11 january 2013

Climate change set to make America hotter, drier and more disaster-prone

Draft report from NCA makes clear link between climate change and extreme weather as groups urge Obama to take action

By Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correpondent, The Guardian, 11 January 2013

Future generations of Americans can expect to spend 25 days a year sweltering in temperatures above 100F (38C), with climate change on course to turn the country into a hotter, drier, and more disaster-prone place.

The National Climate Assessment, released in draft form on Friday , provided the fullest picture to date of the real-time effects of climate change on US life, and the most likely consequences for the future.

The 1,000-page report, the work of the more than 300 government scientists and outside experts, was unequivocal on the human causes of climate change, and on the links between climate change and extreme weather.

"Climate change is already affecting the American people," the draft report said. "Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense including heat waves, heavy downpours and in some regions floods and drought. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting."

The report, which is not due for adoption until 2014, was produced to guide federal, state and city governments in America in making long-term plans.

By the end of the 21st century, climate change is expected to result in increased risk of asthma and other public health emergencies, widespread power blackouts, and mass transit shutdowns, and possibly shortages of food.

"Proactively preparing for climate change can reduce impacts, while also facilitating a more rapid and efficient response to changes as they happen," said Katharine Jacobs, the director of the National Climate Assessment.

The report will be open for public comment on Monday.

Environmental groups said they hoped the report would provide Barack Obama with the scientific evidence to push for measures that would slow or halt the rate of climate change – sparing the country some of the worst effects.

The report states clearly that the steps taken by Obama so far to reduce emissions are "not close to sufficient" to prevent the most severe consequences of climate change.

"As climate change and its impacts are becoming more prevalent, Americans face choices," the report said. "Beyond the next few decades, the amount of climate change will still largely be determined by the choices society makes about emissions. Lower emissions mean less future warming and less severe impacts. Higher emissions would mean more warming and more severe impacts."

As the report made clear: no place in America had gone untouched by climate change. Nowhere would be entirely immune from the effects of future climate change

Some of those changes are already evident: 2012 was by far the hottest year on record, fully a degree hotter than the last such record – an off-the-charts rate of increase.

Those high temperatures were on course to continue for the rest of the century, the draft report said. It noted that average US temperatures had increased by about 1.5F since 1895, with more than 80% of this increase since 1980.

The rise will be even steeper in future, with the next few decades projected for temperatures 2 to 4 degrees warmer in most areas. By 2100, if climate change continues on its present course, the country can expect to see 25 days a year with temperatures above 100F.

Night-time temperatures will also stay high, providing little respite from the heat.

Certain regions are projected to heat up even sooner. West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware can expect a doubling of days hotter than 95 degrees by the 2050s. In Texas and Oklahoma, the draft report doubled the probability of extreme heat events.

Those extreme temperatures would also exact a toll on public health, with worsening air pollution, and on infrastructure increasing the load for ageing power plants.

But nowhere will see changes as extreme as Alaska, the report said.

"The most dramatic evidence is in Alaska, where average temperatures have increased more than twice as fast as the rest of the country," the draft report said. "Of all the climate-related changes in the US, the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice cover in the last decade may be the most striking of all."

Other regions will face different extreme weather scenarios. The north-east, in particular, is at risk of coastal flooding because of sea-level rise and storm surges, as well as river flooding, because of an increase in heavy downpours.

"The north-east has experienced a greater increase in extreme precipitation over the past few decades than any other region in the US," the report said. Between 1958 and 2010, the north-east saw a 74% increase in heavy downpours.

The midwest was projected to enjoy a longer growing season – but also an increased risk of extreme events like last year's drought. By mid-century, the combination of temperature increases and heavy rainfall or drought were expected to pull down yields of major US food crops, the report warned, threatening both American and global food security.

The report is the most ambitious scientific exercise ever undertaken to catalogue the real-time effects of climate change, and predict possible outcomes in the future.

It involved more than 300 government scientists and outside experts, compared to around 30 during the last such effort when George W Bush was president. Its findings were also much broader in scope, Jacobs said.

There were still unknowns though, the report conceded, especially about how the loss of sea ice in Greenland and Antarctica will affect future sea-level rise.

