January 21, 2013

Obama and Climate Change

 President Obama devoted a few sentences to climate change in his second Inaugural Address. The pundits have lumped them together with gay rights as being the controversial parts of his speech. Really? I suppose in some quarters that may be the case, but I might suggest that, like gay rights, climate change is another instance where the American people are ahead of the politicians and pundits.

Many people believe that climate change was never really that high on President Obama's political agenda. In all fairness, he had a lot on his plate, but at the end of the day, climate change received short shrift when it came to backing up talk of the need to change with bold proposals to effectuate change in an economy still totally dependent on fossil fuels.

But if talk is all we got from the government, at least some of it is worth listening to. The U.S. Global Change Research Program is a joint effort by 13 federal agencies tasked with coordinating and integrating federal research on changes in the global environment and their implications for society. They have just released for public comment a draft of their third National Climate Assessment. The report looks at the impact of a changing climate on each region of the country as well as each affected economic and social sector.

I have taken the findings below from the Executive Summary of the report. Taken together, they highlight as daunting a set of problems as any generation has ever faced. You can pick any section in the report and find plenty to worry about. From the water we drink to the food we eat, from the oceans to the plains, through wildfire and torrential rains, by drought and flood, all creatures great and small are threatened by a changing global climate.

The last finding on the list below is the most relevant political point. We are talking a good game about reducing emissions and reducing future impacts, but actions are not keeping up with our words. It goes back to a point I have raised many times over the years. To ask politicians to commit billions of scarce tax dollars today to avoid problems two or three decades from now is to ask for too much. It won't happen until the evidence of a looming crisis is immediate and unmistakable. Of course, then it will be too late.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Human-induced climate change is projected to continue and accelerate significantly if emissions of heat-trapping gases continue to increase.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 Hawai`i.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. Life in the oceans is changing as ocean waters become warmer and more acidic.
11. Planning for adaptation (to address and prepare for impacts) and mitigation (to reduce emissions) is increasing, but progress with implementation is limited.

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