Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director for the Center for Science and Democracy here at UCS, and Dr. Rachel Licker co-authored this blog post.
The federal government delivered to Congress and the American people the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NC4) on the Friday after Thanksgiving. This year, “Black Friday” takes on a new meaning—the new report is stark and grim, filled with clear information on how climate change has affected the country, and how much more damage we can expect if we do not take immediate action.
The Trump Administration tried to bury the report, which they were legally mandated to issue, over a holiday weekend. When that failed and the report drew wide coverage, President Trump, his press secretary, and two cabinet secretaries tried to discredit the assessment and disparage the work of more than 300 scientists and experts from federal, state, and local governments, tribes and Indigenous communities, national laboratories, universities, and the private sector who contributed to the report, many on a purely voluntary basis.
These efforts to dismiss and sideline the science aren’t just frustrating to us as scientists—they’re deeply disturbing to us as engaged citizens. It’s an unethical strategy to undermine the case for action, putting the public at risk to advance the short-term prospects of powerful industries, and it’s an incredible disservice to the country.
The fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) is the most comprehensive report to date on how and why climate is changing in the U.S. and how it’s likely to affect us in the future. It represents a collaboration among 13 federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the Departments of Defense, Interior, and Agriculture, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
NCA4 represents a collaboration by public servants and experts across the country, and it was developed in an extremely transparent manner. The NCA4 went through an eight-step review process, including a review that was open to the public – all 251 pages of comments that were submitted and the author responses are available on the report’s website. This is how science is supposed to work—the top experts collaborating, scrutinizing the evidence, and putting their ideas to the test to come up with the most robust, reliable, and useful answers.
We both have worked in government as scientists—Dr. Licker at the State Department and Dr. Rosenberg at NOAA—so we know how much work goes into a report like this, and how critical it is for everything federal agencies do. At the State Department, this report demonstrates the vital role of U.S. leadership in the world’s science community, and reveals implications of international climate impacts for our national security and trade. NOAA, where climate weighs on every part of the agency’s work, takes a leading role in managing the NCA. Thousands of NOAA scientists and policy experts have deep experience with many aspects of climate change, from weather and severe storm forecasting to charting, coastal management and marine resource management. To dismiss the scientific evidence of global warming is to virtually ignore the important public service that NOAA is tasked to perform.
The NCA4 conclusions, based on hard evidence, are stark, clear and inescapable. Climate change is here and now in the United States, is caused by humans, and is expected to pose increasingly serious consequences for each of us. The report is a huge rebuke to what Trump Administration officials have claimed about climate change, and it critically undermines their arguments for rolling back global warming emissions-related policies.
The NCA4 makes it clear that climate change is a matter of health and justice, with some communities at even greater risk. The elderly and children are likely to face disproportionate health effects in the face of increased exposure to extreme heat and weather-dependent diseases like West Nile. Some communities of color and low-income communities could be more exposed to the dangers of climate change if they live in places more exposed to risk or have fewer resources to cope. The report also notes risks for indigenous peoples whose livelihoods and cultures are uniquely dependent on natural resources.
Another thing NCA4 makes painfully clear is the cost of inaction to our economy. The report has the most in-depth consideration of the economic impacts of climate change ever reported—what we’ve already lost, and how much this could escalate in the future. These are real, concrete numbers, from the $17 billion in damages to Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure from hurricanes Maria and Irma to the $33 billion in agricultural and transportation losses in the Heartland from the catastrophic 2012 drought. There’s no option to avoid dealing with climate change—either we work now to mitigate and adapt, or we pay an ever-increasing price in years to come.
There is one piece of good news, though: everything we do now to reduce emissions and reduce the risks of climate change will help make our world safer in the long term. The NCA4 makes it clear that there are many adverse impacts of climate change that can be limited or avoided if we take immediate action to drastically reduce global warming emissions.
Getting on track to a safer future isn’t something any one individual can do on their own. It requires collective, transformative actions and policies. We can’t wait for some hypothetical breakthrough to solve climate change for us—we can and must act now, using the tools and policies that are already here. We know we need to ramp down the use of fossil fuels, move to in cleaner energy, and invest in adaptation and resilient infrastructure.
What we need now, more than anything, is political leaders who don’t run away from difficult problems or deceive the public about the facts. Our leaders need to listen to hard facts, roll up their sleeves, and get to work on a path towards a safer future.