You are here

climate change

The draft U.S. National Climate Assessment was released last week, confirming that the climate is changing, that it is primarily due to human activities, and that the United States is already being adversely impacted. These top-line messages should come as no surprise, as they reconfirm the major findings of previous National Climate Assessments and of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent reports.

But the 1,000-plus pages of the Assessment also carry important findings—many of which have not been highlighted in media reports thus far. WRI’s experts reviewed the assessment in its entirety. Below, we boil down some of the highlights from this comprehensive body of work, including its findings on how increases in greenhouse gas emissions have impacted temperature, sea level rise, precipitation, ice cover, ecosystems, and human health in the United States and globally.


Build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has already caused America’s average temperature to rise by 1.5 ˚F since 1895, according to the assessment. With continued increases in emissions, U.S. temperatures are projected to increase 5-10˚F by the end of the century. Rising temperatures have implications for human health, drought, storm intensity, and species and ecosystem health, among others. A few other notable statistics include:

This post was co-written with Forbes Tompkins, an intern with WRI's Climate and Energy Program.

A new federal report reveals alarming statistics on climate change. According to the 3rd National Climate Assessment, released in draft form today from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the world could warm by more than 12°F by the end of the century if action isn’t taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The evidence is clear and mounting,” said WRI’s president, Andrew Steer, in response to the report. “The United States sits at the center of the climate crisis. Record heat is devastating crops, rivers are drying up, and storms are bearing down on our cities. Climate change is taking its toll on people and their economies, and will only become more intense without a strong and rapid response here in the United States and around the globe. It’s not too late to take action, but given lags in policy and geophysical processes, the window is closing.”

This assessment comes on the heels of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) announcement earlier this week that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the contiguous United States. According to NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, the country saw 356 all-time temperature highs (and only four all-time lows) tied or broken and experienced 11 extreme weather events each causing more than $1 billion in damages.

Here are a few of the report’s key findings:

This blog post was co-written with Forbes Tompkins, an intern with WRI's Climate and Energy Program.

According to new data, 2012 was a chart-topping year for the United States – but not in a good way.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Climate Data Center (NCDC) recently declared 2012 to be the hottest year on record for the contiguous United States. This year shattered the previous record temperature, set in 1998, by 1.0°F. The year was also marked by 11 extreme weather events that each caused more than $1 billion of damages.

In a year that brought the United States record-breaking wildfire activity, an ongoing drought, and Hurricane Sandy, perhaps these announcements aren’t surprising. But they are troubling: Record-breaking temperatures and the rising frequency of extreme weather events illustrate that climate change is happening. These trends are expected to worsen the longer we delay serious action to reduce carbon pollution.

Take a look at a few of the figures illustrating the intensity and impacts of 2012’s extreme weather and climate events:

Experts say that developing nations could require more than $100 billion for adaptation each year. Developed countries say that they have already delivered more than $33 billion so far towards this climate adaptation funding.

However, some question whether these funds are going to the right places and meeting real needs. Is adaptation finance being directed towards the nations that need it the most? Is it being used to support projects that will allow people to adapt to climate change’s impacts?

We currently don’t have adequate answers to these questions—but we hope to soon. At the recent UN climate change negotiations in Doha, Qatar, Oxfam, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and WRI launched the Adaptation Finance Accountability Initiative to help civil society organizations find out where adaptation finance is really going.

The Question Is: Where Should Adaptation Finance Go?

The easy answer is that adaptation finance should go to activities that strengthen the resilience and reduce the vulnerability of countries most susceptible to climate change’s impacts. People in developing countries will likely be hit hardest by global warming.

This year has been one of those worst-of-years and best-of-years. In its failures, there are signs of hope.

An unprecedented stream of extreme weather events worldwide tragically reminded us that we’re losing the fight against climate change. For the first time since 1988, climate change was totally ignored in the U.S. presidential campaign, even though election month, November, was the 333rd consecutive month with a global temperature higher than the long-term average. A WRI report identified 1,200 coal-fired power plants currently proposed for construction worldwide. The Arctic sea ice reached its lowest-ever area in September, down nearly 20 percent from its previous low in 2007. And disappointing international negotiations in June and December warned us not to rely too much on multilateral government-to-government solutions to global problems.

But 2012 was also a year of potential turning points. A number of new “plurilateral” approaches to problem-solving came to the fore, offering genuine hope. A wave of emerging countries, led by China, embraced market-based green growth strategies. Costs for renewable energy continued their downward path, and are now competitive in a growing number of contexts. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that global investment in renewable energy was probably around $250 billion in 2012, down by perhaps 10 percent over the previous year, but not bad given the eliminations of many subsidy programs, economic austerity in the West, and the sharp shale-induced declines in natural gas prices. And the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, coupled with the ongoing drought covering more than half of the United States (which will turn out to be among the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history) may have opened the door to a change of psychology, in turn potentially enabling the Obama Administration to exhibit the international leadership the world so urgently needs, as many of us have advocated.

