National Climate Assessment Report: Warming Here … and Now

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With a focus on the United States and eight specific regions, the new comprehensive report offers insights on projected local and regional impacts.

Tuesday, May 6, was a big news day for those in the climate change field in the U.S., with the formal release of the 2014 National Climate Assessment. Despite stiff competition from vital international news stories, the report garnered plenty of prime-time news coverage not only on network news shows, but also on cable outlets. President Obama’s string of one-on-one brief “exclusive” interviews with a handful of carefully chosen local TV meteorologists was part of an effort to put a local and “in my backyard” emphasis on an issue too often seen by the public as distant in time and remote in space.

News and Analysis

Climate change is happening across the nation “now,” expert scientists involved with the study emphasized throughout the day, and there appeared to be a deliberate effort from them also to emphasize that workable solutions to the challenges abound … if only they can be made soon enough.

On Tuesday morning, Fox News wasted no time in politicizing the new National Climate Assessment report.

“Administration issues dire climate change report, amid regulatory push” was the headline of the online story. And the first sentence: “Republicans charge the findings will be used to muscle through costly emissions regulations.” Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas rounded out the story with the op-ed: Chicken Little ‘science.’

“Climate change is a fact?” he wrote. “I don’t think so.”

The NCA, in the works for four years, paints a compelling picture. It catalogs changes under way that already are straining the nation’s ability to protect its Gulf Coast and Atlantic Seaboard coastlines, manage water, cope with flooding, maintain crop yields, and protect public health.

“Climate change is not a distant threat. It’s something that’s happening now,” the president’s science adviser, John Holdren, said at a Tuesday morning press conference. “And it’s not the same everywhere.”

The congressionally-mandated assessment is the latest in a series. Think back a moment to when the previous NCA was being prepared. It seems like a long, long time ago. As that NCA was being finalized, there was great hope for a breakthrough in national energy policy and an international agreement to cut emissions globally. But by the end of 2009, the Copenhagen climate meetings had ended in failure and President Obama’s comprehensive energy plan was for all practical purposes dead.

Projected Impacts Across Eight U.S. Regions

In a sense, the new report reflects those realities, and the overall tone is one of how the nation can adapt to inevitable changes. Many are moving ahead with plans to do so, said a panel of NCA authors gathered by Climate Nexus on Tuesday, though some added that actual implementation does not match planning:

In the Northeast, sea levels have risen one foot since 1900, above the global average of 8 inches, Dr. Radley Horton from Columbia University and the convening lead author of the NCA Northeast region chapter said.

Rainfall has increased by 70 percent in the region over the past 50 years, leading to flooding that sends sewage into waterways. Heat waves are leading to bad air and straining power grids.

In the Southeast, the last decade was the warmest on record, said Dr. Kristin Dow, professor of geography at the University of South Carolina and lead author of the NCA Research Agenda for Climate Change Science chapter.

There’s been a 27 percent increase in the amount of rainfall compared with that of 50 years ago. Fewer frost days are threatening the health of crops, which need the cold to grow properly. With rising seas, parts of Miami Beach and historic Charleston, S.C., have flooded, and erosion in parts of Puerto Rico is advancing by three feet per year. About 24,000 miles of roadways along the Gulf Coast are threatened by flooding, and five of 13 major airports across the Southeast are vulnerable to storm surges. “Today’s occasional floods are tomorrow’s high tides,” Dow said.

In the Midwest, where two-thirds of land is devoted to farming, longer growing seasons will increase crop yields in the short term, but then longer-term increasing temperatures, high precipitation, more insect infestations, and the proliferation of weeds will take their toll, said Dr. Don Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois and convening lead author of the Climate Science chapter.

Erosion will continue to cause declining water quality, and invasive species will compromise forestlands, Wuebbles said.

The Great Plains is already strained by declining aquifers, warmer winters, and more extreme rain, as well as heat waves that are straining water demand as Texas is facing its third year of drought, said Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and lead author of the NCA Climate Change Science chapter. The future could involve more of the same … and worse.

The Southwest is being hit particularly hard. Here, “climate change is water change,” said Dr. Gregg Garfin, professor at the University of Arizona and convening lead author of the NCA Southwest chapter. The region is expected to see more rain and less snow, which will affect agriculture in places like California, which today relies on a natural reservoir of water stored in snowpack. The ongoing drought in California has cost the state $7.5 billion in lost agricultural resources, with rippling economic effects in other states.

A perfect storm of warming, drought, and insect outbreaks in the Southwest has hammered forests in Arizona and New Mexico, where over the past decade 20 percent of forestlands have been wiped out by fire and insects. The Yosemite Rim Fire in California portends more catastrophic wildfires to come, the scientists said. Meanwhile, extreme heat days throughout the region, and in particular in Arizona, have made that state number one in the U.S. in the rate of heat-related mortality.

