The newly released National Climate Assessment from a team of federal agencies reinforces the climate-concerned messages from other reports and from a record year of natural disaster damages. But a question remains: Are the public and their leaders hearing the messages?


You may have heard that a draft of the National Climate Assessment has been released for public review by a federal advisory panel organized under the United States Global Change Research Program.

You may have heard too that the climate assessment was released just days after 2012 was named the hottest year on record for the contiguous U.S. It was the same day also that a new climate stabilization study highlighted 19, or as many as 31, stabilization wedges needed to prevent rapidly rising carbon emissions. (In 2004, scientists had suggested just seven wedges could do the job.)

You may have heard that a landmark study by 26 researchers from 47 institutions recently found that the rate of ice sheet melting in Antarctica and Greenland is now accelerating, and that those rates of melting are three times what had been projected in the 1990s. (It adds a half inch to rising sea levels — not a worst-case scenario — but the pace of melting in Greenland has heightened worry among scientists.)

And, you may have heard this week that recent record warm temperatures have resulted in the earliest spring flowering in the eastern U.S. in more than 150 years.

Feel the urgency of a warming planet, yet?

From ‘Distant Future’ … to Now ‘Firmly into the Present’

A dry California river bed shows the impacts of a 2009 drought. Photo credit: NOAA

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” wrote the leaders who produced the National Climate Assessment report, in an introduction. “Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours, though in many regions there are longer dry spells in between.”

The latest alert about what some might consider to be climate change 2.0, the acknowledgement by 240 scientists that climate change is occurring faster than anticipated, culminates with the comprehensive assessment by the Global Change Research Program. Could this critical mass of studies trigger movement for climate change policy action? Given the “uncompromising language of the report, and the stark picture that its authors have painted of the likely effects of global warming,” The Guardian reported, evidence is stacking up that may tip the scales.

Or, it may not.

The climate assessment also reveals the workings of a science communications success. A conversational tone. Use of strong language. Revamped messaging. The report’s “Letter to the American People” states clearly that climate change is occurring and is caused by human activities, and that the U.S. is already seeing dramatic effects:

Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the year, last later into the fall, threaten more homes, cause more evacuations, and burn more acreage.

You get the message. Or, do you? And will the American public?

According to Texas Tech associate professor Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent climate scientist and lead author of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, and an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the language doesn’t differ all that much from previous national assessments.

National Guard soldiers conducting Hurricane Sandy reconnaissance patrols. Photo credit: U.S. Army

“This assessment is not written for other scientists; it’s written for everyone who is or will be affected by climate change in the United States, and today that includes nearly all of us,” she explained. “For that reason, to the extent possible, we have written the report using straightforward language that does not sacrifice scientific accuracy but aims to be much easier to understand than the average scientific study.”

The straightforward communication, coupled with widespread impacts and last year’s costly natural disasters, could combine to give climate change its 15 minutes of “fame” in the public and media consciousness and in the public policy spotlight. Since the last assessment, in 2009, the U.S. has observed enough accelerated effects of climate impacts and weather whoppers to lead the Los Angeles Times to call the assessment “a grim overview.”

Media Reporting on the Findings

Federal reports are a tricky thing, from the inter-agency politicking to the timing of the release and the messaging and all else that goes into the daily news cycle. Yet with strong language and a synthesis of robust research, the assessment vividly describes a heavy toll that climate change is causing.

And many in the media have paid attention:

  • Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein wrote that climate change is already changing daily life. “Global warming is already changing America from sea to rising sea and is affecting how Americans live …”
  • USA Today put it this way: “How far off are the effects of climate change? Not far at all, says a new federal report that warns American lives are already being changed, and their behavior could make the problem worse.”
  • And according to Reuters, “The consequences of climate change are now hitting the United States on several fronts, including health, infrastructure, water supply, agriculture and especially more frequent severe weather, a congressionally mandated study has concluded.”

