Decisionmaking, Transitions, and Resilient Futures: The Newly Established National Research Council Board on Environmental Change and Society Explores Insights and Research Frontiers for Understanding Coupled Human-Environment Systems

By Moss, Richard H.; Lane, Meredith A. | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Decisionmaking, Transitions, and Resilient Futures: The Newly Established National Research Council Board on Environmental Change and Society Explores Insights and Research Frontiers for Understanding Coupled Human-Environment Systems


Moss, Richard H., Lane, Meredith A., Issues in Science and Technology


In early 2010, two major earthquakes hit the Western Hemisphere: a 7.0 magnitude quake south-west of Porte-au-Prince, Haiti (population 9.7 million), and an 8.8 temblor north of Concepcion, Chile (population 17.1 million). The death toll in Haiti was over 220,000; that in Chile, fewer than 1,000. This two-orders-of-magnitude difference can be attributed in part to the distances between the epicenters of the quakes and the countries' respective population centers. But the largest part of the difference is the result of the Chilean government's consistent willingness to heed the advice provided by its world-renowned natural and social scientists and engineers--advice that minimized vulnerability with strict building codes and enabled robust emergency response through preparedness planning. Disasters may strike randomly, but the extent of the damage and the speed of and capability for response and rebuilding have nothing to do with luck and everything to do with science.

Not all eventualities for which governments need to plan are natural disasters such as earthquakes, or even very abrupt; many shifts occur so gradually that their consequences may not be felt for some time. Environmental and social changes are happening, and scientific data show that many, from floods and severe storms to droughts and wildfire, are having greater effects than they had in the 20th century. Government agencies are beginning to take action. The U.S. military is trying to anticipate, mitigate, and adapt to the consequences of the environmental changes that are happening right now, and some localities and major cities such as New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles are also making preparations. Still, both the military and the cities have questions in the arena of interactions between human and environmental systems that research could help to answer. They and the broader civil society can benefit from existing and future research that identifies potential environmental changes and explores social factors influencing how well planning and responses can limit damages.

One of the biggest challenges confronting society is climate change. Most people consider additional natural science research on climate change to be a wise societal investment. This is because naturally occurring changes such as slight alterations in Earth's orbit have over the eons caused both ice ages and warm periods, with profound implications for life on Earth. If human activities have the potential to interact with natural cycles and bring an end to the relative stability that the climate system has experienced over the past 10,000 years, the potential risks posed by climate change could be large and are thus worth understanding. But what are the risks, and how large might they be? Unfortunately, the amount of warming to which we are already committed because of past emissions and inertia in energy and economic infrastructure makes achievement of the low end of the range of climate change futures almost impossible. Thus, iterative risk management is now being framed as a combination of adaptation (preparing for and responding to changes to which the climate system is already committed over the next several decades) and mitigation (reducing human contributions to climate change), where efforts started now will have significant consequences for the magnitude and nature of climate change and associated impacts after mid-century. Research seeks to understand the risks of different combinations of these approaches, to identify many potential effects and societal consequences, and to clarify where, when, and how likely these consequences are to occur, given different levels and rates of climate change, and how they will interact with other societal and environmental changes.

Energy security is a parallel case involving both natural resources and societal risks. A country dependent on importing energy is vulnerable to supply disruption resulting from international politics or the domestic policies of the exporting countries; expenditures on imports can also negatively affect domestic economic growth. …

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Decisionmaking, Transitions, and Resilient Futures: The Newly Established National Research Council Board on Environmental Change and Society Explores Insights and Research Frontiers for Understanding Coupled Human-Environment Systems
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