A first draft of the Congressionally mandated ‘National Climate Assessment’ offers plenty of material for informing audiences about climate impacts, even as it undergoes further revisions heading toward an early 2014 final report.

For media covering climate change, it’s easy to become a little numb to the steady drumbeat of bad news about our warming globe. How important is that study on melting sea ice? What does that persistent drought in the Southwest, or that string of violent weather in the Northeast, really mean?

The National Climate Assessment, NCA, a periodic report published by the federal government, is aimed at offering context and perspective to the paper trail of studies, the headline-grabbing storms, and the more slowly evolving patterns of environmental change. It’s something that every journalist dabbling in or specializing on climate news should pay attention to.

Reporters and others who know anything about climate change know about the IPCC effort to make sense of what’s happening on a global scale, and what to expect in the future. But the NCA is specific to the United States — and really, that’s what most editors of American news outlets most want to know about and share with their audiences.

It’s also a tool that’s used by many other stakeholders. As John Holdren, the President’s chief science adviser, and Jane Lubchenco, until recently administrator of NOAA,  wrote in a January 11 Office of Science and Technology Policy blog post:

… the NCA — which as a scientific document makes no policy recommendations — is expected to be used widely by public and private stakeholders who need information about climate change in order to thrive — from farmers deciding which crops to grow, to city planners deciding the diameter of new storm sewers they are replacing, to electric utilities and regulators pondering how to protect the power grid.

The Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates release of a new NCA report at least every four years. The public comment period for the draft of the third NCA just closed on April 12, and a final draft is expected in early 2014. A mammoth document at 1,146 pages, the draft NCA is the product of the U.S. Global Research Program (USGCRP), a collaboration of 13 federal agencies. A 60-member federal advisory committee oversees the process, and 240 authors are drawn from academia, local, state and federal government, the private sector, and nonprofit groups.

The authors of the draft discuss climate change impacts across eight regions of the United States and more than a dozen sectors of the American economy and society.

Comments have been submitted from all quarters, but the final draft of the NCA is expected to closely reflect a lengthy review by the National Research Council. Some of the NRC’s recommendations for change are noted below.

First, a few of the draft NCA highlights:

  • U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since 1895; more than 80 percent of this increase has occurred since 1980. The most recent decade was the nation’s hottest on record. In general, temperatures are rising more quickly at higher latitudes, but there is considerable observed variability. U.S. temperatures will continue to rise, with the next few decades projected to see another 2°F to 4°F of warming in most areas.
  • The chances of record-breaking high temperature extremes will continue to increase. There has been an increasing trend in persistently high nighttime temperatures. In other places, prolonged periods of record high temperatures associated with droughts are driving larger and more frequent wildfires. There is strong evidence to indicate that human-caused climate change has already roughly doubled the probability of extreme heat events like the record-breaking summer of 2011 in Texas and Oklahoma.
  • Very heavy precipitation has increased over the past century in many parts of the country. The largest increases have occurred in the Northeast, Midwest and Great Plains, where heavy downpours have exceeded the capacity of infrastructure such as storm drains, and have led to flooding and accelerated erosion.
  • Over the past century, the global sea level has risen by about 8 inches. Since 1992, the rate of global sea level rise measured by satellites has been roughly twice the rate observed over the last century. Sea level is projected to rise by another 1 to 4 feet in this century. In the Southeast, coastal infrastructure including roads, rail lines, energy infrastructure, port facilities and naval bases are at risk from storm surges exacerbated by rising sea level.
  • As the climate continues to warm, some existing threats to human health will intensify and new health threats will emerge. Increasingly frequent and intense extreme heat, which causes heat-related illnesses and deaths and over time, worsens drought and wildfire risks, and intensifies air pollution. Frequent extreme precipitation and associated flooding can lead to injuries as well as increases in marine and freshwater-borne disease. Rising sea levels also intensify coastal flooding and storm surges.
  • In the near-term, U.S. agriculture is expected to be resilient to the consequences of a warming climate, primarily by adapting to drought through irrigation changes and shifts in crops. But my mid-century, temperature increases and precipitation extremes are expected to overwhelm measures to adapt, tipping the balance toward declining yields and food insecurity.

