An official website of the United States government

Launching a Framework for Climate Services by Sherburne B. Abbott
August 31, 2009

Launching a Framework for Climate Services

by Sherburne B. Abbott

Associate Director for Environment

Office of Science and Technology Policy,

Executive Office of the President of the United States


The third World Climate Conference (WCC-3)


August 31, 2009

NOTE: This text is derived from a PowerPoint presentation made by Ms. Abbott on August 31, 2009.  It does not include the slides that accompanied the text during that panel discussion.

I want to thank Martin Visbeck for organizing this session.

We gather here this week because we have a shared challenge. It has taken decades of outstanding and Nobel prize-winning climate science to bring it into view.

It has taken the persistence of a community of researchers all over the world some who are represented here, It has taken the shepherding by international organizations many of whom fill this hall, And it has taken the support of governments and other partners working together.

The shared challenge is this .

We now know that climate is changing all across the globe. The air and the oceans are warming, mountain glaciers are disappearing, sea ice is shrinking, permafrost is thawing, and sea level is rising. And the consequences for human well-being are already being felt: more heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires; tropical diseases reaching into the temperate zones; vast areas of forest destroyed by pest outbreaks linked to warming; alterations in patterns of rainfall on which agriculture depends; and coastal communities increasingly at risk from the surging seas.

We know the primary cause of these perils beyond any reasonable doubt. It is the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping pollutants from our factories, our vehicles, and our power plants,. And it is from use of our land in ways that move carbon from soils and vegetation into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. We also know that failure to curb these emissions will bring far bigger impacts from global climate change in the future than those experienced so far. Devastating increases in the power of the strongest hurricanes, sharp drops in the productivity of farms and ocean fisheries, a dramatic acceleration of species extinctions, and inundation of low-lying areas by rising sea level are among the possible outcomes.

And we know what we can and what we must do to avoid the worst of the possible outcomes of climate change. We can transform our technologies for supplying and using energy from polluting and wasteful to clean and efficient. We can halt and reverse deforestation, And we can modify farming practices in ways that increase rather than decrease the amounts of carbon stored in agricultural soils. We can make our farms and our forests sustainable sources not only of food and fiber but of clean, renewable biofuels to help with the energy side of the solution. These are forms of mitigation.

Unfortunately, we know we cannot halt overnight the build-up of these substances in the atmosphere, Some outcomes are unavoidable.

We must adapt to the changes in climate that can no longer be avoided. We can invest in ways to reduce our vulnerability to climate changes we cannot avoid . We can breed heat- and drought-resistant crop strains, We can bolster defenses against tropical diseases, We can improve the efficiency of water use. We can manage ecosystems to improve their resilience And we can manage coastal zones with sea-level rise in mind. These and other adaptation efforts must proceed in parallel with efforts to reduce emissions and increase uptake of the main heat-trapping gases and particles.,

When we do all that we ought to do in the way of both mitigation and adaptation, we will share in the benefits — of not only by avoiding the worst damages from climate change, but also by improving air quality in our cities, preserving our forests as havens for biodiversity and sources of sustainable livelihoods, reducing our vulnerability to the extreme weather events that occur from time to time even when climate is not changing overall, improving infrastructures, networks for disaster planning, and health delivery systems and setting societies on low carbon and sustainable pathways

Adaptation is a critical priority. All countries are vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, including the United States.

Climate change poses a profound threat to sustainable development, and we must give priority to planning for climate-resilient development in the most vulnerable countries.

However, as we’ve learned from the 2003 European heatwave, from major flood events in the Upper Mississippi river and in the Danube River, and from Hurricane Katrina, developed countries have significant vulnerabilities to climate extremes that need to be addressed.

informed choices about adaptation will need to be made at many scales of human activity, from an individual farmer switching to growing a different crop variety better suited to warmer or drier conditions, to a company relocating key business centers away from coastal areas vulnerable to sea-level rise and hurricanes, to a community altering its zoning and building codes to place fewer structures in harm’s way and making buildings less vulnerable to damage from floods, fires, and other extreme events

These decisions will require the latest information from climate science as well as sector-specific information of interest in planning.

