Science Wednesday: Science To Support Decision Making In A Changing Climate

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

During my 22 year career at EPA, it’s been exciting to work on the environmental issue which has been called the “capstone issue for our generation”: climate change. Climate change affects every individual in every community around the world. The team I am a part of at EPA is working closely with communities around the country to shed light on how climate change affects the things they care about, and to find ways to respond and adapt to its impacts.

There’s nothing more rewarding than meeting the people who are benefitting from the science we’re doing. It’s one thing to work in a laboratory or office and explore strategies and develop tools to help local communities respond to climate change. It’s another thing to actually meet the people whose lives you are touching.

image of a house falling onto a beach near the water's edgeI first had that chance in 2007 when I traveled to Alaska and met people from several Native Alaskan villages such as Shishmaref, Newtok, and Kivalina. I listened to heart-wrenching stories about how they must soon evacuate their coastal villages because homes and infrastructure are being destroyed by rising sea levels, storm surges, and the melting of the permafrost upon which they sit. I was faced with the stark realities of a changing climate, not with some “plausible projection” from one of our climate impacts models.

When I first started working on climate change, people imagined it to be something that wouldn’t happen for another 50 to 100 years. We quickly came to understand that the climate is already changing. It’s changing more and more rapidly as a result of human activities. When we burn fossil fuels to power our automobiles and run our factories and heat our homes, we emit greenhouse gas pollution which contributes to global warming. And we’re already seeing the impacts of global warming on peoples’ lives.

My own appreciation for the critical importance of the work we’re doing in our Global Change Research Program at EPA rose dramatically during that visit to Alaska. We’re empowering people to protect their communities and the things they value by providing the scientific information that enables them to anticipate the effects of a changing climate, developing alternative strategies for them to adapt to change, and providing tools that can help them incorporate considerations of climate change into their day-to-day decisions. We are making a difference in people’s lives.

About the author: Dr. Joel Scheraga is the National Program Director for EPA’s Global Change Research Program in the Office of Research and Development. He has been with EPA since 1987. He is also the EPA Principal Representative to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates and integrates scientific research on climate and global change supported by the U.S. Government.