Climate Change Research Broadens to Meet New Challenges

Myles Allen (Irene Tracey)

For years, the central objectives of climate change science were to document the phenomenon, understand the basic physical processes involved, and determine the degree to which human activity is at fault. But in the past several years, such questions have begun to give way to others, such as: How will the world adapt to a changing climate? What can we do to mitigate the damage? Addressing these questions, experts say, will require a scientific work force that can bridge the natural and social sciences and translate research into real-world solutions and specific, local policy prescriptions.

“This is actually an area where I can foresee quite major skills shortages in the next few years.”–Myles Allen

Developing the infrastructure necessary to do this work–including the training infrastructure–has only just begun. “We're all in uncharted waters here in terms of how this work force is going to get developed,” says Jill Karsten, program director for diversity and education in the U.S. National Science Foundation's (NSF's) geosciences directorate. “It's a very fluid situation, and I suspect it's not going to happen in a uniform manner at all.”

Translating basic research into useful applications

(Kristen Nelson, University of Arizona)
Gregg Garfin

As society comes to terms with the scientific consensus on climate change, climate scientists are being called on to go beyond a mere understanding of the phenomenon, says climatologist Gregg Garfin, deputy director for science translation and outreach at the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Garfin has noticed an increasing number of calls for proposals from NSF, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other funding agencies seeking real-world applications of the fundamental science.

An example of such translational engagement is the NOAA-funded Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, Seattle, which studies the impacts of climate change on water, fishery, coastal, and forest resources in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to its basic research mission, the program aims to improve the region's ability to weather climate change. The group hosts planning workshops and provides technical assistance to local utilities, city councils, tribal fisheries commissions, and a menu of relevant state and the federal departments.

One area of rapid growth–and a good illustration of the current trends–is the increased focus on developing geographically precise climate models that can forecast conditions one to several years out. Current climate models predict, for example, that the southwestern United States will experience sustained drought for decades. But which regions of the Southwest will be hardest hit, when, and for how long?

Bridging the natural, physical, and social sciences

(Courtesy, Diane Pataki)
Diane Pataki

Addressing such questions requires collaborations among scientists from several disciplines. “There's definitely more of a demand for interdisciplinary research,” says ecologist Diane Pataki of the University of California (UC), Irvine. Last year, just before a strict hiring freeze took effect, UC Irvine's new Environment Institute announced a series of eight faculty searches seeking scientists who could conduct interdisciplinary research and interact with multiple departments. “One day happy times will come again,” Pataki says, “and when the hiring freezes are lifted, hopefully the searches can resume.”

The demand for interdisciplinarity also comes from funding agencies, Pataki notes. She is working on several urban ecology projects in Los Angeles, California, evaluating the use of urban forests for carbon sequestration, local cooling, and water conservation. The work applies expertise in ecology, hydrology, geography, and the social sciences to decision-making about urban landscapes and the valuation of ecosystem services, among other policy issues. The group has an exploratory grant from NSF and the U.S. Forest Service to plan the development of the Los Angeles region as a long-term environmental research site in the newly created Urban Long-Term Research Area program.

Heeding funding calls from national and pan-European funding bodies, Jørgen Olesen, a researcher in the Department of Agroecology and Environment at Aarhus University in Tjele, Denmark, has initiated a collaboration with social scientists and economists. While Olesen looks at the technical potential of various technologies for utilizing crop residues and manure as bioenergy sources, social scientists and economists study social constraints on such mitigation measures, such as profitability and the mindset of farmers.

A growing role for social scientists

(Bill Sta. Clara, International Rice Research Institute)

Also in this feature …

- Careers in Climate Change Research. Opportunities are expanding for natural and social scientists willing to tackle climate change.

- On-the-Ground Training for Climate Change Researchers. Early-career scientists interested in climate change need a unique blend of skills that often must be acquired informally.

Projects such as these illustrate the growing role that social scientists, including economists, sociologists, and political scientists, have begun to play in climate change. One area in which this is particularly true is the field of decision-making. “Climate change occurred because of decisions that people made,” says Pataki. Now, she says, “we want to know how we got here and how decision-making is going to change in the future.”

One program that delves into such questions is the Decision Center for a Desert City at the Arizona State University, Tempe, a project funded by NSF's Decision Making Under Uncertainty (DMUU) collaborative groups program. The project studies water resources in the Phoenix area with the goal of understanding decisions about scarce water resources and their impacts: How do water managers think about climate uncertainty? How does that affect their management practices? What influence do factors such as cost, conservation campaigns, and public policies have on homeowners' water use?

Garfin notes that political, social, and economic factors can influence how communities respond to threats such as droughts, wildfires, and heat-related illnesses. The anthropologists and other social scientists in his group, he says, are attuned to the social context for decision-making–the local political context and mental health, to cite two examples–which wouldn't be on a hydrologist's radar.

