Making sense of the latest National Climate Assessment


Earlier this month, I traveled to northern Washington for a friend’s wedding. Weary from wandering the drought-racked farmlands in California’s Central Valley, I was kindly given permission by my wife to stay an extra day and revel in the green lushness of the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas.

I set out early from my hotel in Bremerton, across Puget Sound from Seattle, and into lashing rain. Sinuous contours of coastline and rocky promontories topped with the scribbles of pines faded in and out of the fog.

The rain continued to mount as I rounded the southern horn of the Kitsap. My windshield wipers soon proved useless, so I pulled off the side of the road, near the town of Hoodsport, and stared out across the gray waters. Thinking the rain could not possibly continue at this biblical clip, I drove ahead to a nearby grocery store to buy lunch. With sandwich in hand, I told the cashier about my plans for a hike near Lake Cushman, on the southern end of Olympic National Park. She shook her head. “Bad year so far for walking,” she said. “But good for growing mushrooms!”

Though the heavy downpour seemed the meteorological inverse of the California drought, it made me wonder about the extreme weather on the rise across the West. Of course, this was a single storm. And as we are often reminded, one weather event in isolation cannot be definitively linked to a changing climate.

TEMPERATURE INCREASES: Maps show projected changes in average, as compared to 1971-1999. Top row shows projections assuming heat-trapping gas emissions continue to rise (A2). Bottom row shows projections assuming substantial reductions in emissions (B1). (Figure source: adapted from Kunkel et al. 20131).

But the storm I was caught in was clearly part of a larger pattern. A month earlier, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, northwest of Seattle, soaking rains fell at twice the average rate over a month-and-a-half. The relentless rain loosened a hillside above the small town of Oso, triggering a massive landslide that engulfed 49 homes, killing 41 residents and leaving another two missing. As I learned when I finally retreated to my hotel room, Seattle had shattered previous rainfall records for February through April, more than doubling the totals for the previous rainiest March on record.

In the new climate of the 21st century, there is no escape from extreme weather – be it drought or deluge.

That is just one of the many findings of the National Climate Assessment report, released last week by the White House. Combining the work of more than 200 climate scientists, the report comprehensively documents stark changes in climate in the U.S. over the last decade. “Climate change is not a distant threat,” said John Holdren, the White House’s science advisor, in a video linked to the report. “It is affecting the American people already. On the whole, summers are longer and hotter with longer periods of extended heat. Wildfires start earlier in the spring and continue later into the fall. Rain comes down in heavier downpours... And climate disruptions to water resources and agriculture have been increasing.”

The report cites a long list of indicators of climate change in the U.S., including an increase in average temperature between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895; an increase in the length of the frost-free growing season over the last three decades; and a marked rise in the number of extreme precipitation events, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast.

Many of the report’s most dire pronouncements are reserved for the Western U.S.: dwindling snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains; pest outbreaks and tree die-offs in the forests of the Pacific Northwest; ocean acidification along the Pacific Coast; reduced crop yields in the farms of the Central and Imperial Valleys; and more frequent and intense droughts, floods and wildfires across the region.

The report does not simply enumerate the harms but links them with rising temperatures due to increasing manmade carbon emissions.  “Many lines of independent evidence demonstrate that the rapid warming of the past half-century is due primarily to human activities,” reads the report. My own desire to languish in the Pacific Northwest’s wetter climes, of course, was made possible at almost every turn by fossil fuel, burned at frightening pace in the jet engine of an airplane, and in the power plant supplying electricity to my hotel room, and in the tank of my Kia Optima. Which is to say, in this fearsome storm, I was reaping what I had helped to sow.

In the Climate Action Plan of 2013, the Obama Administration laid out a wide-ranging plan announcing higher fuel efficiency standards, and incentives to increase renewable energy generation capacity, among other initiatives. But many in the environmental community saw the plan as self-defeating in its pledge “to drive American leadership in clean energy technologies, such as efficient natural gas, nuclear . . . and clean coal.”

Environmentalists have expressed hope that the climate assessment report signals a shift in the administration to a more hawkish stance on reducing carbon emissions. The Center for Biological Diversity took the opportunity to once again urge President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline – slated to carry crude oil from the massive tar sands of Alberta to refineries in the Midwestern and Southern U.S. – and to roll out initiatives to further reduce carbon emissions nationwide.

Predictably, the assessment brought a deluge of criticism from conservatives including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who speculated that the president would use the plan to “renew his call for a national energy tax.” “And I’m sure he’ll get loud cheers from liberal elites,” McConnell said. “The kind of people who leave a giant carbon footprint and then lecture everybody else about low-flow toilets.”

As the NCA report makes clear, addressing the climate challenges of the 21st century will not only require reducing our individual carbon footprints, but also new models of governance.

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor to High Country News.

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