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Five Hopes and Expectations for 2021

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

The new year is starting with serious challenges, many signs of progress, and even glimmers of hope for political accountability and healing. The new Administration is prioritizing racial justice, income inequality, and infrastructure modernization as part of climate action. Biden-Harris are reaffirming the importance of scientific integrity and starting to rebuild the federal climate science workforce with superb initial appointments and by elevating the Office of Science and Technology Policy to the Cabinet. Allies on Capitol Hill are poised to take up the fight for their ambitious climate agenda.

It seems now that there will be many opportunities for science to inform action in 2021. Assessments and decision support can be more effective if they apply what is understood about how to make science credible, relevant, legitimate, and actionable. Here are five ideas we believe can increase the positive impact of our community’s efforts in 2021.

Prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice

Meaningful climate change action isn’t possible without embedding racial and social equity into planning and implementation. Assessments and decision support projects should double down on prioritizing diversity in participation and providing insights on how to effectively incorporate equity and justice in resilience or mitigation—for example focusing assessments of risk and decision options on enhancing community attributes (e.g., economic vitality, fairness), not just on protecting physical or tangible assets (infrastructure, energy).

Increase engagement of practitioners

Sustained participatory processes can make science more useful and actionable. Leading scientific groups such as AGU and AAAS are helping their members build sustained engagements with their communities, and a new informal community on the “science of actionable knowledge” has started. SCAN is forming sustained “Communities of Practice” composed of scientists, architects, engineers, finance/legal experts, government officials, and community leaders to identify effective practices for planning and implementing resilience measures.

In 2021, the US National Climate Assessment (NCA) could build on these efforts and move beyond “outreach” about reports by resuming sustained engagement with practitioners. And Congress can help by establishing a federally chartered (Title 36) organization to provide a hub for participatory assessments on improving science for climate risk and solutions.

Elevate the role of state and local information needs and assessments

Over the last four years, communities across the US have continued to take climate action (for example through efforts such as ‘We Are Still In’ and the US Climate Alliance, and by hiring and supporting climate resilience officers), even while national policy has stalled or regressed. The American Society of Adaptation Professionals has been building the workforce for resilience from the bottom up by connecting practitioners and identifying emerging best practices and needs. We’ve also seen more climate assessments convened and led at local and state-level. These are critical bridges for evaluating needs and applying knowledge to inform implementation.

At the initiative of several leaders of these assessments, SCAN has a ‘Practice of Assessments Working Group’ to support state and local assessments, share approaches, and explore ideas for improving interactions with national efforts. There are many opportunities for improving coordination and mutual support across levels of assessment and groups of practitioners.

Innovate assessments with indicators, community science, and artificial intelligence

Assessments have relied mostly on peer-reviewed academic research but have always seen the potential in grey literature, traditional knowledge, and other information sources. Processes such as the IPCC and NCA have included procedures to maintain quality and transparency of information not from scientific journals. Development of a national system of climate change indicators was proposed in the 3rd NCA, but progress has been limited and has focused on physical changes in climate.

Now is the time to take advantage of advances in communications, computing, and information technologies. Community science has long been a valuable source of data for research, and now combined with ubiquitous smart devices, can be a source of missing high-resolution data on impacts and the performance of adaptation solutions. It also embeds practitioners and residents into the production and use of relevant data for solving local and/or specific problems that opens up new data sources for the indicator system and local, state, and national assessments. Another example is the promise of artificial intelligence which, with careful governance, can help identify patterns in data on climate, infrastructure performance, and behavioral trends and responses. The Independent Advisory Committee report that led to the development of SCAN identifies these and other innovations to increase practice-centered assessment.

Evaluate and provide practice-relevant climate information

Part of the challenge practitioners face is understanding what climate conditions to prepare for since available instrumental observations are no longer a reliable guide to the future. Certifying a single national set of climate projections for resilience applications could seem like a logical solution to this problem but will leave communities vulnerable to uncertainties. Research at a number of universities and centers has identified large differences across widely-used high resolution data sets, especially for precipitation. Thus an urgent priority for climate assessments is timely ongoing evaluation of which methods for providing climate information are appropriate in different geographies and for different applications (e.g.,engineering, architecture, resource management, and finance).

A number of projects and organizations have begun to evaluate climate information for applications, including in the context of decision making under deep uncertainty. The Aspen Global Change Institute has partnered with SCAN to convene a series of workshops to explore emerging best practices. This work is revealing the importance and benefits of technical evaluation of climate information in the context of how adaptation actually occurs in order to determine which data are useful and well represent relevant future conditions

Looking forward to 2021

We approach 2021 with optimism. We’ve seen many excellent proposals for getting climate action back on track, and we hope the ideas presented here can help accelerate progress by engaging the public, supporting practitioners, and increasing the role of science. With the start of the new Administration, the NCA process has the opportunity to apply the principles of sustained assessment to bring together professional, scientific, and other groups who are already working together to use science to build resilience to specific types of hazards. This will create a credible and legitimate forum for taking stock of their experiences, codifying lessons, and providing starting points for implementing adaptation that can be shared and elaborated for local conditions.

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