The impact of climate change is already being felt on every corner of the U.S., the third installment of the National Climate Assessment reported on Tuesday, as heatwaves, drought, stronger rainfall and coastal storms are being experienced with greater intensity across the country.
“Climate change is happening now. It’s not something in the future,” said Don Wuebbles, coordinating lead author of the report and University of Illinois atmospheric scientist. “It’s happening now, it’s actually happening quite rapidly … and the evidence clearly points to the reason we’re getting these changes is because of human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels.”
“I just hope that we convince as many people as possible that they live in a dynamic climate, that the old normal is broken and we have no idea what the new normal is going to look like when all of this is done,” said Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University and since 2010, a leader of the advisory committee that guided the multi-year process.
The result “is the most comprehensive evaluation of the impacts of climate change on the American people, across the country, where they live,” said Yohe.
Temperatures across the country have already risen 1.3°F to 1.9°F since 1895 — with most of this increase occurring since 1970 — and the effects are clearly being felt. But the changes being observed now are just the beginning, the authors say. “Temperatures are projected to rise another 2°F to 4°F in most areas of the United States over the next few decades,” according to the report, and up to 10°F by the end of the century if serious reductions in our emissions are not made.
As a result, climate change can no longer be relegated to a back-burner issue but needs to be viewed as the all-encompassing phenomenon it is, said Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech University climate scientist and lead author of the report. Climate change “interacts with, and in many cases exacerbates, the concerns we already have — concerns about the economy, concerns about the health of our children, about immigration, social justice, national security,” she explained. “And that’s why we care about it, not because it’s some brand new issue that we add to the bottom of our list.”
In an effort to convey the influence of the changing climate on the lives of Americans, the report is broken down into easily navigable sections that explain the threat climate change poses to water supplies, rural communities, indigenous peoples, agriculture, and eight regions of the U.S., among others. All three scientists emphasized that a driving motivation throughout the drafting, advisory committee meetings and countless reviews was to create something that was accessible to the average person.
“This is the first major report from the U.S. federal government that’s being published electronically,” said Yohe, so visitors to the site can “click on a map and get the data or click on a reference and actually get the paper.”
“We wanted to meet people where they’re at,” Hayhoe said. And while scientists are virtually in lock-step about the reality of climate change and the role of human activity, the American public isn’t quite there. So meeting people where they are involved answering some of the most common questions people have, questions that came in through websites like www.climate.gov or through the EPA or to the scientists themselves during their day jobs. “If you go online or listen to a talk show you hear people saying, is this real? Isn’t it going to be too expensive to address this issue? Why does it matter, isn’t it just about the polar bears?” So the new report added a Frequently Asked Questions section that aims to answer these questions with the best science available and in a manner that can reach the maximum number of people.
To get an idea of just how large an undertaking this assessment was, Yohe said each section “went through four, five, or six checks. Every reference went through Information Quality Act checking so even if it was peer-reviewed, experts in NOAA had to read it and make sure they were comfortable with the scientific integrity of that particular reference.” And how many people does it take to accomplish such an enormous task? In addition to the 44 people on the advisory committee, there were 18 representatives of various agencies, approximately 300 authors of the 30 chapters, and another 50 or so review editors “who went over every comment and made sure that the response was appropriate,” according to Yohe. And the vast majority of those people were working on a strictly volunteer basis.
With all of the attention given to strenuous peer and public reviews, answering all of the comments submitted after the draft assessment was released last year, and creating a final product that is both comprehensive and accessible, Wuebbles hopes the latest National Climate Assessment can erode some of the politicization that has marred climate science to date. “Like most scientists I’m pretty apolitical,” he said. “It really bothers me that there’s this attitude right now where one party kind of accepts it and the other party doesn’t. That doesn’t make sense for something that’s really based on our scientific understanding of how the Earth works.”
The assessment isn’t just focused on evaluating impacts, however. Significant attention is given to the action that must be taken soon to change our current trajectory and avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. The report’s warning is stark: “There is mounting evidence that harm to the nation will increase substantially in the future unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases are greatly reduced.”
And with our emissions skyrocketing into uncharted territory, we can no longer look to the past for guidance. “If we don’t look forward it’s as if you’re driving a car and looking in the rear view mirror for guidance,” said Hayhoe. While reducing emissions is very important, so too is preparing our communities for the impacts that are already locked in, Hayhoe explained. “Adaptation is essential when we look at the way we get our food, the way we build our buildings, the amount of water and energy that we depend on getting now and in the future — we have to look forward instead of backward.”
And while the prospect of Congress taking serious action to address climate change only grows bleaker, states and cities across the country have taken matters into their own hands. Hayhoe points to Dallas, Texas as a recent example: they are “reducing their energy use, reducing their carbon footprint and adapting to climate change — and they’re doing it all without calling it climate change.” And just last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a broad-scale effort to reduce the state’s carbon emissions and expand the use of clean energy.
Despite these positive steps, the assessment is clear that much more needs to be done across the board — and quickly. “Despite emerging efforts, the pace and extent of adaptation activities are not proportional to the risks to people, property, infrastructure, and ecosystems from climate change,” the report states.