Climate Research Must Change to Help Communities Plan for the Future

By Robert Koop, Professor, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, and Director, Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Rutgers University. Originally published at The Conversation

Climate change is a chronic challenge – it is here now, and will be with us throughout this century and beyond. As the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment report made clear, it’s already affecting people throughout the United States and around the world.

Warmer temperatures are making heat waves more intense, with harmful effects on human health. More intense rainfall and higher sea levels are leading to more frequent and intense flooding, with ensuing damages to property, infrastructure, business activity and health. Higher temperatures and strained water supplies are requiring new agricultural approaches, while fisheries are shifting and in some cases shrinking; in some cases, stressed food systems are contributing to national instability.

This reality means society needs to think about climate change in different ways than the past, by focusing on reducing the risk of negative effects. And speaking as a climate scientist, I recognize that climate science research, too, has to change.

Historically, climate science has been primarily curiosity-driven – scientists seeking fundamental understanding of the way our planet works because of the inherent interest in the problem.

Now it’s time for the climate science research enterprise to adopt an expanded approach, one that focuses heavily on integrating fundamental science inquiry with risk management.

Flexible Infrastructure Design

Climate risk management strategies need to be broad, ranging from efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to designing new infrastructure hardened against more frequent extreme weather, to policies that encourage development to shift to less exposed areas.

And these strategies must be flexible. In some cases, decisions made today affect people’s vulnerability for the rest of this century, even though there is much that remains to be learned about how climate change will unfold over the decades to come.

Consider the risks associated with sea-level rise.

The new rail tunnel under the Hudson River – if it is built – will likely still be in use in the next century. And yet, the scientific understanding of how much sea level will rise by the end of the century is quite imprecise. That’s because of uncertainty in how much greenhouse gases humans will emit and the immature scientific understanding of the ice-sheet physics.

It is possible – if emissions are high, and ice-sheet physics unstable – that the world could see 6 feet or more of global average sea-level rise over the course of this century, with substantially more in some regions. It is also possible – if emissions are low, or ice-sheet physics fairly stable – that it could be just 2 feet.

An aerial view of the New Jersey Turnpike shows how vulnerable the area is to flooding. Ken Lund, CC BY-SA

If we as a society are making decisions that affect the world a century from now, we cannot blindly ignore either of these possibilities. If we treat 6 feet as a certainty, we could end up making unnecessary expenditures that come at the cost of other important priorities; if we treat 2 feet as a certainty, we may be putting lives and property at substantial risk.

So the best is an iterative approach. Communities can identify the resources and features that they value. Engineers and planners can identify key benchmarks – for example, critical levels of sea-level rise – that would require strategic changes to protect these values resources and features. And scientists can figure out what observations and theoretical insights would allow us to learn about those benchmarks as quickly as possible.

When the scientists discover that a benchmark is going to be hit – for example, when ice-sheet observations and modeling make clear whether we are on course for 2 feet or 6 feet of sea-level rise in this century – the engineers, planners and policymakers can adjust accordingly.

Getting Out of the Ivory Tower

This long-term, iterative process is a break with current practices. It requires sustained relationships that are not a good fit for much of the academic scientific enterprise, which is driven by curious individuals and funded by short-term grants.

There are signs, though, that climate scientists are getting out of the ivory tower and taking a different approach to research.

Transdisciplinary research recognizes stakeholders outside of academia as critical partners throughout the research process – from problem identification to solution deployment. People like Stanford’s Pam Matson and Harvard’s Bill Clark have been pioneers in this area, which they describe in the book “Pursuing Sustainability.” Matson, for example, has spent decades conducting interdisciplinary work with farming communities in Sonora, Mexico, that has led to both new insights into nitrogen cycling in the ocean and more sustainable agricultural practices.

True transdisciplinarity is hard – it requires a considerable investment on the part of researchers or their institutions in maintaining strong, working, trusting relationships with stakeholders, whether they be city planners, farmers, businesses, or members of vulnerable communities. And building such relationships is slow – if it must be done from scratch, it does not sit well with the time pressures faced by scientists who are not yet tenured faculty.

The Land-Grant University Model

Fortunately, there is an example in the United States of institutions successfully maintaining long-term relationships between academic researchers and decision-makers in their communities.

In 1862, amidst the bloodshed of the Civil War, Congress established a network of land-grant universities, devoted to training the next generation of farmers and engineers, conducting research to advance agriculture, and engaging with farmers to disseminate the fruits of this research.

The Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant universities to research agriculture and other areas for the benefit of students and society. Penn State, CC BY-NC

Many land-grant universities have extended the extension concept beyond agriculture. For example, at Rutgers where I teach, our extension service runs programs designed to help coastal communities increase their resilience to storm and sea-level rise. Rutgers staff have built partnerships, like the New Jersey Climate Change Alliance, that link communities, NGOs and businesses to climate science expertise. And the Rutgers Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience initiative trains graduate students to engage across disciplines and with stakeholders to address coastal challenges.

Elsewhere, the University of Arizona has built a Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solution, the University of Washington is building an EarthLab, and the University of California, San Diego has a new Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation. The recently established University Climate Change Coalition and Science for Climate Action Network are aiming to catalyze similar efforts.

But unlike the core agricultural work of cooperative extension, these climate risk-focused partnerships often lack institutional stability; most are the products of a small number of visionary individuals and many are funded one small grant at a time. And yet stability is critical for science that is intended to support decades of chronic risk management.

That’s why I believe it is worth considering a national investment in our universities that is analogous to that of cooperative extension but applied to scientific climate risk management.

These are not easy or cheap changes to make. But they are both easy and inexpensive when compared to the costs of climate change and the costs of the climate risk management decisions they will help inform.

Editor’s note: This article expands upon testimony delivered to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

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  1. Henry Moon Pie

    Amen to all of this. Let’s shift our focus from trying to prevent climate change entirely (too late for that) to Deep Adaptation: Resilience; Relinquishment; Restoration. The author’s focus on shifting the focus of scientific research to providing a solid basis for resilience efforts is a good first step.

    Another area of scientific inquiry that needs to be expanded is soil science. I believe it could be argued that our decimation of soils because of industrial agriculture may pose a big a threat to human well-being as climate change at this stage. We are “mining” at soils for the short term, ignoring that we are destroying prospects for yields adequate to feed 7 billion in the longer term. A much deeper understanding of soils, their creation, their depletion and their preservation, is required ASAP.

    1. jackiebass

      When most of the farming was done by small family owned farms, the farmers were good stewards of their land. Their living depended on them taking care of the land. When farming changed to big corporate owned farms, the corporations were only interested in profit. That led to methods the maxed profit but took a toll on the land. Most of the fault lies with government policy that favored and encouraged bigger farms. You can look at Canada for an example of protecting small farmers with their milk policies. The Canadian people don’t seem to mind paying a little more for their milk.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        When most of the farming was done by small family owned farms, the farmers were good stewards of their land.

        It’s a little more complicated than that.

        I grew up on a “family farm” in the Midwest when “family farm” meant great-grandma and great-grandpa were buried under the fir tree on the hill. When I was young, my parents raised chickens, had a milk cow and saved a steer each year from the little Angus herd to butcher. Tobacco was the main cash crop along with winter wheat. There was land lying fallow each year under New Deal programs, and my folks had a “government pond” aimed at reducing erosion and funded under a New Deal program. Fence rows were often hedgerows, and there was a 5 acre patch in the back of the farm that was “like the Indians left it” in local parlance.

        In the 60s, local “fertilizer plants” began springing up in our part of the country. They sold custom-blended chemical fertilizers to boost yields along with pesticides and herbicides. Around this time, my dad gave up farming for a living, and after pumping gas for a while to bring in some cash, he went to work for one of those “fertilizer plants.”

        In the 70s, farm prices spiked and the market’s ruthless demand for “efficiency” led to small farmers removing those hedgerows and fallow land, plowing up everything possible and pouring on the anhydrous ammonia along with herbicides and pesticides. The chickens disappeared along with the milk cows, and all those New Deal era conservation practices went out the window.

        It wasn’t enough. Prices dropped because of overproduction (just like the 1920s), and those small farmers went out of business too.

        Wendell Berry went to war against Nixon AgSec Earl Butz over this, but nothing could stop the trend.

        Our agricultural disaster has been 50 years in the making.

        1. The Rev Kev

          Thanks for that story. In reading it, it could be turned into a full-fledged article to illustrate what has happened to agriculture over the past half century.

    2. Frank

      II do agree that we need to reach into our state universities. But we should not go in with our eyes closed to reality. The link below is about agribusiness, but the same mechanics are at work in nearly everything touching the capitalist system.

      “…over the past 30 years, as public funding for university research has dried up, private industry money has poured in. And with industry dollars comes industry priorities. Agribusiness has funded research that has advanced its interests and suppressed research that undermines its ability to chase unfettered growth.”

