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Special Report - Climate Research - From Science to Society

Photo of Gerry Stokes

Gerry Stokes directs the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a collaboration between PNNL and the University of Maryland.

Putting it all together—people, technology, economics—and climate

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's climate research program was created in 1989 in response to a Presidential Initiative called the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The climate research group was formed in two places, with the Richland, Wash., group focusing on physical climate research and the Washington, D.C., group focusing on technology. In 2001, the Laboratory moved the D.C. staff to the University of Maryland. The goal of both groups is to produce results that are meaningful to public policy. The following is an interview with Gerry Stokes, director of PNNL's Joint Global Change Research Institute in Maryland, a collaborative effort between PNNL and the University of Maryland.

How did the program's focus develop?

During most of the '90s, researchers were trying to determine if the climate really was changing and, if it was, what or who was responsible. While the scientific question was still open, we built our climate research program around an assumption that was borne out in 2000 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, determined that climate was changing and that humans played a major role.

As PNNL's climate research program emerged, we chose to take a broad view of the issue and sought to understand "the whole problem." With this perspective, we made integrated assessment, which addresses the connection between humans, climate technology and economics, a central element of our program.

What are the issues related to climate change?

There are three major questions related to climate change. First, the physical science question: how sensitive is the climate system to change in greenhouse gases? Second is the related question, how well can we predict how the climate system will change, particularly on a regional scale? Finally, what if anything can we do to mitigate the impact on climate or adapt to the changes?

The Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program, ARM, created by the U.S. Department of Energy, targets the first question. This unique set of facilities allows researchers to improve their understanding of how to represent clouds in climate models, a major source of uncertainty about the sensitivity of the climate system.

PNNL scientist Ruby Leung addresses the second question, how to make regional climate projections. Every region is different, and that must be reflected in the models. Ruby currently is focusing on the Pacific Northwest and China.

The final issue, what can humans do about climate change, is a series of related questions. At the Joint Global Change Research Institute, JGCRI, Laboratory staff are looking at these questions, exploring both the possibility of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and ways humans might adapt to a changing climate.

From a policy perspective, this work shows that four elements related to climate—mitigation, adaptation, increase in resilience, and development—are tied to each other and will compete for money and attention. JGCRI's challenge is to put together a plan for a system to address climate change that acknowledges all four.

How is the JGCRI addressing mitigation and adaptation?

More than seven billion tons of carbon are released globally into the atmosphere every year as a result of human activity, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels and, to a lesser extent, through agricultural practices and deforestation. Current trends suggest that number will triple. If we are to stabilize concentrations of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, we have to devise a plan and develop the appropriate technologies to prevent about 400 to 800 billion tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere over the rest of the century.

At JGCRI, we concentrate on developing a strategy to identify technologies that could be implemented on a scale that is large enough to achieve the required emissions reductions. Jae Edmonds' work with the Global Energy Technology Strategy Project is key in deciding which technologies will be most effective in reducing emissions.

Because climate is already changing and will continue to change, we will have to develop strategies to adapt to the changing climate, even while we are developing emission mitigation strategies. Adaptation is inextricably connected to development. In developed societies, food, clothing and shelter are adaptations to climate. A good fraction of what we attribute to development is, in fact, adaptation to climate.

What about resilience?

As part of our work we have tried to determine which parts of the world are more vulnerable to climate change than others. We've learned that the societies that are most vulnerable to future climate change are those that are least resilient to the current climate, and that they are, not surprisingly, the least developed nations in the world. Through this we learned that economic development is key to developing resilience.

When China was emerging from the Cultural Revolution in the early '90s, the Chinese focused on improving their economy. They started using coal-fired power plants, they made steel and they created a lot of pollution. They resisted spending to make the technology environmentally benign because they wanted all funds to be used for development. By the late '90s, development was progressing and income was increasing, but they realized that the environment was badly polluted and that it was affecting their productivity so they started using cleaner technologies and shut down old, inefficient and polluting plants.

China understands that if it is going to be resilient in the long run, it needs to have economic development and that economic development, energy use and the environment are connected. As they develop, the Chinese are both more resilient to change and more willing to invest in environmental protection.

Joint Global Change Research Institute

PNNL's Joint Global Change Research Institute office in Maryland

What are the major factors in addressing climate change?

There are two keys to addressing climate change. One involves the water system. The global water system drives the regional system, and the regional water system drives regional agriculture. JGCRI's Cesar Izaurralde works with agricultural impacts of climate change and the role of plants and soils in the carbon cycle as a result of their ability to store carbon dioxide.

The second key involves climate solutions that are practical and economical to implement. We approach climate solutions first with our integrated assessment modeling. Integrated assessment allows us to consider the scientific and the human sides of the climate system and, ultimately, the technologies—associated mainly with energy—that are responsible for emissions. Jae Edmonds, who manages the integrated assessment modeling program, develops a portfolio of technologies for addressing climate change based on these models. Bill Chandler finds efficient technologies for particular regions or parts of the world, including China, and works to introduce that technology.

Right now, we're drawing these two key areas together. We're exploring climate change from two perspectives—the climate system and the human system, which includes energy—and how they are joined by water. Ultimately, the climate system's impact on humans is largely dependent on the distribution of water around the planet.

How are social systems involved in climate research?

When we talk about using technology to mitigate climate change, we talk about social systems because they are key to the adoption of a technology. We look at technology as the artifacts embedded in the social systems that surround it. So technology has no value independent of society and societal choices. There may be cultural or practical reasons for people not adopting a certain technology. In this country, for instance, even though buying a new, more energy-efficient refrigerator might save consumers money in the long run, most consumers typically do not want to spend the time it would take to shop for that refrigerator until the old one breaks.

What is the outlook for the future?

The climate is already changing. We're seeing the effects of climate change now in the Arctic and in mid-latitude glaciers. Somewhere along the way, society is going to come to grips with the fact that this is a very hard problem. But society has a tremendous capacity for collective action. The question is whether society can organize itself to do this. I think our role at JGCRI is to say that we can get there.

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