Science

Climate Change 101: Overview

Download the full brief (pdf)

 

Climate change is happening and it is caused largely by human activity. Its impacts are beginning to be felt and will worsen in the decades ahead unless we take action. The solution to climate change will involve a broad array of technologies and policies—many tried and true, and many new and innovative.

This overview summarizes the eight-part series Climate Change 101: Understanding and Responding to Global Climate Change.

Science and Impacts discusses the scientific evidence for climate change and explains its causes and current and projected impacts.

Adaptation discusses these impacts in greater depth, explaining how planning can limit (though not eliminate) the damage caused by unavoidable climate change, as well as the long-term costs of responding to climate-related impacts.

As explored in greater depth in Technological Solutions, a number of technological options exist to avert dangerous climatic change by dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions both now and into the future.

Business Solutions, International Action, Federal Action, State Action, and Local Action describe how business and government leaders at all levels have recognized both the challenge and the vast opportunity dealing with climate change presents. These leaders are responding with a broad spectrum of innovative solutions. To address the enormous challenge of climate change successfully, new approaches are needed at the federal and international levels, and the United States must stay engaged in the global effort while adopting strong and effective national policies.

For more information, be sure to listen to our Climate Change 101 podcast series

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Climate Change 101: Science and Impacts

Download the full brief (pdf)

 

The scientific evidence is unequivocal. Natural climate variability alone cannot explain this trend. Human activities, especially the burning of coal and oil, have warmed the earth by dramatically increasing the concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. The more of these gases humans put into the atmosphere, the more the earth will warm in the decades and centuries ahead. The impacts of warming can already be observed throughout the United States, from rising sea levels to melting snow and ice to more drought and extreme rainfall. Climate change is already affecting ecosystems, freshwater supplies, and human health around the world. Although some amount of climate change is now unavoidable, much worse impacts can be avoided by substantially reducing the amount of heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere.

For more information on the science and impacts of climate change, be sure to listen to our Climate Change 101 podcast series

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Climate Change 101: Adaptation

Download the full brief (pdf)

 

The Earth’s climate is rapidly changing. In the United States and other nations, people are seeing how the impacts of rising global temperatures, shifting patterns of precipitation, rising sea levels, and other changes are affecting their communities, their livelihoods, and the natural environment. Substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But mitigation alone is not enough. Even with emission reductions, some changes in climate are unavoidable. Adaptation planning at the local, state, and national levels can limit the damage caused by climate change, as well as reduce the long-term costs of responding to the climate-related impacts that are expected to grow in number and intensity in the decades to come.

 

For more information on adaptation, be sure to listen to our Climate Change 101 podcast series

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Solutions in Steps, Not Leaps: The Year in Review and a Look Ahead

By Eileen Claussen
December 20, 2010

2010 was a year of highs and lows.

On the high side were global temperatures; 2010 will mark the hottest year in recorded history. At the start of the year, there was also the short-lived high of thinking we might be on the precipice of meaningful action in the U.S. Congress to protect the climate. Finally, at year’s end the climate talks in Cancún delivered (surprise!) tangible results in the form of agreement on key elements of a global climate framework.

But alas, the lows won out for most of 2010 as a trumped-up email controversy, continuing economic unease, and growing anti-government sentiment in the United States undermined the effort to forge lasting climate solutions at all levels. 

Congress. Until quite recently, the Pew Center and many others were actively supporting cap and trade as the number-one climate policy solution. After the House passed a fairly comprehensive energy and climate bill in June 2009 that had a cap-and-trade system at its core, we actually thought that it might become the law of the land.

Before long, however, it became eminently clear that the Senate would not be able to pass a similar bill. The 2010 U.S. elections, which brought more doubters of climate change into the halls of Congress, only made it clearer that comprehensive climate action is off the table for now.

EPA. With Congress unable to pass comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, attention turned to what EPA might be able to do under existing authorities. And it turns out that EPA can do quite a lot by taking reasonable steps that have garnered critical support from the business and environmental communities. In late October, for example, the agency announced a sensible proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel efficiency for medium and heavy-duty vehicles. This was followed by a November announcement that will go a long way to making sure that new industrial facilities use state-of-the-art technologies to boost efficiency and reduce emissions.

Of course, opponents of these and other EPA regulations will surely raise a ruckus, and there will be loud cries in Congress to delay the regulations and even cut funding for the EPA. But the possibility remains that the agency could conceivably begin to chip away at U.S. emissions in the months and years ahead.

