National Research Council Reaffirms Climate Change Science; Cites Urgent Need to Reduce Emissions and Prepare for Impacts

The National Research Council  today (19 May 2010) released three major reports on climate change.  The reports solidify the scientific basis for action on climate change, and conclude that there is an urgent need for the U.S. to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

The reports are the first to be released as part of a Congressionally mandated study called America's Climate Choices.  The National Research Council (NRC) is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering.  The overall study is overseen by the Committee on America's Climate Choices, and each report was produced by a different panel.

Advancing the Science of Climate Change

In Advancing the Science of Climate Change, the panel reviews the science of climate change and recommends steps that can be taken to advance the science.  "Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems," the report concludes.  It bases that conclusion on "a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research...While much remains to be learned, the core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious scientific debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations." (emphasis added)

Further driving the point home, the panel writes:

"Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities."

The panel explains that climate change is unlike the other risks we ordinarily face:

"For example, many climate change processes have considerable inertia and long time lags, so it is mainly future generations that will have to deal with the consequences (both positive and negative) of decisions made today. Also, rather than smooth and gradual climate shifts, there is the potential that the Earth system could cross tipping points or thresholds that result in abrupt changes. Some of the greatest risks posed by climate change are associated with these abrupt changes and other climate “surprises” (unexpected changes or impacts), yet the likelihood of such events is not well known. Moreover, there has been comparatively little research on the impacts that might be associated with “extreme” climate change—for example, the impacts that could be expected if global temperatures rise by 10 °F (6 °C) or more over the next century. Thus, while it is clear that the Earth’s future climate will be unlike the climate that ecosystems and human societies have become accustomed to during the last 10,000 years, the exact magnitude of future climate change and the nature of its impacts will always remain somewhat uncertain." (emphasis added)

The panel concludes that "additional research is needed both to continue to improve understanding of climate change and to support effective responses to it. This expanded research enterprise needs to be more integrative and interdisciplinary, will demand improved infrastructural support and intellectual capacity, and will need to be tightly linked to efforts to limit and adapt to climate change at all scales. "

Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change

In a second report, Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change, the panel concludes "that there is an urgent need for U.S. action to reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions."  Toward that end, the panel recommends that U.S. policy makers:

  • "Adopt a mechanism for setting an economy-wide carbon pricing system.
  • Complement the carbon price with a portfolio of policies to:
    • realize the practical potential for near-term emissions reductions through energy efficiency and low-emission energy sources in the electric and transportation sectors;
    • establish the technical and economic feasibility of carbon capture and storage and new generation nuclear technologies;
    • accelerate the retirement, retrofitting or replacement of GHG emission-intensive infrastructure.
  • Create new technology choices by investing heavily in research and crafting policies to stimulate innovation.
  • Consider potential equity implications when designing and implementing climate change limiting policies, with special attention to disadvantaged populations.
  • Establish the United States as a leader to stimulate other countries to adopt GHG reduction targets.
  • Enable flexibility and experimentation with policies to reduce GHG emissions at regional, state, and local levels.
  • Design policies that balance durability and consistency with flexibility and capacity for modification as we learn from experience."

Regarding the importance of U.S. leadership in the international community, the report says:

"...the indirect effects of U.S. action or inaction are likely to be very large. That is, what this nation does about its own GHG emissions will have a major impact on how other countries respond to the climate change challenge; and without domestic climate change limiting policies that are credible to the rest of the world, no U.S. strategy to achieve global cooperation is likely to succeed. Continuing efforts to inform the U.S. public of the dangers of climate change and to devise cost-effective response options will therefore be essential for global cooperation, as well as for effective, sustained national action."(emphasis added)

"To reach a serious international agreement under the UNFCCC, with meaningful action by low- and middle-income countries, some financial transfers from richer to poorer countries seem essential," the panel says.  It adds:

"Sustaining large, direct governmental financial transfers to low-income countries may pose substantial challenges of political feasibility; however, large financial transfers via the private-sector could be facilitated via a carbon-pricing system that allows purchases of allowances or offsets. There is a clear need for support of innovative scientific and technical efforts to help low- and middle-income countries limit their emissions. To provide leadership in these efforts, the United States needs to develop and share technologies that not only reduce GHG emissions, but also help advance economic development and reduce local environmental stresses."

Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change

The third report, Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change, leaves no doubt about the need to prepare for the impacts of climate change:

"The United States is already experiencing impacts of climate change that require adaptation. Some of these impacts are already testing, or soon will seriously test the nation’s coping mechanisms. In summary, the panel finds that climate change impacts are certain to increase throughout this century, requiring significant effort to adapt in order to avoid socially, economically, and environmentally disruptive changes in systems with high value to society. Adaptation options need to address current and projected changes in mean weather variables as well as increases in the frequency and intensity of many extreme events. Impacts later this century will be notably greater if GHG emissions are not stabilized at a moderate level. If the magnitude of climate change is relatively severe...then regions, sectors, and systems will be hard-pressed to cope with impacts and their costs."(emphasis added)

Nevertheless, "adaptation to climate change has been a low national priority," the panels says, and some of the impediments have been political:

"For several decades, climate change adaptation has been neglected in the United States, perhaps because it was perceived as secondary in importance to mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or perhaps more importantly because it would actually take attention away from mitigation by implying that the country can simply adapt to future changes. In addition, the topic of climate change and the discussion of options for responding have become much more highly politicized in the United States than in some other parts of the world. Arguments in the media over whether climate change is “real” and to what degree it is a problem generated by human activity have confused people about whether action is needed and whether their actions can make any difference. Further, there are frequent suggestions in the media that responding to climate change is “too expensive” or that the options available to limit emissions and adapt to impacts will have a negative impact on the U.S. economy."(emphasis added)

Other factors hampering adaptation efforts are "lack of engagement, lack of resources, lack of adaptation-related research, poor understanding of vulnerability, and limited capacity to improve these conditions in the face of competing policy priorities."  The panel continues:

"Recent developments — the emergence of scientific consensus on causes and long-term trends in climate change; evidence that climate change impacts are already underway; realization that greater changes are coming, even if their timing and magnitude remain uncertain; and recognition that the past is no longer a reliable guide for the future — have validated the need for adaptation planning to manage risk. The existing barriers to adaptation illustrate that, without a well-integrated, comprehensive planning process and an adaptive risk-management approach, the United States is ill-prepared at this time to efficiently and effectively deal with climate change impacts."(emphasis added)

The panel argues that "[m]any current and future climate change impacts require immediate actions to improve the ability of the nation to adapt."   The report continues:

"It is the judgment of this panel that anticipatory climate change adaptation is a highly desirable risk management strategy for the United States. Such a strategy offers potentials to reduce costs of current and future climate change impacts, not only by realizing and supporting adaptation capacities across different levels of government,  different sectors of the economy, and different populations and environments, but also by providing resources, coordination, and assistance in assuring that a wide range of distributed actions are mutually supportive."(emphasis added)

The report provides a list of ten major recommendations in support of a national climate change adaptation effort, including the recommendation that "[t]he United States should engage as a major player in adaptation activities at the global scale. The United States should support the establishment of a collaborative, sufficiently funded international adaptation program that can be sustained over time."

Additional Reports

The NRC will release two additional reports in the America's Climate Choices series later this year. The first, Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change, will consider ways to inform decision makers about climate change.  Finally, an overarching report will be released.  According to the NRC, it will "build on each of the previous reports and other work to offer a scientific framework for shaping the policy choices underlying the nation's efforts to confront climate change."

Online Resources:

Strong Evidence on Climate Change Underscores Need for Actions to Reduce Emissions and Begin Adapting to Impacts.  Press release (19 May 2010) from the National Academies.

Report Release Briefing Webcast

America’s Climate Choices reports: 

Reactions to the Report:



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