HomeNewsPeople & Planet Recap: Takeaways from NCA5

People & Planet Recap: Takeaways from NCA5

To celebrate Earth Week, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment invited collaborators and members of our affiliate community to participate in a special People & Planet conversation to discuss the Fifth National Climate Assessment, which was released in November 2023.

“NCA5 is the most comprehensive analysis of the state of climate change in the U.S.,” explains Melissa Kenney, IonE director of research and moderator for the event. The report is a critical snapshot of “how people are experiencing climate change, the risks we face now and in the future, and the state of climate mitigation and adaptation responses.”

As authors of NCA5, Fayola Jacobs (Social Systems and Justice chapter), Assistant Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and IonE Associate; Melissa Kenney (Adaptation chapter), Director of Research and Knowledge Initiatives, Institute on the Environment, and IonE Fellow; Heidi Roop (Midwest chapter), Director of Climate Adaptation Partnership, Assistant Professor, Extension Specialist, and IonE Associate; and Sara Smith (Midwest chapter), Midwest Tribal Resilience Liaison, College of Menominee Nation, shared their top takeaways relevant to the Midwest region – including what is known at this time and how taking part in the creation of the report gave them hope.

The following excerpts have been lightly edited for length and clarity in this format.


Key Messages

To begin the discussion, Kenney asked each of the panelists to share one thing they wanted people to know about the chapter they worked on. Roop and Smith were both representing the Midwest chapter; Kenney the Adaptation chapter; and Jacobs the brand-new Social Systems and Justice chapter.

I think [the Midwest chapter] really highlights a key part of what the NCA5 is endeavoring to do as it evolves as a contribution to the national landscape around understanding not only the risks that climate change poses to our economy, to our communities, and to our natural ecosystems and the resources upon which we are all reliant.

One of the things that’s a “through line” through the whole report was talking about how to reframe climate change in this assessment by not only focusing on the risks, but critically focusing on our responses and how we prepare and prevent the problem of climate change from getting worse. And so in that, I think one of the key messages I hope people walk away with – particularly from the Midwest assessment, but I believe this to be true across the whole assessment – is that there is demonstrated capacity for both mitigation and adaptation in the Midwest and across the whole nation.


Sara: One of the things from [the Midwest chapter] was really making sure that Indigenous voices were heard and acknowledged. Not just, you know, as a checkbox to be included, but really thought about. We even made sure that the language we used was really intentional. So, talking about beings instead of species, and then our relatives on the landscape instead of resources. So kind of shifting that paradigm to really incorporate those worldviews from Indigenous peoples. I was really honored to be part of this, and I’m hoping that we continue to share what we’ve done and hopefully inspire people.


Fayola: [The Social Systems and Justice chapter] is really framed around environmental justice, and the principles and the type of objectives that are necessary to get us there. And so one of the things that I think is really important about the chapter – and important for me as someone who teaches environmental justice courses, and often spends so much time talking about environmental injustices – is that even though we discuss a lot of the issues, for example, with internal migration and a lot of the past discrimination that communities face during buyout processes as well as the lack of transparency, we have a couple of examples of things that have been done well when engaging communities.

And so it really just highlights to me the ways in which we can do a just transition. We can do it well, but we have to be thoughtful, intentional, and really engage communities that have been essentially left behind by these processes of climate change, colonization, and other vulnerable-making processes.


Melissa: Something that really was inspiring is that a decade ago, we were just starting to see evidence of documented climate adaptation actions that were happening on the landscape in different states. But if you look at the map now, across every single state and territory, we have examples of adaptation actions that are occurring – communities, businesses, governments, organizations taking control and taking action and proactively thinking about the future that they want to see and using adaptation as a mechanism for managing and shaping the future that they want.



What’s Different or New

Next, Kenney asked the panelists to share what components they saw were different or new in NCA5 compared to previous assessments. As an author of a new chapter, Jacobs shared her perspective first.

Fayola: The thing that I most see in the report is that this chapter exists now – the Social Systems and Justice chapter. So often when I tell people I do work on climate change, the questions immediately turn to the biophysical processes of climate change. And I really think about climate change as a social process. It is biophysical, but it’s also about people. 

It’s about who and what are driving emissions and why. And who’s vulnerable. And where and who do we look to for solutions. All of these are things that social scientists study, so there were a range of social scientists in this chapter. We need to be keen in understanding not only the root causes of vulnerability to climate change, but also really trying to figure out how to move forward in more just and equitable ways. And so the fact that the NCA was acknowledging this and really incorporating and thinking about that when they were planning this report is one of the most hopeful things for me and what I see is most different.


Sara: One of the things that stood out to me was something expanded from the last assessment. So in the last assessment, there was a Tribes and Indigenous Peoples chapter. That chapter still exists in this report too, but they were really trying to make sure there were Indigenous authors across the chapters as well, which I really appreciated seeing because we are in different sectors and not just being siloed into one chapter. So I was really happy to see that in this report. 

Something else I got really excited about with this report is that there’s an art component as well. Part of my background is in creative writing, so it was amazing to see that because I think a lot of times we leave out that aspect, and art can be a big part of the work we do, and how we tell stories and disseminate the knowledge to other people.


