National Climate Assessment report hits close to home

Lauren Rafelski
May 22, 2014
When most people hear the words “climate change impacts,” they probably think of glaciers or polar bears. Although climate change is having an impact on glaciers and polar bears, most Americans don’t live near a glacier, have never seen a polar bear in the wild, and probably don’t care about these things as much as events closer to home. The third National Climate Assessment report, released May 6, makes it clear that climate change is not just happening in a few faraway places, or in the distant future. Climate change is already happening, and every region of the United States is seeing impacts.

The National Climate Assessment report was released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which is a collaboration of 13 Federal departments and agencies. More than 300 experts contributed to the 840 page report. The release includes the report, a shorter and more digestible “Highlights” document, a 20 page “Summary” booklet, and a website with interactive graphics. The authors wrote for a wide audience, and the report includes appendices that give a basic primer on why the climate is changing, and answer some of the most commonly asked questions about climate change.

Much of the report is devoted to how climate change impacts differ across the United States, and why these impacts matter. Having lived in Southern California for several years, I was not surprised to see that reduced snow pack (which contributes to the water supply) and increased wildfires were on the list of impacts in the Southwest – water scarcity and wildfires are things that many Californians worry about. Aside from the threat to life and property, wildfires reduce air quality and increase hospitalizations due to respiratory problems. Other parts of the country, like the Midwest, are instead seeing more frequent heavy rainfall events and floods. Heavy rainfall can cause sewers to overflow and contaminate drinking water. In the future, climate change could increase the geographic range of mosquitoes and ticks in the United States, which could increase the risk of contracting diseases like West Nile virus and Lyme disease. And the list goes on. Some areas are already developing strategies to deal with these impacts. For example, California changed its building standards to reduce water usage, and Philadelphia is developing infrastructure to better handle storm water. The report emphasizes that climate adaptation strategies will need to be as diverse as the impacts.

Because the National Climate Assessment report was just released, it’s hard to predict the impact it will have on policy. Perhaps the report will help people make connections between the weird weather they’ve been seeing and climate change. Perhaps it will give local governments more information to develop appropriate adaptation strategies. Perhaps it will inspire people to learn more about climate change, and create public demand for new national policies to mitigate it. For the sake of the polar bears, the glaciers, and our own health and well being, I hope so.

To learn more, visit: http://nca2014.globalchange.gov

Photo: Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska, Lauren Rafelski

Lauren Rafelski

Lauren Rafelski, Ph.D., is a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Before starting her fellowship, she did research on the global carbon cycle.

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