The Science to Climate Action Network: A New Approach to Urgent Local Needs

April 8, 2019, 12:15 PM EDT

Above: The mayor of Culebra, Puerto Rico, works with community members on the participatory maps to identify risks, important natural resources, infrastructure, and important services to the community. This exercise allowed them to gather information about issues in the territory that are important to the community but not commonly reflected in maps. Culebra is one of five coastal municipalities commissioned by Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources to develop climate change community-based adaptation plans. Image credit: Vanessa Marrero, Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, via Fourth National Climate Assessment.

After being founded by President Barack Obama in 2016—then dismissed by President Donald Trump in 2017—a group pushing for sustained, user-friendly climate assessments has persevered and published its findings. Originally a federal advisory committee, the group was revived as the Independent Advisory Committee on Applied Climate Assessment with support from the Earth Institute at Columbia University, New York State, and the American Meteorological Society.

On April 4, the committee’s road map for a new mode of climate assessment appeared in the AMS journal Weather, Climate, and Society. A summary will appear in the April issue of BAMS.

Rather than replace the legally mandated National Climate Assessments, four of which have been released since 2000, the group hopes to see these reports leveraged and built on through an interactive, locally tailored approach. The goal is to draw on constituent feedback, participation, and knowledge in order to develop guidance on climate adaptation and greenhouse gas reduction that’s handcrafted for communities.

“We're trying to add value for those on the front lines of preparing their communities for climate change," said the Earth Institute’s Richard Moss, who has chaired the group since it first took shape in the Obama administration.

Of the 15 people on the federal committee, 12 stayed on during its independent phase.

“We live in an era of climate change, and yet many of our systems, codes, and standards have not caught up,” said one of the committee members, Daniel Zarrilli, chief climate policy adviser for the city of New York and director of OneNYC. “Integrating climate science into everyday decisions is not just smart planning—it’s an urgent necessity and creates new opportunities for all.”

Conceptual structure of the proposed climate assessment consortium and its relationship to the ongoing National Climate Assessment
Figure 1. Conceptual structure of the proposed climate assessment consortium and its relationship to the ongoing National Climate Assessment. Image credit: Moss et al., “A Framework for Sustained Climate Assessment in the United States,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (April 2019), courtesy AMS.

With their findings now published, many of the participants are part of the convening committee for the Science to Climate Action Network (SCAN), designed to implement the recommendations. Key goals are to expand partnerships, develop funding, choose kickoff projects, and appoint a board of directors.

“It wasn’t great that the federal committee was cancelled,” Moss said, “but it enabled us to spend more time talking to people in communities and to science intermediaries about what was necessary, the challenges people were encountering.”

Mary Glackin, AMS president-elect and vice president of business solutions for The Weather Company, an IBM Business, is among the members of the SCAN convening committee. “How do you provide people with the support for the decisions they need to make? It’s really going to take all segments of society working together building on existing efforts—a network of networks,” said Glackin.

When a global concern goes local

Flooding is a textbook example of a risk that’s often heightened by climate change, and one that can be both alleviated and exacerbated by actions at the local scale. In Hamburg, Iowa, for example, community members joined the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 2001 to hastily enhance a levee that was holding back the Missouri River during a massive flood. Although the enhancement was functional, it didn’t meet U.S. Corps of Engineers guidelines for permanent levees, so it was removed. In March, while awaiting a replacement, much of the town was inundated by record flooding along the Missouri.

Homes and businesses are surrounded by floodwater on March 20, 2019, in Hamburg, Iowa
Figure 2. Homes and businesses are surrounded by floodwater on March 20, 2019, in Hamburg, Iowa. Several Midwest states battled some of the worst flooding they have experienced in decades as rain and snow melt from a mid-March “bomb cyclone” inundated rivers and streams. Image credit: Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Catastrophic flooding in and around New York City from Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy in 2013—which was worsened by nearly a foot of local sea level rise in the last century—provided countless examples of adaptations that succeeded or failed. Columbia researcher Klaus Jacob had sounded the alarm for years about the risk of subway flooding, which played out in a catastrophic way during Sandy. Yet the storm flooded Jacob’s own home, despite his having spent $10,000 a decade earlier to raise the house above FEMA’s 100-year flood plain.

“As I wanted to raise my house more, I hit the zoning laws which only allow 22-foot maximum height of houses in this particular neighborhood,” said Jacob shortly after Sandy struck.

On a citywide level, New York is taking big steps to address its climate-related risks and reduce its greenhouse footprint. Much of this work is under the banner of OneNYC, billed as “New York City’s plan to become the most resilient, equitable, and sustainable city in the world.” The New York City Panel on Climate Change recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.

“New York City has its own climate science panel to inform our work, but not every city has the same resources,” said Zarrilli. “This new collaboration will enable smart climate planning across the entire nation and provide a platform for sharing and learning from others.

New vegetation sprouts behind a destroyed vehicle on February 27, 2019, at Malibu Creek State Park in California’s Santa Monica Mountains, one of the areas affected by the Woolsey Fire of November 2018
Figure 3. New vegetation sprouts behind a destroyed vehicle on February 27, 2019, at Malibu Creek State Park in California’s Santa Monica Mountains, one of the areas affected by the Woolsey Fire of November 2018. After years of drought, significant winter rainfall has helped spur fresh growth in burn areas across the state. Increasing temperatures are leading to more “hot” droughts in California’s highly variable climate, exacerbating wildfire risk and other impacts. Image credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Taking climate assessment to the next level

As executive director of the Geos Institute, based in Ashland, Oregon, Tonya Graham works with many towns and cities who lack the resources to produce their own climate assessments out of whole cloth. “Our consistent message is that you can’t plan for climate by looking in your rear-view mirror,” Graham said. “Much of the science is done, but many of the tools needed to help people make decisions on the ground are not consistent and are not designed for people who aren’t technically trained.

At some point, communities have to invest in responding to a future change. If there’s a lot of uncertainty about what science they should be using, that slows down the whole process.”

For example, it can be a challenge to extract the changing likelihood of a particular level of heat wave from model simulations of average summer temperature and how it will evolve. “The questions can seem simple to researchers, but many local leaders do not know where to start or what the various data tools can tell them, ” said Graham. She cites California as a leader in producing detailed climate-change guidance parsed at a local scale through its Cal-Adapt website and tools, which were developed after a recommendation in the state’s 2009 Climate Adaptation Strategy. 

“Most states do not have tools like this,” Graham noted, “but this type of data is what local communities need to plan for future changes in climate conditions.”

According to Moss, “The point is to take what we know, make it usable for the communities, and increase their confidence in using it to weigh the tradeoffs and opportunities that come with different strategies for adaptation and mitigation."

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

author image

Bob Henson

WU meteorologist Bob Henson, co-editor of Category 6, is the author of "Meteorology Today" and "The Thinking Person's Guide to Climate Change." Before joining WU, he was a longtime writer and editor at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO.


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