Heidi: I think this is maybe just building on that, and what I think of when I think broadly about climate change and the role of an assessment. We often describe climate change as a “wicked problem.” And there are a lot of very literal dimensions to what a wicked problem is. It’s a very academic thing that we can spend this entire webinar talking about. 

But one of the aspects of wicked problems is that there’s no end to the number of possible solutions. I feel like the assessment this time, in part because of more intentional and thoughtful inclusion of different perspectives, moves beyond the sort of biophysical processes to meaningfully think about and dedicate time and space, and assessment review time to pull together literature and understanding. And also what we don’t know and what we need to learn between now and the next assessment process.

I just think that again, I’m sort of a broken record here, but that focus on solutions, and presenting information through art; through the inclusion of new chapters; through being more intentional about authors, team composition, perspectives, and how stories are called out. Being able to create space for these important conversations I think is really important if we are really to start treating these assessments in a way that acknowledges the multiple dimensions of what wicked problems mean, but also the multitude of solutions and myriad of perspectives required to confront these really big challenges that extend well beyond biophysical.



What Gives You Hope?

Kenney acknowledged that – with the conversation occurring during Earth Week – people may have climate change on their minds, along with the complex emotions they’re experiencing. To conclude the discussion, she asked each panelist what gives them hope after their involvement in creating the Fifth National Climate Assessment.

Sara: There’s a lot of mixed emotions working in the climate realm. There’s a lot of grief, and this scariness about the unknown; about what’s going to happen. But what really gives me hope is seeing implementation work happen on the ground, especially in tribal communities. We’re seeing these [climate change effects] in our communities. We might not be calling it “climate change,” but we know this is happening. 

And so the work that’s being done, these projects that I’m helping with – the implementation part about action, and adapting, and becoming more resilient really gives me hope because it shows that, you know, we’re thinking like we always have, with seven generations on our mind, about how we want this planet to be for those in the future. I see a lot of good work being done already, and hopefully that can inspire other communities to jump on board as well.


Fayola: Lots of things give me hope. I really like Mariame Kaba, who is an abolitionist activist who said, “Hope is a discipline.” And I really like that framing because we have to work at it. We have to work at the hope. It doesn’t always come easily, but we keep stepping forward and learning to do that, and flexing and growing those muscles. 

One of the things that gave me hope working on the NCA5 was the fact that there was so much engagement with our chapter. We got reached out to by a lot of other chapter authors being like, “Hey, we really want to talk about this, but we don’t have the space. Is there any chance that your chapter is referencing migration?” We had all these cross-cutting chapters that were really thinking with each other, and working across these usual silos, and really thinking about social systems and justice. And part of me was like, what happened before this chapter was here? Where did all of this go? 

But part of me was just like, this is such a great, great experience where all of these experts from different disciplines are really engaging with this. And it was a really beautiful, challenging, and rewarding experience. The community that it created – the community of scholars, of thinkers, of community members – was just really beautiful to me.


Heidi: I don’t know that many people are familiar with how these assessments are structured in that at the very end of every chapter are essentially the “what we don’t know” and “what we want to learn” lists. And I think that’s so important because as we talk about these wicked problems, as we talk about the abundance and what isn’t present – we’re assessing, and the process of this is like a stocktake of what we know, what we can say, and assigning likelihoods and competencies to – as it relates to the problem of climate change in the United States. And then we get to have really critical discussions with our peers and colleagues around what we don’t know and what we need to learn. There’s sort of a road map to more interdisciplinary collaboration embedded in the NCA5.

I see a lot of hope there because as the assessment itself has evolved to really tackling this idea of a wicked problem and thinking about the interconnected nature not just across regions, but across impacts, and communities, and solutions.There are so many conversations that are happening amongst the author teams and more. Who else do we need to be part of this process? Whose voices need to be incorporated in NCA6? What does it look like? How does this assessment serve communities now and how does the next assessment really leverage expertise and knowledge? I find hope in that and also hope in that there is a lot of inspiration and desire for more creative, collaborative work ahead as we look to NCA6.


Melissa: The state of adaptation gives me hope because what we’re seeing is incredibly strong, tangible progress over the past decade that we expect will increase. We know that Minnesota has a climate adaptation plan. We know a lot of our counties and our communities have adaptation plans. One of the things that gives me hope is that people are paying attention to that.

And then also, Heidi and I are working with the state and we’re also trying to develop new collaborations with communities where we can think about how we take those plans and develop indicators, and ways of tracking and creating accountability and transparency around the goals that were community defined. And as we think about taking state-level actions and then paring that down to the communities, something that really gives me hope is people’s desire to work together and to collaborate instead of doing things that are towards cross-purposes. 


Dana Hernandez (she/her) is an IonE communications specialist. Her professional interests include environmental communication and intersectional storytelling.

People & Planet is a series of conversations exploring the many intersections of our changing global climate and the human and natural systems that also shape our world. A recording of the Takeaways from the Fifth National Climate Assessment conversation and more are available now.

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