Although much of the discussion about climate change impacts has focused on increases in temperature and the rise in sea level, changes that impact our nation’s water resources could have the greatest impact on society. A quick glance at recent newspaper headlines—heavy spring rains leading to massive flooding of the Mississippi River, historic drought covering large parts of Texas, and extensive wildfires spreading across Arizona—provides more than enough evidence of how vulnerable we are to water-related extreme events.
While these events have led some to ask whether they are caused by climate change, this question misses the mark. Individual weather events are not “caused” by any single phenomenon—and climate change’s contribution to individual events will not be resolved cleanly in the years to come. What virtually all climate scientists agree on, however, is that the climate is already changing, all weather events now form under different conditions than they used to, and this change is increasing the probability of extreme weather events happening. It makes sense to learn what we can from actual events and avoid getting caught up in an irresolvable debate about why a particular event happened. We would be better served by learning more about what is at risk from extreme events and what we can do to better manage and minimize those risks.
A recent interagency draft report, National Action Plan: Priorities for Managing Freshwater Resources in a Changing Climate, highlights both the extensive economic and social risks that we face as a nation from the impact of climate change on water resources and the critical steps we need to take to begin facing up to these challenges.
The report documents the changes in our climate system that are already evident and are likely to increase over time. Warmer air and sea surface temperatures and rising sea levels are only part of the picture. Total precipitation has increased by about 5 percent over the past 50 years, and the amount of precipitation that occurs during the heaviest downpours has increased by 20 percent. However, regional variations appear likely with increased precipitation in the northern part of the country while areas in the south, particularly in the southwest, are likely to get drier. The strengthened hydrologic cycle puts wet areas at risk of getting wetter while dry areas are at increased risk of drought. Areas dependent on water from melting snow packs may also face substantial changes as more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow and as earlier snowmelt changes the timing and quantity of water availability.
The implications of these changes cut a wide swath across our economy and environment. Water availability is critical in sectors as diverse as agriculture, electricity generation (hydroelectric, but also fossil fuel generation and nuclear power), heavy transport, mining and mineral exploration, and storm water management. Beyond economic factors, water is also critical to ecosystem wellbeing, wildfire management, and public health.
In order to more effectively manage these risks, and to enhance the resiliency of our water resource systems, the report sets out six general recommendations and 24 specific actions that should be undertaken by federal agencies and their partners. It calls for a more formal planning process, highlights the need for improved information, enhanced capacity building, better integration across related issues, and better tools for assessing vulnerabilities, and recommends expanded water use efficiency.
These actions are by no means a cure-all for the challenges we face in managing the increasing demands on our water resources in a changing climate. Nor are they a substitute for slowing the rate and magnitude of climate change through reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The most effective risk management strategy is to avoid the risk all together. But with climate change already underway, we are too late to avoid some changes, and adaptation will be critical to reducing economic and environmental costs. We need only to look at the costs and suffering from recent extreme weather events to understand the risks we face.
Comments on the draft plan are being accepted until July 15, and can be submitted to: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/initiatives/adaptation/freshwater-plan
Steve Seidel is Vice President for Policy Analysis
Today the National Academies released the final report in its most comprehensive assessment of climate change entitled America’s Climate Choices.
Statement of Eileen Claussen
President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change
May 12, 2011
I applaud the National Academies for providing policymakers and the public with this comprehensive and authoritative study to advance the country’s response to climate change. America’s Climate Choices reaffirms the overwhelming scientific evidence – climate change is real and the case for action is clear.
Left unchecked, climate impacts pose significant risks to our economy and security. If we continue to ignore and delay acting to minimize these very real risks, we are inviting more severe impacts and greater costs. Meaningful action will increase certain costs, but clear-headed analyses show those costs will be manageable and far outweighed by the economic, security, and environmental benefits.
In the year since the first installments of America’s Climate Choices were published, extreme weather events have affected millions of lives and cost billions of dollars in the U.S. and across the world. Current flood damage along the Mississippi River and drought-induced wildfires that have ravaged more than 2 million acres this year in Texas are the latest reminders of the risks we will face and the need to act to address our growing vulnerabilities.
