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Tina Casey headshot

Trump Administration Affirms Science Behind Climate Change...Now What?

By Tina Casey

Holy news dump, Batman! Last Friday, the Trump administration quietly released a major federal report affirming the scientific consensus on climate change: it is real, and it is caused by humans. The new report will probably have little impact on the pro-coal rhetoric emanating from the White House, but it provides new support for investors and business leaders who are pushing to accelerate the global transition to sustainable energy.

13 federal agencies can't be wrong

The new report was released under the somewhat workaday title, "Climate Science Special Report." It is a product of the US Global Change Research Program, which was established in 1989.

Thirteen federal agencies collaborate in the Global Change Research Program under the slogan, "Thirteen Agencies, One Vision: Empower the Nation with Global Change Science."

Three of these agencies -- NOAA, NASA and the Department of Energy -- served on the steering committee responsible for selecting the scientists who produced the report.

The central role of the Energy Department in the new report is somewhat ironic, considering that Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been going out of his way to promote coal and undercut the consensus on climate science, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms. Despite Perry, the DOE website still includes a robust collection of climate information and the agency is moving full steam ahead with coal-killing initiatives.

As for the Climate Science Special Report, that's just one part of the Fourth National Climate Assessment produced by the Global Change Research Program. It is intended to be a standalone, authoritative snapshot of the current state of climate change science.

The purpose of the report is to foster an informed environment for assessing risks and pursuing policy options, so it is tightly focused on the state of the science. So, for example, it does not delve into mitigation scenarios or economic outcomes.

So, Is Climate Change For Real?

The new report is reader-friendly and well worth the time, but for those of you on the go the authors provide a brief executive summary that, well, sums it all up:
This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

According to the report, the global average temperature rose by approximately 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit between 1901 and 2016, giving rise to a network of related trends that are expected to continue:
This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization. The last few years have also seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, and the last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe.

The executive summary underscores that the increase in average global temperature is just one aspect of climate change:
Thousands of studies conducted by researchers around the world have documented changes in surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures; melting glaciers; diminishing snow cover; shrinking sea ice; rising sea levels; ocean acidification; and increasing atmospheric water vapor.

The result is a growing risk to human health and safety from extreme events including heavy rainfall, forest fires, heat waves and chronic drought.

And, the report is pretty clear that there is one, and only one effective policy option for climate change risk mitigation:

Without major reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century. With significant reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less.

Investors step it up on climate action

Adding fuel to the fire, the new climate change report notes that the rate of transition to a low carbon economy is not fast enough to avert catastrophic warming:
...In 2014 and 2015, emission growth rates slowed as economic growth became less carbon-intensive. Even if this slowing trend continues, however, it is not yet at a rate that would limit global average temperature change to well below 3.6°F (2°C) above preindustrial levels.

That observation is consistent with a strong private sector effort to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

Last April, for example, the green investment organization Ceres partnered in a study of Fortune 500 companies that indicated a rapid acceleration:

...Nearly half of Fortune 500 companies – 48 percent – have at least one climate or clean energy target, up five percent from an earlier 2014 report. Accompanying this growth is rising ambition, with significant numbers of companies setting 100 percent renewable energy goals and science-based GHG reduction targets...

If you caught that thing about "science-based" greenhouse gas targets, that's why the new Climate Science Special Report could have a significant impact on the pace of change, with or without help from the Trump administration.

Leading companies are serious about climate action and they depend on science-based facts to support corporate strategies that help reduce risks.

The emphasis on scientific consensus can also aid the efforts of investment firms like Vanguard, which has been urging corporations to be more transparent about climate risks.

Aside from growth within the renewable energy industry, Bloomberg notes that petroleum stakeholders begun pivoting to clean energy. Interestingly, this transition is not narrowly focused on biofuels. According to Bloomberg, biofuel investments by "big oil" have waned in recent years but wind and solar are picking up.

In addition, the U.S. coal industry is rapidly approaching a state of collapse. The Trump administration has so far proved unable to stem the tide of coal power plant closures, and Trump is also now faced with the first coal company bankruptcy under his presidency.

In another tipping point sign, at least 40 U.S. cities have set 100 percent renewable energy goals.

President Trump has any number of reasons to ignore the scientific consensus on climate change, but it looks like the world is moving ahead without him.

Photo (screenshot, cropped): US DOE.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey