Change of cli­mate in the US

Down to Earth - - EDITOR'S PAGE - —Su­nita Narain

Cli­mate change has a sur­pris­ing new fol­lower: the US pres­i­dent. The US govern­ment has been the big­gest bug­bear in cli­mate change ne­go­ti­a­tions. Since dis­cus­sions be­gan on this is­sue in the early 1990s, the US has stymied all ef­forts for an ef­fec­tive and fair deal. It has blocked ac­tion by ar­gu­ing that coun­tries like China and In­dia must first do more. Worse, suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have even de­nied that the threat from a chang­ing cli­mate is real, let alone ur­gent. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, who came to power in the first term with the prom­ise of change in deal­ing with cli­mate change, was no­tice­ably coy about the is­sue in the re­cent years.

But in May this year, the US govern­ment re­leased its Na­tional Cli­mate As­sess­ment, which puts to­gether care­fully peer re­viewed sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion on the im­pacts in the US. It makes clear that even the US is not im­mune to the dan­gers of cli­mate change. In fact, many trends are vis­i­ble and the coun­try is al­ready hurt­ing.

It is im­por­tant to un­der­stand what this as­sess­ment con­cludes and why its find­ings are im­por­tant for the rest of the world. One, it makes clear that tem­per­a­ture in­crease is now es­tab­lished. It is the high­est in the poles where snow and ice cover has de­creased. As the at­mos­phere warms, it holds more wa­ter, which leads to more pre­cip­i­ta­tion. This is com­bined with the fact that in­ci­dences of ex­tremes of heat and heavy pre­cip­i­ta­tion are in­creas­ing— more heat and more rain. This makes for a deadly com­bi­na­tion.

In the US, the num­ber of heat waves has in­creased. In 2011 and 2012 the num­ber of heat waves was al­most triple the long- term aver­age. The as­sess­ment also finds that in ar­eas where pre­cip­i­ta­tion has not gone down, droughts oc­cur. The rea­son is that higher tem­per­a­tures lead to in­creased rates of evap­o­ra­tion and loss of soil mois­ture. In Texas in 2011 and then again in large parts of the Mid­west in 2012, pro­longed pe­ri­ods of high tem­per­a­tures led to se­vere droughts.

In ad­di­tion, now it does not just rain, but pours. The heav­i­est rain­fall events have be­come more fre­quent and the amount it rains on the heavy rain­fall days has also in­creased. Al­ready many parts of the coun­try have seen flood­ing and the as­sess­ment is that these risks are sig­nif­i­cant in the fu­ture. This is com­bined with the fact that the in­ten­sity, fre­quency, du­ra­tion as well as the num­ber of strong­est (cat­e­gory 4 and 5) storms and hur­ri­canes have in­creased since the 1980s, the pe­riod dur­ing which high qual­ity data is avail­able.

So, the news is not good for even a rich and tem­per­ate coun­try like the US. For long there has been an un­writ­ten agree­ment that cli­mate change will ben­e­fit such coun­tries. They will be­come warmer, so crop- grow­ing pe­ri­ods will in­crease, ben­e­fit­ing their economies. The Na­tional Cli­mate As­sess­ment makes it clear that even if spe­cific re­gions ben­e­fit from cli­mate change, this will not be suf­fi­cient or durable. The net re­sult will be eco­nomic dis­rup­tion and dis­as­ter.

The other wel­come change in the re­port is its clear as­ser­tion—some­thing that needed to be stated bluntly to the Amer­i­can people— that cli­mate change is be­cause of hu­man ac­tiv­ity. It can­not be dis­missed any­more as nat­u­ral weather vari­abil­ity. Not only has there been an un­prece­dented build-up in the at­mos­phere of green­house gases emit­ted from use of fos­sil fuel, but fin­ger­print­ing stud­ies can now at­tribute ob­served cli­mate change to par­tic­u­lar causes. Even as the strato­sphere— the higher at­mo­spheric layer—is cool­ing, it is the earth’s sur­face and lower at­mos­phere that are warm­ing. This is clearly be­cause of in­crease in heat­trap­ping gases that come from fos­sil fu­els coun­tries burn to drive eco­nomic growth.

The mes­sage is clear: the time for com­pla­cency is over. The gases al­ready in the at­mos­phere are at dan­ger­ous lev­els and hurt­ing US econ­omy. The ef­fort has to be to adapt; to build flood- and drought- re­sis­tant agri­cul­ture and in­fra­struc­ture. But all this will not add up to much un­less emis­sions from fos­sil fuel use are cut fast and dras­ti­cally.

This is where the re­port is the weak­est. It says the cur­rent US con­tri­bu­tion to an­nual global emis­sions is 18 per cent, but ac­cepts that its con­tri­bu­tion to cu­mu­la­tive emis­sions is much higher. Im­por­tantly, it also ac­cepts that it is this stock of emis­sions, which de­ter­mines the ex­tent of global cli­mate change. Till now, the US po­si­tion on his­tor­i­cal emis­sions has been a stum­bling block in ne­go­ti­a­tions.

But the ques­tion is what needs to be done? The coun­try still does not have a plan to cut its emis­sions based on its con­tri­bu­tion to the prob­lem. Its stated vol­un­tary tar­get is to re­duce emis­sions by 17 per cent over the 2005 lev­els. This is too lit­tle too late. It is, in fact, mean­ing­less.

All this for an­other time. For the mo­ment, we should ac­cept that the ele­phant in the room has been ac­knowl­edged. This should lead to change.

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