We also agree with the National Academies that more studies and scientific findings alone will not advance sensible energy and climate solutions. Straight-forward answers about the risks and growing costs we face from inaction and the economic costs and opportunities from advancing innovative energy solutions must be effectively communicated to broader audiences in a clear and honest way.
From Washington, to Wall Street, to Main Street, Americans need a fair shake on the energy-climate debate. They need a clearer understanding of our climate and energy challenges and what it means to them. We look forward to building on the work of America’s Climate Choices to advance this conversation so the choices America makes enhance our security, grow our economy, and protect our environment today and for generations to come.
Pew Center Contact: Tom Steinfeldt, 703-516-4146
Changing Planet is a three-part series of town hall events intended to encourage student learning and dialogue about climate change by gathering scientists, thought leaders, business people, and university students to discuss the facts of climate science, the dynamics of its impact and to brainstorm solutions. The series is prodiced in partnership between NBC Learn (the educational arm of NBC News), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Discover magazine.
The first town hall event, Changing Planet: The Impact on Lives and Values, was hosted at Yale University and moderated by NBC News Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw. The discussion explored themes of human health, national security, economic opportunity and competitiveness, moral or religious values, environmental justice, and what climate change means for youth. The panelists were Linda Fisher, Dupont’s chief sustainability officer; Rajendra Pachauri, director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute and a Nobel Prize laureate; Billy Parish, founder and coordinator of the youth-oriented Energy Action Coalition; and Katherine Hayhoe, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at Texas Tech University and an expert on the intersection between Christian fundamentalism and climate change.
A second Changing Planet: Clean Energy, Green Jobs and Global Competition town hall was hosted at George Washington University on April 12, and focused on the economic advantages of climate change solutions, including clean energy policies and technologies and creation of market green jobs. Tim Juliani, Director of Corporate Engagement, was a panelist and provided our perspective on the clean energy debate. Other panelists included: Ken Zweibel, a professor at GWU, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins (head of Green for All), and Chris Busch (director of Policy and Programs at the Apollo Alliance). NBC News reporter Anne Thompson moderated this event.
Read Discover Magazine's story on Building a Green-Collar Economy with a full transcript of the Changing Planet: Clean Energy, Green Jobs and Global Competition town hall.
The third town hall will be held at Arizona State University in the fall of 2011, and its suggested focus will be “Keeping It Fresh: Our Water Future,” impacts of how communities are adapting, or preparing to adapt to, changing availability of fresh water..
In addition to the Changing Planet town halls, NBC Learn and NSF worked together to produce a series of 12 online video reports looking at the impact of climate change in various locations around the world. From Bermuda’s tropical seas to the Arctic Ocean, each story follows scientists in the field who are studying the dramatic impacts of rising temperatures in the air, in the water, and on land. The series is narrated by Anne Thompson, Chief Environmental Affairs Correspondent for NBC News. Watch the full video series here.
The State of Maryland released a new report earlier this year recommending a course of action to adapt to our changing climate. This report is the latest in a series that began in 2007 when Governor Martin O’Malley issued an executive order to establish the Maryland Commission on Climate Change. The commission was charged with addressing the causes of climate change and adapting to the most likely impacts. In 2008, the Maryland Climate Action Plan was released, addressing impacts, mitigation, and economic concerns.
Among the impacts highlighted in the Climate Action Plan was sea level rise, projected to be more than a foot by mid-century and as much as 3 feet by 2100. If the highest rates are realized, most tidal wetlands would be lost and about 200 square miles of land would be inundated. The bay would also suffer additional stresses as restoration goals become more difficult to achieve. Aquatic species composition will change and increased nutrient runoff into the bay will make water quality goals much harder to meet. Impacts are projected to occur inland as well with heat waves greatly increasing the risk of illness and death. The average year will have 24 days above 100°F by the end of the century. Ground level ozone, formed under prolonged, high temperatures will increase, resulting in more respiratory illnesses, especially among vulnerable populations.
