Now is the time for the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions and develop a national strategy to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change, conclude the peer-reviewed scientific reports, written by three different panels of experts.
"These reports show that the state of climate change science is strong," said Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. "But the nation also needs the scientific community to expand upon its understanding of why climate change is happening, and focus also on when and where the most severe impacts will occur and what we can do to respond."
The coal-fired Hunter Power Plant near Castle Dale, Utah shown emitting greenhouse gases. (Photo courtesy Utah Geological Survey)
The compelling case that climate change is occurring and is caused in large part by human activities is based on a strong, credible body of evidence, says "Advancing the Science of Climate Change," one of the new reports.
The report emphasizes that multiple lines of evidence support scientific understanding of climate change. "The core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations," the Research Council said in a statement.
"I'm not at all surprised the NAS panel reviewing climate science reached that conclusion," said James McCarthy, a biological oceanography professor at Harvard University, Union of Concerned Scientists board chairman and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "This report should put to rest the unfounded contrary assertions advanced by special interests and help clarify the fact that our nation's most distinguished scientists are unified in their support of this core message: Man-made climate change is real and we need to address it now."
The Research Council report calls for a new era of climate change science where an emphasis is placed on "fundamental, use-inspired" research, which not only improves understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change but also is useful to decision makers at the local, regional, national, and international levels acting to limit and adapt to climate change.
Wildfire on the dry Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, April 2010 (Photo by James Mason)
The report recommends that a single federal entity or program be given the authority and resources to coordinate a national, multidisciplinary research effort to improve understanding and responses to climate change.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program, established in 1990, could fulfill this role, but it would need to form partnerships with action-oriented programs and address weaknesses that in the past have led to research gaps, particularly in the critical area of research that supports decisions about responding to climate change, the report advises.
Leaders of federal climate research should also redouble efforts to deploy a comprehensive climate observing system, the Research Council advises.
The second report, "Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change," says that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require "prompt and sustained efforts to promote major technological and behavioral changes."
Limiting emissions must be a global effort to be effective, but strong U.S. actions to reduce emissions will encourage other countries to do the same, and the United States could establish itself as a technology leader in this field, the report advises.
An inclusive national policy framework is needed to ensure that all levels of government, the private sector, and millions of households and individuals are contributing to shared national goals, the report states.
Abandoned Texas farm withers in August 2009 drought. (Photo by Rick Mach)
Toward that end, the U.S. should establish a greenhouse gas emissions "budget" that sets a limit on total domestic emissions over a set period of time and provides a clear, directly measurable goal.
The longer the nation waits to begin reducing emissions, the harder and more expensive it will likely be to reach any given emissions target, the report warns.
The report suggests a range of emissions from 170 to 200 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent for the period 2012 through 2050 as a reasonable goal. This goal is roughly in line with the range of emission reduction targets proposed recently by the Obama administration and members of Congress.
"This is yet another wake-up call on the threats of global climate change," said Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who last week introduced the American Power Act, which would establish a cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
"The study recommends that the U.S. adopt an economy-wide carbon pricing system, invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and promote the deployment of low-carbon technologies such as carbon capture and storage," Kerry said. "These studies clearly demonstrate the urgency for Senate action on the American Power Act."
Sea level rise is covering Louisiana's coastal wetlands at a rate of 40 square miles a year. (Photo by Kathryn Smith)
A carbon-pricing system is the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions, the Research Council report states. Either cap-and-trade, a system of taxing emissions, or a combination of the two could provide the needed incentives. While the report does not specifically recommend a cap-and-trade system, it notes that cap-and-trade is generally more compatible with the concept of an emissions budget.
But carbon pricing alone is not enough to sufficiently reduce domestic emissions, the report warns.
The panel recommends: increasing energy efficiency; accelerating the development of renewable energy sources; advancing full-scale development of new-generation nuclear power and carbon capture and storage systems; and retrofitting, retiring, or replacing existing emissions-intensive energy infrastructure. The report calls for research and development of new technologies that could reduce emissions quickly and cost effectively.
The third report, "Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change" says boosting U.S. adaptive capacity now is "an insurance policy against an uncertain future," while inaction could increase risks.
Some impacts - such as rising sea levels, disappearing sea ice, and the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events like heavy precipitation and heat waves - are already being observed across the country, the report states, advising that "uncertainty about the exact timing and magnitude of impacts is not a reason to wait to act."
America's Climate Choices includes two additional reports that will be released later this year - one that will examine how best to provide decision makers with information on climate change, and an overarching report that will offer a scientific framework for shaping the policy choices underlying the nation's efforts to confront climate change.
The project was requested by Congress and is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For more information, visit http://americasclimatechoices.org.
The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter.
Committee and panel members, who serve pro bono, are chosen by for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Research Council's conflict-of-interest standards.
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