The good news about the 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA) is that, unlike past assessments, it is able to connect climate change much more directly to our lives. The authors have looked well past the iconic, canary-in-a-coal-mine sectors (native salmon, maple syrup) into many aspects of American life.
The bad news is that the NCA can do so, not just because scientific understanding has grown, but because our recent raw experience of climate change here in the U.S. has, too. We’re in it; this is an assessment of now. And in light of that, I’d like to stand on the truly tremendous foundation of the NCA and shout it a little louder.
To the coast
I live near, love, and think a lot about the coast, so my focus in reading the NCA is on what it has to say about coastal risks, impacts, and adaptation. The report drives home some great messages:
- The coastal chapter talks plainly about uneven social vulnerability, the inequities cropping up as people try to cope with sea level rise and recover from coastal damages. It motivates us, e.g., to guard against trends that would see socially vulnerable groups disappear from the coasts.
- It discusses vulnerable ecosystems and the risk of “tipping points,” or thresholds beyond which rapid ecosystem change is in motion and collapse is possible. I’m partial to messaging that reminds us not to dither.
- The state of coastal adaptation section neatly lays out that barriers to adaptation are rife, while still calling for the heady concept of “transformational adaptation.” I’m all in.
End to end, the NCA provides everything one wants from a scientific assessment in a streamlined, powerful read. Its web interface is gorgeous and compelling. And yet…
The people part
As the NCA tells us, more than half of all Americans live in coastal communities, the water is rising and picking up pace, and we are far behind in adapting to the sea level rise we have set in motion, let alone in slowing the heat-trapping emissions that determine the future rate of acceleration. This stuff matters.
But I felt at times like I was reading part of the story, the part without all the people. To my ear the clarion call of the NCA, at least on coastal impacts and adaptation, is muted: the nearness of many changes and the seriousness for certain places and for millions of real people are simply harder to grasp from the report than the situation demands. (Yes, this is unfair to the NCA. More below.)
The coastal chapter thoughtfully lays out the important subjects of “coastal lifelines at risk” (vital but vulnerable coastal infrastructure, like evacuation routes and power plants) and “economic disruption” (the risks to key economic assets, like ports). But it largely skips what are, for many of us, more basic and meaningful discussions. Here are some examples of what the “people part” of the coastal story might cover:
- I wanted to see more specific connections that drive home the scope and urgency of our sea level rise problem. I wanted to read about the nearly 20 percent of Miami-Dade County that could face permanent inundation by 2050, and to better understand what that means, well within the lifetime of a mortgage, for the people who live there. I wanted to see charts like the one below, e.g., emphasizing the population living within the foreseeable reach of sea-level.
- I hoped the NCA would help us better understand what is happening with coastal communities on the front line of sea level rise – the coastal “life” for which the “lifeline” is needed. Things like: here are today’s regular flooding impacts on places where we live and work. Here is how that flooding will rapidly increase in just the next couple of decades. Here is how, in reality, sea level rise can render places along our coasts unlivable decades before any late-century projections of permanent inundation.
- In addition to the serious risks of economic disruption, people need a sense of the potential of sea level rise to uproot lives, to undermine the social networks that help people cope, and to tear the fabric of communities. Hurricane Sandy caused great economic disruption, but in 10 years when that is all but forgotten, thousands and thousands of people will be able to tell you how their lives and communities were changed forever by that storm.
- I wanted the NCA to more clearly couch the low-end projections of sea level rise. For example, one foot of sea level rise by 2100 will require substantial emission reductions from our current trajectory, and effectively no melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. That is to say, magic. Yes, as the NCA suggests, decision makers should draw on a range of sea level rise scenarios, depending on the risk tolerance of the decision at hand. But I can’t think of a decision for which one foot of SLR by 2100 would be a responsible scenario, other than “whether to build a sand castle here.”
- And I wanted the NCA to drop from the national vantage point down to some of the places that we know are ground zero for sea level rise, spend some time there, and talk frankly about what lies ahead and what is needed – not in regional chapters, but prominently in the national narrative. What lies ahead for Southeast Florida, for example, is stark, shocking even, and it will take a sustained national response to begin to see Florida through to a future of sea level rise resilience.
Making good on the NCA
What I want is what the rest of us need to deliver. It is the job of the NCA to deliver a new body of knowledge, based on the latest science, that helps us better understand our country in a changing climate, not to put that science in the purely human terms that matter most to us. But with nearly a decade between the first and second National Assessments (2000 and 2009), and plenty of other sand in the gears, critical time has been lost when we as a country could have been supporting leading edge climate research, coming to terms with the findings, and moving forward on emissions reductions and resilience building.
Instead, Americans are at all different places in their level of engagement and concern. We are playing catch up, with so much to learn, overcome, embrace, and act on, all at once. For this, the 2014 Assessment is the best resource we have and we should listen closely. We should ensure that the next assessment has the sustained resources it needs to dive deeply on what matters most. And we should challenge ourselves to build on the NCA now, and tell the human stories of climate change, in every form we can.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.