The Action Plan addressed the adaptation needs of coastal regions but only highlighted the need to pursue the development of adaptive strategies for other affected sectors. In response, work began on a report specifically for adaptation in these other sectors. Earlier this year, the culmination of this effort was released as the Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change, Phase II: Building societal, economic and ecological resilience. The report provides the basis for guiding and prioritizing state-level activities with respect to both the climate science and adaptation policy within short to medium-term timeframes.
- Human Health: Conduct vulnerability assessments to gain a better understanding of risks and inform preventative responses by assessing potential health threats and the sufficiency of Maryland’s response capacity. The impacts to food safety and availability must also be evaluated.
- Agriculture: Increase crop diversity, protect against incoming pests and disease, and intensify water management through research, funding and incentives. Enhance existing Best Management Practices (BMPs) and land conservation targets including revising targets for agricultural land preservation. BMPs that are geared toward protecting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay are likely to be significantly shifted as changes in seasonality and precipitation occur.
- Forests and Terrestrial Ecosystems: Expand land protection and restoration and revise targeting priorities. This includes integrating climate data and models into existing resource assessments and spatial planning frameworks as well as developing adaptation guidance for local government planning. Management practices to reduce existing forest stressors should also be adjusted. High elevation forest species such as the red spruce or Eastern hemlock will likely disappear from Maryland as will the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly and ecosystem management plans must reflect these future changes.
- Bay and Aquatic Ecosystems: Restore critical bay and aquatic habitats to enhance resilience. It is recommended that the state be proactive in the design and construction of habitat restoration projects due to their importance in enhancing the resilience of aquatic ecosystems. Dam removal projects on Octoraro Creek in Cecil County and Raven Rock Creek in Washington County have resulted in reduced stream temperatures and moderated stream flow, boosting connectivity between habitats and resilience of fish and other transient species.
- Water Resources: Ensure long-term safe and adequate water supply for humans and ecosystems. Reduce the impacts of flooding and stormwater by removing high-hazard water supplies and preventing inundation and overflow of on-site disposal systems. On-site disposal systems already lead to raw sewage leakage in Maryland are likely to worsen with increases in extreme precipitation. These failing septic systems must be improved or replaced.
- Population Growth and Infrastructure: Plan for precipitation-related weather extremes and increase resilience to rising temperatures by identifying investment needs to prepare for weather emergencies and improving stormwater management strategies. Urban tree canopy should also be increased to provide urban heat reduction, stormwater reduction, and air filtration.
Not every state has an adaptation plan, and Maryland is one of only two states (Virginia) in the Mid-Atlantic region to have completed one or made progress. However, both North Carolina and South Carolina have Climate Action Plans that call for an adaptation report and more states are moving towards producing adaptation plans. Maryland is at risk from a variety of ill-effects due to climate change and the identification and implementation of key adaptation measures will ensure the state minimizes the impacts and costs of climate change in the long run. Other states would do well to take heed, and move to minimize their costs as well.
Dan Huber is Science & Policy Fellow
To see the economic costs of extreme weather you don’t have to look all the way to Russia where last summer’s heat wave caused extensive wildfires and crop losses roiled world markets for wheat. Nor do you have to look as far as Europe where in the summer of 2003, a 1-in-500 year heat wave caused at least 35,000 premature deaths. No, extreme weather events have recently occurred within the United States. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, extensive flooding in the region in 2008 caused damage estimates of $8-10 billion. In Nashville, Tennessee, in May 2010, a 1-in-1000 year storm caused floods resulting in more than $3 billion in damage.
Whether you think these are just isolated incidents or are part of the emerging pattern of climate change, there is one thing we can all agree on. These events result in significant economic loss and to the extent we can build greater resilience into our economy to minimize losses from extreme weather, we will all be better off.
Q&A with Eileen Claussen
Originally published by Australian Centre for Leadership for Women as part of an expert panel on climate change, Empowering Women to Lead the Way in Climate Change Action
What are the main drivers for you in believing in climate change and taking action?