State Actions. Looking beyond Washington, state capitals were the focus of creative thinking and leadership on the issue of clean energy in 2010. Massachusetts, for example, set a statewide energy efficiency standard in 2010 supported by $1.6 billion in incentives. Meanwhile, California voters upheld the state’s greenhouse gas reduction law by defeating Proposition 23. This marked the first direct vote on addressing climate change in the United States, and it won in an overwhelming fashion.

But the overall story regarding climate action in the states was more mixed. While several regional climate initiatives continued to push forward, the November elections brought to the nation’s statehouses a group of new leaders who adopted strong stands against climate action in their campaigns. We will stay tuned to see how their campaign rhetoric translates into governing.

International. The agreement reached by international negotiators in Cancún in December closed out 2010 on a positive note. The Cancún Agreements import the essential elements of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord into the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, 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 Convention.

Of course, the ultimate goal of the continuing international talks should be a legally-binding climate treaty, but in Cancún we saw countries agreeing on incremental steps that will deliver stronger action in the near term and lay the foundation for binding commitments down the road.

Looking Ahead. Looking ahead, I believe 2011 holds promise only if those of us who support climate action can learn from what happened in 2010. In recent years, domestic and international efforts largely centered on a “big bang” theory of trying to achieve everything at once. Instead, it’s instructive now to take a cue from Cancún and accept that a step-by-step approach to building support for climate solutions offers our best shot at progress. 

Calling on the new Congress to pass cap and trade or similarly comprehensive solutions will be a nonstarter, for example.  But there may be an opportunity on Capitol Hill for less sweeping steps to reduce U.S. emissions.  

Supporters would do well to spend the next several months laying the groundwork for incremental solutions by strengthening communications with the public. We need to do a better job of helping people understand both the risks and the opportunities presented by climate change. In the same way we buy fire insurance to protect against an event that has a statistically small chance of happening but would result in severe damage, acting now to cut emissions reduces our vulnerability to severe events that are likely to become more common in a warming world. And the success of the “No on Prop 23” campaign in California suggests that there remains a healthy appetite among the general public and in the business community (which provided substantial support for the effort) to back well-framed climate solutions. 

After a year of highs and lows, we still must aim high in our efforts to address one of the greatest challenges of our time. But we should also heed the lessons of the past year and work for more modest victories now that can keep us on the path to longer-term solutions. 

by Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change-- December 2010
Eileen Claussen
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Our Region at Risk

Front-Line City in Virginia Tackles Rise in Sea  --  The New York Times, Nov. 25

Last house on sinking Chesapeake Bay island collapses   --  The Washington Post,  Oct. 26

Flood Plan proposed to protect Washington Mall  --  The Washington Post, Nov. 15

Maybe climate change has fallen off the radar screen at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but these recent headlines from The Washington Post and The New York Times suggest that the issue hasn’t gone away. No, these stories aren’t straight out of some scary futuristic sci-fi movie (anybody remember the truly dreadful 1995 movie Waterworld starring Kevin Costner?). Nor are they based on some forecast for a distant future year spit out by a supercomputer. They simply report on real events, happening today, right here in our region. They provide a clear and present warning of the economic costs and human suffering that will increasingly be in the news if we fall to address climate change.

Cancun Conferees See Poor Public Understanding as Key Obstacle to Strong Action on Climate Change

Press Release 
December 3, 2010 
Contact: Tom Steinfeldt, 703-516-4146

Cancun Conferees See Poor Public Understanding as Key Obstacle to Strong Action on Climate Change

CANCUN, MEXICO– Nearly all those gathered for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun believe that real international action on climate change will not happen without strong public support, yet most also believe that the general public doesn’t understand the meaning of “climate change,” according to a survey this week by the Government of Mexico and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

More than 500 accredited COP16/CMP6 attendees from around the world – including government delegates, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, experts, journalists and business leaders – participated in an iPad survey of attitudes on climate change.

The results were presented at the Climate Change Communication Forum co-sponsored by the Mexican government and the Pew Center, which took place at the Hotel Grand Velas of the Rivera Maya, on Friday, 3 December, 2010.

“Quite clearly, effective communication is one of the keys to mobilizing a strong global climate effort,” said Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources.

“We need to better understand how the public views the issue, and how best to communicate both the urgency and the practicality of strong action. We believe this new survey and today’s forum will contribute to a clearer understanding of the communication challenges we face.”

Survey participants included roughly equal numbers from developed and developing countries. Nearly all (94%) agreed that “without strong public support, real action on climate change will never be made at the international governmental level.” When asked what constituencies need to be more involved, respondents ranked the general public number one, ahead of heads of state, business, NGOs and UN organizations.

Yet 58% said that the general public does not understand the meaning of “climate change” well or at all. Only 5% said the public understands it “very well.”

