Healthy Oceans Blog

Our Take: The Fourth National Climate Assessment

On Friday, November 23 – a date that will live in infamy as #ClimateFriday - the federal government attempted to quietly release the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a massive new report that contradicts the Trump Administration’s discourse and actions relating to climate change and science. The 1,656-page report asserts a dire warning that climate change is an intensifying danger to the United States, transforming every region of the country, imposing increasing costs on the economy, and harming the health of nearly every citizen, and threatening our national security.

The peer-reviewed assessment is the product of a collaborative effort of more than 300 authors and is endorsed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense, and 10 other federal scientific agencies.

So, why would the federal government release a climate report contradicting the rhetoric and anti-conservation agenda coming from its own leadership? Because it’s mandated by law through the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The program was established in 1989 by Presidential Initiative during President George H.W. Bush's term in office. Congress then mandated further action with the Global Change Research Act of 1990. Among many actions, the law specifically:

“Requires the Council, at least every four years, through the Committee, to submit to the President and the Congress an assessment regarding the findings of the Program and associated uncertainties, the effects of global change, and current and major long-term trends in global change.”

— Global Change Research Act of 1990

The report focused on the 12 major findings outlined below. Each finding is paired with a high-level summary pulled directly from the report.

1. Communities: Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.

2. Economy: Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.

3. Interconnected Impacts: Climate change affects the natural, built, and social systems we rely on individually and through their connections to one another. These interconnected systems are increasingly vulnerable to cascading impacts that are often difficult to predict, threatening essential services within and beyond the Nation’s borders.

4. Actions to Reduce Risks: Communities, governments, and businesses are working to reduce risks from and costs associated with climate change by taking action to lower greenhouse gas emissions and implement adaptation strategies. While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.

5. Water: The quality and quantity of water available for use by people and ecosystems across the country are being affected by climate change, increasing risks and costs to agriculture, energy production, industry, recreation, and the environment.

6. Health: Impacts from climate change on extreme weather and climate-related events, air quality, and the transmission of disease through insects and pests, food, and water increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people, particularly populations that are already vulnerable.

7. Indigenous Peoples: Climate change increasingly threatens Indigenous communities’ livelihoods, economies, health, and cultural identities by disrupting interconnected social, physical, and ecological systems.

8. Ecosystems and Ecosystem Services: Ecosystems and the benefits they provide to society are being altered by climate change, and these impacts are projected to continue. Without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, transformative impacts on some ecosystems will occur; some coral reef and sea ice ecosystems are already experiencing such transformational changes.

9. Agriculture: Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the United States. Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability.

10. Infrastructure: Our Nation’s aging and deteriorating infrastructure is further stressed by increases in heavy precipitation events, coastal flooding, heat, wildfires, and other extreme events, as well as changes to average precipitation and temperature. Without adaptation, climate change will continue to degrade infrastructure performance over the rest of the century, with the potential for cascading impacts that threaten our economy, national security, essential services, and health and well-being.

11. Oceans & Coasts: Coastal communities and the ecosystems that support them are increasingly threatened by the impacts of climate change. Without significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions and regional adaptation measures, many coastal regions will be transformed by the latter part of this century, with impacts affecting other regions and sectors. Even in a future with lower greenhouse gas emissions, many communities are expected to suffer financial impacts as chronic high-tide flooding leads to higher costs and lower property values.

12. Tourism and Recreation: Outdoor recreation, tourist economies, and quality of life are reliant on benefits provided by our natural environment that will be degraded by the impacts of climate change in many ways.

The fact is that the world has warmed over the last 150 years and continues top the charts with the warmest years on record. We’re experiencing warming at unprecedented levels due to human reliance on fossil fuels and a warming atmosphere is triggering many other changes to the Earth’s climate. Changes in surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures; melting glaciers, snow cover, and sea ice; rising sea level; stronger and more frequent storms; and increasing atmospheric water vapor have been documented by hundreds of studies conducted by thousands of scientists around the world. Rainfall patterns and storms are changing and the occurrence of droughts is shifting.

Seeing large-scale scientific collaboration to advance our understanding of climate and how it will impact us is inspiring, necessary, and refreshing. The findings of the assessment are serious but, with the news, comes opportunities for us to right the ship. We must increase renewable energy investment and development, plan for more responsible land and water use, reduce our reliance and mismanagement of plastics and other harmful waste, foster resilient coastlines, and update aging infrastructure. The bottom line is that climate change does not care if you believe in it or not and the realities outlined in this report are just around the corner if we do not take immediate action.

Read the full National Climate Assessment here.
No time to read the full 1,656-page National Climate Assessment? You might find the Summary Findings more palatable.