I think I was around eleven years old when I last thought it would be good to be an American.Â But I admit to a small twinge of envy as I read the report released yesterday by the Administration:Â Â Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Â This is a scientific report, backed by the government, telling the general public what is now known of global warming and what it will mean for the US. The sort of thing one would have thought is a core function of democratic government. Meanwhile in New Zealand a select committee is required to solemnly consider submissions from climate science deniers, a PM wants us to be ready in case the science deteriorates and the sceptics are right, and a leading climate scientist is sacked for what sound like trivial offences against management policy.
The report is the first on climate science under the Obama watch and is, as Jane Lubchenco head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, â€œgood science, science that informs policy.â€Â Â Over thirty expert scientists made up the author team for the report, which was called for by the US Global Change Research Programme and subject to review and comment and subsequent revision. Â The report has been designed for a general readership, clearly explained and well illustrated. It is long, but a 20-page booklet highlights its main features.
The report doesnâ€™t say anything that those who have been following the science donâ€™t already know.Â But it says it plainly and without equivocation, as the following extract from the booklet demonstrates:
Climate change is apparent now across our nation. Trends observed in recent decades include rising temperatures, increasing heavy downpours, rising sea level, longer growing seasons, reductions in snow and ice, and changes in the amounts and timing of river flows. These trends are projected to continue, with larger changes resulting from higher amounts of heat-trapping gas emissions, and smaller changes from lower amounts of these emissions. The observed changes in climate are already causing a wide range of impacts, and these impacts are expected to grow.
The report follows the trends into greater detail, after first sketching the global picture and projecting continued temperature rises over this century, depending on the amount of heat-trapping gas emissions and the sensitivity of the climate to those emissions.
The impacts in the US are assessed first by sector.Â The sectors covered include water resources, transportation, ecosystems, agriculture, society, human health, energy supply and use.Â In discussing ecosystems, for example, there is a clear recognition of changes that have already occurred. Headings such as this are common: â€œLarge-scale shifts have occurred in the ranges of species and the timing of the seasons and animal migration, and are very likely to continueâ€.Â Examples follow under each heading.
The second form of impact assessment is by region, nine in all.Â An example from the Great Plains geographical region:
â€œSignificant trends in regional climate are apparent over the last few decades. Average temperatures have increased throughout the region, with the largest changes occurring in winter months and over the northern states. Relatively cold days are becoming less frequent and relatively hot days more frequent. Precipitation has also increased over most of the area.â€Â
The report then proceeds to indicate the likely problems ahead in terms of water resources, stressed farming and agriculture, changing human communities, and so on.
The concluding remarks speak of the scientific underpinnings of informed policy.Â This is what the report seeks to provide.Â The scenario projections leave it clear enough that the less is done to reduce emissions the more dire the consequences will be. The report also briefly discusses mitigation and adaptation and in doing so states that carbon dioxide emissions are a primary focus of mitigation strategies. These include improving energy efficiency, using energy sources that do not produce carbon dioxide or produce less of it, capturing and storing carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use, and so on. Choices made about emissions reductions now and over the next few decades will have far reaching consequences for climate-change impacts. But this is about as far as the report ventures into the policy field. Â Its major concern is to communicate the science accurately and usefully for policy makers and the general public.
The report is to be welcomed as yet another sign that the Obama administration is taking climate science seriously.Â Those who continue to deny the need for action have also to deny the science. The previous US administration may have been prepared to do that for several long benighted years, but Obamaâ€™s White House is according science its proper place. The fact that the report is largely limited to the impacts of climate change on the US is probably helpful in terms of political action in the country whose actions matter more than any others at this crucial time.Â No doubt vested interests will continue to pressure US lawmakers to ignore reality, but with reports like this that path must be looking more and more dangerous.
Extraordinarily the New York Times has buried the story, but the Guardianâ€™s US correspondent Suzanne Goldberg provides an excellent coverage and a sense of the political importance of the report.