“These findings underscore the tremendous gap between the critical need for action and the public’s limited understanding of the issues at hand,” said Pew Center President Eileen Claussen.

“All of us – governments, experts, advocates and business leaders – need to do a much better job of explaining to the public both the stakes and the opportunities presented by
climate change,” stated Ms. Claussen.

The survey also revealed mixed views on the role of the mainstream media. Respondents ranked mainstream media like television, newspapers and magazines as the most effective means of communicating to the general public the need for global action. Yet when asked to identify “the most trusted voices on the scale and impact of climate change globally,” only 24% named the media. A strong majority (87%) blamed unskillful media and opinion leaders for a lack of public understanding of climate change science.

Despite recent controversies over climate science, most respondents (66%) identified scientists as among the most trusted voices, well ahead of global organizations like the UN (42%), NGOs (41%), governments (24%) and business leaders (13%).

Additional key findings from the survey:

Running out of time

When it comes to the human impact on climate change, COP16 attendees say that we are already suffering some irreversible impacts.

  • The majority (56%) believe that irreversible harm has already been done to the planet.
  • Over half (54%) say that we are currently at a standstill in our efforts to limit human influences on climate change.
  • Eight in ten conference participants (83%) believe that countries will only undertake ambitious efforts to address climate change once they are actually suffering from the real consequences.
  • Nearly nine in ten (88%) agree that if we do not address climate change now, it will eventually become a trigger for global conflict and possibly war.

Perceived economic impact viewed as top barrier to increased engagement

  • Nine in ten conference participants (90%) agree that the global recession has made nations less willing to invest in addressing climate change, with over half (54%) saying that they strongly agree.
  • COP16 attendees report that the biggest barriers to governments taking effective joint action on climate change are the unwillingness to jeopardize industrial growth (64%) and take political risks at home (63%).
  • This sentiment is more prominent in developed countries than in developing countries.

More action needed from all stakeholders

  • The overwhelming majority of conference participants (94%) agree that climate change initiatives can only be effective with broad support from governments, business, NGOs, scientists and the public, with a full seven in ten (70%) strongly agreeing with this statement.
  • Conference participants report that there needs to be considerably more involvement by all parties, particularly the general public (84%), local community leaders (83%), and country leaders (83%).
  • Participants from developing countries are significantly more likely than those from developed countries to believe environmental NGOs and global organizations (UN, World Bank, WHO) should be more involved in climate change initiatives.

Key to effective change

  • The majority of conference participants believe that the most compelling cases for the need to address climate change are stories of human suffering due to extreme weather such as drought or floods (65%) and evidence that climate change will negatively affect the economy (54%).

About the Survey

The government of Mexico and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change commissioned a survey that gathered insights from COP16 attendees from around the world on their attitudes toward climate change. The study of 503 COP16 participants who completed the survey was conducted via iPad and paper surveys between November 27 -30, 2010. Survey respondents included NGO representatives, government delegates, business leaders, bloggers, climate change experts, and think tank representatives who attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico. Only credentialed COP16 participants were included in the survey.

About Pew Center on Global Climate Change

The US-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change brings together business leaders, policy makers, scientists, and other experts to bring a new approach to a complex and often controversial issue. Our approach is based on sound science, straight talk, and a belief that we can work together to protect the climate while sustaining economic growth. Over the past ten years, the Pew Center has issued more than 100 reports from toptier researchers on key climate topics such as economic and environmental impacts and practical domestic and international policy solutions. The Pew Center plays an active role in bringing people together to discuss policy frameworks and workable solutions to climate change.

Nearly all those gathered for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun believe that real international action on climate change will not happen without strong public support, yet most also believe that the general public doesn’t understand the meaning of “climate change,” according to a survey this week by the Government of Mexico and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Lessons from Extreme Weather: A Minnesota Farmer Gets the Point

Throughout this year I have posted a number of blogs on the record-breaking extreme weather events of recent years, particularly 2010. Events ranged from unprecedented blizzards on the U.S. East Coast to the cataclysmic Russian heat wave and flooding in Pakistan. The key message I’ve tried to communicate is that, rather than debating whether these particular events are being caused by climate change – an interesting academic question that is unanswerable on a practical level – we should learn from these events about our individual and societal vulnerabilities and the real costs of climate change.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, offers an excellent example of the type of practical learning I’m talking about:

“The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.”

Mr. Hedin’s family has farmed the soils of southern Minnesota since the late 19th century. Today he runs a small farm in Rushville, where an onslaught of extreme weather events over several years forced him to retreat to higher ground. This is an example of forced adaptation where abandonment was the best choice. But even in the new location, his farm lost $100,000 worth of crops to excessive soil moisture this summer.