Campaign groups said they hoped the report would spur Obama to act on climate change in his second term. "The draft assessment offers a perfect opportunity for President Obama at the outset of his second term," said Lou Leonard, director of the climate change programme for the World Wildlife Fund. "When a similar report was released in 2009, the Administration largely swept it under the rug. This time, the President should use it to kick-start a national conversation on climate change. "

However, the White House was exceedingly cautious on the draft release, noting in a blogpost: "The draft NCA is a scientific document—not a policy document—and does not make recommendations regarding actions that might be taken in response to climate change."


[Two days after the appearance of the above reportage in the UK daily The Guardian, its weekly equivalent, The Observer, printed the following editorial on the same subject. It's worth going back to the original publication to read some of the 310 comments.]

Now no one can deny that the world is getting warmer

Last week's report by America's National Climate Assessment reveals the full horror of what's happening to our planet

Editorial, The Observer, Sunday 13 January 2013

The draft version of the US National Climate Assessment, released on Friday, makes remarkable reading – not just for Americans but for all humanity. Put together by a special panel of more than 240 scientists, the federally commissioned report reveals that the US is already reeling under the impact of global warming. Heatwaves, droughts, floods, intense downpours, rising sea levels and melting glaciers are now causing widespread havoc and are having an impact on a wide range of fronts including health services, infrastructure, water supply, agriculture, transport and flood defences.

Nor is there any doubt about the cause of these rising temperatures. "It is due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuel," the report states. As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere soar, temperatures rise and chaos ensues. Air pollution intensifies, wildfires increase, insect-borne diseases spread, confrontations over water rights become more violent and storm surges rise. This is the near future for America and for the rest of the world. Earth is set to become a hotter, drier, unhealthier, more uncomfortable, dangerous and more disaster-prone place in coming years.

The language used in this exhaustive, carefully researched investigation is also worthy of comment. It includes the word "threat" or variations 198 times and versions of the word "disrupt" another 120 times. After poring over the 1,146 pages of the assessment, readers will be under no illusions about what is happening to our planet. The robustness of its rhetoric is especially striking because it contrasts so noticeably with the debate – or to be precise, lack of debate – on climate change that occurred during last year's presidential campaigning.

Neither President Obama nor his opponent, Mitt Romney, made more than a cursory mention of the issue, despite the fact that it now affects just about every aspect of existence on our planet today. As the assessment makes clear, global warming is not just about polar bears. It is about the lives of people today and about those of future generations.

A three-month period for public comment will now follow last week's publication of the draft assessment. The US National Academy of Sciences will also review the document before a final version is published later this year. The ensuing debate promises to be an intriguing and important one. The US is the world's greatest economy and a massive emitter of greenhouse gases. Until its political masters act, the planet has no chance of halting global warming or curtailing rising sea levels or dealing with the increasing acidification of our oceans or coping with the melting of Earth's icecaps.

Given the vehemence of opposition in the US to the suggestion that climate change is manmade, we should not be too hopeful of immediate action. Most of the Republican party believes the concept is a liberal hoax, for example, along with an array of rich and powerful industrial foundations and corporations. A bitter struggle lies ahead.

From this perspective, it might be tempting to sneer at the US over its response to the challenge of climate change. Britain has little to be smug about, however, a point that was demonstrated last week by media coverage of the Met Office's updated forecast of likely global warming over the next five years. In revising downwards, albeit slightly, its previous expectation for temperature rises from now until 2017, the Met Office found itself at the midst of a PR shambles. In their dozens, climate change sceptics charged forwards to claim this data showed that global warming has stopped, a completely misleading suggestion that was not properly challenged by journalists.

In fact, the Met Office's figures indicate that most of the years between 2013 and 2017 will be hotter than those of the hottest year on record. More to the point, British forecasters still stand by their longer-term projections that anticipate there will be significant warming over the course of the century.

The fact that this message was lost on the public suggests climate change denial is becoming entrenched in the UK, or that our media have become complacent about the issue, or both. Whatever the answer, there is little cause for cheer. Both sides of the Atlantic are dithering over global warming. Yet the issue is real, as the US climate assessment emphasises. In making that clear, the report should be welcomed.

>>> Back to list