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Five Reflections on 2020

Like most of us, the SCAN team is eager to see 2020 in the rear-view mirror, but we thought it was worth taking a few moments to reflect on impacts and outcomes of the last twelve months. Early in the new year we’ll share our hopes and expectations for 2021.

We are overwhelmed by the suffering and loss the pandemic has brought but we are also grateful that SCAN members and the staff team have been able to keep working, despite the upheaval. We have participated in leading virtual workshops on coastal resilience (with Princeton University), urban economic competitiveness (with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions), and addressing ‘The Practitioners’ Dilemma’ (with the Aspen Global Change Institute). This last workshop focused on the water sector and is the first of a series. We have also started projects on ecosystem adaptation, building capacity of underserved communities for coastal adaptation, improving the process of assessments (e.g., coordinating local-state-national climate assessments), and clarifying the role of assessments in a national climate information system (through interactions with Congressional staff).

Five Reflections from 2020:

An overarching theme for the reflections below is understanding how (and how fast) change happens, and how transformations in one domain affect others. We believe assessments can rigorously gather and process information about the implications of changes in response to Coronavirus for informing climate decisions and actions, and for science communication broadly.

1) The world can function very differently when needed.

The world has adjusted to remote working and learning, online meetings and conferences, and less travel. It will be a while before we understand how many of these changes we want to keep and what the long-term implications will be for transportation systems, energy use, public health, equity, education, technology, and more. But it already seems clear that some of these changes will persist and affect both how we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience. We hope to see assessments of how these large-scale changes can contribute to necessary climate action and vice versa.

2) Change can happen rapidly.

Global systems, governments, and entire economies can, when needed, adjust very quickly. Our societal adjustments over the last year were forced and largely unwelcome, but an important lesson is that when collective will and government policy align, negative impacts can be reduced, and positive changes can emerge and ultimately be embraced. What’s less clear is the impact on underlying social patterns and equity. There are many, many lessons to consider for climate change action and how governments, businesses/industry, nonprofits, and individuals end up (or not) on the same page, supporting similar strategies.

3) Health care systems and workers emerged as trusted heroes even as trust in science remains polarized.

Several safe and effective vaccines have been developed and produced in record time. The 'Fauci Effect’ is now a thing, with record numbers of applications to medical schools as a result of his contributions to national public health. And our appreciation for health-care workers is also at a record high. However, trust in scientific information about the Coronavirus and containment responses (from mask wearing to getting vaccinated) remains polarized along political lines. There are strong parallels with acceptance of climate science and the need for climate action. Comparative assessment of strategies could help to improve communication that motivates understanding and behavioral change.

4) The movement for social and racial equity advanced dramatically.

2020 saw a long overdue surge in the movement for racial justice and social equity. In parallel with widespread political and social action, many climate science and action organizations have taken on the urgent job of teaching and sharing principles, strategies, and tactics for incorporating justice and equity in the climate arena (too many groups deserve mention to list here). As climate science and action embed these principles, assessment will play a role in understanding the kinds of strategies that are most effective, equitable, and repeatable.

5) Coordinating governance from local to global levels is essential but complex.

The effectiveness of national responses to the pandemic has varied for many reasons but one factor often cited is the degree of coordinated guidance and policy within and across countries. In the US, public health guidance/policy across national, state, and local levels has varied quite markedly with grave consequences. However, there are important variations in customs, conditions, and needs. How we identify what works to control the pandemic in different settings while still encouraging essential national coordination is a challenge. Building climate resilience faces similar complications. For climate science and assessment, the urge to provide national “authoritative” data sets will be complicated by the need to reflect legitimate differences and uncertainties in projections of future conditions across methods, scenarios, and other sources of variation. If these differences are not acknowledged and incorporated, adaptation designed using this information will fail to foster resilience. More broadly, an increasing number of states, counties, and cities are conducting climate assessments to inform their action plans – what data and approaches are transferable and how do assessments need to vary to inform decisions and actions at state or local levels? Stay tuned in the new year to learn about the work of a new SCAN working group on this topic.

In Closing

These are clearly just a few reflections among a whole host of important lessons in 2020, but these are what bubbled to the top for us. Let us know how your work is already contributing to these topics. We look forward to continuing to learn and benefit from your advances as we collectively take on the many new challenges ahead including updating assessment methods to reflect scientific progress and new information needs. Part II of this blog will look ahead to 2021 with some hopes and expectations.

From the entire SCAN team, we wish that you find peace and enjoyment as this tough year comes to close.

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