Notice that Hedin doesn’t waste time worrying about whether particular weather events were caused by human-induced climate change:

“The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.”

Climate scientists know the climate is changing, that many mid-latitude locations are becoming wetter as a result (see figure below), and that we can expect that trend to continue. What does it matter whether a particular storm on a particular day in a particular year was caused by human intervention with the climate system? After all, it isn’t one particular event that has Mr. Hedin worried about the future of farming in America’s grain belt; it’s the preponderance of evidence that the climate is already shifting and the common sense realization that farming is getting harder because of that shift.

Please read Jack Hedin’s op-ed in The New York Times. He has the right idea about learning from extreme weather events. 

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program

New Pew Center Report Summarizes Federal Agency Adaptation Activities

We’ve been talking and hearing a lot about the notion of “mainstreaming” consideration of climate change into decision-making processes and figuring out ways to adapt to an already changing climate. A lot has been happening on the adaptation front at the Federal level – and we’ve been trying to keep you posted on all of the new initiatives. It was getting a bit challenging to keep up with everything and so over the last couple of months we’ve been compiling a lot of what we know into one place. The resulting report—Climate Change Adaptation: What Federal Agencies are Doing—is now available on our website.

As the report illustrates, Federal agency activities are numerous and diverse. Some agencies, such as the Department of Defense, are mainstreaming climate change adaptation by updating existing strategies or policies to include climate change impacts and adaptation options. Other agencies are more focused on enabling other entities—state and local governments, businesses, and communities—in furthering their adaptation planning and projects, as NOAA is doing with Climate Services. Figure 1 below includes some additional examples from the report. Of course, not all federal projects addressing climate change impacts or adaptations are included in this report. We’ve tried to at least include instances where a Federal department or agency has implemented specific institutional mechanisms, developed an agency-wide adaptation plan or set of policies, or is providing adaptation resources or tools.  

 

Happy reading – and if you are familiar with any Federal programs or initiatives that should be included in the report, please send them my way. We plan to expand on the information included in this new report with the hope that it will serve as a resource for collaboration and information sharing amongthe growing adaptation community.

Heather Holsinger is a Senior Policy Fellow and Program Manager for Adaptation

Post-Partisan Power?

A new report, Post-Partisan Power, puts forth several interesting ideas for how the United States can accelerate technological progress to advance U.S. energy security and global climate protection. The authors are Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution, and Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. The report has created a buzz, in part because of the “man bites dog” nature of the story – Brookings and AEI agree on something! And they are saying “post-partisan” out loud in these hyper-partisan times.

The authors recommend a number of initiatives that ought to be no-brainers – invest more in energy science and education, overhaul the energy innovation system by increasing funding for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and developing regional energy innovation centers, reform energy subsidies, use military procurement and competitive deployment to drive innovation and price declines, and pay for all this through a very small carbon tax or electricity fee. The major critique of the report, best articulated by Harvard economist Rob Stavins, is that these recommended steps are necessary but not sufficient – i.e., it is all very well for the government to invest in these technologies, but we also need to create a market for them through a strong carbon price or serious greenhouse gas reduction requirements. 

The authors have responded that they didn’t mean to imply that their recommendations include all we need to solve our energy and climate problems. However, their subtitle, “How a limited and direct approach to energy innovation can deliver clean, cheap energy, economic productivity and national prosperity,” makes it sound an awful lot like they did. And their opening critique of “both sides of the debate” on climate and energy is dismissive of pricing in general and cap and trade in particular – noting, for example, cap and trade’s defeat in the Senate but not its victory in the House, and saying pricing has not succeeded in reducing emissions in Europe, when in fact it has. But let’s set that aside for the moment. 

The more intriguing question this report raises for me is why the energy and climate debate is so stuck and why even the modest proposals described in “Post-Partisan Power” face an uphill battle. 

The report’s authors lament our irrational energy subsidies and dysfunctional federal support system for energy innovation, and I agree substantively with their critique and their proposed fixes. But this irrationality and dysfunctionality have persisted for a long time. Each energy source has a powerful constituency for federal subsidies and tax breaks. And for each DOE lab in the current national network that does most of our federal energy research, powerful regional interests protect the status quo. 

Similarly, policy analysts have made an airtight case for decades that pricing policies are both effective and cost-effective at reducing emissions, but for the most part politicians and the public have resisted such policies. We seem to prefer our regulatory costs to be high and hidden rather than low and transparent.

