National Climate Assessment
Photo illustration by Tammy Beeson January 13, 2022
UD faculty contributing to federal report on climate change, seeking public input
Three University of Delaware faculty members have been selected as chapter authors for the Fifth National Climate Assessment, which provides a comprehensive overview of the state of climate change science and impacts on the United States. Each is working with a team of about a dozen other experts on different topic-based chapters, and later in January will be the first opportunity for the public to engage with their work so far and help shape where it goes.
The UD experts working on this update of the assessment, due to be completed in the fall of 2023, are all part of the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences and the Data Science Institute (DSI): John Callahan, visiting assistant professor and DSI affiliated faculty; Jing Gao, assistant professor and DSI resident faculty; and A. R. Siders, assistant professor with a primary appointment in the Disaster Research Center, the Joseph R. Biden Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, and DSI affiliated faculty.
Q: What is the National Climate Assessment and how is it used?
Siders: The National Climate Assessment is our attempt to summarize what's new in the climate realm and to inform or spark additional research and maybe inform the practice of climate change adaptation, mitigation, risk reduction and related things. The core is the synthesis of what's new and what's the cutting edge on our understanding of climate change in the U.S.
Callahan: It's a huge undertaking. We're talking 400-plus participants: scientists, engineers, consultants in various levels, people all across the country, people working for the federal government, state governments, research institutions, universities. An assessment is comprehensively looking at the consensus body of knowledge at the moment. I know the last National Climate Assessment was used quite a lot to help identify research objectives. Federal agencies or nonprofit organizations can offer grants to solve some of the problems that might have been highlighted by the National Climate Assessment. From a local perspective, it's used to help drive state decisions on long-term planning.
Gao: The assessment assembles a bridge between the newest science and actionable information for policy and decision makers. The effort compiles experts from both public and private sectors on topic-based teams, so it’s a conversation where we synthesize the latest science and then ask, how could this information be used to support different communities’ effective response to climate change challenges? What additional information and research would be most useful to people? And then translate all that from scientific language to common language.
Q: What did we learn from previous National Climate Assessments and/or how have you used them personally as a climate change academic?
Callahan: I put together a sea level rise report utilizing [the third] National Climate Assessment that is now in use for different state agencies’ planning efforts and for research or coastal restoration projects, at university, state level, or nonprofits. Even individual towns planning for their sand resources or to flood proof their restaurants or docks, they'll use state documents and projections, like my sea level rise report. So there is this large cascading effect down to the smaller scale.
Siders: I use them in the classroom. I will have students read a chapter or read a section to dig into particular topics because it gives a really nice overview. I also actually cite it often in my work when I'm looking for summary statistics or good overviews. The fourth assessment actually said climate relocation will be unavoidable in many places in the U.S. in all but the lowest sea level rise scenarios.
Q: What chapter are you working on in the fifth assessment and what will you be doing?
Gao: I am working on the complex systems chapter. Some chapters are organized by topic and some by geographic region. The systems each of these chapters cover are all very complex themselves, while the interactions and connections among them can be further complicated and difficult to decipher. Our chapter focuses on these interactions and connections. You can think of the topic- and region-based chapters as boats, and the complex systems chapter looks at the turbulent water in between, trying to identify and understand potential challenges for the fleet’s cooperation. We ask questions like what interactions, connections, co-functions, and uncertainties exist in and among the systems, how they might lead to challenges, and how we can act towards favorable pathways and steer away from undesired outcomes.
Siders: I'm excited to be part of an effort that's trying to push for better and more adaptation in the U.S. The main thing so far has been a lot of discussion around what are the key themes that we need to address in the chapter. What are the big issues? What is new in adaptation science that we need to document, and how are we going to approach it? Some of the theoretical issues that we might need to address, for example, are: How should we be thinking about adaptation? Should it be incremental small changes to business as usual, or do we need something more transformative at larger scales? How do we evaluate adaptation? How do we know if it's working or not, if what we're doing is effective or fair? That's a very difficult thing to figure out.
