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National Science Foundation

People | Background

The last piece of the climate puzzle is perhaps the most complicated and dynamic of all
--people. The overwhelming majority of climate researchers have reached the understanding--based on decades of evidence, modeling and debate--that it is extremely likely that human activities are responsible for rising temperatures on Earth. Human behavior will continue to be a major factor in climate change, and understanding the feedbacks between human behavior and climate variability is critical. Humans can adopt social and commercial practices and implement government policies and laws that significantly affect greenhouse gas emissions. Humans can also increase our energy efficiency as well as invent alternative fuel sources for our energy-intensive activities. And, human ingenuity may even provide geoengineering technologies capable of reversing some of the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

NSF supports research in all non-health-related human sciences. Some academic fields, such as sociology, rely almost exclusively on NSF for government research funding within the U.S. Overall, NSF provides approximately 61 percent of federal support for basic research in the social sciences at U.S. academic institutions. NSF's tradition in the social, behavioral and economic sciences has emerged as a key strength for climate change research. Human systems must not only be factored into climate projections, but an understanding of human science provides the entire research community with the opportunity to learn how to effectively communicate research findings to society. At NSF, we see the transformative research of the future emerging at the boundaries between the traditional scientific and engineering disciplines, and climate change is no exception. Some of the most compelling and paradigm-changing research results have come from multidisciplinary teams that include the human science aspect.

In addition to supporting the social, behavioral and economic sciences, NSF also addresses the human aspect of climate change through education. NSF research grants to academic institutions not only provide funds for research equipment, overhead costs and infrastructure, they also enable principal investigators (PIs) to offer financial support to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers training to become the next generation of scientists and engineers dedicated to studying climate change and addressing its impacts. NSF PIs frequently share their time and resources through educational outreach activities involving undergraduate and K-12 students and members of the community at large. These outreach activities, along with NSF-supported formal and informal education programs, including classroom materials, television programs and Web sites, serve to engage and educate students and members of the public about scientific and technological issues including climate change.

Engineering and the physical sciences hold the potential to provide breakthrough technologies in energy, transportation, construction and other human endeavors that impact the climate. Progress in these "hard" sciences influences human-factors research as we strive to understand the emergence, dissemination and adoption of new knowledge and advanced technologies. These tools have the potential to help us adapt to climate change, as well as reduce, and perhaps one day, reverse anthropomorphic greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere.