A draft version of the 2013 National Climate Assessment is making headlines this week, and not because it is so uplifting. According to the report, the effects of climate change are becoming alarmingly visible throughout America and the rest of the world.
The 1146-page report reads less like a government assessment and more like the Old Testament. Accounts of hurricanes, droughts, floods, impending famines, and natural disasters of every kind are listed in the report, and all of these occurrences have been directly linked back to climate change.
Many aspects of the global climate are changing rapidly, and the primary drivers of that change are human in origin. Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans (Kennedy et al. 2010). This evidence has been painstakingly compiled by scientists and engineers from around the world using satellites, weather balloons, thermometers at surface stations, and many other types of observing systems that monitor the Earth’s climate system.
The sum total of this evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming. Temperatures at the surface, in the troposphere (the active weather layer extending up to about 8 to 12 miles above the ground), and in the oceans have all increased over recent decades.
The report is unequivocal about both the causes of climate change and the impacts. As evidenced in the excerpt above, this information was compiled by experts from all over the scientific community, using every possible instrument to be as accurate as possible.
Reuters highlights a few of the more dire consequences of climate change listed in the report:
Threats to human health from increased extreme weather events, wildfires and air pollution, as well as diseases spread by insects and through food and water;
Less reliable water supply, and the potential for water rights to become a hot-button legal issue;
More vulnerable infrastructure due to sea-level rise, bigger storm surges, heavy downpours and extreme heat;
Warmer and more acidic oceans.
An interesting point about the report, a point that was put forward recently by Chris Mooney for Mother Jones, is that it finally puts climate change in terms that the average, unconcerned American citizen can understand: It points out how individuals will be affected in their “own backyards.”
This is something that was missing from previous climate assessments, as Mooney points out:
The good news is that the process involves scientists traveling around the country and getting people's reactions to this series of alarming predictions—which makes the final assessment more likely to gain traction. Indeed, the development of the draft report coincides with the launch of “NCANet,” a “network of networks” to get everyone from civil engineers to zoo to aquarium managers involved. So far, 60 organizations have signed on…
This may be the real genius of such an approach—and the thing that really terrifies the deniers. If you go into communities and get people thinking about what they will have to do to prepare for climate change, there's a good chance they will conclude that they can't simply “get ready.” Preparedness and adaptation may sound good in theory, but are they really plausible when we're talking about turning planetary knobs far past the settings that have endured for most of recent human civilization?
Despite the dire situation that the report describes, there could still be reason for optimism. If the research process has the public talking about the climate change links to the extreme weather they're experiencing, it could open the doors for an honest, open discussion in Washington about addressing climate change impacts.
But that will require the American public to demand action from elected officials, and to remain vigilant about the matter regardless of the view out their window at any given moment.