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.