U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP)

Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) Executive Summary

CSSR Executive Summary cover

As a key part of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) oversaw the production of this stand-alone report of the state of science relating to climate change and its physical impacts.

The Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) is designed to be an authoritative assessment of the science of climate change, with a focus on the United States, to serve as the foundation for efforts to assess climate-related risks and inform decision-making about responses. In accordance with this purpose, it does not include an assessment of literature on climate change mitigation, adaptation, economic valuation, or societal responses, nor does it include policy recommendations.

As Volume I of NCA4, CSSR serves several purposes, including providing 1) an updated and detailed analysis of the findings of how climate change is affecting weather and climate across the United States; 2) an executive summary and 15 chapters that provide the basis for the discussion of climate science found in the second volume of NCA4; and 3) foundational information and projections for climate change, including extremes, to improve "end-to-end" consistency in sectoral, regional, and resilience analyses within the second volume. CSSR integrates and evaluates the findings on climate science and discusses the uncertainties associated with these findings. It analyzes current trends in climate change, both human-induced and natural, and projects major trends to the end of this century. As an assessment and analysis of the science, CSSR provides important input to the development of other parts of NCA4, and their primary focus on the human welfare, societal, economic and environmental elements of climate change.

Much of the underlying report is written at a level more appropriate for a scientific audience, though the Executive Summary is intended to be accessible to a broader audience.

Report Development, Review, and Approval Process

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) serves as the administrative lead agency for preparation of NCA4. The CSSR Federal Science Steering Committee (SSC)1 has representatives from three agencies (NOAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA], and the Department of Energy [DOE]); USGCRP;2 and three Coordinating Lead Authors, all of whom were Federal employees during development of this report. Following a public notice for author nominations in March 2016, the SSC selected the writing team, consisting of scientists representing Federal agencies, national laboratories, universities, and the private sector.

The first Lead Author Meeting was held in Washington, DC, in April 2016, to refine the outline contained in the SSC-endorsed prospectus and to make writing assignments. Over the course of 18 months before final publication, seven CSSR drafts were generated, with each successive iteration – from zero- to sixth-order drafts – undergoing additional expert review, by the SSC (multiple times), the USGCRP agencies (multiple times), the general public, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS).3 The final review and sign-off of CSSR by the USGCRP agencies occurred in August 2017 under the auspices of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); OSTP is responsible for the Federal clearance process prior to the final report production and public release.

The Sustained National Climate Assessment

The Climate Science Special Report has been developed as part of the USGCRP's sustained National Climate Assessment process. This process facilitates continuous and transparent participation of scientists and stakeholders across regions and sectors, enabling new information and insights to be assessed as they emerge. The Climate Science Special Report conducted a comprehensive assessment of the science underlying the changes occurring in Earth's climate system, with a special focus on the United States.

Sources Used in this Report

The findings in this report are based on a large body of scientific, peer-reviewed research, as well as a number of other publicly available sources, including well-established and carefully evaluated observational and modeling datasets. The team of authors carefully reviewed these sources to ensure a reliable assessment of the state of scientific understanding. Each source of information was determined to meet the four parts of the quality assurance guidance provided to authors (following the approach from the Third National Climate Assessment): 1) utility, 2) transparency and traceability, 3) objectivity, and 4) integrity and security. Report authors assessed and synthesized information from peer-reviewed journal articles, technical reports produced by Federal agencies, scientific assessments (such as the rigorously-reviewed international assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), reports of the NAS and its associated National Research Council, and various regional climate impact assessments, conference proceedings, and government statistics (such as population census and energy usage).

Treatment of Uncertainties: Likelihoods, Confidence, and Risk Framing

Throughout this report's assessment of the scientific understanding of climate change, the authors have assessed to the fullest extent possible the state-of-the-art understanding of the science resulting from the information in the scientific literature to arrive at conclusions referred to as Key Findings. The approach used to represent the extent of understanding represented in the Key Findings is done through two metrics:

  • Confidence in the validity of a finding based on the type, amount, quality, strength, and consistency of evidence (such as mechanistic understanding, theory, data, models, and expert judgment); the skill, range, and consistency of model projections; and the degree of agreement within the body of literature.
  • Likelihood, or probability of an effect or impact occurring, is based on measures of uncertainty expressed probabilistically (based on the degree of understanding or knowledge, e.g., resulting from evaluating statistical analyses of observations or model results or on expert judgment).

Assessments of confidence in the Key Findings are based on the expert judgment of the author team. Authors provide supporting evidence for each of the chapter's Key Findings in the Traceable Accounts. Confidence is expressed qualitatively and ranges from low confidence (inconclusive evidence or disagreement among experts) to very high confidence (strong evidence and high consensus) (see table on inside of back cover for the full range). Confidence should not be interpreted probabilistically, as it is distinct from statistical likelihood.

In this report, likelihood is the chance of occurrence of an effect or impact based on measures of uncertainty expressed probabilistically (based on statistical analysis of observations or model results or on expert judgment). The authors used expert judgment based on the synthesis of the literature assessed to arrive at an estimation of the likelihood that a particular observed effect was related to human contributions to climate change or that a particular impact will occur within the range of possible outcomes. Model uncertainty is an important contributor to uncertainty in climate projections, and includes, but is not restricted to, the uncertainties introduced by errors in the model's representation of the physical and bio-geochemical processes affecting the climate system as well as in the model's response to external forcing.

Where it is considered justified to report the likelihood of particular impacts within the range of possible outcomes, this report takes a plain-language approach to expressing the expert judgment of the chapter team, based on the best available evidence. For example, an outcome termed "likely" has at least a 66% chance of occurring (a likelihood greater than about 2 of 3 chances); an outcome termed "very likely," at least a 90% chance (more than 9 out of 10 chances).

  1. The CSSR SSC was charged with overseeing the development and production of the report. SSC membership was open to all USGCRP agencies.
  2. The USGCRP is made up of 13 Federal departments and agencies that carry out research and support the Nation's response to global change. The USGCRP is overseen by the Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR) of the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability (CENRS), which in turn is overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The agencies within USGCRP are the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce (NOAA), the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior, the Department of State, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
  3. Author responses to comments submitted as part of the Public Comment Period and a USGCRP response to the review conducted by NAS can be found on science2017.globalchange.gov/downloads

About this Executive Summary excerpt from Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, B. DeAngelo, S. Doherty, K. Hayhoe, R. Horton, J.P. Kossin, P.C. Taylor, A.M. Waple, and C.P. Weaver, 2017: Executive Summary of the Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 26 pp, doi:10.7930/J0DJ5CTG.