Change of climate in the US

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

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.

Climate ChangeIt 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 heat-trapping 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.

Report: Climate change impacts in the United States

Report: Climate change 2014: impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability - summary for policymakers (IPCC Climate Report, Fifth Assessment, WGII AR5)

Report: Remarks by US President Barack Obama on Climate Change (Speech on US Climate Plan)

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    Dams are a dominant cause of climate change in addition to other cumulative effects like a nuclear effect which caused the Fukushima triple explosion and the full disappearance of the three fully melted cores.
    It is impossible to overemphasise the suicidal effects of dams on modern civilization(MC). All the designs of the structures of MC have become generically fatally flawed. The only recourse is normal civilization which recognises true knowledge in contrast to imperfect knowledge on which MC is based.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The biggest climate change in

    The biggest climate change in USA right at the moment is that the US Govt. Has invited Mr. Modi to visit USA. The same rude Govt. Was denying it for past several years. Now they realize the magnificient and important role of Bharat( India) in the world climate.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • An old admirer!

    An old admirer!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Scientists Respond to the

    Scientists Respond to the Obama Administration's National Climate Assessment-2014. This is available at Here the scientists used the observed data and not used model predictions. They disproved all the three issues scientifically. I myself presented on IPCC's climate change at WUWT [ From all this it is clear that the global warming component associated with anthropogenic greenhouse gases is less than 0.25 degrees Celsius since 1951 to date. The major issue of importance is the natural rhythmic variations wherein the extremes are part.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Yes today the presence of

    Yes today the presence of elephant in the room has been recognized by U.S. and hopefully President Obama would respond immediately and timely to address the containment of anthropogenic causes (including by U.S. and itÔÇÖs allies) of increase in GHG emissions and attendant global warming, which is no more a myth; better late than never.
    Thanks to you for this update; I am sure back home we would also be compelled to do more home work e.g. by promoting solar & wind alternative energy sources; developing hydrogen cell technology based pilot projects for automobiles and Gen sets; this technology has to come down to street soon we intend to reduce GHG emissions.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • It is a welcome news that

    It is a welcome news that America has acknowledged the threat of climate change! President Obama needs to be appreciated for this. As a matter of fact, previous Vice President Al Gore has been a supporter of nature conservation. Readers may be interested in his book "Earth in the Balance" where he clearly argues that humans due to their feelings of considering themselves an unique creation have separated themselves from nature and hence the rampant ecological damage. The current environmental problems, he suggests, needs a SPIRITUAL solution besides legislation or enforcement solutions.

    It needs to stated clearly that environmental care is crucial for life on earth - regardless of caste, race, nation, etc.
    Best Regards,

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply