U.S. National Academy of Sciences Presents "America's Climate Choices"

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Above: The Rock House fire burns near the McDonald Observatory, Texas. The fire started on 9 April 2011 and eventually burned over 314,000 acres.  By the end of April, over 2.2 million acres had burned in Texas under record drought conditions. Frank Cianciola.

Just days after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called April “a month of historic climate extremes across much of the United States," the National Academy of Sciences released a report today (12 May 2011) describing the opportunities Americans have to prepare for a future where such conditions are more frequent and severe -- and to reduce the risks of much greater climate disruption in the future. Texas Congressman Joe Barton, remains unmoved -- despite a commitment made in late 2009 to accept the academy's findings, and despite extraordinary drought conditions in his home state.

The report by the Academy's National Research Council (NRC), America's Climate Choices,  says that "[c]hanges in climate and related factors have been observed in the United States," including changes in precipitation patterns:

"[H]eavy downpours have become more frequent and more intense; the frequency of drought has increased over the past 50 years in the southeastern and western United States, while the Midwest and Great Plains have seen a reduction in drought frequency; and [t]he frequency of large wildfires and the length of the fire season have increased substantially in both the western United States and Alaska."

The report cites several examples of impacts that are projected under many different climate change scenarios:

  • more intense, more frequent, and longer-lasting heat waves, both globally and in the United States;
  • global sea level rise with potentially large effects on infrastructure, beach erosion, loss of wetlands, vulnerability to storm surge flooding in the Gulf Coast and other coastal regions, and irreversible commitments to future changes in the geography of the Earth as many coastal and island features ultimately become submerged;
  • widespread bleaching and stresses on coral reefs, globally and in the Florida Keys, Hawaii, and U.S. island possessions, due to the combined effects of heat stress, ocean acidification, pollution, and overfishing;
  • greater drying of the arid Southwest (putting additional pressure on water resources) and expansion of deserts in the United States;
  • effects on agriculture due to elevated CO2 levels, temperature and precipitation changes, and also by possible increases in weeds, diseases, and insect pests;
  • shifts in the ranges of forest tree-species (northward and upslope), increases in forest fire risk across much of the western United States, and a potential increase in the number of species at risk of extinction; and
  • increased potential of public health risks, for instance, from heat stress; from elevated ozone air pollution; from certain diseases transmitted by food, water, and insects; and from direct injury and death due to extreme weather events.

"America's response to climate change is ultimately about making choices in the face of risk," says William L. Chameides, chair of the NRC committee that released the report today. The NRC listed seven key recommendations:

  • "RECOMMENDATION 1: In order to minimize the risks of climate change and its adverse impacts, the nation should reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially over the coming decades. The exact magnitude and speed of emissions reduction depends on societal judgments about how much risk is acceptable. However, given the inertia of the energy system and long lifetime associated with most infrastructure for energy production and use, it is the committee’s judgment that the most effective strategy is to begin ramping down emissions as soon as possible.
  • RECOMMENDATION 2: Adaptation planning and implementation should be initiated at all levels of society. The federal government, in collaboration with other levels of government and with other stakeholders, should immediately undertake the development of a national adaptation strategy and build durable institutions to implement that strategy and improve it over time.
  • RECOMMENDATION 3: The federal government should maintain an integrated, coordinated, and expanded portfolio of research programs with the dual aims of increasing our understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change and enhancing our ability to limit climate change and to adapt to its impacts.
  • RECOMMENDATION 4: The federal government should lead in developing, supporting, and coordinating the information systems needed to inform and evaluate America’s climate choices, to ensure legitimacy and access to climate services, greenhouse gas accounting systems, and educational information.
  • RECOMMENDATION 5: The nation’s climate change response efforts should include broad-based deliberative processes for assuring public and private-sector engagement with scientific analyses, and with the development, implementation, and periodic review of public policies.
  • RECOMMENDATION 6: The United States should actively engage in international level climate change response efforts: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through cooperative technology development and sharing of expertise, to enhance adaptive capabilities (particularly among developing nations that lack the needed resources), and to advance the research and observations necessary to better understand the causes and effects of climate change.
  • RECOMMENDATION 7: The federal government should facilitate coordination of the many interrelated components of America’s response to climate change with a process that identifies the most critical coordination issues and recommends concrete steps for how to address these issues."

Despite Earlier Commitment to Accept Academy's Conclusions, Congressman Joe Barton Says "I see nothing substantive in this report"

In the past, Texas Congressman Joe Barton has dismissed evidence that climate change poses a serious threat, including in his home state. Barton is the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  "We don’t have an icecap in Texas," said Barton in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009 as climate negotiators from around the world met in the city to address the problem. But at the time, Barton also said that if an "independent assessment" of climate science were conducted by "any number of respected institutions [such as] the National Academy of Sciences... I’d  accept their conclusions." (see WWF Climate Change Blog, Texas Congressman in Copenhagen Dismisses Climate Science: "We don’t have an icecap in Texas", 23 Dec 2009). 