      1. Shonde

        I was going to comment on this very problem of agribusiness takeover of our ag colleges. I can see the direct consequence of this takeover in a great-niece currently finishing her PHD at a major ag college. She is totally indoctrinated with Bayer-Monsanto beliefs since faculty is also part of that belief system probably for their own economic/academic survival. However, I do see some hope since she recently has done research on winter cover crops.

        1. Mike Mc

          This x1000. I work at a Midwestern land grant university and tried discussing regenerative agriculture with an ag grad student recently. (Our state’s farmers and ranchers were just hammered by the bomb cyclone so minds have been blown open in many regards.)

          Instant resistance to anything other than the existing corn/soy commodity ag model! Farmers and ranchers in the small community wife and I are moving to seem much more open minded… but then again they’re trying to make a living which tends to improve one’s mental flexibility.

    3. Shonde

      From my new home town in Minnesota, I am seeing interest by the mega-farmers in soil issues. Several in my local area have been involved with test plots regarding farming methods that can enhance soil fertility and water maintenance. Would you believe one method of research was burying a diaper in soil in fall and checking to see how much soil organisms had “eaten” the diaper by the following spring? Farmers are beginning to see what has been done to the soil in the past, at least in MN and are beginning to farm more in alignment with soil needs. The good news is that better farmer methods are being shown to increase profit per acre by reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

  2. Steve H.

    In classical script analysis, a couple of foci are the weight (number of syllables) of a word, and the ladder of imagery.

    On a quick pass, the nearest thing to a concrete image with weight is ‘agricultural’. Okay, perhaps the need to be ‘flexible’ presupposes concrete solutions.

    But the word with the most weight is ‘transdisciplinarity’, and the crux of his plea seems to be the lack of institutional stability for ‘visionaries’. As though chatting at conferences will push through the suppression of science and even particular phrases by political-economic parties, as happened via state governments in North Carolina and Florida.

    A technical flaw is that putting excess resources into mapping a matrix of possibilities in a feedback-looping dynamic system with perverse outcomes is neither efficient nor sufficient. We’re trying to connect-the-dots, and he’s trying shades of watercolors in the undefined spaces of the curse of dimensionality. When the headline came up years ago, ‘Britain Abandons Coastal Defenses’, they didn’t need a transdisciplanarian committee for the decision.

    More talk doesn’t solve a listening problem.

    1. Ander

      On the one hand, I think you have a good point, there is a listening problem and no amount of good research or useful risk management data will help it.

      On the other hand, we’ve seen right wing groups acknowledge climate change when their communities are directly effected by it, even if they may not admit it’s anthropogenic.

      This sort of investment in risk management is deeply necessary, bc communities need to be able to make informed decisions as our world continues its descent into batsh*t craziness

      1. Steve H.

        Thank you, Ander, I agree with everything you say.

        I suspect the author is biased rather than disingenuous. The example he uses is land-grant universities, and his employer is the oldest land-grant university still existing, so he is living his life in an outlier. Most land-grant universities are now public, with a scope far beyond the local community, and the service part of the mission being eliminated. In my state, Purdue has an endowment of nearly 2.5 billion dollars, which far outweighs its original mission of an experimental station for local conditions.

        The case studies in the book he cites also have zippo to do with institutions supporting their local communities. See:

        The case studies are ozone depletion (a successful global solution, at least for awhile), the Yaqui Valley, Nepal, and Victorian-era London. Those are irrelevant to U.S. communities. I particularly note the circled ‘credit unions’ in the solutions for the Yaqui Valley. In practice, you still see shovels and ditches at the end of all the research. Mollison got his knowledge-base from indigenous sources, without requiring the expense of the institutional infrastructure to get to the same end-point.

        So he’s really asking for money for a non-local academic/ngo network, his world, instead of the practicum of local solutions. But who he is asking for money mostly view local solutions as a “capped bezzle”, only worthwhile as cover for the expensive jewel beneath. And he doesn’t need to know that.

  3. Anarcissie

    In regard to shovels and ditches, one might add that as yet science is not giving engineering much to listen to, much less work with.

    I like the concept of a ‘capped bezzle’ though.