The issue of climate change is not about belief but science. The scientific community has reached a strong consensus regarding the science of global climate change. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe the warming of the earth is unequivocal. This warming is largely the result of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities, including industrial processes, fossil fuel combustion, and changes in land use, such as deforestation. Enough is known about the science and environmental impacts of climate change for us to take actions now to address its consequences. In the words of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences 2010 report to Congress: “It is unequivocal that the climate is changing, and it is very likely that this is predominantly caused by the increasing human interference with the atmosphere. These changes will transform the environmental conditions on Earth unless counter-measures are taken.”
Can you explain how the cap and trade emissions trading program operates and why do you advocate this program over the emissions tax option?
A cap-and-trade system is one of a variety of policy tools that exists to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. I believe it is the best tool because it offers environmental certainty (a cap) and economic flexibility (ability to reduce emissions in places where it’s most cost-effective). Once established, a well-designed cap-and-trade market is relatively easy to implement, can achieve emissions reductions goals in a cost-effective manner, and drives low-greenhouse gas innovation.
The key difference between a tax and the cap-and-trade approach comes down to the issue of certainty and environmental benefit. A tax provides cost certainty; the cost is fixed because of the tax. Cap and trade, on the other hand, provides environmental certainty because of the cap. With a carbon tax, many emitters will reduce their emissions rather than pay the tax.
In more detail … In a cap-and-trade program, the government determines which facilities or emissions are covered by the program and sets an overall emission target, or “cap,” for covered entities (firms held responsible for emissions). This cap is the sum of all allowed emissions from all included facilities. Once the cap has been set and covered entities specified, tradable emissions allowances (rights to emit) are distributed (either auctioned or freely allocated, or some combination of these). Each allowance authorizes the release of a specified amount of greenhouse gas emissions, generally one ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). The total number of allowances is equivalent to the overall emissions cap (e.g., if a cap of one million tons of emissions is set, one million one-ton allowances will be issued). Allowance trading occurs because firms face different costs for reducing emissions. For some emitters, implementing new, low-emitting technologies may be relatively inexpensive. Those firms will either buy fewer allowances or sell their surplus allowances to firms that face higher emission control costs.
I understand that the Pew Center has produced 85 peer-reviewed reports on climate change in an effort to demystify the subject for members of Congress and interested companies. Can you point out what has been the focus of this effort in relation to what exactly the Center has aimed to demystify and how do you regard the outcomes of this effort in leading the Pew Center on Climate Change?
As a non-profit, non-partisan and independent organization, the PewCenteron Global Change does its best to provide credible information, straight answers, and innovative solutions to addressing climate change. One of the Center’s goals is to demystify a wide range of topics that are critical to the issue of climate change, from the science and impacts, to the economics, to policies, and solutions. Our goal is to provide the best information - in an understandable way - so that policy makers and stakeholders can make informed decisions.
More than any other area, I believe our greatest impact has and continues to be engaging the business community on climate and clean energy policy and solutions. When the PewCenterbegan in 1998, only a handful of brave firms were willing to address the issue. Now our Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC), which started with 13 companies in 1998, includes 46 mostly Fortune 500 corporations committed to advancing effective and mandatory climate action. In stark contrast to 13 years ago, all of these firms have a good understanding of the issue and have been active in the policy debate.
While a great deal of work remains to be done, I firmly believe the U.S. climate debate is much further along because of the vocal leadership of many progressive businesses. These business leaders understand the significant opportunity for economic growth in a clean energy future. But unleashing the investments necessary to capitalize on these opportunities requires the certainty that can only come with government policy. And that is an effort we continue to work toward with forward-thinking members of the business community.
What do you see as some of the best practice solutions which US businesses have put in place to tackle climate change problems?
Energy efficiency is one key area where businesses are taking action that delivers tangible environmental benefits and saves substantial amounts of money in the process. A comprehensive PewCenterstudy released in April 2010 found that leading companies that give greater attention to energy efficiency have realized billions of dollars in savings and millions of tons of avoided greenhouse gas emissions. The report, From Shop Floor to Top Floor: Best Business Practices in Energy Efficiency, documents leading-edge energy efficiency strategies, describes best practices, and provides guidance and resources for other businesses seeking to reduce energy use in their internal operations, supply chains, and products and services. We are now involved in an assessment of how companies do clean energy innovation, and hope that this analysis and the report we will issue will also be of great value to those in the business sector.
