June 17, 2019

Feeling the heat: Scientists and policymakers launch new climate network

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Laura Paskus

A longer wildfire season in the West, and forests that have a harder time growing back under warmer conditions, are just two of the impacts of climate change

As communities worldwide experience the impacts of rising global temperatures, and scientists forecast future scenarios with more and more certainty, many policies in the United States—related to everything from building codes and economic opportunities to social welfare and water conservation—aren’t up to the coming challenges.

Now, a group of American scientists and policymakers is trying to bridge the disconnect between science and policy—and help states, cities, tribes and small communities plan for future conditions and also cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

“My experience is that decision-makers are very challenged by both the magnitude of climate issues and the complexity,” said Kathy Jacobs, director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona. “One of the things we’re trying to accomplish with this new network is more readily connecting people with information that is useful to them.”

The network can help people integrate science and community values into decision-making and understand how to manage climate threats, like wildfires and floods, while navigating legal realities or “preexisting burdens such as histories of restrictive zone, siting of industrial facilities and inadequate public health infrastructure.” Or, help local officials think about how to take advantage of new economic opportunities, such as renewable energy technologies.

This effort builds on the scientific work looking at the impacts of human-caused climate change on the environment, economy and infrastructure. Since the 1980s, the U.S. government has released detailed national assessments—reports that lay out what scientists know about the science of climate change. Three years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the White House also established a federal advisory committee to help decision-makers access that information and implement plans that address future climate conditions. In 2017, the Trump administration disbanded that committee, but most of its members reconvened and joined up with other experts to continue the work.

Their resulting 2019 report is meant to help local governments use the science laid out in the national assessments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and “adjust to now-unavoidable climate impacts.” The climate researchers and state, local and tribal officials involved also established the Science for Climate Action Network, which they say will build on national assessments and help governments and other groups incorporate climate science into their work. The new report also acknowledges the challenges small communities face, and outlines the need for people to work together and share information and expertise.

“It’s often very daunting to look at the vast array of information, so what we intended to do is tailor some of the tools to specific decision-making processes,” Jacobs said. “Not particular places, but since there are similar issues in many parts of the country, I think we can strategically focus on those issues and seriously escalate adaptation efforts.”

When it comes to risks, many people are aware of forest fires, sea level rise and the impacts to agriculture and water supplies. “I think the issues people are less aware of have to do with the linkages between systems,” Jacobs said, citing for example, how large storms or wildfires can impact energy supplies and the electricity grid. “And there are so many social issues connected to climate,” she said. “People don’t always think about all of those, such as the ability to do work in the summer may be significantly affected.”

Scope of impacts depends on action

Released last November, the Fourth National Climate Assessment was part of the federal Global Change Program, first directed by Congress and then-President George H.W. Bush more than 30 years ago to report regularly on climate change.

Compiled by 13 federal agencies and more than 300 contributing authors, the most recent report reiterated what scientists have said for decades—global average temperatures are rapidly rising due to fossil fuel use. It also clearly delineated the links between warming and extreme weather events—and warned that continuing to punt on climate planning will cost hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Like an international report released in October 2018, it also noted that humans must drastically cut fossil fuel use, and make plans to adapt to the short- and long-term risks of climate change. Because of the build-up of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere—currently, the carbon dioxide concentration exceeds 414 parts per million—warming due to past emissions will continue through mid-century.

According to 2018 report, warming will harm both rural and urban economies. Fisheries will decline, farming and ranching challenges will intensify and rising sea levels will push cities away from the coasts. American infrastructure, including highways, rail lines, sea walls and electric grids, will also be affected. Even trade, including import and export prices, will be disrupted.

As NM Political Report wrote last year, the report also offered resources and roadmaps for individuals, communities, and governments to curb greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to changes.

Planning for a hotter future

The City of Santa Fe has long focused on climate change in its planning. And this year, Albuquerque was among the winners of the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge. The city is moving forward with sustainability and renewable energy projects and announced ambitious plans over the next few years, including achieving 100 percent energy use from renewable resources by 2022 and transitioning the light-duty municipal fleet to electric vehicles.