  4. Andrew Thomas

    All of these ideas are impledly premised upon institutions (legislatures, land-grant universities, etc. that actually function-that have not been hollowed out and transformed into enablers of neoliberal economic madness. If that was possible, climate change would have been addressed as the death star that it is starting at least 30 years ago. 30 more years of neo-liberal destruction of all of the institutions capable of helping to direct our battle for survival make the efforts to cope outlined here little more than pipedreams. When it is no longer possible to ignore what is happening, the 1% will direct whatever in its infinite wisdom it believes will guarantee its survival. The great likelihood they will be wrong about that at least leaves open the possibility of a modicum of karmic justice. I hope to every deity that I am wrong.

    1. Summer

      And the illusion that neoliberals are open to negotiation.
      Their mantra is TINA – there is no alternative.

      The battle will be etching out space for societies with a different value system from people with neoliberal or neocon values.
      There. I said it.

      1. Oregoncharles

        Transition Towns. I see two resources on a casual search:;

        There is actually a whole movement dedicated to ” etching out space for societies with a different value system.”

        I’m a bit out of date on it, need to go through those sites myself, but it’s advantage is that it’s private, so not dependent on legislatures. Of course, that creates limitations, too. Another is that it’s focused on local initiatives, so not really addressing the global problems except reactively.

        Still, a lot better than nothing.

  5. Svante Arrhenius

    Russiagate’s shocking denouement mysteriously hit just as Green New Deal, Medicare For All were casually snuffed out, far in the background. It’s like being a wet, freezing stoker on the Titanic who’s just made it through slamming hatches, terrified mates shooting desperate steerage hordes; finding themselves amidst drunken millionaires in ball gowns, glaring in bemused disgust at a filthy “hand” dripping sea water while they dance, drink and carouse? The oligarchs parting-out newspapers, broadcast & blog agreggators will now sell us real world solutions, each and every time a mystery plague breaks out, a monoculture crop fails, floods follow drought follows firestorms.

  6. Susan the other`

    A long term iterative process is the same as adaptive. We haven’t approached this as a learning exercise as much as we need to. To disseminate the information and develop resiliency. Small farmers will be more agile than big Agra. When you have 10,000 acres of wheat and the climate changes in favor of rice bogs you can change over only if it is warm enough. No amount of chemicals will fix that. All those variables magnify the complexity of insuring risk management for big Agra. When the climate is unpredictable at best and your 10,000 acres was relying on populations growing exponentially but then population starts to decline, or worse – your acreage is under 5 feet of flood water that doesn’t recede until late July – this is the equivalent of 100 small family farms all coming together in a mutual aid organization to learn and adapt in real time. The biggest risk is sacrificing aid to small farms because they are not as productive as the giants – and then the giants go belly up big time. Size of risk should factor in. It might be the first thing to look at. Diversity and small farms will be key. In fact if there is a risk evaluation extension service it will probably say the big farms are too big to manage risk. They shouldn’t be lumped in with small farms ever.

  7. Scott1

    “Methane Bubble Melt”. The Methane is bubbling up into the atmosphere & will melt basically all at once. Ten to 15 years is the time span expected for this to happen. Since it is already happening because the melt temperatures are being achieved & the time is so shortened time for talking & institutional inventions are unlikely to protect the food chain enough to prevent its collapse.

    Americans like machines so the machine & its system for pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere will appeal to them. This is already seen in Squamish where Carbon Engineering built a machine & its system.

    The CEO says 100s of thousands are required to stabilize temperatures that will allow the sustainability of the food chain. Well there are probably 100s of thousands of gas stations, so maybe?

    Energy sourcing has to hence be greatly altered. There are no choices but nuclear power, Solar, geothermal, wind et al. The estimate was that 9 billion was a sustainable population but it sure looks like due to the absence of methane being factored into the estimates of the models from the ’70s that we will be lucky if we can hold & maintain at 7.5 or 8 billion people.

    That the science is not enough to empower engineers cannot be. It simply cannot be allowed. It is a world problem & calls for a world fund based on MMT principles to pay for the mobilization of all the engineering of systems & whatever good machines can do.

    World Government is a terrifying political necessity. Engineering of a World gov. system is systems engineering and is possible.

    P.S. Methane becomes CO2 in the atmosphere. It was not factored into Ecology Science because it had left no evidence where scientists looked. Climate Science is matured now that the Methane Bubble Melt is understood.

  8. Jeremy Grimm

    Unless there are widespread revolts we will continue business as usual. The recent publication from Matteo Willeit, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research suggests — in Willeit’s words:
    ” In the context of future climate change, our results imply that a failure to significantly reduce CO2 emissions to comply with the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming well below 2°C will not only bring Earth’s climate away from Holocene-like conditions, but also push it beyond climatic conditions experienced during the entire current geological period.”
    I don’t think climate studies as proposed by this post will prove meaningful. I believe the transition to Holocene-like conditions will be times of extremely chaotic weather.

