May 19, 2010
As part of its most comprehensive study of climate change to date, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) issued three reports emphasizing why the United States should act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a national strategy to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change.
The reports by the NRC, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, are part of a congressionally requested suite of five studies known as America’s Climate Choices.
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“These reports show that the state of climate change science is strong,” said Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. “But the nation also needs the scientific community to expand upon its understanding of why climate change is happening, and focus also on when and where the most severe impacts will occur and what we can do to respond.”
ASU had members on two of the panels that released reports: James Buizer, science policy adviser to ASU President Michael Crow, participated on the expert panel that assessed adapting to climate change; and Billie Turner II, professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was part of the group who reported on advancing the science of climate change.
“Climate change will create winners and losers, and we need policies that reflect a recognition of both the threats and opportunities,” Buizer said. “We need visionary and courageous political and corporate leadership to move the U.S. away from carbon-based energy sources that pollute the air and oceans and change our climate, towards more ‘home grown renewables,’ such as wind and solar power. We also must be far more efficient in how we use energy. For example, with existing technologies we can be 50 percent more efficient than we are today.”
The compelling case that climate change is occurring and is caused in large part by human activities is based on a strong, credible body of evidence, according to the “Advancing the Science of Climate Change” report. While noting that there is always more to learn and that the scientific process is never “closed,” the report emphasizes that multiple lines of evidence support scientific understanding of climate change.
“Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities and poses significant risks for – and in many cases is already affecting – a broad range of human and natural systems,” the report states. It calls for a new era of climate change science where an emphasis is placed on “fundamental, use-inspired” research, which not only improves understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change, but also is useful to decision-makers at the local, regional, national and international levels acting to limit and adapt to climate change.
“With the debate maturing beyond whether climate is changing or not to what does it mean and what should we do about it, we are at the stage where we need to make sure federal agencies and funding are structured in a way to most efficiently address the pressing questions of climate change,” Turner said.
The report recommends that a single federal entity or program be given the authority and resources to coordinate a national, multidisciplinary research effort aimed at improving both understanding and responses to climate change.
Beyond ‘business as usual’
Substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require prompt and sustained efforts to promote major technological and behavioral changes, says the “Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change” report. Although limiting emissions must be a global effort to be effective, strong U.S. actions to reduce emissions will help encourage other countries to do the same. In addition, the United States could establish itself as a leader in developing and deploying the technologies necessary to limit and adapt to climate change.
An inclusive national policy framework is needed to ensure that all levels of government, the private sector and millions of households and individuals are contributing to shared national goals. Toward that end, the United States should establish a greenhouse gas emissions “budget” that sets a limit on total domestic emissions over a set period of time and provides a clear, directly measurable goal. However, the report warns, the longer the nation waits to begin reducing emissions, the harder and more expensive it will likely be to reach any given emissions target.
Managing the risks
Reducing vulnerabilities to impacts of climate change that the nation cannot, or does not, avoid is a highly desirable strategy to manage and minimize the risks, says the third report, “Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change.” Some impacts – such as rising sea levels, disappearing sea ice and the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events – already are being observed. The report notes that policymakers need to anticipate a range of possible climate conditions and that uncertainty about the exact timing and magnitude of impacts is not a reason to wait to act. In fact, it says boosting U.S. adaptive capacity now can be viewed as “an insurance policy against an uncertain future,” while inaction could increase risks, especially if the rate of climate change is particularly large.
Although much of the response to climate change will occur at local and regional levels, a national adaptation strategy is needed to facilitate cooperation and collaboration across all lines of government and between government and other key parties, including the private sector, community organizations and nongovernmental organizations. Adapting to climate change will be an ongoing, iterative process, according to the report, and will involve decision-makers at every scale of government and all parts of society. A first step is to identify vulnerabilities to climate change impacts and begin to examine adaptation options that will improve resilience.
“In Arizona, as with everywhere else, social and economic systems have been adapted to the long-term climate of our place,” Buizer said. “This climate is now changing and we need our systems to adapt to this change. Rather than assuming a new static long-term climate, we must adjust the ways we make decisions to deal with an ever-changing climate so that our systems are resilient to these changes. We also need to recognize that in this world of interdependent economies, successful adaptation by one nation or region or economic sector to climate changes can result in increased vulnerabilities to other nations, regions or sectors.”
Adaptation to climate change should not be seen as an alternative to attempts to limit it, the report emphasizes. Rather, the two approaches should be seen as partners, given that society’s ability to cope with the impacts of climate change decreases as the severity of climate change increases.
The new reports stress that national climate change research, efforts to limit emissions and adaptation strategies should be designed to be flexible and responsive to new information and conditions in the coming decades.
Two additional reports as part of the series on America’s Climate Choices will be released later this year.
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