moment for me, where I could transition from this work that was isolated from the world of policy into doing something that would have a real impact on people’s lives,” she said. “The process of collecting information from real people and real communities that have experienced climate change and are taking action—I saw that the way we interacted with them had an impact on them and had a real impact on their work and their policymaking.”

AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows who have been involved in the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force–standing (l-r): Christine Jessup, Judsen Bruzgul, Sabrina McCormick, and Ilya Fischhoff. Seated, (l-r): Sarah Carter and Laura Petes.

The “Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force” reflects the growing awareness that while reducing greenhouse gases remains a priority, the nation must be ready as changes already underway increase and intensify in the years ahead. A key area of focus for the report—and for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellows who helped prepare it—was to ensure that scientific information is readily available to federal, state, and local policy-makers and the public.

“People can make good decisions if they have scientific information that they trust and that is relevant,” said another AAAS S&T Policy Fellow, ecologist Ilya Fischhoff. “For that trust and relevance to be there, I think it is important for citizens and scientists to be partners. That way, we create knowledge that is useful and empowering to everyone.”

The report was released 14 October, a year after President Barack Obama formally launched the effort. Based on the work of more than 300 federal administrators and staff from 20-plus executive branch agencies and offices, it serves as a guide for U.S. government action, recommending that federal agencies plan for climate adaptation and provide adaptation support to local and state policy-makers and to officials in foreign countries.

McCormick, whose AAAS fellowship placed her with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, began working with the task force in the fall of 2009, along with Fischhoff and four other Fellows: marine biologist Laura Petes and biologist Christine Jessup, both assigned to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); neuroscientist Sarah Carter at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); and ecologist Judsen Bruzgul at the EPA. (Carter and Jessup have completed their fellowships; Jessup is now at the National Institutes of Health.)

Since its founding in 1973, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships have established a strong reputation for the expertise the Fellows bring to policymaking. The program has sent more than 2300 early- through late-career scientists and engineers to work for one to two years in Congress and executive branch departments and agencies. Scores have stayed on to build high-impact careers in government, while others have gone on to leadership positions in education, private enterprise, and non-governmental organizations.

For the past two years, the energy, environment, and agriculture area has had the largest contingent of Fellows. That underscores an increasing commitment to put their scientific and technical expertise to use in a policy field of critical importance to the nation’s future strength and security.

As atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have risen, the year-round average U.S. temperature has increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years, according to “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,” a 2009 report published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Temperatures are likely to rise further in the future, the report says. Over time, heat waves and high-intensity downpours are expected to become more common. Wet areas of the country are expected to get wetter, and dry areas drier. Hurricanes may intensify. Droughts might be more frequent and more prolonged. Sea levels will continue to rise, and the ocean will continue to grow more acidic. A changing climate could bring dramatic health impacts—not only increasing deaths from heat waves, but also higher incidence of diseases like dengue fever, carried by tropical mosquitoes whose habitat could expand north into areas where the climate is getting warmer and wetter.

“Climate change affects human health, water and energy supplies, food production, coastal communities, [and] ecosystems,” the task force report says. While future changes are difficult to predict, it adds, research indicates they “will be significant.”

Report Outlines Recommended Actions

The Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force began meeting in spring 2009, and was formally commissioned by Obama in October 2009 under Executive Order 13514, “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance.” The task force is co-chaired by Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA; and Shere Abbott, associate director for environment at OSTP.

“Taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the effects of climate change is a priority, and we must also prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change,” Sutley said when the progress report was released earlier this fall. “Adaptation requires thoughtful, preventative actions and investments to build resilience and reduce risk. The federal government must consider climate impacts in decision-making and how it will affect our services, operations and assets throughout the country.”

The report includes a number of recommendations for action by the federal government: make adaptation a standard part of planning by federal agencies; ensure that scientific information about the impacts of climate change is accessible to government and private-sector decision-makers and the public; build strong partnerships to support adaptation initiatives undertaken by local, state, and tribal decision-makers; and develop a strategy to support international adaptation.

“The work of the Task Force has been guided by a strategic vision of a resilient, healthy, and prosperous nation in the face of a changing climate,” the report says. “Achieving this vision will require innovative technology and ideas, as well as meaningful changes to policies, behavior, and institutions. It will also require a commitment to respond to climate change impacts that have already begun to occur while simultaneously taking proactive steps to understand and prepare for future climate conditions.”

Varied Expertise, Common Cause

The AAAS S&T Policy Fellows came to the task force project from a variety of backgrounds.

Sarah Carter finished her Ph.D in neuroscience at the University of California-San Francisco in 2007 and started her AAAS fellowship at the EPA in September 2008; she renewed the fellowship in September 2009, and was detailed from EPA to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Working on the Adaptation Task Force was “a natural fit,” she said. During her first year at EPA, she became involved in interagency work on climate change and human health. She contributed to the white paper produced by the Ad-hoc Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health. At OSTP, she helped to establish the Climate Change and Human Health Group under the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which was later called upon to serve as the health work group for the task force.

