Extra! Extra! Climate Change is here!


It’s official. Climate change is here and it’s high time we did something about it.

These are the conclusions from a series of reports released earlier this week by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The three reports focus on the state of climate science and strategies for limiting and adapting to climate change. They find, somewhat unsurprisingly for those who have been paying attention, that the available science overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the climate is changing and that humans activities are the primary cause. The report also finds that warming poses a significant risk to humans and ecosystems and that we need to take urgent action to reduce emissions.

What’s the big deal about yet another climate change report confirming what most of us already knew? First, this report was requested by Congress and carried out by a well respected and impartial institution. Not that it will matter to the climate change deniers, but this is a thorough review of the available science by the nation’s foremost experts, echoing the conclusions of the IPCC report but with several more years of data to consider. These reports brush aside the recent spate of manufactured skepticism over climate science and tell us that, yes, this is still a big problem, and we don’t have much time to solve it.

But while the findings on climate science and strategies for reducing carbon pollution get most of the press, the more interesting part of these reports is their extensive coverage of climate adaptation. The third report focuses entirely on adaptation and echoes a number of points we make around here frequently. They note that we’ve been adapting to climate in this country for centuries, but it’s been a relatively stable climate. What we’re facing now are temperatures and precipitation patterns that are outside the range of anything we’ve experienced before. In the near term the report recommends that we start with the low-hanging fruit by implementing actions that have multiple benefits and changing maladapted policies that increase our vulnerability to climate impacts.

A couple the report’s overarching recommendations are worth mentioning here. First, they argue that we need a new paradigm for resource management that takes into account a range of possible conditions, i.e. we cannot wait for certainty to begin adapting. Second, they call for an integrated approach to adaptation with local planning and federal government involvement in the form of technical assistance and guidance through development of national strategy. While the Obama administration has begun a number of adaptation initiatives, these will need to be significantly expanded based on the report’s recommendations.

The report also offers a detailed list of adaptation options. In the water section, they include a range of strategies including water efficiency and conservation, removal of vulnerable structures in floodplains, stream buffers, and retaining stormwater through green infrastructure techniques. On the down side they also propose new dams and levees, interbasin transfers, and other traditional engineering approaches without an adequate discussion of how to prioritize green vs. gray approaches.

All in all, this is a great report, and the emphasis on adaptation reinforces the shortcomings of the latest climate bill due to its lack of community adaptation provisions. In the face of rapidly changing conditions, any bill that purports to be comprehensive climate legislation must send a strong message that adaptation has to be a priority at every level of government and provide incentives to mainstream adaptation nationwide. Let’s hope that our Senators are paying attention to this report.