Barton at the time seemed to share the sentiments of John H. Marburger III, President George W. Bush's science advisor, who in 2004 said:  "I regard the committees of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council as the gold standard for scientific advice, and I always urge that their advice be considered very seriously in any policy context."

However, when presented with this latest volume in the growing stack of publications the National Academies has devoted to climate change, Barton reneged on his earlier commitment to accept the Academy's conclusions.  “I see nothing substantive in this report that adds to the knowledge base necessary to make an informed decision about what steps — if any — should be taken to address climate change,” Barton said in an interview with the New York Times today (Leslie Kaufman, "Report Stresses Urgency of Action on Climate," New York Times, 12 May 2011).

Meanwhile, Back in Texas: A Record Breaking Drought as Climate Change Loads the Dice

Meanwhile, as of Tuesday (10 May 2011) nearly 98% of his home state of Texas is in the grips of one of the worst droughts on record, with nearly half of the state in "exceptional drought" -- the most intense category of drought (see U.S. Drought Monitor information on Texas).

On Monday (9 May 2011), Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon reported:  

For Texas, March and April were the driest March-April on record, by a large margin. The state averaged only 1.03 inches; the previous record was 1.76 inches and the long-term average is 4.18 inches. Also, February through April shattered the record.  The state averaged only 1.69 inches, breaking the previous record by 0.88 inches; average would be 5.82 inches.  October through April, with 5.83 inches, broke not just the previous October-April record but the record for any seven-month period.

Though there has been a long term increase in annual rainfall in the state, it is not evenly distributed over time.  ”Recently, our drought years have been alternating with flood years," Nielsen-Gammon says.  Furthermore, there has been a warming trend in the state.  ”With warmer temperatures nearly everywhere, we need more rainfall just to keep up with the evaporation," he says.  "And when it’s both warm and dry, as it is now in Texas, the drought is that much worse.”  See Texas Drought Setting More Records, press release from Texas A & M University, 9 May 2011.

Image source: Texas A & M Unversity.

The Dallas Morning News recently reported on the connection between the Texas drought and climate change (see Texas' bad wildfire year might not indicate climate change, but it shows pattern, scientists say, 18 April 2011):

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a research associate professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, said Texas trends are already emerging -- especially a tendency toward more extreme rainfall events.

"Here in West Texas, our rainfall's getting more variable," said Hayhoe, a specialist in modeling climate change across regions. "It's either feast or famine. It's either really dry or it's really wet. We're not getting a lot in the middle."

Rainfall in a few heavy bursts rather than throughout a growing season might not help crops very much. Higher temperatures might boost irrigation demands, further depleting West Texas' already declining Ogallala Aquifer, Hayhoe said.

Although no one drought or flood can be blamed on climate change, she said, the chances for such events might increase, like rolling dice loaded with an extra six.

"You never know if the six you roll is the natural one or the climate-change one," Hayhoe said. "But you do know you're getting them twice as much as you used to."

What's next for Earth

Gerald North, a noted climate scientist at Texas A&M, said the recent Texas weather illustrates what's projected for a warmer Earth.

Storms usually affecting the middle latitudes will move toward the poles, bypassing Texas, North said.

"We have been missing those rainy frontal passages of fronts here in College Station this spring," he said. "They just are not coming this far south, on average.

"For this reason, much of the state is in a drought condition."

The current pattern, North said, matches what the models suggest will happen with climate change: Summers starting earlier in the year and lasting longer, with a tropical climate and no storm fronts passing through, just occasional isolated storms.

Although no single event or even a whole year's weather can be blamed on climate change, North said, "this is exactly what has been predicted."

See also Climate Central's Texas Wildfires Continue to Rage Amidst Historic Drought Conditions, by Dave Levitan (27 April 2011).

Above: Nature Reserve sign near Possum Kingdom Lake, west of Forth Worth, Texas, after spring wildfires (collectively called the PK complex) burned through the drought stricken area in April 2011.

Online Resources:

America's Climate Choices.  By Committee on Americas Climate Choices, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, National Research Council.  Published by the National Academies Press, 2011. 

Explainer: Is Climate Change Playing a Role In Mississippi River Floods? "With major flooding continuing along the Miss. River, Climate Central tackles the question of how climate change fits into the picture."  From Andrew Freedman, Climate Central, 11 May 2011.

WWF Climate Change Blog:


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