Climate change assessments can come in many forms; generally speaking they are syntheses of scientific information that help to understand what the effects of climate change might be, and what the options are for responding to these effects. Assessments can vary widely in scope and scale: they may look at how climate change will affect a community, an ecosystem, or a particular industry. They can help to serve as a scientific basis for making management and policy decisions. Please read through the pages below to learn more.
Linda Joyce, Rocky Mountain Research Station, US Forest Service, Fort Collins, CO, and Maria Janowiak, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, US Forest Service, Houghton, MI.
Natural resource assessments synthesize scientific literature on the current condition of species, ecosystems, or other natural resources of interest, with the objective of providing timely, relevant, and accessible information for decision makers and policy makers. In addition to peer-reviewed literature, these assessments may draw information from other documents, resource manager experience and expertise, local community and stakeholder input, and traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous peoples. The focus can be on a diverse set of ecosystems or a single ecosystem or species. The condition of the resource may be evaluated in light of its management, or in its ability to provide wood, subsistence needs, or other ecosystem services. Spatial scales of analysis can vary from the global, country (e.g., 1), state (e.g., 2, 3), and local (individual planning unit within federal or state agency) scales. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was conducted as a multi-scale assessment, linking assessments at local, watershed, national, regional and global scales (4).
Natural resource assessments often focus on the synthesis of scientific information and may also include extensive quantitative analysis. These assessments generally explore the effects of current stressors, such as invasive species, air quality or land use change. For example, the National Park Service natural resource condition assessments use existing data and may collect new site-specific data to provide a mix of new insights and useful scientific documentation about current resource conditions and some of the factors influencing those conditions (i.e., threats and stressors; 5). Additionally, some natural resource assessments (including the Resource Planning Act Assessment described below) also evaluate potential future resource conditions as affected by future changes such as land use and economic demands.
Natural resource managers address climate change as a stressor in their ongoing and periodic natural resource assessments. In some cases, legislation directs agencies to include climate change as a consideration. For example, in 1990, the Food Protection Act amended the Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA) of 1974 to require USDA to assess the impact of climate change on the condition of renewable resources on all U.S. public and private forest and rangelands as part of the RPA Assessment (6). This Assessment periodically reports the status and trends of the renewable resources, including fish, wildlife, water, forests, range, wilderness, as well as the ability of those resources to provide outdoor recreation opportunities. Another example motivating federal agencies is the Executive Order (E.O.) 13514 Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance (7), signed in 2009, which expands the federal government's energy reduction and environmental performance requirements beyond that of E.O. 13423. Specifically, each Federal agency is required to evaluate agency climate change risks and vulnerabilities to manage both the short- and long-term effects of climate change on the agency's mission and operations. In 2011, the Council on Environmental Quality issued instructions to be used by Federal agencies in climate change adaptation planning (8) and these may influence how climate change is incorporated into natural resource assessments and plans.
Climate Change Integration in Natural Resources Assessments
There are varied approaches to incorporating climate change into periodic assessments and planning processes, and these continue to change over time (3, 9, 10). In some cases, a particular assessment product may be revised and additional material added as an appendix to start the process of incorporating climate change considerations. In other examples, an expanded analysis framework is developed for the periodic assessment (see RPA below), or new analysis approaches are developed (see Rapid Ecological Assessments below). Additionally, natural resource managers have initiated separate studies, outside of the periodic assessment process, on a geographic area or species to identify key vulnerabilities as well as potential management options for addressing climate change; these include climate change impact assessments and vulnerability assessments.
State Wildlife Action Plans varied greatly in their initial approaches (9) and several states have revised their initial plans to further incorporate climate change (3). For example, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries identified climate change adaptation strategies through a process that involved a series of workshops and partnering with the National Wildlife Federation and the Virginia Conservation Network.
All states have completed a State Forest Assessment and Resource Strategy in response to an amendment to the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act, as enacted in the 2008 Farm Bill. While the states had much flexibility in approach, all assessments were to provide an analysis of forest conditions and trends, and delineate priority rural and urban forest landscape areas and issues. Threats to forests, such as climate change, were identified (2). The process for these assessments was synthetic and collaborative with partners.
The Rapid Ecological Assessments (REAs) developed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) synthesize the current information about natural resource conditions and trends within an ecoregion. BLM will use this information to inform local level environmental analyses and management planning. Climate change is one of the four key environmental "change agents," that will be quantitatively analyzed using a variety of approaches. The U.S. Geological Survey provided the climate scenario data. The REAs gauge the potential risks from these change agents which also include wildfire, invasive species, and development.
At the national level, the approach taken to include climate change into the 2010 RPA Assessment involves using scenarios to characterize the common demographic, socio-economic and technological driving forces underlying changes to natural resource conditions. Three scenarios were chosen that are linked to globally consistent and well-documented scenarios used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment (11). The IPCC global data were scaled to the U.S. national level and subnational levels. The resources analyses for water, wildlife, forest condition, range condition, and recreation will use this climate and socio-economic scenario data as input to evaluate the sensitivity of resource trends to a feasible future range of these driving forces.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Available at http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-wg1.htm.
Climate Change Adaptation: Strategic Federal Planning Could Help Government Officials Make More Informed Decisions. 2009. GAO-10-113. Washington, DC: Government Accounting Office
Climate Change Adaptation: Information on Selected Federal Efforts To Adapt To a Changing Climate. 2009. an E-supplement to GAO-10-113. GAO-10-114SP. Washington, DC: Government Accounting Office.
The Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program Part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, supports research that addresses at a regional level the many complex climate issues relevant to decision-makers and policy planners. The RISA research team members are primarily based at universities though some of the team members are based at government research facilities, non-profit organizations or private sector entities. Traditionally the research has focused on the fisheries, water, wildfire, and agriculture sectors.
The National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) Global Change Impacts and Adaptation program This program assesses the potential vulnerability of EPA's air, water, ecosystem, and human health protection efforts to climate change, and other global change stressors such as land-use change. It assesses these vulnerabilities at the federal, regional, state, municipal, and tribal levels, and examines adaptation options to build resilience in the face of these vulnerabilities. The program is a part of the Office of Research and Development (ORD) Global Change Research Program within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Research studies often underpin modifications to current natural resource assessments. For current descriptions of related research, see the related links section, and the climate change pages for the agencies that are mentioned in the synthesis paper.
Many tools are available to help managers incorporate climate change science into natural resource assessments and other documents. For more information on these tools, visit the Climate Change and Carbon Tools page.