President Obama’s forceful pledge to “respond to the threat of climate change” during his second inaugural address Monday was both specific and somewhat surprising. Also bold and welcome.
Coming in the wake of the federal government’s 1146-page National Climate Assessment ten days earlier, which makes for some pretty scary reading, his statements underscored in a major way why climate change has to be an urgent national priority. That’s because failing to act will “betray our children and future generations,” Obama said.
The executive summary of the NCA draft report, which was issued for public comment on January 11, is not a fancy or slickly produced document. Indeed, its message is quite stark, as its opening paragraphs state:
Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity.
Many impacts associated with these changes are important to Americans’ health and livelihoods and the ecosystems that sustain us. These impacts are the subject of this report. The impacts are often most significant for communities that already face economic or health-related challenges, and for species and habitats that are already facing other pressures. While some changes will bring potential benefits, such as longer growing seasons, many will be disruptive to society because our institutions and infrastructure have been designed for the relatively stable climate of the past, not the changing one of the present and future. Similarly, the natural ecosystems that sustain us will be challenged by changing conditions. Using scientific information to prepare for these changes in advance provides economic opportunities, and proactively managing the risks will reduce costs over time.
Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. This evidence has been compiled by scientists and engineers from around the world, using satellites, weather balloons, thermometers, buoys, and other observing systems. The sum total of this evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming.
U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since 1895; more than 80% of this increase has occurred since 1980. The most recent decade was the nation’s hottest on record. Though most regions of the U.S. are experiencing warming, the changes in temperature are not uniform. In general, temperatures are rising more quickly at higher latitudes, but there is considerable observed variability across the regions of the U.S.
U.S. temperatures will continue to rise, with the next few decades projected to see another 2°F 26 to 4°F of warming in most areas. The amount of warming by the end of the century is projected to correspond closely to the cumulative global emissions of greenhouse gases up to that time: roughly 3°F to 5°F under a lower emissions scenario involving substantial reductions in emissions after 2050 (referred to as the “B1 scenario”), and 5°F to 10°F for a higher emissions scenario assuming continued increases in emissions.
Perhaps the timing of the NCA release prior to the president’s second inaugural was no coincidence. Especially when he acerbically asserted that “some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact.” Take that, climate change skeptics.
But Obama was not finished on the topic. “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise.” It is “how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure - our forests and waterways; our croplands and snow capped peaks.”
He reiterated his campaign pledge to accelerate investment in clean energy, arguing that the shift towards low carbon sources of energy was now inevitable. “The path towards sustainable energy will be long and sometimes difficult,” he acknowledged, but added that “America cannot resist this transition we must lead it.”
Obama’s challenge to the nation on climate change was reminiscent of President Kennedy’s challenge almost five decades ago to land a man on the Moon in less than ten years.
Yes, the seemingly impossible can happen.