It’s been talked up as a “game-changing” new report, which shows ordinary Americans how climate change is already affecting their lives on everything from summer heat and power shortages, to pollen allergies and asthma.
But will the US National Climate Assessment, released by the White House this week, make any practical difference? In particular, will people in the US and worldwide take on board the report’s crucial recommendations that more be done to adapt to environmental changes that we’re too late to avoid?
If this report finally shifts attention from climate risks decades into the future, to what we need to do today to adapt to and reduce those risks, then there is a slim chance it could live up to its game-changing hype.
“Americans are noticing changes all around them”
Released this week, the report finds that climate change is no longer “an issue for a distant future”, but one that has “moved firmly into the present”.
In direct language, it states that “many lines of independent evidence demonstrate that the rapid warming of the past half-century is due primarily to human activities”, and that:
the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country … Americans are noticing changes all around them.
It concludes that few places in the US will be unscathed, and that the “observed warming and other climatic changes are triggering wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and throughout our economy”.
Importantly, the report calls for greater adaptation to deal with and prepare for impacts, as well as mitigation to reduce future climate change (for example, by cutting emissions).
Adaptation and mitigation are closely linked; adaptation efforts will be more difficult, more costly, and less likely to succeed if significant mitigation actions are not taken.
The National Climate Assessment was prepared over the past three years by a team of more than 250 authors, involving 13 national government agencies, then extensively reviewed by the public and experts.
It was also supervised by a 60-member committee representing a cross-section of American society that includes researchers, investors and representatives of two oil companies.
From TV to Congress
President Barack Obama is now using the report to try to build public support for stronger climate action, including giving interviews to popular TV weather presenters, in the hope of cutting through to American lounge rooms.
President Obama has recently taken executive action on climate change that doesn’t require Congressional approval (Congress has thus far proved disinclined and incapable of passing climate change legislation).
For example, he has issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency to “expeditiously” finalise emission standards for both new and existing power plants.
And the US Supreme Court last week upheld an Environmental Protection Agency decision to limit cross-state pollution, which could also bring tougher greenhouse gas emission standards.
Adapting to change
But climate change mitigation at the national level in the US – and worldwide – has not been effective, as we have previously argued.
These recent developments notwithstanding, there are no clear signs that that’s about to change. As the new report says:
Despite emerging efforts, the pace and extent of adaptation activities are not proportional to the risks to people, property, infrastructure and ecosystems from climate.
This view is mostly shared by the activist Peter Kingsnorth, the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine cover story, who says rather more directly that “we are really screwed here. We are not going to stop this [climate change] from happening”. He asks, “What do you do when you accept that all of these changes are coming?”
Kingsnorth’s view is that, instead of trying to save the Earth as it is today, people should start talking about what is actually possible – or, put another way, ways to adapt.
But adaptation also faces challenges, as noted in Oxford University Professor Jörg Friedrichs’ recent book The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, which argues:
• industrial society is “hopelessly in overshoot”; • climate change and energy scarcity can’t be averted; • the resultant social and political consequences will vary but will be very serious; and • “there is an entire moral economy of inaction” to prevent the planet from addressing the issues.
Holding global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels is the limit agreed by most nations as a non-binding, global warming “safety threshold”. Yet even 2C is problematic.
A paper published late last year by scientist James Hansen, economist Jeffrey Sachs and others argues that cumulative emissions of a trillion tonnes of carbon (associated with the 2 degrees target) would spur eventual warming of 3 to 4 degrees.
Such warming, they say, would have disastrous consequences. Put another way, such a target is “well into the range of dangerous human-made interference with climate”.
The future we’re making today
Several years ago, the Los Angeles Times asked Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert to write an opinion piece on the psychology of people’s responses to threats including climate change.
Professor Gilbert argued that there were a number of answers to the question, including that humans tend not to be rational about risk. As he wrote:
It’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people).
Unlike a brutal dictator or terrorist with a face we could picture, he said, climate change “doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities”. Also, he wrote, “we see [global warming] … as a threat to our futures — not our afternoons”.
His final reason as to “why we just can’t seem to get worked up about global warming” is this:
The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure … and just about everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected … Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly.
Many of us who have followed the science on climate change, including the authors of this US National Climate Assessment, would say that climate change is happening too fast. Yet most of us can’t quite get our minds around climate change as a clear and present danger, despite the US Department of Defense long identifying it as a global security threat.
In Professor Gilbert’s view, that’s because “we haven’t quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present it will soon become”.