Dawes Glacier in Tongass National Forest, Alaska.
A long-awaited government science report — the first comprehensive national assessment in a decade of the current and predicted impacts of global climate change — was released by the Obama administration June 16 at a packed White House news briefing.
Release of the report follows years of foot-dragging by the Bush administration, which preferred quibbling about the reality of global warming to doing anything about it, and which sat on the report’s scientific findings for years.
“This long-overdue national assessment of climate science provides definitive evidence that global warming is real, it is caused by human activity, and it has the potential to wreak havoc on every region of the country and every sector of U.S. society,” said William H. Meadows, President of The Wilderness Society.
“The report released today raises a science-based alarm that we ignore at our peril. We need to reduce global warming pollution quickly and dramatically, or the costs of inaction will be devastating,” Meadows said.
Scientists from 13 federal agencies contributed to the report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, which paints a frightening picture of the way global warming will affect our lives and our lands if we as a nation do not quickly and dramatically reduce the greenhouse gases we produce by burning fossil fuels.
It declares a state of emergency, predicting far-reaching and costly consequences — impacts that include extreme heat waves, floods, devastating hurricanes, the spread of disease, water shortages, threats to the nation’s cities, highways, ports and food production, and disruptions to U.S. energy supply. In short, failure to address climate change has the potential to cause a catastrophic economic burden.
Climate change “is not just an environmental issue. It is about people. It is about us,” presidential science adviser John Holdren told reporters gathered for the briefing. Among the many sectors affected by a rapidly changing climate are:
- The $7.6 billion winter recreation industry in northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. With shorter winters and more precipitation falling as rain than snow, the length of the winter snow season would be cut in half.
- The coastal energy infrastructure of the Southeast. Refineries, processing facilities, and coastal ports in the Southeast are all considered particularly vulnerable to disruption due to sea-level rise and the high winds and storm surge associated with hurricanes and other tropical storms.
- The wine and food growing industries of California. Changes in climate are likely to compromise crops like almonds, apricots, olives and walnuts that require a minimum number of cool days to set fruit for the following year.
- The agriculture and ranching industries of the Great Plains. Already plagued by unsustainable water use and greater frequency of extreme heat, farmers in this region face reduced crop yields — or failure — due to extreme heat and increasing frequency of drought.
- The fisheries of Alaska. The state’s fishing industry provides most of the nation’s salmon, crab, halibut and herring. Alaska Native communities rely on harvests of fish, walruses, seals, whales, and other marine species. All are threatened because melting sea ice is changing the timing and extent of blooms of plankton, a nutrient in the marine food web on which all marine life depends.
Our nation’s public lands — the national forests, parks, refuges, wilderness lands, and other ecosystems that can help protect human communities from the worst effects of global warming — will feel the impact, as well. Among the ecosystem trends noted by the report are:
- Large-scale shifts in the ranges of species and the timing of the seasons and animal migration.
- Increases in fires, insect pests, disease pathogens, and invasive weed species in our forests.
- A “self-reinforcing cycle of invasive plants, fire, and erosion” in the nation’s deserts and drylands.
- Increased stress on coastal and near-shore ecosystems — ecosystems that encompass many of our national wildlife refuges.
- Adverse changes to Arctic sea ice ecosystems and the whales, polar bears, ice seals, and other species that depend on them.
- Shrinking habitats of some mountain species and coldwater fish, such as salmon and trout.
Holdren noted that the purpose of the report was not to advocate for a specific policy, but to show what would happen if climate change remained unaddressed. “The good news is that we can act now to avoid the worst impacts” of a changing climate,” Holdren told reporters.
That hopeful note was echoed by Wilderness Society President Meadows. “While the impacts predicted by this report are indeed dire, the ending of the global warming story is ours to write,” Meadows noted.
“As the science in this report makes clear, future climate change and its impacts depend on the the choices we make today,” Meadows said.
Increased temperatures will expedite glacial thawing, resulting in higher sea levels and coastal flooding, Dawes Glacier in Tongass National Forest, Alaska.
Torrential rains will increase across much of the United States.
Mosquitos will become more than pests in several regions, spreading disease as spring and summer precipitation increases.
Flooding will become more prevalent, like this example in Iowa.