Avoiding the National Climate Assessment's Worst-Case Scenario
Posted January 19, 2013
Last week a federal Advisory Committee released the draft National Climate Assessment for public comment. The report is the most comprehensive, peer-reviewed analysis of climate change’s current and potential impacts on the U.S., and its authors are people we should listen to: sixty notable scientists, business leaders and other experts.
The report lays out what scientists have told us repeatedly and what our own eyes have witnessed far too often over the last several years: Fossil-fuel pollution is radically altering weather patterns across the United States. These changes, the authors said, already pose significant threats to America’s economy, our natural resources and our way of life.
The group’s assessment was sobering: Average temperatures could rise by 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit after 2050—compared to the 1.5 degrees-worth of warming the U.S. has experienced so far. Given the widespread climate disruption we are already seeing, the damage from that kind of warming is almost too much to imagine.
The climate assessment helps crystalize the picture by describing what is at stake. That includes sea-level rise that could total another 6 feet, an increase in climate change-related health impacts, especially among “the elderly, children, the poor and the sick,” the authors wrote, loss of life-sustaining ecosystems and biodiversity, and worsening droughts, wildfires and air pollution.
Fortunately, the worst-case forecast is not destiny. The authors make clear that how much damage we sustain as a nation is, to a large extent, in our own hands. “[S]ome amount of additional climate change and related impacts is now unavoidable,” the authors wrote. “However, beyond the next few decades, the amount of climate change will still largely be determined by choices society makes about emissions.” If we decide to cut them sharply, we’ll be in much better shape, they note. If we don’t, we’ll continue to experience increasingly devastating weather extremes, like Superstorm Sandy and this summer’s catastrophic droughts.
This point has not been lost on the American people. Even before Sandy a sizeable majority, across party lines, said global warming should be an important priority for both the President and Congress. There is no evidence that House leaders are listening, but the president has said that tackling climate change is on his second term agenda.
Last year President Obama finalized new clean car standards that, by 2030, will cut carbon pollution from U.S. cars and trucks by an amount equivalent to taking 85 million of today’s cars off the road. Looking forward, the Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to also cut carbon pollution from the nation’s 1500 existing power plants, which together account for 40 percent of U.S. emissions, or about twice as much as the nation’s automobile fleet.
A recent NRDC proposal shows how the President and the EPA can do just that, reducing pollution from these plants by 26 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. These big reductions can be achieved at low cost by using flexible solutions that drive investment in clean energy, protecting public health, creating thousands of jobs across the country, and producing benefits that exceed the costs by more than a factor of 6.
In setting federal carbon pollution standards President Obama can build on a track record of success in the states. California has cut emissions from stationary sources for the third straight year—they’re down almost 17 percent between 2008 and 2011—thanks to a decrease in electricity use and an increase in renewable energy, according to a new report by the California Air Resources Board. While the recession and the very wet weather in 2011 played roles in these decreases, another sizeable part resulted from the state’s forward-looking energy-efficiency and renewable energy policies. Already, renewable energy accounts for 20 percent of the state’s electricity mix, with more advances to come, thanks to the state’s renewable energy standard. It mandates that by 2020, 33 percent of the state’s electricity will come from renewable sources. Moreover, California’s pioneering energy-efficiency policies mean that the average Californian uses 40 percent less energy than other Americans.
These policies are the result of voter support for smart climate solutions that cut carbon pollution while saving consumers money on energy and bringing other economic benefits. Since the 2006 passage of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, the clean technology sector has become the fastest growing part of the Golden State’s economy; it continues to expand. The legislation itself will cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a 15 percent drop.
Another pioneering program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, does similar work in nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Designed by a bipartisan governors’ group, it requires utilities to pay for the pollution they produce and then invests that revenue in energy efficiency and renewable energy. In its first three years of operation, from January 2009 to January 2012, RGGI added more than $1.6 billion to the regional economy, created more than 16,000 jobs, and helped cut carbon pollution by 30 percent.
The NCA draft provides a compelling basis (if any additional rationale were needed) for President Obama to build on these state success stories, as well as the progress he made during his first term, by tackling the biggest source of carbon pollution of them all—the nation’s power plants.
“The challenge is great enough even starting today,” the authors write. “But delay by any of the major emitters makes meeting any such target even more difficult.” Their draft demonstrates “an urgent need for U.S. action to reduce greenhouse emissions.”
The measures we and our political leaders undertake or fail to in response to this report, the draft makes clear, will have a huge impact on the future we face.
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