Apart from the disinformation sowed by politicians content with the status quo, the main reason neither Congress nor much of the American public cares about global warming is that, as problems go, it seems remote. Anyone who reads the latest the National Climate Assessment, released Tuesday, cannot possibly think that way any longer. The report is exhaustive and totally alarming.
The study, produced by scientists from academia, government and the private sector, is the definitive statement of the present and future effects of climate change on the United States. Crippling droughts will become more frequent in drier regions; torrential rains and storm surges will increase in wet regions; sea levels will rise and coral reefs in Hawaii and Florida will die. Readers can pick their own regional catastrophes, but here are three:
The Southwest Will Fry: California’s relentless drought has been making headlines for years. But while there may be some cyclical relief, global warming will make things worse in the long run, increasing wildfires throughout the Southwest and in California, stunting crops in one of America’s great breadbaskets and greatly increasing the region’s historical competition for water - its most precious natural resource.
The East Will Soak: Hurricane Sandy provided a costly glimpse into a future that will bring more destructive storms, not because a warming climate will cause more hurricanes (that link is still a matter of debate) but because sea levels will rise, leading to bigger storm surges and greater risks for Americans who live in coastal areas. There will also be many more sudden and intense rains in parts of the South and in Florida. As for the sea level, the study went beyond the recent predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which forecast a rise of 3 feet unless aggressive measures were taken. The new American report says that a rise of 6 feet cannot be ruled out. Much of South Florida sits at 4 feet above high tide.
Alaska Will Keep Melting: An academic study 12 years ago noted an astonishing 5.4 degree increase in the annual mean temperatures in Alaska, causing melting permafrost and dying forests. More of the same lies ahead: shrinking glaciers and summer sea ice and more global warming as the carbon trapped in the permafrost is released into the atmosphere as methane.
The broad contours of the report are not news to President Barack Obama, who said in his State of the Union address that "the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact." And he promised, in his climate action plan, to impose through executive action new limits on carbon dioxide emissions that Congress has failed to deliver legislatively. And, so far, he has done so, announcing rules governing emissions from new power plants and stricter fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks to go with the historic fuel-efficiency standards for cars finalized in 2012.
But sterner tests lie ahead. For starters, Obama must devise new rules governing natural gas drilling, lest leaks of methane - a potent greenhouse gas - erase natural gas’ carbon advantage over coal. More important, he must follow through with the strongest possible new rules on existing power plants, which account for about 40 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. These rules, which are now being written and are due to be announced in early June, will be hugely controversial and almost certainly litigated, because regulating greenhouse gases from stationary sources is largely uncharted territory.
The climate-change deniers in Congress and industry allies like Sen. Mitch McConnell, who hails from a coal-producing state, will be ferocious, employing the usual disruptive legislative and legal stratagems. The surest antidotes are continued presidential resolve, backed by voters sensitized to climate warming’s dangers. The new report should help on both fronts.
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