Training interdisciplinary climate scientists

(Courtesy, Charles Kolstad)
Charles Kolstad

Assembling the scientific work force needed to address the new scientific challenges posed by climate change is likely to be a major challenge. Developing the detailed, decadal-scale climate models that resource planners need, for example, is “a very new field, and I would imagine it's going to remain a very challenging area of scientific research for several decades,” says Myles Allen (pictured at top), a climate modeler at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. He notes that climate modeling, which depends heavily on computational physics, must compete with other fields for a dwindling supply of physics graduates. “This is actually an area where I can foresee quite major skills shortages in the next few years,” Allen says.

In some areas of science, it's funding that's lacking. Many climate experts believe that economists with environmental expertise are urgently needed. “The big issues in climate policy are costs of mitigation and costs of controlling the precursors of climate change,” says Charles Kolstad, an economist at UC Santa Barbara's Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. “Yet there's probably no more than a dozen people working on those issues.” That's largely due to lack of funding, Kolstad says, noting that NSF's DMUU program, the most notable source of funding for social scientists working on climate change, amounts to just $5 million annually.

Despite such local funding shortages, experts believe that interdisciplinary climate change research is a major area of career opportunity. C. Susan Weiler, a biogeochemist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, (and currently a program director at NSF) says recent years have seen “tremendous growth” in interdisciplinary collaboration among climate change scientists.

A wide range of training programs

(Greg Lehman, Whitman College)
Susan Weiler

Training programs that bring together climate and other environmental scientists across the physical, natural, and social sciences “are popping up all over,” Weiler says. This growth in training opportunities is largely a result of NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, which awards $3 million grants to about 20 interdisciplinary training initiatives each year. IGERT now funds about two dozen training programs in which climate change is a central focus.

IGERT-funded programs are designed to instill core disciplinary knowledge and quantitative and methodological skills. In addition, IGERT mandates professional skills and career development training, says Carol Van Hartesveldt, IGERT program director and acting director for NSF's division of graduate education.

The Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment (CHANGE) program, an IGERT-funded program now in its fourth year at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is one of a few training programs focused on coupling environmental problems (including climate change) with human health and well-being. CHANGE students enroll in a wide range of fields, including ecology, geography, engineering, economics, rural sociology, and public health. While fulfilling the requirements of their home departments, they take courses intended to increase their exposure to interdisciplinary work. One course offers a bird's-eye view of the interrelationships among different environmental systems. In a second course, students study how an environmental disturbance affects a particular community and how geographic and cultural factors affect the population's ability to deal with it. In a capstone course, teams of students work with local clients–for example, a local construction company that wants to become “greener” or a state legislator who wants to study the value of bicycling–to address real-world environmental problems. The CHANGE curriculum also includes a yearlong course on communication skills that teaches active listening, conflict resolution, and persuasive communication.

Risky but rewarding

(Courtesy, Darrel Jenerette)
Darrel Jenerette

Weaving high-quality interdisciplinary structures into a traditional, department-based university system can be tricky. One challenge is ensuring that students maintain a rigorous disciplinary focus. “It's critical to have a card that you can give to people and say, 'I am ... something or other,' ” says UC Riverside ecologist Darrel Jenerette. “You can't tell people, 'I am a Jack of all trades.' You need to be able to bring something to the table.”

“You get out in the big bad world, and your goal is to be the best in the world in what you do,” agrees Kolstad, who directs UC Santa Barbara's Economics and Environmental Science program. “It is my view that programs that try to offer depth in two disciplines, such as atmospheric science and economics, are bound to fail at providing sufficient depth,” he says. In his program, students are expected to connect with a faculty mentor and take up to half a year of courses and seek summer research experience in a secondary discipline. The students who come out of the program, he says, “are not ready to conduct independent research in their secondary field.” Rather, the point is to provide enough intellectual breadth so that researchers can better communicate, collaborate, and formulate research questions.

“Interdisciplinary programs that encourage scientists to straddle traditional disciplinary boundaries or devote significant professional attention to real-world applications also challenges universities' reward systems,” says NSF's Karsten. When scientists are working across disciplinary boundaries, she says, “their host department can undervalue their contribution.”

Consequently, bringing an interdisciplinary sensibility to climate change questions means accepting some career-related risk. “It sometimes takes more work to be an interdisciplinarian,” Weiler says. “Things take longer, and sometimes it causes more aggravation because the other people are not always controllable.” But, she adds: “The rewards are phenomenal. The personal reward of feeling like you are really contributing to the answer of a tremendous societal problem is worth the aggravation.”

With additional reporting by Elisabeth Pain.

Siri Carpenter is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.

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