Information needs will vary according to scale and sector

Farmers and farm cooperatives will want information on changes in season length and temperature, not just for their own farms, but for those of their local and distant competitors;

coastal zone managers will want information on likely changes in sea level, storms, and estuarine temperatures;

water resource managers will want information on likely changes in snowpack and runoff and the chance of floods and drought;

community health planners will want information on changes in location of freezing conditions and the frequency of extreme heat waves

E.g., This slide shows a schematic of how drought information, forecasts, impacts, planning tools, educational and research teams come together in a National Integrated Drought Information System through a web-based Drought Portal . It is an example of a US federal , State, Tribal and local partnership that aims to deliver useable information to individual citizens (e.g., farmers or other land owners), organizations, and agencies for their use in anticipating drought events and in helping to make decisions to reduce vulnerability and improve resilience to drought

SLIDE 9 This slide shows the website for the portal. which integrates inputs using web mapping tools, narratives and community information to help communities make decisions about water use, water management, and residential and commercial conservation measures

These are examples of choices that are made and actions taken with information already in hand about climate impacts. But we also recognize we do not have all the answers. We need to continue to invest in climate science itself,

We need comprehensive and interoperable, ground, air, space, and ocean observing systems supported by robust data systems. These data systems must be guided by principles of full and open exchange to ensure climate data benefits all of society.

Millions of individual observations are collected every day, allowing us to examine, monitor, and try to model various characteristics of the planet—including atmospheric composition, seismic activity, ecosystem health, weather patterns. We want to develop the ability to assess and protect environmental services of all kinds—verifying “bottom up” information used by decision makers with “top down “ observation systems. This will require continuing efforts to improve our understanding of and ability to measure stocks and flows of water, carbon, and nitrogen at global, regional and local scales.

This recognition of the need for a comprehensive Earth observing system has led to the idea of a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), was formed to coordinate observations at the international level by the Group on Earth Observations.

Many unresolved scientific problems limit some very important predictions. E.g. Projections of sea-level rise are always being adjusted. future sea level rise will depend on how major ice sheets respond to warming, which depends on not well understood mechanisms that control glacier movements. Other areas include the extent to which warming causes changes in ecosystems, the global hydrological cycle, Arctic sea ice and permafrost, and seasonal and inter-annual variability

But advances in these areas and disciplines must be paired with better understanding of how to use predictions to inform climate-resilient planning and development. There currently exists limited knowledge about the ability of communities, regions, and sectors to adapt to changing climate.

To address this shortfall, research on climate change impacts and adaption must include complex human dimensions, such as economics, management, governance, behavior and equity.

Interdisciplinary research on adaptation that takes into account the interconnectedness of the Earth system and the complex nature of the social, political, and economic environment in which adaptation decisions must be made would be central to this effort.

Given the relationships between climate change and extreme events, the community of researchers, engineers and other experts who work on reducing risks from natural and human-caused disasters will have an important role to play in framing climate change adaptation strategies and in providing information to support decision-making during implementation. For example assessments of emergency preparedness and response systems, insurance systems, and disaster-relief capabilities are an important component of a society’s adaptive capacity.

These research efforts should focus on end-to-end approaches that identify solutions not just identify more problems!

This slide is from a US side event at the conference which is designed to demonstrate an end-to-end approach (showing how climate and earth observations, models and forecasts, and decisions and actions can be linked through a climate services information system user interface to provide critical climate data to vulnerable communities who do not have access to those climate services to help increase resilience.

Another example in the same event is the Ranet (or New Radio and Internet Technologies for the Communication of Weather and CLiamte Information for Rural Development), which was designed to improve dissemination of information and warnings in understandable formats to users and people at risk in rural and remote areas

The NASA Servir program is another example highlighted in the side event of using technology for improved decision making by getting information in the hands of policy makers, educators, and students A research component (or test bed at NASA) tests new technologies and their applicability to problems in vulnerable countries. The regional focus is currently on Central America and East Africa.

All of these are examples of efforts designed in concert with the users they serve with the central goal of moving information that is needed to communities and activities where it is uavailable or inaccessible.

Another example is a partnership effort where scientists (mostly university-based) from multiple disciplines work with stakeholders to determine how climate impacts key resources and how climate information could aid in decision-making It’s a NOAA program called Regional Integrated Assessments program (RISA)

The RISA teams serve as intermediaries to stakeholders, using a variety of working modes (papers, meetings, websites, surveys). While a US based program the knowledge, methods and models being developed are shared with interested international colleagues.

These are just some examples

In summary we need to launch a global framework for Climate Services.

Climate change is a shared challenge

Adaptation to climate change is a priority

Stakeholders adapting to climate change have different needs Climate science (observations, modeling, etc. ) is necessary Adaptation research is needed

User dialogues are necessary Climate tools and products need to be relevant to decision-making User outreach and capacity building are essential components

And improved understanding and adaptive capacity should be the result

(end text)