Finally, in the Northwest, early melting snowpack is straining water supplies. “If there’s no snow in March, there’s no water in July,” said Dr. Philip Mote, professor at Oregon State University and convening lead author of the NCA Northwest region chapter. Forestlands face some of the same challenges as those in the Southwest, with infestations by the mountain pine beetle and more wildfires driving forest mortality, Mote said.

At a press conference Tuesday at the White House, a separate panel of authors said they most feared consequences of warming that might be less likely but are still possible — events such as accelerated melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, and permafrost melting that suddenly releases huge amounts of methane and carbon now frozen in the ground. An increase in unpredictable and severe weather events such as tornados and ice storms is another concern.

Another worry is multiple system failures, during heat waves for example, when public health is threatened and then power blacks out because of the increased demand on power grids.

Some expressed worry that smaller, rural coastal communities across the nation, lacking the public infrastructure and resources of urban areas, will have an especially hard time coping with the consequences of sea-level rise fueled by climate change.

The White House worked hard to get the message out, and even President Obama met individually with eight meteorologists from around the nation.

Meanwhile, panelists at the White House, such as those gathered by Climate Nexus for a simulcast, expressed optimism that more and more communities across the nation are acting to adapt to climate change, and that reasonable actions can be taken to reduce emissions.

However, in the absence of a unified national policy on energy, and with no international climate agreement to cut emissions, the global cuts in CO2 emissions that scientists say are needed aren’t likely to happen, several experts acknowledged.

 

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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6 Responses to National Climate Assessment Report: Warming Here … and Now

  1. Peter Capen says:

    There is a serious disconnect between the increasing warnings from the overwhelming majority of climate scientists and the public and conservative elites in this country. For instance, recent national polls by Gallup and PEW found that the public ranks climate change at the bottom of the list of concerns, while conservatives continue to deny that the climate is steadily warming, or that human actions are largely the cause, despite the growing body of scientific evidence and the abundant observational signs all around us that it is. Why? It certainly isn’t for lack of credible scientific evidence. One can only assume that at the heart of the public’s apparent apathy and deniers’ intransigence about the issue and its primary cause altogether may be the uncomfortable realization that solving the problem will involve fundamental changes in the way we now lives our lives and structure our society and economy. And that terrifies both the average person and those benefiting comfortably from the continuation of business as usual. While we grasp at any positive news, or hope a “silver bullet” will be found that saves the day, the painful reality is that the longer we delay coming to terms with the climate crisis facing us and begin to comprehensively address it with all due speed, the more costly and intractable the problem will become. Virtually every part of the planet now is contending with the climate and social chaos from a steadily unpredictable climate and the longer we wait as a species to meaningfully confront the issue, the worse it will inevitably become. While the “Climate Change Impacts” report should be yet one more wake-up call, it won’t be if we do not take this crisis for modern civilization seriously. Time is growing short for not for more talk, debate, and continued apathy and denial, but for action.

  2. Peter Capen says:

    The Parable of the Gazelle and the Lion

    by

    Peter D. Capen

    I am reminded of a gazelle peacefully grazing on the lush new grass of the
    African savanna. The graceful animal is hungry, and the grass tastes so
    good. Somewhat apart from the herd, the animal pauses every now and then to
    lift its head to check for danger. But only momentarily, because it is
    after all so hungry and the fresh, green grass tastes so good. Little does
    it know, however, that a lion is slowly creeping forward on its belly
    through the tall grass towards the unsuspecting gazelle. Nothing but a slight
    movement in the grass betrays the lion’s presence. Were the gazelle to spot
    the lion in time, it could easily bolt away from the danger and live to
    enjoy another day. But it doesn’t. It continues peacefully grazing,
    thereby sealing its fate.

    I sometimes think that modern civilization is like the gazelle and global warming is the lion. Our modern culture continues to happily graze on the comforts and distractions cheap fossil fuel energy has made possible, all but oblivious to the peril that it has created in its wake, which is now knocking at our door. But will humans wake up in time to escape their fate? I don’t know. Perhaps. But nothing substantive is likely to be done to confront the enormity of the challenges of a planet growing steadily hotter, until we admit to its existence and demand all do their part in solving it.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      Hi Peter. Nice parable! It reminds me of another one.

      The gazelles were grazing on the lush grass. But one gazelle feared that if they carried on grazing as they were, all the grass would soon be gone, and they’d all starve. He told the other gazelles about his theory, but they just laughed. “Forty years ago another gazelle told us the same story. We were worried for a while, but as you can see, the grass is still here.”

      The one gazelle was upset that they were ignoring him, and worried for what would happen to their grandchildren when the grass ran out – he could see it getting shorter before his eyes! But then he had an idea.

