Despite Trump administration officials working to dismiss the government’s alarming new National Climate Assessment (NCA), scientists at the American Geophysical Union meeting sounded an optimistic note this week, emphasizing that the report’s findings are being widely accepted across the country.
“You asked if people are not taking it seriously. I think it’s quite the opposite,” Michael Wehner, a scientist studying human influence on extreme weather and one of the climate assessment authors, told ThinkProgress. “It is taken very seriously by a large number of people. There will always be people who aren’t going to believe this, and those people are just missing the boat.”
Even if the science is broadly accepted, however, scientists emphasized that policies to address the problem lag behind and the world is still far from where it needs to be to seriously tackle dangerous climate change.
The congressionally-mandated NCA, released at the end of November, detailed the costly and accelerating consequences of increased global temperatures on the United States. In it, scientists warn that without “substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” annual average global temperatures could increase by a staggering 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century, compared to pre-industrial temperatures.
ThinkProgress spoke to scientists at this week’s annual AGU meeting in Washington, D.C. — some of whom helped author the NCA — about the manner in which the report has been received and what it’s like to work on such dire science.
Climate scientists said that in their experience working with local officials and for those living in areas vulnerable to climate impacts, most people accept that climate change is happening, despite the Trump administration’s attempts to downplay or dismiss man-made climate change.
Top officials, including President Donald Trump, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Andrew Wheeler, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, for instance, all slammed the NCA’s findings as exaggerated.
The idea that the NCA’s findings are exaggerated is “simply false,” Wehner, a senior staff scientist in the Computational Research Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said. “This is probably the most highly reviewed document of all time.”
Robert Field, an associate research scientist specializing in wildfires at Columbia University’s Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, agreed. “I can’t think of a process that is more exhaustive and traceable, transparent,” he said.
William Sweet, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who worked on the coastal effects chapter of the assessment, said he doesn’t personally experience much of the push-back to the science. “I don’t get the citizens denying or refuting,” Sweet said. “And the agency as a whole, we’re continuing to do what we can do.”
NOAA often works with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Defense, Sweet noted, and “they’re very interested and concerned” about climate change because of the direct implications for defense operations. According to a report earlier this year, for instance, half of all U.S. military installations around the world are at risk from climate change.
“I think if nothing else, there’s been more of an inter-agency demand for such information about changing climate and what does that really mean for coastal risk vulnerability,” he said. “The demand for this information is not going away.”
The same is true on the local level, said Peter Ruggiero, a professor of geology and geophysics at Oregon State University. Ruggiero wasn’t involved in this year’s NCA, but he has worked on past versions.
Ruggiero explained that in his work with local leaders, he’s learned that understanding and acting on the science is a practical matter for people living with the reality of climate change on a daily basis — from shifting shorelines and drought to intense storms and hazardous wildfires.
“We don’t get into arguments about humans causing climate change,” he said. “I think they just want to understand. They’re having problems today that are impacting their constituents… so they want to understand [emissions] trajectories and what’s going to happen going forward, and what kinds of things they can do about it.”
Despite the dramatic shift in federal climate policy since Trump took office, states across the U.S. have been pledging their commitment to climate action through new laws to adopt clean energy or go carbon neutral within a few decades. Numerous coastal cities and states are also actively opposing offshore drilling.
But while some local leaders may be forging ahead, the absence of leadership at the top levels of government is hard to ignore — and the Trump administration’s active support for expanding fossil fuels is likely detrimental to successful climate action.
As a report from America’s Pledge initiative warned in September, while the U.S. can get close to achieving its 2025 goals under the Paris climate agreement without federal support, it can’t get all the way without “renewed engagement from all stakeholders and across all sectors, including the U.S. federal government.”
While top scientists gathered for the AGU meeting in Washington, across the Atlantic in Poland, the U.N. climate conference, COP24, was underway. Coal was on full display at the talks — showcased in cages, as soap, and as jewelry — while the U.S. was accused of undermining the talks by promoting fossil fuels during a side event and refusing to accept the most recent findings from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Both events closely followed the release of major climate change reports, including an IPCC report published in October and the NCA, all of which came with the same warning: without aggressive new policies to support significant climate action, the world is on course for extreme warming. The impacts of climate change are already here, the reports show, and they will be varied, simultaneous, and cascading.
For scientists passionate about studying these issues, their reaction to seeing the reality of climate change unfold in recent years is the same as anyone else’s.
“For a long time I’ve been able to be very clinical about it, [it’s] a very academic exercise, and try not to think about the impacts,” said Wehner. “But then there’s something that happens and all that collapses and you think, oh, this climate change stuff really stinks.”
This happened last year with Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, and this year with Hurricanes Florence and Michael, along with the catastrophic Camp Fire in California — all events that science has shown were made more severe due to rising global temperatures.
Living and working in these affected areas means that “all of a sudden this academic thing has become very personal,” said Wehner. “You know people that are impacted by events that I know… are now either more severe or more likely [due to climate change].”
“I’ll try getting back to being the clinician,” he continued, “but every once in a while, something like this happens and one is reminded that this is actually a real thing.”
To cope, Sweet says he finds refuge in sailing, while Ruggiero enjoys visiting the desert or the beach, but none of the scientists who spoke with ThinkProgress said they felt a need to escape from their work — if anything, seeing the obvious influence of climate change motivates them even more.
“It’s not always good,” said Field. “You just work harder.”
“I think our role is to really communicate the observations in a way that make sense,” said Sweet. As a scientist, he believes he can serve his country by “bearing witness to what’s happening now and saying, hey, here’s the prognosis of the future.”