With the latest round of global climate negotiations at an end, many countries, states, and cities around the world are taking action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through mitigation policies and goals. Decision-makers need to understand the emissions impacts associated with these initiatives in order to evaluate effectiveness, make sound decisions, and assess progress.

However, there is currently little consistency or transparency in how such analysis is done. WRI aims to address this situation through forthcoming Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol standards for mitigation accounting, which have recently been released for review.

The Need for Accounting Standards for Mitigation Policies and Goals

To date, no standardized approach has existed for quantifying the GHG effects of policies and actions and tracking performance toward mitigation goals. For example, there is an ongoing debate on whether the United States is on track to meet its goal of reducing emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. A recent study by Resources for the Future found that the United States is on track to meet its goal. However, the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2013 Annual Energy Outlook expects carbon dioxide emissions to be only 9 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 as a result of policies currently in place. This difference in findings reflects differences in assumptions about the emissions impacts of policies, such as performance standards for power plants and vehicle fuel efficiency standards. These variations have very real policy implications for the degree to which the United States needs to ramp up actions to meet its 2020 goal.

This piece was written with analysis from Athena Ballesteros, Edward Cameron, Yamide Dagnet, Florence Daviet, Aarjan Dixit, Heather McGray, and Clifford Polycarp.

Expectations were low for this year’s UNFCCC climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar (COP 18), which concluded last week. It was scheduled to be a “finalize-the-rules” type of COP, rather than one focused on large, political deals that went into the early hours of the morning. Key issues on the table included finalizing the rules for the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period; concluding a series of decisions on transparency, finance, adaptation, and forests (REDD+); and agreeing on a work plan to negotiate a new legally binding international climate agreement by 2015. The emissions gap was also front-and-center, as the new UNEP Gap Report showed that countries are further away than even a year ago from the goal of keeping global average temperature rise below two degrees C.

In the end, countries were successful in making progress, but only incrementally. The lack of political will was breathtaking, particularly in light of recent extreme weather events.

Here’s a look at what happened across nine key issues that were on the table:

This post was co-authored with Wendi Bevins, an intern with WRI’s Climate and Energy Program.

If you asked five different people what they think “equity” means, you’d probably get five different answers. Their personal experiences and opinions would be overlaid on their cultural perspectives. A philosopher might bring up Aristotle’s teachings on justice; an economist would likely talk about maximizing utility and efficiency. A Buddhist and a Muslim might frame their answers from different perspectives that are difficult to compare, just as the viewpoints would likely vary between people raised under different forms of government.

So it’s no surprise that when climate negotiators from nearly 200 countries come together at the end of each year, they can’t agree on what exactly ‘equity’ means as applied to addressing climate change. To further complicate matters, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ties equity to “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC).”

There are many legitimate views of what equity means in the context of the UNFCCC, reflecting sharp contrasts on how to share both the burdens and opportunities of the global transition to low-carbon development. Some countries emphasize “responsibilities,” usually explained as the historical responsibilities developed countries have because of the greenhouse gases they emitted in the process of growing economically. Other countries focus on “capabilities,” the capacity countries have now to deal with climate change, such as their financial and technological resources to reduce domestic emissions or support adaptation research and activities. Several options for “differentiation” have been suggested over the years, including historical responsibility, levels of economic development, and vulnerabilities and needs. The current approach to equity has become a tug-of-war between countries that are reluctant to make greater climate change action commitments without assurances that others will also act.

History of Equity in the UNFCCC: Capability vs. Culpability

"Think globally, act locally" is a slogan that aptly describes what I witnessed last week at the 4th Annual Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit. At the event, local government officials from four counties gathered to discuss how to mitigate and adapt to climate change’s impacts.

Yep, you heard that correctly – government officials in the United States—in a “purple” state, no less—came together in a bipartisan manner to address climate change mitigation and adaptation. In fact, mayors, members of Congress, county commissioners, and officials in charge of water issues in the state discussed how to move forward with action plans in response to sea-level rise – a climate change impact which is not theoretical, but happening now.

Putting Aside Partisanship for Action

Unlike Congress, these public officials aren't debating the facts of climate change and its impacts or whether we should act. They see current effects and understand that in the face of streets flooding more regularly, drinking water supplies threatened by salinization, and models showing that some neighborhoods could become uninhabitable, what political party you support is irrelevant. Climate change impacts like sea level rise don't discriminate between Democrats and Republicans.

Greenhouse Gas Mitigation in the United Kingdom

An Overview of the Current Policy Landscape

Domestic legislation, the Climate Change Act 2008, commits the United Kingdom to an 80 percent emission reduction from 1990 levels by 2050. The legislation also mandates a system of five-year carbon budgets to progress toward that target.

This report summarizes key UK policies already...


Stay Connected