Through our employee-engagement program – Make An Impact– we also know there is a large appetite among employees to learn about constructive solutions to reduce energy use that saves money and helps the climate. By arming their employees with tools to address our climate-energy challenges, companies find great benefits in employee morale and performance.
With recent studies showing that the media in the U.S. continues to indicate that climate change science is contentious or does not have any consensus, how do you in your role deal with this environmental skepticism?
The attacks on climate science – mostly dishonest claims driven by ideology and profit – have proven highly effective at misleading the public and souring its support for climate action. Other factors like the down economy make advancing climate policy an uphill battle, but the well-orchestrated, well-funded campaign to discredit climate science is an influential barrier to progress.
To help overcome this obstacle, the PewCentereducates diverse audiences, including business leaders, policy makers, and the public about the strong, clear science behind climate change. Scientists may disagree on some details, like individual weather events, but they have an astonishing level of consensus on the basics: The planet is warming and human activities are primarily responsible for the warming that has occurred since the mid-20th century.
While we believe the science is indisputable, we know that others do not. So it’s critical to frame the issue in different ways for different audiences while advancing the ultimate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Talking in terms of energy security or economic opportunities in clean energy are two examples that resonate with people who are not swayed by the science. As President Obama has said: There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Discussing climate action in terms managing risk is another way to reach audiences that question climate science. This approach is often used by national security experts, and it forces people to consider the level of risk they are willing to live with and steps they can take to minimize that risk. Risk management is a formal version of choices that families regularly make when buying insurance, deciding where to live, or investing in retirement accounts. It’s an approach that offers a way forward on the complicated and highly politicized issue of climate change. And our knowledge of climate impacts, while not perfect, is much stronger than evidence security experts rely on to make decisions regarding highly sensitive topics such as nuclear proliferation or the actions of rogue states.
How can communication about the risks and opportunities of climate change be improved to effect change and action?
To generate greater support for action, the public needs a clearer understanding of the impacts likely to become more common in a warming world. The reality is that talk of global average temperatures does not reach people; we need to make the impacts more tangible. I believe this starts with telling compelling stories about impacts occurring in people’s own backyards. From garden club members to city planners, people are being forced to address climate impacts. Their stories, and the connection to changes in our climate, need to be more clearly communicated to broader audiences.
The PewCenteralso uses extreme weather events as a teaching tool to educate the public about our vulnerabilities to climate change. The fact is that we need to take action now, or we are simply loading the dice for more extreme weather events in the future. We will see more events such as the unprecedented seasonal flooding in Australia, the 2010 Russian heat wave and flooding in Pakistan. We will see more extreme winter snow storms that blanketed the U.S. Midwest and Northeast this year. It is imperative that we start to take action now to reduce emissions and adapt to unavoidable climate change.
These impacts translate into the costs of inaction. While opponents of climate policy attack the costs of regulation as a reason for inaction – and surely there are costs – the overwhelming analysis shows that the benefits of action far outweigh the costs. This message needs to be more clearly communicated so the public better understands the benefits of climate action, or conversely, the costs we face by not reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
There have been many reasons put forward as to the failure of the Obama Administration's Climate Change legislation being passed in the Senate in 2010. To what do you attribute this failure?
Passing comprehensive climate and energy legislation through the U.S. Congress was a huge lift under the best of conditions. It required the White House to lay out a legislative roadmap and push its agenda through Congress. The President also needed to use the bully pulpit to help make the case for climate action to voters. Unfortunately, this did not happen.
The poor economy was a major reason that impacted the climate and energy debate in Congress last year. Unemployment was at an all-time high, and Americans were more concerned about creating jobs than anything else. Another issue was the health care debate. Passing that legislation used up a great deal of political capital, and it took time away from addressing other issues, including climate and energy. Climate change also became too politically contentious and there was not the bipartisan support necessary to pass the legislation.
