Senate gets back to climate science

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing tomorrow called “Update on the Latest Climate Change Science and Local Adaptation Measures.” This is the first Senate hearing focused directly on climate science in the 112th Congress, and we hope it won’t be the last. Climate change is happening, the news from peer-reviewed science is increasingly daunting, and the public needs to hear what credible scientists are learning about the risks and potential solutions.

A recent publication by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences says plainly, “A strong body of evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.”

These conclusions were underscored this week by University of California physicist Richard Muller, a former climate skeptic, who declared in a New York Times op-ed that his re-examination of the data led him to conclude that climate change is real and that “humans are almost entirely the cause.”

Lately, some of the  risks of climate change are making themselves known in the form of extreme weather events. Extreme heat, record-setting wildfires, and heavy precipitation and flooding have become annual occurrences in recent years. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor announced that nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states are in a state of drought, and 75 percent of that area is in severe drought.

Similarly, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center announced that June 2012 was the “328th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.” June also set a record for the amount of Arctic sea ice lost during that month since satellite monitoring began in 1978.

New science on sea level rise also highlights the risks of climate change to the United States. At the request of California, Oregon and Washington, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a study of sea level rise along the West Coast. In California, the study projects a rise between 2 and 12 inches by 2030 and between 1.5 and 5.5 feet by 2100. Sea level would rise more slowly in Oregon and Washington, but could still exceed 4 feet by 2100.

Another peer-reviewed study published this month in Nature Climate Change found that sea levels are rising three to four times faster in the Mid-Atlantic region than the global average, making 600 miles of coastline from Cape Hatteras to Boston a “hot spot” for sea level rise. The rate began to accelerate around 1990, about the same time that ice began to melt much faster on the massive Greenland Ice Sheet. This ice loss increased the amount of freshwater flowing into the North Atlantic, essentially causing water to “pile up” along our East Coast.

We hope that the Senate hearing will make abundantly clear where the science community stands on the reality and risks of climate change. As the National Academy of Sciences put it recently, “The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), are responsible for most of the climate change currently being observed.”

We also hope solutions will be front and center in the discussion. Climate change is already causing problems for us. Nationally and internationally, we need to put a much higher priority on adapting to the changes underway and reducing future greenhouse gas emissions to limit further changes. That can only happen with leadership, and we’re pleased to see the Senate showing some with this hearing.

Tomorrow: A look at ways business and government are adapting to climate change.