Clarence Fanto: Climate change bull's-eye
It’s not surprising that some partisans on the right have dismissed this week’s 841-page government report on climate change as "alarmist." But here in the Berkshires, following a very cold winter and a so-far mostly chilly spring, it’s understandable if residents greet the report by 300 scientists and climate specialists, reviewed by a 60-member federal advisory committee, with a collective shoulder-shrug.
While few of us have the time or inclination to peruse the entire document, the government’s user-friendly, well-designed website dedicated to the report has highlights, summaries, details, charts, graphics and easy-to-absorb findings that make for stark, compelling and, yes, frightening reading (nca2014.globalchange.gov).
Folks who can tear themselves away from Facebook, Twitter and other online amusements and gossip for an hour will be rewarded with a much better understanding of "global weirding," a more descriptive term (coined at the Rocky Mountain Institute) than global warming. It conveys the reality that climate change causes extreme weather, hot and cold, wet and dry, to become even more intense.
Recent examples are so numerous that it may seem that a plague of tropical storms, droughts, heat waves, cold spells, wildfires and tornadoes has descended on the nation and the world.
The National Climatic Assessment Report takes the long view, depicting a steady upswing in average temperatures and precipitation, especially in the past 15 years, as well as a rise in sea levels.
Ominously, the report states, "the Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the United States." Severe storms helped produce a 70 percent increase between 1958 and 2010. By 2080, if global emissions of heat-trapping gases are not curbed, average temperatures are projected to rise by 4.5 to 10 degrees above current levels -- a massive warm-up. Even if emissions are reduced substantially, a 3 to 6 degree increase is anticipated by 2080.
The report acknowledges that cold spells will continue, less often and less intense. But heat waves will be more frequent, even in the Berkshires, and torrential downpours are more likely to lead to river flooding.
Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, tropical storms by the time they were felt here, are examples of "the region’s vulnerability to extreme weather events," according to the report.
The Northeast is in the bull’s-eye of climate change impact. Coastal sections, especially Boston, are particularly at risk of severe flooding with the potential rise in sea level of one to four feet by 2100.
"Heat waves, coastal flooding, and river flooding will pose a growing challenge to the region’s environmental, social, and economic systems," the report states. "This will increase the vulnerability of the region’s residents, especially its most disadvantaged populations." This is the third detailed assessment of the climate since 1990, when Congress ordered periodic updates. But only three have been completed -- the 2014 report updates and expands the findings of the 2008 study.
There’s an urgency in the tone of the document -- "Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced ... Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods."
But as on so many other issues, Congress is paralyzed and any major effort there to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is doomed for the foreseeable future, though President Obama could issue some helpful executive actions and the Supreme Court is allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to control emissions that cross state lines.
Gov. Deval Patrick has unveiled a $50 million program to combat the effects of climate change in the state, and Massachusetts environmental regulations have been toughened so that the impact of projects on the atmosphere is considered.
But apathy remains a major barrier to a national policy that would confront the crisis. Only 40 percent of Americans view climate change as a major threat, according to a Pew Research Center survey, and a recent Gallup Poll found that one out of three people worry about the issue to any significant degree.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters that President Obama was likely to "use the platform to renew his call for a national energy tax. And I’m sure he’ll get loud cheers from liberal elites -- from the kind of people who leave a giant carbon footprint and then lecture everybody else about low-flow toilets.’’
Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, said the report was supposed to be scientific but "it’s more of a political one used to justify government overreach.’’ But, as the Associated Press reported, the study is based on peer-reviewed research, the gold standard in science. It has 3,086 footnotes and has passed inspection by the National Academy of Science.
Records at the National Weather Service station at Pittsfield Municipal Airport for 2013 show an average temperature nearly 2 degrees above the long-term norm. That’s been the pattern in the majority of the years since 1998.
A few cold months notwithstanding, there’s no justification for complacency or for a "who cares?" attitude. Without any need for hyperbole or the sensationalism of some TV broadcasters and Internet weather sites, the report speaks for itself. We ignore it at our peril.
To contact Clarence Fanto: firstname.lastname@example.org
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