Lisa LaRocque, the sustainability officer for Las Cruces, said cities and states have an important role in driving actions to address climate change. Over the past decade, Las Cruces reduced its energy use by 25 percent, which she said translates to a 29 percent decrease in the city’s carbon footprint. Next, the city plans to conduct a community-wide greenhouse gas inventory. Then, LaRocque said, they can strategize on how to further cut the city’s carbon footprint.

Based on the federal climate change assessment, city officials also know what some of the stressors will be for the area—including a temperature increase. “We’ve also done urban heat island studies,” she said, and they know that current conditions will be exacerbated by continued warming.

That continued warming, and extreme heat conditions, will be the biggest challenge, she said. But LaRocque ticked off a long list of other problems: drought, large rainfall events that create problems with flooding and runoff, wind and dust storms that carry respiratory irritants, and to a lesser degree, fire danger.

From the Fourth National Climate Assessment: Annual average temperatures across the United States are projected to increase over this century, with greater changes at higher latitudes as compared to lower latitudes, and under a higher scenario (RCP8.5; right) than under a lower one (RCP4.5; left). This figure shows projected differences in annual average temperatures for mid-century (2036–2065; top) and end of century (2071–2100; bottom) relative to the near present (1986–2015). From Figure 2.4, Ch. 2: Climate (Source: adapted from Vose et al. 2017).

“Then we have the social problems, like food insecurity and poverty, that add another dimension,” she said. “The thing that’s difficult is these are all chronic problems that we have right now, that are going to be exacerbated as temperature increases.”

She pointed out, for example, that many people today live in cinder block homes, surrounded by concrete and asphalt. As temperatures increase to 105 degrees or higher, evaporative coolers will no longer be effective. “They drop temperatures by 10 degrees, and 95 degrees is not a comfortable temperature inside a house,” she said. “So how do we live with those types of infrastructure—that were okay before—and are now a part of our life? How do we transform them, and transform them quickly, in the next couple of decades?”

Some of the other daily challenges and changes include harvesting water from extreme rain events, or making changes within the city that allow water to better soak into the ground, she said. Also, creating walkable environments when the summer sun is beating down. And changing building codes without getting pushback, or burdening lower-income communities.

Helping people understand that conditions will still be variable—there will be wet years or cool seasons—but that temperatures will, on average, keep rising and aridity will increase is an important part of adaptation. “It’s much easier to draw attention to a hurricane or sea level rise or something like that, that people sit up and say, ‘Gosh, we should do something about this…’ ’’ she said. It’s more challenging to draw attention to what’s happening in New Mexico, especially if people get used to the changes, and accustomed to the drying. “We just think that it’s the new normal—and it is, but it still has consequences,” she said.

“People that deal with emergencies—say, a dam broke or a fire happened in a neighborhood—they respond downstream. They respond reactively. They are ready and prepared for that serious problem that’s acute and happening right now,” she said. “But how do you plan for something that’s chronic, and is becoming worse, that you don’t really see creeping up on you? That is the bigger challenge in the southwest that we have to deal with.”

And, she said, it’s important to peel the layers back, and ask, “What safety nets do we have for people?”

The fourth assessment, like many other regional, national, and international reports on climate change, noted that risks are highest for those already vulnerable, including low-income communities, some communities of color, children and the elderly. And because the U.S. government restricted some tribal nations in the region to the “driest portions of their traditional homelands,” the well-being of southwestern tribes is at increased risk from water scarcity, the loss of traditional foods, wildfire and changes in the ranges of plants and animals, according to the 2018 report.

“We understand what is driving the changes in the climate system, and we understand the trends—even if we don’t have the ability to tell people specific conditions in specific years in the future, we have a very good idea of the direction things are going,” Jacobs said. “And that’s honestly, what managers need to know: what are the trends for the future?”

Like many people who study climate change and its impacts, Jacobs focuses on what can be done, instead of indulging discouragement or fear.

“I’m convinced that with the right leadership and some investment of resources, we can scale up our preparedness,” Jacobs said. “The issue is, we don’t have the national leadership we need at the moment.” But, she said, we do have the knowledge and technical capacity to manage emissions and prepare for risk.

“It’s really just a question,” she said, “of how willing are we to invest in the future?”