Just a few weeks after the most recent installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change grabbed world headlines, a panel convened by the United States government has released its very own. It says a lot of the things you expect it to say.
Climate change is already occurring. Its effects are being experienced by communities and ecosystems the world over. It is caused by human activity, particularly the pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And any viable solution will require a seismic shift in the way human beings obtain and use energy.
Yet another panel of experts confirming climate change is real would seem like exasperating non-news if this report didn’t also say things that you might not expect from a government that has tended to downplay climate change.
Here’s a sample:
‘Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and there is new and stronger evidence that many of these increases are related to human activities.’
‘Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events…and threats to mental health.’
‘Infrastructure across the U.S. is being adversely affected by phenomena associated with climate change.’
While hesitating to draw direct connections between particular extreme events and climate change, the assessment does not shy away from saying that climate change will alter ‘the frequency, intensity, timing, duration, and spatial extent’ of extreme weather. It also went surprisingly farther than the IPCC assessment on sea level rise, saying it could reach up to six feet and be a lot worse on the east coast than the global average.
The assessment also discusses the global context of climate change, reinforcing that what we do here — and what others do elsewhere — has mutual effects. Again, just because that’s obvious doesn’t mean the US government has been good at talking about it. A little more on that later.
As the report itself states, the US may not be the largest emitter of Greenhouse gases anymore (that honor now goes to China), but we are up there with the largest emitters per capita. In other words, at the individual level, Americans’ addiction is at like junkie level.
And like with any addiction, the first step toward a cure is admitting you have a problem. Not just saying, ‘Yeah I’m addicted and stuff,’ but recognizing you are putting your life at risk.
By all appearances, this report is the US government — at least part of it — giving itself a good look in the mirror and saying: “I gotta get my act together.”
Or at least it would be nice to think so.
Still, major blindspots persist within Obama’s climate action plan. Fossil fuel extraction and exports are still very much part of American energy policy. For all the talk of the dangers of CO2, we are ensconced in business as usual mode. Shale oil production is making the US and Canada into net energy exporters. And natural gas is poised to replace coal as the primary fuel of power plants.
And oh yeah, what about coal (aka the leading cause of climate change in the US)? We might be moving slowly toward burning less of it here these days, but that doesn’t mean we’re not mining it. We just send it overseas for other countries to deal with. This recent climate assessment itself states that the problems it addresses are global. If that coal is not burned here only to be burned somewhere else, there is no real difference as far as the climate is concerned (and I’m not even mentioning issues of international environmental justice related to air pollution and location of coal plants).
Finally, there is scarce mention in the report of drilling for oil in the Arctic. Although currently the only country drilling in Arctic waters is Russia, the American policy door is still wide open for it. Our government has not yet rejected the practice of granting permits to drill there. In fact, some signals given by regulators suggest they would like to open even more of the Arctic to drilling.
It’s ironic that the reason we can even consider drilling in the Arctic is that climate change has changed conditions there. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s even remotely a good idea. The Arctic is still very harsh, making a spill there just about inevitable.
The National Resource Council has already stated clearly that the US is incapable of dealing with an Arctic oil spill. As with the Keystone XL pipeline, when you bring in climate, the entire controversy boils down to this question: why the hell are we going through all this trouble just to prop up yesterday’s damaging energy source?
The only way the Obama administration avoids duplicity here is if it makes a good faith effort at keeping a vast majority of US coal and oil reserves in the ground. But while the debate doesn’t even treat that as an option, the ring of reports like the National Climate Assessment will always be a little hollow.