Judsen Bruzgul had been a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, studying the ways birds in California may be adapting to the changing climate. Ilya Fischhoff had been in Kenya in the summer of 2009, studying zebras and their interactions with the predators, livestock, and people who share an environment that was, at the time, parched by drought. Within weeks after his return to the United States, Fischhoff was looking at adaptation from a new angle, as a Fellow in the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Laura Petes and Christine Jessup, both with backgrounds in biology and both at NOAA, were recruited to the Task Force by their supervisor, Claudia Nierenberg. “It was clear from the outset that AAAS Fellows were considered active members [of the task force’s work groups],” Jessup recalled. “We weren’t just taking notes—we were involved in the discussions and brought our diverse scientific perspectives to the table. It was quite an experience.”

To gather information and develop the report, the task force broke into a number of work groups focused on communities, health, science, water, insurance, federal agencies, and international aspects of adaptation. The task force and its work groups were informed by 35 “listening sessions” and outreach events.

Carter, for example, did much of her work in the health work group; Jessup worked with the health group, too. Bruzgul contributed to both the health and water groups. Fischhoff worked on the international resilience group. (Fischhoff this fall began a second fellowship year, moving to a Congressional Fellowship sponsored by the American Geophysical Union.)

But each of the six Fellows has been involved with the science work group, which explored the critical issue of how the best science and best science information could be brought into process of adapting to climate change. It was there that they got deep insights into what sort of science and science information is needed by state, tribal, and local officials who are shaping adaptation policy nationwide.

Listening and Learning

Laura Petes was closely involved in the work of the science group; she said its recommendations, developed in weekly meetings over the course of a year, were based on a series of “listening sessions,” some conducted in person and some by conference call. [See the full report, page 30.] Three session involved cities, states, resource managers, and planners in various parts of the country, from New York City to Alaska; three others involved officials from the Gulf Coast region on the issues of transportation, ecosystem management, and local planning.

“That was the part of the Task Force process that I valued the most—these listening sessions,” said McCormick. “We talked with some people that the federal government is not talking to, and learned things we didn’t expect to learn.

“It came up a number of times—constantly—where people would say, ‘Look, we know the climate is changing, and we have some sense of the direction its going. We need help effectively acting on these changes,” she explained. “That’s the biggest thing I walked away with—people want help adapting.”

Petes offered a similar view: “What we came away with… was that there are many people out there, all over the country and all over the world, who are trying to prepare for the impact of climate change. But they’re having difficulty due to a lack of information that meets their planning needs.”

Several Fellows cited an example that came from discussions with local officials in Alaska. There’s a reasonable base of information on climate change in the Far North, most of it online. “But in certain instances, local Internet speeds were so slow that they couldn’t download the data,” Petes explained. “That was a barrier.”

Similarly, she said, while the government has done a good job of providing broad information about the impacts of a changing climate, most of it is on a global scale. But local officials are hungry for specific local information. Local and state officials also want the federal government to provide technical assistance, support, and guidance, but at the same time, they want flexibility to shape adaptation policy locally.

“We need to improve access to science in order to help individuals and institutions make informed adaptation decisions,” she said. “Given that most adaptation actions are local, preparing the nation for the impacts of climate change will require integrated approaches and partnerships across all scales.”

Some of the stakeholders described policy and planning decisions “where science had not played much of a role in decision-making, and the outcomes in those cases were essentially maladaptive, leaving communities even more vulnerable to climate-change-related hazards,” Jessup reported. “Certainly other factors, economic and social, go into decisions, but we need to strengthen the role of science in the decision-making process.”

Bruzgul, too, cited a need for better integration of science into policymaking. The lack of integration may result from a disconnect between the two cultures, he explained. Scientists are trained to conduct objective research and publish it—and they hope that somebody will use it. On the other hand, Bruzgul said, decision-makers “have rapid demands, competing pressures, and a need for science translated to their ‘decision-scale’.”

The report’s emphasis on integrating science and policy “is important,” he said, “because it sends a signal to the scientific community that other skills, like communication, inter-disciplinarity, or public collaboration, should also be valued.”

Some of the science-related recommendations in the report reflect those issues. For example, it says, the federal government should create user-friendly methods for assessing climate impacts, vulnerability, and risk; it should develop models and other tools to assess the environmental, social, and economic outcomes of alternative adaptation actions. And the federal government should bolster its ability to “translate” scientific information for use by policymakers—for example, by providing practical information on sea-level rise that could guide local decisions on building sewage treatment infrastructure.

Fellows’ Contributions Praised

The task force is continuing its work and is expected to deliver another report to Obama in October 2011 to detail progress in implementing the recommendations. But after the first progress was complete this fall, the task force co-chairs offered strong praise for the Fellows and their contributions.

“The Adaptation Task Force has been crucial to shaping how the federal government will approach climate adaptation in the years ahead,” said Shere Abbott, the OSTP co-chair and a formerly the chief international officer at AAAS. “It put science appropriately at the core of that process, and in fact one of the key conclusions to come out of the task force was that we must use the science we have today more effectively, even as we work to fill knowledge gaps. The AAAS Fellows who worked on the task force in the science and health work groups brought energy, focus, and scientific rigor to the process.”

“Planning for a changing climate requires access to scientific information that people can understand and use,” said Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA co-chair who served as AAAS president in 1996. She thanked the Fellows for their contribution, adding: “We can expect to see these young people at the forefront of the ongoing effort to communicate best-available science to those who need it the most.”

Read the “Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force.”

Learn more about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.

See a related story in AAAS News & Notes in the 26 November issue of Science.