    I don’t think it will be possible to adapt agriculture to the chaotic weather we will see through the transition to Holocene-like conditions. Hunter-gather culture requires prey to hunt. I’m not sure what sort of creatures will survive through the transition. I suspect there will be large die-offs of Humankind, particularly in our cities, and a consequent jump in the populations of wild dogs and rats followed by a sharp decline in their populations. I believe most trees will die. They will probably be covered by vines. Maybe kudzu will gain new favor — it is edible, relatively high in protein, and goats like it. Perhaps Humankind can live on a smaller scale as herder-gatherers. I think it might be a good time to learn more about what wild plants are edible and how to prepare them. It might also be good to learn how to catch, keep, and purify water using what might be available using limited energy and the capabilities of a chemical industry in bucket or jar. The fungi will be ascendant through the ages of transition. We need to begin deeper study of the fungi to learn ways to distinguish the edible from the poisonous. I believe we need to catalog know poisons and their signatures in electrophoretic separation columns.

    For hard times I think we need to dust off the studies of food production using algae and yeast vats. We also need to cultivate as many edible varieties of the fungi as we can. We will need to take particular care for the saving and use of our wastes. They will be an important source of nutrients. Even our dead will have to feed into the mix of wastes we must process to feed into our food production. Mining techniques may be essential to finding cool shelter from the hot days to come. We need to design clothes that use alcohol evaporation for cooling, or some other fluid. A world of high humidity and high temperatures will not kindly treat creatures who must cool their bodies using water.

    After caring for our survival we absolutely must identify key knowledge to preserve for the future, unless we would live a very primitive future with little hope of reaching past the simple life we could support. I would make efforts to preserve the patent literature, refining it to identify the basic patents. The drug patents would be especially important. I believe glass and knowledge of how to work it would be critical to small scale manufacture of drugs and key chemicals. I think there is knowledge in the physical sciences that might not be rediscovered in an age without a source of power like the fossil fuels we enjoyed. Our knowledge of genetics and the techniques for manipulating life may be critical to helping adapt some of the plants and animals for our uses. Our knowledge of chemistry and biochemistry will be crucial to inventing a new source of power like fossil fuels. The future will be rich in heat, something we have ignored in favor of light. I believe heat and new catalysts designed using as yet undiscovered principles of biocatalysis may one day enable us to create new fuels to fire a rebirth of industry.

    1. Svante Arrhenius

      Mmmm… kudzu! I’d been working all over the NE Appalachians, last Summer/Fall, noticing kudzu and other vines covering the existing trees. Not to mention all the parasitic plants: VERY scary. We’d no sooner got out of the gypsy moths’ range than now, everything’s resembling a science fiction tarzan movie? Well, we’ve all got accordians… now if we can learn to cook us up dem mudbugs? Yams, figs & sweet taters everywhere.

    2. The Rev Kev

      Wouldn’t be surprised if long pig came into its own first as the go-to meal of the day, even if the meat is chemically contaminated.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I think long-pig will remain a taboo ‘too far’ in all but the rarest and most extreme circumstances. Imagining what might be my own sorry remains I cannot imagine they could ever appear palatable — even were they cured and stuffed into sausage links or fashioned into a big baloney. But at a time when coffins or furnace fires to make ashes of a corpse will seem most extravagant practical concerns will work to change old customs which are already changing even now.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      Several decades ago I read a book by Roberto Vacca called The Coming Dark Age. His basic thesis was that “society” and “civilization” would become so ornately complex that no one could understand it or manage it and at some unpredictable moment one falling domino would knock all the other dominoes down, leading to a comprehensive collapse back to Dark Ages conditions of existence.

      His suggested response was for those engineers and scientists and etc. who shared his feeling about that risk figure out how to form and support ” Techo-Monasteries” inhabited and operated by ” Techno-Monks” devoted to keeping some simple science and technology alive as the Monasteries kept some learning alive during the previous Dark Ages.

      The text of the book itself used to be available on-line, but I can’t find it just now without having to pass some sort of registration-gate.

      Well . . . here’s a bunch of pictures of Roberto Vacca, anyway.;_ylt=A0geK.Pq7atcfB0AvuNXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEyb3Z1NzByBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDQjY2MzJfMQRzZWMDc2M-?p=roberto+vacca&fr=sfp

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