What do you see as being significant about the Cancun climate change achievements?
The agreement reached in Cancún in December fills in many key missing elements of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, including a stronger system of support for developing countries and a stronger transparency regime to better assess whether countries are keeping their promises. The Cancún Agreements also mark the first time that all of the world’s major economies have made explicit mitigation pledges under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Of course, the ultimate goal of the continuing international talks must be a comprehensive binding climate treaty. That’s the goal of the journey we started on this issue way back in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio. But in Cancún we saw countries agreeing on incremental steps that will deliver stronger action in the near term and, we hope, will keep the world on course toward someday agreeing to binding commitments.
Kicking off the new year, we released an update of its Climate Change 101 series. Climate Change 101: Understanding and Responding to Global Climate Change is made up of brief reports on climate science and impacts; adaptation measures; technological and business solutions; and international, U.S Federal, State, and local action. Last released in January of 2009, the updated reports highlight the significance of the global negotiations, climate-related national security risks, local efforts to address climate change, the most recent predictions on global temperature changes, and more.
March 3, 2011
Contact: Rebecca Matulka, 703-516-4146
WEBSITE, SERIES DELIVER CREDIBLE INFORMATION TO ADVANCE CLIMATE ACTION
Pew Center Updates Website and Climate Change 101 Series
WASHINGTON, DC – Public opinion continues to be divided on climate change and its causes, and as a result, public access to credible, digestible information about climate change is more critical than ever. To help advance a constructive dialogue that leads to climate action, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change refreshed its website and updated its landmark Climate Change 101 report series.
“Now more than ever, the public needs straight answers about climate change,” said Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “The Pew Center is continuing its work to demystify the issue, and our updated website and report series present straightforward and useful climate change information.”
With a fresh new design and easy-to-navigate organization, the Pew Center’s website provides access to the center’s first-rate analyses and publications of key climate issues. One new website feature is the publications library, which allows users to search for and order free copies of Pew Center reports. The website puts the Center’s Climate Compass blog front and center, and presents timely ideas and insights from science and policy experts on topics critical to the climate debate.
The fast-reading Climate Change 101: Understanding and Responding to Global Climate Change includes nine brief reports and helps inform the climate dialogue by providing a reliable and understandable introduction to global climate change. The updated reports highlight the significance of the global negotiations, climate-related national security risks, local efforts to address climate change, the most recent predictions on global temperature changes, and more.
For more information about global climate change and the activities of the Pew Center, visit www.c2es.org.
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The Pew Center on Global Climate Change was established in May 1998 as a non-profit, non-partisan, and independent organization dedicated to providing credible information, straight answers, and innovative solutions in the effort to address global climate change. The Pew Center is led by Eileen Claussen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
In late 2009, more than 1,000 emails belonging to the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom were disclosed without authorization by an unknown party. The contents of a relatively small number of the email messages became the basis for the controversy commonly known as “Climategate.”
Prior to any investigations, my initial read of the emails found some unbecoming behavior by a few individual scientists but no indication of scientific misconduct, like hiding data or suppressing scientific debate.
In the course of 2010, five investigations—three in the U.K. and two in the United States—cleared scientists working for the CRU and an American scientist working at Penn State University of any scientific wrongdoing.
Last Wednesday’s House Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing on the Energy Tax Prevention Act lived up to its billing as being the first clash between the new majority and minority on the committee. For eight hours, the Members opposing regulation argued that EPA was overstepping its authority in regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. They asserted that such action would kill jobs and harm the economy. Members supporting regulations argued that EPA is required to act and is doing so in the interest of public health.
The Energy Tax Prevention Act, a draft proposal jointly released by Rep. Upton (R-MI), Rep. Whitfield (R-KY), and Sen. Inhofe (R-OK), would prevent EPA from regulating GHGs, remove GHGs from the Clean Air Act, and specifically repeal all actions related to climate change, including the scientific Endangerment Finding, the Tailoring Rule, New Source Review regulations, reporting requirements for GHG emissions, and proposed New Source Performance Standards. The lone exemption is the Clean Car rule, which would remain untouched.