April 20, 2022

PNNL Climate Research Has Far-Reaching Benefits

Climate change conjures concern, but PNNL research offers solutions


A solution-oriented mindset underlies PNNL’s evidence-based approach to climate science.

(Composite image by Kelly Machart | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Climate change has far-reaching consequences. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) brings an array of skills to understand how a changing climate may alter political stability, human security, or national security infrastructure.

PNNL experts perform fundamental climate science work at multiple scales to understand impacts on energy, water, food, and infrastructure systems. This type of modeling provides specialized and comprehensive perspectives on humanEarth interaction and impacts. The Laboratory also provides the environmental justice and energy equity expertise to identify and engage historically disadvantaged populations in environmental assessment and remediation.

A solution-oriented mindset underlies PNNL’s evidence-based approach. Brian O’Neill, a PNNL Earth system scientist and a leading contributor to international climate assessment, emphasized the importance of hope in a recent interview on the PNNL podcast SciVIBE.

“The impacts are not all-out catastrophe, doom, and the end of civilization,” said O’Neill, adding that the Laboratory’s approach is backed by data and climate model forecasting.

PNNL researchers study the interconnected activities and elements of the Earth from complex global systems all the way down to the molecular level. The discoveries that spring from PNNL’s four overarching research missions increase our understanding of climate change and its humanEarth impacts while often providing data that can be used to inform policy and improve understanding of these challenges.

Studying global change

PNNL’s atmospheric and Earth scientists, energy grid analysts, and system modelers aim to further develop our understanding of human influences and Earth’s impact on our way of life. The Joint Global Change Research Institute, a partnership between PNNL and the University of Maryland in College Park, MD, brings together internationally renowned expertise in science, technology, economics, and policy to study global climate change and potential solutions.

O’Neill, a PNNL Laboratory Fellow, serves as a chief scientist at the Institute. He and PNNL’s Jae Edmonds, also a chief scientist at the Institute, were among the co-authors of a report issued in February from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC represents a body of hundreds of scientists from around the world convened by the United Nations to assess the science of climate change and possible actions to minimize its impact.

“The impact of climate change is inextricably bound up with what else is happening in the world,” O’Neill said about the report. “It’s not simply the amount of warming that will determine our future. How society changes over time–due to, or in spite of, climate impacts—is just as important.”

Through IPCC reports and recent contributions to the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference (COP26 summit), the Institute, formed in 2001, is a recognized leader in fundamental understanding of human and Earth systems and in providing decision-relevant information for management of emerging global risks and opportunities.

A national security threat

The intensity and frequency of changes in extreme events as the climate changes affect both society and infrastructure resilience. Therefore, in 2014, the Department of Defense issued a report asserting decisively that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty, and food shortages. Subsequent reports from the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Council have underscored this concern.

In response, PNNL is anticipating the world’s changing climate by modeling energy futures and translating climate science into decisions that integrate security, sustainability, and resilience. PNNL brings together observations with computational analysis, scalable models, and technical expertise to protect national security by enhancing the resilience of ecosystems, economies, societies, and critical infrastructure affected by climate instability.

Through global relationships combining deep climate and national security expertise, PNNL is leading international institutions that translate climate change impacts into implementation plans that bolster climate security.

“Changes in global climate such as the rapid increase in temperatures in the Arctic can increase the vulnerability of human systems,” said Jill Brandenberger, PNNL’s climate security research lead. Her team assesses how changing climatic conditions might affect national security missions. “These global changes have impacts everywhere in our world and pose a threat to our energy security and our national security.”

PNNL includes societal stability as a premise when working with its research partners to assess climate change impacts across time and spatial scales, assess vulnerabilities and resilience, and define interdependent risks. In addition, the Laboratory develops cost, benefit, and risk analysis of energy transitions and security implications at national and global scales.

“The links between energy, food, water, socioeconomics, climate, and security are challenging to measure, but that is a national lab challenge,” said Brandenberger. “It is critical to understand the links between these domains to increase our societal and environmental resilience.”

An inclusive approach

PNNL is helping achieve environmental justice and energy equity by partnering with government agencies and industry to identify and include disadvantaged and underserved groups in regulatory decision-making. (Illustration by Juergen Faelchle | Shutterstock.com)

A major component of societal stability involves a deep understanding of past, present, and future environmental impacts on all peoples and communities. In turn, environmental laws, regulations, and policies require the engagement and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.

PNNL is helping achieve environmental justice and energy equity by partnering with government agencies and industry to identify and include disadvantaged and underserved groups in regulatory decision-making. Further, complex policies and large projects are being evaluated with an eye toward understanding their consequences for historically underserved communities.

“Some actions associated with the nation’s energy system can negatively affect human health or result in environmental hazards—with disproportionately high and adverse impacts to affected populations,” said Ann Miracle, risk and environmental assessment group manager at PNNL. “For instance, a power plant expansion may be proposed without considering how it might affect the lives and culture of an American Indian tribe.”

Since the 1980s, PNNL’s environmental justice experts have applied decision science, social science methodologies, and stakeholder engagement to conduct interdisciplinary assessments. A holistic environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic approach examines human health impacts and potential for extreme weather events or infrastructure failure. Evaluations include assessment of disproportionate impacts, potential tradeoffs, and effective mitigations. This growing team of experts has been conducting environmental justice assessments for the past 28 years in support of the first Executive Order related to environmental justice that was signed in 1994.

“Together, we’re working to achieve environmental justice by ensuring that potential impacts from environmental and health hazards are properly disclosed and that all stakeholders have equal access to a decision-making process that supports a healthy environment,” Miracle said.

Transforming the energy economy

One of the largest challenges associated with climate change is the transformation of our energy economy. And much of this transformation involves development of new methods to produce fuels, chemicals, and energy storage materials.

Some of these innovations include storing energy in the chemical bonds of molecules such as hydrogen and exploring how to make clean drinking water available to millions. PNNL chemists and materials scientists are addressing the nation’s urgent needs in energy sustainability and decarbonization. These complex solutions involve inventing new ways to produce and store energy, including hydrogen and renewable biofuels—all critical for future climate security. 

As the world’s most urgent climate science challenges grow in size and complexity, PNNL researchers are also ready to meet these challenges with algorithms, software, and artificial intelligence. 

For instance, the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement user facility collects massive amounts of atmospheric data from around the world. PNNL researchers have developed methods to analyze this data on the effects of dust, pollution, or wildfire smoke—among other things—that can seriously affect air quality. Now, PNNL researchers are on the forefront of designing next-generation code and algorithms to better understand how aerosols contribute to climate change.

Many processes, one goal

More than 100 nations, including the United States, adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015. The accord set a goal of limiting global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Even its most ardent backers recognized that was an ambitious goal. A study published in Science last year, however, found a statistical basis to believe the goal was achievable.

PNNL researchers contributed to the study. And PNNL researchers, engineers, and others across a broad spectrum of expertise will continue to play significant roles in understanding climate change and finding solutions for a healthier and more equitable planet Earth.


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science. For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.