Twenty-five years ago today, the landmark Global Change Research Act (GCRA) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, formally mandating the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) that had been proposed in President Reagan’s final budget. Upon the unanimous, 100-to-0 passage of the GCRA in the Senate, sponsor Senator Ernest Hollings said, “the problem we face is potentially enormous. Global warming could radically change world climate and world agriculture…We need a determined and coordinated research effort, both here in the United States and with other nations, to get the facts about the exact causes and consequences of global change. For our children and grandchildren, now is the time to start that effort.”
The purpose of this forward-looking Act—then and now—is to “assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” The USGCRP has been doing just that for the last quarter-century. Under the coordinated work of the 13 Federal agencies that participate in the program, the USGCRP integrates Federal research on climate and global change, coordinates with international counterparts, and provides science-based data and tools and publicly accessible products to inform decision-making. Together, these efforts help advance global change science and prepare the nation for change.
The USGCRP is operated by the Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR) under the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability (CENRS) of the Cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The NSTC is chaired by the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on behalf of the President and is supported by an Executive Director who sits in OSTP.
Over the past 25 years, USGCRP has enabled important advances in climate science. For example, USGCRP’s 2006 analysis of upper and lower atmospheric temperature records elucidated the reasons why satellite and radiosonde data showed little or no warming, even as surface data showed significant warming. The report demonstrated that the apparent discrepancies were due to errors in the upper atmospheric records – an important insight that improved our understanding of warming trends. In addition, the GCRA mandates that, every four years, the USGCRP produce a comprehensive assessment of climate science and the potential effects of climate change on the nation. The National Climate Assessment synthesizes the best-available science, explains the impacts of climate change for each region of the United States and for major sectors of the economy, and serves to inform society’s responses to these challenges. The third National Climate Assessment was released in 2014, in a fully digital form that catered to multiple audiences.
The GCRA also charges the USGCRP to promote international, intergovernmental cooperation on global change research. USGCRP supports U.S. involvement in planning, coordination, and funding of programs such as the World Climate Research Programme and Future Earth and facilitates nominations and interagency reviews of international scientific assessments such as those put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Arctic Council. This role of USGCRP has become increasingly important over the past 25 years as the realities of climate change have moved from a topic studied within the ivy-covered walls of academia to an issue high on the agenda of domestic and international policies.
Scientific information from USGCRP is being used, and will increasingly be called upon, to inform decision making at all levels of government and in the private sector. EPA relies on USGCRP assessments to inform and support its actions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the USGCRP partnered with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to launch a Sea Level Rise Tool for Sandy Recovery to help decision-makers access the most up-to-date information on sea-level rise and floodplain projections.
USGCRP continually strives be flexible and responsive to those who rely on its information. USGCRP produces an annual report, Our Changing Planet, which highlights the program’s progress toward the goals set forth in its decadal Strategic Plan and work on interagency priority areas, which now include such topics as improving near- and long-term climate projections, studying global change in the Arctic, and investigating water extremes such as drought and heavy rains. This transparency makes it easy for stakeholders and decision-makers to see how USGCRP operates, and to provide feedback that the program can take into account in determining how to best meet the Nation’s needs.
The passage of the 1990 Global Change Research Act was a watershed moment in the history of climate science and climate action in the United States. We’re thankful to those responsible for the forward-looking passage, and subsequent implementation of the Act, and we are proud of the work that’s been accomplished under it. We now look forward to the challenges that the USGCRP must face to continue to provide the Nation, and in many cases the world, with the knowledge and actionable science that will allow us to prevent the most severe outcomes of climate change, while preparing for and ameliorating those effects that are already upon us.
Please join us in wishing happy birthday to the Global Change Research Act of 1990 – you can share your message here.
John P. Holdren is Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Tamara Dickinson is Principal Assistant Director for Environment & Energy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Mike Kuperberg is Director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Afua Bruce is Executive Director of the National Science and Technology Council.