America Ignores Its Own Climate Change Assessment

You may have heard that the United States government recently published a report on climate change.  Although it is also likely that you heard nothing because the Trump administration dismissed the report’s findings, along with its underlying science. Notwithstanding Trump’s ignorance and apathy, we all need to pay attention and heed these latest warnings. 

By way of background, the Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (“USGCRP”) deliver a report to Congress and the President no less than every four years that 1) integrates, evaluates, and interprets the findings of the Program; 2) analyzes the effects of global change (e.g., effects on the natural environment, agriculture, etc.); and 3) analyzes current trends in global change.

The USGCRP recently published its Fourth National Climate Assessment (the “Assessment”) to fulfill this mandate. This Assessment has been published over the course of two volumes, the first of which focused on the underlying science and was published in 2017.  The second volume was published two weeks ago and hones in on the human welfare, societal, and environmental elements of climate change.  In particular, it focused on the variability of impact for 10 regions and 18 national topics, including observed and projected risks, and considerations for risk reduction. 

To grasp the dire message from this Assessment, one only needs to read the first sentence: “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities.”  Despite this powerful opening, and the strong supporting evidence and analysis further summarized below, the Trump administration has done everything to try to bury the findings of its own federal government  report.  White House press secretary Sarah Sanders even said, “We think that this is the most extreme version and it’s not based on facts.  It’s based on –it’s not data-driven.  We’d like to see something that is more data-driven.”     

Data-driven? The Assessment is based on peer-reviewed scientific literature, and the authors used “well-established and carefully evaluated observational and modeling datasets, technical input reports, USGCRP’s sustained assessment products, and a suite of scenario products.” All sources met the standards of the Information Quality Act, which requires federal government agencies to employ sound science when disseminating information.  Sounds data-driven to me!  

And who were the authors of the Assessment?  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) served as the administrative lead for the Assessment’s preparation, and a Federal Steering Committee, composed of representatives from USGCRP agencies, oversaw its development. A team of more than 300 federal and non-federal experts (e.g., national laboratories, universities, etc.) volunteered their time to produce the Assessment. Regional engagement workshops connected with over 1,000 individuals in over 40 cities, while listening sessions, webinars, and public comment periods provided valuable input to the authors. These participants included public and private sectors decision-makers (e.g., environmental managers, scientists, educators, etc.). If that is not a robust and qualified group of authors, I don’t know who would qualify. 

The Trump administration’s asinine comments aside, even though the impacts of climate change are already being felt in the United States and are likely to intensify in the near future, their future severity will depend largely on the societal response.  Will we take actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?  How will we adapt to the changes that inevitably occur?

The Assessment articulates how, based on its findings, climate change risks will only continue to worsen without additional action.  It also makes clear that current global and regional efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change (e.g., burning of fossil fuels) do not approach the scale required to avoid substantial damage to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decade.  The morbid reality is that this catastrophic risk is staring us straight in the face, while America’s leaders act with extreme recklessness and willful blindness of scientific proof, even when this proof comes from their own government agencies. 

Thankfully the same is not true of other world leaders.  In a joint declaration released on December 1, 2018, leaders of the G20 nations reaffirmed their commitment to addressing climate change through the Paris Agreement – with the exception of the United States.  A G20 communique explained how America reiterated its position to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and retains the right to use all sources and technologies for economic growth, energy access, and security, while protecting the environment. 

Given the calamitous climate risks facing humanity, America’s response is not sufficient. It is not emblematic of the supposed “leader of the free world.”  As evidenced by the recent Assessment, we no longer have the luxury of assuming that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past.  Modern civilization has never experienced the current meteoric rise in global average temperature, which can only be explained by the effects that human activities (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions) have had on the climate.

The unique risks posed by climate change vary by region and sector, along with the vulnerability of people experiencing impacts.  Not surprisingly, low-income communities, minority groups, children, and the elderly, are the some of the people most at risk.  The effects of climate change will only exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities, whether it is through famine, drought, or natural disasters.  Some of these effects include:

  • Extreme high temperatures and heavy precipitation events;
  • Shrinking of glaciers and snow cover, including the retreat of sea ice;
  • Warming and rising of the world’s oceans, which are becoming more acidic, forcing marine species to move to cooler waters;
  • Increased flooding along the United States coastline; and
  • Higher occurrence of wildfires, hurricanes, and other climate-related natural disasters

The observed changes as a result of greenhouse gas emissions is seemingly endless.  Although natural factors can influence how much of the sun’s energy enters and leaves Earth’s atmosphere, and how natural climate cycles and weather patterns have an impact in the short term, the Assessment unequivocally states that “greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the only factors that can account for the observed warming over the last century.” Scientists have not discovered any credible alternative cause or explanation to date that is supported by data and observational evidence.  In fact, the Assessment found that without human activities, based on the influence of natural factors alone, the last 50 years should have caused a slight cooling effect on the global climate.

What this means is that humans must change their behavior on both the global and community levels.  Perhaps the best way to affect change is by hitting people where it matters most – their wallet.  Putting a price on carbon through a tax or other means, or developing programs like Cap-and-Trade in California (signed by a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger), would be a great start.  If America continues to do nothing and fails to lead on this issue, we will put future generations at unimaginable risk.             

The Assessment concludes that: “the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising.” If that conclusion from an esteemed group of scientists is not enough to convince willfully blind Americans and other climate deniers around the world, nothing will until it’s too late.

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