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Can the U.S. Get There from Here?

Using Existing Federal Laws and State Action to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

This report examines opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States through actions taken at the federal and state levels without the need for new legislation from the U.S. Congress. It can serve as a road map for action by providing both a legal and technical analysis of...

As we’ve seen recently with Hurricane Sandy, epic drought, and wildfires, climate change visibly impacts lives and livelihoods throughout the United States. Global warming’s effects extend beyond people, wildlife, and ecosystems, though: They’re threatening America’s energy infrastructure.

Today, I testified on this very subject before the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at a hearing entitled “American Energy Security and Innovation: An Assessment of North America’s Energy Resources.” I highlighted the energy risks and opportunities climate change presents, the role that clean energy should play, and actions Congress can take to mitigate global warming’s threats. Excerpts from the testimony are included below, or you can download my full testimony.

Climate Change Threatens Energy Infrastructure

Climate instability directly affects the future security of the U.S. energy sector. For example:

  • Each successive decade in the last 50 years has been the warmest on record globally, and according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, average temperatures will continue to rise. Energy demand is directly impacted by these temperature increases. A recent study in Massachusetts estimates that rising temperatures could increase demand for electricity in the state by 40 percent by 2030.

The world is on track to become a very different place in the next two decades. Per capita income levels are rising, the global middle class is expanding, and the population is set to hit 8.3 billion people by 2030. At the same time, urbanization is happening at an accelerated pace—the volume of urban construction over the next 40 years could equal that which has occurred throughout history to date.

While these projections would bring benefits like reduced poverty and individual empowerment, they have serious implications for the world’s natural resources. Global growth will likely increase the demand for food, water, and energy by 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively by 2030. Add continued climate change to the equation, and the struggle for resources only becomes more intense.

These are just a few of the estimates included in the new Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) that was released last month. The assessment, which the NIC puts out every four years, reflects in-depth research on trends and geopolitical changes that may unfold in the next 15-20 years—everything from urbanization to conflict to resource scarcity.

Assessments like the NIC’s are invaluable in providing decision makers with forward-looking insights and analysis. But while the report offers a glimpse into the future, what’s more important is how we respond today to the questions these “megatrends” raise.

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As leaders gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos today, signs of economic hope are upon us. The global economy is on the mend. Worldwide, the middle class is expanding by an estimated 100 million per year. And the quality of life for millions in Asia and Africa is growing at an unprecedented pace.

Threats abound, of course. One neglected risk--climate change--appears to at last be rising to the top of agendas in business and political circles. When the World Economic Forum recently asked 1,000 leaders from industry, government, academia, and civil society to rank risks over the coming decade for the Global Risks 2013 report, climate change was in the top three. And in his second inaugural address, President Obama identified climate change as a major priority for his Administration.

For good reason: last year was the hottest year on record for the continental United States, and records for extreme weather events were broken around the world. We are seeing more droughts, wildfires, and rising seas. The current U.S. drought will wipe out approximately 1 percent of the U.S. GDP and is on course to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Damage from Hurricane Sandy will cost another 0.5 percent of GDP. And a recent study found that the cost of climate change is about $1.2 trillion per year globally, or 1.6 percent of global GDP.

Shifting to low-carbon energy sources is critical to mitigating climate change's impacts. Today's global energy mix is changing rapidly, but is it heading in the right direction?

Two leaders on urban development recently came together on the same stage: Dr. Jim Yong Kim and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Kim, president of the World Bank, and Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, headlined a panel at the Transforming Transportation conference, an event co-organized by the World Bank and WRI’s EMBARQ Center for Sustainable Transport. Through a discussion moderated by Zanny Minton Beddoes, an editor at The Economist, and closed by WRI’s president, Dr. Andrew Steer, Kim and Bloomberg took on the meaty topic of how to shape the future of urban transport.

It was an interesting pairing of perspectives. Bloomberg is a leader in business, government, and philanthropy who has had an enormous impact on New York City. Kim brings a public health and international perspective, and now, at the World Bank, focuses on advancing the goal of reducing poverty and boosting “shared prosperity” across the globe. Despite their different backgrounds, the two shared the idea that sustainable transport goes beyond moving vehicles and infrastructure. At its core, transportation is about improving the health and quality of life for people.

A Critical Moment for Sustainable Transport

As both Kim and Bloomberg noted, the world is moving unsustainably—literally. About 1.3 million people die every year as a result of traffic accidents. In most cities, motorized transport is responsible for 80 percent of local air pollution. And with 70 percent of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, these urban problems are likely to worsen.

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As we enter 2013, there are signs of growth and economic advancement around the world. The global middle class is booming. More people are moving into cities. And the quality of life for millions is improving at an unprecedented pace.

Yet, there are also stark warnings of mounting pressures on natural resources and the climate. Consider: 2012 was the hottest year on recordfor the continental United States. There have been 36 consecutive years in which global temperatures have been above normal. Carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise – last year the world added about 3 percent more carbon emissions to the atmosphere. All of these pressures are bringing more climate impacts: droughts, wildfires, rising seas, and intense storms.

All is not lost, but the window for action is rapidly closing. This decade--and this year--will be critical.

Against that backdrop, experts at WRI have analyzed trends, observations, and data to highlight six key environmental and development stories we’ll be watching in 2013.

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Temperatures hit an unseasonably warm 61˚F in Washington D.C. earlier this week. The Middle East is blanketed in record rainfall and rare heavy snowfall, ending a nearly decade-long drought. Australia witnessed its hottest day on record this past week, stoking wildfires. And China is experiencing a bitterly cold winter, where temperatures are the lowestthey’ve been in almost three decades. We’re only two weeks into 2013, and already we are getting a reminder of the extreme year we just emerged from.

2012: A Year of Extreme Weather

How extreme were last year’s weather and climatic events? In the continental United States, 2012 was the hottest year on record and the second most extreme year, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On top of that, the United States experienced 11 extreme weather events that each caused more than $1 billion in damages.

And 2012 did not spare the rest of the world; it brought severe drought to the African Sahel, torrential rains to China, Europe’s worst cold snap in 25 years, and flooding in Manila and Bangladesh, among other devastating events.

We took stock of 2012’s extreme events in an interactive timeline. It is by no means comprehensive, but reminds us how climate change is affecting global communities and citizens’ lives, livelihoods, infrastructure, and ecosystems.


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