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  • The necessary partnerships do not exist between both the physical and social science research communities and the public and private decision makers that are required to address multiple interacting and changing environmental factors in specific geographic areas.

Reliable and consistent observations are a critical first step in providing the scientific information necessary for decision making, and the federal government has a primary responsibility for providing them. The observations of the environment that are available today are useful but cannot provide the decisive information needed to make properly informed decisions on many crucial issues. Critical examples of these information gaps include the absence of a precise, sustained, and comprehensive climate observing system, inadequate coverage of carbon flux measurements that define sources and sinks, the inability to define ultraviolet dosage levels and the causes for midlatitude ozone erosion, and ineffective attempts at mapping sulfate–nitrate–organic–heavy-metal emissions on the urban-to-regional scale. To make vital, informed decisions on the basis of these and many other types of data, substantial improvements in observations of the atmosphere, surface and ground water, oceans, and ecosystems, as well as relevant economic and societal data, will be required. Individual researchers and research teams do not have the wherewithal to develop and maintain observing systems that can provide a comprehensive and consistent historical record in outcomes of interest. The federal government has been key to the success of past observing systems, whether the problem was measuring economic progress, demographic change, weather, or pollution levels. If critical chokepoints in our understanding of global environmental change are to be overcome, the federal government must make a substantial commitment to establishing and maintaining an observing system that is up to the job.

The nation's ability to create reliable short- and long-term environmental projections and analyses is promising but insufficient. Promising advances have been made in modeling and analysis in such fields as climate, hydrology, atmospheric chemistry, agronomy, and the economics underlying carbon dioxide emissions. But insufficient progress has been made in analyzing and modeling ecosystem and human responses to environmental change, as well as physical (e.g., climate, atmospheric and land surface chemistry) changes at the fine scales of human interest. The federal government should find a way to increase efforts in these areas of research to meet the needs of a diverse set of U.S. interests ranging from agriculture to fisheries, from environmental protection to energy production, and from commodity markets to public health. Improvements in the nation's observational and modeling capabilities will set the stage for dramatic new opportunities to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience to environmental change, maximize economic gains, protect the nation's natural resources, and better understand the sensitivity of our national security to the environment.

The previous decade of research on global environmental change reinforced the idea that, while understanding and predicting change requires a global perspective, solutions to these changes must work at the local and regional levels as well as the global level. This is true whether one is projecting long-term climate, transboundary air pollution, crop prices, or the effects of proposals to limit greenhouse gases on U.S. industrial competitiveness. Indeed, the effects of environmental change on societies and ecosystems can vary profoundly from place to place, due in part to the set of multiple stresses and conditions that are unique to

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