Jada F. Garofalo, JD, MS, blends her climate science and legal expertise to develop purposeful research, regulatory support, and policy guidance. Jada's subject matter expertise intersects with multiple topic areas, at local, state, national, and international levels, including environment, water, energy, climate change (impacts, adaptation, and mitigation), and environmental justice and equity issues. She was a reviewer of the third order draft of the recently released Fifth National Climate Assessment. In this interview, she explains why we need climate assessments at both the national and local level. Please note- Jada is speaking in her individual capacity and her views do not reflect the consensus of the review committee or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Let’s start with an easy one: What is the National Climate Assessment?
The National Climate Assessment (NCA) process is coordinated by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (often referred to as the USGCRP), which is required to develop and coordinate—and I quote—“a comprehensive and integrated United States research program, which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” NCAs are conducted every four years and provide Congress and the President with a report summarizing observed and projected trends in global changes caused by human actions and natural variability across the U.S.
So, in your view, why are National Climate Assessments important for climate work? What’s the benefit?
On a purely technical level, NCAs are important because they integrate, review, summarize, and interpret the findings of the most recent peer-reviewed literature and discuss the scientific confidence as well as uncertainty associated with those findings. NCAs present both observed and projected global change trends for a broad selection of national topics across the U.S., with relevant discussions of adaptation and mitigation.
I also think that NCAs are important at the societal level because they demonstrate that, since the 90s—when the USGCRP was charged with conducting these reports—Congress was confident that global climate change was an issue that needed attention. The NCA reports allow the government and scientists to track climate changes over time, and observe the undeniably growing impact of climate change on different populations and different regions of the U.S. For example, reports typically highlight regional and recent issues, like the ongoing drought in the West, in addition to core topics like water, energy, forests, human health, and oceans, among others. NCAs are also important to society because they are written so that even people without previous climate science knowledge can understand the reports. This means that the multiple decades-worth of literature and data that demonstrates that climate change is indeed happening is accessible to diverse populations. I think that access to information about climate change is important because climate change has and will continue to touch all of our lives.
NCA reports are also forward-looking. They address methods for adapting to climate impacts and mitigating emissions, which lead to human-caused—or anthropogenic— climate change. For example, a lot is happening right now in research and development to push for the energy transition at local, state, and federal levels. These topics are discussed in the NCA reports. Similarly, community efforts to adapt to extreme heat, flooding, and other climate impacts are presented in NCA reports.
So how did you wind up being an External Technical Peer Review for the fifth NCA, and why were you inspired to participate?
Well, the purpose of the External Technical Peer Review was to ensure the third order draft of the Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5) was, and I’m quoting here again, “authoritative, timely, relevant, and policy neutral; valued by authors and users; accessible to the widest possible audience; and fully compliant with the Global Change Research Act … and other applicable laws and policies.”
I did climate literature synthesis work from 2013 through 2016 when I worked for the Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC). My work focused on climate impacts to infectious diseases and human health. While I was at the CDC, I also worked on a USGCRP publication called the Climate and Health Assessment, which was ultimately released in 2016. I served as a chapter coordinator, a steering committee member, a chapter author, and an interagency cross-cutting group member and was heavily involved in the report drafting process.
This experience gave me great context for how federally mandated climate reports are written, their purpose, and their intended audience. I also have experience in certain topic areas that are typically covered by NCAs. Since my previous work at the CDC, which focused more on climate impacts and health, I’ve attained my JD and have published a number of articles focused on climate mitigation. My combined experience led me to feel confident that I would be a strong reviewer for the third order draft of the NCA5. I applied to be a reviewer and interviewed for the position. I was ultimately approved, along with the 17 other reviewers, by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (the organization responsible for coordinating the review).
I think the role is important for a few reasons. As reviewers, we were tasked with ensuring the third order draft of the NCA5 comprehensively discussed climate observations, projections, and emerging issues. We made sure the draft reflected the most recent body of peer-reviewed science, and that the key findings of the draft were sufficiently supported. We also verified that the draft incorporated diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice considerations.
These technical components are critical, and they tie into the point I was making earlier about the importance of accessible climate science information. While it is important to update the state of the science as we continue to learn more about expected climate changes in the future, it is equally important that there is a digestible summary that is accessible to the general public. It has taken a long time for the “climate movement” to gather support in a public and political sense, which is interesting when compared to analogous environmental crises, like the hole in the ozone layer, which gained traction much faster with both public and political groups. I believe some of the resistance to the climate movement is grounded in the early lack of easily accessible and digestible climate change information for the public. Even today, despite recent legislative support (e.g., the Inflation Reduction Act and the Build Back Better Act), the climate movement remains critically underpowered given the changes we know we need to make to mitigate, adapt, and prevent human and environmental consequences.
So, given that need, how does your work at Abt help address those concerns?
Almost all of my work has a tie to climate. For example, I am leading a task order with a group of Tribes in Oklahoma—the Eastern Shawnee Tribe, the Miami Tribe, the Ottawa Tribe, the Peoria Tribe, the Seneca-Cayuga Nation, the Wyandotte Nation, and the Cherokee Nation—to conduct climate resiliency planning. We work closely with Tribal members and citizens to identify climate impacts and potential vulnerabilities that may result from those climate impacts. We then develop actions Tribes can take to adapt to, and reduce the negative impacts of, climate change. What we are learning is that there is a gap in the available data and published literature for the Tribal areas we are focused on. While we can find regional information, we cannot locate much information at a scale smaller than the state. For instance, the NCA’s Southern Great Plains Region includes Oklahoma and a few other states but does not have finer scale information about regions within Oklahoma. Similarly, the Army Corps has really nice resources on the water resource basins, but these are still larger in scope than the areas where Tribal members and citizens reside, recreate, and work. The takeaway is that gaps in the literature remain, despite efforts to study climate impacts across the U.S. Even though climate change is a global topic, impacts occur at the local level, too. Because climate impacts present challenges that manifest differently for every community, it’s important that we also work to create a body of literature that summarizes local climate impacts, adaptation measures, and mitigation efforts.