Projections of global warming’s effects can have a couple of different effects on those of us hearing them: They can alarm us — either into action or dazed powerlessness — or they can help us rationalize that the effects, however awful, are somehow not imminent and therefore not requiring immediate attention.
Hence, the knowledge that global warming could kill coral reefs and cause mass extinctions by 2050 may be less effective in spurring behavioral changes than awareness of what has already changed.
That’s my theory, anyway. So the report issued this week by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), seems particularly useful, both in a practical sense and for its psychological benefits. It serves to underline real, observable changes occurring in today’s environment even as it looks ahead to the likely results of continuing trends.
Making a similar point this week about the report’s goals was Anthony C. Janetos, director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute of the University of Maryland. According to the Washington Post, Janetos “said the document aims to inform federal resource managers and dispel the public’s perception that global warming will not be felt until years from now. ‘They imagine all these ecological impacts are in some distant future,’ said Janetos, one of the lead authors, who noted that many animals and plants have shifted their migratory and blooming patterns to reflect recent changes in temperature.
” ‘They’re not in some distant future. We’re experiencing them now.’ “
Most detailed assessment in this century
The Post’s Janet Eilperin wrote Wednesday: “The scientific assessment … provides the most detailed look in nearly eight years at how climate change is reshaping the American landscape. The report, which runs 193 pages and synthesizes a thousand scientific papers, highlights how human-generated carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels have already translated into more frequent forest fires, reduced snowpack and increased drought, especially in the West.”
According to the CCSP, the report, which is available on the Department of Agriculture’s website, integrates the federal research efforts of 13 agencies on climate and global change and was written by 38 authors from national labs, universities nongovernmental organizations and federal services.
It details current and projected effects of climate change over the next half century; the USDA, Forest Service and other agencies plan to use the results as guidance in crafting strategic plans, policies and programs.
NewScientist.com quoted Janetos as saying effects and impacts “appear to be happening faster than expected, and the magnitude is bigger than expected.”
Indeed, the report lists a multitude of current impacts on agriculture, land resources, water resources and biodiversity. Among them:
• “Forests in the interior West, the Southwest, and Alaska are already being affected by climate change with increases in the size and frequency of forest fires, insect outbreaks and tree mortality. These changes are expected to continue.”
• “Precipitation, streamflow, and stream temperatures are increasing in most of the continental United States.”
• “Horticultural crops (such as tomato, onion, and fruit) are more sensitive to climate change than grains and oilseed crops.”
• “The growing season has increased by 10 to 14 days over the last 19 years across the temperate latitudes. Species’ distributions have also shifted.”
• “There are several dramatic examples of extensive spread of invasive species throughout rangeland and semiarid ecosystems in western states, and indeed throughout the United States.”
Possible and probable future impacts are laid out and analyzed as well. To list just a few:
• “Climate change is likely to lead to a northern migration of weeds.”
• “Disease pressure on crops and domestic animals will likely increase with earlier springs and warmer winters, which will allow proliferation and higher survival rates of pathogens and parasites.”
• “Higher temperatures, increased drought, and more intense thunderstorms will very likely increase erosion and promote invasion of exotic grass species in arid lands.”
To deal with these and other expected impacts, the report suggests, the United States will need both new policies and new capabilities. NewScientist.com noted, “Despite the impacts of climate change, though, the US lacks adequate monitoring systems for tracking the changes. This task will be crucial in coming decades, as land managers try to minimise unwanted effects and adapt to those changes they cannot prevent.”
Follow-through is key; this report’s best use will be to help a new administration ramp up a new, long-delayed American response.
Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.