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Researchers advocate for climate adaptation science

CORVALLIS, Ore. An international team of researchers says in a new paper that climate science needs to advance to a new realm more practical applications for dealing with the myriad impacts of climate variability.

The scientific capability already exists as does much of the organizational structure, they say, to begin responding to emerging climate-related issues ranging from declining snowpack, to severe storms, to sea level rise. What is missing is better engagement between the scientific community and the stakeholders they are seeking to inform.

Their paper is being published on Friday in the Policy Forum section of the journal Science.

"Adaptation is required in virtually all sectors of the economy and regions of the globe," they wrote. "However, without the appropriate science delivered in a decision-relevant context, it will become increasingly difficult if not impossible to prepare adequately."

Philip Mote, an Oregon State University climate scientist and co-author on the paper, said climate adaptation science involves trans-disciplinary research to understand the challenges and opportunities of climate change and how best to respond to them.

"What we need is more visibility to gain more inclusiveness to bring into play the private sector, resource managers, universities and a host of decision-makers and other stakeholders," said Mote, who directs the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State. "The stakeholders need to know our scientific capabilities, and we need to better understand their priorities and decision-making processes."

Oregon State is among the national leaders in climate adaptation science. In addition to the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, the university has two regional climate centers one established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to work with municipalities, utilities, emergency management organizations and state and federal agencies; the other by the Department of the Interior to work primarily with federal and state agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

Mote, who is involved with all three centers, said work with stakeholders is gaining traction, but the gap that exists between scientists and decision-makers is still too large.

"The centers here and elsewhere around the country are driven by stakeholder demands, but that needs to reach deeper into the research enterprise," Mote said. "We're working with some water districts, forest managers and community leaders on a variety of issues, but that's just the tip of the iceberg."

Richard Moss, a senior scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said the Science article grew out of a NASA-funded workshop held in 2012 at the Aspen Global Change Institute in Colorado, which focused on how to improve support for decision-making in the face of a changing climate.

"Traditionally, we think that what society needs is better predictions," said Moss, who was lead author on the Science article. "But at this workshop, all of us climate and social scientists alike recognized the need to consider how decisions get implemented and that climate is only one of many factors that will determine how people will adapt."

OSU's Mote said examples abound of issues that need the marriage of stakeholders and climate scientists. Changing snowmelt runoff is creating concerns for late-season urban water supplies, irrigation for agriculture, and migration of fish. An increasing number of plant and animal species are becoming stressed by climate change, including the white bark pine and the sage grouse. Rising sea levels and more intense storms threaten the infrastructure of coastal communities, which need to examine water and sewer systems, as well as placement of hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

Mote, Moss and their colleagues outline a comprehensive approach to research in the social, physical, environmental, engineering and other sciences. Among their recommendations for improvement:

  • Understand decision processes and knowledge requirements;
  • Identify vulnerabilities to climate change;
  • Improve foresight about exposure to climate hazards and other stressors;
  • Broaden the range of adaptation options and promote learning;
  • Provide examples of adaptation science in application;
  • Develop measures to establish adaptation science.

One such measure could be the development of a national institution of climate preparedness in the United States comprised of centers for adaptation science aimed at priority sectors.

"More broadly," the authors wrote in Science, "support for sustained, use-inspired, fundamental research on adaptation needs to be increased at research agencies. A particular challenge is to develop effective approaches to learn from adaptation practice as well as published research. Universities could provide support for sustained, trans-disciplinary interactions. Progress will require making a virtue of demonstrating tangible benefits for society by connecting research and applications."


Contact: Phil Mote
Oregon State University

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