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By the Numbers: Analyzing the U.S. National Climate Assessment

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.

Temperature

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:

New National Climate Assessment Shows America on Course for Unprecedented Warming

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:

A Holiday Gift from the EPA: New Rules Will Cut Toxic Air Pollution from American Boilers

The U.S. Environment Protection Agency finalized the Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) rule today to protect people from exposure to toxic air pollution from industrial, commercial, and institutional boilers. By encouraging industry to use cleaner-burning fuels and to make efficiency improvements, Boiler MACT will modernize U.S. industry, reduce toxins, and cut carbon pollution.

The Boiler MACT rules, which are required by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, will only target the most significant sources of toxic air pollution. Most boiler-based emissions come from a small handful of very large industrial and commercial facilities that operate coal, oil, and biomass-fired boilers. As such, according to EPA:

  • Fewer than 1 percent of all U.S. boilers will be required to reduce their emissions to levels that are consistent with demonstrated maximum achievable control technologies, or MACT standards. Operators of these types of boilers will have three years to reduce toxic air pollution and meet new emissions limits.

  • A larger subset of U.S. industrial, commercial, and institutional boilers (roughly 13 percent) would not be required to meet the specific MACT standards, but would need to reduce their toxic air emissions through other means (as described below).

  • About 86 percent of all U.S. boilers are relatively small, limited-use, or gas-fired boilers, and are not covered by the new rules.

While Congress Dawdles, Florida Counties Show Leadership on Addressing Climate Change

"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.

Domestic Ambition: A Key Ingredient to Tackling Climate Change

In the UNFCCC international climate negotiations, “ambition” refers to countries’ collective will to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions enough to keep global average temperature increase below 2°C. While most countries have made international pledges to limit GHG emissions, these pledges are not “ambitious” enough to add up to the GHG cuts needed to meet the 2°C temperature goal. That’s why many groups are calling on parties in Doha to step up their commitments. Equally important, though, is ensuring that countries are effective in implementing domestic policies that meet – or exceed – the international commitments they have made already.

What Makes for an Effective Domestic Climate Policy?

The “implementation deficit” – a difference between the expected and actual amount of emissions reductions of an enacted policy—stems from a lack of complete implementation of a climate policy. This kind of “deficit” is well documented in a number of policy sectors, with significant implications for the countries’ abilities to meet GHG-reduction targets. Conversely, when climate policies are effectively implemented, they demonstrate that mitigation actions can work, in turn encouraging other countries to adopt similar policies and actions.

The effectiveness of any policy depends on several key factors, including:

Experts Weigh In: How Can We Make Progress at the Doha Climate Talks?

“Two years ago at the UNFCCC conference in Cancun, negotiators agreed that the world would seek to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius,” Andrew Steer, WRI’s president, said during a recent press call. “We are not on track for that. We’re a long way off, and the situation is very urgent.”

That’s why the upcoming U.N. climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar (COP 18) are so critically important. As sea level rise, wildfires, and devastating droughts showcase, climate change’s impacts are already being felt across the globe. Meanwhile, extreme weather events—most recently, Hurricane Sandy—serve as powerful reminders of what will likely become more and more the norm if action is not taken. When negotiators meet in Doha at the end of this month, they’ll need to figure out a way to make progress, both to finalize the rules of past decisions and how to come to an international climate agreement by 2015.

Listen to a recording of WRI's press call on the upcoming Doha climate talks.

Following is a statement by Andrew Steer, President, World Resources Institute:

“With his re-election, President Obama has the opportunity to fulfill the promise of his campaign and tackle the greatest challenges of our generation. At the top of the list should be climate change—which is already taking a serious toll on people, property, resources and the economy.

4 Key Issues Surrounding Climate Policies, Carbon Markets, and Competitiveness

Even in the absence of an international framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, several countries, states, and provinces are developing and implementing climate policies. A growing number of these policies include market-based programs, some of which aim to link to each other through regional and global carbon markets. Countries like the United States can learn a lot from the economic and political experiences of these climate policy “first movers.”

Earlier this week, I sat on a panel at Carbon Forum North America entitled “International Trade and Carbon: It’s a Competitive World.” At this session, we considered current issues and concerns involved with implementing climate policies, especially how pricing carbon pollution can impact economic competitiveness.

4 Key Issues that Came Up During Our Discussion:

  1. Carbon markets are on the rise. According to Jeff Hopkins, a fellow panelist and principal adviser for international energy and climate policy at Rio Tinto, by 2014, roughly 25 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions will be covered under market-based emissions-reduction programs. Hopkins also estimates that by 2014, 75 percent of emissions from Rio Tinto’s operations will occur in jurisdictions that have enacted market-based emissions-reduction policies.

America Can Learn from Australia’s New Clean Energy Future Package

Australia, one of world’s most carbon-intensive countries, recently began implementing a comprehensive national policy to address climate change and transition to a clean-energy economy. Yesterday, WRI had the pleasure of hosting Mark Dreyfus, Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, who outlined his country’s plans to a group of business, congressional, and NGO representatives.

One point that came through at the event is that Australia’s recent energy and climate choices can be very instructive to the United States. This post provides a quick look at Australia’s new policy and explores how it can inform and inspire U.S. efforts to move toward a low-carbon future.

Why Did Australia Adopt a National Climate and Energy Policy?

Australia faces a high level of climate risk, with significant vulnerability to sea level rise as well as to extreme weather events like drought, heat waves, and wildfires. At the same time, the country is heavily dependent on carbon-intensive resources. Australia has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any country in the developed world, and it's the 15th largest emitter overall.

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