Looking at the ‘What’s New?’ in the Assessment

One area in the report that has gained more attention than it did in the last assessment involves the social sciences and the economics of climate impacts. The climate has delivered accelerated effects and infrastructure is being compromised. Businesses are impacted. Governments are planning for adaptation. Meant as a guide for decisionmakers on how to prepare for climate change, the assessment has no policy recommendations. Instead, it looks at how society’s choices about climate change will affect impacts. It examines economic and social costs, and looks at how all levels of government need to address and prepare for impacts and reduce emissions. For example, the report says that “rapid population growth and development in areas that are particularly susceptible to climate change impacts can amplify those impacts. Recognition of these couplings, together with recognition of the multiple-stresses perspective, helps identify the information needs of decisionmakers as they manage risk.”

According to climate scientist Todd Sanford, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the report reflects an evolution in scientific knowledge about climate change and makes it useful.

“They’ve included chapters on mitigation and adaptation that speak more to the ‘news you can use’ for the elected and appointed officials who are already integrating climate change into their planning,” he said.

Sanford points to the cross-cutting theme chapters, such as the nexus of water, energy, and land-use. He said that the assessment more clearly emphasizes how climate impacts combine with stressors or other elements of change, including changes to land use, increasing water use, and other factors.

“Climate change isn’t happening to individual regions or sectors alone,” Sanford says, “so putting it into a bigger context will help decisionmakers.”

Impacts on Business and Overall Economy Cited

So might the climate assessment, along with other recent reports and findings, help provide a fresh alert? Ceres president Mindy Lubber thinks so. She cites, among other things, economics as a key motivator.

Lubber said, “The draft report is a powerful message that climate change is having widespread impacts that are hurting businesses, hurting the economy and hurting taxpayers who oftentimes bear the biggest financial brunt of extreme weather events.

“We’re still reeling from a year that was marked by an unprecedented hurricane, a historic drought, damaging wildfires and other climate-influenced extreme weather. For insurers alone, U.S. losses last year from these natural disasters totaled $58 billion, more than double the 2000 to 2011 average yearly losses of $27 billion.”

The climate news hasn’t been so rosey lately. Human activity is warming the planet, and evidence indicates that the burning of fossil fuels has been the main contributor to that warming over the past 50 years.

Whether the assessment prompts action on climate is anyone’s guess. One thing’s for sure: There’s a clearer and clearer understanding by scientists and a continuing effort to find the most effective ways to get their message to the American public and their leaders.

(Excerpts from the Assessment)

  • “Global climate is changing, and this is apparent across the U.S. in a wide range of observations. The climate change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.”
  • “Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and there is new and stronger evidence that many of these increases are related to human activities.”
  • “Human-induced climate change is projected to continue and accelerate significantly if emissions of heat-trapping gases continue to increase.”
  • “Impacts related to climate change are already evident in many sectors and are expected to become increasingly challenging across the nation throughout this century and beyond.”
  • “Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events, wildfire, decreased air quality, diseases transmitted by insects, food, and water, and threats to mental health.”
  • “Infrastructure across the U.S. is being adversely affected by phenomena associated with climate change, including sea-level rise, storm surge, heavy downpours, and extreme heat.”
  • “Reliability of water supplies is being reduced by climate change in a variety of ways that affect ecosystems and livelihoods in many regions, particularly the Southwest, the Great Plains, the Southeast, and the islands of the Caribbean and the Pacific, including the state of Hawaii.”
  • “Adverse impacts to crops and livestock over the next 100 years are expected. Over the next 25 years or so, the agriculture sector is projected to be relatively resilient, even though there will be increasing disruptions from extreme heat, drought, and heavy downpours. U.S. food security and farm incomes will also depend on how agricultural systems adapt to climate changes in other regions of the world.”
  • “Natural ecosystems are being directly affected by climate change, including changes in biodiversity and location of species. As a result, the capacity of ecosystems to moderate the consequences of disturbances such as droughts, floods, and severe storms is being diminished.”
  • “Life in the oceans is changing as ocean waters become warmer and more acidic.”

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Topics: Policy & Politics