Skip to main content

Aided by Early Career Scientists, U.S. Plans for Climate Adaptation

In the summer of 2009, Ilya Fischhoff was in Kenya, 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, contributing to a report on how the U.S. government can help the nation and other countries prepare for climate change.

The report, requested by President Barack Obama, for the first time offers recommendations to guide the federal government’s climate change adaptation efforts. Fischhoff and five other AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows joined over 300 federal administrators and staff in the multi-agency effort, with much of their work focused on ensuring that scientific information is readily available to U.S., state, and local policy-makers and the public.


Planning for change. Lake Mead’s “ring” reflects persistent drought in parts of the American West. A new federal report, with input from AAAS S&T Policy Fellows, says U.S. agencies should help policy-makers at every level adapt to long-term challenges that may be linked to climate change.
[Credit: iStockphoto/Vladone]

“People can make good decisions if they have scientific information that they trust and that is relevant,” he said. “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 “Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force” was released 14 October, a year after the White House launched the effort. Based on the work of more than 20 federal agencies, and informed by 35 listening sessions and outreach events, the report reflects the growing awareness that while reducing greenhouse gases remains a priority, the nation must be ready as changes already evident in the climate increase and intensify (see the report at

As atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have risen, the year-round average U.S. temperature has risen 2°F in the past 50 years. Wet areas of the country are expected to get wetter, and dry areas drier. “Climate change affects human health, water and energy supplies, food production, coastal communities, [and] ecosystems,” the report says. While future changes are difficult to predict, it adds, research indicates they “will be significant.”

The task force is cochaired by Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and Shere Abbott, associate director for environment in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, founded in 1973, offer early-through senior-career scientists and engineers positions in Congress or federal agencies. Fischhoff, for example, was assigned for 1 year to the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Executive Branch, and this fall began a congressional assignment.

Other Fellows who worked with the Task Force included: marine biologist Laura Petes and biologist Christine Jessup, both assigned to NOAA; sociologist Sabrina McCormick and ecologist Judsen Bruzgul at the Environmental Protection Agency; and neuroscientist Sarah Carter at OSTP. (After completing their Fellowships, Jessup is now at the National Institutes of Health, and Carter remains at OSTP.)

The Fellows contributed to various task force work groups, but all of them participated on the science work group, which focused on improving the integration of science into adaptation policy at every level. The science work group’s recommendations were based in part on six listening sessions, some by conference call, during which state and local officials, transportation managers, and others located from Alaska to the Gulf Coast described their adaptation planning needs.

The group found that while adaptation planning has already begun in many locations across the United States, barriers still exist, Petes explained. Local and state leaders are looking to the federal government for technical support and guidance—and the flexibility to shape their own plans. “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.”

Abbott, formerly the AAAS chief international officer, said a key task force recommendation is to “use the science we have today more effectively, even as we work to fill knowledge gaps.” She praised the Fellows for bringing “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 Lubchenco, 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.”

The task force will deliver another report to Obama in October 2011 to detail progress in implementing the recommendations.


Edward W. Lempinen

Related Scientific Disciplines