Callahan: Working on the Coastal Effects chapter, we are looking at the causes from climate change that impact coasts. Those would be things like sea level rise (obviously) but also meteorological factors. Are we seeing increased storms, increasing severity, increasing frequency? The amount of minor flooding is significantly increasing along many U.S. coastlines. So those are the drivers. Mostly, however, there's a broad range of impacts that happen on the coast, and that includes coastal economies, tourism, sand resources for beaches, degrading infrastructure (roads and pipes), and water resources. That also includes location and underprivileged communities that might be more affected than others. Social justice, environmental justice is a large concern when assessing the impacts and potential solutions of the changes occurring along the coasts.
Q: How do you feel about working on the National Climate Assessment?
Gao: It’s exciting to bring scientific expertise to help generate actionable information. For researchers, this is an opportunity, uniquely different from typical scientific and media outlets, to contribute to climate action discussions.
Callahan: I consider it an honor to work on what I consider such an important document. I know I can contribute, and I'm glad to help. But listening and watching some of the other authors, as part of both my team and national climate leadership as a whole, it's definitely humbling how much experience and knowledge they have so it's exciting in that way to be part of this.
Q: What does it say about the University of Delaware that three of its faculty are contributing to the Fifth National Climate Assessment?
Callahan: A university with three authors is definitely not common. UD deserves kudos for our involvement.
Siders: UD has always had a strong climatology program, a strong climate science program, but it's exciting that UD now has some of the policy and the social science aspect of climate change being recognized as well. I think it also expresses the desire of UD faculty to do applied work or work that informs practice.
Q: What opportunities are there for members of the public to get involved?
Siders: The main thing we've been doing is creating these zero order drafts, basically a detailed outline, and that will form the basis of public engagement workshops. The idea is to get feedback at a very early stage to make sure that we're covering the big issues other people want to see us cover, if we're missing things, if there are other things we should be adding to that list or if people would see value in other types of approaches. I'd love to hear suggestions and ideas on how we can make the NCA more useful for a wider range of people. I would highly encourage people to engage at this early stage, rather than waiting for the draft to come out because this is where you can really change the direction.
Note: The zero order drafts for the various chapters are available by creating an account at https://review.globalchange.gov/ and agreeing to the reviewer terms for the NCA5 Zero Order Draft. Registration is handled separately for each chapter’s public engagement workshop, but all links for registration are available on the Fifth National Climate Assessment’s website under NCA5 Engagement Workshops in the left hand navigation channel. Workshops started Jan. 11 and run through Feb. 15. The workshops on chapters with UD authors are Jan. 18 (Complex Systems), Jan. 26 (Coastal Effects) and Feb. 7 (Adaptation).
Q: What would you say is your primary takeaway for the public about the National Climate Assessment and climate change work?
Siders: I think it's really important for our chapter that we get as diverse an audience as we can. Equity, inclusion, diversity are themes that we're all thinking about and we want to make sure we emphasize. Part of that has to start with having a diverse and inclusive set of voices informing the outline from the very beginning so we really do want as diverse an audience at this workshop as we can have. The public engagement session isn't just for climate experts or academics. It doesn't have to be government officials. Obviously, those people are welcome, but we truly are looking for diverse perspectives. I would highly encourage anyone who has an interest in climate adaptation, anyone who's worried about climate change or how their community is going to adapt, to attend.
Callahan: Assessments are so important, more than just looking at the latest scientific literature, because it's a consensus body of knowledge and it's a completely open, transparent process with authorship and feedback from diverse groups. It’s intentionally broadly scoped and written for the non-specialist.
Gao: Currently, we are rolling out the first round of public engagement workshops and are gathering public feedback on our zero order chapter drafts. It is a great time to share your interests, experiences, needs and expectations. They will help us decide what specific topics to cover and how to present the information so that the final report is useful to all concerned citizens. So, come engage with us.