      “Lion!” he shouted. “There’s a lion sneaking up on us!” The gazelles panicked. “Where?! Where?!” The gazelles ran and milled uncertainly. But nothing much seemed to be happening, and they soon grew tired and hungry. They settled back to feeding, twitching nervously.

      “Look out! Lion!” shouted the one gazelle again. The gazelles ran. But again, nothing seemed to be happening. They slowed. “Lion!” They ran. They slowed.

      After a few hours of this (gazelles are not bright) one of the other gazelles, hot and exhausted and panting for breath, asked the one gazelle why he still seemed to be eating the lush grass while everyone else was running around? And how did he know where the lion was, when nobody else could see it?

      “Ah! You see there where the grass moves in the breeze? That’s a lion!” The gazelles were impressed. “My goodness! They’re everywhere!” And for a while, the gazelles panicked at every gust.

      The next day, the one gazelle started again. “Lion! Look out! There’s a lion coming!” Nobody moved. The gazelles kept munching. “Didn’t you hear what I said? There’s a lion coming!” “Yes. So you say.” they replied. “Well, aren’t you going to do anything?” “It’s difficult. Politics, you know.”

      The one gazelle didn’t understand. Everyone he asked said yes of course they believed him. But none of them would stop eating to run from the lion. And before long, all the grass would be eaten and they would all starve. He was in despair.

      Why do gazelles act like that? How can we wake them up to their danger in time?

  3. Peter Capen says:

    In answer to Rick A’s question, we need to move rapidly to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels as our primary energy source, we need to move to a more environmentally sustainable economy, which means fundamentally reducing wasteful consumption, we need to implement plans to humanely reduce population in both this country and abroad, we need to do a much better job on educating the public and our youth on just how serious the issue of rapid climate change now is, and America needs to take a much more active leadership role in bringing front and center the seriousness of the climate crisis we now face and show the world how we are comprehensively responding to it. Unless there is a fundamental paradigm shift in the current economic model of modern civilization, climate change promises to accelerate and get worse, much worse, causing massive suffering worldwide, and doom our children and grandchildren to an increasingly grimmer existence in the future. Since the end of World War II, we have lived with complete abandon on Nature’s capital, not its interest. And the bills are coming due and fast. But do I think we are likely to wake up to the reality we now face? Probably not, or at least not until we cease denying the problem even exists, or its primary cause, and begin to seriously focus on finding realistic solutions. Until both and public and elites see the real threat global warming poses for the continuance of human civilization as we know it, we will be unable to either meaningful adapt to increasing climate chaos, or fundamental change the direction of modern society. What I am calling for is no less than all of society accepting the reality of global warming and as a society, buying into finding solutions before it is too late. That may sound to some as Socialist. But individuals taking only individual actions cannot solve the problem, only societal consensus and action has any hope of doing so. In the end, denying the sea is steadily rising will not stop it. And that’s a fact.

    • RickA says:

      Peter:

      Thank you for responding to my question.

      1. You say we need to move rapidly to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels.

      There is no way to do that. Only 2.5 % of energy is produced by wind and solar – and we do not have any way currently to produce the energy produced by burning fossil fuels with non-fossil fuels.

      We could switch to nuclear – but it would take quite a while to build the hundreds of nuclear power plants we need (just in the USA). I do support a gradual increase from producing 20% of our power with Nuclear to producing 50% of our power with Nuclear.

      The only way to rapidly switch from fossil to non-fossil is to invent a brand new non-carbon producing energy source. We have not invented this technology yet. It also needs to be cheaper than fossil (natural gas, coal or oil).

      So I am in favor of research dollars directed to non-fossil energy (more efficient solar, tidal, fusion, space based solar, etc.). We have to take the long view on this – it may take 25 years or 50 or 75 to crack this problem.

      2. You say we need to humanely reduce population worldwide. There is no way to do this humanely. Even if you passed draconian laws in every country – one family one child – (by definition not humane) – it would still take 50 years or more for the population to start to decline (a very crude estimate).

      3. You say we need a fundamental paradigm shift in the current economic model of modern civilization. You can only do this with invention of a technology which is non-carbon producing and which is cheaper than oil, coal and natural gas. If that were to occur (we have to invent it still) the entire world would switch over because it would be cheaper (it would still take 40 or 50 years based on the life of many plants). If you try to do it with laws, you will be pushing uphill and it won’t work. You may end up killing millions of people – probably many more than if we just adapted to climate change.

      4. You point out the sea is steadily rising and denying that will not stop it. I would point out the sea has been steadily rising for more than 20,000 years. Humans putting CO2 into the atmosphere for a 150 years is not why the sea has been rising for over 20,000 years. The only thing that will stop the sea rising is another ice age.

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