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Global Change Impacts & Adaptation

About Global Impacts and Adaptation

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report found that "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level." The IPCC also found that "Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations." Climate change will have and in some cases is already having numerous and diverse effects, including impacts on air quality, water quality, human health, natural systems, and the built environment.

Many climate change impacts and adaptation studies begin with scenarios of future climate to estimate potential impacts on ecosystems and human activities and assess adaptation options. This involves spanning multiple spatial scales from Global Climate Models (GCMs) to the physical and physiological responses obtained from local-scale mechanistic models. While useful insights may be gained from such top-down studies of the interactions between climate change and hydrologic systems, natural ecosystems, or human communities, the applicability of this information to adaptation decision making can be limited, particularly at local and regional scales because of the large uncertainties present when applying climate models at these scales, and because of the large number of potential interactions between different system components, the relative importance of which to the specific assessment endpoints of concern are difficult to determine ahead of time.

NCEA's Global Change Impacts and Adaptation framework adapts traditional risk assessment principles to incorporate information about potential long-term future climate change. Because EPA has relied on (and helped pioneer) risk assessment throughout much of its history, this approach is not only scientifically sound, but will hopefully be a particularly good fit for the agency, leading to improved uptake of assessment results by EPA Programs and Regions.

We have developed a systematic approach to address these issues, given the challenges inherent to the climate change problem coupled with the need to provide managers with information that allows them to make improved decisions now. This approach centers on the concept of vulnerability, and the fundamental units of our work are vulnerability assessments. The key challenge is to understand the implications of an altered but uncertain climate future for specific management goals and policy decisions. Therefore, the first and most important step in this approach is to work with stakeholders to establish the decision-making context within which scientific information is to be used. After this understanding is developed, we can then address the technical context, which includes enumerating the science questions and selecting the scenarios, methods, models, and data to use.

The framework of research and assessment that NCEAs Global Change Impacts and Adaptation program uses is integrated along intersecting lines of place and issue, all within a broad, nationwide context. The focus areas are issue-based efforts, bounded along topical lines (e.g., air and water quality, human health, and ecosystems) rather than according to region or place. Yet, these focused topics invariably overlay region- or place-based contexts. The integration of place and topical focus means that research and assessment activities in a region like the Mid-Atlantic have a regional focus, but are organized around issues of concern, e.g., ecosystems, human health, and water resources.

  • A Place-Based Approach: EPA has long emphasized the importance of understanding environmental consequences from a regional perspective. As we strive to understand relative risks in the context of multiple stressors, at multiple scales and multiple levels of biological and institutional organization, a place-based framework provides the means for that integration. Place-based study also is naturally suited to the information requirements of decision makers. An environmental problem and its solution are often unique to a location. By establishing relationships with stakeholders at regional (or sub-regional) scales, we are able to engage locally-based decision makers in the assessment process. These partnerships, while useful to the assessment, encourage a sense of ownership in the scientific results and a readiness to employ assessment outcomes to inform decision making.

  • An Issue-Based Approach: NCEA's Global Change Impacts and Adaptation program focuses its work primarily in four issue areas: the effects of global change on air quality, water quality, ecosystems, and human health. The four focus areas are interdependent and are enmeshed in the overall place-based framework. Changes in air or water quality may have important implications for human and ecosystem health. Changes in ecosystems due to climate or land-use change may affect water quality or the spread of infectious diseases. Changes in the frequency or intensity of extreme weather events (e.g., floods, droughts, wildfires) could simultaneously affect public health, air and water quality, and ecosystems. Research and assessment must capture the interactions between the issue-based focus areas and the specific impressions that place imparts on the impacts of global change. Coastal vulnerabilities along the Atlantic are both similar to and dissimilar from those along the Gulf, or the Pacific. The integration of place and issue helps us identify common ground while highlighting differences.

  • A National Scope: Finally, NCEAs Global Change Impacts and Adaptation program is a national program, with the mandate to assess the vulnerability to global change of the country as a whole. Our work at the national scale provides a context for our issue- and place-based work, while at the same time we work to synthesize from these more focused to develop national-scale insights about vulnerability and adaptation.

Our Clients & Partners: We work across EPA at the national level and engage the Offices of Air and of Water, along with EPA Regions, as our clients and partners. We also work at regional, state, and local levels with many different organizations. As a part of the Executive Branch Agencies, we work with other federal partners and internationally. Finally, there are several other climate change programs across ORD including:

Need to find an impacts & adaptation specialist? Access our staff page.

If you have questions about EPA's Global Climate Impact & Adaptation Web site, e-mail us at webmaster.risk@epa.gov or use our comment form.

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