What is going on? I’m not sure, but I can think of at least two partial answers. The first is our political system’s focus on the size of government rather than its efficacy. The “great debate” in this election is whether the government should be bigger or smaller, not whether government is effectively doing whatever tasks it is assigned. The key critique of cap and trade was that it was a tax and that it looked like too much government, when the debate should have been about its efficacy in reducing emissions and minimizing costs. We measure success or failure of federal action with respect to a particular energy source by the size of the budget or tax breaks devoted to it, not whether such action is effectively driving innovation or bringing down technology costs. Hayward et al. suggest we fix this through better program design, but that will not be easy. It requires a transformation of our nation’s political thinking at a very deep level. 

The second answer is specific to the energy system. It is an inconvenient truth that fossil fuels have some really attractive characteristics as energy sources. They are abundant, seemingly cheap (if one doesn’t take into account their environmental or energy security impacts, and of course the market price does not do so), and “energy-dense” (meaning they can produce a lot of energy per unit of volume and mass). They have also been used for a long time, and their use has co-evolved with extensive fuel distribution infrastructure and fuel-using equipment. Thus, shifting away from these fuels requires displacing a suite of interdependent incumbent technologies. 

This problem is really different, in kind and in scale, from any the U.S. government or the U.S. economy has wrestled with before. It is not like computer innovation, where a new set of technologies created new markets for new services; or airplanes, in which military procurement dominated an emerging market. To move away from the energy system we have, which meets our private needs very nicely, to one that may have lower social costs but higher private ones (at least for some transitional period), is going to be very difficult. Hayward et al. hope that we can eat our cake and have it, too, by finding new technologies that have both lower social costs and lower private costs. But substantially increasing government investment won’t guarantee this outcome – certainly not by itself. Rather the United States must make climate protection and national security a priority, and develop and implement a conscious, ambitious, and comprehensive national strategy with full public support. This is a daunting challenge.

Judi Greenwald is Vice President for Innovative Solutions

Federal agencies announce plans to prepare for climate change

We’ve been tracking federal government efforts towards reducing our vulnerability and increasing our resiliency in the face of the potential impacts and risks from climate change. I continue to be impressed by the steps that many federal agencies are taking in this regard—a lot of work is going on to mainstream climate change adaptation.

Yesterday the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force released its report to the President. During the past year this task force—which includes about 20 different Federal agencies—worked on developing recommendations and guiding principles on a strategic approach to climate change adaptation. The Task Force’s recommendations include: making sure that adaptation is a standard part of Agency planning (mainstreaming!), ensuring information about the impacts of climate change is accessible, and aligning federal efforts that cut across agency jurisdictions and missions.

A number of agencies have already gotten started on this. Two agencies within the Department of the Interior (DOI) released climate change strategies last month—the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. These efforts build on DOI’s overarching strategic response to climate change.

The Fish and Wildlife Service manages more than 150 million acres of wildlife refuges across the United States and has additional responsibilities related to the protection of fish populations, endangered species, and migratory birds. (Interesting side note: according to the Service, about 41 million people visit national wildlife refuges each year and their spending generates almost $1.7 billion in sales for regional economies.) The Service defines adaptation as “minimizing the impact of climate change on fish and wildlife through the application of cutting-edge science in managing species and habitats” and has made adaptation the centerpiece of its Strategic Plan.

Charged with preserving the natural and cultural heritage of our nation, adapting to climate change presents the National Park Service with many challenges. What should it do about the melting glaciers at Glacier National Park?  Or the threats of flooding to historic Jamestown, VA (part of the Colonial National Historical Park)? The National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Strategy details long- and short-term actions in three major areas: mitigation, adaptation, and public communication. Measures to tackle the adaptation piece include planning, promoting ecosystem resilience, preserving the nation’s heritage, and protecting facilities and infrastructure.

Earlier this month, the EPA released its 2011-2015 Strategic Plan containing five strategic goals for advancing its environmental and human health missions, the first of which is “Taking Action on Climate Change and Improving Air Quality.” As part of its Strategy, the EPA recognizes that it “must adapt and plan for future changes in climate” and “incorporate the anticipated, unprecedented changes in climate into its programs and rules.”

And just last week at the first White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) GreenGov Symposium there were three separate panels devoted to climate change adaptation. We heard presentations from the Army Corps of Engineers, CDC, CEQ, DOT, the Forest Service, HUD, OSTP, USDA, as well as a number of stakeholders including the state of Maryland, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). All of which are very much engaged on the adaptation issue.

Finding it hard to keep track of all of these agencies and what they are up to? Don’t worry – we’ll be posting our newest adaptation report, Climate Change Adaptation: What Federal Agencies are Doing, to this site very soon.

Heather Holsinger is a Senior Fellow for Domestic Policy

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