Smoke from wildfires darkens skies in the Bay Area during the summer of 2020.

FEATURE: Preparing Scientists and Policy Makers for a Future Under Climate Change

Written by Elyse De Franco

Writing in the June 2021 issue of San Francisco Estuary & Watershed Science, a group of authors led by Richard Norgaard make the case that current approaches for integrating scientific research with policy and management are inadequate for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. As the pace of ecological change grows supercharged with the warming climate, models derived from past data are proving less useful at providing reliable predictions. This is particularly true as extreme events create outlier conditions that fall outside of what has historically been expected, such as the wildfires, floods, and droughts seen this year. This has global implications for environmental management, but the authors, many of whom have served on the Delta Independent Science Board, center their focus on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Environmental managers often speak of ecosystem resilience, or the ability of a system to remain within acceptable boundaries rather than a specific state, but the authors argue that it’s more effective to apply the concept of resilience to our human systems of policy-making and management. It’s just as critical to examine the adaptability of our social and political systems in light of these circumstances, the authors point out, because “without a concerted effort, scientists, policy-makers, and managers may be overtaken by the rapidity of change and find themselves reacting to, rather than anticipating, changes.” The authors propose the creation of a Delta Science Visioning process that brings together experts from across the biological and social sciences, as well as policy makers and environmental managers, to collectively imagine and bring to life a more adaptive and integrated strategy. 

Efforts to make scientific research more relevant for management purposes are known under many names- applied science, actionable science, translational ecology- but they all share the goal of bridging the gap between research and decision-making. Centering this type of research hasn’t always been welcome in more traditional academic circles, which have historically promoted basic research as a more worthy academic pursuit. Basic research (sometimes referred to as “pure” research, demonstrating the historical bias) seeks only to expand knowledge and does not have the focus on producing useful information that is central to applied research. 

According to lead author Richard Norgaard, this type of thinking has obstructed progress in establishing systems for quickly and effectively addressing environmental crises. An environmental economist and Professor Emeritus with U.C. Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, he served on the Delta Independent Science Board from 2010 to 2020 and contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Having insight into the scale of challenges both locally and globally convinced him that the existing systems weren’t up to the task. 

With a history of encouraging scientists to look at the bigger picture and of challenging academics to expand beyond their disciplines, Norgaard acknowledges that the road to bringing people together to make the arguments presented in this paper was a slow uphill battle. “There’s a lot of awareness of climate change and the need to adapt, but the structure of the system, with the scientists in their boxes, makes it difficult… what was really helping bring scientists along with this argument was the extreme drought, the extreme flood, the extreme wildfires. All of this was building up as this paper was coming about.” The bureaucratic and psychological challenges inherent in reimagining existing systems are at the core of the paper’s argument- that the wide-ranging environmental problems posed by climate change can only be addressed by bringing all expertise to the table. 

Link to study: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/40x3z74k

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