Media coverage

The NCA draft has gained traction in the news media and specialty press, and its release earlier this year has led to numerous reports citing it. Here are a few:

  • WBEZ in Chicago cited the NCA’s projections of rainfall in the Midwest in a story on how climate change increases the risk of flooding in the city.
  • Agriculture Online quoted one of the two lead authors of the NCA chapter on agriculture, Gene Takle, about the increase in precipitation in the Midwest, in a story on how farmers are adapting to climate changes.
  • The progressive online site, Rawstory.com, cited the NCA in a story on March 22 that dealt with the lack of preparation in Texas for this summer’s expected drought, and skepticism within the Texas state government about the basic science of climate change.
  • The Salt Lake Tribune posted a column by Peg McEntee on March 20 that criticized Utah Republican Congressman Chris Stewart for his skepticism over climate change, partly in light of the new NCA draft.
  • On April 1, the Huffington Post cited the NCA report — “The findings in the report are a three-alarm fire,” Waxman said of the report — in the context of an article on Democratic moves to form a “Task Force on Climate Change” to educate the public.
  • KPCC Radio in Southern California reported on the NCA draft on April 9, lamenting the report’s forecast of hotter temperatures, drought and wildfires.
  • Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger weighed in on the NCA draft with an April 8 op-ed in the LA Times (titled: “California’s Silent Disaster”), and the Huffington Post took notice with a short post.
  • The Guardian, in the U.K., cited the report April 13 in a story on the threat of climate change to global food supplies — zeroing in on what the NCA draft has to say about heat stress and extreme weather on crops in the U.S. It quoted several interesting statistics from the NCA draft. Among them: The $50 billion Californian wine industry could shrink as much as 70% by 2050.

    “Critical thresholds are already being exceeded,” the story continued, quoting from the NCA draft. “Many regions will experience declines in crop and livestock production from increased stress due to weeds, diseases, insect pests and other climate change-induced stresses.”

    The Guardian article went on: “Very hot nights, fewer cool days and more heat waves, storms and floods have already devastated crops and will have ‘increasingly negative’ impacts, he [NCA lead author Jerry Hatfield] said.”

  • The Huffington Post, on April 24, offered yet another mention of the NCA draft in a blog post by Mia MacDonald of the public policy think tank Brighter Green. In that post, she cited the NCA draft on how U.S. agriculture contributes to climate change and other environmental problems.

NRC review

The National Research Council has recommended several areas for improvement in the NCA draft. Bloomberg BNA ran a story recently covering some of its more important recommendations, among them:

  • The report needs an “overarching framework” that helps people think about climate change within the “broader context of global change” — and the framework should be introduced at the beginning and reinforced throughout the report. Framing climate change should have two important dimensions: one, that human activity is the dominant driver of global environmental change; and two, that the best way to face the risks associated with climate change is “iterative risk management” — an approach that involves identifying optimal outcomes and then identifying actions that will lead to those outcomes.
  • The report sometimes portrays climate change as an isolated problem, and gives the false impression that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone will solve all of the major environmental concerns discussed in this report.” The report could note, “with greater frequency and clarity, that climate change will unfold in a broader and very complex context.”
  • More explicit discussion is needed about the uncertainties associated with regional model projections of climate change. Decision makers need a clear understanding of these uncertainties to decide how useful they are in planning decisions.
  • The report would be more balanced if it explicitly acknowledges the beneficial impacts that could result from climate change.
  • In several chapters, discussions of current and future impacts “comes across as a litany of disconnected facts with no sense of prioritization or major versus minor concerns.”
  • The draft at times looks at climate changes in isolation from other processes of change, and so climate change is sometimes portrayed as a key driving force of change — but in truth many trends are driven by several factors.
  • The NRC report also cautioned the NCA authors against an overly academic orientation, insider jargon and little discussion of real-world situations.
  • In a chapter on mitigation, planning activities are listed but the authors don’t offer “a systematic understanding of what is needed to advance effective adaptation efforts, nor a vision for how research could help the knowledge base to inform coherent adaption policy.”
  • Other critical content missing from the report includes information on the role of the oceans in the climate system; more international context in the discussion of energy use and mitigation efforts; how urban areas contribute to emissions and can reduce emissions; climate change impacts on cities; how land use changes affect how vulnerable a place can be to the consequences of climate change (such as flooding); potential health threats caused by climate-related changes in infectious diseases, and how little we still know about the connection between climate change, ecosystem change and disease vectors.

Now scheduled to review public comments and those from the NRC review, the NCA team is to continue work through the rest of the year, aiming for a final version by early 2014.

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...