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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Federal Report: Climate Change Is Disrupting Americans’ Lives

Bryant Hofer harvests a field of corn on October 2, 2013 near Salem, South Dakota. During last year's drought Hofer averaged about 85 bushels of corn per acre. Although he has just started to harvest his fields, this year Bryants corn has averaged 180 bushels-per-acre. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A new federal climate report says corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The new National Climate Assessment, released Tuesday, concludes that the harms of global warming will become more and more disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.

The report emphasizes how warming and its all-too-wild weather is changing daily lives, even using the phrase “climate disruption” as another way of saying global warming.

But the 840-page report says it’s not too late to prevent the worst of climate change. The White House is highlighting the science and effects of warming as it tries to jump start often-stalled efforts to curb heat-trapping gases.

Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University who wrote the Northeast chapter of the report, discusses report’s findings with Here & Now’s Robin Young.

The introduction to the report reads:

Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska. This National Climate Assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country.

The National Climate Assessment comes out every four years; this is the third report.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

And coming up, it is the Tea Party versus the GOP establishment in primaries around the country today.

YOUNG: But first, a federal government report released today concludes what many Americans have already concluded. Extreme weather events influenced by climate change have grown more frequent and intense, disrupting lives and damaging the economy. The National Climate Assessment is mandated by Congress. It comes out every four years with the review of the latest science. Radley Horton is a lead author of the Northeast chapter of the report. He's a climate scientist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Radley, what's the overarching message from this report?

RADLEY HORTON: The overarching message is that climate change is already happening. We've seen about a foot of sea level rise over the last century in the Northeast. That's already leading to more frequent and damaging coastal flooding. In the Northeast we've also seen the heaviest rain event become about 75 percent stronger. So climate change is already here and now, and it's already impacting all Americans. And we expect those impacts to just get worse as the century progresses.

YOUNG: Well, what are some of those projections when it comes to heat or rainfall, which you just talked about?

HORTON: We expect that as the atmosphere continues to warm, it's going to be able to hold more moisture. We're going to see more of these very heavy rain events of the types that overwhelm our sewer systems in the cities of the Northeast and elsewhere, fouling the coastal waters. They damage infrastructure, and as we've seen in some of these events in Florida in the last couple weeks, these heavy rain events are deadly.

We also know that as sea levels rise, we're going to see dramatic increases in the frequency of coastal flooding. And when individual storms come along, like Sandy, the storm surge is going to penetrate further inland and cause more damage simply because average sea levels are rising.

YOUNG: Well, and when it comes to heat, if I'm reading this correctly, the report says that if nothing is done to cut emissions, U.S. temperatures could rise about three to five degrees by the end of the century. And that means that New Hampshire would be like North Carolina.

HORTON: So as temperatures rise, we're going see huge changes in ecosystems. We're already seeing tree species moving further north, moving higher up in elevation. We're seeing pests spreading further north as well. We're seeing changes in the distribution of things like lime disease, West Nile Virus, big impacts on agriculture due to changes we've already observed. And changes are expected to accelerate in the future.

It's going to mean more deaths among vulnerable populations, the children and the elderly in our cities. Huge impact on agriculture potentially as well. That's why it's so critical that we take steps now to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.

YOUNG: Well, as you know, there are people who deny that climate change and human involvement in climate change even exists. But they're increasingly in the minority. A recent Gallop Poll shows that a majority of Americans believe climate change is happening and there is human involvement. But still, there report addresses the claim that global warming is caused by solar activity or by volcanic eruptions and discounts that.

What do you do, though, with the people who polls show believe that climate change is happening, absolutely accept it, but aren't that worried about it? That's - the polls shows that they're in the majority as well.

HORTON: So that's a great point. I would say that it's really critical to have efforts like the National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive effort to bring together scientists, communicators, members of the private sector, members of the public sector.

And another critical message of the report is if there are a lot of solutions that are out there today that have positive outcomes, decisions we need to make now about where we'll live, what types of infrastructure we want to have, so we can build a positive future no matter what your background or political perspective.

YOUNG: Well, given what you're seeing, Radley Horton, in this report, what should people be thinking about where they live and how they build?

HORTON: You look at a place like New York City - for several years now they've been looking at their vulnerability to sea level rise, considering a range of strategies. For some places it may be possible to invest in things like shoreline protection in addition to other strategies like green infrastructure.

We're seeing towns in Maine, for example, increasing the size of their culverts. These are these sort of mundane sounding pipes that sit underneath our roads, but they're critical for dealing with heavy flood events. Those culverts are now being made bigger to account for these heavier rain events.

We're also seeing cities embracing this climate information, developing plans that will help them to elevate critical homes, critical infrastructure.

YOUNG: But, you know, we have - we're hearing that a transportation bill that has money for rebuilding and strengthening the country's infrastructure is being held up. There's no money. We're seeing roads collapse in Florida, embankments collapse in Washington State. There's a disconnect.

HORTON: I absolutely agree with you. One of the messages from the Northeast Chapter is that we have some of the oldest infrastructure in the country. And it's critical that we provide those investments and critical infrastructure and do it in a way where we plan for the higher sea levels and higher temperatures of the future.

YOUNG: Radley Horton, climate scientist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, lead author of the Northeast Chapter of the Third National Climate Assessment, the report on climate change released by the Obama administration today. Radley, thank you.

HORTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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